The Mother of Indian Culture – I

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India, said a western historian, is the Mother of the human race. The ‘Veda’ is the Mother of Indian civilization and culture. Whatever may be the outer material circumstances, which gave birth to the Indian civilization, the inner spiritual source of Indian culture are the Vedas. The spiritual and cultural history of India begins with the Vedas. Unfortunately, this spiritual treasure of India is misunderstood by most of the academic community in the West and also in India. In this article, we will examine the historical and spiritual significance of the Vedas for the evolution of Indian civilization and culture.

The Traditional View

In ancient Indian tradition, or more specifically in Hindu tradition, the Vedas are considered as divine revelations and revered as the repository of the highest spiritual wisdom. But this traditional view of the Vedas was ignored or dismissed as superstition by most of the first generation of Western scholars, and also their Indian counterparts, who studied the Vedas. This was mainly because they were strongly influenced by the rationalistic and scientific stream of thought, which was bursting triumphantly upon the world in the later part of the Nineteenth Century. However, the present and new scholarship, more sober and open to spiritual ideals, is more receptive to the traditional view of the Vedas. In fact after Sri Aurobindo’s original and pioneering mystical interpretation of the Vedas, which we will be discussing in some detail in this series of articles, many scholars in India as well as in the West are veering round towards a deeper spiritual understanding of the Vedas. So the new scholarship, though most of it may not be fully supportive of the traditional and the spiritual view of the Vedas, is at least willing to give an impartial consideration to it.

For example, the Vedic scholar J. Gonda in his foreword to Jeanine Miller’s book on the Vedas, writes:

“The Rig Veda is not only a highly important religious and literary document and as such the object of study for philologists and historians, it is a work of art and source of inspiration and edification.”

Commenting further on Miller’s psychological and spiritual interpretation of the Vedas, Gonda remarks:

“… an attempt at detecting the deeper meaning of the visions or the religious beliefs and conceptions as they stood in the eye of their protagonists, at finding a psychological key to these products of inspiration…. is no doubt legitimate.” 1

A recent publication of the Encyclopedia Britannica states impartially, with fairly good understanding and appreciation, the traditional Hindu view of the Vedas:

“The Rigveda is the oldest literary work of India and it has far reaching influence; it embodies the most ancient Indian thought and represents the foundation of Indian tradition. It has been invoked as the ultimate source of authority by Hindus throughout the last three millennia. It is principally, a book of poems, the elegance, imagery and profundity of which have been regarded as beyond the normal human authorship. It is therefore distinguished as apaurusheya (“non human”) in origin. The seers to whom mantras (hymns or verses) are traditionally ascribed are said to have been divinely inspired when they gave utterance to these sacred poems. The hymns are thought to have come to them as revelations of reality, as intimations from the unseen but essential aspects of the universe.” 2

But there is a deeper strain in this traditional view of the Vedas. In the Hindu view, the Vedas are described as shruti, which means something “heard”. To comprehend the deeper meaning of this concept of shruti we have to understand the Indian theory of creation by the Word, the Vac. According to Indian philosophy, the entire creation is the expression of an eternal creative vibration, spanda, in the supreme consciousness of the Absolute. An integral part of this creative vibration is the great cosmic rhythm and harmony, which governs the world, which are called Chandas in the Vedic terminology. According to Indian tradition, the Vedic mantras are formed out of this eternal vibration and harmony, (spanda and chanda) of the Eternal. The Vedic seers were supposed to have “heard” and “seen” this eternal vibration and harmony through an inner spiritual faculty of seeing and hearing and expressed it in their hymns which are called Mantras. So the Mantras of the Vedas are supposed to reflect the cosmic meters, chandas.

This explains also the other belief of Indian tradition that the Vedas are uncreated. The seers of the Vedas are not the creators of the mantras. They only “saw” and “heard” what exists eternally beyond space and time and expressed it in their mantras as faithfully and perfectly as possible within the limitations of human speech. This is the reason why Vedic mantras are believed to have a spiritual potency of their own or a creative power inherent in their sound or vibration. The traditional Vedist believes that when Vedic mantras are recited with a faithful exactitude to its pronunciation or phonetics or, in other words, to its sound vibrations it acts as a powerful invocation to cosmic powers.

This brings us to a question: how far and to what extent is this traditional belief in the Vedas true or valid? To answer this, we have to examine the Vedas in the light of spiritual intuition. For only someone with a spiritual intuition and experience has the competence to judge the spiritual worth of a religious scripture like the Vedas. However, we may say with a certain degree of certainty that an idea or a thought, which is not merely a popular belief but a faith held by sages and saints with profound spiritual experience, like for example the sages of the Upanishad, must have a kernel of truth in it. This truth might have been overlaid with many popular beliefs, myths and hyperbole, but still there has to be a core of truth behind the belief. And if this traditional belief that the Vedic hymns were the expressions of the spiritual experience of seers is true, then this spiritual experience can perhaps be rediscovered or re-experienced again by a new and fresh spiritual intuition. As Sri Aurobindo sums up:

“It has been the tradition in India from the earliest times that the Rishi, the poet-seers of the Vedas, were men of this type, men of great spiritual and occult knowledge not shared by ordinary human beings, men who handed down this knowledge and their powers by a secret initiation to their chosen disciples. It is a gratuitous assumption to suppose that this tradition was wholly unsound, a superstition that arose suddenly in the void, with nothing whatever to support it; some foundation there must have been however small or however swelled by legend and the accretion of centuries. But if it is true, then inevitably the poet seers must have expressed something of their secret knowledge, their mystic lore in their writings and such an element be present, however well concealed by an occult language or behind a technique of symbols and if it is there, it must be to some extent discoverable.” 3

This work of recovering the spiritual significance of the Vedas is one of the original contributions of Sri Aurobindo to Indian culture. We will come to Sri Aurobindo’s mystical interpretation of the Vedas a little later. In a historical study of the Vedic Age, we have to first examine many other facts, events and problems of historical interest before coming to the mystic meaning of the Vedas.

 

Other Articles in this series

Part I | Part II  |  Part III  |  Part IV  |  Part V  |  Part VI

 

References:

1  Jeanine Miller, The Vedas; Meditation and Harmony, P.IX and forward.
2  History of India, Pub. Encyclopedia Britannica, P. 241
3  Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, Vol. 11, Hymns to the Mystic Fire, P.4-5