Sri Aurobindo's Light
Sri Aurobindo's Light

The Secret of The Veda

 


The Problem and Its Solution


IS THERE at all or is there still a secret of the Veda? According to current conceptions the heart of that ancient mystery has been plucked out and revealed to the gaze of all, or rather no real secret ever existed. The hymns of the Veda are the sacrificial compositions of a primitive and still barbarous race written around a system of ceremonial and propitiatory rites, addressed to personified Powers of Nature and replete with a confused mass of half-formed myth and crude astronomical allegories yet in the making. Only in the later hymns do we perceive the first appearance of deeper psychological and moral ideas—borrowed, some think, from the hostile Dravidians, the “robbers” and “Veda-haters” freely cursed in the hymns themselves,—and, however acquired, the first seed of the later Vedantic speculations. This modern theory is in accord with the received idea of a rapid human evolution from the quite recent savage; it is supported by an imposing apparatus of critical researchand upheld by a number of Sciences, unhappily still young and still largely conjectural in their methods and shifting in their results,—Comparative Philology, Comparative Mythology and the Science of Comparative Religion.

It is my object in these chapters to suggest a new view of the ancient problem. I do not propose to use a negative and destructive method directed against the received solutions, but simply to present, positively and constructively, a larger and, in some sort, a complementary hypothesis built upon broader foundations,—a hypothesis which, in addition, may shed light on one or two important problems in the history of ancient thought and cult left very insufficiently solved by the ordinary theories.

We have in the Rig Veda,—the true and only Veda in the estimation of European scholars,—a body of sacrificial hymn scouched in a very ancient language which presents a number of almost insoluble difficulties. It is full of ancient forms and words which do not appear in later speech and have often to be fixed in some doubtful sense by intelligent conjecture; a mass even of the words that it has in common with classical Sanskrit seem to bear or at least to admit another significance than in the later literary tongue; and a multitude of its vocables, especially the most common, those which are most vital to the sense, are capable of a surprising number of unconnected significances which may give, according to our preference in selection, quite different complexions to whole passages, whole hymns and even to the whole thought of the Veda. In the course

of several thousands of years there have been at least three considerable attempts, entirely differing from each other in their methods and results, to fix the sense of these ancient litanies. One of these is prehistoric in time and exists only by fragments in the Brahmanas and Upanishads; but we possess in its entirety the traditional interpretation of the Indian scholar Sayana and we have in our own day the interpretation constructed after an immense labour of comparison and conjecture by modern European scholarship. Both of them present one characteristic in common, the extraordinary incoherence and poverty of sense which their results stamp upon the ancient hymns. The separate lines can be given, whether naturally or by force of conjecture, a good sense or a sense that hangs together; the diction that results, if garish in style, if loaded with otiose and decorative epithets, if developing extraordinarily little of meaning in an amazing mass of gaudy figure and verbiage, can be made to run into intelligible sentences; but when we come to read the hymns as a whole we seem to be in the presence of men who, unlike the early writers of other races, were incapable of coherent and natural expression or of connected thought. Except in the briefer and simpler hymns, the language tends to be either obscure or artificial; the thoughts are either unconnected or have to be forced and beaten by the interpreter into a whole. The scholar in dealing with his text is obliged to substitute for interpretation a process almost of fabrication. We feel that he is not so much revealing the sense as hammering and forging rebellious material

into some sort of shape and consistency.

 

Yet these obscure and barbarous compositions have had the most splendid good fortune in all literary history. They have been the reputed source not only of some of the world’s richest and profoundest religions, but of some of its subtlest metaphysical philosophies. In the fixed tradition of thousands of years they have been revered as the origin and standard of all that can be held as authoritative and true in Brahmana and Upanishad, in Tantra and Purana, in the doctrines of great philosophical schools and in the teachings of famous saints and sages. The name borne by them was Veda, the knowledge,—the received name for the highest spiritual truth of which the human mind is capable. But if we accept the current interpretations, whether Sayana’s or the modern theory, the whole of this sublime and sacred reputation is a colossal fiction. The hymns are, on the contrary, nothing more than the naive superstitious fancies of untaught and materialistic barbarians concerned only with the most external gains and enjoyments and ignorant of all but the most elementary moral notions or religious aspirations. Nor do occasional passages, quite out of harmony with their general spirit, destroy this total impression. The true foundation or starting-point of the later religions and philosophies is the Upanishads,which have then to be conceived as a revolt of philosophical and speculative minds against the ritualisticmaterialism of the Vedas.

But this conception, supported by misleading European parallels, really explains nothing. Such profound and ultimate thoughts, such systems of subtle and elaborate psychology as are found in the substance of the Upanishads, do not spring out of a previous void. The human mind in its progress marches from

knowledge to knowledge, or it renews and enlarges previousknowledge that has been obscured and overlaid, or it seizes on old imperfect clues and is led by them to new discoveries. The thought of the Upanishads supposes great origins anterior to itself, and these in the ordinary theories are lacking. The hypothesis, invented to fill the gap, that these ideas were borrowed by barbarous Aryan invaders from the civilised Dravidians, is a conjecture supported only by other conjectures. It is indeed coming to be doubted whether the whole story of an Aryan invasion through the Punjab is not a myth of the philologists.

Another hiatus left by the received theories is the gulf that divides the material worship of external Nature-Powers in the Veda from the developed religion of the Greeks and from the psychological and spiritual ideas we find attached to the functions of the Gods in the Upanishads and Puranas.Wemay accept for the present the theory that the earliest fully intelligent form of human religion is necessarily,—since man on earth begins from the external and proceeds to the internal,—a worship of outward Nature-Powers invested with the consciousness and the personality that he finds in his own being.

Agni in the Veda is avowedly Fire; Surya is the Sun, Parjanya the Raincloud, Usha the Dawn; and if the material origin or function of some other Gods is less trenchantly clear, it is easy to render the obscure precise by philological inferences or ingenious speculation. But when we come to the worship of the Greeks not much later in date than the Veda, according to modern

ideas of chronology, we find a significant change. The materialattributes of the Gods are effaced or have become subordinate to psychological conceptions. The impetuous God of Fire has been converted into a lame God of Labour; Apollo, the Sun, presides over poetical and prophetic inspiration; Athene, who may plausibly be identified as in origin a Dawn-Goddess, has lost all memory of her material functions and is the wise, strong and pure Goddess of Knowledge; and there are other deities also, Gods of War, Love, Beauty, whose material functions have disappeared if they ever existed. It is not enough to say that this change was inevitable with the progress of human civilisation: the process also of the change demands inquiry and elucidation. We see the same revolution effected in the Puranas partly by the substitution of other divine names and figures, but also in part by the same obscure process that we observe in the evolution of Greek mythology. The river Saraswati has become theMuse and Goddess of Learning; Vishnu and Rudra of the Vedas are now the supreme Godhead, members of a divine Triad and expressive separately of conservative and destructive process in the cosmos. In the Isha Upanishad we find an appeal to Surya as a God of revelatory knowledge by whose action we can arrive at the highest truth. This, too, is his function in the sacred Vedic formula of the Gayatri which was for thousands of years repeated by every Brahmin in his daily meditation; and we may note that this formula is a verse from the Rig Veda, from a hymn of the Rishi Vishwamitra. In the same Upanishad, Agni is invoked for purely moral functions as the purifier from sin, the leader of the soul by the good path to the divine Bliss, and he seems to be identified with the power of the will and responsible for human actions. In other Upanishads the Gods are clearly the symbols of sense-functions in man. Soma, the plantwhich yielded the mystic wine for the Vedic sacrifice, has become not only the God of the moon, but manifests himself as mind in the human being. These evolutions suppose some period, posterior to the early material worship or superior Pantheistic Animism attributed to the Vedas and prior to the developed Puranic mythology, in which the gods became invested with deeper psychological functions, a period which may well have been the Age of the Mysteries. As things stand, a gap is left or else has been created by our exclusive preoccupation with the naturalistic element in the religion of the Vedic Rishis.

I suggest that the gulf is of our own creation and does not really exist in the ancient sacred writings. The hypothesis I propose is that the Rig Veda is itself the one considerable document that remains to us from the early period of human thought of which the historic Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries were the failing remnants, when the spiritual and psychological knowledge of the race was concealed, for reasons now difficult to determine, in a veil of concrete and material figures and symbols which protected the sense from the profane and revealed it to the initiated. One of the leading principles of the mystics was the sacredness and secrecy of self-knowledge and the true knowledge of the Gods. This wisdom was, they thought, unfit, perhaps even dangerous to the ordinary human mind or in any case liable to perversion and misuse and loss of virtue if revealed to vulgar and unpurified spirits. Hence they favoured the existence of an outer worship, effective but imperfect, for the profane, an inner discipline for the initiate, and clothed their language in words and images which had, equally, a spiritual sense for the elect, a concrete sense for the mass of ordinary worshippers. The Vedic hymns were conceived and constructed on this principle. Their formulas and ceremonies are, overtly, the details of an outward ritual devised for the Pantheistic Nature-Worship which was then the common religion, covertly the sacred words, the effective symbols of a spiritual experience and knowledge and a psychological discipline of self-culture which were then the highest achievement of the human race. The ritual system recognised by Sayana may, in its externalities, stand; the naturalistic sense discovered by European scholarship may, in its general conceptions, be accepted; but behind them there is always the true and still hidden secret of the Veda,—the secret words, nin. ya¯ vaca¯m˙ si,whichwere spoken for the purified in soul and the awakened in knowledge. To disengage this less obvious but more important sense by fixing the import of Vedic terms, the sense of Vedic symbols and the psychological functions of the Gods is thus a difficult but necessary task, for which these chapters and the translations that accompany them are only a preparation.

The hypothesis, if it proves to be valid, will have three advantages.

 

It will elucidate simply and effectively the parts of the Upanishads that remain yet unintelligible or ill-understood as well as much of the origins of the Puranas. It will explain and justify rationally the whole ancient tradition of India; for it will be found that, in sober truth, the Vedanta, Purana, Tantra, the philosophical schools and the great Indian religions do go back in their source to Vedic origins.We can see there in their original seed or in their early or even primitive forms the fundamental conceptions of later Indian thought. Thus a natural startingpoint will be provided for a sounder study of Comparative Religion in the Indian field. Instead of wandering amid insecure speculations or having to account for impossible conversions and unexplained transitions we shall have a clue to a natural and progressive development satisfying to the reason. Incidentally, some light may be thrown on the obscurities of early cult and myth in other ancient nations. Finally, the incoherencies of the Vedic texts will at once be explained and disappear. They exist in appearance only, because the real thread of the sense is to be found in an innermeaning. That thread found, the hymns appear as logical and organic wholes and the expression, though alien in type to our modern ways of thinking and speaking, becomes, in its own style, just and precise and sins rather by economy of phrase than by excess, by over-pregnancy rather than by poverty of sense. The Veda ceases to be merely an interesting remnant of barbarism and takes rank among the most important of the world’s early Scriptures.

 

 

 

 





A Retrospect of Vedic Theory

VEDA, then, is the creation of an age anterior to our intellectual

philosophies. In that original epoch thought

proceeded by other methods than those of our logical

reasoning and speech accepted modes of expression which in

our modern habits would be inadmissible. The wisest then depended

on inner experience and the suggestions of the intuitive

mind for all knowledge that ranged beyond mankind’s ordinary

perceptions and daily activities. Their aim was illumination, not

logical conviction, their ideal the inspired seer, not the accurate

reasoner. Indian tradition has faithfully preserved this account

of the origin of the Vedas. The Rishi was not the individual composer

of the hymn, but the seer (dras.t.

¯a) of an eternal truth and

an impersonal knowledge. The language of Veda itself is S’ruti, a

rhythm not composed by the intellect but heard, a divine Word

that came vibrating out of the Infinite to the inner audience of

the man who had previously made himself fit for the impersonal

knowledge. The words themselves, dr.s.

t.

i and ’sruti, sight and

hearing, are Vedic expressions; these and cognate words signify,

in the esoteric terminology of the hymns, revelatory knowledge

and the contents of inspiration.

In the Vedic idea of the revelation there is no suggestion of

the miraculous or the supernatural. The Rishi who employed

these faculties, had acquired them by a progressive self-culture.

Knowledge itself was a travelling and a reaching, or a finding

and a winning; the revelation came only at the end, the light was

the prize of a final victory. There is continually in the Veda this

image of the journey, the soul’s march on the path of Truth. On

that path, as it advances, it also ascends; new vistas of power

and light open to its aspiration; it wins by a heroic effort its

enlarged spiritual possessions.

From the historical point of view the Rig Veda may be regarded as a record of a great advance made by humanity

by special means at a certain period of its collective progress.

In its esoteric, as well as its exoteric significance, it is the Book

of Works, of the inner and the outer sacrifice; it is the spirit’s

hymn of battle and victory as it discovers and climbs to planes

of thought and experience inaccessible to the natural or animal

man, man’s praise of the divine Light, Power and Grace at work

in the mortal. It is far, therefore, from being an attempt to set

down the results of intellectual or imaginative speculation, nor

does it consist of the dogmas of a primitive religion. Only, out of

the sameness of experience and out of the impersonality of the

knowledge received, there arise a fixed body of conceptions constantly

repeated and a fixed symbolic language which, perhaps,

in that early human speech, was the inevitable form of these conceptions

because alone capable by its combined concreteness and

power of mystic suggestion of expressing that which for the ordinary

mind of the race was inexpressible.We have, at any rate,

the same notions repeated from hymn to hymn with the same

constant terms and figures and frequently in the same phrases

with an entire indifference to any search for poetical originality

or any demand for novelty of thought and freshness of language.

No pursuit of aesthetic grace, richness or beauty induces these

mystic poets to vary the consecrated form which had become for

them a sort of divine algebra transmitting the eternal formulae

of the Knowledge to the continuous succession of the initiates.

The hymns possess indeed a finished metrical form, a constant

subtlety and skill in their technique, great variations of

style and poetical personality; they are not the work of rude,

barbarous and primitive craftsmen, but the living breath of a

supreme and conscious Art forming its creations in the puissant

but well-governed movement of a self-observing inspiration.

Still, all these high gifts have deliberately been exercised within

one unvarying framework and always with the same materials.

For the art of expression was to the Rishis only a means, not

an aim; their principal preoccupation was strenuously practical,

almost utilitarian, in the highest sense of utility. The hymn was

to the Rishi who composed it a means of spiritual progress for himself and for others. It rose out of his soul, it became

a power of his mind, it was the vehicle of his self-expression

in some important or even critical moment of his life’s inner

history. It helped him to express the god in him, to destroy the

devourer, the expresser of evil; it became a weapon in the hands

of the Aryan striver after perfection, it flashed forth like Indra’s

lightning against the Coverer on the slopes, theWolf on the path,the Robber by the streams.

 

The invariable fixity of Vedic thought when taken in conjunction

 

with its depth, richness and subtlety, gives rise to some

 

interesting speculations. For we may reasonably argue that such

 

a fixed form and substance would not easily be possible in the

 

beginnings of thought and psychological experience or even during

 

their early progress and unfolding.Wemay therefore surmise

 

that our actual Sanhita represents the close of a period, not its

 

commencement, nor even some of its successive stages. It is even

 

possible that its most ancient hymns are a comparativelymodern

 

development or version of a more ancient1 lyric evangel couched

 

in the freer and more pliable forms of a still earlier human

 

speech.Or the whole voluminous mass of its litaniesmay be only

 

a selection by Veda Vyasa out of a more richly vocal Aryan past.

 

Made, according to the common belief, by Krishna of the Isle,

 

the great traditional sage, the colossal compiler (Vyasa), with

 

his face turned towards the commencement of the Iron Age, towards

 

the centuries of increasing twilight and final darkness, it is

 

perhaps only the last testament of the Ages of Intuition, the luminous

 

Dawns of the Forefathers, to their descendants, to a human

 

race already turning in spirit towards the lower levels and the

 

more easy and secure gains—secure perhaps only in appearance

 

—of the physical life and of the intellect and the logical reason.

 

But these are only speculations and inferences. Certain it is

 

that the old tradition of a progressive obscuration and loss of

 

the Veda as the law of the human cycle has been fully justified

 

by the event. The obscuration had already proceeded far before

 

the opening of the next great age of Indian spirituality,

 

the Vedantic, which struggled to preserve or recover what it

 

yet could of the ancient knowledge. It could hardly have been

 

otherwise. For the system of the Vedic mystics was founded

 

upon experiences difficult to ordinary mankind and proceeded

 

by the aid of faculties which in most of us are rudimentary and

 

imperfectly developed and, when active at all, are mixed and

 

irregular in their operation. Once the first intensity of the search

 

after truth had passed, periods of fatigue and relaxation were

 

bound to intervene in which the old truths would be partially

 

lost.Nor once lost, could they easily be recovered by scrutinising

 

the sense of the ancient hymns; for those hymns were couched

 

in a language that was deliberately ambiguous.

 

A tongue unintelligible to us may be correctly understood

 

once a clue has been found; a diction that is deliberately ambiguous,

 

holds its secret much more obstinately and successfully, for

 

it is full of lures and of indications that mislead. Therefore when

 

the Indian mind turned again to review the sense of Veda, the

 

task was difficult and the success only partial.One source of light

 

still existed, the traditional knowledge handed down among

 

thosewho memorised and explained the Vedic text or had charge

 

of the Vedic ritual,—two functions that had originally been one;

 

for in the early days the priest was also the teacher and seer. But

 

the clearness of this light was already obscured. Even Purohits

 

of repute performed the rites with a very imperfect knowledge of

 

the power and the sense of the sacred wordswhich they repeated.

 

For the material aspects of Vedic worship had grown like a thick

 

crust over the inner knowledge and were stifling what they had

 

once served to protect. The Veda was already amass ofmyth and

 

ritual. The power had begun to disappear out of the symbolic

 

ceremony; the light had departed from the mystic parable and

 

left only a surface of apparent grotesqueness and naivete.

 

The Brahmanas and the Upanishads are the record of a

 

powerful revival which took the sacred text and ritual as a

 

starting-point for a new statement of spiritual thought and experience.

 

This movement had two complementary aspects, one,

 

the conservation of the forms, another the revelation of the soul

 

of Veda,—the first represented by the Brahmanas,2 the second

 

by the Upanishads.

 

The Brahmanas labour to fix and preserve the minutiae of

 

the Vedic ceremony, the conditions of their material effectuality,

 

the symbolic sense and purpose of their different parts,

 

movements, implements, the significance of texts important in

 

the ritual, the drift of obscure allusions, the memory of ancient

 

myths and traditions.Many of their legends are evidently posterior

 

to the hymns, invented to explain passages which were no

 

longer understood; others may have been part of the apparatus

 

of original myth and parable employed by the ancient symbolists

 

or memories of the actual historical circumstances surrounding

 

the composition of the hymns. Oral tradition is always a light

 

that obscures; a new symbolism working upon an old that is

 

half lost, is likely to overgrow rather than reveal it; therefore the

 

Brahmanas, though full of interesting hints, help us very little in

 

our research; nor are they a safe guide to the meaning of separate

 

texts when they attempt an exact and verbal interpretation.

 

The Rishis of the Upanishads followed another method.

 

They sought to recover the lost or waning knowledge by meditation

 

and spiritual experience and they used the text of the ancient

 

mantras as a prop or an authority for their own intuitions and

 

perceptions; or else the Vedic Word was a seed of thought and

 

vision by which they recovered old truths in new forms. What

 

they found, they expressed in other terms more intelligible to the

 

age in which they lived. In a certain sense their handling of the

 

texts was not disinterested; it was not governed by the scholar’s

 

scrupulous desire to arrive at the exact intention of the words

 

and the precise thought of the sentences in their actual framing.

 

They were seekers of a higher than verbal truth and used words

 

merely as suggestions for the illumination towards which they

 

were striving. They knew not or they neglected the etymological

 

sense and employed often a method of symbolic interpretation

 

of component sounds in which it is very difficult to follow them.

 

For this reason, while the Upanishads are invaluable for the light

 

they shed on the principal ideas and on the psychological system

 

of the ancient Rishis, they help us as little as the Brahmanas in

 

determining the accurate sense of the texts which they quote.

 

Their real work was to found Vedanta rather than to interpret

 

Veda.

 To be continued from Page 15 

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