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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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