The Veda Samhita is the eternal source of the dharma, culture and spiritual knowledge of India. But the fountain-head of this source is lost in the cave of an inaccessible mountain and even its initial course is hidden under the strange vines, bushes and flowering trees of a thorny forest, deep and very ancient. The Veda is mysterious. The language, the manner of expression and the form of thinking have been created by another age; they are the product of a different type of mentality. On one hand, it is extremely simple like the flow of a pure and swift mountain stream; yet, on the other, this process of thinking appears so complex to us, the meaning of its language so uncertain that from very ancient times disagreements and discussions have continued regarding its essential thought and even regarding the simple words used in every line. Upon reading the commentary of the great scholar Sayanacharya, one gets the impression that a coherent sense of the Veda never did exist, or else what was there got submerged in the sea of oblivion of all-devouring Time even long before the Brahmanas, which came after the Vedas, were composed.
Sayana was in a quandary when he undertook to find the significance of the Veda. It was like some one who, wearied of pursuing a false light through darkness, stumbled often and fell into holes full of mire and filthy water, yet was unable to abandon the pursuit. The meaning of the fundamental Scripture of the Aryan dharma had to be found but the words were so enigmatic, the synthesis was made up of so many mysterious and profound entangled thoughts that in a thousand places it had no sense at all and, where somehow a meaning could be gleaned, the shadow of doubt fell across it. Many a time, discouraged by this perplexity, Sayana has put in the mouths of the Rishis such ungrammatical language, such complicated, jumbled and halting sentences, and attributed to them such disorderly and incoherent thought that upon reading his commentary, instead of calling this language and thought the Aryan language, the Aryan thought, one is tempted to treat them as the ravings of a barbarian or a lunatic. Sayana is not to be blamed. The ancient lexicographer Yaska also committed the same blunder, and long before him the authors of the Brahmanas, unable to discover the plain meaning of the Veda, made an unsuccessful attempt to interpret the difficult Riks with the help of their “mythopoetic faculty.” The historians, imitating this method, invested the Veda with a numerous pageantry of purely imaginary events twisting and obscuring its sacred and simple meaning. An example will illustrate the nature and the amount of distortion that the sense has suffered by this treatment. In the second Sukta of the fifth Mandala there is the mention about the compressed or the covered state of Agni and his vast manifestation after a long time. “Kumāraraṁ mātā yuvatiḥ samubdham guhā bibharti ne dadāti pitre… kametaraṁ tvarṁ yuvate kumāram peṣī bibharṣi mahiṣī jajāna. Pūrvīrhi garbhaḥ śarado… yadasūta mātā.” It means, “The young Mother carries the boy suppressed in the secret cavern and she gives him not to the Father; his force is undiminished, men see him in front established inwardly in the movement. Who is this boy, O young Mother, whom thou carriest in thyself when thou art compressed into form, but when thou art vast thou hast given him birth? Through many years grew the child in the womb, I saw him born when the Mother brought him forth.” The language of the Veda is everywhere a little dense, compact and pregnant with meaning; it tries to express a wealth of significance in a few words yet without ever impairing the simplicity of the meaning and the harmony of the thought. Historians could not understand this straightforward meaning that when the mother is compressed or contracted, then the boy is also suppressed or covered. They did not notice or seize the harmony between the language and the thought of the Rishi. They understood, by the word peṣī, some fiendish woman who stole the power of Agni; the word mahiṣī suggested to them ‘a queen’ and the words kumāra samubdha conveyed to them that a young Brahmin was crushed to death under the wheels of a chariot. Quite a long legend based on this interpretation was fabricated, with the result that the meaning of the Riks became unintelligible. Who was the young man? or the Mother? or the fiendish woman? Was it the story of Agni or of the young Brahmin? Who is speaking to whom and about what? Everything is in confusion. Everywhere there is such a torture. Pointless tyranny of imagination has distorted and mutilated the simple yet profound meaning of the Veda and at places where the language and the thought are a little involved, by the grace of the commentator the incomprehensibility has assumed a frightfully hideous appearance.
Let alone this question of individual Riks and metaphors, there was a great deal of controversy in ancient times even regarding the veritable significance of the Veda itself. According to Euhemeros of Greece, the Gods of the Greeks were ever-remembered heroes and kings who with the passage of time were transformed into gods and enthroned in heaven by a different kind of superstition and reckless poetic imagination. There was no dearth of followers of Euhemeros even in ancient India. Here is an example: they said that in fact the two Ashwins were neither gods nor stars but two renowned kings, men of flesh and blood like us, who probably attained godhead after their death. According to others, everything is a Solar myth, that is to say, the Sun, Moon, Sky, Stars and Rain, etc. — each play of the physical Nature adorned with a poetical name has become a god with a human form. Vritra is the cloud, Vala also the cloud, and the Dasyus (robbers), the Danavas (demons) and the Daityas (titans) are nothing else but the clouds of the sky; the rain-god Indra, interceptor of sunlight, pierces the miserly clouds unwilling to give rain, and by sending down the rain produces the free flow of the five male and the seven female rivers which fertilise the soil and make the Aryans rich and prosperous. Or else Indra, Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, Varuna, Vishnu are only different appellations of the Sun. Mitra is the god of day, Varuna the god of night, the Ribhus who by their will-power fashion the horse of Indra and the chariot of the two Ashwins, are, too, only rays of the sun. On the other hand, there existed a great number of orthodox adherents of the Veda who were ritualists. They said that gods have a human figure, and at the same time, they are the all-pervading guardians of the powers of Nature; Agni is simultaneously a god with a body and the fire on the altar of sacrifice; the earthly fire, the undersea fire and the lightning are the three forms of his manifestation. Saraswati is a river as well as a goddess, and so on. They firmly believed that the gods, pleased by the chants and the hymns of the devotee, granted him heaven after death and bestowed on him in this life, strength, children, cows, horses, food and clothing, killed his enemy and crushed with lightning the head of his impertinent and slandering critic; they were always anxious to accomplish such auspicious and friendly acts. This idea was by far the most powerful in ancient India.
Yet thoughtful men were not rare who had faith in the intrinsic value of the Veda, in the Rishihood of the Rishi, and who diligently sought after the spiritual significance of the Rik-Samhita, who looked for the fundamental truth of the Upanishads in the Veda. They held the opinion that the boon of light for which the Rishis prayed to God was not the light of the material sun but the light of the Sun of Knowledge, the Sun which is mentioned in the mantra of ‘Gayatri’, the Sun which Vishwamitra had seen. This light is tatsavitur-vareṇyam devasya bhargaḥ, that power and light of the Divine Sun, this god is yo no dhiyaḥ pracodayāt, he who impels all our thoughts towards the principles of the Truth. The Rishis feared tamaḥ, darkness, but not the darkness of night; they feared the dense obscurity of ignorance. Indra is jīvātmā, the soul or the life; Vritra is neither cloud nor the demon imagined by the poets but the one who impedes the growth of our manhood by covering it up with the thick night of ignorance, in whom the gods, at first, remain concealed and lost, then rise delivered by the bright light of knowledge emanating from the Divine Word. Sayanacharya has given to these Rishis the name of ‘atmavids’ or knowers of the Self and he often cites their explanation of the Veda.
As an example we can quote the explanation of the ‘atmavids’ given for the hymn addressed by Gotama Rohugana to the ‘maruts’ the Winds. In this Sukta, Gotama invokes the Maruts and prays to them for light:
yūyarṁ tatsatyaśavasa āviṣkarta mahitvanā
vidhyatā vidyutā rakṣaḥ (1-86-9)
gūhatā guhyarṁ tamo vi yāta viśvamatriṇam
jyotiṣkartā yaduśmasi (I-86-10)
According to the Ritualists, the light mentioned in the two Riks is the light of the physical sun. “The Rakshasa, devourer who has covered up the light of the sun by darkness, O Maruts, destroy that Rakshasa and reveal again the light of the Sun to our eyes.” According to the ‘atmavids’, a different meaning should be given: “O ye who are mighty with the strength of the Truth, manifest that supreme knowledge by your greatness; pierce with your lightning the Rakshasa. Conceal the darkness reigning in the cave of the heart, that is to say, let the darkness sink and disappear in the flood of the Truth-light. Repel every devourer of manhood, create the light for which we long.” Here the Maruts are not the winds who disperse the clouds but the five vital energies. Tamaḥ is the psychological darkness in the heart, the devourers of manhood are the six adversaries, jyotiḥ is the Light of Knowledge, the living form of the Truth. Thus interpreted we find simultaneously in the Veda the spiritual knowledge, the basic idea of the Upanishads, and the Rajayogic system of ‘pranayama’.
Thus far is the story of the indigenous bungle regarding the Veda. In the nineteenth century, the Western Pundits girded up their loins and came into the arena producing a more intense foreign imbroglio. Even to this day, only to keep afloat, we are struggling hard against the huge waves of that flood. The European Pundits have erected their new and brilliant temple of phantasy on the old foundations laid by the ancient lexicographers and historians. They do not much follow the ‘Nirukta’ of Yaska, but explain the Veda with the help of recent lexicons compiled to their liking in Berlin and Petrograd. By giving a novel and bizarre form to the Solar myth of the ancient historians of India, by putting new paint on the old colours, they have dazzled the eyes of the educated community of this country. The Europeans also hold the view that the gods mentioned in the Veda are only symbols representing various activities of physical Nature. The Aryans used to worship the Sun, Moon, Stars, Planets, the Dawn, the Night, the Wind and the Storm, Rivers, Streams, Sea, Mountains, Trees and such visible objects. Filled with awe at the sight of their fascinating movement, the barbarians adored these objects in their chants as poetical personalities. Again, seeing in them the conscious play of multiple Gods, and wishing to establish friendly relations with these Powers, they prayed to them for victory in battle, for prosperity, long life, health or children. Terrified by the darkness of night, they performed rituals and sacrifices for recovering the Sun. They were even afraid of ghosts and solicited the gods in a piteous manner to drive them away. The hope and ambition of gaining heaven by offering sacrifices, and similar ideas, were in fact quite befitting the barbarians of a prehistoric age.
There is victory in the battle, but battle with whom? They say it is the war between the Aryan race which lived in the land of the five rivers, and the true Indians, the Dravidians; it is the constant fighting against the neighbouring people and the internal strife of the Aryans. The Europeans followed the method of the ancient Indian historians who used to fabricate various historical episodes on the authority of separate Riks and Suktas, with the difference that instead of letting their imagination run riot and building up such extraordinary stories full of unnatural and strange incidents as the death of a Brahmin youth crushed under the wheels of the chariot conducted by Jara (son of Jara), Rishi Vrisha, who is then recalled to life by the power of the mantra, and the theft of the force of Agni by some fiendish woman, they tried to reconstruct the ancient history of India with the help of such true or fanciful tales as the battle of the Aryan Tritsuraj Sudas against ten kings of mixed race, the priesthood of Vasistha on one side and the priesthood of Vishwamitra on the other, the theft of cattle of the Aryans and the obstruction of the flow of their rivers by the cave-dwelling Dravidians, the despatch of the Aryan envoy or royal ambassadress to the Dravidians in the parable of Sarama (the Hound of Heaven) etc.
The disorder which these Occidentals have created in their attempt to coordinate mutually contradictory symbols of physical Nature with historical metaphors is beyond all description. It seems in order to justify it, they say, “What can we do? The mentality of those ancient barbarian poets was very confused, that is why we have been obliged to use such contrivances; but as far as our explanation is concerned, it is perfect, genuine and faultless.” Anyway the long and short of it is that, in spite of the interpretation offered by the European scholars, the meaning of the Veda remains just as incoherent, confused, incomprehensible and complicated as it had become at one time by the explanation given by the Eastern scholars. Everything has altered and yet remains the same. It is true that hundreds of thunderers hailing from the banks of the Thames, the Seine, and the Neva have poured on our heads the seven celestial rivers of new learning, but none of them have been able to remove the obscurity produced by Vritra.
We are enveloped in the same darkness as before.
(Vividha Rachana, 1955)
- Sri Aurobindo’s own later English translation reads: “O ye who have the flashing strength of the Truth, manifest that by your might; pierce with your lightning the Rakshasa. Conceal the concealing darkness, repel every devourer, create the Light for which we long.”
- i.e. lust, anger, greed, attachment, pride and jealousy. (Translator’s note)