Sri Aurobindo set the strong ground for the psychological interpretation of the Veda helping us all understand its innermost depths.
Guru Kripa Hi Kevalam
The Secret of The Veda (SoV) is a unique and seminal work of Sri Aurobindo. The book was published in instalments between 1914-18 in the Arya journal. By this period, Indological studies had caused severe damage to the reputation of the Vedas. Misperception about the Vedas had ripened in the minds of Indians who were subject to ‘modern’ education. In this essay, I aim to provide a glimpse into the herculean task taken up by Sri Aurobindo in redefining the approach to Vedic interpretation. I present some foundational principles espoused by Sri Aurobindo in interpreting the Veda. I also attempt to provide glimpses into his Sadhana path. His inner journey was the overarching driving force in all his activities, of which writing about Indian culture and Indian spiritual thought were accorded by him a special place.
His spiritual pursuit which finally flowered into Purna Yoga or Integral Yoga had its foundational principles rooted in the Upanishads and Bhagavadgita which in turn were fruits that were borne out of Vedic soil. He writes
“The only two books that have influenced me are the Gita and the Upanishads. What I wrote was the work of intuition and inspiration working on the basis of my spiritual experience. I have no other technique like the modern philosopher whose philosophy I consider only intellectual and therefore of secondary value. Experience and formulation of experience I consider as the true aim of philosophy. The rest is merely intellectual work and may be interesting but nothing more.”
During a trying phase of his life in solitary confinement, it was Bhagavad Gita which provided the necessary impetus to embark on a deeper inward journey. Bhagawan Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita places Vedas on the highest pedestal in unambiguous terms. Sri Aurobindo’s readings of Upanishads affirmed the positions of the Vedas further. These scriptures were speaking the truth, which was a living inner experience of Sri Aurobindo.
During his early days in Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo was examining the claims of Indological studies. He paid special attention to views with regards to Vedic literature. During this time he encountered some words of the Tamil language which he felt shared an ancient and common linguistic source with Sanskrit. He acknowledged that he too had formed erroneous opinions about the Aryan-Dravidian divide. To gain clarity he chose to delve deeper into the Vedas.
“It did not take long to see that the Vedic indications of a racial division between Aryans and Dasyus and the identification of the latter with the indigenous Indians were of a far flimsier character than I had supposed. But far more interesting to me was the discovery of a considerable body of profound psychological thought and experience lying neglected in these ancient hymns.” (SoV, pg 38)
Sri Aurobindo set out on reclaiming this experience that was embedded in the Vedas. He was not the kind who would gratify himself with mere polemics. Writing to him was one of the important fields of sadhana. It was the canvas on which he was painting the hues of his ever-expanding consciousness. He writes
“Veda illuminated with a clear and exact light psychological experiences of my own for which I had found no sufficient explanation either in European psychology or in the teachings of Yoga or of Vedanta, so far as I was acquainted with them….”
Sri Aurobindo like many European scholars made Sayanacharyas’ work an important reference for his study and soon recognised its limitations. According to him, Sayanacharyas interpretations resulted in reducing the core value of Veda to outer ritualistic approach. Making these readings as the basis, European scholars wrote reductionist narratives. They labelled ancient Vedic seers as people who were indulgent in rituals and in pursuit of materialistic pleasures. The phenomenon of misreading the Veda became epidemic. It additionally lead many Indologists to hypothecate racial theories with misplaced confidence. Thus Sayana’s interpretations became a source of endless conjecture. Theories of race supremacy were conjured by European scholars to serve the purpose of colonial rulers. A poignant observation made by Sri Aurobindo on European scholarship concerned with the Veda.
“We have to recognise in fact that European scholarship in its dealings with the Veda has derived an excessive prestige from its association in the popular mind with the march of European Science. The truth is that there is an enormous gulf between the patient, scrupulous and exact physical sciences and these other brilliant, but immature branches of learning upon which Vedic scholarship relies.”( SoV, pg 30 )
Through his own experience, he could see the Veda was not occupied with mere materialistic benefits. According to him, they hold a secret view of everything. Locked in its innermost caverns were the pathways that connect our world, Bhu, to the world of Gods, Bhuvah, who are the sustainers of great order, Ritam, which was brought forth by Supramental Truth Vision, Suvah. In effect the Vedic view was that of sowing the seeds of Immortality in the heart of the mortal world, thus making its central aspiration to usher in the divine felicity.
Based on his readings of the prevalent studies on the Vedas, Sri Aurobindo hypothecated that the Vedic view was replete with parallelism. Parallelism meant many aspects of Vedas of both inner and outer significance. Rishis did this on purpose, so that only those with spiritual capacity, adhikara, had access to its potency. How could this be encrypted? Vedic Rishis provided the answer through the system of double values. This meant the same language met the need for outer ritual and also of inner psychological power.
Such was the lofty nature of the Vedic view, which was over time relegated to the skeletal value of ritualism. Over a period of time, there emerged an artificial veil that would separate Knowledge, Jnana from Ritual, Karma of the Vedas. Sri Aurobindo held a strong view that originally the Veda was not afflicted with this schism. For a long time, Jnana and Karma were in unison. Subject to many factors, Veda entered a phase where the gulf between these dimensions deepened. Through Secret of The Veda, he makes an extraordinary effort to recover the unity of Jnana and Karma dimensions immanent in the Vedas.
Sri Aurobindo aimed to reclaim this unity of vision of the Veda. Based on his hermeneutics, he recognised that the essential nature of Vedic hymns was fixed and invariable. Meaning, there were some central principles which resonated across the hymns of the Veda. Thus the Veda embodied the psychological truth consistently across its territory. Sages of the various families and timelines too envisioned the same psychological truth yet adding their uniqueness. He writes
“The Rig Veda is one in all its parts. Whichever of its ten Mandalas we choose, we find the same substance, the same ideas, the same images, the same phrases. The Rishis are the seers of a single truth and use in its expression a common language. They differ in temperament and personality; some are inclined to a more rich, subtle and profound use of Vedic symbolism; others give voice to their spiritual experience in a barer and simpler diction, with less fertility of thought, richness of poetical image or depth and fullness of suggestion.” (SoV, pg 58)
Firstly, Sri Aurobindo establishes Psychological value of one of the most central themes of Vedic world view i.e Yajna. He recasts its whole inner meaning into a new mould. He would invoke the notion of the word Yajna as it appears in the Bhagavad Gita, where it would mean any action or work done, inner or outer, with an attitude of surrender and offering to Gods or the Supreme one. Then he would examine various components of the Yajna and infer psychological meanings to each.
- The doer of the Yajna i.e Yajmana can be ‘doer of the action’ or ‘giver of the sacrifice’. Thus Yajamana can be recognised from the inner psychological perspective as the Soul who bears the outer personality of the doer.
- Next, he examines the role of Purohita, the officiating priest. What was their role? Sri Aurobindo points out that the priest was often referred to as non-human power or energy that presided over the sacrifice. Based on philological hints he inferred that the Veda itself had given a sign that Agni is the representative form for the Purohita. He presents sound rationale that Agni could not mean just the fire for ritual sacrifice but it is the Divine will established by the Gods as aspirational power in the man.
- He then brings forth psychological meaning to the component of offerings to the Yajna. He explores the possible meaning of the word Ghritam, which is clarified butter, a dominant offering of the Yajna. This word Ghrta often varied in its meaning between water or clarified butter or sometimes as food. However, often it was used in the context of the mind and thought. Heaven in Veda was also symbolised as mind, with the lord of the Heaven, Indra, who according to Sri Aurobindo represented Illuminated mentality. So ghrta, which is illumined mind, represented as clarified butter, was offered to the Gods.
- Next, he examined the fruits of the Yajna. Given their material nature, Sri Aurobindo indicates that the challenge thickens in interpretation. In fact, one of the first of symbolic meanings he unearthed in the Veda was that of the Vedic Cow. He recognised that it was an enigmatic animal and was not of an earthly breed. When the Vedic cow was inferred as light or illumination, it seemed more coherent to derive a new sense of Divine knowledge. Wouldn’t it be then more logical to use the facet of physical light as a better symbol for Divine knowledge than a cow? Sri Aurobindo identifies several instances in the context of Yajna how the symbol of the cow brought about more consistency in the representation of the Divine knowledge which could not have been achieved if physical light was used as the substitute. Along with the cow or go, another animal that accompanies the context is Asva, the horse. Sri Aurobindo writes
“A study of the Vedic horse led me to the conclusion that go and asva represent the two companion ideas of Light and Energy, Consciousness and Force, which to the Vedic and Vedantic mind were the double or twin aspect of all the activities of existence.” ( SoV, pg 44)
Thus Sri Aurobindo set the strong ground for the psychological interpretation of the Veda. This approach, he felt, could be secured better if grounded in the philological method. This meant a deep dive to track the labyrinthine pathways of development of the ancient Vedic language. Unfortunately, even to this date, the field of Philology is greatly assailed by ideological forces. Through their works, ‘Nay Science, Philology and Criticism’, Prof. Viswa Adluri and Jaydeep Bagchee provide a sound critique of eminent European scholars in this field. They establish how errors perpetrated under the garb of scientific methods to propagate racial prejudice.
By providing an alternative interpretation to the process of Yajna, Sri Aurobindo demonstrated how this could reveal hidden psychological aspects of the Veda. If this new sense was not introduced, the literal meaning would force us to infer that the Vedas were incoherent in thought. However, these new senses should fit in every context of the Veda. This would free us from limitations in interpreting a fairly fixed form of the Veda. Though this method appears promising, he cautions by stating
“Now I came to an element in which the surface meaning had, in a sense, to be overridden, and this is a process in which every critical and conscientious mind must find itself beset by continual scruples.” ( SoV, pg 42)
How can philology help a new understanding take its due place in the scheme of interpretation? This is only possible when the field of philology can throw light on the development of a particular word. What was its genesis? What significance was attached to it in the process of its development? If Philology aims to succeed in the exploration of the Vedas, it should play the role of a humble learner. It should be willing to learn about the principles deployed by ancient Rishis in formulating Vedic mantras.
One of the principles seems to be that of optimality. Given the fixed form and purpose of the Vedas, it was ideal to use symbols or words whose multi-significance can be used at once. Sri Aurobindo gives an example with the word Asva.
“For instance, the word, asva, usually signifying a horse, is used as a figure of the Prana, the nervous energy, the vital breath, the half-mental, half-material dynamism which links mind and matter. Its root is capable, among other senses, of the ideas of impulsion, force, possession, enjoyment, and we find all these meanings united in this figure of the Steed of Life to indicate the essential tendencies of the Pranic energy. This approach of the ancient rishis who at once packed as much meaning as possible in one single word shows their approach to speech is distinctly different from conventions of modern-day speech.” ( SoV, Pg 49)
There is another unconventional usage of language by Vedic seers that Sri Aurobindo brings to our attention. Vedic Sanskrit represents the developmental stage of the language much earlier than classical forms. Thus it was not subject to intellectual precision. Intellectual development of the language strove to develop a particular sense. This was done to overcome the challenge caused by the abundance of senses for a particular word in classical and pre-classical forms. This helps us navigate our day to day life. When we say ‘water’, we just mean water and nothing else. Its generic sense of water being a Liquid is subservient or non-existent when compared with the usage of its particular sense. But how did Vedic Rishis deal with particular and generic sense when composing the hymns? Sri Aurobindo gives an example
“for the Vedic Rishi “vrika” meant the tearer and therefore, among other applications of the sense, a wolf; “dhenu” meant the fosterer, nourisher, and therefore a cow. But the original and general sense predominates, the derived and particular is secondary.” (SoV, pg 54)
This pliability in the language creates difficulty for the modern mind which follows the conventional approach. This is one of the primary reasons why Vedic interpretation demands rigorous training to unearth the hidden meanings.
Addressing the aspect of dual meaning, Sri Aurobindo felt that Aryan speech went through a peculiar stage which demanded this cryptic approach. To serve the insights about the psychological functions of the Gods to only those who are competent. This seemed to be of central interest to the composers of Vedic hymns. Psychological usage of the words was a design to safeguard the ideas from “profane intelligence”.
Sri Aurobindo began his quest to discover connections between Aryan and Dravidian languages. He soon was enquiring far deeper questions keeping in view the origins of Vedic language. He set out to understand the origin of laws and the development of human language itself. He pursued this path further and wrote his thoughts under the title Vedic and philological studies. This work has been published by Sri Aurobindo Ashram recently.
Sri Aurobindo held Rishis of lore in high esteem. They were masters who grasped the unfathomable Truth through their Divine Vision. They were masters who had a profound grip on the language. Their genius was in applying the principles of language to encrypt the essence of these sacred Visions. Their ability to develop a new Vedic language tells us about their profound capacity to intuit. We need to remind ourselves that these Divine visions were indeed the source bed for inspiring contributions. It is in the Vedas that we find foundations of healing sciences such as Ayurveda, meticulous calculations of planetary motions and celestial bodies in the field of astronomy and the very sophisticated process of Divination through Jyotish Shastra and comprehensive works on Linguistics and grammar. Despite the veneration we hold for the Vedas, we are inflicted with self-doubt. The source of this self-doubt is the lack of understanding the rationale of the Vedic worldview. It is this stumbling block that Sri Aurobindo succeeds to overcome through his masterpiece ‘Secret of The Veda’. It takes a Rishi to understand the genius of the other Rishi. No matter how many millennia separate them, the throbbing rhythm of the Truth holds these seers together in eternity.
The one’s who
And by this blazing bridge
Connected earth to Gods
The one’s who
Learnt to see the unseen
Tread the unknown
Intuited the secrets
Reconciled the polarities
Composers of the
Beholders of the
Conduits of unsullied knowledge
Who are embodiments of tapas
Illuminating paths of seeking
Source springs of countless lineages
Sculptors of human aspiration
To the Rishis
I bow down in reverence
With my hands outstretched
In eternal gratitude