VI. The Veda and the History of the Vedic Age
According to Sri Aurobindo, “We have no more right to assume that the Vedic Rishis were a race of simple & frank barbarians than to assume that they were a class of deep and acute philosophers. What they were is the thing we have to discover and we may arrive at either conclusion or neither, but we must not start from our goal or begin our argument on the basis of our conclusion. We know nothing of the history & thought of the times, we know nothing of the state of their intellectual & social culture except what we can gather from the Vedic hymns themselves. Indications from other sources may be useful as clues but the hymns are our sole authority.”1
The text of the Veda is our sole and almost the only source for knowing anything about the history of the Vedic age. Therefore, it is indispensable that we have the right understanding of the truth of the Veda as expressed in the hymns of the Rig Veda – the oldest extant scripture of the human race – before approaching the history of the Vedic age. We have seen the motivation and the crudeness with which the Western Vedic scholarship had misinterpreted the Veda and presented it before the readily consenting oriental scholarship as a document of primitive barbarism good only for learning about the ancient history of India after the barbaric Aryan hordes from Europe invaded it sometime in the second millennium B.C. We have also seen in the earlier chapter on the Aryan Invasion Theory how a growing number of modern Vedic scholars – both Indian and Occidental – have been taking a stand against this theory which is purely imaginary and has been inimical to the unity and integrity of India. However, most even of these scholars – even those of Indian origin who are understandably sympathetic to India and its culture in their heart – still remain steeped in the Western materialistic view of human life and existence and continue to look at the Veda and Indian spiritual tradition from that point of view only. Here it is very instructive to quote from a letter of Sri Aurobindo where, we feel, his remarks on the efforts of Jung and the psychologists of that time apply equally well to the efforts of the modern Vedic scholarship – even of the sympathetic kind. “But I find it difficult to take Jung and the psychologists very seriously [when they try to scrutinise spiritual experience by the flicker of their torch-lights],*(*The phrase within brackets was added later by Sri Aurobindo.) though perhaps one ought to, for half-knowledge is a powerful thing and can be a great obstacle to the coming in front of the true Truth. No doubt, they are very remarkable men in their own field, but this new psychology looks to me very much like children learning some summary and not very adequate alphabet, exulting in putting their a-b-c-d of the subconscient and the mysterious underground super-ego together and imagining that their first book of obscure beginnings (c-a-t = cat, t-r-e-e = tree) is the foundation of all knowledge. They look from down up and explain the higher lights by the lower obscurities; but the foundation of things is above and not below, uparibudhna esam [their foundation is above]. The superconscient, not the subconscient, is the true foundation of things. The significance of the lotus is not to be found by analysing the secrets of the mud from which it grows here; its secret is to be found in the heavenly archetype of the lotus that blooms for ever in the Light above. The self-chosen field of these psychologists is besides poor and dark and limited; you must know the whole before you can know the part and the highest before you can truly understand the lowest. That is the province of the greater psychology awaiting its hour before which these poor gropings will disappear and come to nothing.”2
In the torch-light of their almost entirely preconceived notions about the life of the ancient people, the modern Vedic scholarship has tried to read and trace the geography, polity, economy and other aspects of the physical life and history of the Vedic people in the hymns of the Veda. Undoubtedly, there are names of plants, animals, rivers, kings and Rishis in the Veda which must have corresponded to things physical as they were known to the Vedic people and one may look upon these things as useful for providing some handle on the physical conditions of the life of those people. Here too, based on their notions about what the life and thought and interests of the ancient barbarians must have been, the scholars have built an imposing edifice of the psychology, institutions, social structure and conduct of the Vedic people. For example, the Vedic scholar V. M. Apte writing on the social and economic conditions of the Vedic age interprets the 35th Sukta of the tenth Mandala of the Veda as follows: “The wedding hymn (X. 35) indicates that the newly-married wife rules over (or wins by her love?) her brothers-in-law and even over her husband’s parents although she herself entertains a feeling of respect for them. This is clear evidence of joint family life.”*In R.L. Kashyap’s literal translation aimed at bringing out the deeper meaning of the Veda, the first three verses (Riks) or mantras of this hymn (X. 35) are translated** as follows:
*R.C. Majumdar: The Vedic Age, Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan, Mumbai, 1996, p.387
**R.L. Kashyap: Rig Veda Samhita: Tenth Mandala, SAKSI, Bangalore, 2007, pp.109-10
X.35.1: Agni’s connected with Indra are awake, bringing light at the onset of dawn. Let the Heaven and Earth be cognizant of the work. Today we accept the protection of gods.
X.35.2: We accept the protection of Heaven and Earth. We accept the faultless (sinless) Surya and Ushas, the motherly rivers, the tiered (hill of) existence and the inner heart. May the blissful Soma bestow happy-good on us.
X.35.3: Today, may the Heaven and Earth, the vast mothers protect us with happiness and make us be free of sin. May the rising Dawn drive away the sin. We seek the kindling of Agni in us for our welfare.
The remaining nine verses (4 to 12) of this hymn have the same refrain as the 3rd verse translated above. Now, where is there, even remotely, any suggestion of human marriage – the only pairs mentioned being Indra and Agni, Heaven and Earth, Surya and Usha – not to speak of all the vivid description of the conduct and character of the newly-married wife!
Please refer to the chapter XV entitled “The Veda in the Eyes of the European and Indian Historians” for many more examples of this kind. So all-pervasive has been this tendency that when one reads important modern historical works on the Vedic age, one cannot fail to be astounded by the extent to which these esteemed writers have allowed their fertile imaginations based on conjecture and lawless inferences to get better of even an elementary common sense in these matters.
Even if an approach was free from these defects but which proceeded on the basis of names of things and persons mentioned in the Vedic mantras, it cannot be expected to carry us very far. Because even here, if the Veda is – as repeatedly pointed out by Sri Aurobindo – shot through and through with mystic symbolism due to the habit of the ancient Rishis to symbolise everything, and if not only the names of the gods, but even the names of physical things are used as symbols of deeper things, then one cannot reasonably build any reliable structure merely on the basis of physical symbols without the knowledge, or at least an insight, into their deeper meaning and the mystic suggestions that lay behind the surface physical descriptions in the Veda.
According to Sri Aurobindo, “In the Veda it is possible that another tendency has been at work, – the persistent and all-pervading habit of symbolism dominant in the minds of these ancient Mystics. Everything, their own names, the names of Kings and sacrificers, the ordinary circumstances of their lives were turned into symbols and covers for their secret meaning. Just as they used the ambiguity of the word go, which means both ray and cow, so as to make the concrete figure of the cow, the chief form of their pastoral wealth, a cover for its hidden sense of the inner light which was the chief element in the spiritual wealth they coveted from the gods, so also they would use their own names, Gotama ‘most full of light’, Gavisthira ‘the steadfast in light’ to hide a broad and general sense for their thought beneath what seemed a personal claim or desire. Thus too they used the experiences external and internal whether of themselves or of other Rishis. If there is any truth in the old legend of Shunahshepa bound as a victim on the altar of sacrifice, it is yet quite certain, as we shall see, that in the Rig Veda the occurrence or the legend is used as a symbol of the human soul bound by the triple cord of sin and released from it by the divine power of Agni, Surya, Varuna. So also Rishis like Kutsa, Kanwa, Ushanas Kavya have become types and symbols of certain spiritual experiences and victories and placed in that capacity side by side with the gods. It is not surprising, then, that in this mystic symbolism the seven Angiras Rishis should have become divine powers and living forces of the spiritual life without losing altogether their traditional or historic human character.”3
Here are some excerpts from the Talk of January, 1940 reported by Purani in his ‘Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo’:
“Sri Aurobindo : The Orientalists also wanted to prove the existence of Linga worship in the Rigveda by citing a Rik in which the word ‘Shishnadevah’ occurs.
Disciple : K. M. Munshi in tracing the origin of Bhakti long ago wrote that devotion is nothing else but sublimation of the sex-impulse, and he tried to trace the origin in the Rigveda. I contradicted his view even then and showed that ‘Shishna-deva’ only means sensualists.
Sri Aurobindo : Quite so. And what have they to say about the Dravidian tribe in Baluchistan? Is it black and flat-nosed? How on earth do they find out these things from the Rigveda – nomadic existence, gambling, and crossings of the rivers, which to me is mystical. I also find that the fight between Tristsu and Sudansah in the eighth Mandala is not merely a battle, it is something symbolic.”4
Tristsu is the son of Trasadasyu who is the son of Purukutsa and grandson of Durgaha – one who destroys forts. In the Rik IV.42.8 of the Rigveda, Trasadasyu is born out of sacrifice to Indra and Varuna and, like Indra, is a slayer of Vritra-foes and a half-god. In IV.42.9 he is called the slayer of Vritra. His own name (Trasa + Dasyu) means ‘one who is a terror to the Dasyus.’ “Those who read mainly the historical element in the Veda are apt to overemphasize these details and neglect the open hints in the names themselves and even in the words of the Riks. …A study of proper names amply demonstrates that most of them were used in their root sense, adjectival sense or sense of the psychological function before they became hardened into names of individuals.
‘Indra’ – the name is used in an adjectival sense in इन्द्रत्मा: (Indratamah) and अनिन्द्राः (anindrah). Also the derivative words (like) इन्द्रिय – Indriya, ultimately fixed in the sense of ‘Sense’, has an adjectival force ‘that which belongs to Indra’ ‘that which is of Indra.’
Indra, therefore must be a power connected with the Mind, co-ordinating the workings of the senses.”5
Thus, in the light of the above discussion, it should be abundantly clear that an edifice of Vedic history, even if carefully constructed on the basis of taking the names of physical things at their face value and without indulging into the modern vedic scholars’ habit of extravagant scholastic fancies and lawless inferences, can be of little interest even for an authentic surface rendering of the physical life and actions of the Vedic people which, by itself, is of a limited value from the point of view of a deeper approach to the history of the Vedic age with which alone we are primarily concerned here.
On the surface, one may expect to find the life of a Vedic Rishi or sage to be very simple in terms of housing, vessels, utensils and other accompaniments of a, so called, civilised living. Here one must not forget the Indian spiritual tradition according to which, the value of the life of a Rishi depends not on these trifles but on the extent to which the vast light, power and love that emanates through his being affects and uplifts all life and even the physical atmosphere around him/her. Although the spiritual action tends to be most powerful when there is physical nearness and/or psychological openness, it is by no means limited by these and the deeper workings of a Rishi’s consciousness tend to transcend time and space. Commenting on the Theosophists’ writings on such workings, Sri Aurobindo wrote, “The Theosophists are wrong in their circumstances but right in the essential. If the French Revolution took place, it was because a soul on the Indian snows dreamed of God as freedom, brotherhood and equality.”6
The earliest mystic writings of India are a record of the highest light received by the Rishis by means of the supreme spiritual processes of inspiration and revelation. This light has found its supreme expression in the sacred mantras of the Veda and the spiritual poems of the great Upanishads in a language so deeply charged with mystic symbolism that it is impenetrable for anyone without a background of very deep and vast spiritual experience. When the modern learned scholars – without any mystic experience and lacking even in sympathy for things spiritual and mystic – approached the Veda, they tried to project their own alien mentality based on the narrow ambit of their experience on the entirely mystic mentality of the Vedic seers. The acuteness of the problem of Vedic interpretation is, in good measure, an outcome of the labours of the modern Vedic scholarship which has systematised a gross misunderstanding of the truth of the Veda and, based on it, the life and times of the Vedic people.
At present things have come to such a state in intellectual circles that anyone who dares to talk about a deeper and mystic view of things in the Veda in which the whole idea of Aryan wars and kings and nations begins to take upon itself the aspect of a spiritual symbol and apologue, should be prepared to face the indifference, scorn and even outright hostility of the Vedic Pundits and scholars who – branding all such approaches as subjective, imaginary and lacking in any objectivity – consider it beneath their dignity to give any serious consideration to any such talk. If these people just stopped to calmly reflect for a moment on the overall picture in this field, they cannot fail to see that all the labours of their kind are, essentially, nothing but more or less elaborate efforts – often clumsy – at myth making and that their results have been even less objective than the results arrived at by any sincere mystic. Depending on one’s predilection in the matter, the same data can be used – as we have already seen profusely done in the case of the Aryan Invasion Theory – to arrive at entirely different conclusions. For example, most European scholars and their proteges in India have concluded on the basis of the evidence available to them or, more appropriately, chosen or even cooked up by them, that the movement of the Vedic Aryans was from west to the east and from north to the south. Proceeding on the basis of similar evidence, Talageri*, who has taken great pains to prove the falsity of the Aryan Invasion Theory and, to a greater or lesser extent, the findings of all other Vedic scholars, arrives at a seemingly inescapable conclusion that the movement of the Vedic people must have been from east to the west and northwest. David Frawley and N.S. Rajaram** who are very sympathetic to India and its culture but still approach the Vedic history*** from an entirely external and materialistic standpoint, use extensive evidence to arrive at a startling – but apparently no less plausible on the face of it – conclusion that, historically, the movement of the Vedic people was from south to the north and northwest.
*Talageri, S.G.: The Rigveda, A Historical Analysis, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi, 2000, p.232
**Frawley, David and Rajaram, N.S.: Hidden Horizons, Swaminarayan Aksharpith, Ahemdabad, 2006
***Frawley, David: The Rigveda and the History of India, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi, 2001
Whatever truth of the physical and external there may be in the Veda, – and the intellectual scholars are far from being unanimous on this – it has been clearly established by Sri Aurobindo that hidden behind the thick veil of outer symbols, there is a deep psychological and supreme spiritual truth enshrined in the Vedic hymns which has been the perennial source of inspiration and power behind all the rich and manifold development of Indian spiritual culture through all the millenniums since the Vedic hymns were first received or composed by the Rishis. The validity of an approach to the history of the Vedic age depends crucially on the correctness or authenticity of its findings on the nature of the psychological structure which lay behind all the outer life and actions of the Vedic people. And all this depends, critically, on the right interpretation of the Veda. Thus, it is only on the firm and assured ground of the right interpretation that any fruitful attempt at constructing the history of the Vedic age can be made. Therefore, before approaching the history of the Vedic age, in the following eight chapters we provide a detailed discussion of Sri Aurobindo’s psychological interpretation of the Veda based on his own very deep, vast and high spiritual experience and knowledge and solidly supported by the philological and the traditional historical considerations.
1. Sri Aurobindo Archives and Research, Issue Dec. 1984, p.137, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
2. Sri Aurobindo to Dilip, Vol.1, 2003, p.189, Hari Krishna Mandir Trust, Pune, and Mira Aditi, Mysore
3. Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.15, p.161, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
4. Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, p.720
5. Studies in Vedic Interpretation, Purani, A.B., Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series, Office, 1963, pp.216-17
6. Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.12, p.460, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry