XIII. The Psychological and the Historical Bases for the Interpretation of the Veda
A. An Intellectual Statement of the Doctrine of the Mystics in the Veda
What is the secret meaning, the esoteric sense which emerges out of the mystic approach to the Veda? “It is what we would expect from the nature of the seeking of the mystics everywhere. It is also, as we should expect from the actual course of the development of Indian culture, an early form of the spiritual truth which found its culmination in the Upanishads; the secret knowledge of the Veda is the seed which is evolved later on into the Vedanta. The thought around which all is centred is the seeking after Truth, Light, Immortality.”1
The following is a five-fold statement of the doctrine of the mystics which may be useful in providing a wide perspective to the detailed discussion of the truth of the Veda based on Sri Aurobindo’s deep spiritual experience in the next two sections.
(i) There is a truth deeper and higher than the truth of outward existence and man has to find his way to that;
(ii) There are many worlds between this world and the Great Heaven of the Truth, the Right and the Vast. We have to find our way to this great heaven.
(iii) Human life is a battle between the powers of Light and Truth, the Gods who are the Immortals, and the powers of Darkness.
(iv) Vedic Yajna symbolises an inner sacrifice involving man’s interchange with Gods to move on the path leading to the higher Truth. It is a continual self-offering of the human to the divine and a continual descent of the divine into the human which is symbolised in the Vedic conception of sacrifice.
(v) The Gods are various names and personalities of the one Reality, one Truth and one Bliss to which we must rise.
B. The Basic Approach and the Beginnings
According to Sri Aurobindo, “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. Often the songs of one seer vary in their manner, range from the utmost simplicity to the most curious richness. Or there are risings and fallings in the same hymn; it proceeds from the most ordinary conventions of the general symbol of sacrifice to a movement of packed and complex thought. Some of the Suktas are plain and almost modern in their language; others baffle us at first by their semblance of antique obscurity. But these differences of manner take nothing from the unity of spiritual experience, nor are they complicated by any variation of the fixed terms and the common formulae. In the deep and mystic style of Dirghatamas Auchathya as in the melodious lucidity of Medhatithi Kanwa, in the puissant and energetic hymns of Vishwamitra as in Vasishtha’s even harmonies we have the same firm foundation of knowledge and the same scrupulous adherence to the sacred conventions of the Initiates.”2
Because of this peculiarity of the Veda, Sri Aurobindo suggested that his psychological method of interpretation can be “equally well illustrated from a number of scattered Suktas selected from the ten Mandalas or from any small block of hymns by a single Rishi.”3
When Sri Aurobindo pursued his method of interpretation in much greater details, he discovered that once the deeper sense of the symbols was known, the spiritual intention of the Vedic legends became apparent and inevitable. He found that, “Every element of the Veda is inextricably bound up with every other and the very nature of these compositions compels us, once we have adopted a principle of interpretation, to carry it to its farthest rational limits. Their materials have been skilfully welded together by firm hands and any inconsistency in our handling of them shatters the whole fabric of their sense and their coherent thinking.”4 Thus emerged in Sri Aurobindo’s mind, “…revealing itself as it were out of the ancient verses, a Veda which was throughout the Scripture of a great and antique religion already equipped with a profound psychological discipline, – a Scripture not confused in thought or primitive in its substance, not a medley of heterogeneous or barbarous elements, but one, complete and self-conscious in its purpose and in its purport, veiled indeed by the cover, sometimes thick, sometimes transparent, of another and material sense, but never losing sight even for a single moment of its high spiritual aim and tendency.”5
Inspite of the extensive work that was done by Sri Aurobindo on the Veda – he altogether translated over 4,500 verses out of a total of 10,580 verses in the Rig Veda – he felt that if the object were to establish his interpretation on a scholastic basis beyond all possibility of reasonable objection, then a much more detailed and considerable work would be necessary – more than what he then planned for The Secret of the Veda or was eventually, altogether, able to do. However, based on his spiritual experience, Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the Veda, reported in The Secret of the Veda, Hymns to the Mystic Fire, Sri Aurobindo Archives and Research and other writings, rests on as solid a ground as any other, and has for those who have enough experience of their own to enable them to have an unshakeable faith in Sri Aurobindo and his findings based on his deep and vast spiritual experience and knowledge, a finality impervious to any assault of scholastic doubts and questionings. It is only with a view to satisfy the cultured intelligence of today that Sri Aurobindo supports his psychological interpretation of the Veda by both philological and historical considerations throughout The Secret of the Veda – his major work on the Vedic interpretation.
Sri Aurobindo begins his analysis with the very first Rik (verse) of the Veda which is addressed to Agni by Madhuchchhandas and which according to him admirably strikes the first essential note of the Vedic harmony. To illustrate his method of approach to the Veda, Sri Aurobindo initially takes the first eleven Suktas (hymns) of the first Mandala – the first ten by Vishwamitri Madhuchchhandas and the eleventh by his son Jetri. “The first hymn, addressed to Agni, suggests the central conception of the Truth which is confirmed in the second and third Suktas invoking Indra in company with other gods. In the remaining eight hymns with Indra as the sole deity, except for one which he shares with the Maruts, we find the symbols of the Soma and the Cow, the obstructor Vritra and the great role played by Indra in leading man to the Light and overthrowing the barriers to his progress. These hymns are therefore of crucial importance to the psychological interpretation of the Veda.”6
In Sri Aurobindo’s view, in the first Sukta of the opening Mandala (I.1) of the Rig Veda, there are four verses, the fifth to the eighth (I.1.5-8), in which the psychological sense of the Veda comes out with a great force and clearness breaking through the veil of the symbol. These are:
Sri Aurobindo rendered these in English as follows:
“May Agni, priest of the offering whose will towards action is that of the seer, who is true, most rich in varied inspiration, come, a god with the gods.
‘The good that thou wilt create for the giver, that is that truth of thee, O Angiras.
‘To thee day by day, O Agni, in the night and in the light we by the thought come bearing our submission, –
‘To thee who shinest out from the sacrifices (or, who governest the sacrifices), guardian of the Truth and its illumination, increasing in thy own home.”8
“Who, then, is this god Agni to whom language of so mystic a fervour is addressed, to whom functions so vast and profound are ascribed? Who is this guardian of the Truth, who is in his act its illumination, whose will in the act is the will of a seer possessed of a divine wisdom governing his richly varied inspiration? What is the Truth that he guards? And what is this good that he creates for the giver who comes always to him in thought day and night bearing as his sacrifice submission and self-surrender? Is it gold and horses and cattle that he brings or is it some diviner riches?
It is not the sacrificial Fire that is capable of these functions, nor can it be any material flame or principle of physical heat and light. Yet throughout the symbol of the sacrificial Fire is maintained. It is evident that we are in the presence of a mystic symbolism to which the fire, the sacrifice, the priest are only outward figures of a deeper teaching and yet figures which it was thought necessary to maintain and to hold constantly in front.”9
Behind the outward figures of the sacrifice, the psychological conception is that of “a truth which is truth of divine essence, not truth of mortal sensation and appearance. It is satyam, truth of being; it is in its action Ðtam, right, – truth of divine being regulating right activity both of mind and body; it is bÐhat, the universal truth proceeding direct and undeformed out of the Infinite. The consciousness that corresponds to it is also infinite, bÐhat, large as opposed to the consciousness of the sense-mind which is founded upon limitation.”10 The sense mentality which is at the root of the apparent facts of sensation and appearence which are full of falsehoods, has for its instruments the senses, the sense mind (manas) and the intellect working on their evidence. The truth-consciousness on the other hand, has for its instruments the faculties of dÐØti – the direct vision of the truth, Ùruti – the direct hearing of its word and viveka – the direct discrimination of the right. Whoever is in possession of the truth-consciousness or open to those faculties is called a Rishi or Kavi, sage or seer. It is in the light of these conceptions of truth, satyam and Ðtam that Sri Aurobindo interprets the opening Sukta of the Veda.
“Agni in the Veda is always presented in the double aspect of force and light. He is the divine power that builds up the worlds, a power which acts always with a perfect knowledge, for it is jÀtavedas, knower of all births, viÙvÀni vayunÀni vidvÀn, – it knows all manifestations or phenomena or it possesses all forms and activities of the divine wisdom. Moreover it is repeatedly said that the gods have established Agni as the immortal in mortals, the divine power in man, the energy of fulfilment through which they do their work in him. It is this work which is symbolised by the sacrifice.
Psychologically, then, we may take Agni to be the divine will perfectly inspired by divine Wisdom, and indeed one with it, which is the active or effective power of the Truth-consciousness. This is the obvious sense of the word kavikratuÕ, he whose active will or power of effectivity is that of the seer, – works, that is to say, with the knowledge which comes by the truth-consciousness and in which there is no misapplication or error. The epithets that follow confirm this interpretation. Agni is satya, true in his being; perfect possession of his own truth and the essential truth of things gives him the power to apply it perfectly in all act and movement of force. He has both the satyam and the Ðtam. …Therefore it is the power of Agni to apply the Truth in the work (karma or apas) symbolised by the sacrifice, that makes him the object of human invocation. The importance of the sacrificial fire in the outward ritual corresponds to the importance of this inward force of unified Light and Power in the inward rite by which there is communication and interchange between the mortal and the Immortal. Agni is elsewhere frequently described as the envoy, dÓta, the medium of that communication and interchange.
We see, then, in what capacity Agni is called to the sacrifice. ‘Let him come, a god with the gods.’ The emphasis given to the idea of divinity by this repetition, devo devebhir, becomes intelligible when we recall the standing description of Agni as the god in human beings, the immortal in mortals, the divine guest. We may give the full psychological sense by translating, ‘Let him come, a divine power with the divine powers.’ For in the external sense of the Veda the Gods are universal powers of physical Nature personified; in any inner sense they must be universal powers of Nature in her subjective activities, Will, Mind, etc. But in the Veda there is always a distinction between the ordinary human or mental action of these puissances, manuØvat, and the divine. It is supposed that man by the right use of their mental action in the inner sacrifice to the gods can convert them into their true or divine nature, the mortal can become immortal. Thus the Ribhus, who were at first human beings or represented human faculties, became divine and immortal powers by perfection in the work, sukÐtyayÀ, svapasyayÀ. It is a continual self-offering of the human to the divine and a continual descent of the divine into the human which seems to be symbolised in the sacrifice.
The state of immortality thus attained is conceived as a state of felicity or bliss founded on a perfect Truth and Right, satyam Ðtam. We must, I think, understand in this sense the verse that follows. ‘The good (happiness) which thou wilt create for the giver, that is that truth of thee, O Agni.’ In other words, the essence of this truth, which is the nature of Agni, is the freedom from evil, the state of perfect good and happiness which the Ritam carries in itself and which is sure to be created in the mortal when he offers the sacrifice by the action of Agni as the divine priest. Bhadram means anything good, auspicious, happy and by itself need not carry any deep significance. But we find it in the Veda used, like Ðtam, in a special sense. It is described in one of the hymns (V.82) as the opposite of the evil dream (duÕØvapnyam), the false consciousness of that which is not the Ritam, and of duritam, false going, which means all evil and suffering. Bhadram is therefore equivalent to suvitam, right going, which means all good and felicity belonging to the state of the Truth, the Ritam. It is Mayas, the felicity, and the gods who represent the Truth-consciousness are described as mayobhuvaÕ, those who bring or carry in their being the felicity. Thus every part of the Veda, if properly understood, throws light upon every other part. It is only when we are misled by its veils that we find in it an incoherence.
In the next verse there seems to be stated the condition of the effective sacrifice. It is the continual resort day by day, in the night and in the light, of the thought in the human being with submission, adoration, self-surrender, to the divine Will and Wisdom represented by Agni. Night and Day, NaktoØÀsÀ, are also symbolical, like all the other gods in the Veda, and the sense seems to be that in all states of consciousness, whether illumined or obscure, there must be a constant submission and reference of all activities to the divine control.
For whether by day or night Agni shines out in the sacrifices; he is the guardian of the Truth, of the Ritam in man and defends it from the powers of darkness; he is its constant illumination burning up even in obscure and besieged states of the mind. The ideas thus briefly indicated in the eighth verse are constantly found throughout the hymns to Agni in the Rig Veda.
Agni is finally described as increasing in his own home. We can no longer be satisfied with the explanation of the own home of Agni as the ‘fire-room’ of the Vedic householder. We must seek in the Veda itself for another interpretation and we find it in the 75th hymn of the first Mandala.
‘Sacrifice for us to Mitra and Varuna, sacrifice to the gods, to the Truth, the Vast; O Agni, sacrifice to thy own home.’
Here ÐtaÌ bÐhat and svaÌ damam seem to express the goal of the sacrifice and this is perfectly in consonance with the imagery of the Veda which frequently describes the sacrifice as travelling towards the gods and man himself as a traveller moving towards the truth, the light or the felicity. It is evident, therefore, that the Truth, the Vast and Agni’s own home are identical. Agni and other gods are frequently spoken of as being born in the truth, dwelling in the wide or vast. The sense, then, will be in our passage that Agni the divine will and power in man increases in the truth-consciousness, its proper sphere, where false limitations are broken down, urÀv anibÀdhe, in the wide and the limitless.”11
Thus, according to Sri Aurobindo, in the four verses of the opening Sukta (I.1.5-8) of the Veda we get the first indications of the principal ideas of the Vedic Rishis, “– the conception of a Truth-consciousness supramental and divine, the invocation of the gods as powers of the Truth to raise man out of the falsehoods of the mortal mind, the attainment in and by this Truth of an immortal state of perfect good and felicity and the inner sacrifice and offering of what one has and is by the mortal to the Immortal as the means of the divine consummation. All the rest of Vedic thought in its spiritual aspects is grouped around these central conceptions.”12
The following is the list of references with their page numbers in the parantheses from various volumes of the Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo:
CWSA 15 – 2(58), 3(58), 4(46-47), 5(47), 6(60-61), 7(61), 8(63-64), 9(64), 10(65), 11(65-68), 12(68-69)
CWSA 16 – 1(19)