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History of India – The Vedic Age (25)


XIII. The Psychological and the Historical Bases for the Interpretation of the Veda

C. Sri Aurobindo’s Detailed Psychological Interpretation of the Veda

To clearly illustrate and bring into light some of the key elements in Sri Aurobindo’s very deep and profound psychological interpretation of the Rig Veda we list here under appropriate headings some of the most important selections from his seminal work, The Secret of the Veda, where he has provided on the basis of his deep, high and vast spiritual experience, a detailed psychological interpretation of the Veda by opening up the intricate Vedic symbolism sufficiently to permit the cultured intelligence of today to go behind and feel the deeper truth behind the Vedic legends and images such as those of the Oceans and Rivers, the Dawn and Herds of the Dawn, the Cow and the Angiras legend, the Hound of Heaven, the Conquest over the Dasyus, the Human Fathers, etc.

(i) The Image of the Oceans and the Rivers and the Vedic Idea of Existence

According to Sri Aurobindo, it is beyond doubt that “…the Vedic Rishis used the image of water, a river or an ocean, in a figurative sense and as a psychological symbol,… existence itself is constantly spoken of in the Hindu writings, in Veda, Purana and even philosophical reasoning and illustration as an ocean. The Veda speaks of two oceans, the upper and the lower waters. These are the ocean of the subconscient, dark and inexpressive, and the ocean of the superconscient, luminous and eternal expression but beyond the human mind. Vamadeva in the last hymn of the fourth Mandala speaks of these two oceans. He says that a honeyed wave climbs up from the ocean and by means of this mounting wave which is the Soma (aÌÙu) one attains entirely to immortality; that wave or that Soma is the secret name of the clarity (ghÐtasya, the symbol of the clarified butter); it is the tongue of the gods; it is the nodus (nÀbhi) of immortality.


I presume there can be no doubt that the sea, the honey, the Soma, the clarified butter are in this passage at least psychological symbols. Certainly, Vamadeva does not mean that a wave or flood of wine came mounting up out of the salt water of the Indian Ocean or of the Bay of Bengal or even from the fresh water of the river Indus or the Ganges and that this wine is a secret name for clarified butter. What he means to say is clearly that out of the subconscient depths in us arises a honeyed wave of Ananda or pure delight of existence, that it is by this Ananda that we can arrive at immortality; this Ananda is the secret being, the secret reality behind the action of the mind in its shining clarities. Soma, the god of the Ananda, the Vedanta also tells us, is that which has become mind or sensational perception; in other words, all mental sensation carries in it a hidden delight of existence and strives to express that secret of its own being. Therefore Ananda is the tongue of the gods with which they taste the delight of existence; it is the nodus in which all the activities of the immortal state or divine existence are bound together. Vamadeva goes on to say, ‘Let us give expression to this secret name of the clarity, – that is to say, let us bring out this Soma wine, this hidden delight of existence; let us hold it in this world-sacrifice by our surrenderings or submissions to Agni, the divine Will or Conscious-Power which is the Master of being. He is the four-horned Bull of the worlds and when he listens to the soul-thought of man in its self-expression, he ejects this secret name of delight from its hiding-place.’ (a IV.58.1)


Let us note, in passing, that since the wine and the clarified butter are symbolic, the sacrifice also must be symbolic. In such hymns as this of Vamadeva’s the ritualistic veil so elaborately woven by the Vedic mystics vanishes like a dissolving mist before our eyes and there emerges the Vedantic truth, the secret of the Veda.

Vamadeva leaves us in no doubt as to the nature of the Ocean of which he speaks; for in the fifth verse he openly describes it as the ocean of the heart, hÐdyÀt samudrÀt, out of which rise the waters of the clarity, ghÐtasya dhÀrÀÕ; they flow, he says, becoming progressively purified by the mind and the inner heart, antar hÐdÀ manasÀ pÓyamÀnÀÕ.b And in the closing verse he speaks of the whole of existence being triply established, first in the seat of Agni – which we know from other riks to be the Truth-Consciousness, Agni’s own home, svaÌ damam ÐtaÌ bÐhat, – secondly, in the heart, the sea, which is evidently the same as the heart-ocean, – thirdly, in the life of man.

3(a IV.58.2, b IV.58.6, c IV.58.11)

The superconscient, the sea of the subconscient, the life of the living being between the two, – this is the Vedic idea of existence. 

The sea of the superconscient is the goal of the rivers of clarity, of the honeyed wave, as the sea of the subconscient in the heart within is their place of rising. This upper sea is spoken of as the Sindhu, a word which may mean either river or ocean; but in this hymn it clearly means ocean. Let us observe the remarkable language in which Vamadeva speaks of these rivers of the clarity. He says first that the gods sought and found the clarity, the ghÐtam, triply placed and hidden by the Panis in the cow, gavi. It is beyond doubt that go is used in the Veda in the double sense of Cow and Light; the Cow is the outer symbol, the inner meaning is the Light. The figure of the cows stolen and hidden by the Panis is constant in the Veda. Here it is evident that as the sea is a psychological symbol – the heart-ocean, samudre hÐdi, – and the Soma is a psychological symbol and the clarified butter is a psychological symbol, the cow in which the gods find the clarified butter hidden by the Panis must also symbolise an inner illumination and not physical light. The cow is really Aditi, the infinite consciousness hidden in the subconscient, and the triple ghÐtam is the triple clarity of the liberated sensation finding its secret of delight, of the thought-mind attaining to light and intuition and of the truth itself, the ultimate supra-mental vision. This is clear from the second half of the verse in which it is said, ‘One Indra produced, one Surya, one the gods fashioned by natural development out of Vena’; for Indra is the Master of the thought-mind, Surya of the supra-mental light, Vena is Soma, the master of mental delight of existence, creator of the sense-mind.a”1 (a IV.58.4)

“ ‘These move’ says Vamadeva ‘from the heart-ocean; penned by the enemy in a hundred enclosures they cannot be seen; I look towards the streams of the clarity, for in their midst is the Golden Reed. Entirely they stream like flowing rivers becoming purified by the heart within and the mind; these move, waves of the clarity, like animals under the mastery of their driver. As if on a path in front of the Ocean (sindhu, the upper ocean) the mighty ones move compact of forceful speed but limited by the vital force (vÀta, vÀyu), the streams of clarity; they are like a straining horse which breaks its limits, as it is nourished by the waves.’ On the very face of it this is the poetry of a mystic concealing his sense from the profane under a veil of images which occasionally he suffers to grow transparent to the eye that chooses to see. What he means is that the divine knowledge is all the time flowing constantly behind our thoughts, but is kept from us by the internal enemies who limit our material of mind to the sense-action and sense-perception so that though the waves of our being beat on banks that border upon the superconscient, the infinite, they are limited by the nervous action of the sense-mind and cannot reveal their secret. They are like horses controlled and reined in; only when the waves of the light have nourished their strength to the full does the straining steed break these limits and they flow freely towards That from which the Soma-wine is pressed out and the sacrifice is born.


This goal is, again, explained to be that which is all honey, – ghÐtasya dhÀrÀ madhumat pavante; it is the Ananda, the divine Beatitude. And that this goal is the Sindhu, the superconscient ocean, is made clear in the last rik, where Vamadeva says, ‘May we taste that honeyed wave of thine’ – of Agni, the divine Purusha, the four-horned Bull of the worlds – ‘which is borne in the force of the Waters where they come together.’


We find this fundamental idea of the Vedic Rishis brought out in the Hymn of Creation (X.129) where the subconscient is thus described. ‘Darkness hidden by darkness in the beginning was this all, an ocean without mental consciousness . . . out of it the One was born by the greatness of Its energy. It first moved in it as desire which was the first seed of mind. The Masters of Wisdom found out in the non-existent that which builds up the existent; in the heart they found it by purposeful impulsion and by the thought-mind. Their ray was extended horizontally; there was something above, there was something below.’ In this passage the same ideas are brought out as in Vamadeva’s hymn but without the veil of images. Out of the subconscient ocean the One arises in the heart first as desire; he moves there in the heart-ocean as an unexpressed desire of the delight of existence and this desire is the first seed of what afterwards appears as the sense-mind. The gods thus find out a means of building up the existent, the conscious being, out of the subconscient darkness; they find it in the heart and bring it out by the growth of thought and purposeful impulsion, pratÈØyÀ, by which is meant mental desire as distinguished from the first vague desire that arises out of the subconscient in the merely vital movements of nature. The conscious existence which they thus create is stretched out as it were horizontally between two other extensions; below is the dark sleep of the subconscient, above is the luminous secrecy of the superconscient. These are the upper and the lower ocean. (a IV.58.9, b IV.58.11)

This Vedic imagery throws a clear light on the similar symbolic images of the Puranas, especially on the famous symbol of Vishnu sleeping after the pralaya on the folds of the snake Ananta upon the ocean of sweet milk. It may perhaps be objected that the Puranas were written by superstitious Hindu priests or poets who believed that eclipses were caused by a dragon eating the sun and moon and could easily believe that during the periods of non-creation the supreme Deity in a physical body went to sleep on a physical snake upon a material ocean of real milk and that therefore it is a vain ingenuity to seek for a spiritual meaning in these fables. My reply would be that there is in fact no need to seek for such meanings; for these very superstitious poets have put them there plainly on the very surface of the fable for everybody to see who does not choose to be blind. For they have given a name to Vishnu’s snake, the name Ananta, and Ananta means the Infinite; therefore they have told us plainly enough that the image is an allegory and that Vishnu, the all-pervading Deity, sleeps in the periods of non-creation on the coils of the Infinite. As for the ocean, the Vedic imagery shows us that it must be the ocean of eternal existence and this ocean of eternal existence is an ocean of absolute sweetness, in other words, of pure  Bliss. For the sweet milk (itself a Vedic image) has, evidently, a sense not essentially different from the madhu, honey or sweetness, of Vamadeva’s hymn.a

Thus we find that both Veda and Purana use the same symbolic images; the ocean is for them the image of infinite and eternal existence. We find also that the image of the river or flowing current is used to symbolise a stream of conscious being. We find that Saraswati, one of the seven rivers, is the river of inspiration flowing from the Truth-consciousness. We have the right then to suppose that the other six rivers are also psychological symbols.”2

(ii) The Substance of the Veda and the Mystic Meaning Behind Its Symbols, Legends and Symbolic Words

“The Vedic hymns, whatever else they may be, are throughout an invocation to certain ‘Aryan’ gods, friends and helpers of man, for ends which are held by the singers, – or seers, as they call themselves (kavi, ÐØi, vipra), – to be supremely desirable (vara, vÀra). These desirable ends, these boons of the gods are summed up in the words rayi, rÀdhas, which may mean physically wealth or prosperity, and psychologically a felicity or enjoyment which consists in the abundance of certain forms of spiritual wealth. Man contributes as his share of the joint effort the work of the sacrifice, the Word, the Soma Wine and the ghÐta or clarified butter. The Gods are born in the sacrifice, they increase by the Word, the Wine and the Ghrita and in that strength and in the ecstasy and intoxication of the Wine they accomplish the aims of the sacrificer. The chief elements of the wealth thus acquired are the Cow and the Horse; but there are also others, hiraÍya, gold, vÈra, men or heroes, ratha, chariots, prajÀ or apatya, offspring.a The very means of the sacrifice, the fire, the Somab, the ghÐta, are supplied by the Gods and they attend the sacrifice as its priests, purifiers, upholders, heroes of its warfare, – for there are those who hate the sacrifice and the Word, attack the sacrificer and tear or withhold from him the coveted wealth. The chief conditions of the prosperity so ardently desired are the rising of the Dawn and the Sun and the downpour of the rain of heaven and of the seven rivers, – physical or mystic, – called in the Veda the Mighty Ones of heaven. But even this prosperity, this fullness of cows, horses, gold, men, chariots, offspring, is not a final end in itself; all this is a means towards the opening up of the other worlds, the winning of Swar, the ascent to the solar heavens, the attainment by the path of the Truth to the Light and to the heavenly Bliss where the mortal arrives at Immortality.

aThe Rishi desires a bliss fruitful in offspring, that is in divine works and their results and this is to be effected through the conquest of all the riches held in itself by our divided mortal being but kept from us by the Vritras and Panis …the sons of Danu or Diti.”3 These riches are to be won by us with the help of the gods, the sons of Aditi – the undivided consciousness.

b “The delight extracted from existence is typified by the honey wine of the Soma; it is mixed with the milk, the curds and the grain, the milk being that of the luminous cows, the curds the fixation of their yield in the intellectual mind and the grain the formulation of the light in the force of the physical mind. These symbolic senses are indicated by the double meaning of the words used, go, dadhi and yava.”4 V.27.5

Such is the undoubted substance of the Veda. The ritual and mythological sense which has been given to it from very ancient times is well known and need not be particularised; in sum, it is the performance of sacrificial worship as the chief duty of man with a view to the enjoyment of wealth here and heaven hereafter. We know also the modern view of the matter in which the Veda is a worship of the personified sun, moon, stars, dawn, wind, rain, fire, sky, rivers and other deities of Nature, the propitiation of these gods by sacrifice, the winning and holding of wealth in this life, chiefly from human and Dravidian enemies and against hostile demons and mortal plunderers, and after death man’s attainment to the Paradise of the gods. We now find, that however valid these ideas may have been for the vulgar, they were not the inner sense of the Veda to the seers, the illumined minds (kavi, vipra) of the Vedic age. For them these material objects were symbols of the immaterial; the cows were the radiances or illuminations of a divine Dawn, the horses and chariots were symbols of force and movement, gold was light, the shining wealth of a divine Sun – the true light, ÐtaÌ jyotiÕ; both the wealth acquired by the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself in all their details symbolised man’s effort and his means towards a greater end, the acquisition of immortality. The aspiration of the Vedic seer was the enrichment and expansion of man’s being, the birth and the formation of the godheads in his life-sacrifice,a the increase of the Force, Truth, Light, Joy of which they are the powers until through the enlarged and ever-opening worlds of his being the soul of man rises, sees the divine doors (devÈr dvÀraÕ) swing open to his call and enters into the supreme felicity of a divine existence beyond heaven and earth. This ascent is the parable of the Angiras Rishis.”5

a “The Son of the sacrifice is a constant image in the Veda. Here it is the godhead himself, Agni who gives himself as a son to man, a Son who delivers his father. Agni is also the War-Horse and the steed of the journey, the White Horse, the mystic galloping Dadhikravan who carries us through the battle to the goal of our voyaging.”When one psychologically reaches a stage where one is capable of recognising the divine Will (Agni) – even though not yet, most of the time, of consciously assenting to it – then it (the stage) may be taken to symbolise the birth of Agni in one’s being.

“The Gods constantly stand out in their psychological functions; the sacrifice is the outer symbol of an inner work, an inner interchange between the gods and men, – man giving what he has, the gods giving in return the horses of power, the herds of light, the heroes of Strength to be his retinue, winning for him victory in his battle with the hosts of Darkness, Vritras, Dasyus, Panis. When the Rishi says, ‘Let us become conscious whether by the War-Horse or by the Word of a Strength beyond men’, his words have either a mystic significance or they have no coherent meaning at all. In the portions translated in this book we have many mystic verses and whole hymns which, however mystic, tear the veil off the outer sacrificial images covering the real sense of the Veda. ‘Thought’, says the Rishi, ‘has nourished for us human things in the Immortals, in the Great Heavens; it is the milch-cow which milks of itself the wealth of many forms’ – the many kinds of wealth, cows, horses and the rest for which the sacrificer prays; evidently this is no material wealth, it is something which Thought, the Thought embodied in the Mantra, can give and it is the result of the same Thought that nourishes our human things in the Immortals, in the Great Heavens. A process of divinisation, and of a bringing down of great and luminous riches, treasures won from the Gods by the inner work of sacrifice, is hinted at in terms necessarily covert but still for one who knows how to read these secret words, niÍyÀ vacÀÌsi, sufficiently expressive, kavaye nivacanÀ. …Under pressure of the necessity to mask their meaning with symbols and symbolic words – for secrecy must be observed – the Rishis resorted to fixed double meanings, a device easily manageable in the Sanskrit language where one word often bears several different meanings, but not easy to render in an English translation and very often impossible. Thus the word for cow, go, meant also light or a ray of light; this appears in the names of some of the Rishis, Gotama, most radiant, Gavishthira, steadfast in the Light. The cows of the Veda were the Herds of the Sun, familiar in Greek myth and mystery, the rays of the Sun of Truth and Light and Knowledge; this meaning which comes out in some passages can be consistently applied everywhere yielding a coherent sense. The word ghÐta means ghee or clarified butter and this was one of the chief elements of the sacrificial rite; but ghÐta could also mean light, from the root ghÐ to shine, and it is used in this sense in many passages. Thus the horses of Indra, the Lord of Heaven, are described as dripping with light, ghÐta-snu,a – it certainly does not mean that ghee dripped from them as they ran, although that seems to be the sense of the same epithet as applied to the grain of which Indra’s horses are invited to partake when they come to the sacrifice. Evidently this sense of light doubles with that of clarified butter in the symbolism of the sacrifice. The thought or the word expressing the thought is compared to pure clarified butter, expressions like dhiyaÌ ghÐtÀcÈm, the luminous thought or understanding occur. There is a curious passage in one of the hymns translated in this book calling on Fire as priest of the sacrifice to flood the offering with a mind pouring ghrita, ghÐtapruØÀ manasÀ and so manifest the Seats (‘places’, or ‘planes’), the three heavens each of them and manifest the Gods. But what is a ghee-pouring mind, and how by pouring ghee can a priest manifest the Gods and the triple heavens? But admit the mystical and esoteric meaning and the sense becomes clear. What the Rishi means is a ‘mind pouring the light’, a labour of the clarity of an enlightened or illumined mind; it is not a human priest or a sacrificial fire, but the inner Flame, the mystic seer-will, kavi-kratu, and that can certainly manifest by this process the Gods and the worlds and all planes of the being. The Rishis, it must be remembered, were seers as well as sages, they were men of vision who saw things in their meditation in images, often symbolic images which might precede or accompany an experience and put it in a concrete form, might predict or give an occult body to it: so it would be quite possible for him to see at once the inner experience and in image its symbolic happening, the flow of clarifying light and the priest god pouring the clarified butter on the inner self-offering which brought the experience. This might seem strange to a Western mind, but to an Indian mind accustomed to the Indian tradition or capable of meditation and occult vision it would be perfectly intelligible. The mystics were and normally are symbolists, they can even see all physical things and happenings as symbols of inner truths and realities, even their outer selves, the outer happenings of their life and all around them. That would make their identification or else an association of the thing and its symbol easy, its habit possible.

a Sayana, though in several passages he takes ghÐta in the  sense of light, renders it here by ‘water’; he seems to think that the divine horses were very tired and perspiring profusely! A Naturalistic interpreter might as well argue that as Indra is a God of the sky, the primitive poet might well believe that rain was the perspiration of Indra’s horses.

Other standing words and symbols of the Veda invite a similar interpretation of their sense. As the Vedic ‘cow’ is the symbol of light, so the Vedic ‘horse’ is a symbol of power, spiritual strength, force of tapasya. When the Rishi asks Agni for a ‘horse-form cow-in-front gift’ he is not asking really for a number of horses forming a body of the gift with some cows walking in front, he is asking for a great body of spiritual power led by the light or, as we may translate it, ‘with the Ray-Cow walking in its front.’a As one hymn describes the recovery from the Panis of the mass of the rays (the cows, – the shining herds, gavyam), so another hymn asks Agni for amass or abundance or power of the horse – aÙvyam. So too the Rishi asks sometimes for the heroes or fighting men as his retinue, sometimes in more abstract language and without symbol for a complete hero-force – suvÈryam; sometimes he combines the symbol and the thing. So too the Rishis ask for a son or sons or offspring – apatyam – as an element of the wealth for which they pray to the Gods, but here too an esoteric sense can be seen, for in certain passages the son born to us is clearly an image of some inner birth: Agni himself is our son, the child of our works, the child who as the Universal Fire is the father of his fathers, and it is by setting the steps on things that have fair offspring that we create or discover a path to the higher world of Truth.”7

Compare the expression which describes the Aryan, the noble people as led by the light – jyotir-agrÀÕ.


  1. Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.15, pp.102-04, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
  2. Ibid, pp.105-08
  3. Ibid, p.207
  4. Ibid, p.468
  5. Ibid, pp.138-39
  6. Ibid, p.461
  7. Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.16, pp.12-16, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
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