III. The Vedas
“At the root of all that we Hindus have done, thought and said through these many thousands of years, behind all we are and seek to be, there lies concealed, the fount of our philosophies, the bedrock of our religions, the kernel of our thought, the explanation of our ethics and society, the summary of our civilisation, the rivet of our nationality, a small body of speech, Veda. From this one seed developing into many forms the multitudinous and magnificent birth called Hinduism draws its inexhaustible existence. Buddhism too with its offshoot, Christianity, flows from the same original source. It has left its stamp on Persia, through Persia on Judaism, through Judaism, Christianity and Sufism on Islam, and through Buddha on Confucianism, and through Christ and mediaeval mysticism, Greek and German philosophy and Sanskrit learning on the thought and civilisation of Europe. There is no part of the world’s spirituality, of the world’s religion, of the world’s thought which would be what it is today, if the Veda had not existed. Of no other body of speech in the world can this be said.”1
“Since our earliest ages the Veda has been, in the invincible tradition of our race, the bedrock of all our creeds; in this our goddess of veiled and ancient speech we have always persisted in seeing the fruitful mother of all our Indian spirituality. For it is nothing but the simple truth, evident whenever we look below the surface & beyond the details, that every creed, sect, school of philosophy which has had any roots in our Indian temperament or any vitality of survival in our Indian surroundings has been in its secret nature, if not in its open features, a child of the eternal Vedic inspiration. All the outbursts of religious life that have helped to maintain or renew through the course of several millenniums the vitality of our race, the eternal richness and fruitfulness of our ancient culture, the fineness and profound sincerity of our undying spiritual attainment and endeavour, were derived, if we trace them to their remote sources, from the word or the substance of the Veda. All our religious innovators, restorers, systematisers, wittingly or unwittingly, of good will or against their grain, have been stirred to their task by some vibration that reached them from those far-off ages. Our Darshana, Tantra and Purana, our Shaivism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism, our orthodoxy, heresy and heterodoxy, even when they have been the most perfect misunderstandings of each other, have always been imperfect understandings of one Vedic truth. Shankara clasped the head of Vedic truth, Ramanuja embraced its heart; but both the great disputants were dazzled by their adoration of the body of one veiled deity. Our greatest modern minds are mere tributaries of the old Rishis. This very Shankara who seems to us a giant, had only a fragment of their knowledge. Buddha wandered away on a byepath of their universal kingdom. In our own day Ramakrishna lived in his being and concretised in his talk, Vivekananda threw out into brilliance of manysided thought and eloquent speech the essence of ancient Veda. The Veda was the beginning of our spiritual knowledge; the Veda will remain its end. These compositions of an unknown antiquity are as the many breasts of the eternal Mother of knowledge from which our succeeding ages have all been fed.”2
“The Vedas are the roots of Indian civilisation and the supreme authority in Indian religion. For three thousand years, by the calculation of European scholars; for a great deal more, in all probability, the faith of this nation, certainly one of the most profound, acute and intellectual in the world, has not left its hold on this cardinal point of belief. Its greatest and most rationalistic minds have never swerved from the national faith. Kapila held to it no less than Shankara[.] The two great revolted intellects, Buddha and Brihaspati, could not dethrone the Veda or destroy India’s spiritual allegiance. India by an inevitable law of her being casts out, sooner or later[,] everything that is not Vedic. The Dhammapada has become a Scripture for foreign peoples. Brihaspati’s strictures are only remembered as a curiosity of our intellectual history. Religious movements & revolutions have come & gone or left their mark but [a]fter all and through all the Veda remains to us our Rock of the Ages, our eternal foundation.
Yet the most fundamental and important part of this imperishable Scripture, the actual hymns and mantras of the Sanhitas, has long been a sealed book to the Indian mind, learned or unlearned. The other Vedic books are of minor authority or a secondary formation. The Brahmanas are ritual, grammatical & historical treatises on the traditions & ceremonies of Vedic times whose only value – apart from interesting glimpses of ancient life & Vedantic philosophy – lies in their attempt to fix and to interpret symbolically the ritual of Vedic sacrifice. The Upanishads, mighty as they are, only aspire to bring out, arrange philosophically in the language of later thinking and crown with the supreme name of Brahman the eternal knowledge enshrined in the Vedas. Yet for some two thousand years at least no Indian has really understood the Vedas. Or if they have been understood, if Sayana holds for us their secret, the reverence of the Indian mind for them becomes a baseless superstition and the idea that the modern Indian religions are Vedic in their substance is convicted of egregious error. For the Vedas Sayana gives us are the mythology of the Adityas, Rudras, Maruts, Vasus, – but these gods of the Veda have long ceased to be worshipped, – or they are a collection of ritual & sacrificial hymns, but the ritual is dead & the sacrifices are no longer offered.
Are we then to conclude that the reverence for the Vedas & the belief in the continued authority of the Vedas, is really no more than an ancient superstition or a tradition which has survived its truth? Those who know the working of the human mind, will be loth to hasten to that conclusion. Great masses of men, great nations, great civilisations have an instinct in these matters which seldom misleads them. In spite of forgetfulness, through every misstatement, surviving all cessation of precise understanding, something in them still remembers their origin and holds fast to the vital truth of their being. According to the Europeans, there is a historical truth at the basis of the old persistent tradition, but a historical truth only, a truth of origin, not of present actuality. The Vedas are the early roots of Indian religion, of Indian civilisation; but they have for a long time past ceased to be their present foundation or their intellectual substance. It is rather the Upanishads & the Puranas that are the living Scriptures of mediaeval and modern Hinduism. But if, as we contend, the Upanishads & the Puranas only give us in other language, later symbols, altered forms of thought the same religious truths that we find differently stated in the Rigveda, this shifting of the immediate point of derivation will make no real difference. The waters we drink are the same whether drawn at their clear mountain sources or on their banks in the anchorite’s forest or from ghats among the faery temples and fantastic domes of some sacred city. The Hindu’s belief remains to him unshaken.”3
A. The Text of the Veda
“The text of the Veda which we possess has remained uncorrupted for over two thousand years. It dates, so far as we know, from that great period of Indian intellectual activity, contemporaneous with the Greek efflorescence, but earlier in its beginnings, which founded the culture and civilisation recorded in the classical literature of the land. We cannot say to how much earlier a date our text may be carried. But there are certain considerations which justify us in supposing for it an almost enormous antiquity. An accurate text, accurate in every syllable, accurate in every accent, was a matter of supreme importance to the Vedic ritualists; for on scrupulous accuracy depended the effectuality of the sacrifice. We are told, for instance, in the Brahmanas the story of Twashtri who, performing a sacrifice to produce an avenger of his son slain by Indra, produced, owing to an error of accentuation, not a slayer of Indra, but one of whom Indra must be the slayer. The prodigious accuracy of the ancient Indian memory is also notorious. And the sanctity of the text prevented such interpolations, alterations, modernising revisions as have replaced by the present form of the Mahabharata the ancient epic of the Kurus. It is not, therefore, at all improbable that we have the Sanhita of Vyasa substantially as it was arranged by the great sage and compiler.
Substantially, not in its present written form. Vedic prosody differed in many respects from the prosody of classical Sanskrit and, especially, employed a greater freedom in the use of that principle of euphonic combination of separate words (sandhi) which is so peculiar a feature of the literary tongue. The Vedic Rishis, as was natural in a living speech, followed the ear rather than fixed rule; sometimes they combined the separate words, sometimes they left them uncombined. But when the Veda came to be written down, the law of euphonic combination had assumed a much more despotic authority over the language and the ancient text was written by the grammarians as far as possible in consonance with its regulations. They were careful, however, to accompany it with another text, called the Padapatha, in which all euphonic combinations were again resolved into the original and separate words and even the components of compound words indicated.
It is a notable tribute to the fidelity of the ancient memorisers that, instead of the confusion to which this system might so easily have given rise, it is always perfectly easy to resolve the formal text into the original harmonies of Vedic prosody. And very few are the instances in which the exactness or the sound judgment of the Padapatha can be called into question.
We have, then, as our basis a text which we can confidently accept and which, even if we hold it in a few instances doubtful or defective, does not at any rate call for that often licentious labour of emendation to which some of the European classics lend themselves. This is, to start with, a priceless advantage for which we cannot be too grateful to the conscientiousness of the old Indian learning.
In certain other directions it might not be safe always to follow implicitly the scholastic tradition, –as in the ascription of the Vedic poems to their respective Rishis, wherever older tradition was not firm and sound. But these are details of minor importance. Nor is there, in my view, any good reason to doubt that we have the hymns arrayed, for the most part, in the right order of their verses and in their exact entirety. The exceptions, if they exist, are negligible in number and importance. When the hymns seem to us incoherent, it is because we do not understand them. Once the clue is found, we discover that they are perfect wholes as admirable in the structure of their thought as in their language and their rhythms.”4
“The Sanhita of the Rig Veda, as we possess it, is arranged in ten books or Mandalas. A double principle is observed in the arrangement. Six of the Mandalas are given each to the hymns of a single Rishi or family of Rishis. Thus the second is devoted chiefly to the Suktas of the Rishi Gritsamada, the third and the seventh similarly to the great names of Vishwamitra and Vasishtha respectively, the fourth to Vamadeva, the sixth to Bharadwaja. The fifth is occupied by the hymns of the house of Atri. In each of these Mandalas the Suktas addressed to Agni are first collected together and followed by those of which Indra is the deity; the invocations of other gods, Brihaspati, Surya, the Ribhus, Usha etc. close the Mandala. A whole book, the ninth, is given to a single god, Soma. The first, eighth and tenth Mandalas are collections of Suktas by various Rishis, but the hymns of each seer are ordinarily placed together in the order of their deities, Agni leading, Indra following, the other gods succeeding. Thus the first Mandala opens with ten hymns of the seer Madhuchchhandas, son of Vishwamitra, and an eleventh ascribed to Jetri, son of Madhuchchhandas. This last Sukta, however, is identical in style, manner and spirit with the ten that precede it and they can all be taken together as a single block of hymns one in intention and diction.
A certain principle of thought-development also has not been absent from the arrangement of these Vedic hymns. The opening Mandala seems to have been so designed that the general thought of the Veda in its various elements should gradually unroll itself under the cover of the established symbols by the voices of a certain number of Rishis who almost all rank high as thinkers and sacred singers and are, some of them, among the most famous names of Vedic tradition. Nor can it be by accident that the tenth or closing Mandala gives us, with an even greater miscellaneity of authors, the last developments of the thought of the Veda and some of the most modern in language of its Suktas. It is here that we find the Sacrifice of the Purusha and the great Hymn of the Creation. It is here also that modern scholars think they discover the first origins of the Vedantic philosophy, the Brahmavada.”5
B. The Vedic System
The following is the statement of a few principal details of the Vedic system in the words of Sri Aurobindo:
“(1) Vedic religion is based on an elaborate psychology and cosmology of which the keyword is the great Vedic formula OM, Bhur Bhuvah Swah; the three vyahritis and the Pranava. The three Vyahritis are the three lower principles of Matter, Life and Mind, Annam, Prana and Manas of the Vedanta. OM is Brahman or Sacchidananda of whom these three are the expressions in the phenomenal world. OM and the vyahrities are connected by an intermediate principle, Mahas, Vijnanam of the Vedanta, ideal Truth which has arranged the lower worlds and on which amidst all their confusions they rest.
(2) Corresponding roughly to the vyahrities are three worlds, Bhurloka (Prana-Annam, the material world), Bhuvarloka (Prana-Manas, the lower subjective world), Swarloka (Manas-Buddhi, the higher subjective world). These are the tribhuvana of Hinduism.
(3) Corresponding to Mahas is Maharloka or Mahi Dyaus, the great heavens (pure Buddhi or Vijnana, the ideal world). The Pranava in its three essentialities rules over the three supreme worlds, the Satyaloka (divine being), Tapoloka (divine Awareness and Force), Anandaloka (divine Bliss) of the Puranas, which constitute Amritam, immortality or the true kingdom of heaven of the Vedic religion. These are the Vedic sapta dhamani and the seven different movements of consciousness to which they correspond are the sapta sindhu of the hymns.
(4) According to the Vedanta, man has five koshas or sheaths of existence, the material (Annamaya), vital (Pranamaya), mental (Manomaya) which together make up the aparardha or lower half of our conscious-being; the ideal (vijnanamaya) which [links]the lower to the parardha or higher half; the divine or Anandamaya in which the divine existence (Amrita) is concentrated for communion with our lower human being. These are the pancha kshitis, [five]earths or rather dwelling places of the Veda. But in Yoga we speak usually of the five koshas but the sapta bhumis, seven not five. The Veda also speaks of sapta dhamani.
(5) In each of the seven strata of consciousness all the other six work under the law of the stratum which houses them. This means seven sub-strata in each; in the three vyahritis there are therefore thrice seven, trih saptani.
(6) Man, although living here in Bhu, belongs to Swar and Bhuvar. He is manu, the Thinker, – the soul in him is the manomayah pranasarira neta of the Upanishad, “the mental captain and guide of life and body”. He has to become vijnanamaya (mahan) and anandamaya, to become in a word immortal, divine in all his laws of being (vrata and dharman). By rising to Mahas in himself he enters into direct touch with ideal Truth, gets truth of knowledge by drishti, sruti and smriti, the three grand ideal processes, and by that knowledge truth of being, truth of action (satyadharma), truth of bliss (satya-radhas) constituting amritam, swarajyam and samrajyam, immortality, self rule and mastery of the world. It is this evolution which the Vedic hymns are intended to assist.
(7) In his progress man is helped by the gods, resisted by the Asuras and Rakshasas. For the worlds behind have their own inhabitants, who, the whole universe being inextricably one, affect and are affected by the activities of mankind. The Bhuvar is the great place of struggle in which forces work behind the visible movements we see here and determine all our actions and fortunes. Swar is man’s resting place but not his final or highest habitation which is Vishnu’s highest footing, Vishnoh paramam padam, high in the supreme parardha.
(8) The 33 great gods belong to the higher worlds but rest in Swar and work at once in all the strata of consciousness, for the world is always one in its complexity. They are masters of the mental functions, masters also of the vital and material. Agni, for instance, governs the actions of the fiery elements in Nature and in man, but is also the vehicle of pure tapas, tu, tuvis or divine force. They are therefore mankind’s greatest helpers.
(9) But in order that they may help, it is necessary to reinforce them in these lower worlds, which are not their own, by selfsurrender, by sacrifice, by a share in all man’s action, strength, being and bliss, and by this mutual help man’s being physical, vital, mental, spiritual is kept in a state of perfect and ever increasing force, energy and joy favourable to the development of immortality. This is the process of Yajna, called often Yoga when applied exclusively to the subjective movements and adhwara when applied to the objective. The Vritras, Panis etc of the Bhuvarloka who are constantly preventing man’s growth and throwing back his development, have to be attacked and slain by the gods, for they are not entirely immortal. The sacrifice is largely a battle between evolutionary and reactionary powers.
(10) A symbolic system of external sacrifice in which every movement is careful[ly]designed and coordinated to signify the subjective facts of the internal Yajna, aids the spiritual aspirant by moulding his material sheath into harmony with his internal life and by mastering his external surroundings so that there too the conditions and forces may be all favourable to his growth.
(11) The Yajna has two parts, mantra and tantra – subjective and objective; in the outer sacrifice the mantra is the Vedic hymn and the tantra the oblation; in the inner the mantra is the meditation or the sacred formula, the tantra the putting forth of the power generated by mantra to bring about some successful spiritual, intellectual, vital or mental activity of which the gods have their share.
(12) The mantra consists of gayatra, brahma and arka, the formulation of thought into rhythmic speech to bring about a spiritual force or result, the filling of the soul (brahma) with the idea and name of the god of the mantra, the use of the mantra for effectuation of the external object or the activity desired.
(13) The tantra is composed of neshtra, savanam, potra and hotra, the intensifying of the vasu or material (internal or external) so as to prepare it for activity, the production of it in a usable form, the purification of it from all defects and the offering of it to the god or for action.
(14) The Veda proper is karmakanda, not jnanakanda; its aim is not moksha, but divine fulfilment in this life and the next. Therefore the Vedic Rishis accepted plenty and fullness of physical, vital and mental being, power, and joy as the pratistha or foundation of immortality and did not reject it as an obstacle to salvation. It is supposed that in the Kaliyuga this is no longer possible, or possible only by direct selfsurrender to the Supreme Deity. Therefore the complexity of the Vedic system has been removed from the domain of our religious practice and in its place there has been increasingly substituted the worship of the Supreme Deity through Love.
(15) The world being one in all its parts every being in it contains the universe in himself. Especially do the great gods contain all the others and their activities in [themselves], so that Agni, Varuna, Indra, all of them are in reality one sole-existent deity in many forms. Man too is He, but he has to fulfil himself here as man, yet divine (that being his vrata and dharma) through the puissant means provided for him [by]the Veda.”6
1. Sri Aurobindo Archives and Research, Issue April 1977, p.31, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
2. Sri Aurobindo Archives and Research, Issue Dec. 1985, p.152, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
3. Sri Aurobindo Archives and Research, Issue Dec. 1984, pp.132-33, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
4. Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.15, pp.17-18, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
5. Ibid, pp.59-60
6. Sri Aurobindo Archives and Research, Issue April 1984, pp.25-28, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry