A. The Root of the Problem: The European Misunderstanding of Indian Literature and, Based on it, of Its Society, History, Polity, Religion and Culture
B. The Basic Reason Behind the Tendency of the Western or Westernized Mentality to Look at the Epics and Puranas as Senseless and Barbaric Fiction
According to Sri Aurobindo “…the Indian mind is always compelled by its master impulse to reduce all its experience of life to the corresponding spiritual term and factor and the result was a transfiguring of even these most external things into a basis for new spiritual experience. The emotional, the sensuous, even the sensual motions of the being, before they could draw the soul farther outward, were taken and transmuted into a psychical form and, so changed, they became the elements of a mystic capture of the Divine through the heart and the senses and a religion of the joy of God’s love, delight and beauty. In the Tantra the new elements are taken up and assigned their place in a complete psycho-spiritual and psycho-physical science of Yoga. Its popular form in the Vaishnava religion centres round the mystic apologue of the pastoral life of the child Krishna.”1 As a result of this tendency there is a mixture of facts, tradition, psychic experiences as well as history in the Puranas which, according to Sri Aurobindo, “are essentially a true religious poetry, an art of aesthetic presentation of religious truth.”2 The Puranas and Tantras “contain in themselves the highest spiritual and philosophical truths, not broken up and expressed in opposition to each other as in the debates of the thinkers, but synthetised by a fusion, relation or grouping in the way most congenial to the catholicity of the Indian mind and spirit. This is done sometimes expressly, but most often in a form which might carry something of it to the popular imagination and feeling by legend, tale, symbol, apologue, miracle and parable. An immense and complex body of psycho-spiritual experience is embodied in the Tantras, supported by visual images and systematised in forms of Yogic practice. This element is also found in the Puranas, but more loosely and cast out in a less strenuous sequence. This method is after all simply a prolongation, in another form and with a temperamental change, of the method of the Vedas. The Puranas construct a system of physical images and observances each with its psychical significance. Thus the sacredness of the confluence of the three rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati, is a figure of an inner confluence and points to a crucial experience in a psychophysical process of Yoga and it has too other significances, as is common in the economy of this kind of symbolism. The so-called fantastic geography of the Puranas, as we are expressly told in the Puranas themselves, is a rich poetic figure, a symbolic geography of the inner psychical universe. The cosmogony expressed sometimes in terms proper to the physical universe has, as in the Veda, a spiritual and psychological meaning and basis. It is easy to see how in the increasing ignorance of later times the more technical parts of the Puranic symbology inevitably lent themselves to much superstition and to crude physical ideas about spiritual and psychic things. But that danger attends all attempts to bring them to the comprehension of the mass of men and this disadvantage should not blind us to the enormous effect produced in training the mass mind to respond to a psycho-religious and psycho-spiritual appeal that prepares a capacity for higher things.”3
In the deeper view of our own past that emerges from the work of Sri Aurobindo shows that “the Puranic religions are only a new form and extension of the truth of the ancient spirituality and philosophy and socio-religious culture. In their avowed intention they are popular summaries of the cosmogony, symbolic myth and image, tradition, cult, social rule of the Indian people continued, as the name Purana signifies, from ancient times. There is no essential change, but only a change of forms. The psychic symbols or true images of truth belonging to the Vedic age disappear or are relegated to a subordinate plan with a changed and diminished sense: others take their place more visibly large in aim, cosmic, comprehensive, not starting with conceptions drawn from the physical universe, but supplied entirely from the psychic universe within us. The Vedic gods and goddesses conceal from the profane by their physical aspect their psychic and spiritual significance. The Puranic trinity and the forms of its female energies have on the contrary no meaning to the physical mind or imagination, but are philosophic and psychic conceptions and embodiments of the unity and multiplicity of the all-manifesting Godhead. The Puranic cults have been characterised as a degradation of the Vedic religion, but they might conceivably be described, not in the essence, for that remains always the same, but in the outward movement, as an extension and advance. Image worship and temple cult and profuse ceremony, to whatever superstition or externalism their misuse may lead, are not necessarily a degradation. The Vedic religion had no need of images, for the physical signs of its godheads were the forms of physical Nature and the outward universe was their visible house. The Puranic religion worshipped the psychical forms of the Godhead within us and had to express it outwardly in symbolic figures and house it in temples that were an architectural sign of cosmic significances. And the very inwardness it intended necessitated a profusion of outward symbol to embody the complexity of these inward things to the physical imagination and vision. The religious aesthesis has changed, but the meaning of the religion has been altered only in temperament and fashion, not in essence. The real difference is this that the early religion was made by men of the highest mystic and spiritual experience living among a mass still impressed mostly by the life of the physical universe: the Upanishads casting off the physical veil created a free transcendent and cosmic vision and experience and this was expressed by a later age to the mass in images containing a large philosophical and intellectual meaning of which the Trinity and the Shaktis of Vishnu and Shiva are the central figures: the Puranas carried forward this appeal to the intellect and imagination and made it living to the psychic experience, the emotions, the aesthetic feeling and the senses. A constant attempt to make the spiritual truths discovered by the Yogin and the Rishi integrally expressive, appealing, effective to the whole nature of man and to provide outward means by which the ordinary mind, the mind of a whole people might be drawn to a first approach to them is the sense of the religio-philosophic evolution of Indian culture.”4 A modern intellectual scholar who, being rooted in the sense mentality, is unaware – as practically most are – of the profound object and the complex nature and method of the Puranas and the Epics and their unique approach to the Spirit – will find them – when he approaches them in the spirit of intellectual criticism to gather facts on history, polity, society and religion – almost entirely unintelligible and full of senseless and barbaric imagination. Thus the aversion towards them and treatment of them as almost pure fiction by the modern scholars oriental or occidental is quite understandable even without any other motive and cultural differences entering into the account. The basic reason is the impoverished modern mentality’s imprisonment into the surface appearances of things and, as a result, its tendency to mistake such appearances for reality.
In the Indian spiritual tradition it has been known from times immemorial that the picture of the world as perceived and presented to us by the Manas using the senses and its own direct perception is not at all reliable. And this unreliability extends equally to all the superstructure of thinking and understanding built on this deceptive base. This whole thing is such a mixed and distorted image of the true truth of existence that it led the Vedic seers to openly declare that the apparent facts of sensation and experience are deceptive and full of falsehoods. As a result, when rooted in sense mentality, the central idea of life and ourselves from which we start is a sheer falsehood and all else is falsified by it. All our thoughts, feelings and actions spring from a surface consciousness which is a mixture of the predominant element of the huge falsehoods of our subconscient sense-mentality – with the Inconscient at its base – and an element of the Truth arriving through the deeper and higher levels of our being. The former is the seat of hostile beings termed Asuras, Rakshasas and Pisachas in the Epics and the Puranas and the latter are the seats of what are termed Devas or gods and along with these there are some other kinds of beings termed Gandharvas, Yakshas and Kinnaras whose seats lie somewhere in-between. All these beings and the planes they belong to were real to the subtle perception and sight of the ancient Indian seers (Rishis). Yoga enabled the Rishis to get inside the object by dissolving the artificial barriers of the bodily experience and the mental ego-sense in the observer and thus get over the great stumbling block that has stood in the way of the materialistic science – the inability to get inside its object and, therefore, the necessity of building inferences from external study. Or, in other words, all ordinary modern sciences are dependent, almost exclusively, on the use of indirect contact as the means of knowledge which is the lowest of the three means of knowledge – the knowledge through indirect contact, through direct contact and through identity. The free and unhindered use of the latter two is not possible without an entry into the higher, deeper and vaster layers of our being termed the subliminal by Sri Aurobindo. Yoga took the Rishis out of the hold of personal experience and cast them into the great universal currents; took them out of the personal mind sheath and made them one with universal self and universal mind and prepared them to break into the Transcendent. The Rishis clearly saw that the main purpose of human life was to journey towards Truth, Light and Immortality from the normal human condition of Falsehood, Darkness and Death and were moved from within to chart the route and guide all those who aspired – the so called Aryans – to undertake this great journey which has been the real object of the Veda and Vedanta and all the sacred literature of India.
The purpose of Indian religious and spiritual poetry in the Epics and Puranas has been to give expression to the integral Truth – which gets fragmented when approached through intellect – of the Divine by the means of rich and profound psychological images expressed in the forms of legend, tale, symbol, apologue, miracle, cult, social rule, tradition, etc. A historical element is also often implicit and often comes out clearly as it does in the Puranas in the form of genealogies – even though there is often an admixture of other elements even in these. Even in the Epics which are explicitly termed Itihasas, there is this admixture and the historical element is not easily extricable because, as pointed out by Sri Aurobindo in one of his talks, “The poet was not writing history, he was only writing poetry. He may have got his materials from the psychic intuitive plane, and from his own imagination, or from the psycho-mental or any other plane.
Disciple: I have a question. The poet describes the form of Sri Krishna. Now, is it the description of his psychic body or his physical body — because we see that form of his in our own psychic vision even today.
Sri Aurobindo: What on earth does it matter whether he lived on the physical plane or not? If the thing is true on the psychic and spiritual plane it is all that matters. As long as you find Krishna as a divine Power on the psychic, or on the spiritual plane nothing else matters. He is true for us. The physical is merely the shadow of the psychic.”5
The disciple wanted to know “whether the incidents related by the poet about Krishna’s life are psychic representations or do they present facts that occurred during his lifetime?
Sri Aurobindo: What do you mean by that?
Disciple: For instance, the killing of the Asuras — the Titans.
Sri Aurobindo: From the reading of the description itself you can know whether the act of killing is a physical fact or not. You can’t take everything physically. There is a mixture of facts, tradition and psychic experience as well as history.”6
It is entirely understandable that when faced with such a literature – which still remains the only real source of ancient Indian history beyond 500 B.C. – the European historians and their Indian protégés – the so called Macauley’s children – would throw up their arms in despair and put aside such a source to look for other sources such as the account of the foreign travellers, inscriptions, coins, archaeological excavations, etc. – most of which do not go much beyond 500 B.C. – to serve as a more reliable basis for generating historical accounts. However, on a close scrutiny of these one finds that, in the field of the history of ancient India, these sources have been so much prone to the error of misinterpretation, misrepresentation and misplacement that they have provided a fertile ground for a play of conjecture, fancy, speculation and presumption to the historians. A scholar can, in good conscience, use these sources to assure himself – and those who share his inclination – of the genuineness and correctness of his own cherished or preferred version of the character and sequence of events. This becomes apparent to anyone who cares to dig a little deeper into this field and finds that each historian has had, behind the outer display of genuine objectivity – something impossible for any man to achieve given the inherent fundamental subjectivity of his perceptions and which can, therefore, deceive no one with a deeper perception – his own inclination and way of looking and understanding and with all his skills uses the available or dug up evidence to justify and prove it. In truth, as Sri Aurobindo points out, the problem is very deep-rooted and basic and there is always the danger of one’s intellectual predilections thrusting out Truth. “Logic claims & even honestly attempts to get rid of predilection and to see things in the sure light of truth, but it is not equal to its task; our nature is full of subtle disguises and, the moment we form an opinion, attaches itself to it & secretly takes it under its protection under pretence of an exclusive attachment to Truth or a militant zeal for reason & the right opinion. We come to our subject with a predisposition towards a particular kind of solution established either in our feelings, in our previous education & formed ways of thinking or in our temperament & very cast of character. We seize passionately or we select deliberately & reasonably the arguments that favour our conclusion; we reject, whether with impatience or after scrupulous & fair attention, the arguments that would shake it. Logic, a malleable & pliant servitor behind all its air of dry & honest rigidity, asks only that it should be provided with suitable premises, unsuitable premises excluded or explained away, & its conscience is entirely satisfied. We perform the comedy with perfect sincerity, but it is still a comedy which Nature plays with us; our garb of intellectual stoicism has concealed from ourselves, the epicure of his own dish of thoughts, the mind enamoured of its favourite ideas. Shankara comes to the Upanishads with a judgment already formed; he is an Adwaitin, his temperament predisposes him to Mayavada. But the Sruti does not contain the Mayavada, at least explicitly; it does contain, side by side with the fundamental texts of Adwaita, a mass of texts which foster the temper & views of the Dualist. But the Sruti is the supreme & infallible authority; it contains nothing but truth; it can inculcate, therefore, nothing but Adwaita. Obviously, then, these dualistic texts must have a meaning & a bearing different from their surface meaning or their apparent bearing; it is Shankara’s business, as a commentator in search of truth, to put always the right, that is to say always the Adwaitic interpretation on Sruti. Watch him then seize the text in his mighty hands and, with a swift effort, twist & shape & force it to assume a meaning or a bearing which will either support or at least be consistent with Adwaita, – a giant victoriously wrestling with & twisting into a shape a mass of obstinate iron! There is no insincerity in the process, rather the fervour of a too passionate sincerity. Still, Truth often veils her face with a tear or a smile, when Shankara comments on the Sruti. He is the greatest; the others are not likely to escape from the snare into which he casts himself headlong. Nor do I think the philosopher has yet been born who has escaped from these original meshes of intellectual preference, predestined belief & ineffugable personal temperament.”7
Thus, however great the appearance of objectivity, the constructed web of sequences and their supporting “facts” is always, at its roots, almost entirely subjective. For example, in the English translation of the Minor Rock Edict of Asoka by the celebrated historian Vincent A. Smith we find, “Thus saith his Sacred Majesty:–
For more than two years and a half I was a lay disciple, without, however, exerting myself strenuously. But it is more than a year since I joined the Order and have exerted myself strenuously. During that time the gods who were regarded as true all over India have been shown to be untrue.
For this is the fruit of exertion. Nor is this to be attained by great man only, because even by the small man who exerts himself immense heavenly bliss may be won.”8 The underlined portion gives the impression that Asoka found the gods of the Hindu Brahminical tradition to be false – a thing very pleasing to the Christian Missionary Spirit.
The same (underlined) passage translated by Parameshwarilal Gupta conveys that during this period those who were opposed to gods have been turned into devotees. A translation of the same Minor Rock Edict I by V.S. Dhammika reads, “But now that I have visited the Sangha for more than a year, I have become very zealous. Now the people in India who have not associated with the gods do so.”9 How different from V.A Smith is the message that one gets from the above two.
The value of a person’s work depends much more on the depths and heights of his seat of subjectivity from which he perceives than on the capacities of his outer instrument through which it is expressed. With a much greater availability and easier accessibility – thanks to the Internet – of the old and new found source materials, this tendency – of almost an exclusive dependence on the outer instrument – has increased considerably and an increasing number of Indian scholars are beginning to question, even at their roots, the commonly accepted views of India’s past based on the work of nineteenth and twentieth century European scholarship. For example, contrary to the established view, professor Dikshitar, an eminent historian from Chennai had come to a startling conclusion in his book on The Mauryan Polity that “the extant Arthasastra is genuine work of the chancellor of Chandragupta Maurya and that neither Asoka was a Buddhist nor Chandragupta a Jain.”10 One cannot be moved too much, one way or the other, by such surface intellectual excursions – or even by a whole galaxy of such as these which one finds in this field – in our ancient past if one wishes to dig deeper. Even though they are increasing, the dissenting voices such as the one above are still not heeded in the established official circles of Indian history where the stamp that the prestige, the resourcefulness and colossal labours of the European scholarship had put on it during the nineteenth and the early part of the twentieth century when the country was in no position to subject it to any scrutiny, still remains practically uneffaced even though it was all along the product of what Sri Aurobindo has termed, “the Teutonic sin of forming a theory in accordance with their prejudices and then finding facts or manufacturing inferences to support it.”11
In the nineteenth century the subject people were told what kind of ignoble past they have had and what their founding fathers had been like. Sri Aurobindo commenting on the labours of the European scholars on the Veda, made the following remark, “The old Rishis are revealed to us as a race of ignorant and lusty barbarians who drank & enjoyed and fought, gathered riches & procreated children, sacrificed and praised the Powers of Nature as if they were powerful men & women, and had no higher hope or idea. The only idea they had of religion beyond an occasional sense of sin and perpetual preoccupation with a ritual barbarously encumbered with a mass of meaningless ceremonial details, was a mythology composed of the phenomena of dawn, night, rain, sunshine and harvest and the facts of astronomy converted into a wildly confused & incoherent mass of allegorical images and personifications. Nor, with the European interpretation can we be proud of our early forefathers as poets and singers. The versification of the Vedic hymns is indeed noble and melodious, – though the incorrect method of writing them established by the old Indian scholars, often conceals their harmonious construction, – but no other praise can be given. The Nibelungenlied, the Icelandic Sagas, the Kalewala[,] the Homeric poems, were written in the dawn of civilisation by semibarbarous races, by poets not superior in culture to the Vedic Rishis ; yet though their poetical value varies, the nations that possess them, need not be ashamed of their ancient heritage. The same cannot be said of the Vedic poems presented to us by European scholarship. Never surely was there even among savages such a mass of tawdry, glittering, confused & purposeless imagery; never such an inane & useless burden of epithets; never such slipshod & incompetent writing; never such a strange & almost insane incoherence of thought & style; never such a bald poverty of substance. The attempt of patriotic Indian scholars to make something respectable out of the Veda, is futile. If the modern interpretation stands, the Vedas are no doubt of high interest & value to the philologist, the anthropologist & the historian; but poetically and spiritually they are null and worthless. Its reputation for spiritual knowledge & deep religious wealth, is the most imposing & baseless hoax that has ever been worked upon the imagination of a whole people throughout many millenniums. Is this, then, the last word about the Veda? Or, and this is the idea I write to suggest, is it not rather the culmination of a long increasing & ever progressing error? The theory this book is written to enunciate & support is simply this, that our forefathers of early Vedantic times understood the Veda, to which they were after all much nearer than ourselves, far better than Sayana, far better than Roth & Max Muller, that they were, to a great extent, in possession of the real truth about the Veda, that that truth was indeed a deep spiritual truth, karmakanda as well as jnanakanda of the Veda contains an ancient knowledge, a profound, complex & well ordered psychology & philosophy, strange indeed to our modern conception, expressed indeed in language still stranger & remoter from our modern use of language, but not therefore either untrue or unintelligible, and that this knowledge is the real foundation of our later religious developments, & Veda, not only by historical continuity, but in real truth & substance is the parent & bedrock of all later Hinduism, of Vedanta, Sankhya, Nyaya, Yoga, of Vaishnavism & Shaivism & Shaktism, of Tantra & Purana, even, in a remoter fashion, of Buddhism & the later unorthodox religions. From this quarry all have hewn their materials or from this far of source drawn unknowingly their waters …”12
According to Rajaram & Frawley (Vedic Aryans and origins of Civlization) the nineteenth century linguists indulged in a fatal fallacy. “They confused the linguistic age of the texts with the historical age of the contents. Since the language of the Rigveda is undeniably older than the language of the PurDKas, they assumed that the episodes found (or imagined) in the Rigveda necessarily had to be earlier than those found in the PurDKas. This can be compared to assuming the characters and episodes in Shakespeare’s history plays to be older than those described in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; after all Shakespeare’s English too is older than Gibbon’s. This is a perverse example of “linguification of history” introduced by nineteenth century philologists trying to be historians. They looked at everything with language-tinted glasses. The whole paradigm was erected on this colossal delusion. The result we know was chaos.
The fact of the matter is: Indian tradition does not recognize any history in the Rigveda; the Indian historical tradition is to be sought in the PurDKas and the epics, not the Vedas. The whole problem was created, as we have seen many times, when nineteenth century scholarship tried to interpret the Rigveda as a historical account of invading nomadic people called the Aryans. Indian tradition – the Vedas, the PurDKas and the epics – knows of no Aryan homeland but India. … a century of scholarship – Indian and Western – has been chasing a mirage looking for accounts of colonial wars of an invading people in the Rigveda. In other words, they sought an ancient replica of nineteenth century European colonization in the Rigveda. Finding none, they imagined one and called it the Aryan invasion.”13
- Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.20, p.376, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
- Ibid, p.375
- Ibid, p.374-75
- Ibid, p.372-74
- Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, p.380-81
- Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.17, pp.578-80, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
- The Edicts of Asoka, Vincent A. Smith, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1992, p.3
- The Edicts of King Asoka, Ven. S. Dhammika, Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc., p.14
- The Puranic Index Vol.1, V.R. Ramachandra Dikshitar, Motilal Banarsidas Publishers, 1995, back page
- Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.01, p.284, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
- Sri Aurobindo Archives and Research, Issue April 1985, pp.26-27, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
- Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilization, Rajaram, N.S. & Frawley, David, Voice of India, 2001, pp.233-34