An Introduction to the Vedas

(by Nolini Kanta Gupta)


What is it that we call Veda? It is already known to us that the vedas are the perennial fount of Indian culture and education, the foundation of Hinduism and the basis of the Aryan civilisation. He who defies Veda is an atheist, a non-Hindu, an untouchable and a non-Aryan. All the various religious systems and scriptures of the Hindus look upon the Veda as the sole authority. What is inconsistent with the Veda is false and unacceptable. It is no hyperbole to say that all our scriptures are but elaborate commentaries on the Veda. Even men of revolutionary ideas who want to preach some new doctrines have not the courage to stand against the Vedas face to face. They try to find out passages in support of their views or interpret the Vedas in their own light or at least declare that the Vedas neither refute nor confirm their views.

Hinduism is the most catholic of all the religions. It is the most complex and diverse. It has housed peacefully a good many different creeds. And for all these esoteric mysteries the Vedas are solely to be credited. The message of the Vedic Rishi Dirghatamas has inspired the Hindus and the heart of India through aeons. That message is still as familiar and living as ever. (Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti - The one Truth has been expressed differently by different seers.) The Gayatri Mantra which has become as natural as the air we breathe in and breathe out was first sung by the immortal sage Viswamitra of the Veda. Even in the 20th century we follow the injunctions of the Vedic seers in conducting the ten principal functions of our social life right from our birth to death.

Therefore, according to us, the Veda is as immutable and sempiternal as the supreme Brahman. The root meaning of the term "Brahman" is the Word, the Word inspired. Hence the Veda is eternally true from the birth of the creation to the present age. Nobody has created the Vedas, nor could anybody do it, not even the Rishis. The seers simply heard them with a supernatural faculty of hearing and saw them written before their mental vision; whereafter they arranged them in a systematic manner. That is why the Veda is no human creation. The staunch Hindus subscribe to this view.

Can we look upon the Vedas as the Christians look upon the Bible and the Mohammnedans the Koran? All the epithets that we apply to the Vedas are equally applied by the Christians and the Mohammedans to their respective holy scriptures. And it is no wonder that every nation should extol its own scripture to the skies. But it behoves us to ascertain the value of the Vedas impartially. We must discover whether it is true that they deserve to be called an infallible and supernatural creation.

It is a need of the hour to investigate the contents of the Vedas. The Europeans are to be credited with having stared this bold enquiry. Such enquiry has been termed 'Higher Criticism' in Europe. It applies not only to the Vedas, but to their own scriptures as well. It is the inherent characteristic of the Europeans not to accept anything without putting it to a severe test at every step. They are not prepared to accept anything on the ground that it has been handed down from generation to generation. Needless to say that the value of such a habit is incalculable. And to our misfortune we lost this habit long ago. In the present age we take pride in the mere mention of the Vedas without caring to know about their contents. We should remain beholden to the Europeans that a new wave from the West has awakened us to a true spirit of enquiry.

It is quite surprising that very few people in India have any acquaintance with the Vedas. Most have not been fortunate enough even to have a glimpse of this mighty work. But the fate of the Bible has been otherwise in europe. The common run of people in India were satisfied with the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. And the learned few concerned themselves with the Upanishads and the six systems of philosophy. Even Rammohan Roy who infused the Hindus with a new spirit and light could not go beyond the domain of the Upanishads. Besides, the few who engaged themselves in a discussion of the Vedas confined themselves more to the commentaries on the Vedas than the Vedas proper. The grammar of Panini, Nirukta, the science of derivation of meanings from the roots, Mimamsa, the commentaries on the Vedas and, above all, the commentaries made by Sayana Acharya made it so difficult to understand the text of the Vedas that it looked like the peak of a mountain that could hardly be reached through deep and intricate forests. Whenever we heard the name of the Veda, we used to give wide berth to it with reverential awe. Our object here is not to discuss who or what is responsible for such a pass but simply to make a plain statement of the bare fact.

Europe made bold to launch an assault on this inaccessible fortress. There is no reason why the Europeans should have the same feeling of reverence as is aroused in our hearts at the mere mention of the Vedas. To them the Veda is but an ancient human product. They did not approach it to derive any cultural benefit from it. All that they wanted was to make themselves acquainted with the Aryan Hindus. The nebulous veil that existed round the Vedas was rent and set aside by them and they replaced it with the daylight of modern thought. We shall later on deal with what followed their rash attempt, but it must be admitted at the very outset that, inspired by their example, the Hindus mustered courage to delve into the Vedas. And what did the European scholars, freed from bias, discover? They found that the unusual reverence of the Hindus for these scriptures was simply due to the traditional superstition devoid of any rational cause. According to them, the Vedas are the first attempt of man at literature. They are a mere collection of pastoral songs comparable to the lispings of a baby. Man in his uncultured and innocent state used to feel every object infused with life and imagined spirits behind the forces of Nature. Therefore he prayed to Indra and Varuna for rain, to the Sun for its rays of light. Frightened by the hurricane and storm he would implore the Maruts for safety, and charmed by the soothing beauty of Dawn he would sing her eulogy.

The gods and demons imagined by the naive and simple mind possessed miraculous powers - prompted by such notions men used to convey their salutations to those mighty Beings, ask them for their daily necessities, material prosperity, and welfare in the other world after death. Cows and horses were the chief means of their livelihood. So they prayed for cows yielding abundant milk and horses possessing dynamic strength and energy. They used to fight among themselves - one clan against another - and specially against the robbers who were the Dravidians of ancient India, while they were the Aryans who had come from abroad. Hence they needed arms and weapons and they naturally wanted to defeat the enemy. And that is why they sought the help of the gods for victory.

They used to perform some special rites known as a sacrifice, in which they would arrange on an altar some dried sticks of holy trees in a particular formation and kindle a fire in which to pour oblations of clarified butter and many other good things. They offered wine (the juice of soma) to the gods and partook of it themselves. It seems, fire was to them a new discovery. That is why they appreciated its value so much. Moreover, they lived in a frigid snowy region. Hence they looked upon the fire as the chief Deity of their worship.

So far we have dealt with the Western approach to the Veda. Now let us turn our attention to the Indian view of the Veda. Acharya Sayana is the foremost scholar to whom the current Indian view owes its origin. He made a commentary on the whole of the Rigveda. But for his commentary it is doubtful if the European scholars would have succeeded in deriving any meaning from the abstruse, old and unfamiliar language of this scripture. As a matter of fact, the commentaries made by the Western scholars are principally based on his commentary. However, he did not consider the Vedic seers to be mere children or men at their primitive stage. Nor did he lay any stress on the explanation based on the sights and scenes of physical Nature. He observed and understood the Veda from the standpoint of sacrificial rites. He endeavoured to discover from the Veda the nature of sacrifice and a full account of the ceremonies to be performed in a sacrifice. The performance of sacrifice is a part of the spiritual life and its aim is to bring about soulprogress and welfare here and hereafter. The gods dwell in a world known as Heaven. The forces of Nature are backed by their powers. A particular god presides over a particular force of Nature. All the gods are combined in the Universal God, and all the gods are only the different manifestations of the same Universal God. It is the power of the gods which endows men with power, and men too on their part propitiate the gods through their sacrifices offered to them. The gods are satisfied with and nourished by men's humble obeisance and their offering of Soma Rasa, while men in their turn attain to prosperity in this world and secure a better status in the other world.

Indians, who have received modern education, have been trying to synthesize the commentaries of the Western and Eastern scholars on the Veda. Their object is to portray the picture of a society not quite primitive but somewhat primary, by uniting the interpretations based on natural phenomena and sacrificial rites.

If this view was considered as giving the real nature of the Veda, the question would arise: how could the Veda be regarded as the foundation of the Aryan genius and the fount of the civilisation and culture of Hindu India? If the Veda were nothing save nursery rhymes and the like, then how could it exert a lasting influence on our minds and life through centuries? The Bible and the Koran contain some eternal truths beneficial to the life and conduct of men for all time. But according to the naturalistic interpretation of the Western scholars and the sacrificial explanation offered by our orthodox scholars, there is no such elevation or lasting truth in the Veda. Are we then to suppose that our reverence for the Veda owes its origin merely to a blind acceptance of a tradition down the sweep of centuries? Our present culture and civilisation differs widely from that of our forefathers. How is it that we have still a profound admiration for the Veda? Is it precisely because the veda serves as the root of our cultural tree adorned with a myriad branches, with foliage, flowers and fruits? No, the supreme authority of the veda has not been recognised out of mere courtesy. The Shruti has been the sheet-anchor of our guidance at every step and in every activity of our day-to-day life.

Here arises the second question. The Western and modern scholars are prone to make a difference between the Veda and the Shruti. According to them, the term Shruti is synonymous with the Upanishad and not with the Veda proper. But what is it that we actually find in the Upanishad that is considered by al scholars, oriental and occidental, as the repository of knowledge of the highest order? The Upanishad has been studied much more than the Veda in India and abroad. The reason is this that the ideas and language of the Upanishad are simpler than those of the Veda, and also more familiar to modern thought. The Upanishad is free from all the intricacies of sacrificial rites, ceremonies and obscure mantras, etc. It deals precisely with the clear realised truths that form the basis of the philosophical doctrines. That is why the Europeans hold that the Upanishad comes in as a reaction and protest against the Veda. Towards the end of the Vedic era the Aryan Hindus bade farewell to their cult of Nature-worship and sacrifices and turned towards the quest of God and metaphysical truths and thus a new era was ushered in. Now, on what ground do the European scholars make such an assertion as regards the historical development of Indian thought? As a matter of fact, we do notice that every teacher of Philosophy whenever he has cited anything from the Upanishad has also tried to corroborate it with a similar quotation from the Veda for its justification. There is no iota of proof that the Upanishad held any view contrary to that of the Veda or ever contradicted it. The Upanishad is the culmination of or a complement to the Veda. Since the advent of the dialectic philosopher Hegel it has become a fashion among Western scholars to find an antitheses in every field of historical truth. From their own history they come to learn that Christianity arose as a revolt against the idolatry of the Romans, again Martin Luther and Protestantism stood out against the Roman Catholic Church. Likewise they are, as it were, eager to discover a revolt in the religious history of India. It is not that such a spirit of antitheses is altogether absent in the history of Indian religions, but it is utterly meaningless to say that this antitheses exists as between the Veda and the Upanishad as well. In fact, the Upanishad has always approached the Veda most reverentially and hardly failed to mention: "This we heard from the ancient sages who had explained it to us."

Besides in the current commentaries on the Veda we come across explanations which are at places self-contradictory, inconsistent, lacking in clarity, fanciful and arbitrary. The same word has been used at different places to convey different meanings without any justification, and also at times the commentators have been constrained to keep silent or to confess that they could make neither head nor tail of a passage, a sentence or a word. For instance, the word ghrta (clarified butter) has been explained as jala (water) and the word water has been used for antariksa (ether) and the word vyoman (either ) has been interpreted as prthivi (earth). That is why in the interpretations of Sayana or Ramesh Dutta, in spite of their supplying synonyms of words, a passage taken as a whole appears to be quite odd, confusing and utterly meaningless. One is at a loss to know whiter one should indulge in laughter or shed tears over such a performance. It may be argued that the Veda was written in a remote antiquity, hence much of its archaic language is not likely to be understood by men of the present age. It is enough on our part to be able to form a general idea of it. But when one has to resort to a makeshift hocus-pocus even for gathering this general idea, then it becomes quite clear that there must have been some serious blunder somewhere. If it were possible to get the general idea of the Veda quite easily, then all the interpreters would necessarily have pursued it. But unfortunately in the present age we find that besides the sacrificial and naturalistic interpretations there are historical (by Abinash Chandra Das), geographical (by Umesh Chandra Vidyaratna), astronomical (by Tilak), scientific (by Paramasiva Aiyar) and even an interpretation based on Chemistry (by Narayan Gaur) and so on and so forth. Many minds, many ways: nowhere else may this oft-quoted adage be so aptly applied as in the case of the multifarious interpretations of the Veda. A few portions of the Veda that had appealed to an interpreter most in accordance with his own bent of mind gave him the impetus to endeavour to interpret the whole of the Veda in that light. The result has been that the same sloka has been interpreted in ever so many ways. But none of these interpreters has even attempted interpreting the whole or the major portion of the Veda. From this we can dare conclude that the key to the proper interpretation of the Vedic mysteries has not hitherto been found. All are but groping in the dark.


What is then the proper way to be followed for the right understanding of the Vedas? We have in this respect, to adopt the same principle which forms the key to all ancient literatures. We needs must be acquainted with the texts of the Vedas proper with an unbiased mind empty of all preconceived notions. The commentators, the annotators, the grammarians, the rhetoricians join, as it were, to create a world of confusion. Far from getting an access to the sanctum we get lost in wandering mazes. That is why we have been deprived of getting a first-hand knowledge of the Vedas. The commentators may be at most helpers. But if we attach too much importance to their commentaries, it will inevitably turn them into an obstacle. First, it is of paramount importance to know the central idea of the Vedas, the viewpoint of the Rishis. The help of the commentators and the annotators may may be necessary later on when we go into details. Needless to say that if we get into the bitter controversies of commentators, we are sure to be deadly confused. So at the very outset we have to be acquainted with the bare texts of the Vedas. This method is applicable to all literatures. We must read poetry in the original in order to appreciate its true spirit, leaving aside all criticisms on it. For, men endowed with the power of true appreciation of poetry are rarely found in the present generation. We are more familiar with the commentaries on the works of Shakespeare and Kalidasa than with their originals.

However, to be at home in the central theme of the Vedas, the method that we should follow is: to proceed from the known to the unknown. In the Vedic texts we often come across some important words that admit of no ambiguity. With the help of the obvious meanings of these words we have to find out the implications of the words partly obscure or totally obscure. In the Vedas there are such mantras (incantations), sentences and words in abundance which reflect modern ideas and appear quite familiar to the present-day intellect. It is at once advisable and reasonable to accept such self-evident meanings. It is of no avail to leave aside such clear meanings and seek out roundabout abstruse meanings on the ground that what we are dealing with are the Vedas, the writings of hoary antiquity. Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti (The one Truth is expressed differently by the men of knowledge) or, tat Visno param padam..diviva caksuratatam (That is the supreme Status of Vishnu, as if an Eye wide open in the heavens) or, Brhaspathi prathamam jayamano maho jyotisha parame vyaman (Brihaspati being born first as a great Light in the supreme Heaven ) - the meanings of these words are by no means obscure or ambiguous. The meanings as well as the ideas with which these words are infused are quite plain and clear enough. These expressions convey no indication of the lisping of the babe or an aborigine or an uncultured mind or even a ritualistic mind. Here we find expressions of a mature mind enlightened with knowledge flowing from a profound realisation of Truth. Neither the befitting rhythm nor rhyme is missing. Further,

Codayitri sunrtanam cetanti sumatinam
yajnam dadhe sarasvati.
Maho arnah sarasvati pra cetayati ketuna
dhiyo visva vi rajati. (I.3.11,12)

"She, the impeller to happy truths, the awakener in consciousness to right mentalisings, Saraswati, upholds the sacrifice.

"Saraswati, by the perception awakens in consciousness the great flood (the vast movement of the rtam) and illumines entirely all the thoughts." (Translated by Sri Aurobindo)

In this instance too the fundamental idea is not something very abstruse. It is commonsense that the theme is related to the experience of Truth, the spiritual realisation and psychological concept. Acharya Sayana was at sea to interpret these few skokas in the light of natural phenomena and sacrificial ceremonies, so much so that he provokes our laughter as well as a sense of pity. We know Saraswati as the Deity of knowledge. So it is natural that the words shiyavasuh (one whose wealth consists of pure intellect), dhiyo visvah (universal intellect), or words like sumati (right movements of thought ) should be applicable to Saraswati. The word dhi (pure intellect) is well-known. But such an obvious meaning does not serve Sayana's purpose. So he used karma (action), i.e. the action of showering as a synonym for dhi. In another place concerning Mitra and Varuna it has been said that these two gods made up such dhi, as is ghrtacim, literally "besmeared with ghrta" (dhiyam ghrtacim sadhanta - 1.2.7). But according to the interpreter Sayana, the phrase dhiam ghrtacim means the rain that pours water! In some other context (1.14.6) Sayana himself says that the root ghr may also mean "to make something shine"; so the plain meaning of dhiyam ghrtacim is the "enlightened intellect". But Sayana preferred to interpret the word ghrta (lit. clarified butter) as water and rains. If we refer to the context where Sayana explains ghrta as "effulgence" it will be clearer to us that this effulgence is not even the physical external light; it refers to the inner illumination. There (1.14.6) Agni (fire) has been called 'one with a blazing front'; along with this adjective another adjective, namely manoyujah has also been used; it means that Agni has to be brought under control with the help of the mind. This very truth has been expressed elsewhere by the sage Vishwamitra: "Kindling the Vaishwanara fire with the aid of the mind." Agni is kavi-kratu. Sayana himself has explained the word kratu as making or action. We would like to call it the power of action - the Greek kratos. So kavi-kratu would mean one endowed with the power of action, the creative genius. It is well known that the Kavi, the poet, is a creator. The Veda has applied the epithet kavi to all the gods as well as to a man who has attained or realised the divine knowledge. Agnih kavikratuh means the dynamic power of vision. But this plain meaning amounts to a profound spiritual concept and ceases to be the fire with which we are familiar; that is why Sayana explains 'Kavi' as 'Kranta' - and 'Kavi-kratu' as the one who performs the action of sacrifice. We cite another instance. It is known to us all - I speak of the Gayatr Mantra: Tat saviturvarenyam Bhargo devasya dhimahi, dhiyo yo nah pracodayat. (Let our intelligence dwell on the beloved light of that creative godhead, the Sun who is the Creator, so that he may endow us with the right intelligence. Rigveda 3.62.10 ) It is clearly stated in the Upanishad: "Savitre satyaprasavaya" (the Sun is the origin of truth). Further, the sun of knowledge and the light of knowledge are not expressions unfamiliar to us. We always make use of such comparisons and allegories. If ever the Vedic sages made use of such a comparison, then has it to be regarded as something describing mere natural phenomena? Finally we cannot resist the temptation of quoting another instance. This will serve as a typical example as to what extent quite a simple idea can be twisted. And it will enable us to appreciate what a terrible injustice the Veda has to suffer at the hands of the commentators. The phrase amrtasya vani that is found in the Veda should convey to all the essence of the Veda. But do you know what meaning Sayana has ascribed to it? He has translated amrtasya vani (the message of immortality) as the current of water. Can we be at one with him? In fact, what we want to say is that the Veda is the expression of Yogic realisations, spiritual experiences, the knowledge of the ultimate Truth. It is thus that we can discover the fundamental concept and the esoteric mystery of the Veda. If we follow this course we shall find how easily and consistently the meaning of the whole Veda unfolds itself and becomes crystal-clear. No doubt, at places if we want to delve into the minutes detail, there will be occasions for uncertainty and confusion. But it will not prove an obstacle to the apprehension of the fundamental truths of the Veda provided we can rightly focus the attention of our intelligence on it. Can we not have any access to the Mahabharata because of Vyasakutas. [the knotty expressions devised by Vyasa]? Besides, if we admit the esoteric basis of the Veda, we still get a reasonable clue to the fact as to why the Veda is held in such high esteem in the culture and education of the Hindus.

1) When the sage Vyasa made a request to Ganesh to record his version of the Mahabharata, the latter agreed to do so on condition that he must not be made to stop his writing. The sage agreed provided Ganesh would not only write but understand his words. It is said that in order to gain time for composition the sage would use some knotty expressions so that Ganesh might take time to understand them.

The moment we enter into the Vedas we are confronted with a medley of confusions. Spirituality, philosophical ideas, mystic words,magic sentences, colourful phrases, physical images are scattered all around. Expressions of what appears to us as spiritual truths are housed there side by side with ceremonial, natural, historical, geographical, social, even chemical and other ideas. Now the question may arise as to which ideas are fundamental and which secondary, which are the roots, which the branches. The Western scholars are not at all prepared to countenance spiritual and philosophical implications in the Vedas, for they are afraid lest thereby their pet theories should be reduced to dust. They say that it is no wonder if in the course of Nature-worship when the Rishis were making prayers to the presiding Deities of Nature some expressions of philosophical ideas sprang from their lips. These scholars are of the opinion that the Rishis did not mean what they said. If we with our modern mind try to discover abstract and philosophical truths therein, then it will amount to an imposition of modern ideas on those of the Rishis of yore. However, they have not succeeded in giving a connected, systematic and plausible interpretation of the whole of the Veda. The great Max Müller is a striking example of the failure of this method. He had translated the word 'Paramahansa' by 'the great goose'! It is quite inevitable that such a word-for-word literal translation of the Veda would bring about no solution.

Sayana has given a ceremonial interpretation of the Veda. Nevertheless, he has not forbidden any other different interpretation. He has clearly admitted that a spiritual interpretation is quite possible. Not only that; at good many places he has appended alternative spiritual interpretations. Even at places where any other interpretation did not appear at all plausible, he has resorted solely to the spiritual interpretation. Be that as it may, Sayana was committed to the ceremonial interpretation. He made it a rule to bring in this interpretation in order to show how a particular sacrifice was to be performed; he has recourse to the Veda only to establish sacrificial ceremonies in society. In fact, he had a particular end in view in accordance with which he went along his way. Not only in Sayana, but also in the ancient book on Grammar, Nirukta, we come across traces of spiritual interpretation. Let us cite here only one instance: sarira-madhyavarti ... (Indra designated as the Knower of the field (nature), as Life that resides in the body). This is one of the interpretations of the word 'Indra' given by the author of Nirukta.

But as a matter of fact, the Vedas are not merely literary works; they are aphorisms for spiritual practice. And he who is devoid of spiritual experiences has no right to meddle with the Vedas. What is imperatively necessary is the purification of the heart. We want to determine the meaning of the Vedic language through discussion and hair-splitting arguments, but we do not know, nor do we try to get at, the esoteric meaning of which the language is but the outer expression. We have long lost the spiritual practice on which the secrets of the Vedas are founded. So it is no wonder that this faculty of argument should lead us astray. This truth has already been declared by the Upanishad: naisa tarkena matirapaneya ("This wisdom cannot be gained by reasoning".)

In fact, first we must have an access to the Upanishads, then only can we hope to understand the esoteric truths of the Vedas. It is the Upanishads that can claim to be the first exposition of and commentary on the living ideas of the Vedas. The Upanishad is spiritual realisation, supraphysical experience, mystic perception and inner vision. The Katha Upanishad has clearly indicated: sarve veda yatpadamamananti ... 1) ("The seat or goal that all the Vedas glorify and which austerities declare, for the desire of which men practise holy living, of That will I tell thee in brief compass. OM is that goal, 0 Nachiketas." Translated by Sri Aurobindo) 1) Shankara has explained the words sarve vedda as "a portion of the Vedas", that is to say, the Upanishads. But how can sarve ("the whole") become a portion? Shankara considered the Vedas as something ceremonial, ritual and sacrificial. Hence he had to give a distorted explanation.

We have already said that the seers of the Upanishads have time and again cited the Vedic mantras while expounding their own philosophical truths. So it is quite reasonable if we place the Veda on the same footing with their spiritual philosophy and do not consider the former as something exclusively dealing with Nature and ceremonies. For example, dva suparna ... ("Two birds, beautiful of wing, close companions, cling to one common tree: of the two one eats the sweet fruit of the tree, the other eats not but watches his fellow." Translated by Sri Aurobindo). This sloka of the Mundaka Upanishad is bodily taken out of the mantras (1.164.20) of Dirghatamas, the Rishi of the Rigveda. Or take agne naya supatha...("O god Agni, knowing all things that are manifested, lead us by the good path to the felicity; remove from us the devious attraction of sin. To thee completest speech of submission we would dispose.") This last utterance of the Isha Upanishad derives from a mantra in the Rigveda. Rishi Agastya begins his Agni Sukta (Hymns to the Mystic fire) (1.189) with this mantra. Thus the Upanishads have made liberal use of innumerable Vedic mantras. No doubt, the Upanishads do not always exactly repeat the Vedic mantras. But even there the words and ideas are so similar that we find no difficulty in saying that they possess the same vision of the inner Self.

Vedaham etam purusam...("I know this Purusha, Supreme, of the Light of the Sun, beyond the darkness.") We all know that this is a famous utterance of the Upanishad. But do we know that it is a mere echo of the Vedic mantra udvayam tamasaspari...[1.50.10] ("We have seen the supreme Light beyond the darkness, we have attained the God amongst the gods, the Sun, the Supreme Light.")? or, hrda manisa...[katha upanishad] ("in the heart and the mind and the supermind He is seated"). A similar truth we find in the Veda also: hrdi pratisya...("The seers discerning Him in the heart by the supramental Intelligence"). Or Indraya manasa manisa pratnaya..[Rigveda 10.129.4] ("The thinkers purify their intellect by the mind for their Lord, the ancient Indra"). Have not the Vedas expounded the psychological personality of Indra in these few words?

Further, the few words of Vishwamitra that we have already cited about Agni: vaisvanaram manasagnim nicayya...("discerning Fire, the universal Godhead, by the mind") have been explained by the Upanishad: svargyamagnim naciketah prajanan...("Hearken to me and understand, O Nachiketas; I declare to thee that heavenly Flame, for I know it. Know this to be the possession of infinite existence and the foundation and the thing hidden in the secret cave of our being." Translated by Sri Aurobindo).

There are innumerable words common to the Vedas and the Upanishads that convey implications of such recondite profound ideas: satyam (Truth), rtam (Right), amrtam (Immortality), brhat (Vastness), dhi (Knowledge) and jyoti (Light). The spiritual meanings of such words that the Upanishads have discovered are not likely to have been degraded in their application in the Vedas. To hold that the Vedas have used these in an ordinary sense must be a wrong view. To say that the Upanishads have taken only the words from the Vedas and not their significance and have used materialistic words with spiritual meanings is in our view nothing but prejudice. The Upanishads are packed with the words of the Vedas, and they have repeatedly made use of them so aptly that it is doubtful if the Upanishads could have used them in that way had there been no such meaning already attached to them. The vibration of truth-realisation with which every word, every mantra of the Vedas is resonant could not be caught by the ears of the grammarians of our country or those of the European scholars.

Not to speak of the Upanishads, even in the Puranas, the Mahabharata and such other scriptures we come across many peculiarities worth noticing. If we just carefully study these religious books of ours, we do learn that there are many names, places, stories and legends which are but outer garments or transfiguration of some truth-principles. One or two instances will serve our purposes. According to the Puranas the name of Surya's wife is samjna - "consciousness". If we accept the Vedic meaning of Surya as the source of truth, then it does not become difficult for us to understand the significance of this word. Again, let us take the word "Goloka". Goloka is the dwelling-place of Vishnu. If we take the word "go" for light, the light of supernal knowledge, then devanamauparistacca gavah pratisvasanti vai ("The Ray-Cows dwell even above the gods") of the Mahabharata can no longer remain abstruse or ambiguous to us.

Now the legend of Savitri-Satyavan arrests our attention. The very names Savitri and Satyavan are immediately inspiring truths. In the Vedas the Truth-Sun is synonymous with Savitr. As Purusha he is Satyavan, and Savitri is his Shakti. Every aspirant is aware of the fact that it is the Truth's own faith and power that can free the Truth from the grip of Matter, Ignorance and Death. However, one may not believe that whatsoever the Puranas say must be based on some truth or other. Nevertheless, we do not hesitate to assert that at the core of the teaching of the Puranas there lies a truth-secret - a Vedic or Upanishadic realisation. The Puranas too have an esoteric meaning based on the truth of the Vedic and Upanishadic realisations which have been colourfully related in the form of stories and legends for the easy comprehension of the masses.

To be sure, the Puranas cannot be accepted as commentaries on the Vedas. No, not even the Upanishads can dare claim to be so. The Vedas alone are the proper commentaries on the Vedas. And to understand the Vedas no other book can be our guide save the Vedas. No doubt, the Upanishads stand quite close to them, and they abundantly possess the Vedic ideas. But at the same time we must know that the dissimilarities too are not negligible. The concept of Matter in the Vedas and the concept of Spirit in the Upanishads - even if we fail to find a connecting link between the two, still we can be sure that the Vedas and the Upanishads are the two principles of one spirituality. To repeat it once again, we should first endeavour to understand the easy and clear portions of the Vedas and then try to discover their more abstruse and obscure truths. And we have sought to explain to our readers that the interpretation attempted here, the spiritual interpretation, means an interpretation of the basic principle of the Veda. But for that there is the need of the right attitude for looking at things and their right understanding. Those who will approach the Vedas with an ordinary intellect for the mere satisfaction of an intellectual curiosity will hardly be able to grasp the true significance of the Vedas. What does the Veda itself say about the Rishis? rtasapa asantsakam..(Guardians of the Truth, they are with the gods, speaking the Truths with them.) They were knowers of the true nature of truth and they used to commune with the gods through the interchange of truth-principles. Therefore the study of the vedas on the part of those who have no seeking or aspiration for the attainment of the truth is bound to prove futile - a casting of seeds in the desert.


The angel of vision from which the Europeans look at the Vedas has to be traced to its starting-point in the modern theory of evolution. Europe has been a victim to this theory. It has coloured the entire outlook of Europe. Evolution means gradual progression. Man and human society are undergoing a change for the better. In antiquity man was just a little remote from the animal. His intelligence gradually developed. His conduct has become polished. Thus he has grown into what he is today. The more we cast our glance into the past, the more shall we come across man's original, primitive and immature nature. As the Vedas owe their origin to a hoary past, it is axiomatic that there can be no solid philosophical truth and spiritual experience in them. It is vain to seek for something in the Vedas that can satisfy the modern scientific mind. Hence any such attempt will end in utter failure.

In modern times those very scientists are confronted with an anomalous phenomenon supported by irrefutable evidence. Many scientific theories are going to be upset by the new discoveries. Archaeological excavation has been furnishing more and more evidence of ancient culture and education. These discoveries go to prove that the ancients were not immature in the least in their mental faculties, education and culture. On the contrary, we find in them signs of superior qualities and endeavours. Strangely enough, these archaeological finds are found in the places which were so long considered by us to be inhabited by barbarians. The wonderful artistic works and remnants of scientific achievements that we meet with among the discoveries made in the dense forests of America, in the archipelago of the Pacific, beneath the desert of Central Asia have hardly any parallel in this much vaunted scientific age. The Egyptians and the Babylonians have created a tradition. But the hoary past of their source is just being revealed. Greece was considered to be the mainspring of European culture and civilisation. But that a still more civilised race had inhabited the neighbouring island of Crete can by no means be denied now. The older civilisations of Atlantis, Sumeria, Akad, Aztec, Maya and Toltec no longer appear to be mere poetical imaginations. We are wonder-struck by such amazing prehistoric achievements. We can hardly assert that we possess a culture and civilisation superior to theirs. According to the Biblical statement the world came into existence only four thousand years ago. This statement had left its stamp unawares on the mind of the Europeans savants. At present, not to speak of the age of the world or of the advent of man, the age of civilised man can itself be put at about a lakh of years.

As there is evolution in Nature, it is quite natural that there should be evolution in man as well. But the notion of the scientists that evolution proceeds in a straight line and is discernible within a short period has crumbled to dust. We have now begun to understand that evolution proceeds in a zigzag spiral moment, through rises and falls, in progressions and retrogressions. And the extent of that slow movement can hardly be conceived. We are going to recognise in effect the Indian conception of time, namely, ages, cycles presided over by some great creators (Manus). As a result, we have been discovering things not commensurate with the undeveloped, immature and ancient minds of our conception. So some scientists and philosophers are of the opinion that the ancients we know of were on the downward curve of a higher civilisation of the past unknown to us.

If we consider man to be a sufficiently old creature on earth and that his evolution runs in a spiral movement, than the statement that the Aryans of the Vedic age were not highly advanced cannot be regarded as an axiomatic truth. Of course, there is no hard and fast rule that the education, culture and realisation of the Vedic age should have been similar to those of modern times. But their widely differing outlook and activities need not be inferior to ours. True, Valmiki and Rabindranath are not peers of the same grain. On that account we cannot definitely assign a higher status to Rabindranath. To consider the Vedic seers inferior to the modern scientists simply because they do not resemble these is nothing but a stark superstition.

As a matter of fact, here lies the greatest folly of the moderns. We fail to comprehend that there was a time when this ancient culture was as living as that of today. As the Europeans used to take us for rustics because of our bare body and eating with hands and such other habits, even so we conclude from the words go (cow), asva (horse), somarasa (wine) and devas (gods) ect., that the Vedic seers were no better than primitives. For in our conception the men of knowledge speak of no such material subjects. They would rather deal with metaphysical discourses and scientific researches. We want to measure the ferment in the brain of the ancients by that of our own. We forget the very fact that they had a culture of their own which need not tally with ours. In fact, the truth attained by the ancients was not the outcome of an intellect given to mundane things. Rather the criticism may be applied to our present-day intellect.

The process of syllogistic reasoning with which we usually try to get to the truth was not their method. They had a direct perception of truth. They used to live the truth they realised. Besides this rational faculty, man has other faculties which are at once subtler, deeper and wider. To develop these superior faculties so that one may realise and live the ultimate Truth was the sole ideal of the Vedic Rishis. The principal instrument of their knowledge was neither the senses nor even the mind or intellect but the subtle concentrated insight and perception of the inner Being. In its introspection for discovering this fundamental power of knowledge the Kena Upanilshad says, "By whom missioned falls the mind short to its mark?... That which is hearing behind the hearing mind of the mind, the word behind the speech, that too is life of the life-breath, sight behind the sight."

The ancient seers dealt with supraphysical truths. Modern science and philosophy deal with abstract concepts. But these concepts are born of the rational intellect. We may call them theories, well-arranged and systematised; hence nothing extraordinary. But the ancient seers realised and tried to express the transcendental Truth and its Power. There is a play of Power behind the world of phenomena which at once resolves itself into more and more subtle forms and evolves from the deepest level to the grosser manifestations. The seers of yore were wont to study the origin and nature of all the different stages of subtle forms knitting them into a system. By virtue of their spiritual insight they discovered that the world consists of different levels of existence - sphere after sphere ranging from the gross to the subtle, peak after peak in an ascending order. One existence runs through them all. The supreme Being is there in each part. The Power of the self-same Being works in each and every part, differing in form and function in different levels of manifestation. Nevertheless there is a symmetry due to the fact that all becomings and their dynamis proceed from one fundamental Being. Again, the truth in one level is reflected on other levels, for it is the same Power of the Supreme Being that travels from the most subtle to the most gross manifestation. So there is a parallelism in the nature of all the levels of existence.

As for instance, when the Vedic seers speak of fire, they mean something of which the gross form is fire and which itself is tejas (luminous energy) in its subtle form. In the spiritual world, in its subtler form it is called energising consciousness. Likewise the sun is, serially and simultaneously, light, the power of revelation and knowledge. When the Vedic seers say, idam srestham jyotisam... (This is the Light, the highest of all lights; it has come; the Supreme knowledge, beautiful and diverse, vast and all-pervading, has taken birth), they make use of the gross dawn to hint at some subtle dawn. They could visualise the entire creation in its wholeness. That is why their realisations had the stamp of wholeness which can be applied to all the levels and phases of creation. We, the modernists, look upon truth as something entirely comprehensible by the intellect. We put it syllogistically and understand it part by part separately. The ancients used to grasp the truth through the fullness of their heart, the inner being. So it could manifest as an indivisible embodiment of mundane forms and supraphysical concepts. To us the truth has three distinct forms: in the material, vital and mental worlds. Each is different from the other, having a definition of its own. But the angle of vision of the ancient seers was not of such an analytical type. Their synthetic realisation revealed such mantras as comprised the essence of all the levels.

In the process of Nature, in the material world and in its activities they did not see something mundane and material, but found in them a reflection of the supernatural. It may be asked: if the gross forms were mere symbols, then why is the Veda so replete with them and why has so much importance been given to them? Then we have to enquire into the symbolism of the ancients. Here in this connection we want only to mention that the language of the ancients used to flow from their heart. It was not subject to any intellectual reasoning and was not analytical as that of today. The language was simply a symbol of their direct realisation. All languages originate from the perceptions of the senses and the emotions of the heart. The inner urge was kept intact in the language of the ancients. The language and their direct perception were not intercepted by the syllogistic reasoning. So the subtle experiences when expressed in language used to entail the corresponding gross perceptions as well. The ceremonials and the sacrifices are but symbols of inner experiences. According to the Chhandogya Upanishad, (The sky that we see in the outer space is also in our inner heart. Both the Heaven and the earth, Agni as well as Vayu - all are concentrated in our inner heart.).

In the Katha Upanishad too we come across the same utterance: Whatever is there in the inner world is to be found here as well. In ancient times, not only in India, but in all countries of the world, symbolism was in vogue. We cannot read through those symbols. That is why we consider them blackmagic or rustic customs of the uncivilized. We can partly appreciate the political and artistic genius of Egypt. So at times we consider it equal or superior to ours. But we are unable to grasp her spiritual genius. Hence we do not hesitate to relegate it to the level of barbarism. We have hardly any spiritual realisation. What we understand is at best morality. We highly admire the art and literature of Greece. But in respect of Greek spirituality our knowledge is confined to Socrates. In the earlier period of Greek civilisation there was a current of deep spiritual culture, and what they used to call the Mysteries were only mysteries of spiritual yogic discipline. We fail to understand that the water-worship of Thales and the fire-worship of Heraclitus were not merely different aspects of Nature-worship. We do not like to believe that these terms "water" and "fire" can ever be the symbols of spiritual truths. We study the philosophies of Pythagoras and Plato. But we do not delve into the spiritual culture or esoteric aspect of which their philosophies are but outer expressions. Behind the mythologies of China, Japan, old-world America and Australia there lies a science of spiritual discipline which may not be recognised by the scientists, but those practising spirituality will not find it difficult to discover it.

We find more objectivity than mere abstraction in the language and thoughts of the ancients. So they seem to be prone to materialism. But as a matter of fact, their abstract ideas were not merely based on syllogistic reasoning. Those ideas were to them as living, true, clear and manifest as a material object. They did not consider the subtle world visionary, rather they took the subtle world for the raison d'etre of the material world. So they found no difficulty in expressing the subtle concepts of their experiences through gross symbols. Even we, the moderns, at times do the same. For instance, in poetry the poet has to resort to images and allegories in order to express the deep and intense inspiration of his own heart. Has not the Vaishnava literature tried to give expression to supraphysical realisations through the symbols of earthly experiences?

"A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts." - Solomon

The Christians do not hesitate in the least to give some abstract meaning to those words of Solomon. What mystery of Transubstantiation do they now ascribe to the ceremony of the Eucharists! Then why should ritual expressions in the Veda be looked upon as signs of gross practices of rustics?

Anecdotes, stories, and analogies have been used in all times and climes for the expression of subtle truth. In modern times we have managed to banish this practice from the spiritual field, but have not as yet completely succeeded in the realm of poetry.

The vedas have a spiritual mystery of their own. We do not say that it is we who have discovered that spiritual mystery for the first time. As regards this we have already referred to Sayana and the Nirukta. Even in this modern age there are some who have endeavoured to present a spiritual interpretation of the Vedas. Perhaps Dayananda Saraswati is the pioneer among them. Pundit Durgadas Lahiri and Dwijadas Dutt have paid much attention to this aspect of the Vedas. But our spiritual interpretation widely differs from theirs. In fact, we would rather call our interpretation metaphysical and not spiritual. Dayananda's spiritual interpretation was based on the doctrine of Ishwara, Dwijadas's on that of the Brahman, and Durgadas's on the devotional religious feeling. No doubt, the Vedas have all these. But these scholars have shown only in brief the general form of spirituality in the Vedas. The mysteries of the Vedas are far more deep and subtle. The Veda is a Yogic science, a system of science and knowledge acquired through Yoga.

The very name Veda is self-explanatory. The Veda signifies knowledge. It is derived from the root "vid" (to know). The Veda particularly refers to the embodiment of that knowledge which is the soul and basis of the culture, education and civilisation of the Hindus, the Indians, the whole Aryan race. This knowledge was realised by a body of aspirants called Rishis - where and when it is difficult to trace with certainty. And it is the succession of the Rishis, the realised ones, that has kept up, multiplied and systematised this knowledge. The Veda is otherwise called Shruti, for it is said that from generation to generation the disciples used to receive the Vedic mantras from their preceptors by hearing and store them up in their memory. But this is only a secondary human interpretation. The real reason why the Veda is called Shruti is that the Seers received, by an occult hearing, these mantras pregnant with knowledge. At times they could see the mantras during their meditation. Hence they are called the Seers of mantras and the knowledge acquired by them goes by the name Shruti (things heard). And this gives us the clue to the reason why the Veda is supposed to have no human origin, neither a beginning nor an end. The Divine Knowledge is not a human creation. It comprises the principles of truth inherent in creation. And it will endure for all time. The Seers are merely the instruments for its manifestation.

The Veda as we see it today is not in its original form. A whole book entitled Veda was not composed at any definite time or at any particular place. The mantras of the Veda were revealed to the different Seers at different times and places. They were scattered all around without being systematised. It was later that they were collected and systematised. Some, nay, the major part of the mantras failed to see the light of day. And it happened also that mantras of later origin got mixed up with the earlier ones.

The systematic collection, no doubt, could not be achieved all at once. A great speciality of the spiritual discipline of the ancient Seers is this that they carried on their spiritual discipline in a body. It was the practice to use the plural terms like we, you all, friends, etc. In this way different groups of spiritual seekers followed different types of discipline. These collectivities consisted of the Masters and their disciples or an ancestor and his descendants. Thus the Veda grew up into innumerable branches, sub-branches and their off-shoots. The present Veda comprises only a limited portion of those branches. The major portion of the Veda is buried in oblivion. So it is no wonder that the Veda got automatically divided into branches according to the lineage and succession of the Masters and their disciples.

However, later on, all the available Vedic mantras were principally divided into three groups, known as trayi (a group of three) - Rik, Sama and Yajur. Rik consists of verses or poems; Sama of songs; yajur of prose works. Miscellaneous things were collected in the Atharva. Thus the Veda developed into four parts.

According to the Puranas the Seers who collected these Vedic mantras are named Vedavyasas. They are as many as twenty-eight successive Vedavyasas whose successive efforts gave the Veda its present form. The last Vadavyasa who divided the Veda into four parts is Krishadwaipayana Vedavyasa, the author of the Mahabharata. And it is said that in future there will come up another Vyasa of the name of Draunivyasa to rearrange the Veda once more.

There are indications to suppose that the mantras of the Rigveda were meant for the fire-worshippers, and the mantras of the Samaveda for the worshippers of the Sun, and those of Yajurveda for the worshippers of Vayu, the life-principle. However, we refrain at present from going into the details of the matter. In the concluding paragraphs we shall observe whether or not the classification of the Vedas has been in any way regulated by the different methods of spiritual discipline.

There are four Vedas and each Veda consists of several parts. The principal parts of each Veda are known as the Samhitas and the Brahmanas. The Samhitas are the collection of the mantras, the Veda proper. The Brahmanas are the commentaries, interpretations or new suggestions. Again the Brahmanas are divided into the Brahmanas proper, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. The Samhitas comprise the general Vedic experiences and the mantras necessary for the propitiation and manifestation of the gods. And the Brahmanas provide all the details connected with the ceremonies, sacrificial rites, etc. The Upanishads are the repository of the knowledge of the supreme Being divested of ceremonies and allegories. The Samhitas have laid stress on the forms of religious culture, while the Upanishads on the spirit of it. In a way, the Aranyakas combined in themselves both the Brahmanas and the Upanishads. To sum up, the first and foremost part of the Vedas are the Samhitas which are immediately followed by the Brahmanas culminating in the Aranyakas which in their turn terminate in the Upanishads. But there are exceptions. For example, the Aitareya Arnayaka introduces the Rigveda Samhita, while the Brihadaranyaka itself is an Upanishad.

These four divisions of the Veda are said to correspond to the four stages of human life. In the first stage, the foremost duty of a Brahmachari ( a student practising celibacy) is to recite the mantras of the Samhitas which contain the quintessence of the ideal of life. In the next stage, on entering upon household life one has to practise ceremonies and sacrificial rites and thus the stress is laid on the Brahmanas. In the third stage of life, when one renounces the household life and retires into the forest one has to practise all those sacrificial rites and ceremonies symbolically as a part of one's spiritual discipline following the teachings of the Aranyakas. In the fourth and final stage, one gives up all one's earlier practices and in conformity with the guidance of the Upanishads one takes to the contemplation of the supreme Truth which cannot be attained by reasonings and discussions.

Now we may say that the Samhitas, the Brahmanas and the Upanishads indicate changes in the practice of the Vedic truth undergone with the march of time. The spiritual discipline of the Samhitas has for its aim the attainment of Godhood which is an aspect of the cosmic manifestation of the transcendental triune principle, Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. The discipline of the Brahmanas tries to manifest the spirit of the former through external practice. And the spiritual discipline of the Upanishads does not concern itself so much with the manifestation of the gods as it does with getting absorbed in the ultimate Source from whence the gods originated. In other words, the aim of the Upanishadic truth is to indicate how the light of consciousness dwelling in the heart of everyone like a steady flame of the size of the thumb can be merged in to the boundless ocean of the transcendental consciousness.

Strictly speaking, the stages of the Samhitas, the Brahmanas and the Upanishads cannot be regarded as successive stages. For there are many Upanishads which appeared earlier than many Brahmanas and some portions of the Samhitas. As we understand it, first there were the earlier mantras of the Samhitas from which there arose the two branches, Brahmanas and the Upanishads. The Brahmanas laid stress on the exoteric portions of the Samhitas, and the Upanishads on the esoteric side related to the knowledge of the ultimate Truth.

In the subsequent ages people were attracted more to the exoteric side dealing with ceremonies and sacrificial rites as a means of temporal happiness, and it is the Brahmanas that professed to explain the Vedas. On the other hand, the Upanishads tried to maintain the spirit of the ultimate realisation suggested in the Vedas. That is why the Upanishads have been looked upon as the system of knowledge, while the Brahmanas as that of work.

The Rigveda is the oldest of all the parts of the Vedas, and its Samhita part marks the hoariest antiquity. The tenth chapter may be, as the European scholars have concluded, of a later origin. Besides, many of the mantras of the Rigveda with slight alterations are to be found in other parts of the Vedas. In this respect the Samaveda owes the greatest debt to the Rigveda. It will be no exaggeration to hold that the Samaveda is only a novel brand of the Rigveda. On that strength, curiously enough, attempts have been made to prove the Samaveda to be the oldest of all the Vedas.

The Rigveda Samhita also has been suitably divided and arranged in different chapters. Two different methods have been adopted in this arrangement. Firstly, the whole of the Samhita has been divided into ten books, and each book is called a mandala and each Mandala is composed of different series of mantras; each series is called a sukta, each mantra is called a rk. Each Mandala or book is generally attributed to a Rishi. For instance, the second Mandala has been the contribution of the Rishi Gritsamada and his descendants. The authorship of the third Mandala goes to the Rishi Vishwamitra. The fourth Mandala is attributed to Vamadeva, while the fifth, the sixth, the seventh are respectively attributed to Atri, Bharadwaja and Vasishtha. The whole of the ninth Mandala has been exclusively devoted to the god Soma. The first and the tenth have been the contributions of many Rishis. Each sukta of these two books contains mantras offered to a particular god or several gods related to that very god. Besides, there is another method by with the whole of the Samhita has been divided into eight parts and each part is called an astaka (a group of eight). Again each astaka is divided into adhyayas (chapters), sub-chapters and a series of cognate mantras. But the principle followed in this kind of division is hard to determine.

Be that as it may, we are not so much concerned with the external forms of the Veda as with its inner significance. For long the Veda has been solely the subject of archaeological researches. To be sure, the Vedas has a living spirit. The true significance of the Veda lies in the fact that it points out to man the true goal and the means to the attainment of a higher and nobler life. In spite of his ignorance, lack of power and want of bliss, the dream that man has dreamt, the ideal that he has pursued through all the vicissitudes of his life has been: "What shall I do with that which cannot bring me Immortality?" This quest of immortality of the human soul finds its absolute fulfilment in the Veda which is truly a vast ocean of boundless delight. The true purpose of one's studying the Veda is served only when its mantras arouse in oneself the aspiration for the divine Delight.

Nolini Kanta Gupta

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"Collected Works of Nolini Kanta Gupta" Published by Sri Aurobindo International Center of Education Pondicherry 1979

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