Monday, September 24, 2007

2. Yaska’s Cognisance of Symbolic Usages in the Veda - I

Yaska is the leading light on the Veda. As is evident from Sayana’s commentary, it is Yaska who has formed the backbone of his Vedic interpretation to a great extent. On whatsoever mantras Yaska’s commentary is available, Sayana quotes it invariably in the midst of his own commentary on those mantras without showing any disagreement with him. Even then, however, if Sayana develops a viewpoint about Veda, which is markedly different from Yaska’s, it is particularly due to Yaska having commented on the mantras only selectively. Had he commented as extensively as Sayana, the latter would not have dared to transgress him on the rest of the mantras also.

The validity of Yaska’s views on the Veda lies in his relative closeness to the Vedic age, though by his time it had become considerably antiquated and difficult to understand, so much as to make Kautsa, one of his contemporaries, pronounce outright the meaninglessness of this classic.

Moreover, Yaska’s understanding of the Veda is characterised by conformity to tradition on the one hand and incisiveness of logic on the other. While not disregarding the tradition, he seeks to explain everything in a logical way by going into the depth of the text concerned. These two qualities of his approach have made the Nirukta to be an indispensable aid to Vedic interpretation. If the Western scholars failed to under the real thrust of Vedic thought that was partly due to their disregard of Yaska on crucial points as well as their faulty pre-suppositions about the Vedic history and ethos.

While venturing on this project of Vedic symbolism, it is essential to stop for a while and see what this oldest and greatest custodian of the Veda has to offer on this subject.

To begin with, it is important to note that Yaska regards the Veda not as a creation or composition of a usual state of mind as is the case with other literary works. In his view, the composers of Vedic mantras were really seers. Their seeing lay in their direct access to the basic principle underlying the phenomena of life and the world called dharma (Nirukta I.20.). It is the principle of unity controlling the entire dynamics of diversification operating on all planes of being including the physical, metaphysical and spiritual. This is evident in Yaska’s famous passage explaining the interrelationship of gods and goddesses among themselves. According to it, the one and the same Atman is subjected to prayer by seers in various ways on account of its intimate participation in each and every manifestation of the world. Various gods and goddesses, Yaska continues, are just like limbs of the Atman. As the seers could catch hold of that principle of unity underlying the diversity, the latter lost its rigid exclusiveness for them. They visualised gods and goddesses, therefore, as being born of one another and inhering in each other’s nature, some being born of the action of the other while the other one out of the spirit of the latter. Even their chariots, horses and weapons, asserts Yaska, are nothing but carvings out of the basic stuff of their formation called Atman (Nirukta, VII.4.).

Such an extraordinary perception or vision has ordinarily been conceived world over as owing to the operation of certain extra-terrestrial agencies. Yaska, however, differs categorically from such an explanation. In his view, there are several layers of consciousness ranging from the ordinary to the extraordinary. While the ordinary one is responsible for our perception of the commonplace things, the extraordinary layer of consciousness is the recipient of matters extraordinary such as gods and goddesses along with their formations and operations. Yaska considers the entry of the Vedic seer into such a layer of consciousness as not a matter of chance or accident but as the result of the seer’s own efforts put in the form of tapas, involving self-control and deployment of attention to a certain objective transcending all conveniences of life. As a result of this austere, rigorous and concentrated practice, the seers entered into a different dimension of experience, quite distinct from the commonplace one. This experience has been characterised by Yaska as srutimatibuddhi, wisdom laden with supra-normal hearing and contemplation. Since this wisdom has been revealed to seers having passed through a stringent course of tapas, it, points out Yaska, cannot be waded through by those who have not undergone any such discipline (Nirukta, XIII.13).

As regards the seer, he is called upon to give expression to his uncommon experiences in commonplace idioms, phrases and images so as to be understandable by the common man. Naturally such an expression would involve a certain quantum of jump from experience to ideation and from ideation to verbal expression. In such a state of things, the seer would necessarily have to take recourse to means other than plain description in a matter of fact way. This difficulty, in Yāska’s estimation, has led the Vedic seer to take recourse to three extraneous elements of expression. These are history, prayer and fiction (Nirukta, IV.6.).

The element of history must have come to the consciousness of the seer from his and his predecessors’ memories of the past occurrences, incidents and personalities. Being presumably based in actuality, this element in the mantras may naturally be considered of least symbolic significance. Even then, however, being wholly extraneous to the experience and as such, being used not primarily but only secondarily to give expression to the experiences of the seer, it, too may admit of symbolism. So far as the element of prayer is concerned, it, to be sure, is freer to be symbolic in character by virtue of being governed least by factuality as well as logical consistency. When the same prayerful autonomous consciousness comes to combine a few images so as to read like a tale, it becomes a gatha by virtue of the element of sequence introduced to it. While Rk confines itself normally to the use of one single image in giving expression to a seer’s particular experience, gatha stretches itself to take in its purview a number of such images combined together in a common thread of sequence resulting in the formation of a certain narrative. As gatha also has prayer as its basic building block, it too can equally well be highly symbolic in nature.

The commonplace worldly images the seer uses to bring out his magnanimous experience of the great Atman underlying the entire phenomenal diversity so as to make it communicable to lesser people, has been called by him as bhuta-nama-dheya, actual representatives. He recounts under this head such words or figures as hamsa, dharma, yajña, megha, soma, apah, vyoma, arnava, samudra, anna, havis, adhvan, vrksa, etc. It would be interesting, therefore, to try to see afresh how these commonplace things are actually symbolic in the Vedas as has been presumed by Yaska and elucidated too, though only scantily.

Concretization is a fundamental principle noted by Yaska working behind symbolic expression. As per Yaska’s assumption, each Vedic seer had had intimate experience of the great Atman lying behind the diversity. But for this experience, he could not have brought so much flexibility to his conception of gods and goddesses so as to admit of their birth mutually from one another. It also is a fact that the experience of the Atman is the subtlest of all experiences whatever, as the Atman is characterised as transcendent of everything actual and possible. To bring this supernal and extremely subtle experience down to the intelligibility of the common man engrossed in the actuality of the world, needs rendering of it in these concrete terms in a way so that it may be understandable concretely without losing its essence in course of the rendering.

Another element Yaska discerns in the expression of the seer resulting in its symbolic nature is copious use of tales having nothing to do with actuality and yet serving as an appropriate vehicle of communication. While commenting on a Rgvedic mantra describing a particular bird entering into the sea and seeing the whole of the world together besides being licked by his mother and himself licking the mother, Yaska observes how the seer rejoices in giving expression to his experience through the use of fictitious tales (See Rgveda X.114.4. & Nirukta X.46.). Under this category can be brought and treated symbolically hundreds of tales occurring in the Samhitas at places, such as that of the four-horned bull entering into the mortals as envisioned by Vamadeva or the two birds sitting on the self-same tree as seen by Dirghatamas.

Simile is the third element of expression marked by Yaska with due emphasis. Simile is the overt part of symbolic expression. Indeed, it is by relegating the signs of the simile that symbols get formed. Yaska notes carefully certain instances of relegation, though without elaborating on the far-reaching implication of it. For instance, when commenting on the relevant part of a Rgvedic mantra addressed to Indra and having to do something with the branches of a certain tree for its subject matter, Yaska observes that there was implicit presence of the word iva, like, in the form of nu suggesting a comparison between the branches of the tree on the one hand and the sense of security Indra provides on the other (RV.VI.24.3. & Nirukta I.4.). Just as the tree reaches far and wide providing shade to a lot of creatures placed at even considerable distance from the trunk, even so Indra creates the sense of security even where he actually is not present. This simile can very well form the basis of a symbolic expression using the branches as a symbol of the sense of security generated by contemplation on Indra. The usage is so subtle that had Yaska not marked it, it would pretty well have remained unnoticed and consequently misunderstood possibly even until today.

The fourth element in Yaska related to the use of symbols is the derivation of key words in the understanding of the precise meaning of mantras. As such words were decisive in determining the meaning, they had to be explored in all possible shades of their meanings. It was out of this necessity that these words were culled out of the texts, collated with their near synonyms, explored in their various shades of meanings and came to form what is known as Nighantu. Nirukta of Yaska is a commentary on the same Nighantu. By way of commenting on Nighanţu, Yaska developed the science of derivation which determines the meaning of unknown words or words of dubious connotation with reference to their origins or the original component of them. Following this principle of derivation, Yaska has assigned usually more than one meaning to such words. This has subjected him to the charge of dubiousness in his approach, as very often, he has transgressed precise phonetic laws in the derivation of words as well as in determining their connotations. While charging him like this, it has been forgotten that the basic task undertaken by him was not derivation of words but determination of their precise meanings. In the accomplishment of this task, he has used derivation as simply a tool. Besides derivation, he has made copious use of his free imagination to sense the context of the word concerned. In this way he has explored into all possible connotations of certain words so as to get the best out of those possibilities. In such cases, derivation has been used by him just as a cover to put things in a presentable form. The liberty of imagination he has taken in this regard speaks of his keen understanding of the symbolic usage, which always involves a certain degree of uncertainty. Herein, of course, lies the basic difference between sign and symbol. While sign is governed by certitude, symbol remains always open to novelty of interpretation.

Cognisance of this fact in Yqska is evident not only in his derivation of single words but also in his outlook towards complete mantras or indeed towards the Veda as a whole. His theory of threefold interpretation of the Veda is a significant illustration on the point. According to this theory, Vedic mantras have the possibility of interpretation on three levels, the physical, the supra-physical and the spiritual. Agni, for instance, which has so elaborately been invoked in the Veda, appears sometimes as the physical element, sometimes or rather more often as a deity and sometimes also as the psychic or spiritual being lying in the heart of man. So is the case with the rest of the divinities. Almost all of them can be identified on these three levels with the sole exception of certain divinities of purely psychological nature, such as Dhi, Dhisana, Manyu, etc., which are shorn of physicality. They too, however, retain their remaining two aspects, i.e., supra-physical and spiritual. The triplicity in the nature of the Vedic deities brought out by Yaska, indeed, has emboldened the Western scholars to try to reduce each Vedic deity to the physical level identifying it with some or the other physical phenomenon cancelling, however, the remaining two aspects as a sheer concoction of the primitive mind, as the Vedic seers were supposed by them to have actually been.

Vedic seer views things from such a height and with such a searching spiritual power that things in all their dimensions, outer and inner, reveal to him together in one and the same vision without any dichotomy. Since things are viewed by him integrally, he has no necessity of drawing any line of demarcation in things themselves, which becomes necessary for onlookers from the commonsense viewpoint. The one and the same Agni, for instance, can be seen by the common man usually only in his hearth, or at the most on the part of the earth coming in his visual perspective, by the geologist inside the earth besides, by the astrophysicist in the planets and stars as well but by the Vedic seer inside the human self also besides at all these places and that also just in a single vision, as is evident from Visvamitra’s invocation of it as lying in the heaven, on and inside the earth, in vegetation, in waters and operating in the creation of the universe as well as seeing things from within the human consciousness itself (RV.III.22.2.).

Now, if we follow strictly the principle of triplicity of interpretation in regard to the Veda, the problem is where to end with the physical, where to jump to the supra-physical and where to enter into the spiritual, since all the three are revealed here simultaneously on one and the same canvas?

This is perhaps why Yaska, though mentioning the theory of triplicity of meaning and sometimes applying it in the interpretation of certain mantras, does not stretch it to any considerable extent and coming down to the seventh chapter of his work dilutes this triplicity into another one based on the grammatical category whether a particular mantra involves address to the deity concerned in the third person, second person or first person and has named them as paroksakrtah, pratyaksakrtah and adhyatmikyah respectively (Nirukta,VII.1.).

This dilution done by Yaska himself indicates to the liquidity of the principle of triplicity of meaning in the Veda and thus leaves all the more complicated the problem of discernment of the symbol and the object of symbol here. Some idea of his accomplishment on this significant point, however, can be formed better by making a review of his interpretations on certain relevant mantras, which will follow in the sequel.

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