Wednesday, October 31, 2007

12. Sri Aurobindo’s Contribution to the Understanding of Vedic Symbolism - IV (2)

As is evident from the history of evolution, it has taken aeons to develop Life out of Matter on this earth itself. The process must have been gradual and extremely slow and yet each point in the upward movement getting materialised in a state of transformation from Matter into Life. So must be the case with the range from Mind to Supermind.

Sri Aurobindo has delineated four distinct stages in the midst of the two. These he named as Higher Mind, Illumined Mind, Intuition and Overmind. Vedic gods and goddesses, in his view, are assignable to one or the other of these stages or even to the sub-section of any one of them. The Ŗgvedic story of seer Dadhyan learning Madhu-Vidyā from Indra and imparting the same to the Aśvins with the horse’s head is illustrative of the point involved here.

This significant role of gods and goddesses has been kept couched in a thick garb of symbols not discernible to the ordinary mind. It is as thick as the Nature herself, only letting it to be discernible intermittently and that also just partly. In this respect, the whole Nature is considered by Sri Aurobindo as symbolic of secret messages communicated by the supramental Reality to the world below, particularly the human for its elevation and re-integration with It. Sri Aurobindo observes:

“The forces and processes of the physical world repeat, as in a symbol, the truths of the supra-physical action which produced it. And since it is by the same forces and the same processes, one in the physical worlds and the supra-physical, that our inner life and its development are governed, the Rishis adopted the phenomena of physical Nature as just symbols for those functionings of the inner life which it was their difficult task to indicate in the concrete language of a sacred poetry that must at the same time serve for the external worship of the Gods as powers of the visible universe.” (On the Veda, pp.328-29)

This view of Sri Aurobindo’s gets illustrated in his commentary on Ŗgveda I.170, a short hymn of just five mantras recounting a dialogue between god Indra and seer Agastya. The latter, as explained by Sri Aurobindo, represents the highly elevated human soul striving hard to reach the Ultimate Reality in the form of the Absolute transcending everything lower to it including even gods. This aspiration of the human soul represented at the moment by the seer Agastya looks to Indra as violative of the integral scheme of things. He reminds the seer of the dangers lying ahead in his way. He tells him how it is almost impossible to attain to the Absolute in isolation of everything else below. The argument he puts forth in this context is revealing. It is contained in the opening mantra of the hymn. This mantra has been taken note of by Yāska also but just to illustrate the use of nūnam in the Veda. As such, he explains the rest of the mantra in a casual way.

Sri Aurobindo delves deep into the mantra and brings out something not thought of any earlier. He considers the mantra as a cryptic statement of the nature of the Absolute by no one lesser than Indra, the lord of gods himself. The significance of Sri Aurobindo’s discovery in regard to this mantra can better be understood by presenting his viewpoint in contrast to the literal translation of the mantra as given by Griffith, for instance, which is as follows:

“Naught is today, tomorrow naught. Who comprehends the mystery. We must address ourselves unto another’s thought, and lost is then the hope we formed.”

In contrast to it, Sri Aurobindo translates it as under:

“It is not now, nor is It tomorrow; who knoweth that which is Supreme and Wonderful? It has motion and action in the consciousness of another, but when it is approached by the thought, It vanishes.” (RV.I.170.1)

In the footnote to his translation, Griffith makes the following remark on the mantra:

“Indra appears to have appropriated to himself the sacrifice intended for the Maruts, who complain, accordingly, of their dependence on another’s will and of their disappointed hopes.”

Yāska, on the other hand, takes the main theme of the hymn as lying in Indra’s complaint against Agastya who having decided to offer the oblation to Indra, happens eventually to offer the same to the Maruts (Nirukta, I.5). Thus there is a clear contrast noticeable between the viewpoints presented by Griffith on the one hand and Yāska on the other regarding the very theme of the hymn. These contradictions get resolved in Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the mantra and indeed the whole hymn.

The mantra, according to Sri Aurobindo, characterises the Absolute as lying essentially beyond the process of time presenting objects and events in the perspective of its three broad divisions, i.e., the past, the present and the future. It is on account of this transcendence that It is described here as wonderful suggesting It’s inexplicability. This meaning emerges from the first part of the mantra spontaneously and directly by taking everything as referring to the word adbhutam, the Wonderful, instead of diffusing the entire sense by forcing it to concur to the concocted tale of Indra lamenting over the denial of his claim on the prospective offering.

The second hemistich of the mantra explained by Sri Aurobindo expatiates on the nature of the cognizance of the same Reality. In his view, this part of the mantra states that though lurking around the consciousness divided between the subject and the object, the Absolute slips away from the grasp of the same consciousness the very moment it is sought to be contemplated on. According to him it suggests that the Absolute can be known only by transcending the state of division of the consciousness into the subject and the object through their proper fulfillment and by no means through sheer escape attempted individually. Sri Aurobindo discovers this significant meaning of the mantra holding firmly the central idea expressed in it as well as by reducing nūnam and svah to the status of the symbols of the footsteps of Time which the Absolute transcends.

It is in this broad perspective that he is able to explain the rest of the mantras also. While taking Indra as the Illumined Mind, he regards the Maruts as symbolic of the principle of Life. With this basic postulate, he explains the second mantra as a query of the principle of Life represented by the Maruts as also by Agastya as to why it is not being permitted to proceed upward towards the Absolute by itself. Sri Aurobindo’s translate it as follows:

“Why dost thou seek to smite us, O Indra? The Maruts are thy brothers. By them accomplish perfection; slay us not in our struggle.” (RV.I.170.2)

This query of the principle of Life symbolised by the Maruts on the universal scale and by Agastya on the individual, gets answered back by Indra representing the Illumined Mind in the sequel which in Sri Aurobindo’s translation reads as follows:

“Why, O my brother Agastya, art thou my friend, yet settest thy thought beyond me? For, well do I know how to us thou willest not to give thy mind.” (RV.I.170.3)

This remark of Indra’s is a warning to the individual against becoming egoistic and selfish and yet seeking to reach the Absolute which is impossible in any case. Incidentally, it is this basic idea which gets elaborated subsequently in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Purāņas in the form of Indra presenting hurdle before tapasvins in their effort to attain to the Ultimate lying beyond him. Indra with all the loftiness ingrained in his nature as recounted in the Veda can by no means be so mean as to be envious of petty mortals and stop their progress upward. If the stories concerned smack of anything like this, that must be due to mishandling of them by subsequent authors. As a matter of principle conforming the main thrust of ideas embodied in the Veda, Indra’s intervention in the efforts of the tapasvin concerned ought to be intended for integrating him with the totality of the reality rather than letting him proceed just individually under the impulsion of egoism and personal ambition which, as a matter of fact, have no say in regard to the Absolute. The world has emerged from the Absolute as a whole and therefore it is only as a whole that it can re-enter into It (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad V.1.1). If the individual be regarded as a whole in himself and therefore comes to consider himself as entitled for this re-entry, he at least would have to wait until his entire being, comprising the physical, vital, mental and supramental, gets perfectly filled with the sense of the Absolute. Attainment of perfection at the cost of negligence of any of these components is not possible according to the Veda as understood by Sri Aurobindo. This is why Indra intervenes again and again in course of the sādhanā of the tapasvin, including Viśvāmitra and Agastya. Such intervention is an essential part of his duty assigned to him by Ŗta and by no means anything undertaken just arbitrarily. To consider such an intervention on his part as a sign of degradation in his post-Vedic character, as scholars have generally done, is rather baseless. Indra has never been the supreme godhead in the Veda, except only when used as a symbol of It. Normally he is a god of the mid-region. As such, he should be concerned basically with something of the intermediate level in our being. This is why Sri Aurobindo considers him as symbolic of the Illumined Mind lying intermediate to the Mind and the Supermind.

It is in this capacity that he comes in the way of Agastya who is in a hurry to reach the Absolute by disregarding the lower levels of his being, particularly the demand of the vital on him. As is evident from Ŗgveda I.179, he eventually gets persuaded by Indra to return home and fulfill the rest of his responsibilities concerning artha and kāma and make his advancement to the Transcendent Reality in an integrated way. In the last mantra of that hymn it has been observed in conclusion that by digging the soil by means of spade the seer came to be fulfilled in wealth and progeny as well as strength and thus in both the kinds of purusarthas, that is, artha and kāma on the one hand and dharma and moksa on the other, to use the post-Vedic terminology for what has been termed in the mantra as ubhau varnau, both the objectives. (RV.I.179.6)

Indra’s suggestion to him to this effect is evident from the next mantra in the hymn under discussion which in Sri Aurobindo’s translation reads as follows:

“Let them make ready the altar, let them set Agni in blaze in front. It is there, the awakening of the consciousness to Immortality. Let us two extend for thee thy effective sacrifice.” (RV.I. 170.4.)

Obviously, in this mantra, Indra suggests to the seer to get ready the sacrificial pit and kindle the fire so that he and the seer both together in co-operation may perform the sacrifice with a view to awakening the immortal consciousness from within. It is under this persuasion that the seer takes up the spade, cultivates the field besides producing the progeny and comes to fulfilment of both the objectives of life expected of us by gods, as is stated in Ŗgveda I.179.6 quoted above. From this, it can very well be inferred that the sacrifice suggested by Indra for seer Agastya to perform does by no means lie in just kindling fire and putting oblations into it. This sacrifice is basically the real discharging of duties obligatory on oneself not just for the sake of discharging them but for using them as stepping stones for ascension to the consciousness of immortality. Making the fire-altar ready, kindling the fire and putting oblations into it as well as digging the soil by means of spade, all these are symbolic of the practical undertakings of life obligatory on oneself not just for their accomplishment but as a means to ascending higher on the ladder of consciousness. Digging the ground for the sake of preparing the fire-altar is symbolic of strengthening oneself economically so as to serve as a firm basis for the subsistence of life and awakening of consciousness. Presence of the sacrificer’s wife on the sacrificial ground and her active participation in the whole affair symbolises the necessity of fulfilment of the demands of kāma on oneself while offering in the kindled fire stands for one’s exclusive devotion to the task of higher development in the consciousness.

Agastya’s submission to the persuasion of Indra forms the burden of the last mantra of the hymn which in translation reads as follows:

“O Lord of substance over all substances of being, thou art the master in force! O Lord of Love over the powers of love, thou art the strongest to hold in status! Do thou, O Indra, agree with the Maruts, then enjoy the offerings in the ordered method of the Truth.” (RV.I.170.5.)

Obviously, this is a mantra of reconciliation on behalf of Agastya who otherwise was not willing to care for Indra and offer anything to him, as is evident from the third mantra in the hymn. Now he gets himself fully prepared to offer everything to Indra so as to get it transformed and serve as a means in the ascension. His plea with Indra to agree with the Maruts is suggestive of the necessity of concordance between the Higher Intelligence or the Illumined Mind and the principle of Life. Discordance between the two in the make-up of the aspirant cannot permit the latter to go ahead with any tangible success. Transformation of the vital and mental both leading to their mutual concordance is the sure way to success in the awakening of the higher consciousness. To quote Sri Aurobindo:

“It is precisely by the progressive surrender of the lower being to the divine activities that the limited and egoistic consciousness of the mortal awakens to the infinite and immortal state which is its goal.” (On the Veda, p.290.)

Thus, we see how when explained in this way by decoding the symbolic significances of keywords and figures the hymn yields a rich harvest of ideas integrated, systematised and highly worthwhile, as against the anecdotal method adopted by earlier authorities beginning right from Yāska and leading us nowhere except trivialising the character of the gods as well as of the seers, as against the central thrust of ideas embedded in the Veda.

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