Saturday, October 6, 2007

7. Sri Aruobindo’s Theory of Vedic Interpretation

Sri Aurobindo’s acquaintance with the Veda proved to be a remarkable incident in the history of Indian thought as well as in his own life. It is an incident of discovery of eternal life and inestimable amount of vitality from within the greatest literature of the world which virtually had begun to be treated as a dead mound containing completely fossilised ideas of bygone ages. It is an incident of re-enlivening what was supposed to be merely a historical record, into a perpetual psychology. To put the circumstances of this incident in Sri Aurobindo’s own words”:

My first contact with Vedic thought came indirectly while pursuing certain lines of self-development in the way of Indian Yoga which, without my knowing it, were spontaneously converging towards the ancient and now unfrequented paths followed by our forefathers. At this time there began to arise in my mind an arrangement of symbolic names attached to certain psychological experiences which had begun to regularise themselves; and among them there came the figures of three female energies, Īļā, Saraswatī, Saramā, representing severally three out of the four faculties of the intuitive reason, -- revelation, inspiration and intuition.” (Sri Aurobindo, On the Veda, Pondicherry, 1956, p.42)

Visualisation of the images that the Vedic seers came across thousands of years ago, led Sri Aurobindo to the possibility of recovering the entire Vedic lore through Yogic experience. It is from such experiences that accrues his interpretation of the Veda to a certain extent as well as his philosophical system. He forges out his philosophical doctrines by putting those experiences into the fire of different disciplines of knowledge, such as history, sociology, philosophy, sciences and the rest as well as develops his view of the Veda by putting those experiences to the test of the psychology of the origin and growth of idea and language.

In the Veda there is an admixture of natural images and psychological terms. On the one hand, we have descriptions of dawn, sunrise, starry sky, night, mountains, clouds, rain, rivers, horses, cows, etc., and, on the other, its descriptions are equally well couched in such terms as dhī, dhişaņā, manisa, rta, prabodha, citti, acitti, śraddhā jñāna, mantra, and the rest. While we have gods and goddesses like Agni, Soma, Sūrya, Uşas, etc., we also have a number of such deities as Śraddha, Manyu, Dhī, Jñāna , Brhaspati, Vāk, Bhava-Vrtta and the like.

Naturally, the question arises: which aspect of the scripture is primary and fundamentally intended? Do the seers primarily strive to describe different aspects and processes of nature in course of which they happen to use certain psychological terms and concepts? Or, conversely, do they start from the psychological and come to clothe their subtle experiences and ideas in the garb of the phenomena of nature?

Western Orientalists and their counterparts take the first alternative to represent the correct view about the Veda. They argue as follows: Since the history of mankind is progressing from completely uncivilised conditions towards civilisation, man also must be taken to be advancing from complete ignorance to knowledge. Since the rate of progress has been quite rapid during the known history, the upper end of it must have rested in complete ignorance. Since that end is represented, in certain aspects, by the Vedic age, the people of those days must have been completely ignorant of the mysteries of the universe. It would have been out of that ignorance that they would have sung in the form of the Veda.

Quite contrary to the above views, Sri Aurobindo argues: since the Vedic Samhitās are immediately followed by the Brāhmaņas, which evidently are dovetailed by the Upanişads, the latter must not fall very far away from the age of the Samhitās. The Upanişads, in their content, are spiritual or of psychological nature as such, if the Upanişadic seers could be so thoroughly psychological as to remain almost unsurpassed even until now, how was it possible for the Vedic seers to have remained so completely naturalistic only a few centuries earlier? Apart from asking this question, Sri Aurobindo also contradicts the above view with a reference to the fact that on certain extremely complicated issues the Upanişads seek the help of the Samhitās by quoting them as the supreme authority. This clearly suggests that even the Upanişadic seers regarded the Samhitās as the reservoir of profound spiritual knowledge. This fact remains unexplained if we take the Samhitās as mere collections of shepherd-songs sung by the primitive people. In order to account for this obvious hiatus in the history of thought, it is necessary to examine the nature of the composition of the Samhitā more thoroughly and in greater depth. In any case, it is a historical necessity that they form an apt preamble to the Upanişads.

He starts his second argument in this respect from the difficulties involved in the purely naturalistic interpretation of a mantra, hymn or the whole of a Samhitā. It is a well known fact about these texts that if we strive to interpret them purely on the naturalistic line, we would arrive at a meaning which is incompatible in itself. In the majority of mantras, there are words which do not admit a naturalistic interpretation. One cannot subdue them but when we approach such mantras from the psychological side, maintains Sri Aurobindo, we find such words not only revealing their meaning in themselves but also converting the naturalistic elements to their own side. Thus, in his view, the Vedic texts are explicable consistently, homogeneously and completely only by following the psychological line of interpretation and not by means of the naturalistic method. The latter leaves us mid-way in the same way as similes and metaphors leave us half way in the understanding of a particular poem. In the words of Sri Aurobindo:

“…The inconsistencies of the Vedic texts will at once be explained and disappear. They exist in appearance only, because the real thread of the sense is to be found in an inner meaning. That thread found, the hymns appear as logical and organic wholes and the expression, though alien in type to our modern ways of thinking and speaking, becomes, in its own style, just and precise and sins rather by economy of phrase than by excess, by over-pregnancy rather than by poverty of sense. The Veda ceases to be merely an interesting remnant of barbarism and takes rank among the most important of the world’s earliest scriptures. ” (Sri Aurobindo, On the Veda, Pondicherry, 1956,p.10.)

Thinking on this line, Sri Aurobindo comes to the conclusion that the naturalistic exterior of the Veda also must have been intended by the seers to constitute the article of faith and practice of the people. Thus the Veda, according to him, has two aspects, the inner which is psychological, and the outer which is naturalistic. The inner is intended for the elites of the time while the outer is meant for the common people. The outer is drawn from the traditional beliefs of the semi-civilised people. It was also a matter of common practice at the time of composition of the Samhitās. The inner, on the contrary, represented the spiritual discovery of the Vedic seers themselves. Since the seers were not very large in number, and since the inner was not easy of comprehension, it remained confined only to a small circle.

This hypothesis of Sri Aurobindo’s finds support from the internal and external literary evidence within the Vedic fold as well as from a similar pattern obtaining in ancient literatures of some other branches of the Indo-European culture. The crux of the internal evidence consists in the suggestions to the same effect in the Ŗgveda itself. In it, there are several explicit indications to the presence of two orders in the society, of those who know, and of those who do not know. Those who know are said to understand a secret meaning in the mantras. For instance, in one of the mantras occurring in the oldest portion of the Samhitā, it is said, “He alone understands properly the thread and the art of weaving, and may tell the truths rightly who, the protector of immortality, while moving below and seeing the higher by his another sight, knows with certainty.” (Rigveda VI.6.3.). At another place, it is said that he alone can understand this mystery who himself is a Kavi. At yet another place, it is said, “Rks lie in the eternal highest heaven in which sit all the gods; one who does not know that, what will he do with the Rks? Those who know it, sit here together.” (Rigveda, I.164.39).

As regards the Vedic evidence, it is implied in the growth of two mutually distinct sorts of literature from the same Samhitās. The one of them is represented by the Brāhmaņas and the other by the Upanişads. The Brāhmaņas elaborate, interpret, rationalise and systematise the external aspect of the Samhitās while the Upanişads do the same in regard to their inner content. In fact, most of the fundamental Upanişadic doctrines are only systematised and logically developed versions of the visions of the earlier seers. It is absolutely wrong to suppose that they have come in complete independence of the Samhitās.

That visions of some fundamental philosophical doctrines may come to rationally less developed individuals living in a simple society, is borne out by the fact that some of the most important philosophical doctrines in the West germinated from Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries. Simplicity of civilisation is not always equivalent to lack of inner culture. In the words of Sri Aurobindo:

Nor is it a certain conclusion from the data we possess that the early Aryan cultures – supposing the Celt, Teuton, Greek and Indian to represent one common cultural region, -- were really undeveloped and barbarous. A certain pure and high simplicity in their outward life and its organisation, a certain concreteness and vivid human familiarity in their conception of and relations with the gods they worshipped, distinguish the Aryan type from the more sumptuous and materialistic Egypto-Chaldean civilisation and its solemn and occult religions. But those characteristics are not inconsistent with a high internal culture. On the contrary, indications of a great spiritual tradition meet us at many points and negate the ordinary theory. The old Celtic races certainly possessed some of the highest philosophical conceptions and they preserve stamped upon them even to the present day the results of an early mystic and intuitional development which must have been of long standing and highly evolved to have produced such enduring results. In Greece it is probable that the Hellenic type was moulded in the same way by Orphic and Eleusinian influences.” (Sri Aurobindo, On the Veda, pp.31-32)

The epistemological difficulty being removed through historical evidence, there remains the linguistic problem of compressing a twofold meaning in a single word, clause or sentence, as is supposed by Sri Aurobindo. “The theory of the psychological interpretation”, he maintains, “depends very often on the use of a double meaning for important words – the key-words of the secret teaching.” In such cases, more than one meaning in a single word could be possible due to the fact that each one of the majority of Sanskrit roots conveys more than one sense. For instance, the root as means to attain as well as to enjoy, the word aśva, therefore, would mean force, attainment, joy as well as horse. Similarly the root gam which is used for spiritual as well as physical movement, hence the word go means sense-organ and knowledge as well as cow and ray. Accordingly, Uşas, for instance, meant for the personification of the dawn coming with all her glamour when prayed for cows, horses, etc. It is also understood by the wise as the cosmic principle of creativity embodying consciousness and force and manifesting the world out of the unmanifest. The second interpretation is easily available if we take go in the sense of `knowledge’ or `consciousness’, and asva in the sense of force.

Sri Aurobindo adduces one more linguistic fact in support of his proposition. It relates to the evolution of language. It is a long-drawn controversy whether language originated with a certain number of monosyllabic or disyllabic words called roots and signifying each an action as held by Max Muller and his school, or with strings of voices denoting each a whole incident, as is the case with animals, as held by Jesperson. All this controversy apart, what is, however, evident is that the Vedic language germinated out of roots signifying action. Whether verbs came first or substantives, is discussed penetratingly in the Nirukta of Yāska with the conclusion of the priority of the former. Sri Aurobindo also marks out this feature of the Vedic language, and basing himself on it, he argues that since the Vedic substantives are nearer to their roots, they are much more universal in their meanings than when used in the later literature. Thus, for instance, the word aśva should mean in the Veda not only `horse’ but also and more primarily `means of attainment’ or `force’. Similarly the word Vrka would mean in the Veda not only `wolf’ but also, and more primarily `the tearer’. Thus by means of this argument, Sri Aurobindo gives the most probable rationale of the traditional belief that the Veda is the book of universal knowledge and not merely an account of contemporary events.

Thus conceived, Sri Aurobindo’s line of Vedic interpretation leads us closest to the mind of the seer. The significance of this statement can be understood by a review of the earlier attempts in this direction which mostly are entangled in the symbolic stuff which they have taken to be the real meaning and have missed the real content. The Veda, after all, is a book of spiritual knowledge rather than a manual of sacrifice or an account of bewildered primitive gaze over the changing phenomena of nature. Sacrifice is an important ingredient in its composition no doubt, but on no account does sacrifice hold the pivotal position in it. Similarly nature is there in the Veda no doubt, but by no means is the latter an account of bewilderment over the changing phenomena of nature. The crux of the Veda is rather the deep spiritual experience of the seer. Its recapturing, therefore, needs spiritual penetration as well as keen historical and psychological insight which Sri Aurobindo could afford very well.

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