Sunday, October 7, 2007

8.Sri Aurobindo’s Contribution to the Understanding of Vedic Symbolism - I

After the Upanişads and Yāska, Sri Aurobindo is the most revealing light on the symbolism used in the Veda. There is a colossal difference not only of time from the Upanişads and Yāska to Sri Aurobindo. As regards the Upanişads, they came immediately after the Vedic Samhitās but for the intervention of the Brāhmaņas and the Āraņyakas and in certain cases without any such intervention at all. As such, they were most intimate to the spirit of the seers. The students who came to the Upanişadic sages for higher knowledge were well versed in the Vedas. Under these circumstances, the Upanişadic sage had only to hand over to them the key to this citadel of knowledge in the form of precise hints and suggestions and the whole thing became obvious to the student already fully charged with inquisitiveness.

More or less, the same conditions prevailed during the age of Yāska. No doubt, a considerable course of time had passed and consequently the Vedic words, phrases and idioms were becoming archaic to the people. Extremely short and cryptic remarks on mantras made by Yāska as against the word-by-word explanation of Sāyaņa millennia afterwards bear out the relatively convenient position in which Yāska had his placing in regard to the Vedic lore. Scholars of the time, no matter be they interpreters and teachers of Veda, grammarians, linguists, historians, mythologists, priests, astronomers, and the like, were equally devoted to the Veda. If there was any note of dissent in this whole House of scholarship, that was the lone and feeble voice of Kautsa which was silenced by Yāska in just one round of argumentation. If that voice reverberated in the Indian horizon, that was only centuries afterwards in the form of Jainism and Buddhism which, however, had little to do directly with textual interpretation of the Veda.

Conditions became entirely different by the time of Sri Aurobindo. The predominantly ritualistic interpretation of Sāyaņa with the involvement of stupendous scholarship in it had already reduced the Veda to the position of just a text on ritualism to be recited on sacred occasions but to be kept faithfully concealed so far as the understanding of its meaning was concerned. It was considered most precious no doubt in regard to knowledge also, but there was no scope for human effort left any more in this respect beyond keeping it safe from the evil eye of the infidel.

This position of standstill continuing for centuries came to be disturbed by the advent of the Westerners in the area. Through rigorous research they discovered that in the Veda there was neither the knowledge and wisdom believed to be there by the tradition nor the meaninglessness imputed by Kautsa but a world of meanings belonging to the primitive life of mankind. This fabulous discovery attracted the attention of a large number of scholars from the West perusing various disciplines such as history, culture, anthropology, religion, sociology, mythology and linguistics. With great perseverance they subjected the Veda to threadbare analysis from their respective viewpoints offering explanation for each and everything there in their own ways. The result was that each and everything in the Veda got apparently explained but in a way amounting to the conclusion that there was nothing worth the name in it except indirect portrayal of primitive life lived by the Aryans having entered the portals of India. It was like the early psychologists dissecting the body and not finding any trace of the soul there, abandoning the early Greek position and re-engaging themselves exclusively in the pursuit of psychology bereft of the psyche.

The result was that the Veda no longer remained a sacred book embodying a world of knowledge and wisdom tempting enough for anyone to go through with any deeper interest beyond the conjectures, guessing, contrivances, machinations, destitutions, and aberrations of the primitive life, save a spark of wisdom here and there which too was explicable in terms of chance occurrences.

This newly introduced viewpoint by the Westerners ruling over the country got so settled on the Indian psyche that except for the lone voice of Swami Dayanand Saraswatī, almost all of them took it as the last word on the Veda and went about using it as something axiomatic. After this, even if anyone of the Indians thought of anything new regarding the Veda, that had necessarily to be developed only under the framework provided to him anew. B.G. Tilak’sArctic Home in the Vedas” is a glaring example of this attitude. He dissented from the propositions of Max Muller etc., only to take the original home of the Vedic people farther off to the Arctic region.

There is a lot of difference between a text remaining unexplained and the same explained contrary to its basic spirit. It is under this precarious condition that Sri Aurobindo happened to come to the Veda. By his time the Veda was being taught in Indian universities and colleges as a dead book, no less dead than the Egyptian Book of the Dead, wherein students were being taught just the grammatical structure, literal translation and explanation, if any at all, confined well within the framework prepared by Peterson, Wilson, Griffith, Macdonell, etc., amounting to portrayal of primitive life centring around cows, bulls, milk, horses, chariots etc., as objects of longings and Nature as the article of worship. Promptings of the heart of Sri Aurobindo, as well as the visions he had had in course of his yogic sādhanā, telling an entirely different tale to him regarding the Veda, obliged him to study the Veda afresh leading him to find it as laden with profound knowledge and wisdom but couched in an array of symbols hard to penetrate through ordinarily.

After propounding his method of Vedic interpretation at length, Sri Aurobindo in his Secret of the Veda starts his interpretation of the symbols with Agni. He takes Agni as “the divine will perfectly inspired by divine Wisdom, and indeed one with it, which is the active or effective power of the Truth-consciousness.” (Sri Aurobindo, On the Veda, p.76, Pondicherry, 1956.) By “Truth-consciousness” he means the principle of Rta inherent in the Supreme Being and operating in the world as the agency of order. He associates this meaning with Agni particularly on the basis of the latter being characterised a number of times in the Veda as kavikratuh, having the will-power of the seer. The seer obviously stands for truth while his will-power denotes the power or consciousness of truth. Apart from this symbolic expression used for Agni, the latter at the very next step in the same mantra seen by Madhucchandas, has directly been described as satyah, truthful and citrasravastamah, most abundantly possessed of the word of wisdom. From the word hotŗ used for Agni in the same mantra he gets the hint of the latter’s working as the power of Truth in the work (Rigveda, I.1.5). Besides operating on the cosmic scale, Agni is recognised by the Vedic seer as indwelling the human heart also. Sri Aurobindo treats sacrifice in Agni as symbolical of “continual self-offering of the human to the divine and a continual descent of the divine into the human.”

Agni has also been associated in the Veda with the household. This has generally been taken to indicate to the fire kept burning in the house of the sacrificer. Sri Aurobindo interprets it differently. On the basis of a pertinent reference in which the phrases rtam brhat and svam damam have been used together and as almost equivalent to each other, he derives the obvious conclusion that the house of Agni must mean the vastly operative principle of Ŗta whose truth-consciousness Agni is. (Rigveda, I.75.5.)

Sri Aurobindo takes up Goddess Sarasvatī for his decoding. Sarasvatī occurs in the Veda as a river as well as a goddess. Recently the actual bed of the river has also been discovered through aerial photography. In the Ŗgveda, Sarasvatī as a river is said to emerge from the high Himalayas and merge in the sea. This has now been corroborated by recent researches. Now the question is what this Sarasvatī, as a matter of fact, was. Was she originally a goddess or merely a river? Sri Aurobindo does not deny the possibility of Sarasvatī having been an actual river also. But as the goddess of learning, as described in the Veda, she must not be a mere personification of any river whatsoever. Even then, however, how could the goddess of learning come to be associated with the stream of water? After raising this question, Sri Aurobindo refers to a point in the Greek mythology where Muses, the goddesses of learning, has been associated with an earthly stream of water known as Hippocrene. This river is said to have sprung from the hoof of the divine horse Pegasus. The horse smote the rock with his hoof and the waters of inspiration gushed out forming the river Hippocrene. Sri Aurobindo very rightly identifies Pegasus with the Sanskrit pājas meaning force, movement or footing. “The stroke of the Horse’s hoof on the rock releasing the waters of inspiration”, he observes, “would thus become a very obvious psychological image.” (On the Veda, p. 106). Thus, he shows the obvious possibility of representation of the string of inspiration by the stream of water.

Identification of Sarasvatī with inspiration gives a definite clue to the solution of the problem of sapta sindhava, the land of seven rivers whose identification with Punjab along with the Western part of Uttar Pradesh is being held even until now as a certainty. If Sarasvatī can represent the string of inspiration coming down from Ŗta, the truth-consciousness of the Eternal, will other river-goddesses associated so closely with her remain mere rivers, asks Sri Aurobindo. Via a discussion on the significance of the number seven used for these rivers in the Veda he eventually reaches the conclusion that they represent the seven planes of being which may be determined as the physical, vital, mental, supramental and the planes of delight, consciousness and existence. Sri Aurobindo states: “…the seven rivers are conscious currents corresponding to the sevenfold substance of the ocean of being which appears to us formulated in the seven worlds enumerated in the Purāņas.” (On the Veda, p.113)

Next to river and water, Sri Aurobindo takes up the problem of light, darkness, dawn, etc., as involved in the understanding of the Veda. The relevant accounts are explained by Sāyaņa in terms of breaking of day which was so essential for the performance of sacrifices. The Western Indologists, on the other hand, take it as a reflection of the state of mind of the newcomers of India who must naturally have been afraid of night and darkness in the alien land and therefore would have craved for the coming of the dawn and rising of the sun. Arguing on their behalf, Sri Aurobindo observes that even if we take the cow, so closely associated with the dawn, in the symbolic sense, it is quite possible to regard her as simply the symbol of the physical light. Sri Aurobindo states:

Why should we not, even accepting this inevitable conclusion that the cow is an image for Light, understand it to mean simply the light of day as the language of the Veda seems to intend? Why suppose a symbol where there is only an image? Why invite the difficulty of a double figure in which “cow” means light of dawn and light of dawn is the symbol of an inner illumination? Why not take it that the Rishis were praying not for spiritual illumination, but for daylight?” (On the Veda, p. 146)

The difficulties which Sri Aurobindo feels to lie in this facile explanation is that in that case it would necessarily have to be admitted that “the Vedic peoples sat down to the sacrifice at dawn and prayed for the light when it had already come” and that “it was only after they had sat for nine or for ten months that the lost light and the lost sun were recovered by the Angirasa Rishis.” (On the Veda, p. 147). Moreover, he asks, in that case, “What are we to make of the constant assertion of the discovery of the Light by the Fathers - Our fathers found out the hidden light, by the truth in their thoughts they brought to birth the Dawn?” (Rigveda, VII.76.4.). He further points out that “If we find such a verse in any collection of poems in any literature, we would at once give it a psychological or a spiritual sense” and therefore suggests that “there is no just reason for a different treatment of the Veda.” (On the Veda, p.147)

In view of these facts, he ultimately comes to the conclusion that “The Night is clearly the image of an inner darkness; by the coming of the Dawn the Truths are won out of the Nights.” In regard to the Sun, he observes: “This is the rising of the Sun which was lost in the obscurity – the sun of Truth.” (On the Veda, p.149). In this connection, while explaining the symbolic significance of gold so often mentioned in the Veda he observes that it is “the concrete symbol of the higher light, the gold of the Truth, and it is this treasure, not gold coin, for which the Vedic Rishis pray to the gods” (On the Veda, p. 149).

Regarding the symbolism of Dawn, he points out in the same continuation: “Everywhere Dawn comes as a bringer of the Truth, is herself the outshining of the Truth. She is the divine Dawn and the physical dawning is only her shadow and symbol in the material universe.” (On the Veda, p. 150)

He finds support for this contention in the constant association of the Vedic Dawn with Aditi and Ŗta. Aditi is the mother of gods and so is said to be the Dawn, besides being directly stated as a form or power of Aditi (Rigveda, VII.76.4). As regards her association with Ŗta, it has been stated that she follows effectively the path of the Truth (Rigveda, I.124.3). Negating the feasibility of the interpretation of Ŗta here on sacrificial and naturalistic lines as sacrifice or water in this context, Sri Aurobindo points out: “Here neither the ritualistic nor the naturalistic sense suggested for ŗtam can at all apply; there would be no meaning in a constant affirmation that Dawn follows the path of the sacrifice or follows the path of the water.” (On the Veda, p. 152)

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