Tuesday, October 9, 2007

9. Sri Aurobindo’s Contribution to the Understanding of Vedic Symbolism - II

Sri Aurobindo provided us with the clue to the understanding of Vedic accounts in general as centring around the gods like Agni, Indra, Soma, Aśvins, Mitra, Varuņa and Bŗhaspati, and goddesses like Sarasvatī and Uşas as also objects like cow, horse, gold, water and light, and he proceeds further to explain certain legends germane to the Vedic thought involving the interaction of almost all the above mentioned forces and objects together and therefore potent enough to show the working of the meanings assigned to each one of these agencies and objects together synthetically. Most prominent among them, in Sri Aurobindo’s view, is Angiras. As such, he deals with it at length.

The legend of Angiras involves the working of several gods and goddesses such as Indra, Brhaspati, Aśvins, Soma, Vāyu, Agni, Pūşan, Uşas and Sarasvatī. The basic problem ith legend is the confinement of cows by some adversaries in a certain cave. The names of those who have kept confined the cows are Vŗtra, Vala and Paņi in particular. The problem is as to what this legend refers to. Is it an actual incident? Or, is the whole account out and out symbolic?

As usual is the case, the modern scholarship takes this legend as reflective of the ancient Indian scenario in which the non-Aryans were driven out of the plains and were contriving against the newcomers from behind hills and mountains. They in particular would steal away their cows and keep them confined in narrow valleys and caves. Rescuing of the cows from their clutches became a great problem with the new settlers particularly as they were mostly not acquainted with those regions. Out of this helplessness they naturally used to pray to their favourite gods and goddesses so as to procure their help in the task of rescuing the cows.

Sri Aurobindo refutes this explanation on the ground that it is incompatible with the actual words of the seers and states:

“It is easy to suggest, as do the scholars who would read as much primitive history as possible into the Veda, that the Paņis are the Dravidians and Vala is their chief or god. But this sense can only be upheld in isolated passages; in many hymns it is incompatible with the actual words of the Rishis and turns into a jumble of gaudy nonsense their images and figures.” (Sri Aurobindo: On the Veda, pp.160-61.)

Sri Aurobindo further observes that the Vedic seers use the legend not as an event of the past but as a recurrent affair of the life of the seer involved so deeply in his quest for knowledge and wisdom. If the cows were lost and recovered prior to the composition of the mantras, the seer no more did require to get them back from the aborigines and, with that end in view, pray to the gods and goddesses to help him in the act of restoration. As against it, the fact is that Indra, for instance, continues to repeat the same feat again and again and constantly remains “the seeker of cows” and “restorer of the stolen wealth,” as Sri Aurobindo puts it. (On the Veda, p. 162)

Moreover, had the legend been an actual event of history, and Angirasa, Saramā, Vala, Paņi, etc., as actual characters of that historical event, it ought to have been restricted to them alone and not spread over other seers. As evidence, Sri Aurobindo refers to a mantra in the fifth mandala of the Ŗgveda where seer Kumāra Ātreya while praying to Agni talks of his having been divested of his cows in the absence of the protector and makes the request for their being released by the thief so that god Agni may drive them back home (Rigveda, V.2.5.). In this account of theft and restoration of the kine, the entire role has been played by Kumāra Ātreya as the seer and Agni as the god instead of Angiras and Indra respectively.

The thrust of the idea involved takes a different turn. This is evident from the mantras immediately preceding it. Sri Aurobindo translation is as follows:

“I beheld afar in a field one shaping his weapons who was golden tusked and pure bright of hue; I give to him the Amrita (the immortal essence, Soma) in separate parts; what shall they do to me who have not Indra and have not the word? I beheld in the field as it were a happy herd ranging continuously, many, shinning; they seized them not, for he was born; even those (cows) that were old, became young again.” (Rigveda, V.2.3-4.)

As regards the meaning of these mantras, Sri Aurobindo observes:

“What, we may fairly ask, are these shinning herds, these cows who were old and became young again? Certainly they are not physical herds, nor is it any earthly field by the Yamuna or the Jhelum that is the scene of this splendid vision of the golden–tusked warrior god and the herds of the shining cattle. They are the herds either of the physical or of the divine Dawn and the language suits ill with the former interpretation; this mystical vision is surely a figure of the divine illumination. They are radiances that were stolen by the powers of darkness and are now divinely recovered not by the god of the physical fire, but by the flaming Force which was concealed in the littleness of the material existence and is now liberated into the clarities of an illumined mental action.” (Sri Aurobindo: On the Veda, pp.162-63)

It is significant to note that the account of the theft of the cows is given in these mantras not as an event of the past but as a simile to bring out metaphorically something of entirely different nature. This is evident from the term yūtham na used in the fourth mantra and gobhir na in the fifth meaning `like the herd of kine’ and `as from the cows’ respectively. These usages bear out the fact that the seer is intending to communicate a certain secret idea bearing some sort of similitude to the event of loss or separation of cows and intense desire or aspiration for its restoration. Since the mantras are addressed to Agni, who forms the devatā or real subject matter of them, it is outrageous to interpolate anything from outside bearing a casual reference to the main theme by way of just analogy and declare it as the main burden of the account.

Uşas is another deity associated with the task of rescuing the cows. Sri Aurobindo refers to a mantra seen by Rishi Vasistha in this regard which reads in his translation as follows:

“True with the gods who are true, great with the gods who are great, sacrificial godhead with the gods sacrificial, she breaks open the strong places, she gives of the shinning herds; the cows low towards the Dawn.” (Rigveda, VII.75.7.)

Involvement of the Dawn in rescuing the cows transforms the nature of the cows themselves. Had any real incident of rescuing certain cows from the clutches of certain adversaries been intended to be depicted, the act might have been staged either in the night time or in the day time and least of all at the time of the dawn of the day which has naturally to do with the victory of light over darkness rather than with any event of theft getting so important as to be referred to by so many seers while praying to so many gods and goddesses including Uşas even.

Sri Aurobindo further refers to mantras recounting the Aśvins’ involvement in the act of freeing the cows. He quotes a mantra addressing the Aśvins as Angiras besides referring to the act of rescuing the cows. The mantra in his translation reads as follows:

“O Angiras, ye two take delight by the mind and enter first in the opening of the streams of the cows.” (Rigveda, I.112.18.)

Commenting on this mantra Sri Aurobindo observes that “the sense is evidently the liberated, outflowing stream or sea of the light,” rather than any incident of freeing any cows from anywhere, as was expected from the association of the name of Angiras who is the main character in the act of rescuing the cows from the cave of the Paņis. (Sri Aurobindo: On the Veda, p.163)

Sri Aurobindo raises the pertinent question whether there is “a definite sense in these variations which will bind them together into a single coherent idea or is it at random that the Rishis invoke now this and now the other deity in the search and war for their lost cattle.” (On the Veda, p. 164).

The answer which he offers to the problem is highly revealing inasmuch as it suggests the real way out in the midst of apparently disconnected details of bewildering nature embodied in the Vedas. He states:

If we will consent to take the ideas of the Veda as a whole instead of bewildering ourselves in the play of separate detail, we shall find a very simple and sufficient answer. This matter of the lost herds is only part of a whole system of connected symbols and images. They are recovered by the sacrifice and the fiery god Agni is the flame, the power and the priest of the sacrifice by the Word, and Bŗhaspati is the father of the Word, the Maruts its singers, Saraswatī its inspiration by the Wine, and Soma is the god of the Wine and the Ashwins its seekers, finders, givers, drinkers. The herds are the herds of Light and the Light comes by the Dawn and by the sun of whom Pushan is a form. Finally, Indra is the head of all these gods, lord of the light, king of the luminous heaven called Swar, -- he is, we say, the luminous or divine Mind, into him all the gods enter and take part in his unveiling of the hidden light. We see therefore that there is a perfect appropriateness in the attribution of one and the same victory to these different deities and in Madhuchchandas’ image of the gods entering into Indra for the stroke against Vala. Nothing has been done at random or in obedience to a confused fluidity of ideas. The Veda is perfect and beautiful in its coherence and its unity.” (Sri Aurobindo: On the Veda, pp. 164-65).

Sri Aurobindo brings in another feature of the legend which cannot be accounted for in terms of the historic event. As per the latter, the objects stolen by the Paņis and rescued by Angiras with the help of Indra and, of course, Saramā, were simply cows. This central theme of the legend is sure to break down if horse also gets included along with the cows. As a matter of fact, this really occurs in several mantras in the Samhitā to which Sri Aurobindo draws our attention. He refers to a mantra addressed to Indra where the latter has been said to have opened out the stall hiding within it horses as well as cows (Rigveda, VIII.32.5.). In another mantra seen by Rebha Kāśyapa, Indra again has been prayed to deliver the horse as well as the cow to the Soma-squeezing and liberal sacrificer and by no means to the Paņi (Rigveda, VIII.97.2.). Apart from the inclusion of horse and particularly in the context of the mention of Paņi here what is difficult to understand is the probability of Indra delivering the cows to Paņis who, as per the prevalent interpretation, were deadly opposed to Indra and his followers, the Aryans. If the Aryans and non-Aryans were so dead against each other, where was the probability of Indra, the leader of the Aryans delivering the cows and horses to the Paņis in any case who represented the non-Aryans? The seer ought not to have felt such a danger at all under those circumstances. The real clue to the understanding of the hidden meaning of the account, however, lies in the significant adjective used in common for the horse and the cow craved for by the seer. That adjective is avyayam. When man himself is cognised and addressed so frequently in the Veda as martya, mortal, by the seer, how can an actual horse or cow be imperishable in his eyes?

In view of these as well as well as several other difficulties involved in the interpretation of the legend in the above simplistic historical way, Sri Aurobindo concludes:

“From these examples it will appear how closely the different symbols and parables of the Veda are connected with each other and we shall therefore miss the true road of interpretation if we treat the legend of the Angirasas and the Paņis as an isolated mythus which we can interpret at our pleasure without careful regard to its setting in the general thought of the Veda and the light that that general thought casts upon the figured language in which the legend is recounted.” (Sri Aurobindo: On the Veda, p.169)

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