By: Deeksha Tyagi
This book is a collection of Sri Aurobindo’s various writings on the Veda and his translations of some of the hymns, originally published in the monthly review ‘Arya’ between August 1914 and 1920.
“Is there at all or is there still a secret of the Veda?”
The book opens with a fundamental question, propelling readers into an exploration of the intricate philosophic system, symbolic language, and profound truths encapsulated within the Rig-Veda.
In examining Sri Aurobindo’s profound exploration, “The Secret of the Veda,” one is confronted with a title that may initially evoke thoughts of an esoteric defense of some hidden Vedic knowledge. Such assumptions, however, are quickly dispelled as Aurobindo, far from adopting a posture of exclusivity, approaches the text with the curiosity of a genuine scholar. His objective is not to veil the meanings within the Rig Vedic hymns but to unveil them, challenging the prevailing esoteric narrative and emphasizing accessibility rather than exclusivity.
Aurobindo commences by scrutinising the ritualistic and naturalistic theories proposed by nineteenth-century European scholars. He writes:
“The hymns of the Veda are the sacrificial compositions of a primitive and still barbarous race written around a system of ceremonial and propitiatory rites, addressed to personified Powers of Nature and replete with a confused mass of half-formed myth and crude astronomical allegories yet in the making. Only in the later hymns do we perceive the first appearance of deeper psychological and moral ideas — borrowed, some think, from the hostile Dravidians, the “robbers” and “Veda-haters” freely cursed in the hymns themselves, — and, however acquired, the first seed of the later Vedantic speculations. This modern theory is in accord with the received idea of a rapid human evolution from the quite recent savage; it is supported by an imposing apparatus of critical research and upheld by a number of Sciences, unhappily still young and still largely conjectural in their methods and shifting in their results, — Comparative Philology, Comparative Mythology and the Science of Comparative Religion.”
Dissatisfied with prevailing interpretations, he introduces his own hypothesis, positing that the Rig-Veda stands as a significant relic from an ancient epoch of human thought. Drawing parallels with the historical Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries, he suggests that the Vedic mystics concealed spiritual and psychological knowledge behind a veil of concrete and material symbols. These symbols, designed to shield sacred meanings from the profane while revealing them to the initiated, form the basis of Aurobindo’s investigation. He believed that if the hypothesis proves true, it will offer three advantages. Firstly, it will provide a rational explanation for the entire ancient tradition of India, revealing that the Vedanta, Purana, Tantra, philosophical schools, and major Indian religions trace their origins back to the Vedic era. Secondly, it will simplify the understanding of obscure or misunderstood portions of the Upanishads and shed light on the origins of the Puranas. Lastly, it will resolve and eliminate the inconsistencies present in the Vedic texts.
Aurobindo’s approach diverges from the conventional materialistic and ritualistic interpretations found in historical commentaries. Instead, he delves into a coherent interpretation of the hymns, aligning them more closely with the Upanishadic tradition. He contends that the hymns are not shrouded in an inaccessible spiritual realm but are, in fact, readily accessible. This departure from traditional perspectives is crucial for unraveling the layers of meaning embedded in the Vedic texts.
The author introduces a valuable perspective termed the ‘psychological’ way, wherein the Rig Vedic hymns are illuminated through the lens of psychological symbols. This, combined with Aurobindo’s philological exploration of the hymns, provides a comprehensive understanding of the multiple meanings embedded in commonly used Sanskrit words. Importantly, this aids in deciphering the hymns independently, without necessarily following Aurobindo’s specific interpretative path.
Aurobindo’s critique of early Brahmin and Western scholarship serves as a vital contribution to a nuanced understanding of the Rig Veda. The acknowledgment of bias within existing scholarship, especially favoring certain interpretations, highlights the need for a discerning approach to the study of Vedic texts.
The author’s assertion that his work is an exploration of possibilities, an attempt to uncover the spiritual ‘Secret of the Veda,’ adds an element of humility to his interpretations. Aurobindo invites readers to adopt specific symbols and evaluate their applicability throughout the hymns, demonstrating a reasonable and measured approach.
Sri Aurobindo describes his own past confusion, which describes exactly where we all are:
“Like the majority of educated Indians, I had passively accepted without examination, before myself reading the Veda, the conclusions of European Scholarship both as to the religious and as to the historical and ethnical sense of the ancient hymns. In consequence, following again the ordinary line taken by modernized Hindu opinion, I regarded the Upanishads as the most ancient source of Indian thought and religion, the true Veda, the first Book of Knowledge. The Rig Veda in the modern translations which were all I knew of this profound Scripture, represented for me an important document of our national history, but seemed of small value or importance for the history of thought or for a living spiritual experience.”
How can one reconsider and reshape such a viewpoint? From my perspective, comprehending the symbolism of the Vedas, though challenging, particularly when seeking genuine understanding and personal experience, finds substantial assistance in this book. It is crucial to highlight that the core argument of the book is simply that Vedic hymns carry a symbolic dimension, skillfully concealed by the Rishis within the external facade of naturalistic and ritualistic practices, exploiting the nuances of Sanskrit grammar—wherein roots can convey multiple meanings. Consequently, the cow is transformed into a symbol of divine illumination, Agni embodies the will force of the divine, the horse signifies spiritual strength, and ritam encapsulates the concept of truth. The book effectively substantiates this thesis.
He establishes connections between Vedic imagery and its Puranic equivalent, thereby questioning the notion that the “Vedic religions” are entirely alien to the conventional facets of Hinduism:
“This Vedic imagery throws a clear light on the similar symbolic images of the Puranas, especially on the famous symbol of Vishnu sleeping after the pralaya on the folds of the snake Ananta upon the ocean of sweet milk…For they have given a name to Vishnu’s snake, the name Ananta, and Ananta means the Infinite; therefore they have told us plainly enough that the image is an allegory and that Vishnu, the all-pervading Deity, sleeps in the periods of non-creation on the coils of the Infinite. As for the ocean, the Vedic imagery shows us that it must be the ocean of eternal existence and this ocean of eternal existence is an ocean of absolute sweetness, in other words, of pure Bliss.”
Perhaps the most significant contribution of Aurobindo’s work lies in establishing an alternative framework for interpreting Rig Vedic symbols, grounded in meticulous research and scholarly commentary. While recommending Aurobindo’s insights for readers approaching the original hymns, caution is advised against reading his translations in isolation. Instead, Aurobindo’s work should be considered alongside other commentaries, both historical and modern, to form well-rounded interpretations of the original Sanskrit hymns.
The transformative impact of Aurobindo’s exploration becomes evident as the reader progresses through the early Fire Hymns. For instance, in Chapter 06, Part I, he write:
“Agnir hotā kavikratuḥ, satyaś citraśravastamaḥ;
devo devebhir ā gamat.Yad aṅga dāśuṣe tvam, agne bhadraṁ kariṣyasi;
tavet tat satyam aṅgiraḥ.Upa tvāgne dive dive, doṣāvastar dhiyā vayam;
namo bharanta emasi.Rājantam adhvarāṇāṁ, gopām ṛtasya dīdivim;
vardhamānaṁ sve dame.
Let us now follow instead the opposite principle and give their full psychological value to the words of the inspired text. Kratu means in Sanskrit work or action and especially work in the sense of the sacrifice; but it means also power or strength (the Greek kratos) effective of action. Psychologically this power effective of action is the will. The word may also mean mind or intellect and Sayana admits thought or knowledge as a possible sense for kratu. Śravas means literally hearing and from this primary significance is derived its secondary sense, “fame”. But, psychologically, the idea of hearing leads up in Sanskrit to another sense which we find in śravaṇa, śruti, śruta, — revealed knowledge, the knowledge which comes by inspiration. Dṛṣṭi and śruti, sight and hearing, revelation and inspiration are the two chief powers of that supra-mental faculty which belongs to the old Vedic idea of the Truth, the Ritam. The word śravas is not recognised by the lexicographers in this sense, but it is accepted in the sense of a hymn, — the inspired word of the Veda. This indicates clearly that at one time it conveyed the idea of inspiration or of something inspired, whether word or knowledge. This significance, then, we are entitled to give it, provisionally at least, in the present passage; for the other sense of fame is entirely incoherent and meaningless in the context. Again the word namas is also capable of a psychological sense; for it means literally “bending down” and is applied to the act of adoring submission to the deity rendered physically by the prostration of the body. When therefore the Rishi speaks of “bearing obeisance to Agni by the thought” we can hardly doubt that he gives to namas the psychological sense of the inward prostration, the act of submission or surrender to the deity.”
And after such interpretation the Vedas, once enigmatic and seemingly nonsensical, acquire depth and meaning. Aurobindo’s method, though challenging, becomes a guiding companion through the labyrinthine passages of Vedic symbolism.
The book not only serves as essential reading for those making claims about the Veda but also caters to individuals interested in comparative Indo-European philology, Aryan migration, the psychological underpinnings of ancient symbolism, and the common threads in mythology. Its significance extends beyond the realms of Vedic studies to encompass broader inquiries into the human psyche and ancient cultural narratives.
Personal reflections on the Vedas, particularly the Rigveda, shift from perceiving them as mysterious and superficial to recognizing the profound knowledge imparted by ancient Indian seers. The book unveils the hidden meanings, transforming ritualistic and seemingly irrational verses into revelations of mystical knowledge.
Although Aurobindo’s translations may diverge from the apparent meanings of the hymns, his symbolic interpretations add a layer of depth that invites readers to reassess their understanding. The book’s challenging nature, conveyed through an English style less familiar to contemporary readers, demands effort but rewards with profound insights.
In addressing the long-standing confusion surrounding the Rig Veda, Aurobindo’s work challenges prevailing naturalistic and ritualistic interpretations, offering a fresh perspective rooted in esoteric psychological and spiritual insights. By disentangling the layers of symbolism and providing alternative readings, Aurobindo’s “The Secret of the Veda” emerges as an indispensable resource for those seeking a deeper and an alternative understanding of this ancient text.
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