Paper presented at:
EIGHTEENTH INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS OF VEDANTA
University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth, MA
July 16 -19, 2009.
The confluence of several global currents -religious, social, political and economic – has turned our age into one of the earnestness for mutual understanding. This necessitates to bridge the gap between Eastern and western philosophies. A right acquaintance with Indian Philosophy can be understood under the connotation of “philosophies of life”. But philosophies of life can be many and no single metaphysical term can cover all. And evaluation has to be not in terms of any western philosophy as the standard, but in terms of experience, truth and reality. Then Indian philosophies can be classified as religious. But religion for the Indians is not a revealed religion like christanity or Islam. But infact, neither should treat the other as the standard. We have on our hands, then, the question: What is the standard ? Self-reflection, as a result, becomes necessary as reflection on the other. One may safely say that classical Indian philosophy is a handmaid to religion that is not understood as revealed, but as a religiom of intution and reflection on life and Being on man’s inwardness and outwardness. To teach it as some doctrinal theology can be misleading; for theology in the west originated in a particular revelation and so distinctions are drawn among revealed theology, natural theology, philosophical theology and philosophy of religion. But no such distinctions apply to Indian religious thought. One may say that, in the West, Greek philosophy is a direct hand maid to life, medieval philosophy to theology, and much of contemporary philosophy to science. And it is the later trend of contemporary philosophy that has more or less forgotten about its roots in human life and existence with the consequent protest of existence philosophies which tend to discard reason and science. The tention between philosophy and religion, religion and science, and science and philosophy has become characteristic of the west which cannot be applied to Indian thought. So the Indian regards religion as a theory of reality guiding our life according to that theory. He feels that philosophy is needed to tell us the implications of our life; the elucidation of the implications is metaphysics and the realization of them in our life is religion.
Whitehead said that Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. One may say that all post Kantian philosophy is a series of footnotes to Kant. Similarly, Indian philosophy can be considered to be a series of footnotes to the upanishads. However, ultimately all are footnotes to life and reason in different perspectives. When this primary and basic nature of philosophy is recognized, unity of understanding and mutual understanding become possible. After all, all philosophies, Eastern and Western, are footnotes to the living LOGOS in its different aspects and dimentions.
Vedic Hymns in a Numinous perspective
Aurobindo in his book on ‘The Secret of the Veda’ says that the vedic risis reached the first great summit of the human spirit which occupies in the scale of human existence the highest place higher than the physical mind. This physical mind is seated in the physical consciousness of man. All scientific and technological inventions of practical utility belong to this category of thinking mind seated in the mental consciousness. In Aurobindo’s terminology it is called the physical mind. Most of the indologists – both Western and Eastern – have tried to explain the vedic hymns with the physical mind from the realm of physical consciousness of man. Hence most of their interpretations of vedic hymns based on the misnomer of Aryan invasion theory are incongrous, irreverential and banal like Max Muller telling us that the Vedas are full of childish, silly even monstrous conceptions. It is tedious, low common place; It represents human nature on a low level of selfishness and worldliness and only here and there are a few rare statements that comes from the depths of the soul.
My paper attempts to lay bare the inner psychological significance of the earliest
uttering of man in the form of vedic hymns whose language is described as massive in substance and whose tonality penetrates the thick layers of the embodied being to touch the soul. I have traced the history of the vedic theogony through the vedic hymns addressed to a number of gods like Rta, Varuna, indra, Agni, Usas, Mitra, Surya, Maruts, Yama, Parjanya, Savitr, Visnu and Soma. The language of the Hymn portion is very archaic and one has to wade through quite a number of hymns to get at the essential doctrines. More than half of them are ritualistic. There is, however, one great gain in studying them. We can get an inkling of the beauty of the symbolic ritualistic ideas. We can trace the historical growth of spiritual ideas. We can study the study the rise the spiritual ideas and trace to their source. A great deal of holiness is attached to these hymns to preserve them. We find in them thoughts at their highest and ordinary have all been preserved. The essential and the non essential , the most ennobling and the sublime teachings and the simplest matters of detail exist side by side. The study of these hymns give us great advantage. Even now we are able to study the vedic thoughts in their original significance, to note how they are developed, how from materialistic ideas finer and finer spiritual ideas evolved, until they attained their greatest height in the vedanta.
Most of the indologists who interpreted the vedic hymns have not got the higher mental equipment, certainly not the inward look to enable them to understand either the spiritually inspired poetry of the vedas or the subtle and profound philosophy of the upanishads which are sacred and revealed. Their beauty of thought and language is obvious but their true meaning cannot be realized by the mental intelligence. The only way to realize it is by meditation along lines laid down by a qualified perceptor. The veda itself uters its own central secret by the famous words – “Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti, One of whom the rsis speak variously”. These rsis thought differently from us, used their images in their own peculiar way and an antique cast of vision gave a strange outline to their substances.”
About the techniques of he hymns Aurobindo says : “ The Physical melted its shades into lustres of the physic. Obviously such poetry, written by poets with such vision cannot be understood or interpreted by rational standards. When the veda speaks of the Bull and the Cow – the shining herds belonging to the Sun lying concealed in the cavern – they are strange creatures to the mind but they are true and living creatures on their own plane, actual and significant. Thus is vedic hymn to be interpreted according to its own spirit and vision and the physically natural truth of its ideas and figure of style, Aurobindo says: their speech is lyric by intensity and epic by evolution, an utterance of great power, pure and bold and grand in outline, a speech direct and brief in impact. Full to overflowing in sense and suggestion.” The vedic hymns are replete with suggestions of esoteric doctrines and mystic philosophies. Aurobindo looks upon gods of the hymns as symbols of psychological functions. Surya signifies intelligence, Agni will, and Soma feeling. The veda to him is a mystic religion. What to the Europian is a myth and legend is in the veda an actuality,strands of our inner being. What to the westerner poetic imagination and metaphysical speculation is to us an experience, a direct realization. This turn of the Indian mind, its spiritual sincerity and psychic positivism gives the veda and the vedanta their immense importance. Ancient India, “did not err,” says Aurobindo, when it traced back all its philosophy, religion and essential things of its culture to these seer-poets”
Aurobindo says “”the Rg veda is one considerable document that remains to us from early period of human thought when the spiritual and psychological knowledge of the risis was concealed for reasons now difficult to determine in a veil of concrete and material figures and symbols
which protected the sense from the profane and revealed to the initiated. One of the leading principles of the vedic mystics was the sacredness and secrecy of the self- knowledge and the true knowledge of the gods.. This wisdom was, they thought, is not for the un initiated. Hence they favoured the existence
of an outer worship effective, but imperfect for the profane and an inner disciplene for the initiate and clothed their language in words and images which had equally a spiritual sense for the elect and the concrete sense for the mass of ordinary worshippers. The vedic hymns depicting vedic theogony were conceived and constructed on these principles.
When the vedic people began to distinguish within themselves between body and spirit, they thought that the natural forces also had spirits presiding over them. They then began to worship these presiding or ruling spirits and called them “adhi- devatas” (presiding deities). When they conceived a general order in Nature, they felt the natural forces were governed by laws, and thought, therefore, there must be a supreme governor that controlled all the others. Sometimes thay thought it was the Sun. ( Mead says vedic Sun worship called Mithraism had spread like wildfire throughout Roman Empire – a pre christian legacy of Europe and Renan adds that the world would have become “Mithrac” had it not been for the advent of Abrahamic religions) Then they conceived a “Maker of the universe” (Viswakarman / Virat / Hiranyagarbha) or of the ‘Lord of Men’ (prajapati) and others. And whenever they addressed such a god, they addressed him as the Supreme God, thereby exalting one God above the other gods in turn. This stage of religious reflection is monotheistic. Then arose the concept that such an all- comprehensive Being must be a universal Being and he could not be a person, This stage of thinking is monistic. Instead of God as the Supreme person, an all inclusive Supreme Being was conceived in which human persons had their life and being. The multiplicity of gods gave place to one God of the Universe and in the upanishads there is a rebellion even against that one God. Not only was the idea of many governors of this universe ruling their destinies unbearable, but it was also intolerable that there should be one person ruling this Universe. The idea grows and grows until it attains its climax. In almost all of the upanishads, there is this climax coming at the last, and that is the dethroning of this God of the Universe. The personality of God vanishes, the impersonality comes. God is no more a person, no more a human being, however magnified and exaggerated who rules this universe, but he has become an embdied principle in every being, immanent in the whole universe. It would be illogical to go from thr personal God to the impersonal, and at the same time to leave man as a person. So the personal man is broken down and man as principle is built up. The person only a phenomenon, the principle is behind it. Thus from both sides, simultaneously, there is the breaking down of personalities and the approach towards principles, the personal God approaching he Impersonal, the personal man approaching the Impersonal Man. Then come the succeeding stages of the gradual convergence of the two advancing lines of the impersonal God and the Impersonal Man. And the upanishads embody the stages through which these two lines at last become one, and the last word of each upanishad is “Thow are That”. There is but one Eternally Blissful principle and that One is manifesting Itself as all this variety.
Vedic Theogony in the Hymns
The Rg.veda Samhita consists of 1,017 hymns or suktas covering a total of 10,600 stanzas.It is divided into 8 astakas – an eighth portion is an astaka – each having 8 adhyayas or chapters, which are subdivided into vargas or groups. It is sometimes divided into ten mandalas (circles) in the other three vedas ( Sama, Yajur and Atarva). The latter is the more popular division. Each mandala contains 191 hymns and is ascribed to fifteen Rsis (sagea) such as Gautama, Kanva etc. Those addressed to God Agni come first, those to God Indra second then the other Gods. We find in the Hymns a freshness and simplicity and inexplicable charm as of the breath of the spring or the flower of the morning about the first efforts of meditation to comprehend and express their mystic communion with Godhead.
The first mandala in the Rg.veda 1.1.1 exhorts :
“ Agnim eeley purohitam yajnasya devam rutvijam hotaram ratna dhatakam.”
Tr.( I pray to Thee, Supreme Lord, the first One, chief of all deities. Beneficient to all, Receiver of all sacrifice, Bestower of all fruit of sacrifice, Absorber of all that is in all sacrifice, Wearer of all that is beautiful and precious.)
A vedik sloka has four parts. Rishi or sage who offer the prayer. Devata, the name by which God is prayed to.
Chandas : The prosodical form of the prayer. Viniyoga : the purpose of prayer. Here the Rishi is Madhuchandas, the deity is none but parabrahman or almighty God represented as fire, the chandas (metre) is the Gayatri and the purpose is to beg or enlightenment to evolve from not-knowing to knowledge, symbolized by the transformative energy of Agni (fire): Heat and light.
In the Rg.Veda we have the mystic utterances of poetic souls of the sages. The hymns are philosophical revelations explaining mysteries of the universe. The sages are poetic souls who contemplated on the beauties of the sky and the wonders of the earth and satiated (bemused) their musical souls by composing hymns.
The genesis(birth) of Gods Dyaus, Varuna, Usas, Mitra, Agni, Sun, Indra etc.,were the productions of this inner poetic consciousness. The view of life reflected in the poetry and practice of vedic hymns is instructive. The impulse of philosophy finds its first expression in mythology and religion. The permanent elements of the world are deified, and thus cosmology becomes part of the religion.
Some of the hymns astonish us by their highly abstract philosophising. Three strata of thought – polytheism, monotheism and theism – can be discerned from the hymns of the Rg.Veda. The process of deification- God – making-in the vedic ethos can be clearly seen in the Rg,Veda. Being essentially of poetic and spiritual temperament the sages saw the things of nature with such intensity of feeling and force of imagination that the the things of nature became suffused with divinity. They know what it was to love nature, and be lost in the wonders of dawn and Sunrise, those mysterious processes
which effect a meeting of the soul and nature. To them nature was a living presense with which they could hold communion. Some glorious and momentous aspects of nature became the windows of heaven through which the divine looked upon the earth. The moon and the stars, the sea and the sky, the dawn and the nightfall were regarded as divine dispensation. Deva meant originally bright, and later was applied to all the bright ones, the Sun, the sky, the stars, the dawn, the day etc . It became a general term connoting the common features of all shining ones. The earth also was deified. But very early moral attributes such as benificence, omniscience and righteousness were also added. There has been a steady advance from the physical to the personal and from the personal to the divine. Then the question arose who made Heaven and Earth. “ He was indeed among the Gods, the cleverest workman who produced the brilliant ones (heaven and Earth) that gladden all things he who measures the bright ones by his wisdom and establishes on everlasting supports(1)” This creative power is asigned to Agni(2), Indra(3) or Soma(4). Other Gods also come in for this honour(5).
Varuna is the God of the sky. The name is derived from the Samskrit root “var” to “cover” or “compass”. His physical form is manifest. He is coverer or the enfolder. He covers the whole starry expanse of heaven “as with a robe, with all the creatures thereof and their dwellings(6)” Mitra is his constant companion. Varuna and Mitra, when used together, express night and day, darkness and light. Varuna’s figure is steadily transformed and idealized till he becomes the most moral God of the vedas. He watches over the world, punishes the evildoers and forgives the sins of those who implore his pardon. The Sun is his eye, the sky is his garment and the storm is his breath(7). Rivers flow by his command(8); the Sun shines, the star and the Moon are in their courses for fear of him(9).By his law heaven and earth are held apart. He upholds the physical and the moral world. He is no capricious god.. but a “dhrtavrata” one of fixed resolve. Other Gods obey his orders. He is omniscient. He is the supreme god. He conforms to the eternal law of the moral world which he has established. The law of which varuna is the custodian is called the Rta. Rta literally means “ the course of things. It stands for law and the immanence of Justice. The conception encompasses cosmologically the regularity of the movements of Sun, Moon and stars, the alternations of day and of night and of the seasons.
Rta denotes the order of the world.. Everything that is ordered in the universe has Rta for its principle. The vedic seer declares that Rta exists before the manifestation of all phenomena. The shifting series of the cycles of the Universe are the varying expressions of the constant Rta. “ Maruts come from afar from the seat of the Rta(10). Vishnu is the embrio of the Rta(11). The tendency towards a transcendental conception of unchanging reality shows its origins here.The real is the unchanging law. What is, is an unstable show, an imperfect copy. The real is one without parts and changes, while the many shift and pass. Soon this cosmic order becomes the will of supreme God, the law of morality
- R.V.,1.160.4,see alsoIV.56.3.
- IX.101.15 ;
(6) VIII.4.1 ;
(7) VII.87.2 ;
(8) I.24; 2.28,4; VII.87.5;
(9) I.24.10; I.25.6; I.44.14; II.28.8; III.54.18; VIII.25.2;
(11) R.V. I.156.3;
and righteousness as well. Even the Gods cannot transgress it. Rta originally meant “established route of the world, of the Sun, moon and stars, morning and evening, day and night”. Gradually it became the path of morality to be followed by man and the path of righteousness observed even by gods. The dawn follows the path of Rta(12). The whole universe is founded on Rta and moves in it(13). Varuna who was the first keeper of the physical order, becomes the custodian of the moral order, rtasya gopa. The prayer to gods in many cases for keeping us in right path. “ O Indra, lead us on the path of Rta, on the right path over all evils”(14). As soon as the conception of Rta was recognised there was a change in the nature of gods. The world is no more a chaos representing the blind fury of chance elements, but is the working of a harmonious purpose. This faith gives us solace and security whenever unbelief tempts us and confidence in ourselves is shattered. Whatever might happen, we feel that there is a law of righteousness in the moral world answering to the beautiful order of nature. As sure as the sun rises tomorrow virtue will triumph Rta can be trusted.
Mitra and varuna are the joint-keepers of Rta and forgivers of sin. Mitra is the companion of varuna and is generally invoked along with him. He represents sometimes the sun and sometimes the light. He is also an all-seeing, truth-loving god. Gradually Mitra comes to be associated with morning light and Varuna with the night-sky. Varuna and Mitra are called adityas the sons of Aditi.
Surya is the sun, the author of all light and life in the world. He has ten main hymns addressed to him. He is life of “all that moveth and standeth”. He isall seeing, the spy of the world. He rouses men to perform their activities, dispels darkness and gives light. “Surya is rising, to pace both the worlds, looking down on men, protector of all that travel or stay, beholding right and wrong among men.”(15). Surya becomes the creator of the world and its governer.
Savitr, Celebrated in eleven entire hymns is also a solar deity. He is described as “golden-eyed, golden-handed and golden tongued. He is sometimes distinguished from the sun “(16), though often identified with him. The Gayatri hymnis adressed to surya in the form of savitri : “Let us meditate on the adorable splendor of savitri; may he enlighten our minds”. The often quoted hymn from yajur-veda “O God Savitr, the creator of all, remove the obstructions and grant the blessings” is adressed to Satvr.
Surya in the great form of vishnu supports all the worlds(17). Vishnu is the god of three strides. He covers the earth, heaven and the highest world visible to mortals. None can reach the limits of his greatness. “We can from the earth know two of thy spaces, thou alone, O Visnu, Knowest thine own highest adobe”(18). In the rig veda vishnu is described as “Brhatsarah” having the world for his body, “Pratyeti ahavam” he who comes in response to the invitation of the devotees”(19).
He is said to have traversed thrice the earth spaces for the sake of man in distress.(20) ___________________________________________________________________________________
- R.V, vii.60
- R.V, vii.63
- i.22; vii.59-1-2.
- Manava Badhitaya
An important phenomenon of nature raised to a deity is fire(agni). Agni is second in importance only to Indra being addressed in at least 200 hymn. Matarisvan brought Agni from the sky and entrusted it to the keeping of the Bhrgus (21). He is the dhumaketu having smoke for his banner. “O Agni, accept this which i offer thee, blaze up brightly and send up thy sacred smoke, touch the topmost heavens with thy mane and mix with beams of the sun”(22). Agni is thus seen to dwell not only on earth in the hearth and the altar but also in the sky and the atmosphere as the sun and the dawn and as lightning in clouds. He soon becomes the supreme god stretching out heaven and earth. As the concept grew more abstract it also became more and more sublime. He becomes the mediator between gods and men and helper of all. “O Agni bring Hither Varuna to our offering. Bring Indra from the skies, the Maruts from the air”(23). I hold Agni to be my father. I hold him to be my kinsman, my brother and also my friend. Soma is the god of inspiration and the giver of immortal life. The following beautiful hymn to soma is an equisite masterpiece of sublime poetic sensibilities of the vedic people:
“Where there is eternal light, in the world,
Where the sun is placed, in that immortal
Imperishable world, place me, O soma,
Where the son of vivasvat reigns as king,
Where the secret place of heaven is,
Where these mighty waters are,make me immortal,
Where life is free, in the third heaven of heavens,
Where the worlds are radiant, there make me immortal
Where wishes and desires are, where the bowl of the bright soma is,
Where there is food and rejoicing, there make me immortal
Where there is happiness and delight, where joy and pleasure reside
Where the desires of our desire are attained
There makes me immortal.(25).”
In the hymn to soma, there is reference to the son of vivasvat who is the yama of the rig veda. There are three hymns addressed to yama. He is the God and ruler of the dead. He was first to find his way to the other world and the first to tread the path of the fathers (26).He is the King of the nether world of the dead, the decider of the life span of being. He is invoked as the god of the setting sun and in charge of life after death(27). In the Brahmanas yama becomes the judge and chastiser of men. In the Rig Veda he is yet only their king.
Parjanya was the sky god. In the Vedic parjanya is another name for the sky,”The earth is the matter and I am son of the earth, Parjanya is the father, may he help us”.(28)
- Highly Venerable group of rsis
- R.V ii.6.
- S.B.E, Vedic hymns,part 1
In the atharva veda Earth is called the wife of parjanya (29). Parjanya is the god of cloud and rain (30). He is the life of all that moves and rests (31). When thought advanced from the material to the spiritual, from the physical to the personal it was easy to conceive abstract deities.
- A.V xii-1.42