The Rig Veda is Universal
Researching the Rig Veda brings to mind the famous Indian parable of the six blind men who are individually touching a different part of an elephant. Each of the blind men vehemently insists on their interpretation of their unique sensory perception of the elephant as a pillar, a rope, a snake, a tree trunk, etc. The wisdom gained is the understanding that each one of us can only perceive through the subjective filtering of our experience.
I here present some of the views I have found in my research regarding ‘approaches’ to or interpretations of the Rig Veda that I have gleaned from scholars and spiritual teachers. I prefer to stay with Indian views, but occasionally a more western style researcher is illuminating. I am not a scholar and am only hoping to understand these hymns I love.
There are many interesting online articles on the Rig Veda. One that I found very helpful is “Some Thought On the Veda and Its Study” by Professor K. Satchidananda Murty (1924-2011). The Hindu news service quotes from a tribute to Murty as "one among the few towering philosophers India has ever produced." He is said to have written his first book, which was a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita when he was just 16 years old in 1941.
Professor Murty explains that from ancient times the Veda has been interpreted in many ways. He considers three to be of importance. The first concerns the ritualists (Yajnikas) who took the Veda as “a source book, which informs how to perform rituals for obtaining this worldly and other worldly good.” The ritualists are said to have had little interest in the meaning of the hymns. Their concern was the perfection of word as sound repetition. The primary source of the early western scholar translations was Sayana who wrote more than 100 works and was a ritualist.
In an introduction to R.L. Kasyap’s translations of the Rig Veda, Professor S.K. Ramachandra Roa agrees in his description of Sayana’s interpretation with Prof. Murty's assessment. “Sayana was an uncompromising votary of the Mimamsaka ritualism… It is remarkable that he (Sayana) chose at all to write a commentary on Rig Veda Samhita… The Mimamsaka-s paid lip-service to the greatness, glory and antiquity of the Veda, but had completely ignored its import… The words were all that was important for them in a mantra…that had to be recited as part of the rituals. The meaning of the mantra was of no interest to them.”
Dr. Indrani Kar describes Sayana’s life in her book on his methodology. Sayana was born in a South Indian family and his commentaries on all four Vedas, some Brahmanas and Aranyakas made him highly regarded in the Vijayanagara Kingdom. “He, along with his elder brother Madhavacarya, was responsible for the great renaissance of Vedic learning under the rule of the early Vijayanagara monarchs.”
This Vijayanagara Kingdom is a fascinating momentary flourishing in time of the Vedic civilization and a refuge from Muslim conquest. Around 1500 it was the largest city in the world with 500,000 inhabitants; its ruins are now a World Heritage Site. In his ‘Brief History of India’ Alain Danielou says that the Empire of Vijayanagara was established to “defend the ancient religion, social structure, and culture of the Hindus against Islamic and modernist inroads. ...The Vijayanagara Empire produced in India – dilapidated and debased by the ferocious Muslim occupation – a prodigious cultural renewal at all levels, including philosophy, the sciences, arts, architecture, and social organization.”
Sayana was not only a revered scholar in Vijayanagara; he was also an accomplished warrior, an “undaunted soldier” who “had the rare fortune of having practical wisdom together with speculative faculty and physical valour.” Sayana was so highly regarded at court that when the king Kampana died and his son Sangama still a child, Sayana “took upon himself the responsibility of the administrator of the kingdom as well as of the education of the child.”
Sayana is thought to have died in 1387 A.D. The picture of Sayana is of a man who is not only a brilliant intellectual, but also a fearsome warrior and adept administrator who understood the subtle arts of power and was competent to rule the kingdom. Moreover, Sayana’s works include a collection of moral teachings from Sanskrit Literature, a work that deals with penance, a book that “deals with verbs given in the Paniniya Dhaturvrtti", a work on the ancient Indian medical science, a work on Sanskrit rhetoric, and a treatise on Vedic rituals.
Sayana is obviously the man who can be counted on to categorize, collect, and create an invaluable repository of the Vedic Sanskrit culture and civilization. We are indeed indebted to this great man for preserving so much of India's history. However never is it said is that Sayana is either a visionary or an inspired poet. One might conclude that as great and remarkable as Sayana’s talents were, they did not include insight into the mystical and poetic subtleties that are to be found nested in layers of multiple meanings in the Rig Veda hymns.
"Everyone has the right to the highest wisdom…”
Returning to Professor Murty’s analysis of the many interpretations of the Veda from ancient times, the second is that the Vedic interpreters “accepted the Vedic gods as realities, and rituals as acts of propitiation and worship…the polytheistic interpretation of the Veda.” According to Murty, most western interpretations are also of this kind. I would agree that most westerners have been led to believe that Hinduism is a religion that worships and propitiates gods for specific results. However, the more one studies Hinduism, the more one understands that Hinduism embraces as many ways to approach God as there are Hindus.
The third interpretation according to Murty is monotheism, which means the understanding that “all the gods mentioned in the Vedas are the limbs of the one Great Self (Mahan Atma)…the various gods who are hymned in it are but functions of the One God. Every hymn in it can be understood as directly referring to the One God.” Such luminaries as Sri Aurobindo, Swami Dayananda Sarasvati, Madhvacarya, and Yaska in the Nirukta accepted a monotheistic view.
Professor Murty states that it is “important to recognize that from very early times the Veda had been interpreted in many ways. Certain Rigvedic passages point out that its hymns are mystical prayers, and mystical statements uttered sages illumined by noble ideas and prayers. The composer of hymns, man, is a mystery; and so are the gods.” According to Murty, the epic Sanskrit text, The Mahabharata indicates that the famous Vritra legend and sacrificial acts can be understood symbolically.
Murty: “As the Veda itself mentions, it contains higher and lower ideas. Profound and eternal metaphysical and psychological truths and ethical intuitions of unsurpassed and perennial value – as well as baseless beliefs and untenable ideas are to be found in it.” Murty then suggests that it is wrong to take any interpretation as sacrosanct and infallible – including Sayana and others.
Murty: “One of the great obstacles to the preservation and propagation of the Veda has been the denial of universal access to it. …in effect it has been the exclusive privilege and prerogative of male Brahmins only. Even today most Brahmins who have learnt the Veda, either with or without meaning, do not teach it to women, Sudras and others. But the Veda itself does not say that it is meant for any particular sex, caste or race. On the contrary, it declares that it is meant for all.”
"The Veda is a universal scripture meant for all human beings."
Murty says that the Veda is a universal scripture. I have heard other Indian teachers express a similar generosity about the Bhagavad Gita. There are women Seers who composed hymns in the Rig Veda – Lopamudra and Apala; and we find the great lady sages Gargi and Maitreyi in the Upanishads. Murti summarises by reiterating that “the Veda itself claims to be a universal scripture meant for all human beings. Whoever has the sincere desire and capacity is eligible to study it either in the original Sanskrit or in its translations. …Everyone has the right to the highest wisdom…”
So I proceed.
Romila Thapar [born 1931] is a very famous and respected Indian historian, Professor Emeritus in History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, who seems to have stirred up a great deal of antagonism. She does not believe that history should be used as a political weapon and is against what she terms a "communal interpretation" of Indian history that chooses facts through an extremely selective partisan filter. Thapar is clearly brilliant and even though to my mind a bit un-magical, non-mystical, her depiction of early Indian history is well worth reading.
I am not Indian and have no cultural bias, no political agenda, and no vested interest in Indian politics. I am only endeavouring to examine various writers and understand the many conflicting views. I would naturally tend towards a more mystical understanding, however my view is more off-planet.
Thapar has a way of describing history that is very broad, encompassing many perspectives, more cleanly an overview abstraction, and perhaps beyond many. She accepts that history will never be fact because what has been written is always from a multiplicity of writers who are saying different things. She compares this to the 1950 Japanese film 'Rashoman' that tells the story of a murder from the four witnesses, including the dead. The film reveals how life is experienced so completely and amazingly from our totally different perceptions. We all live in our own holograms. For Thapar there is no linkage between 'belief' and history; and history will never arrive at any absolute truth, but is an attempt to analyse evidence to find what may have occurred.
In her famous book, ‘Early India: From The Origins To AD 1300' she says: “Methods of memorizing the Vedic hymns involved a series of cross-checks, and analyses of Vedic Sanskrit already had complex rules. …The grammar of Panini, although it was not the grammar of the ritual language – Vedic Sanskrit – but of more commonly used Sanskrit, reflected an unusually advanced understanding of the structure of language and was remarkable in many ways.”
Therefore I assume from what Thapar writes that the grammar of Panini that Sanskrit scholars have insisted on using to translate the Rig Veda is not the grammar of the Rig Veda itself. Thapar continues: “Vedic Sanskrit as the language of ritual developed differently from spoken Sanskrit, or what Panini calls Bhasha, and for which he wrote his grammar. This was to evolve into classical Sanskrit, the language of those with formal learning. Panini’s grammar was foundational to later grammars of Sanskrit and other Indo-Aryan derived languages.”
I was rather amazed to read this because I had also read that no one without 18 years of Panini’s grammar should even attempt to translate the Rig Veda Sanskrit. Yet the Rishi Seers poet composers of the Rig Veda appear to have left us no instructions on their grammar - and the stunning variances in translations will leave the reader bewildered. When I found other scholars describing the difficulties in translating the Rig Veda, I felt as if I were standing in the midst of some vast cosmic puzzle.
Quotes from scholars:
*Scholars disagree about the meaning of the Sanskrit words in the Rig Veda. The Sanskrit of this ancient text is very different than other later texts such as the Upanishads, the epic Mahabharata, or the even later Puranas. Here are a few quotes from scholars that may give you an idea of how complex and confused this area of Vedic scholarship is:
"To this day there is no internally consistent and coherent interpretation of the Vedas."
From: ‘The Celestial Key to the Vedas’ by B.G Sidharth, Indian physicist and director general of B. M. Birla Science Centre. Sidharth has written extensively on physics and his books are available on Amazon. He proposed the "dark energy" model at the seventh Marcel Grossman Conference in Jerusalem in June 1997, and at another conference on quantum physics in Singapore a year later. His research paper titled "The Universe of Fluctuations" was published in International Journal of Modern Physics in 1998.
*A Sacred Quiz: “The language of the Rig Veda is archaic and contains such grammatical devices and linguistic forms which are beyond the reach of the common mind… Among the devices are mystic illusions, configurations of similar sounds and words, metaphors, incongruous grammatical formations, un-sequential syntactical relations and Word-Economy; and these create a sort of sacred quiz, which taxes the ingenuity of even the most learned one…There is considerable disagreement among the interpreters of the Rig Veda, particularly in the interpretation of individual words."
“By the time of the Brahmanas people started being skeptical about the authenticity of the meaning (of the Rig Veda) as well as the utility of the Veda.”
Yâska, a 6th century BC Sanskrit grammarian said in the Nirukta: "Seers had direct intuitive insight…by oral instruction, [they] handed down hymns to later generations who were destitute of direct intuitive knowledge.”
From: The Rigveda, Mandala III, Shukla & Shukla. [I take this to mean that by the 6th century BC, Sanskrit scholars realized that the original meanings would be lost to most.]
*A Secret Meaning: The history of the Rig Veda in terms of it being understood even in India is quite amazing. In the introduction to the Rig Veda Samhita Mandala - 1, (Part One), translation by R.L. Kashyap, we are given some very useful insight by Prof. S.K. Ramachandra Rao. We are told that the Rig Veda “has a secret meaning” which employs a double-language method and was deliberately intended.
Sâyana (who died 1387) was an important commentator on the Vedas and it was his writings that served as the primary influence on the English scholars like Max Muller who translated the Rig Veda into English.
*Prof. S.K. Ramachandra Rao further explains: “It is unfortunate that the decadent culture in the country [India] during the middle ages [preferred ritualism]… As a result, the Veda was looked upon as source book for ritualism. [Sâyana was] an uncompromising votary of Mîmamsaka ritualism. ...It is remarkable that he (Sâyana) chose at all to write a commentary on Rig Veda Samhita… The words were all that was important for them [the Mîmamsakas]… because the mantras had to be recited as part of the rituals. The meaning of the mantra was of no interest or importance to them.”
You can understand why the first English translations were so muddled, often absurd, and did no justice at all to these brilliant encoded verses. There are now new better, good translations — and once again the differences in translations reflect the conditioning, inclinations and proclivities of the translators. We all are somewhat predisposed in one way or another.
“History is the one weak point of Sanskrit literature, being practically non-existent. Not a single systematic chronological record has survived. And so complete is the lack of any data to guide us in this matter that the dates of even the most famous of Indian authors like Panini [the grammarian] and Kaidasa [Sanskrit poet & dramatist] are still subject to controversy.” Quoted from the introduction by Lakshman Sarup to ‘The Nighantu and The Nirukta of Sri Yaskcarya, The Oldest Indian Treatise on Etymology, Philology and Semantics.’
Nothing definite is known about when the grammarian Panini lived. However, scholars favour the dates of his life to be somewhere in the 600-500 B.C. The dates of the Rig Veda vary wildly, however it is both obvious and a bit perplexing that the Rishis who composed these poems, the Rig Veda praise hymns, would have lived hundreds, if not thousands of years before Panini. Dr. B.G. Sidharth, a renown and respected scientist, feels that the date of 1500 BC that has been accepted for the Rig Veda is at best tentative and it is his opinion that the “earliest Vedic period dates back to a little beyond 10,000 B.C."
I mean no disrespect. I am sincerely trying to understand. I love Sanskrit and appreciate the monumental task that has been achieved in preserving the texts, centuries of ancient wisdom and knowledge. Men and women have dedicated their lives to understanding, interpreting and translating the early Sanskrit in the Vedas. The scholars themselves have admitted that without Panini and Sayana they would not have known where to begin. I am not supporting any side of this now sadly heated argument, which probably detracts from real clarity. I am only examining what I can read, and I have neither the desire nor the scholastic credentials to enter into the current fray.
Following along the lines of the theory of the Cycles of Time that Hinduism accepts, we can assume that in the Satya Yuga we had a much higher consciousness and were more evolved, perhaps even far more advanced technologically than we are now here in the Kali Yuga. As we move through the Cycles of Time our connection to the Oneness, the God-within and therefore our consciousness becomes more Veiled, confused, covered in ignorance and delusion. We gradually but inexorably lose our ability to understand the previous cycles - what was thought, understood, and what may have taken place, as Hanuman explains to Bhima in the Mahabharata. This naturally would include the formation, structure, and meaning of the Rig Veda, which some suggest was composed in the second cycle, the Treta Yuga.
When I contemplate the cosmic riddle of the Rig Veda, I remember an insightful old 1956 science fiction film called 'Forbidden Planet'. In the future 23rd century a fictitious United Planets Cruiser spaceship arrives on the planet Altair IV, once the home of the highly technologically advanced Krell. The Krell had mysteriously died all at once 200,000 years before, just as they had achieved their crowning scientific triumph. Many harrowing and inexplicable events compel the Captain to force the planet's remaining inhabitant, Dr. Morbius [played by Walter Pidgeon], to disclose the secrets of the now extinct Krell. The Krell have left a library that can be accessed by one who can withstand 'the plastic educator' and live. The 'educator' is a headset machine that displays holographic images and is capable of enhancing intellectual capacity, and Dr. Morbius has over time learned to comprehend the Krell library, their history and technology.
The Krell Library
It is my intuitive feeling that using the grammar of Panini, which emerged hundreds, perhaps thousands of years after the Rishis composed the Rig Veda hymns, to decipher them is all a bit like using an old Windows program to fathom the Krell. Surely the sheer depth of spontaneous genius, poetic beauty, and primordial universal wisdom found in the Rig Veda hymns emerged from a source beyond the need for 3,959 rules of grammar.
As Yâska, the 6th century BC Sanskrit grammarian said in the famous Nirukta: "Seers had direct intuitive insight…by oral instruction, [they] handed down hymns to later generations who were destitute of direct intuitive knowledge.”
Ravi Shankar [1920-2012]
I love the form of jazz that is improvised live, a rare spontaneous magic that transports the heart and mind. I love and listen to Indian music for the same reason. Improvisation is said to be the soul of Raga in Indian classical music. The revered master of the sitar, Ravi Shankar taught that as much as 90 percent of Indian music may be improvised and so very much depends on understanding the spirit and nuances of the art. "The unique aura of raga (one might say its soul) is its spiritual quality and manner of expression, and this cannot be learned from any book."
Perhaps the same tradition may be applied to understanding the Rig Veda. In the spirit of the primordial metaphysics of Hinduism, all might benefit from fewer warring scholars and politicians — and more deeper insight, meditation, contemplation, and visionary revelations based in Union with the One, which is what the Sanskrit word yoga means. This was after all the method of the Rishis.
mayyāveśitacetasām - Bhagavad Gita XII.7
SOME THOUGHTS ON THE VEDA AND ITS STUDY by Professor K. Satchidananda Murty
EARLY INDIA, From The Origins To AD 1300, by Romila Thapar; University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, 2002.
Sayana’s Methodology in Interpreting The Rig Veda, by Dr. Indrani Kar; Sanskrit Pustak Bhandar, Kolkata, 2005.
The Nighantu and The Nirukta of Sri Yaskcarya, The Oldest Indian Treatise on Etymology, Philology and Semantics, Lakshman Sarup; published by Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1920, 2009.
The Celestial Key to the Vedas by B.G. Sidharth; Inner Traditions, 1999.
The RGVEDA, Mandala III, A Critical Study of the Sayana Bhasya and Other Interpretations of the Rgveda (3.1.1 to 3.7.3), by Dr. Siddh Nath Shukla; Sharada Publishing House, Delhi, 2001.
RIG VEDA SAMHITA: Mandala – 1 (Part One), Suktas 1-50, (Text in Devanagari, Translation and Notes), by R.L. Kashyap; Saksi, Published in collaboration with ASR, Melkote; Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture, Bangalore, India, 2009.
The Rig Veda and the History of India, by David Frawley; Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi, 2001, 2002.
A Brief History of India, by Alain Danielou, translated from the French by Kenneth Hurry; Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2003.
Romila Thapar on BBC Hardtalk
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