Interpretation of the Veda
□ Hide link-numbers of differed places
A Rejoinder to an Early Criticism1
While thanking you for the generous appreciation in your review of the “Arya” may I also crave the indulgence of your columns,– if indeed you can spare so much space at such a time when the whole world is absorbed in the gigantic homicidal conflict convulsing Europe,– for an answer to your criticisms on my “Secret of the Veda”, or rather to an explanation of my standpoint which the deficiencies of my expression and the brief and summary character of my article in the “Arya” have led you, in some respects, to misconceive?
Surely, I have nowhere said that “knowledge of which no origin can be traced to previous sources must necessarily be disregarded or discarded!” That would indeed be a monstrous proposition. My point was that such knowledge, when it expressed a developed philosophy and psychology, stood in need of historical explanation – a very different matter. If we accept the European idea of an evolving knowledge in humanity,– and it is on that basis that my argument proceeded,– we must find the source of the Brahmavada either in an extraneous origin such as a previous Dravidian culture,– a theory which I cannot admit, since I regard the so-called Aryans and Dravidians as one homogeneous race,– or in a previous development, of which the records have either been lost or are to be found in the Veda itself. I cannot see how this argument involves a regressus ad infinitum except in so far as the whole idea of evolution and progressive causality lies open to that objection. As to the origins of the Vedic religion, that is a question which cannot be solved at present for lack of data. It does not follow that it had no origins or in other words that humanity was not prepared by a progressive spiritual experience for the Revelation.
Again, I certainly did not intend to express my own idea in the description of the Upanishads as a revolt of philosophic minds against the ritualistic materialism of the Vedas. If I held that view I could not regard the earlier Sruti as an inspired scripture or the Upanishads as Vedanta and I would not have troubled myself about the secret of the Veda. It is a view held by European scholars and I accepted it as the logical consequence, if the ordinary interpretations of the hymns, whether Indian or European, are to be maintained. If the Vedic hymns are, as represented by Western scholarship, the ritualistic compositions of joyous and lusty barbarians the Upanishads have then to be conceived as “a revolt... against the ritualistic materialism of the Vedas”. From both premise and conclusion I have dissented and I have finally described, not only the Upanishads, but all later forms, as a development from the Vedic religion and not a revolt against its tenets. An Indian doctrine avoids the difficulty in another way, by interpreting the Veda as a book of ritual hymns and revering it as a book of Knowledge. It puts together two ancient truths without reconciling them effectively. In my view that reconciliation can only be effected by seeing even in the exterior aspect of the hymns not a ritualistic materialism, but a symbolic ritualism. No doubt the Karmakanda was regarded as an indispensable stepping-stone to the knowledge of the Atman. That was an article of religious faith, and as an article of faith I do not dispute its soundness. But it becomes valid for the intellect,– and in an intellectual inquiry I must proceed by intellectual means,– only if the Karmakanda is so interpreted as to show how its performance assists, prepares or brings about the higher knowledge. Otherwise, however much the Veda may be revered in theory, it will be treated in practice as neither indispensable nor helpful and will come in the end to be practically set aside – as has happened.
I am aware that some hymns of the Veda are interpreted in a sense other than the ritualistic; even the European scholars admit higher religious and spiritual ideas in the “later hymns” of the Veda. I am aware also that separate texts are quoted in support of philosophical doctrines. My point was that such exceptional passages do not alter the general tone and purport given to the hymns in the actual interpretations we possess. With those interpretations, we cannot use the Rig-veda as a whole, as the Upanishads can be used as a whole, as the basis of a high spiritual philosophy. Now, it is to the interpretation of the Veda as a whole and to its general character that I have addressed myself.
I quite acknowledge that there has always been a side-stream of tendency, making for the Adhyatmic interpretation of the Veda even as a whole. It would be strange if in a nation so spiritually-minded such attempts have been entirely lacking. But still they are side-currents and have not received general recognition. For the Indian intellect in general, there are only two interpretations, Sayana’s and the European. Addressing myself to that general opinion, it is with these two that I am practically concerned.
I am still of the opinion that the method and results of the early Vedantins differed entirely from the method and results of Sayana for reasons I shall give in the second and third numbers of “Arya”. Practically, not in theory, what is the result of Sayana’s Commentary? What is the general impression it leaves on the mind? Is it the impression of “Veda”, a great Revelation, a book of highest knowledge? Is it not rather that which the European scholars received and from which their theories started, a picture of primitive worshippers praying to friendly gods, friendly but of a doubtful temper, gods of fire, rain, wind, dawn, night, earth and sky, for wealth, food, oxen, horses, gold, the slaughter of their enemies, even of their critics, victory in battle, the plunder of the conquered? And if so how can such hymns be an indispensable preparation for the Brahmavidya? Unless indeed, it is a preparation by contraries, by exhaustion or dedication of the most materialistic and egoistic tendencies somewhat as the grim Old Hebrew Pentateuch may be described as a preparation for the mild evangel of Christ. My position is that they were indispensable not by a mechanical virtue in the Sacrifice but because the experiences to which they are the key and which were symbolised by the ritual are necessary to an integral knowledge and realisation of Brahman in the universe and prepare the knowledge and realisation of the transcendent Brahman. They are, to paraphrase Shankara’s description, mines of all knowledge, knowledge on all the planes of consciousness, and do fix the conditions and relations of the divine, the human and the animal element in the being.
I do not claim that mine is the first attempt to give an Adhyatmic interpretation of the Veda. It is an attempt – the first or the hundredth matters little – to give the esoteric and psychological sense of the Veda based throughout on the most modern method of critical research. Its interpretation of Vedic vocables is based on a re-examination of a large part of the field of comparative Philology and a reconstruction on a new basis which I have some hope will bring us nearer to a true science of language. This I propose to develop in another work, “The Origins of Aryan Speech”.9 I hope also to lead up to a recovery of the sense of the ancient spiritual conceptions of which old symbol and myth give us the indications and which I believe to have been at one time a common culture covering a great part of the globe with India perhaps, as a centre. In its relation to this methodical attempt lies the only originality of the “Secret of the Veda”.
1 A letter published in The Hindu (Madras) on August 27, 1914. - Ed.
2 CWSA, volume 15: be indeed
3 CWSA, volume 15: premiss
4 CWSA, volume 15: Our
5 CWSA, volume 15: actually happened
6 SABCL, volume 10: Vedas
7 CWSA, volume 15: had
8 CWSA, volume 15: these
9 A draft of a chapter (the only one written) on “The Origins of Aryan Speech”, found amnog the MSS. of Sri Aurobindo, has been appended here. - Ed.