A Veda-knower of the unwritten book
Perusing the mystic scripture of her forms,
He had caught her hierophant significances,
(Sri Aurobindo, Savitri, Book V, Canto II)
This page covers Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the Vedas, which differs from that of other Indian and Western scholars. In the following passage, Satprem elucidates on the manner in which Sri Aurobindo arrived at his unique interpretation:
When he first read the Vedas — translated by Western Sanskritists or Indian pandits — they appeared to Sri Aurobindo as “an important document of [Indian] history, but seemed of scant value or importance for the history of thought or for a living spiritual experience.” Fifteen years later, however, Sri Aurobindo would re-read the Vedas in the original Sanskrit and find there “a constant vein of the richest gold of thought and spiritual experience.” Meanwhile, Sri Aurobindo had had certain “psychological experiences of my own for which (he) had found no sufficient explanation either in European psychology or in the teachings of Yoga or of Vedanta,” and which “the mantras of the Veda illuminated with a clear and exact light. . .” And it was through these experiences of his “own” that Sri Aurobindo came to discover, from within, the true meaning of the Vedas (and especially the most ancient of the four, the Rig-veda, which he studied with special care). What the Vedas brought him was no more than a confirmation of what he had received directly. But didn’t the Rishis themselves speak of “Secret words, clairvoyant wisdoms, that reveal their inner meaning to the seer (RV IV.3.16)”
(Satprem, The Secret of the Veda)
The interpretation of scripture
(This is part of an essay written by Sri Aurobindo between 1910-1913 regarding the interpretation of the Vedas)
The interpretation of the Veda is hampered by many irrelevancies. Men set up an authority and put it between themselves and knowledge. The orthodox are indignant that a mere modern should presume to differ from Shankara in interpreting the Vedanta or from Sayana in interpreting the Veda. They forget that Shankara and Sayana are themselves moderns, separated from ourselves by some hundreds of years only, but the Vedas are many thousands of years old. The commentator ought to be studied, but instead we put him in place of the text. Good commentaries are always helpful even when they are wrong, but the best cannot be allowed to fetter inquiry. Sayana’s commentary on the Veda helps me by showing what a man of great erudition some hundreds of years ago thought to be the sense of the Scripture. But I cannot forget that even at the time of the Brahmanas the meaning of the Veda had become dark to the men of that prehistoric age. Shankara’s commentary on the Upanishads helps me by showing what a man of immense metaphysical genius and rare logical force after arriving at some fundamental realisations thought to be the sense of the Vedanta. But it is evident that he is often at a loss and always prepossessed by the necessity of justifying his philosophy. I find that Shankara had grasped much of Vedantic truth, but that much was dark to him. I am bound to admit what he realised; I am not bound to exclude what he failed to realise. Àptavākyam, authority, is one kind of proof; it is not the only kind: pratyaksa (direct perception) is more important.
The heterodox on the other hand swear by Max Müller and the Europeans. It is enough for them that Max Müller should have found henotheism in the Vedas for the Vedas to be henotheistic. The Europeans have seen in our Veda only the rude chants of an antique and primitive pastoral race sung in honour of the forces of Nature, and for many their opinion is conclusive of the significance of the mantras. All other interpretation is to them superstitious. But to me the ingenious guesses of foreign grammarians are of no more authority than the ingenious guesses of Sayana. It is irrelevant to me what Max Müller thinks of the Veda or what Sayana thinks of the Veda. I should prefer to know what the Veda has to say for itself and, if there is any light there on the unknown or on the infinite, to follow the ray till I come face to face with that which it illumines.
There are those who follow neither Sayana nor the Europeans, but interpret Veda and Vedanta for themselves, yet permit themselves to be the slaves of another kind of irrelevancy. They come to the Veda with a preconceived and established opinion and seek in it a support for some trifling polemic; they degrade it to the position of a backer in an intellectual prize-fight. Opinions are not knowledge, they are only sidelights on knowledge. Most often they are illegitimate extensions of an imperfect knowledge. A man has perhaps travelled to England and seen Cumberland and the lakes; he comes back and imagines England ever after as a country full of verdant mountains, faery woodlands, peaceful and enchanted waters. Another has been to the manufacturing centres; he imagines England as a great roaring workshop, crammed with furnaces and the hum of machinery and the smell of metal. Another has sojourned in the quiet country side and to him England is all hedges and lanes and the daisy-sprinkled meadow and the well-tilled field. All have realised a little, but none have realised England. Then there is the man who has only read about the country or heard descriptions from others and thinks he knows it better than the men who have been there. They may all admit that what they have seen need not be the whole, but each has his little ineffaceable picture which, because it is all he has realised, persists in standing for the whole. There is no harm in that, no harm whatever in limitation if you understand and admit the limitation. But if all the four begin quarrelling, what an aimless confusion will arise! That is what has happened in India because of the excessive logicality and too robust opinionativeness of southern metaphysicians. We should come back to a more flexible and rational spirit of inquiry.
(Sri Aurobindo. CWSA, vol. 12, pp 34-36)
Sri Aurobindo read the Vedas in Pondicherry
A few months later Sri Aurobindo who was living in a tiled house in the Hindu quarters, removed to a decent house in the European quarters not far from our houses. After going over there he spent most of his time in the study of Rg Veda. He took my two volumes of Max Muller’s edition and I got him the commentaries of Sayana from my sister’s husband. In the evenings we found him poring over these volumes. He used to translate for us portions from the texts with their commentaries and also give us his own version of them. We found that Sayana’s comments were concerned more with the rituals whereas his interpretation brought out the underlying yogic ideas. A Maharashtra gentleman, one Kolhatker, also a refugee for publishing a Mahratti translation of an English article by Sri Aurobindo, was used to be present at some of these readings. He used to say that the Vedas were the childish prattle of humanity in its infancy and should not engage the attention of the serious modern thinkers. He said he himself had an idea of publishing a translation in Mahratti of all the four Vedas so that everyone may form his own ideas about them. Sri Aurobindo used to say that it all depended upon the mental attitude of the student. The Vedas are not intended for light reading and passing vague judgments on the matter dealt with there, if approached in that way they might appear childish but for a serious reader they would appear quite the opposite, the more he dives into them the greater will be the truths he will discover.
(Extract from “Freedom Movement in India: Some Jottings from Old Memories“, by S. Srinivasachari. Unpublished MS. first appeared in Archives And Research Magazine, Vol 13, No 1)
Sri Aurobindo’s research
The extensive research that Sri Aurobindo undertook to decipher the Vedas (“over a hundred notebooks”) has been catalogued in an article published in the Archives and Research journal published by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Here is that article:
It was Sri Aurobindo’s study of Tamil, begun in 1909 or 1910. which opened for him the doors not only to a new science of language, but also to a new interpretation of the Veda. Before this time his study of languages had been, for the most part, literary. He spoke English from his earliest childhood, and was tutored in French and Latin before entering St. Paul’s School, London, at the age of eleven. At St. Paul’s he improved his Latin and learned Greek so well that when he entered King’s College. Cambridge, in 1890, it was after having passed the Scholarship examination with record marks. At King’s he perfected his knowledge of Latin and Greek , studied Sanskrit . Bengali, and Hindustani (having by then forgotten the little Hindustani he had spoken, along with English, as a child in Bengal) and picked up enough German, Italian and Spanish to be able to read the classics of these languages in the original. Thus by 1892 Sri Aurobindo was already a versatile ” linguist” in the old sense of the word, i.e. a, profoundly cultured polyglot. His knowledge of the new science of linguistics, or philology, as it was then called, was of a very general nature.
On his return to India in 1893 Sri Aurobindo began an intensive study of the languages and literatures of India. He concentrated on Sanskrit and Bengali, but also learned a little Gujarati and Marathi (the two languages of the Baroda state, where he was serving), and also a certain amount of Hindi. At first it was India’s rich secular literature that attracted him. He read and translated into English passages from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and classical writers such as Kalidasa. In Bengali it was to Bankimchandra and Madhusudhan Dutt that his attention was chiefly turned, although he also read and translated mediaeval poets such as Chandidasa. Later he became more interested in India’s vast spiritual heritage and read the Gita and the Upanishads in the original Sanskrit (translating much of what he read into English) and also examined, in translation, the primary source of India’s culture, ” the fount of our philosophies, the bedrock of our religions. the kernel of our thought. the explanation of our ethics and society, the summary of our civilisation, the rivet of our nationality … Veda. “1
This was written around 1905. But, despite his intuitive appreciation of the importance of the Veda (and it should be noted that the term is used above in its widest sense to include the Brahmanas, Upanishads and even the Gita), before coming to Pondicherry Sri Aurobindo “like the majority of educated Indians… had passively accepted without examination . . . the conclusions of European Scholarship both as to the religious and as to the historical and ethnical sense of the ancient hymns.”2 That is to say, he considered them relatively recent compositions, hardly older than the Homeric poems, “the hymnal of an early, primitive and largely barbaric society”3 which had descended upon Dravidian India from the plains of Central Asia and the Ukraine, “a half-superstitious, half-poetic allegory of Nature with an important astronomical element.”1 Valued by Sri Aurobindo as “an important document of our national history,” they “seemed of small value or importance for the history of thought or for a living spiritual experience.” It was the Upanishads, the Vedanta rather than the Veda proper, which Sri Aurobindo, “following again the ordinary line taken by modernised Hindu opinion … regarded … as the most ancient source of Indian thought and religion, the true Veda, the first Book of Knowledge.”2
Sri Aurobindo’s first real “contact with Vedic thought came indirectly while pursuing certain lines of self-development in the way of Indian Yoga”3 apparently in Chandernagore in 1910. Certain symbolic names connected with specific yogic experiences came into his mind, and along with them were seen figures of three Vedic Goddesses, who represented to him “three out of the four faculties of the intuitive reason.”4 But it was not until after his arrival in Pondicherry, a short while later, that Sri Aurobindo’s thoughts were first seriously turned to the Veda. “Two observations,” he writes, “that were forced on my mind gave a serious shock to my second-hand belief in the racial division between the Northern Aryans and Southern Dravidians.” These were the inconclusiveness of the “supposed difference between the physical types of the Aryan and Dravidian” and the no less striking lack of evidence to support the supposedly “definite incompatibility between the northern Sanskritic and southern non-Sanskritic tongues.”5
For on examining the vocables of the Tamil language, in appearance so foreign to the Sanskritic form and character, I yet found myself continually guided by words or by families of words supposed to be pure Tamil in establishing new relations between Sanskrit and its distant sister. Latin, and occasionally, between the Greek and the Sanskrit. Sometimes the Tamil vocable not only suggested the connection, but proved the missing link in a family of connected words. And it was through this Dravidian language that I came first to perceive what seems to me now the true law, origins and, as it were, the embryology of the Aryan tongues.6
It was not only the sense of the Veda and of his own yogic experiences that were illuminated by his research ; “my first study of Tamil words,” he wrote, ” had brought me to what seemed a clue to the very origins and structure of the ancient Sanskrit tongue ; and so far did this clue lead that I lost sight entirely of my original subject of interest, the connections between Aryan and Dravidian speech, and plunged into the far more interesting research of the origins and laws of development of human language itself.” 7
Sri Aurobindo passed from a casual examination of the local language of Pondicherry to an assault on the frontiers of human ignorance. And the central field of the engagement was the Veda.
Much of Sri Aurobindo’s Vedic and linguistic research has never been published. His psychological interpretation of the Rig-veda may, of course, be found in the pages of The Secret of the Veda. In the same book and in Hymns to the Mystic Fire are many translations of Vedic hymns. For an idea of his linguistic theories one must read brief passages scattered throughout such works as The Secret of the Veda, The Future Poetry and Kena Upanishad. Sri Aurobindo never completed the major work on the origins of Aryan speech that he intended to write, although drafts of chapters for the proposed treatise exist, which have been published in SABCL Volumes 10, 11 and 271. But there remains a large body of Vedic and linguistic notes, drafts of translations and explanations of Vedic hymns and presentations of Vedic and linguistic theory which have never appeared in print. In the last issue of Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research we began the publication of two series of such material. The first, a continuation of Sri Aurobindo’s Arya series Hymns of the Atris, is the first step towards the complete presentation of his Vedic translations. It should be noted that Sri Aurobindo’s unpublished Vedic renderings were done by him during different periods and were never completely revised. But while they thus do not constitute a unified translation (Sri Aurobindo at one time planned to edit, gloss and translate the entire Rig-veda2), they yet will be of great value to scholars interested in seeing how he applied his psychological theory at different times to more than one quarter of the hymns of the Rig-veda. For many hymns several translations are available. The editors have chosen the version that appeared to them to be the latest, i.e. the one which represents best the final form of Sri Aurobindo’s theory, which was in constant development between the second and fifth decades of this century. This chronological element is given prominence in the second series begun in our last issue, The First Hymn of the Rig-veda. Here will appear translations and explanations of the first Sukta of the Veda, which Sri Aurobindo, over the course of forty years, rendered or wrote about more than a dozen times. This series should suggest the richness and depth of Sri Aurobindo’s Vedic studies, as well as the prolonged and constantly perfected effort he put into them. In the present issue a third series of new material is commenced, a continuation of Hymns to the Mystic Fire, in which translations of hymns to Agni from the Rig-veda which have not already been printed in SABCL Volume 11 will appear.
Sri Aurobindo’s Vedic and linguistic research is contained in more than one hundred notebooks, over fifty of which are devoted solely or principally to these subjects. There are also a large number of loose Vedic and linguistic manuscripts. Among the first notebooks used by him in Pondicherry for this research are two large ledgers, the first of which is inscribed inside the cover: “The Rigveda./with a Translation and Commentary in English”. The second bears the inscription: “Origines Arycae./Material for a full philological reconstruction/of/the old Aryabhasha/from which the Indo Aryan and Dravidian languages/are all derived.” As is the case with most of the notebooks of Sri Aurobindo, he did not proceed very far in either before material unrelated to his stated subjects began to appear. Meanwhile he had begun using a number of more modest exercise books, where a part here and another part there of his theory was elaborated. Many of these manuscripts contain one or more series of what the editors have called “classified notes”. To begin such a categorised series, all or part of a notebook was prepared by marking pages with the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, the names of Vedic divinities, etc. Then, as Sri Aurobindo pursued his reading, words, with references and sometimes with comments, would be entered on the appropriate page. Dozens of such classified series exist, some having hundreds of entries, some barely any. Two types are recurrent: lists of Vedic words and lists of gods and other figures. In the second, one may find the beginnings of a Vedic subject concordance. The first was a conscious effort on Sri Aurobindo’s part to compile an etymological dictionary of the Vedic language.
Sri Aurobindo’s reading of the Veda was extensive. It is apparent from certain indications left in his notebooks that he considered this pravacana to be part of his sadhana. At times he kept a careful record of his progress: the entire ninth mandala was read in four days of May 1914. The extent and range of his notes and of his references in works such as The Secret of the Veda make it clear that he read the entire Rig-veda several times over. Parts or all of some mandalas were copied, annotated, translated or explained; sometimes one or more of these operations was repeated half a dozen or more times for a given group of hymns. It is hard to convey to the reader a good idea of the amount of sustained and careful labour Sri Aurobindo gave to his Vedic studies. Far from being plunged in some incommunicable Absolute for days on end, there is rather every indication that he undertook, along with his intense sadhana, the care of his disciples, and his various literary labours, a scholastic toil which has very few precedents. And yet this immense work was not done for his own intellectual satisfaction. The passages quoted in the last issue from The Secret of the Veda show clearly the connection between Sri Aurobindo’s Vedic studies and his Yoga. The same connection existed for the linguistic research: “Sri Krishna has shown me the true meaning of the Vedas,” wrote Sri Aurobindo to a disciple around 1912, “not only so but he has shown me a new Science of Philology showing the process and origins of human speech so that a new Nirukta [science of etymological interpretation] can be formed and the new interpretation of the Veda based upon it.“1
We noted that Sri Aurobindo intended to write a full treatise on the origins of Aryan speech, in which “the old Aryabhasha from which the Indo Aryan and Dravidian languages are all derived” would be reconstructed. Subtract “Dra-vidian” and you have the Proto-Indo-European of modern-day linguists. Yet, as we have seen, Sri Aurobindo was convinced that the “original connection between the Dravidian and Aryan tongues was far closer and more extensive than is usually supposed.”2 Sri Aurobindo knew, like the modern linguist, that the key to the problem lay not in the developed vocabulary of any ancient or modern language, but in “the roots of the original language” and also in “the elemental word-formations and so much of the original significance” as had survived the process of mentalisation that has attended the growth of human speech. Thus the first necessity was “a kind of science of linguistic embryology”.3
Just as from the study of the formed outward man, animal, plant, the great truths of evolution could not be discovered or, if discovered, not firmly fixed, … if the origin and unity of human speech can be found and established, if it can be shown that its development was governed by fixed laws and processes, it is only by going back to its earliest forms that the discovery is to be made and its proofs established.4
Four languages were chosen for “dissection” and study: Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and Tamil. The first three of these were well known by Sri Aurobindo, the fourth was chosen because it was through Tamil that he “came first to perceive . . . the embryology of the Aryan tongues.”5To the data gathered from the study of these languages was to be added supporting evidence from four others: German, Celtic, Persian and Arabic. The division between Semitic and Aryan (i.e. Indo-European) tongues was, in Sri Aurobindo’s opinion, as “unscientific” as the Aryan-Dravidian split.
There are among Sri Aurobindo’s linguistic notes a good number of studies of Greek, Latin and Tamil root-systems. For example, roots in m, especially the root mal, in all these languages, as well as in Sanskrit, were examined and classified. The relations between Tamil and Sanskrit were made an object of special study. But it was on Sanskrit itself that Sri Aurobindo’s linguistic research centred. For Sanskrit, “by a peculiar fidelity to its origins, presents us with a true primary form of speech, in which the vocabulary indeed is late — a new structure of word flesh and tissue, but the basis of the structure is primitive, and reveals the roots of its being and betrays the principles of its formation.”6 Pages of notes exist in which different Sanskrit “root-clans”, as Sri Aurobindo called them, were arranged alphabetically and by significance-group. The central aim was to discover the “Guna” of each particular sound, “some natural property … to create under given conditions a particular kind of impression on the mind which, constantly associated with that sound, became the basis of a number of special intellectual significances, called by us the meaning of words.”1 In a typical example of research into one root-clan, the various families of roots beginning with the letter ध् (dh). Sri Aurobindo began by writing down practically all attested words formed from the root in alphabetical groups. First came primary roots (e.g. dhi, dhi, dhe); then secondaries, subdivided into the traditional phonetic series: guttural (e.g. dhiks), dental (e.g. dhinv) sibilant (e.g. dhis), etc. Where present, tertiary roots also were noted (e.g. dhyai). But when this meticulous notation was finished, only half the work was done; the same words had also to be classified by semantic group. There were fourteen such groupings for the dh root-clan, the first being “State/to sit, place, hold — to place so as to cover, stand”; others were Emotion, Pressure, etc.
After a detailed study of a particular root-clan had been made, Sri Aurobindo sometimes put down tentative explications and conclusions in discursive prose. On other occasions he wrote drafts of the proposed final work, in which he explained his theories, methods etc. Two of these drafts, both entitled The Origins of Aryan Speech, have been published in the Centenary Library, the last part of one of them appearing for the first time on pages 58 to 64 of the last issue of Archives and Research. Pages 63 to 64 contain an incomplete statement of his findings as regards the dh roots.
Sri Aurobindo’s Vedic and linguistic research was pursued steadily between 1912 and 1914. The beginnings of the Vedic work seem, in retrospect, to be rather experimental; but a firm basis was soon found, and by March 1914 Sri Aurobindo could write: “Veda is now taking a clear form; the definite interpretation has begun.” After August 1914 much of his Vedic research was channelled into the pages of the Arya in such series as The Secret of the Veda and Hymns of the Atris. Sri Aurobindo intended at one time to serialise The Origins of Aryan Speech in the same journal; but this plan was never carried out. Soon the writing of the Arya and other work, the composition of Savitri, for example, made it impossible for him to complete his linguistic research.
(Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research, vol. 2, April-December1978)
General Structure of the Rig Veda
There are ten Mandalas in the Rig Veda. In all Mandalas, the hymns to Agni are the first, followed by Indra and then followed by the other Gods. The ninth Mandala is devoted exclusively to Soma. The author of the second Mandala is Gritsamada, third is Vishwamitra, fourth is Vamadeva, fifth is Atri, sixth is Bharadwaja, seventh is Vasishtha. More later… for now, check the essays at http://vedah.com
Click on vedas
Text of the Vedas
- English translation of the Vedas at sacred-text.
- Barend A. van Nooten and Gary B. Holland. Rig Veda: a Metrically Restored Text.
- Karen Thomson and Jonathan Slocum. Online version of “The Rig Veda: Metrically restored text”
- R.L. Kashyap and S. Sadagopalan. Rig Veda Samhita (online)
A reader for the uninitiated
- Arthur Macdonell. Vedic reader for students. (free download at internet archive, google books, liberty library)
- Sri Aurobindo. Secret of the Vedas (pdf)
- Sri Aurobindo. Hymns to the Mystic Fire (pdf)
- T.V. Kapali Sastry. Collected Works Vol 4-6, 10 (SABDA)
- Satya Prakash Singh. Vedic Symbolism. (SABDA)
- Binita Pani. Sri Aurobindo and the Life Divine (see Chapter 6 on the Philosophy of the Veda) (google)
- Satprem. The Secret of the Veda. Anti-Matters 1 (2) 2007. (pdf)
- R.L. Kashyap‘s organization ‘Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture Trust‘ which based in Bangalore publishes books based on Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation. Their website is http://www.vedah.com.
- A.B. Purani. Sri Aurobindo – Some aspects of his vision.(see Part VI).
- A.B. Purani. Sri Aurobindo’s Vedic Glossary(amazon) [Based on the translations of Sri Aurobindo, he assigned meanings for about 7500 words. He also gives the grammatical notes given by Sri Aurobindo for about 500 words occurring in Veda.]
- A.B. Purani. Studies in Vedic Interpretation, Chowkhamba, Sanskrit series, 1963. (amazon) (chowkhamba) [The book compares the interpretation of Sri Aurobindo with those of Sayana and Yaska. Purani undertook the task of translating all the riks (verses) having key words such as rtam and showed how the meaning assignment of Sri Aurobindo was approved. In contrast, Sayana gives twenty one different meanings in different verses.]
- A.B. Purani. Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Second Series. (has discussion on the Vedas from pages 227-243.)
- Nolini Kanta Gupta. Collected Works, vol. 8, (See section on ‘Sixth Sukta’)
- Nolini Kanta Gupta. Collected Works, vol. 4, (See section on ‘Labour of the Gods’)
- Nolini Kanta Gupta. Collected Works, vol. 8, (See section on ‘Introduction to the Veda’)
- Kireet Joshi. Synthesis Of Yoga In The Veda.
- Kireet Joshi. Landmarks in Hinduism.
- Vladimir Iatsenko. Various lecture notes available at the University of Human Unity, Auroville website.
- Jeanine Miller. The Vedas – Harmony Meditation and Fulfilment (amazon)
- Jeanine Miller. Vision of Cosmic Order in the Vedas (amazon)
- Barbara Holdrege. Veda and Torah (amazon)
- Jan Gonda. (will add later)
- Maurice Bloomfield. Rig Veda Repititions
- Maurice Bloomfield. Vedic concordance (amazon)
- Search books on ‘veda’ at SABDA
- Oral tradition of the Vedas. A DVD by IGNCA. [Vedic chanting is the world’s oldest oral tradition in vogue. Distilled from a vast body of Sanskrit literature, compiled between 5000 to 1500 years, the chanting tradition was transmitted through the Guru-Shishya parampara(tradition) as Shruti (heard) and Smriti (remembered) tradition. The film unveils the unique recitative methodology of memorizing the vast Vedic corpus, adopted by ancient seers, to ensure its transmission without distortion by Vedapathins. It highlights the reiterative utterance of the words Jatapatha and Ghanapatha, chanted in forward, backward and circuitous manner, and the mnemonic devices of training the young mind in sound patterns.]