Veda is not knowledge of Satya – the Absolute Truth.
It is Satya itself!
That may seem like a fairly inaccessible statement, ere the expansion and exposition of its nuances that I intend to undertake in this essay. Many identify the ritualistic aspects of the Vedas as primary, others the naturalistic nuances highlighted by European scholarship, while still others the metaphorical and intellectual reading of luminaries such as Sri Aurobindo. There is a still deeper understanding than all these combined in Niṇyāvacāṁsi – the ‘words arising from a depth’ that Sri Aurobindo identified with a certain symbolic understanding of the text of the Rig Veda. In this article, I go one step further in elevating it to the spiritual, and humbly document my meditations here. Many modern conceptions, particularly in the West, of the Vedas regard them as hymns of a primitive society with crude religious, social and moral principles. As part of these conceptions, the ritualism and ‘propitiatory sacrifices offered to imaginary superhuman personalities who might be benevolent or malevolent according as they were worshipped or neglected‘, as Sri Aurobindo puts it, became so primary that the true essence of the Vedas were lost. There has been an identification of the Vedic deities with certain elements and powers of nature, as a starting point for any comparative study of Vedic mythologies, thereby having them associated or even equated to animistic practices of the ancient world.
Sri Dayanand Saraswati’s attempt at establishing that the Vedas are a living spiritual repository of knowledge, using philological techniques and the element of ‘multi-significance of roots’ in Vedic Sanskrit. He saw the religion of the Vedas to be monotheistic and the Vedic gods to different aspects and expansions in nature of the one Deity. The problem in this conception of Vedic monotheism has been that it includes in itself pantheistic, monistic and polytheistic views of the Universe, and therefore cannot be regarded in a straightforward manner within the framework of modern theism. The hypothesis on which Sri Aurobindo studied the Vedas was based on a double aspect that highlighted how the Vedic seers organised the content of their thought in a system of parallelism wherein the Vedic gods were both external and internal powers of nature. This was managed by a system of double meanings of words in Vedic Sanskrit, whereby description and worship of both the aspects of a deity were carried out with the same textual elements. For Sri Aurobindo, the psychological predominated over the ritualistic or physicalist, and saw the Vedas as a means for self-culturing and enlightenment. In this article, I focus on transcending the ritualistic, physicalist and psychological.
In Sri Aurobindo’s psychological theory of the Vedas, Agni is taken to be the Divine Will inspired by Divine Wisdom and the power of the soul. Indra symbolises the power of Sat – pure existence that is self-manifested as the Divine Mind. Agni is the way to realise the action of Indra. As Agni rises up, from earth to heaven, Indra descends, from heaven to earth. Indra comes forth and slays darkness of ignorance to find intuition and hidden illuminations of the Universal Mind. Surya is shown to be the master of truth: truth of being and knowledge. It is the manifester of all things, and its rays and emanations are the illuminations we seek, which we get with Usha – the divine Dawn. These illuminations lead us to the highest state of blessedness symbolised by Soma. Varuna symbolises purity that broadly gets rid of sins and falsehoods, while that which always accompanies it – Mitra symbolises the luminous power of comprehension and love. Together, they lead and form into harmony acts, thoughts and impulses. The discerning and clear aspiration of a person for this realisation is symbolised by Aryaman.
Vayu is the master of life-energy, Brihaspati is the power of the soul, Ashwini-Kumars are lords of bliss, Vishnu is the all-pervading godhead, while Rudra (Shiva) is the mighty deity who destroys all defective constructs and formations, and heals. There are aspects of truth-consciousness, with Ila being the power of revelation, Saraswati being the power of inspiration, Sarama being the power of intuition and Dakshina being the power of discernment and the capability to distribute a portion of any sacrifice to each godhead. As per Sri Aurobindo, we need to develop all these powers and attain these elements to attain perfection, at the physical as well as psychological level. It must be realised in action and enjoyment and vibrations of the nerves that mediate the psychological and nervous energies. It must be realised in the heart and mind, and with the realisation of the truth we can attain bliss, consciousness and being. While this conception sounds really beautiful, there are some axiomatic assumptions that are not developed from first principle at a purely spiritual level, which I have looked into, based on scriptural and spiritual evidences.
Brahman, Satya and the Vedas
Creation arises from an act of sacrifice of primordial unity of all there is, to form a cosmos filled with binaries, dualities and multiplicities; a universe filled with forms, relations and constructs. All arising from an initial state of oneness, which the physicalist would see in the singularity from which the Big Bang happened while the spiritualist will see as the source of spiritual and material existence. It was with the sacrifice of Purusha (as highlighted in the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda) that everything came to, as per Dharmic texts. Therefore,
Sacrifice is an important aspect of existence.
The sacrifice of unity enshrined in Satya – the Absolute Truth, as in the sacrifice of Purusha in the Rig Veda, causes the emanation of the multiplicity of realities, forms and beings, while the sacrifice of this multiplicity, by spiritual realisation, causes the dissolution back into, and identification with, the Unity.
In the spiritual sense, the sacrifice of the worldly, the elements of ignorance and illusion, and the grosser realities of the universe is important for the emergence of realisation. Another important aspect of existence is the sacrifice of multiplicity, binaries and dualities in nature to again attain Unity. Spiritual realisation is an act of facilitating the latter: the move from identifying with a multiplicity of ideas, identities and ideologies to a state of absolute oneness and calm.
Agni is Satya – the Absolute Truth. In being so, it is the spiritual energy that permeates everything in the Universe, and any energy or knowledge that can consume as well as dispel a state of spiritual ignorance and darkness to effectively transform and create an enlightened state of existence. It is the medium by which the aforementioned identification with a multiplicity of forms can be broken down and made to converge into Satya and unity-consciousness. Indra etymologically comes from the words Indu (इन्दु) meaning ‘a drop’ and Ra (र) meaning ‘acquiring, possessing’, and therefore Indra refers to the experience of possessing a drop. A drop of what? A drop of realisation and pure existence. As one dispels one’s state of ignorance with Agni, sacrificing our vices, illusions and identification with our ideas, identities and ideologies, we receive a drop of self-realisation, a drop of Soma – the divine nectar of beatitude, infused with the sweetness of Satya.
The word Deva literally means ‘divine, heavenly or anything of excellence’ and often refers to a donor of knowledge or resources. Viswadevas refers to all such Devas in the world. In the current spiritual understanding of the Vedas, it refers to any elements or powers in nature that facilitate spiritual realisation. Rudra is derived from the root ‘rud-‘ which means ‘to cry or to howl‘. A verse from the Rig-Veda: Rukh draavayathi, iti rudraha, means ‘ that which drives out misery’, thereby showing that Rudra is the eliminator of evil and that which ushers in peace. Given the sonic cosmogony of the Vedic traditions, the ‘roaring’ sound associated with that which destroys misery in Rudra is an interesting aspect. Rudra has an element of ‘wildness’ or, more appropriately, of chaos. Of chaos, as being becomes non-being, as existence transforms to non-existence and orders descends into disorder, as the principle of destruction (associated with Rudra) is underway. The chaotic and yet oft-synchronized ‘dance’ of elements and particles in nature are often called the ‘Tandava’ in the later Shiva form of Rig Vedic Rudra.
If we look at the other divine beings and powers mentioned in the Vedas, we see a diversity of aspects, manifestations and associated realities of the spiritual Truth – Satya. With regards to the category of beings known as Ribhus in the Vedas, I would like to focus on a particular expansion of the word as per the Nirukta of Yāska
ऋतेन भांतीति वा इति ऋभवः
which means ‘those who are radiant with truth’. Mitra-Varuna are the principal guardians of Rtá and Satya which are the universal order and Absolute Truth respectively. Mitra comes from the Indo-Iranian common noun *mitra means ‘(that which) causes [-tra] to bind [mi-]‘, while Váruṇa is derived from vṛ (‘ to cover, to surround or to restrain and bind’) with the suffix -uṇa- thereby giving a composite meaning of ‘he who covers or binds‘. While the latter also refers to the ancient belief of an ocean or a river surrounding the world (thereby giving an association with waters for Varuna), since Varuna-Mitra were taken as a dvandva (composite) compound, they rather refer to the common meaning of being ‘guardians that protect and cause the binding by universal law or Ṛta‘ of all things in the Universe. Savitṛ is the divine influence and the vivifying power of Satya, while Usha refers to the dawn of realisation and the ‘rays of illumination’ thereby that come with it. The Ashwini Kumars or Aśvins refer to aspects of duality in nature, such as dawn and dusk, that are associated with illumination. The word ‘Ashwini Kumar‘ is derived from ‘Aśv’ or horse, and refers to the speed and agility with which they ‘bring light‘ as said in the Rig Veda with the light being one of Truth-consciousness. Bṛhaspati is the first illumination that drove away darkness in its purity and brightness, and has a ‘bow’ who string is the cosmic order known as Rta, which forms the basis of Dharma. Vishnu is that which is all-pervasive and specifically denotes ‘that which is free from bondage and fetters‘ of any worldly kind, as per Yaska in the Nirukta.
In this way, the Rig Veda and other Vedas speak of the knowledge of self-realisation and unity consciousness in Brahman. Starting with oblations to Agni (Satya) itself, it founds the entire system on Truth. But the more profound idea here is that it does not just describe Satya, its various aspects and ways to attain it but itself is Satya – the Absolute Truth itself. This is a fundamentally novel understanding of the Veda, from spiritual reflections. The identification of the internal with the external (in terms of the elements and powers of nature and their spiritual analogues) thereby naturally promulgating an idea encapsulated in the mantra: सो ऽहम् that means ‘I am He/That’, besides the multiformity and apparent incomprehensibility (without sustained meditative practises) of terms and verses and the Truth therein, the sonic character of the cosmogony and verses of the Vedas, as well as the orientation around seeking the Truth and not dictating a way for it (as best enshrined in the Nasadiya Sukta of the Rig Veda) neatly puts forth the reason of why the Vedas have been the basis of a civilisation that has remained resilient and strong for millenia: it is Satya.
And that Satya lies enshrined in the Pranava – ॐ!