Saturday, September 8, 2012


A Critical Examination of Shri Aurobindo’s Secret of the Veda 
Vijaya Rajiva
01 Sep 2012
Hindus worship the Devas and Devatas of the Rig Veda as standing outside of their consciousness as objective realities. The Rig Vedic Rishis also worshipped them in this manner, and through the homa, the sacrificial fire. They worshipped the terrestrial, atmospheric and cosmic deities. Agni was the central deity of the homa. Sayana, the great commentator of the Rig Veda focussed on the ritualistic aspect of this worship and his work has been the basis of most subsequent scholarship on the topic. The great 20th century philosopher Shri Aurobindo Ghosh also based some of his work on Sayana’s commentary, but he moved away from the ritualistic aspect to the symbolic and psychological aspects of thehoma.

His book The Secret of the Veda is some 600 plus pages long (in pdf), is dense and closely argued. There are many quotations from the Veda, along with English translations. Its companion work Hymns to the Mystic Fire was written a few years later and was published in 1946, with a foreword by Aurobindo himself. Approximately half of The Secret of the Veda is an introduction and commentary, the second part being translations by the author. It was written serially between 1914-1921, in a journal, Arya, started by Aurobindo. It is not an easy read and it is all too easy to miss the forest for the trees. Hence, it is important at the very outset to state briefly what his central concepts are.

Ritam (cosmic order) and Satyam (Truth) are his central concepts. Agni, the deity of thehoma, the fire god, is seen as the mediator (as did the Rishis) between humans and the Devas and Devatas (Gods and Goddesses). The latter have sent Agni in order that humans may reachRitam and Satyam. All the Devatas are participants in the process of exalting and elevating human beings to a vision of Truth which is the cosmic order. In addition to Agni, Mitra, Indra, Varuna, the Viswadevas, Saraswati (and her companions) and even the seven rivers are interpreted by Aurobindo as having a symbolic meaning. About one third of the commentary is on Agni with the remainder on the various Devatas and their role in the process of engaging in Truth consciousness. The study is extremely interesting and worth pondering over, even if the reader may find it somewhat (and needlessly) esoteric.

The Gods and Goddesses (and this is the terminology that Aurobindo uses) are not merely natural phenomena. The philosopher focuses on Agni at the outset because this Devata (God) is the subject of the first hymn of Book 1 of the Rig Veda, in addition to being the messenger from the Devatas throughout the Veda and of course the Vedic sacrifice. Aurobindo uses the older English usage ‘Gods’ but in this article we shall use the term Devata which is a comprehensive term that includes Devis, Devas and Devatas, in short the celestial beings.

Aurobindo’s work explains the dual nature of the Veda. The Rishis used the sacrificial fire and the presence of various Devas and Devatas at the homa, to speak in veiled and mysterious fashion of a deeper truth that of SatChit and Ananda, later openly spoken about in the Upanishads. He does not use the word Brahman, instead he uses the words Ritam and Truth. The hymns of the Rig Veda are symbolic according to him, even though they also invoke the actual presence of the Devas and Devatas. Hence the Rig Veda operates in dual fashion: the literal and the symbolic.

Explaining the importance of Agni the philosopher says:
“Thus in these four verses of the opening hymns of the Veda we get the first indication of the principal ideas of the Vedic Rishis, - the conception of a Truth-consciousness , supra mental and divine, the invocation of the gods as powers of the Truth to raise man out of the falsehoods of the mortal mind, the attainment in and by this Truth of an immortal state of perfect good and felicity and the inner sacrifice and offering of what one has and is by the mortal to the Immortal as the means of the divine consummation. All the rest of Vedic thought in its spiritual aspects is grouped around these conceptions (emphasis ours, p.80 of 616).

The state of felicity is what he means by Bliss. SatChit and Ananda are envisioned by the Rishis through drsti (vision, sight) and sruti (hearing). The Gods (the word used by Aurobindo) send Agni to humans to take them to this state. The other gods, Varuna, Indra, Mitra, Viswadevas and the goddesses Sarasvati, Ila, Bharati, Mahas, all work towards the same project.

Aurobindo says:
“In the early Vedantic teaching of the Upanishads we come across a conception of the Truth which is often expressed by formulas taken from the hymns of the Veda, such as the expression already quoted, satyamrtambrhat, - the truth, the right, the vast. This Truth is spoken in the Veda as a path leading to felicity, leading to immortality. In the Upanishads also it is by the path of the Truth that the sage or seer, Rishi or Kavi, passes beyond. He passes out of the falsehood, out of the mortal state into an immortal existence. We have the right therefore to assume that the same conception is in question in both Veda and Vedanta (p.77 of 616).

He continues thus:
“This psychological conception is that of a truth which is the truth of divine essence, not truth of mortal sensation and appearance. It is satyam, truth of being; it is in its action rtam, right, - truth of divine being; it is in right activity both of mind and body; it is brhat, the universal truth proceeding direct and undeformed out of the Infinite. The consciousness that corresponds to it is also infinite, brhat, large as opposed to the consciousness of the sense-mind which is founded upon limitation. The one is described as bhuma, the large, the other asalpa, the little. Another name for this supramental or truth consciousness is Mahas which also means the great, the vast. And as for the facts of sensation and appearance which are full of falsehoods, . . . . not truth or wrong application of the satyam in mental and bodily activity, we have for instruments the senses , the sense-mind (manas) and the intellect working upon their evidence, so for the truth-consciousness there are corresponding faculties,- drstisruti,viveka, the direct vision of the truth, the direct hearing of its word, the direct discrimination of the right. Whosover is in possession of this truth-consciousness or open to the action of these faculties, truth, satyam and rtam, that we have to apply in this opening hymn of the Veda (p.77 of 616)”.

Agni, then, in this interpretation is described as that which “the gods have established . . . . as the immortal in mortals, the divine power in man, the energy of fulfillment through which they do their work in him. It is this work which is symbolised by the sacrifices (p.77 of 616).

“Who then, is this god Agni to whom language of so mystic a fervour is addressed, to whom functions so vast and profound are ascribed? Who is this guardian of the Truth, who is in his act its illumination, whose will in the act is the will of a seer possessed of a divine wisdom, governing his richly varied inspiration? What is the Truth that he guards? And what is this good that he creates for the giver who comes always to him in thought day and night bearing as his sacrifice submission and self surrender? Is it gold and silver horses and cattle that he brings or is it some divine riches?” (p.76 of 616)

Brief Critique

Sayana the great commentator of the Rig Veda emphasised the importance of the ritual of the Vedic sacrifice. He did not go beyond this mandate as it were, since he considered the sacrifice important enough for the Rishis to have established a procedure for conducting the sacrifice and as well remembering the mantras.

Aurobindo on the other hand, sees the sacrifice as symbolic. Hence, the ritual is incidental. However, he does not explain the paradox of having a ritual in order for it to be symbolic, pointing to some other world. As he puts it:
“ … It is not the sacrificial Fire that is capable of these functions (the Truth described above, note by present writer) nor can it be any material flame or principle of physical heat and light. Yet throughout the symbol of the sacrificial Fire is maintained. It is evident that we are in the presence of a mystic symbolism to which the fire, the sacrifice, the priest are only outward figures of a deeper teaching, and yet figures which it was thought necessary to maintain and to hold constantly in front (p. 76, of 616).

This is the paradox which a ritualist such as Sayana (or the ordinary worshipper) does not have to resolve). The worshipping Hindu merely acknowledges the presence of Agni without asking the whys and whereofs, since he/she believes that the Devata is present in the sacrificial fire and is to be worshipped. Aurobindo is unable to utilise this devotional aspect of the sacrifice. Both in the The Secret of the Veda and the brilliant translations of the Agni hymns of the Rig Veda, in his work Hymns to the The Mystic Fire, he is tied up in the complexities of the supra mental Truth Consciousness of which Agni is a mere symbol during the fire ceremony.

Agni’s presence is thus reduced to a mere symbolism. In trying to read Vedanta backward into the Rig Veda his remarkable genius missed out on the very fact that he himself asks about rhetorically: why the fire, if it is merely a symbol? Why was it thought necessary to maintain to hold constantly in front? See the question in the above quotation.

A possible reason for this paradoxical situation might be that Aurobindo was writing in the early 20th century when the colonial and Western approach was to look down on the Rig Veda as an uncivilised worship of natural phenomena. The two proselytising faiths, Islam and Christianity, had made up their minds that their ONE GOD was the true one as held forth by their prophets. Rig Vedic polytheism was viewed contemptuously as such, as a pagan practice (see previous articles by the present writer).

Today, with the New Age philosophies and the spread of Eastern religions, especially Hinduism, in the Western world, a more sophisticated approach has made it possible for Hindus to provide a richly textured account of the Devatas in the Veda. And of course, the devout Hindu can continue to worship the Devas and Devatas without any further encroachments from the colonials or missionaries (or so one hopes!)

A second reason is that Aurobindo does not clarify the relationship between Devatas and Brahman in The Secret of the Veda. In his other works he does admit that the Infinite Brahman is both manifest and unmanifest. His focus in this work is on rejecting ritual, rather than seeing its significance. The Rishis saw the manifest Brahman in the ritual and saw that this was a path for humankind. The Devatas are manifest Brahman and humans can so approach them. They are not just symbols.

The third reason is that Aurobindo used the current word ‘god’ and thus got caught in the usage of a limited concept, rather than the unlimited, infinite Brahman which could manifest in Devatas. The present writer has written about the limited nature of the word ‘god’, drawing on arguments presented by Alain Danielou in his book Hindu Polytheism, 1964.

The result of these limitations on the part of this great philosopher is that the Veda becomes restricted to his personalised vision and the Agama is totally without any significance in his world view. Hence, while the brilliance of his vision of the Devatas is moving and even imposing, it remains an incomplete account of Hinduism.

The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university

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