December 24, 2007

It took Sri Aurobindo, Dayanand Saraswati and others to bring back some dignity to the Vedas

My own encounter with the Vedas began with a book, by Sri Aurobindo, called the Secret of the Vedas. Until then I had read many important texts but not the Vedas. Like most modern Indians I paid polite lip service to them. They are the fount from which everything comes, so we revere them in theory but ignore them in practise. I picked up Aurobindo’s book out of sheer curiosity.
Most of the translations of the Vedas came from the Indologists, who tended to be too literal in their confusion. They were academics, or they were missionaries, who could not relate to the poetry at all. The Vedas were like nothing in their experience before. They dismissed the verses as babblings of a primitive mind, created by simple tribals who did little but pray to powers of nature for cows, wealth and children.
It took Sri Aurobindo, Dayanand Saraswati and others to bring back some dignity to the Vedas. Aurobindo was himself a sage and a poet, which gave him an edge in understanding such sublime poetry. He pointed out that the verses were not literal, the flexibility of Sanskrit admitted many meanings and poetic metaphors abounded.
The translators might translate a hymn as ‘may we have many cows,’ making it seems that the sole interest was to get rich. But the word for cow, ‘go’, also means light, so the real meaning might be ‘may we be filled with light,’ giving a whole different complexion to the hymn. The primitive babblings and ritualistic nonsense suddenly morph into sublime poetry.
The Rig Veda is the oldest book and the most important. The date of its composition varies wildly, from ten thousand years ago to six thousand. The ancient sages prescribed such a strict metric system for the verses, that so many centuries later, we still have every syllable intact, unchanged just as they gave it. Brahmins over the ages have chanted it with mnemonic precision and perfection. Other, much younger texts have been garbled with time, but not one syllable of the Vedas.
Many of the meanings, however, are lost. The dictionaries, the lexicons, the compilations of words came centuries later, and some of the ancient shades of meaning have slipped like smoke into the centuries.
The Vedas are poetry and all poetry is abnormally condensed. Some Vedic verses were written as riddles, or enigmas, and forgotten over the passage of thousands of years. When the key word meanings were lost the Veda ended up as ritual. Many think it is meaningless, Indologists and others think it is rubbish, and a few, like Aurobindo, think it is poetry at a height never reached before or after.
I do not think academics can ever understand the Vedas. Their approach is too erudite, too critical. You cannot approach the Vedas with a grammar book in hand, and all the tools of dissection handy. You need to go to them as a child, open eyed in delight watching a sunrise, or a poet awed, numbed, by beauty too great for words. You go into the verses to lose yourself and be carried to a world far beyond any you could reach on your own. Drop your preconceptions and bathe in the experience.
It has been at least six thousand years since the Rig Veda and we still have no other text that can light a candle to it. The sages of the Veda spoke from a depth no one else has plunged. They spoke from the heart in a way poets struggle to emulate all their lives. The Vedas were considered ‘shruti’ which means heard, revealed, inspired, like a lightning bolt from heaven. Poetry from realms almost beyond all understanding.

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