Thursday, March 10, 2011

The double meanings in Rig Veda

Aurobindo Ghose has provided a very interesting interpretation to various aspects of RV. His interpretations seem very logical.

A cursory glance at the Rig Veda may lead to the apparent belief that the hymns are desperate pleadings of a bunch of helpless peoples seeking divine intervention in almost everything. The invokers of the hymns seem to be lazy guys who want to win every battle with the help of the Gods. It also appears that the peoples of Rig Veda have nothing else to do than to fight among themselves and also with the natives, who in most cases are demoted to the ranks of demons.

But a close look into the hymns reveal something more profound that's hidden under the garb of simplistic physical and natural and historical things like fights, rivers, days and nights, mountains, clouds, floods, cows and, not to forget, horses and chariots. Going by Aurobindo's interpretation each of these physical and natural things very logically point to deeper meanings that very consistently flow all along the Rig Veda. If we go by the literal meaning of all the words then this continuity of thoughts is broken at various places. In other words RV is full of double meanings. The simplistic meanings are meant for the normal people and the profound meanings for the learned.

The River, interpreted as the inspiration of life, is one of the various such instances of double meanings in RV.

In this context it's interesting to trace the etymologies of some words used in different forms at various places. All these words may appear to have different meanings in different contexts if we go by their literal sense. But they all convey the same meanings if we consider their original roots.

In the early days of human civilization whenever man wished to have words for abstract things, like strength, power etc., his readiest method was to apply simplistic ideas of physical actions. Many words for strength across all languages had originally this idea of a force or injury because that was what it meant to the early humans to secure their existence and prove their strength and superiority in this world. The same is true for the Indo European languages.

Let's consider the related Skt. roots damsh, dams, daksh. The various words that evolved from these roots have quite diverse meanings.

  1. daksha, from the root daksh, means strong, dexterous, intelligent, strong etc. in Skt., akin to Latin dexter, Greek doxa and PIEdeks, all meaning strong.
  2. damsa & dasra, from the root dams, means wonderful deeds in Skt., coming from the PIE dans meaning to teach.
  3. dasha, from the same root dams/damsh, means state or condition of life in Skt., akin to Latin decet, Greek decto, all coming from the PIE dek meaning respect, gain.

At the same time another meaning of daksh is to hurt and that of dams/damsh is to bite, akin to Greek dakno and PIE denke.

Similarly the root kri in Skt. means to do, but also means to hurt. The Skt. kratu means resolution, power and is akin to Greek kratosmeaning strong. It comes from the PIE kert from which also comes the Skt. kartati and Greek korno, meaning to cut.

So it can be seen that the original and nascent word for cutting, biting, hurting etc. evolves gradually to mean strength, power, resolution, respect etc. It also means to teach or to direct (PIE dans and Skt. dish). Here the simple physical meaning of words gradually gets profound philosophical meanings. That's exactly what we see in RV too - profound philosophical meanings behind simple physical and historical events. It's possible that the original physical meanings of the words were still not forgotten during the Rig Vedic age and the composers of RV used the same technique of double meaning to present deeper thoughts under the garb of simplicity.

Now let's see some of the common double meanings in RV.

  1. Yajna, the sacrificial ritual of RV, is work and the person who does the work is actually the soul or the personality of the person. The Gods are the personification of the elements or traits of the personality or the various strengths in the personality.
  2. Agni symbolizes the divine will, the force or the fire in humanity that initiates any action. Hence Agni is called at the beginning of any yajna. A life without a will or desire to achieve something is like death. Even an animal has to have the will to survive and only then it searches for food – without this fire of will within, it perishes. This will drives us throughout our lives in all our actions. So Agni is that element or strength of our personality that comes into play the moment we're born.
  3. Ashwins are the twin divine powers whose special function is to direct life energy in man in the sense of action and enjoyment. They represent the prana or the life energy that moves and acts and desires and enjoys. The life is full of violent actions, breaking each obstacle that comes in our way, moving continuously towards our destination and enjoying the every single moment. Through our actions we learn many things and become matured, aware, thoughtful and conscious. The faltering child grows into a matured man in the same way as the cascading small rivulet grows into a wide and calm river.The Ashwin twins are akin to the twins Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux) of the of Graeco-Latin mythology. Like the twin stars Castor and Pollux that protect sailors in their voyages, save them in storm and ship wrecks, the Ashwins are the powers that carry the Rishis of RV, as in a ship, to the other shore beyond the thoughts and states of the human mind, to the state of infinite consciousness.
  4. Indra is the illuminated mentality or the mind power and his horses are the energies of that mentality. He comes impelled by thought and driven by the illumined thinker within - dhiyeshita viprajuta. He comes with the speed and force of the illumined mind power. Indra is that element of our personality that comes into play in the third stage of our life, after Agni's will and Aswini's actions. The experiences of all the actions in our lives arouse the consciousness, the intellect.
  5. Mitra-Varuna represent the Truth Power, the power of discernment and greater consciousness, the power of the perfected, enriched and purified intellect or thoughts. Mitra-Varuna is that element of our personality that comes into play at quite an advanced stage of life when we're close to infinite consciousness and infinite bliss.
  6. Surya represents the illumination of ritam, the truth, rising upon the mind. Dawn represents the dawning of illumination in human mind.
  7. Soma represents the intoxication of Ananda, the divine delight. Ghritam, the purified butter, is the intellect or thought that is offered in the yajna. The fruits of the offerings are the cow, go, which is light or knowledge or consciousness in the form of knowledge. It's akin to Homeric kine of Helios (Sun). Horse is the energy, force or the consciousness in the form of force. Go and ashva, the cow and the horse, represent two companion ideas of Light and Energy, consciousness and force.
  8. Saraswati represents the divine inspiration. Association of river with inspiration is also in Greek mythology. River Hippocrene, the fountain of Horse, sprang when the divine horse Pegasus smote the rock with his hoof. The waters of inspiration gushed out. Peagaus, akin to Skt. pajas, means strength and also brightness. Here force is associated with inspiration. The rock is the symbol of formal existence of physical nature. From this gushes out the waters of inspiration that elevates the physical existence to infinite existence, raises the level of consciousness in man.
  9. The rivers are the streams of truth and bliss, rtasya dhara, concealed by Vritra and freed by Indra. The seven streams or the seven rivers, Sapta Sindhu, lead to the truth. They are themselves the source of the truth. They flow in the unobstructed and shore less Vast Ocean. The seven rivers are the seven states of consciousness. Kindled by fire, Agni, the divine will or the cosmic will, they flow towards the Vast Ocean the same way a mortal human moves towards infinite consciousness.
  10. There may be a connection between the Greek Bellerophon, the slayer of Bellerus, and Indra Valahan, the slayer of Vala, the enemy who captivates the cows (light, rays) in caves. Indra smites the dragon Ahi and releases the water from the mountain. Gods or the elements of personalities bring light, increases the truth, vastness, infinite bliss and gives a feeling of freedom from all bondage all limitations. On the contrary the demons are powers of division and limitations, coverers, tearers, confiners etc.
Following are the hymns where the concept of Agni, Ashwin, Indra and Mitra-Varuna are introduced in the first book of RV.


aghnir hotā kavikratuḥ satyaś citraśravastamaḥ |
devo devebhirā ghamat || 1.1.5
May Agni, the Priest with a seer's will towards action (kavi kratu), truthful, most rich in varied inspiration (chitra shravastama),
The God, come hither with the Gods.

The main aspect of Agni is kavi kratu, the will, the resolution towards action and chitrashravastama, most rich in varied inspiration. The word shravas generally means fame, glory. But it comes from the root shru, meaning to hear. In RV drishti and shruti, vision and hearing, are used in the sense of revelation and inspiration. The Vedas are called shruti, the knowledge that's heard, and the knowledge that's meant to inspire us throughout our lives. In that sense shravas should mean inspiration. Also resolution and inspiration make a perfect combination. To achieve anything we need to have a will and also an inspiration. Agni stands for both.


aśvinā yajvarīriṣo dravatpāṇī śubhas patī |
purubhujā canasyatam || 1.3.1

YE Aśvins, swift footed (dravatpani), much enjoying (purubhuja), Lord of bliss (shubhas pati),
Take delight (chanasyatam) in the energies of the sacrifice (yajvarir isho) .

aśvinā purudaṃsasā narā śavīrayā dhiyā |
dhiṣṇyā vanataṃ giraḥ || 1.3.2

Ye Aśvins, rich in wondrous deeds (purudamsasa), ye heroes with powerful thoughts (shaviraya dhiya),
Accept our songs (gira) with mighty thought (dhishnya).

dasrā yuvākavaḥ sutā nāsatyā vṛktabarhiṣaḥ |
ā yātaṃ rudravartanī || 1.3.3

Lord of the voyage, Nāsatyas, and wonder-worker, Dasra, yours are these libations with clipt grass (vriktabatrhisha)
Come ye with the fierce speed on the path (rudravartani).

As mentioned earlier Ashwin signifies the power of action and the power of movement that drive our prana, life energy, in all our deeds,karma. Nasatya coming from the the Skt. root nas and the PIE nek means 'to reach'. It's the name of one of the Ashwinis, the Lord of the voyage, the movement, the journey. The other Ashwin is named Dasra, the doer of wonderful deeds and actions. The words dravatpani andrudravartani signify the swiftness in the actions, the wonderful deeds, purudamsa. Throughout our lives we've to keep on doing actions and move towards our destination, overcoming all obstacles with all fierceness and swiftness and Aswhin signifies all of these.


indrā yāhi citrabhāno sutā ime tvāyavaḥ |
aṇvībhistanā pūtāsaḥ ||

O Indra marvellously bright (chitrabhano), come, these libations long for thee,
Thus by fine fingers purified.

indrā yāhi dhiyeṣito viprajūtaḥ sutāvataḥ |
upa brahmāṇi vāghataḥ ||

Impelled by mind (dhiyeshita), driven forward by the illumined thinker (viprajuta), come, Indra, to the prayers,
Of the libation-pouring (vagat) priest (brahma).

Indra stands for the power of the mind and intellect, that's impelled by thoughts and driven forward by the illumined thinker (dhiyeshito viprajuta). We attain this power only through the actions and deeds that we've to do throughout our lives. This is the consciousness and the intellect that we acquire through the various experiences in our life.

Mitra Varuna

mitraṃ huve pūtadakṣaṃ varuṇaṃ ca riśādasam |
dhiyaṃ ghṛtācīṃ sādhantā ||

Mitra, of purified strength and discernment (putadaksha), I call, and foe-destroying (rishadasam) Varuṇa,
Who accomplish (sadhanta), perfect the bright thoughts (dhiyam ghritachim).

ṛtena mitrāvaruṇāv ṛtāvṛdhāv ṛtaspṛśā |
kratuṃ bṛhantamāśāthe ||

Mitra and Varuṇa, through Law, lovers and cherishers of Law,
Have ye obtained your might power

The main aspects of Mitra-Varuna are putadaksha and dhiyam ghritachim, the power of the perfected, enriched and purified intellect or thoughts. When the consciousness that we acquire through our deeds and actions is perfected, enriched and purified, we possess the profound knowledge, the Truth. Beyond this are infinite delight, infinite consciousness and infinite existence, something that's referred to variously as salvation, nirvana etc.

These interpretations of the powers of Agni, Ashwins, Indra and Mitra-Varuna and the corresponding phases of life they come into play form the foundation of the Vedantic (post Vedic) concepts of the seven worlds, sapta loka, seven planes of existence and the seven planes of consciousness. The following table correlates the Rig Vedic concepts with those of Vedanta philosophy.

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