A cursory glance at the Rig Veda may lead to the apparent belief that the hymns are desperate pleadings of a bunch of helpless people 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 people of the 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. Most interpretations of the Rig Veda by Indians and westerners – researchers, academicians, novice writers, revisionists, everyone included – generally talk about these. The much talked about interpretations by Wendy Doniger too are not much different. So are the 14th century commentaries by Sayana – they formed the basis of the translations made by Max Muller and Griffith in the 19th century – which interpret many hymns as complicated manuals for various rituals.
But a close look into the hymns reveal something more profound hidden under the garb of simplistic physical, natural or historical things like fights, rivers, days and nights, mountains, clouds, floods, cows, etc., and of course not to forget horses and chariots which are very important to the Rig Vedic people. Going by Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation, each of these physical and natural things very logically point to deeper meanings which, very consistently, flow all along the Rig Veda (RV). 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 were perhaps meant for the normal people and the profound for the learned.
In this context it’s relevant to trace the etymologies of some words used in RV 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 Sanskrit (Skt.) roots damsh, dams, daksh. The various words which evolved from these roots have quite diverse meanings.
daksha, from the root daksh, means dexterous, intelligent, strong etc. in Skt., akin to Latin dexter, Greek doxa, all meaning strong. All these words are believed to have descended from the original word deks in the pre-historic common mother language referred to as Proto Indo European (PIE).
damsa and dasra, from the root dams, mean wonderful deeds in Skt., coming from the PIE dans meaning to teach.
dasha, from the same root dams and damsh, means state or condition of life in Skt., akin to Latin decet, Greek decto, all coming from the PIE dek meaning respect, gain.
Another meaning of daksh is to hurt and that of dams and 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 kratos meaning strong. It comes from the PIE kert from which also come 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 the words gradually gets profound philosophical meanings. That’s exactly what we see in RV too – profound philosophical interpretations 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.
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 personifications of the elements or traits of the personality or the various strengths in the personality.
Agni symbolizes the divine will, the force or the fire in humanity which initiates any action. Hence, Agni is invoked 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 can it search 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 which comes into play the moment we’re born.
Ashvins are the twin divine powers whose special function is to direct the life energy in the sense of action and enjoyment. They represent the prana or the life energy which 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 Ashvin twins are akin to the twins Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux) of the Graeco-Latin mythology. Like the twin stars Castor and Pollux that protect the sailors in their voyages, save them in storm and shipwrecks, the Ashvins are the powers that carry the Rishis of RV, as in a ship, to the other shore beyond the thoughts, to the state of infinite consciousness.
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 which comes into play in the third stage of our life, after Agni’s will and Ashvini’s actions. The experiences of all the actions in our lives arouse the consciousness, the intellect.
Mitra-Varuna represents 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 which comes into play at quite an advanced stage of life when we’re close to infinite consciousness and infinite bliss.
Surya represents the illumination of ritam, the truth, rising upon the mind. Dawn represents the dawning of illumination in human mind.
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 the 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.
Saraswati represents the divine inspiration. Association of river with inspiration is seen in Greek mythology too. River Hippocrene, the fountain of Horse, sprang when the divine horse Pegasus smote the rock with his hoof. The waters of inspiration gushed out. Pegasus, 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 which elevates the physical existence to infinite existence, raises the level of consciousness in man.
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 into 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.
There may be a connection between the Greek Bellerophon, the slayer of Bellerus, and Indra referred to as 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 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, Ashvin, Indra and Mitra-Varuna are introduced in the first book of RV.
agnir hotā kavikratuḥ satyaś citraśravastamaḥ |
devo devebhirā gamat || 1.1.5 (5th verse of 1st hymn of 1st book of the Rig Veda)
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 seer’s will, the resolution towards action, and chitra shravastama, 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 (dravatpāṇī), much enjoying (purubhujā), Lord of bliss (śubhas patī),
Take delight (chanasyata) in the energies of the sacrifice (yajvarīr iṣa).
aśvinā purudaṃsasā narā śavīrayā dhiyā |
dhiṣṇyā vanataṃ giraḥ || 1.3.2
Ye Aśvins, rich in wondrous deeds (purudaṃsasā), ye heroes with powerful thoughts (śavīrayā dhiyā),
Accept our songs (gira) with mighty thought (dhiṣṇa).
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 (vṛktabarhiṣa)
Come ye with the fierce speed on the path (rudravartanī).
Ashvin signifies the power of action and the power of movement which drive our prana, life energy, in all our deeds, karma. Nasatya, coming from the Skt. root nas and the PIE nek, means “to reach”. It’s very aptly the name of one of the Ashvinis, known as the Lord of the voyage – the voyage or journey to reach the destination of life. The other Ashvin is named Dasra, the doer of wonderful deeds and actions. The words dravatpani and rudravartani 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 Ashvin signifies all of these.
indrā yāhi citrabhāno sutā ime tvāyavaḥ |
aṇvībhistanā pūtāsaḥ ||
O Indra marvellously bright (citrabhāna), come, these libations long for thee,
Thus by fine fingers purified.
indrā yāhi dhiyeṣito viprajūtaḥ sutāvataḥ |
upa brahmāṇi vāghataḥ ||
Impelled by mind (dhiyeṣita), driven forward by the illumined thinker (viprajūta), come, Indra, to the prayers
Of the libation-pouring (vāghata) priest (brahma).
Indra stands for the power of the mind and intellect. It’s the power that’s impelled by thoughts and driven forward by the illumined thinker (dhiyeṣita viprajūta). We attain this power only through the actions and deeds we do throughout our lives. This is the consciousness and the intellect that we acquire through the various experiences of our life.
mitraṃ huve pūtadakṣaṃ varuṇaṃ ca riśādasam |
dhiyaṃ ghṛtācīṃ sādhantā || 1.02.07
Mitra, of purified strength and discernment (pūtadakṣa), I call, and foe-destroying (riśādasa) Varuṇa,
Who accomplish (sādhanta) perfecting the bright thoughts (dhiyaṃ ghṛtācī).
ṛtena mitrāvaruṇāv ṛtāvṛdhāv ṛtaspṛśā |
kratuṃ bṛhantamāśāthe || 1.02.08
Mitra and Varuṇa, through Law, lovers and cherishers of Law,
Have ye obtained your might power
The main aspects of Mitra-Varuna are pūtadakṣa and dhiyaṃ ghṛtācī, the power of the perfected, enriched and purified intellect or thoughts. When the consciousness acquired 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, nirvāna etc.
Sri Aurobindo is of the opinion that only when the “true” inner meanings of the various aspects of RV are considered, can we see a continuity of thought which otherwise appear broken if we take the physical meanings. Having said that, does it mean then that all the physical things – the fights, the rivalries, the violence etc. – are all mythical or fictitious? Perhaps not. Many of the events depicted in RV are believed to be historical.
In RV there’s many references to a Battle of Ten Kings which is a sort of a civil war between various tribes. King Sudas of the Tritsu tribe and a descendant of the legendary King Bharata is fighting against a confederation of ten other tribes – Bhrigu, Druhyu, Turvasha, Paktha, Bhalanas, Alina, Vishanin, Shiva, Anu and Puru. The Bhrigu lineage still exists among Hindus. The Paktha may be the Pakhtun or Pashtun people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Bhalanas people should be related to the Bolan Pass in Pakistan. The present day Puris may be the Rig Vedic Puru. The setup of the Battle of Ten Kings also doesn’t seem to be unrealistic. The later war of Mahabharata is very similar – the Pandavas fighting against a confederation comprising almost the rest of the Indian subcontinent. It’s possible that the later epic might have fictionalized a much older battle referred to in RV.
A closer look into many such references in RV do point to several historical facts and events. Conflict and violence have been always there in any civilization or society. So it’s nothing unusual or derogatory to think of violence in ancient Indian society too. RV may not be taken on face value as a historical treatise and hence every little incident mentioned there may not be historically correct. But there’s no reason to disbelieve or debunk all the violence in RV as misinterpretations, as is generally the stand taken by anyone who criticizes the likes of Wendy Doniger for showing RV or ancient India in bad light. Doniger took the hymns of RV on their face value, seeing only one of the double meanings.
In this context it would be relevant to refer to something Doniger has pointed out. With reference to killing animals and plants for food, she quotes from Jaiminiya Brahmana that the “people who lack true knowledge and offer no oblations cut down trees for firewood, or cook for themselves animals that cry out, or cook for themselves rice and barley, which scream soundlessly”. Here she makes a very interesting observation that the reference to rice and barley as something “which scream soundlessly”, when killed and eaten, is almost like paraphrasing the words of the eminent Indian scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose, who “moved George Bernard Shaw deeply with his demonstration of an unfortunate carrot strapped to the table of an unlicensed vivisector.” Bose believed, very much like what the Jaiminiya Brahmana too might have hinted, that plants too can feel pains and emotions, like animals.
So, interestingly, while failing to see the inner meaning of all the “violence” in RV, Doniger actually sees the inner meaning of “rice and barley, which scream soundlessly”. Such an effort in finding similar meanings of everything else would have been enriching for everyone.