The Secret of the Veda
Most people are perplexed about the Vedas. Very few have read them, and those who have find them difficult to understand. They can’t make sense of its many divinities, sacrifices, rituals, riddles and paradoxes.
They are also confused by the praise showered on them by outsiders. Here’re just a couple of quotes (from hundreds to be found in the literature):
Arthur Schopenhauer, “Vedas are the most rewarding and the most elevating book which can be possible in the world.”
Henry David Thoreau, “Whenever I have read any part of the Vedas, I have felt that some unearthly and unknown light illuminated me. In the great teaching of the Vedas, there is no touch of sectarianism. It is of all ages, climes, and nationalities and is the royal road for the attainment of the Great Knowledge. When I read it, I feel that I am under the spangled heavens of a summer night.”
Also, J. Robert Oppenheimer, physicist and the developer of the atom bomb, echoed Arthur Schopenhauer when he reportedly said: “Access to the Vedas is the greatest privilege this century may claim over all previous centuries.”
The reader of the Veda wonders why these (and other countless) luminaries say nice things about the Vedas when they can’t see that in their translations of the texts.
Some make sense of this in their minds by believing that the meaning can only be attained after a whole life time of sādhanā, that is spiritual practice under the guidance of a qualified Guru.
The problem is that literally all academic translations of the Vedas are unsound. They may be faithful in literal rendition but mostly the deeper and contextually correct meanings elude them. The difficulties of interpretation were pointed out by Yāska in his Nirukta nearly 3,000 years ago:
Sanskrit: tat ko vṛtraḥ? — meghaḥ iti nairuktāḥ, tvāṣṭro ‘suraḥ ity aitihāsikāḥ (Nirukta 2.16)
English: “That (who) Vṛtra?” — “A cloud” says the narrator, “An asura, Tvaṣṭri’s [son]” say the storytellers.
Generally, the cloud is not in the outer sky but in the inner one, and the asura is not a demon but a certain cognitive agent. Academic translations present infantilizing narratives that Yāska warned against because the authors don’t get it. These translations are like the map of a city made by a blind mouse using odor alone, which may be accurate in the depiction of the many pathways and the relationship between them, but totally missing the broader or deeper picture.
If the translators only paid attention to the interpretative mechanisms within the tradition, they wouldn’t be so wrong. The tradition says that the understanding has three layers: ādhibhautika आधिभौतिक (related to the body), ādhidaivika आधिदैविक (related to cognitions within the mind), and ādhyātmika आध्यात्मिक (related to the ātman, or consciousness). The first is for children, the second for people focused on doing things and making sense of change, and the third for the deep understanding of reality. The academic translations present the Veda at the level of kindergarten stories.
Schoolbook narratives informed by a surface understanding meant for children have misinformed several generations of students.
The First Mantra
In order to explain the secret of the Veda, I take the very first mantra of the Ṛgveda.
अग्निमीळेपुरोहितंयज्ञस्यदेवं ऋत्विजं |
होतारंरत्नधातमम् ||(ṚV. 1.1.1)
Here’s the translation people see on the Internet:
I laud Agni, the chosen Priest, God, minister of sacrifice,
The hotar, lavishest of wealth. (translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith, 1896)
Agni is fire, but how can it be Priest, God, minister of sacrifice, and the rest that follows. And why is it important to have a priest or minister of sacrifice? What is the meaning of sacrifice? What is God, if we don’t see him anywhere? Why is Agni “God” and why is lauding him important or relevant? Why speak of things that cannot be tested?
It is a jumble of words that takes you nowhere. You stop and give up.
To get to the deeper meaning, we must first understand who Agni is. To the uninitiated, Agni is the physical fire that one can see. But the deeper meaning of Agni is the light (or spark) within that lifts the veil on the lamp of consciousness; yet another meaning is Vāc or speech.
Agni and Vāc are two manifestations of the same deeper reality. This is expressed in the poetic expression that Vāc and Agni both reside in the waters and in trees. The waters of materiality hide the spark of Agni and the sounds of their waves; from trees comes fire as well as the wood for flutes and other musical instruments. There is also a deeper connection between the elements of tejas and vāyu that has had a surprising influence on contemporary science.[Note 1]
Devam, translated by Griffith as “God”, is from the root div which means light, and the devas are the cognitive centers in the mind. [Note 2]) The word “God” is meaningless here excepting in its primary meaning of Light. The devas are the centers of agency that are the constituents of our mind.
So here is the deeper meaning of words and the translation is:
I venerate Agni, the priest [purohita] who is the light [devam] and invoker [ṛtvij] of the sacrifice, the one who chants [hotṛ] and bestows treasure.
Imagine that your habits and conditioning have thrown a veil on your consciousness, by making you only see what are you familiar with. This veil can be penetrated by using the human manifestation of fire (that is speech of Agni, the purohita in the chants as hotṛ) to connect with the inner spark (devam), so that the covering is dissolved and one is in touch with one’s true self.
The veil is only momentarily lifted just like one is only momentarily in the present moment. Most of the time, we inhabit either our past (which is dead and gone) or make dreams about the future (which doesn’t exist). The idea of spiritual practice is to make that dissolution of the veil persist for ever longer period of time. How to do it is the practice of yoga.
The process of connecting from speech to inner light needs a bridge and that is the mysterious role of Agni as invoker. Why mysterious? Because we are not talking of things, but rather of the workings of consciousness, which is not a material entity. This process of invocation requires a mastery of the processes that are symbolized by the Goddess.
It reeks of mystery since we use Agni (speech) to connect to the inner Fire in a process that takes us beyond the act of sacrifice.
What about treasures that are bestowed? The journeying to the source is transformative, and it is also punarjanman, the rebirth, the end of the yajñá, the sacrifice. When connected to the source, capacities that lay latent, come alive. The treasures that one comes by were within one’s reach all along, excepting one wasn’t aware of them, or one didn’t know where to look for them.
The process also reveals the many levels at which one can connect to reality. These are the various lokas, planes of existence or worlds (the English word look is a cognate), whose knowledge and mutual relationships help one navigate through different aspects of experience making it possible for one to master the world through saṅkalpa.
In physics, it is like the directing of evolution by observation. [Note 3]
What are the many divinities of the Ṛgveda? These are the lights at different points in the inner space of the mind, the embodiments of various cognitive capacities.
If you use your senses at the deepest level to connect to the self, you are going from the fire to the heart of the senses to the inner sun. If your focus is on the transformative processes within the inner cosmos, then this energy is Devi. If your desire is to follow to the root of your consciousness through a path of auspiciousness and equanimity, then the divinity is Śiva. There are any number of points of light that one may name variously that take us to the Source. These are not competing but complementary paths.
What is the origin of this desire? It is one’s innate temperament and the milieu in which one is raised. There are different kinds of sādhanā to practice which are described in the Vedic texts, which are truly a manual of universal spiritual science or ātma-vidyā.
One may even provide this free translation: I praise the spark [of insight], riding my chant, that becomes light and invokes a transformation in me bringing me new powers. [Note 4]
The praise of Agni is to fortify oneself in one’s faith in this process of self-transformation. The rest of the hymn unpacks the attributes of Agni and speaks of how invoking it has worked in the past and how it will bring well-being in the future.
Just the first mantra of the Ṛgveda opens up an entire world of wisdom and insight. This is the doorway to the secret of the Veda.
Agni, Indra, Sūrya
Each maṇḍala of the Ṛgveda (excepting 9, which is dedicated solely to Soma) begins with a hymn to Agni. The spiritual practice takes stock of the body or the earth (whose presiding deity is Agni, both in its fire and speech aspects), moves on to hymns invoking the prāṇa or the atmosphere (with the deity Indra who represents the senses that we must use to navigate through the mind), and finally to hymns that invoke the sun or the lamp of consciousness (Sūrya in its external aspects which shines in any number of pots of water generating an apparent multiplicity behind which lies a unity).
This triplicate order views privileges movement and thus constitutes the sacred theatre of the external ritual. When the ritual is done within the inner space, the three are mapped into divinities with which the sādhaka can have a more personal relationship.
Devī, Śiva, Viṣṇu
Agni, in its manifestation as speech, the Goddesss Vāc, is transformative and since the body is the ground, it interpenetrates into the higher fields or lokas. Indra, the lord of the senses — the mind — viewed at a higher level of abstraction is assimilated into Śiva with many layers of consciousness. The solar deity is invoked as Viṣṇu, whose upholding of the Moral Law is represented by his three strides the span the world. The transformative energy manifests together with Śiva and Viṣṇu as Pārvatī and Lakṣmī.
The exploration of the inner cosmos is Tantra that helps one discover the inner architecture of one’s self and its relationship with the outer world.
The entire ninth maṇḍala of the Ṛgveda is devoted to Sóma Pávamāna, “purifying Soma”, that has mostly been seen as the pressing of the drink of the same name from a plant. Beyond this, Soma represents the moon but also sometimes Viṣṇu or even Śiva (as Somanātha).
The moon is lit and nourished by the sun; it is the mind which is illumined by the lamp of consciousness. Since the individual‘s self identification is with the mind, it is in the moon where the divine nectar of immortality resides. The pressing of the Soma is the purification of the mind, mirrored in the sacred theatre of the pressing of the herb, that it makes it possible to connect to the heart of one’s being.
With the above understanding of the purification of the mind , it is easy to see the logic of the symbolic rebirth of the consecrated man at the beginning of the Some rite that is described in the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa 1.3. Both Suśruta and Caraka in their Ayurveda texts speak of rejuvenation through Soma, hinting at both the use of the purification of the mind and the power of the herb.
The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad has a dialog that deals with the question of the number of divinities. The great sage Yājñavalkya is asked: “How many gods?” He answers: “Three hundred and three, and three thousand and three”. This question is repeated and this time Yājñavalkya says: “Thirty-three gods.” On further questioning, Yājñavalkya says that they are six, and then three and then two and then one and a half, and finally one.
atha hainam vidagdhaḥ śākalyaḥ papraccha: katy devāḥ, yājñavalkya, iti. sa haitayaiva nividā pratipede, yāvanto vaiśvadevasya nividy ucyante; trayaś ca trī ca śatā, trayaś ca trī ca sahasreti. aum iti. hovāca, katy eva devāḥ, yājñavalkya, iti. trayaś triṁśad iti. aum iti. hovāca, katy eva devāḥ, yājñavalkya, iti. ṣaḍ iti. aum iti. hovāca, katy eva devāḥ, yājñavalkya, iti. traya iti. aum iti. hovāca, katy eva devāḥ, yājñavalkya, iti. drāv iti. aum iti. hovāca, katy eva devāḥ, yājñavalkya, iti. adhyardha iti. aum iti. hovāca, katy eva devāḥ, yājñavalkya, iti. eka iti, aum iti, hovāca katame te trayaś ca trī ca sahasreti.
Yājñavalkya explains it further by saying: “The three thousand and all that I mentioned — they are not really gods. They are only manifestations of the thirty-three. “But what are these thirty-three?” katame te trayas triṁśad iti. “The thirty-three gods are eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Ādityas — they make thirty-one (ekatriṁśat) — then Indra and Prajāpati — these make thirty-three gods.”
Eight Vasus (deities of material elements): The representations of the five elements, the stars, the Sun, and the Moon.
Twelve Ādityas (personified deities): The names of the Sun for each of the twelve months. These include Mitra and Varuṇa (mitrā́váruṇā), the representatives of ṛta ऋत, the natural law, who in context mean the beginning of summer and winter months.
Eleven Rudras (aspects of Consciousness): Five aspects of the mind: Ānanda “bliss”, Vijñāna “knowledge”, Manas “thought”, Prāṇa “breath” , and Vāc “speech”, and five aspects of Śiva — Īśāna or Citta Śaktī (power of memory), Tatpuruṣa or Ānanda Śaktī (power of bliss), Aghora or Jñāna Śaktī (power of knowledge), Vāmadeva or Citta rūpa and Citta rūpiṇi (the sky of memories), and Sadyojāta, or Icchā Śaktī (power of will), and, finally, Ātman or “Self”. [Note 5]
The practice that opens the doorways to intuition promised in the Veda is Yoga; they are the two sides of the same understanding.
यु॒ञ्जते॒ मन॑ उ॒त यु॑ञ्जते॒ धियो॒ विप्रा॒ विप्र॑स्य बृह॒तो वि॑प॒श्चितः । Ṛgveda 5.81.1
The learned yoke the mind, also yoke the thoughts in wisdom’s vast inspiration.
Holding the thoughts is dhyāna, ध्यान. If one looks at the sequence of thoughts arising out of intuition (paśyan पश्यन्, e.g. Ṛgveda 1.88.5c or 10.124.3a) that through an intermediate stage मध्यमा is transformed to वैखरी words, then the process of going back to that intuition is vipaśyana.
तां योगमिति मन्यन्ते स्थिरामिन्द्रियधारणाम् ।
अप्रमत्तस्तदा भवति योगो हि प्रभवाप्ययौ ॥ ११ ॥ Kaṭha Up 2.6.11
Yoga is this firm holding back of the senses.
One is then calm, for Yoga is the source and the meeting.
The Fire Ritual
The first hymn of the Ṛgveda is often chanted at the yajñá, the fire ritual. This is sacred theatre whose aesthetics together with the engaging of the senses by the fire, the sound, the burning incense, and the touch of air on the body facilitates going into an experience that is not normally accessible. While watching the fire, the participant is one with the Agni-twin of the fire, namely the chant, and thus become part of the performance.
The outer ritual is the beginning, the preparation for the inner ritual, at another moment or place, where one may chant or be one with the prāṇas to actually course through the mind’s sky to marvel at the vault and explore the caves that it covers.
In performing the ritual within, the fire is replaced by sound and then by thought alone. One finds the points of power within and relizess that the deities are not abstractions. The Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Rudra granthis or knots (ब्रह्मा, विष्णु, रूद्र ग्रन्थि) are specific loci up the spinal column concerning creation, harmony, and experience. To journey through this space one must become one with the process, which is the working of the Goddess. The divinities shine through.
An image of Agni
The Pateshwar Temple in Maharashra has an astonishing image of Agni in the mystical description of Ṛgveda 4.58.3:
चत्वारि शृङ्गा त्रयो अस्य पादा द्वे शीर्षे सप्त हस्तासो अस्य ।
त्रिधा बद्धो वृषभो रोरवीति महो देवो मर्त्याँ आ विवेश ॥३॥
Four are his horns, three are the feet; two heads, and his hands are seven
Triply-bound, the Bull roars loudly, the God has entered into mortals.
This extaordinary image can be seen either as a bull or as a cross-legged human.
- It is the deeper connection between the two that prompted Swami Vivekananda to advice Nikola Tesla to look for an equation connecting matter and energy. https://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/113/11/2207.pdf
- S. Kak, The Gods Within. Adyar Library Bulletin, 2000. http://www.ece.lsu.edu/kak/centers.pdf [Summarizes the book of the same title.]
- For Quantum Zeno Effect: https://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0605096
- With this paradoxical statements such as RV 1.164.50 become clear. One also sees the parallel with the Gāyatrī Mantra (RV 3.62.10).
- The eleven Rudras find a systematic representation in the categories of Kashmir Śaivism, by getting added to the 25 tattvas of Sāṅkhya for the total of 36. We see, it all goes back to the Vedas.
S. Kak, The Prajna Sutra. 2007. [My book on the secret of the Veda.]
See also, Artificial intelligence, consciousness, and the self, which provides a scientific context.