Is there any worthwhile psychology in the Vedas? To answer this question we have to understand the nature of Vedic revelation. For, modern western scholarship had foisted a superficial, naturalistic interpretation on this ancient scripture which was regarded as the highest spiritual authority by many Indian sages and saints.
The limitations of modern scholarship; symbolic age; vedic symbolism
The Limitations of Modern Scholarship
If we are to accept the ritualistic interpretation of Sayana and the naturalistic interpretation of the European scholars then there is nothing deep and profound in the Vedas which can be of much value to the present or future of mankind. The Vedas in these conceptions are either a manual of religious rituals or the “babblings of a child-humanity”, chantings of primitive barbarians. But Sri Aurobindo, with his spiritual and psychological interpretation has opened a new chapter in Vedic interpretation. He has given to the modern Vedic scholar a new approach and a deeper light to look into this ancient scripture. In this new light shed by Sri Aurobindo the Vedas present themselves as a great saga of spiritual quest, adventure and victory.
The Vedas in the Indian spiritual tradition are held in great respect as an expression of the highest spiritual inspiration. The men who revealed the Vedas are considered as Rishis, spiritual seers possessing the highest spiritual wisdom. The Vedic hymns are considered as Mantras, sacred words breathed out from the depth of the heart by a process of spiritual contemplation. “Mantras are the products of spiritual contemplation’’ says Yaska the ancient commentator on the Vedas. And a constantly recurring theme in this ancient Vedic tradition is that there is a deeper spiritual meaning to the Vedas which can be fathomed only by the seer and the yogi. The Vedic sages themselves speak of their utterances as secret words which reveal their entire significance only to the seer kavaye nivacanani ninyani vacamsi. Yaska remarks in his epilogue to the Nirukta: “Concerning the mantras none can claim to have perceived their truths if one is not a rishi and a tapaswi.” Most of the ancient traditional commentators of the Vedas, though predominantly ritualistic in their approach, admitted the possibility of a spiritual or adhyatmic interpretation of the scripture. But Western scholarship led by Max Muller ignored all these suggestions inherent in the ancient Vedic tradition and succeeded in foisting on the academic community a naturalistic interpretation based on a mass of ingenious but superficial scholarship. And the result is that a whole generation of Vedic scholars was misled into the bypaths of Vedic enquiry instead of proceeding with a penetrating intuition straight into the heart and core of the Vedic secret.
One of the major defects of modem Vedic scholarship and interpretation on the lines set by Western scholars is that too much importance is given to secondary a non-essential factors like philology, linguistics, history, comparative religion, while the most important and primary thing needed is totally ignored. For example, a modem scholar writing on the qualifications needed for Vedic exegesis observes. “The widening scope and fields of modern knowledge make severe demands on the equipment of the interpreter of the Vedas. He should not only be conversant with the Veda and Vedanga in the traditional way, but also possess an expert knowledge of text-criticism, comparative philology, comparative mythology, religion and philosophy, ancient history, anthropology, archaeology, assyriology and several other relevant sciences.” A Vedic scholar may possess all the qualifications listed here but it he doesn’t have the spiritual intuition or at the least psychological insight he may totally miss the inner meaning of the Vedas. So what is needed most for deciphering the Vedic secret is not so much a vast and varied scholarship— though that is very helpful—but a spiritual intuition of the seer which can to a certain extent identify itself with the consciousness of the Vedic rishis, relive their essential experience and vision and therefore penetrate with holistic insight into the very spirit of Vedic culture.
The importance of Sri Aurobindo’s psychological interpretation of the Vedas lies precisely in this crucial spiritual factor needed for discovering the Vedic truth. Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation is not based on intellectual scholarship—though he had that in abundance—but on his own vast and rich yogic experience, especially on a very specific intuition into the Vedic symbolism. As Sri Aurobindo, describing some of his own inner experiences which led him to the study of the Vedic lore, says:
“My first contact with Vedic thought came indirectly while pursuing certain lines of self-development in the way of Indian Yoga, which, without my knowing it, were spontaneously converging towards the ancient and now unfrequented paths followed by our forefathers. At this time there began to arise in my mind an arrangement of symbolic names attached to certain psychological experiences which had begun to regularise themselves…”
“…I found…that the mantras of the Veda illuminated with a clear and exact light psychological experiences of my own for which I had found no sufficient explanation either in European psychology or in the teachings of Yoga or of Vedanta, so far as I was acquainted with them, and, secondly, that they shed light on obscure passages and ideas of the Upanishads to which, previously, I could attach no exact meaning and gave at the same time a new sense to much in the Puranas.”
The Symbolic Age
This brings us to certain unique features of the Vedic civilisation. The Vedas are the creation of one of the earliest epochs of human civilisation when humanity as a whole had not acquired the reflective and rational intellectuality. It was the infra- rational age in which the human mass in general lived in the mostly subconscious and communal vital-sensational mentality with its spontaneous life-instincts and intuitions. It was an age in which human consciousness unclouded by the complexity of reflective intellectuality had an instinctive insight which perceived the outer world as a symbol of some supra-physical powers. From this state of spontaneous vital instincts, a few exceptional individuals, by following a psychological and spiritual discipline, might have ascended to a higher level of consciousness of the spontaneously intuitive spiritual mind by bypassing the rational-intellectual mind. These are the mystics of the ancient civilisation. As Sri Aurobindo points out:
“For the greatest illuminating force of the infrarational man, as he develops, is an inferior intuition, an instinctively intuitional insight arising out of the force of life in him, and the transition from this to an intensity of inner life and the growth of a deeper spiritual intuition which outleaps the intellect and seems to dispense with it, is ;y passage in the individual man.”
The Vedic Symbolism
This explains the symbolic and naturalistic forms of Vedic poetry. The Vedic described their inner psychological and spiritual experiences and realisations in a symbolic language using the events and objects of the external world which attracts and occupies the predominantly physical man who lives mainly in his spontaneous, instinctive and sensational physical-vital being. For example, the Dawn of inner nation, personified in the figure of the goddess Usha, is described in the symbolic imagery of the outer dawn. And the states or stages of unillumined inner darkness—which in the Yoga of the Vedic mystics seem to alternate with states of illumination—are imaged as Nights. The fruits of spiritual effort bringing inner md knowledge to the mind and energy to the vitality are described in the image of cows and horses, go and ashva, representing the dual aspect of the divinity, light and energy, or knowledge and force. The inner wars with the inner enemies of darkness, ignorance, falsehood and division—Panis, Valas and Vritras—are described in the imagery of outer wars which are a common and frequent phenomenon of ancient society. The sense of infinity and vastness of the higher spiritual consciousness is imaged in the figure of the Ocean. The Vedas abound in such images.
Another unique feature of the Vedas which gives mystic richness and profundity to the revelation is that their symbolism is not a deliberate creation of the mind but a direct and spontaneous expression of a higher supramental consciousness and knowledge. It is frequently said by exponents of esoteric philosophies that the mystics of these early prehistoric religions deliberately used symbolic language to conceal the spiritual truth from the profane. But in the case of the Vedic revelation there seems to be no such deliberate intention to conceal the truth from the laity. This esoteric motive may be built into the revelation itself as it was received ready-made by the Vedic sages, but might not be consciously or deliberately intended by them. The Mother explains the nature of the Vedic revelation as follows:
“They used an imaged language. Some people say that it was because they wanted it to be an initiation which would be understood only by the initiates. But it could also be an absolutely spontaneous expression without a precise aim to veil things, but which could not be understood except by those who had the experience. For it is quite obviously something that is not mental, which came spontaneously—as though it sprang from the heart and the aspiration—which was the completely spontaneous expression of an experience or knowledge, and naturally, an expression which was poetic, which had its own rhythm, its own beauty, and could be accessible only to those who had an identical experience. So it was veiled of itself, there was no need to add a veil upon it. It is more than likely that it happened like that.”
“When one has a true experience which is not the result of a preliminary thought constructing and obtaining the experience by a special effort, when it is a direct and spontaneous experience, an experience that comes from the very intensity of the aspiration, it is spontaneously formulated into words…which are not thought out, which are spontaneous, which come out spontaneously from the consciousness. Well, it is more than likely that the Vedas were like that. But only those who have had the experience, had the same state of consciousness, can understand what it means.”
“There are those sentences which seem absolutely banal and ordinary, in which things seem to be said in an almost childish way, and which are written out or heard and then noted down, like that. Well, when read with an ordinary consciousness, they seem sometimes even altogether banal. But if one has the experience, one sees that there is a power of realisation and a truth of expression which give you the key to the experience itself.”
Thus the Vedic revelation is a spontaneous expression of the truth and knowledge and harmony of a higher consciousness expressing itself in its own rhythm, language, form of expression and, finally, clothing itself in the right words. This is the origin of the Indian ideal of poetry and the Indian theory of the Mantra. For in the ancient Indian conception, perfect poetry is a mantra, a sacred intonation, a truth or idea seen by the inner vision of the seer breathed out in the right rhythm and the inevitable word.
This makes the Vedic revelation capable of multiple interpretation and understanding depending on the perspective of the interpreter. The Vedas are a description in a symbolic language of the spiritual quest and experiences and realisations of the Vedic Rishis. But the symbols can be interpreted at the spiritual, cosmic, psychological or physical level. At the highest spiritual level the Vedas reveal the knowledge of the highest spiritual truth, powers and laws of the transcendent Reality: One existence which the sages call variously, ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti. At the cosmic level they reveal laws and processes of the occult or cosmic forces in the play of their interaction and harmony. At the psychological level the Vedas reveal the manifestations and workings of these cosmic forces in the psychological being of man. Let us, for example, take the Vedic pantheon. At the highest spiritual level the gods are spiritual powers or “aspects” or names and forms of the supreme Godhead, each god containing within himself all the other godheads and representing the One Supreme. On the cosmic level each god is a universal force performing a particular cosmic function. On the psychological level each god represents a psychological faculty or power in the human consciousness, especially a higher faculty beyond the human mind. Extending this correspondence further down to the level of physical nature we may surmise that the Vedic symbolism, when rightly understood, may reveal the deeper laws of physical Nature, which means the highest scientific knowledge. So the contention of some of the modern Vedic commentators like Dayananda that the Vedas contain not only the highest spiritual and psychological knowledge but also the highest scientific knowledge is quite a plausible proposition. For, according to the Vedic sages, the laws of the universe follow the principle of unity and correspondence. There is in this universe only one essential Law which repeats itself and works itself out differently at each level of the cosmos according to the energy and substance of that level. As Sri Aurobindo explains this ancient Vedic conception: “…it is one Law and Truth acting in all, but very differently formulated according to the medium in which the work proceeds and its dominant principle. The same gods exist on all the planes and maintain the same essential laws, but with a different aspect and mode of working and to ever wider results.