The Vedic Society and Culture: A Psycho-Spiritual Perspective–M.S. Srinivasan

[Published in Rbhu, Feb 2011]


The ancient civilisations can provide some luminous clues for understanding the spiritual and psychological origins of human society and culture.  In this quest, Vedic society and culture of ancient India can be a fertile source of insight, because it was built, guided and shaped by spiritual seers and thinkers who had a deep insight into the spiritual and psychological dimensions of life.  A deep understanding of the society, culture and religion of the early Vedic society can throw a revealing light on the inner origins of human civilization.  But scientific and rational mind alone and its objective outlook cannot do this effectively. We have to take into consideration the spiritual insight of modern seers and sages who had a more or less similar experiences, realization or intuitions as the ancient seers who shaped the Vedic age.  This article is an attempt to understand the early Vedic society and culture in a psychological and spiritual perspective, based mainly on the insights of Sri Aurobindo, a modern Indian seer but also on other scholars and thinkers with deeper insight.

The Vedic Vision of Human Society

In order to understand a social system we must know the central idea and vision behind it.  The early Vedic society has a natural as well as visionary cause.  Let us first examine the visionary causes.

If we ask an average Indian or Western mind or an even a scholar under the influence of the traditional western interpretations of Indian Culture, what is the basis of ancient Indian social order, he will say instantly, “the caste-system based on birth and hereditary.”  Since the day modern India came under the influence of the rational and secular “enlightenment” of the West, it has become fashionable to denounce the caste-system.  To deride the caste-system is considered as a sign of being “progressive”.  But what is not recognized or understood is that the caste-system based on birth and hereditary is the final result and degenerate remnant of a great and unique attempt towards creating a society based on psychological and spiritual principles.  There is undoubtedly a failure and degeneration, but these negative results have to be viewed in a holistic perspective, in the background of the greater vision and the nobler attempt.

There are three factors which we have to understand for a holistic comprehension of the Vedic society: first is the spiritual vision of the Vedic seers articulated in a symbolic language of the Rigveda; second is the psychological theory of four Varnas: Brahmana, Kshathria, Vysya and Shudra based on the principle that the outer occupation of individuals has to be in harmony with their inner psychological quality, temperament and capacities; third is the social system, Jathi, based on birth and hereditary.  The ancient Indian thinkers made a clear distinction between Varna and Jathi, the psychological basis and its social expression.  There are innumerable passages in Indian scriptures which indicate that an individual’s Varna does not depends on birth but on their inner moral and psychological qualities, Gunas.  For example, the divine teacher in the well known Indian scripture Bhagavat Gita states: “I have created the four varnas according to their Guna and Karma.”  Similarly in a dialogue in the famous Indian epic Mahabharatha, between a serpent called Nahusha and Yudhistra, Nahusha asks, “O King, who is a Brahmana.”  Yudhistra replies, “O, King of serpents, if the qualities of truthfulness, charity, forgiveness, good conduct, benevolence, austerity and mercy are found in a man, he is a Brahmin.”  The serpent Nahusha says: “O, Yudhistra, even amongst Shudras are found the qualities of a Brahmin.”  And Yudhistra replies, “O Serpent, if these qualities are present in a Shudra, he is no longer a Shudra.  He is a Brahmin.  If these qualities are absent in a Brahmin, he is not a Brahmin.”  With this brief introduction, let us now try to understand the vision and the idea behind the Vedic society and culture.

The Vedic vision of human society is conveyed in the Purusha Suktha of the Rigveda, which describes the Purusha, the divine Being marching ahead with Brahmana as the mouth, Kshatriya as his arm, Vysya as his thighs, and Shudra as his feet.  In brief, the central intuition behind this Vedic conception is that human society or social organization must be a faithful outer expression of the inner psychological organization of the human being.  Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vysya, Shudra represent the four psychological faculties in Man and their self expression in the society – Brahmana represents the faculties of thinking, ethical, and spiritual intelligence seeking for truth, knowledge, values; Kshatriyas, the faculties of will seeking for power, strength and mastery; Vysya, the faculties of emotions, vitality and pragmatic mind seeking for mutuality, harmony, productivity, enjoyment and practical adaptation to life; and Shudra, the faculties of physical being with its natural urge for work and service.  Based on this intuition human beings are classified into four psychological types according to the most dominant faculties and human society organized according to their corresponding self-expression in the collective life of man.  The Brahmana expressing himself through the social organ of Culture, Kshathria through Polity, Vysya through the Economy and Shudra through Labour.  But these psychological powers in man and the human types they represent are themselves expressions of the corresponding four-fold cosmic powers: the power of Wisdom which determined the broad lines, principles and order of the world; power of Strength which enforces what the Wisdom conceives; power of Harmony which determines the rhythms, relations and organization of things; the power of Work which executes what the other three conceives, decides or dictates.  The Vedic ideal of society is to make the whole of human society a direct and conscious expression of the fourfold powers of the creative Godhead in Man through their corresponding human instruments.  As Sri Aurobindo explains briefly the Vedic Vision:

“Human society was for them an attempt to express in life the cosmic Purusha who has expressed himself otherwise in the material and the supraphysical universe. Man and the cosmos are both of them symbols and expressions of the same hidden Reality—Thus we have first the symbolic idea of the four orders, expressing—to employ an abstractly figurative language which the Vedic thinkers would not have used nor perhaps understood, but which helps best our modern understanding—the Divine as knowledge in man, the Divine as power, the Divine as production, enjoyment and mutuality, the Divine as service, obedience and work. These divisions answer to four cosmic principles, the Wisdom that conceives the order and principle of things, the Power that sanctions, upholds and enforces it, the Harmony that creates the arrangement of its parts, the Work that carries out what the rest direct. Next, out of this idea there developed a firm but not yet rigid social order based primarily upon temperament and psychic type with a corresponding ethical discipline and secondarily upon the social and economic function. But the function was determined by its suitability to the type and its helpfulness to the discipline; it was not the primary or sole factor.” (1)

In this Vedic conception, the main purpose of the human society is to provide an outer framework for the inner psychological and spiritual development of the individual towards the spiritual aim of life.  To achieve this purpose the outer social occupation of the individual has to be in harmony with his or her inner psychological nature, temperament and capacity.  In Indian psychology the consciousness of the Spirit or the Self beyond Mind is the highest level of the inner hierarchy in man.  Next comes the rational, ethical and aesthetic faculties of the Brahmana and the will and vital-force of the Kshatriya, more or less in the same level.  Then comes the faculties of the Vysya and in the lowest level, that of the Shudra.  If the outer social organization has to reflect this inner hierarchy then those who are united with the consciousness of the Spirit, the Seer and the Sage have to provide the overarching vision, values and ideals to the society.  The Brahmana and the Kshatriya types, representing the highest intelligence and will of the community, under the higher guidance of the seer and the sage, will provide the top leadership to Society.  The Brahmana with his mental and ethical power shapes the cultural life of the community.  The Kshatriya with his vital energy and will, sitting in positions of power in Polity, will enforce the Vision and Thoughts of the Sage and the Brahmana in the outer life.  In the lower levels of the hierarchy, the Vysya will organize and manage the Economy, and the Shudra will give the material form to whatever that is conceived or created by the Brahmana, Kshatriya or the Vysya.  Thus we can see, in the ancient Indian social thought, we have a social theory and practice based on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of human life.

There is no scientific and empirical evidence for this vision of Vedic seers.  But, there is an intuitive logic behind it.  When we examine the history of human civilizations, we can see that in all these civilization, the society tends to organize around four classes conceived by Vedic sages. In all societies, there is a priestry or thinking class, a warrior, ruling or administrative class, merchant and professional class and a working class.  What is the deeper or universal truth and law behind this phenomenon?  There are some universal human instincts, individual and collective, which are the expressions of the psycho-physical constitution of the human being.  What is the source of these typal psychological forces within human beings?  They are perhaps the expression of some universal arche-types in the “collective unconscious” of Carl Jung or cosmic superconscious of the Vedic seer.  But neither the “collective unconscious” of Jung or the “cosmic superconscious” of Vedic seers have any scientific or empirical evidence and which do we prefer depend on our subjective judgement on who has a deeper and greater knowledge of psychology.  The personal preference of the author is for the Vedic seers because this author believes that the Vedic sages had a deeper and more extensive knowledge of human consciousness than any modern psychologists.  Interestingly, Carl Jung himself admitted that Eastern psychology is far more advanced than modern psychology.  In his autobiography, Carl Jung said:

“Psychoanalysis itself and the lines of thought to which it gives rise—are only a beginners attempt compared to what is an immortal art of the East.” (2)

The Evolution of Vedic Social Order

We have discussed briefly the visionary base of Vedic society.  Let us now examine some of the natural and environmental causes, which shaped the Vedic society.  Here we are in a more familiar territory, which was discussed and analyzed by many scholars and thinkers.

When a human aggregate is relatively free from mental intervention or impositions from above, it get organized according to the natural and organic need of the individuals and the community.  Human resources of the community gravitate towards the different organs of the society according to the natural temperament, inclination and capacity of the individuals.  The first basic need of man is for food, clothing and shelter and those who produce or sell them.  These are perhaps the occupations of a majority of people at the early dawns of human civilization like the Vedic age.  So in the early Indian civilization agriculturists, cattle-breeders, artisans like weavers or carpenters and traders are the Vysyas, which means “masses”.  Then comes the need for sex and procreation and as a result the Family.  As the human instinct for affiliation or aggregation tends to group around common race, interests, occupation, possession, values or ideals there arises class, community, guild and the tribal group.  When the individual and the communal ego becomes more and more conscious and begins to assert itself against the ego of others, comes the political need for order or some form of a collective discipline for protection of the weak against the strong and against internal strife and external aggression.  Thus arises government, law and the warrior and ruling class, the king, general and the soldier.  They are the Kshatriyas and Rajanyas of Vedic society.

In most of the ancient civilization, religious instincts of the people were active and strong.  So there arises a class of people for ministering to the religious needs of people.  In ancient India they are the Brahmanas.  In the early Vedic thought Brahman is the sacred word or mantra used for invoking the gods.  So Brahmana means someone who is an adept in using the sacred word.  And finally in all communities there will be a large mass of people who don’t have any vital or mental capacities or skill needed for any other profession or activity except physical labour or else do not have any physical wealth like land to sustain themselves.  They have to earn their living by serving others.  They are the Shudras, which means one who serves.

This is the psychological and social foundation of classes.  With further evolution and mental development of the individual and collectivity come the other aspects of civilization and culture like systems of administration, ethics, art and philosophy.  So the class or caste system is not something unique to Indian civilization.  It happens in all civilizations because they are the expressions of some of the basic needs and laws of the individual and collective nature of man.  But the actual equation of power, influence and hierarchy between the different classes depends on the value-systems of the civilization or society, which in turn depends on the unique temperament and genius of the people.

We don’t have sufficient facts to get a clear picture of the early Vedic society.  Agriculture and cattle breeding seem to be the main occupation.  There were merchant, traders and artisans of various kinds like carpenters, chariot makers and drivers, weavers etc.  However we will discuss here only those aspects of Vedic society, which are of interest for a deeper understanding of the unique genius of Indian civilization.  First is the actual condition of the class or “caste” system in the early Vedic society.  At present, the most favoured opinion among scholars and historians is that in the early Vedic society there were classes but not yet the rigid caste-system based on heredity.  Here is a description of the “most widely accepted version” of the nature of class-system in the early Vedic society by an Indian historian:

“According to the recognized version, in the earliest society represented by the bulk of the Rig Veda, there were probably different classes and professions but none, not even the priestly and the warrior classes, were hereditary—On the whole it is difficult not to agree with the views, propounded long ago by Muir, that the Brahmanas (far less the Kshatriyas or Vysyas) did not constitute an exclusive caste or race and that the prerogative of composing hymns and officiating at the services of the gods were not regarded, in the age of the Rig-Veda as entirely confined to priestly families.  The same thing was equally or more true of the minor professions, a hymn refers to the father, mother and the son following three different vocations in life viz. those of a poet, a grinder of corn, and a physician.  The heredity of occupation was, therefore, not yet a recognized principle, far less an established fact.  The utmost that can be said is that there were recognized professions like priesthood, or distinction of nobility and these had in many cases a tendency to become hereditary, but as in other countries or societies, their ranks might have been recruited from all sections of the community”. (3)

If this more or less consensus opinion of scholars is accepted, then the class-system in the early Vedic age was formed according the principle we have explained earlier-natural and organic needs of the individual and the community, and the human resources freely gravitating towards various organs of the society or professions according the inclinations, temperament and capacities of the individuals.  We must note her that the four-fold social order (which we can find in some form or other in all civilizations) is not entirely the result of economic and social needs.  There are also psychological factors like temperament and capacity and the inner needs of the mind and heart of man.  However, as we have discussed earlier, the uniqueness of the Vedic social order lies in the fact that it was infused with a psychological and spiritual significance by the Vedic seers, RishisThe Vedic social ideal is to make conscious what happens unconsciously, which means to make people aware of the psychological and spiritual forces behind human society and create a framework based on these deeper realities of life.  The caste-system in its rigid and degenerate form is the last result of a slow and gradual disappearance of its spiritual and psychological origins.

In the later Vedic age, the spiritual vision of Vedic seers, which conceived human society as the four-fold expression of the divine Being disappears from social thought.  The psychological basis of Varna remains in thought and practice until the epical age of Ramayana and Mahabharatha.  But in the post-epical age even the psychological basis of Varna recedes into the background, leaving only a life-less skeleton of a caste-system based mainly on material factors like birth and hereditary.

The Spiritual Foundationof Vedic Religion

The Vedic religion is the most important and also the most misunderstood part of Vedic society and culture.  Most of the modern scholarship on Vedic religion tends to be naturalistic.  According to this naturalistic interpretation, Vedas and Vedic religion are the “babblings of a child-humanity” chantings of primitive barbarians worshipping with an innocent ignorance nature-power like Sun and Rain and asking for material boons like cows and horses.

But the Vedas, in the Indian spiritual tradition are held in great respect as an expression of 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, his commentary on the Vedas, “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.  And most of the Indian sages, saints and mystics with deep, spiritual realization, from the age of the Upanishad to the modern era, looked upon Vedas as the source of highest spiritual knowledge.  For example Upanishadic sages considered the Vedas as the highest spiritual revelation and the supreme authority on all spiritual matters.  They quoted the Vedas as the authority to support their own spiritual intuitions, saying, “This is that word spoken by Rig-veda.”  If Vedas were only the outpouring of primitive barbarians then the respect and reverence shown by later stages, seers and thinkers with the highest intellectual and spiritual accomplishments becomes inexplicable.

But Western scholarship led by Max Miller 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 and non-essential factors like philology, linguistics, history, comparative religion, etc., while the most important and primary thing needed is totally ignored. For example, a modern 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 Vedanta 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.” (4) A Vedic scholar may possess all the qualifications listed here but if 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.

Here comes the importance of Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual and psychological interpretation of the Vedas.  Sri Aurobindo was a versatile scholar well-versed in Sanskrit and Indian scriptures. But his interpretation of the Vedas is not based entirely on intellectual scholarship but mainly 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…” (5)

“…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.” (6)

According to Sri Aurobindo, Vedas was not the chantings of primitive barbarians but the inner psychological and spiritual experiences and discoveries of Vedic seers expressed in a symbolic language, using the objects and events of the outer life as symbols of the events and experiences of their inner life. (7) As The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, the spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindo, explains further the nature of Vedic revelation:

“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.”

“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.” (8)

After the publication of Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of Vedas, an increasing number of scholars in India and the West are beginning to appreciate the deeper meaning and the symbolic nature of the Vedas.  For example James Newton Powell, representing a new approach to Vedic scholarship states:

“The Vedas is a supreme example of a type of poetry in which the life of the symbol corresponds so intimately with the truth it clothes that it is indeed the living form of that truth.  There are, residing within the language of the Veda, a hierarchy of potencies, indwelling powers of speech which inspire by means of sound and a transcendent logic.  These verses were forged by the vibrant poets (vipras) who veiled the imperishable in raiment so perfectly fitted and so utterly transparent that the very act of veiling was simultaneously an unveiling.  Image, sound and sense were indissolubly united to forge luminous language-symbols capable of conveying the most oriental hues of the imperishable.  The aim of this language is not to beckon the discursive faculties, but to reveal in swift, strong and sonorous unveiling images the very cognition which gave birth to the initial expression.” (9)

The Symbolic Age

This brings us to another unique feature of the Vedic civilization. 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 infra­rational 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, 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 out leaps the intellect and seems to dispense with it, is an easy passage in the individual man.” (10)

This explains the symbolic and naturalistic forms of Vedic poetry. The Vedic sages described their inner psychological and spiritual experiences and realizations 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 illumination, 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 inner illumination-are imaged as Nights. The fruits of spiritual effort bringing inner light and 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.

The Rishi-Culture

We are now brought to another unique feature of the ancient Vedic culture: leadership of the spiritual Man, the Rishi.  Religion was a dominant social organ in all ancient civilization.  But in the Vedic society, religion was not only dominant and strong but also deep and pervasive and casts its influence on the entire society.  A major factor behind this uniqueness of Indian civilization is the religious and spiritual leaders of the Vedic age, Rishis.  In the Vedic Rishies, the religious instincts of the race blossomed towards its highest spiritual potential, developing into a deep, profound and comprehensive spirituality which embraced earth and heaven and the Beyond in an integral spiritual vision.  The Vedic Rishis, by their living example and leadership and also by their silent inner spiritual influence determined the values of not only religion but also the social and political life of Indian Civilisation or in other words they shaped the inner being and outer life of the society.  Rishis of the Vedic age established the idea of sacrifice in the Indian psyche, which means that entire life and every activity of life has to be a sacrifice to the Divine and His cosmic powers, the gods.  They also provided the masses with an outer religion and a way of life by which this ideal of sacrifice can be lived in the daily life of the people, with whatever limitations and constrains imposed by the primitive conditions of the society.  As Sri Aurobindo explains the crucial role played by the Rishi in the ancient Indian society:

“A peculiar figure for sometime was the Rishi, the man of a higher spiritual experience and knowledge born in any of the classes, but exercising an authority by his spiritual personality over all, revered and consulted by the King of whom he was sometimes the religious preceptor and in the then fluid state of social evolution able alone to exercise an important role in evolving new basic ideas and effecting direct and immediate changes of socio-religious ideas and customs of the people.  It was a marked feature of the Indian mind that it sought to attach a spiritual meaning and religious sanction to all, even to the most external social and political circumstances of its life, imposing on all classes and functions an ideal, not except incidentally of rights and powers but of duties, a rule of their actions and an ideal way and temperament, character, spirit in the action, a dharma with a spiritual significance.  It was the work of the Rishi to put the stamp enduringly on the national mind, to prolong and perpetuate it, to discover and interpret the ideal law and its practical application, to cast the life of the people into the well-shaped ideals and significant forms of a civilization founded on the spiritual and religious sense”. (11)

But how can a spiritual man, Rishi, be the guide of the worldly and secular life? The answer to this question lies in the Vedic conception of the spiritual man, which is very different from that of many other religious or spiritual traditions of the world and also some of the post-Vedic conception in India.  In these other traditions, the spiritual man is an ascetic or a mystic who lives aloof and withdrawn from the world, in an indrawn contemplation of the Divine.  But in the Vedic conception, Rishi is someone who has lived the worldly life in its fullness and attained the spiritual consciousness.  And this spiritual consciousness is not only the home of the Sacred but also the source of the deepest and innermost truth and law, dharma, all that exists in the world.  So the Rishi has not only the spiritual knowledge but also possesses a deeper knowledge of the world than the worldly man or the secular intellectual.  As Sri Aurobindo sums up the Vedic perceptions of the nature of the Rishi:

“The spiritual man who can guide human life towards its perfection is typified in the ancient Indian idea of the Rishi, one who has lived fully the life of man and found the word of the supra-intellectual, supramental, spiritual truth. He has risen above these lower limitations and can view all things from above, but also he is in sympathy with their effort and can view them from within; he has the complete inner knowledge and the higher surpassing knowledge. Therefore he can guide the world humanly as God guides it divinely, because like the Divine he is in the life of the world and yet above it.” (12)

“The Indian mind holds ..that the Rishi, the thinker, the seer of spiritual truth is the best guide not only of the religious and moral, but the practical life.  The seer, the Rishi is the natural director of society; to the Rishi he attributes the ideas and guiding intuitions of his civilization.  Even today he is ever ready to give the name to anyone who can give a spiritual truth which helps his life or a formative idea and inspiration which influences religion, ethics, society, even politics.  This is because the Indian believes that the ultimate truths are truths of the spirit and the truths of the spirit are the most fundamental and most effective truths of our existence, powerfully creative of the inner, salutarily reformative of the outer life.” (13)

We can now understand why in the ancient Indian religious love Rishis are depicted as people well versed in worldly knowledge like warfare, politics, archery or even erotics!  For example Narada was a divine Rishi and a well-known character in the Indian religious lore.  In Mahabharatha, Narada is described as conversant with Vedas, Upanishads, logic and all moral sciences; proficient in political science, science of treaty and military strategy; a thorough master of every branch of learning, incapable being repulsed by any science or any course of action; who can discuss and debate with deep understanding on the nature of wealth, enjoyment, dharma and spiritual liberation.


  1. Sri Aurobindo, Collected Works, Vol.15, Human Cycle Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, pp.6.
  2. Jung. C.G, (1933) Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Harvest Books, pp. 215-16
  3. Apte M.V, (1951), The Age of the Rik. Samhita, p.387-88, ed. R. C. Majumdar, History and Culture of Indian People, Vol.1, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, pp.387-88.
  4. Pusalkar. A.D, (1958) Editor’s Preface, Cultural Heritage of India, Vol.1, The Early Phases, Ramakrishna Institute of Culture, Calcutta, India, pp.iii
  5. Sri Aurobindo, (1972) Collected Works, Vol.10, Secret of the Vedas, pp. 34
  6. Sri Aurobindo (1972) Secret of the Vedas, pp.37.
  7. Sri Aurobindo, Secret of the Vedas, pp 32-44
  8. The Mother, (1972) Collected Works, Vol.7, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, India, pp.88
  9. Powell. J.N (1980) Mandalas: The Dynamic of Vedic Symbolism Los Angeles, Wisdom Garden Books, pp.88
  10. Sri Aurobindo, (1972) Human Cycle, pp.177
  11. Sri Aurobindo, (1972) Collected Works, Vol. 14 Foundations of Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Puducherry, pp.326
  12. Sri Aurobindo, (1972) Human Cycle, pp. 169
  13. Sri Aurobindo, (1972) The Foundations of Indian Culture, pp.157-58.
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