Mantras of Rig Veda

The word-rhythm of the mantra, which we hear with our physical ears, is only a part of what we hear. It carries with it the subtle musical sound-image. This most helps to fill in, stabilize and deepen the thought impression or the emotional or vital impression and carry the sense beyond itself into something beyond intellectual expression, something ineffable.

This truth was better understood on the whole by ancients than by the modern mind, perhaps because they were more in the habit of singing, chanting or intoning their poetry. In modern times, we are content to read a poem which may bring out the intellectual element, but unduly depresses the rhythmic value.

The rhythm carries the thought movement in the word. The total meaning is something more than that given by the individual words. After sometime, the meaning flashes (appropriately called spho°a) in our inner being. Like painting or sculpture, poetry appeals to the spirit of man through significant images. The essential power of the poetic word is to make us see, not to make us think or feel; thought and feeling must arise out of the sight or be included in it. Mantra conveys its essence through its form (mantra darshana). The Vedic poet was not merely a rhapsodist, not merely a thinker in stanzas, but a seer, who sees the world beyond the physical senses and the surface mind and finds the revealing word. The aim of poetry is not mere realistic imitation of nature, but to reveal the happenings in many planes which are closed to our ordinary waking consciousness.

No mantra is possible without a vision of the supraphysical reality. The vision need not be couched in philosophical language. The philosopher’s business is to look at a proposition, recognize its components and understand the relationship between the components, which gives force to the proposition. The poet’s business is to see the features in his vision and, excited by the vision, create a poem embodying the beauty. The Vedic poet (kavi ) makes us see the vision which he has experienced. A person who repeats the mantra with full faith will eventually have the vision of the non-physical world experienced by the poet.

According to Sri Aurobindo, mantra is the poetic expression of the deepest spiritual reality.

The inspired Word secretly comes from the home of Truth (sadanam ¨tasya, RV (1.164.47)) above the mind. It is plunged first into our intuitive depths and emerges imperfectly to be shaped by the poetic feeling and intelligences.

There is a subliminal power, the transmitting agent, concealed in some secret cavern, nihitam guh¢, RV (1.130.3), (1.164.45); guh¢hitam, RV (4.7.6); nihitam guh¢v¤ª, RV (10.71.1).

The more we can bring in of its direct power and vision, the more intuitive and illumined become the words of our intelligence.

A mantra is potent with a certain power. What kind of power is it? The essential power of the mantra is to make us see the world or thought beyond our senses. This contact with the supra-physical world endows the person, who sees, with a certain power the intensity of which depends on the person.

The reciter of mantra experiences the rasa which was enjoyed by the poet-seer (kavi).

“The mantra cannot only create new subjective states in ourselves, alter our psychical being, reveal knowledge and faculties we did not possess before, can not only produce similar results in other minds than that of the user, but can produce vibrations in the mental and vital atmosphere which result in effects, in actions and even in the production of material forms on the physical plane.” (SA, Kena U., [38])

The riks are the mantra-perceptions of the rişhis cast in metrical mould. The object or meaning on which the rişhis meditated, the purpose for which they led the bodily life, the goal they fixed and established as the aim for the well-being of their followers and posterity, that object or aim the text of the Rig Vedic hymns. They may be what are called poetical compositions but they are certainly not the kind of literary compositions we are familiar with as described in the section 6 of this chapter. Nor is it Right to look upon these poets as composers such as are quite common everywhere in all ages and countries, even in our own day. This is no mere tradition. The riks themselves proclaim that the hymns are packed with truths perceivable only by the subtle intellect, related to subtler worlds, not visible to the outer eye, the presiding Gods or devāĥ and their subtle laws. It is a mystic tradition that if one acquires competence for entry into the occult path, he could have direct access, even while living in the body, to these subtler worlds organized in a hierarchic order and their Gods. These mantrās  are renowned as the seeings – mantra-dŗşhţi, and the rişhi is the seer of the mantra. The rişhi not merely sees; he also hears. He finds too the Right word to express the truth he has perceived. Therefore the rişhi in the Veda is known as the kavi, the seer of what transcends the senses or understanding. This seer of the Beyond is also the hearer of the truth; therefore that the poet-seers are truth-hearers, kavayaĥsatya-shrutaĥ is famous in the VedaRV (5.57.8, 5.58.8, 6.49.6 etc).

This seeing and hearing of the rişhis is not of the ordinary kind. The eye and ear of the rişhi are of an uncommon kind and so is the poetry manifested through them. The hymnal poetry is unusual, different from other poetry – even from the most superb specimen full of power, of delectable sense and delightful phrase and aesthetic appeal. It is not permissible, for this reason, to class Vedic hymns with poetry of a literary and aesthetic kind. There is reason for the special excellence of the hymnal poetry which lies in its mantra character. The power of the mantra is special. The meaning of the mantra may not be very high to our ordinary view, the language of the mantra may not be of a very high splendour, the idea suggested may not be very deep and its metrical diction may not be strikingly rhythmic. Still the power of the mantra does not suffer. That this faith in the power of the mantra has taken deep roots in the Indian peoples, God-believing and orthodox, from the Vedic times to our own days, is a fact that of no doubt whatever. This tradition of the mantrās  was guarded by later teachers and their followers. Such is the established faith in the greatness of the mantra-power that some even consider that there is no necessity of enquiring into the meaning of the mantra since the manifestation of its potency is not dependent on the understanding of its import. It is an ancient belief that the mantra is an extraordinary meaning of achieving all the ends of life. It is said that the ‘Veda is an uncommon means of realizing what is desired and warding off what is undesirable’. Here the word Veda signifies primarily the mantra. Why is the greatness of the mantra described thus? The Vedic rişhis, though mainly devoted to spiritual discipline, were also well versed in the practice of occult knowledge and secret sciences. They believed that outer results could be produced by inner means and that thought and word could be so used as to bring about the realizations of every kind. That is why while most of the mantrās are used for sacrificial purposes, there are many that are used, for the attainment of results not connected with yajňa. Thus it is that the mantrās  are sacred not because of their mere antiquity but of their intrinsic power and also of their being the seeings of the rişhi. Again some hold that the sacredness and power of the mantrās is due to their sound-substance being the body of Gods. This too is possible.

But the real greatness of the mantra lies, as we learn from the mantrās themselves, in the mode of coming to expression. There is a rik of Dīrghatamas declaring that the abode of the mantra is the supreme Ether known as akşhara, unmoving, where dwell all the Gods; and for him who knows this not, the riks have no use. Here is the rik: “The riks abide in the Immutable, supreme Ether where are seated all the Gods; what can he do with the rik who knows not that? Those who know that are indeed here assembled”, RV (1.164.39). There is this another rik in the same hymn: “The voice, vāk, is measured out in four steps; the wise persons brāhmaņa persons know them. Three of them concealed in the profound secrecy cause no movement; the fourth step is what men call the human speech” RV (1.164.45). The import of this rik is profound. The kavi, the seer of the mantra, delves deep into the inner ocean of the heart, has direct perception of the Home of the Gods, the Fourth Plane turīya and expresses the truths he sees in the words of inspiration that are heard on the acquisition of the primal Word. Thus there are four stations or steps of the vāk, Speech, that sets out from the supreme station of Unmoving. Of these, three stations are concealed in the secrecies, secret, not audible to the human ear and the fourth one, in its descent, is the human speech. All the four stages of Speech are known to the rişhi, one who has control of mind, who is consecrated in the secret and inmost parts of his being, not to any other. Thus is it famous that mantrās were not made but were seen by the kavi, the Seer, the satyashrut. And because the paramam vyoma, Supreme Ether, the abode of the Gods and the original source of the Speech of the riks, is not a creation of anyone, the Veda mantrās manifested out of it are also by courtesy identified with it and are said to be eternal. The paramam vyoma has been there before the appearance and after the disappearance of the rişhi, the seer of the mantra. It does not depend (for its existence) on the seer; on the other hand, the perception of the mantra is possible because of it. The mantra-word and its inalienable meaning are there in the sublime spaces of Ether, self-existent but their manifestation depends upon the achievement and competence of the rişhi. That is how we see frequent mention made in the rik samhita of the rişhi as the author of the mantra e.g. “O Seer, by the lauds of the hymn-composers” RV (9.114.2). “They chanted the mantrās  carved out of the heart”  RV (1.67.2).

When such riks clearly bring out the nature of mantrās as being created, how, it may be asked, can the Veda be said it be eternal, uncreated? The rik quoted above refers to the original, basic vāk, word, of the mantra abiding in the paramam vyoma, when it speaks of it as eternal. The entire Veda came to be understood as eternal on account of its origin in the paramam vyoma. Consider the rik (8.75.6) by the seer Virūpa. “O Virūpa, by the eternal word give now the impulse of the high laud to the Luminous One”. Even Sāyaņa’s commentary on the rik agrees with this. For he says: “By vāk, is meant speech in the form of mantra, which is eternal that is to say, not produced”. In this view, as explained by us, there is no contradiction inconsistency between the eternality of the Veda and the authorship of the rişhi. This has been clarified by Patanjali, author of the mahābhāşhya, while explaining the sūtra (4.3.101) of Pāņini. Patanjali accepted the eternality of the word and idea contained in the Veda, but not of the arrangement and order of syllables, words and sentences. The arrangement of words in the mantra-verse is of the rişhi’s making for the purposes of making the Veda known. Thus both the statements that the Vedās are both created and uncreated are compatible. That the riks are poetry of an extraordinary kind wherein lies their mantra-character, is evidenced by the hymns of Dīrghatamas and Virūpa above referred to. There are hundreds of such instances in the rik samhita which describe the glory of Speech, but they are not mentioned here for fear of swelling the subject with details.

Now the outer meaning of the riks can be understood from Sāyaņa’s commentary. But the secret sense, as stated earlier, is dependent on the meaning of the symbols. Yāska, the author of the nirukta, also says the meaning of the mantra is difficult to grasp. According to him the mantra called ‘brahman‘ revealed itself to the rişhis in tapas, askesis, not in any other way. He states: “It (mantra) brahman the self-born came to the rişhis who were doing tapas, therefore they became the rişhis, in that lies the rişhi hood of the rişhis” nirukta (2.11). Elsewhere he observes that the purport of the mantra is difficult to know. “The shore (of knowledge) of the mantra has to be reached by tapas” nirukta (13.13). It is clear that in the view of Yāska there is no other means except tapas to understand the meaning of the Veda and that mantra reveals itself to the rişhi stationed in tapas. What we have said in regarding the manifestation of the mantrās, its eternality and its being a creation – all these are decisively substantiated not only by the mantrās themselves, but justified by Yāska also.

The bŗhad devata supporting Yāska, says: “The mantra is not perceptible to one who is not a rişhi” BD (8.129). The treatment in the bŗhad devata of topics like the rişhi’s capacity for seeing, the purpose of the triad (the three types of mantrās), the efficacy of the rituals properly performed, goes without doubt to reinforce the position of the esoteric significance of the Veda. These are the dicta:

“He knows the Gods who knows the riks. They are to be approached through yoga with self-control and skill, understanding, general knowledge and above all tapasyā” BD (7. 130).

“The Gods accept the offering of the sacrificer who knows the Deity of the mantra but not of him who knows not the deity” (131).

“The Deity does not accept the libation offered in ignorance. Therefore the libation is to be offered to the Deity with self-control in the mind” (132).

“He is like a God worthy of praise in heaven even by the Gods, who is pure and studies the Veda with knowledge of the Gods and the mantra” (133).

It is to be noted that though the sacredness and power of the Vedic mantra lies in its inner and spiritual meaning of the revealed word, it lends itself – even in the outer sense – to users other than sacrificial. This is the basis of the traditional belief that common objects in life also can be achieved by uncommon means. This is also the basis of works like Rig vidhāna of Shaunaka that deal with the use of the hymns for the fulfillment of varied objects in life. Yāska refers to this truth when he says: “The mantrās of the rişhis are uneven, high and low, in their ideas”. The bŗhad devata also says as much: “Desiring the attainment of objects the rişhis of yore hurried towards the deities with the mantrās, so say the great seers themselves in the Veda” BD (8.137). If thus there are also mantrās, which aim at the achievement of worldly objects, it may be asked, how could the Veda be described as the highly sacred store of spiritual disciplines and secrets? There is no inconsistency whatever. We have made it clear that the inner meaning alone is the supreme truth of the Vedās and that the external or gross sense is of use for purposes of sacrifice or fulfillment of objects in life. Looked at on the surface there is a manifest unevenness in the ideas of the rişhis. Yet on scrutiny of the inner meaning, it will become clear that the swearing, curse, censure, praise and the rest are related to the history of spiritual discipline in the inner life. It is no wonder that to those who look only at the outer garb or who follow the western scholars the rişhis present a picture of simple idiocy. We do not say that all the seers lived at the same time, led the same identical inner life and perceived the mantrās. But this is the Truth we maintain: the same symbolic sense of the words, the sacrifice – both inner and outer – the cosmology of the worlds, the truth of the Gods, the supreme object in life – all these formed one common knowledge which the rişhis drew upon for worshipping and communing with the Gods and to achieve the end by means needed for and suited to the particular state of inner development (individually). This should be clear to all diligent students of the symbolic and esoteric meaning of the Veda.

We need to stress on the peculiar character of the mantra, the revelatory origin of the world-rhythm proceeding from the Infinite and caught by the disciplined audition of the rişhi.

It is not that there is no poetical charm or other qualities that we associate with Poetry. On the other hand there is sublime poetry in the Rig Veda-sublime even when judged from modern standards. What is true of poetry in a general way is preeminently true in the case of mantra-poetry. It must be borne in mind that to know the thought-content of a poem is not the same as to allow the soul and substance of poetry to invade and possess the sense and feeling and thought in the core of one’s being in communion with the spirit of Poetry. Of the untranslatable elements in poetry, especially in the mantra poetry, the word-rhythm and the word-order stand prominently as the two wings of the soaring soul of poetic sound. Nevertheless, to the composer of the Vedic hymn it was only a help, a means for his progress and a help for others. The act of expression was just a means, not an aim. That is why pursuit of aesthetic grace or beauty or richness does not act as an incentive to the rişhi for varying the consecrated form which was an accepted principle among the mystics of the Rig Veda. On this point Sri Aurobindo’s view is noteworthy. He explains the apparent monotony in many places which even lesser minds could easily vary or break by simple or artful devices or common poetical conceits.

“Only out of the sameness of experience and out of the impersonality of knowledge, there arise a fixed body of conceptions constantly repeated and a fixed symbolic language which was the inevitable form of these conceptions… We have at any rate the same notions repeated from hymn to hymn with the same constant terms and figures and frequently in the same phrases with an entire indifference to search for poetical originality or any demand for novelty of thought and freshness of language ……. The mystic poets do not vary the consecrated form which has become for them a sort of divine algebra transmitting the eternal formulae of the knowledge to the continuous succession of initiates.

“The hymns possess indeed a finished metrical form, a constant subtlety and skill in their technique, great variations of style and poetical personality – they are not the work of rude, barbarous and primitive craftsman…… They differ in temperament and personality; some are inclined to a more rich, subtle and profound use of Vedic symbolism; others give voice to their spiritual experience in a barer and simpler dictum …… There are risings and fallings in the same hymn …… Some hymns are plain and almost modern in their language; others baffle us at first by their semblance of antique obscurity. But these differences take nothing from the unity of spiritual experience. In the deep and mystic style of Dīrghatamas as in the melodious lucidity of Medhātithi, in the puissant and energetic hymns of Vishvāmitra as in Vasişhţha’s even harmonies we have the same firm foundation of knowledge and the same scrupulous adherence to the sacred conventions of the Initiates” (Sri Aurobindo).