Two-fold Meaning of Mantras

A striking feature of the vedic verse or mantra is that it yields several widely different interpretations. This is possible because both common nouns like go, ashvaĥ, adri and the proper nouns like Agni, Indra, Vŗtra, Vala, etc., yield two or more meanings. Thus one can get different interpretations for the same verse by assigning appropriate specific meanings for the common and proper nouns occurring in the verse. This is true for many verses, not just isolated ones. This feature is absent in most languages. The appendix at the end of the book discusses this aspect in some detail.

For the vedic sages, every aspect of the external nature is a symbol of an aspect of the supreme spirit, called as ekam sat, That One. For instance go in common usage is the quadruped animal cow. But for the vedic sages each go represented a distinct ray of Light of the Supreme. Recall that root meaning for deva deity is div, to shine. Thus even in later literature, the animal cow was supposed to be the home of all the Light or all the deities; so much so that even today in the temples of the supreme deity Vişhņu, a cow is the first one every morn to have the vision darshan of the deity Vişhņu symbolizing that all the other deities want to have the darshan of the Supreme One.

Similarly ashva is the horse which symbolizes strength and all our vital energies, the energies associated with our life-force prāņa.

Adri is commonly a hill or a mountain. Also it is a synonym of cloud. It is the standard symbol of something that is hard and unchanging, specifically a symbol of the forces of ignorance and falsehood.Again take Sūrya, also known as savitŗ. Its ordinary meaning is the physical sun in the sky, the solar orb. But for the vedic sages, Sūrya represents the supreme deity, the source of all Light, spiritual and physical, the deity who supports the entire cosmos.

Again take the word rava, which means a sound or a cry. For the vedic sages, it is the symbol of the primordial sound, mantra which destroys all the forces of darkness.

Agni ordinarily means physical fire or the deity associated with the fire. Psychologically it represents the Divine Will in man. In the purāņa Indra is viewed as a nature-God, the God who gives the rain by breaking the clouds denoted by Vŗtra. In the symbolic sense, Indra is the lord of the divine mind who destroys the demon of falsehood Vŗtra and releases all the energies or waters, āpaĥ trapped by the demon. Ordinarily vajra means the thunderbolt with its Light and sound occurring on a rainy day. In the spiritual sense, it is the power of divine Light and Sound which destroys falsehood and releases on the earth the trapped divine energies.

Sri Aurobindo recovered the symbolism in Rigveda and published them in the journal arya during 1914-1919.  Now we will give some specific examples using only phrases of verses.

Verse (1.7.3)

gobhiĥ adrim airayat
go:
cow, water (Sāyaņa), ray of knowledge
adri: cloud, force of ignoranc
airayat: destroy

Translation 1: (Indra) destroys the forces of ignorance with the knowledge.
Translation 2: (Indra) charged the clouds with water [Sāyaņa].
Translation 3: (Indra) smashed the hill for getting the cows [Griffith].

Translation 1 is the esoteric interpretation. It is difficult to understand the translation 3. Supposedly the cows are hidden in the caves by robbers. By smashing the hill, even the cows are destroyed along with the hill. Translation 2 is acceptable but where is the wisdom in it?

Verse (1.53.4)

nirundhano amatim gobhir ashvina;
nirundhano:
 dispel
amatim: ignorance, poverty [Sāyaņa]
gobhir: Light, cows
ashvina: Life-energy, horses

Translation 1: Dispel our ignorance using the Light and Life energies.
Translation 2: Dispel our poverty by (giving us) cows and horses. (Sāyaņa)

Sāyaņa does not tell us how he assigns the meaning poverty for amati.

Verse (1.36.4)

O Agni, the Gods Varuņa, Mitra and Aryamān fully kindle you. (Sāyaņa) This verse clearly implies that Agni is not a physical fire kindled by the human priests, but is kindled in a human by the cosmic powers Mitra and Varuņa, the lords of harmony and vastness.

We have focused here on isolated phrases. The question is: does the spiritual interpretation or the naturalist interpretation give coherence for the entire verse or the entire hymn having several verses. We show in the next section that when we analyze all the alternative interpretations, the coherence of the spiritual interpretation is impressive.

Summing up, the meaning of these mantrās is twofold. The inner which is psychological or spiritual, is in reality the true meaning. This secret was known to the rişhis and to their disciples who were initiated by great rişhis and instructed in the inner yajňa occurring in the subtle body through disciplines of inner purification etc. Consecrating all of themselves to the Gods and receiving their gifts in return, by their progression into the summits of the spirit they obtained the riches of knowledge that pertain to the worlds and those that relate to the Gods devāĥ.

The outer meaning acts as a cloak for preserving the inner meaning from exposure to the persons not prepared for that practice.

It follows that we accept the interpretation of the great commentator Sāyaņa as giving the exoteric side or the externals of the vedic worship and deities; we do feel that in many places the explanation of a phrase, a line or a rik given by Sāyaņa is not useful even for his own purposes.

In the appendix we have several essays on the relation between a word and its meaning, the development of the multiple meanings for the same word and related topics.

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