Vedic Interpretations and Translations

The earliest explanations of the mantra Samhitās are in the Brāhmaņa books which date at least a thousand years later (i.e., around 3500 BCE). Even though the Brāhmaņa books give in general a ritualist explanation of mantrās, in places they clearly mention the spiritual interpretation. For instance Aitareya Brāhmaņa declares that “yūpa, the sacrificial altar (i.e., the altar on which the animals are sacrificed) is really the yajamāna or the performer himself”.The next commentary we have is due to Yāska (Circa 1000 BCE or earlier). He comments in detail on a hundred sūktās of Rigveda. He first vigorously answers the critics of Veda like Kautsa who declared that Veda had no meaning. He then declares that Veda has at least thrice levels of meaning namely

 

  1. the physical or naturalistic (ādibhautic) interpretation in which the various cosmic powers like Agni, Indra are regarded as the physical powers of nature such as fire, rain etc.
  2. the interpretation (ādidaivic) of Veda as rituals or prayers for the popular deities like Agni, Indra etc., here yajňa is viewed as external rites to please the deities who will give them favours.
  3. The spiritual, psychological interpretation (adhyātmic) in which everything both within man and cosmos is viewed as one aspect of the Supreme One.

The next commentator (later than Yāska) is Shaunaka, author of Brihad Devata which explains some verses of Rig Veda.

But the most influential person in the first millennium BCE and later is Jaimini, the famous author of Mīmāmsa sūtrās. He convinced his contemporaries and later scholars that the purpose of Veda was the performance of external rituals only. The Veda mantrās have no other meaning. This view was accepted even by the great Vedāntin Shankara Āchārya who declared that the wisdom is contained only in the Upanishad books and not in the Veda mantrās. Shankara does not mention that some of the famous mantrās of Upanishads are already in the Veda Samhitās.

The great medieval scholar Sāyaņa Āchārya (14th Century CE) wrote a voluminous commentary on all the Veda Samhitā books and several Brāhmaņa books. He focuses entirely on the rituals and gives detailed quotes from the books which give the details of the performance of rites like the Bodhayāna Shrauta Sūtrās etc. He does not deny the spiritual viewpoint, but this is not his interest. Nowadays most of the English books on the outline of Hindu scriptures such as those of Rādhakrishnan or Zehner declare blindly that mantra Samhitās deal only with rituals.

There are many other commentaries of Rigveda such as those of Venkatamadhava, Skandasvāmin, Ānandatīrtha etc., which are ignored by and large.

But the commentary of some interest to us is that by Ānandatīrtha or Madhvāchārya (13th century CE), the founder of the dualistic school of Vedānta. His commentary in Samskŗt deals only with the first forty sūktās of Rigveda. He stresses the ādhyātmic interpretation which is expanded in the works of the disciples of his school namely Jayatīrtha and Rāghavendra Swami. Swami Dayananda Sarasvati (19th Century CE) also wrote a commentary on Rigveda upholding the idea that Veda deals with dharma. In the latter part of 19th century we have two complete translations of Rigveda namely that of Wilson (based on Sāyaņa commentary) and that of R.T.H. Griffith. Swamy Satyananda published a ten volume English translation of Rigveda based on the commentary of Dayananda.

The exegesis and translations of Sri Aurobindo focus on the spiritual and psychological interpretation. Two of his books on the Veda are ‘The Secret of the Veda’ and ‘The Hymns to the Mystic Fire’. The latter book gives the translation of most of the sūktās dedicated to Agni. Sri Aurobindo has translated over four hundred sūktās out of the thousand. His disciple T.V. Kapāli Sāstry gave a Bhāshya or commentary in Samskŗt on the first 121 suktās of Rig Veda focusing on the spiritual Interpretation. He answers in detail the questions raised both the medieval critics as well as the moderns like Professor Radhakrishna.

For the Krişhņa Yajurvedas we have Sanskrit commentary of Sāyaņa and the Bhatta Bhāskara (who is prior to Sāyaņa) and the English translation of B. Keith. All of them are ritualistic. For the Shukla Yajurveda, there are the commentaries of Uvvata and Mahidara and the English translation of R.T.H. Griffith, all of them being ritualistic. Swami Dayananda has given a Bhāshya on Shukla Yajur Veda viewing it as a book of Dharma. Devi Chand has given a summary translation of the verses of Shukla Yajur Veda based on Dayananda commentary.

There is the English translation of Sāmaveda by Stevenson and that of the Atharvaveda by Whitney.

Mention should be made also of the compilations of Vedic hymns and their translations done by Raimundo Pannikar, Abinash Bose and Macdonnel. The book of essays by Ananda Coomaraswamy entitled “An Interpretation of Veda” focuses on the spiritual meaning of the Veda and offers a vigorous critique of the some of the Western translations of Veda Samhitās. M.P. Pandit discusses the problem of Vedic interpretation in his several books. A.B. Purani in his ‘Studies in Vedic Interpretation’ gives a detailed comparison of the translations of Sri Aurobindo and those of Sāyaņa Āchārya.

Professor S.K. Ramachandra Rao has discussed the problem of Vedic interpretation in great detail in his ten volumes of ‘Rigveda Darshana’. He gives extensive Sanskrit quotations from the work of Yāska, Shaunaka, Ānandatīrtha, Sāyaņa and also lesser known works which are very interesting.

(II) SAKSI Translations of Veda

1) SAKSI has already published the entire translation of Rig Veda with 10 Mandala-s is 12 books;

The text and translation of entire Krishna Yajur Veda Mantra Samhita (Taittiriya) with seven Kanda’s has been published by SAKSI in 3 volumes. The translation of first part of Sama Veda has been published.

The translation of remaining parts of Sama Veda and Athatva Veda will be completed in 2012.

The unique feature of the SAKSI translation in that the four padas or quarters of each mantra are individually translated, in four distinct lines; the numbers 1,2,3,4 indicating the text of the 4 pada-s of each mantra match with that corresponding English translation ending in these numbers. In contrast, the currently available translations such as those of Griffith or Wilson, the translation of each mantra is one long sentence of 30 to 40 words.

Our translations are based on the writings on Veda and their translations authored by Sri Aurobindo and T.V Kapali Sastry and those of M.P. Pandit given elsewhere. See the essay6 , ‘Sri Aurobindo’s writings on the Veda’, essay 7 ‘Sri Kapali Saastri’s writings on the Veda’, and essay 8‘M.P. Pandits writings on Veda. In addition SAKSI has published over 100 books in seven Indian languages explaining specific topics in Veda such as Gods. For listings of these books, see www.vedah.com/publications.

2) SAKSI publications focus is on spiritual/psychological meaning of the mantra-s in the framework of Sri Aurobindo’s thought. The primary aim of our translation is to make the meaning of the mantra-s accessible to all lovers of Veda from all walks of life who are not necessarily experts in English literature.

In the available books on Rig Veda, the translation of a mantra or verse is given as a single sentence with 40 to 50 words; sometimes the sentence may be divided into two parts with a semicolon. Most of the modern English prose readers are used to sentences with a word-count of 15 to 20. Long sentences are clearly a great barrier for the beginners in the Veda, since most of the readers have no idea about the depth of the vedic thought.

In the fifth Mandala translation, we have taken a major step in increasing the case of readability, without ignoring the vedic tradition. Every mantra of the Rig Veda is in one of several metres (chhandas), the most popular being the Triṣhṭup. Nearly forty percent of all Rig Veda mantrās are in this metre. This metre has 44 syllables (akhara-s) and the associated verse (mantra) is divided into 4 parts, each having 11akhara-s. A mantra is a divine revealation received by a rishi who expressed it in a metrical form with four parts (pāda or feet) almost independent of one another as for as meaning is concerned. In the ancient days, it was not uncommon for a person to chant the mantra, pāda by pāda and recapitulate the meaning of each pāda as it was being recited. For verses in shorter metres like Gāyatri with 24 syllables, there are only 3 pāda, each of 8 akhara-s.

Thus in fifth mandala, the text of each mantra in Samskrit is given in the Devanāgari script in three or four parts, each part corresponding to a pāda, using the pāda-patha of mantra wherever necessary. The translation of each mantra is given in 4 separate lines, each numbered with 1,2, etc. Thus each line of the translation has only six to twelve words making it easily readable.

The shorter sentences clearly help us to focus on their meaning. Many of the lines indicate wisdom needed in the spiritual practice. These gems are easily lost in the summary translations of the mantra-s produced in the earlier times.

To illustrate the differences between the four-part translation expressing the psychological point of view and the summary translation of each verse by Wilson (or Griffith), we give two examples. We give only the translations, which are in the Section V Of fifth mandala translation.

Mantra (5.66.1)

Wilson’s translation:

Man, endowed with intelligence, (adores) the two deities, the performers of good deeds, the destroyers of foes; offer (oblations) to the adorable accepter of (sacrificial) food, to Varuṇa, whose form is water.

Our translation:

O mortal who wakes to knowledge (chikitana) (1),

call the two godheads who are perfect in will (sukratu) and destroyers of your enemy (2),

Direct your thoughts to Varuṇa of whom Truth is the form (3).

(Direct your thoughts) to the great Delight (4).

In our translation, the essence of the mantra is clear. It is meditation. The mantra implies that since they (Mitra and Varuṇa) are perfect in will, they have the power of giving the will-power to the human seeker. We translate kratu everywhere as ‘will’ unlike Sāyaṇa or Wilson who give a dozen meanings for it in the translations of different mantra-s.

Note that the clear instruction in the lines 3 and 4 of our translation have escaped the attention of Wilson. It is true that if one reads the translation of Wilson, one feels that Veda is pedestrian, devoid of wisdom. But the fault lies in the translation, not in the original text.

We will give another example.

Mantra (5.66.2)

Wilson’s translation:

In as much as you two are possessed of irresistible and asura-subduing strength, therefore has holy sacrifice has been established among men as the sun (has been placed) in the sky.

Our translation:

When they (Mitra and Varuṇa) manifest their entire mightiness (2),

and their undistorted force (1),

then shall the humanity become as if the workings of these gods (3).

It is as if the visible heaven of light were founded (in the humanity) (4).

The translation of Wilson is vague, to say the least. There appears to be no connection between the two halves of the sentence; the analogy of the Sun and sacrifice is again vague. The words, ‘svara‘ and ‘ṛta‘ are arbitrarily translated by him as ‘Sun’ and ‘holy sacrifice’. For ta occurring in other places, he assigns twenty other meanings following Sāyaṇa. For details see Purani [21].

In contrast our translation is coherent. We translate svaras the ‘visible heaven of light’, svar having the meaning of heaven. The word in parenthesis ‘humanity’ in line 4 is not inserted arbitrarily. In line 3, humanity (manusham) is explicitly mentioned. Clearly it is implicit in line 4 also. In Sri Aurobindo’s translation, tahas the fixed meaning of Right, the Truth-in-movement in all its thousand and more occurrences in the Veda.

Unlike Sāyaṇa Ācharya, we do not resort to Puraṇic legends to explain the mantra-s. We just give two examples of Sūkta 5.2 and 5.61 to show that the connection between the Sūkta-s and the associated legends is tenuous.

3) Principles Behind this Translation

 

We give below the 14 principles which guide our translation. More details are in the SAKSI book, ‘Semantics of Rig Veda’.P1: The Sanskṛt of Veda mantrās:

 

The Sanskṛt of the mantrās of Rig Veda is substantially different from the classical Sanskṛt of Kālidāsa or the Sanskṛt of Mahābhārata or even that of the Brāhmaṇa books. In the Rig Veda, the sandhi rules are not enforced with any rigidity; the meanings attached to the various vibhaktis of nouns are flexible; they are not as rigid as in the classical Sanskṛt. These points have been recognised by the great grammarian Patanjali.

Many words widely used in Rig Veda such as vāja, tam find no place in classical Sanskṛt. Words like patra (leaf), phala (fruit), puhpa (flower), toyam (water), pūja (worship) widely used in classical Sanskṛt are absent in Rig Veda. Two words close to puhpa, namely puhpiṇī and puhpavatī appear in the ‘Hymns of Oshadhis’ (RV 10.97). The current meanings to popular words such as ghta (ghee), gau (or go) (the animal cow) do not seem to be valid in many of their occurrences in Veda. The word samskritam appears with the meaning of perfection (5.76.2). The word bhakti popularly used to signify ‘devotion’ means ‘enjoyment’ in Rig Veda. It only occurs 3 or 4 times. Summing up, the words in the Veda have to be studied with a fresh look.

P2: Riṣhis: All the mantrās are associated with persons known as Riṣhis, who are great poets, men and women of great tapas. Please see the essay 8 in the attached book, ‘The Basics of Rig Veda’ for more details on Rishi. Hence if a translation of a verse does not make any sense, the fault should lie with the translator who has assigned wrong meanings to the words. The translator may have completely ignored the symbolism of the verses.

P3: Veda can be understood only with the help of Veda.

We cannot blindly assign a meaning to a word in Rig Veda based on classical Sanskṛt or based on the assumption that RV deals with rites or is dealing with myths.

The obvious way to fix the meaning of a word is to study all the mantrās in RV where a particular word occurs and to assign the meaning which is suitable in most of these verses. This suggestion was made by Max Muller. Neither he nor his associates pursued this approach. The difficulties are obvious. The topic is discussed in great detail in the SAKSI publication, ‘Semantics of Rig Veda’.

P4. The test of validity of the assigned meanings of the words is that all mantrās having those words should have coherent meanings.

P4 is a consequence of our belief that the Riṣhis, the poets of these mantrās were highly sophisticated and wise, dedicated to the goal of all-round perfection.

P5. The statements made by the Rig Veda book itself regarding the meanings of words and the secrecy in it should not be overlooked or ignored.

For instance, RV (10.85.3) states, ‘what wise persons regard as Soma cannot be eaten or drunk’, i.e., Soma is not a mere herb. Again (10.85.2) adds, ‘The Sun is strong by Soma, the earth is vast by Soma, . . .’’ The whole of Maṇḍala 9 with about 1100 mantrās gives numerous epithets to Soma clearly indicating its non-physical nature. Inspite of all this evidence, it is hard to explain why translators like Griffith render it only as a herb.

P6: Most of the words in the Veda have only one general meaning. Different occurrences of this word have only minor variants of this basic meaning.

P7. A small number of words, especially names of ceṛtain animals and some inanimate objects, may require more than one basic meaning. In such cases, one should clearly understand the contexts in which the different meanings are valid; then one should clarify the contexts in which each meaning is valid.

For example the English word, ‘force’ has at least 3 meanings in three different contexts:

Physics: ‘The force was not sufficient to drive the nail into the wall.’

Battle: ‘The force was not sufficient to relieve the garrison’.

Psychological pressure: ‘She could not force her views on the committee’.

P8: Consider the compound words which are functionally related to each other. Their meanings should also be related.

To illustrate, consider the word ghta, which occurs about 110 times in RV. Its common meaning is ghee or clarified butter. The use of this meaning does not make any sense in many places. Hence Sāyaṇa gives a variety of meanings for the same word including, ‘water’, ‘shining or luminous’ etc., presumably to have some local consistency. Even the assigned meaning often does not make any sense. In (1.13.5), we have ghta pṛṣhham meaning dripping or coated with ghee. However, the context is ‘seats’. The phrase, ‘seats dripping with ghee’ does not make any sense. In (1.14.6) the same phrase occurs in the context of steeds. Again, ‘ghee dripping from the horses’ is incoherent. In (1.85.3), (1.87.2) ghta itself is translated as heavenly waters. For all the words with ‘ghta’ as a prefix, ghta can only be light.

P9. The nouns beginning with ‘a’ should not automatically be assigned meanings interpreting ‘a’ as a negative particle. The negation meaning is valid only if the corresponding sound without the negation particle is commonly occurring.

The above rule common to several languages must be applicable to Sanskṛt of Veda mantrās also. For example, the word Diti and its variants occur exactly three times in the entire Veda where as Aditi with its variants occurs more than 150 times. It is illogical to derive the meaning of Aditi from Diti with ‘a’ as the negation particle. Exactly the same comment is valid for the pairs asura, sura; ashva, shva; adhva, dhva. Moreover asura, ashva and others are all Key words. amita (immoṛtality) is supposed to be derived from mita (moṛtality) by adding the negation particle ‘a’. There is already another word amam (1.66.6), ame (1.67.2), standing for strength, so amita, amura, are all derived from am and not by adding ‘a’ to mita etc.

Note ‘an’ is also used as a prefix to indicate ‘negation’. See the words anāga and anindra in chap. 9. Some other examples are: anarvāam, anavadya, anādhṛṣha, anāyudha, anānata (one who never bows, 7.6.4); many more are there.

P10. To fix the meanings of ceṛtain key words beginning with (a), we have to consider related words beginning with (ā).

Example: arya, ari, ārya, āryāma;

another related group: apa, āpa.

P11. Sometimes the ordinary meanings of the words suggest their more abstract esoteric meanings.

Example: Consider adri, hill. Its hardness and immobility suggests the alternate meaning ‘the psychological force of inertia’. With its many peaks and plateaus, it also suggests ‘existence’.

The mantra (1.7.3) given in chap. 10 states: ‘‘with the rays (knowledge), Indra smashed the hill (adrim)’’.

Take the word ashva, whose ordinary meaning is horse. Horse itself suggests something having excessive life-energy. Ashva is a key word; its word-family with its repetitions has about 200 members.

P12. All the different word-groups belonging to the same word-clan have closely related meanings.

As an instance, members vāja, vāje, vjāi, vājī etc. must have closely related meanings, similarly adhva, adhvara, adhvaryu; similarly ghta, ghṛṇa, ghhva.

Note that the basic vowel sound ṛ has a tendency to change into the vowel-consonant sound ar. Thus the sound vṛ is close to var, k to arka. The above rule should include this similarity also. For instance, the vrika, vritra and Varua etc., begin with the same basic sound vṛ and hence are related in their meanings. Note that var in Varuṇa is a transformation of v, common for roots ending with the vowel ṛ.

P13: Word groups: One cannot fix the meaning of a word in isolation. Any systematic method for assigning meanings to words must recognise the group of closely related words and make distinctions in their meanings. For example, take the key words such as manas, manīha, medhas, prachetas, praketa, all connected with mental operations and consciousness. As pointed out earlier, in the translations of G, manas is rendered in various ways such as mind, spirit, wisdom etc., manas in the Veda has a fixed meaning.

We can divide words into 2 broad groups namely:

A. Words connected with human beings, their psychological attributes, artifacts and environment.

B. The cosmic powers, known as gods and the demons.

Words in group A can be further divided into 10 subgroups whose names are given below. The number associated with each title such as A1 indicates the number of words in each category like A1 which are discussed at some length in the book, ‘Semantics of Rig Veda’.

A1: Mental operations and consciousness related words (75)

A2: Mantra related words (18)

A3: Yajna related words (27)

A4: Happiness, bliss and bhakti related words (24)

A5: Secrecy Words (5)

A6: Groups of human beings and their vocations (61)

A7: Animal names (13)

A8: Words about inanimate aspects (25)

A9: The various cosmic worlds (24)

A10: Words associated with Perfection (24)

Readers who have read in current translations that ‘Rig Veda is ritualistic’ are surprised to find that RV has at least 75 distinct words dealing with mental operations and consciousness. These are in the section A1 mentioned above.

P.14: Technological devices such as computers, aeroplanes, telephones etc., were unknown in Vedic age. Hence we do not render the Sanskṛt words such as vimāna as aeroplane. Vedic culture was opulent in beauty and harmony without being cluttered by technological devices.