Deeper Meanings of Mantras

If we read an English translation of the RV such as the one by Wilson or Griffith, we see that, by and large, it consists either of pedestrian sentences such as, “O Indra, drink the Soma and kill Vŗtra” or enigmatic sentences such as, “The sages smashed the hill by their sound”, (1.71.2); “They smashed the hill using the cows”, (1.7.3). Many epithets associated with Agni, the fire, make no sense at all. There are only a small number of verses which appear to be wisdom-full. Often, there is no consistency between the several phrases within a single verse, let alone the entire hymn. It is claimed that the translation itself is faithful, but only the tradition of Hindus in assigning wisdom to the RV and its poets is mistaken. This is the view of many Indian academics for more than a century.

If we enquire more closely into the faithfulness of the translation, we get quite a different picture. The basis for all the English translations is the detailed Sanskrit commentary by the great fourteenth century scholar Sāyaņa giving word to word meanings for every word in RV. Without this commentary, no English translation would have been possible. In spite of its many virtues, it has serious defects.

First of all, Sāyaņa was only interested in bringing out the ritual meaning of the verses. He has a penchant for assigning multiple meanings for the same word. The word go which occurs in more than one thousand verses is given thirty two different meanings ranging from cow, water, ray, sound etc. We can forget any consistent interpretation of any book if so many meanings are assigned arbitrarily to a single word. For many words, he uses the meaning of food because the verse yields a meaning connected with a ritual. A word like dhi can sustain its common meaning of intelligence in all its occurrences. Still Sāyaņa assigns the meaning of food to it quite often.

Next, whenever a verse involving a deva like Agni is encountered, Sāyaņa relates an obscure story from the purāņās to explain the verse. This is highly objectionable because purāņic devās are quite different from the devās in the RV. The purāņic devās have, on the surface, human qualities of pettiness, jealousy, quarrelsomeness and so on, whereas the Rig vedic devās are all of one mind, helpful to the humans. Moreover, purāņās are posterior to Rigveda.

Thirdly, Sāyaņa uses symbolism whenever it suits him. The often quoted event of Indra killing Vŗtra to release waters is rendered as the shattering of the rain bearing clouds resulting in rain. The Occidental translators tolerate it as long as the symbolism is restricted to nature powers. We can add many more observations of this sort.

RV is high-class poetry. It is sheer poverty of imagination to read poetry suppressing symbolism. Veda itself says there is a secret in RV. That secret must be the symbolism. A symbol attempts to describe an experience beyond the realm of the senses. Symbols can be either auditory or visual. For persons who have the gift, hearing a word can create an impression in the inner being which conveys the full power of the symbol. There are four classes of symbols in the RV. Firstly, the devās, AgniIndra and so on and the devīs Sarasvati, Sarama and Mahī represent distinct types of divine powers and associated functions. In the second class are Vŗtra, Vāla and Shuşĥņa, the powers of falsehood. The third class of symbols consists of the common nouns like go, cow, ashva, horse, adri, hill, āpaĥ, waters, nadi, rivers, vŗka, wolf etc. Lastly is the class of the names associated with the sages and poets like Kaņva and Kutsa.

Each member of these four classes represents a distinct psychological power which is helpful or otherwise. The unravelling of the symbolism behind each word was done by Sri Aurobindo and Sri Kapāli Sāstry using their intuition. But we do not have to merely believe what they say. We can set up concrete objective tests to determine whether the symbolic meanings suggested by them are correct or not. For instance, take the word go which ordinarily means cattle. It and its synonyms like usra occur in more than one thousand verses. Of course, many of these verses may involve other members of the four classes like adri, hill. Regard all these words in these verses as unknown. Substitute the symbolic meanings for the unknowns and see whether the verse makes sense. For the verses involving go, all the verses make excellent sense except those where go is used as a simile in which case it is an animal. Then all the phrases which appears enigmatic or senseless become meaningful. “go” stands for knowledge, each individual go standing for one type of knowledge. Adri is the symbol for the force of ignorance and the state of inconscience, i.e., an almost absence of consciousness as can be easily guessed.

The phrase, “they smashed the hill with the go”, means the forces of ignorance were overcome by the forces of knowledge. The phrase, “they smashed the hill with their sound”, means that the forces of ignorance were destroyed by the power of mantra, the potent word.

We given below the symbolic meanings of some of the members of the four classes. An extensive discussion on symbolism can be found in the books by M.P. Pandit.

The recovery of the symbolic meanings of individual words is only the first step. The recovery of the deeper meaning of the verses needs much more work. Once this is done, the consistency of the meaning of all the phrases in a verse and consistency of all the verses in a hymn is assured. The wisdom of RV comes upfront.

Even in classical Sanskrit, the maxims of wisdom subhāshitā are expressed symbolically. We mention one such popular maxim which occurs both in RV (7.104.22) and Atharvaveda samhita (8.4.22). It deals with the well known six psychological foes, namely “delusion, anger, jealousy, lust, arrogance and greed”, symbolised by “owl, wolf, dog, Chakravāka bird, eagle and vulture”. RV (7.104.22) calls upon these six to be killed and translators like Whitney think these animals/birds represent sorcerers!

Symbolism of some common nouns

go: cow; each go stands for a particular type of Light or Knowledge.
ashva: Horse; stands for the vital energy which the devās can bestow.
adri: Hill; the force or beings of inconscience and ignorance.
āpah: Water; the divine energies flowing from the heights purifying all mankind.
nadi: River; the flowing current of energies.

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
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;
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.

We illustrate the spiritual interpretation by means of several riks. In all of them, if we pay attention to every word in them, the only meaningful explanation is the spiritual one.

Rik (1.22.20) to Vişhņu

This verse is part of the subhymn to Vişhņu made of six verses, (1.22.16) through (1.22.21), well-known as the shadvaişhņavam.

tad vişhņoĥ paramam padam sadā pashyanti sūrayaĥ, divīva chakşhur ātatam.

Literal translation: The wise always see the highest station paramam padam of Vişhņu like an eye extended in heaven.

We have to explain Vişhņu and the phrase ‘supreme station’ paramam padam. God Vişhņu mentioned in the rik is explained to be the sun. So for so good. This Vişhņu is Sūrya, indeed, but not the sun in the physical universe. Why? For otherwise, the highest step would be the meridian in the sky reached by the sun in its daily round; and the rişhi says that the wise see him always. Now how can the solar orb be found always at the meridian in the sky? And that too visible only to the wise? If it were just the physical sun, the meridian reached by him would be visible to the others also who are not wise; why should it be said that it is visible to the wise? There can be no doubt whatever that it is something uncommon, beyond the physical senses, a matter pertaining to the direct realization of the Wise. Otherwise, to say that the wise always see the sun in the meridian of the sky would be utterly fanciful and incoherent babble. It is because of its uncommon character that the Supreme Abode is said to be always seen by the Wise like an eye fully extended in the heaven.

The rik (1.50.10) to Sūrya due to seer Praskaņva

udvayam tamasaspari jyotish pashyanta uttaram

devam devatra sūryamaganma jyotir uttamam.

This verse occurs in several veda samhitās and also in Ch. U. (3.17.7)

The literal translation: Beholding the loftier Light that springs up above the Darkness tamas we have come to the Sun, the God among Gods, the most excellent (loftiest) Light.

The indologists explain this hymn as referring to the birth of sun in the morning. This view holds no water in view of the adjectives like loftier Light etc.

Sāyaņa quotes from the brāhmaņās in explaining that the word tamas signifies sin. In that case, the Sun cannot be the sun of the physical world. Sāyaņa himself, commenting on the fourth quarter, says that seer Praskaņva speaks of conscious union, sāyujyam with the Sun.  In this rik, then, there is an unmistakable mention of the supreme Light that transcends the senses and is signified by the word Sūrya, Sun. It is also to be noted that here in this mantra, whatever the interpretation, the Sun referred to is not simply the physical sun of our system, and this is clear.

We have instanced two riks-one devoted to Vişhņu as Sūrya, the Sun and the other to the Sun-God as the highest Light-to show the theory, that the Sun and the other Gods are really nothing but phenomena of Nature, cannot be sustained.

Agni: Fire; It is the cosmic power of heat and light and the will power united with wisdom. Human will power is a feeble projection of this power. It can be strengthened by the RV chants to Agni.

Indra: He is the Lord of the Divine Mind and Action. In Indian tradition, mind is not a source of knowledge, it manipulates the knowledge to aid action. Indra battles the evil forces on behalf of the human.

Vāyu: Wind; He is the Lord of all the Life-energies, Prāņa which represent the passions, feelings, emotions and abilities.

Ashvins: The Lords of Bliss and Divine Physicians who render the human body free of disease so that it can accept the divine  Prāņa, the life-energy.

Mitra: The Lord of Love and Harmony.

Varuņa: The Master of Infinities who cannot tolerate restrictive thinking or actions. Only he can cut the three bonds which restrict the three aspects of every human being – physical, vital and mental.

Sarasvati: The Goddess of inspiration

Iļa: The Goddess of revelation.

Sarama: The Goddess of intuition.

Sūrya: The Supreme Deity of Light and Force.

Symbolism of some common nouns

go: Cow;  each go stands for a particular type of Light  or  Knowledge.

ashva: Horse;  stands for the vital energy which the devās can bestow.

adri: Hill; the force or beings of inconscience and ignorance.

āpah: Water; the divine energies flowing from the heights purifying all mankind.

nadi: River;  the flowing current of energies.