Symbolism in Rig Veda

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.
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