Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Vedic Gods as Symbols (Sri Aurobindo) Part 1

In his book on the Vedas, Sri Aurobindo points out that the Vedas are books of esoteric symbols and spiritual formulae, which mask themselves as a collection of ritual poems. It appears that the Seers (Rishis) sought to conceal their knowledge from the unfit. What they concealed from the common and the ignorant is revealed to the initiates and the well-prepared in the form of symbols and divine figures.

 This is not peculiar to the Vedic tradition. In Christianity and Buddhism there are different levels of teachings to suit the needs of the seekers. The Sermon on the Mount starts with the words “AND seeing the multitudes, he went up into the mountain:  and when he had sat down, his disciples came unto him.” This is interpreted by a scholar to mean that whereas Jesus taught many “tribes”, he reserved his highest teachings for those who were spiritually ready. Buddha gave simple instructions to the lay followers and difficult ones to the initiates.

 The Vedic mantras carry an inner message which is, at once, physical, psychological and universal. Only when the concealed meanings of the symbols and figures are deciphered that hidden spiritual, psychological ideas are visible. 

Sri Aurobindo points out the example of a statement in the Rg Veda which says that “Sarama by the path of the Truth discovers the herds.” But who is Sarama? What is Truth with a capital T? And what does the word “herd” indicate?

 Sarama refers to a dog, a female dog. A hound to be specific. This sentence makes no sense unless we can figure out what Sarama and herd stand for. Sri Aurobindo helps us by explaining that Sarama stands for intuition. With this understanding, the original sentence means that “Intuition (sarama) by way of the Truth arrives at the hidden illuminations (herd).” It is clearer but  needs further explanation. Human mind searches for the hidden Sat-chit-Ananda using the Divine Light with the help of Truth (represented by Surya) and its intuition.

 The Vedic gods (deities or devas) are names, powers, personalities of the One Supreme Godhead. They represent some essential force of the Divine Being that manifests as functions of the One in the many of the Cosmos. “They manifest the cosmos and are manifest in it.” These gods are personification of abstract ideas and physical aspects of Nature, but they are also connections to realities. They represent goals one should aspire to realize during this life. This is where metaphors and mythologies come in.

 Mythologies represent the “wisdom of life as related to specific culture at a specific time.” Joseph Campbell calls myths as “clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life.” They give meaning to the experiences in our lives. Myths represent the collective consciousness of the tribe, society or civilization. They help lead the individual to spiritual consciousness.

 Joseph Campbell assigns four functions to myths. The first is its reference to the mystery of this universe and life. Mythological stories are based on the understanding of these mysteries in the collective consciousness of societies. The second function is the cosmological dimension, trying to explain physical phenomena such as cyclic nature of seasons and lives. This is the area of interest to science.

 The third function is sociologic which sets the rules for relating to others in the society and with the society and with Nature. This will differ from region to region depending on local geography, climate, flora and the fauna.  In this time of globalization this aspect is not represented in any of the myths. The old mythologies are outdated, and we are in urgent need of a new world-myth. And finally, myths have an educational function, teaching us how to live in this complex world. Maha Bharata is the best example. So are the Vedas, if only we understand what all those Gods and stories represent. 

 One other point. The gods of the Vedas were the earliest. They were replaced by the gods of the Puranas. The myths referred to briefly in the Vedas were elaborated and replaced by those in the Puranas. This is particularly true of myths of creations.

 Early mythologies relate man to nature since they originated when man was a nomad. These were overlaid by later mythologies of settled societies and temples of worship. All of them are full of metaphors. A metaphor is a symbol that stands for something else. For example, a bird and a snake stand for freedom from earthly existence – one because it flies into space and the other because it gets rid of its skin. Metaphors have one meaning by denotation and another by connotation. When deciphered this way, every myth in every religion is helpful to understand this universe and ourselves, one way or another. But when religions get stuck with their own metaphors, interpreting them as facts and the followers also get stuck, spiritual growth is stifled.

 Every plant, bird and animal spoke their hidden messages to the mystics of ancient India. Every river and every mountain became a connection to the flow of time and ascent to divine knowledge. For example, river Ganga and the Milky way; Mount Meru and the Himalayas. The spiritual journey to higher wisdom was a pilgrimage or a battle and needed a whole army of benevolent gods. They fed the gods through sacrifices so gods can give a reliable source of food and animals for future sacrifices.

All the puranas document the noble ideals and the passions of human beings. They document the injustices and sufferings of life in this planet. They also give us ways of overcoming them and attain bliss in this world.  Joseph Campbell pints out that we have to control the savage in us by overcoming the passions in us. That is what most of the heroes in mythological stories do. And further, “These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage…..”  

The “inner thresholds of passage” are the rites of passage (called Samskaras in India) such as the Sacred Thread ceremony among the Hindus, Confirmation and Baptism in Christianity, Bar and Bat Mitzvah in the Jewish tradition. They initiate the child into adulthood. They are organized and formalized for the adult protector to tell the child: “you are ready to take adult life; here is how you find your inner bliss and your inner destiny.” In myths this was what the mother meant when she told her son either “I do not know your father” as Jabala told her son Satyakama in Chandogya Upanishad or “Go find your father” as when Athena told her son Telemachus in Odyssey.

The best examples for support of this understanding of symbols and myths are seen in Maha Bharata and the Vedic gods. The battle between the Devas and the Asuras or between the Kauravas and the Pandavas represent our internal flights, the conflict for the possession of the worlds of the heaven, earth and the mid-world (antariksha) and for the liberation of the body and life of the human from mortality to immortality.

Vedic myths refer to the flight or ascent of the human mind from dark and finite consciousness to the brilliant light of the infinite. According to Sri Aurobindo,  this is the message of the Vedas. 
(to be continued)

No comments: