Guiding Light of The Month

All is light, all is love, ignorance and egoism are but vain phantoms, they can be dissolved. And over all things spreads Thy sovereign peace, Thy fecund calmness. - The Mother

The Foundations of Psychological Theory in the Veda

Two types of hymns exist in the Veda, which raises two questions:

a) Where the idea of the ‘yajna’ or of the victim is openly symbolical.

b) Where the veil is quite transparent.

Case i) Whether the hymns were later compositions just to develop a symbolism of an initial stage and generating out of old superstitious practices.

Or Case ii) An occasional plainer statement of a sense carefully veiled by the figure.

Case i) need only to be accepted if there were no constant recurrence of psychological passages. However, Sri Aurobindo found, not in isolation but in the whole hymns containing large number of verses, that the psychological sense prevailed and coherency continued from verse to verse.

Having realised thus, Sri Aurobindo proceeded further by a perfectly straightforward and natural method of interpretation based on the surface meaning of the words and sentences. But at one stage he came to an element in which the surface meaning had to be overridden. Here he thought that even with the utmost care no one can always be sure of hitting the right clue and the just interpretation. In order to set a process for this, he deals in great detail the following features of Vedic symbolism.

1. Vedic sacrifice (yajña):

a) Persons who offer b) Offerings & c) Fruit of the offerings

2. System of the worlds

3. Function of the Gods

a) Persons who offer: -

The main person who initiates and performs the ritual is called ‘Yajamāna’. If yajña is the action consecrated to gods, he is the doer of the action and giver of the sacrifice. Yajña is works, internal or external, and the Yajamāna is the individual living soul with personality engaged in the sacrifice. However, there are also ‘Officiating Priests’. There given names are Hotṛ, Adhvaryu, Udgāta & Brahma (their functional details are given below) and they represent Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas, respectively. What could be their part in the symbolism? When we suppose a symbolic sense for the sacrifice, we must also give a symbolic value for each feature of the ceremony.

Sri Aurobindo found that the gods were continuously spoken of as priests of the offering and in many passages it was clearly a non-human power or energy that presided over the sacrifice. He also perceived that throughout Veda, the elements of our personality are continuously personified. By simply applying this rule inversely, he supposed that the person of the priest in the external figure, represented in the internal activities figured, a non-human power or energy or an element of our personality.

To fix the psychological sense of the different priestly offices, he found that the Veda itself presented a clue by philological indications. For example ‘Purōhita’- in its separated form with the sense of the representative ‘put in front’. Also, constant reference is made to the god ‘Agni’ who symbolises Divine Will or Force. He is the action behind in all consecration of works.

Officiating Priests (also called ‘Ritvik’) : There are four orders or groups of these ‘Ritviks’ in the soma yāga (worship) viz., Hotṛ, Adhvaryu, Udgāta and Brahma. Each of these groups has four ‘Ritviks’ making a total of 16. The function and the significance of the terms applied to the main four priests are described here.

i) Hotṛ priest: He is the one who summons. Being the first of the four, he recites the ‘riks’, accomplishes summoning of the Gods and brings to proximity their presence. The import is clear in the inner sacrifice. Such a hota or hotṛ is no human but a Divine priest. The brāhmana books consider the divine being to be the real priest or purōhitā, placed in front.

• The yājñikās speak of the three worlds, Earth, Sky and Heaven, as the supporters in front, and of Agni, Vayu and Āditya as the purōhitās placed in front.

• Aitareya school hold: “He who knows the three purōhitās and three purodhās (those who are placed and those who place in front), that person is the purōhita ”. The meaning here is - “Only he who realises that the function of the purohita to be really of the Gods, is fit to be a ‘priest’. Incidentally this clearly serves to illustrate that such profound truths can be found in the so called ritualistic texts such as Brāhmana books. Unfortunately, this was not even considered by the modern translators of the Veda.

• God Agni is praised as ‘divine ritvik, hota in the front’ in the very first rik of the Rig Veda. Seer ‘Madhuchchandas’ is credited for this. And it is this Agni who is sung hundreds of times in the Veda as the messenger of the Gods. Being the closest to the mortals he is the ‘Immortal in the mortals’. It will be of interest to go through this important verse in some detail:

agnim ile purohitam (1) yajñasya devam ṛtvijam (2)
hotaram ratna dhatamam (3)

Word for word meaning: Agni I adore, placed in front (1), the God of Yajña, ṛtvik or one who has the ecstasy of Truth (2). He is the summoning priest and he activates (in human beings) the dormant ecstasies excellently. (3)

Purport: “I aspire intensely for Agni, the adorable, the leader who carries out the yajña. He does and also gets the yajña done in due time. He, as the summoning priest, is capable of bringing in Gods to the yajña performed. He establishes excellent felicities in the aspirant”.

Composed several millennia earlier, we can recognise the seed of the Vedantic thought. For instance, Agni is himself the priest and Agni is also the deity called for. He actively helps the human aspirant in the march towards perfection. We see here the idea of, ‘worshipping the spirit by spirit ’, later developed extensively as the ‘Yoga of Knowledge’. In the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ (Chapter 4 and verse 24), it is stated that “Brahman, the supreme principle, is the offering in yajña, Brahman is the sacrificial fire, Brahman is the thing offered ......”

ii) Adhvaryu priest: Adhvara means Journey. Being the second priest, he takes his stand on the Yajur Veda. He sees to the performance of the yajña by means of the yajus, leads the other ritviks in accordance with the manual of yajña. He is the active chief functionary on whom the entire performance of sacrifice rests. He will take charge of the physical details of the sacrifice too, like measure the ground, build the altar, prepare the sacrificial vessels, fetch wood and water and to light the fire. He too is god, Mātarishvan-Vāyu, who as the life breath of the world makes all activities possible.

The inner significance: It bears on the deity of all of our vital or prāṇic energy, Life-God, Vāyu (the Adhvaryu), who executes in the inner sacrifice all actions favourable to the activity of the Gods. Though the word Adhvara means sacrifice, yajña, is described as a journey or pilgrimage. The diligent Adhvaryu is he who desires or takes to such an Adhvara journey. Among all the Gods in the form of ritviks, it is he who carries out all the actions in the journey signified by the term Adhvara.

All the vital and nervous activities of the human being fall within the definition of Prana, and belong to the domain of Vayu. Rig Vedic hymns describing Vayu are not many. However he is always in common with Indra or the Maruts, the children of Vayu.

A verse on Vayu as an example: (Credited to the Ṛishi Ula Vatayana)

vata a vatu bheṣhajam (1) shambu mayobhu no hṛde (2) praṇa ayugumṣhi tariṣhat

Meaning: May Vayu breathe into hearts (hṛde) a balm (1) which is healing and brings happiness (2). May he prolong our lives (3)

c) Udgata Priest: The Udgāta delights the Gods by chanting the mantrās from Sāma Veda Samhita. In the inner sense, he is God Āditya. His role is special in the major soma sacrifices, by singing in praise of the invigorating properties of ‘soma pavamāna’, the freshly pressed juice of the soma plant. He reverberates with his chant of music, or the lofty song udgīta which is pleasing to all the Gods. He averts the many dangers, harms and lapses from the yajamana, and makes him self-restored and finally leading him on to Immortality, Truth and Ānanda.

A verse on Surya (Aditya) as an example:

udu tyam jatavedasam devam vahanti ketavaḥ (1) dṛshe vishvaya suryam (2)

Meaning: The all-knowing Sun God, is carried up by the rays of wisdom (1), so that all may behold him (2).

Here, we are not referring to the Sun we see in the sky. Surya in the Veda primarily stands for the Supreme Divine Sun. This Surya is reserved for his passive aspects as the body of infinite light. The physical solar orb seen in the morning is considered by the Seers as a physical symbol of the great God head, the beginning and end of all the Gods. This spiritual Sun, carries the human to the highest state of consciousness, from the ocean of inconscience or tamas.

d) Brahma Priest: He is the superintendent and witness of the entire sacrificial ceremony and gives his sanction for the commencement of the ritual. He also gives the word of assent. OM (O yes) at the appropriate moment and place. He will not move from his seat, always silent and guards the sacrifice to its very end. He protects against every sin of commission and omission, of deficiency or excess of mantra or any untoward action in the ritual. The person representing this priesthood is from the school of Atharva Veda.

The inner sense - He is the God of the mantrās and in the Veda, the mantra is also known as Brahma. Hence Brahmaṇaspathi is the deity presiding over the mantra. The causal material of all metrical mantra is praṇava, known by the symbol OM, the word of assent. It is this deity that sanctions in supreme silence the inner yajṇa of the yajamāna by a single syllable, at the beginning, at the end and all through. This deity, known as Gaṇapathi in Rig Veda itself, is identified in the Purāṇa with the elephant-face God, the tusk of the elephant representing the word OM. He is the remover of all the obstacles in the path.

b) Offerings: – Also called ‘dravya’ or substances of offerings. These are also to be understood symbolically. Like the derivation of names of Ritviks giving us the symbolic meaning of Gods in the inner ‘yajna’, so too for the substances that are offered to the Gods in the ritual. Even things like ‘ghṛta’ (ghee or clarified butter) that belongs to the ‘yajamāna’ are symbolic and are to be grasped through the meaning of the component parts of the terms.

A few illustrations showing as to how one ‘common root word in Sanskrit’ gives several derived terms: From the root word ‘Ghṛ ’ which means ‘to shine’ comes three different words ‘gharma’- heat, ‘ghṛni ’- ray and ‘ghṛta’- ghee or clarified butter or the yield from the cow. Hence in the symbolic sense ‘ghṛta’can be interpreted as ‘brilliance of an inner grace and Light indicating knowledge’.

In Sri Aurobindo’s own words, an explanation for sensing the inner meaning of a verse, whose literal translation goes thus: “Ghṛta or clarified butter dropping from heaven or dripping from the horses of Indra or dripping from the mind”:

“Obviously, this was grotesque nonsense, if the sense of ghṛta as clarified butter was anything more than a symbol used with great looseness, so that often the external sense was wholly or partly put aside in the mind of the thinker. It was possible of course to vary conveniently the sense of the words, to take ghṛta sometimes as butter and sometimes as water and sometimes as manas or the mind, sometimes as food or a cake. But I found that ghṛta was constantly used in connection with the thought or the mind, that heaven in Veda was a symbol of the mind, that Indra represented the illuminated mentality and his two horses double energies of that mentality and even that the Veda speaks plainly of offering the intellect (manīṣa) as purified ghṛta to the gods - “ghṛtam na putam maniṣam”. The word ghṛta counts also among its philological significances the sense of a rich or warm brightness. It was by this concurrence of indications that I felt justified in fixing a certain psychological significance for the figure of the clarified butter. And I found the same rule and the same method applicable to other features of the sacrifice”.

But what is a ghee-pouring mind? What the Rishi means here is a "mind pouring the light" - the clarity of an enlightened or illumined mind. It is the inner Flame.

To summarize, the yield of the cow, that stands for the brilliant light indicating knowledge and intimately belongs to yajamana, should be taken as offering to the Gods. Similarly other substances like ‘ havis’ (an oblation to fire) what all are offered to the Gods and eaten by ‘Agni’ are also outwardly symbolic of knowledge, action, happiness, etc.

Let us take the literal translation of another verse: “.... they smashed the hill with the cow.” Sanskrit word ‘adri ’ has two meanings a) hill or b) force or beings of inconscience and ignorance. Since ‘go’ also stands for knowledge the esoteric meaning would be that the forces of ignorance were overcome by the forces of knowledge.

Or from another similar verse; “.....they smashed the hill with their sound”. Here the sound is referred to ‘the mantra’ - Meaning the forces of ignorance were destroyed by the power of the mantra.

c) Fruit of the offerings (Phala)

Sri Aurobindo explains in psychological terms the two chief fruits of the Vedic sacrifice - viz., wealth of cows and wealth of horses. Each cow (‘go’) stands for a particular light or knowledge. For him, the enigmatical ‘Vedic cow’, could not have come from an earthly herd. Coming from the ‘Cow of the Sun’ and ‘Cow of the Dawn’, they should mean ‘Light’or ‘Divine knowledge’. The horse (‘ashva’) stands for the vital energy which the ‘devas’ can bestow. Hence both of them are symbolic of the richness of mental illumination and abundance of vital energy.

By inference, all the other fruits always associated with these two chief ones, they too must have psychological significance. Examples – gold, offspring, men, physical strength, victory in battle.

To prove the above possibility, Sri Aurobindo analysed a number of passages, where all the surrounding context was psychological and only the image of the cow interfered with material suggestion.

In the passage “Indra is invoked as the maker of perfect forms to drink the wine of ‘ Soma’; drinking he becomes full of ecstasy and a giver of cows; then he can attain to his most intimate or his most ultimate right thinking, then we question him and his clear discernment brings us our highest good”. Here these cows neither can be material herds nor capable of giving physical Light, as they do not fit into context.

Usha, the Dawn, is described as ‘ gomatī, aṣvavatī; and the Dawn gives to the sacrificer horses and cows. As applied to the physical dawn gomati means bringing the rays of light and is an image of the dawn of illumination in the human mind. Therefore, aṣvavatī too cannot merely refer to physical steed; it must have a psychological significance. Upon study of the Vedic horse, Sri Aurobindo concluded that go and aṣva represent two companion ideas of Light and Energy, (Consciousness and Force). In fact for the Vedic and Vedantic mind these are the twin aspect of all activities of existence. Thus the entire yajña or Vedic sacrifice, with all its limbs need to be understood this way.

(to be continued)

- C. Krishnamurthy (

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