The Vision That Made The Nation–M.S. Srinivasan

{Published in Next Future, June-Oct 2010]

We have discussed in our previous articles some of the historical and cultural aspects of the Vedic revelation and the significance of its symbolism.  In this article, we will be discussing its contents and the main letilmoffs of the Vedic Vision, which gave birth to the Indian Civilisation and Culture.

Key-perspectives: discoveries of the Vedic Seers; fire of sacrifice; man and cosmos: vedic cosmology; vedic social ideal; towards the original vedas.

Discoveries of the Vedic Seers

The best way to understand the history of the vedic age is to view it not as a series of events but as a series of inspired intuitions of the vedic seers which expressed itself spontaneously in the social organisation.  There was no deliberate and systematic imposition of a social theory or intellectual idea on life.  Society evolved organically, like life itself, under a basic framework and the guiding vision provided by the Vedic Seers.  The main spiritual intuitions which form the Vedic vision of life are as follows:

  1. The intuition of supra-physical realities behind the physical universe.  This gave birth to the idea that all terrestrial phenomena and events are symbols of some supra-terrestrial powers and the tendency to make everything in society a sacrament.
  2. The vision of ekam tat sat, “The Reality is one which the sages call it variously,” and the gods are the different cosmic powers or ‘aspects’ of the one Reality.
  3. Man and the cosmos are equal powers of the one divine Reality; the individual and the collectivity are equal self-expressions of the one Divine; the human society is conceived as a direct expression of the cosmic Powers.
  4. The concept of mystic sacrifice of the Divine Being; the entire universe is conceived as a result of sacrifice performed by the gods; the order of the universe is supposed to be maintained by sacrifices.  For the Vedic mystics the whole process of the universe is in its very nature a sacrifice, voluntary or involuntary; it is the outer symbol of an inner interchange between the gods and men, man giving what he has, the gods giving in return, the horses of power, asva, the herds of the light, go, the heroes of might, vira, winning for him victory in his battle with the host of darkness, dasyus.  But for the layman this became the ritualistic religion of outer sacrifice.  For the Vedic Rishis and the initiates the outer ritual is only a symbol of the inner sacrifice of the human being to the gods who are outwardly symbolized as forces of Nature and inwardly as subjective powers of consciousness.
  5. The Vision of rta, the cosmic Rhythm and Harmony which is conceived as the source of all Law and Order – spiritual, moral, social and physical – in the life of Man and the Universe.  From this Vedic idea of rta is derived the latter ideas of Dharma and the Law of Karma which are the basis of all moral and social values of the ancient Indian civilization.
  6. The ultimate aim or goal of the Vedic sacrifice is the ascent of the mortal earth-bound soul to the eternal worlds of Light and the descent and formation of the gods in the human being.

The Fire of Sacrifice

But the key to the secret of Vedic way of Life lies in a clear understanding of the significance of the Vedic vision of sacrifice and the system of symbols used by the Vedic sages to describe the process and the results of the sacrifice.

As we have discussed already, sacrifice is the central principle of the Vedic yoga.  Mutual sacrifice of men and gods culminating in the ascent of the human consciousness towards the consciousness of the gods and the descent and formation of the gods in human nature is the essence of the Vedic Yoga.  But what is the spiritual intuition behind this concept of sacrifice?  It is the intuition into the mystery of the original creative act by which the supreme Reality becomes causal, subtle and the gross universe; gods, earth and heaven, life and matter, the sun, the moon and the stars, animals and men.  It is the process by which the indivisible Unity of the Spirit becomes and involves itself in its exact opposite, that is, the infinite fragmentation of Matter.  It is this process of cosmic sacrifice which is described in the beautiful symbolic imagery of Purusha Sukta of the Vedas.  (Rig Veda X.90.1-10).

But why is it called sacrifice?  In every stage of this involutionary descent there is a gradual loss of the consciousness of Unity in the outer form of the Diversity through a process of voluntary self-limitation of the spirit.  In the last stage of the descent, when it becomes Matter, the loss becomes almost total.  But this loss of consciousness of Unity happens only to the outer form and not to the deeper essence of the Spirit.  At this deeper level the unity of the Being, Purusha, is secretly present in every level or stage of descent – in the casual state of the world as prajna, in the subtle as hiranyagarbha, and in the gross as virat-upholding and guiding the whole process.  This is the sacrifice of involution by which the universe comes into being.

But creation is not merely a process of involution.  There is also the evolution, the work of Agni, an upward striving will or aspiration or a nisus implanted in every animate and inanimate being.  In the Vedic symbolism Agni represents this evolutionary force and will in man and in the universe.  The Vedic sages conveyed this truth through a subtle and striking distinction made between Agni and other gods; while other gods wake up with the Dawn, Agni is the ever-wakeful god who burns even during the Night.  It means that, while the other gods work only during periods of inner illumination, Agni’s evolutionary work goes on even during periods of darkness and obscurity, acting behind the veil.

What is the process or method of this evolutionary sacrifice?  Not only is the process of creation a sacrifice, but also the process of evolution.  The sacrifice of creative involution proceeds by a gradual loss and veiling of the consciousness of Unity in the individual forms of creation through the limiting mechanism of ego. The sacrifice of evolution proceeds by a gradual rediscovery of the conscious Unity of the Spirit through the denial of ego and consequent increase or expansion of consciousness; it culminates in total recovery of the conscious Oneness of the Spirit in each individual form of creation.  In the more figurative language of the ancients, the evolutionary process is the reconstruction of the body of God dismembered and fragmented in the diversity of the cosmos during the process of creation or involution.  The Purusha Sukta hymn of the Rig Veda describes this process of dismemberment of the body of God as follows:

“When did they split up the Purusha? into how many parts? where is his face, what happened to his two arms? where are his two feet? Where are his thighs?”

This Vedic concept of sacrifice can be better understood when it is viewed in the light of a somewhat similar imagery of the Egyptian mythology.  According to this Egyptian legend, Osiris the Sun-god was treacherously slain by his wicked brother Set and his body cut into pieces.  Then his wife Isis, who is also his sister, goes in search of the pieces, puts them together and miraculously restores his body to life.  The symbolism behind the story is striking and unmistakable.

Thus the essential nature of the evolutionary sacrifice is the denial of ego through an act of self-giving to the egoless and universal divine Whole and its powers, the gods.  It is a movement towards the recovery of conscious unity and a return towards our spiritual source and the self of our being in which we are one with the All.  For in a cosmic system governed by the laws of unity and interdependence, the only right path towards evolutionary progress is through mutual self-giving or sacrifice.  When this law and process of sacrifice becomes fully conscious in the individual and is done with a full understanding of the meaning, significance, process and aim of the great law which governs the world, then it becomes Yoga.  As Sri Aurobindo explains the psychological significance of the Vedic sacrifice:

“The Vedic sacrifice is, psychologically, a symbol of cosmic and individual activity becoming self-conscious, enlightened and aware of its goal.  The whole process of the universe is in its very nature a sacrifice, voluntary or involuntary.  Self-fulfillment by self-immolation, to grow by giving is the universal law.  That, which refuses to give itself, is still the food of cosmic powers.  ‘The eater eating is eaten’ is the formula, pregnant and terrible in which the Upanishad sums up this aspect of the universe and in another passage men are described as the cattle of the gods.  It is only when the law is recognized and voluntarily accepted that this kingdom of death can be over passed and by the works of sacrifice Immortality made possible and attained.  All the powers and potentialities of the human life are offered up, in the symbol of a sacrifice, to the divine Life in the cosmos.” (1)

But when we examine the spiritual history of the world this act or movement of sacrifice took two distinct paths with very different spiritual results.  One is the path of absolute renunciation by which the “lower” life of the body, life and mind is totally rejected and condemned in an exclusive pursuit of the “higher” life of the spirit.  The other path is the path of self-giving and surrender in which the life of body, vital and mind is not denied or rejected but offered as a sacrifice to the divine powers of the Spirit. The result of the path of renunciation is a gradual shrinking and ultimate denial of the activities of the mind, life and body for the sake of an exclusive individual salvation in the pure Spirit.  The result of the path of self-giving and surrender is a gradual and integral expansion, fulfillment, perfection and participation of the powers of the mind, life and soul, in the divine life and nature of the Spirit. The path of sacrifice followed by the Vedic sages belonged to the second category.

The path pursued by Vedic seers was not a path of renunciation of life but a path of self-giving and surrender. None of the activities, powers and enjoyments of the body, life and mind are rejected in an ascetic spirit but all are offered to the gods so that they are illumined, purified and transformed and made into a fit vehicle and chariot of the gods.

The vedic ritual of sacrifice is an expressive symbol of the inner psychological process of the Vedic Yoga. It signifies the lighting of the inner fire of aspiration, Agni, in the altar of the heart and pouring into it as oblation all the activities of our body, life and mind. It is said in the Vedas that Agni receives all the offerings of man to the gods, rises to heaven with them and brings down the gods and their bounties to man. It means that it is the inner psychic fire of spiritual aspiration which with all the inner and outer activities thrown into it as oblation, rises inward and upwards to the land of the gods and calls them down with all their light and force into the consciousness of man.

This is the inner significance and process of the Vedic sacrifice, Yajna. What are the fruits and results of Vedic sacrifice? Light in the mind, Energy in the vitality and Joy in emotions and sensations are the three bounties for which the Vedic sages prayed and received from the gods. These are the fruits of the Vedic Yajna which the Vedic sages consistently hymned in the symbolic figure of the Cow, the Horse and the Wine. Go, Ashwa and Soma. In the symbolism of the Vedic mystics go and ashwa, cow and horse represent the two aspects of the divine consciousness: light and energy or knowledge and force. And Soma is the mystic wine which flows into the spiritually prepared, illumined and purified human vessel from the supreme Delight inherent in the one eternal Existence, Ekam Tat Sat.

Man and cosmos: Vedic Cosmology

All great spiritual traditions had a system of cosmology.  In the Vedic tradition, cosmology is an integral part of the spiritual vision of life.

The central principle of Vedic cosmology is that a world, loka, is the objective expression of a subjective state of consciousness.  Each world is a creative poise of the divine consciousness organized around a dominant principle of existence.  Since human consciousness in its essence is one with or a spark of the divine consciousness all worlds are within man.  Man and cosmos are built on the same principle and mutually inclusive of each other.  Outwardly man is an insignificant part of the cosmos but inwardly he is a miniature representation of the cosmos and in his inmost self a direct expression of the eternal Divine, equal with the gods.

Man is a four fold being made of body, life-force, mind and spirit.  Similarly, cosmos has a corresponding physical, vital, mental and spiritual dimension.  Just like our physical body is made of or derives its substance and energy from the physical universe of matter, out vital, mental and spiritual being derives its energy and substance from the corresponding worlds of life, mind and spirit of the cosmic being.  Thus cosmos is not confined to the physical universe.  It has an inner landscape, which is a universal extension of the inner landscape of our own individual self.  Not only we live in the cosmos, but cosmos lives in us.

Based on this fundamental intuition, Vedic seers made a seven-fold classification of the cosmos.  First three are the Bhur, Bhuva, Swa, Earth, Mid region and the Heaven.  Earth Bhur, is the world of Matter.  Mid region or Anthariksha is the world of life which is the source of our feeling, emotions, affections, passion and vital energy that animates our body and mind.  Heaven swar or dyau is the worlds of mind, especially the higher mind of pure thoughts, clear perceptions and lucid intuitions.  In Vedic thought, Swar or heaven is the world of intuitive and illumined mind of which god Indra is the Lord.  Beyond this triple world, Vedic seers perceived a higher heaven (brihaddyau) which they named as Satyam, Rtm, Brhat, the Truth, Right, the Vast. This higher heaven is the world of the Sun, which in the Vedas is the creative light and energy of the Supreme.  According to Sri Aurobindo, the Sun- world or the higher heaven of the Vedas is the supermind which is the creative consciousness of the Divine Reality, that which gives birth to and   governs cosmos, source of cosmic order and harmony (Rtm) and the home of the deepest and highest truth and law of all that is in the universe.  And finally in the Vedas it was said that rtm, the world of truth, leads upwards  beyond it to some highest triple words which are probably the worlds of  Sat –Chit-Ananda, pure Being, Consciousness and Bliss of the later religious thought.

Thus in the vedic cosmology, the cosmic existence of which we are a part is made of seven worlds: the triple lower worlds of Mind, Life and Matter, the triple upper worlds of Sat, Chit, Ananda with the Sun-world, the creative consciousness of Satchidananda, acting as a link between   the upper and lower worlds. All these worlds are within Man. In the terminology of Upanishads, we may say that each world has a corresponding sheath or kosha, with corresponding faculties, in human consciousness.

In most of us, in our present condition of human evolution, some of the sheaths and faculties belongings to higher principles or worlds like for example the Sun world or Sat–Chit-Ananda are rudimentary and not yet fully formed, conscious or active. But they can be developed, made conscious and active by yoga. One of the objectives of Vedic yoga is to develop these higher principles and faculties with the help of the gods who are the native citizens and guardians of the higher worlds.  In Vedic Yoga gods descend into the aspiring human consciousness, illumines and energises its existing sheaths and faculties with their higher light and energy and also help the human aspirant in forming, developing and manifesting the higher sheaths and faculties which belong to their own higher consciousness and worlds.  The Vedic seers called this process as “forming the gods in man”.  We are now entering into the realms of Vedic yoga which we will discuss in our subsequent articles.

 The Vedic Social Ideal

The other important question regarding the Vedic vision is whether the Vedic ideal is purely individualistic or has a collective dimension. To answer this question we must have a clear understanding of Vedic vision of human society.  Here also we have to get behind the symbolic language of Vedic sages. The symbolic image of Purusha Sukta conveys the idea of human society as an expression of the divine Being, marching ahead with Brahmana as the mouth, Kshatriya as his arm, Vaishya as his thighs, and Shudra as his feet. It will be beyond the scope of this essay to enter into the details of the psychological and spiritual significance of this Vedic conception of society. In brief the central intuition behind this Vedic conception is that human society or social organization must be a faithful outer expression of the inner psychological organization of the human being.  Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra represents the four psychological faculties in Man and their self expression in the society – Brahmana represents the faculties of thinking, ethical, and spiritual intelligence seeking for truth, knowledge, values; Kshatriyas the faculties of will seeking for power, strength and mastery; Vaishya the faculties of emotions and vitality seeking for mutuality and harmony; and Shudra  the faculties of physical being and the natural urge for work and service.  Based on this intuition human beings are classified into four psychological types and human society organized according to their corresponding self expression in the collective life of man.  The Brahmana expressing himself through the social organ of Culture, Kshathria through Polity, Vysya through the Economy and Shudra through Labour.  But these psychological powers in man and the human types they represent are themselves expressions of the corresponding four-fold cosmic powers: the power of Wisdom which determined the broad lines, principles and order of the world; power of Strength which enforces what the Wisdom conceives; power of Harmony which determines the rhythms, relations and organization of things; the power of work which executes what the other three conceives, decides or dictates.  The vedic ideal of society is to make the whole of human society a direct and conscious expression of the fourfold powers of the creative Godhead in Man.

So the Vedic sages never shunned the society but lived within it and actively guided and shaped its life, ideals, values and institutions.  Most of the Vedic sages lived a full and rounded life with wife, family and children and pursued both the spiritual and worldly life without any conflict between them. The Vedic seers made no sharp distinction between spiritual and secular life. The life of the world is a symbolic image of the life of the Spirit, a distorted image perhaps, distorted by the much ignorance and falsehood and crookedness of the human consciousness but still an expression of some truth of the spirit and not an illusion, Maya.  If this “crookedness” in man can be made “straight” then the world and human life can become a luminous, perfect and progressive expression of the powers of the Spirit, the gods.  And the way to make the life of the world “straight” is not to reject it but to offer it to the gods.  So the vedic path is not a path of renunciation but a spontaneous, joyous and child-like acceptance of life and the offering of all the inner and outer activities and enjoyments of life to the gods so that the whole of human life becomes a conscious expression of the spirit.

Thus the Vedic ideal of spiritual man is not a world-shunning ascetic or a monk but the Rishi, one who has lived and transcended the life of the world.  He has realized in himself the integral spiritual consciousness which knows not only the highest truth of the Spirit but also the deepest truth of Life and therefore can provide a much better and wiser guidance to the society than any “expert” of the world.  This is the reason why Indian culture gave the highest respect to the Rishi and viewed the spiritual man as the best guide not only of religious life but also of secular life.  As Sri Aurobindo explains the deeper truth and significance of this traditional Indian respect for the Rishi:

“The Indian mind holds  … that the Rishi, the thinker, the seer of spiritual truth is the best guide not only of the religious and moral, but the practical life.  The seer, the Rishi is the natural director of society; to the Rishi he attributes the ideas and guiding intuitions of his civilization.  Even today he is ever ready to give the name to anyone who can give a spiritual truth which helps his life or a formative idea and inspiration which influences religion, ethics, society, even politics.  This is because the Indian believes that the ultimate truths are truths of the spirit and the truths of the spirit are the most fundamental and most effective truths of our existence, powerfully creative of the inner, salutarily reformative of the outer life.”(2)

The later developments in Indian yoga moved towards a gradual loss of this dynamic and integral spiritual vision and ideal of the Vedic sages and culminated in the philosophy of illusionism and the ideal of a life-denying renunciation.  Somewhere during the post-Upanishadic era an overwhelming attraction towards this ideal of life-negating renunciation, preached by great and powerful minds like Buddha and Shankara took hold of the spiritual and cultural mind of India.  This led to a sense of world-weariness among the best minds of the age.  We can very well imagine the subtle psychological damage wrought on the collective life of the people when the best minds of the society lose the motivation to work for the creative regeneration and transformation of life, preach a gloomy gospel of Maya and look forward to the forest, monastery and the mountain-top as the final station of life or the dissolution of individuality in a life-denying spirit or void as the highest aim of life.  And the result of this unfortunate development is that the collective life of the civilization lost the positive psychological motivation and the creative force needed for its regeneration.  This is one of the major causes of the decline of India.  For example in the heyday of Buddhism in India, many of the young, educated, intelligent and talented Kshatriya princes, attracted by Buddhist teachings, handed over their kingdoms to incompetent hands and became monks.

But the greatest loss is the flight of spiritually illumined souls away from society – instead of remaining within the community, like the Vedic sages, as pillars of light and guidance for the moral and spiritual regeneration of the collectivity.  And the result is that human society lost the transformative light and force of a power beyond mind, the power of the Spirit, the only power which can transform human life.  The path for the regeneration of India lies in recovering the Vedic vision and ideal in all its integrality and giving it a new form suitable to the modern conditions.

Towards the Original Vedas

However, even this integral vision may not be the original vision of the Vedas.  As we have already mentioned, much of the Vedas were lost, and what we possess as the Vedas are perhaps only a fragment of the original Vedas.  This lost portion may probably contain many spiritual secrets which are not there in the Vedic text available to us, like for example, the spiritual transformation of the body.   The future India, if she follows faithfully her spiritual destiny, may probably recover the full and original Vedic vision and knowledge.  This is perhaps already happening in the teachings, and realizations of modern Indian spiritual masters, especially in the teachings and experiences of Sri Aurobindo and Mother.

In Sri Aurobindo’s vision, the highest evolutionary destiny of humanity and our planet is a complete spiritual transformation of the individual and collective life of man from the lowest material, the vital and mental, to the highest spiritual in an indivisible and harmonious spiritual whole.  The crowing and ultimate goal is the spiritual transformation of body and terrestrial matter.  This is perhaps the highest vision and ideal of the original Veda, which India has to rediscover.

References:

  1. Sri Aurobindo, Secret of the Vedas, SABCL, Vol.10, P.266
  2. Sri Aurobindo, The Foundation of Indian Culture, SABCL, Vol.14, P.157-58

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