CHAPTER 9 – Vedic Gods: Concrete Images
CHAPTER 9 – Vedic Gods: Concrete Images
Higher meanings become names of the powers of the psyche, names of the Gods within, names of the attributes of the Self. These meanings are the true objects of religious groping and the mystic quest. These meanings are already placed in the soul but they have to be rediscovered by love and sacrifice. On the terrestrial plane, the path to Self-discovery lies through world- discovery.
In the light of the preceding discussion, it would be interesting to turn to Hindu religious thought, particularly to its ancient Vedic expression, and find out how it embodies these meanings and how it mirrors the higher quest and the higher life; and whether it has still some specific characteristics, even though it follows general laws of the mind and the heart.
Such a study will be useful in more than one way. Firstly, it will help to complete our investigation into higher meanings. Secondly, it will add to our understanding of Hinduism, one of the most ancient and still one of the major world-religions. Thirdly, it will throw light on the ancient Gods of many Asian and European countries, Gods by now so completely forgotten that we cannot study them directly; but perhaps we can do that indirectly through Hindu Gods.
There was a time when these Gods satisfied the religious urges of their devotees. But in the course of time they came under attack from new Gods that were appearing on the horizon. They are by now completely replaced but the old persecution still continues though in a modified form. The new persecutors are not theo- logians and religious zealots but staid academicians. To them these Gods are not false but primitive. They hold that these Gods represented the attempt of the primitive mind to express, however imperfectly, through Nature’s symbols and objects, its groping for a unitary principle. At this stage of human evolution, it was difficult for man’s mind to rise above the sensuous to the intel- lectual and the spiritual, and from the many to the one. That was left for a later generation to achieve, reaching its high water-mark in Christianity and modern Europe.
If Gods are born of religious urges and spiritual intuitions, it is difficult to see how modern European Christians are superior in this respect and, therefore, how their ‘one God’ could be truer than the ‘many Gods’ of their ancestors.
A look at the Hindu Gods may throw light on this aspect of the subject. The Hindu pantheon has changed to some extent but the old Gods are still active and are still undertstood though under modified names. Hindu India has a sense of continuity with its past which other nations that changed their religions at some later stage, lack. It is also known that the Hindu religion preserves many old layers and forms. Therefore, its study may link us not only with its own past forms but also with the religious con- sciousness, intuitions and forms that prevailed in the past in Europe, in Greece, in Rome, in many Scandinavian and Baltic countries, amongst the Germanic and Slavic peoples and also in several countries of the Middle East. In short, the study may reveal a fundamental form of spiritual consciousness which is wider than its Hindu expression.
If we look at the word ‘God’, we find that though today it has acquired a forced, intellectualized, outward meaning appropriate to the mentality of the present age, yet it still retains the memory of the idea of a deity of a more intuitive people and of more spontaneous times.
Etymologists connect this word with Gothic guth, which is Skt. Auta, which means ‘one to whom oblations are made’ and, therefore, one who is worshipped. It connects us with the period when fire was a great living symbol of the deity within and around. In later times, the symbol was denounced as nature- worship by some sects but there was a time when it claimed, along with the Sun and the Sky, universal acceptance. Even Moses who belonged to an iconoclastic tradition had a glimpse of his God through the medium of fire. And in the Old Testament itself, certain hymns are considered ‘nature hymns’ by its scholars.
Etymologists also connect the word with the German word gotse whose original meaning was an image or a figure. In the Norse language also, the word meant ‘image of a deity’. So the word perhaps referred to the practice of worshipping God through various images and figures, a practice quite common amongst different peoples all over the world, ancient as well as modern.
There is another feature worth noticing. Spengler1 tells us that the old German word for God “was a neutral plural and was turned into a masculine singular by Christian propaganda”. The same is true of the word in the Norse and Teutonic languages. But after the heathens were converted, God changed his gender and number. This can hardly be regarded as the deepening of its meaning and conception.
The Hebrew word Elohim too is plural in origin, form and sense. The same is true of the Semitic word EI. It is not the name of a deity common to all but is a common name for different deities in the Semitic world.
Thus we see that the untutored and the more spontaneous intuition of the human race excludes neither the plurality of Gods nor the use of images and nature symbols from its religious sensibility. The denial comes when the mind becomes too con- ceptual; or when dogmatic faith develops faster than under- standing. But there is also a spiritual motive to the denial to which we shall turn later on.
If we study the ancient religious literature of the Hindus, particularly the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, certain things stand out prominently. The very first thing is a very large use of concrete images. There are Gods like Indra, Piisana, Varuna, Asvins for whom there are no physical correspondences, but many important Gods like Sirya, Agni, Marut take their names after natural objects.
There is also another important feature that we notice. The spiritual consciousness of the race is expressed in terms of the plurality of Gods. In these two respects, at least, the Hindu approach agreed with the spiritual intuition of other ancient peoples.
We have already seen that the physical and the intellectual are not opposed to one another. The names of physical objects become names of ideas, names of psychic truths, names of Gods; sensuous truths become intellectual truths, become spiritual truths.
As the knowledge of the senses becomes the knowledge of the manas and the buddhi, the knowledge originating in the higher organs of the mind also tends to filter down to the levels of the manas and the senses. So in this way even the highest knowledge has its form, colour and sound. This need not lower down its quality in any way. In fact, this is the only way in which the sense- bound mind understands something of the higher knowledge.
This reverberating, echoing and imaging takes place up and down the whole corridor of the mind at all levels of abstraction. Here, as we traverse the path, we meet physical-forms, sound- forms, vision-forms, thought-forms, universal-forms, all echoes of each other. We meet mantras and yantras and icons of various efficacies and psychic qualities. In one sense, they are not the light above but they are its important formations. They invoke the celestial and raise up the terrestrial.
So the names of even the most concrete things have a meaning larger than their immediate referents. There is nothing, however lowly, which does not yield these meanings. Here stones sermonize and every brook is a book of learning. Here birds and animals teach wisdom. A small passage in the Old Testament (Proverbs, 30) uses the figures of a leech, an eagle, a serpent, a locust, an ant, a spider, a lion, a greyhound, a goat, to illustrate certain truths of life. To the author of this Proverb, the way of a man with a maid is like the way of an eagle in the air, or the way of a serpent upon the rock, or the way of a ship in the midst of the sea. Here the author is not saying anything about the eagle or the serpent; he is using these figures in order to say something about man himself.
Similarly, in the Vedas, words like the horse or the cow have larger meanings. In these meanings, they become names of the boons which the worshippers seek from their Gods; they even enter into the epithets of these Gods. For example, the word for a horse in the Vedas is vaja. It derives from the root vaj or uj, which also gives us words like ugra (mighty, strong, terrible), vajra (hard and mighty; it is also the name of Indra’s celebrated weapon with which he reduces his foes), and ojas (strength, vigour). So the word stands not only for the horse but also for the strength, speed and impetuosity of a horse, and for the general ideas of power, energy, swiftness, heroism, virility and invincibility in war. These the devotee seeks as boons from his Gods.
The word also came to mean battle, a contest and, by an extended use, the booty of a battle or the prize of a contest. In composition, we also got words like vdjapeya, the drink of strength and battle, and vdjinivat, rich in horses. Words like vajinivasu (bestowing strength and power), vajada or vajadavan (bestowing vigour, speed, wealth and prizes) also became epithets of Gods. Agni, the Fire-God, is vajapati, the lord of booty and reward.
In the same way and by the same process, familiar objects like the Sun, the Moon, the Sky assumed divine forms. They expressed the light, the power, the grandeur, the beauty, the freedom, the joy, and the law of the Spirit. The figure of human love was used to express the depth and intimacy of divine love and the purity of the latter was used to transform human love.
Thus the use of physical images in no way limits the presenta- tion of the most abstract truths. This is best illustrated by the Upanishads which discuss the most abstract subjects in the most concrete images. Here, the Person in the yonder Sun is the same as the Person in the Eye. Here the figures of the sun, the moon, the quarters of heaven, the atmosphere, the waters, the fire, the lightning, man’s five breaths, even his eyes, ears, nose, hands and legs are used to lead to the most secret truths. Here one image is used to suggest another and both to suggest the imageless; here, a negative points to a positive and vice versa, and both point to a Reality which is beyond duality.
There is another reason why images in the Vedas and the Upanishads are concrete. When the fever of the soul subsides, when the mind becomes calm, when the spiritual consciousness opens, things are no longer lifeless. In this state, things which have hitherto been regarded as ordinary are full of life, light, and consciousness. In this state, “the earth meditates as it were; water meditates as it were; mountains meditate as it were”.2 In this state, no need is felt to separate the abstract from the concrete because both are eloquent with the same message, because both image one another. In this state, everything expresses the divine; everything is the seat of the divine; everything is That; mountains, rivers and the great earth are but the Tathagata, as a Chinese teacher, Hsu Yun, proclaimed after his spiritual awakening.
In an age and amongst the people in whom the spiritual con- sciousness is alive, the world and words are also alive. They are not what they appear to the surface mind. They point to something deep and beyond. They incarnate profound truths of the self. But when spiritual consciousness is withdrawn and a physical consciousness comes to the fore, objects and words too become dead and self-contained. They no longer convey anything beyond their most outward, physical meanings. They become dumb.
A study of languages from this viewpoint would be very interesting. It would show how a spiritual age or mentality puts forth words and names and uses them in senses which are no longer understood by a more materialist age or utilitarian mentality. The same old words are there but they do’not mean the same things; the old scriptures are there but the light goes out of them. The new age deals with shells only. And the hiatus is not linguistic but mental. Objects and words exist at various levels. To a physical consciousness, they yield only physical and outward meanings.
This explains the sad plight of many pioneer Indologists and Vedic scholars. They were competent grammarians and linguists and did useful work but their own share of the harvest was husk and straw.
This discussion throws light on another point too. There is a school of thought which says that the Vedas and the Upanishads contain secret teachings, that the sages secured this secrecy by using words having double and treble meanings in order to hide the true teachings from the merely curious and the idle.
We too believe that the teachings are secret but the secrecy is unintended. The secrecy is in the nature of things. As we have seen, words have multiple meanings and the higher meanings remain hidden. And there is no way of revealing them unless one’s life is purified and one’s consciousness is raised up.
So there is no planned secrecy, and no linguistic trick to secure it. There is no code of human devising and the knowledge of the Vedas would not become available if the code were broken by some scholarly method. The path to their knowledge is the path of love and sacrifice. But this is a difficult path and mostly remains untrodden and thus the higher meanings are successfully hidden.
Not only hidden but also easily confused with lower meanings and outer symbols. The soul employs outer symbols to convey inner realities. In fact, all true meanings lie in the soul and the outward symbols and names are merely their channels and vehicles. The soul uses them for its own self-discovery. It refers to them but is not limited by them.
Every word, truth and experience is self-transcending. In everything that is spoken, there is the unspoken; in everything known, there is the unknown. The soul offers worship and homage to this transcendental, this unspoken, this unknown.
The Vedic seers made this distinction quite clear. In all the visible signs they used, they saw the invisible. “He who has drunk thinks that the herb which men crush is the Soma; but of him whom Brahmans truly know as Soma no one truly tastes,”3 they declared of Soma—the intoxicating herb to a physical mind but a veritable deity to a spiritual consciousness. This deity, this embodiment of the joy of existence, “is sheltered by religious vows, guarded by brhati hymns”; it even “stands listening to the stones that crush it; but none tastes of it who dwells on earth,” 4 the Vedas add. The true, kingly Soma was found by the resplendent Piisana concealed in the cave of the heart, guhahitam.5
The God Agni too is not the ordinary fire. In fact, to the seers, the ordinary fire derives from the Transcendental Fire and not the other way round. Vatsapri, the Vedic sage, says, “Agni was first born above the sky, divaspari; as jatavedah, he was born the second time amongst us; the friend of man, he was born the third time in the waters; the sage kindling him eternally praises him.”6
The same sage cryptically says, “We recognize thy threefold stations, O Agni, and thy three forms; we recognize the many stations occupied by thee; we know what thy supreme secret appellation is, nama parmam guha; we know thy source (dhama), from where thou have proceeded.”7
This is a most secret knowledge, this knowledge about Agni’s true abode and forms and appellations. This is revealed only to the pure. True Fire is to be seen in the cave of the heart, to put it in the Upanishadic language; the same was also known by latter-day saints like Kabir as gagana-gupha, the sky-cave, where the Deity, the Secret Name, satnama, dwells.
Oswald Spengler, The Hour of Decision, London, 1934, p. 311. ↩
Chandogya Upanisad, 7.6.1. ↩
सोमं मन्यते पपिवान् यत् संविषन्त्योषधिम्।
सोमं यं ब्रह्माणो विदुर्न तस्याश्नाति कश्चन ॥
— Rgveda, 10-85.3 ↩
आछद्विधानैर्गुपितो बार्हतैः सोम रक्षितः ।
ग्रव्णामिच्छृण्वन् तिष्ठसि न ते अश्नाति पार्थिवः ॥
— Rgveda, 10.85.3 ↩
पूषा राजानम् आघृणिर् अपगूऌहं गुहा हितम् । अविन्दच् चित्रबर्हिषम् ॥ ↩
दिवस्परि प्रथमं जज्ञे अग्निरस्मद् द्वितीयं परि जातवेदाः ।
तृतीयमप्सु नृमणा अजस्रमिन्धान एनं जरतेः स्वाधीः ॥
— Rgveda, 1.045.1 ↩
विद्मा ते अग्ने त्रेधा त्रयाणि विद्मा ते धाम विभृता पुरुत्रा ।
विद्मा ते नाम परमं गुहा यद्विद्मा तमुत्सं यत् आजगन्थ ॥
— Rgveda, 10.45.2 ↩