The Vedas may be approached from diverse perspectives, each adding yet another dimension to our understanding of the Vedas. We present here a semiological perspective on the Veda.
The Veda is the oldest text of Indic civilization. It is also its most revered literature, a revelation or what is called the Sruti. Yet, it has been consigned to secondary importance in Indian darshana over the course of time at least in practice, if not in theory, to karmakanda, or hymns meant solely for rituals. The Indic mind, as it moved from the language of ancient symbolism, mantric vibrations, and the polysemic or multi-layered significances of words, seemed to forget the original inspiration behind its most foundational hymns.
And yet, the esoteric and mystical, the hieratic and spiritual layers of understanding did not disappear completely. Many of the Upanishads themselves professed great admiration for the Veda in their shlokas, and used its spiritual images, phrases, and references freely in an easy commerce between the most ancient and its subsequent Srutis. The tradition of honoring the Veda explicitly continued in the Upanishads and the sacred wisdom of the Veda remained vibrant and alive in the intuitive revelations of the Upanishads.
But this too seems to have been forgotten. Influenced by the mimansaks, and later interpreters like Sayana and the Western commentators, the modern mind of India largely accepted that the Veda is only the creation of an infantile if not barbaric civilization, that concerned itself primarily with propitiating the gods or devas through its ancient rites, solely to incur their favors in receiving wealth, cows, horses, progeny and victory over enemies.
Indic commentators such as Swami Dayananda in the 19th and Sri Aurobindo in the 20th centuries attempted to bring out the hidden meaning or the third layer of interpretation of Veda. In their profound and scholarly commentaries, they brought out the secret core of the Vedic mysteries that had been lost. And yet, the impact of their great contribution towards bringing back the spiritual sense of Veda back into national consciousness has met with only partial success. There is still resistance and collective tamas in the understanding of Indologists and traditional Vedic scholars. And the general population or even the reading public never gets to read, forget appreciate, the great secret of the Veda. Interestingly, the west has begun respecting and appreciating the remarkable complexity of the Veda especially in the interpretations of Tatyana Elizarenkova, Stephanie Jamison, and Joel Brereton. The newer translations are no longer as dismissive and arrogant as they used to be earlier in the times of H.H. Wilson and Max Mueller and other early commentators.
The stupendous breakthrough of Swami Dayananda and Sri Aurobindo has been ably continued by other great Indic translators and exegetes such as T.V. Kapali Sastry, M. P. Pandit, David Frawley, Subhash Kak, R.L. Kashyap, among others. And the great contribution of all these writers and interpreters is slowly being disseminated across the globe today, via published material, social media, and digital books, etc. Of course, much more is needed.
In this light, it may be worthwhile to note the significant contribution of Sri Krishna in understanding the Veda from a pragmatic and integral perspective. It seems that his emphasis on the symbolic value of the yajna and its spiritual significance has been overlooked by Vedic scholars and exegetes. It is time to revisit what Sri Krishna says about the first Sruti. This, I believe, will not only help us appreciate the Veda better but also the Gita itself for the yajna is one of the key motifs of the Gita. For in just a few shlokas, Sri Krishna reveals the central meaning of the Veda. His insights are extremely profound, precise and assign the right value to Vedic symbols and Vedantic knowledge with respect to each other. Let us look at these shlokas to see what they mean and how they transform our approach to the Veda and change our concept of it being as much jnanakanda as the Upanishads and not just karmakanda.
The Gita and the Veda
The Gita is often considered the thirteenth Upanishad, and in the eyes of our traditions, it is Narayana Vak, equal in value to a Sruti. We can say that the Gita is a practical manual of the knowledge contained as symbols in Veda and as intuitive revelations in the Upanishads. But we must always remember not to take isolated shlokas as adequate or complete reflectors of its central philosophy since the Gita is a multidimensional work reflecting the personality and genius of its protagonist, Sri Krishna.
Sri Krishna synthesized many darshanas including Sankhya, yoga, jnana, karma, Vedism, Vedanta, and Vaishnava bhakti, into one comprehensive vision. We too must take the individual shlokas of Gita in one wide synoptic view to appreciate their meaning. For in some shlokas Sri Krishna seems to be criticizing the Vedic Rituals whereas in some he is exalting the significance of the yajna and its significance. Let us try to consider them together to see what he is saying.
I believe, if we understand his central teaching the key issue of the adhyatmik or spiritual interpretation of the Veda is resolved. For in the Gita, the Vedic symbol of yajna is accorded the highest significance as a way of life. But this is not the external yajna or its interpretation of ritualism, but as a profound symbol of utter self-surrender and offering all one has and is to the Divine. The absolute self-giving of yajna as an inner reality that is the altar of transformation of oneself, giving up the human into the fire of tapasya in return for the Divine. Or shall we say, that the yajna is what in a more modern parlance of Indian adhyatma is called yoga, one of the central meanings of the word yajna.
The fire of yajna or Agni is Divine Love itself, as the Mother ( of Sri Aurobindo Ashram) explained once. It is also the Divine Will manifest in the Universe, starting from the most inconscient matter, to the plant or vanaspati, to waters or apas, to prana or our vital existence, to our minds as concentration and dhyana, to our hearts as the psychic being or chaitya shakti. Or, as Swami Dayananda beautifully explained in his Rig Veda Bhasha Bhashya, Agni is the vachi of the Atman and the Paramatman. Vachi here means not only a representative but the speech of the Atman and the Paramatman, its manifestation and expression. This Agni is too the illumination in the mind of the higher consciousness and Truth as the symbolic lightning or Vidyut Agni and the Solar Fire or Saurya Agni as the symbol of Sat-Chit-Ananda, the Sun, in the Veda. Agni manifests on each loka or world in various forms and is integral to our understanding of the yajna.
In the light of the Gita, Agni is Brahma Agni, or the Fire and Light, the intensity and the revelation, of the Brahman. It is our most pure and the most Divine, our most concentrated and the most beautiful. And Sri Krishna retains this symbolism of Agni through his revelatory exposition on the Veda, which is brief but extremely profound, and in a less than a few shlokas captures the essence of our first Sruti, making it easy for a practical application of its deep semiology and visual-auditory-verbal, the symbol-sound-idea, in our worldly existence and as our profoundest dharma.
Satyavrata Siddhantalankara in his Hindi translation of the Gita claims that this interpretation of Sri Krishna is something original and was not present in the Indic understanding and exegesis earlier. This is incorrect. The spiritual element of the Veda was present since its very inception as can be noted in the self-referential verses in the Veda itself. One of the verses of Rishi Dirghatamas clearly asserts that the Veda is composed of secret words, ninya vacamsi, and its verse may only be appreciated by another kavi or poet-seer, kavye kavyani nivacana.
Yajna, the Leitmotif of Gita
Sri Aurobindo in Essays on the Gita says, “The whole of the Gita’s gospel of works rests upon its idea of sacrifice and contains in fact the eternal connecting truth of God and the world and works.” And Sri Krishna brings this out in chapter 3, shloka 9,
यज्ञार्थात्कर्मणोऽन्यत्र लोकोऽयं कर्मबंधनः ।
तदर्थं कर्म कौन्तेय मुक्तसंगः समाचर ॥
yajñārthātkarmaṇō.nyatra lōkō.yaṅ karmabandhanaḥ.
tadarthaṅ karma kauntēya muktasaṅgaḥ samācara৷৷3.9৷৷
“By doing works otherwise than for sacrifice, this world of men is in bondage to works; for sacrifice practice works, O son of Kunti, becoming free from all attachment.”
And he continues in the next few shlokas with this clear exhortation,
सहयज्ञाः प्रजाः सृष्टा पुरोवाचप्रजापतिः ।
अनेन प्रसविष्यध्वमेष वोऽस्त्विष्टकामधुक् ॥
sahayajñāḥ prajāḥ sṛṣṭvā purōvāca prajāpatiḥ.
anēna prasaviṣyadhvamēṣa vō.stviṣṭakāmadhuk৷৷3.10৷৷
“With sacrifice the Lord of creatures of old created creatures and said, By this shall you bring forth (fruits or offspring), let this be your milker of desires.”
देवान्भावयतानेन ते देवा भावयन्तु वः ।
परस्परं भावयन्तः श्रेयः परमवाप्स्यथ ॥
dēvānbhāvayatānēna tē dēvā bhāvayantu vaḥ.
parasparaṅ bhāvayantaḥ śrēyaḥ paramavāpsyatha৷৷3.11৷৷
“Foster by this the gods and let the gods foster you; fostering each other, you shall attain to the supreme good.”
इष्टान्भोगान्हि वो देवा दास्यन्ते यज्ञभाविताः ।
तैर्दत्तानप्रदायैभ्यो यो भुंक्ते स्तेन एव सः ॥
iṣṭānbhōgānhi vō dēvā dāsyantē yajñabhāvitāḥ.
tairdattānapradāyaibhyō yō bhuṅktē stēna ēva saḥ৷৷3.12৷৷
“Fostered by sacrifice the gods shall give you desired enjoyments; who enjoys their given enjoyments and has not given to them, he is a thief.”
यज्ञशिष्टाशिनः सन्तो मुच्यन्ते सर्वकिल्बिषैः ।
भुञ्जते ते त्वघं पापा ये पचन्त्यात्मकारणात् ॥
yajñaśiṣṭāśinaḥ santō mucyantē sarvakilbiṣaiḥ.
bhuñjatē tē tvaghaṅ pāpā yē pacantyātmakāraṇāt৷৷3.13৷৷
“The good who eat what is left from the sacrifice, are released from all sin; but evil are they and enjoy sin who cook (the food) for their own sake, they verily eat sin.”
अन्नाद्भवन्ति भूतानि पर्जन्यादन्नसम्भवः ।
यज्ञाद्भवति पर्जन्यो यज्ञः कर्मसमुद्भवः ॥
annādbhavanti bhūtāni parjanyādannasambhavaḥ.
yajñādbhavati parjanyō yajñaḥ karmasamudbhavaḥ৷৷3.14৷৷
“From food creatures come into being, from rain is the birth of food, from sacrifice comes into being the rain, sacrifice is born of work;"
कर्म ब्रह्मोद्भवं विद्धि ब्रह्माक्षरसमुद्भवम् ।
तस्मात्सर्वगतं ब्रह्म नित्यं यज्ञे प्रतिष्ठितम् ॥
karma brahmōdbhavaṅ viddhi brahmākṣarasamudbhavam.
tasmātsarvagataṅ brahma nityaṅ yajñē pratiṣṭhitam৷৷3.15৷৷
“...work know to be born of Brahman, Brahman is born of the Immutable; therefore is the all-pervading Brahman established in the sacrifice.”
एवं प्रवर्तितं चक्रं नानुवर्तयतीह यः ।
अघायुरिन्द्रियारामो मोघं पार्थ स जीवति ॥
ēvaṅ pravartitaṅ cakraṅ nānuvartayatīha yaḥ.
aghāyurindriyārāmō mōghaṅ pārtha sa jīvati৷৷3.16৷৷
“He who follows not here the wheel thus set in movement, evil is his being, sensual is his delight, in vain, O Partha, that man lives.”
And Sri Aurobindo, trenchantly shows us that even yajna as a ritual is a symbol, without even interpreting the spiritual significance, if we understand the indication given here. He says, “Even in the passage itself, without the illumining interpretation afterwards given to it in the fourth chapter, we have already an indication of a wider sense where it is said that sacrifice is born from work, work from brahman, brahman from the Akshara, and therefore the all-pervading Brahman, sarvagatam brahma, is established in the sacrifice. The connecting logic of the “therefore” and the repetition of the word brahma are significant; for it shows clearly that the brahman from which all work is born has to be understood with an eye not so much to the current Vedic teaching in which it means the Veda as to a symbolical sense in which the creative Word is identical with the all-pervading Brahman, the Eternal, the one Self present in all existences, sarvabhutesu, and present in all the workings of existence. The Veda is the knowledge of the Divine, the Eternal, — “I am He who is to be known in all the books of the Knowledge,” vedais ca vedyah´, Krishna will say in a subsequent chapter; but it is the knowledge of him in the workings of Prakriti, in the workings of the three gunas, first qualities or modes of Nature, traigunyavisaya vedah ...This Brahman or Divine in the workings of Nature is born, as we may say, out of the Akshara, the immutable Purusha, the Self who stands above all the modes or qualities or workings of Nature, nistraigunya.”
Using the Vedic terms (talk about continuity or what is called in modern semiology, the syntagm of the Veda) Sri Krishna has clearly explained the significance and the meaning of the yajna. But Sri Krishna criticizes those who see the yagna only as a limited ritual to gain favors and he is extremely clear about this too in the second chapter:
यामिमां पुष्पितां वाचं प्रवदन्त्यविपश्चितः ।
वेदवादरताः पार्थ नान्यदस्तीति वादिनः ॥2.42॥
yāmimāṅ puṣpitāṅ vācaṅ pravadantyavipaśicataḥ.
vēdavādaratāḥ pārtha nānyadastīti vādinaḥ৷৷2.42৷৷
“This flowery word which they declare who have not clear discernment, devoted to the creed of the Veda, whose creed is that there is nothing else...”
कामात्मानः स्वर्गपरा जन्मकर्मफलप्रदाम् ।
क्रियाविश्लेषबहुलां भोगैश्वर्यगतिं प्रति ॥2.43॥
kāmātmānaḥ svargaparā janmakarmaphalapradām.
kriyāviśēṣabahulāṅ bhōgaiśvaryagatiṅ prati৷৷2.43৷৷
“...souls of desire, seekers of paradise, , -- it gives the fruits of the works of birth, it is multifarious with specialities of rites, it is directed to enjoyment and lordship as its goal.”
भोगैश्वर्यप्रसक्तानां तयापहृतचेतसाम् ।
व्यवसायात्मिका बुद्धिः समाधौ न विधीयते ॥2.44॥
vyavasāyātmikā buddhiḥ samādhau na vidhīyatē৷৷2.44৷৷
“The intelligence of those who are misled by that (flowery word), and cling to enjoyment and leadership, is not established in the self with concentrated fixity.”
त्रैगुण्यविषया वेदा निस्त्रैगुण्यो भवार्जुन | निर्द्वन्द्वो नित्यसत्त्वस्थो निर्योगक्षेम आत्मवान् || 2.45||
“The action of the three gunas is the subject matter of the Veda; but do thou, o Arjuna, become free from the trtiple Guna, without the dualities, ever based in the true being, without getting or having, possessed of the Self.”
The Significance of Sacrifice
गतसङ्गस्य मुक्तस्य ज्ञानावस्थितचेतसः ।
यज्ञायाचरतः कर्म समग्रं प्रविलीयते ॥
gatasaṅgasya muktasya jñānāvasthitacētasaḥ.
yajñāyācarataḥ karma samagraṅ pravilīyatē৷৷4.23৷৷
“When a man liberated, free from attachment, with his mind, heart and spirit firmly founded in self-knowledge, does works as sacrifice, all his work is dissolved.”
ब्रह्मार्पणं ब्रह्म हविर्ब्रह्माग्रौ ब्रह्मणा हुतम् ।
ब्रह्मैव तेन गन्तव्यं ब्रह्मकर्मसमाधिना ॥
brahmārpaṇaṅ brahmahavirbrahmāgnau brahmaṇā hutam.
brahmaiva tēna gantavyaṅ brahmakarmasamādhinā৷৷4.24৷৷
“Brahman is the giving, Brahman is the food-offering, by Brahman it is offered into the Brahman-fire, Brahman is that which is to be attained by samadhi in Brahman-action.”
दैवमेवापरे यज्ञं योगिनः पर्युपासते ।
ब्रह्माग्नावपरे यज्ञं यज्ञेनैवोपजुह्वति ॥
daivamēvāparē yajñaṅ yōginaḥ paryupāsatē.
brahmāgnāvaparē yajñaṅ yajñēnaivōpajuhvati৷৷4.25৷৷
“Some Yogins follow after the sacrifice which is of the gods; others offer the sacrifice by the sacrifice itself into the Brahman-fire.”
श्रोत्रादीनीन्द्रियाण्यन्ये संयमाग्निषु जुह्वति।
शब्दादीन्विषयानन्य इन्द्रियाग्निषु जुह्वति ॥
śrōtrādīnīndriyāṇyanyē saṅyamāgniṣu juhvati.
śabdādīnviṣayānanya indriyāgniṣu juhvati৷৷4.26৷৷
“Some offer hearing and other senses into the fires of control, others offer sound and the other objects of sense into the fires of sense.”
सर्वाणीन्द्रियकर्माणि प्राणकर्माणि चापरे ।
आत्मसंयमयोगाग्नौ जुह्वति ज्ञानदीपिते ॥
sarvāṇīndriyakarmāṇi prāṇakarmāṇi cāparē.
ātmasaṅyamayōgāgnau juhvati jñānadīpitē৷৷4.27৷৷
"And others offer all the actions of the sense and all the actions of the vital force into the fire of the Yoga of self-control kindled by knowledge.”
द्रव्ययज्ञास्तपोयज्ञा योगयज्ञास्तथापरे ।
स्वाध्यायज्ञानयज्ञाश्च यतयः संशितव्रताः ॥
svādhyāyajñānayajñāśca yatayaḥ saṅśitavratāḥ৷৷4.28৷৷
“There are some who offer in the sacrifice their material possessions, others who offer the austerities of their self-discipline, others who offer their practice of some form of yoga, and others who, firm in their vows, offer their study and knowledge.”
अपाने जुह्वति प्राणं प्राणेऽपानं तथापरे | प्राणापानगती रुद्ध्वा प्राणायामपरायणा: || 4.29||
apānē juhvati prāṇa prāṇē.pānaṅ tathā.parē.
prāṇāpānagatī ruddhvā prāṇāyāmaparāyaṇāḥ৷৷4.29৷৷
“Others again, who are devoted to controlling the breath, having restrained the Prana (the outgoing breath) and Apana (the incoming breath) pour as sacrifice Prana into Apana and Apana into Prana.”
अपरे नियताहारा: प्राणान्प्राणेषु जुह्वति | सर्वेऽप्येते यज्ञविदो यज्ञक्षपितकल्मषा: || 4.30||
aparē niyatāhārāḥ prāṇānprāṇēṣu juhvati.
sarvē.pyētē yajñavidō yajñakṣapitakalmaṣāḥ৷৷4.30৷৷
“Still others, having regulated and controlled their diet, pour as sacrifice their life-breaths into life-breaths. All these are knowers of sacrifice, and by sacrifice have destroyed their sins.”
यज्ञशिष्टामृतभुजो यान्ति ब्रह्म सनातनम् ।
नायं लोकोऽस्त्ययज्ञस्य कुतोऽन्यः कुरुसत्तम ॥
yajñaśiṣṭāmṛtabhujō yānti brahma sanātanam.
nāyaṅ lōkō.styayajñasya kutō.nyaḥ kurusattama৷৷4.31৷৷
“Those who enjoy the nectar of immortality left over from the sacrifice attain to the eternal Brahman; this world is not for him who doeth not sacrifice, how then any other world, O Best of the Kurus?”
एवं बहुविधा यज्ञा वितता ब्रह्मणो मुखे ।
कर्मजान्विद्धि तान्सर्वानेवं ज्ञात्वा विमोक्ष्यसे ॥
ēvaṅ bahuvidhā yajñā vitatā brahmaṇō mukhē.
karmajānviddhi tānsarvānēvaṅ jñātvā vimōkṣyasē৷৷4.32৷৷
“Therefore all these and many other forms of sacrifice have been extended in the mouth of the Brahman. Know thou that all these are born of work and so knowing thou shalt become free.”
श्रेयान्द्रव्यमयाद्यज्ञाज्ज्ञानयज्ञः परन्तप ।
सर्वं कर्माखिलं पार्थ ज्ञाने परिसमाप्यते ॥
sarvaṅ karmākhilaṅ pārtha jñānē parisamāpyatē৷৷4.33৷৷
“The sacrifice of knowledge, O Parantapa, is greater than any material sacrifice. Knowledge is that in which all actions culminate (not any lower knowledge but the highest self-knowledge and God-knowledge), Partha!
And Sri Aurobindo elaborates thus, “Sacrifice is the law of the world and nothing can be gained without it, neither mastery here, nor the possession of heavens beyond, nor the supreme possession of all; “this world is not for him who doeth not sacrifice, how then any other world?” Therefore all these and many other forms of sacrifice have been “extended in the mouth of the Brahman,” the mouth of that Fire which receives all offerings; they are all means and forms of the one great Existence in activity, means by which the action of the human being can be offered up to That of which his outward existence is a part and with which his inmost self is one. They are “all born of work;” all proceed from and are ordained by the one vast energy of the Divine which manifests itself in the universal karma and makes all the cosmic activity a progressive offering to the one Self and Lord and of which the last stage for the human being is self-knowledge and the possession of the divine or Brahmic consciousness. “So knowing thou shalt become free.”
The Three Meanings of Veda
Trayortha sarva vedeshu, or there are ‘three meanings in the Veda throughout,’ as T.V. Kapali Sastri pointed out in his work Light on the Vedas. These three layers are adhi bhautik, adhi daivik and adhyatmik, or the physical, the mythological and the spiritual. Sri Krishna dwells on all three but in brief gives us the central key to understanding the Veda.
It is not that he created this understanding out of thin air under an original impulse and interpretation of the first Sruti. He continued the tradition of seeing the Veda as an evocation and description of a deeper reality, in ritual as well as its symbols, in chhanda as well meaning. Sri Krishna brings out the very essence of Veda in a matter of two dozen shlokas and if we consider them together, we have what Swami Dayananda and Sri Aurobindo tried to explain several millennia later. Sri Krishna gives us the guideposts in our approach to the Veda. And it should no longer be a matter of debate or contention that he continued an original tradition and insight of the Vedic Rishis and captured the essence of its symbolism.
He is another reason we might wish to look at the Veda again in a new but ancient light that it has always possessed.