Monday, October 4, 2021

Issues in Interpretative Authenticity in Vedic Studies *


 Sati Shankar


Keywords: observer, path, scientific, sciences, artificial, dharma, Vedic, methodologies, analytic, analogical, inductive, deductive corroborative reasoning, Vedic, phenomenological,universe, imprisoned, mind, vijhdnam, anandam, brahma, manas, Nasadiya, RV 10.129,discrimination, scholarship, Sanskritists


We are experiencing an exciting time of revived zeal and enthusiasm where we are preparing to defend, refine, and preserve our heritage, physical, cultural, and ideological. We understand that with centuries of the disturbing history of our civilization in India, destruction of centers of learning, and suppressed psyche, the tradition has often been labeled and proved untrustworthy. We do understand that due to various vested interests the purity in Vedic interpretations is also lost. To be able to reach any Vedic jnana, the internalization or interpretation presupposes freedom from any type of intellectual prison. The spillover between the states of mind has been one of the major stumbling blocks and cause of deteriorations in Vedic interpretations. The standard that can be set to accept the acceptability itself, is whether the interpreter has broken the walls of his intellectual prison before venturing into Vedic interpretation? In what follows we will be touching on some pertinent issues which, if overlooked, may cause damage, possibly some time irreparable by the future generations.

From agre, the time immemorial, to the human quest on the first manifestation, as in Nasadiya, RV10.129; the Breath of the First Principle, subsequent manifestations and topological transformations leading to the formation of our multi-universes, to the emergence of manas and subsequent psyche, the ability of judgment by discrimination, consequent thoughts, and tradition, and further human quests for an understanding of the universe, subsequent methodologies, analytic, analogical, inductive, deductive, and corroborative ways of reasoning and strategies thereof, opened the pandora of information on our phenomenological existence in the universe perceived so far. The discriminating imprisoned mind of the observer, human and its subordinate technologies, finds itself at ease with the working on and within these perceptual paradigms. At this point, it is customary to discuss questions, observations, data, hypotheses, testing, and theories, which are the formal parts of the scientific method, but these are NOT the most important components of the scientific method. The scientific method is practiced within a context of scientific thinking, and scientific (and critical) thinking is based on three things:

a. using empirical evidence (empiricism),

b. practicing logical reasoning (rationalism), and

c. possessing a skeptical attitude (skepticism) about presumed knowledge that leads to self-questioning, holding tentative conclusions, and being un-dog-matic (willingness to change one's beliefs).


These three ideas or principles are universal throughout science; without them, there would be no scientific or critical thinking, developed to analyze the phenomenal universe and we are accustomed to applying and using the same for whatever and wherever we wish. We have developed a nasty habit of reducing everything, qualitative and quantitative, down to fit these criteria, and the advent of new digital technologies has provided handy tools. The principle of least effort, inherent in human nature, has made human judgment a slave of the analytical methodologies available at the point of time.

Simultaneously, in the light of vijhdnam anandam brahma SB.; BrhU.3.9.34. in Vedic tradition, we receive knowledge directly from authorities, in essence, not subject to the four defects of all conditioned living entities, unattainable through speculation because of inherent mental imperfections. All the great reformers have been declaring, directly or indirectly, that they have come not to destroy the dharma, but to fulfill it. They have not been content to accept something simply because it is handed down by the tradition or based on speculations, as called by the modern scholarship, of the imprisoned mind. This demands, to be able to do justice with the interpretation and for nearest approximation of the truth, at least, that the interpreter must be in the minds of our Vedic Rishis, or at least in the state of sthiti-prajna. When anyone equipped with the methodologies developed for the phenomenological universe in its widest coverage begins to analyze and puts forth his conclusions, needless to say, is bound to commit errors leading sometimes to erroneous conclusions. Such a scholar is bound to resort to ad-hoc tricks which are well pointed out by Prof. V. S. Agarwal as follows: 

"It is now high time for Vedic scholars to realize if they would redeem Vedic studies from stagnation, that the orthodox and traditional interpretation of the Vedas is essentially Adhyatmic.

The Brahmana writers of the old look upon the Vedas as a document of spiritual culture. Modern scholars no doubt have spent infinite labor on handling the texts and interpreting them, but they were circumscribed in their scope mostly to sifting antiquarian material which had only by chance become incorporated in these works. When the interpretation of Vedic thought confronts them with difficulty, the language of the hymns is declared to be obscure, and most of the mystical expressions are taken to be incoherent on account of the imperfect understanding of the grammar of philosophic ideas behind them." [1]

Recently at the 16th World Sanskrit Conference, 28th June -2nd July 2015, Bangkok I gained some exposure to current practices in the translation of Scriptures, which reminds me of the words, from Dr. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, on the translations of Indian Scriptures, written more than six decades ago, still stand correct. He writes, “Existing translations of Vedic texts, however etymologically “accurate” are too often unintelligible or unconvincing, sometimes admittedly unintelligible to the translator himself. Neither the Sacred Books of the East nor for example such translations of the Upanishads as those by R.E. Hume or those of Mitra, Roer, and Cowell, recently reprinted, even approach the standards set by such works as Thomas Taylor’s version of the Enneads of Plotinus, or Friedlander’s of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed."

He further writes, "Translators of the Vedas do not seem to have possessed any previous knowledge of metaphysics, but rather to have gained their first and only notion of ontology from Sanskrit sources."

"It is very evident that for an understanding of the Veda, knowledge of Sanskrit, however profound, is insufficient. Indians themselves do not rely upon their knowledge of Sanskrit here but insist upon the absolute necessity of study at the feet of a guru. That is not possible in the same sense to students in the West. Yet they also possess a tradition founded in the first principles."

And ultimately,

“What right have Sanskritists to confine their labors to the solution of linguistic problems; is it fear that precludes their wrestling with the ideology of the texts they undertake. Our scholarship is too little humane. . ."[2]

"There is only one solution", points Prof. V.S. Agarwal, "to this difficulty. We should now begin to study more closely the explanations of the mystical Vedic terminology offered in the indigenous literature, especially the Brahmanas and the Aranyakas, which are replete with interpretational material that has remained useless in the absence of the Adhyatmic school of Vedic interpreters. Unfortunately, there are many today who could claim to represent the Aitihasikas and AkhyAnvidas of Yaska, but very few who could say that they are carrying on the torch of the Adhyatma-vidyas referred to in the Nirukta."[l]

The unavoidable prerequisite for such pursuit is that the interpreting scholar has to be stihi- prajna, if any success, at least, to acceptable credibility must be retained..

The fact is, writes Dr. Coomaraswamy, "On the one hand, the professional scholar, who has direct access to the sources, functions in isolation; on the other, the amateur propagandist of Indian thought disseminates mistaken notions. Between the two, no provision is made for the educated man of goodwill. "[2]

Swings are natural in human nature. No matter it is a downtrend or uptrend, tendency tries to propel to its extreme. That is why Scriptures suggest sam-bhAva.

Some other very important issues crave our immediate attention. The enthusiasm takes its course and we find many such tendencies in recent Vedic studies as well. Some notable ones need special attention before we commit irreparable damages. The foremost tendency observed is to try to find most of the "current" scientific theories and evidence in Vedas, though in good faith as an attempt to restore the dignity of the Vedas, so undermined and downgraded during recent centuries for vested interests. Before exploring this tendency as a "problem" we must have a look at the history of science.

We understand that in the field of scientific methodologies there has been a professional rivalry between logicists, empiricists, skepticists and we also know that Godel's Theory of Incompleteness has shown the limits of our knowledge. Even the most formal sciences like mathematics and its allied theoretical sciences have been facing logicism-intuitionism controversy, similarly, with the frequencist and subjective probabilities. Each has its own positive and negative sides, fighting throughout their histories but no one is complete without the other if the fullness is aimed at.

In the field of Vedic Studies, especially in translations and interpretations, St. Petersburg School with its authorities culminating in recent translations of the Rig Veda by Jamison and Brereton in the West, diverging widely from Geldner's commendable translation which has been more sympathetic to Bharatiya Vedic tradition, we have a full spectrum to judge and find where do we stand depending on the level of our own realization and levels of understanding. 

Let us have a look at the history of what is called "hard" sciences. For convenience and keeping in view the disciplinary affiliations of the audience, we confine to the most rudimentary facts of popular physical sciences. When Newton gave his mechanics, it was believed then that the scientific quest is over, and most explanations are found, on gravitation, on the movement of celestial bodies, mechanics, etc. As soon as the theory of relativity and subsequently the quantum mechanics came up, Newtonian mechanics shifted to historical interests, and only its distilled ideas survived with quantum mechanics. Though it looks like current status, the fact is that all these developments are nearly a century old now and we have reached quantum cosmology, from black hole to wormholes, and from gravitation to black body and support to celestial bodies by space-time mesh. Every new development either transforms the old one or replaces it altogether. 

With this background let us come to the point with deliberate intent to keep the core ideas free from technical jargon. With science and technology developing and changing rapidly it is not unreasonable to forecast that physics, mathematics, and all other sciences and technologies will be quite different and possibly quite strange from what we have at present is not very far in the future but four or five hundred years from now.

 If we encourage and continue with the tendency of assigning every Vedic mantra or sloka with an existing scientific concept or theory and interpret that way just to prove that it all is present in what we call Vedic, we are dating a knowledge which has been received as Timeless. We can imagine what damage will we do to this Timeless when it is assigned with a current scientific conceptual meaning and after not far in the future, we find that those concepts are either obsolete or useless altogether. Then we will find ourselves, once again, at the same place, we are now and shall need to reconsider the interpretations defending once again that our Vedic knowledge has not become obsolete with the assigned conceptual and scientific terms.

We, therefore, need to be very careful in preserving the Timeless nature of our Vedic knowledge while interpreting it in terms of phenomenological and ever-changing and mortal scientific theories and technological concepts.

                           How can we trust someone who does not know who he or she is?

 Subham bhavatu


 [1] Agrawala Vasudev S. The Vedas and Adhyatmik Tradition, Indian Culture, Vol V, No. 3, Jan. 1939 

[2] Coomaraswamy Ananda K.: A New Approach to the Vedas: An Essay in Translation and  Exegesis. ISBN 81-215-0630-1 (1994) originally published by Luzac & Co. London. [Introduction, p. vii]

 *Paper originally presented at the 19th India Conference "Science and Spirituality in Vedic Traditions: Modern Context" Organized jointly by the Delhi Sanskrit Academy, and the WAVES (Wider Association for Vedic Studies) Delhi. Nov 27-29th, 2015

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