Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Vedic Deities

Book Review: Vedic Deities  by M. P. Pandit     (Lotus Light Publications 1989)

M. P. Pandit is in the tradition of the famed Sri Aurobindu, who was a remarkable yogi and western-trained scholar. This is a short book which focuses on some of the lesser-known deities of the Vedas. Instead of the more common deities of Indra, Agni, Varuna,
Vishnu, Soma, and Mitra – there is information about Aditi, the mother of the gods, or Adityas. She is equated with infinity and the mid-realm of the sky between heaven and earth. She is said to be she “who embraces the Vast.” Aditi is said to be horseless, or without a vehicle, as other Vedic gods have vehicles. The author emphasizes (using Vedic passages) that she is more of a personal mother goddess than an abstract concept as she has been depicted by scholars. He points out that Aditi is often addressed as Varuna or Agni. Several of the Vedic deities seem to share this notion of sort of being one another. This may have been a strong factor in Max Mueller ( a western scholar of the Vedas) referring to the notion of henotheism, where various deities are aspects of one main deity concept or godhead. There is also a section on Surya, the sun god, and two sections about the rather mysterious. There is much conjecture about the Maruts, or howlers, associated with wrathful Rudra and life-energies or thought-energies. They are sometimes considered to be storm gods as well.

Sri Aurobindo advocated a metaphorical interpretation of the Rig Veda and posited what he thought were some keys to metaphors. For instance, the cow is thought to refer to the rays of the Sun or Light. Thus there is the term, ray-cows, interpreted in the texts. With their different hues they are also rather obviously associated with the primary colors of light as the ROYGBIV. In the section on Surya, the Vedic sun god there is the observation that Surya is not merely the deified Sun but the Sacred itself as the Truth-Sun that illuminates and nourishes the consciousness of the universe. Since the Vedas are considered to be Shruti, or revealed literature, derived from the Rishis (seers) through their interpretation of the cosmic-truth sounds, then metaphorical meanings are likely. They are even strongly suggested in the hymns themselves. So the deified aspects of nature of a very long-ago people make up only a part of the intended meaning. Inner growth is definitely hinted at and comes out as the main feature f the Upanisads that followed the Vedas. We all seem to intuit the idea of the - Light of Truth, or the Light of Knowledge. That is certainly suggested in the hymns to the solar deities – Surya, Indra, Savitri, Vishnu, and in the Gayatri Mantra which venerates the solar power as divine. The seven horse who bear the chariot of Surya are seen as the seven cosmic rays of creation by some Vedic-derived philosophies.

There are a couple chapters about the Maruts, sons of Rudra and of Prishni – the dappled cow, and members of Indra’s warrior band. Aurobindo seems to equate them with both the physical and mental energies of spiritual awakening. Indo-European scholars have made the rather logical correlation of Maruts with Mars – since as Indra’s warrior prowess-energies. So they are thought of as martial spirits of sorts. But here the metaphorical aspect is emphasized. They are perhaps more like the energy of enthusiasm or mindfulness associated with awareness. My own feeling is that they are more like energies of hyper-alertness associated with the battle-state and by comparison to the energy of spiritual practice – where in the Vedas – the ascetic practices – tapas – are said to make heat. The Maruts are associated with wind. Interestingly, there are wind spirits in Polynesia called maru and in Estonian called maro, or marutu. The Estonian may come from a nearby IE language or as a loan word, who knows. The rishi-sage Vasistha says that only a rishi can even know of the mysterious maruts as they arise from the illumined mind. Here is a quote describing the Maruts from Sri Aurobindo:

“... luminous and violent gods of the storm and lightning, uniting in themselves the power of Vayu, the Wind, the Breath, the Lord of Life and the Force of Agni, the Seer-Will, are therefore seers who do the work by the knowledge, kavayo vidmana apasah, as well as battling forces who by the power of the heavenly Breath and the heavenly lightning overthrow the established things, the artificial obstructions, krtimani rodhamsi in which the sons of darkness have entrenched themselves and aid Indra to overcome Vritya and the Dasyus. They seem to be in the esoteric Veda the Life-powers that support by their nervous or vital energies the action of the thought in the attempt of the mortal consciousness to grow or expand itself into the Immortality of Truth and Bliss.”

Aurobindo also refers to the Maruts as the Thought Gods. In the hymns they are referred to among other things, as heroes that make the Heaven and Earth grow and increase, and as “Creators of speech,” and as “doers of happy deeds.” They can be associated with battle-energies, consciousness-expansion-energies, and as healing energies. They are also known as sanctifiers of the rites.

In the Vedas, sacrifice, is basically a pact/relationship between humans and the gods. Agni, the god of fire, carries the sacrifice to the gods – just as the gods offered Agni as a sacrifice to humans to bear up their sacrifices to the gods. Sacrifice may be considered a
cyclic interaction.

The final chapter is about the Vratya Kanda section of the Atharva Veda which consists of 220 prose mantras by the seer Atharva where the deity is Vratya. Normally, the word vratya refers to an outcaste, or one who lives on the fringe of society as a non-Vedic. However, in this context it may well refer to the supreme being as Paramatman, being outside the confines of conceptuality and definition. The text describes the birthing of the cosmos out of the Being of Brahma, the Vratya. This is the well-known Hindu creation story of the Prajapati coming from the Mind of Brahma, who creates the universe and all of its inhabitants out of the cosmic truth substance. The author praises a commentary book on the text by Sri Sampurnanand called – The Athyarveda: Vratyakanda. Here
Satya and Rta, so-called cosmic truth and cosmic order, are said to arise from the Tapas, or heat, of spiritual practice. Sri Sampurnananda sya that Satya refers to the immutable law of nature, while rta (from which comes our word – right) refers to the equally immutable law of morality.

Overall, this book was a little difficult for me as I did not seem to click with some of the explanations. I did not find many of the passages real inspiring. Sri Aurobindo is certainly very insightful but I think the subject of some of the Vedic hymns can be difficult in that they are often cryptic. I could not help but feel that the author and some of the Aurobindo quotes were sort of reaching in to pull out the deeper interpretations – quite well in some cases and perhaps not so well in others. Of course, most of the epic IE literature is cryptic and rather difficult to catch with the mind at times so I am not really faulting the authors here.

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