Perception of the Vedas


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About the Book

This is the twelfth volume in the series of the Collected Works of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy in the IGNCA's publication programme.

In 1933, Coomaraswamy published A New Approach to the Vedas, and thereafter he regularly brought out longer and shorter studies of the Vedas and Upanisads till the year 1947. These works were published in a variety of American, European and Indian journals. His essays have been arranged in this volume in relation to some aspect or the other of Vedic text as one integrated perception.

Coomaraswamy's writings are an exposition of Vedic ideas by means of a translation and commentary in which the resources of other forms of the universal tradition are taken for granted. He has used the resources of Vedic and Christian scriptures side by side. He has tried to make accurate, evocative translations of Vedic and Upanisadic texts through the use of scholastic language and archaic or composite words. He has employed the technical terms of scholastic philosophy in their proper context, for he maintained that the content of Indian religions or philosophical texts cannot be conveyed in any other way.

These translations are followed by copious notes covering related passages from other texts and translations in order to bring out a fuller meaning of the process of creation, or more exactly, the process of emanation of manifest from the unmanifest. It is hoped that this volume will open up a new vista of interpreting the Vedic lore so that we can reintegrate our own fuller being with the fuller manifestation of the cosmic order in which resides the Truth of Truths.


About the Author

Dr. Vidya Nivas Misra is an eminent scholar, sanskritist and distinguished educationist. He was Professor, Head of Department and later Vice-Chancellor of Sampurnanand Sanskrit University, Varanasi; Director, K.M. Institute of Linguistics and Hindi, Agra University; and Vice-Chancellor, Kashi Vidyapeeth. He was visiting Professor at the Universities of California, Washington, and the Banaras Hindu University. In addition to being President of Uttar Pradesh Hindi Sahitya Sammelan, he was also President of Akhil Bharatiya Sahitya Parishad and Akhil Bhartiya Bhojpuri Sahitya Sammelan. He was recipient of the Padma Shri award in 1988. He was also Editor of the Nav Bharat Times for some time.

Dr. Misra is the author of many books in English and Hindi and has contributed research articles to learned journals. Among his books, mention may be made of Descriptive Technique of Panini; Modern Hindi Poetry, The Indian Poetic Tradition; Jeevan Mein Santaan Ki Khoj; Mahabharat Ka Kavyarth; Hindi Ki Shabda Sampada; Angad Ki Niyati; Agnirath; Tum Chandan Hum Pani, etc. At present, he is a Member of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts Trust.



The sacred literature of India is available to most of us only in translations made by scholars trained in linguistics rather than in metaphysics; and it has been expounded and explained--or as I should rather say, explained away-mainly by scholars ready provided with the assumptions of the naturalist and anthropologist, scholars whose intellectual capacities have been so much inhibited by their own powers of observation that they can no longer distinguish the reality from the appearance, the Supernal Sun of metaphysics from the physical sun of their own experience. Apart from these, Indian literature has either been studied and explained by Christian propagandists whose main concern has been to demonstrate the falsity and absurdity of the doctrines involved, or by theosophists by whom the doctrines have been caricatured with the best intentions and perhaps even worse results.

The educated man of today is, moreover, completely out of touch with those European modes of thought and those intellectual aspects of the Christian doctrine which are nearest those of the Vedic traditions. A knowledge of modern Christianity will be of little use because the fundamental sentimentality of our times has diminished what was once an intellectual doctrine to a mere morality that can hardly be distinguished from a pragmatic humanism. A European can hardly be said to be adequately prepared for the study of the Vedanta unless he has acquired some knowledge and understanding of at least Plato, Philo, Hermes, Plotinus, the Gospels (especially John), Dionysius, and finally Eckhart who with the possible exception of Dante can be regarded from an Indian point of view as the greatest of all Europeans.

The Vedanta is nota 'philosophy' in the current sense of the word, but only as the word is used in the phrase philosophia perennis, and only if we have in mind the Hermetic 'philosophy' or that 'Wisdom' by whom Boethius was consoled. Modern philosophies are closed systems, employing the method of dialectics and taking for granted that opposites are mutually exclusive. In modern philosophy things are either so or not so; in eternal philosophy this depends upon our point of view. Metaphysics is not a system but a consistent doctrine; it is not merely concerned with conditioned and quantitative experience but with universal possibility. It therefore considers possibilities that may be neither possibilities of manifestation nor in any sense formal, as well as ensembles of possibility that can be realized in a given world. The ultimate reality of metaphysics is a Supreme Identity in which the opposition of all contraries, even of being and not-being, is resolved; its 'worlds' and 'gods' are levels of reference and symbolic entities which are neither places nor individuals but states of being realizable within you.



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 Upanisads as those of 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. Translators of the Vedas do not seem to have possessed any previous knowledge of metaphysics, but rather to have gained their first and only notions of ontology from Sanskrit sources. As remarked by Jung, Psychological Types, p. 263, with reference to the study of the Upanisads under existing conditions, 'any true perception of the quite extraordinary depth of those ideas and their amazing psychological accuracy is still but a remote possibility'.

It is very evident that for an understanding of the Vedas, a 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 for European students. Yet Europe also possesses a tradition founded in first principles. That mentality which in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries brought into being an intellectual Christianity owing as much to Maimonides, Aristotle, and the Arabs as to the Bible itself, would not have found the Vedas 'difficult'. For example, those who understood that 'Paternity and filiation ... are dependent properties' , or that God 'cannot be a Person without a Nature, nor can his Nature be without a Person', Eckhart, 1.268 and 394, or had read later Dante's '0 Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son', Paradiso, xxxiii, would not have seen in the mutual generation of Purusa and Viraj, or Daksa and Aditi an arbitrary or primitive mode of thought: those familiar with Christian conceptions of Godhead as 'void', 'naked', and 'as though it were not', would not have been disconcerted by descriptions of That as 'Death' (mrtyu) , and as being 'in no wise' (neti, neti). To those who even to-day have some idea of what is meant by a 'reconciliation of opposites', or have partly understood the relation between' man's conscious consciousness and the unconscious sources of his powers, the significance of the Waters as an 'inexhaustible well' of the possibilities of existence might be apparent. When Blake speaks of a 'Marriage of Heaven and Hell' , or Swinburne writes, 'I bid you but be' , there is included more of the Vedas than can be found in many learned disquistitions on their 'philosophy'. What right have Sanskritists to confine their labours 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.

What I have called here a 'new approach to the Vedas' is nothing more than an essay in the exposition of Vedic ideas by means of a translation and a commentary in which the resources of other forms of the universal tradition are taken for granted. Max Muller, in 1891, held that the Veda would continue to occupy scholars 'for centuries to. come'. Meanwhile there are others beside professional scholars, for whom the Vedas are significant. In any case, no great extension of our present measure of understanding can be expected from philological research alone, however valuable such methods of research may have been in the past: and what is true for Sumero-Babylonian religion is no less true for the Vedas, viz., that 'further progress in the interpretation of the difficult cycle of ... liturgies cannot be made until the cult is more profoundly interpreted from the point of view of the history of religion'.

As regards the translation: every English word employed has been used advisedly with respect to its technical significance. For example, 'nature' is here always the correlative of 'essence' ,and denoted that whereby the world is as it is; never as in modern colloquial usage to denote the world, ensnaturata. Similarly, existence is distinguished from being, creation from emanation, local movement from the principle of motion, the incalculable from the infinite, and so forth. All that is absolutely necessary if the sense of the Vedic texts is to be conveyed. In addition, the few English words added to complete the sense of the translation are italicized: and when several English words are employed to render one Sanskrit term, the English words are generally connected by hyphens, e.g. Aditya, 'Supernal-Sun'; Aksara, 'Imperishable-Word'.

As regards the commentary: here I have simply used the resources of Vedic and Christian scriptures side by side. An extended use of Sumerian, Taoist, Sufi, and Gnostic sources would have been at once possible and illuminating, but would have stretched the discussion beyond reasonable limits. As for the Vedic and Christian sources, each illuminates the other. And that is in itself an important contribution to understanding, for as Whitman expresses it, ‘These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me. If they are not yours as much as mine, they are nothing, or next to nothing.' Whatever may be asserted or denied with respect to the 'value' of the Vedas, this at least is certain, that their fundamental doctrines are by no means singular.




  Preamble by V.N. Misra 7
1 The Vedas-Essays in Translation and Exegesis: 17
  Preface by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy 19
  A New Approach to the Vedas 21
  The Rgveda as Land-Nama-Bok 105
2 Notes on the Katha Upanisad 137
3 The Darker Side of Dawn 191
4 Recollection, Indian and Platonic 205
5 The Vedic Doctrine of 'Silence' 223
6 The Tantric Doctrine of Divine Biunity 235
7 Kha and Other Words Denoting 'Zero', in Connection with the Indian Metaphysics of Space 247
8 On the One and Only Transmigrant 259
9 Vedic 'Monotheism' 281
10 Bhakta Aspects of the Atman Doctrine 293
11 Maha Purusa: 'Supreme Identity' 305
12 Nirukta = Hermeneia 315
13 The Flood in Hindu Tradition 325
14 The Vedanta and Western Tradition 335
15 Vedic Exemplarism 355
16 Atmayajna: Self-Sacrifice 375
17 Manas 413
  List of Abbreviations and Short Titles 425
  Index 437


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