Secret of the Veda – page 266

In many places in the book, Peter Heehs, having mentioned something positive, proceeds to concoct a negative side. Some of these negatives are phony because they have been inferred by craftily using Sri Aurobindo’s words against him. By that I mean he takes Sri Aurobindo’s quotes out-of-context to potentially mislead uninformed readers. There is a certain procedure which has to be followed in order to uncover such deceptions. When you find a negative remark, you should look up the citation and read the original source. Then you must search for alternative sources, at which point you will realize that the negative remark is not really negative at all.

After some general remarks on Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the Vedas on pages 264 and 265, Peter proceeds to present the negative side on page 266 in this passage:

To Sayana wealth was wealth and cows were cows. Aurobindo accepted this as the exoteric sense of the lines, but he added another, inner sense in which wealth became spiritual plenitude and cows the divine illumination. Aurobindo wrote about the Vedas in every issue of the Arya until December 1917, and then again in several issues of 1920. His essays and translations provide a sketch of his theory, but he was never satisfied with them and did not repubhsh the Secret during his lifetime. Years later he told a potential translator: “The ‘Secret of the Veda’is not complete and there are besides many imperfections and some errors in it which I would have preferred to amend before the book or any translation was published.”‘ He never found time to give the book the revision that it needed. In later years he became less confident that a modern scholar could nail down the meaning of the texts as they were originally understood. “It is quite impossible to say to what they were referring in those days,” he wrote in a letter of 1933. “We have no longer a clue to their symbolism.”‘” He remained convinced, however, that he had recovered the inner sense of the Vedas in his own spiritual experience. For him, the seers of the Vedas were yogis who walked a path he rediscovered and traveled three thousand years later. A literary critic might observe that in making this claim, he was—to borrow a phrase from Jorge Luis Borges—creating his precursors.” Aurobindo would not have seen it that way, but he accepted that every reader of a text recreates its meaning in terms of his own experience. As he wrote in 1919, “even an old thought or truth which I affirm against an opposing idea, becomes a new thought to me in the effort of affirmation and rejection, clothes itself with new aspects and issues.”‘ What is important to readers of the Secret is whether the “new aspects and issues” that Aurobindo’s reading brought into focus are of living value to them.

We begin with the first quote :

[1]. His essays and translations provide a sketch of his theory, but he was never satisfied with them and did not republish the Secret during his lifetime. Years later he told a potential translator: “The ‘Secret of the Veda’ is not complete and there are besides many imperfections and some errors in it which I would have preferred to amend before the book or any translation was published.”

It is misleading to write in this manner without explaining the magnitude of the errors.

What could have Sri Aurobindo meant by the “many imperfections” that had to be amended before publishing the book? What was the dissatisfaction due to? I quote the passage on the Secret of the Veda in the foreword of the SABCL edition of Hymns to the Mystic Fire:

“The interpretation I have put forward was set out at length in a series of articles with the title “The Secret of the Veda” in the monthly philosophical magazine, “Arya”, some thirty years ago; written in serial form while still developing the theory and not quite complete in its scope or composed on a preconceived and well-ordered plan it was not published in book-form and is therefore not yet available to the reading public. It was accompanied by a number of renderings of the hymns of the Rig Veda which were rather interpretations than translations. . . .

But to establish on a scholastic basis the conclusions of the hypothesis it would have been necessary to prepare an edition of the Rig-veda or of a large part of it with a word by word construing in Sanskrit and English, notes explanatory of important points in the text and justifying the interpretation both of separate words and of whole verses and also elaborate appendices to fix firmly the rendering of keywords like rta, sravas, kratu, ketu, etc. essential to the esoteric interpretation. This also was planned, but meanwhile greater preoccupations of a permanent nature intervened and no time was left to proceed with such a considerable undertaking.”

(SABCL, Secret of the Veda, Vol. 11, pp 18-19)

As the second paragraph shows, he was a thorough scholar to be easily satisfied with the work he had done. He had to do a “word by word construing in Sanskrit and English” in order to be satisfied with it. It is because of this that he filled manually the pages of so many registers with words from different languages in order to arrive at the lost meaning of the words used in the Veda. How fortunate he would have been had computers been available those days!

We can also guess what were the “greater preoccupations of a permanent nature” that had intervened; they must have had something to do with his Yoga and the supramental descent. It is in this larger picture that the “imperfections” in the Secret of the Veda have to be understood, not in the way of this pretentious scholar who always wants to score points over Sri Aurobindo.

If we read the context in which the remarks were made (text follows), we see that Sri Aurobindo is actually thinking of perfecting his work while acknowledging the imperfections in it. He does not imply that there are basic errors in his interpretation, since he does grant permission to Purani for translating it into Gujarati. Look up also reference # 9 on p 448 of the Lives (Letter of 1920, published in Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, The Secret of the Veda, 602-603) which further proves that he wanted to perfect it and not go back on his interpretation. Strangely, the publishing notes in the CWSA have been written by Heehs himself, which shows that his mind accepts contradictions without any qualms of conscience.

Feb 21. 1920

Dear Purani,

(…) You have written to Amrita about a translation of the “Secret of the Veda” and “To the Nations.” The latter book is not my property, it is M. Richard’s and it is possible that he has given the rights of translation to the publisher who, if he knew, might take objection to your publishing a translation without his permission. M. Richard himself would no doubt give the permission at my request, but I do not know whether he has kept the right in his own hands. Please therefore do not publish that at present, but let me know the name of the translator.M. Richard is expected here at any time during the next month or two; but even if he does not come, I can ask the publisher for permission on behalf of the translator. The “Secret of the Veda” is not complete and there are besides many imperfections and some errors in it which I would have preferred to amend before the book or any translation of it was published. Perhaps, however, it does not matter so much in a Gujerati translation which will not come under close criticism such as would meet a book on the subject in English. It would be better, however, whenever there is question of a translation of a book—as opposed to an article or chapter here and there—to let me know first so that I may see whether there is any modification needed or indispensable change.

(CWSA, Autobiographical Notes, pp 296-297)

Secondly, if we read Kapali Sastry’s preface to his Collected Works Volume 10, we can see that Sri Aurobindo specifically instructed Kapali to stick to his (Sri Aurobindo’s) interpretation while continuing the work of interpreting the rest of the Veda.

Nearly ten years ago some friends here asked me to give word-for -word meaning in simple Sanskrit for Rig Veda hymns so that they could be rendered easily in Hindi afterwards. I though it could be done but thought also that it would not be acceptable to scholars in the absence of necessary explanation, grammatical notes, justification for departure where necessary from old commentaries or modern opinion. So I placed the matter before Sri Aurobindo with my submission that I could undertake the task only if he would be pleased to go through what I write. This he graciously agreed to do and added that I could write the commentary keeping close to his line of interpretation and using the clues that he has provided to unveil the symbolic imagery for arriving at the inner meaning that is the secret of the Veda.

(Collected Works of T.V. Kapali Sastry, Vol 10, p viii)

The work of Sri Aurobindo was continued not just by Kapali Sastry but also by A.B. Purani who wrote “Studies in Vedic Interpretations“.  Today the work is being continued in Bangalore by R.L. Kashyap through his organization SAKSI (Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute)

Next, we have the following remark.

[2] In later years he became less confident that a modern scholar could nail down the meaning of the texts as they were originally understood. “It is quite impossible to say to what they were referring in those days,” he wrote in a letter of 1933. “We have no longer a clue to their symbolism”.

The first statement is not true. Sri Aurobindo did not become less confident about his theory as we can easily decipher from the instructions he gave to Kapali Sastry.

The second statement is an out-of-context remark if you follow the citation on Page 448 Reference # 10. Sri Aurobindo did not make this remark in the context of his work on the Vedas but in relation to only one passage in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Next to the source of the citation is Peter’s personal note justifying the usage of this remark to ALL the work done by Sri Aurobindo on the Vedas. A naïve reader who doesn’t read the references at the end of the book may never notice this trickery.

Then we read the following:

[3] He remained convinced, however, that he had recovered the inner sense of the Vedas in his own spiritual experience. For him, the seers of the Vedas were yogis who walked a path he rediscovered and traveled three thousand years later. A literary critic might observe that in making this claim he was – to borrow a phrase from Jose Luis Borges – creating his precursors.

Peter is dismantling Sri Aurobindo’s claim by introducing a quote from Jose Luis Borges. The complete quote from Borges is: “Every writer ‘creates’ his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future”. Is the quote by a literary critic applicable in this context? Did Sri Aurobindo interpret the Vedas in the role of a mere writer? To truly understand how Sri Aurobindo came upon his unique interpretation, a true “scholar” would cross-reference the Record of Yoga, which reveal how he progressively uncovered the real meaning of the Vedas. Here is a sampling of jottings from the Record illustrating the manner in which Sri Aurobindo unveiled the secret.

Page 120: The Secret of Veda is now fixed & exact confirmations occur frequently.

Page 148: Today’s experience has thrown a clear light on many expressions in the Veda especially in relation to Indra and the Rudras.

Page 158: The Bhashya in Veda increases in force & the Vedantic interpretation is now almost entirely confirmed

Page 508: (june 23, 1914) Reference to Veda for indicative Vak. Intimation that this Sutra which had long baffled the mind, would this time yield up its whole secret. Immediately fulfilled, with a constant play of the illumined ideality in its fourfold powers.

Page 365: Dec 28 1913: Sortilege. RV I. 93 O Agni (lord of divine Tapas) and Soma (lord of Ananda), hear perfectly my call, take joy in the things perfectly expressed in me, become Ananda to the giver (of the sacrifice of action).

Then another out-of-context remark:

[4] Aurobindo would not have seen it that way, but he accepted that every reader of a text recreates its meaning in terms of his own experience. “As he wrote in 1919, “even an old thought or truth which I affirm against an opposing idea, becomes a new thought to me in the effort of affirmation and rejection, clothes itself with new aspects and issues”

Peter makes it seem here as if Sri Aurobindo was supportive of Borges’ theories. Not true. This was picked out-of-context from SABCL, Foundation of Indian Culture, Vol. 14, Indian Culture and External Influence, Page 393. As you can clearly see from that passage given below, Sri Aurobindo is writing about the integration of culture and the impossibility of going back to the past forms of one’s traditions. The passage cannot be used in connection with the interpretation of old texts.

Any attempt to remain exactly what we were before the European invasion or to ignore in future the claims of a modern environment and necessity is foredoomed to an obvious failure…. We cannot go backward to a past form of our being, but we can go forward to a large repossession of ourselves in which we shall make a better, more living, more real, more self-possessed use of the intervening experience… Again, we cannot be “ourselves alone” in any narrow formal sense, because we must necessarily take account of the modern world around us and get full knowledge of it, otherwise we cannot live. But all such taking account of things, all added knowledge modifies our subjective being. My mind, with all that depends on it, is modified by what it observes and works upon, modified when it takes in from it fresh materials of thought, modified when it is wakened by its stimulus to new activities, modified even when it denies and rejects; for even an old thought or truth which I affirm against an opposing idea, becomes a new thought to me in the effort of affirmation and rejection, clothes itself with new aspects and issues.

(SABCL, Foundation of Indian Culture, Vol. 14, Indian Culture and External Influence, pp 392-393).

Yet another remark:

[5] What is important to readers of the Secret is whether the “new aspects and issues” that Aurobindo’s reading into focus are of living value to them.

Yep. Instead of enlightening the audience on this difficult topic, Peter leads them astray with a string of negative out-of-context remarks and then expects them to understand the significance on their own.

But now we come to the most interesting part. What might be Peter’s personal opinion on the Vedas? To find that, we must turn to his published paper “Shades of Orientalism” which I chanced upon quite by accident.

In this paper, he confidently observes:

“Given the millennia that separate us from the texts, and the paucity of non-textual supporting materials, it is unlikely that we will ever know what the Vedas meant to their creators.”

Sages can recover meanings of old texts because books exist as records in the mental worlds but Peter probably does not understand such occult matters. He clearly does not accept that Sri Aurobindo could have arrived at a genuine interpretation of the Vedas and he has carefully expressed the same opinion in the biography as you can see from the very parallel (out-of-context) quote on Page 266, “It is impossible to say what they were referring to in those days…”.

If Peter wants to claim he does not understand the Vedic interpretation of Sri Aurobindo, that is fine, but the problem is that he  misuses quotations to make it seem as if Sri Aurobindo himself had lost confidence in his interpretation, which is incorrect.

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5 Responses to Secret of the Veda – page 266

  1. anahata says:

    We now have proof that this passage by Peter Heehs can mislead scholars. Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his review concluded that Sri Aurobindo had failed to find the secret meaning of the Vedas. He writes:
    “Aurobindo himself was conscious of two things. First, that the reconstruction of fragments of tradition was hard; the meaning of many sacred texts was simply inaccessible to us. Despite working laboriously, Aurobindo more or less admitted that he had not been able to recover the meaning of the Vedas. Most who read him on the subject cannot either, but do not have his self-confidence to admit it. Rather than admitting the inherent difficulty of the enterprise, the response is to draw a protective curtain and monumentalise tradition, as if to raise difficult questions is to commit an offence. ”

    http://www.indianexpress.com/news/book-clubbed/935545/0

  2. Pingback: Peter Heehs misleads Pratap Bhanu Mehta « Skylight

  3. Pingback: An Open Letter to Ramachandra Guha on Freedom Of Speech | The Mother India

  4. rsh says:

    wp.san777AT gmail
    Thanks a lot for you article and bearing. Spit fire (the divine Agni to burn and illumine) against such less subtle (fellows who can less understand) fellows.

    The work of Sri Aurobindo is so in the Psychic domain. One has to go there to understand what he is saying. The less cultured (I am sorry to have used this term but I am unable to replace with a less sharp word. As this is English language and the Author of the work is English one has to get back in English (Use a thorn to remove a thorn). If it were a Bharatheeya who can understand the beautiful and subtle language, I would have used the word “Samskara”, but I dare assume the one would understand this.)

  5. Sri Aurobindo wrote the Foreword to Hymns to the Mystic Fire in as late as 1946 wherein he reiterated the salience of his interpretation of the Veda. So, it’s sad that Heehs has introduced such degree of ambivalence regarding what can be called the most original of Sri Aurobindo’s contributions. [TNM55]

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