Sunday, January 31, 2010

Vedasudhe IV

[Disclaimer and Note (repeat): This is not my composition (excepting noted paragraphs as indicated with the initials [RV]) or opinion. This is translated from a series of lectures in Kannada by a scholar named Sudhakara Sharma (probably in 2003, and presumably in a town named Belur). I'm breaking tradition on this blog to bring non-fiction, non-kannada material to non-kannada readers. For those who understand Kannada, I suggest heading over to Vismayanagari and searching for vEdasudhe to hear this material in its original.
While I have tried to keep the translation accurate, I don't make claims to absolute accuracy. I may have dropped redundancies. I may also have reordered material to present it better in written form. I have simply tried to bring material I believe to be very significant to a larger audience.]

yaj~Ja is an ahiMsAkarma. There is no scope for himsa, including any sort of animal killing or sacrifice.

"Oh really?" people would say: "What about the ashvamEdha yAga? Didn't they kill horses during those?" Let's see how badly the venerable ashvamEdha has been maligned.

Let's take the word itself: ashvamEdha.

If one were to go to a standard saMskitam dictionary and look for the word ashva, this would be the first mistake. One should have gone to the scriptures that were from the period of the Veda – one should have consulted the Vedic dictionary, the nirukta, instead. If one turned to a modern Sanskrit dictionary, the meaning of the word gets turned on its head.

A modern dictionary would say ashva is a horse; mEdha is to beat or to cut. Therefore, ashvamEdha yAga means a yAga where a horse is killed. Completely opposite of what it actually means!

We've forgotten the steps to be followed by which one arrives at a certain word. We've forgotten the vEdAMga. We simply take the words to have the same literal meanings as those in modern usage: ashvamEdha becomes horse slaughter.

With such interpretation, no wonder the Veda is continuously losing the little respect it still has: it has ahiMsa as its basic principle, and advocates killing a horse in this yAga? We already said that the Veda is without contradictions. How do we reconcile this?
We must, then, go to the nirukta of yAskAcArya to get to the root of the word ashva, the etymology of the word ashvamEdha.

The dhAtu 'ash' is described as:

ash bhakShaNe

bhakShaNa means to eat or to consume. That which consumes is known as ashva.

If one were to take this in a yaugika context, it would be more appropriate for interpreting the Vedic meaning. 

Here, we describe the third kind of word, apart from the laukika and yaugika words, which we touched upon previously – the yOgarUDha word. yOgarUDha words take the original meaning from the dhAtu, but also put the words within limits of rUDhi or usage.

Let's take an example of a yOgarUDha word. 

jalajA: One straightaway understands this to be the Lotus flower. 

jala means water; jA means 'born in'. jalajA in yaugika terms literally means that which is born in water. But why limit it to the Lotus alone? What about fish and other aquatic fauna? Water Lilies and other flora? Why not call them jalajA as well – they are, after all, born in water. In usage, however, the Lotus flower alone is called jalajA, not the other forms of life named above. Therefore, there is a yaugika meaning, but that meaning has been limited by usage to make it a yOgarUDha word.

This is exactly the problem with the modern meaning of the word ashva. ashva in yaugika terms means 'that which consumes'. This has been limited in usage to a horse. yAskAchArya also has this to say: 

ashNAti adhvAnam iti ashvaH

adhvAna means 'road'. ashva is that which eats the road. In this context, therefore, ashva actually means a horse. However, if we were to assume that ashva exclusively means a horse and a horse alone, we trip and lose hold of the Veda. This is the problem. In the Vedic context, we have to understand the yaugika meaning of the word. ashva therefore is not limited to a horse alone. A horse too, but not exclusively a horse. 

In the nirukta it is also said that ashva also can be equated to the iMdriyas or the senses. The eyes consume the sights; the ears consume sounds; the tongue consumes taste; the nose, smell and skin, touch. So what does the word ashva really mean, then? Not just a horse – a horse too, admittedly, but not exclusively a horse alone.

There is another dhAtu that indicates:

mEdhr saMgame ca

saMgamE means to collect, to unify or to control.

In other words, ashvamEdha means to control the senses. This also resonates with the tone and the maMtras of the ashvamEdha yAga. The subject matter therein is what one is required to do in order to control the senses; neither a horse, nor its slaughter. Once we realize this face - the actual intent of the ashvamEdha we not only develop respect for this sacrifice, we will be able to convince everyone that there really is nothing contradictory or violence involved in the ashvamEdha. This also resonates perfectly with the basic principle of ahiMsa.
The problem of interpretation, therefore, lies with our interpretation of the Veda in laukika terms rather than in yaugika terms as it should be. 

The shatapatha brAhmaNa (the brAhmaNa scriptures are among the first of scriptures that explain the Vedic message in greater detail) says: 

ashvam iti rAShTram

shvaH means 'tomorrow'.
ashvaH therefore means that which has no tomorrow. 

That, which has no tomorrow, has no yesterday either. What is it that has no yesterday or tomorrow? It is that which is endless, that which is permanent - the nation, the land. ashva is therefore the nation: ashvam iti rAShTram. We've already seen mEdhr saMgamE ca. In other words any program that is undertaken to unify the nation – any program of National Integration – is ashvamEdha yAga. How beautiful – how lofty the thoughts – the intent behind ashvamEdha, and how awful horse slaughter seems before this!

Let's take another example – not that this discussion is exhaustive, but just one more: 

gOmEdha: In colloquial terms one would say cow slaughter. But gO does not mean cow alone. yAskAcArya also gives the meaning iMdriya to the word gO. gO is also equated to vANi or vAk. gOmEdha therefore means keeping control of one's speech. gOmEdha yAga is therefore vAk saMyama. No cow slaughter here. There's direction on how one should speak in the Veda:

सक्तुमिव तित‍उना पुनन्तो यत्र धीरा मनसा वाचमक्रत ।

अत्रा सखायः सख्यानि जानते भद्रैशांलक्श्मीर्निहिताधि वाचि ॥ (Rig Veda 10.71.2)

saktumiva tita^unA punanto yatra dhIrA manasA vAcamakrata |

atrA saKAyaH saKyAni jAnate BadraiSAMlakSmIrnihitAdhi vAci ||

When one speaks, one must speak as if sifting flour in a sieve. All the dirt, sticks and stones in the flour will be lost when sieving flour – likewise, one must throw away undesirable words and speak only the clean and kind words that remain.
What is the sieve of speech? Before speaking, one must check if what one is about to say is the truth. If it isn't, it must be caught at the tip of the tongue and not spoken. If it is the truth, it has passed the first test. Does it bring out angst in the listener? Does it hurt someone? One must ponder these questions before speaking, then and only then and that too, only if the words don't do any of these – if the words are satya, priya and hita – should the words ever be spoken. If not, they should be held in the sieve and thrown away. If everyone puts this into practice, the world will be a peaceful place – all speech that incites acts of violence would be sieved away since only that which is satya, priya and hita would be spoken by everyone.

This sieving and speaking is vAk saMyama. This vAk saMyama yaj~Ja is gOmEdha yAga. Idiots, through the ages, unfortunately took gOmEdha to mean cow slaughter, killed a cow, put its meat into the yaj~Ja kuMDa, even went so far as saying that a cow thus sacrificed is permitted to be eaten. Heights of stupidity and ignorance!

Such interpretations have been taken to extremes. There is another word 'gOghnA'. This literally means one who is the cause for killing a cow – sometimes 'cow killer' in English terms. Who is gOghnA? The guest, the atithi is gOghnA. This has been taken to mean that if one has guests visiting, they must be served by killing any cow/calf that one keeps. Again, this only showcases the illiteracy, the aj~JAna of people offering such interpretations. 

vyAkaraNa shAstra says that not just a cow, but products derived from a cow – Milk, butter, butter-milk, curd, etc – are also denoted by the same word gO. So, 'serving guests with gO'' means that one must serve the guest with Milk, butter, etc. gO, as we saw earlier also means vANi. The subject here being serving of a guest, this also means serve the guest with (kind) words. 

This is how the beautiful Veda has been mis-interpreted to show it in bad light. It pains those who knows the real nature of the Veda. A scripture that belongs to the whole world – to the whole of humanity has been spoiled and soiled to such an extent that people today reject the authority of the Veda. This is not the realm of just ordinary man – even great saMskritam scholars have fallen into these pits. When ordinary man does this it is limited to himself, perhaps his own circle. When scholars, people who must be leading lights misinterpret the Veda, the whole society falters and stumbles. 

Once one understands and realizes that the basic principle of the Veda is ahimsa one can see these meanings – one will know that one has to go in search of the alternative interpretations, rather than simply accept a contradictory mistranslation. Only then, will one understand the relevance, the importance and the greatness of the Veda.


jmercay said...

please eamil me regarding your translations of the Veda.

see for info on me.


drjmercay said...

I have been unable to locate Sudhakara Sharma. I am wondering if you might have some contact with him. It would be amazing if you and he would do a proper English translation of the Rig Veda, Sama Veda etc. beginning with the Rig Veda. The world is in desperate need of this.

Do you know where he lives and a way to contact him? I am going to India in January 2012 and would like to see him.

Jessie mercay, PhD

drjmercay said...

my email is

opsudrania said...

A most astounding job. Please continue it for the sake of posterity who will need it desperately. Jessie you will be remembered in golden letters in the future.

I am not a Sanskrit scholar but being born in a devout Hindu family
and having overheard my peers that the Vedic Sanskrit and the modern version of Sanskrit are different as you rightly said.

Continue your yeomanly work. God bless

opsudrania said...

A most astounding job. Please continue it for the sake of posterity who will need it desperately. Jessie you will be remembered in golden letters in the future.

I am not a Sanskrit scholar but being born in a devout Hindu family
and having overheard my peers that the Vedic Sanskrit and the modern version of Sanskrit are different as you rightly said.

Continue your yeomanly work. God bless