Elements of Poetics and Poetry in The Veda
The very first thing that we may remark is that the Vedic Samhitas contain poetry of hundreds of poets, and even though they differ among themselves in style and power, they still share in common what may be called "algebraic notations", fund of images, figures, symbols, the adventurous climbing of the heights of visions and capability of infusing hue and colour, power and force, movement of rhythm and strength of substance in their poetry to such a great extent as to arrive at what may properly be called mantric power.
That Vedic poetry is mystic and symbolic can be noticed at once by taking a number of examples, even if we take them at random. And, if we realise that the Vedic poets composed their poems in words that were meant to be chanted and heard, we shall come to appreciate the metric mastery and sense of music of which they were capable. Even today, when we listen to the Vedic chants, we feel ourselves surcharged merely by the act of hearing with sublimity and purity of divine presence that begins to pervade not only our outer senses but also our inner mind and heart and deeper depths of our souls. And if we examine as to how this miracle has been created, we find that the Vedic poets had reached profound depths of poetics in regard to the word, — its sound-value, its thought-value and its spiritual-value, as also in regard to rhythmic movement,
-- its metrical value, its creative value, and its inspirational value.
The Vedic poetics, we find, was based on the discovery of the secret of the cosmic creation where Pulsations of manifestations follow vast but measured rhythms. The Vedic poetics discerns these rhythms and "translates them in terms of the measurements of poetic deters, called chhandas. Chhandas are not, according to Vedic poetics, human creations derived from human conveniences of usage of words, their accents and their modulations. Even the words are to the Vedic Poet not human in origin but are derived from sounds, - potent sounds, — which accompany original light and idea that are vibrant with the substance of Reality in its Native activity. The great meters of Vedic poetry, Gayatri, Usnik, Anustup, Brihati, Pankti, Tristup, and Jagati, each having specific number of syllables, represent vast rhythms of rita, which contain the occult power of universal and particular forms of harmony that abound the world of names and forms. It is this understanding of rhythms and meters that seems to have guided meticulous scruple that was insisted upon by the Vedic tradition in observance of different kinds of accents in pronunciation and in chanting of the hymns of the Vedas.
Rhythmic word, sound, music, metrical expressions, -- these are distinguishing features of poetry. But very often, these features are looked upon as mere aspects of technique of poetry and it is thought that if the technique is followed, we attain the right art of poetry. It is even thought that poetry is nothing but art of expression distinguishable from the art that is required in writing prose, even good prose. Unfortunately, it is not realised that poetry is not merely a matter of technique, that even prose can be poetic, if something that is essential to poetry, apart from technique, -- is
vibrantly present. The most important element in poetry, — and this is what we find most prominently in the Veda and Upanishads, — even in the prose elements of these great components is fundamentally a quest. Just as philosophy is a quest, religion is a quest, science is a quest, or Yoga .is a quest, poetry, too, is a quest, but it has its own technique and specific method and manner. All these pursuits have different methods of discovering the truth. Philosophy is the discovery of truth in intellectual conceptions or perceptions, arrived at by the method of ideation, ratiocination, and logical arrangement of thought-processes. Religion is devout pursuit of God through the method of worship, adoration, acceptance and practice of ethical and religious prescriptions. Science is a perception of processes of things, their mechanism and their synthetic idea arrived at by the method of observation and experimentation so as to facilitate repetition and verification and continued expansion. Poetry, too, is a quest of truth or feature of the truth which is inspired by inmost possible experience of any object, — even a leaf or a stone or an event or Nature, or God or Spirit, provided that the experience is turned inward so as to create self-vision in the profounder depths of the inner being of the poet, which is thrown out in rhythmic movement by the discovery of the word or image or a figure or a symbol, which has, in its turn, the capacity of disclosing to the hearer the truth of that very experience, — provided that it is not merely an outer imitation of outer features but an interpretative and creative revelation of its inmost truth.
Most importantly, however, vision of truth and pursuit of that vision are the most distinctive features of poetry. Vedic poetics, therefore, gives the highest place and name of Kavi to the one who attains the revealing sight, drishti, to the accompaniment of corresponding
hearing or shruti. Kavi, the poet, is compared to Agni ((fire) because Agni has been conceived as kavikratuh, satyah-chitra-shravastama, the seer whose sight and will are identical and whose hearing is most inspired by multiple aspects of the truth. The highest perception of truth climbs from the physical to the vital, emotional, intellectual, intuitive, inspired and comprehensive truth. The poet is the Rishi, when he sees the invisible and hears the inaudible; he is the drashtā when he sees the higher truth that lies beyond all narrowness in the wideness, in the brihat and in the highest ether of existence parame vyomani.¹
The Vedic poet has sight behind the sight, and the ear behind the ear, — chakshushah chakshuh, shrotrasya shrotram, and the poetic word, — its sound, its its music is discovered by the poet somewhere in the high regions of Truth, beyond the limits of the poet's individuality. This is why it is regarded as apaurusheya, even though that word may have been coloured by the heart and the mind through which that original word travels before it is brought to the surface. As the Veda puts it, the rhythmic word or speech, the mantra, rises at once from the heart of the seer and from distant home of the Truth.
The word or speech which is born from the -Truth combines three intensities, — intensity of style, intensity of rhythm, and intensity of vision. And when these three intensities reach their climax and are combined together, the resultant is what the Veda calls mantra, the inevitable word or the expression that vibrates with the vision of the truth and which, when disclosed or heard by the hearer, can open up in him
¹. richo akshare parame vyoman yasmin deva adhi viśve niseduh
yas tanna veda kim rchā karishyati ya it tad vidus ta ime samāsate.
the vibration of that vision and make it living and an upward ever-fresh movement.
It is for this reason that when we hear the Vedic poetry, the mantric poetry, we feel sparks of the hoof beats of the white flame-horse Dadhikravan, galloping up the mountain of the gods or breath and hue of wing striking into wing of the irised broods of Thought flying over earth or up towards heaven.
The Vedic poet is the climber, and therefore, he is the Arya (the word Arya is derived from the root √ ri to climb). The Vedic poet is thus the one who is in the midst of toil and battle of life. His poetry is, therefore, the poetry of life. And can there be poetry without life? Mere thought may be enough for philosophy, mere devotion may be enough for religion, mere observation may be enough for science, but poetry is a cry, a call, an aspiration that rises in the heat of life movement.
Another feature of poetry, — and this is specially underlined in the Vedic poetics, — is that it is creative expression of delight and beauty. Both Veda and Upanishads have discovered the inalienable delight of existence, celebrated as the elixir of immortality, the wine of soma, the drink which Indra, god of the divine mind, needs in order to nourish himself with strength and for emission of his shafts of lightning, flashes of illuminations. Ashwins, the physicians of the gods, are the special repositories of Soma and they carry with them bags of honey in their chariot so that they can heal the wounded, cure the sick and make the old young again. The Upanishads speak particularly of ananda, without which no creation is possible and nothing can be sustained. The Taittiriya Upanishad speaks of the knowledge of the Self, which opens the door to the self which is bliss, and points out that he who knows the Bliss and the Eternal, he fears not anything in this
world or elsewhere. The poet who celebrates the bliss of the self is, therefore, fearless victor.²
Beauty is but a form of bliss, and wherever there is depth of experience and of aesthesis which goes beyond personal reactions and passions of the mind, the poet is able to transform pain and sorrow and the most tragic an terrible and ugly things into forms of poetic beauty. Beauty is harmony of form, and although there can be and there are different views about harmony or what constitutes harmony, beauty always lies in the form that issue from bliss. The poet is always something more than a maker of beautiful words and phrases, more than a favoured child of fantasy and imagination, more than a careful fashioner of the idea and utterance and more than effective thinker, moralist, dramatist, or story teller, for he is essentially a propounder of the eternal spirit of beauty and delight and shares that highest creative and self-expressive rapture which is close to the original ecstasy that is at the source of creation, the divine ananda.
Raso vai sah. He, the divine, is verily rasa which means concentrated taste, a spiritual essence of emotions and essential aesthesis, the source of pleasure in the pure and perfect sources of feelings. Following the Vedic and Upanishadic tradition, the ancient Indian critics defined the essence of poetry as rasa, and judged by this canon of criticism, this ancient poetry of the Veda the Upanishad can really be regarded as an expression of inalienable rasa or joy that wells out m the spiritual self with its divine consciousness and knowledge and happier fountain of power. Indeed, the nearer the poet gets to the absolute
². yadā hyveaisa etaminn adriśye anātmye anirukte anilayane abhayam pratistham vindate atha so abhayam gato bhavati.
Taittiriya Upanishad, 11.7.
ananda, the greater becomes his joy in man and the universe and the greater is his receptivity to the creative spiritual emotions.
The Vedic poetics aims at becoming a vehicle of the voice of eternal things raising to a new significance and to a supremely satisfied joy in experience the events and emotions and transiences of life which can then be seen and sung as succession of signs, the changing of the steps of an eternal manifestation. Its object is to express the very self of man and the self of things and the self of Nature. And, finally, it aims at a creative and interpretative revelation of the infinite truth of existence and of the universal delight and beauty and of a greater spiritualised vision and power of life. All the Vedic poetry, whether in the Samhitas or in the Upanishads, provides ample fulfilment of these objectives. But since the poets of the Veda had a mentality other than ourselves and since their images of communication are of a peculiar kind, we have to appreciate that the cast of the Vedic vision is antique and therefore it gives a strange look to the substance intended to be communicated.
In order to enter into the heart of Vedic poetry, we need, first, to emphasise that for the Vedic poets, the physical and the psychical worlds were twofold and diverse and yet connected. For them, figures of cosmic godheads applied both to the inner and outer life of man; and they visualised human commerce with the divine, — with the gods behind whom was the one Spirit or Being, of which the gods were names and personalities and powers. Secondly, the Vedic Rishis looked upon the life of man as a thing of mixed truth and falsehood. They aimed at utilising life as a field of battle where we rise from mixed light and darkness to the splendour of divine Truth, whose home is above in the Infinite but which can be built up here in the
human soul and life. To them, life was a climbing from mortality to immortality through a battle between the children. of Light and the sons of Night. Thirdly, the Vedic Rishis spoke of these things in a fixed system of images taken from Nature and from the surrounding life of the warlike pastoral and agricultural Aryan people and centred around the cult of Fire and the worship of the Powers of living Nature and the institution of sacrifice. But they looked upon these images as symbols, which had living and powerful suggestions and counterparts of inner things. Fourthly, it is also significant that in spite of the large number of poets whose poems are to be found in the Vedic Samhitas, they shared a fixed and yet variable body of images and a Slowing -web of myths and parables. And, fifthly, Vedic Rishis also took care to see that the inner meaning could be understood by those who had entered into a obtain order of psychic experience and spiritual realities.
We may also note that the peculiar system of images and the complexity of its thought and symbolised experience which began in the Veda. reappeared constantly in later Indian writings, in the Tantras and the Puranas, as also in the figures of the Vaishnava poet. It is also notable that a certain element of this tradition appears even in the modern poetry of Tagore. Just as the Vaishnava poetry of Bengal uses images and figures which to the devout mind communicate the love of he human soul for God, even though to the profane they may appear to be nothing but a sensuous and passionate love poetry, -even so, the Vedic figures and symbols had deeper spiritual significance, while they appeared purely physical and ritualistic to those who had not yet entered into the inner sanctuary where the battle between the dark and luminous figures is being fought so as to arrive at the home of the Truth and the
home of immortality. The Vedic method, however, differs somewhat from the method of Vaishnava poetry in the fact that the Vedic imagery and symbolism constitute only a translucent veil so that it is easier to lift it and pass to the open revelation.
Both in regard to the substance and the poetic quality of the Veda, it would be extremely helpful to study the following passage from Sri Aurobindo, who is the latest interpreter of the Vedic Samhitas and who has discovered the secret of the Vedic symbolism and also the secret knowledge contained in these Samhitas:
"The Veda... stands out, apart from its interest as the world's first yet extant Scripture, its earliest interpretation of man and the Divine and the universe, as a remarkable, a sublime and powerful poetic creation. It is in its form and speech no barbaric production. The Vedic poets are masters of a consummate technique, their rhythms are carved like chariots of the gods and borne on divine and ample wings of sound, and are at once concentrated and wide-waved, great in movement and subtle in modulation, their speech lyric by intensity and epic by elevation, an utterance of great power, pure and bold and grand in outline, a speech direct and brief in impact, full to overflowing in sense and suggestion so that each verse exists at once as strong and sufficient thing in itself and takes its place as a large step between what came before and what comes after. A sacred and hieratic tradition faithfully followed gave them both their form and substance, but this substance consisted of the deepest psychic and spiritual experiences of which the human soul is capable and the forms seldom or never degenerate into a convention, because what they are intended to convey was lived in himself by each poet and made new to his own mind expression by the subtleties
or sublimities of his individual vision. The utterances of the greatest seers, Vishwamitra, Vamadeva, Dirghatamas and many others. touch the most extraordinary heights and amplitudes of a sublime and mystic poetry and there are poems like the Hymn of Creation that move in a powerful clarity on the summits of thought on which the Upanishads lived constantly with a more sustained breathing. The mind of ancient India did not err when it traced back all its philosophy, religion and essential things of its culture to these seer- poets, for all the future spirituality of her people is contained there in seed or in first expression."³
It is also significant that Sri Aurobindo has indicated in his great book on theory of poetry, The Future poetry, how modern trends in poetry indicate the possibility in Eastern languages of a truer understanding of the vedic idea and practice of mantra and even of the discovery of a new poetic creation that would embody a new mantric poetry. He has also suggested that, that, considering the past evolution of English poetry and considering the trends that are visible in greater poets like Whitman, Meredith, Carpenter, A.E. and Tagore, that language, too, may turn to the discovery of mantric poetry and even the expression of that poetry through the vehicle of the English language. It is also remarkable that Sri Aurobindo himself wrote his great epic savitri, which is the longest poem in English literature, to embody and to give full expression to mantric poetry in which the vedic poetics is fully illustrated. It is thus opportune that we ourselves who are students of the Vedic literature turn vigorously to the study of Vedic poetics and prepare the ground for the creation once more of mantric poetry in Sanskrit and other Indian languages.
³Sri Aurobindo: The Foundations of Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo Library Edition, 1970, pp: 266-67