The Veda and Indian Culture
The aim of life that the people are inspired to pursue determines the fundamental direction of their culture. From this point of view, it is necessary to examine what exactly was the aim of life proposed by the Veda and how it influenced the direction of the Indian culture.
According to one view which has been held largely by the western scholars and their Indian disciples, India has been governed by four important ideas, namely, (a) that this world is a constant flux (samsara), (b) that there is no substantial meaning in it, (c) that this world is, in the final analysis, an illusion, and (d) that the best course for man is to arrive, as soon as possible, at a state of vairagya, a turning away from the world, and to renounce the world and its activities in order to seek a Transcendental Reality or Existence which is in its nature or essence entirely different from the qualities and categories of the world of our ordinary experience.
It has, therefore, been held that Indian culture has been negative and pessimistic.
But as we read the Veda, which has been held as the source of the inspiration of the Indian culture, we find that it presents a dynamic interpretation of the world and assigns to action in the world a profound meaning and significance. It enjoins upon man to act rather than to renounce his activities. It places before man a method of action which has been discovered after a long and intense search by the Vedic seers. This method of action recognizes a secret relationship between the manifest and occult energies and actions that lie behind all that we physically see and experience. This relationship, it is held, is that of an interchange and, which is characteristically described as yajna, sacrifice. The Veda holds that the entire world is, in fact, a massive Energy flowing according to rhythm, which is that of an interchange between force and force, will and will, action and action. The Veda seizes
upon this fundamental fact and points out that if man consciously follows the law of interchange and pursues it to its highest end, man will discover a state of being and power of action that remains always stable and integrated even though multiple varied and dynamic. This is the truth underlying the Vedic concept of the fundamental relationship between the earthly life, the supra-terrestrial life and the Supreme Reality, the supreme Purusha.
In practical terms, the Veda prescribes that every action of man should be a sacrifice offered by him to higher and higher forces and beings, to the devas and ultimately to the Supreme Being itself.
The world is thus not conceived as an illusion, although it grants that there is in this world an ignorance through which illusions are created in the world, and as a result of which our own view of the world is illusory. But the world itself, the movement of the world itself is not, according to the Veda, an illusion. Action of man, therefore, is not an illusion; it has meaning, and significance. Man is, therefore, not to renounce action, but on the contrary, he is to intensify his action until all his actions become a constant sacrifice offered to the Supreme.
There is no doubt that it was this emphasis on action and this insistence on action to be performed as a sacrifice that have provided a dynamic potency to the Indian culture. The secret of action that was discovered in the Veda seems to have been preserved in the age of the Upanishads, although there seems to have grown also a powerful tendency in some quarters to place knowledge in opposition to action, and to regard the former as superior to the latter. Nonetheless, we find that the Upanishadic wisdom recognized the meaningfulness of action and its spiritual and material utility. 'Kurvanneva iha karmani jijivishet shatam samah', (one should aspire to live a hundred years while performing actions here itself) that is what is declared by the Isha Upanishad, which is the most compact enunciation of the quintessence of the Upanishadic teaching. The same insistence on action is to be found in the Gita where Sri Krishna expounds his greatest gospel of Karma Yoga, the path of action that leads to the union of man with the dynamic Will of the Supreme. It is, in fact, in the Gita that we find a comprehensive and abundant exposition of the principle of sacrifice (not ritualistic sacrifice) and of the method of performing actions as a sacrifice to the Divine.
The richness and opulence of life that was developed and
organized on a huge scale and upto an exceptional degree of excellence could be explained only on the basis of the great aim that was put forward by the Vedic rishis who perceived the inevitable connection between the dynamism of life and the ultimate fulfillment of man. It is true that the Vedic goal of life was only a prevision and a luminous seed, and therefore, capable of diverse developments and even inadequate and distorting translations during the succeeding ages. Thus, the later description of the Veda as a Karma Kanda, the science of action, as opposed to Jnana Kanda, the science of Knowledge, is an example of a diminutive understanding of the real purport of the Veda. It is also true that Poorva Mimamsa, one of the six orthodox philosophies of India, which came to represent the Vedic tradition, and which even today underlies most of the ritualistic and ceremonial practices of the Hindu orthodoxy, was also a specialized development of the profound truths of the Veda. But it must be noted that the Indian culture developed its dynamic life on some inborn intuition which was injected very powerfully at the very source in the early Vedic times and this has enabled India to build not only an astounding and exceptional structure of religion, philosophy, literature, art, architecture, and sciences of various kinds and skills and technologies of innumerable varieties, but also huge and powerful edifices of empire and statecraft and commerce and industry and opulence and richness and enjoyment in minutest detail of life. To say, therefore, that India has been governed by pessimism and by illusionism contradicts the very spirit that permeates the astonishingly dynamic culture of India.
It is true, however, that illusionism did play a role. It is true that there was a trend of thought and attitude which tended to look upon the world as a field of suffering and ignorance, and, therefore, something that must be rejected in order to achieve some supreme and perfect reality or state. But this trend became fully explicit only at a later stage after the sixth century B.C. The gospel of inaction and pessimism did become a predominant influence, and it was this that was responsible for a great weakening of the dynamic impulse of the Indian people. Even today's weakness of India can largely be traced to that influence.
But it must be stressed that the pessimistic tendencies had always to fight against other contending philosophies which gave a predominant or even exclusive importance to action and dynamism
of life. Rejection of the world as an illusion and as a lie was challenged by several great and powerful exponents of the Vedanta.
If we ask, however, as to how the negative and pessimistic tendencies could at all succeed to become predominant, we shall find that India has been a special field of the search of the meaning of life, and that in this search it has not hesitated to affirm and experiment with hypotheses or propositions which are negative even to the highest degree. If we study this question in the historical perspective, we find that the Veda recognizes that there are three terms of existence which need to be put in an order of right relationship. These three terms are the supra-cosmic, the supraterrestrial and the cosmic-terrestrial. The supra-cosmic is the supreme ineffable, (that moves and moves not) which is at once Kshara and Akshara, the dynamic and the static, and which is the supreme Mystery. The Veda recognizes that the terrestrial life is dependent upon the supra-terrestrial, which again is dependent on the supra-cosmic. The Vedic rishis discovered the laws and secrets of how man, the terrestrial being, could build his life by connecting himself consciously his relationships with the supra- terrestrial and supra-cosmic existence. The Vedic seers saw that the human life cannot be founded firmly in perfect relationship with the supra-terrestrial and the supra-cosmic without developing to a high level of perfection of the human action amid human faculties of thought, will, emotions. The Veda, therefore, emphasized the need for an all-around perfection of the human body and of the human mind as also of the innumerable human energies of impulsion and motion. The Veda discovered the means of this development and laid down a system of an ordered and gradual development of the human instrument so as to secure a progressive balance and harmony of growth and enjoyment of the human personality. The Vedic system of education perceived the need to accept and assimilate all aspects of human life, and it perceived at the same time the need for a balanced growth, as opposed to the extreme insistences of the development of one aspect or tendency at the expense of some other aspect or tendency.
The Veda spoke of the possibility of perfection and of the integral perfection, and it spoke of this perfection as the state of immortality, amritam. But there is an important question in regard to which we do not find a clear and unambiguous answer. This question is: Can the integral perfection and immortality be fully
established and manifested in the terrestrial physical life or is it something that is attainable, finally, by shedding the physical life?
There are indications to show that the Vedic rishis had a vision and experience of the possibility of realizing perfection and immortality even in the terrestrial physical life The Veda speaks of the forefathers who have, according to it, reached this goal. But when we try to fathom deeper in search of the secret of this terrestrial perfection, we find ourselves arrested and we feel that there is something missing, something that still remains to be discovered and realized. It seems that the Veda, which is a record of the lofty adventure, is not a closed book, leaving nothing for the posterity for a new and further research. There is still something which the Veda is still in search of and which still needs to be enquired into. As the Veda itself declares, 'The priests of the world climb thee like a ladder, O hundred powered. As one ascends from peak to peak, there is made clear the much that has still to be done'.
(brahmanas tva shatakrata ud vamsham iva yomire.
Yat sanoh sanum aruhad bhuri aspasta kartvam)
It seems, therefore, that the central question of Indian Culture has been to ask as to how it is possible to realize integral perfection in the terrestrial life and in physical body itself. This question was, it seems, answered in the Veda in a seed form. It even seems that it was realized that this aim was very difficult to achieve, and that it could probably be realized only with a Supreme effort in the terrestrial physical life. Because of the difficulties of this supreme effort, there seems to have been a tendency to assign greater and greater importance to the supra-terrestrial achievements in preference to the terrestrial ones. And in due course, there seems to have crept a powerful tendency to assign a subordinate value to the terrestrial life and to look upon the supra-terrestrial achievement as of lasting importance. In course of this development, more and more attention came to be paid to the methods and means by which one could escape more and more rapidly and easily from the labors of the terrestrial life. Only those labors and works came to be recognized which were indispensable for building up perfection
in supra-terrestrial life. It is not surprising that this course of development could at one stage end up in the discovery of a state of experience or of being that would enable the individual to achieve the quickest escape from the world and its works.
Indeed, the methods of certain systems of yoga professed to give us precisely these very means of the most rapid escape from the world into a state of Nirvana, or of the inactive Brahman. They propounded the view that the terrestrial life is a result of Ignorance and of Desire and that it is an unending cycle of action (Karma) propelled by desire. It is here that we find the emergence of an attitude and approach to life which are in conflict with those which were developed and nourished by the Vedic teaching. in practical terms, this conflict can be explained as the one between the balanced growth, on the one hand, and exclusive and specialized growth, on the other. Whereas the Vedic approach underlined the need of the balanced growth of personality and of culture, the negative teaching preached a rapid and exclusive path by which the individual and the race could escape as rapidly as possible from the burdens and responsibilities of the terrestrial physical life.
If we are to understand Indian culture properly, we need to underline this conflict. It may be said that the foundations of Indian culture were laid by the Vedic approach. This approach required that the individual and social life of man should be so organized that the physical, vital and mental powers are helped to grow towards their perfection by means of a graded process which would provide to each stage of development the requisite station and stability as also the necessary drive for progress to higher and higher stations of activity and growth. This process was, according to the Veda, put in harmony with the requirements necessitated by the fact that our natural physical, vital and mental capacities and faculties are inter-twined with the powers and capacities and beings of the supra-terrestrial planes, and these again with the supra-cosmic reality. Thus the Indian culture based upon the Vedic ideal has a very wide and comprehensive basis, and it has a number of ladders of advancement, with varied programmes of integration of powers and capacities joining the terrestrial, the supra-terrestrial and the supra-cosmic into one vast and complex whole. This Vedic culture flourished not only for centuries but for millennia, and some of the high points of
achievement of this culture are to be found in the ancient literature of India, particularly that of epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata). But since the 6th century. B.C., there was introduced a current of culture which created confusion and a disbalancement in the vast organization of the balanced growth rooted in the teachings of the Veda; According to this disbalancing current, there is no need for balanced and graded development and for a vast and harmonious growth of the varied powers of the physical, vital and mental capacities and faculties. What was necessary was that each individual should be enabled as rapidly as possible to understand that the terrestrial labor of man was fundamentally meaningless and that he should develop only those capacities and powers which enable him to come out as soon as possible from the entire terrestrial life so as to enter into a supra-cosmic or acosmic Nirvana or Immobility.
With the introduction of this new current, Indian culture has suffered and there has come about in India a confusion of the ideals and progressive incompetence in dealing with the practical needs of human life.
It is not easy to suggest a solution by which the confused tangle of multi-dimensional Indian culture can be resolved. It has sometimes been suggested that India should go back to the Veda and to the Vedic ideal. On the other hand, the conditions of modern life are quite complex. There have entered into Indian life during the last one millennium certain motives of life which demand their own fulfillment or at least their right place in the totality of the cultural life of this vast sub-continent. Moreover, there has been an immense development of science and technology all over the world, and there is not only a rising tide of materialism but an effective invasion of materialistic culture. All this requires a new knowledge and a new power that could put all the elements of human culture, all the possible perfections of man on the earth into a new order of harmony and integration. As we saw earlier, the Vedic ideal itself was aluminous seed, but there intervened some deficiency which ultimately permitted the growth of negativism and pessimism. Thus, even while emphasizing the immense value of the Vedic ideal, and even while stressing the need to assimilate in the present hour the vast richness of the great Vedic culture, with all its positive results that have developed through the ages, we must underline the need to go forward and to
hew a new path which would provide us the key to the perfectibility of the terrestrial and physical life.
Not only in India, but all over the world, there has been a dichotomy and opposition between the spiritual life and physical life. There has been the rejection of Matter by those who uphold the ideal of spiritual life, and there has been the rejection of the Spirit by those who uphold the ideal of a perfect physical life. It seems now as though these rejections have brought us through their consequences to a point in Thought and in Life where we are necessitated to look afresh and to question the facile proposition that Spirit and Matter are irreconcilable realities. We need to ask the question: What is Matter? We need to ask: What is Spirit? It is possible that the reality is neither the one nor the other, but something in which both are truly one.
Very likely we shall make a surprising discovery enabling us a new invention by which man in the world can be refashioned in a way that has so far not yet been conceived, or even if conceived to some extent, not conceived fully or realized.
In the direction of some such search seems to lie the path of the further progress of the Indian culture. This is the direction that has been explored in our own times by Sri Aurobindo, and this exploration gives us an assurance that Indian culture will provide a new guidance to the entire human race.