Secret Knowledge: Traditional Levels of Vedic Interpretation
How do we approach cryptic mantras from ancient cultures, which are said to require special initiations in order to understand them? Can we assume that their evident meaning according to our present mindset of several thousand years later should be accurate? far has been the case with most who have tried to interpret the Vedas. Yet if we look at the Vedas with a greater poetic and yogic insight, cosmic dimensions emerge in almost every verse of this great compilation of seer wisdom.
One of the most common statements in later Vedic texts extending to the Upanishads is “Parokṣa priya hi devāḥ pratyakṣa dviṣah,” which means “The Gods are fond of indirect statements and dislike the evident.” The Vedic language is a paroksha language, referring to one of implied meanings that dislikes evident statements. This statement in itself should be enough for us to look at the Vedas with a deeper vision.
Good poetry is based upon presenting word and image plays that hold several different levels of meaning, weaving together nature, human experience, and yet deeper connections. A degree of subtlety and multiplicity of indications is the basis of good poetry in the first place. The great scriptures of the world, which reflect a deep poetic vision, similarly claim several levels of meaning – including meanings that are hidden or esoteric, or very different than their literal import. The Vedas as mantric poetry should be looked at in the same way, containing secret implications, in which ordinary objects can take on cosmic connections. The Rigveda itself mentions four levels of speech, three of which are hidden in secrecy.
Four are the levels of speech that are measured, these the wise sages know. Three hidden in secrecy, they cannot manipulate, only with the fourth level of speech do humans talk.[i]
Dirghatamas Auchatya, Rigveda I.164.45
Agni as the Vedic sacred fire is commonly identified with the power of speech. He is said to be the child of seven voices or seven forms of speech, which suggests a system of seven levels of interpretation for the Vedic mantras.
Eternal here the youthful sisters with a common origin, the seven voices conceive a single child.[ii]
Gathina Vishvamitra, Rigveda III.1.6
The Main Traditional Levels of Vedic Interpretation
As part of such secret meanings, the Vedas have several well-defined traditional levels of interpretation that we find mentioned in later Vedic texts. These reflect such multiple types of meaning that exist simultaneously. Each Vedic deity has different roles and functions according to the level of approached involved. The three most important are:
- Adhyatmic – Relating to the Self or the individual being, the psychological level
- Adhidaivic – Relating to the Gods, deities or cosmic powers
- Adhibhutic – Relating to the Elements of nature
We can find these three mentioned in many traditional texts of Vedic interpretation from the Brahmanas and Upanishads to the Bhagavad Gita.[iii]
Let us take Agni, which is generally identified with the natural phenomenon of fire to the modern mind. At the Adhyatmic or individual level, Agni is identified primarily with speech (vak), our main form of expression. At the Adhidaivic or cosmic level, Agni is primarily the Sun, the light of heaven, not merely as a material force but as the Divine light. On the Adhibhutic level, Agni is fire as an element, and the fire we use in our daily lives.
Adhyatmic – Psychological
The Adhyatmic level begins with a recognition of three primary aspects of our individual nature as speech (vak), prana, and mind (manas). In addition to these can be added a fourth level as the Jivatman or embodied soul, and a fifth as Paramatman or the Supreme Self.
The Adhyatmic approach takes us back from our individual powers of speech, breath, and mind to the higher Self that is their true reality the speech of speech, the mind of mind, the prana of prana as the Upanishads say.[iv] The Adhyatmic level does not reflect our ordinary faculties. It recognizes the reality of the Divine word, Divine life, and Divine mind and strives to connect us with these.
When Agni is invoked in the Vedas, it is as the Divine speech within us that calls the Gods or cosmic powers. When Indra is invoked, it is as the Divine immortal prana, not our mere creaturely breath. When the Sun is invoked, it is as the illuminating power of Divine consciousness, not simply the outer mind. These inner faculties come into function only when our outer faculties are brought into a silent state, the stillness of Yoga practice.
Adhidaivic – Theological/ Ontological
The Adhidaivic level recognizes three powers of light at the three levels of the cosmos as Agni (fire – earth), Vayu (lightning/air – atmosphere), and Surya (sun – heaven). These are the three forms of Ishvara (the cosmic Lord) who is the fourth factor, with Brahman or Paramatman, the Absolute, as the fifth.
The Adhidaivic approach is concerned with worship of God (Ishvara) to lead us to Brahman. It recognizes the reality of the Divine fire, Divine spirit (wind), and Divine light (Sun). The Adhidaivic approach can be called Adhibrahman as its goal is Brahman or the Absolute. It is a theological approach in which we honor the Divine ruling powers of the universe, which are the forces of Being, Consciousness and Bliss.
These two levels, Adhyatmic and Adhidaivic, are the most important. Their conjoined purpose is to link the individual Self or Atman (Adhyatmic Satya or individual truth) and the Supreme Being or Brahman (Adhidaivic Satya or cosmic truth).
Adhibhutic – Elemental
The elemental recognizes the five elements as the main factors behind our outer world experience. Earth, Water, and Fire are part of the earth realm ruled by fire or Agni. Air is of the atmosphere belonging to air of Vayu. Ether is heaven ruled by the Sun or Surya. The fourth beyond these three is the higher space of the soul, and the fifth is Brahman or Atman, the Absolute as the supreme space beyond. Atma-Bhuta (Self-nature) or Brahma-Bhuta (Absolute Nature) refer to this highest state of the elements.
The elemental approach means to merge the elements by stages from earth to ether into Brahman, reflecting the chakra system of Tantric Yoga that leads us from the root chakra and Earth element to the crown chakra or thousand petal lotus and the Supreme Self. This elemental approach has spiritual implications and is not merely a recognition of the outer forces of nature in a materialistic sense.
We can equate these three levels with the three worlds. The Adhibhutic or elemental level is that of the earth (nature), the Adhyatmic or individual level that of the atmosphere (the human being), and the Adhidaivic or cosmic level that of heaven (God). There is much between their energies and influences.
The Yajna as the Fourth Level
Adhiyajna – the Ritual Order
A fourth level is often added to this primary three, which is Adhiyajna or relative to the Vedic sacrifice. The Vedic Yajna or way of worship is twofold as outer (bahir yajna) and inner (antar yajna).
The outer sacrifice offers certain items, like wood, cow dung or ghee, into the sacred fire along with devotional worship of Ishvara. It can be performed as a type of Bhakti and Karma Yoga. Each Vedic deity relates to a power or priest in the inner and outer sacrifice that constitutes both the cosmic and psychological order.
The inner sacrifice is a yogic practice in which we offer speech, breath, and mind through mantra yoga, Prana Yoga and meditation, into the Divine presence and supreme Self that is the ultimate goal. The Bhagavad Gita outlines such Yoga practices as pranayama, pratyahara, and meditation as Yajnas.[v]
There is a tendency among scholars to regard only the Adhyatmic level as a spiritual interpretation and the others as having only outer meanings. This does not look deeply into all the implications involved. All these methods of interpreting the Vedas can be spiritual or yogic in nature and indicate different approaches to Atman or Brahman. Adhidaivic brings in theology, a recognition of a single cosmic light or reality, which as a power of consciousness is the cosmic Lord. Adhibhutic brings in the Self as the subtlest of all the elements (Sarvabhuta-antaratman). Adhiyajna brings in Yoga as the inner sacrifice, in which we offer speech, prana, and mind into the Divine presence within.
Different Levels Relative to Agni
To understand how these different levels work, let us examine how Agni is portrayed according to them. In the individual Agni is mainly speech, but not simply the vocal organ, all powers of speech and articulation. At the cosmic level Agni is the Sun or the supreme light. In the material world, Agni is the element of fire. In the Vedic sacrifice Agni is the priest of the invocation or Hota, who calls the Gods. In the inner sacrifice, Agni is the soul that brings the Divine into us.
|Speech||Sun||Fire as an element||Hota-Invoker, the soul or Jiva|
Yet these multiple correlations are only the beginning of a broad range of associations extending to the entire universe. They have additional ramifications and cannot be reduced to a few mechanical constructs. They reflect languages and paths to the spiritual reality. Their application can constitute different forms of Atma-Vichara (Self-inquiry) and Brahma-vichara (Inquiry into God or the Absolute). They use the various factors of our life experience to arrive at the higher truth. There are additional approaches that we find in Vedic texts, but are not as specifically defined:
Adhiloka – relating to the worlds, generally reflecting the Adhidaivic level of the deity that rules a particular world, like earth and Fire, but correlating outer worlds with inner worlds like earth and the body, atmosphere and the prana, and heaven and the mind.
Adhijyotisha – Relating to light. Much like Adhidaivic as Vedic deities are primarily light forms. Tracing the forms of light to pure consciousness.
Adhikala – Relating to time. Reaching the eternal through the movement through time, with the day symbolizing the physical, the month indicating the astral, and the year indicating the causal realm.
Adhiganita – Relating to numbers. Reaching either the One or the infinite through an examination of sacred numbers. Often the numbers the Vedic meters are used in this way or the numbers of Vedic deities, like the 33 prime Devas.
Adhimantra – Using mantra as a way of understanding Self and universe, returning everything to the Divine word Oṁ.
Adhichhandas – Using the meters as a way of understanding Self and universe, with each meter signifying a certain deity or Loka.
Taking a subtler vision, one can go deeper into any of these areas. For example, at the level of Adhyatmic or the inner Self, Agni has many forms, not just Vak or speech. There is also the digestive fire, the pranic fire, the eye, the fire of intelligence or buddhi, the fire of consciousness, and the fire of being itself (Brahmagni). Relative to the worlds, Agni is not only fire and the Sun, but also lightning, the Moon, and the stars – whatever reflects light and heat, extending to the cosmic light of consciousness.
Our modern mind is usually content to find one level of meaning in ancient texts and stop there. To understand the Vedas, we must universalize the Vedic principles to link all levels of our experience together in the unity of consciousness.
The Vedas and Theological Views of Monotheism and Polytheism
The Vedic view is of a multi-leveled universe with a parallel development inner and outer, higher and lower, individual and cosmic. Such a view cannot be reduced to a simple theology of God as being One or Many, as monotheism, pantheism or polytheism as exclusive views.
The Vedas honor the Divine as One (Not One God), recognizing a common Self and being in all beings. Yet the Vedas also honor the Divine as many, seeing the many as different forms and functions of the One. The Vedas honor the Divine as both pervading all nature (pantheism) and as transcending all manifestation in time and space (as the Absolute). The Vedic view has a place for monism (unity of all), monotheism (oneness of the creator), polytheism, pantheism, and other approaches to truth. Yet it cannot be defined according to any one of these alone.
Modern scholars generally regard the Vedas as a type of polytheism with hints of the monism of the Upanishads and Vedanta, which they see only in a few late Vedic hymns like the Purusha Sukta. This apparent Vedic polytheism, we should remember, is not different the apparent polytheism of the later Hindu Puranas, with their trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, and their many Gods and Goddesses, which can individually or collectively be equated with the Supreme Divine or Brahman, and reflect Vedantic philosophies of Self-realization and God-realization.
The Hindu view is similar to the theology of ancient Egypt, where a recognition of the unity of the Divine light existed behind an apparent diversity of deities. The term was invented by modern scholarship to explain this view where a single deity can be lauded as the supreme, which they saw as a confusion of multiplicity and unity, not their integration. The term only shows our modern inability to see unity behind multiplicity.
Vedic polytheism would be better called Vedic an approach to the One Divine that accepts many different angles and perspectives. Vedic deities are described as our friends, with whom we have a relationship of kinship, equality and unity. All the deities are to be honored, none to be denigrated in the name of only one as supreme.
None of you are small, Devas, none of you are childish, all of you are great.[vi]
Manu Vivasvan, Rigveda VIII.30.1
Yet each deity is part of the same One Reality. Each deity represents an important and integral aspect of the cosmic truth and reality. That vast truth, Ritam Brihat, is more than any single deity and constitutes the essence of all both individually and collectively.
That which is the One Being, the seers describe in various ways.[vii]
Dirghatamas Auchatya, Rigveda I.164.46
The Vedas approach unity through a comprehensive vision of the sacred presence pervading all of life. The Vedas emphasize wholeness and completeness, not singularity and exclusion. Their supreme deity is not a one God opposed to other Gods, but a unity of truth that encompasses all Divine powers and principles – and is both behind all names and forms and beyond all names and forms. These Vedic deities can be equated with one another, but have specific roles as well. They represent a difference of function, not one of reality.
The Vedic Godheads represent an interdependent reality, where all is One and One is All as various manifestations of the same light and consciousness. The formed world is a symbolic or visionary manifestation of the formless world. That is why the main Vedic deities are powers of light and only vaguely anthropomorphic in their attributes. The human side of their imagery is outweighed by their other natural correspondences. They are universal forces, not simply a projection of the human psyche onto the realm of nature.
[i] Rigveda I.164.45. catvāri vāk parimitā padāni tāni vidur brāhmaṇā ye manīṣiṇaḥ, guhā trīṇi neṅgayanti turīyam vāco manuṣyā vadanti.
[ii] Rigveda III.1.6. sanā atra yuvatayaḥ sayonīr ekam garbham dadhire sapta vāṇīḥ.
[iii] Bhagavad Gita VIII.1-4
[iv] Kena Upanishad I.2
[v] Bhagavad Gita, Chapter IV.25-29
[vi] Rigveda VIII.29.1. nahi vo astyarbhako devāso na kumārakaḥ viśve satomahānta it.
[vii] Rigveda I.164.46. ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti.
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