Vedic Experience




imageThe whole universe proceeds on its way and we have tried to describe the theanthropocosmic cycle according to the Vedas. The whole of our personal existence also follows its own path and describes a similar cycle, following and reenacting the divine and cosmic ones. There is a correspondence between the celestial and terrestrial spheres. Between these two--the sphere of the Gods (divine reality) and the sphere of earthly (cosmic) existence--there is yet a third and intermediate sphere: the antariksha, 1 the region between dyu (heaven) and prthivi (earth). 2 The third sphere is the realm of Man, the mediator between the two. In other words, the atman is the connecting link between this loka and the brahma-loka. 3

Within the intermediate sphere there is an “inner shrine; it is this that we should seek;” 4 it is from here that we contemplate both our own existence and the destiny of the entire reality. It is the sphere of prayer, meditation, contemplation, or simply of personal consciousness. We cannot encompass in one single act our own life, much less the whole of reality. Both have to go their way. But they are unfolding before our very eyes; we can be aware of this process, we can become aware of the state of affairs in which the universe and our own selves are involved. Nor is this all. We can be conscious of the overall movement of reality in a way that is not a merely passive reflection but an active inflection in the process itself.

The third sphere is not just an intermediate one; it is rather a mediator between the two. Consciousness does more than simply reflect that which is. It modifies, to say the least, the thing that it “reflects.” Man’s conscious existence is not a mere copy or a simple mirroring of that which is, but a constitutive factor of reality itself. This is the life of the spirit or the life of prayer. It is not a state of mere passivity, nor is it a disconnected activity. It is the marriage, the union, the maithuna, between the two. We use the traditional name of prayer, because, from time immemorial, when Man was led to pray, there was in the depths of his being, besides immediate motives such as fear, doubt, joy, and gratitude, a still more powerful drive to hold his own life together and to hold it so together with the existence of the entire universe. Prayer can take many forms and we may pray for many immediate reasons, yet the common underlying assumption or implicit belief though it may be worded variously according to different world views--is that in the act of prayer Man is sharing in the central dynamism of reality and penetrating into the heart of the world. Prayer is truly Brahman. We have already taken note of the first meaning of Brahman as holy word, sacred utterance, sacrificial formula. 5 This meaning persists as an invisible thread running through the many meanings of the word and providing a connection, the bandhu of which we have also heard, 6 between the opposite extremes of reality. Another connection has also since olden times been symbolized in Indian spirituality by the significant word, samdhya. Literally it means a holding together, union, junction, or juncture, and it comes from a prefix sam, denoting cumulation, synthesis, reunion, 7 and a root dha, to put, to place; hence sam and dha together denote to unite, combine, reconcile, mend, put together, and similar notions.

We have already seen that samdhya sometimes refers to the intermediate state between this world and the other, the “state of sleep,” 8 but it has come to mean almost exclusively the meeting together, the union, the conjunction, of the three divisions of the day: morning, noon, evening. It symbolizes the union and reconciliation of the three times, past, present, future, expressed in the three juncture moments of every day and thus of every life as well as of every time span, for the day is merely an abbreviation of the whole life span and the unifying element of real human temporal life. In a more restricted sense, perhaps because the strains and stresses of active life were already known to ancient times and permitted little noontime leisure, it came to mean the meeting of the two lights at evening and morning, the conjuncture of the two moments not only of time but of all pairs of opposites and conflicting tendencies which constitute human and cosmic realities, of all dvandvas: old and young, man and woman, sun and moon, day and night, good and evil, God and creature, light and darkness. Samdhya refers to the two privileged moments of sunrise, when everything can still become everything, and of sunset, when all has been said and done and there is nothing else to do; or of dawn, when Man can still hope because the whole day lies in front of him, and of dusk, when he can, simply, love because the day is already over and nothing else remains to be done. Samdhya represents that third sphere which encompasses our whole life and destiny as well as the life of the universe. This is the meaning of prayer: it is that human or rather total cosmotheandric act by which Man transcends both time and space and discovers that within his own human heart at least a part of the destiny of the whole universe is being played out and reenacted. No wonder that calmness, attention, and silence are needed. Samdhya is the meeting of the lights, of the morning light, that form of consciousness which like the brilliance of the dawn is shed on things from a heavenly and invisible source, with the evening light, that form of consciousness which springs from the brightness of earthly things when they have been bathed all day long in the beams of the king of the sky.

Samdhya is a theanthropocosmic twilight; it suffuses the three worlds. It expresses the peculiar dual polarity residing in the very heart of the great atman. An astounding distich finishes one of the major Upanishads:

In order to enjoy what is true and what is false

the great atman has a dual nature;

yes, the mahatman has a twofold essence! 9

Truth and falsity are here satya and anrta, being and disorder, existence and chaos. All is for the sake of experiencing, enjoying, tasting, the polarity of things. This polarlty is real, but it is a constitutive tension of reality itself which does not destroy the ultimate nonduality of all that is. It is this dual nature that finds its cosmic expression in samdhya, in the twilight of the cosmos, and is reflected and overcome in the meditation of Gods and Men during the crossing of the lights.

In other words, samdhya stands for the meeting of the objective and subjective forms of knowledge, the encounter between human and divine ways of dealing with reality. Anything known by revelation, by hearsay, by external illumination, and by the light of reasoning is as one-sided as merely subjective, private, and experiential knowledge. Only when both meet, when the external and internal revelations coalesce, when the language of things and our own language speak the same idiom, are we beginning to reach the shores of truth where speaking and listening converge. We speak the word we hear, only because we have learned to listen to the not yet spoken word.

Samdhya is both the time of prayer and the prayer of time. It is the early morning time of prayer, the first act of all which will expand into all other human activities; it is also the early evening prayer time when the experience of our limitation is fresh and yet the desire for perfection and for the infinite has not yet subsided. In these two moments Man represents the whole universe; the Gods are with him and the material world is gathered around him. It is the time of prayer, the time of meditation, of concentrating in himself the whole stuff of the world and of condensing in himself all the desires and dynamisms of the entire universe. It is the time of stretching up to the very ends of the world, not by a mere effort of imagination but by the power of the Spirit permeating everywhere, even to the four corners of reality. Were it not for these moments Man would not be Man, but only a moving machine, doing many things but not becoming anything, not condensing in himself the whole of reality, not discovering his unique place and thus the uniqueness of his own mysterious being.

Samdhya is, equally, the prayer of time. When he is at prayer, Man is not performing a private individual act. He is performing a priestly action in the name of the whole of reality; he is the mediator between all possible extremes, the conductor line between all existing and conceivable tensions. Into and through Man at prayer pass the sun, the moon, and the stars; in his heart the Gods have their meeting place and the Spirit is present, inspiring, instilling into the world all the force and energy it needs In order to go on existing. Samdhya is the prayer of time, for the world could not subsist if it were only a series of temporal successions. How would it pass from one instant to the next if there was no link between the two? This link is the Spirit, the spirit of prayer that unfolds in the mind and heart of the enlightened person, of the one who is rejuvenated by the waters and reborn by the rites of a second birth. To be a Man, then, is not only to be a part of the world but to be the universe itself, as we have already heard: “the world is His; the world itself is He!” 10

The same message may be transposed into the following terms: To build a bridge or to dig a well is a real act, a fully human act, only if we are building a bridge on which human beings are moving about on their business, are encountering others, exchanging goods and ideas, and thus enhancing life. We dig a well only if it quenches thirst, gives life to plants, allows a more human life, facilitates human conversation and social justice. To build a bridge that nobody would use and that would profit nobody would not be a human act; it would lack its “core,” the spiritual dimension, its soul, the accompanying prayer, which is not necessarily a mantra; it can equally well be a desire to contribute to the welfare of our neighbors and the happiness of our fellow beings, or an ideal to enhance the quality of human life around us. When the spirit of prayer does not permeate an action, that act degenerates to the subontic level.

The pages that follow serve as an introduction to that life of prayer which has nurtured for millennia a considerable part of mankind in its quest for happiness and in its search for the ultimate meaning of life.

Two practices should be recommended at this point. The one is utter silence and quiet, emptiness and void, an active removal of all obstacles in order to let the Spirit act unhampered; this is the way of absolute freedom which implies even freedom from being. Here no word is allowed. It would deform the experience and, if formulated, would be objectionable. Here “all words recoil” 11 or, as one Upanishad, now lost (and how could it be otherwise?), said, “atman is silence.” 12 The other practice is the traditional prayer of morning and evening, built of praise and springing from mingled fear and hope, contemplation and thrust toward action. This prayer is human and concrete. It integrates into itself all aspects of human life on earth. God is a partner of Man, not an aloof, mighty power. God is an accomplice, one could almost say; he is asked to collaborate with Man in all human undertakings, good and even, less good. It is here that the so called incantations and charms have their place and also all efforts at assuring the support of the Gods in battles public or private. In order to offer an organic scheme of prayer we have chosen a simple and easily discernible pattern. The first division is according to the seasons. The seasons constitute one of the marriages between space (or earth) and time (or “heaven”); they have a meaning and a message: 13

Where do the half months and the months together

proceed in consultation with the year?

Where do the seasons go, in groups or singly? 14

They are related to Men:

Your circling seasons, years, nights succeeding days,

your summer, O Earth, your splashing rains, your autumn,

your winter and frosty season yielding to spring--

may each and all produce for us their milk! 15

They are also related to the sun:

But the sun also reflects all the seasons. When he arises, then it is spring. When the cows are driven homeward, then it is summer. When it is noon, then it is the rainy season. When the day declines, then it is autumn and when the sun sets, then winter has come. 16

Every season is a new beginning; it brings with it a radical change and thus also a new hope. Yet it also recalls to us, or rather reenacts for us, the mystery of death and new life:

The year, assuredly, is equal to Death; it is he [Prajapati or time] who by means of daytime and night destroys the life of mortal creatures so that they die. So the year is, assuredly, equal to Death; and so he who recognizes the year as Death will not destroy his life, by daytime or at night, before he reaches his full life span at old age. 17

Moreover, the cosmic and theological meanings of the seasons are emphasized time and again:

At the end of a year the Father of creatures essayed an utterance: bhuh. This word became the earth, bhuvah became the air, and svah became yonder sky. . . . the five seasons; hence they arose. 18

Another text says forcefully, “I am season; I am son of the seasons,” 19 which means that I am, insofar as I am in harmony with cosmic order, rita, that is, I am rtu, season. I am, insofar as I embody that part of the cosmos entrusted to me which makes my own “me.” If on this ultimate level excommunication were possible, it would mean total annihilation. We are, insofar as we share in the total process of the world and insofar as, being conscious of this fact, we participate willingly in its dynamism and unfolding.

Man is time, this text is saying, but not an empty time or a mere flow of the elements of his being. Man is temporal, “seasonal” (artava), inasmuch as he is a part of the cosmic order (rita) that is manifested in the annual cycle of the seasons (rtu). Man is “seasonal” inasmuch as he is not only waxing and waning like the moon, or being cold and warm, dry and humid, like the seasons, or passing through day and night like the earth, but has his own special rhythms, his peculiar seasonal forms, which belong to the overall dynamism of the universe. Mere reason fails to discover this cosmic connection, but it is here that prayer, rightly understood, performs its proper function.

Agni, the mediator, the God who transforms human gifts into offerings fit for the Gods, the priestly God, is addressed as “Lord of seasons, knower of seasons,” 20 and he is asked “to sanctify the seasons.” 21

One entire hymn of the Rig Veda is dedicated to rtu, the season, here considered as a deity. 22 Its message is clear, despite difficulties of exegesis: time and worship belong together, the seasons and the activity of the Gods are also connected, time is not an abstract value or an empty concept. Liturgy is nothing other than Man’s participation in the temporal unfolding of the universe. Just as we can have “portions” of the world according to spatial divisions, so we can have “portions” of the universe according to temporal intervals. But this “temporal” portion is real only insofar as we do not exclude from it the Gods, Men, animals--all that is and is alive “there.” The recognition of all this is the prayer of time.

The other great division is that of the three moments of the day: morning, noon, evening. We have already mentioned them and given some idea of their meaning.

In the arrangement of the texts for each season and also for morning and evening we have tried to follow a certain pattern. Three or four main texts from the Vedas, stressing the fundamental mood of both Man and cosmos according to the particular hour and season, are followed by an Upanisadic text for meditation and contemplation, all being preceded by an antiphon or mantra that gives the tone, as it were, of the whole hour. The twilights of morning and evening, as the prayerful hours of day, embrace the whole of the day and the whole of the night: they bring us a moment of awareness when we reenact the full range of human activity that takes place during both halves of the daily circle; or, as the texts themselves beautifully express it, “from ancient time round heaven and earth they travel, Night with her dark limbs, Dawn so fair and radiant.” 23 Or again, “Praise we both Night and Dawn who visit us smiling, but differing in the color of their appearance.” 24 The Brahmanas emphasize also the connection with Man, going so far as to say, “The Day is my father and the Night my mother.” 25

The seasons in their totality, together with morning and evening, build time, the year, the whole universe, Prajapati, the Lord of all creatures. We may tend, of course, to transcend time, but we can do so only in and through time itself. All this has little to do with either “nature-mysticism” or “pantheistic” trends, which spring out of another quite different fundamental intuition. The word “nature” cannot be used with reference to this attitude because in this context there is no background of the “supernatural” nor is there any separation from the “personal.” To superimpose the pair “nature-supernature” or “nature-person” may be interesting from a polemical point of view, but it will not help toward an understanding from within. The same applies to the term “pantheism.” Pantheism is an alien conception that cannot be applied without distorting and doing violence to the world view of the Vedic experience.

We are dealing here with one of the fundamental options of mankind: advaita. The use of words is, of course, all the more dangerous because it is unavoidable and in fact we can understand only by incurring the risk of misunderstanding. By referring here to the Advaitic insight in differentiation from any other monistic, dualistic, or pluralistic world view, we do not imply the developed philosophical doctrine of later Indian periods, but rather the incipient awareness, on the one hand, of the inadequacy of any monistic or dualistic vision of reality and the realization, on the other, that it is only by transcending--not denying--the reasoning reason that Man can encompass reality. This approach to reality proceeds neither exclusively from the outside (which would lead to dualism) nor exclusively from the inside (which would lead to monism) but from an atypical awareness that embraces at the same time both the inside and the outside, that is, both the identity and the difference as mirrored in Man’s consciousness. 26

However we may prefer to state this in philosophical terms, we have here the experience of a life of prayer which expresses something that transcends dialectical assumptions and starts from a dialogical attitude. We are not belittling dialectics; we may be allowed, however, to point out that in addition to and not in opposition to dialectics (otherwise we would already be in the dialectical field) there is the dialogical attitude, which we find foreshadowed in the Vedic experience. In this experience the deity is not “over there,” representing a dialectical opposition or a dialectical absolute. The rules of divine-human intercourse are not dialectical; there are no rules of “yes” and “no,” whereby each follows his own nature and simply discovers some possible “synthesis” in their antinomic relationships. On the contrary, the Man-God relation is dialogical in character; neither party is bound by a dialectical law or required to be “consistent” in itself; both sides can regret, retract, and even contradict themselves. God is not the “other” or the “self,” but the I, an I that postulates a thou and could not exist without it, so that the mutual existence of thou and I is intrinsically related, though the independence of neither is in jeopardy. In other words, Vedic prayer is a constant dialogical--not a dialectical--dialogue with the superior powers. This dialogue is considered to be part of life itself, so that it is not an irrelevant peccadillo to omit to ask a favor from the Gods or to abstain from making a particular sacrifice on the “excuse” that the Gods already “know” what we deserve and, being good, will grant it to us. The Vedic Gods are not philosophical constructions; nor is Vedic prayer philosophical speculation.

Prayer is a real dialogue in which I may succeed in convincing the other, in which the other is really open to me and open to being convinced and won over to my side because he is not fixed or committed to his own nature, that is, to another law outside the dialogical dialogue in which we are engaged. In the same way I may be defeated in prayer and the world is going to be different according to how I fare in this highest human act in which, in and through me, the whole universe is engaged.

This explains also the immediacy and boldness of many Vedic prayers. It would be incorrect to say that they stress only the material and temporal aspects of reality, for the distinction between “material” and “spiritual” is not so well defined as to postulate two independent and separate domains. We have already seen, for instance, the complex meaning of the word rayi, so difficult to translate because it refers to material welfare and temporal values as well as to spiritual gifts and intemporal realities. 27 The “treasures,” “gifts,” “riches,” and “graces” with which we have translated rayi are always both material and spiritual, although we tend to divide the single rich and “harmonic” notion of the word into two different elements, whereas in truth rayi is always a holistic value. It is thus not simply the desire for cattle for the sake of cattle or good grain for the sake of grain which constitutes the kernel of Vedic prayer but rather the desire for that life without which both cattle and good grain are no longer meaningful.

Another word may also be relevant here. Much has been written about Vedic polytheism, henotheism (kathenotheism), monotheism, deism, and even atheism. We will refrain from comment upon this list, but we should perhaps say a word regarding the traditional concept of ishta-devata, the deity one chooses for one’s own worship and devotional practices. Although this phrase is of later origin, it expresses the original Vedic intuition and formulates in a practical way the existential attitude of the worshiper. We should not make the mistake of interpreting this notion as a whimsical and private choice, as if it were just a matter of subjective and individual taste. 28 Anthropology would say that the choice is already conditioned by karman, family, caste, and the particular inspiration of the deity itself, but we must also keep in mind that the notion of ishta-devata is not a kind of sociologica 1 compromise designed to further the cause of peace and tolerance or a psychological device to keep everybody happy with his or her own mascot. The notion springs rather from the insight that the act of worship, in spite of being nonfinite as the divine act that it is, is at the same time a concrete human act performed by a finite being in a finite time and in a particular state of mind. The worshiper cannot embrace the whole of the Godhead nor can he insert the whole of his own life into one single act of worship. The first statement is obvious; the second is equally evident, for if we could really make an act of perfect worship, we would not need to perform it over and over again. 29 Any repetition would then prove that we have not in truth “perfected” the “perfect adoration” of the previous act of worship; indeed we would need to worship for the second time with a certain sense of guilt, for the very act of repeating and renewing denies the validity of our first declarations.

The notion of ishta-devata takes care of all this, redeems us from any sense of guilt, gives us the right human perspective, and clothes the infinite Godhead in a finite congruent manifestation. It recognizes that a perfect act of worship can be made only if it takes into account our own constitutive limitations, in space and time, of imagination, mood, and intellect. Furthermore, it is in accordance with the truth that a perfect and total disclosure of the infinite is impossible except in the womb of the infinite itself.

The underlying assumption of the ishta-devata is, therefore, that in order to worship the Godhead I have to be concentrated both in my desire and in the representation I make of the Godhead. The Godhead has to take some form for me, even if I think of it as a formless “form.” It has to have a name, even if it be “nameless.” It has to take place somewhere, even if it is in the cave of the heart. It has to take place within a particular time, even if it touches the eternal. The ishta-devata concretizes without pinning us down.

We have avoided overemphasizing the names of the different Vedic symbols for the divine, just as we have refrained from subscribing to any particular theory regarding the nature of the Vedic Gods. Yet, human prayer is not a mere type of spiritual gymnastics, rational or irrational, nor is it an abstract enterprise. It is all concrete and thus given color, form, name, place, and time. Furthermore, in each sincere and profound act of worship the whole of the human being is involved, to the greatest extent possible in the particular circumstance. In another moment or for another person the act may be different. The ishta-devata allows for this difference. Agni, Indra, Varuna, Soma, Ushas, Vayu, the Ashvins, and other Vedic deities may no longer be our ishta-devatas, yet they may still be windows opening up regions of our own all too closed souls to the refreshing winds that blow from the mountains and the plains of other realms. We are not concerned here with the many regulations regarding the recitation of the Vedas 30 or the no less colorful prohibitions cited as obstacles to their recitation. 31 We may, instead, try to discover their spirit beneath and beyond the particularities of one culture and the accretions of later periods. We may discover them to be forms of prayer still relevant to our situation. The sense of awe is not predominant, nor is the sense of submission to superhuman powers. It has been said that a spirit of almost legalistic relationships of do ut des is a characteristic of Vedic spirituality. Such an attitude does sometimes seem to prevail, but we affirm that it is not the most genuine or the deepest attitude of the Vedic prayers. They at times sound legalistic precisely because intercourse with the divine is not governed by a dualistically conditioned type of spirituality. The Vedic dialogue with the divine is not one of a totally deprived and powerless creature bowing before an almighty and unconditioned Creator, but rather that of a partner playing his part in the supreme mystery of reality, where indeed there is a hierarchical order but nevertheless a unitarian, or rather a nondualistic, structure. Let us consider, for instance, the following psalm, cornmentary upon which would require many pages. Here we find neither anthropomorphism nor a total abyss between the human and the divine. Here we have neither a succumbing to atheism nor an attitude of indifference vis-a-vis an ineffective God, but rather a consciousness of the different roles to be played and the exciting possibility of an interchange:

O Agni,

Son of strength,

bright Friend

whom we adore,

if you were the mortal

and I the immortal,

I would not deliver you

to evil tongues,

O good One, or to calumnies,

O trustful One.

My devotee would not be

in distress, O Agni,

or in sin or be hated! 32

Yet on another occasion the poet can explode: “I the mortal cry unto you the immortal!” 33

We all belong together; things, animals, Men, and Gods form together the family of reality, not indeed a democratic assembly, but nevertheless a real community. We are all called upon to drink the Soma. Man is not alone, because he is not “man” alone. Indeed, to be “man” is only a mental abstraction, since “man,” truly viewed, is just a “cut” in the complex web of reality. Each being has its own identity, but this is possible precisely because the identity is seen and experienced against the background of a hierarchical differentiation. This is the revelation of the purusha.

When Man rises at morning and proceeds to pray, or when he utters some prayers before retiring at night, he does so not out of a sense of duty or because he is impelled by an urgent love, but for the same “reason” that the waters flow, the sun shines, and the Gods keep the world together--certainly, out of no mechanical compulsion, but out of the deepest performance of his humanness. The shruti puts it in one short sentence, “Truth alone is worship,” 34 and to be true to ourselves means also to be truthful to the shaping of the universe just by being, that is, by becoming, what we really are called upon to be.

I hope that the prayers that follow may combine the concreteness of the single tradition with a universality that may enable them to be recited and prayed by people from outside the Vedic phylum. When we have retained proper names for the Vedic Gods, the reader may readily understand them as symbols of the superhuman rather than as particular personages linked exclusively with a single orthodoxy. Perhaps the advantage for today of the Vedic prayers is that, just because most of them have already died, they are ready to rise again in a more universal way. Modern Man may sometimes find difficulty in reading these texts as prayers. We should not consider here the rightness or wrongness of such an attitude, but limit ourselves to observing that these hymns can also be read in a less pietistic frame of mind, as manifestations of the Spirit, as our own internal dialogue, or as the crystallization of a human experience of which we are the heirs. In Part VII we do not intend to distract the reader with Indological notes or to burden him unnecessarily with difficult versions. This is the justification for the absence of the former and for a less literal rendering of the latter.