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furthering J.L. Mehta’s essay on ‘Reading the Rig veda’


Peter Wilberg


“In the interpretation of the Vedic text, it is not only religious and cultural-anthropological prejudices that have been at play during two centuries of Western Vedic scholarship; philosophical pre-suppositions too have wrought havoc here, especially through the unquestioning importation of Western conceptuality into another tradition.”


From ‘Reading the RigVeda’ by J.L. Mehta


In his essay on ‘Reading the Rig Veda’, J.L. Mehta critically questions the idea introduced by Western scholars that the Vedic ‘gods’ are mere mythical personifications of ideas – of abstract concepts such as ‘Contract’ (Mitra), ‘True Speech’(Varuna), ‘Hospitality’ (Aryamana) or ‘Victory’ (Indra). The same idea could be applied to the later and partly derivative ‘Hindu’ and Greek gods. If Sophia not only means ‘wisdom’ but names a ‘Goddess of Wisdom’, is ‘Wisdom’ the defining quality and property of this goddess - or is the goddess herself but a mythical personification of it? And if Shiva is ultimately but a name for a Universal Consciousness, and Shakti a name which  - as a noun - means ‘potency’ or ‘power of action’, then why mythologise or give mythic names to these abstract nouns in the first place, let alone  personify them as gods or goddesses in human form? On the other hand, we can question whether abstract nouns such as Wisdom, Compassion, Consciousness etc. refer merely to concepts in our heads or minds, and understand them instead as pointing to profound dimensions of ultimate reality as such – of what in the Vedas went by the name of ‘Truth’? For as Mehta reminds us, Truth (Rita) was the one ‘concept’ that was never named or personified as a god in the Vedas.


In this commentary I wish to emphasise how Mehta’s questioning hinges on the hidden word ‘mere’. Furthering his essay, I argue that to imply that the gods are ‘mere’ mythic personifications of abstract ideas and verbal concepts is to fail to recognise the most profound of all religious experiences and the understanding they gave rise to. This is the understanding that it is the Divine as such – and not we – that manifests, personifies and individualises itself in different forms, both natural and human –  that materialises itself as nature, and that also metaphorises and mythologises, poetises and dramatises itself in religious words and dramas. From this viewpoint, it is not merely ‘we’ who  humanise and personify Nature or God in the form of mythical ‘gods’. Instead we ourselves are living humanizations and personifications of that ultimate, trans-personal and trans-human reality that is ‘God’, the latter being the divine source not only of nature and humankind but of the gods themselves in their essence – as living dimensions of Divinity.    


Here it is relevant to recall that the Sanskrit word for ‘gods’ – devas - means ‘shining ones’. This implies that they too - like the sun and like the stars that shine forth at night - are expressions of light as such - of that light that is the essence or ultimate truth of light. Ontologically, the ultimate truth of light is itself a dimension of the light of ultimate truth as such. Phenomenologically, we cannot even know light as a phenomenon, let alone understand or experience its ultimate truth or essence, except in the light of an awareness of it - that  awareness without which no-thing can be experienced, known or named in the first place. Yet it is falsely believed that if we speak of ‘the light of truth’ or the ‘light of awareness’ the word ‘light’ is being used in some artificially poetic way, as a ‘mere’ sensory metaphor for something else, whether an idea or sensory phemenonon. This belief or idea contradicts language itself, for the very root of the term ‘phenomenon’ is to ‘shine forth’ (phainesthai), just as the root of the term ‘idea’ is the verb ‘to see’ (idein). Could it not be then, that light itself, as an experienced phenomenon, is a phenomenal metaphor of its own deeper reality or truth, shining forth that ‘light of awareness’ in which all things alone come to shine forth, to be and be visible as ‘phenomenon’? The argument here is that supposedly metaphorical or poetic phrases such as the ‘light of truth’ or ‘light of awareness’ are not mere poetic metaphors of the sort that happen to characterize religious discourse, but rather truer, indeed far more literal ways of expressing the nature of ultimate reality itself - pointing us in the direction of an experience of phenomena such as ‘light’ and activities such as ‘seeing’ that is deeper, truer and more real than our ordinary experience of ‘light’ or of any sensory phenomenon.  As Mehta sums it up so well:

“The Vedic seers’ attention is turned towards the light itself, with its multitude of facets, rather than to the things illumined by it, as also to that in man which responds to light, the power of seeing and the awareness of the shining forth, the phainesthai itself.”


Here is implied in the Vedas an anticipation of the later Indian understanding of all phenomena as a ‘shining forth’ of the light of pure awareness itself. It was such philosophical understandings that emerged via those commentaries on the Vedas called the brahmanas - of which Mehta’s essay is itself a modern yet exemplary example.  In it he explicitly questions the whole Western-Platonic tradition that privileges logos over mythos - from which comes the whole idea of ‘demythologising’ symbolic languages or reducing the gods to personified ideas. He we find another small but significant ‘mere’ in the Western understanding of mythos. This is the naïve and unaware use of expressions such ‘mytho-poetic’ or mytho-poiesis  in Western academic discourse – as if these were mere useful designatory ‘terms’ for describing particular types of religious discourse.  In this way the meaning of equivalent expressions such as brahman, vak  or logos within religious discourse itself (not least that of the Vedas) is totally passed over. For within religious discourse itself, what academics understand as logos, poiesis or  mytho-poiesis is not seen as a mere attribute of language or  human discourse but rather as the defining activity of the divine itself – as its creative speech (Gr. logos Skt. vak). This ‘speech’ is no mere form of human language use or ‘discourse’, but is that activity or process by which whole worlds continuously and creatively form and ‘emerge’ from the divine awareness in the same way that words take shape and emerge in human awareness – both worlds and words, things and thoughts, gods and human beings being physical manifestations, symbols or ‘marks’ (linga) of the divine.


The term ‘physics’ is rooted in the Greek physis – meaning something like ‘emergence’ or ‘manifestation’. Similarly, the Sanskrit root of the word brahman means ‘to swell’ - like a swelling womb within which something can form and from which it can emerge. In Mehta’s hermeneutics, the word brahman refers, in the Vedas, to the activity of wording the worldBrahman is both the divine creative process as such (ultimately a process of giving birth to whole worlds in a manner akin to speech or utterance) and to its product in divinely inspired words – not least those of the Vedas themselves. Such words could only emerge from the awareness of the Vedic seers within the localized earthly plane of our human world by virtue of their divine origin in higher worlds or loka. Thus, whilst the word brahman is similar in many senses to the Greek poiesis, it is used in a deeper, more aware way in the Vedas than the word poiesis is in Western thought - both ancient and modern. Mehta shows us in his essay how in the Vedas the word brahman refers both to the activity of verbal formulation or wording and to its poetic result, the fully formulated word. In the single word brahman then, lies a recognition of the unity of a threefold: the human speaker, the word as product of speech, and the process of speaking or wording  - all with their origin in a fourth -  that divine source which came to be named as The Brahman. Belonging to The Brahman, the quintessential role of human beings is to be poetic vehicles and priestly guardians of its speech –  Brahmanas or ‘Brahmins’.


Taking Mehta’s questions and references further, the whole false dualism of Mythos and Logos falls down. For if we heed the words of Heraclitus  (‘Listen not to me but to the Logos’), those of Heidegger (‘Language speaks’), and their extension by Lacan  - who in effect goes so far as to suggest that language speaks us - then why should it be an illogical or mythical fancy to hear this speech speaking to us in the 1st person, that is to say addressing us per-sonally (‘through sound’) and in the mask or persona of a god or goddess, such as Vak, the goddess of speech? And if, as we all know, words are not made by us (poein) but come to us, why should we not receive her discourse in (and as) the Vedas as anything but the expression of speech speaking, and thus also the highest expression of what Heidegger saw as the task of ‘meditative thinking’ – that of bringing language itself to speech?  What better alternative here however, than to leave the last words of this essay to Vak, the Vedic ‘goddess of speech’ herself – albeit with the understanding that this little word ‘of’ is the source of great confusion. For Vak is the goddess ‘of’ speech only in so far as she is the per-sonification of it - the speech of speech itself - its logos addressing us in the 1st person. Yet what then is ‘her’ message -the message of speech speaking? What does Vak herself – speech itself  – have to say to us? To answer this question we need only draw on the same quotation from the Vedas cited by Mehta in his essay:

“Listen, my learned friend, what I tell you deserves putting your faith in. I myself say this, which gods and men alike must find welcome. Whom I love, I make awesome; I make him a Brahmana,  one endowed with poetic creativity; I make him a Rishi, a sage; I stretch the bow for Rudra so that his arrows will strike down the hater of brahman. I incite conflict among peoples. I have pervaded heaven and earth. I gave birth to the father at the top of the world … Beyond heaven, beyond the earth, such am I in my greatness.”



References: J.L. Mehta  Reading the Rig Veda / The Rig Veda: Text and Interpretation

In Phenomenology and Indian Philosophy and Philosophy of Religion

Indian Council of Philosophical Research (1990/1992)


©Peter Wilberg 2008