Vedānta: Interpreting the Sacred Texts (Śāstra)


Rami Sivan, Priest, Dharma teacher, counsellor, Gov. Advisor (1998-present)
April 21st, 2020

PURPORT — Tātparya

When reading a sacred text from Vedas. Puranas, Itihasas, Tantras etc. one needs to bear in mind what the PURPORT is.

The fundamental or basic meaning (mukhya artha) of a sentence, passage, chapter or an entire book is what may be called its purport (tātparya).

Definition of Tātparya:–

Purport is the meaning of words leading to valid knowledge (pramā).

The purport of a sentence may be an activity or a fact.

The literal or direct meaning of a particular sentence may be an activity or a fact.

The literal or direct meaning of a sentence may sometimes not reveal a purport; in which case its implied meaning or figurative meaning would be its purport.

For a scriptural statement or purport to carry any validity it must fulfill the following 5 conditions:–

  1. It should tell us something novel (apūrva) that we cannot obtain from any other source of information such as perception and reason.
  2. It must be logical.
  3. It mustn’t contradict perception and reason.
  4. The content of the text must be internally consistent.
  5. The knowledge presented in the text must have a practical application leading to empirical outcomes.

Śāstra (sacred text) is a vast conglomeration of sentences, and unless selective judgment and critical thinking is applied in trying to understand, one won’t be able to figure out a proper perspective regarding its teaching on Dharma or philosophical truths.

When reading śāstra the following sentences should be ignored:—

• Irrelevant statements — those statements which have nothing to do with the real and meaningful aims of human life, (puruṣārthas).

• Useless statements — those sections which give fantastic and marvelous descriptions and information which cannot be successfully validated or utilized.

• Incongruous meanings — those which are not in harmony with the general purport or theme of the passage or text under consideration.

All this can be figured out only if the recurrent dominant theme, in other words purport, is discovered; for once this is done, all statements can be harmonised with the general purport and a consistent teaching formulated which can be applied.

Purport, therefore, provides the framework for understanding scriptural passages.

Determining the Purport:—

There are six criteria (ṣad-liṅga) which must be born in mind when looking for the purport of a particular text:—

1. Upakrama-upasaṃhāra — Harmony of the initial and concluding passages

2. Abhyāsa – Recurrence of the same theme

3. Apūrvata – Novelty of the teaching – any new conclusion discovered

4. Upapatti – The general context, consistency and relevance throughout –

5. Arthavāda – The metaphors eulogizing or condemning a specific vidhi.

6. Phala – Alleged results or expected outcomes of the teaching.

Subjectivity verses Objectivity

While these six criteria may help us to reach an objective textual interpretation, selective judgment based on one’s own personal agenda and sense of importance is unavoidable, therefore all interpretation is by nature more or less subjective.

Even in the scientific model of objective observation of facts, every conclusion has its objectors based on each individual scientist’s sense of importance.

The great masters of Mīmāṃsa and Vedānta (Kumarila and Prabhakara, Sankara and Ramanuja) knew and applied these criteria and principles rigorously, and yet still they arrived at slightly different interpretations.

We need to approach the subject matter with great humility and sincerity. But it also does not mean that we accept the conclusions of the masters’ blindly! We need to arrive at our own conclusions using theirs as markers.


With these guidelines we can then proceed to examine the different levels of meaning we find in the Sacred Texts.

a. Śabdārtha — the literal sense

For example all the gods and goddesses mentioned in the Vedas and Puranas can be accepted as they are — as polytheistic deities living in heaven and accepting the sacrifices offered to them and intervening in human affairs.

b. Bhāvartha — the allegorical sense

Based upon the statement within the Veda itself that there is only One Truth and the gods are manifestations of that Truth, we can then form a figurative or metaphoric understanding of the gods and goddesses as emanations or aspects of that One Truth – different facets of the ONE.

c. Lakṣyārtha — the esoteric meaning.

We could also interpret the deities as being subtle energies of the universe and aspects of our own consciousness, subtle forces that operate within the depths of the unconscious mind.

Indra is not just a god but is a symbol of the enlightened mind which uses the vajra (thunderbolt) representing discrimination to slay the demon Vrtra symbolising ignorance, which has stolen and hidden the cows representing the streams of wisdom.

These three levels of meaning can be found in many of the stories we read in the Rāmāyana, Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas – but not all of them.