Note that first, you should be eligible for reading Rigveda. Do I sound sarcastic? No. Rigveda itself tells that its verses reveal only to the poet. Do you like to read poetry, riddles and enjoying them? If yes, you can continue, else Rigveda is not for you, you can try out the Upanishads that talk of simpler things in simpler words. No, am not joking – to get what I mean, just check out Rigveda 1.164, and see if you understand anything. People till this date haven’t completed its interpretation! So, you are going to “read” such a book, come on.
Reading Rigveda.. I hope you are really meaning it. That is a very long process. I remember starting reading this book but haven’t yet closed it. It is not that I haven’t covered the book’s words, but I haven’t covered yet the book’s meanings completely. And none can do that easily.
There will be a time when you realize why Rigveda is composed as poems – only poetry can enclose the complete nature of truth in it. And to understand it, one should be much spiritual, much thinking (you should think free without any limitations of religion, culture), should have a good poetic perception and must be an appreciator of philosophy that is beyond the limits of Indian Vedanta or Greek philosophy. And don’t try to seek your Vedantic theory or Puranic conjectures or your fancy history theories in Rigveda. It is absolutely senseless.
To start with, go for purely literal translations of Rigveda. I would ask you to take Griffith. And don’t start from 1.1. Because you are not trained to that level so as to appreciate those. So, start from the more literal and simpler poems in Mandala 10, like :
- Any translation of “Nasadiya suktam”. Note that most are literal and will not and cannot cover all the realms intended by the poet in Rigveda. You will find it to be like “agnostic” if you singularly follow the last lines of ordinary translations. However, note that in actual verses, there is a poetic device used there – the incomplete clause of yadi vaa. There, the poet actually tries to tell that however you think – God knows/does not know or whether the world was created for us / not, there exists the God as the surveyor in the highest realms. Note that the poem speaks both about spiritual and physical creation.
- The Hiranyagarbha hymn. Note that the “who” is actually the name of the deity of this mantra. And the “who” is just not a deity, but is the name of the Reality that is the cause of everything. It is hidden behind the blinding light of the spiritual sun. Thus, it is called the source (garbha) of golden luster (hiranya). And the Reality is best called “who” (kaH) because you get to know God only by his effects, you don’t know the identity of Reality. Once you see the poem in this light, you will start appreciating the poem, and understand why the refrain comes as : “who” is the God we worship with offerings.
- Now, take up the Gambler’s lament poem (RV 10.34); it is an entirely different poem, based on the story of how dice destroys the life of a man. The man warns us about how gambling can destroy the life, and is a very touching and emotional poem too.
- Read Rigveda’s last poem, called the “aikamatya suktam” or “samvada suktam” (RV 10.191). It is pretty literal in meaning except for first verse that has a myriad of meanings. (In most literal translations, the meanings are destroyed by bad choice of words) Still, you will appreciate the sense of unity and peace the poem instills in humanity.
Once you feel you are comfortable with these poems that are much easily literally translatable, you need to learn some more before you take up the next series of poems. You need to know some basic metaphors of Vedic poetry now. And you need to know some basic ways of decoding common Rigvedic poems. For example, consider “cow”. Cow is an Indo European symbol of solar rays in the physical realm. Vedas further take it to the spiritual realm, where the solar rays or cows mean to be the “spiritual light” from the “spiritual sun” at the “spiritual dawn”. (Please don’t ask me to elaborate what spiritual sun or dawn or light exactly means in simple words – there exists no language other than poetry that can explain these words in their entirety. They have lots and lots of meanings) Sometimes, the cows are the milch cows of the sky (solar light) that milk out light (at dawn) for the Ashvins. (Ashvins symbolize the arrival of fast dawn) In some other areas, cows that represent light, also stand for knowledge, whereas the “cave” from which they may be released will refer to darkness (of ignorance).
Now, you should also start viewing nature, appreciating its beauty. Just wake up early before sunrise and get a calm view of dawn and sunshine. As the sun rises, you think, and try to relate it with instances from spiritual life, physical life. You can see the sun as a “herdsman” with cows going to graze all over the sky. You see the Ashvins coming within horses with the rudravartani (ruddy trail) of the dawn. You see the dawn driving every creature, every man from sleep. You see the “red cows” and “bay horses” in the sky. Now, equate this process to spiritual realms where the sun is the embodiment of our concepts of God and Reality that shines with its light. It emerges from the earth of our physical mind and rises to the heavens of a spiritual mind. The spiritual dawn is created, which has created life in us seekers. It inspires us and puts the knowledge in us. Thus, we find the Lord of Brahman (brahman here means word of Reality, not the Vedantic stuff), the Brihaspati enlightening the sky of our brain by creating the “cows and horses” of knowledge. And we find the beauty of dawn, we find how the God Indra props the spiritual sun out of the cave of darkness.
Now that you can think in this angle, just take poems to dawn in Rigveda, and try reading them. You will find them much deep and poetic, and to an extent appreciate them. In every poem, there will be a stanza where the key to thinking will be hidden. If you still feel confident and that you can continue, well and fine – continue your great journey and you are entering into the beautiful world of Rigvedic poetry and philosophy. If you cannot see the meaning in the lines, the metaphors, well realize that however you try, this piece is not for your solitary reading. Try reading Yajurveda 40 which at least presents some fraction understandable to non-poets. And continue your reading of Rigvedic poems not directly, but through secondary translations and interpretations like that of David Frawley’s Wisdom of the Ancient Seers: Mantras of the Rig Veda, Aurobindo’s Secret of the Veda. AC Bose’s The Call of the Vedas is also a good suggestion to start to realize the Vedic poems, Rigveda in particular.
Those who are well without the need for reading the above books, should also just read them, to develop your thinking ability. Different people interpret the same metaphors differently, and you will also realize that you can also interpret the metaphors in Rigvedic poems your own beautiful (and sometimes due to ignorance, in an awful) way. (But kindly note that neither you nor me can limit the Rigvedic poems – they are limitless) Now, you should try thinking about the mind, thought process, how God as Reality is different from our concepts, how each Vedic concepts of God (called devas or shining ones, as we have seen that they represent the rays of the spiritual sun of inspirer – Savitr, whose cause is Indra – the net concepts of God) So, we realize that God (or say the primal Reality) has sacrificed itself to become the cosmos. But it is from the cosmos that the concept of God is born. This kind of “sacrificial” and “dual” paradoxes are common in Rigveda. Now, take the Purusha sukta (10.90) and read. Note how Purusha (the manifesting “person” who is the entire cosmos) sacrifices himself to create the world, and how from that energy the All Emperor concept of God (Viraj) is born. Alternatively, you should also note that Viraj as God creates Purusha too. 🙂 You see the creation of the world being told as a division of the primal entity to form the entire cosmos and then creating the meaning of the original form. And note the functional poetic metaphors used for the creation of different skills. If you find them as “castes”, “animals”, “Vedas” etc. being created from a being called Purusha, shut the Rigveda up and do your business.
Now you should have understood the key points in how to approach Rigveda. Now, try finding the spiritual symbols of each concept of God. You may refer to David Frawley’s work, or Aurobindo’s, if you can’t do it by yourself, but never ever consider them to be the last words or limits. Begin from them. And slowly, start reading Rigveda.
Even now when you can get the sense behind Rigvedic lines, you have not fully reached even basics of Rigveda. Rigveda is life. It explains how every natural phenomenon is to be decoded so as to understand ourselves, the society, the spiritual life, God etc.
You may follow my blog in Quora or google+ community “The Vedas” for discussing Rigvedic poems. However, read from the beginning in both places, as to realize some concepts of Rigveda, it takes many things and metaphors to explain, and for decoding each poem, your thought is molded to a definite angle even with the same metaphors.
Things you should not do :
- Do NOT read dishonest translations or extrapolating translations because you lose the sense of understanding and realizing Rigvedic poetic metaphors. So, kindly avoid Dayanand’s or Doniger’s or similar translations which deviate from literal translations in any way. Read the Rigvedic cow as cow, and then decide whether it should mean rays of sun, knowledge, streams of speech or food in the hymn.
- Do NOT read historical interpretations when your aim is for philosophy. Do NOT fall for philosophy when you need to search for history. And, most importantly, never read any of the historical interpretations based on secondary sources, that will force you to look things in Rigveda wrongly with biased eyes – either as nomadic white Aryans invading or culturally super-imposing civilized blacks (if you happen to read a AIMT or AIT version) or as rishis trying to fly with soma-yielded airplanes (if you happen to read some apologetic nonsense).
- Do NOT try to hunt up Vedas for your presumptions.
- Do NOT try to interpret Rigveda literally. Understand that while a literal translation is the best, the literal interpretation is the worst for a poem. Hope you get me right.
- Avoid reading independent catchy “quotes” from Rigveda by people across online and deciding Rigvedic philosophy on that basis, as most of them omit the philosophical, spiritual context and sometimes are even mistranslations.
- Avoid looking Rigveda for Puranic stuffs. Rigvedic devas are not gods, they are concepts of God and all are rays of the Supreme. It is difficult to; but still acknowledge the fact that the Vishnu and other later gods are not gods or demigods in Rigveda – they are just other concepts of the same supreme God. There is no trinity or any element of Puranic or Hindu theosophy in Rigveda. And thus, never confuse them. Most important, don’t fail to acknowledge the supremacy of Indra (as any other Rigvedic concept of God is the Supreme). vishvasmA indra uttaraH. No, neither Indra is, nor are other Rigvedic concepts of God polytheistic anthropomorphic gods. All of them are the part of the same supreme God, and God is best represented by Indra concept in whom all concepts of God can be found. (3.54) They are just different names (1.164) and concepts (10.113) of the same Reality.
- Rigveda is not even decoded fully till now. And kindly don’t take Sayana’s or other Brahmanical interpretations or Indological interpretations or even ritualistic interpretations that have no spiritual basis or inclination towards poetry. Note that rituals were made by literal interpretation and misuse of Vedic poetry words, and it is not the other way round. (Purusha sukta itself hints the order in which things happened)
- Note that soma is a poetic symbol of spiritual life, immortality, and revival. Note that soma is not a physical drink in Rigveda. It will be clear when you read the third verse of 10.85.