If we read an English translation of the RigVeda such as the one by Wilson or Griffith, we see that, by and large, it consists either of pedestrian sentences such as, “O Indra, drink the Soma and kill Vritra” or enigmatic sentences such as, “The sages smashed the hill by their sound” (I.71.2); “They smashed the hill using the cows” (I.7.3). Many epithets associated with Agni, the fire, make no sense at all. There are only a small number of verses which appear to be wisdom-full. Often, there is no consistency between the several phrases within a single verse, let alone the entire hymn. It is claimed that the translation itself is faithful, but only the tradition of Hindus in assigning wisdom to the RigVeda and its poets is mistaken. This is the view of many academics for more than a century.
If we enquire more closely into the faithfulness of the translation, we get quite a different picture. The basis for all the English translations is the detailed Sanskrit commentary by the great fourteenth century scholar Sayana giving word to word meanings for every word in RigVeda. Without this commentary, no English translation would have been possible. In spite of its many virtues, it has serious defects.
First of all, Sayana was only interested in bringing out the ritual meaning of the verses. He has a penchant for assigning multiple meanings for the same word. The word go which occurs in more than one thousand verses is given thirty two different meanings ranging from cow, water, ray, sound etc. We can forget any consistent interpretation of any book if so many meanings are assigned arbitrarily to a single word. For many words, he uses the meaning of food because the verse yields a meaning connected with a ritual. A word like dhi can sustain its common meaning of intelligence in all its occurrences. Still Sayana assigns the meaning of food to it quite often.
Next, whenever a verse involving a deva like Agni is encountered, Sayana relates an obscure story from the Purana to explain the verse. This is highly objectionable because puranic devas are quite different from the devas in the RigVeda. The puranic devas have, on the surface, human qualities of pettiness, jealousy, quarrelsomeness and so on, whereas the Rigvedic devas are all of one mind, helpful to the humans. Moreover, Puranas are posterior to Rigveda.
Thirdly, Sayana uses symbolism whenever it suits him. The often quoted event of Indra killing Vritra to release waters is rendered as the shattering of the rain bearing clouds resulting in rain. The Occidental translators tolerate it as long as the symbolism is restricted to nature powers. We can add many more observations of this sort.
RigVeda is high-class poetry. It is sheer poverty of imagination to read poetry suppressing symbolism. Veda itself says there is a secret in RigVeda. That secret must be the symbolism. A symbol attempts to describe an experience beyond the realm of the senses. Symbols can be either auditory or visual. For persons who have the gift, hearing a word can create an impression in the inner being which conveys the full power of the symbol. There are four classes of symbols in the RigVeda. Firstly, the devas, Agni, Indra and so on and the devis Sarasvati, Sarama and Mahi represent distinct types of divine powers and associated functions. In the second class are Vritra, Vala and Shushna, the powers of falsehood. The third class of symbols consists of the common nouns like go, ‘cow’, ashva, ‘horse’, adri, ‘hill’, apah, ‘waters’, nadi, ‘rivers’, vrika, ‘wolf ’etc. Lastly is the class of the names associated with the sages and poets like Kanva and Kutsa.
Each member of these four classes represents a distinct psychological power which is helpful or otherwise. For instance, take the word go which ordinarily means cattle. It and its synonyms like usra occur in more than one thousand verses. Of course, many of these verses may involve other members of the four classes like adri, ‘hill’. Regard all these words in these verses as unknown. Substitute the symbolic meanings for the unknowns and see whether the verse makes sense. For the verses involving go, all the verses make excellent sense except those where go is used as a simile in which case it is an animal. Then all the phrases which appears enigmatic or senseless become meaningful. go stands for knowledge, each individual go standing for one type of knowledge. Adri is the symbol for the force of ignorance and the state of inconscience, i.e., an almost absence of consciousness as can be easily guessed.
The phrase, “they smashed the hill with the go”, means the forces of ignorance were overcome by the forces of knowledge. The phrase, “they smashed the hill with their sound”, means that the forces of ignorance were destroyed by the power of mantra, the potent word.
The recovery of the symbolic meanings of individual words is only the first step. The recovery of the deeper meaning of the verses needs much more work. Once this is done, the consistency of the meaning of all the phrases in a verse and consistency of all the verses in a hymn is assured. The wisdom of RigVeda comes upfront.
Even in classical Sanskrit, the maxims of wisdom subhashita are expressed symbolically. We mention one such popular maxim which occurs both in RigVeda (VII.104.22) and Atharvaveda samhita (VIII.4.22). It deals with the well known six psychological foes, namely “delusion, anger, jealousy, lust, arrogance and greed”, symbolised by “owl, wolf, dog, chakravaka bird, eagle and vulture”. RigVeda (VII.104.22) calls upon these six to be killed and translators like Whitney think these animals/birds represent sorcerers!
We need to stress on the peculiar character of the mantra, the revelatory origin of the world-rhythm proceeding from the Infinite and caught by the disciplined audition of the rishi.
It is not that there is no poetical charm or other qualities that we associate with Poetry. On the other hand there is sublime poetry in the Rig Veda — sublime even when judged from modern standards. What is true of poetry in a general way is pre-eminently true in the case of mantra-poetry. It must be borne in mind that to know the thought-content of a poem is not the same as to allow the soul and substance of poetry to invade and possess the sense and feeling and thought in the core of one’s being in communion with the spirit of Poetry. Of the untranslatable elements in poetry, especially in the mantra poetry, the word-rhythm and the word-order stand prominently as the two wings of the soaring soul of poetic sound. Nevertheless, to the composer of the Vedic hymn it was only a help, a means for his progress and a help for others. The act of expression was just a means, not an aim. That is why pursuit of aesthetic grace or beauty or richness does not act as an incentive to the rishi for varying the consecrated form which was an accepted principle among the mystics of the Rig Veda.
«Only out of the sameness of experience and out of the impersonality of knowledge, there arise a fixed body of conceptions constantly repeated and a fixed symbolic language which was the inevitable form of these conceptions[…] We have at any rate the same notions repeated from hymn to hymn with the same constant terms and figures and frequently in the same phrases with an entire indifference to search for poetical originality or any demand for novelty of thought and freshness of language […] The mystic poets do not vary the consecrated form which has become for them a sort of divine algebra transmitting the eternal formulae of the knowledge to the continuous succession of initiates.
The hymns possess indeed a finished metrical form, a constant subtlety and skill in their technique, great variations of style and poetical personality — they are not the work of rude, barbarous and primitive craftsman […] They differ in temperament and personality; some are inclined to a more rich, subtle and profound use of Vedic symbolism; others give voice to their spiritual experience in a barer and simpler dictum […] There are risings and fallings in the same hymn […] Some hymns are plain and almost modern in their language; others baffle us at first by their semblance of antique obscurity. But these differences take nothing from the unity of spiritual experience. In the deep and mystic style of Dirghatamas as in the melodious lucidity of Medhatithi, in the puissant and energetic hymns of Vishvamitra as in Vasishthas even harmonies we have the same firm foundation of knowledge and the same scrupulous adherence to the sacred conventions of the Initiates» (Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda).