Remembering the Veda: Accumulations of Interest

Simona Sawhney, Vanderbilt University

Copyright 1999 by Simona Sawhney, all rights reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of JOUVERT: Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

    One always believes oneself to be in the wake of the Veda,
    when one turns one's back on it.
    --Louis Renou

  1. Hindu tradition divides its sacred texts among the two categories of shruti and smriti--those which are heard, or revealed, and those which are remembered. J. A. B. van Buitenen explains the distinction thus:
    Shruti (literally, "learning by hearing") is the primary revelation, which stands revealed at the beginning of the creation. This revelation was "seen" by the primeval seers (risi) who set in motion an oral transmission that has continued from generation to generation until today. . . smriti (literally "recollection") is the collective term for all other sacred literature, principally in Sanskrit, which is considered to be secondary to shruti, bringing out the hidden meanings of the revelation, restating it for a wider audience, providing more precise instructions concerning moral conduct, and complementing shruti in matters of religion. While the distinction between shruti and smriti is a useful one, in practice the Hindu acquires his knowledge of religion almost exclusively through smriti. (923-33)
    While the samhitas (collections) of the four Vedas along with the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads comprise the body of vedic or shruti literature, the epics as well as the Dharma sastras and the Puranas are included in the more amorphous smriti category. Among the Vedas, it is widely acknowledged that the Rig Veda stands foremost, in terms of both antiquity and sanctity. If its sacredness for tradition is grounded in its status as the earliest revealed text of the Hindu canon, its significance for many modern scholars derives from its recognition as one of the oldest known Indo-European texts. In either case, it has been accorded the honor due to a monument--a massive monument that appears now as a beacon, now as a fortress, and now as a mysterious temple in whose precincts we are no longer at ease.

  2. In this essay, I approach the question of modernity's relationship to tradition, and specifically to religious tradition, by way of a discussion of the space occupied by the Rig Veda in orientalist as well as nationalist discourse. It might be best to acknowledge at the very outset that the terms "orientalist" and "nationalist" are in many ways reductive--few scholars of the Veda would fit easily into either category. It might be better then to say that I read various responses to the Veda in terms of the implicit motivations or interests that have informed those readings. I would like to align, in my own approach to the Veda, a certain potential inherent in the concept of secular thought, with a practice of reading which engages seriously with the unavoidable seductions of interest. Where might the Veda situate itself in the arena of a secular modernity? What happens when we begin the enterprise of reading sacred texts as literature? What would such a reading suggest about the categories of the sacred, the secular, and the literary?

  3. I am interested in exploring what the concept of the secular might indicate or comprehend apart from the meanings usually assigned to it. These meanings generally define the secular as a principle of marking a distinction between the church and the state, or as a sphere of public life not governed by spiritual authority, or even opposed to such authority. Most of us would agree that such definitions do not quite exhaust the enormous impact of secular thought on various realms of human activity. For instance, it is widely accepted today that not only the natural, but also the social sciences have undergone a fundamental change in the modern period largely because history can no longer be read as the manifestation of divine will. Hannah Arendt refers to this aspect of secular epistemology when she discusses how the very concept of theory has changed for modernity:
    When the trust that things appear as they really are was gone, the concept of truth as revelation had become doubtful, and with it the unquestioning faith in a revealed God. The notion of "theory" changed its meaning. It no longer meant a system of reasonably connected truths which as such had not been made but given to reason and the senses. Rather it became the modern scientific theory, which is a working hypothesis changing in accordance with the results it produces and depending for its validity not on what it "reveals" but on whether it "works." (39)

  4. While this aspect of secularism--the secularization of knowledge--is significant for the way I would like to think about the secular here, it is not the focus of my concern. What interests me primarily is the way in which any interruption of sacred thought, of transcendental or metaphysical thought, exposes and hence compells us to confront the decisive question of interest that haunts our engagement with any text--be it the text of the body politic or the text of our tradition. If the advent of the nation challenges us to reconsider our conceptions of community and social organization, the secularization of thought correspondingly challenges us to interrogate every movement of reading which would accept as an alibi the reassurance of transcendent truths. Hence a secular practice of reading would also ask of us that we question every contingent or historical act of interpretation which attempts to ground itself in some version of a realm of transcendence.

  5. In this regard, the Rig Veda presents itself as an archetypal text, not only because it has so consistently provoked in its readers the urge to appropriate it for various ends, but also because it is itself situated in that murky region between nature and history--a region that history illuminates so dimly that it appears, almost, to recede into nature. The oldest among the four vedas, the Rig Veda is a collection of 1,028 hymns arranged in ten mandalas, or sections. Most of the hymns are addressed to specific deities and refer to the context of the sacrificial ritual. It is generally agreed among scholars that the earliest hymns might date back to the thirteenth or fourteenth century BCE, while some of the later hymns might have been composed three or four hundred years later.[1] Most attempts at establishing precise dates are thwarted by a certain elusiveness that seems to be characteristic of the oral tradition. For hundreds of years, the hymns were ritually memorized by the sons and grandsons of priestly families, perhaps precisely in order to shield them from betraying signs of temporality and from such diseases as attend the corporeality of the letter. It was not until about 600 BCE that the hymns were collected in what is now considered the canonical form of the Rig Veda, the samhita text, but the text was still transmitted orally from one generation to another, though we know that the culture was already familiar with the art of writing.

  6. Since the hymns belong to an oral tradition, and since their orality is so instrinsically a feature of their sacrality, many modern scholars have wondered how appropriate the concept of "scripture" might be for understanding such texts. Thus in his essay, "Scripture as Form and Concept," Wilfred Smith writes, "The Hindu instance (especially with shruti) was precisely and emphatically oral for millenia--indeed, at least until the European Max Muller's printed edition of the Rig Veda from 1854." He goes on to remark that the transcribing of the Veda constitutes "an entrancing instance of nineteenth-century western cultural imperialism, here quietly imposing the western sense of 'scripture'" (34-35). Yet at the conclusion of the essay, when Smith contends that "a true understanding of the human must wrestle with three major modes of language: prose, poetry, and scripture," it seems that he would probably include shruti literature within this larger concept of scripture as a mode of utterance that is fundamentally distinct from either prose or poetry. Though I am not persuaded by the validity of the tripartite classification Smith proposes, it does seem reasonable that within this model, sacred texts from oral traditions would be considered analogous to other "scriptures," in spite of the latter term's intrinsic relationship to writing and to the book. In other words, it seems that while the emphasis on orality, remembrance and recitation is significant in terms of understanding the cultural practices of the religion and even in terms of recognizing the performative powers associated with the appropriate utterance of sacred words, such an emphasis does not always help us to understand or interpret the text itself. On the contrary, it perhaps draws attention away from the form and content of the verses toward their ritual use and application--rendering them objects of anthropological, but not literary or philosophical analysis.

  7. Thus Thomas Coburn's contention that the most significant feature of shruti literature lies in its recitation, rather than its comprehension, is perhaps misleading, even though it is largely accurate in terms of the traditional approach to the hymns. Coburn reads the shruti/smriti distinction as a distinction between texts that are "eternal, intrinsically powerful, and supremely authoritative" and those which are normative, didactic, and hence centrally concerned with intelligibility. The Rig Veda obviously belongs to the former category; Coburn eloquently writes that here the Hindus have "frozen" the Word, "captured it verbatim, treated it as sound eternal, the hum of the universe," and goes on to emphasize that the "distinctively Hindu way of engaging with this compact, boundaried verbal material is to recite it, not necessarily to understand it" (121). Without denying that in practice, this is generally the way in which the vedic hymns are treated, I would make two cautionary remarks in response to Coburn's thesis, which is representative, indeed, of a wide-spread conception of vedic literature.[2]

  8. The first concerns a traditional division among the texts of shruti literature itself, which complicates the categories that Coburn establishes. Thus, according to Advaita (literally, "non-duality"), the highly influential school of philosophy systematized by the medieval theologian Sankara, shruti literature is divided into two components--the karmakanda and the jnanakanda. While the former refers to the first sections of the Vedas, the hymns or mantras associated with the performance of sacrifices, the latter refers to the later sections of the Vedas, such as the Upanishads, whose purpose is to reveal knowledge of Brahman, or ultimate reality. As the names suggest, the hymns are thus associated with ritual action (karma), and the speculative commentaries with transcendent knowledge (jnana). This division would indicate that even all the texts assembled within the category of shruti literature cannot be comprehended within a single model focusing exclusively on recitation, such as the one Coburn proposes.

  9. My second remark concerns the hymns themselves. I would first reiterate here that in allowing the ritual context of Hinduism as a practice to be our sole guide in determining the significance of the hymns, we would perhaps be doing both the hymns and ourselves a disservice. There are, moreover, enough suggestions in the Veda and its early readings to warn us against placing too great an emphasis on recitation, as distinct from comprehension. As K. S. Murty points out in his recent book, Vedic Hermeneutics, there are several vedic passages that draw attention to this very question:
    The Veda itself insists that understanding of its meaning is necessary for obtaining the full benefit from it. A Rigvedic passage says, "He who does not know that higher region of truth, what will he do with the hymns?". . . The Nirukta has gone so far as to say that he who having learnt the Veda does not know its meaning is like a pillar which merely carries a burden . . . The Brihaddevata also says: only he who knows (not merely recites) the hymns knows the gods; the deity does not accept the oblation offered without knowledge. (8)

  10. The ubiquitous practice of quoting shruti for its meaning or content in discursive expositions or philosophical arguments would also indicate that the tradition does not conceive of the verses only as phonically powerful utterances. I dwell on this point because it appears that this focus on the performative or ritual aspects of the hymns has been instrumental in allowing the poetic and speculative language of various hymns to be stifled, thus robbing the tradition of some of its most productive moments. Such an emphasis on the hieratic becomes particularly suspicious when it surfaces so regularly in the work of western writers, for one senses here an inclination to categorize the hymns in accordance with the perceived norms of religious practice in order to arrive at a neatly circumscribed understanding of "Hindu culture." While the work of modern scholars is generally too sophisticated to betray the more explicit orientalist tendencies of earlier Indologists, its impulse to read the texts of distant societies primarily for their anthropological interest--that is to say, simply as reflections of cultural practices or beliefs--also exhibits a certain will to power which posits a limit to the potential significance of any given text.

  11. To some extent, our limited understanding of the Veda is also a function of the paucity of its readers. Although the text is generally revered as the very source of this tradition, as the text that organizes and directs the course of all the philosophical and epic literature that follows it, yet it remains curiously and widely un-read. Certainly the obscurity of its language contributes to its neglect. But this neglect of the Veda is also indicative of a larger phenomenon: the way in which the act of privileging certain texts becomes at once a sign of power and a mark of affiliation in any socio-political structure. Thus in India, the religious scholars or pundits who study the Veda in the traditional manner, do not, for the most part, wish to encourage any secular readings of the text--the authority of such scholars derives precisely from the fact that they can safely place in circulation their own interpretation of the Veda and remain assured of its acceptance. On the other hand, those who could or would challenge this reading--for instance, students of history or literature in modern universities--never bother to read the Veda at all since for them it is the orthodox text par excellence, its saffron-taint[3] as indelible, as ancient, and perhaps finally more legible than its language. In their view, it is already too alive in the land, its clamor all too audible in the senseless cacophony of recitation and incantation that embraces us like a stupor and renders us deaf to the voice of reason. For them the Veda is orthodox because it represents today, and has perhaps always represented, the intimate meshing of religious fervor and caste-thinking. This alignment of the Veda with conservatism goes back a long way in the religious tradition: most of the Bhakti saints of medieval India felt that it was necessary to repudiate the authority of the Vedas in order to preach their revolutionary message of personal devotion to an omniscient deity.

  12. Moreover, the text has also become the touchstone of orthodoxy within the Indian philosophical tradition, representing above all a limit of knowledge or of truth that cannot be transgressed. When Louis Renou, for instance, writes that the Veda is "precisely the sign, perhaps the only one, of Indian orthodoxy" (2), he is referring to the ways in which it is evoked by various exponents of the six darsanas, or schools of philosophy. Their critiques of each other are often rooted in the general accusation of heresy--that is to say, a departure from, or a questioning of, such knowledge as is authorized by the Veda. Renou cites as an example the words of the medieval philosopher Sankara: "The doctrines of Kapila, Kanada and others are found to be tainted with errors, being without any foundation and in contradiction with the Veda." Thus we see that the mere accusation of departing from the dictum of the Veda was often considered adequate condemnation of new philosophical ideas.

  13. Such is the daunting visage of the Veda today: ancient, obscure, often incomprehensible, and strongly allied with all that is most conservative in the literary and philosophical tradition. It is thus that texts present themselves when they are steadily robbed of their powers of articulation and turned instead into monuments: giant monolithic structures that only generate echo-systems. It is therefore imperative that we read the Veda--that much is clear--but how do we read it? What would this reading demand? If we do not wish to re-enact or mime all the gestures that have made of the Veda a petrified--and a petrifying--book, gestures that make of it a relic, an idol or a weapon, how then are we to approach this book? If our complaint against the various readings of the Veda is that they are too fascinated by certain prior interests that they bring to bear on the text, that what is in their interest is not, perhaps, of interest to the Veda, that what they have to say might even be contradictory to what the Veda says; if such, indeed, are our complaints, then do we not risk replicating precisely those accusations of heresy which have contributed to the monumentalizing of the Veda? And what then, of our own reading? By dwelling on the interestedness of other readings, are we suggesting that it is, in fact, possible to offer an entirely disinterested reading? Or are we proposing a hierarchy of interests, where some interests are more acceptable, more urgent or more appropriate than others? In contending that the prior interests of these readings might lead them away from what is essential to the Veda, that such interests might cause them to be overly attentive to the historical, rather than the literary dimensions of the text, we might perhaps become prey to an ancient and dangerous practice of discourse. We might, indeed, reinforce the problematic and often reactionary distinction between the internal or proper sense of the text and the external context of its production and use.



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    Last modified 30 January 2002