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INTERPRETATION OF THE VEDA.
BY PROFESSOR HAUG.
Books which are traced to divine origin, and consequently held sacred, have, on account of their bearing on the modes of thought and the religious and civil institutions of a people, always formed one of the most appropriate subjects for the exercise of the mental faculties in the way of speculations and interpretations of various kinds. The more their origin is lost in the depths of antiquity, the more the language in which they are composed has become obscure and unintelligible, the greater will be the obstacles the interpreters have to overcome. Of the utmost importance is here the condition of the text which is to be explained, the greater or lesser degree of correctness with which it has been preserved.
Since other sacred books, such as the Bible and the Quran, have, from the very beginning, been committed to writing and exclusively transmitted in this manner, the Veda is the only sacred code that has been handed down to posterity solely by oral tradition, which has remained even up to the present day the only legitimate way of transmitting the ancient divine knowledge to the future generations of Brahmans. The wonderful state of correctness in which the ancient Vedic texts have reached our time may well excite our admiration, principally if we bear in mind that this is exclusively owing to oral teaching, and not to the use of MSS. Although the Brahmans are at present in the possession of MSS. of their sacred books, they are never used for instruction. The Brahman boy has to acquire all knowledge of sacred texts from the mouth of a competent and properly qualified teacher, but never from a MS. For according to Brahmanical notions, which are still current, that Veda only which is in the mouth of the Brahmans is the true Veda ; all knowledge of it that has been acquired from MSS. is no longer regarded as Veda. The use of them is only permitted in the way of assisting the memory, after the oral instruction has been completed. In former times the aid afforded by MSS. could be more readily dispensed with, since oral instruction took about thirty years, whereas it is now reduced to about half the time. In order to prevent those who had learnt the Veda from the mouth of the teacher from ever forgetting what they had committed to memory, it was made incumbent on them to communicate before their death their sacred knowledge to qualified persons. If a Brahman who is in the possession of it should neglect this sacred duty, he is believed to turn, after his death, to a ghost of the worst description, a so-called Brahmarākshasa, which belief is still current among the Mahratta Brahmans, who are considered as the best preservers of the Vedic tradition in the whole of India. By such means it has been really brought about that the Vedic texts, that is, the Mantras, Brāhmaṇas, Upanishads, and Vedāngas, rest so firmly in the heads of the professional Vedics, the so-called Bhatļas, that if all the MSS. should be collected and destroyed, they could be restored in the very words, even to each single letter and accent, from memory, as I was often assured by trustworthy Brahmans during my six years' stay in the Mahratta country. Hence one might justly attribute to texts obtained from a body of renowned Vedics, both in the Sanhitā and Pada forms, at least the same degree of accuracy and authority which is ascribed to an edition prepared from a number of the best MSS.; for all really good MSS. have not been copied by the Bhattas from others, but written from memory; errors which may be detected in MSS. are generally not corrected by consulting other copies, but on the authority of the living tradition, viz. one of the Bhațțas, since any Vedic text which is written is never looked upon with the same degree of confidence that is attached to oral tradition. The superiority of the latter over all MSS. is also evidenced by the fact that these are not always written in conformity with the rules laid down in the Prātiśākhyas, small deviations being tolerated. Had there been any character of sacredness attached to written copies, as is the case with the Old Testament, where every letter, even its very shape, is regarded as sacred, such a proceeding would be impossible, since there could not exist the slightest difference between the recitation—the rules of which are laid down in the S'ikshās and Prātiśākhyas—and the MSS. On this occasion I may observe that the S'ikshas and Prātiśākhyas teach in fact nothing but the theories for the still existing recitation of Vedic texts, as it must have been in force for at least 2500 years.
Now, if we consider the large number of hymns, sacrificial formulas, liturgical and philosophical speculations, with which the Brahmans had to burden their memory, it is not surprising to find the understanding of the more ancient and difficult parts, such as the hymns, much neglected by them. The character of sacredness being attached to the word and the succession of words as transmitted from times immemorial, their efficacy was always believed to lie in their correct pronunciation, and consequently their meaning was little cared for. I once had occasion to converse with a large number of Bhațțas, who are the legitimate preservers of Vedic texts; they told me, to my surprise, that the understanding of the texts they were in the habit of reciting was regarded as perfectly' useless, and was consequently wholly disregarded. They learn the Vedas by heart for practical purposes, only to recite them at the sacrifices, or before private individuals of the Brahman caste who may wish to hear them for their welfare.
Although this opinion seems to have prevailed with the professional reciters among the Brahmans, it was fortunately not shared by the more intelligent and inquisitive members of their caste, who looked upon the Bhațțas as a kind of beasts of burden, carrying loads without knowing their nature. There exists, even up to the present day, a very small class of scholars called Bhattacharyas, who do not confine themselves to merely committing to memory the sacred texts, but who study their meaning. This class of scholars is, however, not of recent date, but appears to have existed from ancient times. To their exertions alone it is owing that anything about the meaning of the Vedas, particularly the hymns, is known in India.
The first traces of attempts at penetrating into the sense of the hymns are already to be met with in the Brāhmaṇas and Āranyakas or speculations of the Brahmans on the meaning of their prayers, and the sense of the sacrificial rites. Starting from the maxim, that the ceremony which is being performed must be in accordance with the mantras and hymns which are recited, they tried to find out some relationship in which the prayer stood to the ceremony. They did not, however, rest satisfied with this, since they wished to know the reasons why such and such a ceremony was performed in such and such a way, but searched for the meaning and sense of the rite and the prayer itself. Though these interpretations are of no scientific value, just as little as the etymologies proposed, they are not quite useless for exegetical purposes, and ought, therefore, to be collected and critically sifted.
As in these Brahmanical interpretations great stress is always laid upon the several words of a passage, or, at least, on some of them, particular care had to be bestowed from the very first on dividing the mantras which were recited, under the observation of the euphonical laws, into their respective words. In this way the socalled Pada text, in which the several words of the hymns are given separately, irrespective of one another, has been prepared and handed down along with the Saňhitū at a very early period. If we now compare the latter, which is certainly the textus receptus, as it proceeded from the mouth of the Rishis, with the former, we easily perceive that the Pada text is the work of grammarians. As it is, for the most part, very trustworthy, it shows that those who prepared it must have understood a considerable portion of the mantras ; for had it been otherwise, they would have been unable to divide the continuous texts so well into their several words.
This separation of the connected Sanhitā text into its component words being the first step in the way of a philological interpretation of the Vedic hymns, the Brahmans undertook it chiefly for preserving the several words from corruption, but hardly with a view to laying the foundation for a correct understanding of the Vedic texts. The early descendants of the Rishis, the composers of the Vedic hymns, did not care for a minute understanding of every particular in the songs of their forefathers; they rested satisfied with comprehending the general sense, because the language they spoke, which, in its general features, has been preserved to us in the more ancient Brāhmanas, did not differ considerably from the idiom of the hymns, due allowance being made for the difference existing in all languages between the poetical and prosaical forms of speech. The only difficult points which needed explanation from the very beginning consisted in the large number of allegorical and mystical expressions with which many hymns are teeming. The meaning of such terms may have been imparted by the composers to their sons; but from the time the mantras were made the subject of speculation, they were often neglected, and became consequently obscure. Besides, in the course of time, a good many words, chiefly local and provincial terms, became obsolete, and were no longer understood. In order to preserve the meaning of the most sacred texts on which the influence and power of the whole Brahmanic race was resting, it was deemed expedient to arrange lists of synonymous words, and of such as needed explanation, as well as lists of the different names of gods and divine beings. Two such lists have reached our time; the more important one is the so-called Nirukta, which often goes by the name of Nighanțavas, being properly confined to the collection of synonymous words. It is taken for one of the six Vedāngas or auxiliary books for understanding the Vedas, but it refers, as it appears, almost exclusively to the Rigveda. The other belongs to the Atharvaveda; it forms part of its seventy-two Parisishțas, and contains about the same division as the first one.
Now these lists of words have always been studied, it appears, by certain Brahmanical families from very ancient times, and served as the foundation of an interpretation of Vedic works in India. They were often commented on, but only two of those commentaries have become known, viz. that by Yaska, and the other by Devarāja, the former flourishing in the fourth or fifth century B.C., the latter in the fifteenth A.D. The principal intermediate commentator was Skandasrāmi, whose work has not yet been recovered.
Considering the paramount importance of the Nirukta, in its three parts (Naighanțuka, Naigama, and Daivata), for the subsequent interpretation of Vedic texts on the part of the Brahmans, their origin must be inquired into. Here, at the very outset, two different opinions may be proposed. Some will be inclined to regard those lists as mere gleanings from speculative works, such as the Brāhmaņas, intermixed with guesses at the meanings of obscure words