How to interpret sacred Hindu texts: Making the case for a Hindu hermeneutic

The Vedic Saṃhitās are first and foremost a body of spiritual-sacerdotal texts, then they are literary texts due to the high aesthetic and poetic quotient of the mantras

Sreejit Datta January 17, 2022 15:52:20 IST
How to interpret sacred Hindu texts: Making the case for a Hindu hermeneutic

Things evolve with time and so has ‘Hindutva’

“Catch only what you’ve thrown yourself, all is

mere skill and little gain;

but when you’re suddenly the catcher of a ball

thrown by an eternal partner

with accurate and measured swing

towards you, to your centre, in an arch

from the great bridge building of God:

why catching then becomes a power—

not yours, a world’s.”


The twentieth-century German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s magnum opus Truth and Method, often characterised as the best contribution of the last century in the field of philosophy in particular and the larger field of humanities in general, starts off with these striking lines from the oeuvre of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. It is only fitting that a modern philosophical text on the subject of hermeneutics or ‘the science of understanding and correct interpretation’ of texts should begin with these lines — for, after all, engaging with an ancient text is quite like attempting to catch “a ball thrown by the eternal partner/with accurate and measured swing” that Rilke describes in his poetry.

The experiences, ideas and memories of the ancient (“the eternal partner”) are, as it were, hurled by their owners through vast swathes of space-time at an unknown “catcher” inhabiting a future time and perhaps even a strange land, before the projectile lands in the eager hands of a curious reader or listener (the “you” in Rilke’s “towards you, to your centre”) — just as a ball is thrown by a distant, barely visible partner towards his expectant counterpart in a throw-and-catch ball game.

This metaphorical ball — which is, for all intents and purposes concerning us, the ‘literal’ ancient text itself — follows an arch-like trajectory through unspecified units of space and time (and for our case even eons); a trajectory that has been likened with a bridge that takes no less than a Divine Engineer to be built in the poet’s sublime, suprasensuous vision. And in Rilke’s imagery, the act of understanding the ancient text as well as correctly interpreting what is understood would become “catching a ball thrown by an eternal partner”, an act that is both difficult as well highly significant by virtue of the eternal partner’s nature, location, and accuracy of delivery.

It is an act that has far-reaching implications — not merely for the individuals who attempt such acts, but for the entire world. Hence, at the very beginning of the poem, the poet has duly issued a solemn warning: “Catch only what you’ve thrown yourself, all is / mere skill and little gain;” (alternative translation: “As long as you catch what you’ve thrown yourself, all is / skill and trivial gain”).

The line reveals, thanks to Rilke’s poetic intuition, a deep insight that philologists and Indologists who indulge in Higher Criticism (reportedly to discover the text’s author, date, and place of origin), as well as Lower Criticism or Textual Criticism (apparently to discover the “original form” of the text), would do well to ponder: It seems to remind us that acts of understanding and interpreting ancient texts require a lot more than “mere skill”, which is all it takes for “catching”; i.e., understanding/interpreting texts which are produced either by one’s contemporaries or by oneself; and that the gain is not “little” nor “trivial” in the former type of endeavours as is the case with the latter type.

Perhaps nowhere else does Rilke’s metaphor ring as true and as applicable as in the specific case of attempting to engage with an ancient Hindu text; for is it not a fact that the Hindu religion imputes upon itself the attribute of ‘Sanātana’ i.e., timeless or eternal? And is it not also the case that the Vedas are traditionally known to be apauruṣeya, independent of any person? But to even make sense of these attributes and qualities of sacred Hindu texts, one needs to first address the question: What does apauruṣeyatva or ‘the quality of being independent of any person’ really mean in the context of textual understanding and interpretation?

The Vedas are, like most other religious texts, revelations. All religious texts claim the universality of the revelations contained in them. The Vedas are no exception in this regard. But there still remains a fundamental point of difference that sets the Vedas apart from those other religious texts. Unlike the canonical texts of these other religions and traditions, the revealed mantras of the Vedas are not inextricably tied up with any person. All other religions and religious texts, including some like Buddhism and Jainism which are indigenous to India, are characterised by a definite specificity of the holy person(s) or prophet(s) in relation to the revealed word found in the religious texts as well as to the central doctrines or principles of the religion in question.

Consequently, they are pauruṣeya, i.e., person-specific. The person of Buddha, for example, is the very fulfilment of the fundamental principle of Buddhism, viz., Dhamma. Therefore, there can be no Buddhism bypassing the person of Buddha. The person of Christ, to take another example, and this time from such religions as are non-indigenous to India, is inseparable from the Word of the gospels ascribed to him.

What is more, in classical Christian theology as well as in all the main branches of Christianity, Logos or the ‘Word of God’ is the very name or title of Jesus Christ, who is also the second person of the Trinity — the very embodiment of God’s word (“the Word was made flesh” – John 1:1-14); implying the indispensability of Christ in relation to the revelations recorded in the two Testaments of the Bible. Consequently, there can be no Christianity, in the classical sense of the term, bypassing or omitting Christ. It is an extreme case where the revealed word is identified with a person.

Similarly, the Quran is revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, whose very life and actions (Sunnah) are considered by Muslims to be showing the correct interpretation of the revelations recorded in the Quran. Also, believing Prophet Muhammad to be the final prophet in the shared lineage of prophets found across all the Abrahamic traditions is a most fundamental tenet of Islamic theology. These two facts, taken together, make the person of the Prophet indispensable to both Islam as understood through the revelations in the Quran as well as the spiritual and moral fulfilment of Muslims.

In contrast, we find no such insistence on specificity of a person to the Vedic mantras for one to practice the religion of the Vedas, either in its classical form or in its modern avatar, viz, Hinduism. The Vedic rishi is someone through whom mantras are revealed, but one need not exercise their belief in the Rishi to effectuate the potency of the mantra. This is apauruṣeyatva. It can hardly be intelligible to those who are either unaware of or opposed to the Vāk Tattva (the Vedic speech principle, or the essence of speech) as expounded in the Vedas.

As Sri Anirvan puts it in his exegetical masterpiece Veda Mīmāṃsā (a Bangla text which is yet to be fully translated into English), Brahman, i.e., the ever-expanding principle of consciousness and its external expression i.e., Vāk or Vedic speech (the language of the Vedic mantras) are identical. It should be noted that it is no human person (nor even īśvara, the Hindu idea of the Personal God) but the ever-expanding principle of consciousness itself that is being equated with a special language — one that is distinct from the signifier or sound-symbols created by humans, the mundane language that the child learns from its elders. For it is not yet a spoken language, but mere vibration or spanda that proceeds from a bhāva i.e., deep and powerful intuition.

At this stage, it is language in the potent form, and this is the reason why it is called deva-bhāṣā or the ‘language made of light’ (‘deva’ from ‘div’, which means light or day). It takes the help of man-made sound-symbols when it descends to the fourth stage, known as vaikhari vāk — the materialised form of ādi spanda, the primal vibration. Because the ādi spanda is apauruṣeya or independent of any person, therefore its materialised manifestation must also be treated as apauruṣeya — this is the Vedic idea. Hence Vedic rishis are described as Mantra-draṣṭā (experiencer or seer of mantra) and not Mantra-sraṣṭā (creator or composer of mantra).

A brilliant replication of the same principle outside of the Vedas but within the larger Hindu textual tradition is to be found in Valmiki’s Ramayana. In it, Maharshi Valmiki, quite unbeknownst to him, blurts out a curse in a novel metrical scheme upon witnessing the killing of one of a couple of mating birds, a metre which comes to be known as śloka. Immediately after, we find the Maharshi meditating upon Sri Rama and his life (Devarshi Narada had already recounted the gist of Sri Rama’s life story to him) and through his yogic vision directly seeing the totality of Sri Rama’s life down to the last detail.

The phrase that the text uses for this phenomenon related to Valmiki is “yathāvat samprapaśyati” (Ᾱdi Kāṇḍa, 3rd Sarga, 4th ŚlokaVālmīkīya Rāmāyaṇa). Here the Sanskrit word paśyati implies “he (Vālmīki) saw”; prapaśyati is “he (fore)saw directly, before his very eyes”; whereas samprapaśyati means “he (fore)saw all of it directly, before his very eyes, without missing any detail” and that too “yathāvat”, as it is.

Incidentally, the four stages of the Vedic Vāk-Tattva are, respectively, parāpaśyantimadhyamā, and vaikharī, the successive stages through which meaningful language descends from the subtlest potential form to the grossest articulate form. The Mīmāṃsaka (a proponent of the Mīmāṃsā darśna) position on this is as follows — to err is human, and humans without exception are prone to four kinds of defect, viz:

1. Imperfect senses (karaṇāpāṭava) 

2. Illusions (bhrama)

3. The propensity to commit errors (pramāda)

4. The propensity to cheat (vipralipsā)

Therefore, the Mīmāṃsaka holds that the foundation of spiritual knowledge and endeavours (i.e., the Vedas) should be apauruṣeya. A puruṣa or person may be a conduit of such knowledge, a broadcaster of what (s)he has discovered in the depths of human consciousness, but they cannot have any kind of sole proprietorship on the act of declaration or announcement of that truth. Speech or sound, according to this Vedic speech principle, spontaneously derives its potency from its own inherent pulsating energy without having to borrow from any external agency — not even from a god/the God!

This spontaneous, inherent pulsating energy of the sound propels man to attain siddhi as well as ṛiddhi, fulfilment of spiritual as well as worldly goals, while man would have to only follow its course with his śraddhā, so says the Mīmāṃsaka. Sri Anirvan points this out in his Veda Mīmāṃsā; adding that this principle, while forming the very basis of all Vedic thought, is also the key to its strength as well as its weakness at the same time.

To summarise, in the Vedic view, a person may be a conduit through which the revelation bursts forth in the form of vaikhari speech (the final of the four ‘stages’ through which language materialises into meaningful sound), but this person has no sole prerogative, proprietorship, or copyright on the revelation or its interpretation. Nor is the Vedic revelation identified or equated with this human conduit, the way it is done in the case of the Christ and the revealed word in the Bible. Does this imply that anyone can ascribe any meaning to the mantras of the Vedic Samhitas? No. On the contrary, it simply means that the revealed truth in speech form is still animated by the same suprasensuous energy which, in the first instance, had compelled the human conduit to spill out this tremendously overwhelming, uncontainable feeling concomitant to the direct experience of the truth by her.

And yet we find in the Western Indological approach to ancient Hindu texts like the Vedic Samhitas an insistence on their human authorship, and as a corollary to it, the assertion that such texts are coloured by the personal prejudices and biases of the author(s) to one extent or another. How do we make sense of the Hindu tradition’s characterisation of a body of texts as free of specificity to any person in the face of this insistence by the Western (and West-trained Indian) Indologist, including the philologist?

The first challenge that we can recognise in any such attempt is the great divide — erected by times, environs, and attitudes — between the ancient and the modern author. A legitimate question can be raised on the very concept of the ‘author’ in this context: Was the ancient ‘author’ the same in all respects as the modern author of texts, or is (s)he merely the recorder, the codifier of what is revealed to him/her? Can we — even should we — analyse and evaluate the authorship of these two kinds of texts, viz sacred ancient Hindu texts on one hand and modern texts on sacred as well as secular subjects emanating from any culture on the other, by the same standards, parameters, and dṛiṣṭi?

The answer is a decisive, resounding ‘No!’, and this negative reply can be validated by both analytic as well as synthetic means. Let us first look at the analytic approach:

Gadamer, the German philosopher whose work we referred to at the very beginning of this article, has in the last century transformed the scenario of hermeneutics and textual studies. In this field concerning the phenomena and methods of understanding and interpreting texts, and especially literary texts, Gadamer’s main contribution consists in demonstrating the limitations of any method or set of rules in understanding and interpreting texts. Notably, Gadamer was a student of classical philology himself and was thoroughly well-versed with the methodology of both Higher Criticism as well as Lower Criticism.

By developing a philosophical approach to understanding and interpreting texts, Gadamer shifts the focus of hermeneutics from methodological approaches to a practical and participatory activity. This approach, ironically, falls in line with the Classical Mīmāṃsaka insistence on praxis as far as the Vedic mantras and their application are concerned. This shift of emphasis in Western hermeneutics had most impacted the field of literary studies.

It should be noted that the Vedic Saṃhitās are first and foremost a body of spiritual-sacerdotal texts, then they are literary texts due to the high aesthetic and poetic quotient of the mantras, and only then they can be regarded, if at all, as texts containing ‘historical’ and ‘sociological’ information. This is obvious if we pay attention to how these texts have been used historically by the people, viz Hindus, who are still following the tradition of employing these mantras.

Unfortunately, our friends from the disciplines of philology and West-inspired Indology generally like to reverse this order, treating the Vedic Saṃhitās first and foremost as a bundle of socio-historical information, and only then as literary and/or sacred, religious texts — with the result that they end up inverting and often perverting the meaning and purport of the Vedic mantras. We do not know whether Gadamer was aware of the Mīmāṃsakas or the commentators of the Vedas like Sāyaṇa, Sri Aurobindo or Sri Anirvan, but we do know that Martin Heidegger, his predecessor in developing philosophical hermeneutics, was familiar with and indeed influenced by Bhāratīya thought.

Again, Gadamer, as well as Heidegger, become relevant in discussing the synthetic approach to understanding and interpreting texts. From Yāska and Jaimini to the Bhagavad Gita, Sāyaṇa and even the twentieth-century commentator Sri Anirvan —all Bhāratīya masters have taken the approach of synthesising Karma or the ritualistic aspect and Jñāna or metaphysical as well as mystical knowledge aspect of the Vedic mantras.

The Bhagavad Gita takes the lead in the matter by explicitly asserting that all karma (in the broadest sense embracing all actions) culminates in Jñāna (the liberating knowledge of ultimate reality). Coming back to Western hermeneutics of the twentieth century, Heidegger emphasised that aspect of the text which reveals its own world and its own truth as distinct from the modern reader’s, who often tends to judge the ancient text by the standards of his own temporal-spatial value system.

Instead of isolated parts and aspects of texts, Gadamer liked to emphasise on the Gebilde i.e., ‘structure’, consisting of the text, its presentation or performance (like chanting the Vedic mantra during a yajña), and the immediate presence of the participators. Borrowing the poetic metaphors of Rilke, Gadamer tells us that this structure is the enduring shape of a play or game wherein “the players are caught up in the shaped activity of the game itself” (Truth and Method tr. by Weinsheimer and Marshall, 2013). Within such a framework, it is not too important to know exactly when and who wrote/composed the text and in what “original form”. In Gadamer’s words:

“Perhaps, you are led to articulate the whole structure of the poem by these references to the genus in a better way? That can happen through historical conditions, biographical conditions. In short, this may be helpful, but may also be disturbing. I would prefer not to know too exactly when Goethe wrote the poem, “Uber allen Gipfeln”. I think the speech, the address of the poem is at least so that we are appealed to and we should answer to it. We have to listen, and I would say in the first place, to its silence.

Literary hermeneutics, I think, begins with listening to the silence; then it goes through a verbalisation, an explanation, and must end in listening. Well, that, of course, is — how would I call it? — the description of a hermeneutic of good will; it is our effort to let it speak again; it is our openness to this effort.” (Gadamer’s lecture at York University, Toronto, in 1978)

Note that Gadamer does not discard the questions of who, when, what, or how; he simply relegates them to a secondary role compared to the question of how we “answer to” or respond to a text when it appeals to us through its performance, its invocation in praxis, in the here and now. It is this maturity and the resultant discerning ability of prioritisation of issues in hermeneutics, consummately demonstrated through successive ages of the Bhāratīya civilisation by the Nirukta-kāra Yāska, the Mīmāṃsakas, the makers of the Itihāsa-Purāṇa tradition, and even by the Tāntrikas as well as by our modern rishis and Bauls like Sri Aurobindo and Sri Anirvan (Sri Anirvan liked to identify himself as a Baul), that we need to address in dealing with ancient Hindu religious texts and their meaning, now more than ever.

Sreejit Datta is Director of Centre for Civilisational Studies and Assistant Professor at the Rashtram School of Public Leadership, Rishihood University. Views expressed are personal.

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