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The Vedas Should Be Understood, Not Just Read

The Vedas are the most ancient texts in the world, and yet the most misunderstood. Let's take a deeper look at the wisdom hidden in the bedrock of Indian civilization.
The Vedas Should Be Understood, Not Just Read
Photo by Kotagauni Srinivas / Unsplash
ॐ सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनः । सर्वे सन्तु निरामयाः ।
सर्वे भद्राणि पश्यन्तु । मा कश्चिद्दुःखभाग्भवेत् ।
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥

May all sentient beings be at peace, may no one suffer from illness
May all see what is auspicious, may no one suffer
Om peace peace peace

The Vedas are the most ancient texts in the world, containing profound knowledge on various subjects, discovered by sages after intense meditation. Spread across four books, the Vedas convey concepts and discoveries in mathematics, music, yoga, astronomy, spirituality, philosophy, and even more. This knowledge is concealed in the form of hymns and seemingly simplistic rituals, most of which appear to be prayers to nature in appreciation for rain, fire, air, and animals such as cows, horses and goats. However, when understood on a deeper level, they reveal profound wisdom.

Gau (literally translated as cow) and ashva (literally horse) are the most common animal symbols used in the Vedas. But on a deeper level, gau symbolizes light or knowledge and ashva symbolizes energy or speed, both representing qualities of the respective animal.

Unfortunately, most of the English interpretations of the Vedas have been authored by a handful of narrow-minded scholars that did not have a solid understanding of Sanskrit or the Vedic ethos. These word-by-word dictionary translations simply do not convey the core values of the Vedas, and in effect, their shallow interpretation has led to a farrago of misinterpretations and misconceptions without any of the context or explanation that is in the original Sanskrit texts.

For example, in these lines of the Rigveda:

द्वा सुपर्णा सयुजा सखाया समानं वृक्षं परिषस्वजाते।
तयोरन्यः पिप्पलं स्वाद्वत्त्यनश्नन्नन्यो अभिचाकशीति ॥

Two birds, inseparable companions, perch on the same tree.
One eats the fruit, the other looks on.

~ Rigveda 1.164.20

If read literally, these lines would be about two birds sitting in a tree, one eating and the other watching. However, it takes a level of focus and clarity to see that these lines reveal a deeper relationship between the physical body and the all-seeing divinity within. The body enjoys the world (eating, drinking, sleeping) while the divinity, or higher self, is simply an observer.

We can consider another example from the Rigveda:

सुपर्णं वस्ते मृगो अस्या दन्तो गोभिः संनद्धा पतति प्रसूता

With the help of the gau, the feathered and sharp arrow is aimed at the target. It hits the target immediately.

~ Rigveda 6.75.11

If a person does not have proper knowledge of Sanskrit, they will interpret the word gau as a literal cow and will believe the arrow is made of cow-hide. But a dedicated learner will see that gau is a synonym for the bow-string which will set the arrow in motion. The subtle meaning here is that one who aims at the target with knowledge (gau) is able achieve their goals.

A similar example is the misinterpretation of the Ashvamedh Yagya in the Rigveda. This set of hymns appears to suggest an elaborate practice of horse (ashva) sacrifice. However, as Shri Aurobindo described in his book The Secret of the Veda, any mention of ashva is actually an extended metaphor for energy. When translated word to word, the sacrifice is a horse, in return for cows, horses, and other wealth. However, the deeper meaning of this ‘sacrifice’ is that if one gives their energy (ashva) for a cause (the yagya), knowledge (gau) will be received in return.

Another example is the 6.28 sukta from Rigveda which focuses on the protection and health of cows:

आ गावो अग्मन्नुत भद्रमक्रन्त्सीदन्तु गोष्ठे रणयन्त्वस्मे ।
प्रजावतीः पुरुरूपा इह स्युरिन्द्राय पूर्वीरुषसो दुहानाः ॥ १
न ता नशन्ति न दभाति तस्करो नासामामित्रो व्यथिरा दधर्षति ।
देवाँश्च याभिर्यजते ददाति च ज्योगित्ताभिः सचते गोपतिः सह ॥ ३
न ता अर्वा रेणुककाटो अश्नुते न संस्कृतत्रमुप यन्ति ता अभि ।
उरुगायमभयं तस्य ता अनु गावो मर्तस्य वि चरन्ति यज्वनः ॥ ४
गावो भगो गाव इन्द्रो मे अच्छान् गावः सोमस्य प्रथमस्य भक्षः ।
इमा या गावः स जनास इन्द्र इच्छामीद्धृदा मनसा चिदिन्द्रम् ॥ ५
यूयं गावो मेदयथा कृशं चिदश्रीरं चित्कृणुथा सुप्रतीकम् ।
भद्रं गृहं कृणुथ भद्रवाचो बृहद्वो वय उच्यते सभासु ॥ ६
प्रजावतीः सूयवसं रिशन्तीः शुद्धा अपः सुप्रपाणे पिबन्तीः ।
मा वः स्तेन ईशत माघशंसः परि वो हेती रुद्रस्य वृज्याः ॥ ७

The cows come to us for our welfare. A large number of cows in different forms and colors live happily in the cowshed and have plentiful calves, and give us milk at dawn to offer to Indra.

These cows are never lost or harmed by thieves. The weapons of the enemies never harm them. The owners of cows, who worship gods with the cows’ help, stay happy with the cows forever.

The very fast horses can never catch the cows. They never go to the place of slaughter or sacrifice.  The cows always roam without fear on the vast lands of their worshiper.

May cows bring prosperity. May Indra grant us cows. Cow milk is used for preparing Soma. O people! These cows are definitely Indra. I pray to Indra with deep and sincere meditation.

O Cows! You make us strong. You make the weak and ill bodies strong and beautiful. O Cows, with your auspicious voices, you make our homes auspicious. Your mighty power and strength is praised in the yagya.

O cows! May you have many offspring, may you graze on delicious grass, and drink pure water. May neither thieves nor predatory animals get control over you. May you be spared from Rudra’s weapons of death.

~ Rigveda 6.28

When merely read, this sukta suggests that one should have cows and their safety and protection should always be ensured. However, when deeply understood, the sukta explains the importance and power of knowledge (gau). It also describes the by-products of knowledge: understanding, represented by milk (dugdham), and clarity, represented by ghee (ghritam). One should strive to gain and protect diverse knowledge (gau in different forms and colors), obtain understanding (dugdham), and then derive clarity (ghritam), without getting conquered by distractions or impulses (horses, thieves).

A particular point to note throughout these verses is the use of the words aghnya, or “that which shall not be killed,” and aditi, or “one that shall not be cut to pieces.” These words are frequently used as synonyms for the cow, and animals in general:

यः पौरुषेण क्रविषा समंक्ते यो अश्वेन पशुना यातुधानः।
ये अघ्न्याये भरति क्षीरमग्ने तेषां शीर्षाणि हरसापि वृश्चः॥

O fire! Burn the heads of the demons who feed on the flesh of human beings, who feeds on horses and on cows, the one who carries away the milk of the aghnya (unslayable) cow.

~ Rigveda 10.87.16
अनागोहत्या वै भीमा कृत्ये ।
मा नो गामश्वं पुरुषं वधीः ॥

It is definitely a great sin to kill innocents. Do not kill our cows, horses and people.

~ Atharvaveda 10.1.29
घृतं दुहानामदितिं जनायाग्ने मा हिंसी: ।

The cow, provider of milk and ghee, should not be harmed.

~ Yajurveda 13.49

In the deeper meaning of these verses, aghnya and aditi mean knowledge and energy, both of which cannot be destroyed.

It is important to also address misconceptions that have arisen due to lack of knowledge. Despite evidence as discussed above, many historians and scholars claim that the Vedas are extremely ritualistic. Furthermore, in the Brahmanas (a set of ancient commentaries on the Vedas), these historians claim to find proof of beef consumption. In their ignorance of Sanskrit, the historians translate each word separately and conclude that phrases like annam vai gau literally mean “cow is food.”

अन्नं वै गौः ।

Gau is nourishment

~ Taittiriya Brahmana

Just as English literature is analyzed for symbolism and metaphors, so too should the Vedas. And by lazily using a dictionary, the translators have actually gotten the literal meaning incorrect as well.

These scholars conveniently ignore the numerous other verses from the Brahamanas that are similar to annam vai gau:

अन्तरिक्षं गौः ।

Gau is the universe.

~ Aitareya Brahmana 4.15
गावो वा आदित्याः ।

Gau is the sun.

~ Aitareya Brahmana 4.17
यज्ञो वै गौः ।

Gau is yagya.

~ Taittiriya Brahmana
प्राणो हि गौः ।

Gau is consciousness.

~ Shatapatha Brahmana

Phrases like annam vai gau are deeply symbolic. In the literal sense, they greatly praise the cow and compare it at epic scales, such as the universe and the sun. However, in a deeper context, they explain how knowledge nourishes and nurtures us. Hence, annam vai gau, or “knowledge is nourishment.” Why would the Vedas praise the cow in such detail, so much as to center entire metaphors around it, only to advise that it be killed for meat or sacrifice?

The evidence above is just the tip of the iceberg. Whether it be yoga, meditation, turmeric milk, Ayurvedic medicine, or cow hugging, we have repeatedly seen Vedic knowledge and practices being misinterpreted, disrespected, and appropriated. It is only after something becomes a popular fad (like cow hugging) or a profitable business (like yoga) that the ignorant scholars move to misinterpret another verse from the Vedas.

Perhaps this is being done purposefully, or simply because these scholars lack the dedication and focus needed to understand something as magnificent as the Vedas. In the end, the Vedas are filled with secrets of life that are unlocked only to those with dedicated and focused intentions.

The Vedas are not just something to read, but rather something to be understood.

Dr. David Frawley puts it best:

Perhaps a new age of serious, dedicated scholars can help spread the true wealth of knowledge from the Vedas for the prosperity of the entire world.