Beyond the experience of duality

The Vedic Revelation

Above: The Rig Veda. British Library

This article was first published in The Tablet 5 November 1977

The Vedic Revelation

An appraisal of An Anthology of the Vedas for modern man and Contemporary Celebration by Raimundo Panikkar

The Christian revelation, that is, the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ derives, like the Jewish and the Islamic, from the revelation of God to Israel. From the earliest times it has been believed that this was the unique revelation of God to man and that outside the Jewish-Christian tradition there is no revealed religion. Hinduism was considered to be ‘polytheistic’ and ‘pantheistic’ and Buddhism ‘atheistic.’ It seemed impossible to expect any genuine revelation of God in such a context. This ignorance was assisted by the fact that translations of the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures were often very inadequate. This applies particularly to such translations of the Vedas as those of Max Muller in the Sacred Books of the East, which are not only uninspiring but frequently unintelligible. The result is that the Vedas have remained a sealed book for most people. The publication of The Vedic Experience by Raimundo Panikkar (Darton, Longman & Todd, £20) is therefore an event of considerable importance. It means that for the first time it is possible for an English reader to understand something of the depth and significance of the Vedic revelation. Though only s selection of Vedic texts is given, it covers the whole height and depth and breadth of the Vedic experience in excellent translations with an admirable commentary, which interprets it in terms meaningful to modern man.

When we approach this Vedic experience, we must remind ourselves that it has always been considered by Hindus to be revelation in the strict sense. According to Hindu tradition the Vedas are sruti, that is, literally, “that which has been heard.” They are also said to be nitya, that is eternal, and apauruseya, that is without human authorship. There can be no doubt therefore as to their estimation among Hindus. As for the charges of ‘polytheism’ and ‘pantheism,’ we must note that both these are derived from the Greek, and are simply attempts to place the Vedas within the categories of western thought. The Rig Veda itself is perfectly clear on the subject of polytheism. A famous verse in the first book says: “They speak of Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni; and there are the divine Suparna and Garutmar. The one Being the wise call by many names.” (Rig Veda 1. 164, 46). Hindus certainly worship many ‘gods’ but these ‘gods’ are universally recognised to be ‘names and forms’ of the one Being, who is without name and form. The one supreme Being, Truth or Reality in Hindu religion is always conceived to be beyond every name and beyond conception; the ‘gods’ are the names and forms under which he manifests himself. Recent sociological surveys have revealed that this is understood not only by the educated Hindu but also by the ordinary villager. He will spontaneously say, there is only one God, the gods are his manifestations.

As for the charge of pantheism – pantheism means strictly that God is identified with the universe. But the Upanishads declare uncompromisingly: “Next follows the teaching by ‘not this, not this’ for there is nothing higher than this, than if one says ‘not this, not this’.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.3.6). God, or Brahman – the name for the ‘one Being,’ insofar as it has a name – is beyond anything in this world and can be identified with nothing. This does not mean that the Vedas do not use language which is apparently pantheistic. For instance, they will say: all this (the world) is Brahman (Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.4.). But this must be taken with the opposite affirmation “neti, neti, not this, not this.” God is at once totally transcendent and totally immanent, and the two aspects are always, as it were, in tension. The fact is, of course, that the relation between God and the world is a ‘mystery,’ something beyond human comprehension, and it is the great virtue of the Upanishads that they always preserve this sense of mystery. They are essentially a mystical doctrine, and it is this that has led to misunderstanding among western scholars who have no mystical experience.

A good example of this is the charge of ‘monism.’ This again, of course, is a word derived from the Greek and has no place in Indian thought. The Vedas declare not that God and the world are ‘one’ but that they are ‘not two.’ This is precisely true. You cannot add the world to God and make two. The world adds nothing to God and takes nothing away from him. The world does not exist in the same sense as God exists and there is no proper comparison between them. It is this awareness that underlies the whole Vedic experience: God and the world are experienced in their mysterious interrelationship and there is no attempt to divide them by the categories of rational thought. The relationship has to be experienced and then it is known as neither ‘one’ nor ‘two’ but as ‘not two.’ This is the experience of ‘non-duality.’ Which is the key to the Vedic experience. This is the meaning of the ‘great sayings,’ “I am Brahman,” Thou are That,” “All this is Brahman,” These are the expressions of a mystical experience, which cannot properly be expressed in words.

Perhaps if one wanted to express the difference between the Hebrew and the Vedic experience of God, one could say that the Hebrew approach is through the transcendence of God. For the Hebrew, God is the high and mighty One, who has his dwelling in Heaven. He is above the world and is never to be confused with it. Even the Christian is taught to pray: “Our Father in Heaven.” This is, of course, perfectly legitimate, but it easily gives the impression that God, is somehow ‘up there,’ which has caused so much embarrassment to theologians. But the Hindu approach is from the immanence of God in creation. “He is the one God, hidden in all beings, all-pervading. The Self within all beings, watching over all works, dwelling in all beings, the perceiver, the only One, free from qualities.” (Svetasvatara Upanishad. 6.11.). Yet just as the Hebrew comes to realise that the God who is transcendent above the world is also immanent and makes his dwelling among men, so the Hindu comes to realise that the immanent God is also the transcendent. One who is beyond all speech and thought. In other words, the two revelations have to be seen as complementary. Each is a unique approach to the one divine mystery, which cannot properly be expressed, and each gives a unique insight into the mystery of human existence.

It is not long since Darton, Longman & Todd gave us an edition of the Bible with scholarly notes and introductions making it intelligible to modern man. They have now given us an edition of the Vedic revelation, beautifully produced and presented with exact scholarship. It may well be that this will prove to be no less valuable, opening up a new world, and revealing a new understanding of God, man and the world.