Why another translation of the Ṛgveda?

Many translations of Ṛgveda are in existence – from Griffith (1829) to the most recent effort of Jamison & Brereton (2014). So how is another translation justified?

Problematic absence of spirituality in Ṛgveda

Conventional translations are colored by the dominant liturgical use of vedic hymns,[1] and the belief that they were ‘composed’ for these purposes.[2] The resulting tenor of these translations has led historians to conclude that the earliest religion was “primitive animism” and ritual sacrifice was its central feature,[3] and even encouraged some historians to deny the revelatory origin of Ṛgveda.[4]

Given the centrality of ritual in this perspective, spiritual striving in the hymns finds little place in the translations.[5] For instance, ‘meditation’ in different moods appear only 9 times in Griffith’s translation of the 15,553 verses, only once in a recent translation.[6] Moreover, its substance is nowhere recognisable as what modern Hindus regard as meditation (Shastri 2017, 80). In general, classical devotional and contemplative techniques find little recognition and no mention.

Viṣṇu, Śiva and other major Hindu gods are eclipsed

Another result of these translations is that major Hindu deities like Viṣṇu, Śiva and Devī are fully eclipsed by gods like Indra.

With the intent and meaning of the hymns securely chained to ritual purposes by conventional understanding, all that remains is to count the number of times the name of a deity occurs in the verses and the dedication of the hymns, and bestow a rank.

Indra finds dedication in nearly a quarter of the 1028 hymns and is mentioned over 2900 times in the 15,553 verses of Ṛgveda. In contrast, the name ‘Viṣṇu’ occurs only 113 times and the name ‘Śiva’, not even once. Only a few hymns in the Ṛgveda are dedicated to Viṣṇu, singly or with Indra, while Rudra has only three dedicated to him (Jamison & Brereton 2014, 52).

Sparsity of explicit mention of major Hindu deities has prompted a perverted understanding. Doniger (2009, 198) speaks lightly of “cameo appearances” of the deities in Ṛgveda, while it is generally concluded that neither Viṣṇu nor Śiva had the extraordinary stature in Ṛgveda that they have in contemporary Hinduism.[7] When this is added to the belief that “Ṛgveda does not recognize Devipuja” (Maṇī 1963, 328), little is left over for Hindu beliefs and practices.

Hindu beliefs – sourced from Ṛgveda or a lateral entry?

What is known as ‘Hindu’ is an umbrella, a ‘rainbow coalition’ as it were, of beliefs and practices that deal with life and sasāra and are directly or indirectly tied up with the struggle for moka, enlightenment, or to realise the Supreme Being.

Three aspects of this ‘rainbow coalition’ are noteworthy.

First, is the great importance to spiritual renewal of the movements and messages, through widespread meditation and devotion that find their epitome in gurus emerging from time to time, and are often institutionalised in the guru-paramparā.

Second, is the central importance of Viṣṇu, Śiva, Devī or the impersonal Brahman, Puruṣa-Prakṛti in these movements.

Third, is the common understanding of all these diverse movements that their core beliefs have the sanction of Ṛgveda.

All this is belied by existing translations. Going by them, one would be led to infer that the ‘rainbow coalition of Hindu beliefs’ entered laterally or sideways into the history of our people, and that these beliefs and practices were not sourced from the Ṛgveda. The existing translations therefore lay the foundation to challenge the millenia old beliefs of diverse Hindu movements about their roots and sanction.[8]

Ṛgveda – a multipurpose spiritual scripture

While existing translations of Ṛgveda bind it closely to liturgical use, others have aṚgued that it can be that it “can be interpreted in several different planes or levels” (Kashyap, 2000, 1-2). This implies that Ṛgvedic verses could serve many purposes – not exclusively liturgical. This is mainly due to the way in which the Ṛgvedic verses were received and composed.

Modern scholars think that the vedic hymn is just a message from the worshipper to the deity – a one sided communication (Elizarenkova 1995, 9). Against this, a trilateral relation is revealed by the structural origin of the vedas.

Vedic mantras are said to be apprehended in the navel and seen by the seers in the mind ‘as words with form and color’.[9] These words are arranged and organised into mantras by the ṛṣis. The degrees of freedom afforded by this process, enabled sage poets to send messages to deities and often also to speak to their human listeners about various other matters. Many purposes could be served by the same verse by a skilful use of multiple meanings.

Liturgical use is only one purpose of the Ṛgveda. Some, like Sri Aurobindo have challenged its centrality,[10] and have suggested that its primary purpose was spiritual:

Veda is primarily intended to serve for spiritual enlightenment and self culture. (Aurobindo 1998, 33)

He adds that although the verses had many meanings, they conveyed

a spiritual experience and knowledge and a psychological discipline of self-culture which were then the highest achievement of the human race. (Aurobindo 1998, 8)

Since it was common in those times to conceal higher knowledge for whatever reason,[11] the ṛṣis “clothed their language in words and images which had, equally, a spiritual sense for the elect, a concrete sense for the mass of ordinary worshippers.” (ibid)

If vedic hymns dedicated to gods also address the spiritual concerns of men, then this bidirectionality of intent and content must be sought within their language. The problem is essentially linguistic. This was best expressed by Aurobindo who said:

A hypothesis of the sense of Veda must always proceed, to be sure and sound, from a basis that clearly emerges in the language of the Veda itself. … there should be clear indications in the explicit language of the hymns which will guide us to that sense. (Aurobindo 1998, 34)

In other words, a fresh translation seems to be called for. This is what this study attempts.

Syncreticization, the Trinity and Indra

Apart from promoting spiritual striving, the Ṛgveda seems to have syncreticization as an important objective.

For this, words that promoted spiritual effort had to be so chosen so as to be compatible with the major belief systems in the sub-continent, which seem to have been Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava, Sākta and Sāmkhya. Moreover the same words had to serve a ritual purpose and address specific minor deities and divinised attributes.

This explains why there is such sparsity of explicit mention to Śiva, Viṣṇu and Devī. The abundance of reference to Indra, on the other hand, was due to two reasons.

First, Indra means soul as well as the deity. This double meaning enabled Vaiśvāmitra to package spiritual injunctions along with invocation to the deities.

Second, the verses through Vaiśvāmitra make it clear that Indra had initiated a major spiritual movement that had embraced and commingled major belief systems as well as diverse sections of society.

Thus, Indra’s importance comes from his instrumentality in spiritual striving, rather than due to his being its ultimate purpose.

Why Vaiśvāmitra?

It is common to speak of the ‘style and content’ of the Ṛgveda as a whole. This may well be an error.

The frequency and nature of references to river Sarasvatī in the Ṛgveda indicate that this river might have been in its prime at least when the older hymns were received. Later verses show an increasing mention of Sindhu.[12] Geological and satellite evidence now available suggests that Sarasvatī had begun to die by 3000 BCE and had disappeared by 2000 BCE.[13] This may have been the time when the focus shifted to Sindhu. This means that the Ṛgvedic verses were received and composed at least over a thousand years if not more.

Instead of assuming linguistic or stylistic unity of a vast collection of 15,553 verses received over one or more millenia, it seems safer to proceed translating sage by sage. Vaiśvāmitra, whose hymns open the Ṛgveda Samhita, offers a natural starting point for study.

Our study also reveals that although many verses in Ṛgveda are only eulogies, most, almost all, of the hundred verses that come to us through Vaiśvāmitra contain a treasure of spiritual knowledge and wisdom, and frequently – historical allusion. Whether or not, this was one reason why sage Vedavyāsa chose the hymns of Vaiśvamitra to open the Ṛgveda Samhita, this finding amply justifies our approach.


Aurobindo Sri (1998), The Secret of the Veda, The Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo, vol 15, Sri Aurobindo Ashram Publications Dept., Pondicherry.

Banerji R.D. 1939, Prehistoric, Ancient and Hindu India, Blackie and Sons (India) Ltd, Bombay.

Carpenter David (1994), “The Mastery of Speech, Canonicity and Control in the Vedas”, in Authority, Anxiety, and Canon : Essays in Vedic Interpretation, ed. Patton, Laurie L., State University of New York Press, 1994.

Davies John 1889 The Bhagavad Gītā or The Sacred Lay – A Sanskrit Philosophical Poem, 2nd ed., Trübner & Go, London.

Doniger Wendy 2009 The Hindus: An Alternative History, The Penguin Press, New York.

Elizarenkova, T. (1995) Language and Style of the Vedic Rsis, State University of New York Press.

Feuerstein G., Kak S. and Frawley D. (2001), In Search of the Cradle of Civilisation: New Light on Ancient India, 2 ed., Quest Books, Illinois.

Griffith, Ralph T.H. 1896, The Hymns of the Rigveda, 2nd ed. Tr. Ralph T.H. Griffith, Kotagiri (Nilgiri).

Jamison S. W. and M. Witzel (1992) Vedic Hinduism, unpublished, http://www.people.fas. harvard.edu/~witzel/vedica.pdf, (accessed 12-6-2017)

Jamison, Stephanie W. and Joel Brereton 2014, The Rigveda: the earliest religious poetry of India, Tr. Jamison, Stephanie W. and Joel Brereton, Oxford University Press, New York.

Jha D.N. 2009 Ancient India in Historical Outline, rev. & enl. ed., Manohar Publishers, New Delhi.

Kashyap, R.L (2000) Why Read Rigveda, Indian Institute of World Culture, Bangalore.

Maṇī, Veṭṭam (1963) The Purāṇic Encyclopedia, Motilal Banarasidas, New Delhi.

Nikhilananda, Swami nd. English translation of Aitareya Upanishad, Tr. Nikhilananda, http://sanatan.intnet.mu/

Patton, Laurie L. 1994, “Poeis and Fishes: Modern Indian Interpretations of the Vedic Rishi”, in Authority, Anxiety, and Canon: Essays in Vedic Interpretation, ed. Patton, Laurie L., State University of New York Press.

Robb Peter, A History of India, Palgrave, New York, 2002.

Shastri Rahul A. 2017, “Sarasvatī & higher knowledge in Ṛgveda: A study in Vaiśvāmitra”, International Journal of Sanskrit Research, 3 (3), http://www.anantajournal.com.

Sivananda Swami (1994), Four Stages of Sound, in Kundalini Yoga, 10th edn, Divine Life Society, India, www reprint at http://www.dlshq.oṚg/download/kundalini.htm (accessed on 12-6-2017).

Smith, Frederick M. 1994, “Puranaveda”, in Authority, Anxiety, and Canon : Essays in Vedic Interpretation, ed. Patton, Laurie L., State University of New York Press.

Thapar Romila 1990, A History of India, vol. 1, Penguin Books, London.

[1] Thus it is said that the canonical form of the veda “must be understood in relationship to the demands of the ritual system for which it served, whether the hymns that it contains were originally composed for such use or not” (Carpenter 1994, 23).

[2] The hymns were ‘primarily or only for liturgical use’ (Jamison & Witzel 1992, 6; Jamison & Brereton 2014, 25, 53) or inextricably linked with it (Elizarenkova 1995, 7). A few like Doniger (2009, 168) allow for a possible disjunction in original motive, but emphasise that ‘all of them were meant for ritual performance’.

[3] The earliest religious ideas of the Aryans were those of a primitive animism … The central feature of Aryan religious life was … sacrifice.” (Thapar, 1990)

[4] “The importance of the sacrifice suggests that the texts were ritualistic and not revelatory in origin.” (Robb 2002, 13)

[5] It has recently been suggested that this may have been encouraged by the ignorance of spirituality and yoga in European scholars [Feuerstein etal, 2001, 21].

[6] Ṛg iv.54.1 “He who with his strength propped apart the ends of the earth, with a roar—Bṛhaspati possessing three seats— him with the gladdening tongue did the seers of old, the inspired poets in meditation, set in front—” (Jamison & Brereton 2014, 634).

[7] Jamison & Brereton 2014, 52-53, also Banerji 1939, 35, although it is accepted that Viṣṇu is more important than Śiva in the vedas. (Smith, 1994, 98).

[8] The problem was clearly stated by Sri Aurobindo long back:

In the fixed tradition of thousands of years they have been revered as the origin and standard of all that can be held as authoritative and true … The name borne by them was Veda, the knowledge, — the received name for the highest spiritual truth of which the human mind is capable. But if we accept the current interpretations, … the whole of this sublime and sacred reputation is a colossal fiction. (Aurobindo 1998, 5)

[9] “Vedas are the sound manifestation of Íśvara. This sound in its germ undifferentiated form, is felt only in práṇa. But being undifferentiated, it cannot be understood. As the sound differentiates and develops, it is called ‘paśyantí’. “The seat of paśyantí is the navel”, but it “finds manifestation in the mind”, where it can be experienced as “a word which has colour and form…” provided that one has “inner vision.” (Sivananda 1994)

[10] Also “… Rigveda is full of spiritual and psychological wisdom” (Kashyap, 2000, 1-2).

[11] The concealment of spirituality may also have been divinely inspired, since in Upanishadic wisdom, the gods favour the indirect:

“… fond of the invisible, of the secret, as if indeed, are gods, enemies to the direct” (parokśapriyā iva hi devāḥ pratyakśadviṣaḥ Bṛ. U 4.2.2; cf also Ait. U 1.3.14).

[12] The oldest hymns have 45 references to Sarasvatī, and only 5 to Sindhu indicating that these hymns originally reflected a civilisation centred at river Sarasvatī. The mixed age books have equal references to Sindhu and Sarasvatī (6 and 7 res). In the youngest hymns, the references to Sindhu increase to 38, while there are only 10 references to Sarasvatī. Gangā is mentioned only twice in Griffith’s translation.

[13] Saraswati – the ancient river lost in the desert, A. V. Sankaran, http://www.iisc.ernet.in/currsci/oct25/articles20.htm