This paper was presented at
Psychology: The Indian Contribution
National Conference on
Indian Psychology, Yoga and Consciousness
organised by the Indian Council of Philosophical Research
at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education
Pondicherry, India, 10-13 December 2004
(click to enlarge)
The Vedic legend of the Aṅgirasa Ṛṣis and the lost cows
By Anuradha Choudry
The Vedas, considered as the oldest texts in the world, are regarded as the fountainhead of Bhāratīya culture. “One might almost say that ancient India was created by the Veda and Upanishads and that the vision of inspired seers made a people.” (Sri Aurobindo, 1997a, p. 264) In fact, throughout the Bhāratīya tradition, the scriptures have always been considered with utmost reverence and have been declared as coming from the highest source of knowledge – yasmin vijñāte sarvam sarvamidam vijñātam (Śāṇḍilya Upaniṣad, 2.2)– knowing which everything here is known.
Some scholars treat the Vedas as socio-historic texts that describe warring tribes paying tributes to gods and goddesses to win their favour. Others, more conservative, regard the texts as a detailed manual for the performance of yajñas or material sacrifices. Some others consider them as repositories of great scientific knowledge. But the question that arises is that if these interpretations of the Vedas alone were true, then why did the later Upaniṣadic Seers, whose deep metaphysical insight has been widely acknowledged, hold them in such high esteem? Furthermore how could these so-called ritualistic hymns or pastoral chants have been the inspiration for philosophical treatises marked for their intellectual genius if they didn’t contain at least the essence of those unique thought-systems? Judging from their offshoots, there has to be an important aspect of the texts which has been overlooked by those commentators who chose to interpret them merely from a literal perspective.
Even if we were to conclude on the basis of these arguments that the content of the Vedas is far more profound than the sense usually attributed to them, one might still wonder if that knowledge is of any value to the present modern age. Speaking of the relevance of the Vedas in our contemporary world Sri Aurobindo (1985) emphatically said, “The recovery of the perfect truth of the Veda is therefore not merely a desideratum of our modern intellectual curiosity, but a practical necessity for the future of the human race” (p. 168). But how do they qualify as a “practical necessity for the future of the human race”? The answer lies in Yāska’s commentary where he clearly states that the Vedas can be interpreted on three broad levels – ādhibhautika, ādhidaivika and ādhyātmika, viz. material, occult and spiritual.
Sri Aurobindo’s psycho-spiritual interpretation
Sri Aurobindo in his book, The Secret of the Veda, states that the Vedas become relevant to humanity as a whole only when they are accorded their ādhyātmika or spiritual interpretation. As a true scientist who is confident about the results of an experiment that he has himself undertaken, Sri Aurobindo arrived at his conclusions on the basis of his personal experiences when, during the course of his sādhanā, he realised that oft recurring figures like that of Ilā, Sarasvatī and other Vedic Godheads were closely associated with specific psychological states and processes. This led him to enquire whether these godheads could in fact be symbols of profound psycho-spiritual truths. He realised that the sacrifice mentioned in such detail is not just an outward act but primarily a conscious inward movement for self-purification. The offering to the gods symbolises an invocation to the higher forces in man that seek to raise him beyond his narrow human confine. To confirm his discovery of the symbolic nature of the Vedas, Sri Aurobindo attributed this deeper psycho-spiritual meaning systematically to various Vedic texts and found that the hymns acquired a sense which was not only consistent in its expression but revealed the psychological value of the Vedas which is universal in nature. The texts were no longer obscure and arbitrary chants of nomadic farmers but glorious songs of the inner adventure of the ṛṣis whose sole quest in life was the discovery and realization of truth, light andimmortality. This profound aspiration of theirs is best reflected in the Upaniṣadic mantra:
Om asato mā sadgamaya
tamaso mā jyotirgamaya
mṛtyormā amṛtaṁ gamaya
(Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 1.3.28)
This mantra is commonly translated as: Impel me from falsehood to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality. But there is another possible meaning that can be derived from the change of the preposition ‘from’ to ‘of’. Based on this change, the mantra may be translated as: Impel me to the truth of the falsehood; impel me to the light of the darkness; impel me to the immortality of death. This seldom acknowledged translation brings forth the secret search of the ṛṣi to discover techniques for a kind of vedic alchemy to make base metal into gold, to turn man’s undivine mortality into its potential divine immortality.
In this new light it becomes necessary to re-examine what the Vedas truly represent. The word Veda comes from the root ‘vid’ meaning ‘to know’ and also ‘to obtain’, ‘to discover’. ‘Veda’ therefore means ‘knowledge’ or ‘the knowledge to be obtained or discovered' and it has always been revered by tradition as such. The Veda is also known as ‘śruti’ or ‘hearing’ because they were not composed by any poet, apauruṣeya, but were heard by the ṛṣis or seers in the form of mantras during their meditation. Defining the mantra, Sri Aurobindo (1996) says: “The theory of the Mantra is that it is a word of power born out of the secret depths of our being where it has been brooded upon by a deeper consciousness than the mental, framed in the heart and not constructed by the intellect, held in the mind again concentrated on by the waking mental consciousness and then thrown out silently or vocally…precisely for the work of creation. The Mantra can not only create new subjective status in ourselves, alter our psychical being, reveal knowledge and faculties we did not before possess, can not only produce similar results in other minds than that of the user, but can produce vibrations in the mental and vital atmosphere which results in effects, in actions and even in the production of material forms on the physical plane” (p. 125-126). Such was the powerful content of the Veda and thus explains the need for it to be couched in symbols in order to protect it from the profane.
Moreover in order to fully grasp the esoteric sense of the Vedas it is important to be aware of the fourfold doctrine practiced by the ṛṣis.
The four doctrines of the mystics
The first doctrine declares that imperfect man has to ascend in his inner consciousness and live in a world of truth, light and immortality also called svar which is higher and superior to our world of existence. Secondly, that the purpose of human existence is to discover once more the path to the great world of svar, which is also the home of the truth, the right and the vast, and considered as the world of the sun. This path to be discovered is known in the Veda as ‘ṛtasya panthāḥ’ or ‘the way of the right’. The third doctrine of the Veda is often portrayed using three images.
The first is that our life is a battle ground of forces. Our existence is the result of a constant struggle between the powers of light and truth, the devas, who are companions and allies in man’s adventure to immortality, and the powers of darkness and falsehood, the dasyus, who hamper at every step man’s onward journey to self-realization. This battle between the two opposing forces of light and darkness is best depicted by two Vedic legends which contain in a seed-from the crux of the Veda. They are the legends of Indra releasing the waters, streams of truth, ṛtasya dhenavaḥ, from the grip of Vṛtra and that of the Aṅgirasa ṛṣis and the lost cows, a story that will be elaborated later in detail.
The second image is that of a yajña or sacrifice. As mentioned earlier this sacrifice does not refer to an outer ritualistic act but implies an inner action of offering and receiving. The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (XIV.1.2.261) says that man must sacrifice himself completely and perfectly in order to become divine even as the Divine sacrifices himself to become the world and man. Sacrifice is an act of creation; each time it is preformed it recreates the performer as well as the cosmos. (Reddy, 1991, p. 126) The whole universe according to the ṛṣi is engaged in a constant sacrifice where one increases in oneself that to which one sacrifices. But this sacrifice is generally unconscious. The Vedic ṛṣi therefore extols the need to make this into a conscious act. They knew that through a constant sacrifice to the higher powers man can not only acquire the nature of God’s consciousness but has also within him the capacity to transcend them by it.
The third image of the Veda is that of a journey, an ascent. The individual is seen as a hill with several layers of consciousness which man has to ascend with the help of the sacrifice and the battle till he reaches the illumined summits of the solar world of the truth-consciousness, of svar.
The fourth mystic doctrine of the Vedic ṛṣi speaks about the supreme secret of the ultimate reality. It declares that it is one “ekaṁ sat” or “tad ekam” (Reddy, 1991, p. 78). This one reality is attributed different names according to its special aspects and functions “ekaṁ sad viprā bahudāḥ vadanti” (Kashyap, 2003, I.164.46).
Furthermore in The Secret of the Veda, Sri Aurobindo elaborates on this psycho-spiritual approach of the scriptures saying that if key words like dhi, ghṛtam, soma and several others are attributed their symbolic sense, several passages and expressions, that are otherwise absurd in content, become suddenly very meaningful and practical. To cite an example, Indra’s horses are described as ghṛtasnu. Ghṛtam commonly means clarified butter. A literal translation would imply that Indra’s horses are dripping with ‘clarified butter’! But Sri Aurobindo describes ghṛtam as ‘clarified mind’. This interpretation is easily understood if one bears in mind that the language of the Vedas is an associative language where the word used to denote an object generally describes some aspect of it rather than serving as a mere denominator. This possibility arises because the Vedic language is not like the later classical one where language reached a definite form and shape but is complex and its structure is full of an amplitude and multiplicity and range of suggestions that coexist at different levels. Whether this is due to an insufficient vocabulary or whether it is purposefully done with great mastery and skill to hide something yet remains to be answered. Accordingly, the common feature between ‘clarified butter’ and ‘clarified mind’ is the process of clarification. Ghṛtam is the final result of opaque butter being subjected to heat: exposed to heat, the opaque butter acquires a certain translucency. As it is, butter is the very essence of milk which comes from ‘go’ which itself means both ‘cow’ and ‘ray of light’. The word ghṛtam comes from the root ‘ghṛ’, meaning ‘to shine’. Similarly, when the mind is opaque and lacks clarity, one can apply heat to it by the power of the will and aspiration, symbolised by Agni, and purify it to obtain the transparency which is the essence of mind, viz “clarity of mind” or “a rich and bright state or activity of the brain-power, medhā, as basis and substance of illumined thought” (Sri Aurobindo, 1997b, p. 70-71). We thus can understand how ghṛtam can symbolise clarity of mind. This imagery becomes more appropriate when we place it in the context of Indra’s horses being ghṛtasnū. Indra according to Sri Aurobindo represents the illumined mind, and horses, in many cultures, denote force, strength and power. Therefore when Indra’s horses are described as ghṛtasnū the ṛṣis must have meant that “the powers of the illumined mind are resplendent with clear and brilliant thought” rather than that “Indra’s horses are dripping with clarified butter”.
Let us now apply this psycho-spiritual reasoning to a whole legend in the Vedas and discover how it acquires a completely different and practical sense. One of the most oft-recurring legends of the Vedas is about the Aṅgirasa ṛṣis and the lost cows. The legend is as follows.
The legend of the Aṅgirasa ṛṣis and the lost cows
The cows of the Aṅgirasa ṛṣis have been stolen by the paṇis, dasyus and vṛtras and have been hidden in dark caves. The Aṅgirasa ṛṣis then, by means of a sacrifice, invoke the help of Indra, who, full of the soma wine, comes charged with the thunderbolt to retrieve the stolen cows. Saramā, the divine hound, traces the robbers who try to win her over so that she doesn’t give away their hideout. She declines their offers and leads Indra to their den. A fierce battle follows where Indra defeats the dark forces of the paṇis, dasyus and vṛtras and finally liberates the cows. Having liberated the cows he also releases the sun that ascends the hill to its own home of svar.
Literally understood, this story appears to be a typical myth where the gods fight the evil forces and emerge victorious. But if it were merely so, it would have had no direct appeal or relevance to the modern, rational and utilitarian mind! It is only when one reviews the legend from a psycho-spiritual angle that it acquires a profound relevance to our contemporary times, for it not only explains the conflicts in man’s nature but also provides solutions to them.
Seen from the psycho-spiritual basis, the Aṅgirasa ṛṣis symbolise those aspiring souls that go forth with brilliance to achieve their goal. The cows are denoted by the word ‘go’ which also means ‘light’. From the psycho-spiritual standpoint they represent ‘spiritual illuminations’. It is not difficult to understand the connection/association between ‘light’ and ‘knowledge’ because in modern terminology also we often use the expression ‘to be enlightened’ as synonymous with ‘gaining knowledge’. The villains in the story are the dark forces or the paṇis, the dasyus and the vṛtras. The word ‘paṇi’, meaning dealer, trafficker, comes from the root verb ‘paṇ’ meaning ‘to deal in’, ‘to barter’. The paṇis are those “powers of falsehood and ignorance who set their false knowledge, their false strength, will and works against the true knowledge, the true strength, will and works of the Gods and the Aryans” (Sri Aurobindo, 1997b, p. 229). They are thus the misers of existence (Sri Aurobindo, 1997b, p. 234), the forces in man, which are constantly engaged in a kind of bargaining with him. They steal the Lights from him and keep them for themselves without offering them to the gods (Kashyap, 2003, VII.6.3). We can easily recognise these forces at work within us for their promptings lead man away from his inner development. True to their nature, they are only concerned with temporary results and are forever preoccupied with petty calculations such as, “If I give this I will get that in return” and vice versa. They are solely concerned with their own profit and growth at the expense of man. Similarly, the word ‘dasyu’ comes from the root ‘das’ meaning ‘to divide, injure, hurt’. The dasyus are the dividers and plunderers, the hurters and the haters (Sri Aurobindo, 1997b, p. 378) in man’s consciousness who steal his happiness by causing innumerable divisions in him. And finally the word ‘vṛtra’ comes from the root ‘vṛ’, ‘to obstruct, to cover’. These are the forces in man that by obstructing the Truth, prevent him from becoming a complete and harmonized being.
As portrayed, the band of dasyus and their allies appear to be absolute villains bent on hindering and destroying man’s progress on his godward march but the ṛṣis saw beyond their apparent façade and recognised their more significant role in the whole scheme of the Universe. Sri Aurobindo says that “their office is to disturb that which is established in order to push man below or give him an opportunity of rising higher by breaking that which was good and harmonious in itself but imperfect, and in any case to render him dissatisfied with anything short of perfection and drive him continually to the Infinite…” (Sri Aurobindo, 1995, p. 445). In order to defeat these Forces the Aṅgirasa ṛṣis perform a sacrifice, for, the ṛṣis knew that “self-fulfillment by self-immolation, to grow by giving is the universal law” (Sri Aurobindo, 1995, p. 278). They knew also about the Upaniṣadic formula which said, “The eater eating is eating”…’That which refuses to give itself, is still the food of the cosmic powers’ (Sri Aurobindo, 1995, p. 278). The ṛṣis recognised that the universe is engaged in a constant process of exchange and that the nature of this exchange determines the quality of an individual’s life. If he sacrifices to the Gods he wins the cows of the sun, if he chooses otherwise, he becomes a victim of the forces of the darker world.
Re-examining the legend from a psycho-spiritual perspective we see that the story of the paṇis and their allies who have stolen the cows of the Aṅgirasa ṛṣis and hidden them in caves, means that the negative forces have stolen the divine illuminations from the aspiring souls and hidden them in the dark unconscious nooks of man’s being. Robbed of their precious possessions, the Aṅgirasa ṛṣis perform an inner Sacrifice to invoke the help of Indra, the illumined mind, to retrieve their stolen Insights. In response to their call, Indra, drinks the soma wine, the elixir of divine bliss and armed with the thunderbolt needed to pierce through the dark cloud of the subconscious, charges into the caves to rescue the cows. It is interesting to note that Indra drinks the soma before his mission. This is very significant because soma represents supreme delight which can be experienced only when one knows one’s essential reality as the immortal self. Possessing this knowledge of immortality or amṛtam, another name for soma, one becomes completely fearless, an indispensable quality needed to go into battle! Therefore, intoxicated with absolute ānanda, Indra or the illumined mind takes the help of Saramā, the divine hound, to trace the cows. Here too, Saramā, literally understood as the divine hound, symbolises intuition. The significant common trait between a hound and Intuition is that both can lead one to a specified goal without being able to rationalize the process of arriving at it. Thus in the legend of the lost cows, Saramā, representing Intuition, first discovers the hide-out of the dasyus in the caves. Another detail of the story which is interesting to note is that once exposed, the paṇis and their allies try to win over Saramā (Kashyap, 2003, X.108.1-11). This corresponds to the psychological tussle experienced when confronted with the choice between doing what is good, śreyas, and that which is pleasurable, preyas. As the legend continues, Saramā remains loyal to Indra, the illumined mind, and leads him into the dark caves where the cows, the divine illuminations have been hidden. Following the discovery of the cows, a fierce battle ensues between Indra and the army of the dark forces where ultimately Indra emerges victorious by slaying the paṇis and their allies. The illumined mind then rescues the divine lights from the unconscious parts of man’s being and also liberates the lost sun from those dark depths. The sun, according to Sri Aurobindo, is the symbol of truth, for, just as sunlight helps us see the external world clearly, the light of truth gives clarity of inner-vision. Therefore it is only appropriate that the illumined mind should liberate the hidden truth from man’s unconscious parts so that it can ascend the hill of consciousness till it reaches its own home, svar. Having reached its own realm, the sun shines forth in its full brilliance once more illuminating everything in its reach.
Thus we see how the legend of the Aṅgirasa ṛṣis and the lost cows acquires an entirely new dimension when seen from the psycho-spiritual angle. But the question that still arises is how this story is relevant to the ordinary man? Can it help the average individual to help understand himself better and provide practical answers to his psychological problems?
Let us apply the story to a contemporary situation and study its implications. We shall study the case of a student who aspires to excel in her studies. This student, with full concentration and will power is striving to learn as much as she can, to focus all her time and energy on acquiring more and more knowledge. As a result, the Aṅgirasa ṛṣis in her increases her possession of cows, lights of knowledge. One fine day, she falls in love with a boy who has different priorities in life. New elements now enter the student’s life. All the time and energy that she had previously devoted to gaining knowledge now gets side-tracked in catering to her boyfriend’s demands. These unwanted demands are the various tools used by the paṇis, dasyus and vṛtras in the student’s psychology to highjack her well-being and prevent her from striving after more beneficial pursuits. They start tearing her apart because although she would like to spend time with her boyfriend, she is well aware that it is at the cost of her studies. The army of the paṇis persistently lead her away from her goal and entice her with every possible distraction. They steal from her the cows of knowledge and hide them in the unconscious parts of her being. Gradually she becomes disoriented and drifts away from her goal. But somewhere deep inside her, the Aṅgirasa ṛṣis sleep not! They force her to awaken to her real goal. The student agrees to cooperate with them. Then, by means of an inner sacrifice, by placing Agni, the divine will in front as purohita, she invokes, as the summoner, hotr, the help of Indra, her higher or illumined mind, to take charge. This mind, full of the ānanda of existence, ie. charged with positive energy, takes the help of Intuition to locate the hidden and treacherous forces in her. When they are tracked down, there is a fierce struggle between the student’s higher mind and the army of the paṇis. If Indra loses the battle temporarily, the student in her external life continues to suffer the indecision between her desire to carry on with her boyfriend at the cost of her studies and her ultimate aim of acquiring more knowledge. But if eventually Indra emerges victorious as the legend goes, the higher mind of the student wins and consequently retrieves the cherished lights of knowledge. The outward consequence of this victory is probably reflected in a bold decision to move ahead in life with renewed energy to realise her cherished goal.
A little bit of introspection reveals that most of us have a relatively inconsistent temperament. There are times when we are elated, at others, depressed and sometimes merely indifferent. What is responsible for theses fluctuations? Are we the ones who create these moods or are we victims of forces that use us as their battleground? If we are victims of forces, what are these forces and do we have the power to choose on whose side we would like to fight?
The Vedic ṛṣis, after intense meditation and self-study, received this knowledge of man’s psychology as recorded in the Vedas. They realised that man’s consciousness is at every moment an open arena for the clash of occult forces. Every choice that we make in life is determined by the result of the battle within us, between Indra and the other gods on the one side, and the paṇis, the dasyus and their companions on the other; positive forces that are concerned with our well-being and our aspiration to be a better and more complete individual, and negative forces that hinder in every way possible our attempt to perfect our being. When we choose to side with Indra and the gods, they are victorious and the result is the recovery of the ‘cows of illumination’ and the liberation of the lost ‘sun of truth’ in our consciousness. This sun then shines forth once more and replenishes our lives with positive energies of light and truth. On the other hand, when we become allies of the paṇis, the darker forces in us are victorious. We then find ourselves harassed with petty problems and senseless anxieties, with no peace of mind whatsoever. In such a case, however, one can fall back on The legend of the lost cows or rather the legend of the lost illuminations to provide us with a solution - for when the cows are stolen and hidden in the caves, the Aṅgirasa ṛṣis, through an intense inner sacrifice, request the intervention of the illumined mind to help liberate the lost lights. Either way, the outcome of the battle always lies in our hands!
Seen from this perspective we can effectively conclude that the Vedas are not merely ritualistic or historic texts but contain deep psycho-spiritual truths of man’s nature. According to Sri Aurobindo, they are the earliest records of man’s quest for self-perfection and can therefore serve as an invaluable guidebook for every seeker on the path of truth, light, bliss and immortality. It is because of this intrinsic sense contained in the Vedas that they have survived these vast aeons of time and will continue to do so as long as man remains a battleground of these forces. It is because the Vedas possess this knowledge of human nature that they acquire a universal quality. And it is because they reveal to man the ultimate purpose of his existence that the recovery and true understanding of Vedic psychology and its application becomes a necessity, not only for Bhārat but for the entire world, to ensure a bright and peaceful future for the human race.
Kashyap, R.L, (Ed.). (2003). Rig veda mantra samhita, Bangalore: Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture.
Reddy, V.Madhusudan, (1991). The Vedic epiphany, (Volume1). Hyderabad: Institute of Human Study.
Sri Aurobindo, (1985). “A chapter for a work on the Veda”, published in Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research. (Volume 9). Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust. (Original work was first published in 1913).
Sri Aurobindo, (1997a). The future poetry with On quantative metre, Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo. (Volume 26). Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust. (Original work was first published in between December 1917 and July 1920).
Sri Aurobindo, (1995). Hymns to the mystic fire. (3rd ed.). Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust. (Original work was first published in 1946).
Sri Aurobindo, (1997b). The secret of the Veda, Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, (Volume 15). Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust. (Original work was first published between August 1914 – July 1916).
Sri Aurobindo, (1996). The Upanishads. Pondicherry. Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust. (Original work was first published after 1910).