Avoiding the Trap of Using Our Modern Intellectual Approach in Trying to Comprehend the Meaning of the Seers of the Symbolic Age

When we read ancient texts that have come down to us through the ages, such as the Vedic texts which, in some cases, go back 5000 years or more, it is essential to not overlay our modern intellectual, logical, reasoning approach over those texts.  The result would certainly be gross misunderstanding.  We can see something of the mismatch when a mathematician tries to interpret an emotion-driven piece of art.  Similarly the age of reason, as the last several centuries have sometimes been designated, cannot possibly appreciate the true sense of an age of wonder, mystery an symbolism, where life is part of an intricate matrix that expresses, in every direction, a oneness and a sense of awe and meaning.

Thus, when we try to appreciate the sense of the Vedic texts, we must try to approach it without the intellectual baggage of the current age, and insert ourselves fresh without preconceptions or even predilections to the extent possible, and even then, we must guard against any intellectual pride of understanding, when we obviously cannot be a blank slate to absorb and respond.

Sri Aurobindo points out that where we see a poetic device, the symbolic age sees an expression of a reality that had deep and very evident meaning.  Where we see an intellectual explanation that struggles to fulfill itself, we are likely simply misinterpreting the truth that is being expressed by the seer of that former age.

“Or let us take, for this example will serve us best, the Vedic institution of the fourfold order, caturvarna, miscalled the system of the four castes,– for caste is a conventional, varna a symbolic and typal institution.  We are told that the institution of the four orders of society was the result of an economic evolution complicated by political causes.  Very possibly, but the important point is that it was not so regarded and could not be so regarded by the men of that age.  For while we are satisfied when we have found the practical and material causes of a social phenomenon and do not care to look farther, they cared little or only subordinately for its material factors and looked always first and foremost for its symbolic, religious or psychological significance.  This appears in the Purushasukta of the Veda, where the four orders are described as having sprung from the body of the creative Deity, from his head, arms, thighs and feet.  To us this is merely a poetical image and its sense is that the Brahmins were the men of knowledge, the Kshatriyas the men of power, the Vaishyas the producers and support of society, the Shudras its servants.  As if that were all, as if the men of those days would have so profound a reverence for mere poetical figures like this of the body of Brahma or that other of the marriages of Surya, would have built upon them elaborate systems of ritual and sacred ceremony, enduring institutions, great demarcations of social type and ethical discipline.  We read always our own mentality into that of these ancient forefathers and it is therefore that we can find in them nothing but imaginative barbarians.”

“The image was to these seers a revelative symbol of the unrevealed and it was used because it could hint luminously to the mind what the precise intellectual word, apt only for logical or practical thought or to express the physical and the superficial, could not at all hope to manifest.  To them this symbol of the Creator’s body was more than an image, it expressed a divine reality.  Human society was for them an attempt to express in life the cosmic Purusha who has expressed himself otherwise in the material and the supraphysical universe.  Man and the cosmos are both of them symbols and expressions of the same hidden Reality.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 1, The Cycle of Society, pp. 8-10


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