Understanding Vedic Imagery and Symbols as Used in the Upanishads

Intermingled with the more modern philosophical and spiritual language in the Upanishads are quite a few symbols and images that harken back to the Vedas.  This is confusing to the modern mind which does not translate these symbols or images easily into the intended inner psychological truths which the Upanishads are otherwise conveying and has led numerous commentators, particularly those from the West, to treat the Upanishads as a confused mix of high philosophy and childish worship of Nature Gods.  Sri Aurobindo untangles the mystery here:

“The Upanishads are not a revolutionary departure from the Vedic mind and its temperament and fundamental ideas, but a continuation and development and to a certain extent an enlarging transformation in the sense of bringing out into open expression all that was held covered in the symbolic Vedic speech as a mystery and a secret.  It begins by taking up the imagery and the ritual symbols of the Veda and the Brahmanas and turning them in such a way as to bring out an inner and a mystic sense which will serve as a sort of psychical starting-point for its own more highly evolved and more purely spiritual philosophy.  There are a number of passages especially in the prose Upanishads which are entirely of this kind and deal, in a manner recondite, obscure and even unintelligible too the modern understanding, with the psychic sense of ideas then current in the Vedic religious mind, the distinction between the three kinds of Veda, the three worlds and other similar subjects; but, leading as they do int he thought of the Upanishads to the deepest spiritual truths, these passages cannot be dismissed as childish aberrations of the intelligence void of sense or of any discoverable bearing on the higher though in which they culminate.  On the contrary we find that they have a deep enough significance once we can get inside their symbolic meaning.  That appears in a psycho-physical passing upward into a psycho-spiritual knowledge for which we would now use more intellectual, less concrete and imaged terms, but which is still valid for those who practice Yoga and rediscover the secrets of our psycho-physical and psycho-spiritual being.”

“I may cite as an example of this development of Vedic idea and image a passage of the Taittiriya in which Indra plainly appears as the power and godhead of the divine mind: ‘He who is the Bull of the Vedas of the universal form, he who was born in the sacred rhythms from the Immortal, — may Indra satisfy me through the intelligence.  O God, may I become a vessel of the Immortal.  May my body be full of vision and my tongue of sweetness, may I hear the much and vast with my ears.  For thou art the sheath of Brahman covered over and hidden by the intelligence.’

“This Vedic and Vedantic imagery is foreign to our present mentality which does not believe in the living truth of the symbol, because the revealing imagination intimidated by the intellect has no longer the courage to accept, identify itself with and boldly embody a psychic and spiritual vision; but it is certainly very far from being a childish or a primitive and barbarous mysticism; this vivid, living, luminously poetic intuitive language is rather the natural expression of a highly evolved spiritual culture.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads, Introduction, pp. 6-8

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