The rest of the reviews are under the cut. All of these authors have written books which evaluate Ṛgveda and include some translated hymns as examples.
Abinash Chandra Bose: A few translated hymns are available online here. This excerpt is taken from Ṛgveda hymn X.71 (to Jñānam), verses 1 to 4:
~~”When, Lord of our Prayer! The First of the sacred Speech, and the Foremost,
The sages uttered, giving the Un-named a name.
Which was their best, and their most stainless,
Then they, with love, revealed the Divine secret in their souls.
When the sages formed the Speech with their mind,
Straining it, as they strain flour with the sieve,
Therein have friends discovered the bonds of friendship,
Whose holy beauty lies hidden in that Speech.
With worship they followed the steps of the Speech,
And found it installed in the hearts of sages.
They acquired it and gave it at many places,
And seven singers intone it together.
There is the man who sees but has not seen the Speech!
There is the man who hears but has not heard her!
But to another, Lady Speech reveals her lovely form,
Like a loving wife, finely robed, to her husband.”~~
What’s lovely: I’ve mentioned Bose on this blog before. I love his translations; they’re poetic, reverent, and resonant, and I feel calm and pleased when I read them. Hymns from the Vedas is a true gem, and luckily, both of Bose’s works on Veda (Hymns from the Vedas and Call of the Vedas) are back in print.
What’s less so: I haven’t been able to find any information about Bose or his life. I have no idea who he was, exactly how long ago he lived, or what moved him to write about Veda. So I hope that I’m not recommending Vedic knowledge as summarised by a serial killer.
Who might find this text useful: Hindus, particularly those who would approach Veda with bhakti. Anyone who would like a spiritual perspective on Veda. Readers who wish to understand the Vedic worldview and mindset and Vedas’ relationship with later Hindu thought.
Who probably won’t: Anyone seeking less poetry and more technicality. Those looking for a purely clinical, historical, or literal treatment of Vedic texts will want to find another source.
Śrī Aurobindo: Only a few translation excerpts are available online, scattered in various places. This hymn is ṚV I.5:
~~”But approach, but sit down, sing out towards Indra, O friends who bear the burden of the psalm.
When the nectar has been distilled, then it is Indra I take for friend, the mightiest of all that is mighty, the lord of all highest desirable things.
It was he that was ever present to us in the union (with our desire), he ever for our felicity, he ever in the holding of our city; ever he comes to us with gifts of substance (in his hands).
Sing to that Indra whose steeds no foeman in our battles can withstand in the shock.
Distilled for purification are these juices of the Soma; pure, they are spent for thy manifestation, able then to bear their own intensity.
Thou for the drinking of the Soma-juice straightway onward didst appear increased, O Indra, for supremacy, O great in strength.
May the fiery Soma-juices enter into thee, O Indra, thou who hast delight in the Word; may they be peace to thee in thy forward-acting awareness.
Thee the hymns of praise have increased, thee, the hymns of prayer, O Indra of the hundred mights; thee may (let) our Words increase.
Unimpaired in his expansion may Indra safeguard this myriad wealth (of mind) on which all our strengths are established.
Let not mortal men (or, let not the slayers) do hurt to us, O Indra who delightest in the mantra; be the lord of our bodies and give us to ward off the stroke.”~~
What’s awesome: As much as Müller did to malign Vedic wisdom, Aurobindo has done to restore it to its rightful regard. (+1 alliteration for Arjunī.) Aurobindo explained the ṛṣis’ language as symbolic, serving to veil deeper truths that truth-seekers and initiates would be able to uncover. He wrote of the Vedic devatās as indeed different aspects of the Supreme Truth, and also as psychological powers that aid the aspirant. In outlining Veda as a comprehensible and very relevant religious text for both ancient and modern people, Aurobindo’s groundbreaking work shows why Vedic knowledge is supreme, irreplaceable, and indeed, the only knowledge worth striving after in this life. His voice was, and remains, a clear ray of light, slicing cleanly through the untruths of earlier Veda versions.
What isn’t awesome: If I think of anything, I’ll let you know.
Who might find this text useful: Devotees of Śrī Aurobindo and the Mother. Jñāna yogis, Hindus seeking to understand why Veda is revered. Anyone who would approach Veda from a spiritual perspective.
Who may not: Some of Aurobindo’s books are quite lengthy, and their language elevated and charged with spiritual meaning; his work can be challenging and difficult to approach for a novice seeker. It may be best for a newcomer to read other works on Veda before exploring Aurobindo’s translations and ideas.
Wendy Doniger (O’Flaherty): There are a few scattered hymn-translations available online and quoted in other sources. This quote is the first four verses of the Nāsadīya Sūkta (Ṛgveda X.129):
~~”There was neither non-existence nor existence then.
There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.
What stirred? Where? In whose protection?
Was there water, bottomlessly deep?
There was neither death nor immortality then.
There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day.
That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse.
Other than that there was nothing beyond.
Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning,
with no distinguishing sign, all this was water.
The life force that was covered with emptiness,
that One arose through the power of heat.
Desire came upon that One in the beginning,
that was the first seed of mind.
Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom
found the bond of existence and non-existence.”~~
What’s good: Like Müller, Doniger’s translations are easy reading, and Doniger sometimes finds a striking turn of phrase, clarifying some passages that, in the earlier British translations, read as obscure or flat. A nice example is the Ṛgveda verse (III.31.19) which Griffith renders as:
“Like Aṅgiras I honour him with worship, and renovate old song for him the Ancient.
Chase thou the many godless evil creatures, and give us, Maghavan, heaven’s light to help.”
Griffith’s wording makes sense, but it is Doniger’s translation that sticks in my mind:
“Like Angiras I honour him and bow to him, making new for the ancient one a song that was born long ago.
Thwart the many godless lies, and let us win the sun, generous Indra.”
What really, really isn’t good, at all: Doniger is in a position similar to Müller’s: she is very respected as an authority on Veda and Hindu matters in Western scholarly/university circles, but is reviled by Hindus and Vedic scholars. Her translations have been criticised as wildly inaccurate and/or speculative; unfortunately, I don’t know the language, to make answer to that critique.
I do certainly agree with those who characterise her work as heavily focused on incest, adultery, and other, often-invented sexual aspects of Vedic verse. Doniger evaluates religious texts from feminist and psychological perspectives; she reads Vedas like novels and bases her conclusions upon Freudian analysis of the “characters.” After having made her name and reputation on translating Hindu works, she demonstrated what I feel was a stunning loathing of Hindu society and history in her latest book, The Hindus: An Alternative History. I have been shocked many times by the vulgar, sensationalist way that she writes about Hindu scripture, and the sense of superiority over the “primitive” Vedics that permeates her work.
Who might find this text useful: People who want a readable, widely-available translation of Vedic verse. Readers who are either able to read critically, or who – as with the earlier Western translations – are willing to read text without regard for the source.
Who might not: It is my opinion that a Hindu wishing to read Veda should avoid her work (unless seeking to join the dialogue refuting it).
Dr. David Frawley (Paṇḍit Vāmadeva Śāstrī): Frawley’s work on Ayurveda and Yoga is very respected and widely circulated, and because he is so known for this wisdom, his Veda translations don’t receive enough press, I think. Here is Ṛgveda VIII.6.1-10:
~~”Indra, who is great by wakeful vigor like the rain God full of rain, grows by the hymns of the child.
Delivering him as the Son of truth, the carrier flames bear him, sages with the power of conveyance of truth.
When the Kanva-seers with their hymns made Indra, the perfection of the sacrifice, they called the friend their weapon.
All the people of the work bow down to his Spirit, as rivers to the sea.
That vigor of his shone brilliantly when Indra rolled up together as if in a skin both Heaven and Earth.
He cut off the head of the boisterous Dragon with his mighty lightning bolt of a hundred joints.
We sing them forth, insights among the foremost of inspirations, lightnings like the white heat of the Sacred Fire.
When truths which are hidden come forth by the Self, when insights shine luminous, when the Kanva-seers move with the stream of truth,
May we attain That, Indra, the splendor full of rays and swift energies, that Brahman for the original consciousness.
I from my Father received the meditative mind of truth. I have been born even as the Sun.”~~
What’s dazzling: David Frawley is a Westerner recognised as a Veda ācārya, a teacher of Vedic wisdom, and he is the founder and director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies. In Wisdom of the Ancient Seers: Mantras of the Rig Veda, he wisely, lovingly evaluates the major Devas of the Ṛgveda – Agni, Indra, Sūrya, and Soma – describing how these luminous powers may awaken within the aspirant and guide the seeker to God. The entire Veda is explored as yoga, as spiritual journey to God; the work is amazingly inspirational, the translations exquisite and different than any I’ve read before. Honestly, everyone should just close this blog post and go read the book right now.
What isn’t: Frankly, I can’t think of a damn thing to put here.
Who might find this text useful: Hindus, particularly Western Hindus who have come to Sanātana Dharma from Western New Age or pagan religions (as Frawley uses some language which will be familiar). Those who would appreciate Vedic inspiration for their own sādhanā, who would read Veda as a guide to yoga and ātma-yajña. Historians and people seeking a new appreciation of Vedic history and culture. (Those folks would do well to read Frawley’s work in general, as he throws “accepted” dating of Veda right out of the window and backs his ideas up with excellent evidence.)
Who may not: Frawley’s work requires both an open heart and a curious mind. Wisdom of the Ancient Seers is dense with significance and offers painstaking explanations of the hymns’ images and insights. This work may be difficult for a reader with little to no background in either spirituality or Vedic thought, and it isn’t recommended for someone seeking a light, quick-reading overview of Veda.
I believe that Veda is the most wonderful, greatest divine gift given to humankind, and that we discard the most valuable magic wisdom known to the human race if we remain ignorant of it. I hope that these posts have been helpful, and that readers choose to pursue Vedic knowledge according to personal capacity and preference. Comments, questions, and corrections are most welcome.
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Tagged: Abinash Chandra Bose, English, feeling smarter with diacritical markings, finally using my B.A., linguistics, Paṇḍit Vāmadeva Śāstrī, Sanskrit, translation, Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, Śrī Aurobindo