When Veda meets Secularism

When confronted with attacks on all fronts, the social consolidation of identity-conscious Hindus becomes inevitable. Such a precedent is unwelcome for secularists, who, it seems, endeavor to thwart such consolidation. Further, they dismiss with ridicule any contention that Hindus are discriminated against. Such outright dismissal leads to further neglect and deprivation. Fabricated Indo-secular idioms of all sorts are bandied around to “placate” sentiments, but it is obvious to anyone with an iota of discernment that a good number of Indo-seculars are not conciliatory agents.

Secularists, it seems, are not very vocal to voice their condemnation when the Hindu community becomes victim of aggression. They, however, are overtly concerned at any such possibility for others, even when there is no foreseeable danger. Thus, so to make sure that no social consolidation of identity-conscious Hindus ever takes place, they throw around appeals to higher morality while guilt-tripping Hindus at the same time by naming and perpetually shaming them (sometimes even falsely) for acts of even minor aggression. Thus, phrases such as “Hindu religion ‘respects’ all religions” are thrown around relentlessly. These phrases are helpful in decontructing Hindu identity. On the other hand, the non-Hindu identity is upheld and enhanced by constantly dealing with them as religious groups. They are referred to as Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Parisis, etc. Such parlance creates social differences.

The Hindus by contrast are dealt with as a group only when they have to be named and shamed. Otherwise, they are spoken of in terms of caste groups, linguistic groups, gender groups, age groups etc.

As Hindus have to “consider all religions as equal”, their identity as a group is effectively nullified. Such appeals, it has to be observed, are never made to other religions. While any effort to minimise bloodshed is certainly commendable, it can easily be seen that minimising conflict has never been the intention of Indo-secularists. They enhance the conflict by falsely depicting “minorities” as perpetual victims of violence and bigotry at the hands of Hindus and completely overlooking acts of “minority aggression and fundamentalism”.

They enhance the conflict by inculcating into non-Hindus a feeling of victimhood and shielding their religion from reform by censorship and persecution of its critics. It is clear that deconstruction of Hindu identity is the sole purpose of these idioms. The immediate consequence is that “minorities” continue to enjoy social, economic and material benefits to the detriment of Hindus. The long-term consequence is deconstruction of Hindu identity to such a degree as not be able to put up any united front against oppression.

Eventually, Hindus have interiorised much of maliciously fabricated secular parlance. This post intends to examine a “secular” phrase which is supposedly taken from Hindu literature

एकं सद्विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति
ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti

A Rgvedic phrase, this is supposedly taken to mean that “all religions are same”. A most common translation runs as “truth is one, wise call it by many names”. Is it really so?

This hymn comes from Rgveda samhita(1.164). The author of these series of hymns, according to anukramanis as well as by explicit appellation in the samhita itself, is Dirghatamas Aucathya. Dirghatamas was a philosopher (dirgha+tamas literally means “long night” as the philosopher contemplated into the skies) and this hymn was an enigmatic one.

Of relevance to this discussion is another hymn by the same author in the same series of the same mandala.

In Rgveda 1.150.2, he says,

वयनिनस्य धनिनः परहोषे चिदररुषः | कदा चन परजिगतो अदेवयोः

dhanina=wealthy person;adevayoh=godless;chidrarusha=lacking force;cana=not; kada+cana=never;prajigata=forthcoming;adevayoh=godless;

Scholarly translation (provided by Sanskrit linguist S W Jamison):

(I go) away (from the protection) of the rich man who lacks force, who gives nothing even when oblations are made, who, not seeking the gods, is never forthcoming.

The supposedly “secular” poet claims to walk away from a patron who does not properly conduct the Vedic ritual and does not seek Vedic gods. There is not even any trace of “all paths lead to same”, “all religions are equal, “truth one many names” etc.

It is thus clear that “secularism” is a back projection of modern ideas right into Bronze Age. The poem could only be understood when placed in its proper context.

The hymn containing the phrase “ekam sad vipra bahuda vadanti” is dedicated by its Brahman poet Dirghatamas to Godsvishvedas (literally meaning “all vedic gods”). According to  vedic sources (Aitreya Aranyaka 5.3.2; Samkhyayanaka Aranyaka 2.18 etc), the hymn was recited at Mahavrata ritual, which falls on summer solstice according to Kaustiki Brahmana (19.3). This “solar” background should be noted at the outset.

The ekam (=one) of this verse is actually identified with sun in verse 6 of the same hymn. Just as in any typical Vedic hymn which identifies the ritual with formation of cosmos,Vedic gods are equated and said to be one, true to the spirit of a Vishvedevas hymn!

A translation follows:

इन्द्रं मित्रं वरुणमग्निमाहुरथो दिव्यः स सुपर्णो गरुत्मान | एकं सद विप्रा बहुधा वदन्त्यग्निं यमं मातरिश्वानमाहुः

Word to word: Indram=Indra(Accusative); Mitram=Mitra(Accusative);Varunam=Varuna(Acc); Agnim=Agni(Acc); divyaḥ=Divine; sa=he; suparṇo=su+parna=well feathered; garutman=Garuda; Ekam=one; sat=truth; viprā=Brahmins; bahudhā=many; vadanti=they speak (plural third person). Yamam=Yama; Matarisvanam=Matarisvan.

Translation: They speak of it as  Indra, Mitra, Varuna, and Agni, as also the , well-feathered Garuda Though truth is One, Brahmins speak of it in many ways. They say it is Agni, Yama, and Mātariśvan.

The verse eemphasizes the identity of 33 Vedic gods. It says the many gods the Brahmins speak of is one. Nowhere is any identification with “non-Hindu” gods. That “truth is one” is exclusive to Vedic gods is clear from another verse of Rigveda (7.21.5) which reads, “Let the Shishnadevas not penetrate our truth”. While Shishnadeva is translated as “phallus worshippers” (infact shishna=tail/penis) by most modern Sanskritists and Indologists, ancient Sanskrit grammarian and etymologist Yaska translated the word as “unchaste people”. Whatever the case, it seems that shishnadeva were religiously non-Vedic (gods?) and not party to “truth is one”. Neither is there any “secularism” nor “all religions are same”.

In fact, the Rgveda speaks of “others” as thus:

Around us is the Dasyu: riteless, void of thought, inhuman, keeping other rituals (Rgveda 10.22).

Here, a Dasyu is described as “riteless” (akarmah) and “keeping other rituals”(anyavrata). He is also called inhuman (amanusha). Prominent Indologists (Elst 1999, parpola 1998) have identified Dasyus with proto-Iranians, Proto-zoroastrians and even proto-sakas. This identification lies on a fact that Dahae is a self-designation for North Iranian tribes of Central Asia even today. The classical Greeks have also located Dahae in central Asia. Elst speculates that these Dasysus were Zarathustra’s followers. SW Jamison notes that in another verse of the aforementioned Dasyu hymn that the krpanas (=karapans), the vedic enemies of Zoroastrians, are mentioned favourably. Whatever the identity of Dasyus, it is clear that their religion and rituals differed (even if slightly) from Vedic Aryans. Yet, they were differentiated in very clear terms.

It should thus be concluded that ideas such as “all religions same” cannot be derived from Rgveda.

The said phrase “ekam sat…” happens to be one of the most popular idioms of modern Hinduism. Below, we compose a short account of its history.

To be sure, the said phrase is not unique. There are some philosophical proto-monistic hymns in the Rgveda. Notable is Rgveda 8.58.2, which says, “One has manifested into the whole world” (eka va idam vi babhau sarvam). Sayana considers this verse to be an answer to Rgveda 10.88.18, which asks, “how many fires, how many suns, how many dawns, how many waters? (katyaghnaya kati sūryāsakatyuāsa katyu svidāpa). However, modern Indologists point out that such hymns appear only in late Mandalas (1 and 10). RV 8.58 is from Bashakala collection. This khila hymn is absent from Sakalya edition and is devoid of any entry in Anukramani.

Yet, it is universally accepted that entire Rgveda in its current form is one of the oldest extant religious texts from Bronze Age. Prominent linguist and Sanskritist Michael Witzel (1989,2000) considers the entire Rgveda to be a “tape recording”. To quote him: “even minor accents were preserved”. Thus, these monistic verses could not have been much younger than the core, if at all. It could safely be presumed that nothing in the Rgveda dates to post second millennium BCE. The monistic philosophy is well expounded in Upanishads (notably ishopanishad).

Here arises the obvious question: why did this verse gain such prominence when similar hymns could well be found in the Rgveda samhita?

Aitreya Aranyaka (3.2.3) quotes another verse from the same hymn (1.64.39) which talks about divine speech (vac). While the ritual context is apparent (these hymns were recited at pravargya and mahavrata), there is no mention of “ekam sad”. Yet, the monistic orientation of AA is clear from the verse 2.2.2 “the one is everything that is known and heard” (sarve veda, sarve ghosha).

Ancient Sanskrit grammarian and etymologist Yaska(c. 600 BCE) in his Nirukta attributes this verse to terrestrial Agni (Yaska; swarup.122). Thus Yaska continues to treat the verse in its ritual context. The great vedic commentator Sayana (c.1350 AD) followed Yaska’s explanation.

Post Yaska, the verse fell into oblivion. Why? To be sure, the Vedic religion fell into general decline. The reasons postulated are:

  1. The Vedic language became increasingly unintelligible.
  2. Consecration of Vedas as ‘apaurusheya‘ (divine). Right from the early date it was collected and redacted, the Rgveda became very sacred. It was recited with utmost care in an oral manner and very faithfully transmitted. Barring a few exceptions (notably in Mundaka upanishad where nasadiya sukta was questioned), Nobody challenged its contents. Because they were kept out of purview of general debate, Vedic verses although recited and consecrated gradually went into decline.
  3. The general eclipse of Vedic Hinduism with the emergence of Puranic Hinduism.

Yet, other Rgvedic verses which were recast into a puranic framework continued to be popular. Rgveda 3.62.10 came to be recast as “Gayatri mantra”. Rgveda 2.23.1 was recast as “Ganapati mantra”. Rgveda 7.59.12 was recast as “mrtyunjaya mantra”. These hymns happen to be popular even today. The inescapable conclusion is that “ekam sad..” was not as prominent as it is today.

Throughout the medieval period, there was not a single mention of this verse in the literature of Bhakti poets. Wherever the Bhakti poets concerned themselves with the veda, they claimed that “neti, neti” (literally meaning “not this, not this”) was the essence of Veda. Actually, this is a post-vedic upanishadic phrase and fits well into the philosophy espoused therein. Many bhakti saints (cf. Nanak, kabir, Namadeva, Tukaram, Srimanta Shankaradeva et al.) already interiorised some Islamic ideals and inculcated monotheism and anti-idolatrous ideology into their nirguni bhakti. Yet, no one had mentioned this verse to back their ideological stand. Even Dayananda Sarasvati, who set out to establish “vedic monotheism”, never mentioned this verse.

The verse was brought back from oblivion in the book History of Sanskrit Language, thanks to Indologist Max Mueller. Ironically, Max Mueller was one of the earliest exponents of “Aryan invasion theory”. (He is named and shamed by some Internet Hindus.) A staunch Lutheran, Mueller’s ultimate intention was to Christianise Hindus. Mueller was quick to label Rgvedic belief as “henotheistic”. These “monotheistic” verses were mentioned by other European historians with glee as it stretched their “monotheism” further back in time.

Max Muller

On Max Mueller, writes historian and bishop Edward William Cox (1875):

“…for many striking illustrations, we must refer to Max Mueller‘s history of Sanskrit language. …There is one verse which declares the existence of one divine being…. These verses cannot be later than ninth century before Christian era…”

The Hindus quickly reclaimed the verse. Swami Vivekananda wrote:

“The Being was perceived as one and the same. It was the perceives who makes the difference. Before the Mohammadean invasion, it was never known what religious persecution was. All that we owe to this one verse.”

[Source: The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda]

Sri Aurobindo reiterated the idea and launched a scathing attack on “polytheists” and “Europeans”:

“Here Dayananda’s view is quite clear, its foundation inexpugnable. The Vedic hymns are chanted to the one Deity under many names which are used and even designed to express his qualities and powers. The Vedic rishis ought surely to have known something about their own religion, more, let us hope than Roth or Max Muller and this is what they knew… We are aware how modern scholars twist away from the evidence. This hymn they say was a late production, this loftier idea which it expresses with so clear a force rose up somehow in the later Aryan mind or was borrowed by those ignorant fire-worshippers, sun-worshippers, sky-worshippers from their cultured and philosophic Dravidian enemies. But throughout the Veda we have confirmatory hymns and expressions: Agni or Indra or another is expressly hymned as one with all the other gods. Agni contains all other divine powers within himself, the Maruts are described as all the gods, one deity is addressed by the names of others as well as his own, or most commonly, he is given as Lord and King of the universe, attributes only appropriate to the Supreme Deity. Ah, But that cannot mean, ought not to mean, the worship of One; let us invent a new word, call it henotheism (coined by Max Muller) and suppose that the Rishis did not really believe Indra or Agni to be the Supreme Deity but treated any god or every god as such for the nonce, perhaps that he might feel the more flattered and lend a more gracious ear for so hyperbolic a compliment! “But why should not the foundation of Vedic thought be natural monotheism rather than this new-fangled monstrosity of henotheism?” Well, because primitive barbarians could not possibly have risen to such high conceptions and, if you allow them to have so risen, you imperil our (Western) theory of the evolutionary stage of the human development and you destroy our whole idea about the sense of the Vedic hymns and their place in the history of mankind… Immediately the whole character of the Veda is fixed in the sense Dayananda gave to it; the merely ritual, mythological, polytheistic interpretation of Sayana collapses, the merely meteorological and naturalistic European interpretation collapses. We have instead a real Scripture, one of the world’s sacred books and the divine word of a lofty and noble religion.”

[Source: Aurobindo, World perspectives on Swami Dayananda Saraswati, page 146]

A few remarks are in order. Here, Sri Aurobindo used the term “polytheist” in a derogatory manner. He also explicitly stated that monotheism was superior to “sun worship.. sky worship.. fire worship”. He criticized the “ritualistic, mythological” interpretation of Sayana on equal footing with “naturalistic” European interpretation. Monotheism was, in his words, “high conception”. Why?

During this period, the Christians had indulged in a full invective against Hinduism. To be sure, anti-polytheist and anti-idolatrous ideologies of Islamic age ruled the roost prior to this period and many Hindus internalised these thoughts. Against this background emerged the Christian attacks on Hinduism as “polytheist” or “idolatrous”. These invectives had been ingrained deeply into the psyche of the society by the popular nirguni bhakti poems. That “polytheism is a vice” was a ubiquitously accepted stand.

Consider the below statement of Angarika Dharmapala (c.1900 AD), Srilankan Buddhist Theravada monk and a personal friend of Vivekananda:

“Christianity and polytheism are responsible for the vulgar practices of killing animals, stealing, prostitution, licentiousness, lying and drunkenness.”

[Source: Dharmapala, History of Ancient Civilisations]

The “polytheism” used in a very derogatory manner in this quote was actually a reference to Hinduism. If such was the parlance Buddhists used towards “polytheistic Hinduism”, one could well imagine what invectives Christians would have hurled. Polytheism and idolatry were universally considered vices, and such attitude was deeply ingrained in the newly emerging native catholic schooled Indian scholars. This environment led to genesis of sects such as Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj. Swami Vivekanada and Aurobindo did not question the roots and history of monotheism, which they themselves partly interiorised. It must be remembered that they were not privy to vast scholarly literature and bloody history of monotheism which are available to us today. Thus, they had no intention to strike at the roots of monotheism. Instead, they busied themselves in an easier and more important task of rescuing Hinduism by disassociating it with idolatry and polytheism. In such a scenario, this verse “ekam sad”, rediscovered by Christians who were keen to push their monotheism into antiquity and attack medieval Hinduism, came in very handy and was readily adopted by Hindus. It elucidated the “original” character of Hinduism as “noble monotheism”. These Hindu reformists then argued that later Hinduism lapsed into polytheism and idolatry out of ignorance. The Arya Samajis also got into swift action and started using this phrase to back up their monotheistic ideology. They translated “ekam sat” as “one God”, in accordance with their claims.

Otherwise, it could well be argued that ritualism and polytheism is the essence of Rgveda. Rgveda 8.30 (said to be recited by Manu himself) says “not one of you is small. not one of you is feeble. All of you are verily great. Thus be you lauded, you thirty-three deities”. The ritual context is apparent in verses, such as, “Adhvaryus, be ye ready with oblations.. Go to the reservoir, O ye Adhvaryus worship Apam Napat” (Rgveda 10.30). Infact, it is explicitly clear from the text that a large number of Rgvedic hymns were composed on the ritual ground.

While the Hindu reformists continued to use this phrase to project Hinduism as a monotheistic religion, Indo-secularists came into action by attributing their version of “secularism” to it. This is especially true after independence as “monotheism” fell out of fashion and “secularism” became the new fad. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and DS Sharma used the phrase in support of Gandhi’s sarva dharma sama bhava.

“His idea of swaraj, is only an expression in political terms of the Hindu doctrine ekam sad vipra bahuda vadanti.”

[Source: Gandhi, edited by Sarvapalli Radhakrishan]

The truth, however, is that Gandhi’s “sarva dharma sama bhava” is a spurious phrase which is not found anywhere. It was coined by Gandhi himself to support his equally spurious concept of religious secularism. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan strived to fabricate a vedic background for Gandhi’s spurious claims, and had but to subvert the essence of “ekam sad”.

The phrase continues to be in use by staunch Congress politicians such as Mani Shankar Aiyar (Rajiv Gandhi’s India, 1998) and Shashi Tharoor.

Recently, the phrase has acquired another meaning. On November 30, 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that his “idea of India” is “ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti”. It seems now that the verse also comes in handy for BJP secularists who are desperate to prove their secularism to Indo-secularists.

In conclusion, it could be said that the usage of this verse provides great insights into the history of changing political and religious discourse in India. It has been subject to ritualist, monist, monotheist, Indo-secularist and “Hindutvo-secularist” interpretations according to the given day.