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Hyperbole in the Vedas: A Study in Arthavada

Article of the Month - Apr 2012

This article by Nitin Kumar

Even for the most ardent follower of the Veda, it is difficult to reconcile to some seemingly exaggerated statements, which cannot be substantiated by any means of knowledge available to us. Even immense faith is not sufficient to explain away such sentences, some of which are downright unbelievable. What then is the traditional method of understanding these portions of the Veda? What is the general purpose of such statements? To answer these questions, let us first take a look at some of the sentences which perplex the followers of the Veda.

1). ‘The face of one who knows how to perform sacrifices shines up brightly.’ (Tandaya Mahabrahman 20.16.6)

Objection: This is not always the case. We do not always see the faces of knowledgeable people to be bright. Rather, in case they are not shown proper respect, many of them are seen with sucked up cheeks, the exact opposite of what is implied above.

Resolution: No. It is not to be understood in this way. We should first understand that any sentence can convey its meaning in either of two ways: either literally or through an indirectly stated intended meaning. The latter is known in Sanskrit as Lakshana, and is the most important tool in grasping the ultimate purport of the scriptures.

Here actually what we are witnessing is an appreciation of knowledge. The true purport here is to make us realize that if the mere knowledge of a sacrifice can make one’s face glow brightly, then imagine what immense benefit can be gained from actually performing the sacrifice! Thus in an indirect manner this statement is an intended praise for performing Vedic sacrifices. This method of indirect communication is known as Arthavada (statement of an intended purpose). Indeed, without a working knowledge of Arthavada, it is impossible to make any progress in the study of Vedic scriptures.

2). ‘Who knows whether there is a world beyond or not.’ (Black Yajurveda, Taittriya Samhita

Objection: The whole Vedic philosophy operates on the basis of the fact that there is a world beyond the present one. In fact, the very aim of most Vedic sacrifices is to gain heaven for the performer. The above statement hits out at the very foundations of our Vedic beliefs.

Resolution: During a Vedic sacrifice, a particular space is marked out for its performance. Such an enclosure is known as Yajna-shala. While the sacrifice is going on, this enclosure gets filled with smoke, which makes it difficult for the Brahmins chanting the Mantras to breathe. In order to provide some relief, the Vedas order that we make a door acting as an outlet for the smoke.

Now, the purpose of this Vedic sacrifice is to gain heaven for the master of the ceremony (Yajamana). However, this heaven is to be gained only after we die; but here, in this sacrificial ground, by inhaling the smoke through our mouths and nostrils, we are sure to meet death here and now itself (even before completing the sacrifice). Hence an outlet for the smoke should be constructed.

The above statement does not actually cast an aspersion on a well-entreched Vedic belief, but rather, through the criticism of the long term result, jolts us into performing what is of immediate necessity.

It must clearly be understood that taken by itself this Arthavada statement holds no meaning; i.e. we cannot deduce here that the Vedas are sometimes postulating the existence of heaven, and at another time doubting it. This Arthavada reveals its intended meaning only when it is combined with the injunction to build a gate in the sacrificial enclosure, the purport being to show us the importance of this doorway to relief.

3). ‘By performing the final offering of the sacrifice (Purna Aahuti), the performer fulfills all his desires.’ (Taittriya Brahman

Objection: If just by performing the complete offering at the end of a sacrifice, the performer gains all that he wants, what then about the Vedic injunction that one should perform sacrifices as long as one lives?

Resolution: This Arthavada supports the Vedic dictum that one should invariably perform the Purna-Aahuti at the end of a sacrifice (Purna-Aahutim Juhuyat). This action has been praised as fulfilling all the desires of the sacrificer.

However, the intended meaning of the statement is as follows: When it is said in daily life that ‘feed all Brahmins’, it does not mean that we feed all Brahmins in the world. Rather, it implies the feeding of all Brahmins present there. Thus the fulfilling of all desires by the Purna-Aahuti indicates only those desires which the Yajamana was supposed to fulfill through that particular sacrifice. The implication being that no sacrifice is complete unless one has made the Purna-Aahuti (the full and final oblation at the end of a sacrifice).

Actually, any Vedic sacrifice which has been begun needs to be taken to its conclusion. A Vedic Karma leads to fruits only if it has been fully completed, including all its subsidiary parts (Angas). An incomplete Yajna is fruitless. Offering Purna-Aahuti after all the other parts of the sacrifice have been duly performed indicates the successful completion of the exercise. Therefore, a Purna-Aahuti is decreed to be performed at the end of all sacrifices.

Thus the statement praising the Purna-Aahuti as the giver of all desires is an Arthavada implying its necessity for the successful reaping of the fruits of any Vedic sacrifice. For example, when the Gita extols to live our lives as a Yajna, at the end, when our mortal body is consigned to fire, it is our own Purna-Aahuti.

4). ‘The sacrificial fire should not be set up in the sky or in the heavens, and neither should it be established on the earth.’ (Black Yajurveda, Taittriya Samhita Doubt: If we should not set up the sacred fire on the earth, then where should we establish it? Also, what is the need of prohibiting the sky and heavens for setting up of the sacrificial fire when in any case it is impossible to do so?

Resolution: This Arthavada prohibiting the laying down of the sacred fire in the sky, heaven or earth actually supports the following Vedic injunction:

‘The sacred fire should be established on a support made of gold.’ (Black Yajurveda, Maitrayani Samhita, 3.2.6)

Thus the purported meaning of the Arthavada passage turns out to be as follows: Just as the laying of fire is known to be impossible in the sky or heaven, so also is it on the bare ground, without the support of gold. Hence the sky and heaven denote impossibility, while the word ‘earth’ denotes ‘bare earth’. Therefore, the actual meaning of this Arthavada lies in inspiring us to establish the sacred Vedic fire on a plate of gold rather than on the bare ground itself.

5). The mind is a thief, and speech a liar. (Black Yajurveda, Maitrayani Samhita, 4.5.2)

Doubt: As per the Vedas, the mind and the speech are the most significant organs in the body. In fact, all sense organs are said to follow the mind only. According to the maxim of the Gita, the lesser ones follow what the great ones do (3.21). So would this not imply that the other sense organs too would resort to these negative traits? If yes, it would then contradict the universal Vedic principles ‘Never steal’ and ‘Never lie’.

Resolution: The above Arthavada statement deprecating the mind and speech supports a particular Vedic injunction which concerns gathering water from a river during the performance of a sacrifice. It is decreed there that one should collect water holding a piece of gold in one’s hand. The criticism directed at the two sense organs operates in a secondary sense (Gauna-Vritti), meaning that it should not be taken in literal terms; rather as an intention to praise the hand as the best means for holding the gold. This is its one and only meaning.

The secondary sense means describing one object in terms of another, due to some similarities in qualities (Gunas). Thus the mind is called a thief because like the latter it too operates hidden from sight. The speech is called a liar because it is but true that human speech often lies.

To more fully understand this Arthavada, we need to first understand how any action is performed in our daily lives. Ordinarily, whenever some action has to be performed, what we first do is to form a determination in our mind to perform that particular action. Then we can also express it by speech, which may or may not present the true picture. Afterwards, we actually perform it with our hands. In this sequence, we realize that it is only the actual performance of the deed that is of the most consequence. Whatever we may have thought or said about the action pales in significance to its actual performance, which is the only thing that matters. This particular example holds a great relevance even in a general sense in as much as it stresses that whatever we say or think is of secondary importance compared to what we actually set out to do with our hands. Here specifically it lauds the actual action of holding the gold piece in our hand.


The reconciliation of the above Vedic statements is enlightening in its method and inspirational in its impact. In the process we get a panoramic view of the traditional and most authoritative way of interpreting the Vedas, which clears away all our doubts, making us relish the nectar of the Vedas in all their inspiring and sweet glory.

(This article is almost entirely based on Shabara Swami’s Commentary on the Mimamsa Sutras of Jaimini and Sayanacharya’s Introduction to the Rig Veda. Without these towering giants it would have been impossible for anyone to get to the true import of the Vedas).


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