The solution of the problem of the sacred books can lie only in the contents of the sacred books themselves. If what we have been taught to understand of them be all that they contain, if the Vedas be but hymns of praise addressed to the gods, and the gods themselves the beings that they are; if the Sutras must still remain unintelligible; and if the "stories" of the Epics and the Puranas be nothing but impossible accounts of imaginary deeds, or, in any case, a record of events of a world far removed from our own, we must remain content with the estimate that is generally formed of these works, and cease to think of them as anything more than an exuberant flight of fancy of a "primitive" people.
Indeed, all that we can do in such a case is to sift the fine from the gross, and salvage what we can; and so there are not a few who, unable to find any connection between the "story" of the Mahabharata and the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, believe that the latter is but an interpolation, cleverly introduced into the Epic to enable it to partake of its popularity, and make it more current among the people; and so would separate it from the main work.
The language of the text: But have we really understood the language of the text of the sacred books, and is it impossible to get some other meaning out of it? This question may well be asked, for these books were composed in the Sanskrt language long before modern nations learned the art of writing; and the earliest, the Vedas, are, according to some, believed to have been written more than five thousand years ago; while few would place them later than 1200 to 1500 B.C.
Language is a record of human thought in relation to ideas, objects, and actions; and the history of a number of modern languages shows that a thousand years are enough to bring about such a change in the human mind, that few, if any, can understand what has been written in the earliest works. This is true of the English language, whose record is unbroken by any great invasion or cataclysm; and there are few, if any, among Englishmen today who can understand the earliest works composed in the old Anglo-Saxon. The same is equally true of a number of modern Indian languages; and it should not be a matter for surprise if a similar change has taken place in Sanskrt too. The earliest of the sacred books, the Vedas, are more than three thousand five hundred years old; and the difficulty of understanding the original sense of the language of the text can easily be grasped when we realize that the Sutras or the "aphorisms" of the six principal systems of philosophy, which are of a later date, are still "unintelligible". If this be the case with the Sutras, the language of which appears to be simple and easy to grasp, there should be little wonder if the original meaning of words used in the earlier works has been forgotten or lost, specially as the country has been subjected to many invasions from time to time, and a number of ancient records must have been destroyed or defaced.
Indeed, if we could rediscover the original meaning of the text of the sacred books, we should be able to reveal their secret; and then it might well be that we find that the traditional view of their character is really true; and that the Vedas, even as the word literally signifies, are books of scientific knowledge, dealing with the laws of Nature and the life of man; and then the idea of their "revelation" would be similar to that of modern discoveries when they are the result of accident or good fortune, rather than persistent human effort. The Upanishads may then appear to be a clearer exposition of these laws; the Vedangas as the real "limbs" or parts of the Vedas or the knowledge they contain; the six systems of philosophy as an expression of the same idea in a still clearer form; the Epics and the Puranas as an account of these systems in story-form; and the great system of religion, which form part of Hinduism, with all its array of architectural design, statuary and carving, painting, music, and poetry, the essence of all the fine arts together with their gods, forms of worship, ritual and "sacrifices", but as a magnificent attempt to live in the light of the teachings of the sacred books, or science refined into philosophy, and both sublimated into religion or the art of perfect life. This may mean that the original idea of the sacred books and the different systems of philosophy and religion has been forgotten and lost, and what remains is very different from their ancient conception. But the question still remains; can all this be proved?
A retrospect: It is seventeen years since the last of the five volumes of The Mystery of the Mahabharata was published; and I tried to show in that work that the gods of the Vedas represented the great forces of Nature, and their corresponding forms in man; and that their real meaning could be obtained by dividing their names into parts in the same manner as we obtain the meaning of the sacred syllable OM by dividing it into its letters, A, U, M. I applied this method of interpretation to the story of the Mahabharata, and showed how it transformed the whole of it into an account of the different systems of philosophy and religion; and explained that it was for this reason that the Epic claimed to contain all the great truths of life in the world. The essential character of the Mahabharata is described in its opening chapter, where Vyasa, its celebrated author, is said to have composed the "story" after he had arranged the Vedas; and we are told that its ideas have been expressed in an intricate form, and it has to be understood in the light of the teachings of all the sacred books, the sruti and the smrti. I pointed out that the Epic is accordingly a "story" of what is contained in the Vedas and later works, and should be understood in their light.
The work met with a mixed reception. While there were some who believed that this was the correct method of interpreting the sacred books, and there was adequate authority for it in the sacred books themselves, there were a number of those who were of the opinion that it was inconceivable that a whole work like the Mahabharata, the longest in literature could have been composed in a form where the names of all the principal characters, and innumerable other words, had to be broken into parts to be understood. They were prepared to concede that a few of them could perhaps represent objects of Nature or ideas of philosophy, but could not imagine that this could be true of all. The European scholar found in it a great deal that ran counter to what he had learned to believe of the ancients and their life; while the Indian was not prepared to substitute his Krshna, whom he had loved so well as a human being in real flesh and blood, for a deity who could to him be only an abstraction of an image or an idea, however perfectly personified.
I felt, however, that there were two principal tests applicable to a work of this kind, its character as described in the book itself, and consistency of explanation in accordance with it. There could indeed be no doubt that the Mahabharata has been described in the Epic itself as a "story" of the Vedas, and as containing the sense of all the sacred books. We are told that it explains their "mystery", and deals with the problems of life and death, the great phenomena of Nature, the divisions of Time, and the language, customs and manners of the people. But the main story, as we read it, narrating the rivalries of the Kaurava and Pandava princes has little to do with these questions. The Bhagavad Gita is indeed a part of the Epic; but it appears to have so little connection with the story, that there are not a few who believe that it is an interpolation; and the introductory statement in regard to the character of the Epic is believed to be an exaggeration, common to writers of that age, and intended only to impress the reader.
I felt, however, that this was not possible; and if there was a method of interpretation by means of which the "story" itself could be transformed into a description of ideas, and consistently so throughout and all its strange and fantastic notions disappeared, it could not lightly be rejected. The method of interpretation was based primarily on the division of words into parts, and was warranted by the practice of the ancients themselves; and I thought that there could not, in reason, be any objection to its application over the whole range of the Mahabharata or even the entire body of the sacred books, provided the text remained unchanged and only made better and a more rational sense; and the meanings assigned to the parts of words, letters and syllables were in general accord with admitted usage and consistent throughout. I realized, however, that if the characters who figure in the Epic were symbolic of ideas and objects, they should retain their attributes, wherever they appeared in any sacred work; and as the Mahabharata had a number of such characters, specially gods and the sages who figure in a number of sacred books from the Vedas downwards, I felt that the Epic could not stand alone as a "story" of different systems of philosophy and religion, and that all other similar works must be of the same kind. I had found that this method of interpretation had given a new meaning to the gods of the Vedas as well as the "story" of the Mahabharata, and thought that the real idea of the Ramayana and the Bhagavat Purana must be similar too.
I accordingly applied the same method of interpretation to the Ramayana, and found that it too was transformed into a "story" of different systems of philosophy, though on a smaller scale than the Mahabharata; and the conflict between Ravana and Rama was changed into an exposition of the difference between the system of Brahma and the dualistic school of Vishnu; and it was for this reason that Ravana has been described in the Epic as a "descendant" of Brahma, and Rama as half an "incarnation" or embodiment of the idea of Vishnu. I then desired to understand the idea of all the ten principal incarnations of Vishnu, the Fish, the Tortoise, the Boar, the Man-Lion, the Dwarf, Parasurama, Ramachandra, Krshna, Buddha, and Kalki and studied the Bhagavat Purana for the purpose. I applied the same method of interpretation, and found that their idea was exactly the same, and that they described the evolution of the idea of God in the same manner as the Mahabharata dealt with the progress of Man from Nature unto God.
All this was the result of this method of interpretation, based primarily on the division of words used in the text into their parts, so that the text itself remained unchanged; and it transformed a number of strange, extraordinary and fantastic "stories" into simple and consistent accounts of different systems of philosophy and religion, and so placed the ideas of the ancients in an entirely new light. There were the same names, the same words, the same parts, and their meanings were throughout the same, transforming so many "stories" in works believed to have been composed in different ages, into the same systems of philosophy and religion, with all their points of contact and conflict intact. It then occurred to me that, if all this was true, the main ideas of the Epics and the Puranas must be found in the systems of philosophy themselves. I had studied these systems in the original, all but the Purva Mimansa (for that is how the Mimansa is generally called), with such assistance as I could secure, before writing The Mystery of the Mahabharata; but the Sutras had, for the most part, remained unintelligible to me; and most of my conclusions were based on what I could gather from the Upanishads and the Mahabharata.
I now believed that these Sutras could not really be unintelligible. I also felt that there must be some mention somewhere of a method of interpretation which had yielded such extraordinary results, and had such a wide range of application from the Vedas to the Epics and the Puranas. Nor was I disappointed. I found that the Sutras, though difficult in parts, yielded, on the whole, to an easy rendering and contained even more than what I had expected. They were not separate utterances, as commonly believed; nor was each Sutra complete in itself, an idea which has caused so much confusion about them and rendered them unintelligible. I found that they were connected with one another, and could be grouped together into paragraphs, conveying correlated ideas; nor, with the exception of the Mimansa, did they require much of an explanation to understand them. They also contained a, reference to the method of interpretation which I had followed in my study of the sacred books. While there is a broad mention of it in Nyaya and a passing reference in the Vaisesika and Vedanta, the Mimansa examines it at considerable length, and explains the reasons for its adoption. It tells us also of a number of other things, and constitutes, even as tradition has taught us to believe, an introduction to the real study of the Vedas; and, as the same ideas have been repeated or amplified in later works, it may be said to contain the secret of the sacred books. It describes the Law of Dharma or good and intelligent action, and tells us that that is the subject-matter of the Vedas, and that the gods are but personifications of the great forces of Nature acting in accordance with this law. It also points out that a number of the hymns of the Vedas make little sense as they are, and that not a few contain strange, extraordinary and inconsistent statements. That, it observes, has deliberately been done to invite special attention to the necessity of finding out a different method of interpretation of the text. It then goes on to explain that there is such a method, and if we understand the text in its light, the whole idea would be transformed into an exposition of the laws of life. It explains and illustrates this method at considerable length, and tells us that the same has to be applied to all sacred books, the sruti as well as the smrti. It has accordingly been necessary to publish the whole of the Mimansa first, so as to enable the reader to grasp the fundamental idea of the sacred books, and the method of interpreting them; and the rest will follow in due course.