Published on June 30th, 2013, Mid-Day
In the Rig Veda, dated conservatively to 1500 BCE, a poet-sage wonders, “What came first? What existed before the first?” Thus, he travels, not physically but mentally, and explores new worlds. Ramana Maharshi, a 20th century mystic, reflects this sentiment when he said that from his abode in Arunachalam, he travelled the world. Travel then is not just physical from one place to another, but also mental from one thought to another. The outer journey made sense only when it was accompanied by an inner journey, at least to the rishis, the poet-sages of India, whose hymns make up the venerated Vedas. They were the seers: those who saw what no one else saw.
We do know that the rishis travelled a lot: they travelled east from the banks of the river Saraswati to the banks of the river Ganga in the west, when the former dried up; their songs celebrating that once grand river are found in the Vedas. They travelled south from the Gangetic plains to the river valleys of Godavari and Kaveri, as we learn from the stories of Agastya and Ram, in the epic Ramayana. They were the first explorers. But they did not travel to conquer; they sought to understand the human condition. In the epic Mahabharata, when the Pandavas are exiled, they are told to follow the path of the rishis, visit holy places, talk to sages and strangers, so as to expand the mind.
Expanding the mind is a constant theme of the Vedas. The hymns constantly evoke the brahman, meaning ‘the great’ or ‘the expanded one’. Eventually the word came to mean God. The term ‘brahman’ comes from the Sanskrit roots brah, meaning to expand, and manas, meaning the mind. Brahman then is one of infinitely expanded mind. The brahmin (before it became infamous) referred to that which enables expansion of the mind. It referred to the scriptures that explained mind-expanding rituals, as well as the men who memorized the scripture and the details of the ritual.
The ritual called the yagna was a journey that enabled the performer to travel to the realm of the gods, the realm of ideas, and experience ecstasy and immortality that was in short supply in the mundane world. It was perhaps what we now call an adrenaline rush! That is why the hymns simultaneously refer to the stars and the rivers and the forests, as well as to the mind and the senses and the heart. The divide between the physical and mental is so subtle that interpreters are not sure if the Vedic hymns refer to the mundane world or to the metaphysical world. Perhaps they referred to both: as one travelled from place to place, one also travelled from thought to thought. Destination of the long journey over highways, rituals, trade routes and pilgrim trails, then, was also enlightenment.