Chapter Eight:
Indian Reformers on Mythology

                The Brahmin claims to be the teacher of the Word,
                But he himself both lives and dies in illusion;
                He spends his life in arguments over the four Vedas,
                And thereby gains absolutely nothing.

- Kabir

Social reformers and sages of the past like Kabir, Surdas, and Mira, and the more recent ones like Swami Dayananda, Vivekananda, and Sri Aurobindo, along with many others, tried to educate people in the true meaning of religion. Most of them discovered the deep symbolism hidden in the mythological stories built around various gods and goddesses. They realized that the real purpose of these tales was to inculcate spiritual values in the common masses.

Swami Dayananda rejected idolatry entirely, "…not only as harmless, but as positively sinful."1 He did not believe in either the Vedantic or Hindu pantheism. He always challenged the priests to produce passages from the Vedas sanctioning idolatry or Pashanadipujanalit (worship of stones, etc.). He defined devas (gods) as "…those who are wise and learned; asuras, those who are foolish and ignorant; rakshas, those who are wicked and sin-loving; pishachas, those whose mode of life is filthy and debasing."2

The means of attaining nearness to God, according to Swami Dayananda, are "…the worship of God or the contemplation of His nature and attributes with concentrated attention, the practice of virtue, the acquisition of true knowledge by the practice of Brahmcharya, the company of the wise and learned, the love of true knowledge, purity of thought, active benevolence, and so on."3

"Devapuja (or the worship of the gods) consists in showing honour and respect to the wise and learned, to one’s father, mother and preceptor, to the preachers of the true doctrine, to a just and impartial sovereign, to lovers of righteousness, to chaste men and women." He says, "To respect and serve the good (as explained and detailed in this paragraph) is real worship, but the worship of the dead (in the belief that it benefits them) I hold to be wrong."4

Swarga (heaven), for the Swami, represents the state of happiness and Narka (hell) pain and suffering. According to him many misconceptions about the Vedas, the Scripture of the Aryans, are due to a misunderstanding of the expressions used in the Vedas. For instance, the names of so-called gods which one meets in the Vedas according to strict etymological interpretations simply represent the various aspects and powers of the One Supreme Deity. The Vedas actually teach monotheism.

The well-known verse from the Rig Veda, admittedly the most ancient book in the World, may be quoted here. Rishi Dirghatamas says, "The Existent is One, but sages express It variously; they say Indra, Varuna, Mitra, Agni; they call It Agni, Yama, Matariswan."5 This conclusive point should be taken as the key to the interpretation of all apparently polytheistic expressions in the Vedas.

Swami Dayananda’s aim was to ascertain the nature of religious truth. He was open to correction of his views. He believed that if the learned men in all religions "…give up prejudice, accept all those broad principles on which all religions are unanimous, reject differences, and behave affectionately, much good can be done to the world."6

Swami Vivekananda, a well-known Hindu saint and social reformer, when asked about the form of worship in his religion, is reported to have said that "…idols formed a part of his religion insomuch as the symbol is concerned."7 The aim of true religion "…should be to help one to live and to prepare one to die at the same time."8 He also believed in uniting materialism of the West with the spirituality of the East although it was possible that "…in the attempt the Hindu faith will lose much of its individuality."9

At the Parliament of Religion in Chicago in 1893, Swami Vivekananda expounded in clear and simple terms the Vedanta system of philosophy. He told the congress that "…if there is ever to be universal religion, it must be one which will be infinite, like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna and of Christ, on saints and sinners alike; which will not be Brahmanic or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these, and still have infinite space for development; which in its catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms, and find a place for every human being, from the lowest grovelling savage, not far removed from the brute, to the highest man, towering by virtues of his head and heart almost above humanity, making society stand in awe of him and doubt his human nature. It will be a religion which will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be centred in aiding humanity to realize its own true, divine nature."10

Swami Vivekananda was fully convinced that "…without the help of practical Islam, theories of Vedantism, however fine and wonderful they may be, are entirely valueless to the vast mass of mankind. We want to lead mankind to the place where there is neither the Vedas nor the Bible, nor the Koran; yet this has to be done by harmonizing the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran. Mankind ought to be taught that religions are but varied expressions of THE RELIGION, which is Oneness, so that each may choose the path that suits him best."11

He further wrote, "For our motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam—Vedanta brain and Islamic body—is the only hope."12 Swami Vivekananda foresaw that India would arise out of the present day chaos and conflict, "…glorious and invincible, with Vedanta brain and Islamic body."13 It will be clear to a discerning reader that the ‘Universal Religion’ has already been ushered in by the spirit breathed into this world by Bahá’u’lláh. It is rooted in His Most Great Law of the reality of the Oneness of mankind. Apart from fulfilling every criterion for such a religion as propounded by Swami Vivekananda in his Chicago address, the Bahá’i Faith is destined in the fullness of time to establish a divine civilization for the entire planet. Bahá’u’lláh has not only enunciated principles and ideals that will inevitably lead mankind to its destined goal, but also provided the channels and perfected the means and instruments for the practical realization of these ideals.

Sri Aurobindo, another prominent Indian thinker, believed that "The language of Veda itself is sruti, a rhythm not composed by the intellect but heard, a divine Word that came vibrating out of the Infinite to the inner audience of the man who had previously made himself fit for the impersonal knowledge. The words themselves, drsti and sruti, sight and hearing, are Vedic expressions; these and cognate words signify, in the esoteric terminology of the hymns, revelatory knowledge and the contents of inspiration."14 He further asserts that "…in the Vedic idea of the revelation there is no suggestion of the miraculous…."15

Sri Aurobindo notes that the interpretation of the true meaning of the Vedas is made more difficult due to the addition of a number of elements (mythological, Puranic, legendary and historic, etc.) to the Divine Word. The present form of the Vedas includes: remnants of old spiritual, philosophical or psychological interpretations of the Shruti (literally "Divine Word"); superficial understandings of the myths and stories of the gods in the Puranas in their outward form while ignoring the symbolic or spiritual meaning; traditional stories of old kings and Rishis in the Brahmanas or later traditions explaining the obscure allusions of the Vedas; and the identification of natural forces with the supernatural deities such as Indra, the Maruts, Agni, Surya, Usha, etc. A ritualistic understanding pervades all the above, and despite the hymns being the supreme authority for knowledge, they are "…principally and fundamentally concerned with Karmakanda…"16 that is, the ritualistic observation of the Vedic sacrifices.

The rituals are signified by the characteristic words of the Vedas—food, priest, giver, wealth, praise, prayer, rite, sacrifice. The most egoistic and materialistic objects are proposed as the aim of sacrifice, possessions, strength, power, children, servants, gold, horses, cows, victory, the slaughter and the plunder of enemies, the destruction of rival and malevolent critic. No wonder Lord Krishna, in the Gita, while acknowledging "…the Veda as divine knowledge (Gita, XV.15) yet censures severely the champions of an exclusive Vedism (Gita, II.42), all whose flowery teachings were devoted solely to material wealth, power and enjoyment."17

To explain the true spiritual meaning of the Vedas, Sri Aurobindo propounds the Psychological Theory that is based on the systematic symbolism of the Vedas. In the Vedas, the mystics, in their wisdom, "…favoured the existence of an outer worship, effective but imperfect, for the profane, an inner discipline for the initiate, and clothed their language in words and images which had, equally, a spiritual sense for the elect, a concrete sense for the mass of ordinary worshippers."18 A sharp practical division came into existence—"…the Veda for the priests, the Vedanta for the sages."19 Later the Brahmanas and the Upanishads took the sacred text and ritual of the Vedas as "…a starting point for a new statement of spiritual thought and experience."20

However, Sri Aurobindo feels that "…the whole problem of interpretation of Veda still remains an open field in which any contribution that can throw light upon the problem should be welcome."21

The Bahá’í Writings, while recognizing Hinduism and Buddhism as the only existing true religions of the Far East, acknowledge the obscurities in them. The Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, Shoghi Effendi, writes, "…The origins of this (Hindu) and many other religions that abound in India are not quite known to us, and even the Orientalists and the students of religions are not in complete accord about the results of their investigations in that field." 20 He, however, urges those who are interested to study the subject, "although its immensity is well-nigh bewildering…." 23

Lord Krishna and Buddha are accepted in the Bahá’í Writings as the Prophets of Hinduism and Buddhism respectively. However, the Guardian points out that we can not be sure of the authenticity of their Scriptures.24 The Guardian was asked ‘whether Brahma is to be considered as referring to absolute deity and Krishna as the Prophet of the Hindu Religion?’. His secretary wrote that "…such matters, as no reference occurs to them in the Teachings, are left for students of history and religion to resolve and clarify." 25

‘Abdu’l-Bahá teaches that "the message of Krishna is the message of love. None has ever thought that war and hate are good…." 26 He is emphatic that "…Brahma, Krishna and Buddha never advocated polytheism. They were eminent teachers of monotheism as were all other Prophets of God; but succeeding generations misconstrued their words and in order to further their own selfish interest fabricated these false doctrines." 27



1. Lajpat Rai, The Arya Samaj, An Account of its Origin, Doctrine and Activities, with a Biographical sketch of the Founder, DAV College Managing Committee, New Delhi, p. 28.

2. ibid., p. 55.

3. ibid., p. 54

4. ibid., p. 55

5. Rig Veda, I.164.46.

6. Swami Dayananda, The Light of Truth (English Translation of Swami Dayananda’s Satyartha Prakasa). Translator: Ganga Prasad Upadhyaya. Dr. Ratna Kumari Swadhyaya Sansthana, Allahabad, 1981, p. 3.

7. Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Mayavati Memorial Edition, Volume VII, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1972, p. 285.

8. ibid., p. 284.

9. ibid.

10. Swami Vivekananda, Chicago Addresses, Advaita Ashrama (Publication Department), Calcutta, September 1993, p.48.

11. Swami Vivekananda, Letters of Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, Almora, Himalayas, Fourth Edition, 1948, p. 427.

12. ibid.

13. ibid.

14. Sri Aurobindo, The Secret of the Veda, Volume 10, Birth Centenary Library, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, 1972, p. 8.

15. ibid.

16. ibid., p. 20.

17. ibid.

18. ibid., p. 6.

19. ibid., p. 13.

20. ibid., p. 11.

21. ibid., p. 28.

22. Shoghi Effendi, Dawn of a New Day, Messages to India 1923-1957, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, New Delhi, p. 198.

23. ibid.

24. Lights of Guidance, A Bahá’í Reference File, Compiled by Helen Hornby, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, New Delhi, 1988. [From a letter dated November 25, 1950]. p. 503.

25. ibid [April 14, 1941]., p. 503.

26. Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 35.

27. ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Abdu’l-Bahá in Egypt, p. 86. [As quoted in Bahá’í Digest, Bahá’í House, 1026, Sector 8-C, Chandigarh, India. Dec.-Mar. 1995.]