Mesmerised by mantras

Harvard-educated Dr. Rangasami L. Kashyap is fascinated by the Vedas and set up an institute to further his passion.

July 31, 2014 05:10 pm | Updated 05:13 pm IST - Chennai

SCHOLAR: Dr. R.L. Kashyap. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

SCHOLAR: Dr. R.L. Kashyap. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

He has a Masters degree from IISc and a PhD. from Harvard. But Dr. Rangasami L. Kashyap is happiest when he is discussing the Vedas and Vedic studies. The Bengaluru-based scholar was recently honoured by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for his contributions to Vedic study, and conferred an Honorary D. Litt by the Karnataka Sanskrit University. He has translated 23,000 Vedic mantras, in 26 volumes. In addition, he has brought out 50 books in what he calls the “Compact Series”, where each book runs to just 100 pages.

But what is interesting is Kashyap has not studied in a Veda Patasala. “My only acquaintance with Sanskrit in the early years was in school; it was my second language. I was taught Sandhyavandana mantras by my father,” he says.

Kashyap was curious about the import of the Vedas, but there was no one to answer his questions. Formal education claimed most of his time. He stood first in the State in his Inter exams, and went on to do BSc in Physics, Masters at the IISc and PhD in Harvard, where he won the Gordon McKay Prize Fellowship, and completed his PhD in less than three years. He became a faculty member at the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, at the Purdue University, West Lafayette, U.S. He has published more than 250 research papers and guided 50 doctoral students. His doctoral work, ‘Ho-Kashyap algorithm’ is quoted even today in text books. He, along with with Dr.Ho, started the journal IEEE Transactions of Pattern Analyses and Machine Intelligence . And yet ask him if he gives lectures in his field of study after his retirement, and he replies, “Rarely. All my time is spent in Vedic studies.”

When did he start studying the Vedas? He answers, “When I was in the U.S., I first had my scholarship money and later during my tenure at Purdue, I had more money at my disposal. So I bought books on the Upanishads, the Gita, and translations of the Vedas by Griffith and Keith. I was surprised to find that although Rg Vedic mantras are quoted explicitly in the Chandogya and Brihaddaranyaka Upanishads, this aspect was not touched upon by speakers on Vedanta.”

In any case, with all the questions he had, Kashyap was in need of a guru. The visit to the U.S. by Madhav Pandit from the Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, was a godsend. Kashyap was drawn to the work of Aurobindo and Kapali Sastri, and his translations and interpretations of the Vedas are inspired by their works.

Post-retirement, Kashyap set up SAKSI (Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture) for the revival of Vedic knowledge. He clarifies that SAKSI has nothing to do with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram or with the Aurobindo Society.

What was it that drew him to the work of Aurobindo and Kapali Sastri? “Aurobindo points out that Vedic mantras had a symbolic meaning. Kapali Sastri identified 30 key words such as Agni and Gau, which occur more than 500 times in the Rg Veda. These help you arrive at the deeper meaning.”

But if there are such deeper meanings, does he mean to say that no one had noticed them before Aurobindo did? “The concept is indicated in the Mahabharata. Madhvacharya in his ‘Rg Veda Bhashya’ said that Vedic passages have three meanings - one referring to Gods (Adhidaivika), one referring to rituals (Adhi-Yajna) and the esoteric meaning (Adhyaatmika). Later, Raghavendra Swami looked at the last aspect more elaborately in his work ‘Mantraartha Manjari.’ Aurobindo made a pertinent observation. He said that to understand the Vedas, the Vedas are the only guide.”

Do the Vedas talk of moksha? “By and large, no. Not in the sense in which we understand it. They talk of the divinisation of human beings.”

Is sanyasa recommended by the Vedas as the way to attain such divinisation? “No. Marriage was not regarded as an obstacle to spiritual progress in the Vedas. That idea came much later.” So how did that idea gain currency? “Some people might have felt that they could get more spiritual ideas that way. But the Vedas don’t have this material versus spiritual idea. They emphasise on holistic perfection.”

Kashyap says women were not excluded from studying the Vedas. He points out that of the 400 Vedic rishis, 30 were women. He says that even the words used to describe women seers show the importance they had - Aditi, because she is not dependent ( Nirukta 4/22 ); Vishrutaa, for she is learned, Dhruva, for she is firm and so on. “Even in the Upanishadic times, you have the example of Gargi participating in philosophical discussions.”

Hasn’t the oral tradition been responsible for the preservation of the Vedas? “Oral chanting was an excellent strategy, because manuscripts could be destroyed. Also when people chant in different ways like krama, jata, ghana etc., errors can be detected. So, we had an Error Correcting and Detecting scheme, thousands of years before the West rediscovered it in the 1950s, for computer and communication applications. But the downside was that when invasions took place, patronage for Vedic learning dwindled, and many sakas were lost. Patanjali speaks of 98 sakas of the Yajur Veda. Today, we have only six!”

Veda patasalas keep alive the tradition even today, with emphasis on oral chanting, I point out. “What is the use of just learning how to chant? The meanings are more important. Sadly, even the teachers often don’t know the meanings. In any case, how many students stay for the entire duration of the course? Once they get the hang of things, they leave to become purohits.”

Kashyap says we shouldn’t look at Western solutions to Indian problems. He says that it is wrong to conclude that with the coming of industrial agriculture, fewer people are engaged in agriculture. What has happened is that work has shifted from the fields to the making of tractors and the monotonous work of extraction of oil, to fuel the tractors and harvesters. Kashyap gives statistics to buttress his arguments against the use of pesticides and fertilisers. “In 1948, farmers in the U.S. used 50 million pounds of pesticides, and crop loss was 7 per cent. In 2000, a billion pounds of pesticides was used and crop loss was 13 per cent. So that shows that the bugs have developed resistance. Organic farming, on the other hand, allows insect predator population to have a healthy presence.”

Kashyap practises what he preaches. He has a completely organic farm at the Edumadu village, near Kanakpura, Bengaluru, where he has cows, and grows vegetables and fruits.

•SAKSI has published 160 titles in eight languages.

•SAKSI has its own recording studio, and 18 CDs have been brought out on the Vedas, Upanishads etc. In addition to chanting, the CDs give the meaning too.

•Teachers in schools catering to the poorer sections of society, have been trained by SAKSI, and they teach Vedic chants to their pupils. The children say their memory power and their creativity have improved, as a result.

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