An interview with Nishtha (Radio program)
- Ishana: Nishtha is a Veda researcher and teacher, translating and commenting on hymns from the Rig Veda in English and German. He's written a series of 19 articles on the Veda, in light of Sri Aurobindo's psycho-spiritual interpretation; they were published in German yoga magazines and other publications.
- During those years he also gave Veda classes in English, in cooperation with V. Yatsenko at the Indian Psychology Institute at Puducherry. He gives talks and workshops on the Vedas in many German cities, as well as Austria, at different yoga centers and other institutions. Additionally he conducts weekly meditations with hymns of the Rig Veda for Aurovilians and guests.
- At present he is working on a book manuscript on the Veda that discusses Sri Aurobindo's much-neglected ‒ or even unknown ‒ Veda research.
Nishtha: My name is Nishtha. I am originally German-born. When I was twenty years [old], I was in a complete crisis, of meaning of life. I had grown up in the countryside, living in a simple life, but somehow always being dissatisfied with the life around me, as well as the schooling. And as well when I went on for an apprenticeship ‒ the training and sitting, and so on. And then when I was twenty it really had reached a point of, “What is is this all about?” And, “The world is not fair.” I felt like that. Torturing people, and this distinction of class and society --
Yeah. So I was really in a kind of terrible crisis. And then what happened, there was a magazine which a friend had given me, and shown me, “Look!” ‒ there was an article on Auroville. That was in 1976. So Auroville existed eight years at that time. So there was an article about this, ‘primitive beginnings’, like some people are still doing now. Starting in a field, doing a set-up that is very primitive, and then they live there, with the idea of a different life.
So I read this, and another coincidence: in this German article magazine, it was mentioned that just a few weeks before, a book came out on Auroville. So of course I ordered that book. And when I read this book, I was in a new world. It was like, that's what I had been waiting for.
So that was very interesting. It was a book on the whole story, the biography also of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, and the first years of Auroville, and the Indian spirituality. And I had a traditional Catholic background, so I grew up with this; but then when you read the Indian spirituality, that this ‘Divine’ is not somewhere beyond the heaven, waiting that ‘if you live a good life, maybe you reach there’. But it's also that you can find it in inner life.
So these were all revolutionary things, which in a way it seems as if I was waiting for them. Because I was very much touched by it. I was taken.
And so it immediately came upon me, without having traveled much: “I have to go there. I have to see this place.” Together with that friend who had that magazine.
So I did kind of odd-jobs, just to get enough money to get a plane ticket and come here. But then of course, being 20 and not having traveled much, the first thing in Mumbai was the cultural shock, and the slums and all that. It was quite tough for me. Then I came to Auroville, and I had another shock, because in the book the whole thing was laid out in a way that you would think it's already there! Divine people are there, the city is there... and it was neither.
So I really was quite shocked; and after some weeks they invited to move me from the guest house in Auroville ‒ with snakes and all that kind of thing, and diarrhea ‒ I went to Pondicherry. And I stayed a few weeks there. But it's interesting because there they had the library, and the book shop, so I acquainted myself with more books of Sri Aurobindo, and purchased them. And went back home.
And then when I was back home, I just thought, “Wooh. What an awful nonsense this is!” ‒ I couldn't live there like before, even then. So in that sense, the crisis continued, and I got oriented to a different life, and immediately I thought, “Well, I have to go back there.” I had been running away, from the first kind of shock. So anyway, that was my life then for four years: that every year I [went to Germany] just to earn money to get a ticket, then spend some time here. But I say this also because in the first year, and especially in the second stage, I hit already on the Hymns to the Mystic Fire, Sri Aurobindo's poetry. And there was something ‒ as a youngster, I was interested in poetry. And then you saw this whole selected book, Hymns to the Mystic Fire (which is available today; there's a new better edition available on the website). So I looked in this, and when I returned the fourth time, it was with the decision: I wanted to stay.
So I embarked more in this. And then we started a place, where I live, ‘Agni’ ‒ this was in ’81 we started. I gave the name ‘Agni’, already at that time, because I was reading about this Agni.
And this is also to connect it with the Vedic kind of thing; then people would tell me, “Ah, I know ‒ fire!” But for me it didn't mean fire, actually. For me Agni was more what Sri Aurobindo calls that psychic flame, what he calls that soul-spark in everyone. Which actually is the goal of our search in Auroville, as the basics for our life. From there actually we are supposed to build a new society. If we haven't found that, we are ‒ of course we know it ‒ we're still doing the old thing.
So that was the connection already at that time, with the Veda: that something in me got attracted to this imagery ‒ this nature imagery of the gods. And also the language, the poetry. And the next step was of course naturally I wanted to read the ‒ on top of the English translation, there's the Devanagari. So I learned myself, Devanagari. And I was able to read. And that's how I worked myself gradually into the Vedic hymns.
And this was going on while at the same time we developed this place, Agni, from scratch; and I was planting trees, and I was staying here about five years without moving, just watering the trees during summer. And at the same time sitting in my little keet hut, with kerosene, like this with just a chair, not even a table, and studying the Vedic hymns. That was very ‒ already, from the very beginning, I was very busy with this.
And then during the course of the years, I also got interested ‒ of course along with Sri Aurobindo's works ‒ I got interested in Buddhism. And Buddha isn't there, so of course the Upanishads is what they say follows the Veda; but from the Upanishads I went into Buddhism (and from Hinduism), into Chinese Buddhism, Zen Buddhism. And I had a big, kind of, survey of everything.
But somehow I always came back, to the Veda. This is that basic thing. And this remained with me all during the years here, all the time. And then of course the focus was sometimes on something else; there was a strong period when I started to teach myself Western flute ‒ the recorder, which is the straight flute. And along with this I started to teach children in the school. So about six, seven, eight years, I taught flute ‒ not as a compulsory thing, but to those who wanted to learn, in small groups or even single persons.
And in my free time I was dealing with the Vedas, so you can imagine how long this thing goes on ‒ which in a way I find [quite natural] ‒ this is not which people would think: something you just get, ‘like that’. Because it needs a certain shift in perception, in the consciousness.
And then at the same time, I had not studied grammar, so I was just taking Sri Aurobindo's translations and comparing them to the original, and just trying to connect the words. But that is not the knowledge of grammar. So actually it was during this period, in the ’90s (I think ’90s, beginning maybe of the new millenum) that, still teaching flute, I took Sanskrit grammar classes. With an Aurovilian, here. And so for four years, every week we met and studied grammar. Which then really of course makes another shift, also, to get more into the language.
And especially in relation to the Veda, what was really helpful... because when you write Sanskrit, you learn, even in the alphabet, you are learning already what is called this (now I don't get the term, but,) the changes of vowels, for example: what is a pure vowel, what is a mixed vowel. The ___ in what is called ‘___’ ‒ change in roots and things. You have to, for example, you will know that ‘deva’, ‘dev’ is not the root, the root will be ‘div’. So how the ‘i’ becomes ‘e’, through the mixing vowel sound into ‘i’, and so on.
So this was interesting, because slowly the sounds come more alive, and then while I was studying the Veda you could see more and more this very conscious awareness of the Rishis, how they use sound and the root suggestions and the many directions. So that was really a big thing. Although this was basically classical Sanskrit, and I never really studied Vedic Sanskrit systematically ‒ but I had a book, and then you just look it up, and that helped of course also. And I had what my teacher told: you should know the whole thing what is there, what is available in the language, when you study grammar.
So that I did, and that really gave me a big push also, with the hymns meaning. Again I started more systematically to translate, also, right away.
And finally it was like that: you feel music and Sanskrit are both kind of endless works. Worlds, you know ‒ to do. I decided to stop the flute even, at that time; I completely stopped to play myself also, and I immersed myself fully into Sanskrit. And studying always the Vedic hymns. For me Sanskrit was actually mainly Vedic Sanskrit.
I got so much conditioned by these different sounds, colors, of the ancient Sanskrit (the Vedic), that when I hear classical Sanskrit, it almost sounds modern, or ‘rational’, intellectual ‒ compared to the intuitive, kind of, Vedic paradigm.
- So are you still researching the Vedas right now? What is your current work?
Yes... so I did it for many years, in cooperation with my teachers also ‒ we did various things in Auroville and in Pondicherry. And at present I'm working on a book, on the Veda. Which I hope will be a kind of bridge to Sri Aurobindo's work, The Secret of the Veda; because it's such a big thing, and there's a lot of scholarly part, which in a way for the lay reader is a bit too much. And so I felt maybe I could make a kind of bridge to that. So it's a book that supposed to have eighteen chapters, and give a kind of systematic introduction into this Vedic world, in the light of Sri Aurobindo's research.
- When do you think you'll be finished with the book?
I hope this year. I hope this year ‒ but it's like... for example, the last three months, on a daily basis, I was engaged in three chapters which I find very important, on ‘the Word’, which in the Western tradition is called ‘logos’. There's the thing which is called... it's not the Revelation of John ‒ I think it's one of the New Testaments. John says, “In the beginning was the Word; the Word was with God; the word was God”. And they call it logos. Then of course the rational people, they think, ‘ah, logic!’ It is not that.
Logos ‒ many scholars used to quarrel about it, and they would think that's what it means. In the Veda we have ‘mach’, which is ‘speech’; or ‘Brahman’, which also people don't know: that what is later called ‘Brahman’ in the Upanishads, in the Veda it is the term for the mantra. And Sri Aurobindo says that very beautifully. It is, so to say, the soul which expresses itself. So it can mean the Word which the soul speaks, or the soul itself, in different contexts.
So, speech... because in the rational age, and even now, people doing, as a mass... language gets more and more ‒ how do you call it ‒ ‘abstract’. And concise, and short-cut. In the Veda it's of course totally opposite. And they would almost say ‘without Word’; if you have no Word, then it means you are not connected with your soul. Because soul and Word are one.
When we speak, we express the ‘inner’ ‒ and if we have nothing to say, that means we are not connected with the ‘inner’. In the modern age, the rational age, words are just nothing. They are unimportant; we just use them very casually. Whereas the Word is the soul-expression.
So there are three chapters in which I am still working on what is called the logos, based on the goddess (and also there is a god, in the Veda) ‒ Brihaspati, or Bramhaspati ‒ who is related to it. And also in the third chapter, I want to say how does this connect to what in India is so important: mantra practice. And there I want to highlight that for the Rishis, in mantra practice there is always thought involved, which is not something mechanical. It's a higher thought, an intuitive thought, but thought is always involved. ‘Illumination’ means it's part of a thought process ‒ an evolution happening in the mind, a widening of the mind, transcending into higher layers of the mind.
Which by the way is also very interesting ‒ you find it in the Veda, and in a way you find it in Sri Aurobindo's work. So that's why (also) I always come back to him, because Veda and Sri Aurobindo explain each other.
- Do you think this connection between Sri Aurobindo and the Vedas sort of __ in your book, a little bit?
I would feel that still in India it has not been recognized; and the foreign scholars... there's one book, an American scholar, he says, ‘Oh, he thinks this fire is an inner fire’. That's all that he says about it ‒ the work which composes a thousand pages or something, research that Sri Aurobindo did on the Veda. So he is... his work is not really recognized. So I thought, after a hundred years, the time has come.
I was travelling abroad three-four years ago when I was suffering from the summer, and then I went out ‒ and in Europe and in the States, there's this whole ‘yoga movement’. And there people of course they also hear of ‘Veda’, and they would like to know something about the root. But also their thinking is totally dominated by Patanjali thought. Because that is part of the Hatha Yoga; that's their philosophy. So it wasn't easy to reach them also. But still, people were very open. They don't know about it; and many they were... they were touched by this language. And so I felt maybe the time would have come now ‒ gradually, slowly, that something of this different consciousness and culture.
But I always feel (in India also) ‒ in India people really get a deeper understanding of the Veda again. They also much more appreciate Sri Aurobindo's teaching. Because in a way you feel he has overreached the tradition. But if the tradition is really dwelling more consciously again on what the Vedic message really is ‒ that it is not just a ritualistic bypath taken, but is something very living and integrated, and the real root, the origin of the whole flow of Indian civilization ‒ then I think they would also see so much connection there.
- To Sri Aurobindo.
Of Sri Aurobindo.