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Hymns From the Rig-Veda
By Jean LeMee
Excerpts from his book.

    wpe4.jpg (8625 bytes)Precious or durable materials- gold, silver, bronze, marble, onyx, or granite - have been used by most ancient peoples in an attempt to immortalize their achievements. Not so, however, with the ancient Aryans. They turned to what may seem the most volatile and insubstantial material of all - the spoken word - and out of this bubble of air fashioned a monument which more than thirty, perhaps forty, centuries later stands untouched by time or the elements. For the Pyramids have been eroded by the desert wind, the marble broken by earthquakes, and the gold stolen by robbers, while the Veda remains, recited daily by an unbroken chain of generations, traveling like a great wave through the living substance of the mind.

Whence this extraordinary strength and vitality?
Whence this power to nourish and give form to the religious and philosophical thought of innumerable peoples from time immemorial?

The tradition answers that the Veda itself is the secret of the Veda. The foundation stone that India contributed to civilization, the Veda, is said to embody the regulations, the laws of the universe as "seen" by gifted poets, prophets, or seers, the rishis. Set by them in a special language to be joyfully proclaimed for future ages," it has come down to us through an elaborate oral tradition consciously designed to prevent any distortion. Even today, had we no written record available, it would still be possible to have access to the Veda as it existed when the text was fixed three or four thousand years ago! This supreme monument of an early religion which has left us with no archeological remains, no church, no dogma, no founder, and virtually no history, forms the canon of the Hindu scriptures, the core of which is a collection of over a thousand hymns, more than ten thousand stanzas in all, known as the Rig-Veda.

Hinduism, according to its own tradition and belief, is not a religion belonging to a particular people or country but is what remains of an ancient system of knowledge, the Sanatana Dharma, which, in another age, was the inheritance of the whole of mankind. It therefore sees itself as the holder of a tradition common to all men, encompassing all that revelation and man's effort have produced in terms of knowledge.

Though Western scholarship inclines toward the period extending between the fourteenth and tenth centuries B.C. for the date of composition of these scriptures, the tradition emphasizes their revealed and eternal character, insisting that the seers are expressing that which has always been, is here now, and ever will be as long as this creation lasts. Tradition has it that toward the beginning of the present age, the iron age or kali yuga, about 3000 B.C., when the forces of evil started gathering their momentum and the memory of men began to fail, the great sage Vyasa was entrusted with the task of collecting the hymns. They were compiled under his direction into four different samhitis or collections according to the nature of the hymns and the purpose of the compilation. Thus Vyasa directed the sage Paila to gather hymns of prayer and dedication to the Gods and these formed the Rik-Samhita or Rig-Veda. "Knowledge," "wisdom," science," "vision" are some of the meanings implied in the Sanskrit word veda, while a rik means a verse or a stanza. The compiler organized the various hymns or suktas, the "well-saids," into ten books or mandalas, the "cycles," and it is in this form that they have reached us. These texts had come down to Vyasa from an oral tradition carried on by families of seers whose names are still attached to the hymns. These names, however, including Vyasa's and those of the other compilers, are for us mythical, ahistorical names, each more a description of the stage of realization of a particular rishi than a biographical name. Whoever has this vision or performs this function is called by that name as the tradition affirms it.

Thus, according to the Bhagavata Purana (2.7.36), "Appearing age after age with the True One (Satyavati), Vyasa divides the Tree of Knowledge into parts." The collections of hymns were handed to Vedic schools for safekeeping -throughout the ages, and it is a remarkable fact that since the days preceding the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Babylon, Athens and Rome, they have resounded daily, ever clear, ever new, ever old, without the slightest change. The Rig-Veda text we possess is that of the Shakala school, from the name of the master, Shalaka.

The hymns and texts of the four samhitas are mantras or incantations grouped according to their use in the ritual: the rik or verse collection, the yajus or collection of sacrificial formulas, the seaman or chant collection, and the atharvan, which is chiefly composed of magic spells. Each of the samhitis is the basis of a veda" which, besides the samhiti, comprises related commentaries or treatises among which are Brahmanas and Upanishads. The mystical tradition, however, looks upon the Veda from another viewpoint and establishes only a triple distinction between them, based on the form of the mantras: metrical for the rik in prose for the yajus, chanted for the saman. These three forms are said to correspond to the nature of the cosmos, conceived as a creation governed by a triple force where the yajus stands for the power of rest in the center, the rik for the principle of motion or expansion, and the saman for that of limitation or contraction. Under their mythological forms they are Brahma, lndra, and Vishnu or, in their psychological equivalents, the word of power and right action, the word of I<nowledge, and the word of peace.

The fountainhead of Eastern thought for millennia, the Veda has left a lasting imprint on the West since the end of the eighteenth century, but more particularly during the last thirty years, pervading so much of the Eastern philosophical and religious thought influencing Western society.

It is therefore at first a matter of surprise to observe that though there exist some good English translations of the main Upanishads, no readable translation of the Rig-Veda is available to the general public. All too often the scholarly translations, scattered and buried in learned journals or anthologies, seem to make little sense, even to the translator himself, Griffith's metrical version, now eighty-five years old, is dated, from both the scholarly and the linguistic viewpoint. A reason for the lack is that the task, of translating the Veda is an exceedingly difficult one and, to quote Sri Aurobindo, "borders upon an attempt at the impossible."

In translating poetry, not only ideas and images but also something of the rhythm and the music of the original should be carried through. When considering the Veda, however, we are confronted with a difficulty of another order of magnitude altogether, due not only to the technicalities of its language, an archaic form of Sanskrit whose principles and usages are very different from those of our own language, but also to its symbolic nature. This symbolism of the language is not simply one of form, relying on images, parables, and myths as other poetic or religious compositions do, but one of substance, based on its mantric character. The language of the Rig-Veda is an extraordinary tool of unsurpassed flexibility and power of expression, richness, and versatility. Claimed as mantra, m-in-d-ins-tr-u-ment, whose rules are the rules of thought, it is said to have the ability to recreate in the prepared hearer the experience of the poet, of the rishi. Thus, the word is not just a sound arbitrarily connected with an object or event, but is, essentially, a voice, a force producing an effect directly on the substance of being. It is a creative, living symbol. It possesses to the utmost the power of any true and genuine poetry or music, to create a resonance in the subtler substance of being and to bring about in the listener a fine attunement to the experience of the seer, poet, or composer. Worked out in great detail by later tantric schools, this view of language is implicit in the utterances of the Vedic seers and forms the basis of their practice.

Sanskrit is a term meaning "perfected," "well-made," "polished." It is the artificial language par excellence, patiently refined sound by sound, bearing in all its details the imprint of conscious work, constructed on the very principle of thought, of creation, in a fashion similar to that of mathematics but more flexible and wide-ranging in its applications. Embracing all the levels of being, physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, instead of the nearly exclusive intellectual component of mathematics, it is ideally suited to describe and govern the nature of phenomena from the spiritual level to the physical. This range of applicability in the realm of nature paradoxically makes this most artificial language into the most natural language, the language of nature.

One of the devices used by the Vedic poets to give their language the kind of wide-ranging generality that mathematics possesses to a degree is the full use of the multi signiflcance of roots. Sanskrit is built in such a way that virtually every word in the language can be derived from a root, a monosyllabic sound unit having a general significance in the sphere of action.

Its meaning is then narrowed down and specialized by addition of affixes and by certain well-defined processes applied to the root itself The wide spectrum of significance attached to a particular root reinforced by the various modes of recitation gives a chordal effect to nearly every verse, making such a language a perfect instrument for double and multiple entendre and endless possibilities for plays on words. The result is poetry at its purest, filled with resonances. In these poems, nothing is left to hazard or given for mere poetic effect, however. Everything is carefully worked out, engineered with the utmost care: "Like a cartwright [at work] I have conceived this hymn," says Vishwamitra, the seer of Hymn 111.38.

And a hymn is a collective endeavor, designed for the common worship of the "Men-of-the-Word." Each verse is a formula, precisely measured, which carries the directions, the forces, and the illumination required for the work. Hence the importance of the meter and of the quality of the sound to these engineers of the Divine. For the meter which governs the rhythms of the verse is symbolic of the cosmic rhythm itself. There are three such basic meters which by combination give the seven meters representing the seven rhythms, the seven pranas governing the whole process of life. The sounds that these rhythms articulate are the vibrations traveling through the four substances, the four levels of being or of speech, from the absolute state, transcendent, unaffected by anything, to the causal state, where meanings are universal and undifferentiated, to the mental state, where they are formed into separate thoughts, and finally to the physical state of utterance, where they are heard by the ear. It is in the second stage, the causal, that the vision takes place; this is where the mantra is perceived by the seer. With the third stage, the mental, comes the rhythm, and with the fourth, the articulated sound itself The arrangements of these articulated sounds are the creation of the rishis, while the ideas and their truth are simply seen and heard by them.

From the nature of the language and its use it is therefore easy to conceive that there will be levels upon levels of meaning to nearly every verse, depending on the "level of being" or, perhaps more accurately, the "spectrum of realization" of the listener. For within this spectrum a number of points of view will be possible, depending on the particular context. It is common, for instance, in systems of traditional thought to take a threefold view of the universe, creation being looked upon as having a physical, a subtle, and a causal aspect; sometimes a sevenfold, a nine-fold, or even a twenty-one fold aspect is taken, de-pending on the purpose at hand. Each of these folds, each of these layers, is a world, a loka, a viewpoint, in or at which the words have a certain impact, resonance, and meaning and therefore give rise to a particular interpretation. So it is that we may have up to twenty-one versions of a given Vedic text though only one recension in hand! And so it is also that, de-pending on their philosophies, some will see in these hymns a description of the physical forces of nature at work; some, the mental life of "primitive" people; some, the spiritual journey of highly developed souls; and yet others, some historical events told in a naive, mythical way or the statement of mathematical propositions. None of these interpretations is by nature exclusive of any of the others. All that may be said is that some may not be quite so comprehensive as others and, were the Veda limited to them, would hardly justify four thousand years of constant world, by wise men to keep the record.

Besides the symbolism of the language, a symbolism of structure may be shown to exist in the hymns, reinforcing and completing it. All this to suggest to the reader an idea of the power and complexity of the Rig-Vedic hymns and to make it evident that even with a lengthy commentary on each hymn it is not possible to convey all the implications that it evokes. The purpose in presenting the few hymns contained in this volume- less than one-hundredth of the whole Rig-Veda- is simply to make available a sampling of one of the major scriptures of mankind and to suggest something of its profundity and splendor. But the translator is painfully aware that this is like trying to convey the rich texture of a symphony by hesitantly whistling its theme.

The choice of the hymns has been dictated partly by their relative importance to later development of the speculative and philosophical thought of India hence the predominance of the hymns of the tenth mandala partly on the obligation to present some typical hymns addressed to the most often celebrated gods of the brahmanical pantheon - Agni, Soma, and lndra- and partly on the desire to show the wide range of tone and the variety of style of the ancient poets.

In the samhiti, the hymns are generally grouped according to either the families of rishis who originated them or the gods being celebrated. For instance, the fifth mandala is devoted to the hymns of the seers of the house of Atri, whereas the entire ninth mandala comprises the hymns to Soma. The tenth mandala, however, contains hymns by various rishis and devoted to different gods. The majority of these hymns are of a speculative nature and, according to Western scholarship, are of a less ancient origin. In this selection the hymns have been arranged in a natural sequence to mal<e for connected reading, be-ginning with the hymns of creation and proceeding through the "nature" hymns to the Dawn and the Sun to the hymns related to more abstract principles such as Knowledge and the Word, and concluding with the last hymn of the samhita, an invitation to peace and harmony. As previously pointed out, more than thirty centuries have passed since the hymns were collated. In that long period and in spite of many precautions, though the form has been impeccably kept, some keys have been lost, some meanings forgotten. The text abounds in words of doubtful meanings on which commentators and scholars have glossed for centuries. Often the images are obscure because of a lack of clues- ritual, cultural, or psychological- for all we all now about the religion, society, or history of the men who composed this literature has to be gleaned from the hymns themselves. Furthermore, the poets appear to delight in speaking in riddles, in veiling their meanings in metaphors, in using puns, as constant modes of expression, whether to make their point more effectively or to hide it.

In this translation I have availed myself of the work of previous scholars, students, and masters in the field, particularly McDonnell, Griffith, Renou, Agrawala, Gonda, Coomaraswamy, and Aurobindo. The method I have followed is simple: every single word has been referred to its root and the meaning chosen has been that which in my opinion conveyed most adequately the deepest sense of the passage I could construe while maintaining the integrity of the poetic structure.

Thus for the word go, which, among other things, may mean "cow," "milk," or "light," I have not hesitated to choose "light" where other scholars have taken "cow," though the word "cow" may give a coherent physical image, if I thought that the dominant meaning was either psychological or that the image created by using the word "light" was more in keeping with the general sense of the hymn and hence more comprehensible to the reader. In other words, I have tried to follow the spirit of the text as I understood it without doing unnecessary violence to the images. Along the same lines, since the reader cannot be expected to be familiar with Vedic mythology, I have translated all proper names, going back to their etymologies. One should remember, however, that symbolic etymologies, as distinct from grammatical ones, and often completely at variance with them in terms of meaning, are commonly used or implied in Sanskrit philosophical and religious texts. Admittedly, translations of names present hosts of unsolvable problems of interpretation. I have always endeavored to choose a name consonant with the psychological import of the passage and in line with the epithets that have been used traditionally for these gods. Thus, Varuna, the All-Enveloping One, is Lord of Lords, King of Kings.

Soma, the deified nectar, is the sacred potion but may also refer to "Mind." Translating these names gives more unity and helps clarify the general meaning of the text at a particular level of interpretation. As for the form, I have adopted the meter of the original. When translating poetry, the translator is always in a dilemma: whether to follow the form of the original or a form which suggests something of the original qualities but is native to the language of translation. The choice I made is premised on the belief expressed by the ancient singers themselves that the very sounds and rhythms of their poems are important, that these are part and parcel of their message. I have therefore made a special effort to adhere to their metrical form without impairing the natural flow of the English language. I have kept strictly to the same number of syllables per line, since their meters are syllabic, and not infrequently it has been possible to keep as well the place of the caesura, thus giving to the verse a similar rhythm. In some cases it has even been possible to match the sounds of the English syllables with the sounds of the corresponding Sanskrit syllables from the point of view either of articulation or of vocalic color. However, there are obvious differences between Vedic Sanskrit and English metrical possibilities. For one, the Sanskrit meter depends primarily on quantity - that is, on syllabic duration - rather than on stress, as English does; also, the riks have a tonal accentuation which cannot be introduced into English without artificiality. All this, naturally, conspires to distort the original rhythm in the translation. But the reader is nevertheless encouraged to read aloud and articulate clearly that he may hear an echo of the sounds that were made some forty centuries ago when the ancient seers "came together, sang together, with their minds in harmony."

Perhaps the deeper and ultimate hope of the translator is to persuade the reader, by showing him a pale reflection of the beauty and depth of the original, to take up himself the study of the "Language of the Gods" that he in turn may experience the wonder, the joy, and the knowledge which are within him but need the mantric impulse to be liberated. The Rig-Veda is a glorious song of praise to the Gods, the cosmic powers at work in Nature and in Man. Its hymns record the struggles, the battles, and victories, the wonder, the fears, the hopes, and the wisdom of the Ancient Path Makers. Glory be to Them!

Hymn of Creation

 Perhaps no other Vedic hymn equals in depth and majesty this famous Hymn of Creation known to tradition as the Nasadiiya Sukta, from its opening words. Its seer, Prajapati Parameshthin, Supreme Lord of Creatures, chants in the "triple-praise" meter his knowledge and his wonder as he recalls his vision and in these seven immortal mantras -seven like the days of creation - plants the seeds of Vedic metaphysics and mathematics. For this hymn, besides being a cosmogony, is also a beautiful meditation on the properties of numbers from one to nine and zero. As the Vedanta philosophy was to develop it later in great detail, and as other traditions also record, the process of creation can be seen as ninefold, each step, each state of consciousness, being characterized by the properties of a particular number.

Thus, creation begins in the Absolute, the one without a second, "where neither nonbeing nor being was as yet." Then duality creeps in, darkness conceals darkness. And so it all begins. In the fifth stanza is a brilliant example of the mathematical and structural symbolism alluded to in the introduction. The vertical and crosswise directions indicated give in words the substance of a sutra yielding a general and elegant method of multiplication and division while keeping the orders separate - the very mechanism of creation itself.

It reveals the inner properties of five, the number for man, but also for the manifestation of creation in the major traditions. Was it not on the fifth day that, according to Genesis, "God created great whales ... and blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply. . . "? Pure coincidence? Hardly, when we know with what care the Vedic poets constructed their hymns.

And then, what of this other coincidence that we find with Dante's Paradiso? In virtually the same words as Prajapati Parameshthin, the Prince of Poets sings:

Order was created and together with it Were woven the substances;
Those formed the summit of the world In which pure act was produced.
Pure potency held the lowest place,
In the midst, potency twisted such a mighty bond With act, as shall never be severed.

That line, that ray of glory that the vvise stretched between the Will on high and the Potency beneath, that mighty bond, scales all the states of being, uniting in its reach the whole creation.

Yet, from where does it all spring? Who truly knows?

 

 

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