Creation Stories: The Cosmogony Account from the Vedas

By David Reigle on February 28, 2013 at 11:41 pm

Part 2: Translation of Ṛg-veda 10.129, the “Hymn of Creation”

There are, I think, at least six important points in Ṛg-veda 10.129 on which there is disagreement among translators. Despite collecting more than thirty English translations of this hymn, I was unable to find any one translation that understood all six of these the way I understand them. This at last caused me to undertake a new translation, in order to have what I regard as an adequate basis for comparison with the Book of Dzyan. Before giving my translation, I here list these six important points and how I have understood them. The first two of these differ from almost all the translations known to me (but not from the two Sanskrit commentaries of Sāyaṇa), the next two differ from most of the previous translations, and the last two differ from more or less than half of them. There are, of course, differences on a number of other points as well (e.g., the meaning of rajas in 1b), sometimes also significant (e.g., the meaning of tapas in 3d). How I understood them may be seen in the translation notes. The six important points of difference are:

(1) In the second half of verse 3, the “one” (ekam) that was born is the germ (ābhu) of verse 3, not “that one” (tad ekam) that breathed without air of verse 2. The word that I and some others have taken as a germ (a very rare word of uncertain meaning), also described as “one,” is here understood to be distinct from “that one” itself. This makes a subtle but philosophically quite significant distinction. Following the natural grammatical construal of the standard yat-tat pronoun correlative found in this line, this verse says only that the germ is born, and applies the adjective “one” to it. Unless the germ is taken to be completely identical with “that one” that breathed without air of the previous verse, this verse does not say that “that one” itself is born.

(2) In the first half of verse 4, the “that” (tat) that desire came upon is the germ of the previous line, not the “that one” (tad ekam) that breathed without air of verse 2. This is the natural grammatical construal. Again, unless the germ is taken to be completely identical with “that one” that breathed without air of verse 2, this verse does not say that desire arose in “that one” itself.

(3) In the first quarter of verse 1, an implied “it” is supplied, saying, “[It] was not non-existent, nor was [it] existent then,” rather than the equally possible, “There was neither non-existence nor existence then.” Supplying “it” is based on parallel passages in the Vedic texts that specifically say “it” in this context. When this verse is translated as saying that there was neither non-existence nor existence then, it is sometimes understood to mean that there was absolutely nothing then, with the result that the cosmos arises from nothing rather than from something.

(4) In the second half of verse 4, the “desire” (kāma) from the first half is carried down. Rather than saying just that the sages found the link between the existent and the non-existent (“hardly any discovery at all”—Maurer, p. 228), the verse says what the sages found that link to be, when its two halves are taken together. Desire is the link between the existent and the non-existent. This is how the Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary understands it, as does Walter Maurer, who regards it as “the key to the entire hymn” (p. 220 in his article linked in the previous post on this topic).

(5) In the third quarter of verse 1, the verb āvarīvar is taken as derived from the root vṛt, “exist, turn, move,” rather than from the root vṛ, “cover.” The verse therefore asks “what moved?” rather than “what covered?” This apparently describes the breathing without air of “that one” in verse 2. In taking the verb this way, I follow many of the later translators, based on the meaning found in parallel passages in the Vedic texts, rather than most of the earlier translators, based on the gloss given by Sāyaṇa (“covered”). Further, this being an “intensive” verb, I show the intensive sense with the word “incessantly” in my translation of it as “moved incessantly.”

(6) In the second quarter of verse 7, the unstated subject of the verb dadhe (“produced, made, established, upheld”) is taken to be “it” (“this creation or manifestation”) rather than “he” (the “overseer”). This applies whether the perfect middle verb dadhe is taken in a middle sense, “[it] made [itself],” or in a passive sense, “[it] was made.” When taken as “[he] made [it],” the “he,” the “overseer” from the next line, is usually understood to be a personal being, a creator, “God” (īśvara), as the Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary glosses “overseer” (adhyakṣa). However, there is no indication in the previous verses of anything but an evolutionary process of creation or manifestation, nothing that would require the involvement or direction of a personal being as creator. Only about a third of the English translations take “he” as the subject; mine is among the majority that do not.


Translation of Ṛg-veda 10.129, the “Hymn of Creation”:

ná̄sad āsīn nó sád āsīt tadá̄nīṃ ná̄sīd rájo nó výomā paró yát

kím á̄varīvaḥ kúha kásya śármann ámbhaḥ kím āsīd gáhanaṃ gabhīrám || 1 ||

1. [It] was not non-existent, nor was [it] existent then. There was no world, nor sky, [nor] what is beyond. What moved incessantly? Where? In the abode of what? Was [it] water, dense [and] deep?

ná mṛtyúr āsīd amṛ́taṃ ná tárhi ná rá̄tryā áhna āsīt praketáḥ

á̄nīd avātáṃ svadháyā tád ékaṃ tásmād dhānyán ná paráḥ kíṃ caná̄sa || 2 ||

2. There was not death nor life (“non-death”) then. There was no distinguishing sign of night [or] of day. That one breathed without air by [its] inherent power. Other than just that, there was not anything else.

táma āsīt támasā gūḷhám ágre ’praketáṃ saliláṃ sárvam ā idám

tucchyénābhv ápihitaṃ yád á̄sīt tápasas tán mahiná̄jāyatáikam || 3 ||

3. Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning. All this was water without distinguishing sign. That one germ which was covered by the void was born through the power of heat.

ká̄mas tád ágre sám avartatá̄dhi mánaso rétaḥ prathamáṃ yád á̄sīt

sató bándhum ásati nír avindan hṛdí pratí̄ṣyā kaváyo manīṣá̄ || 4 ||

4. Desire in the beginning came upon that [germ], which was the first seed of mind. Sages, having searched in the heart with inspired thought, found out [desire to be] the link of the existent in the non-existent.

tiraścí̄no vítato raśmír eṣām adháḥ svid āsí̄3d upári svid āsī3t

retodhá̄ āsan mahimá̄na āsan svadhá̄ avástāt práyatiḥ parástāt || 5 ||

5. Their cord was extended across. Was there a below? Was there an above? There were seed-placers, there were powers; inherent power below, impulse above.

kó addhá̄ veda ká ihá prá vocat kúta á̄jātā kúta iyáṃ vísṛṣṭiḥ

arvá̄g devá̄ asyá visárjanená̄thā kó veda yáta ābabhú̄va || 6 ||

6. Who really knows? Who here can say? From where has [it] been born? From where [has come] this manifestation? The gods are later than the manifestation of this [cosmos]. Then who knows from what [it] has come into being?

iyáṃ vísṛṣṭir yáta ābabhú̄va yádi vā dadhé yádi vā ná

yó asyá̄dhyakṣaḥ paramé výoman só aṅgá veda yádi vā ná véda || 7 ||

7. From what this manifestation has come into being, whether [it] was made or whether not, its overseer who is in the highest heaven, he surely knows; or else [he] knows not.


Translation Notes

“. . . a mere translation of the Veda, however accurate, intelligible, poetical, and even beautiful, is of absolutely no value for the advancement of Vedic scholarship, unless it is followed by pièces justificatives, that is, unless the translator gives his reasons why he has translated every word about which there can be any doubt, in his own way, and not in any other.” (F. Max Müller, Vedic Hymns, Part I, p. x, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 32, 1891.)

RV 10.129.1a: ná̄sad āsīn nó sád āsīt tadá̄nīṃ, “[It] was not non-existent, nor was [it] existent then.” Most translators take this line as the equally possible, “There was neither non-existence nor existence then.” I understand this line with an implied subject, “it,” in agreement with Walter Maurer (1975, p. 221), though he takes its referent as “all this (world)” (sarvam idam) from verse 3, while I take its referent as “that one” (tad ekam) from verse 2. To me, the convincing evidence for understanding an implied subject here (“it, this, that”) comes from what are by far the oldest extant re-statements of this line. These are found in the brāhmaṇas. There, the word idam, “this, it,” is explicitly stated. Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa says: neva vā idam agre ’sad āsīn neva sad āsīt, “In the beginning this was certainly not non-existent, [it] was certainly not existent.” (In translating this, I follow Joel Brereton’s convincing explanation of neva, na iva, as a strong negation in his article, “The Particle iva in Vedic Prose,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 102, 1982, pp. 443-450, especially p. 448, paragraph 4.1.2.) In the next sentence the Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa quotes the same line that we are discussing, Ṛg-veda 10.129.1a. Similarly, Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa says: idaṃ vā agre naiva kiṃcanāsīt | na dyaur āsīt | na pṛthivī | nāntarikṣam |, “This, indeed, in the beginning, was not even anything; not the heavens; not the earth; not the atmosphere.” We see here also a re-statement of our next line, Ṛg-veda 10.129.1b: “There was no world, nor sky, [nor] what is beyond.”

Some of the translators who take the line under discussion as, “There was neither non-existence nor existence then,” understand it to say that there was nothing then. Thus, creation would be creation out of nothing. But this is more an Abrahamic than an Indian idea. It is not that there was nothing then, but rather that what there was cannot be called either existent or non-existent, being or non-being; it is beyond dualistic conception. This is a basic idea in Indian thought. This idea is basic to what is often regarded as the pinnacle of Hindu Vedānta thought, the Advaita or “non-dual” tradition; and this idea is basic to what is often regarded as the pinnacle of Mahāyāna Buddhist thought, the Madhyamaka or “middle way” tradition. The Madhyamaka view is defined in an often-quoted verse as follows:

na san nāsan na sad-asan na cāpy anubhayātmakam |

catuṣ-koṭi-vinirmuktaṃ tattvaṃ mādhyamikā viduḥ ||

“The Mādhyamikas know reality free from the four positions of the tetralemma: neither is it existent, nor non-existent, nor both existent and non-existent, nor is it neither.”

(found in the Jñāna-sāra-samuccaya, etc.; here translated by David Seyfort Ruegg, Three Studies in the History of Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka Philosophy, Wien, 2000, p. 143).

In accordance with Indian thought, the commentator Sāyaṇa assumes here an implied subject, which he specifies as the root cause (mūla-kāraṇa) of this world (asya jagataḥ). This subject that is neither non-existent nor existent cannot be nothing, because in Indian thought creation out of nothing is impossible. Sāyaṇa comments: “At that time, what remained in the state of dissolution, the root cause of this world, was not non-existent, i.e., totally non-existent like the horns of a hare. For not from a cause of such kind is the arising of an existing world possible.”

RV 10.129.1b: ná̄sīd rájo nó výomā paró yát, “There was no world, nor sky, [nor] what is beyond.” Most translators take the word rajas here to mean “atmosphere” or “sky” or “air” or “midspace” rather than “world” as I have taken it, and therefore see only two things here rather than three. For example, Arthur Macdonell in his very helpful Vedic Reader for Students (which most of us in the West learned with) translates this line as: “there was not the air nor the heaven which is beyond.” Of course, rajas does mean “atmosphere” in many Vedic passages. But it also means “world,” as in Ṛg-veda 1.164.6 for example, where six worlds are spoken of; and it was glossed as loka in the plural (lokāḥ), “worlds,” in the very early Nirukta by Yaska (4.19). It does not necessarily mean our world, but can refer to any globe in a series of worlds. These are often given as fourteen in number in Hindu texts. To us, the higher such worlds would be the same as higher heavens or heaven worlds. They may be placed by us in what we call the atmosphere or sky. Both of the commentators, Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava and Sāyaṇa (in his Ṛg-veda commentary), gloss rajas here as loka, “world” (the Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary takes rajas as the guṇa rajas). They see three things here rather than two, as does the old Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa at As we saw in the previous note, these three are there given as: “not the heavens; not the earth; not the atmosphere.” This gives us a perfectly logical and fitting interpretation as the world, the sky, and what is beyond.

There are important references in The Secret Doctrine that include the term rajas. The first is vol. 2, p. 385 fn., where the plural form rajāṃsi, “worlds,” is used. The second is vol. 2, pp. 621-622, where both the singular form, rajaḥ (mistakenly changed to rāja in the 1978 ed.), and the plural form, rajāṃsi, are used in an extract from the secret commentaries.

RV 10.129.1c: kím á̄varīvaḥ kúha kásya śármann, “What moved incessantly? Where? In the abode of what?” The verb āvarīvar (ā avarīvar), an intensive imperfect third person singular active, may be derived from the root vṛ, “cover,” or possibly from the root vṛt, “exist, turn, move.” In the former derivation, this verse quarter would begin, “What covered [all]?” I have taken it in the latter derivation, “moved.” Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava takes it as “covered,” glossing it as ācchādayām āsa. Sāyaṇa also takes it as derived from vṛ, “cover,” as has long been known. The majority of translators followed him in doing this, especially the earlier ones. More recently, most of the translators who have critically studied the Vedic Sanskrit of this hymn (in contradistinction to the translators whose intent was more to improve the language of the previous translations) have taken avarīvar as derived from the root vṛt, “exist, turn, move.”

The method of trying to determine the meaning of Vedic words by comparing their usage in all their occurrences in the Vedic texts was pioneered by Rudolph Roth, and he contributed the results to the massive seven-volume Sanskrit-Wörterbuch (1855-1875, in German). There (vol. 6, 1871, page column 757, lines 5-6) he derived āvarīvar in Ṛg-veda 10.129.1 from vart (vṛt), specifically rejecting the commentator’s (Sāyaṇa’s) derivation of it from var (vṛ). He translated āvarīvar into German as, “regte sich,” or in English, “stirred.” Hermann Grassmann followed Roth in deriving avarīvar from the root vṛt in his still widely used Wörterbuch zum Rig-Veda (1873, page column 1333; hymn 10.129 is there numbered 955). Grassmann in his 1876-1877 German translation of the Rig-Veda (vol. 2, p. 406) translated this phrase as, “Was regte sich?,” or in English, “What stirred?” Among English translations, “stirred” was used by Edward J. Thomas (1923), Franklin Edgerton (1965), Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (1981), and Joel Brereton (1999). Karl Geldner and Adolf Kaegi in their joint 1875 German translation of this hymn (p. 165) translated this phrase as, “Bewegt’ sich was?,” taking āvarīvar as “moved” (likewise derived from vṛt). Geldner used the derivation from vṛ in his 1908 German translation of this hymn (p. 14) that included the commentary by Sāyaṇa (who derived avarīvar from vṛ). Geldner ultimately used the derivation of avarīvar from vṛt in his posthumously published 1951 German translation of the Rig-Veda (vol. 3, p. 359), “Was strich hin und her?,” adding the phrase “back and forth” to the general idea of “moved.” The first English translation to depart from the meaning “covered” for āvarīvar was Macdonell’s 1900 translation, which used “motion” (“What motion was there?”). However, he returned to the derivation from vṛ in his translations of 1917 (“What did it contain?”) and 1922 (“What was concealed?”). Closely related to “move” is the meaning of vṛt as “exist,” taken by Walter Maurer in his 1975 translation (“What existed?”).

Taking avarīvar as derived from the root vṛt, “exist, turn, move,” is done on the basis of the meaning as found in parallel passages. In Ṛg-veda 10.51.6 the term ā avarīvur is used in connection with a chariot. Like avarīvar, there is no “t” in avarīvur, and here the meaning is evidently related to motion rather than covering (vṛt rather than vṛ). Hermann Oldenberg in his Ṛgveda: Textkritische und exegetische Noten has succinctly stated the case for vṛt (vol. 2, 1912, pp. 346-347, in German). Geldner has done so even more briefly in a note to his German translation (vol. 3, 1951, pp. 359-360). He cites parallels where cognate forms describe the alternating motion of wind and of breath. To me, the convincing evidence is that the next verse, 10.129.2c, speaks of the breath: “That one breathed without air.” So we would expect the verb āvarīvar here in 10.129.1c to be describing the alternating motion of the breath, its coming and going. In a parallel passage at Ṛg-veda 1.164.30-31, after speaking of the breath in the prior verse, the verb ā varīvarti (clearly from vṛt) is used in the next verse to describe “coming hither and going afar” (Vasudeva S. Agrawala translation, Vision in Long Darkness, 1963, p. 112). I have used “moved” rather than the more poetic “stirred,” because “stirred” describes an awaking from sleep, while the hymn apparently describes the regular movement of the breath during sleep.

In my translation of āvarīvar as “moved incessantly,” the “incessantly” is an attempt to render the sense of “repeated” in the intensive verb form. The so-called intensive is a verb that shows either repeated or intensified action. Thus, repeated action is shown by Jan Gonda’s translation (1966), “moved intermittently,” by Hans Henrich Hock’s translation (2007), “kept on moving,” and by Geldner’s German translation (1951), “hin und her” (“back and forth”), while intensified action is shown by Paul-Emile Dumont’s translation (1969), “was violently moving,” and by Louis Renou’s French translation (1956), “mouvait puissamment” (“moved powerfully”). The other translations mentioned above, “stirred,” etc., do not reflect the intensive sense. Since the verb āvarīvar has been associated with alternating motion, the intensive sense of repeated could perhaps just as well be rendered “rhythmically” as “incessantly.” In regard to the coming and going of the breath, “moved rhythmically” would certainly be applicable.

The phrase, kasya śarman, translated by me as, “In the abode of what?,” is most often translated as, “In whose protection?” (The interrogative pronoun kasya can equally mean “of what” or “of who, whose.”) While the word śarman means “protection” in Ṛg-veda verses such as 6.75.11, I could never see the relevance of such a meaning in this verse, asking such a question here. It always seemed incongruous to me to ask “In whose protection?,” when the entire cosmos was out of existence, or in a state of dissolution. Such a question would assume a “who” outside of the cosmos, who had not dissolved with it, and who was there to protect it. One must also wonder what there was then that it would need protection against, when the entire cosmos was dissolved. Therefore I have accepted the meaning of śarman as found in the ancient Vedic word-list known as the Nighaṇṭu, where (3.4) it is given in a group of twenty-two words for gṛha, “house,” and have translated it as “abode.”

Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava, who often follows the Nighaṇṭu, glosses śarman here as gṛhe, “in the house.” The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda and Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentaries give us another meaning of śarman, taking it as sukha, “happiness,” which is explained in relation to bhoga, “enjoyment.” The meaning “house” can be seen behind Ananda K. Coomaraswamy’s 1933 translation of śarman here as “resting-place.” I think this translation of śarman is a good take on “house,” and was going to adopt it; but then the question, “In the resting-place of what?” would be answered with, “The formerly manifested cosmos.” I do not think that this obvious fact is what is being asked about here. I understand the question to be asking about the ultimate reality that is now asleep during pralaya when the cosmos is not in manifestation. So I have chosen “abode” for śarman, and translated this phrase as: “In the abode of what?”

Like the Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava gloss of śarman in the locative case, “in the house,” so the Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary has śarman in the locative case, śarmaṇi, “in the enjoyment/happiness.” The many translators who translate this phrase as “In whose protection?” similarly understand śarman as a locative here. This is because, for words such as śarman ending in “-an,” locatives without the final “i” are actually more common in the Ṛg-veda than those that have it. This fact was ascertained by Charles R. Lanman in his comprehensive study, “A Statistical Account of Noun-Inflection in the Veda,” presented to the American Oriental Society in 1877 (published in Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 10, 1872-1880, pp. 325-601). Of 330 instances, 127 have the final “i,” while 203 have dropped it (see pp. 535-536). The word śarman has it 11 times, and drops it 17 times. Lanman writes: “I examined the passages in which the above 330 forms occur, and found that the choice between the two forms was often decided simply by the metre.” The fact about the dropped locative ending was duly reported by A. A. Macdonell in his Vedic Grammar, p. 203, paragraph 325, and in his Vedic Grammar for Students, p. 67, para. 90.

RV 10.129.1d: ámbhaḥ kím āsīd gáhanaṃ gabhīrám, “Was [it] water, dense [and] deep?” The interrogative kim can be taken in more than one way, so that this could be asking: “Was there water?” (as most translators take it), or even “What was water?,” besides “Was [it] water?” The two words gahana and gabhīra both mean “deep, thick.” They are so closely related in meaning that, in order to make good English, they have often been given in a phrase (or paraphrase) here, such as “fathomless abyss.” Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava does not gloss them, but the two different commentaries that go under Sāyaṇa’s name gloss them consistently. The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary glosses gahanam as duṣpraveśam, “hard to penetrate.” The Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary ( glosses gahanam as praveṣṭum aśakyam, “unable to penetrate.” Seeing no reason not to accept these glosses, I have therefore translated gahana as “dense.” Sāyaṇa in both his Ṛg-veda and Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentaries glosses gabhīram with the word agādham, “not shallow, deep, bottomless.” So I have translated gabhīram as “deep.”

The Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary says that this water, dense and deep, is not the water known to us. It is not the water that remains during an intermediate pralaya or period of dissolution, when the earth remains in status quo and only its life-forms disappear. In the great pralaya, the earth itself disappears, along with everything on it including water. The water that the verse asks about is something different.

(Translation Notes to be continued)

Category: Creation Stories | 2 comments

  • David Reigle says:

    I am glad that you raised this question, Nicholas. I may not have fully discussed it in my translation notes on verse 4. The verb here is samavartata, “became, occurred, arose,” plus the separate auxiliary word adhi, “over, upon.” So what can simply be translated as “arose” elsewhere must here be translated as “came upon” or “came over.” I do not think that the meaning is really different. They seem to be used interchangeably as to meaning. The difference is that adhi makes the otherwise intransitive verb samavartata transitive. That is, it now takes an object. So rather than just saying that desire “arose,” it now says that it “came upon” or “came over” something. It is still saying that desire arose in that something, but can now be used in a sentence with a direct object.

  • Nicholas says:

    At some point I guess you will say more about these words:
    “4. Desire in the beginning came upon that [germ]…”

    ‘Came upon’ is pretty mysterious & sounds different from ‘arose within’. Whence came desire?

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