Creation Stories: The Cosmogony Account from the Vedas

By David Reigle on March 2, 2013 at 5:33 am

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

Translation Notes (continued)

RV 10.129.2a: ná mṛtyúr āsīd amṛ́taṃ ná tárhi, “There was not death nor life (“non-death”) then.” The word amṛta commonly means “immortality,” and most translators have translated it as such; for example: “There was not death nor immortality then.” Coomaraswamy (1933), however, translates this verse quarter as: “Then was neither death (mṛtyu) nor life (amṛta).” He points out that (pp. 56-57), “Amṛta, in the second stanza, is not ‘immortality,’ but simply life, continued existence, as in Ṛg Veda, VII, 57, 6, and equivalent to dīrghamāyuḥ in X, 85, 19; the sense is ‘neither birth nor death as yet were.’” Gonda (1966) apparently agrees, translating this as: “There was not death (nor continuation of life) then.” I, too, agree, seeing amṛta here not as “immortality,” but merely as “non-death,” i.e., “life,” in a contrasting pair with mṛtyu, “death.”

The Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary says this clearly, glossing amṛtam with jīvanam, “life” (in the sense of the condition of being alive). The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary glosses amṛtam much less clearly with amaraṇam, literally “non-death,” which can signify either “life” or “immortality.” When choosing between two meanings that are equally possible grammatically, reason must be a criterion. I can see little reason why immortality would be spoken of here, especially when life and death form a more natural contrasting pair. Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava in his brief commentary does not gloss amṛtam.

RV 10.129.2b: ná rá̄tryā áhna āsīt praketáḥ, “There was no distinguishing sign of night [or] of day.” The word praketa, here translated as “distinguishing sign,” is a Vedic word. It is not used in classical Sanskrit, and its meaning is not certain. The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary glosses praketa as prajñāna, which can mean (from V. S. Apte’s dictionary): 1. knowledge, intelligence; 2. sign, mark; 3. discernment. Possibly H. W. Wallis intended this third meaning in his 1887 translation, “there was no discrimination of night and day.” The Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary glosses praketa as cihna, “sign, mark,” probably indicating that this was also the meaning of prajñāna intended in the Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary. The classical Sanskrit word saṃketa, differing from praketa only in the prefix sam rather than pra, also means “sign.” A majority of the recent English translations use “sign.” Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava glosses praketa as vibhāga, “distinction.” Although this portion of his commentary was not published until 1965, a majority of the earlier English translations (going all the way back to Colebrooke’s of 1805) use “distinction,” perhaps based on context. Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty in her 1981 translation has combined the two meanings in “distinguishing sign,” which I have adopted. A few earlier translations used “light,” a different meaning deduced from the usage of praketa in some other locations (Ṛg-veda 1.113.1 and 1.94.5; see the footnote by Wallis, p. 59).

RV 10.129.2c: á̄nīd avātáṃ svadháyā tád ékaṃ, “That one breathed without air by [its] inherent power.” As pointed out by others, tad ekam, “that one,” can also be translated as “that alone.” The word avāta is often translated as “without wind”; but vāta, like vāyu, can also mean “air.” Air is more fitting in regard to breath.

The difficult word in this verse quarter is the feminine noun svadhā, translated by me as “inherent power.” Elsewhere in the Vedic texts svadhā often means a food or drink offering or oblation, a meaning that is obviously not appropriate here. The majority of the later translators take it here as some kind of power or force, a meaning derived from the context. The prefix sva, “self, own,” would indicate that it is an inherent or intrinsic power or force. The majority of the earlier translators take it here as some kind of inherent nature, something that is self-supported or is its own support or is supported by itself, and thus has also been translated in the instrumental case simply as “by itself.” This meaning is derived from the context as well as from the etymology of svadhā, sva-dhā. The verb-root dhā means “put or place,” “grant or confer or bestow,” “produce or make,” “bear or hold or support.” The last of these meanings is apparently the one that is relevant here. This is also how the Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary understands svadhā, in its etymological analysis. After analyzing the sva as svasmin, “in or on itself,” it gives the passive verb made from the verb-root dhā, “dhīyate,” and glosses this with the passive verb made from the verb-root dhṛ, “dhriyate.” The verb-root dhṛ means, “hold, bear, support.” So the dhā of svadhā, by way of dhīyate, is explained as dhriyate, “is held, borne, supported.” In agreement with this etymological meaning, this phrase would say more fully, “That one breathed without air by [its] inherent or self-sustaining power.”

The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda and Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentaries gloss svadhā here as māyā, “illusion.” Advaita Vedānta regards māyā as a power (śakti) associated with the absolute brahman. However, Sāyaṇa is not saying that māyā is the power by means of which the “one” (brahman) breathed without air. Rather, he takes this line (as worded in his Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary) as, “That one along with [its] māyā breathed without air.” The instrumental case can mean “by” or “with”; i.e., “by means of,” or “along with.” Sāyaṇa uses saha and sahitam to show that he takes the instrumental svadhayā in the latter meaning. If svadhā is māyā, Sāyaṇa is obliged to take the instrumental here as “with” rather than “by.” This is because, according to the teachings of Advaita Vedānta, the ultimately unreal māyā is not inherent in the real brahman (in the sense of being inseparable from it). Something that is ultimately illusory cannot be the means by which the one brahman breathed without air. In accordance with these teachings, this verse can only be saying that brahman breathed (without air) along with or accompanied by its māyā.

Taking it in this way, however, stretches the natural reading of this line to such an extent that only followers of Advaita Vedānta have accepted it, and not all of these. Of more than thirty English translations, only two of the first ones accepted it, when there was little else to guide the translators besides Sāyaṇa’s commentary (these are: the first ever translation, made by Colebrooke in 1805; and the first one made by Muir in 1863, but not in his 1870 revised translation). Not even Wilson (died 1860) followed Sāyaṇa here, as he normally did. Nor did the 1987 translation done jointly by an Advaita Vedānta swami, Svami Satya Prakash Saraswati, and Satyakam Vidyalankar. There were, of course, other schools of Vedānta, which did not take māyā or its synonyms to be ultimately illusory. Then there would be nothing against identifying svadhā with māyā or its synonyms, when reading this verse in its natural manner.

Māyā is regarded in Advaita Vedānta as the power of projecting (vikṣepa) illusion. By way of this, it is regarded as being the cause (kāraṇa) of the phenomenal world. The Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary here glosses: “with svadhā, i.e., along with māyā in the form of the cause of the entire world, based in itself.” “Itself” refers to “that one brahman”; “based” is āśrita. The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary here (but not the Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary) takes pains to explain that, when svadhā as māyā is said to be based in brahman, this does not mean that it is inherent in brahman in the sense of being inseparable from brahman. It is only superimposed on brahman, like the illusion of silver in certain seashells. It is for this reason that he must read this line as saying that brahman breathed without air with svadhā/māyā, not by svadhā/māyā.

In the Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary on verse 5 (see below), svadhā is glossed as anna, “food,” thus bringing in the meaning of svadhā as a food offering or oblation. Advaita Vedānta also regards māyā as prakṛti, “matter, substance”; and food, as we know, often stands for matter. (S. Radhakrishnan in his highly accurate translation of the upaniṣads sometimes translates anna as matter rather than food.) Again, prakṛti is regarded in Advaita Vedānta as ultimately illusory, not as inseparably inherent in brahman. Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava in his brief commentary does not gloss svadhā.

Suryakanta in his 1981 Practical Vedic Dictionary gives “inclination” for svadhā, citing its occurrence in Ṛg-veda 10.129.5. He also gives two other passages illustrating this meaning: Ṛg-veda 1.113.13, ajarāmṛtā carati svadhābhiḥ, which he translates as “she the ageless and deathless moves according to her wont or inclination”; and Ṛg-veda 1.164.30, jīvo mṛtasya carati svadhābhiḥ, “the soul of the dead moves according to his inclination.” We notice in both of these cases that svadhā is in the instrumental plural, svadhābhiḥ (not singular, despite the singular translation, “inclination”), and that it is used with the verb carati, “moves.” If something moves according to its inclination, this could also be by its inherent power, or by its inherent nature.

As already said, besides as some kind of inherent power, the meaning of svadhā has also been taken as some kind of inherent nature. It is not very different to say, “That one breathed without air by [its] inherent nature,” as “by [its] inherent power.” This would make svadhā practically equivalent to svabhāva, “inherent nature,” something’s “own nature.” Ralph Griffith (1892) translates this phrase as, “breathed by its own nature.” Jan Gonda (1966) also translates this as: “breathed . . . by its own nature.” It is unlikely that Gonda would have copied Griffith, because Griffith’s metrical translation is not regarded by scholars as being accurate enough. So I hoped that Gonda would explain his choice of this translation term or idea in his full article in Dutch that his English translation of this hymn accompanies. Ingmar de Boer kindly translated the relevant portion of the Dutch article into English for me.

Gonda did not, it turns out, explain his translation term for svadhā. But he did give an alternative translation of svadhayā (in the instrumental) in a footnote, “van zelf” (not “vanzelf” written together as is usual, says Ingmar), or in English, “by itself” (or automatically, says Ingmar), and he referenced this to Alfred Hillebrandt’s 1913 Lieder des Ṛgveda, p. 133. There in his German translation of this hymn, Hillebrandt translates svadhayā as “von selbst,” or in English, “by itself,” and he does give references for his translation of this term in a footnote: Ṛg-veda 3.35.10, 4.45.6, 4.58.4 (“Indra created one, Surya one, one they made themselves”), 10.88.1. Here we have textual warrant for translating svadhayā as “by itself,” or “by its own nature,” or “by its inherent nature,” the same meaning as svabhāva.

Coomaraswamy (1933, p. 56) gives three synonyms for svadhā: māyā, śakti, svabhāva; apparently from the upaniṣads. We have already discussed these three, which pretty much summarize the proposed meanings for svadhā in this hymn. Coomaraswamy did not give a reference for the equivalence of svadhā to svabhāva, “inherent nature.” The equivalence of svadhā to śakti, “power,” is contextual here in Ṛg-veda 10.129.2. The equivalence of svadhā to māyā, “illusion,” given by Sāyaṇa, requires us to read this line in a somewhat unnatural manner and take svadhā as merely accompanying the “one.” In the natural reading of this line, svadhā is something by which the one breathed without air. For māyā or its synonyms to be this, it would have to be understood as something inseparable from brahman, an inherent power or an inherent nature. It could not be something that is ultimately unreal and is only superimposed on brahman, as māyā has been understood to be in Advaita Vedānta for the last 1,200 years. There were other schools of Vedānta prior to this, such as Bhedābheda, that did not make this ultimate distinction between the synonyms of māyā and brahman. For them, the equivalence of svadhā to māyā or its synonyms could work, following the natural reading of this line. The same inherent power or inherent nature by which the one breathed without breath could also bring about the manifested cosmos, as māyā is understood in Advaita Vedānta to do. Something like this must have been intended in this hymn, because in its verse 5, svadhā is described as being below (avastāt).

RV 10.129.2d: tásmād dhānyán ná paráḥ kíṃ caná̄sa, “Other than just that, there was not anything else.” This simple translation requires no comment other than to note that “just” translates the particle ha, and that paraḥ, “else,” could also mean “beyond.”

RV 10.129.3ab: táma āsīt támasā gūḷhám ágre ’praketáṃ saliláṃ sárvam ā idám, “Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning. All this was water without distinguishing sign.” It is a general rule in Vedic Sanskrit verse that a unit of meter is a unit of sense (a rule that Irach Taraporewala applied with good results to his translation of the related Avesta Gāthās). For this reason, most translators have taken the first verse quarter as a unit, and translated it like I have, “Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning.” Interestingly, the three extant commentaries take the first two words as a sentence, and then construe the rest of that verse quarter with the second verse quarter; in general like this: “There was darkness. All this [the cosmos], [like] water without distinguishing sign, was hidden by [this] darkness in the beginning.” Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava says that tamas, “darkness,” intends prakṛti, “matter, substance.” The Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary gives three words for tamas: avidyā, “ignorance”; māyā, “illusion”; and śakti, “power.” It explains this as the material cause (upādāna) of the world, and glosses this as mūla-ajñāna, “root unknowing.” The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary says that another name for tamas is māyā, and it describes this as bhāva-rūpa-ajñāna, “unknowing in the form of an existing thing.” That is, darkness is equated with unknowing as a positive entity, a something, not unknowing as an absence of knowledge. It adds that this is the mūla-kāraṇa, the “root cause” (of the cosmos).

For apraketa, “without distinguishing sign,” see my comment on praketa in 10.129.2b. The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary here on 10.129.3 takes apraketam as aprajñāyamānam, “not being known.”

RV 10.129.3cd: tucchyénābhv ápihitaṃ yád á̄sīt tápasas tán mahiná̄jāyatáikam, “That one germ which was covered by the void was born through the power of heat.” Because of the yat-tat pronoun correlative, something not used in English, the word order of these two verse quarters had to be rearranged in translation. It is, more literally, “Which germ was covered by the void, that one was born through the power of heat.” So it is only in the English translation that words from one verse quarter were put in the other verse quarter. These units of meter remain units of sense in the original. This half verse includes three words whose meaning is not precisely known (tucchya, ābhu, mahiman), and a fourth whose applicable meaning here is debated (tapas).

The word tuccha means “empty,” like the synonymous but more widely used word śūnya. The word tucchya used here, with the added “y,” is the same as tuccha. As a noun, which we have here, it would mean a void, something that is empty. This is how I have translated it (in the instrumental case), “by the void.” But we do not know exactly what it signifies as a technical term. The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary glosses it as bhāva-rūpa-ajñānam, “unknowing in the form of an existing thing.” The Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary glosses it as mūla-ajñāna, “root unknowing.” So Sāyaṇa glosses tucchya like he glossed tamas, “darkness,” in the first part of this verse. Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava glosses tucchyena rather differently, as mṛtyunā, “by death,” and as udakena, “by water.” His commentary is very brief, and he assumes that his readers are already familiar with the Vedic literature. For “death” here, they would probably recall Bṛhad-āraṇyaka-upaniṣad 1.2.1, which begins: “There was nothing whatsoever here in the beginning. By death indeed was this covered” (translated by S. Radhakrishnan). For “water” here, the previous line of this verse had just said, “All this was water.” So the commentators say that tucchya, “the void,” is “unknowing,” i.e., “darkness,” or else “death,” or “water.”

The noun ābhu, taken by me and some others in the general sense of a “germ” or “potential,” more literally something that “comes into existence,” is one of the least understood words in the hymn. It is etymologically simple, being derived from the prefix ā and the verb-root bhū, “be.” The verb in the past tense made from this prefix and root, ābabhūva, “has come into being,” occurs in verses 6 and 7. But the neuter noun ābhu is practically unknown elsewhere in Sanskrit texts, so we do not know what it may mean as a technical term. It is not found in the ancient Nirukta by Yaska. From its etymological meaning, “that which comes into being, that which becomes,” Maurer said (p. 225) he “somewhat freely translated” it as “the germ (of all things).” I have adopted “germ” from him. “Germ” had also been used earlier in the anonymous translation of 1859 and Max Müller’s comments thereon, and in his own translation of 1899. Some other translators have used similar translations: “generative principle” (Edgerton, 1965), “the virtual” (Gonda, 1966), “the pregnant point” (Le Mee, 1975), “primordial potency” (Panikkar, 1977, only in his notes), “life force” (O’Flaherty, 1981), “the thing coming into being” (Brereton, 1999).

Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava glosses ābhu as maho brahma, “great brahman.” He does not elaborate. The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary glosses ābhu as ā samantād bhavati, “[it] becomes from all sides.” The Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary refers to ābhu as ā samantād bhavaty utpadyata ity ābhūj jagat, “[as something that] becomes, arises, from all sides, thus the world existed [ābhūt].” A few lines later Sāyaṇa speaks of this kind of world as avyakta, “unmanifest,” distinguishing this from the abhivyakta-jagat, the “manifest world.” So Sāyaṇa, too, understands ābhu as kind of a “germ” or “potential” world. There is a direct parallel to this verse in Taittirīya-āraṇyaka 1.23.1-2, where Prajāpati, “Lord of Progeny,” is found in place of ābhu. On that text we have, besides another Sāyaṇa commentary, also a pre-Sāyaṇa commentary by Bhaṭṭa Bhāskara-Miśra. The latter there glosses Prajāpati as hiraṇya-garbha, the “golden germ.” See below under 10.129.4a.

In the word apihita, “covered,” we see the same archaic prefix “api” that is also seen in the word apyaya, found in the compound prabhavāpyaya from the original Purāṇa-saṃhitā. (see the post, “The One Form of Existence”: prabhavāpyaya in the Original Purāṇa-saṃhitā).

The basic meaning of the word tapas is “heat.” Derived from this is the common meaning “austerity, penance,” related to the heat or intensity of such practices undertaken by yogis, etc. This can be applied not only physically but also mentally. Thus, there can be a mental tapas related to intense meditation. The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary quotes a passage from the Muṇḍaka-upaniṣad (1.1.9) speaking of tapas consisting of knowledge/wisdom, jñāna-mayam. Sāyaṇa here glosses: “of tapas in the form of reflection on [what is] about to be emanated.” While this meaning may well apply here, as Sāyaṇa says it does, I think it is better to give its basic meaning rather than its derivative meaning. This was proven on a large scale in the literally accurate Tibetan translations of the entire canon of Sanskrit Buddhist texts. The literal translations allowed for various interpretations to be made later. They did not pre-judge the issue and thereby limit it from the beginning to only one interpretation. So I have translated tapas as “heat.”

Tapas is not glossed by Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava, nor in the Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary, where the variant reading tamas is found in the Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa text instead of tapas. John Muir in his 1870 translation gives a long footnote (fn. 541, pp. 361-362) reviewing the evidence for taking tapas as “rigorous and intense abstraction.” This includes Ṛg-veda 10.167.1, which “says that Indra gained heaven by tapas, where the word can only mean rigorous abstraction.” A little later (p. 365) Muir gives a passage on cosmogony from Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa, where through tapas is produced smoke, fire, light, flame, rays, blazes, etc., one after the other. He there notes: “It may perhaps be considered that the manner in which the word tapas is used in this passage is favourable to the idea that in R.V. x. 129, 3, it signifies heat rather than rigorous abstraction.” Chauncey Blair in his 1961 book, Heat in the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda, cites Ṛg-veda 10.129.3 under the section, “Tapas as a Creative Power” (pp. 67-68). He introduces it with: “In the two following verses, tapas has become not only a completely abstract entity, but also a great creative, primeval power.” The second verse is Ṛg-veda 10.190.1, which he translates as: “Both Universal Order and Truth were produced from incandescent heat. From that (heat) night was born. And from that (heat) the billowing ocean (was born).”

The word mahinā, or mahimnā as Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava has it in his brief commentary, is regarded as the instrumental singular of mahiman, or of mahin. These are, in any case, synonyms. Mahiman commonly means “greatness,” but also “might, power,” as the context seems to require here. I have translated it (in the instrumental case) as, “through the power” (of heat). The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary glosses mahinā as māhātmyena, simply “by greatness.” The Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary, however, glosses mahinā quite differently. It takes mahiman (or mahin) as mahat, the “great” principle of the Sāṃkhya system. Mahat is another name for buddhi, the principle of intelligence from which the entire cosmos evolves. This quite different interpretation is due in part to the fact that this commentary accepts and uses some Sāṃkhya ideas, and due in part to the fact that the Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa reading of this verse has tamasas instead of tapasas. So rather than saying, “that one [germ or potential world] was born through the power of heat,” it says, “that one [germ or potential world] was born from darkness by way of mahat (the “great” principle).” It glosses: “by way of mahiman/mahin as mahat in the form of the manifest world.” It had spoken of the principle of mahat (mahat-tattva) earlier here, in its commentary on verse 1. The word mahiman occurs in the plural in verse 5, where the meaning “powers” is more fitting than “greatnesses.”

The “one” (ekam) that was born (ajāyata) is taken by almost all the translators to be “that one” (tad ekam) that breathed without air from verse 2. The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda and Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentaries do not take it as this, and neither do I. The verse clearly says that the ābhu (“germ”) is what was born, however we understand that term. How the commentaries understand the ābhu has been given above in the second paragraph about ābhu. There is a distinction to be made between “that one germ” and “that one” itself that breathed without air. This hymn says in verse 2d that other than just that one, there was not anything else. If just that “one” is really and truly only “one,” then it cannot be born except metaphorically. The upaniṣads and brāhmaṇas are quite willing to speak metaphorically, and even have the “one” thinking and creating. For example, Aitareya Upaniṣad 1.1.1: “The self, verily, was (all) this, one only, in the beginning. Nothing else whatsoever winked. He thought, ‘let me now create the worlds.’” (translated by S. Radhakrishnan). Ṛg-veda 10.129, however, does not appear to do so, preserving at least a verbal distinction between “that one” itself and the “one germ” (ābhu). Unless and until there is clear evidence that the ābhu is completely identical with “that one” that breathed without air, I think we must keep this distinction.

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