Creation Stories: The Cosmogony Account from the Vedas

By David Reigle on March 31, 2013 at 5:29 am

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

Translation Notes (continued)

RV 10.129.5: This verse is repeated in the “white” or Śukla Yajur-veda, i.e., the Vājasaneyi-saṃhitā, in both the Mādhyandina recension at 33.74, and in the Kāṇva recension at 32.6.5 (or 32.74).

RV 10.129.5a: tiraścí̄no vítato raśmír eṣām, “Their cord was extended across.” The word raśmi can mean “cord, string, rope,” or it can mean “ray,” as in a ray of light. The two Sāyaṇa commentaries accept “ray,” while most translators accept “cord” (Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava does not gloss it).  I have accepted “cord” because of parallels to two Atharva-veda hymns among the small number that pertain to this subject matter. In Atharva-veda 10.8.37-38 the phrase sūtram vitatam, “extended/stretched thread,” (in which created beings are woven) occurs twice. This phrase is directly parallel to the phrase here in Ṛg-veda 10.129.5, vitato raśmi (“extended cord”), and would incline us to take raśmi as a cord rather than as a ray. In Atharva-veda 13.1.6 the supreme parameṣṭhin stretched out (tatāna) the tantu, the “thread/cord,” after rohita gave birth to heaven and earth. Here we have not only a stretched out thread or cord, but even the ideas around it are parallel.

These Atharva-veda parallels were noticed already by Lucian Scherman in his 1887 book, Philosophische Hymnen aus der Rig- und Atharva-Veda-Sanhitâ. He there (p. 10) gave a partial German translation of Atharva-veda verses 10.8.37, 13.1.6, and 2.1.5, all of which speak of an extended or stretched thread (German “Faden”). The first reference, to 10.8.37, was picked up and repeated by Hermann Oldenberg in his Ṛgveda: Textkritische und exegetische Noten (vol. 2, 1912, p. 347), by A. A. Macdonell in his Vedic Reader for Students (1917, p. 210), and also by Karl Geldner in his German translation of the Rig-Veda (vol. 3, 1951, p. 360, note on 5a). A full English translation of Atharva-veda verses 10.8.37-38 was given by Jwala Prasad in his article, “The Philosophical Significance of Ṛgveda X, 129, 5, and Verses of an Allied Nature” (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1929, pp. 586-599, attached), p. 596:

“One who would know the stretched thread across which these creatures are woven; one who would know the thread of this thread, it is he who would know the great Brāhmaṇa.”

“I know the stretched thread across which these creatures are woven, I know the thread of this thread, hence (I know) that which is great Brāhmaṇa.”

Atharva-veda hymn 10.8 appears to be a continuation of the somewhat cosmological hymn 10.7 describing skambha. Skambha means “prop, support, pillar,” and is understood to be the “frame” of creation, as translated by William Dwight Whitney (1905). Hymn 10.7 is cosmological in the sense that skambha is the all, the entire universe, whose parts are its parts. Skambha is therefore in one sense the same as the ultimate brahman or ātman. The Atharvavedīya Bṛhat Sarvānukramaṇikā gives the “deity” (devatā) or subject of each hymn. For hymn 10.7 it gives “skambha or adhyātma,” and for hymn 10.8 it gives “adhyātma” (ed. Vishva Bandhu, 1966, pp. 83, 84). Adhyātma refers to the ātman or to the inner side of things. There was once an adhyātma school of Vedic interpretation (see the important article on this: “The Vedas and Adhyātma Tradition,” by Vasudeva S. Agrawala, Indian Culture, vol. 5, no. 3, Jan. 1939, pp. 285-292, attached). Atharva-veda verse 10.7.28 says that in the beginning skambha poured forth the golden germ (hiraṇya-garbha). In verse 10.7.34 wind or air is the breath of skambha. In verses 10.7.17 and 10.8.20 the “great Brāhmaṇa” spoken of in the verses 37-38 quoted above is apparently identified with skambha.

A brief English summary followed by a translation of most of Atharva-veda hymn 10.7 and part of hymn 10.8 was given by John Muir in his Original Sanskrit Texts, vol. 5, 1870, pp. 378-386, in the section titled, “Skambha and Brahma.” This preceded the first published English translation of the whole Atharva-veda by Ralph Griffith (1895-1896), and the posthumously published full translation (less chap. 20) by Whitney already mentioned (1905), both made independently of each other. Four more English translations of the Atharva-veda have been published. Three of these are connected with the Ārya Samāj and were made in accordance with the monotheistic interpretation of the Vedas put forward in the late 1800s by Svāmī Dayānanda Sarasvatī. These are by Devi Chand (1982), Vaidya Nath Shastri (2 vols., 1984), and Satya Prakash Sarasvati (5 vols., 1992, less chap. 20). Devi Chand translates verse 10.8.38 as: “I know the Vast Matter, on which all these creatures are strung. I know the Efficient Cause of Matter, Who is God the Almighty.” The translation by R. L. Kashyap (6 vols., 2010-2012) was made in accordance with the psychological interpretation of the Vedas put forward by Sri Aurobindo.

What I regard as the best of the three references given by Scherman, Atharva-veda verse 13.1.6, does not seem to have been picked up by Vedic scholars. Atharva-veda hymn 13.1 is about rohita, the “red,” referring to something that is common to both fire and the sun (yet it is not either of these per se, both of which have many Vedic hymns addressed to them individually as agni (fire) and sūrya (sun), etc.). Verse 13.1.6 first says that rohita gave birth to heaven and earth, placing us in the same setting at the beginning of creation as in Ṛg-veda hymn 10.129. It then speaks of the tantu, the “thread, cord, line, web,” that the supreme parameṣṭhin stretched out (tatāna). This hymn 13.1, like hymns 10.7 and 10.8, also has adhyātma as its “deity” (devatā) or subject, and is thus about the inner or higher side of things. Interestingly, the ṛṣi or seer of Ṛg-veda hymn 10.129 is Prajāpati parameṣṭhin, explained by Sāyaṇa as Prajāpati named Parameṣṭhin; i.e., the supreme as the Lord of Progeny. This is the same term as the parameṣṭhin here in Atharva-veda 13.1.6 who stretched out the thread or cord. Verse 13.1.6 may be translated as follows:

“The red (rohita) gave birth to heaven and earth. There the supreme (parameṣṭhin) stretched out the thread (tantu). There reposed the unborn (aja) one-footed (eka-pāda). [It] established heaven and earth by [its] strength.”

I have translated this verse with reference to the eight existing English translations known to me. The verb śiśriye in 13.1.6c, like the verb dadhe in Ṛg-veda 10.129.7b (see below), is a perfect tense middle voice verb that can be understood as a passive voice verb (or better, the middle voice should be understood as what Jan Gonda calls an “eventive” voice; see below). Three translators took this verb in a passive sense: Muir (1870, “was sustained”), Whitney (1905, “was supported”), and Kashyap (2010, “was supported”) following Whitney. Like the other five translators, I did not take this verb in a passive sense. My translation, “reposed,” reflects the perfect tense (a past tense) as do those of Bloomfield (1897, “did fix himself”) and Sarasvati (1992, “has taken shelter”), and follows the meaning given by Griffith (1896, “reposeth”), and Shastri (1984, “lies”). The other translation, Chand (1982, “pervades”), is more of a paraphrase. The subject of this verb is aja eka-pāda, translated by me as the “unborn” (aja) “one-footed” (eka-pāda). Some translators take aja in its other meaning, “goat,” thus translating, “the one-footed goat.” It is because I took aja as the “unborn” rather than as a “goat” that I did not take the verb śiśriye in a passive sense.  The verb in 13.1.6d, adṛṃhat, given by me as “established” (in agreement with Muir, 1870; Griffith, 1896; Chand, 1982), can also be understood as “made firm” (Whitney, 1905; Bloomfield, 1897; Sarasvati, 1992; Kashyap, 2010), or “holds firm” (Shastri, 1984).

The third reference given by Scherman in 1887 is to Atharva-veda verse 2.1.5. Hymn 2.1 has brahmātma as its “deity” (devatā) or subject, so it is also concerned with the inner or higher side of things. Verse 2.1.5 speaks of the ṛtasya tantuṃ vitatam, the “extended/stretched thread of the cosmic order (ṛta),” that the speaker of the hymn beholds. This gives us a third parallel to the Ṛg-veda 10.129.5 phrase, vitato raśmi (“extended cord”). The rest of the verse, however, is not clear. It speaks of gods (deva), their immortality, and moving in some way in a common birthplace or origin (yoni). Because of its obscurity of meaning, I have not counted this verse as a parallel used by me. Similarly, there is a possible but uncertain parallel in the famous hymn Ṛg-veda 1.164, whose verse 5 speaks of the sages (kavi) stretching out seven threads (tantu). This verse is, as translated by Vasudeva S. Agrawala (Vision in Long Darkness, 1963, p. 31):

“Immature in understanding, undiscerning in spirit, I ask where the stations of the Gods exist. When the Calf had become the yearling, the Sages [kavi] spread the Seven Threads [tantu] to form a web.”

The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda and Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentaries take raśmi as a “ray,” both comparing it to a ray of the sun (sūrya-raśmi). In order to comprehend what it is a ray of, we have to know how these two commentaries take the pronoun eṣām, “of them, their.” For most translators, the obvious referent for this pronoun is the sages (kavi) from the immediately preceding verse quarter. In support of this, Geldner (1951) gives references to Ṛg-veda 1.159.4 and 10.5.3d. Checking these, we see that they both refer to a thread (tantu) of the sages (kavi). In the translation by Griffith (1892), the first reference says: “They, the refulgent Sages, weave within the sky, yea, in the depths of sea, a web for ever new.” The second reference says: “they wove the Sage’s thread with insight.” Jwala Prasad in his article on this verse (1929, pp. 594-595) provides evidence that the sages or kavis referred to are the Vedic deities called the Ṛbhus. The Ṛbhus are called kavis, being skillful workmen, and according to Ṛg-veda 4.34.9 they divided the universe into heaven and earth. The Sāyaṇa commentaries, however, do not take the pronoun eṣām here as referring to the sages (kavi).

According to the Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary on 10.129.5, the pronoun eṣām, “of them,” refers to avidyā-kāma-karmaṇām, “of ignorance, desire, and karma.” These three, made by beings in the previous manifestation of the cosmos, are the cause of the creation or emanation of the about to be manifested cosmos. The raśmi, “ray,” is of these; it is the ray of ignorance, desire, and karma. It is the kārya-varga, the “multitude of effects,” produced by these three causes. It is therefore the “created universe,” as paraphrased by Jwala Prasad (1929, p. 598). This Sāyaṇa commentary says: “Just as a ray of the sun, immediately upon arising, in a mere wink pervades the whole world all at once, so this ray, which is the multitude of effects, quickly pervading everything, was extended or spread out.” Here the questions asked in the next verse quarter, “Was there a below? Was there an above?,” are also being explained. Because this ray of karmic effects manifests so quickly, it is hardly possible to determine a sequence of above or below in the manifestation of the cosmos.

The Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary gives us yet another take on the pronoun eṣām and the raśmi as a “ray.” It says that the ray (raśmi), the same as a ray of the sun (sūrya-raśmi-samāna), is a certain light of itself (svayam-prakāśa), something that is consciousness (caitanya-padārtha). The pronoun “of them” refers to everything that makes up the world (jagad-vastu), in the form of the elements and what is made of the elements (bhūta-bhautika-rūpa). So the ray is the paramātman or highest self, in the form of consciousness (caitanya-rūpa), that pervades everything. It is the light (prakāśa) that shines in everything. The questions asked in the next verse quarter, “Was there a below? Was there an above?,” are explained accordingly. Because the ray of the light of consciousness is shining in everything, it is not possible to speak of it in one particular place such as above or below.

Related to the idea of a “ray” of consciousness, a few translators have understood raśmi here as a “line” of thought or a “line” of vision of the mind’s eye (e.g., Maurer 1975, pp. 228, 230: “their line (of vision)”).

RV 10.129.5b: adháḥ svid āsí̄3d upári svid āsī3t, “Was there a below? Was there an above?” As noted under 10.129.1d, the questions made by interrogatives in Sanskrit can be understood in more than one way. Thus, this could also be asking, “Was [it] below? Was [it] above?,” etc. For the interpretations of the two Sāyaṇa commentaries on what these questions are asking about, see the paragraphs immediately above.

RV 10.129.5c: retodhá̄ āsan mahimá̄na āsan, “There were seed-placers, there were powers.” The two nouns in this verse quarter are etymologically clear, but exactly what they refer to is unclear. For the noun retodhāḥ, “seed-placers,” consisting of retas + dhā, the meaning of retas (“seed, semen, rain”) has been discussed under 10.129.4b. The verb-root dhā means primarily to “put” or “place.” It can also mean to “bear,” so that retodhāḥ could also be translated as “seed-bearers.” Who or what, specifically, does this term refer to? It can refer to Agni (Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa, to Soma (Ṛg-veda 9.86.39), to Soma as the moon (Maitrāyaṇī-saṃhitā 1.6.9), to bulls (Ṛg-veda 5.69.2), to rain as a bull (Ṛg-veda 7.101.6), etc. It may be generic here. Retodhāḥ has also been translated as “impregnators” or as “fathers.”

The noun mahimānaḥ means literally, “greatnesses.” It can refer to “mighty forces” or “powers,” as I have translated it here, and as I have translated it or its synonym mahinā in 10.129.3d. These “greatnesses” or “powers” can also be the “mighty ones,” the “gods” (deva) of the Vedic pantheon, as for example in Ṛg-veda 1.164.50: “By means of yajña the gods [devāḥ] performed their yajña: those were the primeval ordinances. Those mighty ones [mahimānaḥ] attained the height of heaven, where the Sādhya Gods of old dwell.” (translated by Vasudeva S. Agrawala, Vision in Long Darkness, p. 193). Indeed, the Vedic gods have long been equated with powers. See on this the 1957 book by Jan Gonda, Some Observations on the Relations between “Gods” and “Powers” in the Veda, a propos of the Phrase sūnuḥ sahasaḥ. Gonda there writes (p. 32): “It is clear that a mighty person and his specific might were—like a god and his śakti- in later times, when the latter was considered his spouse—conceived as a kind of ‘unité-dualité’, as a pair of complements forming unity.” Again, referring to names of deities such as sahasaḥ sūnuḥ, “son of power,” for Agni, Gonda writes (p. 50):

“The idea underlying these names is, irrespective of the vagueness of the conception of the divine powers, no doubt the conviction that every superhuman potency or phenomenon has two aspects, which can for the sake of simplicity be called ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal’, or—to express it otherwise—the belief that there must be sentient and rational beings ‘possessing’, supervising and representing the mighty and often dangerous powers which make their presence felt in the universe, beings which, if need be, can dispose of these powers.”

RV 10.129.5d: svadhá̄ avástāt práyatiḥ parástāt, “inherent power below, impulse above.” The word svadhā, which I have translated as “inherent power,” has been discussed above under 10.129.2.c. What is the inherent power by which the “one” breathed without air could be simply “force” below. I have retained “inherent power” for consistency of translation.

The noun prayati, tentatively taken by me as “impulse,” vies with ābhu for being the least understood word in the hymn (with svadhā being a close third). Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava glosses prayati as yajamānānāṃ pradānam, the “offering of the sacrificers,” and glosses the preceding svadhā (which I have taken as “inherent power,” as in verse 2) as udakam, “water.” The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary glosses prayati as bhoktā (bhoktṛ), the “enjoyer, eater, experiencer,” referring to the preceding svadhā, which he here glosses as anna, “food,” and this as bhogya, what is “to be enjoyed, eaten, experienced.” It may be noted that the strange-sounding glosses of svadhā as udaka, “water,” by Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava, and as anna, “food,” by Sāyaṇa, have their basis in the ancient Vedic word-list called the Nighaṇṭu, where svadhā occurs at 1.12 in a list of names for udaka, “water,” and at 2.7 in a list of names for anna, “food.” The Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary glosses prayati as paramātmā (paramātman), the “highest self,” in a complementary pair with the preceding svadhā, which he glosses as māyā, “illusion,” or avidyā, “ignorance,” and this as pārameśvarī śakti, the feminine “highest god power,” the power of paramātman, the “highest self.” He then compares the two of them as śakti, “power,” and paramātman, the “highest self,” to prakṛti, “matter, substance,” and puruṣa, “spirit,” respectively.

The existing English translations of prayati in this hymn are similarly diverse. Starting with the most recent, these are: Kashyap 2007, “purpose”; Hock 2007, “will”; Brereton 1999, “offering”; Sarasvati & Vidyalankar 1987, “the creator’s effort”; O’Flaherty 1981, “giving-forth”; Panikkar 1977, “forward move”; de Nicolás 1976, [not translated?, typographical error?]; Maurer 1975, “impulse”; Le Mee 1975, “the Will”; Miller 1971, “will”; Dumont 1969, “impulse”; Gonda 1966, “willingness (to give oneself)”; Bose 1966, “forward movement”; Edgerton 1965, “impellent force”; Brown 1965 and 1941, “emanation”; Kunhan Raja 1963, “activity”; Mehta 1956, “energy”; Coomaraswamy 1933, “Purpose”; Jwala Prasad 1929, “the act of offering”; Thomas 1923, “endeavour”; Macdonell 1922 and 1917, “impulse”; Müller 1899, “will”; Griffith 1892, “energy”; Wallis 1887, “the presentation of offerings”; Kaegi 1886, “striving”; Whitney 1882, “offering”; Gough 1882, “energy”; Monier-Williams 1875, “active forces that energized”; Muir 1870 and 1863, “energy”; Wilson 1860?, “the eater” [of food]; Anonymous 1859, “Power and Will”; Colebrooke 1805, “he, who heeds.” It may be noted that translations of the preceding word svadhā are equally diverse, and some of the same English words used for prayati are used for svadhā.

Etymologically, the noun prayati may be derived either from the verb-root yam, in its meaning “give, offer,” or from the verb-root yat, in its meaning “exert oneself, make effort”; these along with the prefix pra, “forth.” The first of these, yam as “offer,” may be seen in the above translations, “giving-forth,” “offering,” “the act of offering,” “the presentation of offerings.” The second of these, yat as “make effort,” may be seen in the majority of the above translations, including “effort,” “energy,” “impellent force,” “impulse,” “will,” “purpose,” “striving,” “activity,” “active forces that energized.” Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava takes prayati as derived from yam, “give, offer,” glossing it as pradāna, “gift, offering.” The Sāyaṇa commentaries take prayati as derived from yat, “exert oneself, make effort” (or simply “act” in some contexts). It is explained in his Ṛg-veda commentary with the noun prayatitṛ, “one who acts” (not prayantṛ, “one who offers”), as the bhoktṛ, the “enjoyer, eater, experiencer.” It is explained in his Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary with the verb prayatate and the noun prayatna. He there says that the paramātman in which that power, i.e., svadhā, exerts itself/acts (prayatate), being the basis for the exercise (prayatna) of that power, is the prayati.

For parallel passages in which prayati occurs, throughout the Vedic texts, we can now consult the monumental 16-volume Vedic Word-Concordance, by Vishva Bandhu and his assistants (Hoshiarpur: Vishveshvaranand Vedic Research Institute, 1935-1965; rev. ed. of vol. 2, parts 1 and 2, 1973; rev. ed. of vol. 1, part 1, 1976; the 2nd eds. of the other volumes are unrevised reprints). For just the Ṛg-veda, besides Hermann Grassmann’s long standard 1873 Wörterbuch zum Rig-Veda, we can now also (or instead) use the 1951 Indices volume (vol. 5) to the Vaidika Saṃśodhana Maṇḍala edition of the Ṛgveda-Saṃhitā, or the 1966 Indices volume (vol. 8) to the Vishveshvaranand Vedic Research Institute edition of the Ṛgveda.

The noun prayati occurs in the Ṛg-veda in three other places, at 1.109.2, 1.126.5, and 8.69.18. In these places it apparently means “gift” or “offering,” and thus would be derived from the root yam. This meaning is based on context, and is also stated by the commentators. For example, 8.69.18 is (Wilson’s translation): “The Priyamedhas have reached the ancient dwelling-place of these deities, having strewed the sacred grass and placed their oblations after the manner of a pre-eminent offering [prayati].” At 1.109.2, where Skandasvāmin’s commentary is available, he writes: prayatir dānārthaḥ, “prayati has the meaning ‘gift’.” He then also glosses it with pradāna, “offering.” Both Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava and the Sāyaṇa commentary gloss prayati in all three of these places as pradāna, “offering.” The context of prayati in these three verses is, however, quite different from its context here in 10.129.5.

The noun prayati also occurs in the Yajur-veda, both in the “white” or Śukla Yajur-veda, and in the “black” or Kṛṣṇa Yajur-veda. In the “white” or Śukla Yajur-veda, called the Vājasaneyi-saṃhitā, it occurs in the Mādhyandina recension at 18.1 and 20.13, and again at 33.74 where this same Ṛg-veda verse 10.129.5 is repeated. In the Kāṇva recension these places are 19.2.1, 21.7.14, and 32.6.5 (or 32.74). In the “black” or Kṛṣṇa Yajur-veda, the verse corresponding to 18.1 is found at Taittirīya-saṃhitā, at Maitrāyaṇī-saṃhitā 2.11.2, at Kāṭhaka-saṃhitā 18.7, and at Kapiṣṭhala-saṃhitā 28.7, while the verse corresponding to 20.13 is found at Maitrāyaṇī-saṃhitā 3.11.8, and at Kāṭhaka-saṃhitā 38.4. In these two verses, 18.1 and 20.13, prayati apparently does not refer to offerings, but rather to something that is (or can be) a quality of a person.

In verse 18.1 of the “white” or Śukla Yajur-veda (Mādhyandina recension) the person says (Griffith’s translation): “May my strength and my gain, and my inclination [prayati] and my influence, and my thought and my mental power, and my praise and my fame, and my renown and my light, and my heaven prosper by sacrifice.” Similarly, in verse 20.13 the person says (Griffith’s translation): “My hair is effort and attempt [prayati], my skin is reverence and approach. My flesh is inclination, wealth my bone, my marrow reverence.” The commentators do not gloss prayati in these places as “offering,” but rather with words derived from the root yat, “make effort” (e.g., Mahīdhara on 20.13: prayatanam, prayatnaḥ). They also bring in another gloss, śuddhi, “purity.”

The verse corresponding to Mādhyandina recension 20.13 is Kāṇva recension 21.7.14. It is numbered 21.111 (also 21.7.16) in the 1978 Śarmā and Śarmā edition of the latter half of the Kāṇva recension that includes a commentary said to be by Sāyaṇa (likely wrongly; see B. R. Sharma’s comments in his Introduction to his edition of the Kāṇva Saṃhitā, vol. 1, 1988, pp. vii-ix). This commentary says: mama madīyāni lomāni prayatiḥ prayatnasya śuddher vā kāraṇāni santīty arthaḥ, “My hairs are prayati, i.e., are the causes (kāraṇāni) of effort (prayatna) or of purity (śuddhi); this is the meaning.” At the verse corresponding to 18.1 in the Taittirīya-saṃhitā (, the Sāyaṇa commentary simply says: prayatiḥ śuddhiḥ, “prayati is purity (śuddhi).” A. B. Keith here translates prayati as “influence.” Mahīdhara in his commentary on this Mādhyandina Śukla Yajur-veda verse 18.1 says the same as Sāyaṇa, prayatiḥ śuddhiḥ, “prayati is purity (śuddhi).” None of the English translations of Ṛg-veda 10.129.5 take prayati as “purity.”

At Kāṇva recension verse 19.2.1, corresponding to Mādhyandina recension 18.1, the (undisputed) Sāyaṇa commentary on the first half of the Kāṇva recension glosses prayati as prakṛṣṭa-yatanam, “exertion in a high degree.” Ānandabodha’s commentary says the same: prakṛṣṭaṃ yatanaṃ prayatiḥ. I have here cited the Vaidika Saṃśodhana Maṇḍala edition of the Kāṇva Saṃhitā with commentaries, critically edited by B. R. Sharma in four volumes, 1988-1999 (vol. 5, Indices, 2009). The Sāyaṇa commentary then adds: prayatir yatna-viśeṣaḥ, “prayati is a particular kind of effort.” This phrase is not in the 1915 Madhava Sastri edition of the first half of the Kāṇva recension with the Sāyaṇa commentary (p. 169 of the relevant section). This edition has the erroneous prapati instead of prayati, and glosses prapati as prakṛṣṭa-gamanam, “going in a high degree.” The Sharma edition lists gamana as a variant reading for yatana from two of the seven manuscripts used for this commentary. The gloss gamana, “going” (rather than yatana, “exertion”), probably an error, apparently takes prayati as derived from the verb-root yam in its meaning “go.” The English translations of Ṛg-veda 10.129.5 by Bose 1966, “forward movement,” and by Panikkar 1977, “forward move,” take prayati in this meaning.

The noun prayati also occurs in the brāhmaṇas, as these texts repeat the Vedic verses to show their usage in Vedic ritual. The verse corresponding to 20.13 is repeated at Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa (Mādhyandina recension; it is not found in the Kāṇvīya recension), where Julius Eggeling translates prayati as “endeavour.” The Sāyaṇa commentary is apparently missing on this part of the Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa, and the extant commentary by Harisvāmin does not specifically gloss prayati here. This verse is also repeated at Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa, where the Sāyaṇa commentary again brings in śuddhi, “purity,” to gloss prayati: madīyāni lomāni prayatiḥ śuddhi-karāṇi santu, “May my hairs be prayati, i.e., makers of purity (śuddhi-karāṇi).” The commentary by Bhaṭṭa Bhāskara-Miśra is missing on this part of the Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa, and unfortunately also on 2.8.9, where the whole Ṛg-veda hymn 10.129 is repeated.

As we saw, the Sāyaṇa commentary on this hymn 10.129 differs substantially in the two locations (Ṛg-veda and Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa). The specific verse of this hymn that includes the word prayati (10.129.5) is repeated in the “white” or Śukla Yajur-veda, as noted above, in the Mādhyandina recension at 33.74, and in the Kāṇva recension at 32.6.5 (or 32.74). The commentary that is (probably wrongly) attributed to Sāyaṇa on Kāṇva verse 32.74 (or 32.6.5) matches the Sāyaṇa commentary on this verse as it occurs in the Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa almost word for word, such that one was apparently copied from the other. There, we recall, he glossed prayati with words derived from yat, “make effort,” and equated it with paramātman, the “highest self,” also comparing this with puruṣa, “spirit.” The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary had also glossed prayati with a word derived from yat (prayatitā), but there he equated it with bhoktṛ, the “enjoyer, eater, experiencer.” Mahīdhara, too, in his long commentary here (Mādhyandina recension 33.74) glosses prayati with words derived from yat (prayatate, prayatnavān, prayatnāt, prayatitā), and he equates it with bhoktṛ as does the Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary. Uvaṭa, even though explaining this verse in relation to a soma sacrifice, also glosses prayati with a word derived from yat: prayatana, “effort, exertion.”

The noun prayati does not occur in the Upaniṣads. It is found in Yāska’s Nirukta only as it occurs in the Ṛg-veda verse 1.109.2, which is there quoted. In that verse it means “gift, offering,” and thus is glossed in the Nirukta (6.9) as pradāna, “offering.” The noun prayati is not used in classical Sanskrit.

What all the above tells us is that the Sāyaṇa commentaries distinguish two different nouns prayati used in the Vedas: one derived from the root yam, “give, offer”; and one derived from the root yat, “exert oneself, make effort,” with an associated meaning, “purity.” For its usage here in Ṛg-veda 10.129.5, both of the Sāyaṇa commentaries derive prayati from the root yat, “make effort.” Following the method of comparing the usage of a word in all its occurrences throughout the Vedic writings, we saw that the noun prayati does indeed appear to be used in two different senses.

Karl Geldner was among the first of the third generation of Western Vedic scholars, coming after the first generation who fully used the Sāyaṇa commentaries, and the second generation who rejected Sāyaṇa and used comparative word studies instead. Geldner at first went back to Sāyaṇa fully, and then later took the approach that is still widely used today: fully consult the traditional commentaries; fully use comparative word studies; and then when they agree, accept the results; and when they disagree, choose which makes the most sense. Geldner rejected the contention of Hermann Oldenberg (a severe critic of Sāyaṇa) that prayati in Ṛg-veda 10.129.5 must be derived from the root yam (Oldenberg 1912, p. 347), and agreed with the Sāyaṇa commentaries that prayati in Ṛg-veda 10.129.5 is used within the range of meanings derived from yat, “make effort” (Geldner 1907, p. 118; 1908, pp. 14, 22, 32; 1909, p. 213; 1951, vol. 3, p. 360). Such a meaning appears to the majority of translators, including myself, to be intended here. Although the exact meaning of prayati remains uncertain, I think the general idea of “impulse” can be accepted as being within the range of its meanings. This would be true even if prayati did turn out to be a technical term referring to some higher principle such as paramātman, the “highest self,” or puruṣa, “spirit.”

In summary, the noun prayati is an old and rare Vedic word. By tracing out all the references to it given in the Vedic Word-Concordance, we found that it occurs in only six different Vedic verses, however many times those verses may be repeated in the various Vedic texts. In three of these verses, it fairly clearly means “gift, offering.” In two more of these verses it seems to refer to something that is (or can be) a quality of a person, something related to “effort.” Then in the remaining one of these six verses, Ṛg-veda 10.129.5, it appears as some sort of cosmogonic principle, a principle that is above, paired with another principle that is below. That it here functions as a cosmogonic principle is true even if, on analogy to a Vedic sacrifice, we take it symbolically and translate it as “offering.” We should recall that several schools of Vedic interpretation are known to have once existed, from references in the ancient Nirukta by Yāska. The tradition known to us from the now extant commentaries by Sāyaṇa and others represents only one or two of these schools of Vedic interpretation. The others are lost, and no doubt with them a more precise understanding of the meaning of the noun prayati.

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