Creation Stories: The Cosmogony Account from the Vedas

By David Reigle on April 2, 2013 at 1:44 am

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

Translation Notes (continued and concluded)

RV 10.129.6a: kó addhá̄ veda ká ihá prá vocat, “Who really knows? Who here can say?” As listed in Maurice Bloomfield’s Rig-Veda Repetitions (p. 482), this verse quarter is also found in Ṛg-veda 3.54.5a. Verse 3.54.5 is, as translated by Griffith: “What pathway leadeth to the Gods? Who knoweth this of a truth, and who will now declare it? Seen are their lowest dwelling-places only, but they are in remote and secret regions.” Other verses ask the same two questions, using mostly the same words, but with small variations. For example, Ṛg-veda 1.164.18, as translated by Vasudeva S. Agrawala (Vision in Long Darkness, p. 68): “Beneath the Upper Realm and above the Lower One, who knows the father of this Calf? Who as a Sage putting his thoughts into verses has been able to declare whence hath the godlike Mind originated.”

The exact sense of indeclinables such as addhā, here translated as “really,” is sometimes hard to determine. The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary glosses it nicely as pāramārthyena, “ultimately.”

RV 10.129.6b: kúta á̄jātā kúta iyáṃ vísṛṣṭiḥ, “From where has [it] been born? From where [has come] this manifestation?” The word visṛṣṭi is often translated as “creation.” I think this is a good translation as long as one sees it as creation out of something, like creating a pot out of clay. Because “creation” is often associated in Western culture as the creation of the world out of nothing, a number of translators have preferred other words, such as the more literal “emanation.” I have used “manifestation” for visṛṣṭi.

The usual form of the word for creation or manifestation is sṛṣṭi, without the prefix vi-. Gonda apparently came to regard visṛṣṭi in this verse as referring not to just “creation,” but rather to “secondary creation,” as he translated it in his 1983 article, “The Creator and his Spirit” (p. 33, fn. 138): “According to ṚV 10, 121, 9 he [Prajāpati] created earth, sky and waters, the ‘secondary creation’ (visṛṣṭi) of 10, 129, 6.” In his 1966 translation of Ṛg-veda 10.129 (p. 696), Gonda had translated visṛṣṭi as “creation-in-differentiation” and “creation (emanation)-in-differentiation.” Primary and secondary creation are distinguished in the purāṇas.

The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda and Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentaries understand the two occurrences of kutaḥ, “from where,” as asking from what upādāna-kāraṇa, “material cause,” and from what nimitta-kāraṇa, “instrumental cause.” These terms are often used in Indian philosophical texts, so their meaning is taken for granted in the Sāyaṇa commentaries. Using the analogy of a pot, the material cause is the clay, and the instrumental cause is the potter.

RV 10.129.6c: arvá̄g devá̄ asyá visárjanena, “The gods are later than the manifestation of this [cosmos].” The word visarjana is a synonym of visṛṣṭi, so I have also translated it as “manifestation.” We here have it in the instrumental case, visarjanena, going with arvāk, “afterwards, later.” Expressions with arvāk normally use the ablative case, but we occasionally see other cases used with it if required by the meter. I have here translated the instrumental visarjanena in the ablative sense, “than the manifestation.”

RV 10.129.6d: áthā kó veda yáta ābabhú̄va, “Then who knows from what [it] has come into being?” We here see a common feature of Vedic verse: the lengthening of final vowels in order to fit the meter. The indeclinable word atha has here become athā, just like vyoma became vyomā in 10.129.1b. That this has occurred is confirmed in the pada-pāṭha, which gives the words without the lengthened final vowel.

RV 10.129.7ab: iyáṃ vísṛṣṭir yáta ābabhú̄va yádi vā dadhé yádi vā ná, “From what this manifestation has come into being, whether [it] was made or whether not.” The big question in understanding this verse pertains to the verb dadhe, “produced, made, established, upheld.” No subject is stated, and one must be supplied for it. Moreover, the intended voice of this perfect tense middle voice verb is uncertain, since the middle voice may also be used in a passive voice sense (William Dwight Whitney, Sanskrit Grammar, p. 201, paragraph 531, and p. 361, para. 998c-d; A. A. Macdonell, Vedic Grammar, p. 312, para. 410.A.a, and A Vedic Grammar for Students, p. 117, para. 121; see also Maurice Bloomfield and Franklin Edgerton, Vedic Variants, vol. I: The Verb, pp. 51-52). If taken in the middle voice sense, an object must also be supplied for this transitive verb. The whole question of the meaning and usage of the middle voice in the Ṛg-veda, and why it often appears to be used in a passive sense, was studied in detail by Jan Gonda in his 1979 book, The Medium in the Ṛgveda. His conclusion that it may best be described as an “eventive” voice will be discussed below, in relation to this verse, after considering the more immediate question of what the subject of dadhe is here.

Among 36 English translations, a majority (17) supply “it” as the subject, referring to the preceding words, iyaṃ visṛṣṭi, “this creation/manifestation.” A minority (11) supply “he” as the subject, referring to the words adhyakṣa, “overseer,” and saḥ, “he,” from the next line. A few (5) supply a generic “any one,” or “any,” or “one” as the subject, not referring either to the preceding “this” or the following “he.” A few (3) supply “it” as the subject, referring to the preceding “that from which this creation came into being.” The German translation by Karl Geldner (1951) supplies “he” as the subject and takes the verb dadhe in its middle voice sense. The German translation by Paul Thieme (1964) and the French translation by Louis Renou (1956, 1967) supply “it” as the subject and take the verb dadhe in a passive voice sense. Among the three extant Sanskrit commentaries, Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava and the Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary supply “he” (saḥ) as the subject. The former explains “he” as the sraṣṭṛ, the “creator,” and the latter explains “he” as paramātman, the “supreme self,” and then as īśvara, “God.” The Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary supplies “that” (tat) as the subject, referring to the preceding “that from which this manifestation has come into being,” explained as the upādāna-kāraṇa, the “material cause.”

I have accepted the impersonal pronoun “it” rather than the personal pronoun “he” as the unstated subject of the verb dadhe here. This is because 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. I see no reason to believe that this early hymn had God under consideration as the maker of the cosmos (see my article: “God’s Arrival in India”). If the adhyakṣa, “overseer,” from the next line was the creator, one would have expected him to appear at the beginning of this hymn, not at the end. This is to say nothing of the question posed in this last verse as to whether or not even he knows from what this manifestation has come into being.

Those who supply “he” as the subject take the verb dadhe in its middle voice sense, “he produced, made, established, upheld,” and also supply an object, “it” (this creation); saying, “whether he made it or whether not.” Those who supply “any one” as the subject do the same; saying, “whether any one made it or whether not.” Those who supply “it” as the subject, referring to the preceding “that from which this creation came into being,” do the same; saying, “whether it (that from which this creation came into being) made it (this creation) or whether not” (so Bose 1966: “whether It had held it together or It had not”; verbatim except for the capital letters in de Nicolás 1976; nearly the same in Panikkar 1977: “whether it held it firm or it did not”).

Those who supply “it” as the subject, referring to “this creation or manifestation,” usually take the verb dadhe in a passive sense, “it was produced, was made, was established, was upheld”; saying, “whether it was made or whether not.” No object is stated in a passive construction (since the object has become the subject). A few who supply “it” as the subject, referring to “this creation or manifestation,” take the verb dadhe in its middle voice sense, and also supply an object, “itself”; saying, “whether it made itself or whether not” (Whitney 1882; Bloomfield 1908; Edgerton 1965 only in a footnote: “perhaps, ‘established itself’”; O’Flaherty 1981: “whether it formed itself”). Here the reflexive sense of the middle (ātmane-pada) voice, where the action is directed back on itself, is expressed by the word “itself.” In the translations that supply “he” as the subject (11), or “any one” as the subject (5), or “it” as the subject, referring to the preceding “that from which this creation came into being” (3), the reflexive sense of the middle voice is not expressed. The reflexive sense in these cases would be, “he made it for himself.”

When the verb dadhe is taken in a passive sense, “it was produced, made, established, upheld,” no agency is expressed in these translations (even though it could be). The action could be done automatically or by itself (saying, “it was made by itself”), or by some unspecified other (“by it” or “by him”) or a host of others (“by them”). The agentless passive reading, as stated by Maurer (1975, p. 234), “by omitting all mention of the agency, might imply either the kind of evolution which has been the principal subject of the hymn or some cosmic agency, not necessarily the overseer, however.” When the verb dadhe is taken in its middle sense, and accepting “it” rather than “he” as the subject, it pretty much has to be understood as “it made itself.” This, as already stated, expresses the reflexive sense of the middle (ātmane-pada) voice. This is apparently how W. Norman Brown took it in his two translations (1941, 1965), “whether spontaneously or not.” While I find the middle sense as “[it] made [itself]” quite plausible as what the hymn intended, I have opted for translating dadhe in an agentless passive sense, “[it] was made,” as allowing for a wider range of possibilities.

The need to translate middle voice verbs in many cases as if they were passive voice verbs has long been apparent. This led researchers to try to determine more accurately the precise function of the middle voice in ancient Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit. Jan Gonda concluded that the middle voice is best understood as an “eventive” voice. In his 1960 article, “Reflections on the Indo-European Medium,” he explains what he means by this: “The hypothesis seems to be plausible that a widespread use was already in prehistoric times made of the middle forms to indicate that something comes or happens to a person (or object), befalls him, takes place in the person of the subject so as to affect him etc., without any agens being mentioned, implied, or even known. Very often the subject is a person or other living being and the process may take place even contrary to his wishes, unintentionally, more or less automatically. In the ancient periods of the I.-E. languages this use was very frequent.” (Lingua, vol. 9, 1960, p. 49; reprinted in his Selected Studies, vol. 1, 1975, p. 126). Gonda relates this definition to the known reflexive sense of the middle voice (p. 66 or p. 143): “On the strength of the preceding considerations the hypothesis seems therefore justified that the ‘original’ or ‘essential’ function of the medial voice was not exactly to signify that the subject ‘performs a process that is performed in himself’, but to denote that a process is taking place with regard to, or is affecting, happening to, a person or a thing.”

The above-quoted study by Gonda covered middle voice verbs in the whole range of Indo-European languages, and included many examples from ancient Greek, etc., besides Sanskrit. Gonda then went on to study all the occurrences of middle voice verbs in just the Ṛg-veda. Gonda opens his 1979 book, The Medium in the Ṛgveda, by re-stating his definition of the “eventive” middle voice (pp. 1-2): “this diathesis primarily or essentially served to indicate that a process is taking place with regard to a person who, or thing which, is the subject; that it happens to a person or an object, befalls him (it), is at work in the person or thing which is subject of the sentence so as to affect (it); that that person etc. is in a definite physical or mental condition or in a certain set of circumstances etc., without any agens being mentioned, implied, or even known. Very often the subject is a person or other living being and the process may take place spontaneously, unintentionally, more or less automatically, even contrary to the subject’s wishes.” This voice is not easy for us to understand, or to express in English. This is because, as noted by Gonda partially quoting another writer (p. 3, fn. 10): “the fact that ‘the mode of thought and expression’ that is characteristic of modern English ‘which has no distinction of voices as Sanskrit and Greek possess’ often precludes ‘the possibility of thinking from the standpoint of the (ancient) Indians’.”

Among the many examples of the “eventive” character of the middle voice, Gonda gives the passage here under discussion from Ṛg-veda 10.129.7. This illustrates a way to translate the middle voice verb dadhe as an eventive. He quotes this (p. 19) from his 1966 translation: “this creation (emanation)-in-differentiation . . . , whether it is the result of an act of founding (establishing: yádi vā dadhé) or not . . .” The case that Gonda has made for the middle voice being an eventive voice is thorough and, I think, conclusive. While I fully accept Gonda’s explanation of the middle voice as an eventive voice, I have chosen to translate this phrase using an agentless English passive, “was made” (“whether [it] was made or whether not”), in order to avoid a rather lengthy paraphrase of the verb as “is the result of an act of founding.” Like the eventive, which is used without any agent being mentioned, implied, or even known, a passive can also be used without an agent. This, it seems to me, is the main point here in this verse.

RV 10.129.7c: yó asyá̄dhyakṣaḥ paramé výoman, “its overseer who is in the highest heaven.” The noun adhyakṣa is most often translated fairly literally as “overseer.” Here the prefix adhi (adhy) means “over,” and akṣa, “eye,” means “seer.” Like the English word overseer, the Sanskrit word adhyakṣa has the meanings “controller,” “supervisor,” “the one in charge,” etc. However, it may be intended here simply as “surveyor,” “one who surveys,” as some have translated it. Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava glosses it quite literally as adhidraṣṭṛ, “overseer.” The Sāyaṇa Ṛg-veda commentary glosses it as īśvara, “God.” The Sāyaṇa Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary glosses it as svāmī, “master.”

The word vyoman has been taken as a locative, as if vyomani, “in the heaven,” agreeing with the locative parame, “in the highest.” The apparently elided final “i” of vyoman as a locative is not uncommon in Vedic verse. For example, in Ṛg-veda 10.5.7, we see the same phrase, parame vyoman, “in the highest heaven.”

RV 10.129.7d: só aṅgá veda yádi vā ná véda, “he surely knows; or else [he] knows not.” The particle aṅga can mean “just, only,” or “indeed, surely,” and translators have to choose one or the other. Either one could be intended. It is taken as “just, only,” in Sāyaṇa’s Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa commentary, where it is glossed as eva, while it is taken as “indeed, surely,” in Sāyaṇa’s Ṛg-veda commentary, where it is defined as prasiddhau, and glossed as api nāma. Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava does not gloss it. It can also be a vocative, sometimes translated as “sir” (Kunhan Raja takes it this way here), “dear one,” etc.

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