Creation Stories: The Cosmogony Account from the Vedas

By David Reigle on January 27, 2013 at 12:08 am

Part 1: Introduction

Facing the opening page of the stanzas from the Book of Dzyan given in The Secret Doctrine is a quotation of most of Ṛg-veda 10.129, known as the “Hymn of Creation.” There are obvious parallels between the two texts. The first verse of the Ṛg-veda hymn says, in the early translation there quoted, “Nor Aught nor Nought existed.” The first stanza of the Book of Dzyan speaks of “that which is and yet is not. Naught was.” The second verse of the Ṛg-veda hymn says, “The only One breathed breathless by itself.” The second stanza of the Book of Dzyan says that there was “naught save ceaseless eternal breath, which knows itself not.” The third verse of the Ṛg-veda hymn says, “Darkness there was, and all at first was veiled in gloom profound.” The first stanza of the Book of Dzyan had said that “Darkness alone filled the boundless all.”

The quoted Ṛg-veda hymn was not labeled as such in the 1888 first edition of The Secret Doctrine, nor was any reference given; so readers did not know that they were reading one of the most famous hymns from the Ṛg-veda. The 1893 revised edition added only the caption, “Rig Veda,” incorrectly attributing this translation to “Colebrooke.”  Not until the carefully corrected 1978 edition of The Secret Doctrine, prepared by Boris de Zirkoff, was the source traced out and the reference accurately given. However, the 1888 first edition has often been reprinted, and is the edition that is now available online; so most readers still do not know what they are reading here. Boris de Zirkoff identified this quotation as Ṛg-veda 10.129, and found that this translation of it was quoted from Max Müller’s 1859 book, A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature. The translation is not, however, by Max Müller. In introducing it, Müller there writes, “I subjoin a metrical translation of this hymn, which I owe to the kindness of a friend.” Thus we do not know who made the translation quoted in The Secret Doctrine. This hymn consists of seven verses, which are not numbered in the metrical translation. Five of these unnumbered verses were quoted in The Secret Doctrine. These are verses 1-3 and 6-7 of Ṛg-veda 10.129.

The Vedas are considered to be the oldest texts known on earth that have been preserved up to the present in a still living tradition. The ancient commentaries that explain them, however, are all lost (or were withdrawn, see: The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, pp. xxiii ff.), and we have only some comparatively late commentaries on them. The overall or general meaning of the Ṛg-veda Hymn of Creation is not in question, but the intended meaning of a number of its words and sentences is far from certain. The standard commentaries now available, those by Sāyaṇa who lived in the 1300s C.E., were written at least two thousand years after the time of the Vedas, and probably considerably more. When the Vedas were first being studied by Western scholars, Sāyaṇa’s commentaries had to be consulted at every step, just to understand the words of the Vedas. The often unsatisfactory nature of his explanations, however, caused Western scholars to distrust them, and then to reject his commentaries. The next generation of Western scholars, disregarding Sāyaṇa’s commentaries, attempted to determine the meaning of the Vedas by comparing the usage of individual words in all their occurrences throughout the Vedic writings. While this often yielded good results, it was also often uncertain, leading to conflicting opinions. In brief, we do not know the exact meaning of Ṛg-veda 10.129, the Hymn of Creation.

We would all like to just read “the” translation of the Hymn of Creation and move on to making comparisons with the Book of Dzyan, or with any other cosmogony. Unfortunately, there is no agreed upon translation. Does the cosmos arise from nothing or from something? What does “that one” (or “that alone”) refer to? Can it be born? Can desire arise in it? Is the cosmos made by an overseer, God, a He? So unless and until the meaning given for any particular passage is explained and justified, anything more than general comparisons are only likely to lead to faulty conclusions. As noted by Walter Maurer in his excellent study, “A Re-examination of Ṛgveda X.129, the Nāsadīya Hymn” (Journal of Indo-European Studies, vol. 3, 1975, pp. 217-238, attached), the numerous existing translations of this hymn often just borrow from each other, without addressing the many difficulties of its interpretation. He writes (p. 219): “In all probability no hymn in the entire Ṛgveda has been the object of more attention than this short hymn of but seven stanzas. Moreover, it has been translated more than any other hymn in the whole collection, . . . But in spite of the attention that has been accorded this hymn, many difficulties continue to impede its interpretation. Unfortunately the translations, though numerous, tend to borrow from one another, especially in those parts where a fresh interpretation would be most welcome.”

It is also the case that most Western scholarship, and now much Indian scholarship, assumes that the Vedas come from primitive times and are the speculations of comparatively primitive people. So with this widely held presupposition, most translators are not willing to see “advanced” philosophical ideas in the Hymn of Creation. While scholars try to be objective, this basic presupposition does affect their translations. By contrast, Indian tradition holds that the Vedas come down to us from an “age of truth” (satya-yuga) or “age of perfection” (kṛta-yuga), the “golden age” of other traditions; and, far from being speculations, record facts of nature that were directly perceived by spiritually advanced sages, even if their symbolic language proves enigmatic to us. A respected Indian scholar who also studied in Europe, C. Kunhan Raja, tried to take an objective view of the Vedas, but did so without the presupposition that they are primitive. He writes in his Preface to his valuable 1963 book, Poet-Philosophers of the Ṛgveda: Vedic and Pre-Vedic (“Dedicated to K. F. Geldner, under whom I studied Veda and Avesta at Marburg”), p. x:

“I have never believed in the theory of the ‘evolution’ of philosophy in India, as now available in the Ṛgveda and the later texts like the Upaniṣads and the classical systems, from pastoral poetry relating to Animism and Anthropomorphism through Polytheism and Henotheism to Monotheism and Monism. In the Ṛgveda I have been able to detect only what Max Müller terms Henotheism (perhaps in its revised form of Kat-henotheism). I have never seen a Monotheism in the Ṛgveda nor in any current of thought in India similar to the Theism of, say, Christianity and Islam. There is a clear Monism; but that Monism is not quite what is meant by Monism in the terminology of later Indian Philosophy. The Monism in the Ṛgveda is a Matter-cum-Spirit unity and not the pure Spirit of latter-day Monism, in which matter is thought of only as an illusory transformation from the pure Spirit, and not a reality.”

As we will see, the question of just what monism is intended in the Hymn of Creation by its tad ekam, “that one” (or “that alone”), is a major factor in its interpretation. The comparatively late Indian commentaries see it as the same as the latter-day monism (or “non-dualism”) of Advaita Vedānta, while most Western scholarship disagrees that this hymn could be so philosophically advanced (or else views this hymn as a very late hymn, despite its archaic language). What Kunhan Raja sees in the Ṛgveda is exactly the monism that also can be found in the purāṇas, particularly in the original Purāṇa-saṃhitā. The “Matter-cum-Spirit unity and not the pure Spirit of latter-day Monism” is exactly the primary substance (pradhāna) that is identified with the highest (para) brahman in the original Purāṇa-saṃhitā (see: Creation Stories: The Cosmogony Account from the Purāṇas, Part 2. “In the Beginning” as Derived from the Original Purāṇa-saṃhitā). This is also exactly the monism taught in the Secret Doctrine or Wisdom Tradition from which the “Book of Dzyan” comes (reviewed in the first part of the post: Part 3. Tracing the Cosmogony Account from the Original Purāṇa-saṃhitā).

For the reasons alluded to above, I concluded that it would be better to make a new translation of the Hymn of Creation for comparison with the Book of Dzyan, rather than to adopt one of the thirty or so English translations of Ṛg-veda 10.129 that I have gathered over the years. This will also provide a certain consistency of translation that allows for more accurate comparison with other cosmogony accounts, such as those from the Mokṣopāya and from the original Purāṇa-saṃhitā, also translated by me here. In so doing, I have tried to give equal consideration to the extant Indian commentaries and to the researches and word-studies of modern scholars, mostly Western. Regarding the latter, more than twenty English translations, along with Karl Geldner’s German translation and Louis Renou’s French translation, have already been posted in two files in the “References” section of this site, and additional materials will be posted and linked directly as I cite them. Regarding the former, besides the well-known commentaries of Sāyaṇa, both on Ṛg-veda 10.129 and on the same hymn as it is repeated in Taittirīya-brāhmaṇa 2.8.9 (where his commentary differs substantially), another commentary was published in full in 1965. This is the pre-Sāyaṇa commentary by Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava on the whole Ṛg-veda. Since none of these commentaries have been translated into English, and since Veṅkaṭa-Mādhava’s does not seem to have been used (or at least is not cited) by other translators, I have given relevant quotes from them in my notes. This is where I explain and justify my translation. As F. Max Müller said in his Introduction to his translations of Vedic Hymns long ago, which is just as true today, “The notes . . . must always constitute the more important part in a translation or, more truly, in a deciphering of Vedic hymns.” (Part I, pp. ix, cxxv, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 32, 1891, this first written in 1869.)

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