Book Review: The RigVeda

How many fires are there, how many suns?

How many dawns? How many waters?

I ask this, O fathers, not to challenge.

O Sages, I ask it to know

(RigVeda Book 10, hymn 88)

Full Disclosure: I have not actually read the entire RigVeda; all I did was read multiple hymns in each of the 10 books of the RigVeda. The hymns are (as expected) very repetitive, but they do give you a picture of the culture of the Indo-Europeans who came to India around 1800 BC (or so we believe these days, this may be adjusted as ancient DNA from Indian sites yields its secrets). It is a window (and probably the most complete and most ancient window we have) into the Indo-European world that played such a huge role in the creation of the present cultures of much of Eurasia, from Western Europe to India (and beyond). The book is thus a window into our own “heroic age”, so to speak and should be of interest to all, above and beyond their obvious status as shruti (heard, i.e. revealed, as opposed to composed by latter day humans) holy books in Hinduism.

The translation I read is by Indologist Ralph Griffith, who lived most of his life in India (he was the pincipal of Benares college in the Hindu holy city of Benares) and is buried in South India (i.e. one of those Englishmen who came to India and fell in love, or like JBS Haldane, fell in love and came to India). A more recent and scholarly translation is now available but is very expensive. This one is free and available in its entirety at this site:  (

In the original Sanskrit, the hymns are arranged in stanzas and follow particular rules of rhyme and meter (hear a sample at the end of this review). They are meant to be memorized (with extreme fidelity to the text and its correct pronunciation) and then sung/recited (as they still are), in religious ceremonies and sacrifices to the Gods.  In this sense, my use of them as a “window into the heroic age” has little to do with their use and status in Hinduism. But then, I am not a Hindu (unless we are following Savarkar’s definition, in which case I guess I am a little bit Hindu too). Anyhow, on with the review.

It seems clear that the ten books were not all composed at the same time, or by the same authors, and there are clear differences in style and subject. The hymns of the ten books (as long in total as the poems of Homer) are mostly prayers to the gods. They tell of a people who worship many gods, but a few are mentioned especially frequently in this Veda; these include Agni, Indra, Varuna and Soma. The hymns glorify and esteem great warriors, with “beauteous horses and of kine, In thousands”, i.e. the people of the Vedic age are a warlike, cattle herding, hard-riding people. And when these warriors sacrificed to the Gods, they hoped to win “wealth, renowned and ample; in brave sons, troops of slaves, far-famed for horses”. They also had priests who wanted the warriors to be generous with gifts (including mead). And they gambled, and got into trouble because of it (more on this later).

There is also a lot of soma drinking (see later) and fort-breaking, but not a lot of philosophy or any systematic theology. The tenth book though is different from the others, and is more didactic and philosophical. It is also believed to be the last to be composed. Because of these didactic and philosophical themes, it happens to contain the texts most often quoted and most widely known to non-Hindus.  For example, this book contains several hymns about creation, and one in particular has a skeptical and questioning tone that has made it the best known piece from the RigVeda, being frequently anthologized and quoted. I am reproducing it in full here, but also adding the three others, to give a more complete flavor of the original context:

HYMN CXXIX. Creation

THEN was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
 What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
 2 Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day's and night's divider.
 That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.
 3 Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.
 All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.
 4 Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
 Sages who searched with their heart's thought discovered the existent's kinship in the non-existent.
 5 Transversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below it?
 There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder
 6 Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
 The Gods are later than this world's production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
 7 He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
 Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

HYMN CXXX. Creation.

 THE sacrifice drawn out with threads on every side, stretched by a hundred sacred ministers and one,
 This do these Fathers weave who hitherward are come: they sit beside the warp and cry, Weave forth, weave back.
 2 The Man extends it and the Man unbinds it: even to this vault of heaven hath he outspun, it.
 These pegs are fastened to the seat of worship: they made the Sāma-hymns their weaving shuttles.
 3 What were the rule, the order and the model? What were the wooden fender and the butter?
 What were the hymn, the chant, the recitation, when to the God all Deities paid worship?
 4 Closely was Gāyatrī conjoined with Agni, and closely Savitar combined with Usnih.
 Brilliant with Ukthas, Soma joined Anustup: Bṛhaspati's voice by Brhati was aided.
 5 Virāj adhered to Varuṇa and Mitra: here Triṣṭup day by day was Indra's portion.
 Jagatī entered all the Gods together: so by this knowledge men were raised to Ṛṣis.
 6 So by this knowledge men were raised to Ṛṣis, when ancient sacrifice sprang up, our Fathers.
 With the mind's eye I think that I behold them who first performed this sacrificial worship.
 7 They who were versed in ritual and metre, in hymns and rules, were the Seven Godlike Ṛṣis.
 Viewing the path of those of old, the sages have taken up the reins like chariot-drivers.

HYMN CXC. Creation.

 FROM Fervour kindled to its height, Eternal Law and Truth were born:
 Thence was the Night produced, and thence the billowy flood of sea arose.
 2 From that same billowy flood of sea the Year was afterwards produced,
 Ordainer of the days nights, Lord over all who close the eye.
 3 Dhātar, the great Creator, then formed in due order Sun and Moon.
 He formed in order Heaven and Earth, the regions of the air, and light.


1. DEAR, ageless sacrificial drink is offered in light-discovering, heaven-pervading Agni.
 The Gods spread forth through his Celestial Nature, that he might bear the world up and sustain it.
 2 The world was swallowed and concealed in darkness: Agni was born, and light became apparent.
 The Deities, the broad earth, and the heavens, and plants, and waters gloried in his friendship.
 3 Inspired by Gods who claim our adoration, I now will laud Eternal Lofty Agni,
 Him who hath spread abroad the earth with lustre, this heaven, and both the worlds, and air's mid-region.
 4 Earliest Priest whom all the Gods accepted, and chose him, and anointed him with butter,
 He swiftly made all things that fly, stand, travel, all that hath motion, Agni Jātavedas.
 5 Because thou, Agni, Jātavedas, stoodest at the world's head with thy refulgent splendour,
 We sent thee forth with hymns and songs and praises: thou filledst heaven and earth, God meet for worship.
 6 Head of the world is Agni in the night-time; then, as the Sun, at morn springs up and rises.
 Then to his task goes the prompt Priest foreknowing the wondrous power of Gods who must be honoured.
 7 Lovely is he who, kindled in his greatness, hath shone forth, seated in the heavens, refulgent.
 With resonant hymns all Gods who guard our bodies have offered up oblation in this Agni.
 8 First the Gods brought the hymnal into being; then they engendered Agni, then oblation.
 He was their sacrifice that guards our bodies: him the heavens know, the earth, the waters know him.
 9 He, Agni, whom the Gods have generated, in whom they offered up all worlds and creatures,
 He with his bright glow heated earth and heaven, urging himself right onward in his grandeur.
 10 Then by the laud the Gods engendered Agni in heaven, who fills both worlds through strength and vigour.
 They made him to appear in threefold essence: he ripens plants of every form and nature.
 11 What time the Gods, whose due is worship, set him as Sūrya, Son of Aditi, in heaven,
 When the Pair, ever wandering, sprang to being, all creatures that existed looked upon them.
 12 For all the world of life the Gods made Agni Vaiśvānara to be the days' bright Banner,—
Him who hath spread abroad the radiant Mornings, and, coming with his light, unveils the darkness.
 13 The wise and holy Deities engendered Agni Vaiśvānara whom age ne’er touches.
 The Ancient Star that wanders on for ever, lofty and. strong, Lord of the Living Being.
 14 We call upon the Sage with holy verses, Agni Vaiśvānara the ever-beaming,
 Who hath surpassed both heaven and earth in greatness: he is a God below, a God above us.
 15 I have heard mention of two several pathways, ways of the Fathers and of Gods and mortals.
 On these two paths each moving creature travels, each thing between the Father and the Mother.
 16 These two united paths bear him who journeys born from the head and pondered with the spirit
 He stands directed to all things existing, hasting, unresting in his fiery splendour.
 17 Which of us twain knows where they speak together, upper and lower of the two rite-leaders?
 Our friends have helped to gather our assembly. They came to sacrifice; who will announce it?
 18 How many are the Fires and Suns in number? What is the number of the Dawns and Waters?
 Not jestingly I speak to you, O Fathers. Sages, I ask you this for information.
 19 As great as is the fair-winged Morning's presence to him who dwells beside us, Mātariśvan!
 Is what the Brahman does when he approaches to sacrifice and sits below the Hotar.



As noted above, the warriors of the Vedic age had a weakness for gambling and gambling gets its share of mention in the hymns. The following hymn about dice is fascinating, but also a rarity in being unusually didactic:

HYMN XXXIV. Dice, Etc.

“1. SPRUNG from tall trees on windy heights, these rollers transport me as they turn upon the table.
 Dearer to me the die that never slumbers than the deep draught of Mujavan’s own Soma.
 2 She never vexed me nor was angry with me, but to my friends and me was ever gracious.
 For the die’s sake, whose single point is final, mine own devoted wife I alienated.
 3 My wife holds me aloof, her mother hates me: the wretched man finds none to give him comfort.
 As of a costly horse grown old and feeble, I find not any profit of the gamester.
 4 Others caress the wife of him whose riches the die hath coveted, that rapid courser:
 Of him speak father, mother, brothers saying, We know him not: bind him and take him with you.
 5 When I resolve to play with these no longer, my friends depart from me and leave me lonely.
 When the brown dice, thrown on the board, have rattled, like a fond girl I seek the place of meeting.
 6 The gamester seeks the gambling-house, and wonders, his body all afire, Shall I be lucky?
 Still do the dice extend his eager longing, staking his gains against his adversary.
 7 Dice, verily, are armed with goads and driving-hooks, deceiving and tormenting, causing grievous woe.
 They give frail gifts and then destroy the man who wins, thickly anointed with the player’s fairest good.
 8 Merrily sports their troop, the three-and-fifty, like Savitar the God whose ways are faithful.
 They bend not even to the mighty’s anger: the King himself pays homage and reveres them.
 9 Downward they roll, and then spring quickly upward, and, handless, force the man with hands to serve them.
 Cast on the board, like lumps of magic charcoal, though cold themselves they burn the heart to ashes.
 10 The gambler’s wife is left forlorn and wretched: the mother mourns the son who wanders homeless.
 In constant fear, in debt, and seeking riches, he goes by night unto the home of others.
 11 Sad is the gambler when he sees a matron, another’s wife, and his well-ordered dwelling.
 He yokes the brown steeds in the early morning, and when the fire is cold sinks down an outcast.
 12 To the great captain of your mighty army, who hath become the host’s imperial leader,
 To him I show my ten extended fingers: I speak the truth. No wealth am I withholding.
 13 Play not with dice: no, cultivate thy corn-land. Enjoy the gain, and deem that wealth sufficient.
 There are thy cattle there thy wife, O gambler. So this good Savitar himself hath told me.
 14 Make me your friend: show us some little mercy. Assail us not with your terrific fierceness.
 Appeased be your malignity and anger, and let the brown dice snare some other captive.”

The hymns sometimes refer to names of rivers, to astronomical observations, and to names of animals and plants. All these provide us some hints about where the composers were living and what was going on around them when the hymns were composed. One thing in any case is clear, a lot of fighting was going on. So naturally, there are hymns to weapons, including this one, which not only mentions bows and arrows, but also the coiled arm-guard that would protect an archer from the friction of the bowstring:

From Book 6  HYMN LXXV. Weapons of War

He lays his blows upon their backs, he deals his blows upon their thighs.
 Thou, Whip, who urgest horses, drive sagacious horses in the fray.
 14 It compasses the arm with serpent windings, fending away the friction of the bowstring:
 So may the Brace, well-skilled in all its duties, guard manfully the man from every quarter.
 15 Now to the Shaft with venom smeared, tipped with deer-horn, with iron mouth,
 Celestial, of Parjanya's seed, be this great adoration paid.
 16 Loosed from the Bowstring fly away, thou Arrow, sharpened by our prayer.
 Go to the foemen, strike them home, and let not one be left alive.
 17 There where the flights of Arrows fall like boys whose locks are yet unshorn.
 Even there may Brahmaṇaspati, and Aditi protect us well, protect us well through all our days.
 18 Thy vital parts I cover with thine Armour: with immortality King Soma clothe thee.
 Varuṇa give thee what is more than ample, and in thy triumph may the Gods be joyful.
 19 Whoso would kill us, whether he be a strange foe or one of us,

Book 9 is unique in being entirely devoted one diety: Soma. The identity of Soma remains disputed to this day, but it was clearly the juice of a plant and was much admired for its ability to give vigor in battle and clarity in thought. The following extracts give a flavor of these hymns:

HYMN XXIII. Soma Pavamana.

1. SWIFT Soma drops have been effused in streams of meath, the gladdening drink,
 For sacred lore of every kind.
 2 Hither to newer. resting-place the ancient Living Ones are come.
 They made the Sun that he might shine.
 3 O Pavamana, bring to us the unsacrificing foeman's wealth,
 And give us food with progeny.
 4 The living Somas being cleansed diffuse exhilarating drink,
 Turned to the vat which drips with meath.
 5 Soma gows on intelligent, possessing sap and mighty strength,
 Brave Hero who repels the curse.
 6 For Indra, Soma! thou art cleansed, a feast-companion for the Gods:
 1ndu, thou fain wilt win us strength
 7 When he had drunken draughts of this, Indra smote down resistless foes:
 Yea, smote them, and shall smite them still.
From HYMN XXX. Soma Pavamana.
  Pour on us, Soma, with thy stream manconquering might which many crave,
 Accompanied with hero sons.
 4 Hither hath Pavamana flowed, Soma flowed hither in a stream,
 To settle in the vats of wood.
 5 To waters with the stones they drive thee tawny-hued, most rich in sweets,
 O Indu, to be Indra's drink.
 6 For Indra, for the Thunderer press the Soma very rich in sweets,
 Lovely, inspiriting, for strength.

With a little effort, you can imagine an HBO series about these people (and it would definitely be worth watching).

The underlying philosophy is pagan and heroic and may not strike modern readers as particularly deep, though I would guess that someone like Christopher Beckwith (who writes about central Asian history with great feeling) would say this IS a real philosophy of life and is even an attractive one.

And of course these are hymns that are meant to be recited. Their very sound is supposed to have quasi-magical properties. Their addressees are higher beings who can bestow favors or withdraw them. This level of usefulness is meaningless to a modern secular person, but even a modern secularized Hindu may feel the recitation creates a psychological connection to his or her people, to their language and sounds, and to their traditions and community values. .. Just like reciting the Quran and hearing it being recited provides some psychosocial connection/rootedness/whatever to an Arab (or a wannabe Arab for that matter) and magical (or placebo) benefits to the true believer.

All of which is not without consequences.

Modern Hinduism includes many later elements (and some people feel it is too much of a “wounded civilization”) to provide a good model of what life was like (and how it was felt) in those ancient times. Shinto and Japanese cultural traditions may be a better example of what a successful and relatively intact pagan religion of this type might look like today (after adopting and absorbing many modern elements). In any case, the ways of the ancients are now buried under centuries of dust, reinvention, editing, myth-making, mixing and plain old monotheist beating-down. But who knows, if life really is cyclical then those wandering warrior pagans may have their day again..

The closing hymn of book 10: HYMN CXCI. Agni.

1. THOU, mighty Agni, gatherest up all that is precious for thy friend.
 Bring us all treasures as thou art enkindled in libation's place
 2 Assemble, speak together: let your minds be all of one accord,
 As ancient Gods unanimous sit down to their appointed share.
 3 The place is common, common the assembly, common the mind, so be their thought united.
 A common purpose do I lay before you, and worship with your general oblation.
 4 One and the same be your resolve, and be your minds of one accord.
 United be the thoughts of all that all may happily agree.

All in all, worth downloading on Kindle for free.

What it sounds like..

And this is what it looks like when written (which was actively discouraged for a very long time; it was supposed to be recited and memorized, not written down)


Author: Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

30 thoughts on “Book Review: The RigVeda”

  1. Thank you Dr. Omar Ali for giving a glimpse of the majesty of an ancient Indic text. And it is done with great understanding and maturity. I am grateful to two non-traditional Indians (Griffith and Ali) for this blogpost makes it doubly noteworthy.

  2. “Modern Hinduism includes many later elements”

    I think you might have the proportions backwards here. Hinduism today is mostly made up of later elements, with the Vedas providing a starting point on a journey of evolution.

    One example of this is the status of Indra. He is clearly the most important deity in the Vedic pantheon and his cognates remained so in Germanic, Roman and Greek religion. But in India, he represents arrogance, lust and jealousy in Hindu traditions. Some examples of the role Indra plays in Hinduism can be seen in these links,

    See the contrast with the status of the Greek Indra in the Greek Ahalya ‘equivalent’,

    The Indian story of Ahalya emphasizes the failings of Indra, and the role of Rama as a saviour.

    So even though Hinduism today exhibits a continuity from the Vedic tradition, and uses devices and ideas from those texts, saying “a modern secularized Hindu may feel the recitation creates a psychological connection to his or her people, to their language and sounds, and to their traditions and community values” is quite an exaggeration.

    I think recitations of the Ramayan and Devi Mahatmya are more likely to have the effect you have mentioned. So will recitations of Gandhi’s story one day, but we are not there yet.

    1. I think you have a point, though I think you may be erring in the opposite direction as well.. When i get the chance, I will try to edit to better reflect some of what you said 🙂

    2. I don’t think Omar’s point was theological so much as cultural and historical. Even if many of the Vedic deities no longer hold prominence in the Hindu pantheon, the Vedas themselves are still highly venerated as the fountainhead of Hindu thought and philosophy. Indeed, there is something truly magical about the fact that the Vedas are recited today in the same manner they were 5000 (?) years ago. Imagine going to Athens today and finding a bard in the agora reciting Homer…

  3. // saying “a modern secularized Hindu may feel the recitation creates a psychological connection to his or her people, to their language and sounds, and to their traditions and community values” is quite an exaggeration //

    It is not an exaggeration at all. Vedic chhandasa recitation (if done properly) will stop many Indians right in their tracks, without them understanding a word of the thing.

    Primarily there’s a universal phonetic appeal to it, given its terrific pitch-control and glide. Then it’s the sheer hoariness of the language. Furthermore (and this point may be true of Brahmins alone!) it is a reminder of deep traditional continuity and lastly for the actual believing Hindu there’s the obvious religious appeal.

    First two points can make an, otherwise culturally dissimilar, European appreciate the recitation. Latter two are more subjective and India-specific.

  4. Very nicely reviewed!

    Rgveda is a fantastic piece of literature and of immense importance to not just Hindus (in the narrow religious sense), or Indians/Pakistanis etc (in a broader cultural sense) but to the general study of linguistics (given its archaic IE language) and indeed to world literature as it is the oldest metrical poetry composed by humans that we have evidence for. I’m sure Indo-Aryans did not invent poetry and quite probably relied on pre-existing traditions that we have completely lost to history.

    “Rgveda” is strictly just one word according to consonant samdhi (phonetic conjunction) rules. Root morphemes are ‘Rc’, where the /R/ is pronounced like how some Americans do (ah! the benefits in being ‘meRican..), by rolling the tongue upwards to slightly touch the palate and /c/ as “ch” in “chin”. Pronunciation of ‘veda’ exactly matches the Roman transliteration (the trailing /a/ is a schwa or semi-vowel). The Italians/English/Germans pronounce the word-final schwa perfectly and Indians get it wrong (either by elongating the vowel or deleting it).

    ‘Rc’, in turn, from verb ‘arc’ (to shine, and metaphorically, to awe or invite respect).
    ‘veda’ (knowing) from verb ‘vid’ (to see or know).

    Note that another derivative of Sanskrit ‘arc’ is the present participle ‘roka’, i.e. shining, dazzling – cognate with Avestan ‘rauka’ and Persian ‘rox’ (/x/ is the fricative “kh”). So now you know where “shah-rokh” comes from 🙂

    ‘vid’ has obvious cognates in Latin (videre, to see) or English/German (wit/wissen, to know) or Russian (videt, to see).

    So the word literally means “awesome-knowing” and Rgveda continues to live true to that description for three and a half millennia and counting. A hat-doff to our soma-drinking, horse-riding, fort-smiting Old Punjabi forefathers… 🙂

  5. I am not Indian (at all) but thank you very much for this review.

    Someday I hope to read the hymns of the Mitanni; but if their attitude toward the written word was like the Hindus’, I fear we shall be waiting a long time.

    1. Isn’t it ironic to decry the attitude to the written word after reading examples of a 3500-3700 year old oral tradition…

      Mitanni were relatively minor, putatively Indo-Aryan, feudatories in Syria/Turkey who barely lasted two centuries. They weren’t enough in numbers to create a linguistic culture of their own and used the language of the locals. Just a few words of their own language survive as superstrate (borrowed specialized vocabulary) in Hurrian (a non-IE local language).

      They were perfectly fine writing stuff. It’s just that they did not speak their own language, let alone compose poetry in it.

  6. I came across this (tangentially related) article today on A Chennai-based photographer, Naresh Nil has made a series of photographs entitled “Dark is Divine”, depicting the Hindu gods and goddesses as dark skinned, as opposed to the conventional portrayal of them as fair-skinned. The aim is to highlight that dark skin can also be beautiful. The obsession with being fair is something shared in both India and Pakistan, so this project is broadly applicable.

    The comment about the gods’ skin tone from Devdutt Pattanaik is also interesting:
    “The nomadic tribes who came from the North West held the dark skinned settled communities of the subcontinent in disdain. Aryan gods like Indra were white. But this white supremacist flavor does not hold firm in the face of other evidence. Some say Shiva was a Dravidian god, a god of the settled communities – but he is described as Karpura-Goranga, he who is as fair as camphor. Some say that Vishnu and Ram are gods of the Aryan imperialists – but both are described as dark.”

  7. A response regarding Rig Veda would probably need many articles to flesh out.

    But I would say this:

    1) Why have Indologists from Ferdinand de Saussure to Max Mueller assumed that the dates in Hindu Itihasas (histories) are automatically wrong. For example the date given in many texts for Krishna’s passing away is 3102 BC. This date could be accurate. If so, the Ramayana would be vastly older. And the Vedas vastly older than that. Sadguru says that India is a twelve thousand year old civilization.

    2) Vedas deal with all spheres of life: Dharma, Aratha, Kama, Moksha. The Vedas are full of practical day to day wisdom, including science, technology, health, wealth, combat.

    3) Vedas are “the heard” (or sound that is heard) = Sruthi. They are suppose to be revealed wisdom that . . . . even if lost . . . can be rediscovered. Similar to the laws of physics.

    4) Vedas are poetry

    5) The Vedas cannot be understood through the ordinary mind or gross thoughts. The Vedas exist in ever more subtle vibrations, thoughts and feelings . . . and are one of an infinite number of pathways to what is beyond all thought, feeling, experience, understanding. [Shunya, Nirvana, Brahman, Toa, enlightenment, Moksha, Kaivalya, self realization, self actualization.]

    6) Only a meditator with some spiritual experience can begin to understand some portion of what the Vedas mean.

    7) To take the hymn on Agni . . . Agni is something we experience moment to moment, albeit meditators notice, feel and experience it more. When people meditate . . . or are in a spiritual mood while listening to Church music . . . their breath slows down automatically to once every several minutes. As meditation deepens the breath slows further. Often the person is not consciously aware that this is happening. Meditation isn’t something someone does, but rather something that happens to someone, an experience that takes over. The mind might do its thing, but we drop it for a while. When this happens, often great heat is experienced in the body. I think this is one of the reasons that saints go to the Himalayas to meditate at sub zero temperatures . . . while they sweat profusely from their inner heat. Some Yogis and monks dry wet towels on their bare upper bodies in sub zero temperatures. This heat can be unbearably painful and cause severe health problems or death. Meditators, Sadhus, Monks, Yogis, Saints sometimes learn how to feel this heat 24 by 7; to observe this heat all around them and even manipulate it. The heat might appear to have an intelligence of its own; yet different from human intelligence. Some might call this Agni Siddhi . . . or capacity and competence in Agni. This is one of the techniques used in martial arts in ancient China and India. Agni is only on of many subtle things noticed by meditators when the gross thoughts cease. One of many subtle organs of action, perception and action.

    Technically the Vedas in several places state that Agni has 5 sub-components (pancha Agni, 5 Tatthwas of Agni) . . . what I interpret to be the five interconnects that that transfers the sensory data (from the 5 senses) from the brain to the mind (manas). What is manas? I think modern science will soon understand manas a lot better. Perhaps it has to do with subtle subatomic vibrations that can be scientifically measured in the vicinity of the brain? I don’t know.

    Agni is closely linked to “Tejas” (to be explained another time), eyesight and the sights that are seen from the third eye when someone goes beyond the ordinary mind.

    I could go 20 more pages on Agni alone. And many of my speculations will be incomplete or inaccurate. However without a deep understanding of the realm beyond gross thought . . . Vedic verses that include the shabda (sound) Agni can’t be understood.

    Going beyond thought is not easy for most. Some live alone for months in nature. Some use music. Some use poetry. The Vedas are thought in the east to be poetry, music, sound, vibration, meaning all mixed together to cause the reciter or listener to experience things their rational mind cannot explain. They aid greatly in experiencing and observing subtle things. They help greatly in slowing and stopping the mind. You can test this for yourself by listening to Veda chants regularly for a while. Of course once a meditation takes over . . . the meditation is in control and everything else (including the Vedas) falls away . . . truth becomes a pathless journey. The point of all these many ancient techniques is to facilitate meditation taking over.

    Sorry that this comment was so brief 🙂

  8. Because my earlier comment was too short, some amends. 🙂

    Our brain has a conscious part, subconscious part, and unconscious part (the part modern science doesn’t understand well). I am defining “conscious” to include many fixed function parts of the brain that are partly understood.

    The Vedas, and other spiritual sounds (such as Sufi/Kabir, Nanaka or Hebrew songs) affect the conscious, subconscious and unconscious parts of the brain. When a human learns to use part of their unconscious brain, they become superhuman (Mohammad, Fatima, Ali, Enoch, Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, Maria of Avila etc. being examples). Their improved capabilities or competence is sometimes referred to as Siddhis or Shaktis. Many Vedic hymns, since they mostly deal with worldly life (versus liberation), are a codex to achieve Chitta Shuddhi (purification of the subconscious mind) and unlock part of the unconscious brain; as well as an optional manual on how to use said abilities when unlocked.

  9. “Vedic chhandasa recitation (if done properly) will stop many Indians right in their tracks, without them understanding a word of the thing.”

    If not a word is understood, does this really mean anything ?

    I think the neo-veneration of the Vedas, especially in the North Western regions of India is located in the Arya Samaji movement’s prominence there, which itself gained popularity due to the intense rivalries between Hindus, Muslim and Christians (yes!) in colonial Punjab.

    To most Hindus, Vedas have a status much like Newton’s Principia does for physicists. Yes, they were important, and deserve esteem/preservation. But we know a lot more, and a lot better now, and we almost never refer to it directly.

    1. “If not a word is understood, does this really mean anything ?”

      Yes. It is beyond thought.

      “I think the neo-veneration of the Vedas, especially in the North Western regions of India is located in the Arya Samaji movement’s prominence there, which itself gained popularity due to the intense rivalries between Hindus, Muslim and Christians (yes!) in colonial Punjab.” First I have heard of this. Religious Hindus recite versus from the Vedas literally all the time. Every temple does. Spiritual communities, bhajans and kirtans do.

      “To most Hindus, Vedas have a status much like Newton’s Principia does for physicists. Yes, they were important, and deserve esteem/preservation. But we know a lot more, and a lot better now, and we almost never refer to it directly.”

      Don’t understand your point. Almost all Hindu texts are based on Vedic texts. Most of the Puranas are elaborations of specific Vedic passages. For example Chandi Paath. Almost all Pujas and fire sacrifices are closely linked to the Vedas.

      For example the Gita is sometimes regarded as a summary of important points from the Vedas. The problem with the Vedas is that there are too many of them and it is hard to read it all.

      Almost all Hindu schools of thought are based on commentaries on the Vedas.

      This said, Hinduism is disproportionately influenced by 12 Upanishads (which are part of the Vedas) and some specific popular Vedic hymns that are widely recited. Most of the Vedas are not commonly chanted. [While not chanted, almost all Hindu ceremony rules are at least partly defined by Vedic Brahmanas. (Padma Purana is an elaboration of the Vedas.) ]

      1. For the origins of the renewed emphasis by Khatri and Brahmin community Hindus on the Vedas, see Jones, Kenneth W. Arya dharm: Hindu consciousness in 19th-century Punjab. Univ of California Press, 1976.

        The ideas of Nishkam Karma are developed and expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, not the Vedas. It is hard to imagine a serious discussion on Hinduism without talking about Nishkam Karma. Ahimsa is developed significantly as a religious and community ideology after the interventions of Mahavira and Buddha. It developed as a political ideology with the intervention of Gandhi.

        Most Hindu texts are indeed based on Vedic texts. And on the Upanishads. And on the Puranas. And on the commentaries on these texts. And on the commentaries on these commentaries. There are no singularities in Hinduism. Neither in space, time nor texts.

        It is remarkable that a living intellectual tradition has thrived and evolved continuously for at least 4000 years. I cannot forget the pride I felt when on an improptu excursion to the Minneapolis museum during a conference, the section on India declared India as the oldest continuous civilization. And indeed, India has made a significant impact on the modern world via its influence on MLK and the environment movement.

        But the fact remains that despite our rich tradition of questioning and seeking, Indic polities did not hit upon the institutions of moral and accountable government which developed in England. Well wishers of Indic intellectual traditions have to take this matter up in a serious way.

        1. Vikram, I am gun shy from having read many academic articles and books by post modernist Indologists; who in my opinion didn’t understand Sanathana Dharma or Eastern philosophy.

          This said, have you considered asking practitioner scholars about whether Nishkama Karma ideas are presented in eastern texts older than the Mahabharata? You might be right about the word “Nishkama Karma”. But I think the concept existed much earlier. Part of the problem is that almost all the Vedas and Vedangas have been lost, and we have almost no idea what they knew in the past.

          I would argue that the examples of Lakshmana, Bharata, Shatrughna, Hanuman, Vibhishana, Maricha, Jatayu, Jambavan, Angada, Mandodari and many of the Rakshashas was Nishkama Karma in action.

          A better example can by found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Included in the ten Yamas and Niyamas are:
          -Brahmacharya (continuous company of Brahma . . . I don’t agree with the common definition . . . since procreation in the right circumstances is encouraged. 99.9% of Brahmacharya has nothing to do with procreation.)
          -Aparigraha (non possessiveness, no sense of I and mine)
          -Saucha (which I interpret as Chitta Shuddhi . . . or having no subconscious fluctuations from which thoughts arise)
          -Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to God or Bhakti)
          Someone with these characteristics automatically engages in Nishkama Karma. However, Krishna might have realized that it is hard for people with Tamasic qualities on the path of Bhakti to follow previous teachings, and so he gave simpler alternatives.

          You are right that Krishna offered new paths while reaffirming what the Vedas and other scriptures say about there being paths beyond measure and that someone can create their own custom path. Krishna then asked the devotee to choose. I suspect part of what happened is that Krishna was mentioning teachings from lost Vedas. Part of what happened is that Krishna made public what was previously kept confidential by the masters (Krishna was big on transparency for his time). And part of what Krishna said might have been new. Krishna clearly simplified earlier teachings so that a person without great intelligence, literacy, health, Sattva Guna, Rajas Guna could understand.

          If Krishna had lived a few thousand years earlier; perhaps the Gita would be yet another Upanishad.

          4 Varnas:
          -Brahmins for those Sattva predominant (Jnaana path, Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Laya Yoga, Karma and Bhakti paths)
          -Kshatriya for those Sattva/Rajas predominant (Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Laya Yoga, Karma and Bhakti paths)
          -Vaishya for those Rajas/Tamas predominant (Karma and Bhakti paths)
          -Shudra for those Tamas predominant (Bhakti path)

          The Gita was designed for Shudras to learn and understand more than any previous scripture, I think. With the decay of men; the world was becoming predominantly Tamas Guna.

        2. Ahimsa is one of the five Yamas. Ahimsa has been a part of the earliest scriptures of the East. There has always been great diversity of thought.

          “Indic polities did not hit upon the institutions of moral and accountable government which developed in England. Well wishers of Indic intellectual traditions have to take this matter up in a serious way.”

          Would it be fair to carefully study governance in the Valmiki Ramayana, Mahabharata, Hari Vamsha and Puranas? If so, then Eastern governance systems were not democratic; but included a measure of consultation with all stake holders. They had a lot of freedom (which I believe inspired the reconnaissance), good fair judicial systems that could rule against sovereigns, large national debts and credit markets, a lot of international trade, large multinational businesses, a system for adjudicating on complex business law relating to multiple jurisdictions, transparency, hierarchies of competence and capability. They had low predictable simplified taxation (or at least attempted to simplify taxation). They had government private sector civil society partnerships to help the poor and sick. Elders were expected to go on Vana Prasta. They also had slavery.

          They had a rich tradition of ethics called Dharma. I would define Dharma as love in action; which allows a lot of flexibility and freedom for people to determine their own Dharma.

          This said, a question many Indians asked is how did Islamists conquer and harm India for a thousand years. I have no good answer.

          1. AnAn,

            I’ll leave the argument on Hindu theology to you and Vikram. As a Muslim, I really have no skin in this game. Though, as someone who is culturally Indian, I am interested.

            But I want to take issue with your use of the term “Islamists” to refer to the Mughal dynasty and the Delhi Sultanate that came before them. “Islamist” is a modern term which means something specific and I don’t think it can be projected back on to medieval India. There is continuing debate about how important Islam was in the Mughal conquests for example. Babur lost his kingdom and needed to find a new one, so he conquered Hindustan. This was perfectly normal in those days. He conquered it from Muslim rulers, so establishing an Islamic kingdom couldn’t have been all that important. This “Islamists ruled us for a thousand years” is a BJP talking point and says more about their own insecurities and what they perceive as the place of India’s Muslims than it does about history.

          2. Kabir is right on the money here. “Islamist” is a very modern term and it is pointless to apply it retrospectively to the Moghals.

            Moghals were Muslims, though quite patently heterodox. Their barbarity is properly explained by their primitive medieval values, rather than by their political Islamic project. E.g. Moghals were no more violent than the Christian Normans in Europe.

        3. @ Vikram Garg: “Ahimsa is developed significantly as a religious and community ideology after the interventions of Mahavira and Buddha. It developed as a political ideology with the intervention of Gandhi.”

          This is so accurate. Lots of internet commenters purport to speak on behalf of Hinduism often forget this fact. Thanks.

          1. Roa, why do you think Ahimsa is a a new concept versus a very ancient concept?

            “Ahimsa” has been central to the Samkhya Darshana and its subset the Yoga Darshana right from the beginning.

            Right from the beginning a good warriors deeply loves and respects the enemy they fight; or Ahimsa of thought. Dharma is love in action. Therefore all Dharmic acts are Ahimsa by definition.

            Perhaps what the 22nd Tirthankara (Neminatha) determined was that “Ahimsa” of thoughts alone was insufficient (or many humans were incapable of implementing it); and therefore argued that Ahimsa should not just be in the Chitta, feelings, emotions and thoughts; but should be codified in gross action as well. Perhaps you can argue that interpretations of Ahimsa changed over time?

  10. Rigveda is very important. It is Art. Art at an earlier time. They do not go into philosophy, because that is not Art.

    Vedic songs are composed in Archaic sanksrit, which is still different from classical sanksrit. The form here is important. Unlike post Vedic Epics, these are short songs in varying metres that are supposed to be enjoyable and of a high quality.

    Vedic Bards were the warrior alpha males of their time. They were elite pastoral families who used song-making and religious/cultural/artistic techniques to further their reputation and prestige. They were warrior-priests.

    Fame and reputation were highly saught by the bard for himself and his diety. Good songs and good ideas can make a bard famous and respected by the bands of warrior males who enjoyed them. Thus successful/powerful bardic families enjoyed high status and political influence greater than the next level in the heirarchy, kings and clan leaders.

    Such an social and economic system must have existed for millenia, thus allowing the bards to develop their skill and subject to a high level. Thus in the Rigveda we see a high standard of Art and expression.

    One should also consider the nature of Vedic Sanskrit when considering the Rigveda. This was a highly-inflected free word-order syllable timed language. Probable the best suited to this type of poetry or mantra. It is far superior to any other IE language in the regard. Vedic Sanksrit is minimally divergent from any proposed Proto-Indo-European language.

    Griffiths translations are good but I have seen others where the poem is saying something quite different. Translation leaves us far from the energy and quality of the real hymns. Griffith does a good job trying to maintain the metre of the original hymns though it is difficult to read at times.

  11. Kabir, why don’t you consider the Delhi Sultanate to be Islamist? Do you consider Mahmud of Ghazni to be Islamist? Do you consider Muawiyah I–who killed so many muslims, Sufis, Shia, Hindus, Zorastrians, Buddhists–to be an Islamist?

    I think highly of Dara Shukoh and his sister Jahanara Begum; both of whom might have been Sufi Masters. Jahanara Begum nearly became the head of Qadiriyya Sufi order. Some muslims were Islamists, and some were great stars of love and light. I think the reason Dara Shukoh lost and was killed was because muslims turned on him do to his greatness.

    If only the muslim world today had more great luminaries such as Jahanara Begum and Dara Shukoh.

    1. As Slapstik explained above, “Islamist” is a modern term and it does not make sense to apply it historically. According to the AP Stylebook, “Islamist” means:
      “An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists. Where possible, be specific and use the name of militant affiliations: al-Qaida-linked, Hezbollah, Taliban, etc. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.”

      Whatever you think of the Mughals, they were certainly not advocating for a state run on Shariah. There is a lot of evidence of the Mughals celebrating Holi and Diwali. They were a lot more culturally Indian than the BJP would have you believe.

      Dara Shikoh’s loss to Aurangzeb was an example of fratricide that occurred repeatedly in Mughal history because the Mughals did not have a proper system of succession (unlike primogeniture in England). The strongest prince got the throne and factions developed around various brothers until the successful brother took the the throne by killing all the rest. Dara’s views of religion differed from Aurangzeb’s, but I wouldn’t say that they were the central issue.

      The “Muslim world” today has its fair share of extremists, like all religions do. Closer to home, one can look at Hindutva, the gau rakshaks and anti-“love jihad” extremists for example.

  12. “good fair judicial systems that could rule against sovereigns”

    I would agree that this thought was indeed present in Indian intellectual tradition, after all Duryodhana and Ravana and most of the other foes of the incarnations of Hindu gods, were bonafide, powerful, kings. And Brahmins always had the last word (at least in theory). But its potential was never fully realized.

    There is a rich history of legal cases in England, where a citizen sues the sovereign (‘The Crown’), wins a case and the sovereign complies with ruling. See examples from the 16th century here, although such cases go back a lot longer:

    So rule of law was institutionalized in England even 600 years ago. I havent been able to find any corresponding examples in the Indic tradition, I have looked assiduously.

    1. In the Vedic system, the sovereign did not have absolute power. For example property rights of private citizens were sacrament. Which limited the power of sovereigns to fight and wage wars. Shantanu’s brother (Balsya) renounced the throne because he loved his multinational business enterprises and becoming king would get in the way of that (maybe because a lot of his profits were earned in other countries). For this reason sovereigns often appealed to rich people for their help during emergencies.

      For more on this see the speech Bhishma gave on the bed of hours. This speech is about a quarter the length of the Mahabharata. Bhishma explains the limitations of the power of the sovereign and how important relations between the sovereign and judiciary were.

      You can read the dialogue between Duryodhana and Dhritarashtra in the Veda Vyasa’s Mahabharata. Dhritarashtra was extremely careful to ensure that Duryodhana’s accession to the throne was legal, dragging out the process over many years.

      Kamsa’s coups against his father Ugrasene was illegal; and was the justification for Krishna reinstating him.

  13. “I would argue that the examples of Lakshmana, Bharata, Shatrughna, Hanuman, Vibhishana, Maricha, Jatayu, Jambavan, Angada, Mandodari and many of the Rakshashas was Nishkama Karma in action.”

    Gandhari as well.

    But these are all Puranic examples. The major Vedic God, Indra, became the symbols of the exact opposite, and other Gods like Rudra, Devi and Visas were later elevated to emphasize major Hindu ideals.

    1. For all the criticism of Indra, he is still treated with great respect in the Mahabharata; and by Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva and Bramha.

      Indra isn’t a person but an “office” that is held by a new person every 300 million years. The “office” is respected.

      Yes Indra is militarily beaten at times. But most of these times Indra lets the other person win out of respect for the word of Brahma, Shiva or Vishnu. In Hinduism anyone can become omnipotent and omniscient. Indra respects this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *