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: (http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/index.htm)
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.
HYMN LXXXVIII. Agni.
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:
“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)