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Friday, January 24, 2020

Asya Vamasya Sukta - 2

Before I share with you my own translation, a few more words about translations and interpretations of the original texts. All ancient texts were interpreted by several followers. Many of them were also translated in other languages. Each interpreter and translator often claims that his version is the more authentic. When there are several such versions, the followers get into heated arguments as I have written in my blogs and in the book on Our Shared Sacred Space. I do not claim any such special insight particularly since I did not learn the Vedas in the proper way.

I said to myself: Why not go to the original and understand these classics for myself? I will need to use dictionaries and grammar books and also some books on linguistics to understand the meaning. I need to approach this task with: 1.humility; 2.curiosity; 3.Ability to place myself in a historical and geographical context with the original author and 4. Ability to not let my knowledge of later philosophies and what I have heard and learnt cloud my attempt  to understand this master.

When I started reading the interpretations of Asya Vamasya Sukta by two scholars I found that they were using concepts from Samkhya Philosophy and other systems of philosophy to interpret the hymns. How can they do it since these philosophies came later than the days of Sage Dirghtamas? I thought that the interpreters were putting words into the mouth of Dirghatamas to explain their own beliefs. The understanding may be valid, of course. But how do they know Dirghatamas thought that way. Who can ever know for sure what any author was thinking when he or she wrote a piece? I certainly do not claim to know.

I would rather imagine Dirghatamas standing in awe at the foot of the Himalayas, on the banks of one of the rivers at dawn, looking at the water and the snow, and listening to the sounds of birds and wondering how all of this came to be. Imagining what life would have been three thousand years back, the kind of knowledge our ancestors possessed at that time and how they dealt with and related to nature, it appears that Dirghatamas was a mystic and a poet. His 52 hymns suggest that. 

I can imagine him looking at the night sky and imagining the milky way to be some kind of river in the sky. He probably saw the seven stars and imagined them to be celestial wise men and the nearby constellation of six stars to be beautiful maiden. He probably saw a group of stars which brought to his mind a hunter shooting at a deer. After all, are we not imagining a rabbit on the moon?

 I would rather interpret the words of Dirghatamas cautiously without attributing all kinds of theories which were developed in later centuries. His days were days of keen observation and deep questioning. His days were also days of explaining the primordial “It” (tat) with its invisible forces by looking at the multiple forces visible in nature which we experience everyday.

With that introduction, let me start with the actual Asya Vamasya Sukta. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Asya Vamasya Sukta - 1

Asya Vamasya Sukta. What is it? Who imagined it or heard it? What is it about? I am ready, with some trepidations, to tackle this profound text within the Rg Veda. But before we get there, a few words about Rg Veda itself.

It is obvious reading several portions of the Rg Veda that the rishis who “heard” or composed the hymns were worshiping devas (deities) related to various aspects of nature such as the sun and the rain and the clouds. The three major deities to whom a vast majority of hymns were addressed are agni (fire), Indra (?mitra-varuna), and surya. The request or appeal to the deities were for mundane worldly things like food, water, wealth and cattle, and occasionally to defeat the enemy or win a game of dice. The rishis were aware of immortality, but they were not asking for immortality for themselves.

Instead they, the wise ones, were in awe of nature. They marveled at the dependable rising and setting of the sun, cycles of season - particularly the rainy one - so essential for agriculture, appearance and disappearance of the moon, the starry sky and the milky way. They wondered how all of this came about, particularly LIFE.

Temples were non-existent then. Yagna or fire-sacrifice was the mode of worship. Vishnu and Shiva were not major deities at that time although their prototypes were present in the Vedas. The modern pantheon of gods came later with the puranas and emphasis on devotional approach (bhakti marga).

The wise seers, the sages of the Vedic religion gave us their intuitive insights in the form of hymns using simple words. As the language developed, they used different meters. They described the names, accomplishments of the deities, their physical qualities and personalities. It so happens that every deity had several functions and several names. For example, Agni has 34  names and Aditya or surya has 37 names as listed in Amarakosha. Surya or Aditya is addressed by different names depending on the time of the day. The names include Ushas (dawn), Savita (light is clearly there), Pushan (rays are breaking out), Vishnu (rays fully spread out),Vrishakapi (height of heat), Saranyu (evening) and Ratri (night).

They used simple words and simple language to describe what they saw and what they inferred. They saw a connection between the visible and the invisible, intuitively. They described them as metaphors and as corresponding elements in the world (prithvi) and the celestial world (dyau). They also imagined an intermediate world (antariksha). When they described fire (agni), it was agni in this world and the sun in the celestial world. In the middle world, it was lightning (vajra, Indra’s).

Asya Vamasya sukta is section 164 in Book 1 of Rg Veda and consists of 52 hymns. It is dedicated to several deities and is written in different meters. The authors name is Dirghatamas Auchatya; so says the text at the beginning of this section as codified by Sayanacharya. Sayanacharya lived in the 15th century as a minister in the Vijayanagara kingdom. His compilation and interpretation are the definitive texts for most of the recent translations.

This takes us to the way Rg Veda is arranged. Rg Veda has more than 1028 suktas, sub-sections of hymns with over 10,000 stanzas. They are arranged in different ways; the one I followed was arranged into 10 mandalas (circles), with subsections or anuvakas and then the suktas. Sukta, the Sanskrit word means “well-said”. Each sukta has several hymns which in Sanskrit is called Rk. It is also called mantra. When the word Rk is combined with the word Veda, Rk is written and pronounced as Rg, according to the rules of Grammar.

Each Sukta starts with a list of the name of the Rishi (seer) to whom it is attributed to as the originator, the meter or chandas in which it is written and the name of the deity to whom the sukta is addressed. Some suktas are addressed to several deities and written in different meters. This is what we see with Asya Vamasya Sukta, addressed to different deities in different meters by the rishi Dirghatamas.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Corrections to the section on Gayatri mantra in my blog on Upanayanam

Happy New Year to all of you. 
I just returned from a memorable trip to India with 3 of my grandchildren. It was a heritage trip for the children to connect with their cousins in India and also with the art, architecture, music, history and the cuisines. I know they enjoyed it and I certainly did.
Now that I am back, I will work on the Asya Vamiya Sukta soon. Now, I wish to correct a mistake I made in an earlier blog.
I posted an essay on Upanayanam on October 1, 2011. It is the most visited essay at my blog site (more than 20,000). Therefore, I owe an apology to all those readers. I regret that I did not  verify the sources carefully before publishing.
Although the meaning of the mantra as I wrote is correct, my account of the variations in this  mantra in different Vedas was wrong. I feel humbled.
I used only one source, a book on Gayatri Mantra from a reputable source, in writing that version. I verified the source in Rg Veda; but did not verify the original sources for Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. Now I have made more extensive research, and this is what I found.
The version in Rg Veda is in Book 3:62 (10). It starts with Tat saviturvarenyam….There is no vyahriti (Bhu, bhuvah, svaha) before the mantra
The version in Yajur Veda is in Book 36:3. This starts with the vyahriti (Bhu, bhuvah, svaha).There is no OM in either version. That was added later, probably after the Upanishads were composed. Brhadaranyaka Upanishad explains other meanings and variations in the meter (chandas) in Chapter 5, section 14.
Finally, Atharva Veda has a longer version with additional words  in the beginning and at the end. Atharva Veda emphasizes the need for proper initiation and proper pronunciation before uttering this version for fear of unwanted results.
Thank you.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Year End Message 2019

I will not be able to post new blogs for the next few weeks. When I return, I hope to write few blogs about a remarkable section in the Rg Veda. Although two passages from this section are well-known, very few know their origins or about their author, a rishi by name Dirghatamas. Based on the first few words of this passage, it is called Asya Vaamiya Sukta. It is full of remarkable questions, imaginations and deep respect for the mysteries of the universe. This is my second most favorite section of whatever small portion of our Vedas I have read, after the Nasadiya Suktam.

At the risk of self-promotion, I wish to let you know that I have put together edited versions of many of the blogs from the past several years into a book with the title Our Shared Sacred Space. I did this because in this age of information technology, interstellar travels and instant communication, we have the technology to experience this living, breathing landscape – Mother Earth. Now we have to learn to share Her sacred space in peace.

In this book I bring together ideas from the east and the west, from science and spirituality and from reason and faith to stimulate the minds and hearts of the future generation to learn how to live with harmony in this “Our Shared Sacred Space”. 

 If you read it and agree with those thoughts, please pass it on to the younger generation. Please write a comment or criticism at the website.

As the Buddhist meditation instructs, I say “May you be well. May you be safe. May you be free from suffering.”

I offer you loving-kindness, peace, hope and  harmony for the New Year.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Thoughts on Time

Why do I foolishly enter an arena which even the minds of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking could not decipher? But my question is “why should this subject be a field for only physicists and mathematicians to think about?” I certainly do not have knowledge of physics or astronomy. But I experience time, all the time, and think about it often. Why should I not reflect on time using common sense and intuition?
My intuition tells me that space is real. Time is phenomenal, a concept to comprehend movements and changes.
Life is a mystery. Time is a greater mystery. Time must have been present before “life” came on the scene. But there was no one to call it “time”.
Time is a constant of the universe. May be. It is eternal with no known or knowable beginning or end; may be cyclic, like Moebius strip. May be, both.
Once humans came into the scene and found ability to speak and name things, the word “time” was invented to explain 1. Changes that take place in front of their eyes, such as birth and death, sun rising and setting, moon growing and diminishing, trees blooming year after year and 2. The relationship between objects during movement, since movement implies space, and time to traverse the space.
Time is a constant of the universe, but only as THE PRESENT MOMENT. For the rest of the “time”, it is just that – TIME, impermanent. The other constants of the universe are matter, Energy, and Information.
Time seems to have two parts to our perception. So suggests the Tamizh poet, Kannadasan. Time is like a two wheeled cart. One wheel stays fresh. The other decays and reforms, ever-changing. It is only in reference to the ever-fresh TIME that we perceive the ever-changing time.
Plants and animals perceive time too, but in another sense. If it is not so, how can leaves change color at the approach of winter? How do birds start building nests long before they lay their eggs? All the plants and animals have built-in genes to cycle their metabolism to be in rhythm with sunlight.
In biology, time implies entropy. Everything complex requiring energy exchange tends to reach a level of equilibrium and inertness with time unless there is a compensatory mechanism. In essence this is time during biological lives. Trajectory towards increasing complexity and equilibrium inert state gives us the sense of time.
Time implies space and change. Does time cause change or do changes induce perception of time? Why do changes occur? If things were static without change, will there be time?
What was there before time? What a silly question? Is it? Do we not imply that there was a beginning when we say time? If so, how can time be there without beginning? If it had a beginning, what was there before? If there was a “before” when and how did it start? Why?
Time is stationary, like a string stretched to infinity. Or, may be like a membrane stretched into a massive round or elliptical ball reflecting the shape of the movements of the planets and stars and constellations. We move along the string, from birth to death through series of changes, and think time is passing.  But we are the ones passing or moving along the fixed dimension of “Time”.
In other words, Time is eternal. Time as experienced by a living organism is based on its perception of movement and changes (such as appearances and disappearances). Movement of the earth around the sun and the consequent days and night cycle was probably the first human observation of what we now call time. If we were to enter deep space, there is only darkness. What is time in such deep darkness?
Time is not an illusion, however. It is not maya of the Vedas but mitya of Sankara. It is neither real nor unreal. It is both, depending on the point of view. Since any movement in space implies “passage of time”, time exists in the background as an eternal, non-moving phenomenon. In that sense it is a fixed entity. But  it requires a human (or some such entity) with ability to perceive changes and movement to conceptualize it and give it a name. Thus, it becomes phenomenal and real for us.  
We know that only one piece of matter can exist in any one place, however small that place is. If two objects try to be at the same place, the assumption is that they try to exist at the same time. That will result in one of several outcomes – both get destroyed; they collide, lose parts of themselves and move in another direction; one eats up the other which also means one merges into the other with no remnant; a new “thing” comes into existence.
In the vast space of the universe, when something like a  planet moves, it will keep moving as long as there is no impediment. This will be true at the atomic level too. That unimpeded movement gives a sense of time for a sentient being like human. This is liner time.
If an atomic particle or a large object encounters another particle or object during this movement, there will be an event – destruction, change of direction or appearance of a new object. That will give a sense of cyclic time.
If light and dark appear alternately, that will also give a sense of cyclic time. If during  cyclic times of days and nights, new “things” appear and disappear or undergo changes, we experience cyclic time. In addition, our mind as it is constituted looks for causes and results. It also looks for beginning and end reinforcing the idea of cyclic phenomenal time.
Will we experience time if there are no changes in animals, plants, mountain, oceans and rivers? If changes occur in the mountains and oceans as they have been for millennia, and there is no one to perceive them will there be a concept of time.
Put it differently, space is real whether a sentient being is there or not. But time is not. It is a concept or a construct to explain movement and changes.
We cannot comprehend them fully and definitively given the limitations of our senses and the mind. May be the physicists and astronomers among you  have a better or different understanding. If so, please share your knowledge and insights.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

More Examples of Correspondence

Since I wrote the blog on Correspondences earlier this year, I have continued to read various texts on Rg Veda and Satapata Brahmana. After understanding the concepts of equivalence, correspondences and connections, I could see meaning in several more passages of these ancient texts. Now I also understand what is meant by the words “sa evam veda” (One who understands thus) which recurs so often in Vedic texts.

It appears that the Vedic rituals were designed to make connections between items of correspondence, between counterparts in the celestial world and the human world, between the mental and physical worlds, and between thoughts and actions. The counterparts are defined by similarities and resemblances.

When reading Vedic passages one can see attempts by the rishis to make connections between  corresponding elements on this earth, prithvi, the microcosm and in the world of the Gods, the sky or dyau, the macrocosm. According to the rishis, the orderly functioning of this world (dharma) depends on the order (rta) in the world of the gods. It appears that rituals were designed to make a connection between the cosmic order and the order in this world of nature and in the social structure. The sacrifice was one such ritual.

I learnt that the word Upanishad itself was used in Satapata Brahmana as referring to equivalence. S.B. 10:4,5 says that the function of the Upanishad is to formulate that Agni is the Aditya or the Sun (10: 4:5,1) and Agni is also the year(10:4:5,22). Then it says that “ his head is the spring, his right wing the summer, his left wing the rainy season, his middle body (trunk) the autumn season, and his tail and feet the winter and dewy seasons”. The intent of the rishis in making the connections are clear. In 10:4:5,33, the rishi equates the layers of bricks in the fire altar to the sacrificer and his mind (desires). 

The connections made between corresponding domains are clear in the following description of Asvamedha sacrifice. This section is in the beginning of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad (1.1.1). “The head of the sacrificial horse is the dawn. The eye is the sun. Its vital force is the air. The open mouth is the internal heat (vaisvanara)…. The back is the heaven and the belly is the sky. The hoof is the earth…….The vessels (guda) are the rivers. … the hairs are the herbs…… Its yawning is lightning. Its shaking the boy is the thunder. Its making water is rain. Its neighing is the speech…”.   How much clearer can the connections be established?

Another example of correspondence refers to the Sapta Rishis (seven seers). Nirukta says that these rishis represent the rays of the sun in the celestial sphere of the deities. In the human sphere they stand for the six senses (eye, ear, nose, skin, tongue and the mind) and the soul (atman). (Lakshman Sarup, on The Nighantu and Nirukta. Motilal Banarsidaa Publishers, Delhi. 2009. Pages 195-196). Sapta Rishis also stand for a constellation (Ursula Major in the western system), seven rivers, seven levels of mind and beyond, seven colors of light and seven notes of sound.

Nirukta tries to decipher the meaning of Vedic mantras and mythologies and often gives one meaning “according to ritualist” and another “according to etymologists”.

One such example can be seen in the commonly used mantra in weddings. It is from Rg Veda 10:80:40 and 41. It says that the bride was first “married to” Soman, then to Gandharvo (two Asvins) and then to Agni before given to the human bridegroom. The meaning in correspondence is to say that a girl is under the protection of Soman or the moon during the early childhood of innocence. Next, she is under the protection of Gandharva during the age of enjoyment and play. When she attains puberty, she is under the protection of Agni, signifying passion until she goes under the protection of a human male.

The links can be made and are indeed made during rituals with postures and gestures. For example, in preparation for the sacrifice in olden days, the sacrificer had to retreat to a lonely hut and lie in a fetal position. He wore a white cloth over his head to “resemble” being hidden in amnion. Since the sacrificer wants to be like the devas (gods), he had to remain awake for several hours before the sacrifice, because Gods are always awake and vigilant.

Another example of correspondence lists Dawn, Sun, Wind and Fire in the earth (prithvi) and the corresponding deities in the celestial world namely Ushas, Aditya, Vayu and Agni. 

The links may even be based on words which sound similar. For example,  Ka is sukha for bliss and/or dukka or shoka for suffering. Ka is also Prajapati.

Since Prajapati is Time, seasons are Prajapati. So is mrtyu or death. Prajapati and Death are like twins. Prajapati eats mrtyu and makes death part of himself. Satapata Brahmana: says: “Now, that man in yonder orb (of the sun), and this man in the right eye, are no other than Death; and he becomes the body (self) of him who knows this: whenever he who knows departs this world he passes into that body, and becomes immortal, for Death is his own self.”  (purusho mrityur├╗pah)

In the process of performing the rituals, the rishis saw the incongruities of killing of life. They gradually replaced the killing with chanting of mantras using sticks, clarified butter and grains and with rituals requiring internalization and mental activity. As they moved from the sacrifices of the Brahmanas with the meditations of the aranyakas and Upanishads, they internalized the external fire with internal ardor, tapas, intense mental activity. Satapata Brahmana says (11.2.6):  “He again draws in his breath: thereby he establishes that (fire) in his innermost soul; and that fire thus becomes established in his innermost soul.”

Thus it is that meditation as a mental activity trying to imagine, intuit and experience the links between the visible and the invisible, the immanent and the transcendent, the mundane and the divine and also between different levels of reality replaced the sacrifices which only the elite, the rich and the kings could perform.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Stories on Prajapati

This essay was informed and inspired by the writings of the Italian scholar Roberto Calasso. His books Ka and Ardor should be required reading for anyone interested in Vedic thoughts.

Purusha of the Vedas, Prajapati of the Brahmanas and the Puranas and the Brahman of the Upanishad are the same. Prajapati is more colorful because there are so many versions about who He is and how He became Prajapati.

Prajapati is the “superabundant” from which everything came and also the “irreducible unknown” (Roberto Calasso).  He was unsure of his own existence since he was made of Sapta Rishis (seven wisemen?). He did not even know who he was when Indra, his son told him “I want to be what you are.” Prajapati asked “Who am I?” (ka aham) Indra said: “You are what you said you are. Ka.” The conversation sounds almost like the famous “Who is on first base?” by Abbott and Costello comedy team.

Prajapati must have come from “asat” because “in the beginning there was nothing” says Rg veda. But, asat is not non-existent. How can something come out of nothing? Asat must have meant “unmanifest” to the seers.

There was unmanifest energy of vital breath (prana) from which seven rishis came. They were the first creation, neither god nor human. But they could not procreate themselves. Therefore, they combined themselves into a single body, a person, Purusha. Two rishis formed above the navel; two below the navel. One formed the right and another one made the left. One formed the base. There was no head. The rishis extracted all their energies, put them into a pot (kalasam) and that was the head. Now, we have a full person That was how Prajapati was created. But we know that  Prajapati is also the creator.

But Prajapati is not THE creator. He is just the Process of creation. When he looked outward a female appeared. That was Vac. Vac is in a way a daughter. Vac is also water and word.  Prajapati united with Vac mentally and since nothing is external to him, it was he who became pregnant. Thus were 8 vasus of the earth or prithvi , 11 rudras of the sky or antariksha and 12 adityas of the celestial or dhyau  born. Then came the Visvadevas. That gives 32. With Vac, the count becomes 33.

But, Prajapati was left out. He did not even get oblations in the sacrifice in which all his offsprings were worshipped. Even when there was an oblation for Prajapati, the mantra was said in a murmur, not loud. In fact, the reason for silence during offerings for Prajapati is even more telling.  There was an argument between Mind and Word as to which one was more important, mind or word?  They went to Prajapati. He said “mind.” Therefore, word (vac) refused to take part in his oblations!

In creating the Universe, Prajapati wanted to create firm ground on which creatures can flourish. He created earth, sky and heaven. When he started doing penance with his arms raised, stars came out of the vault of his arm-pit. “He held his arms in darkness”. After a thousand years, the “wind” arose. Agni came from his mouth and asked for something to eat, an oblation. Terror struck Prajapati and his greatness escaped from his mouth in the form of Vac, speech. Vac is space. Vac is sound which dwells in space. The sound produced was his own. Prajapati said so when he said: Sva aaha. (sva is self; aaha is spoke). And sacrificed himself into agni.

From Prajapati’s upward breath (apaana) came the gods. From his inward breath (prana) came the mortals. Among living creatures, he created death. Prajapati and death (mrtyu) were like twins. Having been exhausted after creating the creatures, Prajapati himself was frightened of death. So he swallowed death.

Another version says that Prajapati was exhausted after producing all the gods. He became skin and bone. And indistinct, not non-existent. As we saw earlier, he is Complete (Poornam). Even after all the gods were created out of him and even after Indra obtained all his splendor, there was a residue because he could not let go of the “irreducible.”

Prajapati was too feeble to call for help. The gods realized that their “father” needed help and decided to build him back up with sacrifice. But they failed initially because they had all the counts wrong in building the sacrificial altar. When the correct number of bricks (10,800) were laid in proper shapes and layers, they were successful. (Those interested in the geometry and the mathematics of the construction of the fire alter can find several sources on the web. Documentary Education Resources has a 50-minute video on Altar of Fire with a 9-minute preview. Also, the University of Pennsylvania has articles with figures on Vedic Altar at

Prajapati sacrificed himself to create the world. The gods built him back through sacrifice.

In another version, Prajapati did not want to be alone. He “created” Ushas, a female. When he wanted to co-habit with her, she got scared and ran away. She became a mare; he became a mare; they paired. She became a cow and he became a bull and so on. In the process were born all the animals and human.

In yet another version, Manu came from Prajapati. He created the first woman and united with her and thus came man, manusha.

If you think: “This is confusing. How many versions of Prajapati are there?”, you are right. 

We are told that the mind-born rishis were the first. They came from Prajapati. But, Prajapati was not the beginning because the rishis had to combine their parts to create Prajapati, as noted earlier. The rishis could not exist alone either. That is why they built themselves into parts of Prajapati.

 The point seems to be that when we trace back the origin of this universe and particularly the human, we end up in an impasse. Even if IT (tat, in Sanskrit) were a being like a rishi, two questions come up: 1. How did the rest of the animals and humans come without a female? If the first male cohabited with the first female, is it not an incest? 2. That IT had to have a mind first and experience a desire. How did it know about IT’s own desire? In fact, It said “so ham” or “aham asmi” or something to that effect.

The ritualists were aware of the residue whether they were talking about Bhu, bhuvah and svah as in the Brahmana, or about earth, sky and heaven as in the purana or about wakeful, dream and awake state in the Upanishads. They always wondered whether there was a world not touched by these three. What if there is a fourth, unseen world? That uncertainty existed always. That was Prajapati, the one they meditated on, the one to whom oblations were made in silence.

In other words, the First Entity said: I am. So, there is an I and something else lurking behind saying I am aware of my I. What is that? That is Prajapati. Roberto Calasso calls it the “id of what happens; a fifth column that spies on and sustains every event.” (Ardor. Page 94)