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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)

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