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Friday, January 31, 2020

Asya Vamasya Sukta - 3

Mantra 1 (also called hymn or rk) starts with the words “asya vamasya palithasya” and is the reason for scholars designating this 164th subsection of Book 1 as Asya Vamasya Sukta. The meaning is “of this young and grey-haired….”. The rest of the hymn suggests that there are three brothers, one young and one old and there seems to be a middle one who is referred to as ghruthaprishta meaning well-oiled (ghee on the back is the literal translation). The word brhata meaning “brother” is used.

“Of the benevolent deity who is the object of invocation” there is the young one, the grey-haired one and a well-fed one. So, who are these three brothers?

Given my bias that we should place ourselves in the poet’s context, in his time and place, my guess is that he is referring to the three worlds – dyau, prithvi and antariksha. Dyau is the grey-haired old brother. The young one is the earth. The one well-oiled middle brother is antariksha with the clouds since pouring of grutha or ghee on agni in sacrifice is referred to in the Vedas as akin to rain pouring from the cloud. 

The hymn also refers to seven sons (sapta putram). It says: “I behold the Chief with seven sons”. Who are the seven sons?

The poet may be referring to the seven stars in the Milky Way or to the Sun with its rays and seven days of the week as suggested in the next hymn.

Mantra 2: This hymn refers to a chariot drawn by one horse with seven names. The chariot is said to have one wheel with three navels.

 The hymn also refers to vishva (universe) and bhuvana (earth). Therefore, the poet is thinking about heaven (dyau) and earth (prithvi). Connecting them are the cyclic days and nights due to the movement of the Sun. The chariot is the Sun. The single wheel represents the rotation in one year (?) and the horse with seven names represents the days of the week. Or, since folks in those days had seen and admired rainbow, may be the rish is referring to the seven colors (?). What are the three navels? Did the poet mean three seasons or day-night-twilight? Or, may even be the past, the present and the future!

I can see how difficult it is to put myself in the poet’s place centuries ago and try to figure out what he might have been thinking. It is best to be humble and not hoist our theories,dogmas and biases on the sages.

Manta 3: In this mantra, poet Dirghatamas imagines a chariot which he says has seven wheels and drawn by seven horses on which are seated seven sisters praising with words in which seven names are hidden.

Who are the seven sisters? Whom are they praising? It is possible that the seven sisters refer to some constellation or to the seven rivers on whose banks these ancestors lived in those days? What is the chariot with seven wheels (earlier it was one wheel) and seven horses? Rg Veda refers to sun’s rays in 7:66:15 and therefore the rishi may mean the rays of the sun or seven days of the week. It may refer to seven colors of the rainbow. Indeed, there are references to the colors as kaala (violet), neela (indigo), dhumla (blue), harita (green), peeta (yellow) and soma(red). May be, the reference is to the sapta rishis (sages) in the constellation.

Why seven wheels? Does the chariot refer to the human body with seven orifices?

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.