Remembering the Veda:
Accumulations of Interest


Simona Sawhney

Vanderbilt University

Copyright © 1999 by Simona Sawhney, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    One always believes oneself to be in the wake of the Veda,
    when one turns one's back on it.
    --Louis Renou

  1. Hindu tradition divides its sacred texts among the two categories of shruti and smriti--those which are heard, or revealed, and those which are remembered. J. A. B. van Buitenen explains the distinction thus:
    Shruti (literally, "learning by hearing") is the primary revelation, which stands revealed at the beginning of the creation. This revelation was "seen" by the primeval seers (risi) who set in motion an oral transmission that has continued from generation to generation until today. . . smriti (literally "recollection") is the collective term for all other sacred literature, principally in Sanskrit, which is considered to be secondary to shruti, bringing out the hidden meanings of the revelation, restating it for a wider audience, providing more precise instructions concerning moral conduct, and complementing shruti in matters of religion. While the distinction between shruti and smriti is a useful one, in practice the Hindu acquires his knowledge of religion almost exclusively through smriti. (923-33)
    While the samhitas (collections) of the four Vedas along with the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads comprise the body of vedic or shruti literature, the epics as well as the Dharma sastras and the Puranas are included in the more amorphous smriti category. Among the Vedas, it is widely acknowledged that the Rig Veda stands foremost, in terms of both antiquity and sanctity. If its sacredness for tradition is grounded in its status as the earliest revealed text of the Hindu canon, its significance for many modern scholars derives from its recognition as one of the oldest known Indo-European texts. In either case, it has been accorded the honor due to a monument--a massive monument that appears now as a beacon, now as a fortress, and now as a mysterious temple in whose precincts we are no longer at ease.

  2. In this essay, I approach the question of modernity's relationship to tradition, and specifically to religious tradition, by way of a discussion of the space occupied by the Rig Veda in orientalist as well as nationalist discourse. It might be best to acknowledge at the very outset that the terms "orientalist" and "nationalist" are in many ways reductive--few scholars of the Veda would fit easily into either category. It might be better then to say that I read various responses to the Veda in terms of the implicit motivations or interests that have informed those readings. I would like to align, in my own approach to the Veda, a certain potential inherent in the concept of secular thought, with a practice of reading which engages seriously with the unavoidable seductions of interest. Where might the Veda situate itself in the arena of a secular modernity? What happens when we begin the enterprise of reading sacred texts as literature? What would such a reading suggest about the categories of the sacred, the secular, and the literary?
  3. I am interested in exploring what the concept of the secular might indicate or comprehend apart from the meanings usually assigned to it. These meanings generally define the secular as a principle of marking a distinction between the church and the state, or as a sphere of public life not governed by spiritual authority, or even opposed to such authority. Most of us would agree that such definitions do not quite exhaust the enormous impact of secular thought on various realms of human activity. For instance, it is widely accepted today that not only the natural, but also the social sciences have undergone a fundamental change in the modern period largely because history can no longer be read as the manifestation of divine will. Hannah Arendt refers to this aspect of secular epistemology when she discusses how the very concept of theory has changed for modernity:
    When the trust that things appear as they really are was gone, the concept of truth as revelation had become doubtful, and with it the unquestioning faith in a revealed God. The notion of "theory" changed its meaning. It no longer meant a system of reasonably connected truths which as such had not been made but given to reason and the senses. Rather it became the modern scientific theory, which is a working hypothesis changing in accordance with the results it produces and depending for its validity not on what it "reveals" but on whether it "works." (39)

  4. While this aspect of secularism--the secularization of knowledge--is significant for the way I would like to think about the secular here, it is not the focus of my concern. What interests me primarily is the way in which any interruption of sacred thought, of transcendental or metaphysical thought, exposes and hence compells us to confront the decisive question of interest that haunts our engagement with any text--be it the text of the body politic or the text of our tradition. If the advent of the nation challenges us to reconsider our conceptions of community and social organization, the secularization of thought correspondingly challenges us to interrogate every movement of reading which would accept as an alibi the reassurance of transcendent truths. Hence a secular practice of reading would also ask of us that we question every contingent or historical act of interpretation which attempts to ground itself in some version of a realm of transcendence.
  5. In this regard, the Rig Veda presents itself as an archetypal text, not only because it has so consistently provoked in its readers the urge to appropriate it for various ends, but also because it is itself situated in that murky region between nature and history--a region that history illuminates so dimly that it appears, almost, to recede into nature. The oldest among the four vedas, the Rig Veda is a collection of 1,028 hymns arranged in ten mandalas, or sections. Most of the hymns are addressed to specific deities and refer to the context of the sacrificial ritual. It is generally agreed among scholars that the earliest hymns might date back to the thirteenth or fourteenth century BCE, while some of the later hymns might have been composed three or four hundred years later.[1] Most attempts at establishing precise dates are thwarted by a certain elusiveness that seems to be characteristic of the oral tradition. For hundreds of years, the hymns were ritually memorized by the sons and grandsons of priestly families, perhaps precisely in order to shield them from betraying signs of temporality and from such diseases as attend the corporeality of the letter. It was not until about 600 BCE that the hymns were collected in what is now considered the canonical form of the Rig Veda, the samhita text, but the text was still transmitted orally from one generation to another, though we know that the culture was already familiar with the art of writing.
  6. Since the hymns belong to an oral tradition, and since their orality is so instrinsically a feature of their sacrality, many modern scholars have wondered how appropriate the concept of "scripture" might be for understanding such texts. Thus in his essay, "Scripture as Form and Concept," Wilfred Smith writes, "The Hindu instance (especially with shruti) was precisely and emphatically oral for millenia--indeed, at least until the European Max Muller's printed edition of the Rig Veda from 1854." He goes on to remark that the transcribing of the Veda constitutes "an entrancing instance of nineteenth-century western cultural imperialism, here quietly imposing the western sense of 'scripture'" (34-35). Yet at the conclusion of the essay, when Smith contends that "a true understanding of the human must wrestle with three major modes of language: prose, poetry, and scripture," it seems that he would probably include shruti literature within this larger concept of scripture as a mode of utterance that is fundamentally distinct from either prose or poetry. Though I am not persuaded by the validity of the tripartite classification Smith proposes, it does seem reasonable that within this model, sacred texts from oral traditions would be considered analogous to other "scriptures," in spite of the latter term's intrinsic relationship to writing and to the book. In other words, it seems that while the emphasis on orality, remembrance and recitation is significant in terms of understanding the cultural practices of the religion and even in terms of recognizing the performative powers associated with the appropriate utterance of sacred words, such an emphasis does not always help us to understand or interpret the text itself. On the contrary, it perhaps draws attention away from the form and content of the verses toward their ritual use and application--rendering them objects of anthropological, but not literary or philosophical analysis.
  7. Thus Thomas Coburn's contention that the most significant feature of shruti literature lies in its recitation, rather than its comprehension, is perhaps misleading, even though it is largely accurate in terms of the traditional approach to the hymns. Coburn reads the shruti/smriti distinction as a distinction between texts that are "eternal, intrinsically powerful, and supremely authoritative" and those which are normative, didactic, and hence centrally concerned with intelligibility. The Rig Veda obviously belongs to the former category; Coburn eloquently writes that here the Hindus have "frozen" the Word, "captured it verbatim, treated it as sound eternal, the hum of the universe," and goes on to emphasize that the "distinctively Hindu way of engaging with this compact, boundaried verbal material is to recite it, not necessarily to understand it" (121). Without denying that in practice, this is generally the way in which the vedic hymns are treated, I would make two cautionary remarks in response to Coburn's thesis, which is representative, indeed, of a wide-spread conception of vedic literature.[2]
  8. The first concerns a traditional division among the texts of shruti literature itself, which complicates the categories that Coburn establishes. Thus, according to Advaita (literally, "non-duality"), the highly influential school of philosophy systematized by the medieval theologian Sankara, shruti literature is divided into two components--the karmakanda and the jnanakanda. While the former refers to the first sections of the Vedas, the hymns or mantras associated with the performance of sacrifices, the latter refers to the later sections of the Vedas, such as the Upanishads, whose purpose is to reveal knowledge of Brahman, or ultimate reality. As the names suggest, the hymns are thus associated with ritual action (karma), and the speculative commentaries with transcendent knowledge (jnana). This division would indicate that even all the texts assembled within the category of shruti literature cannot be comprehended within a single model focusing exclusively on recitation, such as the one Coburn proposes.
  9. My second remark concerns the hymns themselves. I would first reiterate here that in allowing the ritual context of Hinduism as a practice to be our sole guide in determining the significance of the hymns, we would perhaps be doing both the hymns and ourselves a disservice. There are, moreover, enough suggestions in the Veda and its early readings to warn us against placing too great an emphasis on recitation, as distinct from comprehension. As K. S. Murty points out in his recent book, Vedic Hermeneutics, there are several vedic passages that draw attention to this very question:
    The Veda itself insists that understanding of its meaning is necessary for obtaining the full benefit from it. A Rigvedic passage says, "He who does not know that higher region of truth, what will he do with the hymns?". . . The Nirukta has gone so far as to say that he who having learnt the Veda does not know its meaning is like a pillar which merely carries a burden . . . The Brihaddevata also says: only he who knows (not merely recites) the hymns knows the gods; the deity does not accept the oblation offered without knowledge. (8)

  10. The ubiquitous practice of quoting shruti for its meaning or content in discursive expositions or philosophical arguments would also indicate that the tradition does not conceive of the verses only as phonically powerful utterances. I dwell on this point because it appears that this focus on the performative or ritual aspects of the hymns has been instrumental in allowing the poetic and speculative language of various hymns to be stifled, thus robbing the tradition of some of its most productive moments. Such an emphasis on the hieratic becomes particularly suspicious when it surfaces so regularly in the work of western writers, for one senses here an inclination to categorize the hymns in accordance with the perceived norms of religious practice in order to arrive at a neatly circumscribed understanding of "Hindu culture." While the work of modern scholars is generally too sophisticated to betray the more explicit orientalist tendencies of earlier Indologists, its impulse to read the texts of distant societies primarily for their anthropological interest--that is to say, simply as reflections of cultural practices or beliefs--also exhibits a certain will to power which posits a limit to the potential significance of any given text.
  11. To some extent, our limited understanding of the Veda is also a function of the paucity of its readers. Although the text is generally revered as the very source of this tradition, as the text that organizes and directs the course of all the philosophical and epic literature that follows it, yet it remains curiously and widely un-read. Certainly the obscurity of its language contributes to its neglect. But this neglect of the Veda is also indicative of a larger phenomenon: the way in which the act of privileging certain texts becomes at once a sign of power and a mark of affiliation in any socio-political structure. Thus in India, the religious scholars or pundits who study the Veda in the traditional manner, do not, for the most part, wish to encourage any secular readings of the text--the authority of such scholars derives precisely from the fact that they can safely place in circulation their own interpretation of the Veda and remain assured of its acceptance. On the other hand, those who could or would challenge this reading--for instance, students of history or literature in modern universities--never bother to read the Veda at all since for them it is the orthodox text par excellence, its saffron-taint[3] as indelible, as ancient, and perhaps finally more legible than its language. In their view, it is already too alive in the land, its clamor all too audible in the senseless cacophony of recitation and incantation that embraces us like a stupor and renders us deaf to the voice of reason. For them the Veda is orthodox because it represents today, and has perhaps always represented, the intimate meshing of religious fervor and caste-thinking. This alignment of the Veda with conservatism goes back a long way in the religious tradition: most of the Bhakti saints of medieval India felt that it was necessary to repudiate the authority of the Vedas in order to preach their revolutionary message of personal devotion to an omniscient deity.
  12. Moreover, the text has also become the touchstone of orthodoxy within the Indian philosophical tradition, representing above all a limit of knowledge or of truth that cannot be transgressed. When Louis Renou, for instance, writes that the Veda is "precisely the sign, perhaps the only one, of Indian orthodoxy" (2), he is referring to the ways in which it is evoked by various exponents of the six darsanas, or schools of philosophy. Their critiques of each other are often rooted in the general accusation of heresy--that is to say, a departure from, or a questioning of, such knowledge as is authorized by the Veda. Renou cites as an example the words of the medieval philosopher Sankara: "The doctrines of Kapila, Kanada and others are found to be tainted with errors, being without any foundation and in contradiction with the Veda." Thus we see that the mere accusation of departing from the dictum of the Veda was often considered adequate condemnation of new philosophical ideas.
  13. Such is the daunting visage of the Veda today: ancient, obscure, often incomprehensible, and strongly allied with all that is most conservative in the literary and philosophical tradition. It is thus that texts present themselves when they are steadily robbed of their powers of articulation and turned instead into monuments: giant monolithic structures that only generate echo-systems. It is therefore imperative that we read the Veda--that much is clear--but how do we read it? What would this reading demand? If we do not wish to re-enact or mime all the gestures that have made of the Veda a petrified--and a petrifying--book, gestures that make of it a relic, an idol or a weapon, how then are we to approach this book? If our complaint against the various readings of the Veda is that they are too fascinated by certain prior interests that they bring to bear on the text, that what is in their interest is not, perhaps, of interest to the Veda, that what they have to say might even be contradictory to what the Veda says; if such, indeed, are our complaints, then do we not risk replicating precisely those accusations of heresy which have contributed to the monumentalizing of the Veda? And what then, of our own reading? By dwelling on the interestedness of other readings, are we suggesting that it is, in fact, possible to offer an entirely disinterested reading? Or are we proposing a hierarchy of interests, where some interests are more acceptable, more urgent or more appropriate than others? In contending that the prior interests of these readings might lead them away from what is essential to the Veda, that such interests might cause them to be overly attentive to the historical, rather than the literary dimensions of the text, we might perhaps become prey to an ancient and dangerous practice of discourse. We might, indeed, reinforce the problematic and often reactionary distinction between the internal or proper sense of the text and the external context of its production and use.

  15. The disparate readings of the Veda are linked not only by certain passions or interests, but also by their focus on the question of identity; what seems to be at stake, in some veiled, hidden or buried form, is always the identity of the reader. This interest is openly acknowledged by most early Indologists and especially by the early German scholars who, among all European Indologists, are to be credited with conducting the most extensive research in the field of vedic literature.
  16. Certainly the most significant figure in this context is Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900), who edited the first published edition of the Rig Veda, along with the commentary of the fourteenth-century vedic scholar Sayana.[4] While Max Muller's pioneering work has rightly earned the gratitude of generations of Sanskrit students both in India and abroad, we should also recognize that in many ways, he set the tone for the kind of response that the Veda in particular, and Sanskrit literature in general, would elicit from future readers. Having inherited German romanticism's interest in the Orient as the birthplace of an unsullied spirituality, Max Muller set himself the task of discovering the lost history of the Aryan people. His interest in Sanskrit as a language was thus intimately connected with the desire to discover and establish a common heritage for the Aryan race.[5] Tracing the similarities between various Indo-European languages, he writes:
    The terms for God, for house, for father, mother, son, daughter. . . identical in all the Indo-European idioms, are like the watchwords of soldiers. We challenge the seeming stranger; and whether he answer with the lips of a Greek, a German, or an Indian, we recognize him as one of ourselves. (A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature 12)

  17. We find ourselves here in a familiar landscape: the recurrent scene of a battle where language becomes significant chiefly by virtue of its function as a shibboleth. Max Muller seems to be either unaware of, or unperturbed by the idea that he is perhaps replicating in his words a scenario that most students of Sanskrit will recognize from a well-known passage in Patanjali's Mahabhasya where the author describes a battle between the gods (suras) and the demons (asuras):
    Those asuras [demons], uttering 'helayo helaya' [instead of 'he arayah'] were defeated. Therefore, a brahman should never speak a corrupt language. Indeed the mleccha [barbarian][6] language is corrupt. That we may not become mlecchas, grammar should be studied.[7]

    The reference here is to a story in the Shatapathabrahmana about a conflict between the gods and the demons, where the demons were defeated because the gods seduced the goddess Vac (Speech) away from them. The implication seems to be that because the asuras could not correctly pronounce the word 'ari' (enemy), confusing the Sanskrit 'r' for an 'l', they could not summon their forces to battle, and were thus defeated.

  18. We know from this and several other sources that the history of the Sanskrit language also recounts the history of a distinction between the speakers of the refined, perfected language (the word samskrit literally means perfected, polished, or well-made), and the speakers of the various prakrit (natural, unrefined, or vulgar) dialects. Thus the use of the elite language has always served as a distinguishing mark that sets apart the Brahmin from the barbarian--and correspondingly allows for the recognition of solidarity among elite groups. In Max Muller's formulation we find a modern variation on the same theme, where a knowledge of Sanskrit becomes important chiefly as a means of recognizing the membership of the Indo-European community, so that boundaries might be accurately drawn between the outsider and the insider.
  19. For Max Muller then, the impulse to trace a genealogical history of the "Aryan race" played a pivotal role in motivating his scholarship. In his book on the Veda, he writes:
    As the language of the Veda, the Sanskrit, is the most ancient type of the English of the present day. . . so its thoughts and feelings contain in reality the first roots and germs of that intellectual growth which by an unbroken chain connects our own generation with the ancestors of the Aryan race. (The Vedas 13)
  20. We find similar ideas reiterated in the work of Maurice Winternitz, whose own History of Indian Literature was first published in German in 1907, and then in English in 1926. Though Winternitz does not subscribe to the myth of the Aryan race, he nevertheless wishes to preserve some sense of an intellectual or spiritual community existing among all speakers of Indo-European languages:
    But though it is even more than doubtful whether the peoples which speak Indo-European languages are all descended from a common origin, still it must not be doubted that a common language, this most important instrument of all mental activity, implies a relationship of mind and a common culture. Though the Indians are not flesh of our flesh, or bone of our bone, we may yet discover mind of our mind in the world of Indian thought . . . Indian literature cannot, indeed, be compared with Greek literature in regard to artistic merit . . . But if we wish to learn to understand the beginnings of our own culture, if we wish to understand the oldest Indo-European culture, we must go to India, where the oldest literature of an Indo-European people is preserved. (5-6)

    According to Winternitz, even when literature lacks "artistic merit," it nevertheless attracts us by the promise of reflecting back to us an image of ourselves, or of our own history. What such remarks suggest is not so much an anthropological impulse to study and define a distant society, but rather a humanist search for similarity, for traits of commonality in a shared past. It is only gradually that the disfigured underside of such humanism becomes apparent as the political implications of the Indo-European or Aryan myth begin to reverberate in both Europe and India.

  21. This privileged image of a Vedic Indian past, brought into focus by the work of the early Indologists, was complemented by the work of Indian scholars, who were perhaps themselves eager to find in the past some relief from the humiliations of the colonial present. Drawing attention to the unique and glorious heritage of the Indian spiritual tradition thus became a way of evoking national pride during a time of political duress. But apart from registering the impress of colonialism in the work of these scholars, we should also perhaps be attentive to the way in which ancient texts invariably incite in their readers the impulse of appropriation--by appropriating such texts as testaments to our own origin, we hope, perhaps, to grant ourselves a teleological narrative of our own history. We thus ask of literature that it be mimetic; that it reflect back to us an image in which we might recognize ourselves, even when it speaks a language we barely comprehend.
  22. Thus S. Radhakrishnan, professor of Philosophy and the first President of India, says of the Veda that it has become "the standard of thought and feeling for Indians" and goes on to trace the "catholic spirit" of Hinduism to the ways in which the vedic religion incorporated the practices of the local cults:
    The reaction of the local cults on the Vedic faith is one of the many causes of variety of the Vedic pantheon. . . . Even when militant religions fell the tall trees of the forest, the ancient beliefs remain as an undergrowth. The catholic spirit of Hinduism which we find in the Rig Veda has always been ready to give shelter to foreign beliefs and assimilate them in its own fashion. (41)

    Radhakrishnan's response to the Veda seems to be at least partially a response also to Hindu-Muslim conflict in modern India, and his rhetoric echoes the sentiments often expressed by nationalist leaders of that period, who sought to define Hinduism as a tolerant and open faith, capable of assimilating or co-existing with other religions. Radhakrishnan is thus representative of a large number of Indian scholars whose reading of the Veda was deeply informed by contemporary concerns.

  23. For instance, we also find in Kunhan Raja's work a desire to construct, retrospectively, an image of national unity and pride, and thus to discover in the past a model which would guide the aspirations of the newly independent nation. Kunhan Raja is eager to counter the perceived image of animosity between the Brahmans and the Kshatriyas (the priests and the warriors/rulers) in vedic times. "These two," he writes, "along with the people in general, formed a single nation . . . they were united in their pride of their heritage. This tone of pride is very conspicuous throughout the Vedas; it is continuous and persistent in the thoughts of the people" (Poet Philosophers of the Rig Veda xix).
  24. Elsewhere, Kunhan Raja is even more explicit in the terms he employs to reconstruct the values of vedic society:
    Man's pride, man's love of freedom, man's attachment to his country . . . are very prominent in the poetry of the Rig Veda. Man never surrendered to a superior power nor to a foreign invader; the people defended the country and also respected the freedom of other countries. (Survey of Sanskrit Literature 22)

    The Veda is here clearly recruited in the service of the nationalist cause: in order to legitimize and institutionalize the relatively new phenomenon of nationalist thinking, readers such as Kunhan Raja summon the texts of ancient India to aid the growth of patriotic sentiment.

  25. The Veda thus always serves the cause of genealogy; it attests to the continuity of various histories. It is read in order to represent the origin of a community, and each reading appropriates it for the elusive community that it wishes to create or legitimize. I would suggest that it is this tradition of reading the Veda, a tradition that continually restages a myth of origin, which we must question and interrupt. Or more precisely, which we must allow the Veda itself to interrupt, by reading it neither as scripture, nor as myth, but rather--for lack of another name--as literature. I am thinking here of Jean-Luc Nancy's essay, "Myth Interrupted," and of his tentative designation of the literary as that which interrupts mythic thought, often precisely by repeating it. Nancy says, "A name has been given to this voice of interruption: literature (or writing, if we adopt the acceptation of this word that coincides with literature). This name is no doubt unsuitable. But no name is suitable here. The place or the moment of interruption is without suitability" (63). It is significant that Nancy characterizes literature as an interruption of myth, and not as its rejection or repudiation. Whatever we hope to gain by reading the Veda as literature, our efforts will remain barren as long as we do not also take into account the familial relation between myth and literature.
  26. Besides the echo of lost divinities or the ghostly syllables of a dead language, if we can bring ourselves to hear in the Veda a communication that speaks to us, perhaps even sends a response to its interlocutors, then we might begin the labor of restoring to it its status as a work, or as a text. It is possible that we will be surprised by what we hear. Despite its esoteric majesty, its austere countenance, the Veda might not finally be a harsh respondent. For if the Veda is a knower (the word Veda comes from the root 'vid'--'to know'), then it might already know something about the relationship between thinking and interest. For instance, it might already know that although thinking continually strives to overcome its secret, familiar attachment to its own interest, the alliance between the two--thinking and interest, thinking and wanting, thinking and desiring--is both ancient and resilient.
  27. It may not be accidental that perhaps the most suggestive reflection of this knowledge appears in a hymn that is itself concerned with origin: one of the creation hymns in Book X of the Rig Veda (10. 129). The hymn is widely regarded as one of the most interesting and complex hymns of the entire collection and is cited in most surveys and anthologies of vedic literature. One of the reasons for its popularity might lie in its relative singularity: it seems to be thematically unlike most of the other hymns, since it appears not to be related to any sacrificial moment. Norman Brown, for instance, notes that while the aim of most of the other hymns is utilitarian, in this hymn, "the author does not show interest in any tangible benefit to be derived from penetrating the great mystery of creation. We might say that he, at least, did want knowledge for its own sake. He was truly a philosopher. . . . The profit for him was merely the satisfaction of knowing" (82). It is a matter of some curiosity that a text which generally seems to be read for some "utilitarian" or exterior purpose should nevertheless be lauded for precisely those moments which appear to be a reflection of its writer's disinterest.
  28. Readers have also found this hymn particularly interesting because its monistic perspective is regarded as a more sophisticated philosophical position than the idolatrous polytheism of many of the other hymns. Thus it is, in many ways, not exactly representative of the entire collection of hymns. I focus here on this hymn, and later in this chapter, on a hymn to Vac (Speech), because of the particularly provocative rhetoric of these texts and not because I wish to claim an exemplary status for them.
  29. Roughly translated, this is what the creation hymn says:
    There was no existence or non-existence then
    There was neither the gloomy vapour, nor the sky beyond.
    What did it cover? Where? In whose protection?
    Was there water, deep, profound?

    There was no death nor immortality then
    There was no appearance of night or day.
    That One breathed windless by its own volition
    Apart from that, there was nothing beyond.

    In the beginning was darkness by darkness hidden
    Indistinguishable, all this was water.
    That which, becoming, was covered by emptiness
    That One arose through the power of heat.

    Desire in the beginning came upon that one
    Desire, which is the first seed of mind.
    Poets, having searched their hearts with wisdom,
    Found the bond of existence in non-existence.

    Their cord was extended across
    Was there below? Was there above?
    There were placers of seed; there were great powers
    Energy below, impulse above.

    Who truly knows? Who might speak here?
    Whence was it born? Whence this creation?
    The gods are later than its creation,
    Who then truly knows whence it arose?

    Whence this creation came into being
    Whether or not he founded it;
    He who, in the highest heaven, watches over it
    He indeed knows, or perhaps he knows not.[8]

  30. The hymn attempts to narrate a story of creation, but we notice that at almost every step it pauses to question its own assertions. The narrative itself is, at least on one level, fairly clear. The hymn reflects upon the emergence of the universe from nothingness, and finds that it can make no definitive statement regarding the creation of the world. The poet begins by attempting to imagine and describe a time when the world as we know it--where each entity is perceived only in distinction from another, where all things appear as contraries--did not exist. He attempts to describe a time before creation, and hence begins with the profoundly paradoxical statement: "There was no existence or non-existence then."[9]
  31. The poem then goes on to imagine the coming-into-being of a solitary power, "that One," who is self-sufficient in that it breathes "windlessly," only by virtue of its own will.[10] That One, we are told, arises through the power of heat--"tapas"--a word generally associated with the heat, glow, or power generated by acts of austerity. But even though that One was born, the poem suggests, by means of an inherent capacity for both self-sustenance, and austerity or self-abnegation, its very first emotion was one of desire. Desire came upon that one, says the hymn, leading us back to an idea that is found buried even in the English word "passion": a certain passivity or helplessness in the face of that which passes over one; the sense of being acted upon by something alien--anterior or even exterior to the self. A. A. Macdonell glosses the verb adhi sam avartata and derives it from the root vrit(turn), which with the prefix sama takes on the meaning of "coming into being." Adhi, however, renders the verb transitive, he says, giving it the meaning of "coming upon" or "taking possession of" (Macdonell 209). This gloss seems to be etymologically more accurate than the one provided by Sayana, who gives as a synonym samyakajaayata--"appropriately (properly) born." Sayana's gloss, however, is not surprising: his reticence in the face of most references to desire (kama: also lust, or love) and his impulse to restrict the more unruly implications of this word is often evident in his comments.
  32. Following Macdonell's translation, we could say then that the hymn suggests a rather complex concept of desire: on the one hand, desire is almost an external force that comes upon, or takes possession of one, but on the other, it is also the "first seed of mind"--the first emotion produced in the mind. Thus the sentiment most proper to the mind is yet not quite the mind's own. We might also note here that the word "seed" renders the phrase perhaps even more ambivalent, for though "seed" could refer to the first germ of thought, the first production of the mind, it could also be understood as that which in fact produces the mind, gives birth to the mind. The line has generally been understood in the sense of the former reading; thus Winternitz writes, "This 'one' was already an intellectual being; and as the first product of his mind--'the mind's first fruit' as the poet says--came forth kama, ie. 'sexual desire, love'" (99). As we see, Winternitz also changes the usual meaning of retah (seed) to "fruit" in order to arrive at this unambivalent reading. The standard meaning of retah does not really suggest 'fruit'--Monier-Williams (SV) gives as its meaning "a flow, stream, current . . . a flow of semen, seminal fluid, sperm, seed" and most translations follow this definition.[11]
  33. Sayana reads kama as sisriksa--"the desire to create"--predictably, but here also quite justifiably. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the hymn makes a strong statement about the originary relationship between thought, production (creation) and desire. That is to say, it recognizes that without a prior interest, or interestedness, no production, not even the production of thought, can occur; but it also correspondingly places in question any knowledge that we might gather as a result of thinking, and in particular, any knowledge which our speculations about origins might yield: "Who truly knows? Who might speak (declare) here? Whence was it born? Whence this creation?"
  34. It is tempting to read "this creation" as referring not only to the creation of the universe, which is the obvious meaning of the phrase, but also as reflexively referring to the creation of the poem itself. In that case, the poem would also be casting doubt upon the possibility of locating the source of its own creation.[12] The earlier line's mention of poets being the discoverers of the bond, or relation, between existence and non-existence, presence and absence, would perhaps lend some credence to such a reading. It would probably be safest not to carry this reading too far, although it becomes suggestive in the context of those responses to the hymn which seem, above all, anxious to assign the poem a locus, a social and historical context--those readings which would forever stamp it as a possibly brilliant, but nevertheless representative text of the "vedic age."
  35. It is such readings of the Veda in general that the hymn appears to address, not only because it is itself engaged in the task of reflecting upon origins, but more significantly, because it recognizes that such reflection can only be speculative, and can only be fueled by the energy of some anterior desire. By gesturing toward the radical connection between desire and thought, and by persistently questioning the authority of all claims about origins, it thus reflects back at us a deep suspicion regarding our own assertions about the origins of our history.

  37. One must also acknowledge, however, that in the case of the Veda, such tendencies to recruit the hymns in the service of anthropological (rather than literary) scholarship surface, perhaps, in response to a larger problem--one that is posed by the obscurity of the material itself, and the scarcity of its readers. Most readers of the Veda face the difficulty of interpreting a text whose language has, in many instances, become unintelligible to us, partly because the multiple meanings of several root words, and the precise grammatical significance of some of the grammatical forms are no longer apparent to us.
  38. Apart from the verses which have become literally unintelligible, there are numerous others which present a familiar problem of interpretation in a particularly vexed manner--the problem of deciding the figurative status of the text's language. Once again, it should be noted that the problem is not of recent origin. To illustrate what he characterizes as a "break in tradition," M. Hiriyanna mentions the example of a Brahmana commentary's explanation of a vedic verse which describes the sun as "golden-handed": "Nothing is more natural for a poet than to speak of the sun as 'golden-handed,' yet this poetic epithet appearing in a hymn is taken literally and explained in a Brahmana by a story that the sun lost his hand which was afterwards replaced by one made of gold" (29).
  39. While it is easy for us today to say that "nothing could be more natural" than describing the sun as being golden-handed, we gloss too easily perhaps over the idea that nothing, in fact, could be more unnatural. For it might well have been the patent meaninglessness of the epithet--the arbitrary ascription of a human characteristic to the non-human--that led the writer of the Brahmana story to "make sense" of the epithet by doing, in fact, exactly what the anthropomorphic trope asked him to do: to treat the sun as a human. In other words, one might just reconstruct that writer's quandary in the following way: If the sun has a hand, it must be like a human; but if the sun is like a human, it cannot have a golden hand--hence the necessity of creating a narrative to justify the possession of this fantastic limb. The story of the sun's "loss" and subsequent remedial gain becomes thus also a story of the loss of the partial and hence confusing anthropomorphism of the vedic epithet, and the restoration, in its stead, of a total anthropomorphism.
  40. In his description of the incident, M. Hiriyanna notes that the epithet is taken "literally" by the Brahmana story. What he means, of course, is that instead of recognizing as metaphor a phrase that alludes to the sun's rays as his hands, the story assumes that a hand must really be a hand--that it must not be a figure for something else.[13] It is hard not to draw a connection between this account and what Hiriyanna later refers to as "arrested anthropomorphism" when describing the characteristic qualities of the vedic gods:
    [The vedic gods] are gods and at the same time natural objects, viz. 'fire' and 'cloud.' There are other gods, it is true, like the Asvins and Indra, whose identity is not so transparent; but what we have to remember is that, unlike Greek mythology for example, the prevailing type of Vedic gods is one of incomplete personalization. . . . It is commonly described as 'arrested anthropomorphism'; but the expression is apt to suggest that the Vedic conception of divinity lacks a desirable feature, viz. complete personification, while in reality it points to an excellence-a frame of mind in the Vedic Aryan highly favourable to philosophic speculation. . . . The fact is that the Vedic Indian did not allow his conceptions to crystallize too quickly. His interest in speculation was so deep and his sense of the mystery hiding the Ultimate was so keen that he kept before him unobscured the natural phenomenon which he was trying to understand until he arrived at a satisfying solution. (33)

  41. The two passages together seem to suggest that by accurately reading the figurative language of the hymns, we should arrive at a correct understanding of the vedic conception of divinity. The hand is both hand and ray, just as the dieties are both gods and forces of nature--the language of the hymns is located in that moment of indecision or flux where conceptions have not been "crystallized." Following Hiriyanna, one might almost say that the very divinity of the vedic gods is located in that moment of flux--or in the operation of a figure which both preserves and transforms nature, at once allowing it to remain nature and transforming it for assimilation within the human world. The vedic gods thus represent an indecisive encounter between nature and consciousness--and it is precisely the preservation of that indecision which Hiriyanna finds compelling in the speculations of the vedic poets.
  42. It should not then come as a surprise when in the later vedic period we find that the gods themselves have become subservient, in a sense, to the power of the poet-priest. Describing this later development, Hiriyanna writes:
    Not only can the gods be compelled by the sacrificer to do what he likes; the gods themselves, it is thought, are gods and are able to discharge their function of maintaining the world-order by virtue of the offerings presented to them. . . . priest and prayer henceforward become transformed into magician and spell. (36)

    If it is, indeed, the maneuver of a trope which gives the gods their specifically divine characteristic; if the vedic conception of divinity is generated by a particular use of language, then surely we can understand why the poet-priest would eventually become the very generator of the gods. What seems, on the one hand, to be a reification of ritual, is also, on the other, the logical development of considering the prayer an act of invocation, not only because the prayer summons the gods, but also because it is only by way of a certain linguistic act, and by way of a correct reading of that act, that the specific divinity of the gods becomes manifest so that they can become gods who are neither brute nature nor mortal human beings.

  43. The question that remains unanswered in this narrative, however, is the question that plagues most students of the Veda in one form or another--one having to do with determining the extent or scope of the symbolic diction of the hymns. To go back to the example that Hiriyanna cites, once we agree that the word "hand" in the epithet "golden-handed sun" is metaphorical, what would allow us to determine whether the words "golden" and "sun" are to be understood "literally"? In other words, how are we to decide whether the entire phrase--indeed, the entire hymn--is not to be read as an extended allegory?
  44. Earlier in this article, I said that the Veda is perhaps an archetypal text because its readings reflect so clearly the interventions of interest which have informed and shaped them. Here I will add that it is also an archetypal text because it confronts us so urgently and dramatically with a dilemma that attends the reading of any text: the dilemma of determining the referential mode of the text's language. Precisely because it appears, as it were, out of nowhere, because we have such scant information about the people who composed the hymns, or the society from which it comes, or the political conditions of the period, we are forced to confront it, first and foremost, as a text whose language itself is the only key to understanding it. What is most interesting is that in the face of this glaring lack of accurate or extensive information regarding the context of the hymns, most readers nevertheless feel compelled to explain the hymns in terms of their social context, even if this entails largely drawing upon the information we have about a considerably later period and projecting that information retroactively upon the early vedic period.
  45. Once again, we should note that the problem of determining how to read the Veda is not limited to modernity. Yaska's Nirukta, which is our earliest source of information regarding the text, mentions several schools of interpretation: the Yajnikas or ritualists, the Nairuktas or etymologists, the Aitihasikas or mythologists (mythological historians), the Parivrajikas or mystics and the Naidanas, who were interested in the relationship between the hymns and the various legends which became associated with them.[14] Ram Gopal's very illuminating work on these and modern approaches to interpretation suggests that such divisions have largely persisted until the present time--that the general methods of interpretation have remained more or less constant over the centuries.
  46. It is certainly not my aim to offer a different method of interpretation here--indeed, Yaska's classification seems comprehensive enough that most interpretative endeavors would find themselves accounted for in one or more of the categories that he lists. Instead, following a path that several other readers have also suggested, I would propose that before arriving at any conclusions regarding the language of the Veda, we go back, once again, to what the Veda itself has to say about language and its operations.
  47. Although there are numerous references to language in the vedic hymns, one of the most extensive and well-known meditations on language is found in the Hymn to Vac--Speech (Rig Veda 10.71):
    O Brihaspati! When they impelled the first beginnings of speech, giving names,
    What among them had been hidden: the highest, the clearest, and the most pure; that among them was made manifest by love.

    Where wise men make speech with their minds, as if sifting grain through a sieve,
    There friends recognize friendship; an auspicious mark is placed on their speech.

    By sacrifice, they found the path of speech; obtaining her, who had entered among the sages.
    Having borne her, they portioned her in many places; the seven sages are praising her together.

    And one, seeing speech, did not see; and one, hearing, did not hear her.
    To one she reveals her body, like a young wife, beautifully clothed and desirous, to her husband.

    And one who is well-protected in friendship,[15] they do not urge him, even in the contests;
    Another wanders with Illusion-the Milkless Cow; the speech he has heard is fruitless and flowerless.

    He who abandons his friend in learning, even in speech there is no share for him.
    Whatever he hears, he hears in vain; nor does he know the path of good deeds.

    All friends have eyes and ears, but they are unequal in insight:
    Some are like pools reaching to the mouth or the shoulder; others like pools that one can bathe in.

    When the intuitions of the mind are formed in the heart, when brahmins sacrifice together as friends,
    Some are forsaken by knowledge; while those marked by true knowledge go forward.

    There are some who walk neither here nor beyond; they are neither true brahmins nor pressers of Soma.
    They, having corruptly approached speech, are ignorant; like shuttles dragging thread.

    All friends rejoice in the friend who arrives with fame and eminence
    The bestower of food, he removes injustice; he is indeed worthy of the contest.

    One brings to blossom the wealth of verse; one sings a song in the Sakvara rhythm
    One, a knower, speaks of the knowledge engendered; and one determines the measure of the sacrifice.

  48. The hymn, addressed to Brihaspati, the Lord of Prayer, describes the relationship of speech to the performance of sacrifice and to the acquisition of true knowledge. The "contest" alluded to might refer to an actual scene of public worship and recitation, or to a more amorphous competition for the blessings of the goddess Vac. But it is clear that the hymn also reflects upon the nature of language, establishing a close link between linguistic ability and mental or spiritual insight.
  49. In order to understand the hymn, we would first have to determine what is meant by Vac. I have translated Vac as speech, following its derivation from the root vac: to speak, tell, utter, recite. But Vac might also be translated as "language," as in Frits Staal's translation (3-14). Staal argues that since the hymn "discusses, among other things, the place of sound in the whole of language," and since the common Sanskrit word for "language," bhasya, does not occur in the RigVeda at all, but only in the later classical literature, we would be justified in according to Vac the larger significance of "language." Though I broadly agree with Staal, I have translated Vac as "speech" so as not to mitigate the manifold associations of Vac with the specific power of utterance. One might keep in mind here that not only in the religious-spiritual context, but also in the later epistemological and aesthetic traditions, many of the major terms for linguistic concepts preserve an intimate connection with the specific element of sound. Consider, for example, terms such as shabda (sound, word), nada (sound), and dhvani (echo, allusion, poetic suggestion), which become enormously significant in the classical literary tradition. On the one hand, as I have argued earlier in this essay, our attentiveness to the oral-sonorous aspects of all such terms (including Vac) should not become an excuse for suppressing the conceptual density of the terms, or for casting upon them an aura of mysticism and obscurity. On the other hand, precisely to be rigorous in our attempts to understand such concepts, we should also not discard too hastily those nuances which do not easily correspond with western categories of analysis. Therefore, I have retained the more commonly accepted word "speech" in my own translation, though in what follows, I will use both "language" and "speech" to refer to Vac.
  50. The next question would be: Who is Vac? For apart from what the word means in philosophical terms, Vac is also a goddess in the Rig Veda, the daughter of the divine seer Ambhrina. In the later Brahmana literature, she is sometimes described as the daughter of Prajapati, the creator god, and sometimes as his wife. In other legends she figures as a decidedly sexualized figure, one for whose favours the gods and demons compete. We can see how this early hymn itself paves the way for such legends, particularly through the imagery of verse 4.
  51. An analysis of the Brahmana legends is beyond the scope of this essay, but we should at least mention here some of the implications of the mythic figuration of Vac. First, if Vac is a goddess, then clearly speech is given a transcendent status in this tradition--language pre-exists, and in many ways, enables human existence; it does not come into being through the agency of human beings and their desire to communicate with one another. The hymn to Vac allows us to understand this a-priori nature of Vac by describing Vac as an object of discovery: "By sacrifice, they found the path of Speech; obtaining her, who had entered among the sages."
  52. "Sacrifice" here should be understood not only as ritual,[16] or as exchange,[17] but in all its foundational complexity: by sacrificing, human beings imitate the divine act of creation, thus establishing themselves as both followers and worshippers of the gods. Several hymns of the Rig Veda describe the gods as the initial sacrificers, for whom the sacrifice does not appear to be an activity of barter or exchange, but primarily a reflexive activity which gives rise to creation itself. Thus in the famous Purusha Sukta, or the "Hymn of Man" (10. 90), we read, "With the sacrifice the gods sacrificed to the sacrifice," and again in the Asya Vamasya hymn (1. 164), "The gods sacrificed to the sacrifice with the sacrifice." While such paradoxical statements are widely recognized to be characteristic of the structure of the hymns, in this case at least--and I would guess in several others as well--the paradox is not simply a means of staging a certain abyss of incomprehensibility, of dramatizing a riddle. What might it mean to sacrifice to the sacrifice? We are told that the original sacrifice, the sacrifice of the gods,[18] had as its destination the sacrifice itself. Thus we know, first, that the sacrifice need not always be destined toward some external recepient, and second, that the sacrifice is not to be thought of only in the context of the human-divine relationship.[19] Hymn 10. 130, which describes the original divine sacrifice and establishes the integral connection between metrical chants and the rhythm of the sacrifice, also clearly decrees such sacrifice to be a model for future sacrifices conducted by humans: "That was the model for the human sages, our fathers, when the primeval sacrifice was born . . . When the wise men looked back along the path of those who went before, they took up the reins like charioteers" (10. 130: 6-7).
  53. To understand why Vac is discovered by means of sacrifice, we should allow ourselves to hear all these resonances in the word "sacrifice," for only then would we perceive how the quest for Vac is also figured as an attempt by human beings to approach the divine. This movement, though latent in the hymn, nevertheless corresponds to the more manifest movement whereby Vac herself moves from being hidden and sacred to being apparent and wordly--that is to say, to being part of a human community.
  54. The poem certainly presents us with a series of images that are all related by some movement of revelation or manifestation: in the first verse, what had been hidden among the sages is made manifest; in the second, the activity of making speech is compared with the sifting (filtering) of grain; in the third, the path of speech is traced as it moves first inward and then outward; and in the fourth, speech itself uncovers her body for the one she loves. But we should also note that what is revealed, in all these verses, is not only, or not necessarily, speech itself. Instead, the poem suggests that an encounter with speech may reveal something else that, without speech, would remain hidden or unknown. Thus, the first verse, for instance, associates the activity of giving names with the emotion of love. When the sages first gave names, it says, what was purest in them became manifest "through love." It seems, then, that naming the objects of the world--recognizing and naming them--asks for a certain love; it is love that enables such name-giving, and that love also makes manifest what is purest and best within one. The activity of giving names is described here not at all as an activity of appropriation or imposition: the giving of names is instead an act of generosity and acceptance, as also one of intuition. If to name something appropriately entails recognizing or discovering its own true nature, then indeed, such naming would demand an attentiveness or a sympathy which the poem calls "love." Perhaps it is by exhibiting this capacity for perception or intuition, such a love for the objects in the world, that the sages also make manifest what is purest in themselves.
  55. The second verse likens the mind of the wise man to a sieve or a winnowing basket: the mind "makes" speech as the sieve sifts and purifies grain. Sayana reads this as implying that wise men "sift" pure words from the roots and suffixes of the language. The reference to sifting--clearing away the husks or the dross--also suggests the recurring distinction between purified, or perfected language, perhaps even hallowed language, and impure, vulgar, or unrefined language. However, once again, we should note that the activity of creating or making speech reveals something quite unexpected; it reveals friendship: "There friends recognize friendship." Language, then, makes possible a certain relationship, first to the objects of the world, and then among those who share language in a particular way; it makes possible a community.
  56. In a recent reading of the hymn to Vac, Laurie Patton discusses this series of images and claims that it may be productive for us to read the hymn, not as a discursive statement, but rather as a "brilliant patterning" that reveals, or mimes, the activity of speech itself: "Speech is a process whereby what we know internally is somehow made manifest externally, and the hymn is a poetic rendition of this very movement" (see Patton's "Hymn to Vac"). Patton tries to demonstrate that the models relied upon by earlier readers, notably Willard Johnson and Frits Staal, are insufficient in terms of understanding the "abstract notion of 'language' in a mythical and ritual context" (196). She draws upon Suzanne Langer's work on poetic language to claim that the poem does not inform its readers about the nature or the status of Vac, but in fact creates, through its images, a semblance of the very movements of Vac. Beginning thus with a fairly "secular" understanding of Vac as poetic formulation, she goes on to discuss the hymn as "situational speech" in the context of ritual, using Wade Wheelock's analysis of the specific performative aspects of ritual speech.
  57. I will not discuss here all the implications of Patton's analysis, but only draw attention to what appears to be her main concern: the rehabilitation of the hymn as a poetic-performative text, and of Vac herself as a mythic symbol, so as to render the poetry more accessible and comprehensible for us today. Throughout the essay, she attempts to discredit and move away from those readings of the hymns (and, one suspects, of the Veda in general), which dwell either only on the metaphysical aspects of the poetry, or only on their meaning within the context of the ritual sacrifice. Her argument thus demonstrates that we impoverish myth, as a genre, when we read it only as a version of philosophy or anthropology. While I would applaud her general project, I am hesitant about the particular analysis she offers.
  58. At the conclusion of her essay, Patton writes:
    Finally, our attempt to gain a more balanced view of RigVeda 10.71 returns us to a question that Jean Rudhart and Marcel Detienne asked of the Greeks: Is not the nature of the mythic image to resist codification and to attend instead to the 'lived experience, sufficiently basic to be repeated, to be reproduced, and thus to resist intellectual analysis attempting to break up its unity?' We can understand Vac because we speak ourselves and know something of speech's nature. (206)

  59. This is in accordance with Patton's statement earlier in the essay where she claims that "if one analyzes the hymn directly, as we have attempted, the only verifiable element in it is that human beings speak" (204). In attempting to break down the formidable barriers which earlier scholarship has erected around the vedic hymns; in attempting to read the hymns as responses to a shared experience of being human, we might also run the risk of negating, or at least limiting, the specificity of the ideas which the hymns voice. For while Patton's reading consistently interprets Vac in terms of human experience--the experience of expressing what was hidden or internal--the hymn itself appears to be centrally concerned with figuring language as non-human: something that humans come upon. Language does not owe its existence to us, though we might, in a certain sense, owe our existence to it. This might become more clear if we consider the ways in which the abodes of gods and humans are described in some of the vedic hymns. At 1.164: 39, we read, "The undying syllable of the song is the final abode where all the gods have taken their seat." And at 10.125 Vac says, "The one who eats food, who truly sees, who breathes, who hears what is said, does so through me. Though they do not realize it, they dwell in me." We are reminded here of Holderlin's familiar line: "Full of merit, yet poetically/ Man dwells on this earth." Heidegger's reading of Holderlin follows the connection between such a poetic dwelling and the kind of measure-taking which poetry engages in when it traces the invisible in the familiar, and finally, when it measures the human against the divine: "As long as Kindness/The Pure, still stays with his heart, man/ Not unhappily measures himself/ Against the Godhead" (see ". . . Poetically Man Dwells . . ."). Without giving in to the temptation of reading Holderlin's poem and the hymns to Vac as different versions of the same text, we might still ask if what Holderlin calls "kindness" is not similar to what our hymn calls "love."
  60. According to the hymn, the discovery of Vac founds the human community in so far as being human means being engaged in the endless quest of imitating divinity. Perhaps that quest itself is figured as a contest, for such a community will always be an agonistic community, seeking to distinguish between the enlightened and the unenlightened inhabitants of Vac. In her reading of the hymn, Sally Sutherland Goldman draws attention to the elitism associated with the community generated around Vac:
    Repeated throughout the passage are two critical terms sakhi and sakhyam. They are commonly translated into English as 'friend' and 'friendship', respectively, but the terms are understood in the Veda in a far more restrictive manner. The word sakhyam refers to an elite circle of men who are able to share a common body of restricted knowledge, and sakhi refers to a member of that circle who has access to that knowledge. (9)

  61. In this context, we should note that in verses four through ten, the references to love and friendship take on another aspect; each verse sets up a comparison between the one who has true insight and can hence enjoy this privileged relationship to Vac, and the one who is denied the possiblity of this relationship. The most eloquent description of this contrast is found, perhaps, in verse four: "And one, seeing speech, did not see; and one, hearing, did not hear her. To one she reveals her body, like a young wife, beautifully clothed and desirous, to her husband."
  62. The verse strongly corroborates Sutherland Goldman's reading of the relationship to language as being a relationship fraught with the tensions of sexual politics. Here Vac is portrayed as a desired young woman who bestows her favors on the select few. The verse is also different from others in the hymn, since here indeed, Speech herself is revealed when she manifests her body to the one whom she favors.
  63. The figure of the beautifully dressed woman revealing the secrets of her body to her chosen lover remains perhaps the most resonant of all the images in the hymn, partly because it irradiates the quest for divine knowledge with the intrigue and pleasure of a romantic quest. Not only does this image swiftly condense and energize the various other emotions and relations which Vac produces--friendship, love, rivalry--it also renders Vac unmistakably and eternally other--marked here by the enduring persistence of sexual difference.
  64. Sanskrit literature has read that trope in different ways. I will cite here two examples which demonstrate the (apparently) different trajectories that this conception of language has inaugurated. In the Katha Upanishad, when Yama, the God of Death, is revealing the true nature of the self to his disciple Nachiketas, Yama says: "This self cannot be attained by instruction, nor by intellectual power, nor even through much hearing. It is to be attained only by the one whom the self chooses. To such a one the self reveals itself (its own body)" (Katha Upanishad, I.2.23). The word for "self"--tanu--is the same as in the verse from Rig Veda 10. 71; primarily meaning "body," it can also means one's own self or true nature.
  65. In his classic commentary on this verse of the Katha Upanishad, the ninth-century theologian Sankara reads vivrinute (reveals) as prakaasayati (illuminates) and tanu (self/body) as Paramarthiki (that which is really existent, the highest truth). Thus we find here the predictable appropriation of the trope within a completely abstract metaphysical system. Almost entirely deprived of its sexual connotations, the trope now retains only its particular figuration of the mystery of transcendent knowledge--it describes the incomprehensible grace by which one might be initiated into such knowledge.
  66. A well-known (and later) Sanskrit shloka (verse) however, presents us with a rather different version of this trope. Roughly translated, the verse says:
    Going not to the Grammarian, who is her father; nor to her brother, the scholar of Law;
    From afar repelling that low-caste, the mere Reciter of Vedas;
    Contemptuous of the Philosopher whom she recognizes as impotent;
    The lovely woman, Poetry, chooses for herself the knower of Poetics.[20]

    Here what is preserved from the Vedic trope is precisely the scene of (sexual) choice; Vac of the Vedic hymns manifests herself here not so much as transcendent knowledge, but simply as poetry, who reveals her true nature only to her own proper lover, the knower or the teacher of aesthetics (kaavyaalankaragneya: literally, the knower of poetic ornamentation or aesthetics).

  67. What does this turn to poetics signal? In what ways might this be a different conception of language from the one we encounter in 10.71? If the mystery, eroticism and elusiveness of transcendent knowledge is now vested in poetry, does poetry not become then, in this familial scene, simply the daughter of Vac--her descendent, and not necessarily her rival?
  68. In some obvious ways, this verse does secularize both language and our relation to it: while the vedic hymns consider Vac as the daughter of the divine Seer, Ambhrina, here poetry is portrayed as the daughter of the Grammarian. But I would argue that this verse gathers its own power and effect precisely because it is suffused with the memory of the vedic verse--that is to say, because it repeats and re-writes a familiar trope. In doing so, it discloses that it has learnt more from the vedic hymn than its particular choice or mode of figuration: it has also learnt that the quest for language always takes place along the path of imitation. In imitating the older verse, it re-inscribes one of the central scenes of 10.71--the human imitation of the predecessors, the gods, in the search for language. But in imitating, it also shows us what might be imitable about the Veda: not its sanctity or authority, but its theater of images, its turns of speech. Though these tropes come to us already nuanced and suggestive, they are agile enough to be turned yet again--and turned in very different directions, as these two passages show. Vac of the Vedas--foundational speech, mythic muse, or language itself--has been alternately recognized by Sanskrit literature as both a metaphysical and a poetic concept.
  69. If we turn to literature as a secular form of narrative, we should also recognize that what literature accomplishes in its own pursuits, it accomplishes by means of shadowing and miming myth. By reading allegorically, by noticing the anterior texts that literary works point toward, we can estimate and measure both the distance and the proximity between literature and myth. Conversely, to read symbolically would mean collapsing that difference altogether.
  70. I will conclude by returning, once again, to Jean-Luc Nancy's remarks on the interruption of myth:
    In the interruption of myth something makes itself heard, namely, what remains of myth when it is interrupted--and which is nothing if not the very voice of interruption, if we can say this. . . . This voice seems to play back the declaration of myth, for in the interruption there is nothing new to be heard, there is no new myth breaking through; it is the old story one seems to hear. When a voice, or music, is suddenly interrupted, one hears just at that instant something else, a mixture of various silences and noises that had been covered over by the sound, but in this something else one hears again the voice or the music that has become in a way the voice or the music of its own interruption: a kind of echo, but one that does not repeat that of which it is the reverberation. (62)

    We have returned, after various detours, to the curious relation between the voice that is heard (shruti), and the one that plays back, repeats "nothing new," but something already known and familiar, perhaps a memory (smriti). This relationship is curious because the latter--at once interruption and recollection--presents itself as being, on the one hand, essentially secondary and mimetic, and on the other, radically new and modern, if only in the modesty of its claims. But it would be a mistake to understand this relation only in temporal terms: between the old and the new, the originary and the successor. The duality inscribed in the canonical divisions of Sanskrit literature (shruti and smriti) also marks a movement of textuality, operating between, and sometimes within texts. I have tried to suggest that the Veda becomes the Veda by existing in such a relation--in other words, precisely because of the responses of its interlocuters. When we turn toward it today, in awe, terror, or bafflement, hesitant that our modern, secular hearing might distort or contaminate its sacred syllables, we might remember that the Veda has for long recounted, to such listeners, the story of their modernity.


  1. There is still considerable uncertainty with regard to exact dates. The date of the vedic hymns has generally been determined partly by comparison with the text of the Avesta, the Zoroastrian scripture. Until recently, the core of the Avesta was believed to date from about 600 BCE. There appears to be evience now for establishing a much earlier date, 1000 BCE, or even as early as 1700 BCE. This would correspondingly affect the dates for the vedic hymns as well, since the core of the text is still believed to be older than the text of the Avesta. For a comprehensive account, see Colin P. Masica's The Indo-Aryan Languages. Back

  2. Such an approach to the vedic hymns is not limited to the work of western scholars. For instance, the fifth-century Indian philosopher and poet Bhartrihari also conceived of the Veda's significance as deriving from its performative aspect, although his notion of the performative nature of language was quite differently nuanced than the work of most modern scholars. For a detailed discussion of Bhartrihari's view of the Veda, see David Carpenter. Back

  3. Saffron is a holy color for Hindus, and priests wear saffron robes. Back

  4. Although it seems that the commentaries attributed to Sayana were probably not written by a single scholar, by convention, most writers continue to use the name 'Sayana' when referring to these commentaries. If not the sole author, Sayana might well have been a kind of general editor of the entire corpus of commentaries that bear his name. The vedic scholar Ram Gopal writes, "A comparative study of the different portions of the RigVeda-Bhasya has convinced me . . . that the entire commentary is not from the pen of a single author" (115). Back

  5. For a comprehensive account of European reactions to Indian literature, see Raymond Schwab. See also Dorothy Figueria's illuminating essay on the reception of the Veda in Europe, "The Authority of an Absent Text." Back

  6. For a historical perspective on the concept of the mleccha, see Romila Thapar's essay, "The Image of the Barbarian in Early India," in her Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations. Thapar notes that the idea of the barbarian in early India "arises out of the curious situation of the arrival of the Indo-Aryan speaking nomadic pastoralists in northern India who came into contact with the indigenous population (possibly the remnants of the urban civilization of the Indus) and regarded them as barbarians. The earliest distinction made by the Aryan speakers was a linguistic distinction and, to a smaller extent, a physical distinction" (137). Back

  7. I am indebted to Sally Sutherland Goldman for this translation. For an extended discussion of this passage in the context of the gendered identity of Vac (Speech), see her article, "Vac and the Vedic Construction of Gender." Back

  8. I am grateful to Sally Sutherland Goldman for her help in reading and translating both this hymn and the hymn to Vac along with Sayana's commentary. All errors of judgment are, of course, my own. I am also indebted to earlier translations; I have referred in particular to A. A. Macdonell's and Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's translations of 10.129. I have also consulted O'Flaherty's and Frits Staal's translations of 10.71. Back

  9. The radical interdependence of the terms of opposition--existence/non-existence; death/immortality--is noted by Sayana and explained with reference to a larger context. Glossing the line, "There was no immortality then," he says: "When all those acts which are fully developed (cooked), which become the cause of enjoyment (pleasure, 'eating') among mortals, have been enjoyed (eaten), then the highest lord thinks, 'Because of its lack of pleasure this world is useless,' and the desire for destruction is born in his mind. In this way, he, death, destroys the whole world; but in the (very) absence of the world, what is the use of death the destroyer, or how might immortality exist?" Both death and immortality are here recognized as aspects of a temporal world, and are, moreover, explicitly related to an economy of pleasure and consumption--itself a strictly temporal economy. Back

  10. Sayana's attempted to read svadha as a synonym for Maya seems to be a pretext for discussing some of the implications of the question of self-subsistence in light of later philosophical concerns--there is no evidence in the hymn itself that Maya (illusion) might be the intended referent of the word svadha. Back

  11. Thus, for instance, J. Muir translates the phrase as "the primal germ of mind" (Hiriyanna 42) and both Macdonell and O'Flaherty say "the first seed of mind." See also Friedrich Geldner's translation: "Was des Denkens erster Same war" (360). Back

  12. Such a reading, however, would have to overlook, or otherwise situate itself with respect to the idea that the Hindu tradition does not generally conceive of the poet as an autonomous and creative composer, but rather as a receiver of revelations, a seer. Back

  13. The metaphor is powerfully aided by the dual meaning of the word kar in Sanskrit, which can signify both hand and ray. Back

  14. For an extended discussion of the various ancient schools of interpretations, see Ram Gopal's The History and Principles of Vedic Interpretation. Back

  15. Following the suggestions of Sayana and Hunhan Raja, I have translated sthirpitam as 'well-protected.' This reading differs from the other English translations I have consulted. O'Flaherty translates the word as 'awkward and heavy': "One person, they said, has grown awkward and heavy in friendship; they no longer urge him forward in the contests" (61). In a similar vein, Frits Staal renders the word as 'rigid': "Many have grown rigid in their friendship." Both appear to be following Geldner's translation: "steif und feist"--stiff and plump (249). My translation changes the meaning of the line significantly, creating a contrast rather than a continuity between the two parts of the verse. But Sayana's explanation of the word sthirpitam leaves little doubt that the word is used in a celebratory, and not a derogatory sense: "One in whose heart honey is gathered," he writes, "or else one who has firm acquisition . . . in the world, a man who knows his goal is called on who has 'drunk meaning.'" Back

  16. Staal's translation reads: "They traced the course of language through ritual; they found it embodied in the seers." Back

  17. In his classic work on the Vedic relition, Louis Renou writes, "Le sacrifice et la prière determinent un échange, fixent entre le ciel et la terre une circulation des biens, que les auteurs conçoivent parfois sous la forme la plus materialiste" (10). Back

  18. The genitive "of" carries here the full burden of its objective and subjective uses: at 10.130 we read, "What was the metre, what was the invocation and the chant when all the gods sacrificed the god?" Back

  19. Mauss and Herbert's well-know definition of "sacrifice" preserves all these possibilities, since it altogether avoids the language of exchange: "Sacrifice is a religious act which, through the consecration of a victim, modifies the condition of the moral person who accomplishes it or that or certain objects with which he is concerned" (13). Back

  20. The verse is collected in the Subhaasita-Ratna-Bhaandaagaara, p. 31, #43, without specifying the source. I have researced in vain so far for its source--like many popular shlokas, it is one that many scholars are familiar with, but cannot trace to its origin. Back

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