Remembering the Veda: Accumulations of Interest

Simona Sawhney, Vanderbilt University

Copyright 1999 by Simona Sawhney, all rights reserved. This article is reproduced with the kind permission of the editors of JOUVERT: Journal of Postcolonial Studies.


  1. 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.

  2. 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)

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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)

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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).

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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]

  16. 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]

  17. 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.

  18. 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]

  19. 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?"

  20. 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."

  21. 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.

 

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Last modified 30 January 2002