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.
- 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.
- 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. 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. 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)
- 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]
language is corrupt. That we may not become mlecchas, grammar should
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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Roughly translated, this is what the creation hymn says:
There was no existence or non-existence then
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
Apart from that, there was nothing beyond.
In the beginning was darkness by darkness
Indistinguishable, all this was water.
That which, becoming,
was covered by emptiness
That One arose through the power of
Desire in the beginning came upon that one
Desire, which is
the first seed of mind.
Poets, having searched their hearts with
Found the bond of existence in non-existence.
Their cord was extended across
Was there below? Was there
There were placers of seed; there were great powers
below, impulse above.
Who truly knows? Who might speak here?
Whence was it born?
Whence this creation?
The gods are later than its creation,
truly knows whence it arose?
Whence this creation came into being
Whether or not he
He who, in the highest heaven, watches over it
knows, or perhaps he knows not.
- 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."
- 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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?"
- 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. 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."
- 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.
Last modified 30 January 2002