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. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. 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)

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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."

  16. "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).

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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)

  23. 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."

  24. 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)

  25. 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."

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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).

  31. 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?

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.


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Last modified 30 January 2002