Remembering the Veda: Accumulations of Interest

Simona Sawhney, Vanderbilt University

Copyright ę 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. 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 pri╦re determinent un ╚change, fixent entre le ciel et la terre une circulation des biens, que les auteurs con┴oivent 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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Last Modified: 15 March, 2002