Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ancient Poetry, Modern Music

The Rig Veda is perhaps the earliest known poetry available to us. As tradition has it, the entire Vedas were transmitted by oral learning. Modern historians have it placed around 1500 BC but it is certainly much more older, considering the fact that the Buddha was born in the sixth century BC and the Rig Vedas do not mention the characters either of the Ramayana or Mahabharata, so it predates the time of these epics by several centuries, even the Upanishads, but that's not the point here. 

Of the presently available body of work which we call the Rig Veda, the most astounding poem is the Creation Hymn which is Hymn 129 of the tenth book. I am of course certain that much of the Rig Veda has been lost for ever, unless someone, somewhere, finds an ancient birch bark which is of course, most unlikely, and the reason I say so is that this particular Hymn stands out from the rest. Not only that, the sense of wonder it evokes, holds true even now and therefore, this must rank among the most outstanding poetic compositions across all ages and all times. 

The English translation by Ralph Griffith is out of copyright since many decades.
Ralph Thomas Hotchkin Griffith (1826-1906), who was principal of Benares College, translated the Rig Veda and many other Vedic and Sanskrit texts into English. I have taken the first few lines of the Creation Hymn from a pdf file created by Ulrich Stiehl, of Griffith's translation, in January 2005.

Here is Griffith's translation from the archaic Sanskrit (1889) - 

[10-129] HYMN CXXIX. Creation.

1. Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

2 Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day's and night's divider.

That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.

You would notice that even Griffith's English sounds archaic. Let me tell you that I first came across these lines from a little penguin paperback tucked into one corner of the library of the school where I used to teach after my graduation. Many years after, I was able to buy this book, which is a selection of 108 Rigvedic hymns, edited by Professor Wendy Doniger O' Flaherty with profuse Notes, comments and Bibliography. Her version is more easy to read than that of Griffith, so here is the Creation Hymn as in the book by Professor O' Flaherty:

10.129 Creation Hymn

1. There was neither existence nor non - existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomless deep?

2. There was neither death nor immortality then; there were no distinguishable signs of night or day. That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond

3. Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of Heat. ( The operative word is Tapas, which denotes austerity or the energy generated by austere practices )

4. Desire arose with the one in the beginning; that was the first seed of the mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom, found the bond of existence in non - existence.

5. Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were powers, there were placers of seed. There was impulse beneath; there was giving - forth above. 

6. Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came after, with the creation of the universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen? 

7. Whence this creation has arisen - perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not - the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows, or perhaps he does not. 

To imagine that there was neither existence, nor non-existence is truly mind boggling, as is the concept of finding the bond of existence in non existence. And when you come to the end, he who looks down upon creation, verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not, this is perhaps the surest sign of the true spirit of free inquiry without the slightest trace of bigoted beliefs. You would also notice that all the gods are also placed as created beings, like animal and plant life, subservient to the unknown motions and incomprehensible desires of the One.  

Tonight the sky is clear, and there is a thin sliver of a moon visible. Thousands of years ago, the sky must have been clearer without the particulate pollution that plagues us today, and under such a sky dotted with a myriad stars, perhaps by a roaring fire in a small clearing among the dense forests, one wonders at the intellect and genius of the ancient sages who thought about the mysteries surrounding us, the mystery of creation foremost among them. 

I would like to end with another piece of genius in Erik Satie's Gnossienne No.1 and here is Otto Tolonen playing it on the guitar at just the right pace, letting the music seep into you, filling you with a sense of wonder just like the 129th Hymn of the tenth book in the Rig Veda. 

To me, it seemed like the student or the disciple is asking three questions, to which the master replies. And all of it captured in so evocative, minimalist guitar tunes, like fundamentally all answers must be. Short and simple.


  1. What a feast it is in here today! Your banner photo is so beautiful, the lines quoted astonishing - I LOVE the time when there was neither existence or non-existence. Just Is-ness! Cool. Love your description of your nighttime moon, and your it is late afternoon - earlier the sun broke through the endless grey, making me immediately happier. It is unseasonably warm here, we are enjoying the Pineapple Express. 17 degrees Celsius, which feels like spring - already. Wow.

  2. Glad you are feeling sprightly and springly, Sherry :)

    The banner picture is from a visit to the Western Ghat mountains at Bhandardhara a few years back. There was also a post on it. Ramblings: Bhandardhara.

  3. I love your analysis of the final verse in the Creation Hymn—"free inquiry without the slightest trace of bigoted belief". If only that free inquiry was in practice today!

    Sherry is correct; this post is a feast for the senses. The guitar playing of Gnossienne No.1 at the end of the post was wonderful. I just sat and listened—no multi-tasking during the performance!

    Thanks for giving me more "food for thought" Soumyendu!

    1. Immensely happy for your kind words, Rita. Wish you and Tim many more merry sojourns into the great mysteries of this world of ours

  4. Hello greetings.

    Very interesting and informative post.

    Best wishes