Tag Archive: Rig Veda


Agni_god_of_fire

Agni

 

 

“Vedic Mythology” was written by A.A. Macdonell and first published in German, in Strassburg in 1897. In 2000,  it was republished by Low Price Books in Delhi.

 

 

It is an in-depth study of the Rig Veda, the oldest book in the world, and of many other ancient Sanskrit works – a compilation of all that is recorded in early vedic descriptions of all the major gods; celestial gods, terrestrial gods, atmospheric gods, even abstract gods.

 

 

All is carefully catalogued, with footnotes giving all the sources, and exact accounts of how many times each deity is referred to with which attributes. It is a remarkable book.

 

 

Since the Rig Veda is amazingly poetic, the section of Vedic Mythology, for example, that describes Dawn, whose name is Ushas,  describes her as “the most graceful creation of vedic poetry.”  Ushas is young, though ancient, since she is born anew every day; clothed in light, she shines now and will always shine; she is immortal. Awakening the four-legged animals and causing the birds to fly up into the sky, she removes “the black robe of night” and sends away the darkness. As a resplendent being, her beams of light are like herds of cattle, and she comes to be known as the “mother of cattle.”

 

 

Many of the other gods are also living elements, like Agni, the God of fire. He faces in all directions and is said to have a burning head. Possessed of wings, he flies, and is portrayed as a bull, a horse, a divine bird, or the swan Hamsa, and once, as a raging serpent.  Shining like the sun, he destroys darkness and can see through the gloom of the night.  Driving away darkness, he is called the “goblin-slayer.”  There is much, much more about Agni, who is worshipped as one of the most sacred beings and who is invoked in at least 200 hymns of the Rig Veda.

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Surya

 

Surya is the sun, represented sometimes as a great eagle or a brilliant horse. He is the eye of the sky and is said to be the Lord of Eyes, the one eye that can see beyond the sky, the waters, and the earth. As an all-seeing being, he casts away illnesses and evil dreams.

 

 

Hundreds or Gods are portrayed in the Rig Veda, in some of the world’s most beautiful and inspirational poetry.

 

 

The world of the Rig Veda is a living world — the Gods, the elements, the forces of nature are alive, awakened, conscious beings who interact with each other.  It is a cosmos filled with beauty.

 

 

One might contrast this with the universe as we are given to see it today, with our modern, “scientific” worldview — where there is a presumption, unfortunately, that nothing that is not organic is alive.  All the stars, the galaxies, the supernovae, the quasars, comets, Oort clouds, dark matter — all that we see out there with our giant telescopes is somehow missing something.  It is gigantic, immeasurable, vast beyond any imagining, and yet there is something not quite all there. We are told that none of these great beings are conscious — nothing is really alive in quite the same way we humans are. Some will concede that animals may have some sort of “lower” consciousness, but the prevailing view is that really it’s pretty much us as humans, who seem to be at the pinnacle of creation, as far as consciousness goes.

Map_of_Vedic_India

Map of Vedic India

 

There seems to be something radically amiss though with this view of the universe.  It could almost remind one of the pre-Copernican days when Europeans believed that earth was the center of the universe, with the sun and all the other heavenly bodies revolving around it.  Well, here we are again, with humans placed at the center of the universe — not this time at the physical center, but, at a central place in terms of consciousness.  Only we it seems, can look out, over the millions of galaxies and consciously contemplate the universe.  No one else, we are led to believe, can be as aware as we are.

 

 

This, however, is a remarkably unsatisfying view of the universe. Except for sizzling hot suns and unexpected super explosions that come about now and then, the universe as we currently view it, is cold, dark, immense and unfathomable — in short, not very friendly.  This seems to bother even scientists, and one wonders if a certain cosmic sense of loneliness is not at the root of the perpetual search for life on Mars — the billions of dollars spent and the amazing engineering feats of sending all the rovers to look for life or water or something that could be evidence of life.  Then there is the search for habitable planets among nearby stars.  Around 600 planets have so far been found, that could, it seems, harbor life, and the majority of scientists now believe that there is little doubt that there is life on other worlds — whether these are ‘higher” life forms is not so certain.

 

 

Simply put, we as humans do not wish to be alone.  An unfathomably vast “dead” universe strikes us as somehow not quite right.

 

 

In his introduction to “Vedic Mythology,”  A.A. Macdonell writes, “The basis of these myths is the primitive attitude of mind which regards all nature as an aggregate of animated entities.”  A.A. Macdonell, who was born in India of European parents, was an extraordinary scholar who wrote a brilliant and amazing book about the Vedas. Nonetheless, if we step back a moment, we can see the picture of a European gentleman who, while studying a civilization that has existed for at least 5,000 years, and possibly for many, many thousands of years before that, made the observation that the current age (including 1897 as part of “current” time) in which we live is “superior,” while the brilliant, poetic, and immensely wise civilization on the ancient Indian subcontinent was somehow “lower” or “primitive.”

 

 

How exactly it was “lower” is quite hard to see.

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Indra

 

Perhaps there is something to be said for the concept that the universe is truly an alive, dynamic, amazing place, filled with Gods and great beings, that the stars are divine, that the forces of nature have their own form of consciousness, not in any way “lower” than ours.  Perhaps we have all this while been mistaken about the nature of what we call “progress.”  Perhaps we are not the pinnacle of creation after all.  Perhaps the cyclic view of the ages, believed by virtually every culture other than our own — that first there is a golden age, and that each succeeding age represents a step down on the scale, until we came to the final age, which comes to a close, and then we return to an age of brilliance, kindness, compassion, greatness, and heroism – perhaps this cyclic view is the true view — the Gods are real, the forces of nature are alive and aware, the animals are innocent, magical beings, and the universe is far more wondrous than we have been led to believe. Perhaps that is the real reality.

 

 

Top photo:  Wikimedia Commons / Source: http://www.atributetohinduism.com/Hindu_Scriptures.htm / This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less. / Agni, god of fire, shown riding a goat, in a miniature painting from an 18th century watercolor

 

 

Second photo: {{PD-US}} / Source:http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00routesdata/bce_500back/vedas/surya/surya.html / “This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.” / Wikimedia Commons / Surya receives worship from the multitudes; Tanjore School miniature painting, 1800’s “A Painting of Surya. India, Tanjore School, 19th Century. The nimbated Sun God depicted upon his chariot surrounded by attendants with smaller figures at left in obeisance.”

 

 

Third photo: Wikimedia Commons / This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.           

Attribution: Dbachmann / Map of northern India in the late Vedic period.

 

 

Fourth photo: Source: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=3080760&partid=1&searchText=indra&fromADBC=ad&toADBC=ad&numpages=10&images=on&orig=%2fresearch%2fsearch_the_collection_database.aspx&currentPage=1 / {{PD-Art}}  {{PD-US}} / circa 1820 / Wikimedia Commons / “Painting of Indra on his elephant mount, Airavata. Painted in South India (probably Thanjavur or perhaps Tiruchchirapalli)…”

 

Geese living at the tank of the Milapore Temple, Chennai

The earth is a sacred being—along with all aspects of the natural world.

All ancient peoples (and tribal peoples today) knew this.  The early inhabitants of India, the seers who wrote the Rig Veda, (the oldest book in the world) knew this and worshipped the forces of nature—Vayu the wind, Indra the storm God, Agni the God of fire.  Narayana, in ancient temples and inscriptions, is the God of the sea,  Ganesha is the elephant God, and Hanuman is the monkey God, who brought the armies of monkeys to fight alongside Rama.

To see the earth as sacred, one need not look at it from a purely Hindu perspective, though Hinduism offers a lens with an especially crystal clear view.  As I see it, and all of these are only my own perspectives, nothing more, there is truth to be found in all spiritual traditions.

In Christianity too, and in all faiths, one can find windows to the sacred nature of the earth.  Sometimes one has to look a little more intently though, and sometimes more and more layers of obfuscation have been laid over the top of the original truth. So, to get back to Hinduism, which seems to have a clearer glass to look through…

Sea of the Bay of Bengal, near Mahabalipuram

The two first incarnations of Vishnu were the fish and the turtle or tortoise—both are sacred beings: Matsya the fish and Kurma, the tortoise.  Matsya saved all the creatures of the earth by pulling through the sea the great ark holding the animals at the time of the flood.  Kurma supported the mountain of the earth on his back so that it didn’t sink during the churning of the oceans.

It is not just the animals and the elemental forces of nature that are sacred, but also the plants.  Every temple in India has a sacred tree. Generally the tree was there before the temple.  People pray to the tree, who grants their wishes.

The mountains are sacred too and emblematic of Shiva—the power and presence of the Cosmos.

Vishapaharana, a form of Shiva, who swallowed poison to protect others

To see the presence of God in nature is not a primitive way of looking at things. (Though it is a way that we in the west have mostly left behind us.) That we have left it behind does not make it primitive, nor does it make us more “advanced”. It simply means that we have taken a wrong turn.

It means that we in the west have traveled the farthest down the wrong track, having left behind the life-sustaining principles of the universe.  This wrong track has led us to where we are today, with the air polluted, the forests half gone, the animals dying and disappearing, and the great ecological catastrophe in the Gulf.  The rest of the world sadly follows suit.

Now today, we stand by on the sidelines, watching horrified as BP takes over American coastlines and airspaces, and, unhindered, kills American wildlife (on the Fourth of July).  Not that it matters in the slightest whether it’s the Fourth of July or any other day.

When we no longer see the earth as sacred, when we see the natural world, the land, the oceans and the animals as resources, rather than as spiritual beings, then we do not see them as they are.

This lack of reverence leads to desecration, to the destruction and annihilation of all that is sacred—to handing over the fate of the planet to those who will, inevitably, destroy it because, in looking at a mountain, they do not see the presence of God.  They see only a wealth of coal and minerals, so the mountain must be destroyed to get to those.

It is sometimes said that science and technology are neutral and can be used for good or ill, but there is a problem with this.  Accepting a neutral stance is a denial of the sacred nature of life and the soul.  It is like a tone-deaf person listening to music—it is missing the point.  A tone-deaf person may just have a disability and may be fine in other aspects of life, but when we are missing the point of the spiritual nature of the natural world, that is much more serious, it is a fatal point to miss.

(Yet the great heroes of the past, and even the present, do use technology in the defense of what is just—so clearly it is a complicated topic.)

The Goddess Durga, 15th century, the Chennai Museum

In looking at the sea though, when we do not see the face of the divine, but see only a resource under the waves, when we only notice that with technology, we can get the oil to keep our houses warm or cool and our cars running, then we are missing the meaning of existence.

Like shadows in a dream, we watch our species destroying the earth, and this predicament stems from elevating our human selves, our greed and our needs, to a divine status—to worshipping ourselves, our technology, our science, and our power to dominate all that stands in our way.  Nevermind that this is the way to death, and that it brings death to all the gods and to the earth herself—which may be, in fact, the underlying intention.  Still, we cling to our “way of life,” which is only a way of death.

There is another truth though, on another level, beyond the physical destruction of the planet.

Though the physical dies, only the physical form can be killed, the sacred is eternal, living from eon to eon, cycle to cycle, world to world, along with the souls of all innocent creatures, who are blessed, on truer levels, with lives of peace and freedom.

The soul of the seas, the rivers, the trees, the sparrows and the pelicans, the gods of the wind and the mountains dressed in mist do not die, but live on from world to world, epoch to epoch, because their soul, who is the one, eternal soul, is living and is life itself.

Only the physical form is killed, and those who are expressions only of the physical, the walking dead.

Yet the soul of the wind, the pelican, the sea turtle, the moon who lights the sky, the sun, the shining rain, the trees, are all aspects of the sacred, single soul who rides, with grace and magic on the glad clouds of eternity—all are expressions of the one single great soul.

One thousand year old vines at the sacred grove, Puthupet

As for ourselves—the part of us which is absorbed in our unique, personal lives will pass away like the burning smoke in the winds.

While the part of ourselves which works for and cares only for the innocent beings who are the essence of God will fly away one day with them on the wind-enchanted wings of the spirit.

Many wise people in India today feel that this age that we are in will last still many thousands of years. Perhaps they’re right, they’ve often been right before, but I’m not so sure…either that this age will last a long time or that it will be a good idea if it does.

Indeed though, both views are true—the prophecies of doom, with the coming end of time, and also the prophecies of a new heaven and a new earth—magical and eternal.  And on what time scale these events may take place, who really knows?

Photos: Sharon St Joan

 

 

 

(Please be reminded that, as this is my personal blog, it has no connection whatsoever with, nor do the views expressed reflect those of, any other individual or any organization.)