Abstract and Keywords
This chapter introduces the text, situating it in the textual universe of the Veda, briefly describing its structure and contents, as well as the language in it which it was composed. It locates the text between the literary tradition from which it derives, that of Indo-European praise poetry, and the religious tradition into which it feeds, that of Classical Hinduism. It also contextualizes the text in world literature as a whole, arguing that, though the Rigveda is the first attested Sanskrit text, it displays a mature mastery of poetic technique, and also argues that the ritual system it evinces shows a similar degree of sophistication.
The R̥gveda is a monumental text with signal significance for both world religion and world literature; yet it is comparatively little known outside a small band of specialists, even among those who study the religious traditions of India. The oldest Sanskrit text, composed probably in the latter half of the second millennium BCE, it stands, at least nominally, as the foundational text of what will later be called Hinduism, and one of its verses, the so-called Gāyatrī mantra, is part, at least nominally, of the daily practice of those initiated into Vedic learning.
The text consists of over a thousand hymns dedicated to various divinities, composed in highly sophisticated and often enigmatic poetry. Its range is very large—encompassing profound and uncompromising meditations on cosmic enigmas, joyful and exuberant tributes to the wonders of the world, ardent praise of the gods and their works, moving and sometimes painful expressions of personal devotion, and penetrating reflections on the ability of mortals to make contact with and affect the divine and cosmic realms through sacrifice and praise. Thus, much of what will distinguish later Indian religious literature is already present in the R̥gveda. Yet, though its name is widely known, the celebration of the R̥gveda is muted at best, even within its own tradition, and, save for a few famous hymns, its contents go largely unnoticed outside of that tradition.
This guide to the R̥gveda proposes to help remedy this situation. It will provide an overview of the text, its structure, and the process of its composition and collection; treat its purpose—to serve as (p.2) the recited verbal portion of an extremely elaborate ritual system—and how this purpose is reflected in the contents and structure of the text; give some indication of the flavor of the text by quoting and discussing particular portions of it; situate it in the religious practices of its time (insofar as they are known or inferred); and treat its use and reception both in the periods immediately following the time of its composition and in the post-Vedic period, which saw profound changes in religious practices and beliefs, up to the modern era. It will also introduce readers to the literary qualities of the text and to the poets’ belief in the role of their poetry in making sense of, and indeed creating, cosmic order and function—examining the exuberance with which the poets press the boundaries of language to create their own reflection of the complex and ultimately impenetrable mysteries of the cosmos and the verbal devices they developed to mirror these cosmic intricacies.
What is the R̥gveda: A brief overview
The R̥gveda is one of the four Vedas, which together constitute the oldest texts in Sanskrit and the earliest evidence for what will become Hinduism. Collectively they belong to the class of texts known as śruti, literally “hearing,” a concept roughly equivalent to “revelation”; that is, the texts were later considered to have been heard, rather than composed, by humans, although the internal evidence of the Vedas shows no such concept. The four Vedas are the R̥gveda, the Atharvaveda, the Yajurveda, and the Sāmaveda. On grounds of both language and content, the R̥gveda is the oldest of the four and foundational for the others. The second oldest is the Atharvaveda, a text that in some ways continues the compositional style of the R̥gveda (and contains many repetitions from the R̥gveda), but whose contents consist in large part, of personal spells and healing charms. Despite its age and affinity with R̥gvedic poetic practice, it stands somewhat apart from the religious system (p.3) of the Vedic period. In contrast, the other two Vedas, the Yajurveda and the Sāmaveda, form a ritually associated trio with the R̥gveda, with each providing the ritual script for a different part of the spoken liturgy and for a different priest active in the joint ritual system of the middle Vedic period. The R̥gveda was the source for the recitations of the Hotar priest (and assistants); the Yajurveda contained the formulae linked to ritual actions, which were principally carried out by the Adhvaryu priest (and assistants); and the Sāmaveda comprised the chants performed by the Udgātar priest (and assistants). We will have occasion to refer to all three other Vedas particularly in chapter 10.
The R̥gveda consists of 1028 hymns, called sūktas “well-spoken (speech),” most of which are devoted to praising the gods associated with the elaborate sacrificial rituals also depicted in the hymns. The hymns consist of verses, ranging from 1 to 58, composed in strictly regulated meters. There are approximately 10,000 verses. In fact the text takes its name from these verses: the Sanskrit word for “verse” is r̥c; when compounded with the word for knowledge, it yields r̥g-veda, literally “knowledge/wisdom (consisting of) verses.” The separate hymns are ascribed to a surprising number of individual poets—over 200 are named in the later indices to the text—and most of these poets belong to delineated bardic families. Hymns attributed to members of one family are generally transmitted together in books, or maṇḍalas, literally “circles,” and these family maṇḍalas form the heart of the text. Composition of the hymns was entirely oral, as was the transmission of the text for much of its history: as far as we can tell, it was first written down no earlier than the second half of the first millennium CE, approximately two millennia after its likely period of composition, and its transmission probably remained primarily oral for centuries after that.
The language of the hymns is Vedic (or Vedic Sanskrit), an archaic form of the language that developed into the Sanskrit of the epics and the classical period. The place of composition was largely in the greater Punjab region, including areas of present-day (p.4) Pakistan and northwestern India, as the Indo-Aryans made their way into the subcontinent sometime in the early to mid-second millennium BCE. The language of these peoples belongs to the Indo-European family and is most closely related to Old Iranian; the Indo-Aryan languages (of which Sanskrit is the oldest form attested) and Iranian languages together form the Indo-Iranian sub-branch of Indo-European. The early Indo-Aryans and the early Iranians share many social, cultural, religious, and literary features, and these shared features are very prominent in the R̥gveda.
A significant moment
The R̥gveda thus inhabits a significant moment in the history of greater India. Janus-faced, it looks both backward and forward. As just mentioned, it displays a shared Indo-Iranian culture, with agreements between the R̥gveda and the Old Iranian texts, especially those composed in the Old Iranian language Avestan, astonishing both in their number and in their granular detail. The separation of the Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages and of their speakers must have been fairly recent to account for the pervasive structural similarities in both language and culture. To go back even further, the language of the R̥gveda is not only Indo-European in grammar and lexicon but also in literary sensibility. The R̥gveda represents the last full flowering in the Indian subcontinent of the Indo-European genre of praise poetry. The same spirit reverberates in the R̥gvedic bard’s encomia of his gods as in the archaic Greek poet Pindar’s of the victors in the Greek athletic games.
But the text looks forward as well. Although Vedic religion is very different in many regards from what is known as Classical Hinduism, the seeds are there. Gods like Viṣṇu and Śiva (under the name Rudra), who will become so dominant later, are already present in the R̥gveda, though in roles both lesser than and different from those they will later play, and the principal R̥gvedic gods like (p.5) Indra remain in later Hinduism, though in diminished capacity. Although the great Vedic sacrifices generally give way to other forms of worship, they remain narrative touchstones in the epics and later. Terms such as brahman and dharma(n) that will resonate in later Hinduism are also already present in the R̥gveda, though with different senses. And, perhaps most important, the signal literary achievement of Classical India, the elaborate poetic genre known as kāvya, has its roots in the equally intricate poetry of the R̥gveda.
The text is thus poised between the cultural tradition from which it—and its composers—came and the new culture that the melding of the Indo-Aryans and the traditions they encountered in the subcontinent would create in the ensuing centuries, as the Indo-Aryans moved farther south and east. Yet in acknowledging the importance of the traditional milieu from which the R̥gveda emerged and the very different culture to which it is prelude, we should not underestimate its present. The R̥gveda is not an uneasy amalgam of evocation of the past and anticipatory hints of the future, notable only for the light it sheds in both directions. It has a consistency and originality of vision that are entirely its own, reflecting a world in which the poets and ritualists who dominate the text count themselves as partners with the gods they celebrate in the imaging of the cosmos and their control of its forces. Despite their respect for tradition, there is little or no elegiac nostalgia for a glorious past; the poets and their patrons use their past as a foundation for what they envision as a glorious future. The people of the R̥gveda seem to have a sense of their own power—whether exerted by arms, or by words, or by correctly performed rituals—and a sense that the now they inhabit is one of great promise, though also of commensurable risk.
But the R̥gveda is our only contemporary witness of this moment. There are no other texts of the same period and no archaeological remains that manifest Vedic culture of this period. The later Vedic texts do help fill out the picture, but they already reflect a sociocultural, political, and religious (and indeed geographical) (p.6) landscape significantly changed from that of the R̥gveda. And all Vedic texts leave out an enormous amount. As texts focused on a high-culture ritual system limited to the elite, they provide information about everyday secular life and ordinary people only by chance. In evaluating what the R̥gveda can tell us about this moment and this place and these people, we must always keep in mind how limited the snapshot provided really is.
World literature and religion
But the R̥gveda is not only significant for its position in Indian religious and literary history at a particularly defining moment. It also deserves to be treated as a monument in world literature and world religion, a voice—or indeed many voices—from deep antiquity testifying to the sophistication and complexity of the culture of which it was a product. It is among the oldest preserved texts from antiquity (though predated by Egyptian, Sumerian, and Akkadian texts from the Near East, literary traditions entirely independent of it), but the R̥gveda shows no signs of the hesitant or false experimental ventures of a nascent literary enterprise, nor of even the appealing straightforward simplicity of what used to be celebrated as “primitive” art. These are not the unmediated artless outpourings of unshaped praise arising in a naïve heart struck with awe. Instead R̥gvedic poetry belongs to a fully mature literary tradition, with an awareness of the multiple ways in which words can relate to each other, formally and functionally, a wealth of intricate poetic devices at hand, and the daring to push the boundaries of intelligibility within the limits of the traditional poetic culture. As noted earlier, it is clear that this poetic tradition had a long development behind it, reaching back into Indo-European prehistory, and although we have no preserved texts from the intervening period, stock phrases (formulae) and standard techniques are shared across the archaic literary cultures of the older attested Indo-European languages. It is (p.7) also clear that in the time of the R̥gveda there was a vibrant poetic scene, with multiple poets competing with each other for patronage as well as for artistic excellence, all very conscious both of the tradition they belong to and the new, personal stamp each hopes to put on this tradition. Although some earlier Western scholars of the R̥gveda sought (and found, at least by their own lights) the rough and primitive simplicity they expected to characterize poetry of this antiquity, coming at the dawn of recorded Indian history, this attitude—forged in great part by their experience with the poetry of their own Victorian and Edwardian age—is long out of date, and indeed the bold complexity of much of twentieth-century poetry awakened later Vedic scholars to the same boundary-pushing literary qualities and attitudes in the R̥gvedic corpus.
The same level of mature development is true also of the R̥gvedic religious system. Vedic “high” ritual (technically known, starting in the middle Vedic period, as śrauta ritual) is one of the most complex ritual systems the world has ever known, with multiday extravaganzas involving a small army of priestly participants and ceremonies in which every gesture and every word of each participant was fixed. Thousands of pages of the later ritual manuals are devoted to getting all this right, and although the R̥gvedic ritual system differs in some ways from classical śrauta ritual, it demonstrably presupposes the same basic set of rituals with the same basic sets of participants and patterned actions. Again, this is not the spontaneous free-form worship of deified cosmic forces occasioned by awe, fear, or humble gratitude, but a highly developed system of rites, built of smaller units arranged in clearly articulated structures, all loaded with symbolic significance—which is expertly decoded by the theological authors of the somewhat later exegetical prose texts known as the brāhmaṇas.
The sophistication and complexity that meet us in every detail of the verbal and ritual materials available from this period are all the more astounding when compared with the complete lack of correspondingly sophisticated material remains. The composers of (p.8) the Rgveda, the practitioners of śrauta ritual, did not leave behind great intricately organized cities with monumental buildings and well-designed urbanscapes. In fact there are no archaeological remains reliably associated with the early Vedic people, and what we can glean from the texts about the material aspects of their lives sketches a way of life involving mobile or semi-mobile pastoralism and goods appropriate to such mobility: wheeled vehicles, simple dwellings, no fixed temples or places of assembly. This is contrary to the assumptions most of us have about antiquity, where our informal measures of cultural development are derived from archaeology. But it befits an ever-mobile lifestyle to focus on a genre of art that can be carried in the head (oral poetry) and on a religion that can be practiced anywhere where a piece of ground can be properly prepared.