Notes on Creation and Death in the Rig Veda

The Creation Hymn (Nasadiya) is an account of the origins of the cosmos, though curiously, unlike in Genesis, it is not the opening text found in the Rig Veda. Instead, the first hymn of the Rig Veda is dedicated to Agni, god of fire, and Agni is the first word of the Rig Veda signaling the theological matter of its subject.

The first two sentences begin with “there was” indicating that the events occurred temporally, rather than at a beginning. There was neither death nor immortality, nor signs of night or day, nor existence or non-existence. What stirred and where? The hymn provides an answer to the question of origins that is devoid of a deity. A life force arises through the “power of heat” and this is the first seed of mind. A cord appears to delineate the higher from the lower things, giving spacial recognition. The gods then appear afterwards, though the hymn acknowledges that ultimately no one can know definitively. It ends on a questionable note, as is common for the mystical texts. It provides very little in the form of answers, however the scripture does ease the mind as it discourages the mind from thinking.

However, in a separate hymn a term Hiranyagarbha, meaning “golden embryo” or “golden egg”, is the first to arise and hold the earth and the sky in place. Following this, the chants and incantations were born, along with the four Vedas.

In the Vedas, the authors sing hymns to the god of death, Yama. The liquified form of the Soma plant is offered to the gods, much in the way Ambrosia is the drink of the Greek gods.

Curiously, the Rig Veda also contains incantations of spells intended to control the spirit of a human being. Much like the hymns found within the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or the more aptly titled Papyrus of Ani, the ancient Vedic peoples also believe in the firm power of recitations and rituals to control the perceived invisible powers of nature. One is always inclined to ask, as William James once did, why the religious conscience is always found coupled with music and rhythm. Why the need for music when engaging with the supernatural?

For this reading I used the Penguin Classics edition translated by Wendy Doniger.

Introduction to the Rig Veda

The works of Eastern scripture have captivated the Western mind to a great degree over the last three hundred years. In Europe, philosophers and writers, gatekeepers of culture, have gained a renewed taste for the cosmic, mystical teachings of the East. Recall Hegel and Schopenhauer’s keen interest in newly discovered texts, like the Upanishads. In the United States, yoga has become a commonplace activity, coastal Buddhism has grown over the last 40 years, and Asia has become a destination for many adventurers, in no small part thanks to coffee table novels like Eat, Pray, Love. This fascination has its roots in a resistance to some of the uglier parts of conservative forms of monotheism, but also Western culture has been longing for a greater ecstasy, or spiritual depth. Widespread materialism, in its many forms, does not allow for the pure exaltation of the mind, and neglects the human need for by degrading the much nobler ontological premises of antiquity. Therefore, the study of Eastern classics is of great relevance for the modern mind.

The Rig Veda, which comes to us from a union of the Sanskrit words meaning “verse” and “knowledge,” is the oldest living religious scripture that has experienced continuous life. As when Christianity adopted the ancient Canaanite writings found in the Torah, similarly Hinduism later adopted the Vedas, though the Vedic period occupied by the Aryan immigrants emerging from modern Iran had long been dead. It should be noted that Sanskrit is a synthetic language, a formal and aristocratic language used by the priests. The more common language used was a Vedic blend, or a proto-Indo-European language.

The Rig Veda is composed of 1,017-1,028 hymns, depending on whether one includes a later interpolation. It has since been divided into many different groups or books by revisionists and editors, such as the books or the Mandalas. They were put to tablets and scrolls at some points between 1700-1100 B.C.

Notably, in the Indian scriptures we discover a dualism that spreads to other prominent doctrines, namely the duality of the cosmos that delineates heaven and earth. This dualism is also found in the major monotheistic religions of the world, like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or even Zoroastrianism. It is unclear to what extent this duality is life-affirming or not.

Indra is the chief god who is a hero for slaying Vritra, the god of the drought and a dragon, and also the killer of Vala, brother of Vritra,. Soma is also dedicated to Indra and he rides a white elephant. Indra goes by the name daeva in the Zoroastrian religion.

Agni is the second most important deity presented in the Rig Veda and is the god of the sacred, or sacrificial, fire. He is a divine priest. He assumes the figure of a great bull with horns while he dwells in the sky, or a goose while in the water. He frequently drinks the Soma juice, and is celebrated in approximately 200 hymns. He drives a shining car led by steeds across the sky, as do most of the gods. He is born of the dry wood, or kindling which are his parents. The Maruts are a a collection of storm gods also mentioned in the Rig Veda. Also featured are the Aditya gods or Asura gods, children of the sun god Sura; Mita (a changing deity), Varuna (god of water), Ushas (the dawn); Savitr (solar deity), Vishnu (a later supreme deity of a denomination of Hinduism -a blue god carrying a padma, or lotus flower), Rudra (god of the wind), Pushan (god of marriages roads and cattle), among many others. The pantheon of gods are everywhere alive in the Vedic scriptures.