Ancient History & Civilisation

VI. THE VEDAS AS LITERATURE

Sanskrit and English—Writing—The four “Vedas”—The “Rigveda”—A Hymn of Creation

The language of the Indo-Aryans should be of special interest to us, for Sanskrit is one of the oldest in that “Indo-European” group of languages to which our own speech belongs. We feel for a moment a strange sense of cultural continuity across great stretches of time and space when we observe the similarity—in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and English—of the numerals, the family terms, and those insinuating little words that, by some oversight of the moralists, have been called the copulative verb.* It is quite unlikely that this ancient tongue, which Sir William Jones pronounced “more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either,”83 should have been the spoken language of the Aryan invaders. What that speech was we do not know; we can only presume that it was a near relative of the early Persian dialect in which theAvesta was composed. The Sanskrit of the Vedas and the epics has already the earmarks of a classic and literary tongue, used only by scholars and priests; the very word Sanskrit means “prepared, pure, perfect, sacred.” The language of the people in the Vedic age was not one but many; each tribe had its own Aryan dialect.84 India has never had one language.

The Vedas contain no hint that writing was known to their authors. It was not until the eighth or ninth century B.C. that Hindu—probably Dravidian—merchants brought from western Asia a Semitic script, akin to the Phoenician; and from this “Brahma script,” as it came to be called, all the later alphabets of India were derived.85 For centuries writing seems to have been confined to commercial and administrative purposes, with little thought of using it for literature; “merchants, not priests, developed this basic art.”86 Even the Buddhist canon does not appear to have been written down before the third century B.C. The oldest extant inscriptions in India are those of Ashoka.87 We who (until the air about us was filled with words and music) were for centuries made eye-minded by writing and print, find it hard to understand how contentedly India, long after she had learned to write, clung to the old ways of transmitting history and literature by recitation and memory. The Vedas and the epics were songs that grew with the generations of those that recited them; they were intended not for sight but for sound.* From this indifference to writing comes our dearth of knowledge about early India.

What, then, were these Vedas from which nearly all our understanding of primitive India is derived? The word Veda means knowledge; a Veda is literally a Book of Knowledge. Vedas is applied by the Hindus to all the sacred lore of their early period; like our Bible it indicates a literature rather than a book. Nothing could be more confused than the arrangement and division of this collection. Of the many Vedas that once existed, only four have survived:

  I. The Rig-veda, or Knowledge of the Hymns of Praise;

 II. The Sama-veda, or Knowledge of the Melodies;

III. The Yajur-veda, or Knowledge of the Sacrificial Formulas; and

IV. The Atharva-veda, or Knowledge of the Magic Formulas.

Each of these four Vedas is divided into four sections:

1. The Mantras, or Hymns;

2. The Brahmanas, or manuals of ritual, prayer and incantation for the priests;

3. The Aranyaka, or “forest-texts” for hermit saints; and

4. The Upanishads, or confidential conferences for philosophers.

Only one of the Vedas belongs to literature rather than to religion, philosophy or magic. The Rig-veda is a kind of religious anthology, composed of 1028 hymns, or psalms of praise, to the various objects of Indo-Aryan worship—sun, moon, sky, stars, wind, rain, fire, dawn, earth, etc.*Most of the hymns are matter-of-fact petitions for herds, crops, and longevity; a small minority of them rise to the level of literature; a few of them reach to the eloquence and beauty of the Psalms.92 Some of them are simple and natural poetry, like the unaffected wonder of a child. One hymn marvels that white milk should come from red cows; another cannot understand why the sun, once it begins to descend, does not fall precipitately to the earth; another inquires how “the sparkling waters of all rivers flow into one ocean without ever filling it.” One is a funeral hymn, in the style of Thanatopsis, over the body of a comrade fallen in battle:

From the dead hand I take the bow he wielded

To gain for us dominion, might and glory.

Thou there, we here, rich in heroic offspring,

Will vanquish all assaults of every foeman.

Approach the bosom of the earth, the mother,

This earth extending far and most propitious;

Young, soft as wool to bounteous givers, may she

Preserve thee from the lap of dissolution.

Open wide, O earth, press not heavily upon him,

Be easy of approach, hail him with kindly aid;

As with a robe a mother hides

Her son, so shroud this man, O earth.93

Another of the poems (Rv. x, 10) is a frank dialogue between the first parents of mankind, the twin brother and sister, Yama and Yami. Yami tempts her brother to cohabit with her despite the divine prohibition of incest, and alleges that all that she desires is the continuance of the race. Yama resists her on high moral grounds. She uses every inducement, and as a last weapon, calls him a weakling. The story as we have it is left unfinished, and we may judge the issue only from circumstantial evidence. The loftiest of the poems is an astonishing Creation Hymn, in which a subtle pantheism, even a pious scepticism, appears in this oldest book of the most religious of peoples:

Nor Aught nor Nought existed; yon bright sky

Was not, nor heaven’s broad woof outstretched above.

What covered all? what sheltered? what concealed?

Was it the water’s fathomless abyss?

There was not death—yet was there naught immortal,

There was no confine betwixt day and night;

The Only One breathed breathless by itself;

Other than It there nothing since has been.

Darkness there was, and all at first was veiled

In gloom profound—an ocean without light—

The germ that still lay covered in the husk

Burst forth, one nature, from the fervent heat.

Then first came love upon it, the new spring

Of mind—yea, poets in their hearts discerned,

Pondering, this bond between created things

And uncreated. Comes this spark from earth

Piercing and all-pervading, or from heaven?

Then seeds were sown, and mighty powers arose—

Nature below, and power and will above—

Who knows the secret? who proclaimed it here,

Whence, whence this manifold creation sprang?

The gods themselves came later into being—

Who knows from whence this great creation sprang?

He from whom all this great creation came,

Whether his will created or was mute,

The Most High Seer that is in highest heaven,

He knows it—or perchance even He knows not.94

It remained for the authors of the Upanishads to take up these problems, and elaborate these hints, in the most typical, and perhaps the greatest, product of the Hindu mind.

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