A couple of weeks ago, we went in to Seven Star books in Central Square, Cambridge. Though it’s known as a New Age bookstore, Seven Stars has the best selection of new and used books on world religions that I have found in eastern Massachusetts. I found a two-volume copy of Hymns of the Rgveda translated by Ralph T. H. Griffiths, from Munshiram Manoharlala Publishers, New Delhi. The book is simply a wonderful artifact in and of itself: the typical off-white paper used by printers in India, fingerprints where the printer picked up sheets before the ink was fully dry, a dust cover with a tessellated leaves-and-flower motif in pale green.
This week, I’ve been dipping in to the Rig Veda. The Rig Veda, a collection of hymns to ancient Vedic gods and minor deities, is considered one of the oldest religious-literary works in the world. I find some of these hymns fairly incomprehensible, like this one which praises frogs (Book VII, Hymn 103):
1. They who lay quiet for a year, the Brahmans who fulfil their vows,
The Frogs have lifted up their voice, the voice Parjanya hath inspired….
3. When at the coming of the Rains the water has poured upon them as they yearned and thirsted,
One seeks another as he talks and greets him with cries of pleasure as a son his father….
6. One is Cow-bellow and Goat-bleat the other, one Frog is Green and one of them is Spotty.
They bear one common name, and yet they vary, and, talking, modulate their voice diversely….
According to Griffiths, Max Muller saw this hymn as a satire on the priestly class. Maybe, but it seems more likely to me that we are simply missing some cultural referent that prevents us from really understanding what the hymn meant originally. Some words from the past must remain forever obscure.
Yet there are other hymns in the Rig Veda which I find moving and thought-provoking, such this hymn about creation (Book X, Hymn 129):
1. Then was no 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.
3. Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and formless: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit. …
6. Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
7. He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he does not.
These are words from the past which still speak to me with the same sense of wonder, the same sense of confronting the unknowable, with which they spoke to the priests and followers of the ancient Vedic religion, when this hymn was first sung three millennia ago.