The hymn of Purusha

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This is my adaptation of a hymn from the Rig Veda (book 10, hymn 90). Notes and discussion at the end.

Before the beginning of all things, a giant being named Purusha existed. Purusha had thousands of heads, and thousands of eyes, and thousands of feet. He was huge and embraced the earth on all sides; and at the same time he filled a space only ten fingers wide, the size of the space which holds a human soul. Purusha was the Primeval Man, the man who came before all human beings.

Purusha was everything, all that had once been, and all that which shall be in the future. He was the god of immortality, and he now lives through sacrificial food which humans offer up to him. All beings and creatures make up one quarter of him; the rest of him is immortal life in a world beyond this world. The three quarters of Purusha which are immortal life rose up high, and the remaining one quarter of him remains here on earth.

Before the beginning, Purusha gave birth to his female counterpart, who was named Virat. When she was born, she took the form of an egg. And then Virat in turn gave birth, and she bore her male counterpart, Purusha. As soon as Virat had given birth to Purusha, he spread to the east and to the west over the earth. So the universe was produced.

Then the gods prepared Purusha as a spiritual sacrifice. They sacrificed Purusha, and they offered up their sacrifice to Purusha, who was being sacrificed. The clarified butter or ghee which they used in preparing the sacrifice was springtime. The wood which they gathered for the fire to burn the sacrifice was autumn. And the sacrifice himself, the giant Purusha, was summertime. All the gods, and all the celestial beings, and all the sages sacrificed with him.

The ghee from the sacrifice was gathered up. Purusha, who was born in the beginning, was sprinkled on the grass. He formed the creatures of the air, and he formed the beasts of the forest and the beasts of the village. From that sacrifice were born horses, and cattle, and goats, and sheep.

And from the sacrifice were born the hymns of the Rig Veda, and the melodies of the Sama Veda. From the sacrifice came the ritual, and from it came the meters of poetry.

When Purusha was divided up after the sacrifice, his mouth became the Brahmins or the priests; his arms became the warriors and soldiers; his legs became the traders and farmers; and his feet became the workers and the slaves.

When Purusha was divided up, the Moon was born from his mind and his spirit; the Sun was born from his eye; from his mouth were born both Indra, the god of storms and warfare, and Agni, the god of fire; from his breath was born Vayu, the god of wind and of blowing breath and of life.

When Purusha was divided up, his navel became the middle sky, his head became the heavens, his feet became the earth. And so it was that all the worlds were made, and all that is began.

Sources and Notes:

I drew on two translations of this hymn: Ralph T. H. Griffith, The Hymns of the Rig Veda: Translated with a Popular Commentary (1889; reprinted New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1987), vol. 2, pp. 558-561; and Edward J. thomas, Vedic Hymns, Wisdom of the East series (London: 1923), reprinted in A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, ed. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1957), pp. 19-20. This hymn has been the subject of long and sophisticated philosophical and religious reflection. In my retelling of it, I relied heavily on Griffith’s notes, and the notes provided in Radhakrishnan and Moore, to try to provide a simple yet reasonably accurate interpretation.

This hymn is of interest because it is the only mention of the four traditional Hindu castes to be found in the Rig Veda, in verse 12. For that reason alone, it is worth introducing to liberal religious kids as part of their religious literacy.

Regarding the four castes, Griffith writes the following in his note for verse 12:

“…The Brahman is called the mouth of Purusha, as having the special privilege, as a priest, of addressing the Gods in prayer. The arms of Purusha became the Rajanya, the prince and soldier who wields the sword and spear. His thighs, the strongest parts of his body, became the agriculturalist and tradesman, the chief support of society; and his feet, the emblem of vigour and activity, became the Sudra or labouring man on whose toil and industry all ultimately rests. This is the only passage in the Rgveda which enumerates the four castes.”

In her recent book The Hindus: An Alternative History (New York: Penguid, 2009), Wendy Doniger offers the following useful analysis of this hymn:

“…A poem in one of the latest books of the Rig Veda, “Poem of the Primeval Man” (Purusha-Sukta [10.90]), is about the dismemberment of the cosmic giant, the Primeval Man (purusha later comes to designate any male creature, indeed, the male gender), who is the victim in a Vedic sacrifice that creates the whole universe. The poem says, “The gods, performing the sacrifice, bound the Man as the sacrificial beast. With the sacrifice the gods sacrificed to the sacrifice.” Here the “sacrifice” designates both the tirual and the victim killed in the ritual; moreover, the Man is both the victim that the gods sacrificed and the divinity to whom the sacrifice was dedicated — that is, he is both the subject and the object of the sacrifice. This Vedic chicken or egg paradox is repeated [elsewhere in Vedic thought]…. But it is also a tautological way of thinking that we … continue to encounter in Hindu mythology.” [p. 117]

Thus, in this story, Purusha and Vitaj create each other; the gods sacrifice Purusha to Purusha, and from Purusha comes all that is, including human beings in the four castes. School aged children delight in this sort of chicken and egg paradox, making this a wonderful story for them to hear and discuss.

Griffith notes parallels between the story in this creation story, and the creation story of Old Norse mythology, in which the giant Ymir is made into the world: “The hills are his bones, the vault of sky his skull, the sea his blood, and the clouds his brains.” There’s a retelling of the Ymir creation story in the old Unitarian Universalist textbook Beginnings: Earth, Sky, Life, Death by Sophia Lyon Fahs and Dorothy T. Spoerl (Boston: Beacon, 1958), and it would be fun to juxtapose Purusha and Ymir, perhaps in successive lessons.

Addendum, Feb. 4, 2019: For reference, below are excerpts from Griffith’s translation of the hymn, with excerpts from his footnotes (note that many online sources for Griffith’s translation of this hymn contain gross errors, such as “cats” for “eats” just before note 5):

A thousand heads hath Purusha, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. (1)
On every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide. (2)

This Purusha is all that yet hath been and all that is to be;
The Lord of Immortality which waxes greater still by food. (3)

So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Purusha.
All creatures are one-fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven. (4)

With three-fourths Purusha went up: one-fourth of him again was here.
Thence he strode out to every side over what eats not and what eats. (5)

From him Viraj was born; again Purusha from Viraj was born.
As soon as he was born he spread eastward and westward o’er the earth.

When Gods prepared the sacrifice with Purusha as their offering,
Its oil was spring, the holy gift was autumn; summer was the wood….

From that great general sacrifice the dripping fat was gathered up. (6)
He (7) formed the creatures of the air, and animals both wild and tame….

From it were horses born, from it all cattle with two rows of teeth;
From it were generated kine, from it the goats and sheep were born.

When they divided Purusha how many portions did they make?
What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?

The Brahman was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya made.
His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced. (8)

The Moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the Sun had birth;
Indra and Agni from his mouth were born, and Vayu from his breath.

Forth from his navel came mid-air; the sky was fashioned from his head;
Earth from his feet; and from his car the regions. Thus they formed the worlds….

(1) Purusha, embodied spirit, of Man [sic; humanity] personified and regarded as the soul and original source of the universe, the personal and life-giving principle in all animated beings, is said to have a thousand, that is, innumerable, heads, eyes, and feet, as being one with all created life.
(2) A space ten fingers wide: the region of the heart of a man [sic; human being], wherein the soul was supposed to reside. Although as the Universal Soul he pervades the universe, as the Individual Soul he is enclosed in a space of narrow dimensions.
(3) The meaning of the words seems to be: he is lord of immortality or the immortal world of the Gods, which grows greater by food, that is, by the sacrificial offereings of men [sic; human beings]….
(4) Eternal life : amritam : immortality, or the immortal Gods.
(5) Over what eats not and what eats: over animate and inanimate creation….
(6) The dripping fat: ‘The mixture of curds and butter.’
(7) He: or, it; the sacrificed victim Purusha, or the sacred clarified butter.
(8) Rajyana: the second or Kshatriya caste, the regal and military class. Vaisya: the husbandman [sic[; he whose business is agriculture and trade. Sudra: the laborer. The Brahman is called the mouth of Purusha, as having the special privilege, as a priest, of addressing the Gods in prayer. The arms of Purusha become the Rajanya, the prince and soldier who weilds the sword and spear. His thighs, the strongest parts of his body, became the agriculturist and tradesman, the chief supporter of society; and his feet, the emblem of vigor and activity, became the Sudra or laboring man on whose toil and industry all ultimately rests. This is the only passage in the Rig Veda which enumerates the four castes.

2 thoughts on “The hymn of Purusha”

  1. This is so wonderfully explained. As a student and professor of philosophy I really appreciate this.

  2. Thank you for your analysis. It made me appreciate the knowledge of generations encapsulated into just few paragraphs. Happy New Year!

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