Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

September 4, 2023

First published August 19, 2023

 in Economic Times

We Are No Different Than Our Vedic Ancestors

Hymns of the Rig Veda were composed in the Punjab-Haryana region around 1500 BCE.

They contain much older memories, of total eclipses that happened in 4000 BCE, far north of the Himalayas, indicating an eventual migration southwards. This migration was propelled by a worldwide demand for horses and horse-drawn chariots that made its appearance only after 1800 BCE as per archeological evidence.

Vedic hymns were organised around 1000 BCE and given to Brahmins to be transmitted orally, with careful attention to pronunciation. The first hymn of the Rig Veda invites Agni, the fire-god, who connects the earth with the celestial realm, to participate in the exchange. Gods are offered praise and success is sought in return.

The last hymn of the Rig Veda invites hostile kings to stop fighting, make peace and cooperate with each other. This was very deliberate. It reveals a yearning for collaboration and transaction, a shift from raiding to trading.

Wants and Ambitions

The following are some of the stories we encounter in the 10,000 mantras that make up the Rig Vedic corpus. They involve gods and women. Indra, king of gods, smashes the enclosures of Vritra, and Vala, to release cows. Indra’s dog, Sarama, locates missing cows with Panis, who try to strike a deal with her, much to Indra’s disapproval. A woman called Apala chews Soma and this makes Indra so happy that he gives her beauty. Offerings of praise and Soma juice get the Ashwin twins to come to the rescue of lost travellers.

Offerings of praise and Soma juice get the gods to restorate the virility of Sasvati’s husband Asanga. Urvashi, the apsara, leaves her husband Pururava as she is bored of him. Lopamudra asks her husband Agastya to give her more attention.

Indrani and Vrikshakapi discuss if their husbands can satisfy them. Saranya leaves the side of her husband, Surya, as she cannot bear his blaze; she leaves behind her shadow and the self-absorbed Surya does not notice the difference until much later.

The stories introduce us to the hunger of the gods, and the hunger of women. We realise that nothing can be obtained unless something is given. Today, in the business world, we refer to hunger as need, want, ambition and demand. Shareholders are hungry for something, professionals are hungry for something, consumers are all about consumption.

Vedic hymns reveals a gradual migration from the Indus valley to the Gangetic plains, a shift from a nomadic lifestyle to an agricultural lifestyle. In these hymns the words dharma, ahimsa and yagna are used for the first time. We learn to two kinds of kings: Indra, patron of raiders, and Varuna, patron of traders. Indra is about acquisition of wealth (yoga) while Varuna is about management and distribution of wealth (kshema).

Collaboration and Co-operation

The Sama Veda and the Yajur Veda were also compiled around 1000 BCE when the hymns of Rig Veda were being organised. They attach Rig Vedic hymns to melodies and rituals.

The melodies of Sama Veda are classified into two groups: those to be sung in the forest and those to be sung in the settlement. In the forest, no one helps anyone. Help is expected in civilised spaces. Thus, the idea of dharma, the civilised way, is being articulated.

Further, Yajur Veda explains how the hymns of the Rig Veda are to be used during ritual. The ceremonies are now complex involving thousands of bricks ritually organized in various shapes, like that of a bird, that is supposed to go to the realm of the gods and bring back what is owed to humans. The elaborate rituals reflect the idea that culture and civilization is an outcome of collaboration and exchange. Different types of poets and priests, performing different kind of functions, have to work together seamlessly in order to create a system that satisfies everyone.

Those who do not agree with such collaboration are the Rakshasas and the Asuras, even though they share a common father with the gods, Prajapati. The whole society is imagined as an organism, the Purusha, whose different body parts are made up of different kinds of communities: those who derive income from knowledge, land, goods and services. The parts work together to make a whole.

Work and Life

With passage of time, more ideas are articulated in the Brahmana, Aranayaka and Upanishad literature. The focus gradually moves away from the complexity of the ritual to the purpose of the ritual in the first place. Why do we do what we do? These are many meditations on the idea of hunger, food, and the violence resulting from the need to satisfy hunger and the need to store food. Spiritual growth is intimately linked to the body, to the breath and to food. We learn about the atman that fears no death and so is neither hungry nor frightened. It is located within the body, that is so hungry and frightened that it gets addicted to wealth and power and loses sight of the resident atman, hence tranquillity.

The later works, such as Upanishads, that are more spiritual in content, are the works of forest-dwellers who shun the village, the highways, and the markets. As we approach 500 CE, we witness an age of affluence emerging in the Gangetic plains, and a parallel rise in disillusionment. People walk away from the settlements, go to the forest, and discover that ambition is the cause of discontentment, and there is more to life than acquisition. When we read their words, we realise we are no different from our Vedic ancestors.

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