Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Vedas: The Quest for an Inner Universe

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Vedas: The Quest for an Inner Universe

Article excerpt

IN the beginning were the Vedas. Several centuries before the Christian era, these sacred hymns written in archaic Sanskrit held sway over Indian religious thought. We know very little about their origins, other than that they were introduced by Indo-European clans known as the Aryas or Aryans, nomadic herdsmen who gradually began to spread through north-west India in the second millennium BC.

One thing is certain: during their obscure history the Aryans had amassed a huge quantity of religious writings, a Revelation" of gigantic proportions. This is thought nevertheless to represent no more than a quarter of the complete Vedas, the gods having decided, at the end of the Golden Age, to keep the remainder outside the reach of human beings. It is perhaps for this reason that, while each of the four parts of this vast compilation is devoted to a particular aspect of religious life-rituals, mythologies, wisdom and hymns-none proposes a comprehensive cosmogonic myth. To the origins of the world, it contains only indirect allusions and scattered, incomplete and contradictory references.

The Creator is not the same from one hymn to another. Sometimes we are told that Indra the Great, after slaying the dragon, created the oceans, the sun and the web of days and nights, sometimes it is related that Varuna, by sheer force, separated the two vast cosmic masses from the primordial egg, pushing back the celestial vault to a great height and unwinding the earth.

Tradition has it that the Vedas contain the Truth, but this Truth assumes a myriad of disconcerting forms, like the tree that symbolizes India, the banyan, whose foliage is so dense that it blots out the sun.

For example, in many of the Vedic hymns the origin of the world is traced back to a terrible battle in which each of a succession of gods is described as having the leading role. The dragon slain by Indra is sometimes said to be a gigantic serpent coiled around the mountain that holds back the primordial waters. After defeating the serpent, Indra shatters the mountain in order to release the waters. More than an act of creation, this battle is a deliverance. Until that moment, order and harmony are held in check by such powerful forces that the hero-god wears himself out against them. He has to avail himself of supernatural means, the beverage soma, prepared by the other gods, which plunges him into a state of warlike intoxication. Indra, the god of lightning, who usually takes the leading role in the battle, combines the qualities of all the other gods, who created him for this encounter, entrusting to him part of their power. So it is these amalgamated forces that triumph over darkness and formlessness, bringing into being a world that is not subject to chance but ruled by necessity, where each being and thing has its place.

Should these cosmogonic myths be seen as a way of asserting the value of the warlike ideal and of justifying a caste, a people of invaders? Is it the function of the Aryans, "twice born" through the grace of Revelation, to establish order and to promote the worship of the revealed gods by combating the forces of chaos and darkness embodied in the unenlightened peoples?

In the heat

of the primordial waters In other myths the origin of the world is linked to an act of cosmic union. Agni (the fire, the life-force, the devourer) and Soma (the offering, the sacrifice, the devoured), the two pillars of Vedic reality, fertilize the waters with their virile power and give birth to the primordial egg, the Golden Embryo. When the egg bursts, there emerges from it the structure of the world: from the silver half, the earth, from the golden half, the sky. They are held in place by a central pillar, an axis, around which the forces of life are organized in such a way that the light can spring forth. Then time commences, space unfurls and the gods start to play their role".-'

Other cosmogonic myths feature a god who existed before all others, Prajapati, the Progenitor, Lord of his own lineage. …

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