5.4 Cosmological birth
The Vedic seer is a seeker of visions. Possessed by god Soma and its expansive power, the seer’s inspiration dictates words and speeches that disclose images, bringing the light of knowledge and insight. In this experience, the uncertainty and dangers of darkness are dispelled by the tone of the experience itself. The arising of visions imposes itself on the seer and transforms him, by making him like a god, an immortal, one who is no longer bounded. Vedic mythology articulates this conception through various narratives and characters, among which Soma, Indra, Agni are pivotal and pervasively present in the whole Ṛg-Veda. Alongside these figures, we also encounter hymns devoted to crucial moments of life, birth and death, considered both at the individual and at the cosmic level. Birth in particular can, on the one hand, be conceived as the birth of a new human individual, but is often taken in a far broader meaning as the birth of humans in general, the birth of the gods, or the birth of the whole of reality. For present purposes, we can survey some of the most emblematic instances to appreciate how a confrontation with these situations is a powerful tool for exercising the poietic practice of the seer.
One strategy consists in directly confronting a situation of uncertainty, in which it is apparently impossible to fathom what one might be confronting. The seer (and his audience) is brought amidst darkness, lacking images and visions, where nothing seems discernible. But as we already encountered, this potentially helpless condition has also the potential to turn into its opposite. This same darkness is also the background upon which visions can arise, spontaneously, on their own accord, like Agni kindled at night. The most emblematic example of this pattern is found in a famous, enigmatic, and widely commented upon hymn of the Ṛg-Veda, which runs as follows:
There was neither non-existence nor existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep?
There was neither death nor immortality then. There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day. That one breathed, windless, by its own impulse. Other than that there was nothing beyond.
Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat.
Desire came upon that one in the beginning; that was the first seed of mind. Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence.
Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers. There was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above.
Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisen—perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not—the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows—or perhaps he does not know. (The Rig Veda, X.129, Engl. transl. by Wendy Doniger 1981, 25-26)
Instead of attempting to dogmatically interpret the sort of view or cosmogony that the seer wants to defend (does he?), we can look at the rhetorical structure of the hymn. Clearly enough, this hymn is presented as a sort of exercise in visionary imagination. By deliberately attempting at picturing what was before anything else (before the world as we know it, before the beginning of all times), the seer forces himself and his audience to withdraw from any familiar scenario and somehow sink into the darkness of the unknowable.
The first two verses require us to move beyond some of the most fundamental distinctions we use to interpret and carve up experience: nonexistence and existence, death and immortality, night and day. Having abandoned these dichotomies, imagination is faced with a residue, something that is left from the imaginary exercise of withdrawal. This something is not really a thing: it cannot be said to exist, or even not to exist, because that something precedes the very split between existence and nonexistence. The seer calls it ‘that one,’ although this should be understood more as a performative way of naming something that defies language, rather than an ontological statement about its nature (oneness). ‘That one’ is a way of pointing at what is left when one strips experience of all its familiar dualistic structures. And something of this sort must be left, because the alternative would be that of asserting that ‘there is nothing’ but this assertion necessarily requires accepting the validity of the notions of existence and nonexistence, and their mutual difference, which cannot occur once one has moved beyond them altogether.
In this sort of visionary thought experiment, the absolute beginning is darkness, which in the metaphorical Vedic code means ignorance, uncertainty, and imprisonment (the waters or the cows imprisoned in the cave or in the mountain). Attempting to imagine the absolute birth of everything, the birth of all births, is a way of facing one of the most obscure and uncertain corners of experience, something almost impossible to visualize. And yet, ‘that one’ at least was present in that condition, unknowable because surrounded by darkness. Facing the vision of this inscrutable original abyss, the seer then identifies the element that brings about change: heat (tapasas), which the verse immediately after identifies as sensual desire (kāmas), which in turns becomes the first seed of thought (manaso).
Heat is often associated with ascetic effort. On a physical level, for instance, the yogi can produce bodily heat through a disciplined control of breathing. But the notion can quickly be generalized to include any attempt to bring about results and effects. Sacrifice also requires heat, and the metaphor can easily be extended further to include the kindling of Agni, the beginning of the fire of action and insight. Heat is equated with desire, which here seems to have a very concrete flavor, since kāma is desire for the objects of the senses, the longing to enjoy what can be experienced in the world and what can bring pleasure. An image builds up from these connections: ‘that one’ is striving and struggling (tapas), longing and craving for something, although for what exactly is still undetermined. To fill this void, thought (which might also be rendered as mind) arises. But if we take thought to entail some form of duality (since thought always involves thinking about something, hence it always has an object), then with thought we are back with the more familiar objects. The world is born. The seer comments: ‘poets seeking in their heart with wisdom found the bond of existence in non-existence.’ Through the visionary experiment of imagining the unimaginable (the birth of the world), seers (in the plural, since here the hymn seems to avail a generalization) discovered that what we ordinarily take to exist originally arises from nonexistence. But given the progression traced above, ‘nonexistence’ here means the very structure of desire, the longing for something that is experienced as currently missing or lacking. The struggle (heat) to attain what is not currently present, is what brings about being and existence.
However, having reached this crucial conclusion, the remaining part of the hymn takes away any dogmatic certainty that could be attributed to it. By piling up a number of questions, and by suggesting that perhaps nobody (not even a supreme deity) could answer them, the seer blocks any possibility of transmuting the vision of thought arising in ‘that one’ from heat into an actual cosmogonical doctrine (into a well-defined object of dogmatic knowledge). This might not be a sign of skepticism, but rather a sort of respect for the ineffability of vision itself. Like the truth disclosed in a dream, which cannot be straightforwardly transplanted into waking life, so the insight disclosed by visionary imagination needs to be addressed within its own framework and respected as a visionary imagination, and not something to be transmuted into dogma. The very certainty that it arose is the certainty of inspiration, something that cannot be possessed and mastered. Acknowledging the need for respecting this ungraspable nature of the visionary exercise, both the seer and his audience remain open to the possibility of repeating the exercise itself, delving into it, rather than converting it into rigid beliefs.
Other hymns offer perhaps more concrete and tangible pictures of the origins of the world, although behind the surface they might share a similar attitude to the one in the hymn just presented. For instance, at one point (The Rig Veda, X.72, Engl. transl. by Wendy Doniger 1981, 38-39), Aditi is presented as the goddess who gave birth to all the gods. The seer here again makes a direct reference to the fact that ‘in the earliest age of the gods, existence was born from nonexistence’ and then suggests that Aditi was the mother of what exists. However, as Aditi gives birth to Dakṣa, Dakṣa also gives birth to Aditi. How is that possible? We already encountered Aditi as the boundlessness that is associated with Soma, the one that Soma reveals. Dakṣa is literally ‘Skillfulness’ and this is most directly associated with skillfulness in ritual and sacrifice. The co-generation of Aditi and Dakṣa can thus be interpreted as a co-implication between an original boundlessness and the heat of sacrifice, the paradigmatic form of striving and practice, hinted at in X.129. Positing Aditi as the original mother of reality and the gods is akin to positing ‘that one’ (the unfathomable principle) as the mother of all.
The connection between sacrifice and (cosmological) birth is developed in another famous hymn (The Rig Veda, X.90, Engl. transl. by Wendy Doniger 1981, 30-31), in which the origin of the world is compared with the gods’ sacrifice of the original man: ‘The Man has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. He pervaded the earth on all sides and extended beyond it as far as ten fingers. It is the Man who is all this, whatever has been and whatever is to be. He is the ruler of immortality, when he grows beyond everything through food.’ The seer thus continues showing how the sacrifice dismembers the original man, from the parts of which various elements of the world arise in their individuality. Perhaps the most famous passage comes in the closing of the hymn, where the four social classes of Vedic society (priests, warriors, commoners, and servants) are also presented as originating from the various parts of the original man’s body.
Unlike X.129, here the origin is not conceived as empty or undifferentiated, since the original man already possessed the whole variety of reality within itself, and gods are already existing in their own right (since they administrate the sacrifice). This can be interpreted as showing that this particular hymn is not concerned with the absolute birth of everything but more with the birth of diversity and differentiation in the experienced human world. However, taking the hymn as a reflection on the nature of the perfect and most paradigmatic sacrifice itself (Dakṣa), the seer suggests that differentiation in the world can appear only as the spreading apart of elements that were already somehow entailed in a former unity, while this unity can reveal its internal complexity and its multiplicity only when it is spread apart in sacrifice. Dakṣa (the ritual sacrifice, hence the assertion of diversity) can be born only from Aditi (the original unity), and yet Aditi can bear a multiplicity in itself and entail the whole universe only because Dakṣa reveals her internal complexity (hence Dakṣa also gives birth to Aditi). In this way, Aditi (with her children, including Varuṇa, the god of commandment and justice) comes to be the mother of the social order itself and embodies the respect for that order. Here, the seer hints at the fact that poietic vision does not reveal an order of priority, but rather the co-implication and co-origination of the two different and yet complementary principles of boundlessness and differentiation, unity and division, static fusion and dynamic striving, communitarian unity and individual emancipation.
- This reading runs in contrast with another interpretation defended by Brereton, according to which it is instead desire that arises from thought. See discussion in Alexander Wynne, The Origin of Buddhist Meditation (2007), 57-64. For further discussion see Siarhei Sańko, ‘Composition and meaning: To the exegesis of ṚV X.129’ (2019). Yet, another alternative is to read kāma as ‘love,’ understood as infinite receptivity and overabundance of ‘that one,’ which eventually expresses itself in the world of thoughts and differences. ↵
- Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought (2002), chapter 2, introduces several parallel elements in the cosmologies of ancient India, Greece and Near East, in which the image of the ‘cosmic person’ (macranthropy) as the unitarian principle that gives birth to the world by parthenogenesis emerges frequently. McEvilley also advances an interesting hypothesis about a possible source for this imaginary: ‘By the Late Bronze Age, mythology was straining at the limits of its expressiveness; the composers of myth seem to have been increasingly seeking abstract propositions and generalizations, and this urge had cost cogency, bursting the seams of imagery and narrative. What would emerge from the dissolution of myth was the birth of philosophy—and its first great topic was Oneness’ (McEvilley 2002, 24). ↵