Lecture Five: Seers 5.2

5.2 Uncovering visions


North-West India, mid-second millennium BCE. These coordinates locate the flourishing of an already complex and expanding culture, we shall refer to as the Vedic culture. Standard historiography regards the emergence of the Vedic culture as the fusion between aboriginal local communities and incoming Indo-European tribes moving towards the Indian sub-continent from a North-West passage. Today, there are some debates about how the details of this historical fusion should be best understood. For instance, archaeological evidence shows that the Indus Valley hosted already a highly advanced urban civilization that flourished between the third and the second millennium BCE. A likely cause of the extinction of this civilization might have been a natural disaster, such as the drying up of the Sarasvati River and its connected fluvial system, around 1300 BCE. The process was arguably gradual, which led satellite groups of the Indus Valley civilization to move either West towards the Indus River, or East, where they eventually settled around the Ganges, which will become the new fulcrum of ancient Indian life after the first millennium BCE.

In recent decades, there have been debates about the exact details of these transformations. Since the mid-nineteenth century Western scholars defended the theory of a violent invasion of the Indian subcontinent by Indo-European nomad tribes. Today, the prevalent view is that the penetration of Indo-European groups could not have been so violent and abrupt as originally imagined, although the general picture of a fusion between local and incoming groups is mostly retained. This multicultural model leads to a conception of the Vedic culture as the result of the interplay between a number of different elements, partly coming from aboriginal systems of beliefs and practices, and partly brought on by incoming new actors.[1]  Its most direct antecedent is arguably the Indo-Iranian tradition witnessed in the Avesta, the founding collection of Zoroastrism. Moreover, we should keep in mind that in dealing with Vedic culture we are probably focusing on a specific slice of the historical population living in the period and in the same area. It is possible not only that multiple groups coexisted, but also that Vedic rituals and beliefs were more distinctive of a certain elite.[2]

For present purposes we shall focus on the earlier surviving collection of texts that is foundational for the Vedic culture and remains canonical also for later orthodox Indian traditions, namely, the Ṛg-veda (from the Sanskrit ṛc meaning ‘verse,’ and veda meaning ‘knowledge’). It contains 1028 hymns, divided into ten books or ‘circles’ (maṇḍalas). Scholars agree that dating the collection is particularly difficult, but the standard consensus would locate it roughly between 1500 and 500 BCE, although much of the poetic and liturgical practices described in the hymns arguably derive from even older traditions.

The Ṛg-veda is itself just the first collection of a larger group of texts, collectively called Vedas. In their current shape, the Vedas are composed of four main collections: the Ṛg, the Sāma, the Yajur and the Atharva. The verses of the Ṛg-Veda provide the materials for most of the Sāma-Veda, which preserves melodies for singing the verses.[3] The Yajur-Veda is mostly concerned with sacrificial practices and is constituted of both verses (one third comes from the Ṛg-Veda) and prose. The Atharva-Veda is sometimes considered spurious or regarded as a later addition. It overlaps with the Ṛg-Veda with only one fifth of its verses, and its content is often focused on magic and healing practices. The fact that verses from the Ṛg-Veda are reproduced in the other collection witnesses both the authority and antiquity of the former, and the process of elaboration and evolution through which the older hymns were transmitted. Vedic literature also includes further scriptures that outline various practices associated with rituals in greater detail. They are the Brāhmaṇas, mostly addressed to priests performing Vedic rituals, called ‘brahmins,’ and the Aranyakas, devoted to ascetics and forest dwellers. This stratification in the Vedic literature suggests that brahmin priests emerged as ritual specialists (and required specialist knowledge) as a result of a progressive evolution in the ritual practices themselves. For our purposes, we shall first delve a little into the world of the Ṛg-Veda, and then reflect on some of the implications entailed by the sophisticated form of specialized ritualization that flourished in somewhat later periods.

Reconstructing Vedic rituals and how they were performed is a daunting task, especially if one wants to distinguish between earlier periods from later more sophisticated instances. Nonetheless, it seems safe to assume that with time greater sophistication and complexity emerged, while throughout the Vedic period the act of sacrifice (most often an animal) and the use of ritual fire (from one to three) for offerings remained central. The ritual sacrifice can be seen as an offering of goods (food) to the gods, who are invited to partake of it, and through this action to establish a potentially harmonious, supportive, and auspicious relation with the community. Ritual acts most often lacked a fixed placed (like a temple), but always entailed the utterance (including the singing) of sacred words, frequently derived from the poetic hymns of the Ṛg-Veda. The more elaborate rituals usually involved several people: a patron for whom the sacrifice is administrated (who usually receives merit from the sacrifice, and bestows a gift upon the officiants), and then four ritual specialists, one for each division of the Vedas. Notably, in this scheme the brahmin specialist performs the role of a silent overseer of the whole ritual and intervenes only to correct a misdeed or mistake made by the other officiants.[4]

In general, the hymns of the Ṛg-Veda are presented as the heritage of a past ages of seers (rishis), who established a direct contact with the deities. The gods themselves might be conceived as the ancestral forerunners of the seers and their models, those who first made the discoveries about how to correctly understand the nature of reality. For this reason, they are invoked by the seers as their guides. Hence, the one who recites the hymnodies (the ritual specialist), often stands in a relation of third-order (if not even more remote) with the original experience that is at stake in the hymns: the present reciter looks upon the past experience of the ancestors, who were the original seers, who in turn were guided by the gods. The content of the hymns themselves is presented as stretching back to unfathomable and legendary antiquity.

What are these hymns about? The language of the Ṛg-Veda is often seemingly straightforward: they talk about animal sacrifices, horses, cows, cattle, wars, long-life, wealth, birth, death, fire, sun, dawn, clouds, rain, winds, and all sorts of other material and tangible objects. Nineteenth-century Western scholars tended to favor a rather literal interpretation and thus regarded the Vedas as a witness of a primitive and even materialistic religion, aimed at gaining some sort of benefit from the invocation of the divine. However, in all forms of ancient and archaic cultures the distinction between material and metaphorical meanings is hardly established. As Giambiattista Vico already noticed in his Scienza Nuova (1744), language, especially in its beginning, develops through metaphorical expansions, which add a number of overlayers of meaning over seemingly concrete and material referents. Ethnographic evidence shows that this happens commonly in shamanic cultures (e.g. DuBois 2009, 202-217). For the archaic mind, nature and symbol, concrete thing and metaphor could not be set apart. The alternative to the literalist interpretation of archaic poietic language is not an allegorical interpretation (in which concrete symbols are just replaced with spiritualized meanings, like in deciphering a coded message), but rather the attitude of accepting that language is originally metaphoric, which entails that one single expression tends to convey multiple meanings at the same time, none of which is necessarily more important or less necessary than the others. Archaic poietic language is semantically polyphonic. This observation, though, surely makes the reading of many hymns of the Ṛg-Veda particularly difficult for us today.

A general guiding principle can be extracted from the way many hymns function: if X and Y are analogous to F in some respect, then X and Y can be treated as if they were the same. Analogy entails a form of identity, which could be better defined as homology. This principle of homology allows one to see the sun, for instance, as both the material body in the sky that produces heat and light, and as a living agent who produces knowledge and life (because knowledge and life can be understood in terms of ‘light’ and ‘heat’). The same principle can also be used in a heuristic way, by assuming that if X is homologous to Y, and X shows some property Q, then Y might have a property homologous to Q as well. For instance, if the sun arises every morning from darkness, then also knowledge might have the homologous property of arising from ignorance (darkness). Homology thus establishes relations between apparently different items, by allowing the seer to play with their underpinning identity depending on his inspiration (masculine pronoun because seers are always males in the Ṛg-Veda).

We shall delve into some of the hymns with the purpose of clarifying one recurrent and central source of inspiration for many of them, namely, the experience of vision, which empowers the seer (and more indirectly the later ritual specialists who rely on his authority) with a sense of utter certainty and insight. In this experience, it is not just the content of what is seen that matters (the hymns are not dogmatic texts composed to systematize or transmit a well-defined worldview), but rather the quality of the visionary experience, which makes it particularly powerful, profound, transforming, and epistemically irresistible. By achieving this state of vision, the seer can communicate with the agents who shape the life of his community, negotiate with them, and perform other actions that will be beneficial for (re)establishing harmony or securing it.[5]

Jeanine Miller, in her The Vedas. Harmony, Meditation, and Fulfilment (1974) provides what remains one of the more open-minded and thorough examinations of the sort of visionary experience encoded in the Vedas. She writes:

The Ṛg-Veda is the monument of ancient man’s longing for illumination and the eternal bliss conferred thereby. Its message may be hidden for us beneath obscure references and imagery, a mythological language out of touch with our modern outlook, but a little digging will bring it out in all its pristine purity. We can no longer afford to pass it by or disdainfully brush it away as has been done in the past, but should pause and consider the antiquity of man’s aspiration for something beyond himself, for a state of ecstasy in which the bounds of everyday life recede and the heart and mind expand beyond expectation, a communion with the numinous which he discovered he could reach through certain practices, indeed a desire to surpass his ordinary self to touch his greater self. (Miller 1974, 123)

Miller’s take is important because it emphasizes the soteriological experience at the root of the Ṛg-Veda. More detached and seemingly neutral or objective scholars might rather prefer to downplay this element. After all, the preponderance of hymns in the collection seems to have a marked ritualist component, little can be gathered about personal experiences, and most of the references to individuals are stereotypical at best.[6] However, the scarcity of explicit and self-conscious reflections on personal experience do not necessarily indicate a lack of such an experience. More plausibly, the seers were not primarily concerned with offering theoretical speculations about what it means (or what it takes) to undergo their visions, they simply reported them in their hymns. Absence of reflection can thus be better understood as symptomatic of immediacy and evidence, which would make any further speculation pointless if not misguided. Surely, a Vedic seer would not conceptualize their own individuality and selfhood in the same way as, say, a Western nineteenth-century Protestant. But this can hardly be taken to imply that the Vedic seer is unaware of the experience of selfhood or lacks a sense of self. Differences in how the self is constructed do not entail that no sense of self is constructed. Trying to reduce the Ṛg-Veda to just a ritualist repertoire, largely unconcerned with any more direct experience, eventually undermines the whole plausibility that the Ṛg-Veda might have had for all those who regarded it as sacred lore. The problem is analogous to that faced by archeologists trying to explain the most archaic evolution of human culture by taking material aspects as more fundamental than cultural and symbolic dimensions, while in fact the latter must have been the leading ones (as discussed in Lecture Three). And as we shall see, it would be too simplistic to fit Vedic culture and rituals into some more or less general ‘shamanic’ model, although this does not entail that, nor should prevent us from seeing how, distinctive shamanic elements are interwoven into the hymns of the Ṛg-Veda.

To put it bluntly, a tacit assumption that seems to underpin scholarly attempts to reduce much what is witnessed in the Ṛg-Veda to social, material, or cultural elements is based on the idea that the Ṛg-Veda cannot be taken at face value. In the real world, the claim might go, there is no actual Indra, and Soma is just the juice of a psychotropic mushroom. But this assumption must be displaced in any serious effort of understanding the Ṛg-Veda. What is needed is not running into the opposite extreme of simply taking on faith all that the Ṛg-Veda says, but rather trying to understand the cognitive and hermeneutic dynamics from which the hymns arose. What sort of practices and insights might have led ancient seers to interpret and express their own experiences in the way they did? What made these visions meaningful for them?

To fully understand what is at stake here, we must begin by acknowledging that the Ṛg-Veda is a collection of hymns, are uttered as a sort of prayer. In today’s world, the notion of prayer is perhaps associated with some sort of petition or request, even in religious contexts. However, we can quickly come back to William James again to outline a broader and more meaningful role of prayer. As James argues:

The religious phenomenon, studied as an inner fact, and apart from ecclesiastical or theological complications, has shown itself to consist everywhere, and at all its stages, in the consciousness which individuals have of an intercourse between themselves and higher powers with which they feel themselves to be related. This intercourse is realized at the time as being both active and mutual. If it be not effective; if it be not a give and take relation; if nothing be really transacted while it lasts; if the world is in no whit different for its having taken place; then prayer, taken in this wide meaning of a sense that something is transacting, is of course a feeling of what is illusory, and religion must on the whole be classed, not simply as containing elements of delusion—these undoubtedly everywhere exist—but as being rooted in delusion altogether, just as materialists and atheists have always said it was. At most there might remain, when the direct experiences of prayer were ruled out as false witnesses, some inferential belief that the whole order of existence must have a divine cause. But this way of contemplating nature, pleasing as it would doubtless be to persons of a pious taste, would leave to them but the spectators’ part at a play, whereas in experimental religion and the prayerful life, we seem ourselves to be actors, and not in a play, but in a very serious reality. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture XIX, 465-466 original emphasis)

Prayer can take multiple forms (verbalized or not, entailing visualizations or not, repetitive or not, and so forth). Regardless of its form, prayer is best understood as a way of establishing a connection between the individual who engages in prayer, and a domain of reality that goes beyond ordinary worldly experience. Recall James’s account of this phenomenon from Lecture Four: ordinary consciousness has fuzzy boundaries beyond which lies a whole unfathomable domain that is still part of the field of experience, albeit usually hidden behind a veil. Prayer is a method through which a communication (a ‘transaction’ to use James’s term) between these two regions can be achieved. As James notices in the quote above, the crux of the legitimacy of prayer is entirely dependent on whether there is a genuine transaction that takes place or not. But from the point of view of a field model of consciousness, this does not mean that prayer is real only if any ontological statements about the entities included in prayer are (possibly scientifically) verified; rather, a prayer is real if the transaction between ordinary bounded consciousness and the unbounded space beyond it takes place to some degree and has an appreciable impact on the direct experience of the performer of prayer. In other words, prayer works if, and to the extent that, ordinary consciousness is relieved from its ordinary boundaries. James continues:

The genuineness of religion is thus indissolubly bound up with the question whether the prayerful consciousness be or be not deceitful. The conviction that something is genuinely transacted in this consciousness is the very core of living religion. As to what is transacted, great differences of opinion have prevailed. The unseen powers have been supposed, and are yet supposed, to do things which no enlightened man can nowadays believe in. It may well prove that the sphere of influence in prayer is subjective exclusively, and that what is immediately changed is only the mind of the praying person. But however our opinion of prayer’s effects may come to be limited by criticism, religion, in the vital sense in which these lectures study it, must stand or fall by the persuasion that effects of some sort genuinely do occur. Through prayer, religion insists, things which cannot be realized in any other manner come about: energy which but for prayer would be bound is by prayer set free and operates in some part, be it objective or subjective, of the world of facts. (James 1902 [2011], Lecture XIX, 466)

James is open to two scenarios: the effects of prayer are materially tangible in the world, or they remain wholly psychological. However, this alternative is more apparent than real, especially when it is applied to an archaic culture in which no sharp boundary between mind and world is traced. More importantly, while prayer might be fully internalized by an individual and practiced in solitude, it usually emerges from a communitarian and socialized root, in which the officiant prays for (and with) the whole community. This latter point is surely crucial in the Vedic context and suggests that the performative role of Vedic hymns as prayers should always be understood from a communitarian point of view, in which the seers act as a mediator between his social kin and the forces that shape the world around it. James rightly insists that prayer must have some real effect in order to be considered to have really worked, and this effect is usually considered to be unique to prayer. This provides us with a good research question: What is the unique effect that Vedic hymns aim to achieve?

Here is a short outline of the underpinning view that emerges from Miller’s reconstruction of the Vedas. Ordinarily, human beings live in a condition of darkness and ignorance, but they have the potential to reach a condition of knowledge or enlightenment (to be understood literally, as an experience of inner light or illumination). This defines the basic soteriological path, articulated through various metaphors that involve a movement towards the luminous (the sun, the sky, the light, and similar). Enlightenment is presented as a condition of union or communion with the deities, in which humans know and enact the universal order of the cosmos. However, enlightenment also seems to be a particular emotional state of enhanced sensitivity and openness, in which ordinary boundaries are left behind and the individual reaches a higher state of experience. This state is achieved through a specific practice, often spelled out in terms of prayer (brahman). Prayer begins by bringing the mind towards some aspect of a deity, which will operate as a sort of guide towards the enlightened state. Prayer can originate from repetition of sounds (mantra) or visualizations, although the two aspects are most likely merged and connected. Sounds evoke images, and the merging of the mind into these images creates visions (the Sanskrit term nāma-rūpa, literally ‘name and form,’ captures this point). Dwelling in these visions brings one to a further state of absorption, in which sensory aspects likely fade away, leading to a sense of boundlessness.

Although the seer (and those followers who re-enact the hymns) is presented as knowing the ‘truth’ and being in harmony with the cosmic order, this does not necessarily entail the acquisition of a specific form of propositional knowledge. The seer does not seek to know this or that particular fact about a specific aspect of reality. That is, the sort of knowledge at stake in ritual is not encyclopedic. The very notion of truth might be considered from its emotional and psychological point of view, as a sense of utmost certainty and reality, a complete confidence and reliance that pervades one’s experience: ‘that is such.’ Today, we tend to discuss truth in relation to what makes a certain content of experience true, namely, in terms of the conditions that allow us to experience that sense of confidence. However, the seer seems to bypass this process and, through meditation, enacts that very confidence itself, and calls it an experience of ‘truth.’ In other words, the experience of Vedic enlightenment itself (the transition from darkness to sunlight) is the truth that the seer aims to ‘see’ and to experience directly. Hymns (prayers) are the means for achieving that purpose. The knowledge of the Vedas, in this respect, is a sort of practical knowledge (‘know-how’ rather than ‘know-that’), namely, the knowledge of how to bring about a certain shift in experience.

The soteriological path that moves from darkness to light, from ignorance to truth, can thus also be seen as a path from uncertainty to certainty, from anxiety to confidence. Knowing how to bring about this transformation is the sort of mastery practiced by the seer and extolled in the hymns. Vedic sacrifice is a way of formalizing and codifying a series of actions (physical, verbal, and mental), which are meant to preserve and enact the same original experience, based on the ability to access the same sort of insight.

  1. Edwin Bryant, in his The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (2001) argues that the invasion theory cannot be considered as ‘disproved,’ and yet encourages a more balanced and critical listening of the arguments that might stand against it. These arguments have often been voiced by Indian scholars who contended that the Vedic culture grew from aboriginal groups most likely propelled by the collapsing of the Indus Valley civilization. Aboriginal groups in India might have included Indo-European tribes already, according to a model of slow spreading of Indo-European language from the mid-Neolithic period. Bryant shows how the clash of interpretations between Western scholars and Indian scholars on this issue is shaped by complex political, colonialist, and post-colonialist issues and agendas. In his conclusions, Bryant considers the deciphering of the Indus script the empirical test for the non-standard account. If the script can be reconducted to an Indo-European language, that would be a crucial clue in favour of an original presence of the Indo-Europeans within the Indus Valley civilization. Various solutions have been proposed, but at present a convincing interpretation is yet to emerge, also due to the fact that all the extant instances of the script are too short for yielding definitive results, and they might even not constitute a script after all. For a shorter account of the emergence and unfolding of the colonialist and post-colonialist debate, see Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (2002), ‘Foreword’; and for a synthetic discussion of the various issues surrounding the ancient history of Indian cultures, see Id., chapter 10, especially pp. 237-261. David W. Anthony, in The Horse, the Wheel, and Language. How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World (2007) builds an extensive case, based on both linguistic and archaeological evidence, for the existence of a prehistoric population based in the Central Eurasia’s steppe grasslands as the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European, who then spread both West and South helped by the domestication of the horse and the use of ox wagon and warrior’s chariot.
  2. For a summary of the key aspects of Vedic society that can be extracted from the Ṛg-veda and further bibliographical references, see Jamison and Brereton, ‘Introduction’ to The Rigveda. The Early Religious Poetry of India (2014), 53-59.
  3. One way of distinguishing the recitation of the Ṛg-Veda from the singing of the Sāma-Veda is by assuming that recitation moves in a relatively narrow pitch compass, with a few accents used to modulate the basic pitch, while the proper singing entails a broader pitch compass and established melodies that can be associated with different verses. But this distinction should not be taken in an overly rigid way. More generally, already with the Ṛg-Veda the Indian culture associates profound meanings with the uttering of sounds, and spoken prosaic words are just one way in which sounds manifest. This means that speaking, chanting, and singing are seen as various modulations of the same basic phenomenon, which in turn is associated with breathing, life, and cosmological elements such as air and winds. As we shall see, this complex network of interlocking elements plays a crucial role in the Vedic imaginary. For a discussion of these elements, see Lewis Rowel, Music and Musical Thought in Early India (1992), especially chapters 2 and 4.
  4. For a more detailed account of the historical and philological dimensions of the study of the Vedic period, see S. W. Jamison and M. Witzel, Vedic Hinduism (2003 [1992]), and Jamison and Brereton, ‘Introduction’ (2014).
  5. For reasons of space, we shall limit our analysis to just a few hymns, which are perhaps among the most famous. In doing so, we are not aiming for a generalized picture of what could be found in any hymn. There is no claim in this choice that the hymns discussed below are the most representatives of the whole collection. Advancing such a claim would be misleading, as if the whole collection could be reduced to just a few basic patterns or ideas. But it is also misleading to think that an individual instance must be representative of a larger whole in order to be relevant in its own right. One can be an exception and still witness an underlying potentiality that is usually not fully actualized in the average population. When one tries to understand what is possible for a certain population (here in terms of what it is possible to conceive, to think, to see), it is not the case that only a complete statistical survey of the whole will do. Relatively idiosyncratic cases, exceptions, and outstanding exemplars can be more telling than average cases. This intuition underpinned William James’s discussion of mysticism (Lecture Four), which might also be adapted, with due changes, to the present task.
  6. Patrick Olivelle, in the introduction to his edition Samṇyāsa Upaniads: Hindu Scriptures on Asceticism and Renunciation (1992) states: ‘A significant aspect of this [the early Vedic] world is that the human individual is not given any conceptual reality within it. This is one of the major premises of the seminal work of Louis Dumont (1960, 42), who states rather bluntly that in the Vedic world ‘the individual is not.’ The Brahmanical system of ethics works almost exclusively at the level of social groups, and individuals become real only as members of such groups. An individual’s rights and obligations, roles and aspirations, are all determined by the group to which that individual belongs’ (Olivelle 1992, 28). However, much depends on what is meant by ‘individual.’ It is obvious that the modern Western ideal of an autonomous individuality (like the one discussed by Taylor in Lecture Zero) would be hard to find in the archaic hymns of the Ṛg-Veda. However, even the stronger form of consociation and communitarianism require that a community is made of discrete agents who take up roles and duties, and in doing so might alter, challenge, or develop the received norms about how they ought to enact those roles. What can be noticed is that the Ṛg-Veda surely takes this communitarian dimension as its default standpoint, but then, in some cases, it resorts to the device of an explicit first-person perspective as a sort of ‘special effect’ to achieve poietic cogency and enhance the visionary power of the seer. For a discussion of this aspect, see Elena Mucciarelli, ‘Non-realistic images of animals in the Ṛgvedasaṃhitā’ (2009).


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