In another life (appropriately enough), I would have been Hindu; in an additional other life, at the very least I would have started studying Indo-European at a young age. As it happened, whatever brief time I’ve been able to devote to Hinduism has no doubt been saturated with the romanticism of a novice who is very far indeed from any experience of it on the ground.
Nevertheless, for a million reasons Hinduism still seems the greatest sponge for and expression of the religious impulse, and it all starts (in writing, anyway) with the Rig Veda, that vast collection of more than 1,000 hymns, prayers, and tales. Below are some of my favorite translations from Wendy Doniger’s selections from it. (A new complete translation was recently published, with tons of ancillary material, but I’ve yet to get my hands on it.)
Dating from c. 1500 BC, the Rig Veda is one of the oldest collections of religious writing, perhaps superseded only by the Egyptian Pyramid Texts. The latter survived so long by being inscribed on the walls of a handful of Pyramids, while the Rig Veda was passed down by word of mouth. A. L. Basham writes about the moment in the late eighteenth century when brahmans in Calcutta were convinced to recite it to Western scholars, so that it could be written down for the first time: “once the text was made public other brahmans from other parts of India followed them. When versions had been collected from all over the land it was found, to the great surprise of Western scholars, that the text as transmitted in Kashmir was scarcely different from that transmitted in Tamil Nadu. The Rg-veda had been passed on orally for nearly three thousand years, with hardly an error.”
What’s pasted below is barely a hint, then; but it was just a hint that hooked me. Hymn 10:129 is one of the bedrocks:
10:129 (Creation Hymn – Nasadiya)
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.
1.1 (I Pray to Agni)
I pray to Agni, the household priest who is the god of the sacrifice, the one who chants and invokes and brings most treasure.
Agni earned the prayers of the ancient sages, and of those of the present, too; he will bring the gods here.
Through Agni one may win wealth, and growth from day to day, glorious and most abounding in heroic sons.
Agni, the sacrificial ritual that you encompass on all sides—only that one goes to the gods.
Agni, the prest with the sharp sight of a poet, the tru and most brilliant, the god will come with the gods.
Whatever good you wish to do for the one who worships you, Agni, through you, O Angiras, that comes true.
To you, Agni, who shine upon darkness, we come day after day, bringing our thoughts and homage to you, the king over sacrifices, the shining guardian of the Order, growing in your own house.
Be easy for us to reach, like a father to his son. Abide with us, Agni, for our happiness.
1:35 (Savitr at Night)
I call first to Agni for well-being; I call Mitra and Varuna here to help. I call on Night that gives rest to all that moves; I call on the god Savitr; for aid.
When he turns through the dark dust and gives rest to the immortal and the mortal, the god Savitr who watches all creatures comes with his golden chariot.
The god goes forward; he goes upward; he who is worshipped goes with his two bright bay horses. The god Savitr comes from the far distance, driving away all evils.
The god Savitr, who is worshipped, mounts his high chariot that is covered with pearls, painted with all colours, fastened with golden pins; shining brightly, he puts on his vital power for the dark dusts.
The black horses with white feet have looked at the people, pulling the chariot with the golden shafts in front. All tribes, all worlds rest always in the lap of the divine Savitr.
There are three skies: two are the lap of Savitr, and the last is the one that controls men, in the world of Yaraa. Immortal things rest on him like a chariot wheel on a lynch-pin. Let him who understands this proclaim it here.
The eagle has looked over the middle realms of space; he is the Asura who leads well and is spoken of in secret. Where is the sun now? Who knows ? To what sky has his ray stretched?
He has looked upon the eight peaks of the earth, and on the three plains a league wide, and the seven rivers. The golden-eyed Savitr has come, bringing to the worshipper the treasures that he longs for.
Golden-handed Savitr moves busily between the two, between sky and earth. He drives away disease and bids the sun approach; he reaches to the sky through the dark dust.
Let the merciful and helpful Asura, the good leader with golden hands, come towards us. Routing the demons and sorcerers, the god to whom we sing has taken his place against the evening.
On your ancient paths, Savitr, that are dustless and well made in the middle realm of space, on those paths that are good to go on come to us today, and protect us, and speak a blessing on us, O god.
1:50 (The Sun, Surya)
His brilliant banners draw upwards the god who knows all creatures, so that everyone may see the sun.
The constellations, along with the nights, steal away like thieves, making way for the sun who gazes on everyone.
The rays that are his banners have become visible from the distance, shining over mankind like blazing fires.
Crossing space, you are the maker of light, seen by everyone, O sun. You illumine the whole, wide realm of space.
You rise up facing all the groups of gods, facing mankind, facing everyone, so that they can see the sunlight.
He is the eye with which, O Purifying Varuna, you look upon the busy one’ among men.
You cross heaven and the vast realm of space, O sun, measuring days by nights, looking upon the generations.
Seven bay mares carry you in the chariot, O sun god with hair of flame, gazing from afar.
The sun has yoked the seven splendid daughters of the chariot; he goes with them, who yoke themselves.
We have come up out of darkness, seeing the higher light around us, going to the sun, the god among gods, the highest light.
As you rise today, O sun, you who are honoured as a friend, climbing to the highest sky, make me free of heartache and yellow pallor.
Let us place my yellow pallor among parrots and thrushes, or let us place my yellow pallor among other yellow birds in yellow trees.
This Aditya s has risen with all his dominating force, hurling my hateful enemy down into my hands. Let me not fall into my enemy’s hands!
2:12 (Who is Indra?)
The god who had insight the moment he was born, the first who protected the gods with his power of thought, before whose hot breath the two world-halves tremble at the greatness of his manly powers – he, my people, is Indra.
He who made fast the tottering earth, who made still the quaking mountains, who measured out and extended the expanse of the air, who propped up the sky – he, my people, is Indra.
He who killed the serpent and loosed the seven rivers, who drove out the cows that had been pent up by Vala, who gave birth to fire between two stones, the winner of booty in combats -he, my people, is Indra.
He by whom all these changes were rung, who drove the race of Dins down into obscurity, who took away the flourishing wealth of the enemy as a winning gambler takes the stake – he, my people, is Indra.
He about whom they ask, `Where is he?’, or they say of him, the terrible one, ‘He does not exist’, he who diminishes the flourishing wealth of the enemy as gambling does – believe in him! He, my people, is Indra.
He who encourages the weary and the sick, and the poor priest who is in need, who helps the man who harnesses the stones to press Soma, he who has lips fine for drinking – he, my people, is Indra.
He under whose command are horses and cows and villages and all chariots, who gave birth to the sun and the dawn and led out the waters, he, my people, is Indra.
He who is invoked by both of two armies, enemies locked in combat, on this side and that side, he who is even invoked separately by each of two men standing on the very same chariot, he, my people, is Indra.
He without whom people do not conquer, he whom they call on for help when they are fighting, who became the image of everything who shakes the unshakeable – he, my people, is Indra.
He who killed with his weapon all those who had committed a great sin, even when they did not know it, he who does not pardon the arrogant man for his arrogance, who is the slayer of the Dasyus, he, my people, is Indra.
He who in the fortieth autumn discovered Bambara living in the mountains, who killed the violent serpent, the Dinu, as he lay there, he, my people, is Indra.
He, the mighty bull who with his seven reins let loose the seven rivers to flow, who with his thunderbolt in his hand hurled down Rauhina as he was climbing up to the sky, he, my people, is Indra.
Even the sky and the earth bow low before him, and the mountains are terrified of his hot breath; he who is Sown as the Soma-drinker, with the thunderbolt in his hand, with the thunderbolt in his palm, he, my people, is Indra.
He who helps with his favour the one who presses and the one who cooks, the praiser and the preparer, he for whom prayer is nourishment, for whom Soma is the special gift, he, my people, is Indra.
You who furiously, grasp the prize for the one who presses and the one who cooks, you are truly real. Let us be dear to you, Indra, all our days, and let us speak as men of power in the sacrificial gathering.
2:38 (Savitr at Sunset)
This god Savitr, the driver,1 has risen up many times to goad us on – this is his work. Now he apportions to the gods the jewel, and to those who offer the oblation he gives a share in happiness.
So that all will obey him, the god with broad hands stands upright and stretches out his two arms before him. Even the waters obey his command; even the wind stops in its orbit.
Even the one who travels with swift horses now unharnesses them; he has stopped even the wanderer from going on. He has put an end to the voracious hunger even of those who eat serpents. Night has come by Savitr’s command.
She who weaves has rolled up again what was stretched out. The skilful worker has laid down the work half-completed. He stirs and stands up; he has set apart the different times. With his thoughts gathered, the god Savitr has come.
He who lives in a house goes off into various dwellings, all his life. The glow of fire springs up and spreads out. The mother gives her son the best portion, because of the longing that Savitr has stirred up in him
He who went away because he wished to get something has now come back; the desire of all who wander turns to home. All of them, leaving their work uncompleted, have followed the command of the divine Savitr.
Those whose portion you decreed to be water are in the waters; the hunters spread out over the dry land. The trees belong to the birds; no one transgresses these commands of this god Savitr.
Varuna goes to the watery womb that he loves best, after rushing about restlessly from one blink of the eye to the next. Every bird and beast goes to his nest or pen; Savitr has dispersed each creature to its proper resting-place.
He whose law is not broken by Indra, nor by Varuna or Mitra, nor by Aryaman or Rudra, nor even by the forces of evil – that god Savitr I call upon for happiness, bowing low.
Stirring up Good Luck and Thought and Abundance – and may Praise-of-Men, the husband of goddesses, help us – when blessings come and riches pile up let us be dear to the god Savitr.
From the sky, from the waters, from the earth let there come to us that bounty that we long for and that you give, that brings happiness to those who praise and to your friend,” the singer whose praises reach far, O Savitr.
8.30 (To All the Gods)
Not one of you, gods, is small, not one a little child; all of you are truly great.
Therefore you are worthy of praise and of sacrifice, you thirty-three gods of Manu, arrogant and powerful.
Protect us, help us and speak for us; do not lead u into the distance far away from the path of our father Manu.
You gods who are all here and who belong to all men, give far-reaching shelter to us and to our cows and horses.
8:79 (The Restless Soma)
This restless Soma – you try to grab him but he breaks away and overpowers everything. He is a sage and a seer inspired by poetry.
He covers the naked and heals all who are sick. The blind man sees; the lame man steps forth.
Soma, you are a broad defence against those who hate us, both enemies we have made ourselves and those made by others.
Through your knowledge and skills, rushing forward you drive out of the sky and the earth the evil deed of the enemy.
Let those who seek find what they seek: let them receive the treasure given by the generous and stop the greedy from getting what they want.
Let him find what was lost before; let him push forward the man of truth. Let him stretch out the lifespan that has not yet crossed its span.
Be kind and merciful to us, Soma; be good to our heart, without confusing our powers in your whirlwind.
King Soma, do not enrage us; do not terrify us; do not wound our heart with dazzling light.
Give help, when you see the evil plans of the gods in your own house. Generous king, keep away hatreds, keep away failures.
10:9 (The Waters of Life)
Waters, you are the ones who bring us the life force. Help us to find nourishment so that we may look upon great joy.
Let us share in the most delicious sap that you have, as if you were loving mothers.
Let us go straight to the house of the one for whom you waters give us life and give us birth.
For our well-being let the goddesses be an aid to us, the waters be for us to drink. Let them cause well-being and health to flow over us.
Mistresses of all the things of all the things that are chosen, rulers over all peoples, the waters are the ones I beg for a cure.
Soma has told me that within the waters are all cures and Agni who is salutary to all.
Waters, yield your cure as an armour for my body, so that I may see the sun for a long time.
Waters, carry far away all of this that has gone bad in me, either what I have done in malicious deceit or whatever lie I have sworn to.
I have sought the waters today; we have joined with their sap. O Agni full of moisture, come and flood me with splendour.
With faith the fire is kindled; with faith the oblation is offered up. With speech I testify faith upon the head of happiness.
Faith, make this that I have said dear to the man who gives, dear to the man who wishes to give, dear, O faith, among the lavish sacrificers.
As the gods established faith among the formidable Asuras, so establish what we have said among lavish sacrificers.
The gods who sacrifice and are guarded by Vayu honour faith; with heartfelt intent they honour faith. And with faith they find wealth.
We call to faith at morning, to faith near midday, to faith when the sun sinks down. Faith, establish faith in us.
10:810-82 (The All-Maker – Visvakarman)
The Sage, our Father, who took his place as priest of the oblation and offered all these worlds as oblation, see king riches through prayer, he entered those who were to come later, concealing those who went before.
What was the base, what sort of raw matter was there, and precisely how was it done, when the All-Maker, casting his eye on all, created the earth and revealed the sky in its glory?
With eyes on all sides and mouths on all sides, with arms on all sides and feet on all sides, the One God created the sky and the earth fanning them with his arms.
What was the wood and what was the tree from which they carved the sky and the earth? You deep thinkers, ask yourselves in your own hearts, what base did he stand on when he set up the worlds?
Those forms of yours that are highest, those that are lowest, and those that are in the middle, O All-Maker, help your friends to recognize them in the oblation. You who follow your own laws, sacrifice your body yourself, making it grow great.
All-Maker, grown great through the oblation, sacrifice the earth and sky yourself. Let other men go astray all around; let us have a rich and generous patron.
The All-Maker, the lord of sacred speech, swift as thought—we will call to him today to help us in the contest. Let him who is the maker of good things and is gentle to everyone rejoice in all our invocations and help us.
The Father of the Eye, who is wise in his heart, created as butter these two worlds that bent low. As soon as their ends had been made fast in the east, at the moment sky and earth moved far apart.
The All-Maker is vast in mind and vast in strength. He is the one who forms, who sets in order, and who is the highest image. Their prayers together with the drink they have offered give them joy there where, they say, the One dwells beyond the seven sages.
Our Father, who created and set in order and knows all forms, all worlds, who alone gave names to the gods, he is the one to whom all other creatures come to ask questions.
To him the ancient sages together sacrificed riches, like the throngs of singers who together made these things that have been created, when the realm of light was still immersed in the realm without light.
That which is beyond the sky and beyond this earth, beyond the gods and the Asuras —what was that first embryo that the waters received, where all the gods together saw it?
He was the one whom the waters received as the first embryo, when all the gods came together. On the navel of the Unborn was set the One on whom all creatures rest.
You cannot find him who created these creatures; another has come between you. Those who recite the hymns are glutted with the pleasures of life; they wander about wrapped up in mist and stammering nonsense.
10:58 (A Spell to Turn Back the Departing Spirit)
If your spirit has gone to Yama the son of Vivasvan far away, we turn it back to you here to dwell and to live.
If your spirit has gone to the sky or to the earth far away, we turn it back to you here to dwell and to live.
If your spirit has gone to the four-cornered earth far away, we turn it back to you here to dwell and to live.
If your spirit has gone to the four quarters of the sky far away, we turn it back to you here to dwell and to live.
If your spirit has gone to the billowy ocean far away, we turn it back to you here to dwell and to live.
If your spirit has gone to the flowing streams of light far away, we turn it back to you here to dwell and to live.
If your spirit has gone to the waters, or to the plants, fara away, we turn it back to you here to dwell and to live.
If your spirit has gone to the sun, or to the dawns far away, we turn it back to you here to dwell and to live.
If your spirit has gone to the high mountains far away, we turn it back to you here to dwell and to live.
If your spirit has gone to this whole moving universe far away, we turn it back to you to dwell and to live.
If your spirit has gone to distances beyond the beyond, far away, we turn it back to you to dwell and to live.
If your spirit has gone to what has been and what is to be, far away, we turn it back to you to dwell and to live.
10:146 (Lost in the Forest)
Spirit of the forest, spirit of the forest, who seems to melt away, how is it that you do not ask about a village? Doesn’t a kind of fear grasp you?
When the Chichika bird takes up the refrain from the droning cricket, the spirit of the forest is like a hunter startling the game with his noisy beaters.
The spirit of the forest at evening: You think you see cows grazing; you think you see a house; you think a cart is rumbling.
Whoever stays in the forest at evening imagines: Someone is calling his cow; someone else is cutting wood; someone is crying out.
The spirit of the forest does not kill—not if no one else approaches. She eats sweet fruit and lies down wherever she pleases.
Mother of wild beasts, untilled by a plough but full of food, sweet-smelling of perfume and balm—to her, the spirit of the forest, I offer my praise.