“You can’t understand the Vedas without a teacher,” the swami insisted. “They are too difficult for you. The people of the Vedic age were sophisticated beyond our comprehension, and the language they used has so many layers and complexities that you need a real Sanskrit scholar who can teach you what they are saying.” He would go on to say that the Vedas are esoteric in their teaching, setting up a veil of obscurity that can be penetrated only if you have the code. And yet — whenever I went to consult a teacher, they would disagree with one another, or else the teaching to which they reduced the poem would flatten out everything that was interesting in the poem to me. Yes, the Vedas are the beginning of the Hindu traditions, and have been assimilated into those traditions by being interpreted to fit — but coming at the beginning, are they not forever prior to and outside the traditions? They are often baffling, contradictory, riddling, full of confusion regarding temporal sequence, connections between sentences, and coherence in metaphors — but perhaps this difficult surface is something that has to be listened to and respected, and not reduced to something else that we think we know. In other words, perhaps the difficulty of the Rg Veda poems is not in fact their surface but their depth, and that they express something essentially difficult in the experience of living. To a contemporary reader — used to the obliquities of modern philosophy and the jagged, fragmentary, elliptical styles of modern poetry — the difficulties of the Rg Veda may be satisfying and compelling, and when they are read with the same kind of intense, careful respect that we give to a poem by T.S.Eliot, more meanings blossom out of them than can be contained in an interpretation that seeks to bring them into line with orthodox religious views.
In what follows, I want to read only the words in front of me, which will be from a good scholarly English translation, with all the sensitivity and insight that I can muster as an experienced reader of literature and philosophy. Let us see if the Vedas can open up to an honest, sincere reading that doesn’t seek to impose any predetermined theological scheme onto them — for we know enough about anything to justify having such a scheme for the whole of things?
The non-existent did not exist, nor did the existent exist at that time.
There existed neither the midspace nor the heaven beyond.
What stirred? From where and in whose protection?
Did water exist, a deep depth?
Death did not exist nor deathlessness then.
There existed no sign of night nor of day.
That One breathed without wind through its inherent force.
There existed nothing else beyond that.
Darkness existed, hidden by darkness, in the beginning.
All this was a signless ocean.
When the thing coming into being was concealed by emptiness,
then was the One born by the power of heat.
Then, in the beginning, from thought there developed desire,
which existed as the primal semen.
Searching in their hearts through inspired thinking,
poets found the connection of the existent in the non-existent.
Their cord was stretched across:
Did something exist below it? Did something exist above?
There were placers of semen and there were powers.
There was inherent force below, offering above.
Who really knows? Who shall here proclaim it? –
from where was it born, from where this creation?
The gods are on this side of the creation of this world.
So then who does know from where it came to be?
This creation – from where it came to be,
if it was produced or if not –
he who is the overseer of this world in the highest heaven,
he surely knows. Or if he does not know… ?
Rg Veda, Mandala 10, hymn 129 (translator: Joel Brereton)
This is the famous, and famously obscure, “Nasadiya” hymn from the Rg Veda, a hymn that has generated thousands of commentaries attempting to solve its riddles. The Nasadiya is unique among hymns: it doesn’t ask for anything, it doesn’t praise or appease any god, it doesn’t describe anything, it doesn’t tell a story, it doesn’t prescribe ritual actions – but it does ask questions, and even ends with a broken question, as if unsure about the question itself, as if questioning the question. Although nestled in Book 10 of the Rg Veda, this poem expresses the radical open-mindedness of the book: We give voice to our aspirations, we address the gods (whom we made), we engage the universe with speech and action, hoping for a response — but in truth we do not know where it all came from, and so we cannot know what it all is. All the other poems in the Rg Veda feel different when read in light of this one; they become voicings of a direct participation in the universe, and not philosophical or theological summations.
So where does it all come from, this world in which we find ourselves, this self in which we find our worlds? It must have been from something like a conception, an idea, an image, not like an architect’s blueprint but like an artist’s intuition as it makes manifest the unmanifest and surprises even the hand that moves the brush – and it must be compelled into life by something like desire, an urge to take form. Perhaps only an artist or poet can know this process as it happens, and thus uniquely has access to the mysterious origin of things. Or not. For even the artist has no clue where the brushstrokes are coming from, and the poet has no power to will the right word into being. “Who really knows? Who shall here proclaim it?”
Imagine then rolling out of bed in the morning with this poem on our tongues: we are thrown back onto ourselves in this marvel of the new morning, everything just lit up and created before us. Not only do we not know the ultimate origin of everything, but we don’t even know how today’s world came from yesterday’s world – and each day this fact will be proved by the unceasing river of surprises and shocks that demonstrate all too clearly that yesterday we understood nothing of what was happening in front of us, let alone beyond our immediate horizons. We are forced to take it all as it comes, as wholly new, not made by us, not reducible to pre-existing schemes and notions, not making any theological sense, but turning us into a fountain of questions – which is perhaps the fountain of all genuine worship.
“The world will never starve for want of wonders,” says Chesterton, “but only for want of wonder.”