What is the answer to this crazy old riddle — or barrage of riddles?
1.The Man has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. He pervaded the earth on all sides and extended beyond as far as ten fingers.
2. 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.
3. Such is his greatness, and the Man is yet more than this. All creatures are a quarter of him; three quarters are what is immortal in heaven.
4.With three quarters the Man rose upwards, and one quarter of him still remains here. From this he spread out in all directions, into that which eats and that which does not eat.
5. From him Viraj was born, and from Viraj came the Man. When he was born, he ranged beyond the earth behind and before.
6.When the gods spread the sacrifice with the Man as the offering, spring was the clarified butter, summer the fuel, autumn the oblation.
7. They anointed the Man, the sacrifice born at the beginning, upon the sacred grass. With him the gods, Sadhyas, and sages sacrificed.
8. From that sacrifice in which everything was offered, the melted fat was collected, and he made it into those beasts who live in the air, in the forest, and in villages.
9. From that sacrifice in which everything was offered, the verses and chants were born, the metres were born from it, and from it the formulas were born.
10. Horses were born from it, and those other animals which have two rows of teeth; cows were born from it, and from it goats and sheep were born.
11. When they divided the Man, into how many parts did they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his two arms and thighs and feet?
12. His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into the Warrior, his two thighs the People, and from his feet the Servants were born.
13. The moon was born from his mind; from his eye the sun was born. Indra and Agni came from his mouth, and from his vital breath the Wind was born.
14. From his navel the middle realm of space arose; from his head the sky evolved. From his two feet came the earth, and the quarters of the sky from his ear. Thus they set the worlds in order.
15. There were seven enclosing-sticks for him, and thrice seven fuel-sticks, when the gods, spreading the sacrifice, bound the Man as the sacrificial beast.
16. With the sacrifice the gods sacrificed to the sacrifice; these were the first ritual laws. These very powers reached the dome of the sky where dwell the Sadhyas, the ancient gods.
(Rig Veda 10.90, tr. Doniger, Penguin Classics)
This is the famously baffling Purusha-Sukta, or “Hymn to Man,” from the Rig Veda: How does the innocent reader, uninitiated in the mysteries, even begin to crack it? Well, it turns out that because we are human the riddle is already open to us, and the face of the poem is riddling not because it is concealing something clear and simple but because we ourselves are its riddle.
On the first few ruminations the poem seems to lay out the transformation of the human from the disorderly and primitive to the orderly, cultured, religious. Primal man could be everything, ranged freely, was vast in perception and sympathies, and was intimately conjoined and cogenerated with Viraj/Nature. But in verse 6 there is a turn, and the gods — whom he himself might have created — sacrifice him for the sake of creating a higher being with a world. Primal man is replaced by social, religious man; a creature who does not have a world but lives merged with all has become a higher creature who now abides in a realm where he is differentiated from other animals, worships various deities that have emerged from himself, and is divided into different social strata. Man is killed off, and Man is born, the human world is born: the sacrifice seems definitive. Original man has been sacrificed, in a sacrificial ritual that articulates the transition, to a new man who can is not only the sacrificee, as it were, but is now an active sacrifice to the new order because, once we are conscious of the fact of our being creatures of a distinct world as opposed to no world, each act we do expresses a commitment to the sacrifice — every time we cook a meal, every time we go to work. The transformation looks at first like a leap from undeveloped to developed — or, to use an image from Chinese writings, from an uncarved block of wood to a finished sculpture. In this way, the poem is a witty and concise expression of gratitude for our happier state now — a hymn of praise from the orthodox and satisfied.
To read it this way, however, is to turn the poem into a triumph that corroborates our complacency in the social state we are used to. Can we understand at all the state of Man at the beginning of the poem? Indeed we can, for our access to it is through the imagination of a child, who can take on all things, be all things, enact all things, because the child does not yet live within a certainty of what it is and should be and is limited by. Man at this stage has no sense of time, and no rigid sense of spatial boundaries: the child — not to mention the lunatic, the lover and the poet — is frequently lost in the activity at hand, momentarily forgetting where they are, how much time has passed, and sometimes even who they are. This state, observes the poem, is not just a submergence in the natural world around us; on the contrary, three quarters of it is aerial and transcendent, “trailing clouds of glory” from higher realms. It is a state of being without the differentiations and impositions of self-consciousness and self-alienation. The English Romantic poets tried to describe this, and so did the Chinese philosophers of the Dao, such as Zhuangzi, who saw it as on the one hand becoming a “great clump of earth” and on the other as freely flying with the winds. To them, this state is the best that we are capable of; here we feel most enlarged, most ourselves, most in harmony with the Everything, most connected and yet also most free. We experience it less frequently as we grow older, and the more conscious of it we become, the more we strive to regain it. From this point of view the transformation of verse 6 is our greatest loss.
Other Vedic poems say that we created the gods, for that primal human being has a tendency to bow down before the grandeur of the universe, and from that tendency we create images to whom we grant the authority to ordain our actions. Thus in organized religion we replace the genuine experience of the divine with a theologized godhead whose rule is justified so that we obey, substituting the security of governance for the chaotic union with the ineffable. And it is in obedience to this new authority that we obtain the safety of a world by sacrificing the primal human being: we kill off the chaotic, and well aware that the anointing and dismemberment are an act of murderous destruction, we ritualize it as a consecration.Self-murder is elevated into renunciation or making holy, for such an act can be perpetrated only by ourselves on ourselves. Yet — the ritual has to be performed again and again, indeed every day; it is not a one time thing, a done deal. We are the sacrifice perpetually, and have to re-sacrifice constantly — hence, we “sacrifice with the sacrifice to the sacrifice,” because it is not only an action but what we fundamentally are. Zhuangzi would point out that this is because the primal man cannot be killed, cannot be dismembered and reduced to sizzling lard — because that primordial creature is what we essentially are. Every act of cultural commitment, every day and moment in which we make ourselves into willing subjects of the society in which we find ourselves, involves violence against our basic nature, which is the nature of a child, an innocent, a tree, a cat: we cannot kill this, but each day that we try to kill it re-commits us to a life in which we confess our misery by avowing the need for happiness, which we know we do not have. Zhuangzi’s version of the second half of this poem would be this:
The ruler of the South Sea was called Heedless, the ruler of the North sea was called Sudden, and the ruler of the central region was called Chaos. Heedless and Sudden frequently met in the land of Chaos, who treated them well. Heedless and Sudden conferred how they would reciprocate his kindness. “All men have seven openings for the purposes of seeing, hearing, eating and breathing. Chaos alone does not have them. Let us try to make them for him.” Every day they dug one opening and at the end of the seventh day Chaos died…(tr. Hoechsmann and Yang, 128)
— except that he knows that Chaos cannot really die. It lives on, in pain — and perhaps its persistence in this condition is a worse death than death. The “sacrifice of the sacrifice to the sacrifice” would, in this reading of the poem, be pleonastically and pointlessly reflexive, a desperate self-congratulation of the present state that very much resembles a snake swallowing its tail: it is a dead end, an enclosing, a live burial.
The Hymn to Man is thus ambivalent at its center. Its riddling knottedness reflects the inner warfare not of the poem but of our own hearts: We want the developed world we live in, we want its benefits and its sense of place and meaning, indeed we dread to imagine ourselves living without it — but we also understand, in our heart of hearts, what we give up to get here, every day and every moment. We give up, not gave up — because the first four verses are in the present tense, an eternal present, where we cannot die but can feel undying agony. Not the poem, but we ourselves are the riddle, the being that is double and that feels its doubleness through unhappiness. The Hymn to Man is a richly potent poem because it simultaneously consoles us by presenting a portrait of ourselves as secure and prosperous burgher — but it does not let us forget that beneath this burgher’s robes squirms a flayed man.