Theology and Indian Philosophy
A translation and analysis of the Nāsadīya Sūkta
Activities recognisably similar to theology can be found within Hinduism, such as philosophical speculation and rational analysis about what qualities and attributes if any are possessed by God or by the ultimate metaphysical reality. Hindu speculation on the divine constitutes a pluralistic and syncretic tradition which not only allows for but encourages wide scope in belief and practice. This explains why, for example, Hindu authorities such as Śankara argued rationally for the existence of a single metaphysical power (Brahman) without any qualities whatsoever, yet also composed songs praising gods such as Krishna and Shiva.
In this article, I will examine how features such as religious pluralism and religious syncretism are present in one famous verse of the Rig Veda, Book 10 Verse 129, popularly known as the Nāsadīya Sūkta [NS]. A satisfactory translation of this verse into English is hard to achieve, and it is likely there will never be one single definitive translation. I have provided my own literal translations below, sticking closely to the text rather than adding interpretation. I hope that this will prompt further speculation on the nature of the divine and encourage wider engagement with the Rig Veda.
The Non-Existent Was Not, the Existent Was Not, at That Time; There Was Not the Mid-Space nor the Heavens Beyond
The scene here is described in a series of negatives, which reminds us of the famous description of Brahman as ‘not this, not this’ (‘neti, neti’) found in the Bṛhādaraṇyaka Upanishad. It is a question about a time not merely when nothing existed, but when there wasn’t even the duality of existence and non-existence. We are talking about the time before the universe as we know it came into being, and perhaps even a time before time. We may contrast this with a different conception also in the Rig Veda, that “Existence was born from non-existence in the first age of the Gods” [RV 10.72.4]
This beginning also gives an indication of the ancient Indian understanding of subsequent cosmology. As also indicated in other verses of the Rig Veda, the ancient Indians understood their universe as formed of the duality of the existent and the non-existent, where the existent again accompanied the duality of heaven and earth, separated by a mid-space.
What Held Back? Where? Kept by Who? Was There Water, Deep [And] Dense?
In contrast to the definitive pronouncements we might have expected from a religious texts, we find instead a set of questions about this earliest time. This questioning attitude can reasonably be considered to embody a proto-scientific spirit. Indeed, the same questioning attitude is observed in the Upanishads and in much of later Hindu philosophy and religious speculation.
Death Was Not, nor Immortality Then; There Was No Distinction of Day from Night
This line continues the negative form of description of this earliest time. As in the first line, dualities are negated, those of death and immortality (presumably also indicating the duality of mortals and gods) and of day and night.
The One Breathed Without Air, by Its Own Nature; Apart from It, There Wasn’t Anything
The situation has perhaps moved forward, and we are now introduced to a concrete something, the One. Another paradoxical idea is presented, that it breathed without air. It seems that this One is the precursor to the dualities that later form, of existent and non-existent, and of heaven and earth. As the basis for the coming into existence of all subsequent Beings, this One would perhaps be something like a Ground of Being or an ἀρχή, a first principle of cosmogony. As such, a monotheistic impulse can perhaps be glimpsed in this idea of the One.
There Was Darkness Hidden by Darkness, in the Beginning; All This Was Indeed Indistinguishable Water
When There Was Emptiness Covered by Emptiness, That One Was Born out of Great Heat
Darkness and water, at the least, now seem to exist. The poetic quality in the language of the original Sanskrit text is quite striking, and together with the paradoxical character of the description, seems calculated to provoke a sense of wonder. We now learn more about the One mentioned above. This One has sometimes been identified with the Hiranyagarbha, the Lord of Being described in Rig Veda Book 10 Verse 121 (and pictured above), which is also born in the beginning in a scenario involving water and heat.
Then, in the Beginning, Desire, Which Was the First Offspring of the Mind, Came upon It
Poets, Seeking Wisdom in the Heart, Discovered the Bond of The Existent and The Non-Existent
The situation appears to have moved forward once more. The darkness and warmth that came into existence in the previous lines were entities of the physical world, but now we encounter also an entity pertaining to the mental or spiritual realm, that is, desire. In the second line, the duality of being and non-being is once again raised as an important theme, now referenced in connection with poets. These poets seem to have figured out some part of the creation story, namely, that being and non-being originally did not constitute a duality.
Their [The Poets’] Measuring String Stretched Across; Was There Above? Was There Below?
There Were Begetters; There Were Powers; Nature Below; Exertion Above
These poets seem to have been there at an early stage in this creation story. Indeed, this is not surprising, as speaking things into language is closely associated with creation in many ancient traditions. These even more ancient poets may be the precursors to the Vedic poet who spoke this verse into existence and his fellow poets who spoke all the Vedic verses into existence. It is rather unclear what the ‘measuring string’ or ‘cord’ referred to here is. Professor A.A. Macdonell, noting the uncertainty, connects it with the ‘Bond’ mentioned earlier, and suggests it could be the “cord with which the sages [poets] … in thought measured out the distance between the existent and non-existent, or between what was above and below”. It has also been suggested that this verse could refer to the separation of earth and heaven that is a theme elsewhere in the Rig Veda, as well as in many other ancient mythologies. There is perhaps heaven above, with its great-than-mortal powers and actions, and earth below, the world of nature and matter. At the same time, the verse remains strangely indecisive about this.
Who Really Knows? Who Here Can Say? from Whence Did It Come? from Whence This Creation?
The Gods Came After the Creation, so Who Knows from Whence It Was Produced?
Just as it started by questioning, so the verse move back into an even more intense questioning mode as it reaches the end, providing a set of questions which answer the initial question in sceptical fashion. There must be an account of creation, but there is no-one able to give it. Whilst the reference to gods here indicates a polytheistic conception, this is not the idea of a creator god or of creator gods. Thus it seems we must learn to live in a state of unknowingness. We can investigate this question and uncover some relevant considerations, as indeed has been done in this verse, and discover some connections, as did the early poets, but we will never reach a conclusive answer.
Again, it is worth emphasizing the connection with the scientific spirit. Lack of knowledge and lack of ability to know is a prominent feature, not only of intellectual inquiry, but also in giving direction to the course of our lives. By deliberating, speculating, excogitating and discovering, whilst at the same time acclimatising ourselves to a state of unknowingness, we may find an optimal balance in our rational thinking.
From Whence This Creation Was Produced, Whether or Not It Was Conceived …
The One Who Is the Supervisor of This in the Highest Skies Knows or Doesn’t Know
The verse ends suddenly on a note of indecision.