Early Vedas: Maintaining the World by Proper Ritual and Righteous Action



I. Creation Myths in the Early Vedas


(Video Clip: Churning the Cosmic Ocean)


Cosmogony:  explanation of how things got started; tell us something about the living nature of the world; a form of asking and answering philosophical questions


Three cosmogonies: 


1.     Indra slays Vrtra:

a.     Early Vedic religion was polytheistic yet strove for deeper understanding of the world

b.     Interpret the myth in its owns terms (i.e., within its own software)

c.     The categories of “non-existence” and “existence” – primordial, undifferentiated, inertia, passive state of potential (chaos) / differentiated, active and creative process of becoming (order)

d.     Vrtra: darkness and bondage, keeps the waters trapped in his belly (or within a mountain around which he is wrapped).  Water as primordial condition.  Indra: powers of existence, creation, order in the world

e.     Indra overcomes Vrtra:  Reaching to the heart of creative potential to release it into activity and order.

f.      The cosmogony is a myth about the first time.  But not the one and only time.  It is also about the ongoing and dynamic nature of the world.  Moving from passive to active and back again.  How to maintain the world in its ongoing process of becoming.

2.     Churning of the Primordial waters – reaching the heart of creative potential, life itself.  Source of all things.

a.     Asuras and devas – all joined together with all things in the original unity of being.

3.     The Hymn of Origins

a.     Philosophical speculation embodied in narrative form: Wondering about the ultimate nature and source of all things: what lies beyond ordinary experience?  What prior reality unites existence and non-existence

b.     The One behind the Many:  India’s question: What is the relationship between absolute unity and  infinite and creative multiplicity.

4.     Purusha Sukta & Yajna

a.     (In Groups: try to state some of the passages’ meanings; raise a few questions that will lead you into further unlocking the worldview it comes from)

b.     Sacrifice

                                                            i.         As microcosm

                                                           ii.         As creative paradigm of all existence

                                                         iii.         As means of maintaining the worlds creative and ordered processes

                                                         iv.         As a celebration

c.     Rta: principles of order and process that govern the world

d.     Once again: The One and the Many

                                                            i.         Compare to the image of Nataraja: Embodies the absolute and unchanging origin and the multitudinous, creative and dynamic world



II. The Vedic Texts


1.     Two uses of the word “veda”:  whole body of revealed texts; earliest layers of vedic literature (samhita).  Veda = cognate of English “wisdom” or “wit”

2.     Shruti and Smrti: two categories of sacred text

3.     From oral traditions to text.

a.     An ancient system of double-checking:  the texts learned and recited in two forms (with sandhi, without sandhi)

4.     The Four Samhitas:

a.     Rigveda: hymns of praise (ric).  1028 hymns, ten divisions or books.  Composed in Sanskrit, early as 1200 BCE.

b.     Samaveda: collections of songs (samans) based on Rigveda with instruction on recitation

c.     Yajur Veda (white and black): incantations (yajuses) and verse recited during ceremony, declaring purpose and meaning of each act.

d.     Artharvaveda (Artharvans, medical practitioners): hymns and incantation for spells and magic formulas  Ritual function: mantra (verses used in liturgy) and brahmana (ritual exegesis)

e.     Each constitutes a branches (sakha) to which all subsequent Vedic texts attach