Primordial times: Poetry mixed with prescientific inquiry


(c) margie parikh

Questions come before answers. Knowledge existed before science. We recognise existence using words such as ‘something’ and ‘nothing’. But, what preceded something? What preceded nothingness?

Poets, philosophers and scientists – all have asked this question. Nasadiya Sukta (नासदीय सूक्त) , the 129th set of hymns from the 10th Mandala of the Rigveda (ॠग्वेद: १०,१२९) raises the very fundamental questions and laces them with their vision (दर्शन). It is a dense, deeply engaging set of questions and curiosity at the edge of mystified skepticism and open possibility.

Its questions hint at the poetic sensitivity to the undifferentiated state that might have preceded coming-into-being of all that we recognise. Clearly, nothing can come from nothing. What makes this short, seven-mantra Suktam enchanting – I feel – and I draw largely on the translation by A. L. Basham is:

1. Child-like curiosity and profound questions put lyrically together, metered (छंदोबद्ध) in Trishtupa Chhanda:

“Before anything came into being, when even nothingness did not exist, what was there? What enveloped it when there was neither air, nor the sky above? Where was it, under whose keeping? Was there just deep, unfathomable water?”

Some initiation into Chemistry helps establish analogy. We can conceptualize that two distinct substances, as a result of some process, can and do come into existence from a source substance with totally different properties. Here, the undifferentiated state is also pregnant with a paradox that preceded and rose above the duality of something and nothing, the light and darkness, death and immortality. Read on.

2. The roots of more refined philosophy are here:

The unnamed ‘it’ breathed without wind and sustained itself without light and dark when there was neither death nor immortality.

From amid the darkness wrapped in darkness, from within the unilluminated water, unencased ‘it’ brought itself into being by sheer resolve and persistence (तप – I must say this is my own, perhap incorrect understanding of the word Tapa).

3. Desire and Heart are recognised as the primal sources, not as inherently evil or leading to it:

It all began when ‘it’ had the desire – the primal seed, born of mind. Before the recognition dawned about which is its kin and which not, the sages had to search their heart with wisdom.

Did you notice the gender associated with the words “It”, “mind”, “kin”?

4. Kite-flying in logic can be an umbilical cord for the nascent being:

And then they (probably those sages with wisdom, who searched their heart) knew it was the impulse above, which made fertile and nourished what was below. Notice how there is no term yet indicating ‘creation’.

5. Questions are intertwined with attempted answers:

They ask, if the gods came after it, then who knows and who can tell how it all happened and from where it came?

6. The ultimate doubt that leaves it all open for an all-new thinking:

In the end, it says, “Perhaps the one that shaped it and supervises it from above, knows – or perhaps even he doesn’t know.”

The text and the meaning of the words of the seven Mantras are:

नासदीय सूक्तम्

नास॑दासी॒न्नो सदा॑सीत्त॒दानी॒म् नासी॒द्रजो॒ नो व्यो॑मा प॒रो यत्।
किमाव॑रीव॒: कुह॒ कस्य॒ शर्म॒न्नंभ॒: किमा॑सी॒द्गह॑नं गभी॒रम्॥१॥

न। असत्। आसीत्। = [When] nothingness was not there

नो इति। सत्। आसीत्। = [When] there was no existence

तदानीम्। न। आसीत्। रज:। नो इति। व्योम। पर:। यत्। = Then there was no air or the sky [space] beyond it

किम्। आवरीव:। कुह। कस्य। शर्मन्। = What enveloped it then? Where was it? IN whose keeping?

अम्भ:। किम्। आसीत्। गहनम्। गभीरम्। = Was there unfathomable water?

न मृ॒त्युरा॑सीद॒मृतं॒ न तर्हि॒ न रात्र्या॒ अह्न॑ आसीत्प्रके॒तः।
आनी॑दवा॒तं स्व॒धया॒ तदेकं॒ तस्मा॑द्धा॒न्यन्न प॒रः किञ्च॒नास॑॥२॥

न। मृत्यु:। आसीत्। अमृतम्। न। तर्हि। = When there was no death and no immortality, [then]

न। रात्र्या। अह्न। आसीत्। प्रकेत। = There was no distinction between night or day

आनीत्। अवातम्। स्वधया। तत्। एकम्। = It alone was breathing autonomously without the wind

तस्मात्। ह। अन्यत्। न। पर:। किम्। च। न। आस। = There was nothing beyond it

तम॑ आसी॒त्तम॑सा गू॒ळ्हमग्रे॑ऽप्रके॒तं स॑लि॒लं सर्व॑मा इ॒दं।
तु॒च्छ्येना॒भ्वपि॑हितं॒ यदासी॒त्तप॑स॒स्तन्म॑हि॒ना जा॑य॒तैकं॑॥ ३॥

तम। आसीत्। तमसा। गूढम्। अग्रे। = there was darkness wrapped by darkness

अप्रकेतम्। सलिलम्। सर्वम्। इदम्। = It was all water unfathomable.

तुच्छ्येन। आभु:। अपिहितम्। यत्। आसीत्। = It was not covered by anything

तपस:। तत्। महिना। अजायत। एकम्। = it came into being by the power of resolve and persistence (तप)

काम॒स्तदग्रे॒ सम॑वर्त॒ताधि॒ मन॑सो॒ रेत॑: प्रथ॒मं यदासी॑त्।
स॒तो बन्धु॒मस॑ति॒ निर॑विन्दन् हृ॒दि प्र॒तीष्या॑ क॒वयो॑ मनी॒षा॥४॥

काम:। तत्। अग्रे। सम्। अवर्तत। = Desire prevailed in the beginning

अधि। मनस:। रेत:। प्रथमम्। यत्। आसीत्।= It was the primal seed born of the mind.

सत:। बन्धुम्। असति। नि:। अविन्दन्। = They [sages] know who is the kin and who is not

हृदि। प्रति ईष्य। कवय:। मनीषा। = the sages who search in their hearts

ति॒र॒श्चीनो॒ वित॑तो र॒श्मिरे॑षाम॒धः स्वि॑दा॒सी ३ दु॒परि॑ स्विदासी ३ त्।
रे॒तो॒धा आ॑सन्महि॒मान॑ आसन्त्स्व॒धा आ॒वस्ता॒त्प्रय॑तिः प॒रस्ता॑त्॥५॥

तिरञ्चिन:। वितत:। रश्मि:। एषाम्। अघ:। स्वित्। आसि३त्।  = They know what is above the cord stretched across and what below

उपरि। रेत्:। अधा:। आसन्। महिमान:। आसन्। स्वधा। अवस्तात्। प्रयति। पुरस्तत्।  The impulse lay above and the power below.

को अ॒द्धा वे॑द॒ क इ॒ह प्रवो॑च॒त्कुत॒ आजा॑ता॒ कुत॑ इ॒यं विसृ॑ष्टिः।
अ॒र्वाग्दे॒वा अ॒स्य वि॒सर्ज॑ने॒नाथा॒ को वे॑द॒ यत॑ आब॒भूव॑॥६॥

क:। अद्धा। वेद। क। इह।  प्र।  वोचत।  = Who knows and who can say

कुत:। आजाता। कुत:। =  from where all this that became, came from?

अर्वाक्। देवा:। अस्य। विसर्जनेन। अथ। क:। वेद:। यत:। आबभूव:। = The gods came afterwards, so who really knows? Who can tell?

इ॒यं विसृ॑ष्टि॒र्यत॑ आब॒भूव॒ यदि॑ वा द॒धे यदि॑ वा॒ न।
यो अ॒स्याध्य॑क्षः पर॒मे व्यो॑म॒न्त्सो अ॒ङ्ग वे॑द॒ यदि॑ वा॒ न वेद॑॥ ७॥

इयम्। विसृष्टि:। यत:। आबभूव। = Wherever all this came from

यदि। वा। दधे। यदि। व। न। = it was all shaped by or not

य:। अस्य:। अध्यक्ष:। परमे। व्योमन्। =the one who oversees it from above

स:। अङ्ग। वेद। यदि। वा। न। वेद। = he knows. Or may be he does not.

A basic text and translation of Nasadiya Sukta can be read here. and can be heard on Youtube here.

My personal preference is for the translation by Basham, which appears here.

Also, see a note on interpretation and transliteration by Max Muller, which is here.

Incidentally, if you are interested in watching a TV episode by Carl Sagan where he discusses the views on the origins of the universe in different cultures, especially the Vedic view highlighting Nasadiya Sukta (Thanks to my friend Avinash Venkata for reminding me of this!), you can find it here.

What do you say about this Sukta?


3 thoughts on “Primordial times: Poetry mixed with prescientific inquiry

  1. Subhash Yadav says:

    Interestingly, just looking at the photograph for a few seconds in this post, and meditating on it, makes one experience ‘that’ which the few hundred words below the photograph attempt to express. May be, we can become it but cannot know it.
    It must have taken some time to choose this photograph for this post !
    In the Rishi’s conception of the cosmos, it is ‘Rta’ or ‘Rtam’ – the cosmic order, which gives birth to the Gods and the worlds that we see and witness. The Gods are not above the ‘Rtam’, they exist because of the cosmic order.

    A similar chapter appears in the Tao Te Ching, (Stephen Mitchell’s translation). The chinese word which resembles in meaning to ‘Rtam’ is ‘Tao’.

    Chapter 14

    Look, and it can’t be seen,
    Listen, and it can’t be heard.
    Reach, and it can’t be grasped.

    Above, it isn’t bright.
    Below, it isn’t dark.
    Seamless, unnamable,
    it returns to the realm of nothing.
    Form that includes all forms,
    image without an image,
    subtle, beyond all conception.

    Approach it and there is no beginning;
    follow it and there is no end.
    YOU CAN’T KNOW IT, BUT YOU CAN BE IT, (Capitals are mine)
    at ease in your own life.
    Just realise where you come from:
    this is the essence of wisdom.

    A thought about the title : The word ‘prescientific’ assumes a linear conception of time. Most of the western concepts with ‘pre’ and ‘post’ prefixes ( pre modern, modern and post modern, etc) are based on the assumption that time is linear. Linear time has given us the concepts (superstitions of the educated ?) of economic progress, economic growth, developed, developing, ahead, behind, forward, backward etc.

    In the Indian conception, time is cyclic. It moves in a circle. (yuga) In a circle, pre and post become irrelevant. The past and the future merge in the everlasting present. There is no progress, development, ahead, behind and forward, backward. Prescientific and Postscientific become one.


  2. off topic. There’s an interesting article on Karan Ghelo, the last Rajput king of Gujarat — on Caravan. Don’t have the link right now.
    Also you might like Satya’s Ancient Indians blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Never impertinent to point someone towards good things! I had read stories involving the history of Gujarat, including Karan Ghelo. Shall revisit some. Will also check out the site you suggested. Thanks!


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