Veda and dice?

The general impression is that Veda hymns, teeming with praise for the divine, contain power within them to invoke any God they may so will. May as well be. Once in every while, though, one stumbles upon something different. For example, a poemthe that contains the shreds of oscillating conscience shorn off an addict in a rehab.

Oh, don’t jump out of your chairs – yet. I do not claim that they had rehabilitation centers matching the ones existing today. However, once you let go of initial disbelief, you will see the glimpses of all: the awareness of a gambler that the morbid attraction to gambling is a fruit of his hunger to get high on the sight of rolling dice, his knowledge that he has abandoned his unblemished  wife (no blame game here), his awareness of all the ensuing evils – strangers fondling his wife, social ostracization, his guilt, envy, and finally, his utterly hopeless submission to the dices, taking a vow that he (the gambler) will never covet wealth. That is a signature consciousness of a decision that he commits to the vice knowingly, in full awareness of consequences.

You see no hand of the unconscious, though Psychological insight, clear as daylight is written all over it.

In the end, the gambler also resolves that he will give up gambling, and take up farming – from consciousness to consciousness, just the hemisphere changes.

And changes how. Another story suggests that the seer of this sukta was himself this addict he talks about (explains the clear narration of a gambler’s perspective). He was ‘taken away’ – incarcerated? You can taste his pain of rejection when you read his words – it is his own people who are asking that the gambler be taken away. If he stops gambling, his friends go away. See the oscillation and ‘stuckness’??

However, it is this person who was accepted as a Rishi, and he also became a Purohita of a king. Now piece the jig-saw. The missing pieces are not really missing. One may infer (debatably?) that a fallen person got accepted and promoted to the apex of a social pyramid.

Psychotherapy and psychology may not include poetry. But poetry is potent enough to remain a moving poetry while containing guilt, anguish, insight, reflection, observation, and knowledge of the truth. Cut and dry it as psychology, psychotherapy or more, as you like it – or, as you can chew it.

See the Mandala 10, Sukta 34 of Rigveda. It contains 14 verses. This Sukta or a poem, also known as the “gambler’s lament”, is by Kavaṣa Ailūṣa.

The brief translation of the verses is as follows:

The wobbling [dice] born on tall trees in windy places, rolling on the dice-board, give intoxicating pleasure to my heart. The dice from the Vibhīdaka tree, the one that keeps [gamblers] awake, delights me, like the drink of soma from the Mujavat mountain. (1)

She [my wife] neither got angry nor felt ashamed of me [on the contrary], she was cordial towards my friends and towards me. For the sake of addiction to dice, I have abandoned my devoted wife! (2)

The mother-in-law hates [the gambler], the wife keeps him away, and the destitute does not find a comforting friend. I do not find any happiness for a gambler, like the value of an old and worn-out horse. (3)

Others fondle the wife of the one whose wealth the powerful dice has coveted. The father, mother, and brothers say of him, “We don’t know him, bind him and take him away!” (4)

When I resolve that I will not play with these (dice), then I am abandoned by my departing friends. And the tawny (dice) that are thrown down (on the board) make a rattling sound, I go towards the place where they are thrown, like a paramour (drawn to the meeting place with her lover). (5)

His body glowing, the gambler enquiring (about the gambling den), goes to it, thinking “I will win”. On the casting of the moves by his adversary, the dice stoke his desire. (6)

Dice are indeed goads that torment and destroy, and cause remorse and agony. For the winning gambler, they are like sons who keep sucking wealth (from a wealthy father), and for the loser, they, covered with honey destroy him again. (i.e. his wealth and his reputation). (7)

Their group of fifty-three cavort (on the board), like the god Savitṛ, true to his word. They do not bow down even to the anger of the infuriated, even the king bows down to them! (8)

They roll downwards and spring upwards, without hands they overpower the one with hands! Though being cold to touch, cast on the board, they are glowing charcoals that burn the heart! (9)

The abandoned wife of the aimlessly wandering gambler is tormented and so is the mother. Indebted and fearful, desiring wealth (by any means), he approaches the homes of others by night (to steal). (10)

The gambler burns with envy on seeing a woman, another’s wife and his well-established dwelling. He yokes the tawny horses in the morning and the sinner sinks down (exhausted) when the fire dies out. (11)

(O dice)! Whoever is the commander-in-chief of your hordes, the king, the foremost of your tribe, I bow to him with ten fingers (i.e. joined palms) facing east, and I will not covet wealth – this I say truthfully. (12)

O gambler! Do not play with dice, engage in farming, enjoy the wealth gained thereby, considering it to be sufficient! There (in farming) are the cattle, there is your wife (i.e. you will find happiness in them), that is what the Lord Savitṛ has told me. (12)

(O dice!) Make us your friend, soothe us, do not deal with us using unbearable ferocity! May your fury rest in our enemy and may another (i.e our enemy) fall into the grip of the tawny (dice). (14)

Translation: Vedavedanga

Image source:



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?