Elephantiasis in Vedic times

In order to set the context of the article, a small digression, medical in nature is required. Here it is…

Elephantiasis refers to a parasitic infection that causes extreme swelling in the arms and legs.The disease is caused by the filarial worm, which is transmitted from human to human via the female mosquito when it takes a blood meal. The parasite grows into an adult worm that lives in the lymphatic system of humans.

The adult worms can live from about three to eight years. The adult worms grow to about 1 in (2.5 cm) to 4 in (10 cm) long.

Elephantiasis is one of the world’s most debilitating tropical diseases and affects over 40 million people in India and at least 120 million people globally.

Turns out, it is not just modern day India that has to deal with this problem. Our Vedic ancestors had to deal with this too. And the problem was probably as widespread because the rishis dedicated an entire hymn to various deities praying they not be inflicted with this terrible disease.

Verses from hymn 50 of Mandala VII are re-produced with relevant phrases highlighted.

RV 7.050.01
O MITRA-VARUNA, guard and protect me here: let not that come to me which nests within and swells.
I drive afar the scorpion hateful to the sight: let not the winding worm touch me and wound my foot.

The disease is caused by a winding worm that nests within and causes swelling. This is consistent with what we know now, that the filarial worm nests in the human body, deposited as larvae and then grows into an adult worm causing extreme swelling. The verse refers to “winding worm” as the cause of the disease.

RV 7.050.02
Eruption that appears upon the twofold joints, and that which overspreads the ankles and the knees,
May the refulgent Agni banish far away let not the winding worm touch me and wound my foot.

The second verse tells us that eruption appears at the joint and spreads from the ankles to the knees, again consistent with the swelling that occurs due to elephantiasis.

RV 7.050.04
The steep declivities, the valleys, and the heights, the channels full of water, and the waterless-
May those who swell with water, gracious Goddesses, never afflict us with the Sipada disease, may all the rivers keep us free from Simida.

In verse 4, we even have a name for the disease – the ancients called it “Sipada”.

What remains unresolved here is the mention of scorpion in verse 1; we now know that the disease is transmitted by mosquitoes, so relevance of scorpion is not clear to me. As I read this verse, I expected the symptoms described to be consistent with a scorpion sting, but as I read the entire verse and indeed the hymn, that certainly is not the case. So could this be a case of incorrect translation, could the composer have meant mosquito instead of scorpion? Well, very difficult to prove, however, if we could, then it would have meant that the ancients were aware of the entire lifecycle. But the repeated mention of ” not letting with worm touch and wound my foot”, seems to suggest, they were not aware of the role of the mosquito in the spread of the disease.

This hymn is composed by Rishi Vasistha, the same rishi who has composed the Frog Hymn. Elephantiasis is a disease of the tropics, with one third cases in India alone, followed by Africa. Like the Frog Hymn, this hymn is composed by a seer firmly rooted in India. The spirit and essence of Mandala VII is very much in modern day India. My conviction grows even more.

Identity of the Raksasas – Part I

For those familiar with Hindu mythology, Raksasas (Rakshasas), are important figures, next only to the Devas and Asuras. In folklore they are always portrayed as fearful looking demons, intent on desecrating the sacrificial worship of the rishis. They were thought to possess magical powers that enhanced during the night, change form (usually into birds) at will and ate raw flesh. In some cases, they are depicted as cannibals too.

So what account can we find in the Rig Veda on the Raksasas? Does it mention them at all? And if so, how do the descriptions compare with more recent folklore imagery as mentioned above?

Hymn 104 of Mandala VII, seems to be a good starting point, since it is entirely devoted to exhorting Indra-Soma for the destruction of the Raksasas. Furthermore, several verses provide vital information about their nature.

RV 7.104.02
Indra and Soma, let sin round the wicked boil like as a caldron set amid the flames of fire.
Against the foe of prayer, devourer of raw flesh, the vile fiend fierce of eye, keep ye perpetual hate.

We don’t need to go too far into the hymn to find the description we are looking for. Verse two provides three vital characteristics – that the Raksasas were foe of prayer, they ate raw flesh and had fearsome eyes.

RV 7.104.07
In your impetuous manner think ye both thereon: destroy these evil beings, slay the treacherous fiends.
Indra and Soma, let the wicked have no bliss who evermore assails us with malignity.

In verse 7, they are also described as being evil and treacherous, which I suppose is stating the obvious.

RV 7.104.18
Spread out, ye Maruts, search among the people: seize ye and grind the Raksasas to pieces,
Who fly abroad, transformed to birds, at night-time, or sully and pollute our holy worship.

In verse 18, we find first evidence that the Raksasas could transform into birds and that they could fly (maybe once transformed as birds). Could they transform only at night as the verse suggests? Perhaps.

We also find evidence that the Raksasas desecrated the worship of the rishis – “sully and pollute our holy worship”.

RV 7.104.22
Destroy the fiend shaped like an owl or owlet, destroy him in the form of dog or cuckoo.
Destroy him shaped as eagle or as vulture as with a stone, O Indra, crush the demon.

Verse 22 goes on to mention other forms as well – owl, owlet, dog, cuckoo, eagle and vulture. To me, “dog”, surely stands as very odd in a list that otherwise contains birds only, but, for now, I will let that be.

Verse 24 provide more characteristics:

RV 7.104.24
Slay the male demon, Indra! slay the female, joying and triumphing in arts of magic.
Let the fools’ gods with bent necks fall and perish, and see no more the Sun when he arises.

We can now glean that the Raksasas could be male or female, not restricted to any one gender. And we also have evidence that they had magical prowess and took much joy in putting that to use.

Great, almost everything that we associate with the Rakshasas via mythology in modern times, seems to square up with their characterization in the Rig Veda. So the imagery wasn’t developed in post vedic times, but existed during the Vedic times.

So who were these Raksasas really? Does the Rig Veda tell us more about them?

Well, yes it does, and will be the subject of a subsequent article.

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