Hymn for peaceful sleep

Hymn 55 of Mandala VII, composed by Rishi Vasistha, is a prayer for a peaceful slumber for the inhabitants of the house.

As seen in verses 05-06 and 08, reproduced below, the prayer seeks to lull to sleep, the mother, the father, the master of the house, the women and matrons and every other relative (kinsmen) of the master of the house.

RV 7.055.05
Sleep mother, let the father sleep, sleep dog and master of the house.
Let all the kinsmen sleep, sleep all the people who are round about.

RV 7.055.06
The man who sits, the man who walks, and whosoever looks on us,
Of these we closely shut the eyes, even as we closely shut this house.

RV 7.055.08
The women sleeping in the court, lying without, or stretched on beds,
The matrons with their odorous sweets these, one and all, we lull to sleep.

Several aspects in these verses jumped at me:

The lack of mention of children or babies. I would have thought, a restful night for children would be of greater concern than for elders.

By all tokens, the description of the household in this hymn seems to be of a large one and/or a well to do one. Certainly large, since we find mention of parents and a rather large contingent of relatives. Could this then be a hymn used by a family priest for a person of nobility?

Verse 08 seems to suggest that might perhaps be the case. The house described appears to have a court, beds that women slept on and sweet smelling matrons in employment of the nobleman. I cannot imagine this to be indicative of a lifestyle of the entire population and thus constrained to conclude this hymn was indeed preserved for invocation by a well to do or powerful person in society.

There are several other interesting aspects in the hymn – particularly the mention of Vastospati – a vedic deity – considered to the guardian of the house. But that deserves an entirely separate article.

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.

The Frog Hymn: Indianization of the Vedic people

RV 7.103 – the Frog hymn as I would like to call it – was composed by Rishi Vasistha.

The frogs have been quite for a year, no doubt awaiting the onset of rains.

RV 7.103.01
THEY who lay quiet for a year, the Brahmans who fulfil their vows,
The Frogs have lifted up their voice, the voice Parjanya hath inspired.

RV 7.103.02-03
What time on these, as on a dry skin lying in the pool’s bed, the floods of heaven descended,
The music of the Frogs comes forth in concert like the cows lowing with their calves beside them.

When at the coming of the Rains the water has poured upon them as they yearned and thirsted,

One seeks another as he talks and greets him with cries of pleasure as a son his father.

And as the floods descend from heaven, the rains pour upon their dry skin, the frogs burst out in music, in the manner of a concert.

Vasistha breaks into poetry in this hymn. He paints a picture of two frogs – Green and Spotty, as they seek and great each other with cries of pleasure as a son his father. One repeats the language of the other, in the manner that students learn their lessons from their teacher.

RV 7.103.04-05
Each of these twain receives the other kindly, while they are revelling in the flow of waters,
When the Frog moistened by the rain springs forward, and Green and Spotty both combine their voices.

When one of these repeats the other’s language, as he who learns the lesson of the teacher,
Your every limb seems to be growing larger as ye converse with eloquence on the waters.

Poetry aside, there are such significant nuggets in this hymn.

First is what has already been mentioned above – we have clear evidence that formal education was in place and we have a glimpse of how students learnt lessons from their teachers – by repetition.

Then in verse 7, we glean two fascinating facts – one is the mention of the famous soma rite of Atirata and the other that the first day of the “rain-time” was honoured.

RV 7.103.07
As Brahmans, sitting round the brimful vessel, talk at the Soma-rite of Atiratra,
So, Frogs, ye gather round the pool to honour this day of all the year, the first of Rain-time.

But the most significant of them all is verse 9. The “rain-time” is a season that men do not neglect. The season is in keeping with the twelve month God appointed order. The mention of the “heated kettles that gain their freedom” is a clear reference to the heat that builds up prior to the rainy season.

RV 7.103.09
They keep the twelve month’s God-appointed order, and never do the men neglect the season.
Soon as the Rain-time in the year returneth, these who were heated kettles gain their freedom.

The final verse, 10, captures a great deal of symbolism. The importance of the rain – especially to farming and in turn to the pastoralist families of the Vedic seers.

RV 7.103.10
Cow-bellow and Goat-bleat have granted riches, and Green and Spotty have vouchsafed us treasure.
The Frogs who give us cows in hundreds lengthen our lives in this most fertilizing season.

What does all this add up to?

Here is a hymn composed by a seer firmly rooted in the plains of India. The annual onset of rain, the unbearable heat that builds up before the onset of monsoon and the relief expressed by both humans and animals when the first rains arrive are unmistakably Indian. Rishi Vasistha and the composition of Mandala VII can be placed in India – of that I now have no doubt.

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