A hymn to ward off an epidemic?

Every once in a while, i come across hymns from which real people, real events and real places jump out at me. It is one of the reasons why i research the Rig Veda. As i read through the hymn, a connection is made. Images begin to form in my head and slowly assume life. Eventually, i am transported to the past, an invisible observer, and the entire event begins to unfold before my very eyes. Hymn 63 from Mandala VI is a great example of one such hymn.

A galaxy of Puru princes have gathered for a yagna to invoke the Asvin twins. It is rare for such a coming together of princes, so the reason(s) for doing so must be equal to the occassion. The hymn itself appears to have been composed for the occassion. It starts by raising a bold question – where is the hymn that has found and brought the Asvin twins to their worshippers, it asks. The implied response is that it is this hymn that has the power to to do so. Come readily to this mine invocation, the hymn implores the Asvins in its very second verse.

RV 6.063.01
WHERE hath the hymn with reverence, like an envoy, found both fair Gods to-day, invoked of many-
Hymn that hath brought the two Nasatyas hither? To this man’s thought be ye, both Gods, most friendly.

RV 6.063.03
Juice in wide room hath been prepared to feast you: for you the grass is strewn, most soft to tread on.
With lifted hands your servant hath adored you. Yearning for you the press-stones shed the liquid.

Soma juice has been prepared in vast quantities in a wide room and fresh grass strewn for the gods to tread on softly as they manifest at the place of worship. The scale of the manner in which the soma juice was prepared – in a “wide room”, is significant, because it rarely finds similar mention. Then as the yagna progresses, up stands the grateful-minded priest, elected and appointed by the group of princes to invole the Asvins.

RV 6.063.04
Agni uplifts him at your sacrifices: forth goes the oblation dropping oil and glowing.
Up stands the grateful-minded priest, elected, appointed to invoke the two Nasatyas.

RV 6.063.02
Come readily to this mine invocation, lauded with songs, that ye may drink the juices.
Compass this house to keep it from the foeman, that none may force it, either near or distant.

It is not just the Asvins whose grace and benevolence is being sought but those of Ushas and Surya as well. Then hymn asks the Asvins to compass the house (or perhaps even entire settlements) so that no foe may forcefully enter. They are also asked to slaughter the fiends (raksasas). Now, here is how i interpret who the foe might be. If these were mortal foes or enemies of the princes and their people, then why invoke the Asvins? The Bharadvaja priest would have naturally turned to Indra or Agni or both. Given the association of the Asvins as gods of medicine and healing, one could infer the foes here are an expression for illnesses and/or evil spirits that cause them.

The princes that were part of this event were Puraya, Sumidha, Peruk and Sanda. Not much is known about any one of them. But the fact that four of them came together, does suggest the importance of the event. My interpretation is that they came together to either ward off an impending epidemic or to deal with one that had come upon their people and settlements.

After the completion of the yagna, the Bharadvaja priest was handsomely rewarded (see the Bharadvaja danastuti). Two mares from Puraya, a hundred from Sumidha and food from Peruk. Sanda gave ten gold-decked and well-trained horses, tame and obedient and of lofty stature.

RV 6.063.09 – 10
Mine were two mares of Puraya, brown, swift-footed; a hundred with Sumidha, food with Peruk
Sanda gave ten gold-decked and well-trained horses, tame and obedient and of lofty stature.

Nasatyas! Purupanthas offered hundreds, thousands of steeds to him who sang your praises,
Gave, Heroes! to the singer Bharadvaja. Ye-Wonder-Workers, let the fiends be slaughtered.

It must have been some event this – and feels wonderful to be able to read about it and visualize it in my head. What happenned to these people after the yagna, is impossible to tell. Let us hope, the grace of the Asvin twins was bestowed upon them and that they were able to live healthy and happy lives.

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Rjisvan Bharadvaja – the warrior priest – Part I

Rjisvan Bharadvaja is ascribed as the composer of four hymns in Mandala VI – RV 6.049-052, one in Mandala IX – RV 9.098 and a two verses in RV 9.108.06-07.

Going by the number of hymns ascribed to various composers of Mandala VI, it appears that Rjisvan is a highly respected Bharadvaja (next only to Bharadvaja Barhaspatya and Samyu Bharadvaja). This is further attested by his being mentioned by as many as eight rishis belonging to different families in nine verses in the Rig Veda.

Not much is known about his exact lineage. There is nothing in the hymns composed by Rjisvan himself that shed any light on his parentage or progeny. Nor are there any direct references to patron(s) that Rjisvan offered his services. All we can say with certainty is his being a descendant of Bharadvaja Barhaspatya.Some of the aforementioned verses contain Arya and Dasa names along with Rjisvan, however, the Aryas such as Kanva, Trasadasyu, Paktha, Dasavraja and Gosarya are clearly not his contemporaries.

There is one Dasa though – Pipru, whose association with Rjisvan is the stuff legends are made of and is a subject of a later section.

While the Rjisvan hymns do not reveal anything about his lineage, they do provide very telling insights into the times that he lived in.

Consider verse 15 of hymn 49 from Mandala V:

RV 5.049.015
Give riches borne on cars, with many heroes, contenting men, the guard of mighty Order.
Give us a lasting home that we may battle with godless bands of men who fight against us, and meet with tribes to whom the Gods are gracious.

The second half of the verse reveals so much of history. There are three vital segments in the verse, each loaded with historical perspective, so let me decompose each of them: “Give us a lasting home”, “that we may battle with godless bands of men who fight against us” and “meet with tribes to whom the Gods are gracious”.

Let us analyze the first segment – “Give us a lasting home”.

Rjisvan is asking the Visvadevas (this hymn is composed in the praise of the Visvadevas) to provide a lasting home – the word used in “ksaya”, which can also be translated as dwelling, abode, dominion, etc. In this context, I believe”permanent settlement” is most appropriate rather than an individual dwelling or home. This then is an indication of a displaced/unsettled lot longing to root themselves.

The second segment is even more interesting – “that we may battle with godless bands of men who fight against us”.

Godless bands? Who are these godless bands? These can be clearly identified as the dasas – a tribe held by the Arya to be godless (i.e. not believing in the Arya gods). So Rjisvan is refering to conflicts with the Dasas. Dasa v/s Arya? Yes, considering that Rjisvan belonged to the Arya stock. So does this indicate conflicts a migrating Arya tribe got into as they encountered Dasa settlements?

Yes and No, and for a clear answer, we need to look closely at the third segment – “meet with tribes to whom the Gods are gracious”.

In this segment, Rjisvan is refering to tribes to whom, the Gods (i.e. devas) as gracious, which must mean people from the Arya stock. So if Rjisvan is expecting to meet people of the Arya stock, in his quest for new permanent settlements, then it must be that these people are in the newfound places, alongside the Dasa settlements already. Or so we can presume.

My inference is that Rjisvan lead a select band of Arya, more precisely, a select clan from the Puru tribe in the quest for a permanent settlement in regions already settled in by the Dasas, leading to conflicts between this select band of people and the Dasas. To me this does not represent a singluar case of the entire Arya stock in conflcit with the entire Dasa tribe. Nor does it represent a singular case of the entire Arya stock in course of their quest for permanent settlements.

Further evidence of this quest for permanent settlement may be found in verse 3 of hymn 50 of Mandala VI. Rjisvan, once again implores the Visvadevas for a permanent settlement, “which none may rival”.

RV 6.050.03
And, O ye Heaven and Earth, a wide dominion, O ye most blissful Worlds, our lofty shelter,
Give ample room and freedom for our dwelling, a home, ye Hemispheres, which none may rival.

So, was Rjisvan the leader of this moving Puru clan or just a respected Rishi? That he was an respected Rishi, we have already established above. But Rjisvan was more than just a rishi. The Dasa conflicts that he refers to appear to be that with Pipru. The conflicts and eventual conquest of Pipru is a legend in the Rig Veda itself. And we will cover that as Part II of this post.

Agni – The Messenger God

I often wondered why Agni was the second most important deity, next only to Indra, to the vedic civilization (if importance is measured in terms of the number of hymns in the Rig Veda). After all, fire would have been common place at the time of the vedic people and therefore the mystique would not have been great enough to accord a Godhood to the fire element.

As I research, it has become apparent there are more than one reasons to explain the prominence of Agni.

One of them is the role that Agni played in the Vedic pantheon. To the Vedic people, Agni was their messenger to the Gods. It is Agni who bears to the Gods the prayers, praises and oblations of his worshippers and brings the Gods down to their sacrifices or their homes.

Hymn 2 of Mandala IV has a detailed account of how Agni was the messenger to the Gods for the Vedic people.

RV 4.002.01
THE, Faithful One, Immortal among mortals, a God among the Gods, appointed envoy,
Priest, best at worship, must shine forth in glory . Agni shall be raised high with man’s oblations.

The very first verse acknowledges Agni as the appointed envoy. Agni also has the distinction of being the only God and immortal amongst the mortals.

RV 4.002.02
Born for us here this day, O Son of Vigour, between both races of born beings, Agni,
Thou farest as an envoy, having harnessed, Sublime One! thy strong-muscled radiant stallions.

RV 4.002.03
I laud the ruddy steeds who pour down blessing, dropping oil, fleetest through the thought of Order.
Yoking red horses to and fro thou goest between you Deities and mortal races.

In the mind of Rishi Vamadeva, composer of all the Agni hymns in Mandala IV, the flames of the sacrificial fire transform into strong-muscled radiant stallions that Agni, the envoy harnesses in order to travel to and from the Gods (you Deities) for the sake of the mortal races.

Agni, was born among mortals and amongst those Gods born of Heaven and Earth (hence both races of born beings), for the specific purpose of functioning as a messenger.

So who ordained this role for Agni? We have the answer in verse 12 as well as in verse 1 of Hymn 1

RV 4.002.12
This Sage the Sages, ne’er deceived, commanded, setting him down in dwellings of the living.
Hence mayst thou, friendly God, with rapid footsteps behold the Gods, wonderful, fair to look on.

The Sages, i.e. the other Gods, commanded this Sage, i.e. Agni, and set him down in the dwellings of the living as priest, herald, messenger, envoy…

RV 4.001.01
THEE Agni, have the Gods, ever of one accord, sent hither down, a God, appointed messenger, yea, with their wisdom sent thee down.
The Immortal, O thou Holy One, mid mortal men, the God-devoted God, the wise, have they brought forth, brought forth the omnipresent God-devoted Sage.

This verse is even more explicit than the previous one. The Gods of one accord sent down Agni as appointed messenger.

This role of Agni, is taken to its extreme in Hymn 3 of Mandala IV, verses 5 to 8.

RV 4.003.05 – 08
Why this complaint to Varuna, O Agni? And why to Heaven? for what is our transgression?
How wilt thou speak to Earth and bounteous Mitra? What wilt thou say to Aryaman and Bhaga?

What, when thou blazest on the lesser altars, what to the mighty Wind who comes tobless us,
True, circumambient? what to Earth, O Agni, what wilt thou say to man-destroying Rudra?

How to great Pusan who promotes our welfare,- to honoured Rudra what, who gives oblations?
What sin of ours to the far-striding Visnu, what, Agni, wilt thou tell the Lofty Arrow.

What wilt thou tell the truthful band of Maruts, how answer the great Sun when thou art questioned?
Before the Free, before the Swift, defend us: fulfil heaven’s work, all-knowing Jatavedas.

Agni is treated as an endearing Uncle who happens to be an interlocutor between a child and the child’s parents. Going through these verses, one might concur that the only way the vedic people communicated to the other Gods was via Agni. That however was never the case as is evidence of the praise and hymns to other Gods.

However, it does underscore the messenger function played by Agni and the significance thereof. Agni knows the deep recess of heaven, where we may assume the Gods reside and being a God himself, knows how to guide the other Gods to the homes of the righteous.

RV 4.008.02 – 03
He, Mighty, knows the gift of wealth, he knows the deep recess of heaven:
He shall bring hitherward the Gods.

He knows, a God himself, to guide Gods to the righteous in his home:
He gives e’en treasures that we love.

This view of Agni is well established even a few centuries earlier as evidenced in Mandala VI.

RV 6.001.01
THOU, first inventor of this prayer, O Agni, Worker of Marvels, hast become our Herald.
Thou, Bull, hast made us strength which none may conquer, strength that shall overcome all other prowess.

The very first verse of Mandala VI, acknowledges Agni having become the herald of the vedic people.

RV 6.004.01
As at man’s service of the Gods, Invoker, thou, Son of Strength, dost sacrifice and worship,
So bring for us to-day all Gods together, bring willingly the willing Gods, O Agni.

In Hymn 4, Verse 1, Agni is asked to bring the Gods to the worshippers.

RV 6.007.01
Him, messenger of earth and head of heaven, Agni Vaisvanara, born in holy Order,
The Sage, the King, the guest of men, a vessel fit for their mouths, the Gods have generated.

And in Hymn 7, Verse 1, the word messenger is used explicitly.

A God whose principle role was that of a communicator and conduit between the Gods and their mortal worshippers, had to assume a role larger than the Gods themselves. After all what use would the Gods have been if there was no way to communicate with them? Seen in this context, the important of Agni in the Rig Veda is no surprise at all.

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