Hymn for safe and normal childbirth

Despite all the advances of modern medicine, the safe birth of a normal human child is not something we can take for granted.

It is no surprise then that the vedic civilization, with reams upon reams of hymns asking for heroic progeny should have hymns asking for the safe birth of their children. What is surprising though is that there is just one hymn of this nature in the main family mandalas and perhaps no more than 3 in all of the Rig Veda.

Hymn 78 in the Atri family Mandala – Mandala V has 9 verses, 6 of which make very clear reading and easy interpretation. The deities invoked are the Asvin twins, clearly by the time of this Mandala, the deities dealing with health and well being.

The first three verses implore the twin deities to accept the offering and grant what is being asked for in the verses that follow:

RV 5.078.01-03
YE Asvins, hither come to us: Nasatyas, be not disinclined.
Fly hither like two swans unto the juice we shed.

O Asvins, like a pair of deer, like two wild cattle to the mead:
Fly hither like two swans unto the juice we shed.

O Asvins rich in gifts, accept our sacrifice to prosper it:
Fly hither like two swans unto the juice we shed.

We will leave verses 4, 5 and 6 for now and go directly to the last three:

RV 5.078.07-09
Like as the wind on every side ruffles a pool of lotuses,
So stir in thee the babe unborn, so may the ten-month babe descend.

Like as the wind, like as the wood, like as the sea is set astir,
So also, ten-month babe, descend together with the after-birth.

The child who hath for ten months’ time been lying in his mother’s side,-
May he come forth alive, unharmed, yea, living from the living dame.

These verses clearly indicate what is being asked for through this hymn. What the last verse also seems to suggest is not just the safe coming forth of the child, but also that the mother come to no harm as well – “living from the living dame”.

Verses 4 to 6 have been deliberately omitted from this analysis due to some very interesting stories embedded within them and deserving of separate articles.

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.

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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