The Classic Vedic Question

In my last post I talked about the Vedas, their origin and meaning. Now I want to advance in
my study of their importance for Buddhist thought.

One of the last hymns of the Vedic collection poses what I like to think of as the classic Vedic question. A question that really troubled these Brahmins, as they thought it puzzled over the meaning of their sacrifice.

They tried to find ways to make it more powerful and to connect more deeply to the realities that they were trying to touch. Let me paraphrase this hymn a bit, at least some portions of it, so you can get an impression of its content and also begin to feel the force of the Vedic question:

“There was then neither non-existence nor existence. There was no sky, there were no heavens. What was it that covered everything? What was it protection? Was it a bottomless depth of waters? There was neither death nor immortality then. Neither day nor night. The One breath, though, inspired by its own potentiality. Beside it nothing existed. Who is there who knows? Who knows? Who can tell its origin? Who can tell source of this creation? The gods are on the far side of the creation. Who knows them? Where it came from and how it came into being? Where this creation came from and how it came into being. Perhaps the higher overseer in heaven knows. Or perhaps he doesn’t know”.

This is hymn number 129 from the tenth book of the Rigveda. One of the late hymns in this early Vedic corpus.

Beyond the Gods

You can see, if you read carefully the words of this hymn, that these early priests are asking questions about the origins of the world. About where we came from, where the diversity of the world arose. And the questions are taking them beyond the gods, this is rather curious for us in the Western world. Where all of this come from? Including the diversity of the gods themselves.

They wanted to know where everything came from and the emphasis on this sentence is on the word know. They want to know it. And you can feel, just like a suggestion in these words, not stated explicitly, you can feel that they are convinced that if they know the source of this creative impulse, they will somehow connect themselves as individuals back to their source and it will give them a sense of power and control over the nature of the cosmos.

This hymn is just a fragmentary expression of the Vedic imagination, but it helps us feel and to get a taste of that impulse that drove the Vedic Brahmins to wonder about the origins of the cosmos, and tried to make the origin of the cosmos in some way available to themselves as actors in this religious world.

This article is part of the series about The Buddha’s Religious Background.

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