The Creation in Rig Veda 10:129
A. L. Basham's Translation
A. L. Basham's Version of Rig Veda 10:129A. L. Basham was an English indologist and historian. His translation of Rig Veda 10:129 was published in The Wonder That Was India from 1954.
Arthur Llewellyn Basham (1914-86) was Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London between 1958 and 1965, after which he was the Professor of Oriental Civilizations at the Australian National University in Canberra until his retirement.
His translation of Rig Veda 10:129 was published in The Wonder That Was India from 1954 (printed in London), with several later editions. It remains a book of great influence in introducing ancient Indian thought and history to the Western world. Here is his translation of the hymn (p. 247-8):
Rig Veda, Mandala 10, hymn CXXIX. Creation.Nasadiya Sukta ("Not the non-existent")
Then there were neither death nor immortality,
At first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.
In the beginning desire descended on it -
And they have stretched their cord across the void,
But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence all creation had its origin,
Radically ModernizedWith this translation of Rig Veda 10:129 we move more than 30 years closer to the present, compared to the previous one. That is quite noticeable in how much more accessible the language of A. L. Basham's version is than those before it. This is more a sign of the times than a conscious choice of Basham alone.
The 20th century saw a great change in the language of academic texts, escalating especially after World War II. They were modernized in the sense that the writing style became more direct and concrete, aiming for clarity above all else — even at the risk of over-simplifying.
This also happened to translations of classical texts. Meter and rhyme, almost sacred in the previous century, were depreciated. So was past ideals of giving the old text an archaic flare. Instead, they should be understandable and relevant to contemporary readers — the educated public as well as colleagues in the field.
Basham's translation of Rig Veda 10:129 shows these traits quite clearly. He dares to simplify in order to make the text more accessible and he chooses words to which people of his time can relate. Generally, I like how it clarifies this Rig Veda hymn, but there are instances when Basham might be going a bit too far.
Cosmic WaterOne instance of modernizing the text beyond its original content is already in the first verse of Rig Veda 10:129, when Basham chooses "cosmic water" for the primordial sea. That's an update tearing the text far away from its ancient context.
He makes it sound like a moist universe, but the concept to which the hymn refers is that of the actual sea as something existing before the rest of the world was created. A dark and lifeless sea.
That's a very common entity in creation myths around the world, for the simple reason that nothing in the world seemed more eternal. Also, standing by the shore anyone would conclude that land grew out of the water, which is how many creation myths have it — maybe most of them.
This experience was with the actual sea and not some cosmic moisture. Basham may have wanted Rig Veda 10:129 to make more sense to the 20th century, but doing so he deserted the world view of the hymn's poet.
Basham's choice of words also leads to the depth mentioned in the same line implying that of space, although it must have referred to the depth of the sea — a primordial one as well as that of ancient man's experience.
What Torch?Another deviation of Basham's, compared to his predecessors, is the "torch of night and day" in the next verse. It seems he has taken himself some poetic freedom.
What the Rig Veda hymn refers to is the divider between night and day. There was no distinction between them, so there was neither night nor day. The previous translations state nothing else.
The idea of a torch complicates matters considerably. What torch would that be except the sun, which is not mentioned at all in Rig Veda 10:129? Again, Basham is modernizing a bit too eagerly.
Arthur Llewellyn Basham.
Basham's expression "unillumined water" in the following verse is also odd, though not altering the meaning. What the hymn refers to is the abyss before the dawn of creation, the primordial sea mentioned above.
When choosing "unillumined" Basham may have been thinking about the still missing torch of the sun. His choice of word is quite close to the "ocean without light" in Max Müller's version, but the other previous translators have gone for expressions pinpointing the obscure nature of that primordial substance: H. H. Wilson calls the water undistinguishable, Ralph T. H. Griffith calls it indiscriminated and A. A. Macdonell describes it as "without distinctive marks."
Focusing on the lack of light contradicts the second verse, which states that there was neither night nor day. In other words, it was not dark in the meaning of lacking light, just as it was not nothing as opposed to something. The obscurity of the primordial sea is not simply the lack of light, but of any distinctive feature. It has no form or quality. It is what the Ancient Greeks called chaos.
Basham does confess to a translation not involving light, in a footnote to the line, explaining the nature of the water as "indistinguishable (apraketa)."
The Birth of the OneIn the next line of the verse, A. L. Basham writes that "the One came to be." That is a bold statement, not made by the other translations. Also, it contradicts the second verse, stating that the One is already there, seemingly ever-present, breathing and therefore being alive.
Rig Veda 10:129 doesn't describe the birth of the One, but how the One springs into action.
Max Müller introduces the term germ, probably referring to the One, and writes that it bursts forth, by which creation commences. H. H. Wilson speaks instead of a united world "produced through the power of austerity." Griffith mentions a Unit, born by warmth, and Macdonell has it that the One "by force of heat came into being."
There may be confusion between being and doing. Rig Veda 10:129 clearly states in the second verse that the One is already there, alive in its own way. What happens is that something awakens the One, turning it from just being into acting. That initial action is what leads to the world being born out of the original indescribable chaos.
The One had been dormant, but was suddenly awakened, thereby also surely self-aware. That's kind of a birth. Basham writes that it arose.
As for the heat waking the One up, Basham explains in a footnote that it is "Tapas, an archaic word which also defines those human austerities or techniques which, like this cosmic heat, generate power."
Awareness Leads to DesireNext, desire descends on the One, according to Basham. All the previous translators chose the same emotion, except for Max Müller who called it love. Desire indicates self-awareness, which is hardly present without the will to do something, especially for a being just awakened.
Basham calls desire "the primal seed, born of the mind." Wilson's version is almost identical. Griffith and Macdonell are also close by, but choose spirit and thought respectively, instead of mind. Müller alters the expression slightly by talking about a spring of the mind, but probably means just the same. When the One is awake, it becomes aware, and wants to act.
The sagesIn the same verse, the sages are introduced to state the relation between what is and what is not. This we have learned already earlier in the hymn: nothing and something cannot exist without one another. Max Müller is the only one to call them poets instead of sages, but all above mentioned translators otherwise state the same.
It is strange that Rig Veda 10:129, this short hymn, should make the same statement twice — actually three times, counting also death and immortality in the second verse, which plays with the same paradox — the need for both to exist or none. Maybe the poet of the hymn was simply too fond of this observation to keep from returning to it.
Indra. Gilt copper sculpture with inlaid semi-precious stones, from Nepal in the 13th century.
But Basham deviates significantly from previous versions when in the next verse he states that "they" stretched "their" cord across the void, by which he must refer to the sages. As if they took active part in creation. He does admit in a note: "My translation of this obscure verse is very free."
Wilson seems to be doing the same, writing: "their ray was stretched out", but the actual activity of stretching is impersonal, indicating another understanding of the line. Griffith suggests the same by "their severing line", whereas Macdonell is the only one to introduce light in this process: "their ray extended light across the darkness", if not Müller's spark is to be understood the same way. I doubt it.
Who are they, the ones extending this cord or ray, dividing the primordial chaos into recognizable entities? Not the sages, for sure, but the polarity they speak of: that which is and that which is not. Something and nothing. The paradox of their interdependence is the spark that ignites creation. The world is created because it has to be. Neither something nor nothing can exist on its own.
The sages have realized that, but they certainly did not participate in it.
Powers of the Above and the BelowAll above mentioned versions of Rig Veda 10:129 (although vaguely with Wilson) describe the division of the world into the high and the low, heaven and earth. The mighty powers have their abode in the above, and all things on earth are helpless against their wills. That's no mystery.
But Basham describes the characteristics of the two domains differently: "Below was strength, and over it was impulse." Macdonell is similar, but uses energy instead of strength.
It's a strange way of seeing it, hard to fit with a poet of some 3,000 years ago. Most cosmologies, past and present, regard the earthly domain as the weaker one, subject to the whims of the above. Indeed, the unpredictable forces of heaven could be called impulse, since they seemed quite arbitrary to the people of ancient times. But that is contradicted by calling the earthly domain strong, implying the might to shape its own destiny.
Max Müller simply states that nature is below and power and will above, showing no doubt about who rules whom. H. H. Wilson has a more elaborate description: "(some) were shedders of seed, (others) were mighty; food was inferior, the eater was superior." But its consequence is the same in so much as there is one side ruling and the other one ruled. Instead, it is unclear if he talks about the above versus the below, or if he means that's how things are ordered wherever.
Griffith speaks about begetters, not specifying who or where they were, ending the verse: "free action here and energy up yonder." That almost turns things upside-down, as if heaven is powerful but helpless, whereas earthly life is free to act on its own will.
Basham confesses the difficulty of this line in a footnote, and takes a kind of support in Macdonell for his interpretation of it: "This stanza is obscure. A. A. Macdonell suggests that the 'cord' (rashmi) implies the bond of the preceding stanza; thought measures out the distance between the non-existent and the existent and separates the male and female cosmogonic principles: impulse (prayati) above and energy (svadha) below."
I would say that this passage in Rig Veda 10:129 is still waiting for its proper translation.
As for the rest of the hymn, Basham doesn't deviate in any significant way from the previous translations.
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