The Creation in Rig Veda 10:129
Joel P. Brereton's Translation
Joel P. Brereton's Version of Rig Veda 10:129Joel P. Brereton (born 1948) is Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. His translation of Rig Veda 10:129 is from an academic article about it, published in 1999.
Together with Stephanie Jamison (UCLA) he made a new translation of the complete Rig Veda, which was published in 2014. It's the first time in more than a hundred years that the classic has been translated to English in its entirety.
In spite of the aforementioned recent publication of Rig Veda, the version of the 10:129 hymn quoted here is an earlier one, made solely by Joel P. Brereton in 1999. He presented it in an article on the hymn published in the Journal of the American Oriental Society (vol. 119, no. 2, pp. 248-260), with the title Edifying Puzzlement: Rgveda 10.129 and the Uses of Enigma.
Theory on ThoughtHis article analyzes the hymn thoroughly, discussing its content and its intent with evident competence. It is an interesting read, which is accessible as a PDF file here:
His basic take on Rig Veda 10:129 is that it presents thought as the true seed of creation - also the answer to the riddle of what is both existent and non-existent. Thoughts can be said to be both, since they are impalpable and invisible, yet they definitely exist in the minds of the thinkers.
Here is Joel P. Brereton's translation of Rig Veda 10:129 from that article:
Rig Veda, Mandala 10, hymn CXXIX. Creation.Nasadiya Sukta ("Not the non-existent")
A Clear VersionHaving a theory about how the Rig Veda 10:129 hymn should be interpreted, as Joel P. Brereton does, can be a risk when translating it. One might make choices truer to the theory than to the original text. So, that should be considered when examining Brereton's version.
I don't see that he falls into that trap, though, at least not frequently or deeply. He argues well for his choices in the translation and he backs it all up with solid facts and examples.
Joel P. Brereton.
Also, I find Brereton's version of the hymn wonderfully direct and clear, more so than any of the previous translations I have presented and discussed. He avoids complications that others have met when trying to bring a poetic flare to the text, and as far as I can see he mostly goes for the obvious and well-founded choices.
That's my favorite kind of translation, especially in the case of ancient texts, where the content is otherwise easily blurred. What's most precious in the classics is to get some kind of grip on the thoughts they contain, and that demands a very sober attitude of the translator. Keep it simple, stay with the obvious. That's usually the safest way to go about it.
Thought as the Answer to the RiddleAbout Brereton's theory, on the other hand, although well-founded in facts he seems not to have tested it in an opponent's manner. He is eager to present support for it, but not that elaborate in searching for counter-argument and alternative possibilities.
What he suggests is that the hymn is all about thought. He sees thought as that riddle both existing and not existing (p. 254). He sees it as the essence of, if not even identical to, the One: "thought is the 'One'" (p. 254). And thought is the spark that commences as well as continues creation. Already in the first paragraph, presenting the text (p. 248), he states that "the hymn identifies thinking as the original creative activity."
That's all well and quite plausible. The idea or similar ones can be found in many creation myths - for example Genesis I of the Bible, where God creates simply by uttering words: "Let there be…" Words are expressions of thought, of course, which Brereton also points out.
With this perspective, Brereton sees Rig Veda 10:129 as a kind of riddle, meant to provoke the thoughts of its audience and thereby reminding them of the nature and importance of thought. By thinking about thought, the audience is tricked into sort of re-creating creation, at least entering the mindset in which it is supposed to have taken place.
Three ObjectionsAlthough Brereton's theory about the role of thought in the hymn is very interesting indeed, I have three major objections.
The first one is that we cannot hurry to assume that the idea of creation being done by thought would be so far-fetched to the audience of the hymn's poet, way back when. It is a familiar theme in creation myths and has been so for very long. So, the idea is not that far-fetched. Brereton also gives examples of it existing in other Veda texts.
Actually, it's almost impossible to have creation without thought, when a conscious creator is involved - and starts from some kind of nothing. What else to utilize in the initial process but thought?
Furthermore, there is a contradiction in the hymn to the idea of thought being the ever-present first entity of the yet not created cosmos. The One, and there is no one else present to think, is not aware in the original setting of that mysterious chaos, but awakened in the third verse. By the logics of the hymn: if thought was present to begin with, it had to have someone thinking it and then we would not have the creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) that the hymn strongly suggests.
So, although it is quite likely that creation is initiated with thought, the hymn strongly suggests that thought is not part of the indefinable primordial state of which the first and second verses speak. Other interpretations are much more likely, especially the most obvious one: the poet is having fun with the paradox of a primordial chaos, where not even nothing can exist.
Thirdly, if the poet had the view that thought is the ever-present motor of creation, the very punch line of the hymn loses its punch. Why would not ever-present thought be aware of how it began, if it did so by thought itself and it was present before the beginning? Knowledge is thought and thought acquires knowledge. It is the process of awareness. If thought was there from before the beginning it would definitely know of that beginning and how it played out.
At the very least, if the poet insisted that this was not the case, it would have to be argued for. The poet would have to explain why thought was there before creation, but not thinking.
As much as I appreciate the clarity Brereton's theory brings to the hymn, I am unable to trust it completely. Thought as a method of creation, that's fine - but not as the mysterious entity being present already before creation commenced. That doesn't work. It only makes sense if thought begins with creation, albeit at the very outset of it.
Using Occam's razor, finding the simplest solution, we would have to stay with creation commencing out of a complete chaos when the One is awakened and becomes aware, thereby also gets desire. To desire is to want something, which is a thought with action as its immediate result.
Be Wary of Anything BiblicalI have a fourth objection to Brereton's theory, but it's not as much an argument as it is a general cause for hesitation. As Brereton himself points out, the view on creation he proposes the Rig Veda 10:129 poet to express is very near that of Genesis I in the Bible. The biblical god uses words to create out of nothing. The mere uttering of them makes it happen. Words are nothing but expressions of thought, so it is almost the same as saying he created by thought.
The Bible has been with us in Western society for very long, influencing our thinking and the way we perceive the world around us. We hasten to assume similarities with the biblical world view, simply because we have had it with us for so long. It has become a habit hard to kick.
This is frequently seen - through the centuries - when Westerners analyze and theorize about other so-called religions and their so-called gods. I say so-called, because it can often be questioned if the terms religion and god would be relevant for phenomena of other times and cultures, just because we think we see similarities. When examined closer, these similarities may fade away - especially if we manage to free our minds from our own traditions and preconceived ideas.
So, especially when it comes to myth and such, I get suspicious when presented with a theory conforming to Biblical or other perspectives having dominated our thinking for so long. Such similarities may very well be nowhere but in our own prejudice. Of course, there can be cases where such similarities exist, but we should be cautious before assuming them.
Brereton's theory triggers this caution in me, because its interpretation of Rig Veda 10:129 brings it closer to the cosmology of Genesis I.
Two HeavensAlthough Joel P. Brereton's theory about the Rig Veda 10:129 hymn is quite radical, his translation of it is sound and closely connected to the ones of his predecessors. And, as mentioned above - it is clear in its simplicity and directness. I really just find a few choices of his deviating from other versions, which raise questions.
In the first verse he speaks of "midspace" and the heaven beyond. The former term is suspiciously modern. Other translators have stumbled on this. Wendy Doniger calls it "the realm of space," A. L. Basham and A. A. Macdonell say "air," Ralph T. H. Griffith "realm of air," H. H. Wilson chooses "firmament" and Max Müller "yon bright sky." None of those choices stands out as self-evident, so the passage is difficult.
That's because it refers to the cosmology of the hymn's poet and probably that of the poet's audience as well. It is difficult to keep it off our understanding of the cosmos. For example, air and the realm of it makes good sense to us, but can we take for granted that people of ancient India regarded heaven beyond it as airless? Why would they at all see space as layered?
The latter is actually commonplace in ancient cosmologies and comes from early observations of the heavenly bodies in the sky. Viewed from earth they move with different speeds across the sky and two of them are significantly bigger than the others. So, some sort of layered heaven was the conclusion reached by many who pondered the problem. It's in the concept of a firmament and in the ancient Greek cosmology of celestial spheres.
Indian cosmology at the time of the hymn's poet is likely to have been something akin to the above, but I wonder about the choice of word. Midspace needs some explanations. What would separate it from earth and heaven? Why would it be so significant that its non-existence should be pointed out when presenting the primordial chaos?
Many old accounts of creation cherish duality. So does this one, already in playing with the opposites of existing and not existing. That would make the division of heaven and earth - the most common one in creation myths all over the world - an obvious choice. It's also the division Rig Veda 10:129 makes in the fifth verse, stating clearly that there is one above and one below - one heaven and one earth.
So, what's with this duo of two kinds of heaven, seemingly not that definite as opposites at all? The poet of Rig Veda 10:129 implies something about ancient Indian cosmology worth knowing. I don't, so I leave it here. In any case, it doesn't give the impression of having significance for how the hymn as a whole should be interpreted.
DeathlessnessBrereton ends the first verse with the expression "deep depth" for the primordial sea that may or may not have been present before creation. That is a bit poetically clumsy in English, rather tautological, but seems to fit the Sanskrit choice of words. The other translators use the word unfathomed, except for Doniger who chooses bottomless, but they all evidently do so more for poetic reasons than for linguistic ones.
The same can be said about Brereton's "deathlessness" in the second verse. That's a strange word in English. All the other translators use the word immortality instead, thereby more clearly pointing out the idea of divine beings as opposed to earthly ones - immortals and mortals.
Brereton's choice of word makes the line open to other interpretations. To be deathless is not necessarily the same as being immoral. The former is a situation and the latter a fixed characteristic. In other words, one is deathless until one dies, whereas an immortal never can die. Quite a difference.
Both interpretations conform to the hymn's play with the paradox of those opposites - in a world without any kind of life there is neither mortality nor immortality. In Brereton's choice, though, less is decided about the nature of the world that is still to emerge. It doesn't necessarily have to be one of both mortals and immortals, both humans and deities. The hymn in its entirety surely suggests a world with both, even as a necessity, but Brereton's translation doesn't decide it already at this point in the hymn.
On the other hand, the deathlessness seems to be contradicted already a little later in the same verse, with the One breathing "through its inherent force." That's some kind of life and in this primordial state untouchable by death, so it must be some kind of deathlessness. The One is not yet aware of its deathlessness, since it is yet to be awakened, but deathlessness it still is.
About its possible immortality, though, nothing is stated in the hymn. In this way, the wording of the other translators is less problematic.
The inherent force mentioned by Brereton also raises questions. How can something be inherent in the very first primordial being? From whom would it be inherited?
Macdonell makes the same choice, but the other translators have different expressions that do in no way indicate something prior. Müller writes "in itself," Wilson "of his own strength," Griffith "by its own nature," Basham "self-sustaining" and Doniger "by its own impulse." They make it clear that the One is breathing without any outside help, which is surely what the poet of the hymn intended.
Dark OceanThe third verse, Brereton begins by stating that "darkness existed." That wording seems to contradict the previous verses, which stress that neither nothing nor something existed - with the possible exception of the One, who was yet to be awakened and thereby made aware of its existence. The second verse even points out that there was no distinction between night and day, which is quite close to saying there was neither darkness nor light.
Of course, that's quite unfathomable, as is a primordial chaos in general. How to describe the utterly formless and unstructured?
Doniger has a more elegant solution: "Darkness was hidden by darkness." That points out the paradox of the primordial state before the world creation. Macdonell and Griffith also choose this solution. Basham writes almost the same: "darkness wrapped in darkness," as does Wilson with "darkness covered by darkness." Max Müller deviates even more from the others than Brereton does, probably in search of a poetic flare: "Darkness there was, and all at first was veiled in gloom profound." But all versions have the problem of suggesting darkness in spite of what the second verse states. Maybe that is a consistency already in the original Sanskrit hymn.
Furthermore, I'm not that fond of Brereton's "signless ocean." What signs would an ocean make? Müller and Basham point out the ocean's lack of light. Wilson calls it undistinguishable and Doniger has something similar: "with no distinguishing sign." Macdonell writes "without distinctive marks." Griffith has his own solution, far from the other versions: "All was indiscriminated chaos."
This primordial sea hidden in impenetrable obscurity is common in creation myths. The Rig Veda 10:129 hymn makes the interesting observation that it is probably there (although this was questioned in the first verse), but it could not be perceived in any way - not only because no one was there to observe it, but because such was its nature, or rather lack of nature before creation commenced.
For such a mysterious ocean, "signless" is an understatement.
Actually, only Brereton and Müller call it an ocean. Wilson just calls it water. So does Macdonell, Basham and Doniger. As mentioned above, Griffith calls it chaos. In the first verse, though, where what must be the same primordial sea is also mentioned, every translator - including Brereton - calls it water.
The difference in this context between water and ocean is minute. Perhaps the former is still to prefer, because it doesn't indicate a shape in that formless primordial state. There is or is not an element, water, yet to take its shape.
The problem remains, though, that the hymn seems to contradict itself when wondering if there is any water in the first verse and claiming there is in the third, with nothing happening in between that could explain it.
Born or UnbornNext in the third verse, Brereton speaks of "the thing coming into being," which must refer to the One. And indeed, in the last line of the verse the One is born. The other translators indicate the same, but their wordings differ.
The two last lines of the third verse belong to those in the hymn causing the most variation among translators, which indicates some confusion regarding how it should be understood, exactly. I can't say that any one of the translations gives the impression of having found the perfect solution.
Brereton's wording indicates that the One appears at this point, although the second verse clearly states that the One is already there - even breathing. This anomaly is also present in Griffith's version and, though not as obviously, in Basham's. The others seem to try their own ways to get around it. Doniger mentions a life force arising, not born. Wilson indicates a united world "produced" by austerity. Macdonell has a complicated solution that still doesn't solve the problem: "That which, becoming, by the void was covered, that One by force of heat came into being."
The version avoiding the anomaly the best is Max Müller's: "The germ that still lay covered in the husk burst forth, one nature, from the fervent heat." The germ is the One as a primordial potential. It was there before creation commenced and is not born, but bursts forth. That does it.
The best way to explain the seeming contradiction between the second and third verse is probably that the One is present but dormant, before creation begins. And it begins by the One being awakened, thereby springing into action. Or, to use Brereton's perspective: it starts to think.
So, it's no birth in the meaning of emerging out of something or being formed by something. The One is born in the sense of becoming aware. I would so much like the use of awakening instead of birth, but I am not one of the translators and have no idea if this could in any way be supported by the Sanskrit original.
Thought or DesireFrom the beginning of his text, Joel P. Brereton is frank with aiming to show that Rig Veda 10:129 is about how thought initiates creation and that thought is present already in the primordial state. This has to be considered when he uses that word in his translation, and he does in the fourth line: "from thought there developed desire."
Other translators use other expressions than thought in the same line. Doniger calls desire "the first seed of mind," indicating emotion rather than thought as the primeval impulse. Basham and Wilson state the same. Müller chooses love instead of desire, a milder word, and then adds a poetic flare with "the new spring of mind," which is still quite comparable to the aforementioned. Also Griffith deviates slightly in his choice of words, though keeping the meaning of the line intact and using desire as "the primal seed and germ of Spirit."
Except for Brereton, only Macdonell uses the word thought, when he says about desire: "It was the earliest seed, of thought the product."
What Macdonell's translation suggests is that the emotion desire is a product of thought. We certainly regard it so, with our present understanding of how the mind works. Without thinking, there is nothing we can discover to desire. Also, we regard both thoughts and emotions as products of the mind - or the brain, to be more precise.
Indra. Gilt copper sculpture from Nepal in the 15th century.
It is quite possible that a poet of ancient India, as well as his audience, could fathom emotions as springing from the mind. They would also be able to see thought as the necessary agent for an emotion such as desire to appear. Desire needs an object and therefore the conscious awareness of that object.
But all translations, including that of Brereton, agree that desire - not thought - is what actually initiates creation. Brereton calls the role of desire "the primal semen," whereas other translators have chosen the less blatantly sexual terms seed or germ.
The hymn is clear about thought not being enough for creation to begin. It only happens when desire is awakened, whether that is an unavoidable result of thinking or not.
For ages, Indian culture has appreciated mental states of passivity, such as meditation and contemplation. Thought can go on for quite long before leading to action. Anyone starting to act will at first want to do so. Desire is a very strong wanting.
Earlier, I have objected to Brereton's idea that thought was present in the primordial state of neither existence nor non-existence. Now, it seems I must also object to his claim that thought was the active force of creation. Not according to this hymn, at least not more than in an indirect way - as a prerequisite for the acting power of desire. And with such a line of argument, we are back to the One who hosts both thought and desire. There would be no creation without someone or something thinking and wanting it.
Existent and Non-existentLike Wendy Doniger, Brereton describes the discovery of the poets as "the connection of the existent in the non-existent." Macdonell has something similar: "the bond of being in non-being." It's the "in" that confuses me. Shouldn't it be "with"?
There is a paradoxical connection between the existent and the non-existent, in so much as the one can't really exist without the other. The distinction between the two can only be done when both are in some way present.
The other translators come closer to this rather straightforward paradox. Griffith calls it "the existent's kinship in the non-existent," which has an "in" but its meaning could be seen as a "with." Müller's version is a bit more explanatory: "this bond between created things and uncreated," whereas Basham's is the most straightforward and makes the most sense: "that which is, is kin to that which is not." They point to the paradox.
Brereton and Doniger, on the other hand, create a new mystery. How can the existent dwell in the non-existent? Maybe as some kind of potential, like the dormant One before being awakened. But I see little support in the hymn for such thinking about the polarity of existing and not doing so. The one is not the habitat of the other. They are opposites, and that's exactly why the poet of Rig Veda 10:129 insists that none can exist without the other.
Whose Cord?In sticking to his theory about thought, Brereton even claims that the creative thought is not exclusively in the mind of a divine creator, but closely akin to regular human capacity of thought. He seems to claim that the poet of Rig Veda 10:129 regards divine thought and human thought as the same, also in their potency.
I doubt very much that a mind of 3,000 years ago would agree, for the very simple reason that no matter how wondrous human thoughts would be, they did not create worlds. Symbolically, perhaps, our minds create worlds - but not so that they compare at all to the world in which we live and die. The poet of this hymn would regard the analogy between human thought and that of the world creator as superficial, to put it mildly.
Brereton's perspective, though, makes him translate the first line of the fifth verse "their cord was stretched across," implying and supporting the idea that this was an action of the poets, be it "poets of deep thought" (p. 256).
He is not alone in hinting this superpower of the poets, but the obvious reference in the hymn is to the polarity of existence and non-existence and their dependence on one another, which is what the hymn says that the poets have discovered. The poets have realized what made the world take shape, but they surely haven't made it happen.
This is confirmed also by Brereton's translation of the next line: "Did something exist below it? Did something exist above?" It is still a question of what is and what is not, and their respective locations. The poets are not involved.
Above and BelowAs for the primeval division of the world in the fifth verse of Rig Veda 10:129, Joel P. Brereton suggests that of the two genders, which he also finds in other cosmogonic Veda texts. He translates the line in question: "There were placers of semen and there were powers." Semen is, of course, the male and for the powers he points out that the Sanskrit word used also means greatness, which he regards as suggesting pregnancies (p. 256).
This line is interpreted in a number of different ways by the translators of Rig Veda, but most of them describe a division into the heavenly divine and the earthly world of mortals. Well, it is implied but not very clear. Brereton's translation allows for the same interpretation, if the fertilization is seen to come from above, which is indeed specified in the next line: "There was inherent force below, offering above."
The latter line, though, is even more confusing in how differently the translators put it. Müller writes "nature below, and Power and Will above," Griffith "free action here and energy up yonder," Macdonell "below was energy, above was impulse," Basham "below was strength, and over it was impulse," and Doniger "there was impulse beneath; there was giving-forth above."
So, not only do they differ significantly in describing what was. They also contradict each other about what was above and what below. Very strange. Obviously this part of the hymn is obscure and the interpretation of it uncertain.
I would be surprised if the hymn suggests any other primordial division into two but that of heaven and earth, the above and the below, where the former is seen as the ruler of the latter. This hymn as a whole and other Vedic texts seem to support it. So does just about every creation myth in the world. Brereton mentions in a footnote (p. 256): "Heaven and Earth quite naturally appear as primal parents."
Of course the hymn also suggests a division into the male and female as principles of procreation. That's an obvious polarity, much in line with the many other polarities of the text.
Ancient thought on procreation was that the male semen was the giver of life and the female womb was its receiver. Brereton confirms this in explaining his translation of the line (p. 256): "svadha, 'inherent force,' represents a female principle and the second, prayati 'offering,' a male principle." His choice of English words, though, may not be the most relevant ones.
We now know that life is the combination of the male semen and the female egg, but before this discovery a very common concept was that of the semen being the injector of life into a passive womb, much in line with the old cosmogonic idea of one initial creator, usually portrayed as male, bringing life to the world. The male principle was seen as the creator and the female principle as the receiver and nurturer of what was created.
When Brereton and Doniger indicate a power below and a servant above, they may be triggered by a wish to modernize the perspective rather than reading the Sanskrit hymn literally. On the other hand, there is no consensus at all among the translators regarding this line, so there is nothing proving them wrong.
Or…As usual with the translations examined above, Brereton doesn't deviate in any significant way from the others in his wording of the two last verses of Rig Veda 10:129. But he does introduce a daring new way of writing the very last sentence of the hymn: "Or if he does not know…?"
That is like a cliffhanger in modern fiction or the scary twist at the very end of a horror movie. Surely, the hymn is intentionally ended by an open question. Brereton points out that there are other examples of it in late Rigvedic hymns (p. 258).
He also mentions that some later commentaries have tried to turn the question into a statement, because they were frustrated by this open uncertainty about something as profound as the creation of the world. There is even a version of the hymn where two verses have been added, establishing a cosmology more detailed than that of the original hymn - and without any question mark (p. 258f).
But that really deviates tremendously from the obvious perspective of the hymn's poet. Rig Veda 10:129 should end with a question, this bewildering one of who can really tell. And Brereton's way of putting it, with the triple-dot ellipsis, may be far from what that poet would have considered - but it gets the job done.
The Creation in Rig Veda 10:129The Paradox of Origin
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