Friday, December 23, 2011

Two passages

I've been reading Stanley Wolpert's A New History of India in preparation for the trip.  I'm still on the early pages (and therefore still in very ancient time!), but I wanted to share two passages that struck me, as I thought they might be illustrative of what I hope to get out of the trip.

So, passage one:

the hymn of the "Sacrifice of the Cosmic Man" (Purusha-sukta), which appears in the tenth and final "book" of the Rig Veda, explains that the four great "classes" (varna) of Aryan society emerged from different parts of the original cosmic man's anatomy: the brahmans [priests] issuing forth first, from the mouth; the kshatriyas [warriors] second, from the arms; the vaishyas [merchants and farmers] third, from the thighs; and the shudras [servile class] last, from the feet.  This "revelation," according to which all rajas, who were kshatriyas by birth, fell below all brahmans, who alone were associated with the cosmic "head," may well have roused ancient royal wrath, though not enough to delete the sacred hymn nor alter a word of it (Wolpert, New History, fourth edition, pp. 29–30).
The Lady of the Lake gives Excalibur to King A...I have known a little about the ancient Indian caste system for a while, and, of course, in my work it has an obvious parallel in the medieval European ideology of the "Three Orders" (those that fight, those that pray, and those that work).  What intrigues me, however, is the foundation myth, that just as in Europe, c. 1000 AD, it was the priests who concocted the specious interpretation of society to protect their own status, so—two thousand years earlier—Aryan brahmans came up with a happy mythological justification of their status.  The myth is also reminiscent of my favourite account of the "orders" in medieval Europe, which appears in the Prose Lancelot (thirteenth century): Lancelot—in this version—has been raised and educated by the Lady of the Lake.  As he prepares to depart from the Lake, the Lady gives him his final instructions, describing the role of the virtuous knight and the functions of the other parts of society.  The peasants, she tells Lancelot, are like your horse: ride them!

OK, passage two:
The Aryan householder gave his gods [gifts] not simply in return for favors, but because it was his duty to propitiate them so, just as they in turn were obliged to act in the appropriate fashion toward him.  For gods as well as men had their individual duties, which were part of the cosmic scheme of things, and only when all behaved properly would the universe function as it was designed to do—in accord with the rita, the true order.  Demons of falsehood were always trying to destroy that perfect balance, starting floods, bringing drought or famine, appearing in the guise of tigers or mad elephants; they were ever present as mosquitos and other evil creatures that buzzed, crawled, or walked upon the earth.  The balance was tenuous at all times, which was why so many sacrifices were required, and why brahmans had to be employed day and night to chant the hymns they memorized.  Truth (rita) could always be subverted by flasehood (an-rita), just as the "real" (sat) or existent world might always be disguised by imagined or "unreal" (asat) illusions, fantasies, and non-existent fears and terrors.  The word sat, which originally meant "existent," came thus to be equated with cosmic reality and its underlying ethical principle, truth.  To Vedic man the universe was divided between earth's fair surface and the heavenly dome above it, the realm in which sat prevailed, and the demon-darkness beneath this world, where unreality and falsehood dominated all.  Indra's daily battle renewed the wonder of creation, but speculation about this mighty hero soon led to profound questions: "Who ever saw him?  Who is he that we should praise him?" (pp. 34–5).
This passage hit me as an intriguing description of the way more primal religious urges transform over time into more subtle and difficult speculation.  It reminds me a bit of Peter Brown's description of the religious mood of the late-antique (c. 150 AD) Mediterranean, in which questions of the nature of truth and salvation come to replace a relationship with the gods based on the bond of patron and client.  But is this model of the development of religion right, or did very ancient human beings wonder the same deeper thoughts but our sources cannot reveal them?

Both passages make me wonder if I shouldn't be teaching the Rig Veda in Core 151 instead of the Mahabharata!  In any case, I look forward to having much time on buses with Eliza and Padma, so that they can set me straight on these topics.
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1 comment:

  1. The rig Veda , specificallly, Rig Veda 10.190, or the purusha sukta, is a fascinating example of something you see around the world - a cosmogony that is also an account of the origins of society, complete with a hierarchy and allotted roles. Check out Bruce Lincoln's Myth, cosmos and society for a superb analysis and comparison with roman materials. But I think it's so imp to recognize that texts like this represent what people, literate elite people wished society was like. They don't give us a window necessarily onto what it was really like.