The Rig Veda is without doubt the most sacred text of ancient India.
It has been translated into several Western languages, but with significant differences of interpretation, that may reveal different worldviews, within the West itself.
Focusing here on one of the most fascinating hymns of the Rig Veda (RV, X, 90), dedicated to Puruṣa (i.e. the Man or the Supreme Being, depending on the interpretations), it is interesting, I think, to try to retrieve these points of view, as they are revealed by how they understand the role of the Supreme God’s ‘Sacrifice’.
A. Langlois, the author of the first French translation of Rig Veda in the beginning of 19th century, translates the first two verses of this Hymn, in this manner:
« 1. Pourousha has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. He kneaded the earth with his ten fingers, and formed a ball of it, above which he dominates.
2. Pourousha, master of immortality, strong of the food he takes, has formed what is, what was, what will be. »i
H. H. Wilson, a professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford (1888) translates:
2. Purusha is verily all this (visible world), all that is, and all that is to be; he is also the lord of immortality; for he mounts beyond (his own condition) for the food (of living beings)iv. »
A famous German scholar, active in the first half of 20th century, Karl Friedrich Geldner, proposes:
« 1. Tausendköffig, tausendaügig, tausendfüssig ist Puruṣa; er bedeckte vollständig die Erde und erhob sich noch zehn Finger hoch darüber. »
2. Puruṣa allein ist diese ganze Welt, die vergangene und die zukünftige, und er ist der Herr Unsterblichkeit (und auch über das), was durch Speise noch weiter wächst. »
Finally, here is another translation of the same verses by the famous French Indianist, Louis Renou:
« 1. The Man has a thousand heads. He has a thousand eyes, a thousand feet. Covering the earth from side to side, he still exceeds it with ten fingers.
2. The Man is none other than this universe, what has passed, what is to come. And he is the master of the immortal domain because he grows beyond food.»v
We see that Renou translates the word पुरुष Puruṣa, as « The Man ».
Langlois, Wilson, Geldner, prefer not to translate the word Puruṣa (or Pourousha in the 19th century spelling), but to keep it as a proper name. Why?
Maybe they thought that this word was too ambivalent or too complex to be rendered by an apparently too simple equivalent like « the Man »?
Huet’s dictionary defines Puruṣa as « Man, male, person; hero ». In a philosophical sense, this word means « humanity ». According to Huet, Puruṣa can also be understood like a proper name, and it then translates into: « the Being; the divine spirit; the macrocosm ».
In effect, the spectrum of Puruṣa’s meanings is quite wide.
In Monier-Williams’ Sanskrit dictionary, which may be the most complete one that we have in the West, we find the following explanation for Puruṣa: « The primaeval man as the soul and original source of the universe; the personal and animating principle in men and other beings, the soul or spirit; the Supreme Being or Soul of the universe. »
Let us now look at verses 6 and 7, which are rather singular.
« 6. When the Gods offered the sacrifice with Man as an oblation, spring served as butter, summer as kindling wood, and autumn as an offering.
7. On the litter, they sprinkled the Man – the Sacrifice – who was born at the beginning. Through him the Gods made the sacrifice, as well as the Saints and the Seers. »
« 6. When the Devas with Pourousha sacrificed by offering the offering, the butter formed the spring, the wood the summer, the holocaust the autumn.
7. Pourousha thus born became the Sacrifice, accomplished on the (holy) lawn by the Devas, the Sadhyas and the Richis. »
« 6. When the gods performed the sacrificevi with Purusha as the offering, then Spring was its ghí, Summer the fuel, and Autumn the oblation.
7. They immolated as the victim upon the sacred grass Purusha, born before (creation); with him the deities were Sadhyasvii and those who were Ṛishis sacrificed. »
« 6. Als die Götter mit Puruṣa als Opfergabe das Opfergabe vollzogen, da war der Frühling dessen Schmelzbutter, der Sommer das Brennholz, der Herbst die Opfergabe.
7. Ihn besprenten (weihten) sie als das Opfer auf dem Barhis, den am Anfang geborenen Puruṣa. Diesen brachten die Götter, die Sādhya’s und die Ŗși’s sich zum Opfer. »
One can see here a serious divergence of interpretation of verse 6:
Langlois is the only one to place (ambiguously) Pourousha alongside the Devas, the all of them apparently sacrificing together: « the Devas with Pourousha sacrificed by offering the offering ».
On the contrary, Wilson, Renou, Geldner, present Puruṣa as the very object of sacrifice, the unique (and divine) victim of oblation: « the gods performed the sacrifice with Purusha as the offering » or « the Gods offered the sacrifice with Man as an oblation ».
The verse 7 offers another significant difference of interpretation.
For Langlois, « Pourousha thus born became the Sacrifice », as if his birth happened at this moment, and this « (re-)birth » allowed him to « become the Sacrifice ».
For Wilson, Geldner, Renou, Puruṣa is treated like the very material, the essence of the Sacrifice: « They immolated Purusha as the victim upon the sacred grass ». « On the litter, they sprinkled the Man – the Sacrifice – who was born at the beginning. »
In a recent article discussing the « self sacrifice in Vedic ritual » and commenting the same hymn, one can read these lines about Puruṣa’s sacrifice :
« By immolating the Puruṣa, the primordial being, the gods break up the unchecked expansiveness of his vitality and turn it into the articulated order of life and universe ».viii
By immolating Puruṣa, the primordial Being, the gods break the uncontrolled expansion of its vitality, and transform it into the articulated order of life and the universe.
The same article cites verse 6 as particularly significant: « With sacrifice the gods sacrificed sacrifice, these were the first ordinances « ix
What a strange formula! « With the sacrifice, the gods sacrificed the sacrifice. »
This verse presents itself as an enigma, it is an incentive to research.
Man is the sacrifice. The gods sacrifice Man, and in doing so they « sacrifice the sacrifice. »
What is the meaning of this?
This formulation is irresistibly reminiscent of another divine sacrifice, which happened more than two thousand years after the Rig Veda was composed, — the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, « the Son of Man », in order to save Man.
The similarity of the sacrificial structures suggests the hypothesis of a trans-historical permanence of a trans-cultural « myth » or « paradigm », establishing a sacrificial link between God and Man.
However, it is also interesting to underline that this sacrificial structure (in the Veda and in Christian sacrifice), is the exact opposite to the one represented by the sacrifice that the Biblical God asked Abraham to perform with his son Isaac.
Let’s continue with verses 11, 12, 13, 14
« When they had dismembered the Man, how did they distribute the shares? What happened to his mouth, what happened to his arms? His thighs, his feet, what name do they get?
His mouth became Brāhman, the Warrior was the product of his arms, his thighs were the Artisan, his feet were born the Servant.
The moon was born from his consciousness, from his gaze the sun was born, from his mouth Indra at Agni, from his breath the wind was born.
The air came out of his belly button, from his head the sky moved, from his feet the earth, from his ear the orients. Thus were the worlds settled. »
Through the magic of metaphors, we seem to move from the Indus Valley to the Nile Valley. These verses of the Rig Veda evoke formulas from the Book of the Dead. The dismemberment of Man is reminiscent of the dismemberment of Osiris.
Plutarch reports that after Osiris’ murder by his brother Seth, the latter tore Osiris’ body into fourteen pieces and dispersed them. « His heart was in Athribis, his neck in Letopolis, his spine in Busiris, his head in Memphis and Abydos. And Plutarch concluded: « Osiris rose again as king and judge of the dead. He bears the title of Lord of the Underworld, Lord of Eternity, Sovereign of the Dead. »
The sacrifice of Puruṣa, the killing and dismemberment of Osiris, the crucifixion of Christ and the communion of his Body and Blood, share a deep structural analogy.
It is the idea of a God, primordial, supreme, sacrificed and then dismembered. In India, Egypt and Israel, God is sacrificed on the altar or on the cross, and its « dismemberment » allows universal communion.
iA. Langlois. RV Lecture IV, Section VIII, Hymn V: « 1. Pourousha a mille têtes, mille yeux, mille pieds. Il a pétri la terre de ses dix doigts, et en a formé une boule, au-dessus de laquelle il domine. 2. Pourousha, maître de l’immortalité, fort de la nourriture qu’il prend, a formé ce qui est, ce qui fut, ce qui sera. »
iiWilson comments: « As one with all creatures, Purusha or Viraj may be said to have a thousand, or thousands of heads, eyes, etc., a thousand being put for an infinite number. »
iiiWilson explains in a footnote: « Mahídhara gives the same explanation as Sáyaņa, but adds that it may also mean that the human soul, extending from the navel, takes up its abode in the heart — a doctrine to be found in the Upanishad. Hence Colebrooke renders it ‘stands in the human breast’; compare Burnouf’s version, ‘il occupe dans le corps de l’homme une cavité haute de dix doigts qu’il dépasse encore.’ All, however, that seems intended is that the supreme soul, having animated the universe, is moreover present in man, either in a minute form or of definite dimensions, a doctrine taught in the Upanishads and by the Vedántists. »
ivWilson adds here in a note: « Literally, ‘since he rises beyond by food.’ This may well admit of different explanations. Colebrook has ‘he is that which grows by nourishment’. Muir, ‘that which expands by nourishment.’ Burnouf has, ‘Car c’est lui qui par la nourriture (que prennent les créatures) sort (de l’état de cause) pour se développer (dans le monde)’; which follows Sáyaņa rather closely. Sáyaņa explains annena as práņinám bhogyenánnena nimittabhútena, and lower down adds, ‘Inasmuch as he assumes the condition of the world in order that sentient beings may enjoy the fruit of their acts (práņinám karmaphalabhogáya), that is not his true nature.’ The notion is that the supreme spirit, which in its own state is inert and undiscernible, becomes the visible world, that living beings may reap the fruit of their acts; and inasmuch as they may thereby acquire moksha, or final liberation, the supreme spirit is the lord or distributer of immortality. The word anna, ‘food’, which constitutes the chief difficulty here, is used in the Upanishads in a very vague and mystical sense; see, for example, the Muņḍaka, I. 8 [where it is translated ‘matter’ by Max Müller, Sacred Books of the East, vol. XV, p.28]. »
v In French : « 1. L’Homme a mille têtes. Il a mille yeux, mille pieds. Couvrant la terre de part en part, il la dépasse encore de dix doigts. 2. L’Homme n’est autre que cet univers, ce qui est passé, ce qui est à venir. Et il est le maître du domaine immortel parce qu’il croît au-delà de la nourriture. «
viAccording to Sáyaņa, the sacrifice here was imaginary, or mental (mánasam).
viiWilson notes: « Sadhya, meaning ‘competent to create’, i.e. Prajápati and the rest ».
viii Cf. Essays on Transformation, Revolution and Permanence in the History of Religions (S. Shaked, D. Shulman, G.G. Stroumsa)
ix Cf. Essays on Transformation, Revolution and Permanence in the History of Religions (S. Shaked, D. Shulman, G.G. Stroumsa)