Breath and Word in Veda and Judaism


The Vedic rite of sacrifice required the participation of four kinds of priests, with very different functions.

The Adhvaryu prepared the animals and the altar, lit the fire and performed the actual sacrifice. They took care of all the material and manual part of the operations, during which they were only allowed to whisper a few incantations proper to their sacrificial activity.

The Udgatṛi were responsible for singing the hymns of Sama Veda in the most melodious manner.

The Hotṛi, for their part, had to recite in a loud voice, without singing them, the ancient hymns of the Ṛg Veda while respecting the traditional rules of pronunciation and accentuation. They were supposed to know by heart all the texts of the Veda in order to adapt to all the circumstances of the sacrifices. At the end of the litanies, they uttered a kind of wild cry, called vausat.

Finally, remaining silent throughout, a Brahmin, a referent of the good progress of the sacrifice, guarantor of its effectiveness, supervised the various phases of the ceremony.

These four kinds of priests had, as one can see, a very different relationship to the word of the Veda. The first murmured (or mumbled) it, the second sang it, following a melody, mingled with music, the third proclaimed it, concluding with a shout. Finally, silence was observed by the Brahmin.

These different regimes of vocal expression can be interpreted as so many possible modalities of the relationship of the word to the divine. They accompany and give rhythm to the stages of the sacrifice and its progression.

The chant is a metaphor for the divine fire, the fire of Agni. « Songs fill you and increase you, as the great rivers fill the sea » says a Vedic formula addressed to Agni.

The recitation of Ṛg Veda is a self-weaving narrative. It can be done word for word (pada rhythm), or in a kind of melodic path (krama) according to eight possible varieties, such as the « braid » (jatā rhythm) or the « block » (ghana rhythm).

In the « braid » style, for example, a four-syllable expression abcd was pronounced in a long, repetitive and obsessive litany: ab/ba/abc/cba/bc/cb/bcd/dcb/bcd

When the time came, the recitation finally « burst forth » like thunder. Acme of sacrifice.

The Vedic word appears in all its successive stages a will to connect, an energy of connection. Little by little set in motion, it is entirely oriented towards the construction of links with the Deity, the weaving of close correlations, vocal, musical, rhythmic, semantic.

It is impregnated with the mystery of Deity. It establishes and constitutes by itself a sacred link, in the various regimes of breath, and by their learned progression.

A hymn of Atharvaveda pushes the metaphor of breath and rhythm as far as possible. It makes us understand the nature of the act in progress, which resembles a sacred, mystical union: « More than one who sees has not seen the Word; more than one who hears has not heard it. To the latter, she opened her body as to her husband, a loving woman in rich finery.»

The Vedic Word is at the same time substance, vision, way.

A comparison with the divine Word and Breath in the biblical texts can be interesting.

In Gen 2:7, God breathes a « breath of life » (neshmah נשׁמה) so that man becomes a living being (nephesh נפשׁ ). In Gen 1:2, a « wind » from God blows (rua רוּח). The « wind » is violent and evokes notions of power, strength, active tension. The « breath » of life, on the other hand, can be compared to a breeze, a peaceful and gentle exhalation. Finally, God « speaks », he « says »: « Let there be light! ».

On the subject of the breath and wind of God, Philo of Alexandria comments: « This expression (he breathed) has an even deeper meaning. Indeed three things are required: what blows, what receives, what is blown. What blows is God; what receives is intelligence; what is blown is breath. What is done with these elements? A union of all three occurs. »

Philo poses the deep, intrinsic unity of breath, soul, spirit and speech.

Beyond languages, beyond cultures, from the Veda to the Bible, the analogy of breath transcends worlds. The murmur of the Adhvaryu, the song of Udgatṛi, the word of Hotṛi, and its very cry, form a union, analogous in principle to that of the divine exhalation (neshmah, נשׁמה), the living breath (nephesh, נפשׁ ), and the wind of God (rua, רוּח ).

In all matters, there are those who excel in seeing the differences. Others see especially the similarities. In the Veda and the Bible, the latter will be able to recognize the persistence of a paradigm of speech and breath in seemingly distant contexts.

The Aryan Veda and Semitic Judaism, beyond their multiple differences, share the intuition of the union of word and breath, – which is also a divine prerogative.

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