In the Beginning…
One of the most beautiful and deepest hymns of the Ṛg Veda, the Nasadiya Sukta, begins with what was and what was not, even before the Beginning:
« Ná ásat āsīt ná u sát āsīt tadânīm« i.
The translation of this famous verse is not easy. Here are a few attempts:
« There was no being, there was no non-being at that time. « (Renou)
« Nothing existed then, neither being nor non-being. « (Müller)
« Nothing existed then, neither visible nor invisible. « (Langlois)
« Then even nothingness was not, nor existence. « (Basham)
« Not the non-existent existed, nor did the existent then » (Art. Nasadiya Sukta. Wikipedia).
“Then was not non-existent nor existent.” (Griffith)
How to render with words what was before words? How to say a « being » that « is » before « being » and also, moreover, before « non-being »? How to describe the existence of what existed before existence and before non-existence?
We also begin to think by analogy: how can we hope to think what is obviously beyond what is thinkable? How can we think possible even to try to think the unthinkable?
How can we know whether words like sát, ásat, āsīt, mono- or bi-syllabic messengers, which have reached us intact over the millennia, and which benefit from the semantic precision of Sanskrit, still live a real, meaningful, authentic life?
The Nasadiya Sukta anthem is at least 4000 years old. Long before it was memorized in writing in the Veda corpus, it was probably transmitted from generation to generation by a faithful oral tradition. Its verses are pure intellectual delight, so much so that they stand slightly, far above the void, beyond common sense, a frail bridge, a labile trace, between worlds :
नासदासीन्नो सदासीत्तदानीं नासीद्रजो नो व्योमा परो यत् |
किमावरीवः कुह कस्य शर्मन्नम्भः किमासीद्गहनं गभीरम् ॥ १॥
न मृत्य्युरासीदमृतं न तर्हि न रात्र्या अह्न आसीत्प्रकेत | आसीत्प्रकः
आनीदवातं स्वधया तदेकं तस्माद्धान्यन्न परः किञ्चनास ॥२॥
Louis Renou translates these two verses as follows:
« There was no being, there was no non-being at that time. There was no space or firmament beyond. What was moving? Where, under whose guard? Was there deep water, bottomless water?
Neither death was at that time, nor undead, no sign distinguishing night from day. The One breathed breathlessly, moved by himself: nothing else existed beyond.”ii
“Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered in, and where? And what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider. That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.”iii
Max Müller :
« Nothing existed then, neither being nor non-being; the bright sky was not yet, nor the broad canvas of the firmament stretched out above it. By what was everything wrapped, protected, hidden? Was it by the unfathomable depths of the waters?
There was no death, no immortality. There was no distinction between day and night. The One Being breathed alone, taking no breath, and since then there has been nothing but Him. “iv
Alexandre Langlois :
« Nothing existed then, neither visible nor invisible. Point of upper region; point of air; point of sky. Where was this envelope (of the world)? In which bed was the wave contained? Where were these impenetrable depths (of air)?
There was no death, no immortality. Nothing announced day or night. He alone breathed, forming no breath, enclosed within himself. He alone existed.”v
From these various versions, it appears that the translators share a certain consensus on the following points:
Before there was nothing, there was « the One », also called « Him ».
Before the world was, the One existed, alone, and He breathed – without breath.
The Rig Veda claimed that « the One is », long before the time came of any Genesis, long before a « wind of God » came over the waters.
The following verses then take flight, using words and images that may evoke memories of the Genesis in the Bible (- which appeared later than the Veda by at least two millennia, it should be noted):
« Originally darkness covered darkness, everything we see was just an indistinct wave. Enclosed in the void, the One, accessing the Being, was then born by the power of heat.
Desire developed first, which was the first seed of thought; searching thoughtfully in their souls, the wise men found in non-being the bond of being.
Their line was stretched diagonally: what was the top, what was the bottom? There were seed bearers, there were virtues: below was spontaneous energy, above was the Gift.”vi
“Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos. All that existed then was void and formless: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.
There after rose Desire in the beginning. Desire, the primal seed and germ of spirit. Sages, who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.
Tranversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below it? There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder.”vii
« The seed, which was still hidden in its envelope, suddenly sprang up in the intense heat.Then love, the new source of the spirit, joined it for the first time.
Yes, the poets, meditating in their hearts, discovered this link between created things and what was uncreated. Does this spark that gushes out everywhere, that penetrates everything, come from the earth or the sky?
Then the seeds of life were sown and great forces appeared, nature below, power and will above.”viii
« In the beginning the darkness was shrouded in darkness; the water was without impulse. Everything was confused. The Being rested in the midst of this chaos, and this great All was born by the force of his piety.
In the beginning Love was in him, and from his spirit the first seed sprang forth. The wise men (of creation), through the work of intelligence, succeeded in forming the union of the real being and the apparent being.
The ray of these (wise men) went forth, extending upwards and downwards. They were great, (these wise men); they were full of a fruitful seed, (such as a fire whose flame) rises above the hearth that feeds it.”ix
Note that, for some translators, in the beginning « darkness envelops darkness ». Others prefer to read here a metaphor, that of the « seed », hidden in its « envelope ».
Is it necessary to give a meaning, an interpretation to the « darkness », or is it better to let it bathe in its own mystery?
Let us also note that some translators relate the birth of the All to « warmth », while others understand that the origin of the world must be attributed to « piety » (of the One). Material minds! Abstract minds! How difficult it is to reconcile them!
So, « piety » or « warmth »? The Sanskrit text uses the word « tapas« : तपस्.
Huet translates « tapas » by « heat, ardour; suffering, torment, mortification, austerities, penance, asceticism », and by extension, « the strength of soul acquired through asceticism ».
Monier-Williams indicates that the tap– root has several meanings: « to burn, to shine, to give heat », but also « to consume, to destroy by fire » or « to suffer, to repent, to torment, to practice austerity, to purify oneself by austerity ».
Two semantic universes emerge here, that of nature (fire, heat, burning) and that of the spirit (suffering, repentance, austerity, purification).
If we take into account the intrinsic dualism attached to the creation of the « Whole » by the « One », the two meanings can be used simultaneously and without contradiction.
An original brilliance and warmth probably accompanied the creation of some inchoate Big Bang. But the Vedic text also underlines another cause, not physical, but metaphysical, of the creation of the world, by opening up to the figurative meaning of the word « tapas« , which evokes « suffering », « repentance », or even « asceticism » that the One would have chosen, in his solitude, to impose on himself, in order to give the world its initial impulse.
This Vedic vision of the suffering of the One is not without analogy with the concept of kenosis, in Christian theology, and with the Christic dimension of the divine sacrifice.
The Judaic concept of tsimtsum (the « contraction » of God) could also be related to the Vedic idea of « tapas« .
From this hymn of the Rig Veda, the presence of a very strong monotheistic feeling is particularly evident. The Veda is fundamentally a « monotheism », since it stages, even before any « Beginning » of the world, the One, the One who is « alone », who breathes « without breath ».
Furthermore, let us also note that this divine One can diffract Himself into a form of divine « trinity ». Dominating darkness, water, emptiness, confusion and chaos, the One Being (the Creator) creates the Whole. The Whole is born of the Being because of his « desire », his « Love », which grows within the « Spirit », or « Intelligence ».x
The idea of the One is intimately associated with that of the Spirit and that of Love (or Desire), which can be interpreted as a trinitarian representation of divine unity.
The last two verses of the Nasadiya Sukta finally tackle head-on the question of origin and its mystery.
« Who knows in truth, who could announce it here: where did this creation come from, where does it come from? The gods are beyond this creative act. Who knows where it emanates from?
This creation, from where it emanates, whether it was made or not, – he who watches over it in the highest heaven probably knows it… or whether he did not know it? “xi
« Who knows these things? Who can say them? Where do beings come from? What is this creation? The Gods were also produced by him. But who knows how he exists?
He who is the first author of this creation, supports it. And who else but him could do so? He who from heaven has his eyes on all this world, knows it alone. Who else would have this science?”xii
“Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born, and whence comes this creation? The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it, whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.”xiii
« Who knows the secret? Who here tells us where this varied creation came from? The Gods themselves came into existence later: who knows where this vast world came from?
Whoever has been the author of all this great creation, whether his will has ordered it or whether his will has been silent, the Most High « Seer » who resides in the highest of the heavens, it is he who knows it, – or perhaps He Himself does not know it? »xiv
The final pun (« Perhaps He Himself does not know it? ») carries, in my opinion, the essence of the intended meaning.
That the Gods, as a whole, are only a part of the creation of the Most High, again confirms the pre-eminence of the One in the Veda.
But how can we understand that the « Seer » may not know whether He Himself is the author of the creation, how can He not know whether it was made – or not made?
One possible interpretation would be that the Whole received an initial impulse of life (the « breath »). But this is not enough. The world is not a mechanism. The Whole, though ‘created’, is not ‘determined’. The Seer is not « Almighty », nor « Omniscient ». He has renounced his omnipotence and omniscience, through assumed asceticism. His suffering must be understood as the consequence of risk taking on the part of the One, the risk of the freedom of the world, the risk involved in the creation of free essences, essentially free beings created freely by a free will.
This essential freedom of the Whole is, in a sense, « an image » of the freedom of the One.
iNasadiya Sukta. Ṛg Veda, X, 129
iiṚg Veda, X, 129, 1-2. My translation in English from the translation in French by Louis Renou, La poésie religieuse de l’Inde antique. 1942
iiiRalp Griffith. The Hymns of the Ṛg Veda. RV X, 129,1-2. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. Delhi, 1073, p. 633
ivṚg Veda, X, 129, 1-2. Max Müller. Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (1878)
vṚg Veda, X, 129, 1-2. My translation in English from the translation in French by . A. Langlois. (Section VIII, lect. VII, Hymn X)
viṚg Veda, X, 129, 3-5. My translation in English from the translation in French by Louis Renou, La poésie religieuse de l’Inde antique. 1942
viiRalp Griffith. The Hymns of the Ṛg Veda. RV X, 129,3-5. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. Delhi, 1073, p. 633
viiiṚg Veda, X, 129, 3-5.. Max Müller. Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (1878)
ixṚg Veda, X, 129, 3-5.. My translation in English from the translation in French by. A. Langlois. (Section VIII, lecture VII, Hymne X)
xNasadiya Sukta, v. 4
xiṚg Veda, X, 129, 6-7. My translation in English from the translation in French by Louis Renou, La poésie religieuse de l’Inde antique. 1942
xiiṚg Veda, X, 129, 6-7. My translation in English from the translation in French by. A. Langlois. (Section VIII, lecture VII, Hymne X)
xiiiRalp Griffith. The Hymns of the Ṛg Veda. RV X, 129,6-7. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. Delhi, 1073, p. 633-634
xivṚg Veda, X, 129, 6-7. Max Müller. Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (1878)