The Union of Breath and Word


Rig Veda ─ Padapātha

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

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

The Udgatṛi were responsible for singing the hymns of SâmaVeda in the most melodious way.

The Hotṛi, for their part, had to recite in a loud voice, but without singing them, the ancient hymns of Ṛg Veda, 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, an experienced Brahmin, the ultimate reference for the smooth running of the sacrifice and guarantor of its effectiveness, supervised the various phases of the ceremony.

These four kinds of priests had a very different relationship to the word (of the Veda), according to their ranks and skills.

Some murmured it, others sang it, others spoke it loudly, – and finally the most senior among them kept silent.

These different regimes of expression could be interpreted as so many modalities of the relationship of speech to the divine. One could also be content to see in them an image of the different stages of the sacrifice, an indication of its progress.

In the Vedic imagination, murmurs, songs, words, cries, and finally silence fill and increase the divine, like great rivers wind ‘safe to the sea’.

The recitation of Ṛg Veda is an endless narrative, weaving itself, according to various rhythms. One can recite it word for word (pada rhythm), or mime a path (krama) according to eight possible varieties, such as the « braid » (jatā rhythm) or the « block » (ghana rhythm).

In the « braid » (jatā ) style, a four-syllable expression (noted: abcd) became the subject of a long, repetitive and obsessive litany, such as: ab/ba/abc/cba/bc/cb/bcd/dcb/bcd…

When the time came, the recitation would « burst out » (like thunder). Acme of sacrifice.

In all the stages of the sacrifice, there was a will to connect, a linking energy. The Vedic word is entirely occupied with building links with the Deity, weaving close, vocal, musical, rhythmic, semantic correlations.

In essence, it represents the mystery of the Deity. It establishes and constitutes the substance of a link with her, in the various regimes of breath, in their learned progression.

A hymn of the Atharvaveda pushes the metaphor of breath and rhythm as far as possible. It makes us understand the nature of the act in progress, which is similar to a sacred, mystical union.

« More than one who sees has not seen the Word; more than one who hears does not hear it.

To the latter, she has opened her body

like her husband a loving wife in rich attire. »

It is interesting, I think, to compare some of these Vedic concepts to those one can find in Judaism.

In Genesis, there is talk of a « wind » from God (רוּח, ruah), at the origin of the world.i A little later, it is said that God breathed a « breath of life » (נשׁמה neshmah) so that man became a « living being » (נפשׁ nefesh).ii

God’s « wind » evokes the idea of a powerful, strong hurricane. In contrast, the « breath of life » is light as a breeze, a peaceful and gentle exhalation.

But there is also the breath associated with the word of God, which « speaks », which « says ».

Philo of Alexandria thus commented about the « breath » and « wind » of God, : « The 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.”iii

Breath, soul, spirit and speech, in the end, unite.

Beyond languages, beyond cultures, from the Veda to the Bible, a profound analogy transcends worlds.

The murmurs of the Adhvaryu, the songs of Udgatṛi, the words of Hotṛi, and the very silence of the Brahmin, aim at an union with the divine.

The union of these various breaths (murmured, spoken, sung, silent breaths) is analogous in principle, it seems to me, to the union of the wind (ruah), the soul (neshmah), and the spirit (nefesh).

In the Veda and in the Bible, — across the millennia, the union of the word and the breath, mimics the union of the divine and the human.

_____

iGn 1,2

iiGn 2,7

iii Philo. Legum Allegoriae 37