The biblical Genesis puts the beginning of creation at the « beginning ». It is simple, natural, effective, perhaps even logical.
In contrast, one of the deepest hymns of the Rig Veda does not begin with the beginning, but with what was before the beginning itself.
The first verse of the Nasadiya Sukta (« Hymn to Creation », Rig Veda, X, 129, 1) contemplates what was before being and before non-being:
Which reads: nāsadāsīno sadāsītadānīṃ
The Vedic text links words in a fluid, psalmodized diction, preserved orally for more than six thousand years, before being transcribed, relatively recently, in the Brāhmī writing system of Sanskrit.
For a better understanding, the sentence ‘nāsadāsīno sadāsītadānīṃ’ can be broken down as follows:
na āsad āsī no sad āsīt tadānīṃ
The translations of this enigmatic formula are legion.
« There was no being, there was no non-being at that time. « (Renou)
« Nothing existed then, neither the being nor the 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 of Wikipedia).
« Nicht das nicht seiende war, nicht das seiende damals. « (Ludwig)
« Zu jener Zeit war weder Sein, noch Nichtsein. « (Grassmann)
« Weder Nichtsein noch Sein war damals. « (Geldner)
The grammar of the modern languages does not seem to be well adapted to the translation of this grammatically subversive hymn. Moreover, how can one render with ´words´ what was before words, how can one say what ´was´ before being and before non-being, how can we make people ´see´ what existed before existence and non-existence?
And besides, where does the knowledge of the speaker come from? On what is this revelation based? Since it reports of a time when all knowledge and all non-knowledge did not exist?
One begins to think: what thinker can ´think´ what is obviously beyond what is thinkable? How, in spite of everything, does a volley of insolent words come, from beyond the millennia, to brighten our dark nights?
Fragile footbridges, labile traces, short quatrains, the first two verses of the Nasadiya Sukta weave words slightly, above the void, far from the common, between worlds.
नासदासीन्नो सदासीत्तदानीं नासीद्रजो नो व्योमा परो यत्
किमावरीवः कुह कस्य शर्मन्नम्भः किमासीद्गहनं गभीरम् ॥ १॥
न मृत्य्युरासीदमृतं न तर्हि न रात्र्या अह्न आसीत्प्रकेत
आनीदवातं स्वधया तदेकं तस्माद्धान्यन्न परः किञ्चनास ॥२॥
Louis Renou translates:
« 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 in that time, nor was there non-death,
No sign distinguishing night from day.
The One breathed breathlessly, moved by himself:
Nothing else existed beyond. »i
Max Müller :
» Nothing existed then, neither being nor non-being;
the shining 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 single being breathed alone, not pushing any breath,
and since then there has been nothing but him. »ii
Alexandre Langlois :
« Nothing existed then, neither visible nor invisible.
No upper region; no air; no 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. »iii
« Nicht das nicht seiende war, nicht das seiende damals,
nicht war der räum, noch der himmel jenseits des rames ;
was hat so mächtig verhüllt? wo, in wes hut,
war das waszer, das unergründliche tiefe?
Nicht der tod war da noch auch Unsterblichkeit damals ,
noch war ein kennzeichen des tags und der nacht,
von keinem winde bewegt atmete einzig das Tat, in göttlicher Wesenheit ;
ein anderes als disz war auszerhalb desselben nicht. »iv
Hermann Grassmann :
« Zu jener Zeit war weder Sein, noch Nichtsein,
nicht war der Luftraum, noch Himmel drüber ;
Was regte sich? Und wo ? In wessen Obhut ?
War Wasser da ? Und gab’s den tiefen Abgrund ?
Nicht Tod und nicht Unsterblichkeit war damals,
nicht gab’s des Tages noch der Nacht Erscheinung ;
Nur Eines hauchte windlos durch sich selber
und ausser ihm gab nirgend es ein andres. »v
Karl Friedrich Geldner
« Weder Nichtsein noch Sein war damals ;
nicht war der Luftraum noch Himmel darüber.
Was strich hin und her? Wo ? In wessen Obhut ?
Was das unergründliche tiefe Waseer ?
Weder Tod noch Unsterblichkeit war damals ;
nicht gab es ein Anzeichen von Tag und Nacht.
Es atmete nach seinem Eigengesetz ohne Windzug dieses Eine.
Irgend ein Anderes als dieses war weiter nicht vorhanden. »vi
The comparison of these translations shows several elements of ‘consensus’.
Before there was anything, there was « Him », the « Unique Being ».
Before Everything was, this Being was One, alone, and He breathed without breath.
The One was, – long before a « wind of God » could even « begin » to « blow on the waters », according to what says the Bible, written some three thousand years after the oral revelation of the Veda…
After the two initial verses just mentioned, the Vedic creation story takes off, using words and images that may awaken some biblical memories.
Here is how Louis Renou, Max Müller and Alexandre Langlois account for this.
« 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. »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 springs up 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 sprang the first seed. The sages (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) departed, 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
Some translators say that in the beginning, « darkness envelops the 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 mystery?
It is amusing to see some explain the birth of the Whole by the role of « heat », while others understand that the origin of the world must be attributed to « piety » (of the One). Material spirits! Abstract minds! How difficult it is to reconcile them!
Let’s take a closer look at this point. The Sanskrit text uses here the word tapas, तपस्.
Huet’s Dictionary translates tapas as « heat, ardor; suffering, torment, mortification, austerities, penances, asceticism », and by extension, « the strength of soul acquired through asceticism ».
Monier-Williams indicates that the verbal root tap- 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 ».
There are clearly, here again, two semantic universes taking shape, that of nature (fire, heat, burning) and that of the spirit (suffering, repentance, austerity, purification).
What is the correct meaning of this hymn from the Rig Veda?
Taking into account the intrinsic dualism attached to the creation of the Whole by the One, both meanings fit simultaneously, in my opinion, without contradiction. An original brilliance and warmth probably accompanied the creation of some inchoate Big Bang.
This being conceded, the Vedic text underlines, it seems to me, the true cause, not physical, but metaphysical, by opening up to the figurative meaning of the word tapas, by evoking the « suffering », or the « repentance », or the « asceticism » or even the « sacrifice » that the One would have chosen, in His solitude, to impose on Himself, in order to give the world its initial impulse.
One cannot help but find there a kind of Christic dimension to this Vedic vision, when the One consents to asceticism, to suffering, to give life to the Whole.
One cannot deny that the Veda is fundamentally a « monotheism », since it stages, even before the beginning, the One, the One who is « alone », who breathes « without breath ».
But soon this One is transformed into a kind of trinity. What emerges from these verses are, dominating darkness, water, emptiness, confusion and chaos, the two figures of the Being (the Creator) and the Whole (the created world).
The Whole is born of the Being by His « desire » (or by His « Love »), which grows within His « Spirit » (or His « Intelligence »).
A Trinitarian reading is possible, if one adds, intimately, to the idea of the One, the idea of His Spirit and that of His Desire (or His Love).
The last two verses of the Nasadiya Sukta tackle head-on the question of mystery, the question of origin, the « why all this »?
« Who knows in truth, who could announce it here: where does this creation 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 maybe He did not know it? »x
« 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 was the author of all this great creation, whether His will commanded it or whether His will was silent, the Most High « Seer » who resides in the highest heaven, He knows it – or perhaps He himself does 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 He, 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
It is obviously the final point (« Perhaps he doesn’t know it himself? ») that carries the essence of the 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.
But how can we understand that the « Seer » may not know whether He Himself is the author of creation, and how can He not know whether it was made – or not made?
One possible interpretation would be that the Whole received the initial impulse. But this is not enough. The Whole, though « created », is not a determined mechanics. The Seer is not « Almighty » or « Omniscient ». His asceticism, His suffering can only be understood as the testimony of a « sacrifice » given for the freedom of the world, an essential freedom created and given freely by the will of the One.
This essential, ontological freedom implies that the Whole is, in a sense, in the image of the One, in terms of freedom and therefore of ontological dignity.
This also implies that the future of the Whole depends on the Spirit, and whether the Whole will be able to render the Spirit fecund from Desire.
iRig Veda, X, 129, 1-2. Louis Renou, La poésie religieuse de l’Inde antique. 1942
iiRig Veda, X, 129, 1-2. Max Müller. Histoire des religions. 1879
iiiRig Veda, X, 129, 1-2. Alexandre Langlois. (Section VIII, lecture VII, Hymne X)
ivRig Veda, X, 129, 1-2. Alexandre Langlois. (Section VIII, lecture VII, Hymne X)
vRig Veda, X, 129, 1-2. Hermann Grassmann. Ed. F.A. Brockhaus. Leipzig. 1877
viRig Veda, X, 129, 1-2. Karl Friedrich Geldner. Harvard Oriental Series (Vol. 35), Cambridge (Mass.), 1951
viiRig Veda, X, 129, 1. Louis Renou, La poésie religieuse de l’Inde antique. 1942
viiiRig Veda, X, 129, 1. Max Müller. Histoire des religions. 1879
ixRig Veda, X, 129, 1-7. A. Langlois. (Section VIII, lecture VII, Hymne X)
xRig Veda, X, 129, 1. Louis Renou, La poésie religieuse de l’Inde antique. 1942
xiRig Veda, X, 129, 1. Max Müller. Histoire des religions. 1879
xiiRig Veda, X, 129, 1-7. A. Langlois. (Section VIII, lecture VII, Hymne X)