Every so often, we come across a Hymnal that really really deserves a broader audience. In this case, RV VIII 100 – which details a rather lesser-known element to the Slaying of Vritra by Indra. Namely, the salient role of Vak Devi (Saraswati) in this conflict. It therefore seemed most appropriate to prepare a brief commentary upon it for our Friday Devi-otional offering post. And, in so doing, also begin to meet the enthusiastic request of some of our readership for more Indra (but also, perhaps (un)surprisingly, Herakles) material as well.
So, before I get too carried away with the exegesis … here’s RV VIII 100, in the Griffith translation [bizarrely cited as RV VIII 89 in some editions]. It’s officially designated a Hymnal to both Indra and Vak Devi, and should properly be considered a dialogue hymn – which means that instead of it all being sung as a single poem, various lines are almost ‘acted out’ by particular designated priests who are playing the parts of the relevant Gods involved to give a sense of … a dialogue. Meanwhile, another priest assumes the role almost of a ‘narrator’ with his lines, providing expository commentary in his verses which help to tie the whole thing together, to the rite, and keep it cohesively moving. Unfortunately, just which lines are supposed to be sung by whom or Whom, is a matter of some speculation and disagreement. But we’ll get on to that in due course. For now, the Hymn:
“1. I MOVE before thee here present in person, and all the Deities follow behind me.
When, Indra, thou securest me my portion, with me thou shalt perform heroic actions.
2 The food of meath in foremost place I give thee, thy Soma shall be pressed, thy share appointed.
Thou on my right shalt be my friend and comrade: then shall we two smite dead full many a foeman.
3 Striving for strength bring forth a laud to Indra, a truthful hymn if he in truth existeth.
One and another say, There is no Indra. Who hath beheld him? Whom then shall we honour?
4 Here am I, look upon me here, O singer. All that existeth I surpass in greatness.
The Holy Law’s commandments make me mighty. Rending with strength I rend the worlds asunder.
5 When the Law’s lovers mounted and approached me as I sate lone upon the dear sky’s summit.
Then spake my spirit to the heart within me, My friends have cried unto me with their children.
6 All these thy deeds must be declared at Soma-feasts, wrought, Indra, Bounteous Lord, for him who sheds the juice,
When thou didst open wealth heaped up by many, brought from far away to Sarablia, the Ṛṣi’s kin.
7 Now run ye forth your several ways: he is not here who kept you back.
For hath not Indra sunk his bolt deep down in Vṛtra’s vital part?
8 On-rushing with the speed of thought within the iron fort he pressed:
The Falcon went to heaven and brought the Soma to the Thunderer.
9 Deep in the ocean lies the bolt with waters compassed round about,
And in continuous onward flow the floods their tribute bring to it.
10 When, uttering words which no one comprehended, Vāk, Queen of Gods, the Gladdener, was seated,
The heaven’s four regions drew forth drink and vigour: now whither hath her noblest portion vanished?
11 The Deities generated Vāk the Goddess, and animals of every figure speak her.
May she, the Gladdener, yielding food and vigour, the Milch-cow Vāk, approach us meetly lauded.
12 Step forth with wider stride, my comrade Viṣṇu; make room, Dyaus, for the leaping of the lightning.
Let us slay Vṛtra, let us free the rivers let them flow loosed at the command of Indra.”
Pretty stirring stuff! And it only becomes more profound when it is considered in light of both its Vedic as well as its broader Indo-European context.
Now, the broad outlines of the Slaying of Vritra are pretty well known, and form perhaps the best known Hindu expression of the Striker/Thunderer vs Demon-Dragon(of the waters) Indo-European mytheme. Which is itself almost certainly the most prominent and readily identified of these underlying ancient-archaic mythic templates of our ancestors – finding somewhat close coterminates in pretty much every Indo-Eurpean descendant culture. Thor against Jormungandr ; Tarhunt against Illuyanka ; and, of course, Herakles against the Hydra (which this Hymnal has an intriguing direct point of resonancy with) are some of the better known instances. Although there are, of course, numerous others. Including some which aren’t actually of this typology – but instead, are of the somewhat parallel one wherein it is the Sky Father Who carries out the appropriate action of demon-slaying (consider, for example, Brihaspati’s orbital bombardment of Vala (just to be sure); or Zeus against Typhon … who also winds up buried under a mountain). But more upon that, perhaps, at some other time.
The Vedic presentations of Indra against Vritra represent the oldest recountings of this myth that we have available to us; and preserve many features within them that appear to have dropped out, or at the very least become significantly distorted and/or de-emphasized in other Indo-European cultures’ renditions of the same tale. Which does not mean that the Hindu renditions are completely consistent upon these matters simply by virtue of age. As is often the case with scripture – each Hymnal which covers or draws from the episode in question presents things from a slightly different perspective and to somewhat different purpose. Some details are to be found partially or entirely omitted simply because they are not so relevant for the Hymn’s intended purpose. Later Hindu scripture goes even further, and makes occasionally quite pointed conflationary leaps (for example, the Mahabharat’s recounting of the incident, which appears to have melded Indra’s fight against Vritra with the Shatapatha Brahmana’s explication of the Slaying of Namuki by Him; or the Srimad Bhagavatam’s presumably deliberate ‘Shaivite’ style description of Vritra in what I can only surmise must have been the Vaishnavas pushing a sectarian propaganda-barrow of their day).
As applies the Vedic evocations of the combat – these serve three closely interrelated purposes. First, to Glorify and pay homa-ge to The Gods via extolling Their achievements. Second, to explain how something was achieved – and preserve/inculcate a broader lesson around it both for immediate audience as well as for the civilization at large. And third, to further immanentize via the Eliadian ‘Eternal Return’ the positive outcome of the original Mythic Deed out into the world around us (i.e. the sacral recollection and semi re-performance of the event in question further amplifies its ‘echoes’ and embeds the patterns of its occurrence into our reality – which, when it comes to Vritra-slaying, may include facilitating the ongoing rain-cycle against the threat of drought, for example … as an expression of underlying fundamental Cosmic Law which has been defended against the demonic-disruptive onslaught).
It is clear to see how all three objectives are intricately interwoven in this Hymn. For it hails the mighty deeds of Indra and Vak in slaying Vritra … in no small part by describing the manner in which this is actually attained – through pious offering to Vak and appropriate sacral conduct, adherence to the mandate of Rta (Cosmic Order) … and therein contains the ‘lesson’ for the culture which has produced and performed the hymnal. All of which is performed as part of a sacral offering itself – thus engaging in the aforementioned Eternal Return of the events, and therefore facilitating the re-immanentization of the principle outcomes under discussion that are hailed therein.
There are several important points yet to be made upon that last element – including the significantly important Indo-European warding against the depredations of demons by reminding them of a time when even some of the greatest of their number were hurt really, really badly by our Gods so as to dissuade them from bothering us any further … but we shall leave those for another time.
Instead, let’s take a closer look at several of the verses of this Hymn – and then how these relate to the aforementioned Classical co-expression of the same myth in the combat of Herakles (and Iolaus) against the Hydra.
Now, as I have said, this is a ‘dialogue hymn’ – and there is some controversy over just which lines are meant to be voiced by which Gods or other roles to the Rite. The recent Jamison/Brereton Oxford translation and commentary proposes that much of the exchange is actually between Vayu (the Wind God – a figure significantly coterminous with Nordic Odin) and Indra, at first interspersed by and then supplanted with the lines of ‘narration’ ascribed to a Vedic priest acting as officiator of proceedings. This interpretation is, by their own admission, “uncertain” and not exactly “secure”; in no small part because it hinges around an incredibly complex level of ritual-structure symbolism that they have imputed onto the hymn. How complex? In order to make things work with their preferred ‘structural’ interpretation keyed to the three daily Soma pressings … they have the composer (or performer) of the hymn “imitating an unnamed singer in dialogue with Indra, and the singer is in turn imitating Indra or some other eyewitness of the mythical scene.” Meanwhile, their main argument for ascribing to Vayu the opening lines of the Hymn, is that there is a certain degree of resonance with a Brahamana-commentary episode wherein Indra and Vayu have a dispute over the division of the spoils-of-war from the dragon-slaying in question. Which, again by Jamison and Brereton’s own admission, is a problematic interpretation as it places the aftermath of the death of Vritra at the exact opposite end of the Hymnal to the combat actually being initiated, among other elements that are exactly the wrong way around for this to truly be the case. Other efforts have been put forward from time to time … many of which appear to overlook some remarkably obvious features in pursuit of increasingly abstract and emptily ‘theoretical’ flights of academic inquiry.
So enough of those. Here’s how I interpret it.
The Hymn all up, is one in which Indra is granted aid and availment in making ready to take down Vritra. It is implicitly made clear that several elements have contributed to His quite literally striking success in the ensuing combat. One of which is the assistance of the enigmatic figure of the first line – which cannot be Vayu, per Jamison & Brereton’s speculation, because the granting of the appropriate sacral ‘portion’ to this figure is what precedes and makes possible Indra’s ensuing ‘heroic actions’ and ‘mighty deeds’. It is not a division of loot after the conflict. Instead, it is something familiar to many an Indo-European Hero – whether God or Human. The act of sacrifice and pious offering to a powerful (also, in this context) Divine patron Who shall then aid Her chosen champion in the fight to come. Who might this Patron of the Gods be?
It is Vak. As we can see in Her Own most magnificent hymnal, the famed DeviSukta [RV X 125] – wherein precisely this pattern and typology is directly extolled for our benefit. Specifically including, interestingly enough, a mention for Her supporting of Indra; as well as directing and empowering the Divine War Effort more generally [something also found in RV VI 61 12 – “She must be / Invoked in every deed of might.”]; going in motion with All the Gods – but being the first to merit worship amongst Them.
This deftly explains the first line of the combined Indra-Vak hymnal:
“1. I MOVE before thee here present in person, and all the Deities follow behind me.
When, Indra, thou securest me my portion, with me thou shalt perform heroic actions.”
And so therefore, just as the first line is Vak speaking to Indra (as well as, while looking directly at the camera, as it were, speaking also to the assembled audience for the re-enactment of the rite’s proceedings amongst humankind – for we, too, are able to accomplish the Heroic Actions through the assistance, the guidance, and the augmentation of Vak) … so, too, is the second line Indra replying to Vak:
“2 The food of meath in foremost place I give thee, thy Soma shall be pressed, thy share appointed.
Thou on my right shalt be my friend and comrade: then shall we two smite dead full many a foeman.”
And while some have attempted to suggest that, given the role of Vishnu in the last line of the Hymnal, the ally Indra is hailing in line two must therefore likewise be He … I again have a different interpretation in place for this. As, after all, we already know from elsewhere in the RigVeda that Lady Vak – Saraswati – has the honour accorded of Killing Vritra. She, along with Indra, is hailed as ‘Vritrahan’ (Vritraghni, to be more precise) [RV VI 61 7]. Griffith himself translates that line as: “Yea, this divine Sarasvatī, terrible with Her golden path, / Foe-slayer, claims our eulogy.” And while various commentators have suggested that it is meant to be interpreted figuratively – stating Saraswati’s immense power being equal to that of the ‘other’ Vritra-slayer Who is better-known for the mighty deed … and/or simply rendering it as the ‘smiter of resistance’ in the context of the Riverine Saraswati having an unstoppable flow … it should come as no surprise to find that I do not believe Saraswati as Vritra-Slayer can be excluded in such a manner. It simply fits too well in light of what we know from the other RigVedic Hymnals as well as subsequent scriptural sources upon the matter. By which I do not only mean RV VIII 100, but also those in which the holy act of dragon-slaying is carried out quite explicitly via an act of prayer – of Pious Speech – which brings forth the Vajra to slay the fiend. Vak / Saraswati is quite directly ‘Pious Speech’, ‘Divine Speech’; and we also have other Vedic material showing Her in action (potentially assisted by the Asvins in some cases – for example, Satapatha Brahmana,XII, 7, 3 ) imbuing Indra’s Vajra so as to ensure it is capable of bypassing whatever magical warding that the foeman has at the time. This connexion is also supported by the other major figure Who engages in mythic acts of dragon-slaying in the course of the RigVeda – Brihaspati (Shiva-Rudra-Odin – the Sky Father), the Consort of Vak, Who pointedly makes use of Her Power in these combats, as do the War-Priests Who march (and chant) with Him to similar purpose.
So, Indra, having given Vak Her proper (and prime) share of the sacrificial offering [as is mandated as proper in RV X 125 3], energetically affirms to Her: “Thou on my right shalt be my friend and comrade: then shall we two smite dead full many a foeman.”
“3 Striving for strength bring forth a laud to Indra, a truthful hymn if he in truth existeth.
One and another say, There is no Indra. Who hath beheld him? Whom then shall we honour?”
The third line is on the face of it slightly more surprising, as it seems to depict the Vedic priest carrying out a rite of worship and empowerment for Indra … despite being unsure that Indra even (still) exists – and setting up a conceptual space for another savior deity to step forth unto the breach if necessary in His place should He not. It is a note of despair rather than atheism, and to my mind would appear to recall the interregnum following Indra’s fight with Vritra’s elder brother Trisiras … during which Indra goes into hiding and recuperation in a place unknown even to many of The Gods, Who attempt to (temporarily) replace Him during His absence with an elevated human, Nahusha.
This therefore sets up the triumphant re-emergence of Indra in Line Four, wherein He is at no pains to express humbleness:
“4 Here am I, look upon me here, O singer. All that existeth I surpass in greatness.
The Holy Law’s commandments make me mighty. Rending with strength I rend the worlds asunder.”
Cometh The Hour, Cometh The God – and in response to the dire circumstances that the Brahmins and Gods have raised the alarm about, we find Lord Indra quite literally answering Their prayers, in person. And seemingly rearing to go! However, while we might perhaps have thought that Indra’s trying ordeal that had preceded this would inculcate some more immediately obvious humility … I do believe that even alongside the (somewhat understandable) boasting, there is clear evidence of just such a moral dimension to the Indra Who emerges here. It is contained in the juncture of the second and third quarters of Line Four – “All that existeth I surpass in greatness. The Holy Law’s commandments make me mighty.”. As a certain work of fiction once put it – “We are Mighty because we are Right. We are not Right because we are Mighty. Vile the hour when that reversal becomes our credo.” Indra’s emphatic declaration that He “surpass[es] in greatness” all that exists is, strictly speaking, rather wide of the mark – but He has been Divinely Empowered. Not only by Soma, but also by Vak (Who, as Shakti, more-than-Exists); Vak Who Is, per Sayana and my own’s Vedic theology, Rta Herself expressed in-universe. It is Rta – Cosmic Order – that has granted Indra His Greatness, here, and to a pointed purpose – that of the Defence of Order’s immanency in this universe against the dire demon-dragon disruptor threat thereto (as symbolized and reified through Vritra’s interruption of the water-cycle and its consequent, ensuing direly deleterious impacts upon the worlds of Gods and Men). ‘Dharmo Rakshati Rakshitaha’, indeed. Indra’s significant strength here is His unassailable moral position. Something not so clearly found in His previous martial conquest against the Brahmin Trisiras – which was implicitly a significant opposite, on grounds that Brahmanicide [‘Brahmahatya’] is a severe crime precisely because it is a harm against the immanency of the Supernal in our world by killing one of the perceivers thereof. [See my works in the ‘Of Bhairava And Balance’ series for more details upon that principle and various relevant examples of the phenomenon in action].
Line 5, meanwhile, swings the focus back to Lady Vak, with Her declaring that She had Heard the pleas of the pious folk and Gods for relief from this rapacious reptilian scourge currently bedevilling them with its nuisance:
“5 When the Law’s lovers mounted and approached me as I sate lone upon the dear sky’s summit.
Then spake my spirit to the heart within me, My friends have cried unto me with their children.”
We can tell this is plausibly Vak, due to the symbolic resonancy with, once again, the DeviSukta – in which Vak is depicted as being found alone “On the World’s Summit” – in or around that ‘liminal zone’ at the edge of the Universe also referred to as ‘The Waters’ (beyond which lies Brahman / AdiParaShakti unveiled [the Waters, in a way, are a ‘veil’ – although so too, we might fairly suggest, is Maya, the ‘illusory’ ‘tapestry’ of reality … but more upon that, perhaps, some other time]). The last part of the line also resonates most strongly with and presages the later scriptural accountings for the Devi appearance of Shakambhari … wherein Devi, responding to the beseeching prayers for relief from another demon-caused drought, appears to fight the demon Durgamasur – both ending the drought and consequent famine while re-establishing proper piety (through the resumption of Vedic rites) in the process. An act, as applies the former, perhaps facilitated by the rivers of blood from slain demonic armies that also ensue.
Lines 6 and 7 are relatively straightforward, and have the Priest who has taken the role of the ‘Narrator’ hailing Indra for His successful completion of the slaying of the adversary (Vritra, the “he […] who kept you back”) and liberation of the riches ill-gotten by the latter so that they may (re-)enrich the Rsi and the natural world around him.
“6 All these thy deeds must be declared at Soma-feasts, wrought, Indra, Bounteous Lord, for him who sheds the juice,
When thou didst open wealth heaped up by many, brought from far away to Sarabha, the Ṛṣi’s kin.
7 Now run ye forth your several ways: he is not here who kept you back.
For hath not Indra sunk his bolt deep down in Vṛtra’s vital part?”
However, Line 7 may also entail an instruction to the Narrator’s Priestly colleagues to begin the pouring forth of the Soma libation : its dual symbolic saliency here as both ‘The Waters’ which have been freed by Indra in the mythic flow of time that is the successful culmination of that myth – as well as the Soma which is brought to Indra by Shyena the Falcon, as mentioned in Line 8, which should canonically happen earlier than the Liberation of the Waters, as it is one of the essential actions required in Indra’s preparation to fight and kill Vritra.
Lines 6 and 7, therefore, represent a curious and convoluted contributor to the ‘eternal return’ theme of the hymnal and its accompanying rite – as these are simultaneously the words of the then-contemporary Priest, hailing the past mighty deed of Indra (which has already been completed), as well as ‘reaching backwards’ across the mythic-time flow of the ‘re-enactment’ in order to facilitate the essential steps necessary for the next phase of the re-enactment which is yet to be completed.
“8 On-rushing with the speed of thought within the iron fort he pressed:
The Falcon went to heaven and brought the Soma to the Thunderer.”
Line 8, as aforementioned, is a smooth reintegration to the expected progression of the mythic events in question, depicting Agni-as-Shyena, the Falcon Who brings the Soma to Indra in some versions of the myth, doing just exactly that. The Soma’s source-point in Heaven is an interesting emphasis, in light of the rest of the hymnal’s conceptry – and serves to further underscore Indra’s role as an empowered champion of the Cosmic Order acting with the Ultimate Sanction. A theme continued in Line 9, wherein we find the Vajra being stored and empowered in order to be made ready for Lord Indra’s use.
“9 Deep in the ocean lies the bolt with waters compassed round about,
And in continuous onward flow the floods their tribute bring to it.”
There are multiple manners in which this again deceptively simple sentence may be read; contingent upon just which of several (not-necessarily-exclusive) additional conceptual/scriptural elements one chooses to bring to bear upon it. Bearing in mind the well-known archaic Indo-European belief in the Sky also being a kind of Sea, it seems relatively clear that the ‘ocean’ in question is up above. Which means that, euhemerically, the waters which are rendering energetic tribute to the Vajra housed within may be read as akin to the manner in which the convection cycle raises up water in vapour form to produce storm-clouds which then rain down lightning from above. This has an obvious and alluring sense to it, but I believe that other and more directly scripturally attested interpretations are also relevant. These include the later material around Sage Dadhichi offering up His Spine for the Vajra following a process involving various Sacred Waters coming together. But also, perhaps more resoundingly, the Vedic accounts of another confrontation of Indra with a worrisome foe – namely, His fight against Namuci.
I shall not go into any great depth of detail here upon that matter, except to note that Namuci, as with Vritra in various tellings, had a whole suite of specific immunities to harm – which necessitated Indra et co to get ‘creative’ in their congealing of a weapon with which to strike him down. To quote the Shatapatha Brahmana commentary upon the matter – Indra had sworn that he could slay Namuci “neither by day nor by night, neither with staff nor with bow, neither with the palm of my hand nor with the fist, neither with the dry nor with the moist”. Which, of course, meant that Indra attacked Namuci in the pre-dawn twilight when it is not really Day or Night, and by using a weapon which was ‘neither wet nor dry’ – for it had been made of foam by Saraswati (Vak) working with the Asvins.
Why this matters, to put it more succinctly again, is due to the manner in which the deep Waters, which form a liminal space of sorts about the universe, are hailed as being the Home of Devi Vak. This fits in with the notion of Rta-as-Brahman existing above and beyond the Universe, yet emanating into said Universe, in particular as Vak, Sacred Speech. An idea which shall become rather relevant for us in the Hymnal’s next line. What it means here, is that the Weapon, the Vajra made use of by Indra is, in effect, a congealed force of Cosmic Law Itself; and has been quite literally Heavens-sent to Him, from this ‘outside space’ sphere via the Waters, and via the direct intervention of Vak Devi. Just as was also the case in Indra’s encounter against Namuci, wherein Saraswati (Vak) (operating with the Asvins, notable most usually for Their mastery of secret potions such as the Soma – a liquified ‘eternal’ essence) likewise prepared a supernal armament for Him.
Indeed, there is a deliberate ‘double resonance’ to this verse, as it is also possible to read the extrapolation as, effectively, having Vak as the Divine Weapon in question. This is quite deliberate, and echoes the parallel expression for the concept found in various other portions of the RigVeda – including the strongly coterminous incidences such as Brihaspati’s combat ‘gainst Vala [Vritra’s brother]; and, of course, the DeviSukta line around giving active, animate force (through sound) to the Bow of Rudra “so His Arrow may strike and slay the hater of devotion”.
The notion of the”continuous onward flow [in which] the floods their tribute bring to it ” would therefore (also) denote not merely the ‘congealing’ of the relevant Weapon – but its seriously escalating Empowerment, its ‘Charging’ if you like , as the supernal currents ‘midst the Akasha bring together such energies as are required to make the Bolt, the Dread Weapon, truly unstoppable. The “limitless unbroken flood” being how Saraswati Vritra-Slayer [Vritrahan / Vritraghni] is hailed in RV VI 61 immediately following the Vritra-smiting epithet, along with acting via a thunderous ‘tempestuous roar’ accompanied ‘golden path’ perhaps akin to Lightning.
This also helps to explain the next line, line 10:
“10 When, uttering words which no one comprehended, Vāk, Queen of Gods, the Gladdener, was seated,
The heaven’s four regions drew forth drink and vigour: now whither hath her noblest portion vanished?”
However in order to make best sense of it we shall have to dip into the Jamison/Brereton translation:
“10. When Speech, saying indistinguishable things, sat down as gladdening ruler of the Gods,
She milked out in four (streams) nourishment and milk drinks. Where indeed did the highest of Hers go?”
The metaphor being carried forward here in the ‘four streams’ is better explained when we get to the next line in which Vak is compared to a Cow – hence the ‘four streams’ are of that most vital and nourishing importance … milk. Metaphorically speaking, anyway. What the Milk-metaphor actually stands for is, indeed, metaphorically speaking – as in, it is four clades of ‘speech’. Three of which correlate to the Three Worlds of this broad phase of Vedic cosmology, with the Fourth representing the ‘unknown’ speech which is beyond the comprehension of any other than Her (and, perhaps, Her Consort, Brihaspati-Shiva). This ‘Secret Speech’ is what may make the actual ritual empowerment of the Vajra work – it is the mediation and the emanation, the transducing of the Power from beyond The Waters’ Veil , into the Bolt of Thunder with which He shall slay. And ‘Thunder’ is exactly the right word for this weapon – as ‘Thunder’, after all, is the low, loud, roaring sound. Vacam Garjit Lakshanam – Thunder with the Characteristics of Divine Speech – but with a figurative meaning of ‘Indistinct Speech’, speech that we can tell is , well , ‘speech’ … but which we cannot make out exactly what it is saying, is one of my absolute favourite theological principles. And, as you can see, most directly relevant here in explicating what is going on with that ‘vanished’ Fourth Part to the Holy Speech.
In terms of the potential Indo-European correlates for such a concept – one of the more obvious ones comes to us from the Nordic conceptry; wherein in addition to the well-known Runes of Man, there are also held to be another four groups of Runes revealed each specific group of sapient beings – the Gods, Elves, Dwarves, and Jotunn [which may match up with the fourfold speech division caused by Vayu in Shatapatha Brahmana IV, 1, 3 – wherein only one of four divisions of speech allotted to four clades of beings is intelligible; although it is worth noting that this is, therefore, exactly the opposite way around from what is referenced in RV VIII 100, where it is only one of the four streams of Vak that are beyond our perceptive grasp]. Further research shall be necessary to see if this Division of the World – Division of the Empowered Communication [‘Speech’ and Runes – the engraved patterns in surfaces rather than soundwaves] coterminity is present elsewhere. My colleague, Tristan Powers, has also pointed out to me the existence of a most unusual spell-song in the Havamal, verse 163 in the Bray translation –
“An eighteenth I know: which I ne’er shall tell
to maiden or wife of man
save alone to my sister, or haply to her
who folds me fast in her arms;
most safe are secrets known to but one-
the songs are sung to an end.”
Given that Odin is Brihaspati, Vak’s Partner, it would seem logical to ponder whether there may be some degree of conceptual resonancy herein.
But more upon that, perhaps, some other time.
“11 The Deities generated Vāk the Goddess, and animals of every figure speak her.
May she, the Gladdener, yielding food and vigour, the Milch-cow Vāk, approach us meetly lauded.”
The Cow symbolism we have already briefly parsed; although it may be prudent to observe that this also recalls the relatively standard figurative language employed to talk about the Wife of the Sky Father – which, of course, Vak Is. The first line resonates with the conceptry found prominently in later Shakta mythology around the Appearance of Durga – wherein the Gods, threatened by the otherwise insurmountable buffalo-demon Mahishasura, engage in a summoning forth of the Great War Goddess Durga. Durga, of course, is also Vak; and the parallels with various of the other instances wherein Devi is called upon in this manner to solve a demon problem that the rest of the Pantheon is unable to handle, ought be immediately obvious (for example the Shakambhari episode aforementioned – which also has resonancy with the ‘food and vigour’ which She brings; the ‘vigour’ referring to the energy necessary to fight and defeat the foe as well as that gained from the material sustenance provided once nature is back in balance and drought or famine is over; and the ability to actually eat, digest, and unlock the energy within food via Devi as we find attested in RV X 125 4; In addition, of course, to the more metaphysically and mentally nourishing – i.e. to the spirit – nourishment of the Divine Speech, the Proper Piety, without which Men are not really Men at all). .
In terms of how the Gods bring forth the mighty Devi Vak, the answer is not immediately described – although we can obviously infer rather strongly that it entails the standard ritualine formulas for asking a Deity to come and be present for a sacral rite in Their honour, as that is exactly what is referenced in the immediately preceding line of the hymnal. The notion of the God or Goddess as an honoured guest of the ritual’s officiators is a well-known pan-Indo-European concept; and it should come as no surprise to find out, particularly in this instance, that just as we humans carry out such conduct for The Gods – The Gods, too, carry out such conduct for this most august figure amidst and yet beyond even Them. It is also, again as is directly stated in the line in question, an instance of Visiting Royalty. The line around creatures of all types speaking Her helps to evince Her importance to all of creation, all of the Worlds and their inhabitants; and may also carry the connotion that as the threat posed by Vritra is literally existential, so too are seemingly all creatures capable of Speech engaged in the petition of Her to arrive and avail .
This notion of ‘speaking Vak’ also concords with the Gods Summoning Her in another way as well. In the later Devi Mahatmyam account of Durga’s manifestation in order that She may slay Mahishasura, the Three Great Gods (later joined by others of the Pantheon) effectively do just that – From the Mouths (‘Vadana’ – which can also refer to Speaking or Singing) of Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma come great projections of Tejas, Radiance. This matters, because there is a prominent co-identification of terms for Light and Speech within the Sanskrit conceptry – ‘Arka’, for instance, refers to both the Flash of Lightning, and to a Prayer, a Hymn. Sacred Speech, in other words, in proper formulation and enunciation and purpose, found directly coterminous with the Lightning-Weapon which Lord Indra is about to employ (or, for that matter, the Lightning-Arrows of Lord Rudra, let fly with the Humkara of the Devi-empowered Great Bow, Pinaka). I would also argue that ‘Bhasa’ (‘Spoken Language’ – also a Saraswati Theonym), from Proto-Indo-European ‘Bheh’ (‘Speak’) resonates this pattern mytholinguistically – given the parallel derivation in evidence for ‘Bhasas’ [meaning ‘Light’, inter alia; a word of slightly different pronunciation – भाषा vs भासस्, respectively) from another Proto-Indo-European ‘Bheh’ which means ‘To Shine’ or’ Glow’, ‘Light’.
So therefore, as we can see – there is a fundamentally consistent typology between these various instances wherein Devi has been Called Upon by The Gods , built around not only the occurrence of pious rites and offerings To and For Her (as we saw initially in Line One); but also upon the notion of Speech, Prayer (Vak, indeed) as the essentialized ingredient in Her Manifestation. Which also helps to explain the nature of the weapon and the boon possessed by Indra for His Fight against Vritra which we shall shortly be getting to … and also, at the same time, aids in demonstrating the fundamental consistence and coherency of later Hindu mythology and theology with the archaic Vedic foundations of same.
This ‘Light’ or ‘Fire’ conceptry apparently so necessary in order to accomplish the dragon-slaying of Vritra finds its echo in the Greek myth of the Hydra’s slaying. I shall not consider this in great detail nor depth here [having already done so at some length in a recent, earlier article – “Hail Hydra-Slayer: On The Mythic Combat Of Herakles And Athena – Indra And Vak Saraswati, Against The Demon-Dragon Of The Water”], but suffice to say the presence of Athena alongside Herakles in the oldest versions of the Greek myth that we have available to us is no accident. Nor is the provision by Athena of the ‘insight’ of making use of Fire in various renditions of it as the means via which Herakles is able to circumvent the Hydra’s supernatural protections against being slain. It seems evident that the Greeks preserved in various coherency, certain Indo-European myths and conceptry which find their best expression and consistency in the Vedic canon – yet which must near certainly have been more ancient in their origin, broader in their pervasiveness through the Indo-European peoples and mythology, and deeper in their intended interpretation and meaning than what one would perhaps presume if the most popular baseline elements of an immensely strong figure armed with a club and perhaps setting things on fire as a problem-solving tool were taken at face value and in exclusion.
This brings us to the concluding line, phrased by Jamison/Brereton as:
“12. Comrade Viṣṇu, stride out widely. Heaven, grant a place for the mace to prop apart.
We two will smite Vr̥tra; we two will give leave to the rivers. Let them, unleashed, go at the impetus of Indra.”
And, perhaps more resonantly by Griffith as:
“12 Step forth with wider stride, my comrade Viṣṇu; make room, Dyaus, for the leaping of the lightning.
Let us slay Vṛtra, let us free the rivers let them flow loosed at the command of Indra.”
The ‘Wide Stride’ which the speaker of this last line imperates Vishnu to make is likely correlate with the famed ‘Three Steps’ of Vishnu that finds salient mention elsewhere in the Vedic canon. These are usually interpreted to correlate with the Three Worlds, one Stride of Vishnu being sufficient to demarcate the distance across one world to the boundary with the next; although in this instance it is perhaps somewhat uncertain as to whether the ‘stride’ mentioned is intended to refer to all three steps and therefore all three worlds, or whether the singular is made use of deliberately to connote that it is but a single world which Vishnu must traverse in advance of the Vajra’s thunderous discharge against the Demon-Dragon that has stolen the Water (the Rivers referred to which shall once more flow freely once Vritra, their captor, has been dealt with). Given the next portion of the line, wherein it is the Heavenly Sky and Sky Father, Dyaus, Who is asked to stand clear – the conventional imputation would be that it is the single stride encompassing the Heavens which Vishnu is urged to make … presumably, likewise given Vishnu’s RigVedic position proximate to the highest point (‘Paramam Padam’) thereof, for the same reason as Dyaus being requested to get out of the way and give Indra space to fight from On High.
The final line has invited further debate on a number of points – most prominent of which, Who is intended to be Speaking, Who is the other (i.e. non-Indra) member of the ‘Two’, the ‘Us’. The former question is usually thought to be straightforward – Indra requesting two relevant Sky deifics to give Him space in which to fight, followed by the declaration of intent for what He is about to do, as applies both Smiting Vritra, and releasing the Rivers from Their captivity. However, there is an issue with this, in that it would effectively have Indra speaking in the third person – a not insurmountable obstacle to the interpretation, to be sure, but a puzzling one given the “I” of line 4 is usually held to be Indra speaking in the first person. To me, it sounds more like the voice is giving orders to the first two Gods mentioned [Vishnu & Dyaus] to get out of the way because the Bolt is about to come down from The Waters at the apex of the world [i.e. where Dyaus is , per RV X 125 7; and proximate to Vishnu’s station as aforementioned] in a manner perhaps like the Meteorite utilized as the Vajra by Brihaspati in various Vedic hymnals [this would be the “Leaping Lightning”]; followed by this same voice telling Indra that which is about to happen, and that which He is about to ensue.
As for the latter question, upon the identity of the ‘Two’, there are several possible answers. Many favour it being Vishnu, and there is certainly a RigVedic hymnal wherein Vishnu is referred to as “the Friend of Indra, close-allied” [RV I 22 19] , but despite Vishnu’s citation earlier in proceedings as ‘making way’ via the Wide Stride, I do not find that instantly persuasive. It has occasionally been suggested that the honour may belong to Vayu (given Vayu’s attested role following Vritra’s slaying in confirming that the latter is actually dead) – yet that does not seem quite right, as Vayu does not (usually) play a role in the actual killing itself. There are various RigVedic Hymnals in which Indra is accompanied by Brihaspati in order to go Dragon-Slaying, including of Vritra particularly and specifically, so that would certainly be a possibility ; although the lack of otherwise attestion for Brihaspati within the bounds of this Hymnal [the mention for Dyaus notwithstanding] would appear to cast some doubt as to whether that could be what is meant here.
No, I think another solution is much more plausible. One wherein immediately following the Gods’ Summoning of Goddess Vak via Their pious conduct and ritualine sanctified Speech, Vak does indeed appear. And in just such a manner that the first thing (The) Rudra does when HE appears is also an expression of what He Is – i.e. the Roar; so too, when Vak Devi arrives and becomes fully, actively apparent (having already been ‘in spirit’ welcomed with the invocation and the inviting to be seated in the honour seat of the sacrificial rite that has been thus far unfolding) does She Do what She Is: She Speaks.
Or, as She Herself puts it in RV X 125 5: “5 I, verily, Myself announce and utter the word that Gods and men alike shall welcome.” in the Griffith Translation – a declaration which is, perhaps, rather more clear in its imputation in the Janasvami translation: “I speak this Myself, which is liked by both gods and men alike”; with the next portion of RV X 125 5 asserting Her ability to bestow immense power to Her chosen champion.
And, in the next line of the DeviSukta, Vak declares: “I rouse and order battle for the people” [Griffith translation], although others phrase the line a little differently and instead place the emphasis upon Vak’s direct engagement in combat. The actual Sanskrit wording to the verse would more directly render as ‘Make War’ or ‘Do Battle’ ; and there is a perhaps useful broadness of meaning to the English idiom to ‘Wage War’ – wherein both soldiers directly engaged in fighting and the generals who command them are covered by the ambit of the term. Both senses are applicable to Vak’s role – although in the instance under discussion in the concluding line of RV VIII 100, what is being set up is a channeling of Vak’s power by Lord Indra which places the latter in the more overtly ‘front line’ combative position. Still, it would be difficult in the extreme to come up with a better and more immediately striking RigVedic manifestation of the concept of Vak’s “Rous[ing] and Order[ing] Battle” for the Divine Purpose than Her issuing forth the Order:
“Step forth with wider stride, my comrade Viṣṇu; make room, Dyaus, for the leaping of the lightning.
Let us slay Vṛtra, let us free the rivers let them flow loosed at the command of Indra.”
To phrase it quite directly: I have come to believe that this line is actually Vak’s. That it is the direct answer and reply to Indra’s earlier declaration in Line Two that: “Thou on my right shalt be my friend and comrade: then shall we two smite dead full many a foeman.” The confirmation issued after the proper and appropriate acts of piety and ritual have been undertaken to honour Her; and the Weapon which She Alone can make manifest (indeed, is Her Manifest) has become charged and is ready to ‘leap’ like ‘lightning’ down from the Waters which swirl beyond even On High.
That the ‘We Two’ or ‘Us’ of Line 12 is Vak and Indra acting in concert to slay Vritra. That whether we are viewing Vak as having a more ‘supportive’ role – providing the essential Armament, marshaling and directing particular Divinities in order to ensure Her strategy’s success – or whether we are taking things further and additionally accepting the inference that Vak is also the Weapon … this is a case wherein the accreditation for the Deed should be shared. Hence, no doubt, why this Hymnal is titled and dedicated to Indra and Vak together in the first place – a choice which has occasionally puzzled analysts who’ve instead insisted upon endeavouring to minimize Vak’s role in this hymnal and then wondered why She gets such prominent billing in the subject-explicatory title, etc.
I am aware that this has been a seriously lengthy and heavy-going read; yet given the singular, salient significance to our mythology and our theology of both the myth of the Striker/Thunderer against the Demon-Dragon of the water and the Immense Power that is the Sacred Speech, I felt that it deserved nothing less.
“Foe-Slayer”, after all, “Claims Our Eulogy!”
Jai Mata DI!
3 thoughts on “Foe-Slayer Claims Our Eulogy – Understanding RigVeda VIII 100: Indra, Vak”
Thankyou for bringing up this story. Vak, as you know, means speech. The vak sukta attests to the power of the word over all creation. That which we speak into being becomes real. To say “I am immortal”, makes me immortal. Brahmins were known to praise warriors in order to strengthen them. I am unsure if this relates to the vak and indra situation. The social class of Ireland that corresponded to brahmins praised their warriors(the tain, cattle raid of cooley), yet this backfired because the warrior class became narcissistic and ethnic cleansed the brahmin class of ireland, because the warrior/political class sought total power, leading to irish being more of warrior race, with remnants of magical knowledge, yet not a detailed understanding of it. I believe priestly celibacy relates to a competition of ksatrya against brahmin. It is good to preserve seminal fluid to a degree by not ejaculating, yet I believe celibacy to be evil, and sexual activity in limited amounts does not decay the body. We can speak affirmation to make sexual activity be regenerating rather than decaying. The English Witan class were once the rulers of England, yet the ksatrya-politicians pushed them away and by their non-reproduction, they ceased being a force in England.
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