Questioning the Divine: The Creator in the Rig Veda

The question that has stood out most in my mind as I’ve been exploring the Rig Veda and other early Hindu scriptures has been on the conception of the Divine laid out in these texts. They way they conceptualize and relate to the Divine is very different, surprisingly so. In this post I’ve given an introductory discussion of the way the Divine as Creator and All-Maker is identified in two Rig Vedic suktas (texts given here). I hope to continue this study in this and other texts in further posts.

The Vedic understanding of Creation, of the creative act and of the material creation itself, is imbued with a sense of mystery. Vedic rituals are an indirect interaction with the creative forces of the world; Ŗg-Vedic suktas are imbued with a sense of rooting in the material world and questioning the world beyond. There is an acceptance of not-knowing in the Vedic world: of contentment with the mystery of the world beyond, the mystery of creation, and the daily mysteries of this world.

The sukta titled in the Western commentaries “The Unknown God” (sukta 10.121) explores the nature – and essential question – of the divine. It lists qualities of the divine and repeats the question “Who is the god whom we should worship with the oblation?” as a refrain to each verse. It does not specify a name for this divine nor invoke other known deities. However, the necessity of the physical act of worship through oblation is assumed in the repeated question, and in its context in a ritual-centered Vedic text.

The “Creation Hymn” (Skr. Nāsadīya, 10.129) also focuses on the sense of not-knowing. The ultimate verse of this sukta accepts a general mystery about the world and the act of creation, a mystery even to the creator itself. “Whence this creation has arisen – perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.” The Brahmins, the priests and scholars who sang and transmitted these hymns, appear content with a loose understanding of the world beyond. Their focus was on ritual as a tool to guide the life of man and keep the world spinning. Ritual was also the main mechanism of relationship with the divine or with the world of the unknown.

This is not to say, however, that Vedic thought was without an understanding of the divine. While it may be loosely defined, the divine is described and invoked frequently. Thus, “The Unknown God” answers its own question. In this sukta the divine has specific, known features. The divine is the creator (verses 1, 5), the ruler (2-4), the protector (6, 9), and the proprietor of the worlds (4-5). It is also the created, arising from the pregnant waters of creation; and the sustainer even of the gods as their life-breath (7). These qualities are given to establish an understanding of the divine as creator and protector, not to blindly ask what deity is responsible for all of these. The qualities given in this sukta are also used to describe other deities; however, invoking Indra as creator and protector (2.12.7) does not prohibit another deity or a greater divine to also take on these qualities, and perhaps to a greater extent.

Thus, the refrain of the question, “Who is the god whom we should worship with the oblation?” is not really a question; it is a glorification of the divine. This is established in the form as well as the content of this sukta. “The Unknown God” follows the same pattern as “Who Is Indra?” (2.12) a glorification of Indra. Each verse lists qualities of Indra and ends with the refrain, “he, my people, is Indra.” The final verse addresses Indra, just as the final verse of “The Unknown God” addresses the divine, with praise and entreaty. “You who furiously grasp the prize for the one who presses and the one who cooks, you are truly real. Let us be dear to you, Indra, all our days, and let us speak as men of power in the sacrificial gathering” (2.12.15). This verse refers to Indra’s acceptance of the offering of the Udgatŗ priest, responsible for the soma, and of the Adhvaryu priest, responsible for the animal sacrifice, and to the boons he awards them in gratitude. It asks for Indra’s protection, especially for those who perform offerings for him. While the structure of “The Unknown God” may not be modeled on “Who Is Indra?,” the resemblance suggests a similarity in the way the hymn understands and approaches the Divine.

“The Unknown God” also establishes the divine described as the ultimate divine, not simply one of the gods such as Indra or the Maruts invoked elsewhere in the Rig Veda. Whether or not the divine is specifically named or related to other deities seems to be beyond the point; it is, perhaps, beyond all of them. The final verse of this sukta is very clear on the primacy of this divine: “O Prajāpathi, lord of progeny, no one but you embraces all these creatures. Grant us the desires for which we offer you oblation. Let us be lords of riches” (10.121.10). This verse assigns to the divine the epithet of Lord of Creation (Skr. Prajāpathi) and the responsibility of being the sole protector and caregiver for all of creation. It also implies reciprocity of relationship, at least within the context of ritual offerings. Like the final verses of many suktas, it asks for riches and prosperity, whether in the greater sense of personal and community well-being or in the Vedic understanding of wealth as being composed of sons and cows.

The divine as creator is also described and glorified in suktas 10.81 and 10.82. These verses list qualities and deeds of the divine but also ask questions about the act of creation. “What was the base, what sort of raw matter was there, and precisely how was it done, when the All-Maker, casting his eye on all, created the earth and revealed the sky in its glory?” (10.81.2). Yet this sukta accepts the primacy of the All-Maker (Skr. Viśvakarman) and further glorifies him by questioning the creative acts. Exploring them in question form only reveals that they are too great a mystery even for sages and Brahmins. All knowledge and power is attributed to that creative divine. And ultimately, this mystery is acceptable. Vedic thought did not expect clear definitions regarding the world beyond (or even necessarily this world), and especially where the divine, creator of the worlds, is concerned.

Translation Used: Doniger, Wendy. The Rig Veda. London: Penguin, 2005.

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