Wednesday, November 7, 2007

13. Vedic Symbolism -- Cow - I

Cow is one of the most commonplace spectacles of the Vedic age. She has been mentioned in thousands in the Samhitās as well as the Upanişads. Anywhere in the Ŗgveda if we read any set of ten mantras, we are sure to find reference to cow, as go, dhenu or aghnya or her product in the form of her calf, bull, ghŗta, etc. This shows unusual preoccupation of Vedic seers with the spectacle of cow.

Now the question is whether these references to cow are just description of the actual preoccupation of the seer with their kine, grazing them, confining them to their dwelling places, milking them, rearing their calves, preparing other products out of the milk, etc., or it has been utilised to suggest to something higher than the bare physical spectacle.

Writers on Veda in the modern times beginning with the advent of the Western scholars in the field have taken for granted the first alternative emphasising it to almost total relegation of the second alternative to the background.

This conclusion gets shaken if we take the trouble to go through the texts in the original, particularly with a view to piecing numerous images of the cow into an integrated picture so as to determine to ourselves the nature of accounts of this significant animal there. There is no denying about it that this animal in the Samhitā appears in her bare physical form also. While looking into the mode of her use in a particular piece of literature, one has not only to remain contented with her bare appearance but has to find out the nuances of her use in the imagery as well as the message sought to be brought home through references as well as detailed accounts.

In the Veda we find that besides some cases where cow seems to appear in her bare physical form, she occurs veritably as an object of comparison, substitute of abstract ideas and symbol of certain universal states of things or principles. The contexts where cow is used as an object of comparison relate to coming home, coming to the sacrifice, drinking Soma, producing mantras, dispelling darkness, etc. In one of Bharadvāja’s mantras, Indra is prayed to come to the sacrifice willingly in the same way as cows return home from the grazing ground in the evening (Rigveda.VI.41.1). Similarly, in another mantra seen by seer Śamyu, Indra is characterised as the lover of mantras and therefore it has been stated that the prayers are rushing to him like cows to their respective calves (Rigveda, VI.45.28 ). Here the prayer proceeding to Indra gets represented figuratively by the cow rushing to her calf towards the end of the day in particular. The Soma juice reaching the belly of Indra, as the ocean, likewise, is compared to suckling cows returning home, which, again, has been characterised as the source of Ŗta, the eternal order (Rigveda, IX.66.12). Here cows returning to the source of the eternal order do not remain the physical cow, in the same proportion as the Soma juice reaching the belly of Indra as ocean does not remain the ordinary Soma juice.

Proceeding on these lines, we find cow rising immensely from her physicality and embracing a definite state of universality. In one of the mantras it is the cow which has been pointed out as the mother of Maruts along with Rudra as their father (Rigveda, V.52.16). In another mantra, she is characterised as the mother of Rudras, daughter of Vasus, sister of Adityas and the navel of immortality. In this capacity, she is described as Aditi and it has been pleaded that she should not be killed (Rigveda VIII.101.15.). Obviously, when cow turns to be Aditi, the mother of Adityas and even beyond that as the mother of all gods, she crosses all limits of physicality and soars infinitely higher to the position of the Creatrix of the universe, the supernal status constituting the eternal source not only of all things but also of the delight sustaining the creation.

If her milk be taken as symbolic of ambrosia, she naturally will come to represent the source of that ambrosia. In the Veda the ultimate principle of delight has been represented in the liquid form of certain choicest edibles such as honey, Soma and ghrta. But, at the same time, the underlying idea behind all these gross representations is that of imperishability and continuity as well as delightfulness. If the fleetingness of the worldly beings and objects is the source of misery, as the great Buddha understood it most profoundly, the sense of continuity behind the flux must obviously be the source of all possible virtues such as truth, blessedness, etc. The amrta of the Vedas is the basis of this sense of continuity. Isa indeed is suggested to be conceived as the indweller of the universe of flux by the Isa Upanişad (Isa Upanişad, 1). The creativity of that all-creating and all-comprehending Isa is Aditi, the indivisible. All gods, including Adityas, Rudras and Vasus as well as everything else in the universe are produced out of her. To describe cow as Aditi, therefore, amounts to symbolising that most fundamental principle of existence by the cow. Cow, thus, is to be treated as the symbol of that principle. It is this principle which has been characterised as the source of Ŗta, the eternal dynamics (Rigveda, IX.66.12). Since the eternal dynamics is based on the eternal stasis, Ŗta is said to have its source in a certain principle of absolute stasis. Cow in this mantra is used as a symbol of that principle of stasis. It is in this capacity alone that she can be called the common mother of Adityas, Rudras, and Vasus.

That this role of cow is not just exaggeration but is the result of a pre-meditated cognisance of a certain principle of existence and symbolisation of it, is evident from the recurrences of this idea time and again in the Vedas. In one of the mantras seen by Dirghatamas, for instance, it has been stated that cow as Aditi has filled her udder with milk for the sake of people treading the path of Ŗta and making sacrifice (RV. I.153.3).

It is in keeping with this viewpoint that the highest footstep and, of course, the permanent abode of Vişņu has been characterised by the presence of cows having long horns and moving around (Rigveda I. 154.6). The presence of cows there is symbolic of that state of things in its infinite potentiality for creation while the characterisation of the same place by the fountain of mead is symbolic of its potentiality for providing the joy as well as sustenance of life in the universe below (Rigveda, I.154.5). The proposition gets confirmed from a mantra seen by Seer Nābhānedişţha in which the seer comes to realise the very navel of his being, which he feels as his original unitary abode and the place of the proximity of all gods together besides experiencing that he is all in all. Further he considers himself as the first-born of Ŗta, which the primeval cow has produced in the form of her milk as soon as getting inclined to manifestation (Rigveda X.61.19). Realising the navel or centre of one’s being is equivalent to reaching the most primeval state of existence. The cow milking Ŗta is obviously symbolic of the surge of creation along with the eternal laws of sustenance, out of that supreme state of things. Just as cow as an organic being produces milk out of herself spontaneously, even so the creation is surging out of that state of being organically and spontaneously.

1 comment:

rk said...

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