Saturday, November 24, 2007

Vedic Symbolism -- Ghrta (Clarified Butter)


Ghrta is clarified butter. Since cow was in abundance in the Vedic age, there was also abundance of ghŗta. As such, it was a matter of great use in life. It was used in sacrifices as well as was an important ingredient of food. Consequently it has found a significant place in the Vedas.

Ghŗta was used during the Vedic period as well as throughout the whole history of India as a delicious and extremely nourishing food content is evident from the heavenly damsel Urvaśī’s statement in the Ŗgveda that she took a lump of ghŗta only once a day and on the strength of it moved around fully contented even after four years of departure from Pururavas. (Ŗgveda X.95.16 )

As the Vedic seer was in the quest of the essence of things, he did not permit the product of milk stop at the stage of butter. He saw to it that the butter could be made rather durable. With this end in view, he clarified it and thus could produce ghŗta, which is durable and can assume two forms, solid and liquid without losing anything in essence.

Vedic seer compares the look of Agni with the ghŗta prepared out of the milk of cow and clarified in fire (Rigveda, IV.1.6).

Needless to point out that the ghŗta prepared out of the cow’s milk is slightly yellowish as compared to that prepared out of buffalo’s milk, which is white. Seer Vāmadeva repeats the same simile when he observes that Agni in appearance is akin to perfectly clarified ghŗta, shining and taintless, as well as is gold (Rigveda, IV.10.6). Thus in the seer’s view, Agni, gold and ghŗta are kindred in appearance and basics in the total scheme of things.

As such, ghŗta comes to form the ideal of the appearance of gods and their costumes. Apām Napāt, for instance, along with waters in the form of smiling beautiful ladies around him, has been described as clad in attire akin to ghŗta in appearance (Rigveda, II.35.4).

Viśvāmitra also, like Gŗtsamada, views Agni as clad in ghŗta (Rigveda, III. 27.5). So is the case with Vāmadeva with respect to sacrifices, however. He describes them as ghŗtanirņijah, adorned in ghŗta (Rigveda, IV.37.2). Vasişţha also observes how Mitra and Varuņa have been given the attire of ghŗta by seers (Rigveda, VII .64.1). As is evident from the literal meaning of the word devatā, god, it is but natural for the latter to be shining. It is quite in keeping with this feature of gods in general that they are envisaged as robed in ghŗta signifying thereby their lustrous appearance.

The word ghŗta does not remain confined to its literal sense. When a particular deity is described as ghŗtaņirnik, the word ghŗta in this usage comes to signify particularly lustre rather than the substance called ghŗta.

Indeed when a particular word or object is used to point to a particular feature of itself alone instead of the whole of it, it becomes symbolic in its usage. It comes to signify something quite different and detached from what it literally stands for. Here ghŗta, for instance, is meant only to signify the lustrousness of the appearance of the divinity concerned.

Interestingly, the word pratīka, used subsequently to signify symbol as such, occurs several times in the Ŗgveda particularly in association with ghŗta.

In all such usages, ghŗta forms the first member of the compound while the second one is formed either by Agni or by Uşas.

In one such mantra, for instance, Agni is described as ghŗta-pratīka as also ŗtasya dhursad, sitting at the crest of Ŗta, the universal order or sacrifice (Rigveda, I.143.7). Here while ghŗta stands for lustrousness, pratīka signifies resemblance to. Thus Agni is called ghŗtapratīka on account of its resemblance to ghŗta in lustrousness.

The word pratīka has been taken sometimes in the Brāhmaņas in the sense of mouth (Brihadaranyaka Upanisad I.5.2). Pratīka signifies mouth by virtue of its power of consumption. This is what happens in the process of symbolisation also. Symbolisation entails de facto consumption of the object symbolised by the symbol.

For instance, when Uşas is described as ghŗtapratīka, ghŗta takes the whole of Uşas in its ambit and comes to the fore to represent her in all her lustrousness. In such cases, dimensional proportion between the symbol and the object symbolised stands rather discounted. It is in this discounting of the proportion, of course, that lays the utility of the symbol to a great extent.

The above, however, is just the elementary state of symbolisation. Starting from here it may take a long stride where neither the symbol nor the object symbolised is allowed to remain in its original form. One such case in relationship to ghŗta is the description of Uşas as cows milching ghŗta.

This expression is placed against the background of the description of Uşas in the plural as rich in cows as well as horses and heroes and invocation of them as such to cast their brilliant lustre down to the earth. With this ground-work they are conceived as cows yielding ghŗta for universal consumption and all round protection and well being (Rigveda, VII.41.7.).

If the Uşasas are expected to yield ghŗta, it is quite in the fitness of things to conceive of them as cows. Cows, however, do not yield ghŗta directly. Ghŗta is a product of milk produced through human effort.

Conceiving of Uşas as yielding ghŗta involves a long process of figurative thinking including representation of dawns by cows and abstraction of ghŗta out of the cow’s milk. Moreover, if Uşas as a cow is not the real cow, the ghŗta yielded by the Uşas-cow can by no means be the real ghŗta.

It must symbolise what Uşas has been characterised by in the first part of the mantra at least. These features of Uşas are their abundance in cows, horses and heroes. While cow, among several other things, stands for illumination and knowledge, horse and hero symbolise strength, particularly animal and human. Thus ghŗta would naturally symbolise illumination and strength by virtue of its properties of lustre and nourishment.


To be continued....

1 comment:

rk said...

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