The Vasiṣṭha Dveṣinyah

In my opinion, one of the rather endearing aspects of vaidika history is the constant rivalry and tension between the different priestly families, which, apart from the colourful episodes it gave us in the texts, also shaped the evolution of ritual and liturgy. The vaidika sūktāni were useful not because it told a story of great historical substance but because they could be instrumental to performing a ritual act. As a result, despite the presence of possibly objectionable content, the veda was always held in the highest esteem because of the utility and inherent power of their words and even after the vaidika rites fell largely into oblivion, it stood as the source and symbol of unity among brāhmaṇa-s of whatever gotra they may hail from or whatever siddhānta or sampradāya they may adhere to.

 

In that light, it is certainly interesting to see how a particular portion of a certain sūkta in the third maṇḍala of the ṛgveda was considered to be harmful for listening to or reciting by a specific audience. That textual portion is RV 3.53.21-24 or what is popularly designated as the Vasiṣṭha Dvesinyah, which the vasiṣṭhās were forbidden from reciting or listening to. The third book of the RV is a Vaiśvāmitra Mandala-i.e. composed by the viśvāmitras. Thus, the particular four verses in question are known in tradition to bear testimony to the well-known rivalry of Viśvāmitra and Vasiṣṭha. However, in the process of transforming historical narratives into mythology, the actors are often reduced to a binary pair: The mythical Viśvāmitra and Vasiṣṭha. The Ramayana even transforms the two great sages into two fighting birds! In reality, the conflict was obviously between their two namesake priestly clans-the viśvāmitras and vasiṣṭhās. As we had explained in an earlier posting, the replacement of  “Viśvāmitra” (probably the head of all the viśvāmitras) by Vasiṣṭha (who would have been the head of the vasiṣṭhās; likely the father of Śakti ) as the priest of Sudāsa, triggered a bitter rivalry between these two great men and their respective families. This bitter rivalry would eventually culminate in the murder of Śakti Vāsiṣṭha, the son of Vasiṣṭha and while the ruse of Viśvāmitra is held by traditional commentators as the cause of death, it appears that in the course of history, the Saudāsas, or the party of Sudāsa, were remembered as the main culprits by the vasiṣṭhās themselves, as we see in the following Śruti:

vásiṣṭho hatáputro ‘kāmayata vindéya prajā́m abhí saudāsā́n bhaveyam íti sá etám ekasmānnapañcāśam apaśyat tám ā́harat ténāyajata táto vái só ‘vindata prajā́m abhí saudāsā́n abhavat TS 7.4.7 of the taittiriyakas

And very similarly,

vasiṣṭho akāmayata hata putraḥ prajāyena prajayā paśubhir abhi saudāsān bhaveyam iti / (Vikṛtīṣṭayah) sa etam yajña kratum apaśyad vasiṣṭha yajñam tena iṣṭvā prājāyata prajayā paśubhir abhi saudāsān abhavat of KB 4.6.7-9 of the kauśītakin-s in their brāhmaṇa

Both these statements mean that Vasiṣṭha, after his sons were slain, performed a certain ritual to obtain a son who would help overcome the saudāsas. Naturally, many young males of the vasiṣṭhās might have been killed but some passages emphasize only the death of Śakti as he was the son of the main “Vasiṣṭha”, the Vasiṣṭha who served as the priest of King Sudāsa.

Coming back to the “vasiṣṭha dvesinyah”, although those four verses do not mention vasiṣṭha or his sons or kinsmen by name, it seems likely that the vasiṣṭhās themselves had collectively identified those verses as hostile words directed against them and the tradition of avoiding any sensory encounter with it, has been passed down generationally in an institutionalized manner. Yāska wrote the nirukta as a commentary on the nighaṇṭu, which itself was a categorized collection of words. At one place in the nirukta (IV.14), Yāska cites a part of RV 3.53.23, “lodhaṃ nayanti paśu manyamānāḥ” to explain the meaning of the word, ‘lodham’. Durga, who was the commentator on Yāska, refuses to comment on the particular verse as it is an imprecation against the vasiṣṭhās and he belongs to the vasiṣṭhās, being of the kapisthala gotra. The bṛhaddevatā by Śaunaka, a commentarial work that explains the context or stories behind the sūktāni of the ṛgveda, has the following to say about these last four verses of RV 3.53:

parāś catasro yās tvatra vasiṣṭha dveṣiṇyas smṛtāḥ

viśvāmitreṇa tāḥ proktāḥ abhiśāpā iti smṛtāḥ

dviṣaddveṣās tu tāḥ proktāḥ vidyāś caivābhicārikāḥ

vasiṣṭhās tānna sṛṇvanti tad ācāryakasammatam

kīrtanācchravaṇād vāpi mahadoṣaś ca jāyate

śatadhā bhidyate mūrdhā kīrtanena śrutena vā

teṣām bālāḥ pramīyante tasmāt tās tu na kīrtayet

“The four stanzas which follow are remebered as being hostile to the vasiṣṭhās. They were pronounced by Viśvāmitra; they are remembered to be ‘imprecations’ (abhiśāpa). They are pronounced to be hostile to enemies and magical (abhicārikaḥ) incantations. The vasiṣṭhās will not listen to them. This is the unanimous opinion of their authorities (ācāryaka): great guilt arises from repeating or listening (to them). By repeating or hearing (them) one’s head is broken into a hundred fragments; the children of those (who do so) perish. Therefore one should not repeat them.”

Thus, the opinion of these stanzas being harmful to the vasiṣṭhās is an agreed tradition among their authorities. Perhaps, this warning from their own teachers is a testimony to the potency of that venomous quartet. Indeed, those who are adept in Mantraśāstra would admit to this. Let us give a background context to the hymn. Let us recall how we had mentioned in a previous post the tale of the Viśvāmitras (Also known as the Kuśikas) where the chief Viśvāmitra was forced to abdicate his position after he, along with the rest of Viśvāmitras, was rendered mindless by the power of Śakti. We had also cited the story of how they were restored by the Sasarpari speech. It therefore makes sense to state that these particular verses must have been composed after the loss of Viśvāmitra’s priestly office.

However, the hymn itself as a whole could not have been composed at one single point in time. We postulate that the original hymn consisted of just the first fourteen verses, RV 3.53.1-14, which were composed when Visvamitra was still the head priest of Sudāsa. The hymn itself starts off on a rather positive, celebratory note:

vītaṃ havyānyadhvareṣu devā vardhethāṃ ghīrbhīriḷayā madantā

“Enjoy the offerings at our sacrifices, Gods, waxed by the hymns, delight in the food.”

Verses 9 and 11 refer to a time when Sudāsa was still a patron of Viśvāmitra. (“viśvāmitro yadavahat sudāsamapriyāyata kuśikebhirindraḥ” and “upa preta kuśikāścetayadhvamaśvaṃ rāye pra muñcatā sudāsaḥ”)

The first fourteen verses appear to be gloating over the victories of Sudāsa during Viśvāmitra’s tenure as head priest. In contrast to this, the last ten verses show a radical change in tone. The fifteenth and sixteenth verses introduce Jamadagni and Sasarpari, which seem to have no connection with the preceding portion of the hymn. Verse 17-20 pray for the safety of the Viśvāmitras’ journey on the chariot and also prays for the oxen and axle. Viśvāmitra in Verse 18 even asks for strength for himself and his sons. Combining this with verse 16, which says new life has been granted to them (Viśvāmitras) by the Sasarpari, it seems that the Viśvāmitras were in distress at the time these particular verses were composed. Sāyaṇācārya, when commenting on verse 17 even says that Visvamitra was praying for a safe journey after he had left the sacrifice of Sudāsa. This could be a reference to the exit of the Viśvāmitras following the humiliating incident involving Śakti.

That the last decade of verses in this 24-versed hymn was an added layer also becomes apparent by an interesting disparity in the distribution of certain words between these two parts. The self-referential terms, “Kuśikas” and “Viśvāmitras” are only found in what we called the original portion of the hymn, in about six verses: 7, 9-13. Hence, in RV 3.53.1-14, the clan references occur in almost half of the 14 verses. [Footnote. 1]

In contradistinction to this high frequency, such terms are not found at all in the last ten verses. Not even once; this suggests that this part of the hymn might have been a later addition.

Let us now analyse the vicious verses, one by one.

 

indrotibhirbahulābhirno adya yācchreṣṭhābhirmaghavañchūra jinva |

yo no dveṣṭyadharaḥ sas padīṣṭa yamu dviṣmastamu prāṇo jahātu ||  RV 3.53.21

 “Indra, with aids many, come to us today. With the excellent (aids), Maghavan, hero, impel towards us! May he who hates us fall downward; him whom we hate let breath depart!”

This defines the nature of the following verses and sets an imprecative mood for them. An interesting trope seems to be how a statement of mutual hatred seems to be a common feature of imprecations. In the last verse of the last anuvāka of namakam, it states this mutual hatred right before the hymn to the awful god reaches its climax: yam dviṣmo yaśca no dveśti tam vo jambhe dadhāmi. In any case, Viśvāmitra has invoked the power of Indra to strike his unnamed nemesis.

 

paraśuṃ cid vi tapati śimbalaṃ cid vi vṛścati |

ukhā cid indra yeṣantī prayastā phenamasyati || 3.53.22

 “Like the axe that is heated, like a śimbala flower that is cut-off. Like a cauldron, oh Indra, that has been struck and seethes, may he (the enemy) vomit foam from his mouth.”

This is a slightly difficult verse to interpret. Because of the recurring “cid” in both half-verses, some have constructed the translation to mean such that there are three metaphors for the enemy’s death (The ‘heating of the axe’, the ‘cutting-off of the śimbala flower’ and the ‘seething of foam from the cauldron that has been struck’). This does not really make sense as the ultimate prayer in this Rik is for the enemy to foam and only the immediately preceding metaphor of the boiling cauldron actually fits in aptly.

Therefore, the top half-verse has to be dealt with separately. Also, the heating of the axe cannot be a suitable metaphor for the harm caused to the enemy. Both the śimbala (Silk-Cotton) flower and the cauldron would stand in as subtle references to the enemy’s body, his person. However the axe, being primarily an equipment used for cutting, would be more appropriate as a metaphor for an entity that actually inflicts harm. An example of this can be found in the rakṣoghna sūkta (RV 7.104) of the vasiṣṭhās in verse 21. (Whether this rakṣoghna sūkta was a response to the assault by the Viśvāmitras is a topic for the future) Thus, this half-verse is actually describing a single scenario, the likes of which would be where the heated axe is used to cut off a mere, tender Silk-Cotton flower.

In effect, Viśvāmitra was unleashing a disproportionately powerful curse against the opponent. Ellison Banks Findly has pointed out in an article, the Vasistha Dvesinyah is an example of sympathetic magic. In sympathetic magic, the intended outcome is achieved, to put it rather simply, by transference of effects from an object to the entity it represents. The popular Hollywood meme of the Voodoo doll is one instance of it. In this case, Viśvāmitra is probably using the Simbala flower as the sympathetic object to represent his much-hated foe (i.e. Śakti). And if we may take some liberty with the interpretation of the verse and even then, not too far at that, we may hold that the burning of Śakti to death might have been the fulfilment of the evocative imagery of a red-hot axe striking a small flower.

 

na sāyakasya cikite janāso lodhaṃ nayanti paśu manyamānāḥ |

nāvājinaṃ vājinā hāsayanti na gardabhaṃ puro aśvān nayanti || 3.53.23

 “People do not know the missile. They bring the red (animal) thinking him to be a (mere) beast. Men do not run a non-courser with a courser. They do not lead an ass before the horse.”

This is probably the hardest of the four verses to interpret. The word ‘Lodham’ is not easily translatable. Sāyaṇa derives it from ‘Lubdham’, meaning ‘desirous’ and then adduces a legend to justify this. The legend is: Viśvāmitra was once maintaining his silence as part of his austerities. The vasiṣṭhās had seized him to drive him away. Yet, Viśvāmitra, desirous of the fruits of his penance, had maintained the silence. So, here, ‘Lodham’ refers to Viśvāmitra, the desirous sage.

Yāska (Nirukta IV.14) interprets this second half of the first half-verse (lodhaṃ nayanti paśu manyamānāḥ) as referring to the enemy of Viśvāmitra, where the greedy enemy is being driven away. Both Yāska and Sayana have interpreted the ‘nayanti’ in the first half-verse as ‘driving away’.

Durga refuses to comment on this verse in Yāska, saying that he is a Vasiṣṭha but briefly states: “Lodham ityetad anavagatam”, stating that the meaning of ‘Lodham’ is not understood. My own take on this is that the derivation of Lodham from Lubdham is far-fetched and does not make sense in the context of the whole first half-verse. The ‘sāyaka’, the missile, clearly refers to the destructive power invoked by Viśvāmitra. The words, ‘cikite’ and ‘manyamānāḥ’ refer to knowing and thinking respectively. Hence, the proper sense would be that “the people (janāso), not knowing the (strength) of the missile, brought it, thinking it merely to be a beast.” The “thinking of it to be a mere beast” was an uninformed judgment. So, Yāska’s interpretation of ‘lodham’ as the greedy enemy of Viśvāmitra is incorrect as Viśvāmitra would have most probably concurred with such an opinion. Our opinion is that the ‘lodham’ is a coded reference to the destructive, magical missile itself. Rudolf von Roth hypothesized that it refers to some sort of red animal. Interestingly, there are two statements from the Taittiriya Samhita that can lend support to this.

  1. In the Taittiriya Samhita (TS) 5.6.16.1, a phrase “adhi lodha karna” is used to describe a certain type of cattle to be sacrificed to Viṣnu. The translation of the phrase would be “red-tipped ears” or “very red ears”.
  2. The idea behind Viśvāmitra invoking the imagery of a red beast in a verse that is clearly meant for imprecation has some basis in the TS as well. TS 2.1.7 states how someone who practices withcraft should offer a red animal to Rudra

While the second statement is less convincing (as there are numerous prescriptions for what a practicioner of witchcraft should do), we still find it admissible to postulate that ‘lodham’ is best translated as ‘red animal’ and the half-verse refers to an unknown enemy-destroying practice.

The second half verse beginning with “nāvājinaṃ…” is really separate, in terms of meaning. We believe it links to the final verse, so we explain this below.

 

ima indra bharatasya putrā apapitvaṃ cikiturna prapitvam |

hinvantyaśvamaraṇaṃ na nityaṃ jyāvājaṃ pari ṇayantyājau || 3.53.24

“Oh Indra, these sons of Bharata know separation, not approachment. They urge their steeds (against) the distant, the not-dear; they bear the swift bow-string in war.”

This verse too is slightly hard to interpret. The basic purpose of this verse seems to be to (magically) instigate the Bharatas to attack the intended enemy (or as suggested by the mitrayu, a “prototype” of vidveṣaṇa*). Thus Viśvāmitra was seeking from Indra that the warriors of the Bharatas do not continue with their friendship with his enemies but rather wage war against them.

In light of later tradition, we know that the saudāsas, who had employed Vasiṣṭha in place of Viśvāmitra, had a fall-out with him for some reason and this conflict escalated into violence, eventually climaxing at the death of Śakti. This last verse seems to be laying out the modus operandi for Viśvāmitra’s dangerous intentions: The intended violence would be executed through means of the party of Sudāsa himself, thereby exonerating him from any responsibility for what was to happen.

Going back to the second half-verse of the previous verse, the whole “a non-courser does not race with a courser, an ass does not lead a horse” statement is related to this very goal: To curse for hostilities to brew between the saudāsas and the vasiṣṭhās. The non-courser (A horse that does not course, i.e. does not speed) and the ass are both derogatory references to Vasiṣṭha. Although, I have not gone deep into the translation, it would suffice to note for now the translations offered for ‘na nityam’ by Griffith (They urge their steeds as if they were others’) or Wilson following Sāyaṇa (They urge their steeds against a constant foe). Griffith’s does not make any sense. Why should the Bharatās urge their horses as if they belonged to others? And Wilson, following Sāyaṇa, transposes a later meaning of nityam (always, constant) onto a much older work. I would add in a footnote [Footnote. 2] later to explain how nityam can be taken to mean ‘dear’ as in ‘dear to oneself’.

This concludes the rather long-drawn article on the Vasiṣṭha Dvesinyah and in the next post, I will write a tribute to the memory of Śakti, who is an ācārya in the Advaita Guru Parampara to which I bear allegiance.

 

Footnotes

1. Therefore, it is pretty unfortunate that a scholar like Sadāśiva Ambadāsa should treat the hymn as one single composition and, neglecting tradition to some extent, connects the first and second portions.

2. This derivation of the third meaning of “nityam” occurs in “Vedic Studies Vol. I” by A. Venkatasubbiah. The following paragraphs are worth noting in full:

“This is a very familiar word that occurs about thirty-eight times in the RV and very frequently in the other Vedic texts and in later literature. The commentators, Indian as well as European, are one in interpreting this word as (1) svIya, sahaja, own, and (2) dhruva, lasting, constant, perpetual, uninterrupted, imperishable, eternal, etc. In assuming the second of the above two meanings for this word in the RV, the commentators have been no doubt guided by the circumstance that the word nitya has that meaning in later texts. But as a matter of fact, this latter meaning is not appropriate and does not yield good sense in a number of passages.” (Pg. 1)

“The other meaning ‘ own ‘ is still less appropriate here ; and it therefore becomes clear that in these and other similar passages the word nitya has a meaning different from the two mentioned above. What this meaning is, can be found out with the help of 1,66, 1; 1, 166, 2 and 10, 39, 14, all which verses contain similes with nitya as tertium comparationis. In the first of these verses it is said that Agni is nitya as a son (sunu) ; in the second, that honey (madhu) is nitya as a son (sunu) ; and in the third, that a hymn of praise
(stoma) is nitya as a son (sunu). A comparison therefore of the adjectives which these words sunu, madhu, stoma and agni receive in the RV, will show what characteristics are common to the things denoted by them and will thus determine the sense of nitya.’ (pg. 2)

After comparing all the adjectives of these four words, an interesting conclusion is derived by the author:

“It will be seen that the only adjective (besides nitya) common to the three words sunu, madhu and stoma is priya (in the case of stoma we find instead of priya its superlative form prestha) and the only characteristic that is common to the things denoted by these words is priyatva.” (pg. 2-3)

“Thus the only adjective (beside nitya whose meaning we are engaged in finding out) and the only characteristic that are common to the above-mentioned four words and the things denoted by them, are priya and priyatva* ; which makes it probable that nitya means
priya in the above passages. The probability, in this instance, is converted into certainty by the parallelism of priya and nitya in 1, 91, 6c : priyastotro vanaspatih and and 9, 12, 7 a : nityastotro vanaspatih. nitya thus means priya, dear, pleasing, beloved, favourite.” (pg. 3)

This gave us a huge insight in interpreting the word. But then amazingly, Venkatasubbiah shocks us, by choosing to interpret nityam as dear in almost all of the passages he goes on to discuss, with the sole and sore exception of 3.53, where he interprets “na nityam” as “Not one’s own (horse). We suspect that he might have not benefited from a full appreciation of the status of those four stanzas as verses for imprecation.

 

 

 

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