Pūṣan, Kṛṣṇa and the Āṅgirasas-Part 1

Part 1: Similarities between Pūṣan of the Rg Veda and Kṛṣṇa of the Mahābhārata

I had been seriously strapped for time with several commitments at university as well as extra-academic activities. Therefore, this article had to be written over a painfully long period of time. However, I had long been fascinated with uncovering the variety of subcultures that underlie the Rg Veda which by no means is a homogenous text with a unitary objective. Unfortunately, most Brāhmaṇas themselves are unacquainted with these subcultures, let alone the rest of the Hindus. But, the impact of the contributions and thought of these Ṛṣi families go far beyond the Rg Veda and extends to even certain aspects of today’s Hindu Dharma.

One of the most important families in this regard, whose descendants and branches were responsible for composing almost half the Rg Veda and a number of other Vedic and Post-Vedic works, was the Āṅgirasas. The sixth book of the Rg Veda was composed by my ancestors, the peerless Bhāradvājas and its reference to Divodāsa in a tone of contemporaneity makes it most possibly the oldest book of the extant Rg Veda. Unfortunately, a detailed and focused study of the sixth book has not been attempted and neither do we attempt that here for want of time. However, we will take one of the unique aspects of the sixth book, the prominence of the great Vedic deity, Pūṣan.

The RV 6.53-58 is a set of six hymns dedicated entirely to Pūṣan with hymn 6.57 being dedicated to the dual divinity, Indra-Pūṣan. This was so remarkable that the indologist Alfred Hillebrandt called this portion, “eine kleine Pūṣansaṃhita” (a small Pūṣan Saṃhitā). This small but significant collection helps define the nature and role of Pūṣan as the tutelary deity of the Bhāradvājas. Many indologists and scholars with their rash interpretations make Pūṣan a mere pastoral deity. Yes, he is definitely part of a pastoral culture with which the Bhāradvājas themselves are deeply associated. (See the hymn, 6.28: “ā ghāvo aghmannuta…” as well as the later Sūtra literature, which we hope to discuss in a future post). We agree that the concerns represented by Pūṣan are mainly to do with cattle and a nomadic-pastoral culture as one would expect from the early layer of the Veda. However, the abilities and characteristics attributed to Pūṣan, as incidental to his main pastoral function, betray a sense of genius and complexity of thought on part of the Bhāradvājas of the early Rg Veda.

1. Pūṣan as the Inner Controller

For example, the very first hymn that appears in the serial order in this “Pūṣansaṃhita” sheds light on Pūṣan impelling the miser to be a liberal giver. Sure, in the overall context of the sixth book, the seers were most likely hoping for Pūṣan to urge the miser to donate cattle to them. However, it remains a unique and fresh verse in the sense that it, instead of merely imprecating against the niggardly, it requests for a softening of the heart (mradā manaḥ).

aditsantaṁ cidāghṛṇe pūṣandānāya codaya |

paṇeścidvi mradā manaḥ || 6.53.3

And he softens the heart by tearing through the hearts of greedy men. The word, “randhaya” refers to the “subjecting” by Pūṣan of the hearts of those who are illiberal with their wealth, to the will of the worshipper who recites with faith the hymn.

pari tṛndhi paṇīnāmārayā hṛdayā kave |

athemasmabhyaṁ randhaya || 6.53.5

vi pūṣannārayā tuda paṇericcha hṛdi priyam |

athemasmabhyaṁ randhaya || 6.53.6

ā rikha kikirā kṛṇu paṇīnāṁ hṛdayā kave |

athemasmabhyaṁ randhaya || 6.53.7

The combination, of the repeated reference to the heart (the word, hṛdayā) throughout this hymn, and Pūṣan being addressed as “kave” (meaning, wise with later ascribed meaning of poet) suggests the deity’s function as a cognitive impeller. Impelling in the Vaidika context takes several forms. At its rawest, the seers often refer to the impelling of heroes and their steeds (Eg. RV 9.85.2: asmān samarye pavamāna codaya: Impel (sharpen) us for the fight, RV 1.175.3: codayo manuṣo ratham: Urge man’s chariot). Slightly more subtle usages of impelling occur in the context of impelling the Devas to grant wealth (RV 10.141.6: tvaṃ nodevatātaye rāyo dānāya codaya: (Oh Agni!) Stimulate the gods to give us wealth!). However, this particular hymn takes it a step further and given its status as an early book, it is remarkable that the impelling by Pūṣan is given a broader or perhaps even a theologically significant context. In the 8th verse, the phrase “brahmacoda” is used and means “urge towards prayer”. And unlike the previous verses, it seems to be regarding all men: “samasya hṛdayamā rikha kikirā kṛṇu”: He tears and rends the hearts of all men.

yāṁ pūṣanbrahmacodanīmārāṁ bibharṣyāghṛṇe |

tayā samasya hṛdayamā rikha kikirā kṛṇu || 6.53.8

It is essential to note this particular meme as this seems to be one of the possible seeds for the later, Aupaniṣadaka thought regarding the “Antaryāmi” conception of the supreme deity, and later theistic developments, particularly that of Kṛṣṇa.

In the Bhagavad Gita, we note similar thought-strands that highlight Kṛṣṇa’s immanence due to his presence in all beings, including the hearts of men.

īśvaraḥ sarvabhūtānāṃ hṛddeśerjuna tiṣṭhati

bhrāmayan sarvabhūtāni yantrārūḍhāni māyayā BG 18.61

The Lord in the heart of all beings, oh Arjuna, resides; turning all beings as if mounted on a machine, by his illusive power.

And Pūṣan is associated with māyā in RV 6.58.1
viśvā hi māyā avasi svadhāvo bhadrā te pūṣanniharātirastu || 6.58.1b

2. Pūṣan as the Liberator

Closely related to this concept is the Rg Vedic reference to Pūṣan’s role as the liberator.

ehi vāṃ vimuco napādāghṛṇe saṃ sacāvahai |
rathīrtasya no bhava || 6.55.1

He is referred to as vimuco napāt, which many scholars would render, in the literal fashion, as son of liberation. Sayana, in his commentary on this verse: vimunchati srṣtikāle svasakāsāt sarvah prajah visrjatīti vimuk Prajāpatih/Tasya Putra.

“vimuco is Prajāpati who, at the time of creation, manifests all beings from himself. (Pūṣan) is his son.”

This interpretation, though interesting, is farfetched and clearly anachronistic in the sense that Prajāpati appears only in the latest book of the Rg Veda, the tenth and that too in only one Sūktam, (Prajāpati figures mainly in the Brāhmana texts) and does not satisfactorily explain the phrase found in the far earlier sixth book which is repeated in RV 1.42.1, which is a Kānva hymn. Interestingly, Pūṣan himself is called the liberator in the 8th book, the Kānva Maṇḍala, with the Kānvas being Āṅgirasas as well.

pra pūṣaṇaṃ vṛṇīmahe yujyāya purūvasum |
sa śakra śikṣa puruhūta no dhiyā tuje rāye vimocana || RV 8.4.15

The article does not aim to delve deep into the etymology but it would suffice to note at this point that Pūṣan’s role as “liberator” relates on one hand to his pastoral aspect (unyoking the cattle, hence vimocana) as well as his function as the deity who leads men on the paths and protects them (Freedom from trouble on dangerous paths). However, in the Atharva Veda (Saunaka: 6.112.3), Pūṣan’s role as liberator took on a soteriological twist, where he is asked to free the worshippers from various kinds of sins.

yebhiḥ pāśaiḥ parivitto víbaddhah añge-añga ārpita utsitaś ca /

ví te mucyantaṃ vimuco hi santi bhrūṇaghni pūṣan duritāni mr̥kṣva // AV- Śaunakīya Śākha 6.112.3

Here the bonds of sin that fasten the unmarried elder brother (parivitta) limb by limb (añge-añga) are asked by the worshipper to be loosened and cast upon the abortionist, the worst among men and scapegoat for the purposes of sin-transferring in the Ārya worldview.

Unfortunately, most of the later texts do not add anything new about this great god, the “kula devata” of the race of the Bhāradvājas, signifying the gradual decline into oblivion suffered by the god.

3. Pūṣan the Skilled Charioteer

Especially noteworthy is the characteristic of Pūṣan being praised as the best charioteer.

rathītamaṃ kapardinamīśānaṃ rādhaso mahaḥ |
rāyaḥ sakhāyamīmahe || 6.55.2

uta ghā sa rathītamaḥ sakhyā satpatiryujā |
indro vṛtrāṇi jighnate || 6.56.2

utādaḥ paruṣe ghavi sūraścakraṃ hiraṇyayam |
nyairayadrathītamaḥ || 6.56.3

We can observe that in the Mahābhārata, Kṛṣṇa is indeed noted for being a charioteer par excellence. In Karna Parva 22, Karna, in explaining the respects in which he lags behind Arjuna, speaks the following:

mayā cābhyadhiko vīraḥ pāṇḍavas tan nibodha me |
raśmigrāhaś ca dāśārhaḥ sarvalokanamaskṛtaḥ || Mbh 8.22.47

“Listen, now, to those respects in which that heroic son of Pāndu is superior. The (grāhaś) holder of the (raśmi) reins (of Arjuna’s horses) is dāśārha (Kṛṣṇa, the descendant of daśārha), who is saluted by all of the world.”

kṛṣṇaś ca sraṣṭā jagato rathaṃ tam abhirakṣati
ebhir dravyair ahaṃ hīno yoddhum icchāmi pāṇḍavam || Mbh 8.22.49

“Kṛṣṇa, the creator of the world, protects (Arjuna’s) chariot. Though in these matters, I am inferior, I still desire to fight the pāṇḍava.”

4. Pūṣan as the Friend of Indra

 The “Pūṣansaṃhita” also speaks of his being together with Indra in battle

māturdidhiṣumabravaṃ svasurjāraḥ śṛṇotu naḥ |
bhrātendrasya sakhā mama || 6.55.5 

uta ghā sa rathītamaḥ sakhyā satpatiryujā |
indro vṛtrāṇi jighnate || 6.56.2

In 6.55.5, Pūṣan is even addressed as Indra’s brother. 6.56.2, which was also cited in no. 3 above, highlights the connexion between Indra and Pūṣan in the context of charioting. However, the most important hymn in highlighting the relationship between those two deities would be RV 6.57 which is addressed to the dual divinity, Indra- Pūṣan.

indrā nu pūṣaṇā vayaṃ sakhyāya svastaye |
huvema vājasātaye || 6.57.1

yadindro anayad rito mahīrapo vṛṣantamaḥ |
tatra pūṣābhavat sacā || 6.57.4 

tāṃ pūṣṇaḥ sumatiṃ vayaṃ vṛkṣasya pra vayāmiva |
indrasya cā rabhāmahe || 6.57.5

ut pūṣaṇaṃ yuvāmahe.abhīśūnriva sārathiḥ |
mahyā indraṃ svastaye || 6.57.6

 The connection between Indra and Pūṣan is also found in the verse cited from the Kānva Maṇḍala above, RV 8.4.15. The Pūṣan-Indra dynamics closely parallel that of Kṛṣṇa-Arjuna. Of course, the camaraderie between Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna can be easily interpreted through the Indra-Viṣṇu prism. As Dhṛtarāṣṭra states when speaking of the impending battle:

no ced gacchet saṃgaraṃ mandabuddhis; tābhyāṃ suto me viparītacetāḥ

no cet kurūn saṃjaya nirdahetām; indrā viṣṇū daitya senāṃ yathaiva Mbh 5.22.31

“If my dull-headed son goes to fight with those two, then may he fare well, else those two will consume the race of Kuru as Indra and Viṣṇu consume the Daitya hosts.”

Indeed no metaphors are used comparing Kṛṣṇa to Pūṣan who clearly has fallen out of favour by the Mahābhārata era. Nevertheless, it is possible that the deification of Kṛṣṇa was by no means a simple, monolithic process that was merely confined to linking him with Viṣṇu. In fact, as the renowned Ārya suggests, it is possible that Vāsudeva has been inspired in part by the Vasus of Vedic fame. Thus, Kṛṣṇa is a highly complex composite concept that took off from several sources, Vasus and Pūṣan merely being two contributors.

At any rate, the Kṛṣṇa of the Mahābhārata is quite different from the Kṛṣṇa of the Harivamśa or the Bhāgavata. Those who have only the most basic idea of Pūṣan would know his association with cattle and the pastoral culture in general. I am aware that this would ring a bell in light of Kṛṣṇa’s association with cows. However, it must be remembered that the popular conception of Kṛṣṇa as a “cowherd” does not figure at all in the Mahābhārata but only in the Harivamśa and of course the Paurāṇika corpus, including the Bhāgavata

The earliest layers of the Mahābhārata were definitely composed in the same era its characters including Kṛṣṇa had lived. Therefore, its portrayal of Kṛṣṇa enjoys an authenticity that cannot be seen in later productions such as the Harivamśa or the Bhāgavata. Given the diverse range of memes Pūṣan was associated with in the Vedic texts, some of these memes would have worked their way into the depiction of Kṛṣṇa in the Mahābhārata while others (such as the bovine-pastoral association) may have been transferred to Kṛṣṇa in the Post- Mahābhārata era. We would explore these other Pūṣan memes in the next post.

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