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This morning I find myself with a dilemma, and not the one I thought I was going to have.

Yesterday afternoon, I sat down to read a book, or rather, a very specific edition of a very long book.

The edition is Rig Veda, translated and edited for Penguin Classics by Wendy Doniger.  Doniger is listed as being “professor in the History of Religions” at the University of Chicago’s Divinity school and an expert on South Asian studies.  Since this was her personal translation, we can assume she reads Sanskrit, the language in which the book was written.

The problems I thought I was going to have with this have to do with just what this is a translation of–not the complete Rig Veda, but a selection of about one tenth of the 1082 poems/hymns/prayers in the original.

Selections cause lots of problems. How could I know, for instance, if these selections were indicative of the whole and not tendentiously chosen to  make some kind of political or social point not supported by the entirety of the text?

I tried looking this up on the Net, and found that a translation of the entire Rig Veda is almost impossible to come by.  Such translations exist, but there are very few of them, and they are produced by scholars and for scholars. 

I can read books like that in some fields, but those are fields with which I already have at least a superficial acquaintance, so that I know where to start. 

I have no such acquaintance with Indian religion or philosophy, and certainly not with the earliest phases of Indian religion or philosophy.  India fascinates me.  Indian art fascinates me.  Indian life fascinates me. 

But even after a few years of checking all that out on a semi regular basis, what I do know is scant, and tends to be concentrated on the period from the establishment of the Raj to now.  I could probably give you a decent account of Indian forms of Buddhism, especially modern ones.  What was going on in Hinduism at the dawn of the religion is completely off my radar.

So I started with a selection I had no way to judge, and was heartened by the fact that almost all the hymns are introduced with a few explanatory paragraphs and then  noted for a layperson, and set about to give it a shot.

And what struck me, almost immediately, was–well, okay, startlingly funny.

It started with the opening invocation, asking the gods to take care of the  petitioner and his cows and horses.

It kicked into  high gear when I hit the verse asking a god to “unite with the female frog.”

Now, before I go on here, let me be clear about something.

This is not a post meant to ridicule Hinduism. 

Somebody suggested that my translation might be a bad one, so I went looking for confirmation of that.  I didn’t find it.  Doniger seems to be considered a perfectly adequate translator by experts in the field, and to have consulted a fair number of them about this translation.

So what I’ve arrived at, at the moment, is this:

1) These are the oldest scriptures in the Hindu canon.  They seem to date from a time far older in the history of that religion than we have access to in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism or Islam.

2) By “older” I do NOT mean chronologically older.  Whatever the date at which the Rig Veda was written–it should be dates, because they were composed over a long period of time–they represent (especially in the oldest ones) an approach to religion that most of us wouldn’t recognize no matter how hard we tried.

The closest description I can come to is what is called “animism.” 

And that isn’t exactly right.  Animism sees everything as spirit–plants have spirits, rocks have spirits, thunderstorms have spirits.

This is not that, but it is as if  all things are participated in by the gods–and I suppose that makes no sense, either. 

Maybe the best way to put it is that this is scripture for a people whose relationship with God or the gods is largely instrumental–it’s about getting the gods to give you sons and good crops and health and a safe passage into the afterlife.

There are, of course, passages like that in the Old Testament, but nowhere near as many of them, and what of them there are tend to be heavily framed by much different concerns. 

Which brings me to:

3) The fact that there is virtually no mention of morality, of right and wrong, of good and evil, anywhere.

I’m only about a third or a quarter of the way through the book, but that’s still a significant a proportion of the book, and I couldn’t get you through the first half of Genesis without running straight into the fact that that Testament assumes that the principle issue in the relationship between God and man is whether man can or will live righteously.

The old testament Jehovah is said to care for us, but it’s not clear what that means.  It certainly does not mean that we will get good things in this world if we pray to Him. 

In fact, we won’t even get good things in this world if we keep his laws and remain righteous and devout.  That’s the entire point of Job.

Certainly later forms of Hinduism are intensely concerned with the ethical. 

Certainly the entire doctrine of the transmigration of souls and the idea of karma at the base of it is intensely concerned with the moral.

It’s just that that focus is not here yet.  And that’s part of why I think it’s an “earlier” (as in evolutionarily earlier) form  of religion.

What I’m hedging around here is that this sometimes does not feel like any kind of religion at all. 

4) After a while, I started wondering about context.

Here and there, Doniger will deliver a  note on the text that says something or the other is a pun, or a double entendre, or a reference, or…

It is difficult for Western readers in the 21st century to understand their own literature without a fair amount of preparation. 

It is difficult for such readers to understand the mental habits of just a hundred years ago–fornication illegal?  girls shunned because they were thought to have  had sex before marriage?  if you go out with him and get drunk,  it’s your own damned fault if  he has his way with you?

 But we in the twenty first century West are far closer to all that kind of thing than we can ever be to the world expressed in the Rig Veda.  We all talk a lot about difference and diversity, but we rarely confront anything that is actually different.

The fights we all have these days about feminism and homosexuality and “reproductive rights” and God in the public schools and immigration and on and on and on and on, all rest on solidly Western assumptions that are not shared by three quarters of the world.

They require elaborate assumptions about individuality, the freedom of the individual from “arbitrary” groups like nation and family, the rights of individuals to decide for themselves what they will or will not believe–in fact, the entire idea of “rights” at all, any way you want to define it.

The people who wrote the Rig Veda would have found all this utterly incomprehensible. 

In fact, they would have found it incomprehensible in an absolute sense.

What’s in play here is not just a very foreign language that we will find it difficult to learn and to understand.

It’s more like one of us is using language and the other is using mental telepathy and the communications forms don’t intersect at all.

In the end, I suppose,  it really isn’t just that bad.  We did  manage to meet and communicate with the heirs of the  people who wrote the Rig Veda, and ideas from their world and ideas from ours passed across the barriers.

I do wonder, however, how much of that passing through was less passing through than smoothing out–one or the other of us giving up or letting go of the world as we understand it in order to adopt the framework of the other side.

Historically, of course, most of the giving up and letting go has been done by the peoples of the Rig Veda and most of the holding on and staying put  has been done by us.

That is the way that worked whether we wanted it to work that way or not.  The Indians have certainly managed to adopt Western ideas, customs at a truly remarkable speed.

Most of my students whose parents immigrated from India are not just assimilated, but almost  hyper American.

My guess is that they will no better understand the Rig Veda than I do.

My guess is that nobody on earth can really understand it any more at all.

And that makes me wonder just how many civilizations there are out there that are gone in the absolute sense, that we will never be able to penetrate at all.

Human beings are very much alike in many ways across cultures and across time.

But they’re also very different, and when they are different enough, and when none of the ones with the differences are left, they might as well have been invaders from space.

Written by janeh

June 2nd, 2013 at 10:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Foreign'

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  1. People with more experience of foreign travel than I ever wanted to have tell me that the Indian Subcontinent is still the most alien destination for a Westerner–much more so than China and Japan.

    That said, from what I’ve seen elsewhere polytheism tends to run more toward instrumentalism than ethics. It’s never 100%, but monotheism seems to begin with laws and justice, where polytheism begins with who you flatter or pay to get what you want. (That’s very modern, when you thin of it: surprising it hasn’t made a comeback.)

    Lost civilizations. Yes, I feel it more in the arts, myself. I look at some creation and tell myself “to someone, this was a thing of great beauty” and I know we just don’t connect, and can’t.

    Of course, that’s not always something created millennia ago. What planet do you suppose Pollock came from? Or Klimt?


    2 Jun 13 at 4:35 pm

  2. I have little knowledge of religion but I think the ancient Egyptians believed a soul would be judged after death. That suggests that the religion had a moral code.

    On the other hand, I don’t remember such a judgment in either Greece or Rome and I recall that Socrates complained about the stories in which Gods and Goddesses behaved immorally.


    2 Jun 13 at 5:50 pm

  3. Egypt is exactly why I hedged, jd. But there’s nothing like that I’ve run into in the Tigris-Euphrates region, nor among the Canaanite gods. You didn’t get into trouble with the Homeric gods by butchering old men and raping virgins: you were in trouble for killing old men on the god’s altar, and raping virgins who were priestesses or prophetesses. It’s not ethics, but defending turf. The northern European material is thin, but looks similar.

    But the Ten Commandments are close to the earliest material in the Old Testament and the laws of the Koran are, of course, given out in the lifetime of Islam’s founder. We can all debate the nature of Buddhism, but I think as a generalization it will serve.


    2 Jun 13 at 8:14 pm

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