Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010


Vedas (ca. 150 B.c.)

The four Vedas (Knowledge), the world's oldest religious texts, narrate the traditional WISDOM LITERATURE of the ancients in 10,552 Sanskrit verses. Nomadic Aryan bard-priests from Persia carried the oral invocations, ritual, and praise songs east to the Harappan civilization of northern India. From as early as 2100 B.c., preliterate Hindus reverenced the word of God as recited by Brahmans, the most educated class of their society. Vedic followers migrated into the Indus valley and settled the Punjab by 1500 B.c. Listeners to the Vedas celebrated the holy word with dance, song, and the playing of cymbals, drums, flutes, harps, and zithers, the same instrumentation accompanying recitation of the Davidic PSALMS (ca. 900 B.c.) of the Israelite Empire. Although committed to parchment by scribes for the Maurya emperors of India, the written text circulated empire-wide two millennia later. Sages, priests, and prophets learned from the corpus Hindu edicts on beneficence, selfdenial, divinity, and right thinking. Recitations explained transmigration of the soul to merge with the sacred atman (oversoul). From Vedic aphorisms, the righteous learned to accept destiny and a place in the feudal caste system, which ranked intellectuals and warriors above farmers, traders, crafters, and serfs. Among those who respected Vedic teaching was the Russian author LEO TOLSTOY, who cited ancient Indian scriptural authority in “A Letter to a Hindu” (1908).

The first collection, the Rig Veda (Praise stanzas), is the fount of Indian religious belief and literary achievement. Compiled among pastoralagrarian clans in northern India from 1700 to 1400 B.c., it speaks in veneration of a fire god, of the first man, and of the healing power of soma, a hallucinogenic beverage. Of Yama, the first human and child of the sun god, the text conveys his primacy as “spying out the path for many … the first to find the way for us” (Rig Veda 1981, 43). Because of the sanctity of his mission, Yama is the first king and defender of humanity. As tribalism gave place to monarchy, Vedic anthems accompanied coronations, royal births, funerals, and cremations and honored charity, morality, and thanksgiving. War anthems exalted the confederacy of chiefs who warded off enemies from the southern Punjab. In the evocative “Burial Hymn,” the survivors spurn death, comfort the widow, and “[go] forward to dance and laugh, stretching farther our own lengthening span of life” (52).

The Growth of the Vedas

The compilation of subsequent Hindu verse added three collections to the Rig Veda. Around 1000 B.c., priests anthologized a separate hymnbook, the Sama Veda (Chant lore), comprised of 1,549 liturgical verses, incantations, and feasting and drinking tunes similar in tone to the Bacchic verse and Homeric hymns of ancient Greece. In a more pragmatic mode, the Yajur Veda (Sacrificial prayers, 1000-600 B.c.) suited the needs of the altar guild. A prayer for victory implores the fire deity, “May we win by thy help, O Agni, our wish … May

we win booty, seeking for booty; May we win, O deathless, undying glory” (Yajur 2004, 51). A folkloric compendium of 6,000 verses, the Atharva Veda (Lore of the fire priests, 800 B.c.), was a fount of spirituality and otherworldliness. Based on the teachings of the mythic healer Dhanvantari, it offers mantras and prayers on the subjects of danger, fear, love, witchcraft, sin, forgiveness, crop culture, diet, disease, snakebite, and family blessings. One plea requests peace to the earth through appeasement of the dreadful, cruel, and evil, an all-encompassing reference that includes imperialist adversaries. Accompanying a love charm is the ritual incantation, “I dig this herb, of plants the strongest, with which one drives off her rival; with which one wins completely her husband” (Atharva 1905, 118). In a retreat from earthly miseries, a prayer asks, “O Earth, O Mother, dispose my loss in gracious fashion that I may be at ease, and in harmony with your powers” (quoted in Roberts and Amidon 1991, 52), a displacement of concerns of sovereignty to oneness with creation. To assure a unity of all endeavors, the collection asks the goddess: “Breathe fearlessness into us: / fearlessness on earth / and fearlessness in heaven” (114).

The Vedas address the nature of conflict. One prayer from the Rig Veda seeks life's sweetness in nature; another regards God as the “scatterer of ignorance and darkness” (267), a thanksgiving for the ultimate power over human frailties. In place of governmental maltreatment, a nationalistic plea requests, “Let us be united, / Let us speak in harmony … Unified be our hearts; / Common be our intentions” (93). On the subject of domestic discord, like the gentle AZTEC priestpoet Nezahualcoyotl and Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, the priest intones God's commandment with maternal fondness: “Like-heartedness, likemindedness, non-hostility do I make for you; do ye show affection the one toward the other, as the inviolable cow toward her calf when born” (138). A hymn to the war chariot extols the stout tree trunk that builders turn into a vehicle. In a subdued paean to the chariot, the poet declares, “Let him who mounts thee conquer things unconquerable” (374). A parallel anthem honoring the war drum implores a victory: “Thunder against them … drive, O drum, misfortune away from here; / Indra's fist art thou; be stout” (375).

Interpreting Wisdom

Accompanying each of the four Vedas are interpretive ancillary texts that are similar in pairing to the Hebrew Talmud and the Torah and guidebooks to the Analects of Confucius (ca. 210 B.c.). The Brahmanas (Godly discussions, 1000-600 B.c.) order intricate ceremonies. The most poetic of the ancillaries, the Upanishads (Lessons, 1000-600 B.c.) comprise 108 sections in which a guru explains the wondrous nature of the inner self.

Forerunners of the Mathnawi (Spiritual Couplets, ca. 1270) of RUMI, the Vedic verses encourage ecstatic worship. Extolling the generations who followed Yama, the first man, the narrative of the Upanishads marvels at the mathematic possibilities of reproduction: “He is one, he becomes three, he becomes five, he becomes seven, he becomes nine; then again he is called the eleventh, and hundred and ten and one thousand twenty” (Upanishads 1897, 124-125). Originated during an era of change, the lessons exhibit the emergence of humanism among the Hindu hierarchy. The Aranyakas (Forest treatises, 600 B.c.) are treatises for the meditation of hermits on natural phenomena in the wilderness. The Sutras (Rules, 800-350 B.c.), legalism codified during the late Indo-Gangetic empire, apply Hindu teachings to daily domestic situations and to the responsibilities of emperors. The Kama Sutra (450 B.c.), written by the ascetic monk Vatsyayana, summarizes the elements of courtship and conjugal love, a token of the advancement of gender equality in India.

The beauty of Hindu mysticism influenced the Bengali poet RABINDRANATH TAGORE, a spokesman for world peace. Of immersion in godliness, Tagore exulted, “I touch by the edge of the far spreading wing of my song thy feet which I could never aspire to reach. Drunk with the joy of singing I forget myself and call thee friend who are my lord” (Tagore 1996, 13-44).


Atharva Veda Samhita. Translated by William Dwight Whitney and edited by Charles Rockwell Lanman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 1905.

The Rig Veda. Translated and edited by Wendy Doniger. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Classics, 1981.

Roberts, Elizabeth, and Elias Amidon, eds. Earth

Prayers from Around the World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

Sama Veda. Translated by S. V. Ganapati. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1992.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Gitanjali. London: Branden, 1996. The Upanishads. Translated by Friedrich Max Muller.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1897.

The Yajur Veda Taittiriya Sanhita. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2004.