Vedic Experience / Prelude

Translation and commentary Raimon Pannikar  Vedic Experience


In the beginning, to be sure, nothing existed,
neither the heaven nor the earth nor space in between.
So Nonbeing, having decided to be, became spirit and
said: "Let me be!'' He warmed himself further and
from this heating was born fire. He warmed himself
still further and from this heating was born light.

Numerous texts are to be found in the Vedic scriptures, of extraordinary diversity and incomparable richness, which seek unweariedly to penetrate the mystery of the beginnings and to explain the immensity and the amazing harmony of the universe. We find a proliferation of speculations, doubts, and descriptions, an atmosphere charged with solemnity, a sense of life lived to the full--all of which spontaneously bring to mind the landscape of the Himalayas. These texts seem to burst forth impetuously like streams issuing from glaciers. Within this rushing torrent may be discerned a certain life view, deep and basic, an evolving life view that can yet be traced unbroken from the Rig Veda, through the Atharva Veda and the Brahmanas, to the Upanisads.

What is fascinating about the experience of the Vedic seers is not only that they have dared to explore the outer space of being and existence, piercing the outskirts of reality, exploring the boundaries of the universe, describing being and its universal laws, but that they have also undertaken the risky and intriguing adventure of going beyond and piercing the being barrier so as to float in utter nothingness, so to speak, and discover that Nonbeing is only the outer atmosphere of Being, its protective veil. They plunge thus into a darkness enwrapped by darkness, into the Beyond from which there is no return, into that Prelude of Existence in which there is neither Being nor Nonbeing, neither God nor Gods, nor creature of any type; the traveler himself is volatilized, has disappeared. Creation is the act by which God, or whatever name we may choose to express the Ultimate, affirms himself not only vis-à-vis the world, thus created, but also vis-à-vis himself, for he certainly was neither creator before creation nor God for himself. The Vedic seers make the staggering claim of entering into that enclosure where God is not yet God, where God is thus unknown to himself, and, not being creator, is "nothing."

Without this perspective we may fail to grasp the Vedic message regarding the absolute Prelude to everything: that One, tad ekam (which is the less imperfect expression), or this, idam (which is the other way of saying it). Idam, this, that is to say, anything that I can refer to, though it is never exhausted by the reference; idam, that which I think, mean, touch, imagine, will, reject, love, hate--anything to which I may be able to point with any means at my disposal, my senses, mind, intuition, emotions, or whatever; idam, that which takes as many forms as I am capable of imagining and constantly transcends all of them; this, that is, whatever can fall into the range of my experience, idam, at the absolute Prelude, was neither Being nor Nonbeing, neither Consciousness nor Ignorance. This, in whatever form, is tad, that: outside, beyond, transcendent, hidden in its own immanence, absolutely ungraspable and ineffable.
Furthermore, this that is ekam, One, absolute oneness, because all specific generic and ontic differences are included in the ekam and it is precisely this that makes differentiation intrinsically possible. Things can differ only against a background of oneness.

Hiranyagarbha, the Golden Germ, appears here as a powerful symbol and Prajapati is one of the most important mythical names for the carrying out of this process, though he emerges at the very end of it. For a fuller understanding of the myth we may consider it in three stages or moments which are, of course, neither chronological nor perhaps ontological, but which are certainly anthropological (or rather metahistorical) and helpful for our understanding: Solitude, Sacrifice, Integration.


In the beginning, things undoubtedly began. But what about the beginning itself "before" the actual "beginning"? We cannot say "before" the beginning without falling into contradiction. The beginning is precisely the beginning, because it has no "before," because it is itself beginningless. Thus, if we want to speak about the beginning in itself, we shall have to use a language of opposites and make ample use of paradoxes: in the beginning there was neither Being nor Nonbeing, there was neither space nor the sky beyond, neither death nor nondeath, no distinction between day and night. In the absolute void the One breathed by its own propulsion without breath; shadows were concealed by shadows. The symbol here is utter solitude. The One enwrapped in the void took birth. Nonbeing made himself atman, and cried: I will be! Let me be! This was the Self in the form of a Person. But the Primal Being is not yet fully born, he is not yet fully "out," for when he is looking around he sees nothing. So he is forced to look upon himself and take cognizance of himself. Only then is he born; only then does he discover properly not only himself but also his total solitude, his helplessness, one could say. When self-awareness comes to birth it discovers that it is alone and is afraid, "for the one who is alone is afraid," because aloneness is an unnatural state and thus even Being needs to be surrounded and "protected" by Nonbeing. The ontologic anxiety of Being facing Nonbeing is born simultaneously with self-awareness. It looks for an object, for "some-thing" which can be grappled with: anxiety tends to be converted into fear. Now, fear is overcome by a second act of reflection: the discovery that nothing exists to be frightened of. But the cost of this rationalized defense is boredom; there is no joy at all in brooding over oneself. Then arises the desire for another. It is the beginning of the expansion, the breaking of the Self--and thus starts the process of the primordial Sacrifice.


Prajapati desires a second but he has no primary matter out of which to create the universe. This dilemma is important. A second identical to him will not satisfy his craving, for it will merge with him; a second inferior to him will obviously not do either, for it will be his puppet, the projection of his own will. It will offer him no resistance, nor will it be a real partner. The Vedic Revelation unveils the mystery by means of the myth of the sacrifice of Prajapati, who dismembers himself in order to let the world be, and be what it is. Creation is the sacrifice, the gift of Prajapati in an act of self-immolation. There is no other to whom to offer the sacrifice, no other to accept it. Prajapati is at the same time the sacrificer, the sacrifice (the victim), the one to whom the sacrifice is offered, and even the result of the sacrifice. Even more, as we shall see later on, sacrifice becomes the first Absolute.

Prajapati, being alone and self-sufficient, can have no external motivation impelling him to create the worlds. The texts, however, mention two factors that are not motives for action but indwelling principles of reality itself: kama and tapas, love and ardor. Whether reference is being made to the personalist tradition of Prajapati or to the nonpersonalist tradition of the One emerging from Nonbeing, it is invariably by means of these two powers that the creative process commences. Tapas is the primordial fervor, the original fire, the supreme concentration, the ultimate energy, the creative force that initiates the whole cosmic movement. Order and truth (rita and satya) were born from tapas. Furthermore, "desire [kama] was the original development [of the One] which was the first sowing [retas] of consciousness [manas]." Thus kama enters upon the scene. This love or desire cannot be a yearning toward any object; it is a concentration upon the Self and is related to tapas. Tapas incited by kama penetrates into the Self to the point of bursting asunder, of dismemberment.

Tapas and kama go together. Love is the fervor that imparts power to create and tapas is the energy of love which produces the world. "He desired: Can I multiply myself? Can I engender? He practiced tapas, he created the whole world, all that exists." But this world, once in existence, has its own destiny. This is the third act of the drama.


Whereas the first act of the drama has no actor, properly speaking, and the whole action is played behind the curtain, and whereas the second act has God as the actor, this third part presents Man as the hero. Prajapati, having created the world out of the self-sacrifice of himself, is exhausted, feeble, drained away, and on the point of death. He is no longer powerful and mighty; the universe has the possibility of escaping the power of God; it stands on its own. "Once engendered, the creatures turned their backs upon him and went away." They try to free themselves from the creator, but fall into chaos and disorder. If the universe has to subsist, God has to come again and penetrate the creatures afresh, entering into them for a second time. This second redeeming act, however, needs the collaboration of the creature. Here is the locus for Man's collaboration with the unique act of Prajapati which gives consistency and existence to the world. This is Man's place and function in the sacrifice.

This sacrifice is not just a kind of offering to God so that he may release to us what we have earned. On the contrary, it is the action by which we create and procreate along with God and reconstruct his Body. This action gathers the first material for the total yajna (sacrifice), not from animals, flowers, or whatever, but from the inmost depth of Man himself. It is the outcome of Man's urge to be in tune with that cosmic dynamism which enables the universe constantly to win over the power of Nonbeing. "That I may become everything!" is the cry that the Shatapatha Brahmana put not only into the mouth of Prajapati, but also into the heart of every being. This is the cry that every man will feel in face of the limitations of his own person and the small field of action in which he can operate. When confronted with himself, when beginning to enter into the poised state of contemplation, when at peace with himself and at the threshold of realization, Man has this tremendous desire to be this and that, to become this and that, to be involved in every process and to be present everywhere. It is not so much the hankering for power which drives Man, as some moralists would have us believe, much less a simply hedonistic urge; on the contrary, it is this existential desire to be and thus to be everything and, in the last instance, to Be, not just to share a part or to be present in a corner of the banquet of life and existence, but to be active at the very core of reality, in the divine center itself whence all emerges and is directed. "Let me have a self!" is another refrain. The wise Man, described time and again in the shruti, is not the escapist and unfriendly solitary, but the full Man who, having realized his own limitations, knows how to enter into the infinite ocean of sat, cit, and ananda, of being, consciousness, and joy.