Vedic Experience / Hymn of the Origins

Translation and commentary Raimon Pannikar  Vedic Experience

Nasadiya Sukta

The vision of this hymn comes out of a profound insight into the mystery of reality. It is the product of a mystical experience that far transcends the limits of logical thinking; it is a religious chant--for only in music or poetry can such a message be conveyed--invoking in splendid verses the Primal Mystery that transcends all categories, both human and divine. This hymn, while trying to plumb the depths of the mystery, formulates no doctrinal system but expresses itself by means of a rich variety of different symbols related to the one single insight. The hymn, in fact, presents an extraordinary consistency, which is patent only to the contemplative mind; in the absence of this latter, however, it is bound to appear either as syncretistic or as agnostic, as has in fact been sometimes asserted.

We are dealing here, in the first place, not with a temporal cosmogonic hymn describing the beginning of creation, or even with an ontological theogony, or with a historical description concerning the formation of the Gods or even of God. It is not the description of a succession of stages through which the world has passed. The starting point of the hymn is not a piece of causal thinking seeking the cause of this world or of God or the Gods, but rather an intuitive vision of the whole. This hymn does not attempt to communicate information but to share a mystical awareness that transcends the sharpest lines of demarcation of which the human mind is capable: the divine and the created, Being and Nonbeing. It seeks to give expression to the insight of the oneness of reality which is experienced as being so totally one that it does not need the horizon of nonreality or the background of a thinking process to appear in its entire actuality. This oneness is so radically one that every distinction is overcome; it is that unutterable and unthinkable process that "sees" all that is and is-not, in its utmost simplicity, which is, of course, not a jnana, a gnosis, but an ignorance, an interrogation. The One is not seen against any horizon or background. All is included. All is pure horizon. There are no limits to the universal or, for that matter, to the concrete.

The first verse brings us straightaway to the heart of the mystery and is composed of a series of questions. Neither an affirmation nor a negation is capable of carrying the weight of the ultimate mystery. Only the openness of an interrogation can embrace what our mere thinking cannot encompass. The Ultimate is neither real nor nonreal, neither being nor nonbeing, and thus neither is nor is-not; the apophatism is total and covers everything, even itself: "darkness was wrapped in darkness."

Being as well as Nonbeing, the Absolute (or Ultimate) as well as the Beginning, are contradictory concepts when applied to the primordial mystery. "Absolute" means unrelatedness, and when we speak or think about it we are negating that character. "Ultimate" points toward the end of a process that has no "after," and "Beginning" toward a point that has no "before." But what is to prevent our thinking a "previous" to the Beginning and a "beyond" to the Ultimate, unless our mind artificially imposes a limit on its thinking or bursts in the effort? If we think "Being" we cannot be prevented from thinking "Nonbeing" also, and so the very concept of an all-including "Being" which does not include "Nonbeing" defeats its own purpose. Indeed, a metaphysician might say that "Nonbeing" is a nonentity and an unthinkable concept; yet the fact remains that at least on the level of our thinking the concept of "Being" cannot include its contradiction. This verse tells us that the primordial mystery cannot be pinpointed to any idea, thing, thought, or being. It is primarily neither the answer to a set of riddles nor the object of current metaphysical speculations concerning the how or the why of creation. It is beyond thinking and Being. The symbol of water is the most pertinent one: the primordial water covers all, supports all, has no form of its own, is visible and invisible, has no limits, pervades everything, it is the first condition of life, the place of the original seed, the fertilizing milieu.

The seer then continues by a series of negatives: there was neither death nor nondeath, nor any distinction between day and night. All the opposites, including the contradictories, are on this side of the curtain. At this point we have not yet reached Being and thus we have not yet the possibility of limiting Being by Nonbeing.

This One is not even a concept. It is not a concept limit like truth, goodness, beauty, and similar concepts when applied to the Absolute; it is rather the limit of a concept, unthinkable in itself and yet present on the other side of the curtain as the necessary condition for the very existence and intelligibility of everything. Whereas the concepts of being, goodness, truth, and the like admit degrees of approximation to the fullness of that to which they refer, the One does not. There are degrees of being, of goodness, of truth. There are no degrees of oneness. The One represents the peak of mystical awareness, which India developed later in her Advaitic philosophy, and the West in Trinitarian theology.

Darkness and emptiness are also symbols of the first moment. This darkness is not, however, the moral or even the ontological darkness of the world, but the primordial darkness of the Origin. The negative as well as the positive aspect of existence belongs to the Ultimate. Evil and good, the positive and the negative, both are embraced in the One that encompasses everything. Now, to cancel darkness by darkness, is it not to let the light shine forth? Furthermore, it is said that desire, love, fervor, were the dynamic forces that brought reality to a temporal process of originating something out of something. Out of nothing nothing can come. Nothingness is not previous to, but coextensive with Being. The source of Being is not another Being or anything that can be considered as being an origin out of which things come to be. The process, according to the intuition of the Vedic rishi, is one of concentration, of condensation, of an emergence by the power of love. This love cannot be a desire toward "something" that does not exist, or even a desire coming out of a nonexisting Being. It is this very concentration that originates the Self which is going to be and have that love. Primordial love is neither a transitive nor an intransitive act; it is neither an act directed toward the other (which in this case does not exist) nor an act directed toward oneself (which in this case is also nonexistent), but it is the constitutive act by which existence comes into being. Without love there is no being, but love does not happen without ardor or tapas. It is fervor, tapas, that makes the being be; they are not separable. The relation between kama, desire and love, on the one hand, and tapas, ardor and heat, on the other, is one of the universal cosmic laws linking Being and the whole realm of beings.

The poets, those sages who seek to penetrate the mystery of reality, discover in Nonbeing the gravitational center of Being; only when this is realized can the cord that differentiates them be extended. The rope connecting Being and Nonbeing is the ultimate rope of salvation.

The two last stanzas voice several agonized queries and give expression to a deep-rooted unextirpable uncertainty for which no reply is vouchsafed, because reality is still on the move and any definite answer would preclude its constant newness. This insight brings us again to that ultimate level where the One is situated. From that depth the sage expresses the most fundamental question about the essential and existential enigma of the universe:
What, he asks, is the origin of this universe, of all this, idam? Who, or what, is its purpose, its end, its direction? It cannot be the Gods, for they themselves belong on this side of the curtain. Nobody can know what is the very foundation of knowing, nor can anyone say that it is not known. This latter assumption would amount to being biased in favor of a certain negative theology or philosophy. To say that we do not know can be as assertive as to say that we do know. The last question is not the expression of a renunciation of knowledge or a declaration of agnosticism, which would here amount to a dogmatic affirmation, but the declaration that the problem--and not only the answer--is beyond the subject and object of knowledge itself. Only he who is beyond and above everything many know--or he may not, for how may there be any assurance concerning it? It is not only that we know that we do not know, which would then be mere pretending, but that we really do not know even if it is at all knowable by any possible knowledge. The hymn concludes with this query, this constitutive uncertainty which is of infinite magnitude, because we are all involved in it. To answer the query would amount to killing the very unfolding of reality. It is the openness of this interrogation which allows the universe to emerge and to exist.

Nasadiya Sukta

1. At first was neither Being nor Nonbeing.
There was not air nor yet sky beyond.
What was its wrapping? Where? In whose protection?
Was Water there, unfathomable and deep?
2. There was no death then, nor yet deathlessness;
of night or day there was not any sign.
The One breathed without breath, by its own impulse.
Other than that was nothing else at all.
3. Darkness was there, all wrapped around by darkness,
and all was Water indiscriminate. Then
that which was hidden by the Void, that One, emerging,
stirring, through power of Ardor, came to be.
4. In the beginning Love arose,
which was the primal germ cell of the mind.
The Seers, searching in their hearts with wisdom,
discovered the connection of Being in Nonbeing.
5. A crosswise line cut Being from Nonbeing.
What was described above it, what below?
Bearers of seed there were and mighty forces,
thrust from below and forward move above.
6. Who really knows? Who can presume to tell it?
Whence was it born? Whence issued this creation?
Even the Gods came after its emergence.
Then who can tell from whence it came to be?
7. That out of which creation has arisen,
whether it held it firm or it did not,
He who surveys it in the highest heaven,
He surely knows or maybe He does not!