As well as the great empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt in the West, another great civilization was emerging in the north-west Indian subcontinent in the East, situated in the Indus Valley . Indeed, the recently unearthed cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro show evidence that a race of people, known as the Dravidians, date as far back as 2500 BCE. Like the Mesopotamians, they too had their own primitive mythology which understood the nature of creation – an omnipresent absolute Being in which manifested the phenomenal universe.
Around 1500 BCE another race, originating from the steppe lands between the Dnieper and Volga rivers north of the Caspian and Black Seas , invaded India . Known as the Aryans, they brought with them their unique philosophical belief system, but which was intrinsically the same in its mystical basis. Moreover, they already had their own orally transmitted collection of devotional songs in praise of the Divine, collectively known as the Vedas (meaning ‘knowledge’).
Over time, both interpretations of the one universal truth would merge and develop into the complex religious system we now know as the Hindu faith (‘Hindu’ being a corruption of the name ‘Sindhu’, a major river in northern India ). Nevertheless, for many centuries, the two cultures developed independently: for the Dravidian population, the undifferentiated consciousness was known as Siva , or the male principle, and the creative spirit of the world, Shakti, or the female principle; for the Aryans, undifferentiated consciousness was called Brahman, or the Absolute, and the creative spirit, maya, or illusion. (Interestingly, a further classification would be made centuries later by the sage Kapila, who lived around 800 BCE; in his philosophical system of Samkhya, meaning ‘knowledge’, he makes his own distinction; undifferentiated consciousness was called Purusha, and the creative spirit was called Prakriti).
By the time the oral tradition was transcribed into written Sanskrit, it would combine the diversity of all the names and labels given to the unmanifest and manifest aspects of the universe from both cultures. Thus, during the period between 2000 BCE and 1000 BCE, various priests and legalists, sages and poets started to compile four distinct texts, namely the Rig Veda (composed of hymns), the Yajur Veda (sacrificial formulae), the Sama Veda (melodies) and the Atharva Veda (magical spells). It is the Rig Veda, consisting of 1,071 hymns divided into ten books or mandalas, which comprises the mystical wisdom of Oneness and the advaita doctrine of Vedanta (the philosophy contained at the end of the Vedas).
It is in book ten, the final mandala, of the Rig Veda, which describes the beginning of creation:
Then, neither the non-Real nor the Real existed.
There was no sky then, nor the heavens beyond it.
What was contained by what, and where, and who sheltered it?
What unfathomable depths, what cosmic ocean, existed then?
Then, neither death nor deathlessness existed;
Between day and night there was as yet no distinction.
That ONE by its own power breathlessly breathed.
In the beginning, darkness lay wrapped in darkness;
All was one undifferentiated sea.
Then, within that one undifferentiated existence,
Something arose by the heat of concentrated energy.
What arose in That in the beginning was Desire,
Which is the primal seed of mind.
The wise, having searched deep within their own hearts,
Have perceived the bond between the Real and the unreal.
They [the wise] have stretched the cord of their vision,
And they have perceived what is higher and lower:
The mighty powers are made fertile
By that ONE who is their Source . . .
Out of the undifferentiated Self, the manifested world is born into its myriad components – lightness and dark, mankind and beast, land and sea. Moreover, the complementary aspects of masculine and feminine also inaugurate themselves in a distinct pantheon of mythological creatures, goddesses and gods. And as with Mesopotamia and Egypt , the first forms of reverence focused on the sacred feminine. Indeed, terracotta figurines found in the Indus Valley show a highly developed Mother Goddess worship cult, which is reflected in the Vedic texts.
In the Rig Veda, she is the goddess Aditi, the ‘Deva Mata’, Mother of the Universe:
Aditi, Mighty Mother, true to Law, [was] brought forth . . .
Ye who have gathered up your gifts, celestial and terrestrial food,
Let your rain come to us fraught with the mist of heaven.
She is also Saraswati, a powerful river (usually associated with the Ganges ), originating in heaven and flowing down to earth, flooding the world with her celestial grace:
I sing a lofty song, for she is mightiest, most divine of Streams.
Saraswati will I exalt with hymns and lauds, and, Vasistha, Heaven and Earth.
When in the fullness of their strength the Purus dwell, Beauteous One, on thy two grassy banks,
Favour us . . .
And in the Atharva Veda, she is Prithivi, Mother Earth:
Truth, greatness, universal order, strength, consecration, creative fervour, spiritual exaltation, the sacrifice, support the earth. May this earth, the mistress of that which was and shall be, prepare for us a broad domain.
Many seers or rishis who composed their perennial philosophy in the Rig Veda were men but a number of poems are believed to have been written by women. In a time when women were of equal standing as their husbands and purdah and sati (or suttee) were not, as yet, common practice, they were eligible for study and initiation into the supreme knowledge. Out of ten identified, one woman in particular who conveys her mystical wisdom more profoundly than any other of her female contemporaries is the poetess, Vach.
Coincidentally sharing the same name as Vach, the goddess of learning (meaning ‘word’ and sometimes synonymous with Saraswati), little is known of her life except that she was the daughter of the sage, Ambhrina. Her beautiful description of absorption in the Source also occurs in the tenth mandala of the Rig Veda. Such is its power and emotional intensity that it is still chanted today and has come to be known as the Devi Sukta, a devotional song in praise of Devi, the generic Hindu name of the goddess:
I walk with the Rudras and the Vasus,
I, with the Adityas and all the gods;
I bear up the two, Mitra and Varuna,
I, Indra and Agni, I, the two Ashwins.
I sustain the pressed-out soma,
I, Twashtri, Pushan and Bhaga;
I give wealth to him that brings oblation,
To the worshipper devout, and him that presses soma.
I am the queen, the bestower of riches,
I was the first to know among the holy ones;
Me, the gods put in many places,
Making me enter and dwell abundantly.
By me, whoever eats food, and whoever sees,
Whoever breathes, and whoever hears what is said,
They dwell in me, though they know it not;
Listen, O wise, to thee I say what is true.
In whatever form she manifests, she proclaims, the universal ‘I’ pervades the entire universe. And this is the implicit message of the Rig Veda – duality in unity, phenomenon in noumenon, many in the One:
Verily I myself speak all this,
What is welcome to the gods and men;
Whoever I love I make strong,
I make him a Brahma, a sage and a seer.
I spread out the bow of Rudra for him
To slay the unbeliever with his arrow;
I make strife among the people;
I pervade all the earth and heaven.
I give birth to the father on the head of all this;
My source is in the midst of waters in the sea;
Thence I spread through all the worlds;
And touch this heaven with my eminence.
It is I who blow as the winds blow,
Taking hold of all the worlds;
Past heaven and past this earth
I have by greatness become such.
Again, like the poems of Enheduanna and hymns to Hatchepsut, Vach has created the image of a female power dancing amidst heaven and earth, wielding her bow of truth. She is the creatrix, the Shakti, the feminine aspect of the Divine. Other women who are also known to have been involved in the composition of the hymns of the Rig Veda include Lopmudra, Apala, Vishwavara, Sikata, Nivavari, Godha and Ghosha. Together, they sing of the sacrificial love of the Absolute and the passion of praising God’s myriad name.
As time moved on, the core nondualist teaching would be crystallized even further and find expression in the Upanishads, the philosophical appendages to each Veda. Literally meaning ‘sitting beneath’, the Upanishads are the crest jewel of mystical knowledge. Of the 108 Upanishads believed to exist and composed during the first millennium BCE, their common motif is the merging of the individual self (atman) with the universal Source (Brahman), through active contemplation, purity of heart and the simple grace of God. It is the dissolution into the all-pervading consciousness, says the Isa Upanishad, that release from the bondage of suffering and the bliss of ever-lasting peace can be found:
When a man or woman
Understands and knows
That the Self or Consciousness
Has become all that exists,
What possible trouble or sorrow
He or she who has seen
That seamless Unity?
Although the authorship of the Upanishads is unknown, many speak of feminine wisdom and none so beautifully as the Devi Upanishad:
‘Great goddess, who art thou?’
She replies: ‘I am essentially Brahman.
From me has proceeded the world comprising Prakriti and Purusha, the void and Plenum.
I am all forms of bliss and non bliss.
Knowledge and ignorance are Myself . . .
I am the entire world.
I am the Veda as well as what is different from it.
I am unknown. Below and above and around am I.’
It is the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, however, that speaks of the wisdom of two actual women: Gargi, daughter of the sage, Vachaknu, and Maitreyi, wife of the sage, Yajnavalkya. Like Vach, nothing more is known of their lives except that which is mentioned in the Upanishad. Both come to the understanding of the universal Brahman through their perseverance in the discovery of the ultimate understanding: Gargi, through her repeated questioning of the sage, Yajnavalkya, at a philosophical tournament held by King Janaka; and Maitreyi, wife of the same sage, Yajnavalkya, upon his departure to the forest and the settlement of his worldly affairs. It is only Maitreyi, out of both his wives, who asks about the nature of immortality:
‘Maitreyi!’ said Yajnavalkya, ‘Lo, verily, I am about to go forth from this state. Behold! Let me make a final settlement for you and that Katyayani [his second wife].’
Then said Maitreyi: ‘If now, sir, this whole earth filled with wealth were mine, would I be immortal thereby?’
‘No,’ said Yajnavalkya. ‘As the life of the rich, even so your life would be. Of immortality, however, there is no hope through wealth.’
Then Maitreyi said: ‘What should I do with that through which I may not be immortal? What you know, sir – that, indeed, tell me!’
Then said Yajnavalkya: ‘Ah! Lo, dear as you are to us, dear is what you say! Come, sit down. I will explain to you. But while I am expounding, do you seek to ponder thereon.’
Then said he: ‘Lo, verily, not for love of the husband is a husband dear, but for love of the Soul [atman] a husband is dear.
‘Lo, verily, not for love of the wife is a wife dear, but for love of the Soul a wife is dear.
‘Lo, verily, not for love of the sons are sons dear, but for love of the Soul sons are dear.
‘Lo, verily, not for love of the wealth is wealth dear, but for love of the Soul wealth is dear.
‘Lo, verily, not for love of Brahmanhood is Brahmanhood dear, but for love of the Soul Brahmanhood is dear.
‘Lo, verily, not for love of Kshatrahood [warrior caste] is Kshatrahood dear, but for love of the Soul Kshatrahood is dear.
‘Lo, verily, not for love of the worlds are the worlds dear, but for love of the Soul the worlds are dear.
‘Lo, verily, not for love of the gods are the gods dear, but for love of the Soul the gods are dear.
‘Lo, verily, not for love of the beings are beings dear, but for love of the Soul beings are dear.
‘Lo, verily, not for love of all is all dear, but for love of the Soul all is dear.
‘Lo, verily, it is the Soul that should be seen, that should be hearkened to, that should be thought on, that should be pondered on, O Maitreyi. Lo, verily, with the seeing of, with the hearkening to, with the thinking of, and with the understanding of the Soul, this world-all is known.’
Never before, or possibly since, has the mystical message been recorded in such a precise and profound way. And by honouring the feminine principle, harmony is kept in balance in a universe full of complements. In our contemporary times where the sexes vie for dominance, Vach and her sisters point to the underlying purpose that should be hearkened to, pondered upon – the understanding of the atman in which everything is ultimately known.
Indeed, India was one of the first great cultures to recognize the equality, and even supremacy, of the voice and form of the feminine. Indeed the Vedic period was a time when women had, on the whole, equal rights. However, as society expanded and became more and more sophisticated during the Upanishadic era, women’s position in society came increasingly under the governance of men. Texts like the Manu Smriti (‘The Laws of Manu’), a collection of instructions on how to order one’s life and compiled in approximately the third century BCE, still advocated the sacredness of the female form:
Women must be honoured and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law, who desire [their own] welfare.
Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards.
Nevertheless, Manu subsequently goes on to say that if a wife is barren, dishonourable or merely displeases her husband, she may be superseded at any time – a rule that does not appear to apply to the man. Unfortunately, these types of misogynistic attitudes towards women were starting to emerge in many other continents across the globe. Paradoxically, however, Indian society would continue to revere the concept of the feminine principle right up until modern times, which would act as a model that the rest of the developed world would eventually come to emulate.
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