The Nāsadīya Sūkta is the 129th sUkta in the 10th Mandala of the Rg Veda. It is one among many Sūktas that talk about the nature of the self and the body, as well as the nature of the Supreme Brahman. Curiously, there are some who seem to believe it is “atheistic” or “agnostic” based on the questions posed by the last few rks.
Such a notion is patently absurd, for the entire corpus of shruti and smriti is uniform in thought according to Vedanta and there are no contradictions. Therefore, this write-up endeavors to explain the meanings of this Sūkta in accordance with the Vishishtadvaita school of Vedanta, to impart ample clarity on the subject matter.
nāsadāsīn no sadāsīt tadānīṃ nāsīd rajo no vyomāparo yat |
Meaning: Neither matter nor the individual selves existed (in gross forms). There was no Universe which consists of the objects of enjoyment, no body (which is the vehicle for experiencing the objects of enjoyment) or the individual self which is different to that (the enjoyer).
“Asat” refers to insentient matter which is always changing due to its’ perishable nature. “Sat” refers to the individual selves which are unchangeable and hence, imperishable, thus called real.
As an example, consider a mud pot. If the pot is broken down to mud, the “pot” no longer exists. However, it does not mean it is unreal, but merely indicates a change in state from “pot” to “mud”. Thus, perishability and changeability of matter is indicated by referring to it as “asat”. In contrast, the individual self (Jivatma) is knowledge-bliss by nature, imperishable and unchangeable and hence is “sat”.
This is reiterated by the Vishnu Purana as follows:
evaṃ vyavasthite tattve mayāham iti bhāṣitum /pṛthakkaraṇaniṣpādyaṃ śakyate nṛpate katham // (~vishNu purANa 2.13.100)
Meaning: That entity which is never changed or modified by a change in time etc., is real! What is that entity, O King? (It is the jīvātman who retains its knowledge).
Prior to creation, both matter (Asat) and the individual selves (Sat) existed in a subtle form, devoid of name and form. Here, they did exist, but not in a distinguishable form and that is implied by saying “they did not exist”. Something cannot be created from nothing and according to Vedanta, everything is eternal with “creation” being a mere assumption of differentiation into names and forms.
The first part of this declares there is no sat or asat. The next part now explains the meaning of this statement, ie, that the lack of sat or asat pertains to a lack of gross forms such as the Universe and embodied selves.
The Universe is referred to as “rajas” as it is comprised of objects of enjoyment that cause passion which is the root of desire for their experience. Alternatively “rajas” means “sin” or “dirt” and it again refers to the Universe which is the abode of beings associated with karmas.
“vyomā” meaning “waters” indicates subtle elements and hence the body is made of these elements. “paro yat” – The embodied self which is the enjoyer, is other (parah) than the objects of enjoyment and the body which is the vehicle for experiencing the sense objects. The idea is, all these did not exist in a state that is distinguishable from one another.
kimāvarīvaḥ kuha kasya śarmannambhaḥ kimāsīd ghahanaṃ ghabhīram || 1 ||
Meaning: What covered (the knowledge of the individual self)? Where (is its’ origin)? In whose refuge (did they exist thus)? How did the Supreme Brahman whose body is the waters (the Universe) exist, whose greatness is unfathomable, whose nature is difficult to grasp?
“kimāvarīvaḥ” – Meaning, what is the covering that obstructs the attributive knowledge (dharma-bhUta-jnAna) of the individual self? It is avidyA or ignorance born of karmas.
“kuha” –Meaning, where did this avidyA or ignorance brought about by karmas originate from? It means, “Where is the beginning of the cycle of births and deaths?”
“kasya sharmann” – Whose refuge did they exist in? They existed in Narayana, the Supreme Brahman. Vide the Brahma Vaivarta Purana,
nārāṇām ayanam yasmāttasmān-nārāyaṇah smrtah (~brahma vaivarta purāṇa)
Meaning: He is to be called Narayana because he is the abode or refuge of the “naras” or imperishables.
“ambhaḥ kimāsīd ghahanaṃ ghabhīram” – “ambhaḥ” refers to the Lord who has the Universe signified by “waters” as his body. Since the previous line established that he is the refuge of the Universe, it is now saying this is by virtue of the Universe being his body. Just as “I am a man” denotes the self having a man’s body, similarly, referring to Brahman as “ambhaḥ” means he has the waters (Universe) as his body. The Brihadāraṇyaka Upanishad states thus, “yasya prithvi śarīram…” (the Earth is his body). The term “waters” here denotes the subtle elements and hence the Universe constituted of these elements.
Who is that Brahman who is “gahanam” or beyond the intellect? He is inside all of us, and yet we do not recognize his presence as per the Brihadāraṇyaka Upanishad 5.7.3 – “yah prthivyās tiśthan yam prthivī na veda” —He who is in the Earth but whom the Earth does not know….
Who is that Narayana who is “gabhira” or deep, mysterious or inscrutable? Just as the water of the Ocean is clear, but we cannot see the Ocean floor, similarly though the Supreme Brahman may be easy to realize because of being revealed in the Upanishads, it is difficult to grasp his essential nature. His greatness cannot be comprehended in entirety. If the individual selves tainted by ignorance become cleansed of such ignorance on mere contact with him, that only provides an inkling of his true greatness, which cannot be explained fully.
The rishi mārkandeya who was blessed with eternal life expresses his astonishment at the inscrutable nature of Lord Vishnu in the mahAbhArata as follows, when during the cosmic dissolution, he sees the Lord as a baby floating on a leaf in the cosmic deluge:
katham nu ayam ṣiṣuh ṣete loke nāṣam upāgate । tapasā cintayanṣcāpi tam ṣiṣum nopalakśaye ॥ (~ Mahabharata, Vana Parva -191-94)
Meaning: “When the entire Universe has met with destruction, how come this child is alive and lying down (on a leaf)? Even though I try to understand this through the power of my austerities, I am unable to understand the true nature of this child”.
The names “gabhiro gahanah” occur in the Vishnu Sahasranama.
The subsequent portion of the Nāsadīya Sūkta endeavors to answer all these questions, starting with the next rk.
This rk answers the question,” ambhaḥ kimāsīd ghahanaṃ ghabhīram” – How did the Supreme Brahman who has the Universe as his body exist prior to creation.
na mṛtyurāsīdamṛtaṃ na tarhi na rātryā ahna āsītpraketaḥ |
Meaning: Then there was no transmigration or liberation from the cycle of births and deaths at that time. Then there was no distinction of day or night.
“mṛtyu” means death and signifies the cycle of births and deaths. “amṛta” refers to moksha or liberation. Neither of these are possible in the subtle state of the jIva prior to shṛṣti as it did not have the gross body to perform sAdhana or actions needed for these to happen. Everything is a primordial soup of sentient selves and matter in a subtle state indistinguishable from each other.
“na rātryā ahna āsītpraketaḥ” – There was no distinction of day or night. In other words, this kind of differentiation in the form of divisions of day and night was not there.
Meaning: That matchless principle (tadekaṃ) existed unconstrained by time (ānīda), unaffected by changes (avātaṃ), by his own will (svadhayā).
During this state, both sentients and insentients are in subtle form, indistinguishable from each other. Thus, matter has undergone transformation from gross to subtle form. The individual selves, though being unchanging in their essential nature, have underwent changes in their attributive knowledge due to karmas.
However Narayana alone exists unchanging, unperturbed by changes, unaffected by anything, purely by his own will. In contrast, matter and the individual selves depend on his will to exist.
“ekaṃ” means he is of a unique nature or matchless.
“ānīda” – breathing – means living, to exist. In present context, it means one who is not constrained by time. Despite Bhagavān using Time as an instrument to ensure that matter and individual selves go through the cycle of creation and destruction, he himself is not constrained by it. Thus he is older than the oldest. The nāma “sthavirah” in the sahasranāma conveys this.
“avātaṃ” – untroubled by the changes such as creation and destruction. So, this means Brahman is devoid of karmas that cause susceptibility to such changes of time.
“svadhāya” signifies that it is by his own will, as he has no support but is the support of all.
tasmāddhānyan na paraḥ kiṃ canāsa || 2 ||
Meaning: On account of this, that (the indistinguishable subtle form of Jīvās and Matter) which was different than (the Supreme Brahman), was not other than him whatsoever (ie, everything was dependent on him).
The rk concludes by saying, on account of the Supreme Brahman existing in such a manner, as the regulator of time, matter and the individual selves but himself being unaffected by time, that which is different to him (the Jīvās and matter) is not other than him — it means, everything is inseparably associated with him as his body and his dependants.
What is meant here is that everything is his body and hence dependent on, supported by and existing solely for the sake of Bhagavān. When we say “Only Devadutta is here”, it refers to Devadutta’s body and the self inside the body; similarly when we say “Only Brahman exists” – it is meant he exists with everything else as his body. It does not mean nothing other than him exists, but that everything exists dependent on him.
Just as “Devadutta” refers to two entities (body and self) as one, similarly, for the statement “Nothing other than Brahman”, the term “Brahman” denotes Brahman as the self of its body (the Jīvās and matter), the latter being dependent on him.
Everything depends on his will to exist, while he doesn’t require any external support to exist himself.
Both these rks endeavor to answer the question “kimāvarīvaḥ” – What covered (the knowledge of the individual self)?
tama āsīt tamasā ghūḷamaghre.apraketaṃ salilaṃ sarvamāidam |
Meaning: Prior to creation, the individual self subject to deaths (and births) was concealed by darkness which is ignorance born of karmas. All this (sentients and insentients) was indistinguishable water (ie, in subtle form).
The Brihadāraṇyaka Upanishad states that “tamah” is a term for mrityu or death. Thus, “mrtyu” which is expressed as “tamah” here refers to the individual self which as it is closely associated with deaths (and births) in samsārā. Just as we say “This is a man” because of the self’s inseparable association with a man-body, similarly, the self is associated with deaths when embodied and hence is called “death”.
This self was concealed by ignorance born of karmas known as “tamas” which veiled its’ attributive knowledge (dharma-bhūta-jnāna). This attributive knowledge was contracted in the same way the luster of a gem is hidden by dirt, rendering the self indistinguishable from matter.
Since the attributive knowledge of the self was veiled, prior to shṛshti or differentiation into gross forms, both prakrti and jIvās, which are two distinct entities, are indistinguishable in their subtle states. Thus all the sentient selves were indistinguishably associated closely with the insentient Universe in a subtle form.
tuchyenābhvapihitaṃ yadāsīt tapasastanmahinājāyataikam || 3 ||
Meaning: Then, that immense power which was the individual self, which existed (independently of the body), was enclosed by the body void of knowledge. That incomparable (individual self), was born (ie, embodied) by the power of the will (of the Supreme Brahman).
The individual self is referred to here as “abhva” or having immense power on account of having doership (kartrtva). “yadāsīt” means it is capable of existing independently of the body.
This self was enclosed by the body which is called “tuccha” on account of being void or empty of knowledge or sentience. Note that though “self” and “body” are in singular, they denote a class or category consisting of the pluraility of identical selves in several bodies.
“tapasastanmahinājāyataikam” – The self which is incomparable as per Gita 2.29, became associated with a body due to will of Brahman. The mundakopanishad says “yasya jnānamayam tapah” – “Tapas” means “knowledge”. Here, the “knowledge” is in the form of thinking or willing, or sankalpa. Thus, it refers to the will of Brahman by which the selves were associated with bodies based on karma.
kāmastadaghre samavartatādhi manaso retaḥ prathamaṃ yadāsīt | sato bandhumasati niravindan hṛdi pratīṣyākavayo manīṣā || 4 ||
Meaning: Desire arose in that (individual self) in the beginning (prior to action), which (desire) is the foremost cause of the mind (which is its’ instrument). The individual self’s inseparable association with the body is discovered by the intelligent seers who seek with their mind (ie, via meditation).
The embodied self in the beginning felt a desire to experience the objects of enjoyment. This desire, for which mind is the instrument, drives the activities of the embodied self. On consequence of such activities, the self accumulates karmas and experiences pain and pleasure.
“retaḥ” means seed which in turn means “cause”. The mind is the effect of desire as it is goaded by the latter to overpower the self, making it turn away from true knowledge and indulge in experience of sense objects. The self identifies itself with the body on account of this. The third chapter of the Bhagavad Gita discusses this (Gita 3.42).
This fully answers the question, “what covers the individual self” – The previous rk declared that prior to creation, the self was enveloped avidya on account of karmas, whereas this rk establishes that it is desire that drives one to actions that result in accumulation of karmas.
However, the same mind, when subdued by the seers who possess discriminatory knowledge of the perishable nature of sense objects, is used via meditation to understand the self is inseparably associated with the body and hence, distinct from the body. The error of mistaking the body as the self is dispelled in this manner, by understanding that it is the inseparable association of two distinct entities (self and body).
kavayo manīṣā – “kavi” means the ability to meditate on the self and perceive it in the mind. “manīṣā” refers to the possession of discriminatory knowledge regarding the body and the self.
“hṛdi” here refers to the mind and not heart. The same mind, when desire is subdued, is used to understand the self as opposed to pursuing sense objects.
This rk endeavors to answer the question-kasya śarmann – In whose refuge did the individual selves exist thus? It refers to the means by which Narayana, the Supreme Brahman, protects the Universe.
tiraścīno vitato raśmireṣāmadhaḥ svidāsī.a.a.at | retodhāāsan mahimāna āsan svadhā avastāt prayatiḥ parastāt || 5 ||
Meaning: The Supreme Being (Narayana) of the form of luster, is spread out (ie, pervading everywhere). What (parts of him) indeed is below (in the worlds of births and deaths) then, and what (part of him) indeed is above (in the supreme abode)? There exist the establishers of the Universe (the vyūhās), the glories (the vibhava forms) and the self-established (antaryāmin in all beings) below and the One who bestows himself (paravāsudeva) above.
Here, “raśmi” means luster, which refers to the Supreme Brahman of the form of light (jyoti). That Lord is spread out everywhere as he pervades all. The rk describes his avatārās existing in samsāra as well as in paramapadā which is denoted by “above” and “below”. That is proven by the Purusha Sukta statement as well which says “ajāyamāno bahudha vijāyate” (unborn, he takes many births). As below:
“retodhā” – The term “retas” means “vikāra” or change and refers to the Universe which is characterized by change. The vyūha avatārās of Bhagavān Vishṇu – Aniruddha, Pradyumna and Sankarshana – are involved in its’ creation, preservation and destruction, thus they are referred to here as establishers of the Universe.
“mahimāna” – This refers to vibhūtīs and hence to all the vibhava avatārās of Vishṇu, the Supreme Brahman – the pūrṇāvatārās like Narasimha, Rama, Krishna, Hayagriva etc, the Aveṣa-avatārās like Brahma, Rudra, Vyasa, Parashurama, Balarama, Manus, Rishis, etc. It also refers to his forms in temples (archa-avatārā) which are included here.
“svadhā” (svidāsi) – The self-established, which refers to the antaryāmin forms in the hearts of all living beings. As the antaryAmin supports all beings but does not have anyone else for its’ own support, it is referred to by this name. Plurality indicates the antaryāmis in all entities.
The Lord inhabiting the Supreme Abode is called “prayatih” or “gift” – As he bestows himself to the liberated selves for experience of his auspicious attributes. This is the Para-Vāsudeva rūpa.
This rk endeavors to answer the question- kuha” – Meaning, where did this avidyA or ignorance brought about by karmas originate from? It means, “Where is the beginning of the cycle of births and deaths?” .
ko addhā veda ka iha pra vocat kuta ājātā kuta iyaṃvisṛṣṭiḥ | arvāg devā asya visarjanenāthā ko veda yataābabhūva || 6 ||
Meaning: Who knows truly and who here (in this world) can explain, how (the karmas causing births and deaths) were produced and from where this creation with manifold differences came about? By the abandoning of this (knowledge), the individual selves (devas) are within (this Samsārā). Then, who knows from where (this cycle of births and deaths) first came into being?
Samsārā is the cycle of births and deaths, which is beginningless. There has never been a particular point in time, when the individual self was caught in samsAra; rather, the self has been transmigrating in births and deaths eternally.
How did karmas attach to the individual self which ties it to rebirths? It is impossible to ascertain which action led to which karma. Similarly, how did the individual selves which are identical in nature, acquire different inclinations (ruchis) based on their karma-vāsaṇās to become differentiated so greatly as gods, men, etc.?
Births and Deaths are caused by karma-vāsaṇās, which in turn arise due to specific actions, which are again brought about by previous karmas in a beginningless cycle. It is impossible to determine when particular karma-vAsaNas attached themselves to the svabhāva of the individual self, causing particular births and deaths, and at what point the individual selves diversified into gods, men etc. This is the idea.
If one does not know from where these karmas and ruchis causing diversified creation arose, one also cannot say exactly when the cycle of births of deaths arose. Thus, Samsārā is beginningless.
“devās” here refer to the innumerable individual selves that are self-luminous (deva means to “shine”). “visarjana” refers to abandonment, ie, forsaking the knowledge of their true natures of being imperishable and being distinct from the bodies which are perishable. “arvāg” refers to being within samsārā. Thus, these individual selves are in no position to understand the origin of their plight considering they are not even aware of the knowledge that they are by nature distinct from the bodies subject to births and deaths.
The rk disposes of the idea that the Jīvās in samsārā can know the origin of their transmigration. But what about the Supreme Brahman, who is the Cause of all Causes? Does he know? The next rk addresses this.
iyaṃ visṛṣṭiryata ābabhūva yadi vā dadhe yadi vā na | yo asyādhyakṣaḥ parame vyoman so aṅgha veda yadi vā naveda || 7 ||
Meaning: He from whom this manifold creation of gods, men etc arose, whether he gives (liberation) or whether he may not, he who is the Master of this (samsārā), in the highest abode, he verily knows (the origin of transmigration), or else he does not.
Brahman is the Supreme Cause of the Universe, and therefore the cycle of births and deaths are maintained by him. But as this cycle is eternal, he is not responsible for the state of the jīvās. As he maintains the cycle of births and deaths, he possesses the power to liberate those individual selves who have exhausted their puṇya and pāpa karmas, and not to liberate those who still possess karmas.
The rk infers that if there is anyone who might know whether there was a beginning to the cycle of births and deaths, it can only be the omniscient Brahman dwelling in the highest abode, untouched by samsārā, but yet is the One controlling samsāra. But then, it concludes by saying, “maybe he does not know”?
The idea is that ultimately, even the Lord does not know when it all began. Because there simply was no beginning to the cycle of births and deaths, and as there is no beginning, it is not possible to know the origin.
But does this not undermine Brahman’s omniscience? Not so. “Omniscience” is defined as knowing all that can be known. This means, knowing whatever exists. What does not exist, cannot be known, simply as it is non-existent. For example, consider the question, “What is the length of a rabbit’s horns”? The answer is that it is impossible to know the length of the horns because a “horned rabbit” does not exist in the first place. Therefore, Brahman is omniscient in the sense of knowing all that exists and which is to be known. The beginning of samsārā is a non-existent thing and cannot be known.
Thus, the rk concludes that the cycle of births and deaths is beginningless, but liberation is provided by Narayana, the Supreme Brahman. The anāditva or beginningless nature of karmas and existence within samsara is established in this manner and not anything else.
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(This article was published by IndiaFacts in 2018)
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