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Water Element in Vedic Cosmogony

Usha R. Bhise

Speculations about the origin of the Universe have occupied considerable space in the primitive religions. Cosmogony may be defined as "attempts at finding out the common origin of the diverse phenomena of nature, in nature itself". Such speculations started - not from unknown principle - but from the tangible and knowable concrete.

Turning to the Vedic literature, we find that no single uniform cosmogonic theory had been formulated. The oldest monument of Indian literature, viz. the ╬gveda has various theories which are not mutually exclusive. Probing through Vedic literature, one comes across a process in the evolution of ideas. The various theories of cosmogony fall into three categories :


1.  The most  primitive ones begin with material principles like water, earth, fire, ether etc.

2.  Next come the abstract principles like chaos, time, night, desire, non-being etc. (However, asat only meant primordial non-differentiation).

3   In the latest stage of development we come across divine principles like Prajípati, Brahman, Vi┐vakarman etc.

A few more features of Vedic cosmogony may deserve mention here. According to ╬gveda, Creation is not a single definite act as it is ever-proceeding. Creation out of nothingness is practically unknown. Further, it does not have teleological significance. The Creator was not moved by any idea of executing a deliberate plan. Considering the theories of the first category mentioned above, one finds that only the material cause of the Universe is stated. They are silent about deities being the efficient cause. Out of the Five Great Elements, pĄthivó  and ap are the most tangible elements, tejas gets the next place. Even there, two concrete forms of it viz. the Sun and the fire get the privilege of being frequently mentioned in cosmogonical deliberations.

In the early Vedic cosmogony, the ap-tattva receives a good deal of attention. This was prompted, probably, by the historical background of the period. Frequent floods in the Indus Valley have influenced the thought-process of Vedic ╦ryans when they stated that water was the primordial substance out of which the Universe came into being (ambha┼ kimísód gahanaĂ gabhóram - ╬V, 10.129.1).

The Indus Valley appears to be a target of frequent floods. So also its extention viz. Lothal, Rangpur-Koth in Saurashtra. The accumulation of flood-debris at various sites is an evidence for the inundation of Mohen-jo-daro. The 12 meter-high hill of silt at Budh Takkar is the result of a great flood of long duration, almost a deluge, which must have turned the lower Indus Valley into  a vast lake. The Carbon-14 dates for the two great floods at Lothal are 2015 + 115 bc  and 1900 + 115 bc. The flood debris of the latest level of HR mound at Mohen-jo-daro is  assigned to 2000 bc. The flood in circa 1900 bc assumed such fierce proportion and was so prolonged and devastating that all the Harappan settlements in Saurí└Âra, Kutch and S. Gujarat were wiped out.

Speaking about creation from primal matter, we find that ap-tattva plays a  prominent role. To the ╬gvedic thinker, affected severely by frequent floods, water appeared to be the earliest element. In his thought-process what was prior temporally, must have worked like the cause of the Universe. No question is asked about the origin of waters. Even Vi┐vakarman was preceded by them. In the BríhmaŞas water is described as co-eval with Prajípati. The ßat. Br. (XI.1.6) states that it is preceded Prajípati. It was reasonable to Vedic people who saw land growing  out of accumulations of river-torn silt that water was the primary element and source of all that existed.

A striking feature of Vedic Cosmology is the distinction made between íp and salila, i.e., 'waters' and 'creative waters' respectively. The following pair of quotations will drive home this point :

          samudrajye└Âhí┼ salilasya madhyít puníní yantyanivi┐amíní┼ l

                                                                                ╬V, 7.49.1

The divine waters, "ípa┼  having ocean as their chief lord, go forth purifying (themselves, others) without encamping, from the middle of salila.

          ípo ha ví idamagre salilamevísa l

                                   ßat. Br., XI.1.6.

Before creation (agre) the waters (ípa┼) were salila.

The same text proceeds to say tí'kímayanta "Entertaining a desire (to create)" they practised tapas, as a result of which hiraŞyaya aŞĚa, was born. From it puru└a was produced and thereafter, Prajípati was created.

It also states - VI.1.1.8  sa┼ (prajapti┼) apo'sĄjata. Thus íp came at a late stage in the hierarchy of Creation. It was ordinary water created along with other diversities of the world, whereas, salila, preceded Prajípati who gets fifth place in the creative process as could be seen from the above passage.

The distinction between íp and salila lies in the fact that salila contains something in it which was beyond the ken of ordinary knowledge and which, later, was going to manifest itself as the world. This fact has been made clear by the Nísadóya hymn of the ╬gveda (10.129):

  1. ambha┼ kimísód gahanaĂ gabhóram

Was it water, deep and fathomless (i.e., beyond the limits of knowledge).

2. tucchyena abhvapihitaĂ yadísót

The emergent principle lay concealed by the worthless (water).

íbhu is that which is about to come into existence, the implication being that it has the energy necessary for coming into being. The same idea has been presented by the Bí└kalamantropani└at (V.14) as

 (sarasa┼ parasya) sarirasya madhye eti iva A

That which moves about, as it were, in the sarira, which is beyond the lake of the mid-regions.

Here the lake of mid-regions is the place of origin of rain showers, and thus, represents ordinary waters. Sarira exists beyond that. It contains something which is described as eti iva which is a sure reference to the principle which is capable of moving, i.e., endowed with energy that is necessary for movement. The words salila/sarira are derived from 'to move'. The energy itself is called tapas 'heat' or kíma 'desire'. The ability to know all this is possessed by kavis 'men of vision', through a process of knowledge which is not usual but may be described as intuitive (hĄdi prató└yí kavayo manó└í)

The following statements strengthen the proposition set up in the earlier paragraph:

1.       yaddeví ada┼ salile susaĂrabdhí ati└Âhata A

                                          ╬V, 10.72.6

When the gods were firmly established in this salila.

The hymn in which this occurs is a cosmogonical hymn which describes the genesis of gods and mortals from Aditi. The concept of Aditi stands for infinity, eternity, immensity, unbondage. She is all that is born and all that will be born (╬V, 1.89.10). In the present quotation salila stands for the womb of mother Aditi. The AV equates her with primal waters.

2.       salile eko dra└Âí'dvaito bhavati A

                             BĄ. Up., 4.3.32

There is one seer (i.e., a sentient principle) who is without a second in the  salila.

3.       sa evígni┼ salile saĂnivi└Âa┼

                                ßvet. Up., 6.15  

Sa┼ is the swan, Brahman who resides in salila as Agni. Agni may be equated to tapas 'heat'.

4.       Verily this world was salila. There, Prajípati was born alone on a                  lotus-leaf. In his mind desire (kíma) arose.   

                                                                            NĄ. Púrva. Up., 1.1

5.       pĄ┐ni┼  salilameva ca

                    Cúlikí Up., 13        

The idea of the presence of energy/heat in primal waters, later gave rise to the conception of vaĚavínala being present in waters. Apím Napít, according to Oldenberg, was originally a water-dragon. He, later   on, got identified with Agni because of latter's relation to the cloud-water in the form of lightning. The presence of lightning in the water-laden cloud gave rise to the concept of fire being a child who resides in the watery womb of cloud before its birth.

Thus, salila is the primordial substance containing the emergent world together with the energy necessary for emerging activity. However, the idea of water being the carrier of important entities continues to hold good even though there is no clear evidence that they are primal waters. To quote

          sa e└a apsu prati└Âhita┼ A

                           BĄ. Up., 1.2.1

          apsu puru└a┼ etaĂ brahmopíse A

                                BĄh. Up., 2.1.8

          apsu amĄtamaya┼ puru└a┼ A

                          BĄh. Up., 2.5.2

The word íp is sought to be explained as:

          ípo'pyíyanít A

             Mait. Up., 6.7.

Even at the stage of íp, energy in some form or the other is said to reside in it. Tejas in particular is intimately linked with water in this way. (Kau┐. Up., 4.2)

The Upani└adic philosophy which is quite advanced in its speculations regards only one entity as real and that is Brahman/╦tman. The Kau┐ Up. (4.10) presents an interesting dialogue between Bílíki and King Ajíta┐atru. Therein Bílíki tries to establish that the Puru└a, i.e., the sentient principle underlying various entities like the Sun, the Moon etc. is Brahman. Ajíta┐atru refutes, one after the other, the statements of Bílíki which take the form like ya evai└a íditye puru└astamevíhamupíse itiA Ajíta┐atru denies all such statements made about moon, lightning, thunder, sky, wind, fire, water, mirror, echo, sound, shadow, bodily puru└a, príjÁa ítman, puru└a in the right eye and the one in the left eye. After silencing Bílíki, Ajíta┐atru takes him to a sleeping royal personage and, there, addresses him as "O príŞa clad in waters". But he does not wake up, since he, the jóvítmí was different from príŞa. The lesson which Ajíta┐atru tries to teach is that príŞa is clad in waters but is not the ultimate reality.

The idea of water being the clothing of príŞa is also found in the Chí.Up. (5.2.2) in the famous dialogue between the sense-organs and vital breath. It is also called the body of príŞa. (BĄ. Up., 1.5.13: príŞasya ípa┼ ┐aróram~)

There is an interesting piece of conversation between King SatyayajÁa and BuĚila, the son of A┐vatarí┐va. Herein (Chí. Up., 5.16.1) the king asks BuĚila  as to the ╦tman which is meditated upon by him. He replies that it is ípa┼. Thereupon, the King remarks that this ítman is known as Rayi ╦tmí Vai┐v"ínara. Hence, BuĚila is wealthy and strong. This remark is important for two reasons. The first one is that it implies the identity between ípa┼ and Vai┐vínara "the fire which resides in all the human beings". The idea of water getting transformed into Vai┐vínara lies at the basis of the identity. The second reason why it is important is the relation between rayi 'wealth' and waters, rayi is, in fact, the outcome of the upísaní of íp. This is a case of the object of upísaní being identified with its fruit. For the sake of upísaní, waters are also found to be identified with Brahman (Chí. Up., 7.10.1).

Upani└adic philosophers were aware of "matter being indestructible". The so-called disappearance of matter was only its transformation into something else. Thus, the drying up of water meant its transformation into víyu, (yad ípa ucchu└yati víyumeva apiyanti - Chí. Up., 4.3.2).

Water gets transformed into puru└a 'human being' through five successive stages. This truth has been expressed through the metaphor of a sacrifice : paÁcamyím íhutív ípa┼ puru└avacaso bhavanti (Chí. Up., 5.3.3). Sacrifice was a salient feature of the Vedic culture; hence, the cosmic activity itself was viewed as a great sacrifice. The five oblations (íhuti) offered into five fires may be stated in a tabular form as:


Fire (Agni)  Oblation (íhuti) Product/Fruit
Dyuloka ßraddhí   King Soma
Parjanya Soma Var└í  (showers)
PĄthivó  Vír└a Anna
Puru└a Anna Reta┼
Yo└í Reta┼ Garbha

Herein, the product of the earlier íhuti becomes the íhuti of the next stage. After the fifth oblation waters get the designation of puru└a.

The transformation of water which is drunk by a person  is threefold. (Chí. Up., 6.5.2) The gross part of water is turned into wine, the medium part into blood and the subtle part into príŞa. The subtle part (aŞiman) of water rises up and becomes príŞa (Chí. Up., 6.6.3). In support of the transformation of water into príŞa, it is said that if a person does not eat for a fortnight but drinks water to his heart's content, his príŞa  does not get cut off (vicchinna) (Chí. Up., 6.7.1). The moon is the brilliant form of water (BĄ. Up., 1.5.13). The ┐ara 'scum', of water formed itself into the earth. (BĄ. Up., 1.2.2).

Resorting to the metaphor of a tree (Chí. Up., 6.8.3,4,6) it is said that  sat 'existence' is the root of which tejas is the sprout (┐u┤ga). Tejas in its turn becomes the root of which íp (water) is the sprout, íp in its turn becomes the root of which anna is the sprout. Taitt. Up., 3.8.1. identified Agni with íp.

This very fact is presented in a slightly different mode in which sat, tejas and íp are conceived as sentient beings capable of thinking and entertaining desires (Chí. Up., 6.2.3). The sat thought that it should be manifold: it created tejas. Then, tejas thought that it should be manifold; it created water. Then water thought that it should be manifold; it created food. Taitt. Up., 2.1.1 states that water was produced from fire and the earth was produced from water. Yet another passgae in Chí. Up. (6.4.1) states that tejas, íp and anna are but three forms of Agni having three colours red, white and black respectively.

Keeping in view the principle of transformation the waters are called o└adhis and vanaspatis. (Taitt. Up., 1.3.2)

Once ípa┼ are conceived to be sentient beings who can think, entertain desires and resolve (i.e., have sa┤kalpa) (Chí. Up., 7.4.2), it is only a step forward to regard them as devatís. ╦p  is deified as early as the most ancient strata of the ╬gveda (7.49). They are invoked as purifiers (puníní┼ V.1; ┐ucayah, V.2.3; pívakí┼ V.3) with a request to favour the poet-seer. The favour consists of purifying the supplicant both physically and metaphorically by getting rid of the sin. Since they purify themselves as well as others VaruŞa, the moral governor, is said to reside in them (1.25.10). Agni Vai┐vínara is also said to have entered them. As a corollary to the rivers in general and Sarasvati in particular they are regarded as holy and divine.

Water thus plays a prominent role in Vedic cosmogony. The genesis of the Universe takes place in the primeval water. Once the chaotic condition existing before the genesis is overcome through creative process, the emergent one abhu emerges into an orderly cosmos. Thereafter, water-element ap-tattva appears as one of the products of creative process. It has a role to play in the further development of the Universe through its transformations.

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