MAN IN NATURE
The Vedic Sources of Hindu Creation Myth
Natalia R. Lidova
|The Mahabharata presents
the Amrtamanthana myth — one of the essential in Hindu mythology
— as a detailed and consecutive narration, though the earlier tradition
has not yet revealed its precedents. Vedic literature do not mention the
cosmogonic act, which divided the soil from the water, stated a new order
of things and created fabulous treasures. Many hypotheses sought to
explain this conspicuous gap, one by G. Dumezil,1 major student of
Indo-European mythology, who drew on Scandinavian, Celtic, Greek, Latin
and Persian materials to reconstrue the archetypal basis of the myth,
which he traced to the archaic rites of spring, widespread among
Indo-Europeans. He derived the idea of the elixir of immortality to the
sacral drink used at festivals — wine in Greece, and soma or haoma
with Indo-Aryans. In the extremely extensive mythological context used
by Dumezil, the Mahabharata myth is a mere example to illustrate
global structures. The scholar saw it as old enough to reflect archaic
Indo-European ideas, and sought to demonstrate that the conspicuous
silence of the Vedas did not prove its comparative novelty, with
Vedic sources generally standing aloof to narrative myths. Not that his
explanation of its absence sounds convincing enough. At any rate, it does
not cancel further search for the source of this particular epic
The hypothesis at which K. Geldner came in his Rgvedic studies was far more concrete.2 As he points out, the Veda attaches the idea of amrta to soma and havis, sacrificial butter — the two basic ritual offerings — with the myth of the churning rooted in the havis poured into the ritual fire. He thinks the ability of clarified butter to divide into parts as poured into fire (amrtam viprkvat) is analogous to the stratification of the primal Ocean as it was churned, citing the mention of the sacred horse appearing "from the ocean, this primal source" in Hymn 163 of the first mandala as auxiliary proof (RV, I.163.1). The scholar also singles out another stanza of this hymn, which points out that the steed was not merely born in the primal ocean but was "half divided from soma" (asi somena samaya viprktah) (RV, I.163.3). Thus, the hymn includes the motif of oceanic birth, salient in the epic myth, and specifies its way, ‘division’ designated by the verb describing the stratification of havis.
As we see it, Geldner proposes the correct approach — Rgveda really offers the archaic precedent to the Amrtamanthana. However, we discern an even closer Rgvedic parallel to this monument. By amrta, the Veda means specially made soma juice, also granting immortality, no rarer than havis. We think it was this circle of amrta ideas that the myth of "The Churning of the Ocean" actualized. Symptomatically, the epic myth closely follows the Vedic idea of amrta as soma juice. As the Rgveda specifies, the potion of immortality is to be found in water, and combines with medicines:
This is a direct indication of the water provenance of amrta:
The epic myth also mentions amrta concealed in water, to be separated by churning or powerful mixing. When the great Ocean was churned, "the gums of various trees and herbs mixed with the waters of the Ocean. And the celestials attained immortality by drinking the waters mixed with these gums vested with the properties of amrta".3 Thus, the myth also presupposes the idea of herbal juices diluted with water — the heart of the Vedic rite of amrta making. The third component of amrta — milk — is also present as part of the Ocean water turned into it when churned. Only soma, the principal ingredient of the elixir, is absent from the description, but the logic of the myth allows clear allusions to it with oblique characteristics instead of naming it. Among these oblique indications is the semantic renaming of soma into amrta, and the untrivial device by which actual soma-squeezing rites are presented at the mythological level.
Many Rgvedic hymns mention the regalia of the ceremonial soma-making ritual, performed solely by priests. Only once does the Veda come across the rite of simple or urgent soma juice squeezing (anjahsava) to be performed by any householder with his wife (RV, I.28). As we see it, the practical details of this Vedic rite, re-appraised as mythic events, lie at the basis of the Amrtamanthana. Here is the Rgvedic description of the quicker rite:
Coded in metaphors, this hymn, however, clearly points at devices and utensils which allow us to re-create the soma-squeezing process. A stone press was put to the bottom of a wooden mortar, with soma containing herbs on it. The churn-staff was tied with a rope, the head of the household and his wife gripping each end to pull at it in turn, thus making the staff rotate and mash the herbs, whose juice trickled into the mortar.
Notably, scholarly literature has never yet described this rite, and translators of the hymn mostly interpretate the word mantha as pestle4 meaning that the herbs are not mashed but crushed — seemingly, a minor difference. In fact, it gives a different reconstruction of the quick soma-squeezing rite, based not on staff rotation but the up-and-down movements of the pestle as it is lifted and pushed down with an effort.
Be this as it may, the precise meaning of mantha is churn-staff, not pestle, as specially indicated by Sayana, author of the most authoritative Rgveda comments. As he stresses, Pada 4a of this hymn means the staff usually "used to mix milk [with soma]". Characteristically, the Vedic rite very rarely used pure soma juice. More often, it was diluted with water or cow milk by pouring the juice, water and milk into a wooden vat and violently mixed with a churn-staff for the ritual potion. According to Sayana, the quick squeezing rite used the same utensils — evidently, with one difference — a pressing slab in the bottom. The rope fixing the mantha serves as another proof. This fixation is necessary for a staff, more than that, is the basis of its work — while there is no point in tying a rope to a pestle. Symptomatically, the verb vibandh, used in this hymn, implies not mere tying but fixing on both ends.5 In other words, the rope was to have both ends loose, with a special knot in the middle which tightly embraced the staff. The Rgveda compares this rope with reins tied to steer a horse — meaning that the staff was brought into motion with a rope. The wife of the master who performed the rite took one end, and he the other. Thus the utensil demanded not one person, as a pestle, but two.
Though there’s a wealth of difference between soma-squeezing in a little home mortar, and the cosmic scope of amrta churning in the huge Ocean, it isn’t hard to see that the resulting potion was practically the same. The myth we regard has the Ocean for the ritual vessel; associates the King Tortoise, who lies on the sea bottom giving his shelled back for the job, with the slab on the broad mortar bottom; and replaces the small churn-staff with the giant Mount Mandara, and the rope with Vasuki. Like in the anjahsava rite, the grandiose Ocean contraption is set in motion by a rope pulled on both ends in turn.
Symptomatically, the word mantha, used in the Rgvedic hymn we use for comparison, comes up here as a generic notion bringing together all actions involved in churning. Thus, The Mahabharata repeatedly refers to Mandara as mantha-giri, Mount Churn-staff, to Vasuki as manthani-krta, the Churner, and to water, as churned into milk by gods and demons, as manthodaka (i.e., mantha-udaka). The act of Ocean churning comes up as manthana — the word form used in the Amrtamanthana.
The imagery of the epic myth is also close enough to the Rgvedic. As the Veda has it, soma-squeezing in a mortar is a very noisy process:
Another sound effect accompanies the procuring of amrta from the Ocean. When the gods and Asuras were churning the Ocean with Mandara, a great noise rose like thunder coming out of monstrous clouds.
In the Mahabharata, gods and demons turned Mandara at an amazing speed as they pulled now at Vasuki’s head, now tail. Similar movements made a churn-staff rotate on the bottom slab:
The aerial turbulence produced by the rapid staff rotation is likened unto the wind. Likewise, the staff itself is addressed as a mighty tree:
With flames and smoke, the winds accompanied Ocean churning to gather clouds round Mandara and pour rain on the heads of the tired celestial denizens.
The Rgvedic hymn shows how widespread the quick soma-squeezing rite was, performed "in every home" (RV, I.28.5). We can thus assume that it was well-known to all Indian social strata in the Vedic time — and the early epic period, judging by the persistence of Indian traditions. In other words, the mortar with a slab in the bottom, the churn-staff and the rope clearly indicated a particular soma rite. The mythic allegory was also meant to discern household utensils in the fantastic attributes of the cosmic churning, identical to them in function — the Tortoise with its rounded back corresponding closely enough to a slab; Mount Mandara, broad at the foot and peaking toward the top like a churn-staff; and Serpent Vasuki, strong and elastic like a rope.
So, as we see it, the Amrtamanthana reinterpreted the soma related Vedic cult ideas. Vedas practically omitted mythological treatment of the soma cult, giving pride of place to its ritual aspect. The Amrtamanthana gave a new mythological interpretation, based on the initial Vedic symbolism actualized, to practical parts of the Vedic rites — soma-squeezing and mixing the juice with water. Soma entered the epic tradition as amrta, on the one hand, bringing out its unity with the Vedic symbol and, on the other, emphasizing its properties as immortality elixir.
Soma and amrta figured as partly interchangeable concepts in Hinduism, interconnected through the moon — the vessel preserving the immortality potion, and at the same time, identified with Soma the moon god. This form of the Soma cult was not characteristic of the Vedic era. Thus, Vedic texts most often name the moon Candra, not Soma. On the other hand, already the later Vedic time knew a widespread moon-Soma connection. Thus, the rather late Rgvedic nuptial hymn, of mandala X (RV, X.85), associated Soma with the moon; the Atharvaveda says that "the moon feeds on this [soma] potion, which consists of amrta" (Ath, 3.31.6); the Satapatha-Brahmana steadily names the moon god King Soma, the celestial food granting immortality, and the moon "the highest celestial glory of Soma" (SBr., VII.3.1.46). The Satapatha-Brahmana directly indicates that "the moon is none other than King Soma, the food of gods" (SBr., XI.1.4.4). The Aitareya-Brahmana (AitBr., 7.11.5) and many other Brahmanas and Puranas offer a similar concept of the Soma-moon.
We see this concept of the Soma-moon-amrta in the myth of "The churning of the Ocean". According to tradition, Soma-moon, the firstborn of the cosmogonic creation, came out of the Milky Ocean and rose to heaven. At the end of the myth, after they win the battle for amrta, the gods put it in a formidable vessel and give it to Krtin-Nara to keep. The Mahabharata does not directly allude to the moon as this vessel, which it became as it emerged out of the churned Ocean. The later tradition, however, specified it as the vessel for the precious elixir. According to Puranas, the night time luminary was regularly filled with amrta to be drunk by gods in the light half-month and Pitrs in the dark. The interpretation of the Soma god as moon god and keeper of the amrta was widespread in Hinduism, whereas the ritual hypostasis of soma as sacrificial juice lost all topicality. This change of symbolism was objectively due to the gradual obliteration of the soma cult in the later Vedic era. The epic time gave up rites of the Somayajna type, and even forgot the plant with its hallucinogenous juice. The sacral ideas of soma — the oldest kernel of the Indo-Aryan ritualism — were, nevertheless, holy enough in themselves to be fully forgotten. Probably, this was why the rites of soma-squashing and mixing with milk and water, though leaving out the everyday ritual system, received a mythological interpretation as the events that gave rise to the Amrtamanthana.
Thus, the epic myth succeeded to many essential aspects of the Vedic soma concept, though its Vedic reminiscences are not limited to it. There is the motif of the god-demon battle — the central in the Vedic mythology. As soma embodied the principal Vedic rite, so the theme of gods-Asuras opposing was the principal Vedic myth. The Rgveda saw Indra as warrior god, and presented his duel with Asura in many versions of one and the same pattern. Essentially, soma was its indispensable attribute. Soma or amrta is often presented as temporal possession of Indra’s enemy, whom the god challenges to take over the precious elixir. Even more often, Soma is treated as Indra’s ally promoting his victory (RV, IV.1-5). More than that, Indra always drinks soma before the battle and so comes out on top (RV, I.32.3). We can easily notice all these motives actualized in the Amrtamanthana, where the fight starts for the wondrous potion, of which the gods partake before it, unlike the demons, to become deathless and the strongest, and thus rout out their enemies.
As experts on Vedic mythology conclude, the Rgveda treated Indra’s heroic fight with the Asuras as a creative act in which a harmonious Universe emerged out of the primogenital stagnant Chaos.6 The Vedic time also gave rise to the idea of a world born out of primal waters — the beginning of all things that exist (SBr., IV.7.4.3-5; IV.8.2.3-5). An analogous cosmogonic interpretation is met in the epic myth. Here, only the creative method is unique. The earlier tradition never mentioned a cosmos set in order by churning, which first coagulates the waters, then lending fabulous treasures and setting a new world order. The cosmogonic aspect of the Amrtamanthana determined its outstanding impact on post-Vedic culture, which promoted it to the status of the pivotal Genesis tradition.
As we trace the links of this myth with Vedic mythology, we can’t omit the motif of a woman stealing the magic elixir. The epic legend attaches pivotal significance to this act on the borderline between the two major events regarded above — the preparation of, and the battle for the amrta. Curiously, this central episode is also borrowed from the Vedic mythic circle. The Brahmanas include a legend of soma guarded by Gandharvas, and the gods gathering in conference to discuss how to get the potion. They recurred to many means, but to no result. At last, they said: "The Gandharvas are fond of women. Let us send Vac (Speech) to them, and she returns to us together with Soma." This scheme proved a success as Vac stole the elixir for the gods (SBr., III.2.4.1-4).7 This plot-turn almost fully coincides with the Amrtamanthana, where gods want to obtain soma from their rival friends and finally get it, using the mighty power of the feminine charm. The epic legend makes this plot more complicated. It is not a goddess but Visnu Narayana figuring as a female who steals the immortality potion from the Asuras. The protagonist of the myth, he is addressed by gods for assistance at the critical instances of the churning. Notably, the female hypostasis is unique among the many avataras of Visnu, and connected with this myth alone. Possibly, his transformation into a beautiful woman was necessitated by a particular Vedic mythologeme according to which soma was stolen by a goddess.
As we see it, the epic Amrtamanthana is a synthetic, artificially modelled myth which brought together the key ritual and mythological ideas of Vedism. The time of its origination remains a topical issue. As pointed out above, it was never registered in manuscripts of the Vedic era. Neither the Vedas nor the later Brahmanas literature of the eighth and seventh centuries b.c. ever mentioned it. We first come across this legend in the opening book of The Mahabharata, whose mythology experts trace up to the oldest epic layer from about the mid-first millennium b.c.8 To all appearances, this date is a precise enough indication of the time when the myth emerged. Really, it appeared on the borderline of two eras — the later Vedic and the early epic. Notably, the type of mythological concepts and imagery are here closer to the old Veda texts than the Brahmanas and Upanisads. The later Vedic writ preserves the theme of the god-Asura fight, but does not attach a cosmogonic content to it. The rivalry is treated with less solemnity, and the idea of struggle brought down. Thus, the Upanisadic prose, historically the closest to the earlier epic, tells of gods fighting demons with the help of Udgitha, the peculiar ritual singing. The Brhadaranyaka-Upanisad has this to say: "Prajapati gave birth to two kinds of beings — gods and Asuras. The gods were the younger, and Asuras the older. They grappled for these worlds. The gods said: ‘Let us vanquish the Asuras by Udgitha during a sacrifice’" (BrUp., 1.3.1).9 The later Vedic era promoted this situation to an archetype. In fact, the gods’ triumph now directly depended on their knowledge of Brahmanic dogmatic norms and rites, in which they surpassed the Asuras. It is easy to see that the myth of Amrtamanthana has nothing in common with this esoteric ritualized tradition. More than that, later it negates this later, to an extent. The comparatively young Mahabharata legend reflects another world-view and contains an artificially revived archaic myth-making power.
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi