The Dawn of the Universe: Naasadeeya Sookta of the Rgveda

Naasadeeya Sookta is a mesmerizing chapter of the Rgveda (Mandala 10, Sookta 129) that describes the beginnings of Creation, even the situation that existed before the Big Bang, in a most enigmatic fashion, stressing the unknowability of that time. Surprisingly, or maybe not really so, it comes quite close to our understanding of the Big Bang theory today. It is one of the important Sooktas of Rgveda that led to the philosophy of Creation as described in Manusmrti, Saankhya and other ancient texts. Astronomer Carl Sagan once famously said, “The Hindu religion is the only one of the world’s great faiths dedicated to the idea that the Cosmos itself undergoes an immense, indeed an infinite, number of deaths and rebirths. It is the only religion in which the time scales correspond to those of modern scientific cosmology.” This deep thinking of ancient Aryas can be directly ascribed to the knowledge contained in the Vedas.

नासदासीन्नो सदासीत् तदानीं नासीद्रजो नो व्योमा परो यत् ।

किमावरीवः कुह कस्य शर्मन्नम्भः किमासीद्गहनं गभीरम् ॥ऋग्वेदः १०।१२९।१॥

(Tadaaneem) Before Creation, (Asat Na Aaseet) it was as if there was nothing and also (Sat No Aaseet) as if there was something, i.e., Matter and Souls were non-functional as if they were nothing; the only ‘something’ still conscious was God (called Mana in Shatapatha Brahmana). (RajaH Na Aaseet) There were no Matter particles and (No Vyoma ParaH Yat) there was no Space finer than them even. (Kim AavareevaH) What was the covering? That is, there was nothing covering anything, yet everything was invisible. (Kuha Kasya Sharman) Where and whose support was there? That is, God alone was the support, there were no forces in action at that time. (AmbhaH Kim Aaseet Gahanam Gabheeram) What were the waters that were dense and deep? That is, all of Matter was such an intensely dense fluid before the Big Bang that it is impossible to understand.

Swami Dayanand has interpreted that even primordial Matter as mentioned in Saankhyadarshanam, i.e., Prakrti/Pradhaana, was not there. While in the later Mantras in this Sookta no transformation from this state into Pradhaana is detailed, it is logical to surmise that this state of Matter has to be different from Pradhaana in the sense that Pradhaana exists in this Universe to date, but the dense state of the initial Universe does not exist now. So, that state had to be different from Pradhaana. This state has been called ‘Aabhu’ in the third hymn.

Further, he has combined कुह with कस्य to give कुहकस्य that means ‘of the mist’, while taking शर्मन् (happiness) to mean ‘in Brahma’, who is eternally happy, thus giving the meaning that this Matter was incapable of covering the vast Brahma or occupying even a small portion of Him, just as the mist cannot cover the ground fully. There are some recensions of this Sookta where these two words are conjoined, but there too the meaning is not as per Swamiji. Also, even in Swamiji’s work the two words are separate (though this may be due to a later editor of his work). I find the earlier interpretation more meaningful, particularly as it is supported by the next hymn.

Swami Brahmamuni Parivrajaka, whose commentary is being referred to mainly here, has given the following interpretation: Before Creation, there was not a complete lack of Matter (Asat), but there was no visible Matter (Sat). There was no Space with particles, nor any Space at the edges of the Universe. When there was nothing to cover, what could cover? That is, there was no cover. Similarly, there was no place for the pleasure of beings, as there was nothing to consume, nor no beings. There was no dense and deep body of water where God could plant the seed of Life.

Basham’s translation: Then even non-existence was not there, nor existence. There was no air then, nor the space beyond it. What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping? Was there then cosmic fluid, in depths unfathomed?

Ralph T. H. Griffith’s translation: Then was not non-existent, nor existent. There was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered it, and where? And what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

As can be seen, there are many interpretations that have been given by scholars, the Western ones being mostly literal translations with little understanding of the deeper meaning. In further Mantras, I shall rarely be discussing the interpretations that do not appeal to me.

न मृत्युरासीदमृतं न तर्हि न रात्र्या अह्न आसीत् प्रकेतः ।

आनीदवातं स्वधया तदेकं तस्माद्धान्यन्न परः किं चनास ॥ऋग्वेदः १०।१२९।२॥

At that time, (Na MrtyuH Aaseet) there was no mortality, (Amrtam Na Tarhi) neither was there immortality; (Na RatrayaH AhnaH Aaseet PraketaH) there was no sign of night or day. At that time, there was (Tat Ekam) only the One (Aaneet Avaatam) who breathed without any air, but (Swadhayaa) by Its power alone. (Tasmaat ParaH Ha Anyat Na Kim Chanaasa) There was nothing other than It.

Since there were no beings, there was no question of death. But what about immortality then? No, immortals were also in a stupor and unaware of their surroundings. The dense darkness that enveloped that beginning could not be likened to night, then where was the question of day! The Lord alone was conscious by His own power, not requiring anything else to support Him. Everything else was non-existent in the sense that it was non-functional and/or unconscious.

The mention of God here and calling everything else non-existent support the meaning of सत् and असत् given by me in the previous Mantra.

तम आसीत् तमसा गूढमग्रेऽप्रकेतं सलिलं सर्वमा इदम् ।

तुच्छ्येनाभ्वपिहितं यदासीत् तपसस्तन्महिनाजायतैकम् ॥ऋग्वेदः १०।१२९।३॥

(Agrey) In the beginning, (Tama Aaseet Tamasaa GooDham) what there was, was darker than darkness, (Apraketam) without any distinguishable properties and (Salilam Sarwam Aa Idam) uniform everywhere like water. (Aabhu) The substance called Aabhu (आभु meaning ‘present everywhere’) (Yat Tuchchheyen Apihitam Aaseet) that is concealed in a negligible part (of God), (TapasaH Tat Mahinaa) by the greatness of (His) effort (Tapa), (Ekam Ajaayata Tat Mahat) it transforms into one other substance called Mahat.

Here lies proof for the first transform of Matter, Mahat, as described in Saankhya and other texts. Before the Big Bang, there was a singularity of immense density, uniform in composition and of very small size – almost zero! But once Creation was set in motion, Space was created and Aabhu expanded into a huge Universe. This expansion is denoted by the word ‘Mahat’. The fact that the singularity was followed almost immediately by a large one matches up with the idea of the sudden ‘inflation’ of the Universe in the first few picoseconds of the Big Bang.

This not only matches up with modern theories, but also gives additional information.

It is also worth noting that even after Creation and the expansion of Matter, it occupies a very small part of God – पादोऽस्य विश्वा भूतानि त्रिपादस्यामृतं दिवि (पूरुषसूक्तम्, यजुर्वेदः ३१।३) – in a small part of God is the Universe, in the rest is the effulgent Supreme.

In all descriptions of Creation in our ancient texts, it is said that God performed Tapa to start the process of Creation. Some take it to mean ‘resolved (सङ्कल्पः)’, some as ‘Jnaanamaya Yajna (ज्ञानमययज्ञः) = thought of creating it’. Both essentially mean the same thing. However, Tapa is such a strong word that I feel it does point to a great effort on the part of God.

कामस्तदग्रे समवर्तताधि मनसो रेतः प्रथमं यदासीत् ।

सतो बन्धुमसति निरविन्दन् हृदि प्रतीष्या कवयो मनीषा ॥ऋग्वेदः १०।१२९।४॥

This hymn has potentially two meanings.

Meaning 1 – Aadhidaivika: (Agrey) In the beginning, (ManasaH KaamaH) the desire of Mana (God, as mentioned in Shatapatha Brahamana) to create (Adhi Samavartata) existed above everything else. (Yat RetaH Prathamam Aaseet) From that desire, elementary particles (Reta) were born, that existed first. (KavayaH) The highly learned sages (Niravindan) see (SataH Bandhum) the bond of the Sat (effects of Matter) (Asati) in the Asat (primordial Matter) (Prateeshya) distinctly (Hrdi) in their mind’s eye, (Maneeshaa) by means of their discerning powers.

As noted in the first hymn, Shatapatha Braahmana has called Brahma as Mana. This is appropriate as He is a thinking being.

In this interpretation, the meaning of the previous Mantra is taken one step forward. After a long period of Pralaya, God had the desire to create. For that He did the Tapa mentioned in the previous Mantra. The Mahat which was created starts evolving into primordial particles. As per modern science, these could be the precursors of the protons and neutrons, called quarks and gluons, and then protons and neutrons themselves. The pure sages are able to see this transformation from Asat (primordial Matter, Pradhaana, Kaarana Prakrti) into Sat (effects of Matter, Kaarya Prakrti).

Meaning 2 – Aadhyaatmika: (Agrey) In the beginning, (ManasaH KaamaH) the desire for consumption (Bhoga) (Adhi Samavartata) existed overarchingly in the Souls, (Yat RetaH Prathamam Aaseet) which led to the seed of beings (Reta – DNA). (KavayaH) The wise use (Maneeshaa) their discerning powers and (Niravindan) see (Asati SataH Bandhum) the bond between Matter (Asat) and Soul (Sat) (which has now awakened). (Hrdi Prateeshya) Seeing this bond in their mind’s eye, they (Niravindan) become renunciates (Virakta).

This meaning reveals the cause (Nimitta Kaarana) of the creation of beings – their desire to consume the products of Matter. The Souls awaken to be attached to the desires that they had ended with in the previous Universe to start once again in this new Universe from where they had left off. God ties them up once again with these desires, giving them the body that they deserve.

For the one who can see Matter and Consciousness separately, the Material world loses all its charms and only the quest for the Soul remains.

Note on Asat and Sat

Now, if we look at the various meanings of Asat and Sat that we have encountered in Mantras 1 and 4, they amount to the following:

Asat (non-existent): Matter and Souls, Pradhaana, all Matter

Sat (existent): God, Kaarya Prakrti, Souls

Correlating these, it appears that when something is inactive/unconscious, it has been treated as Asat; when it becomes active/conscious, it moves into the category of Sat. This seems to be the secret behind the changing meanings of Asat and Sat.

तिरश्चीनो विततो रश्मिरेषामधः स्विदासीदुपरि स्विदासीत् ।

रेतोधा आसन् महिमान आसन्त्स्वधा अवस्तात् प्रयतिः परस्तात् ॥ऋग्वेदः

१०।१२९।५॥

Meaning 1 [Contd.]: (RashmiH) The light from these particles (TirashcheenaH VitataH) spread laterally; (AdaH Swit Aaseet, Upari Swit Aaseet) it was below and above. (From these particles were born) (RetodhaaH Aasan) atoms that held these particles and also (MahimaanaH Aasan) those that had Mahat. (Swadhaa Awastaat) (These) independently existing primordial particles (Swadhaa) came first, (PrayatiH Parastaat) the forces of Nature came later.

In the very early Universe, particles of Matter and Anti-matter – protons, neutrons and their anti-matter equivalents – were created. They collided to give out high-energy radiation that spread everywhere – so much so that photons ruled the Universe at this time and it was opaque, as photons could not travel far without interacting with another particle in this dense phase. These particles coalesced into atoms as the Universe expanded and cooled. The cooling atoms further fell into their ground state, giving out energy in the form of photons. This radiation can be detected even today as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation. Probably, this is the phase referred to in this Mantra.

As per our tradition, Mahat also existed separately, creating Buddhi later in creatures.

Meaning 2 [Contd.]: In this meaning, ‘Rashmi’ does not refer to light, but to a rein, or controlling factor. So, the created creatures’ bodies are controlled by (RashmiH) the ‘reins’ of the Sanskaaras of previous births. These Sanskaaras (TirashcheenaH VitataH) spread far and wide – in the current body and in future ones. (AdhaH Swit Aaseet) They lead to the lower births of trees, insects, etc., and (Upari Swit Aaseet) the higher births of mammals, man, etc. in the hierarchy of beings. (RetodhaaH Aasan) These bodies bear the seed of procreation (genes) and (MahimaanaH Aasan) are wonderful in their structure and operation, or, they are all composed of the base material Mahat, and also contain it in the form of Buddhi. (Swadhaa Awastaat) At one end, this connection of body and Soul is self-sustaining in the form of the subtle body, and (PrayatiH Parastaat) at the other end is the gross body that is destroyed in death. Also, the gross body is the one that is involved directly in performing the actions, the efforts of life.

को अद्धा वेद क इह प्रवोचत् कुत आजाता कुत इयं विसृष्टिः ।

अर्वाग्देवा अस्य विसर्जनेनाथा को वेद यत आबभूव ॥ऋग्वेदः १०।१२९।६॥

(KaH Addhaa Veda) Who knows properly, factually (KutaH Aajaataa) from where the Universe has come (the root cause) and (KutaH Iyam VisrishtiH) from where has this diverse Creation (of beings) originated? (If s/he does not know it,) (KaH Ih Pravochat) who is to properly explain it in this world? (DevaH) The learned or physical forces (Asya Visarjanena Arvak) came after this Creation. (Atha) Therefore, (KaH Veda YataH Aababhoova) they can never know or tell from where this world has arisen.

While in the third Mantra we had seen that the sages were able to determine something of the origins of the Universe, this Mantra seems to be saying the opposite! In effect, the Mantra says – 1) It is impossible to factually determine the origins of the Universe, as the scientists are discovering today to their chagrin! They can make intelligent guesses, but the situation in that primeval Universe was so vastly different from what it is today that it is quite impossible to ever comprehend it properly. Even if we try to rewind the clock through science, it is not possible to determine right till the very beginning, because everything we know and understand – the particles and forces of Nature – has evolved later. Scientists have discovered this, too, and are not able to figure out much about the early Universe. This is with the meaning ‘physical forces’ for the word ‘Devas’. 2) Taking the other meaning ‘the learned’: even if a pure Soul sees through the mind’s eye, it is still possible to grasp only a little. Just as knowledge of the deeds of individuals and the consequences they engender are only partially visible to the enlightened Souls, knowledge of the beginnings of the Universe, and the path that it takes to create Life shall always be, for the most part, a mystery.

This Mantra brings together the two meanings we had encountered in the previous two hymns. In fact, it gives a clue for their presence. If the two meanings are not considered, ‘कुत आजाता’ and ‘कुत इयं विसृष्टिः’ would both mean the same thing – “From where has this multifarious Universe originated?” – and we would have the Punarukti Dosha (the defect of repetition), which is unacceptable. Hence, my confidence in my interpretations above!

इयं विसृष्टिर्यत आबभूव यदि वा दधे यदि वा न ।

यो अस्याध्यक्षः परमे व्योमन्त्सो अङ्ग वेद यदि वा न वेद ॥ऋग्वेदः १०।१२९।७॥

Enigmatically, the Rchaa says that (YataH Iyam VisrishtiH Aababhoova) from Whom this Creation has evolved (Whom you shall never know fully), (Yadi Vaa Dadhe) sometimes He maintains it (Srishti), and (Yadi Vaa Na Dadhe) sometimes He does not (Pralaya). (YaH Asya AdhyakshaH) The One who is its (Universe’s) Overseer (Parame Vyoman) in the ultimate Space, (Anga) O dear one (Soul)! (SaH Veda) He who knows that One (really knows and achieves the ultimate goal of life – salvation); (Yadi SaH Vaa Na Veda) but if one doesn’t learn about that One (in this life, he will always be bound in the Cycle of Birth and Death).

Since a number of words are missing here, this hymn has been misunderstood by most, who interpret it as saying that “Maybe God upholds this Creation, or maybe He doesn’t” and “Maybe He knows how He created it, or maybe He doesn’t.” Luckily, we had Swami Dayanand Saraswati to tell us the hidden meaning behind these puzzling words! For who can create without knowing his/her creation, and who can oversee without upholding it! These are contradictions in terms.

This Mantra seems to be a response to the previous Mantra. However, the previous Mantra really referred to the Upaadaana Kaarana, while this Mantra is focused on the Nimitta Kaarana.

God is often referred to as occupying Parama Vyoma – the ultimate Space, for example, also in – ऋचो अक्षरे परमे व्योमन् यस्मिन्… (ऋग्वेदः १।१६४।३९, अथर्ववेदः ९।१०।१८). Here the word ‘व्योमन्’ should actually be ‘व्योमनि’, but it always appears as ‘व्योमन्’. This is to indicate the link with ‘ओमन्’ or Om, the personal name of Brahma. This is the ultimate Space in which Matter and Souls also reside in the beginning of the Universe. Verily, this Space is God Himself!

The cycle of Srshti (Creation) and Pralaya (destruction) are enigmatically presented here, so that they are not to be understood by the weak of mind! So also, the two paths of Moksha and re-incarnation. That is why Vaisheshika Darshana declares: बुद्धिपूर्वा वाक्यकृतिर्वेदे ॥वै०द०६।१॥

In this way, this final Mantra of the Sookta exhorts the true seeker to seek That Great One, who is the Creator, Maintainer and Destroyer of the world and all that it contains.