Unknown Rig Vedic hymn on Asvins & purpose of Rig Veda
by Jayasree Saranathan on 30 Dec 2018 3 Comments

Vedas are many and only some of them have been compiled by Vyasa (Krishna Dwaipayana), so goes the tradition. Even this compilation was very huge, but what we have today is just 99.1% of what Vyasa had compiled. Of them Rig Vedic hymns in the form of 1028 suktas are available now. At times, we do hear about discovery of some Rig Vedic suktas with someone, but the authenticity of those hymns cannot be known. In this backdrop, it makes exciting reading to come across an unknown Rig Vedic sukta on Asvins in Mahabharata.


Exciting because,

(1) It was recited in a time frame that can be deciphered. This brings in newer insight in ‘dating’ efforts of Rig Veda.

(2) It gives references to the zodiac, much the same as what is found in RV 1-164 authored by Rishi Dirghatamas.

(3) The references reveal the purpose of Rig Veda with Suktas which are nothing but mantras that bring out designated results.


Background of the Sukta found in Mahabharata


This Rig Vedic hymn (Sukta) was recited by Upamanyu, the son of Vyaghrapada. Upamanyu also happened to be a preceptor for Krishna (MB: 13-17). In his youth while he was serving as a student in the Gurukul of Ayoda-Dhaumya, an incident happened by which he lost his vision and fell into a pit. On the advice of his preceptor to glorify Asvins to regain his eyesight, Upamanyu began reciting the Rig Vedic hymn of Asvins! It is not known whether this sukta was created by Upamanyu then and there.or it existed earlier.


The sukta begins:


Mahabharata (1:3-59)

(Meaning: “Upamanyu thus directed by his preceptor began to glorify the twin Asvins, in the following words of the Rig Veda”)


This is followed by 11 riks that praise Asvins as the Supreme Being that set the Wheel of Time to roll eternally causing the fruits of action manifested for all beings. (Text and meaning at end of article)


Asvins given supreme position


A chronology of ideas exist in Rig Vedic suktas, of which the foremost one is in offering Soma to Indra and other deities and not offering the same to Asvins. But then came a time when Asvins were also offered Soma. It was Rishi Chyavana, son of Bhrigu, who started offering Soma to Asvins (MB- 3:124-125). Generally Ka?vas were associated with offering oblations to Asvins. An Atharvan verse (2:141-04) says that the Soma offered by Ka?vas to Asvins helped Yadu and Turvasu of whom Yadu was the progenitor of Krishna’s race. And Krishna himself had opted for Asvins in the place of Indra after he stopped the Indra festival. A couple of verses in Rig Veda refer to Krishna invoking Asvins to accept Soma (RV 8:74.3 &4).


All this goes to show that by Krishna’s times Asvins had replaced Indra in receiving Soma. Upamanyu of the same period of Krishna had praised Asvins as the Supreme Being who facilitated creation and manifestation of karmic results through the wheel of Time.


The Sukta recited by Upamanyu containing 11 verses (mantras / riks) extols Asvins as the first-born and who set in motion the wheel of time that had 360 days and 720 days and nights. There is a reference to 12 spokes of the wheel referring to 12 months and the zodiac. Though by themselves free from fruits of action, the Asvins cause the fruits of action to all beings.


This sukta is comparable to another Rig Vedic sukta (RV 1:164) having the same notions on Wheel of Time but it has in addition two popular ideas of Vedic Thought. One is about the 2-bird analogy found in the Upanishads of the Atman and Paramatman sitting on a tree as birds, with Atman eating the fruit of karma while the other not eating any but shining well. The other view is the now famous but also mis-interpreted verse “eka?sadviprabahudhavadanti” - which has the meaning as follows:

“They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged –Garutman”


To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan.” (RV 1:164.46)

This conveys that the Supreme Being is known by different names such as Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, Garutman (Garuda), Yama and Matarisvan. In other words, the deities we know as Indra, Varuna etc. are none other than the Supreme Being Itself. This verse by Rishi Dirghatamas does not attest the same status to Asvins though it does say that Asvins are endowed with helping mankind. But Asvins are given the Supreme status in Upmanayu’s sukta.


Part of the compilation by Vyasa


Now the question comes whether this hymn was part of the Rig Vedic corpus that is now lost or it was newly composed by Upamanyu. Looking at the contemporariness of Upamanyu and Vyasa, and the age of Upamanyu at the time of reciting it - as a young student serving his master - it appears that this verse could have been part of the pre-existing compilation. Upamanyu had recited it for regaining eyesight.


Contextually similar event appears in RV 1:112.6 in a verse in praise of Asvins that says,“Wherewith ye rescued Antaka when languishing deep in the pit, and Bhujyu with unfailing help.”


Yet another one (1:116.11) says that Asvins “delivered Vandana from the pit like hidden treasure”.


Restoration of eyesight is also attributed to Asvins in a couple of Rig Vedic verses (1:112.8 & 1:116.16). Though Upamanyu’s sukta does not refer to his sufferings (falling into the pit and losing eyesight), the purpose of the sukta was to get relief from his suffering. As such, this sukta must have been popular in those days when there was a high probability of losing way in the forests and falling into pits and losing eyesight. Upamanyu suffered blindness upon eating a poisonous herb and falling into a pit thereafter. After reciting this sukta, the Asvins appeared and got him cured.


Coming to the issues raised earlier,

(1) As Upamanyu was a contemporary of Krishna, this sukta can be dated to any time before 5000 years from now. This hymn, found missing from the presently available saka of Rig Veda but well entrenched in Mahabharata, is proof that many Vedic hymns had existed in the past. 

(2) The reference to the 12-part zodiac in this sukta makes it known that knowledge of the zodiac had existed in India 5000 years ago. The hymn of Dirghatamas being more ancient, it can be said that the original concept had evolved much earlier. (The reference to 5000 years as the date of Krishna is based on the Mahabharata war-date evidenced in Aihole inscription).

(3) Coming to the purpose of the Rig Veda, all riks are mantras and the compilation of the riks is a sukta. Every sukta or mantra (rik) is capable of invoking the concerned deity, which is the very purpose of the Rig Veda. The basis is sabda that is understood as word or sound. When Sabda is arranged in specific order known as ‘Anupurvi’, the deity is invoked.


This is comparable to the sub-atomic particles of the Universe which combine in various ways - but in specific order- to create composite particles and atoms. That order is the Anupurvi of the sub-atomic particles. Every time creation starts after a deluge, the Anupurvi of those particles are manifest in the same way – this is expressed as the Supreme Being remembering the Anupurvi of sabda that form the Vedas. Science is yet to recognise and be receptive to sabda – the sounds and vibrations of the sub-atomic syllables.


The amazing part of the Anupurvi is that no mortal except the rishis have understood which sabda goes to make a specific order of Anupurvi so that a specific deity can be invoked and through Him, a specific result.For example, in the sukta of Upamanyu the meaning of the verses look like some description of the zodiac, but that is the Anupurvi that makes the sabda eternal by which the Supreme Being in the name of Asvins can be invoked to balance the elements present in its co-bird on the tree (RV 1:164) – here, Upamanyu.


Thinking in these lines, one cannot miss out the co-existence of three concepts in the hymn of Dirghatamas (RV 1:164) –

(1) Wheel of Time causing things to happen and fruits of action,

(2) Atman co-existing with Paramatman but getting impacted by the Wheel of Time and

(3) Realisation of the Paramatman as the one and only Supreme Being but recognised by different names.


When all these are understood and felt by the Atman, the Atman gets relieved from the influence of Wheel of Time. That is the ultimate result of the hymn by Dirghatamas. But Upamanyu’s hymn invokes Asvins as Paramatman without reference to the last two, but with only the first idea of Wheel of Time. His hymn gave him back his eyesight but not ultimate Release. But Dirghatamas was not known to have regained his eyesight though he invoked Asvins in that hymn and referred to the Wheel of Time in similar description. The difference in result was obviously related to the Anupurvi of the sabda of the riks he conceived. But lesser mortals that we are, we can only see the ‘meanings’ and the differences in them and not the sabda!


The same hymn by Dirghatamas speaks about the purpose of Vedas


The 39th rik says,

?coak?areparamevyomanyasmindevaadhivisveni?edu? |

yastannavedaki??cakari?yatiya it tad vidustaimesamasate ||


Meaning by David Frawley:

“The supreme syllable of the chant in the supreme ether, in which all the Gods reside, those who do not know this, what can they do with the Veda? Those who know it alone are gathered here.”


Meaning by Griffith:

“Upon what syllable of holy praisesong, as t’were their highest heaven, the Gods repose them,

Who knows not this, what will he do with praisesong? But they who know it well sit here assembled.”


Gods reside in sabda, the basic syllable. Those who know this, sing the riks to get what the Gods give them. But those who don’t know, treat the Vedas as a literary work – the world knows the worst outcome of that – it was the invention of Aryan Invasion!


Here is a small solace for those yearning to see historic inputs in the Rig Veda: one can see a historic development in the concept of Asvins from Dirghatamas to Upamanyu. Dirghatamas was born blind and remained so throughout his life. Though he praised Asvins in his hymns, he didn’t see Asvins as the Supreme Being. In contrast, Upamanyu lost his eyesight accidentally and regained it by praying to Asvins as the Supreme Being. The change of status to Asvins had happened from Dirghatamas to Upamanyu.


What happened in between cannot be traced in Rig Veda as it is not a historic document. We have to turn to the Itihasa which are the historical documents. One is expected to refer to the Itihasa to understand what the Vedas say. This can be authenticated from a verse in Valmiki Ramayana that Valmiki composed Ramayana to reinforce the import of the Vedas. (“vedopabrimha?arthaya” VR: 1:4-6). The scope of the Itihasas is such that they help us to weave the chronology of men and events in addition to understanding the Vedic Thought.  


The gap between Dirghatamas and Upamanyu can be filled by inputs from Mahabharata with a combined understanding of the Vedic seers mentioned in Rig Veda. Dirghatamas recognised Asvins only as a benefactor of the Supreme Being and not as the Supreme Being Itself. Asvins were elevated to the status of the Supreme Being as those who take Soma-oblations by Rishi Chyavana (Mahabharata: 3-123). Since invoking Asvins to partake the Soma is found to be associated with the Ka?vas, Ka?vas can be positioned after Chyavana and not before him. In a surprising connection to Tamil language, Ka?, a Tamil word, means eye! This takes us to a different discourse on whether Tamil was the Manusyabha?a of those times, which we are not probing here. Finally, we find Upamanyu invoking Asvins as the Supreme Being but he gained eyesight and not Release from the Wheel of Time.


With just one hymn of riks found in Mahabharata, we are able to construct a fairly reasonable history of the development of Asvins from a subordinate deity to the main Supreme Deity. And we could identify the persons involved in this development using the Itihasas. 


This runs counter to what persons like Witzel had said that Vedas “represent the only contemporary literary sources for most of early Indian history” and his claim that “everything from known history up to the Mahabharata war is filled in from Vedic sources. ... One can easily show that groups of 2-3 kings were lifted intact from the Rigveda, the Brahmanas, and so on, and inserted wherever they were thought to fit.” (1995, “Early Indian history: Linguistic and textual parameters”)


For him Rig Veda is “a notoriously difficult text” and “the immigration of Indo-Aryans is a fact that can frequently be noticed in the Rig Veda”. He and those of his ilk certainly do not belong to the gathering that Dirghatamas referred to in his verse as those who knew what Vedic sabda are meant for! 




Text of the Rig Vedic Hymn recited by Upamanyu


And Upamanyu thus directed by his preceptor began to glorify the twin Aswins, in the following words of the Rig Veda:


“Ye have existed before the creation! Ye first-born beings, ye are displayed in this wondrous universe of five elements! I desire to obtain you by the help of the knowledge derived from hearing, and of meditation, for ye are Infinite! Ye are the course itself of Nature and intelligent Soul that pervades that course! Ye are birds of beauteous feathers perched on the body that is like to a tree! Ye are without the three common attributes of every soul! Ye are incomparable! Ye, through your spirit in every created thing, pervade the Universe! Ye are golden Eagles! Ye are the essence into which all things disappear! Ye are free from error and know no deterioration!


Ye are of beauteous beaks that would not unjustly strike and are victorious in every encounter! Ye certainly prevail over time! Having created the sun, ye weave the wondrous cloth of the year by means of the white thread of the day and the black thread of the night! And with the cloth so woven, ye have established two courses of action appertaining respectively to the Devas and the Pitris. The bird of Life seized by Time which represents the strength of the Infinite soul, ye set free for delivering her unto great happiness! They that are in deep ignorance, as long as they are under delusions of their senses, suppose you, who are independent of the attributes of matter, to be gifted with form! Three hundred and sixty cows represented by three hundred and sixty days produce one calf between them which is the year. That calf is the creator and destroyer of all. Seekers of truth following different routes, draw the milk of true knowledge with its help. Ye Aswins, ye are the creators of that calf!


The year is but the nave of a wheel to which is attached seven hundred and twenty spokes representing as many days and nights. The circumference of this wheel represented by twelve months is without end. This wheel is full of delusions and knows no deterioration. It affects all creatures whether to this or of the other worlds. Ye Aswins, this wheel of time is set in motion by you! The wheel of Time as represented by the year has a nave represented by the six seasons. The number of spokes attached to that nave is twelve as represented by the twelve signs of the Zodiac. This wheel of Time manifests the fruits of the acts of all things. The presiding deities of Time abide in that wheel. Subject as I am to its distressful influence, ye Aswins, liberate me from that wheel of Time.


Ye Aswins, ye are this universe of five elements! Ye are the objects that are enjoyed in this and in the other world! Make me independent of the five elements! And though ye are the Supreme Brahma, yet ye move over the Earth in forms enjoying the delights that the senses afford. In the beginning, ye created the ten points of the universe! Then have ye placed the Sun and the Sky above! The Rishis, according to the course of the same Sun, perform their sacrifices, and the gods and men, according to what hath been appointed for them, perform their sacrifices also enjoying the fruits of those acts! Mixing the three colours, ye have produced all the objects of sight! It is from these objects that the Universe hath sprung whereon the gods and men are engaged in their respective occupations, and, indeed, all creatures endued with life! Ye Aswins, I adore you!


I also adore the Sky which is your handiwork! Ye are the ordainers of the fruits of all acts from which even the gods are not free! Ye are yourselves free from the fruits of your acts! Ye are the parents of all! As males and females it is ye that swallow the food which subsequently develops into the life creating fluid and blood! The new-born infant sucks the teat of its mother. Indeed it is ye that take the shape of the infant! Ye Aswins, grant me my sight to protect my life.”



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