Abstract: This article aims at shedding some light into the book Atharva Veda by Rati Saxena. The book introduces us to the realm of the philosophical system in the Atharva Veda, promoting an unbiased understanding of the darshana enunciated by the scholars vedic tradition. Although having folk references, Atharva Veda is the record of the history, culture, philosophy and life style of a different type of society. The poetics of imagination, the folkloric features of these hymns remain neglected in the ancient and contemporary scholarly studies an Atharva Veda.
Keywords: Atharva Veda, folk rituals, folk deities, folk culture, psychological problem solving methods, philosophical aspects of folk
The Vedas are the oldest repository of mankind’s understanding of the mysteries of the universe and house several branches of enquiry, investigation and application of its principles. A study of the Vedas explains how the cosmos came into being, according to the rishis or seer-scientists who discerned the secrets of nature several centuries ago. It illustrates their methodology of exploration, investigation and application of the forces which propel and regulate various natural phenomena.
Though the Vedas are four in number, traditionally, they are spoken of as Trayi, the Triple Vidya or the three-fold knowledge because they deal with jnana, bhakti and karma. The Rig Veda underlines the path of jnana or knowledge, the Yajur Veda that of karma or action and the Sama Veda that of bhakti and the Atharva Veda represents a synthesis of the three. The first three have the outer surface of agni, vayu and aditya respectively and essentially stem from agni. Because they have agni as a common component, they are considered to be somewhat different from Atharva Veda which is permeated with soma. Sometimes the seer-scientists refer to the three Vedas which have agni as a common component as the triple Vedas. This has often led western commentators to the erroneous conclusion that the Atharva Veda is a later addition. Similarly, they have overlooked the concept of supra-physical energy describing these forces instead as ‘hereditary deities who for the most part personified various natural and cosmic phenomena such as fire (agni), sun (soorya and savitri) (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1916, CD-Rom edition). One example of this distortion would suffice: the Atharva Veda is described as a collection of hymns, magic spells and incantations that represents a more folk level of religion and remains partly outside the vedic sacrifice (Encyclopaedia Britannica).
In actuality, the Atharva Veda contains in valuable principles which have been applied to the development of the science of healthcare and longevity, alchemy and the preparation of medicines, among others. Dr. Rati Saxena’s book The Seeds of the Mind: A Fresh Approach to the Study of Atharva Veda (2005) is an answer to such grave misinterpretations and distortions of the Vedas in general. In the preface Dr. Saxena has stated that her primary objective has been to look at the hymns in Atharva Veda from the poetic and aesthetic point of view. She classifies them as genuine poems of primordial inspiration, reflecting the cohesive social life of the Atharva Vedic people and their life of imagination (Preface). The poetics of imagination, the folkloric features of these hymns remain neglected in the ancient and contemporary scholarly studies an Atharva Veda. The folk rituals described in these hymns are often misconstrued as `tantric’ charms. The book is so designed as to give its readers a very comprehensive introduction to the aesthetic beauties in the Atharva Veda.
The various chapters throw light on the literary and folkloric features in the Atharva Vedic hymns. The overwhelming presence of the deities like Vratya, Ucchistha and the observance of various folk rituals which give a special character to this Veda among the four samhitas are closely analysed. Love poems which exemplify the fact that love between man and woman acts as a cohesive force in human society are seen as an important section in the Atharva Veda. In the chapter ‘Attachment in Non-Attachment,’ matters of perennial human concern like death and paraloka, the continuity of this eternity and tadatmya between nature, creator, living and nonliving things are subjected to close perusal.
There are all categories of songs in Atharva Veda: pure folk songs like songs, hymns concerned with harmony in family and society; hymns of age and death; hymns relating to medicine, diseases, poems related to the worship of the King; poems in which man discerns powers in grass, medicinal plants, water and birds. The songs in the Atharva Veda may be categorised as folk songs, rather than as magical prayers, due to various reasons. The folk features in them are the repetition of lines, charged singing, and asking sired favour. The Atharva Vedic prayers are in fact closer to the original Wants of the Indian sub-continent when compared to the prayers in other Such poems may be interpreted as the common man’s means of survival against all odds. Prayer, meditation, help from other resources like physical treatment and emotional strength comprise a Holistic approach towards life.
In the chapter titled The Poetics of Atharva Veda, the language of the hymns is identified as being direct and object-based. Even in hymns relating to life situations, the rishis do not forget their poetic instincts and make use of powerful metaphorical images, like water, the bow and the arrow, wind and bird. Short hymns are distinguished by their images and the long songs are noticeable for their rhythm and musical quality. In the poems on natural phenomena, anuprasa (alliterations) are put to frequent use. The author has drawn examples from Ch. VI of the Atharva Veda to prove that these poetic qualities facilitate our understanding of this Veda as folk literature.
The folk deities are emblematic of the natural folk who worship them: they are down-to-earth, harsh, humble and sometimes as beautiful as nature. The choice of the folk deities illustrates the folk belief in naturalism, the guiding belief that animals, birds, vegetation and mountains are part of the earth. The dead ancestors, especially brave warriors, as well as deadly diseases are given the status of folk deities. The hymns on the folk deities are not merely mystical; they are natural expressions of the vedic people who were very close to nature and led a simple life.
A close examination of the Atharva Vedic folk rituals provides a psychological explanation as to how they became the foundation for the classical rituals of later times. Closeness to life, importance given to society-oriented life style, conformity with the surroundings, simplicity, the evocation of celebrative mood out of small incidents, and the qualities of tolerance and continuity are the hallmark of these folk rituals.
As total expressions of human reality, the love poems in the Atharva Veda attain a special significance. Here kama is not only passion, but the mutual understanding which induces friendship between human beings. In the ninth chapter it is worshipped as the only power that can create human beings. Another motto of folk culture is togetherness. In the society of down-to-earth people, like the Atharva Vedic people, togetherness is of utmost importance and it is highlighted in many of the love songs in Athan;a Veda. The fervour of love expressed, the poetic images used and the depth of passion make these hymns very close to folk songs. Dr. Saxena has illustrated this especially with an example in which the marriage of surya (the sun-bride) with soma (the moon) is described. The vedic man accepts the individuality of his wife and many hymns in the Atharva Veda are symptomatic of his belief that it is important to develop a human relationship, basically related to love. Dr. Saxena observes that it is high time we reconsidered the literary merits of these love songs.
Death is an enigma, a riddle which modern science has been unable to solve so far. What happens after death is a subject of continued controversy. In the Vedas, however, the imagination of mrtyuloka is very clear. In the Atharva Veda there are hymns which clearly specify three lokas for the transmigration of bhootatma: manushya loka (the domain of human beings); devaloka (the domain of supra-physical energies) and pitri loka (the domain of the ancestors). An atma travelling to a loka apart from these, such as brahma loka settles there and does not transmigrate further. The Vedas do not believe in making death complicated and mysterious. The Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda both narrate the story of love between yarn and yami. This attitude of the seer-scientists towards death and paraloka illustrates their strong foundation in the folk tradition. The realisation that death, far from being equated with mortality, is self the best means of attaining immortality and that life-death continuum avoids any break in the experience is shared by folk culture and Atharva Veda.
Of all the Vedas, none has been as maligned as the Atharva Veda. But single book presents a colourful mosaic of life in its hymns on both emotional and philosophical aspects. In the common man’s life, which is society-oriented, stability of emotions is as important as gaining control over unpleasant emotions. Many hymns in the Atharva Veda illustrate the elegant manner in which the arva Vedic people dealt with psychology and emotions. The intelligent ice of metaphors not only illustrates the poetic imagination of the seer-scientists but also their co-related perception, which is the basis of all types of knowledge. Hymns on atmospheric forces, environment and mysteries of the universe illustrate that they always strove to bring about a harmony between human beings and nature.
The reference to prthvi in many hymns, especially in the twelfth chapter the Atharva Veda highlights a strong love for land which is another main aspect in folk culture. Dr. Saxena concludes by observing that one’s life time is sufficient to understand the Atharva Veda which is a, record of the history, culture, philosophy and life style of a different type of society. Her thesis is the Atharva Veda is not a book on high spirituality, but a people-friendly which while having a strong foundation in the folk tradition, helps people in facing mundane, quotidian problems in a psychological manner. The book thus introduces us to the realm of the philosophical system in the Atharva Veda, promoting an unbiased understanding of the darshana enunciated by the scholars vedic tradition. This work will definitely spur a long and sustained research into the rediscovery of this lost knowledge for the sake of the well being of mankind as a whole.
SUJA KURUP. Lecturer in English at Fathima Matha National College, Kollam. She has contributed articles to research journals and translations and presented papers at national and international seminars.