Saturday, May 2, 2009

Vak Ambhrini and Her Song of the Soul

Vak Ambhrini – Vak, the daughter of the Rishi Ambhrina. Or Vagambhrini, as her name is pronounced when the two names are combined. A rishika, female seer and author of mantras, in her own right.

Was she the first woman poet of the world?

We will never know. What we know for sure, though, is that she is among the oldest poets of the world. Her song appears in the Rig Veda. It is the hundred and twenty-fifth sookta of the tenth mandala [book] of the Rig Veda. The most common name for it is Vak Sookta, though it is known by other names too, such as Atma Sookta, Song of the Soul, and Devi Sookta, Song of the Goddess.

The majestic beauty of the Vak Sookta makes us wonder if poetry has ever reached greater heights!

The Vedas themselves describe their poetry as joyous streams bursting forth from the mountains. The Vak Sookta is that – a joyous stream bursting forth from the mountains.

But it is much more than that too. It comes to us with the power of a thundershower. The sookta is not just powerful, but power itself. It has at the same time the ephemeral loveliness of a rare winter blossom and the awesome majesty of the eternal Himalayas. The earth singing the song of its soul – that is what we feel when we go through the song, or, better still, when we let the song go through us. To experience the Sookta on a fine morning when the world is just awakening after a night’s serene slumber is to have a bath in the most sacred of teerthas – like a dip in the Manas Sarovar itself. And you feel the presence the Lord of Kailasa in the sookta, as at the Sarovar. He is there, sanctifying every syllable of the timeless sookta. And with him is the Mother Goddess, sanctifying each word of Vagambhrini’s sookta, and in the silences between the words.

Like other sooktas in the Vedas, the Vak Sookta too is a spontaneous outpouring of the poet-seer’s soul. An outpouring not from the ordinary dimension of human experience, but from the highest possible reaches of it. It is what we call revealed poetry. It is not a deliberate composition, wherein the poet sits down and thinks of each word that will go into the making of the poem. No, there is nothing like that here. The rishika has had a powerful experience – the most powerful experience possible, a hundred times, maybe a thousand times, more powerful than the most powerful experience we can imagine. The experience of herself, of her own self, an experience in which the experiencer, the experienced and the act of experiencing all merge and become one. An experience that is really no experience at all, since these distinctions have disappeared. The experience of her self as the soul of the universe, its very being. And she allows the ecstasy of her experience to pour out in words – that is the Vak Sookta.

The Vak Sookta is pure splendour – a celebration of the splendour that what we truly are. As we read it, listen to it, we feel poetry has never climbed to greater heights, nor reached more profound depths.

For what Vak experiences is that she is the mother of the universe, with all its gods and humans and every created thing. Hers is the ultimate spiritual experience, which the Upanishads speak of as ‘aham brahmasmi’.

English is a beautiful language. But it is not Sanskrit. All poetry translated into another language, and another culture, loses much of its beauty. And this is particularly true when you translate from ancient Sanskrit to modern English. The very consciousnesses of the two languages are different. In one of my classes an MBA student recently asked me how much we lose when we translate Sanskrit poetry into English. And I told him it is not how much I lose, but what we lose. Frequently, we lose the very soul of the poem.

In spite of that we have no real choice but to translate. So here is the original sookta in Sanskrit and an English rendering of it:

Aham rudrebhir vasubhiś charāmyaham ādityair uta viśvadevaih
Aham mitrā varunobhā bibharmyaham indrāgnee aham aśvinobhā. [1]

I move with the Rudras and also with the Vasus, I wander with the Adityas and the Vishwadevas. I hold aloft both Mitra and Varuna, and also Indra and Agni and the twin Ashvins.

Aham somam āhanasam bibharmi aham tvashtāram uta pūshanam bhagam
Aham dadhāmi dravinam havishmate suprāvye yajamānāya sunvate. [2]

I uphold Soma the exuberant; I uphold Tvasta, Pushan, and Bhaga. I endow with wealth the offerer of oblation, the worshipper and the pious presser of the Soma.

Aham rāshtrī sangamanī vasūnām chikitushee prathamā yajniyānām
Tām mā devā vyadadhuh puritrā bhūristhātrām bhooryāveśayantīm. [3]

I am the ruling Queen, the amasser of treasures, full of wisdom, first of those who are worthy of worship. That me the Gods have installed in all places, with many homes for me to enter and dwell in.

Mayā so annamatti yo vipaśyati yah prāniti ya ī śrnotyuktam
Āmantavo mām ta upa kshiyanti śrudhi śruta śraddhivam te vadāmi. [4]

Through me alone all eat the food that helps them see, breathe and hear the spoken word. He is not aware of me, yet he dwells in me alone. Listen, you who know! For, the words I speak to you deserve your trust.

Ahameva svayam idam vadāmi jushtam devebhir uta mānushebhih
Yam kāmaye tam tam ugram krnomi tam brahmānam tam rshim tam sumedhām [5]

It is I who announces the tidings that the gods and men alike rejoice to hear. The man I love, I make mighty in strength. I make him a priest, a sage, or a learned scholar, as I please.

Aham rudrāya dhanurā tanomi brahmadvishe śarave hantavā u
Aham janāya samadam krnomi aham dyāvā prthivee ā viveśa. [6]

I bend the bow for Rudra that his arrow may slay the hater of the words of sacred wisdom. I rouse the people, and make them strive. I have entered the Earth and Heaven, filling everything.

Aham suve pitaram asya mūrdhan mama yonir apsu antah samudre
Tato vi tishthe bhuvanānu viśvotāmūm dyām varshmanopa sprśāmi [7]

I give birth to the creator in the heavens atop the world and my own origin is deep in the ocean, in the cosmic waters. From there I permeate all existing worlds, and even touch yonder heavens with my forehead.
Ahameva vāta iva pra vāmi ārabhamānā bhuvanāni vishvā
Paro divā para enā prthivī etavatī mahinā sam babhūva [8]

It is my breath that blows as the mighty wind, while I hold together all the worlds.
Beyond the heavens and above the earth I tower, such am I in my might and splendour.


What power, what grandeur, what splendour! And what superb poetry! That is Vagambhrini, the seer who has realized her oneness with the essence of the universe and declares it in proud words that send thrills through our hearts.

I must say a few words on some words in Vagambhrini’s Sookta, considering that they come to us from such a faraway time.

Sayana, the ancient commentator of the Vedas, explains the word ‘dravina’ used in the 2nd mantra, for which I have used the word wealth, as karmaphala, the result of actions. Thus according to him the mantra means it is she that grants us the results of our actions, good and bad. It is the word ‘vasu’ in mantra 3, translated here as treasure, that he takes to mean wealth. Sayana explains the word samudra in mantra 7, translated here as the ocean, as the source of all life.

Pt Satyakam Vidyalankar interprets the words Rudra and Vasu in mantra 1 as the cosmic forces of vitality and wealth, and the words Adityas and Vishvadevas in the same mantra as luminaries and celestial powers. To him Mitra and Varuna are the cosmic sources of water and light, and Indra, Agni and the Ashwins, the centres of energy, light and life. Pandit Vidyalankar thus translates the first mantra of the Sookta as:

I move the cosmic forces of vitality and wealth
The luminaries and all celestial powers
I sustain the cosmic sources of water and light
I am the centre of energy, light and life
Given by the sun, air, fire and
All other beneficial cosmic forces.

Beautiful, isn’t it! Perhaps this is how, in their own way, the Vedic people understood Rudra and Vasu, Adityas and Vishvadevas, and Mitra and Varuna and so on!


Incidentally, the Rig Veda has an amazing thirty rishikas – women seer poets – whose works have come down to us from that ancient world! I know of no other major scripture, anywhere in the world, from any culture, that contains mystic poetry revealed to women. Except in the Vedas, nowhere else were women considered fit for such revelations. How sad, when you think of it! For it is far easier for women to experience the divine than to man and throughout history there must have existed countless women who have had such experiences. What an irreparable loss for us, their children!


Note: In rendering the Vak Sookta into English, I have borrowed heavily from Griffith’s translation and from another old translation whose author I do not know. I was also aided in my work by a brief commentary on the Sookta by Swami Akhandananda Saraswati and the Hindi translation of the Rig Veda by Dr Ganga Sahay Sharma.

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