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 Indian Myths of the Origin of the World and of Man

By Andrew Lang

Hindu mythology  Comparison of Vedic and savage myths—The metaphysical Vedic account of the beginning of things—Opposite and savage fable of world made out of fragments of a man—Discussion of this hymn—Absurdities of Brahmanas—Prajapati, a Vedic Unkulunkulu or Qat—Evolutionary myths—Marriage of heaven and earth—Myths of Puranas, their savage parallels—Most savage myths are repeated in Brahmanas.
 

In discussing the savage myths of the origin of the world and of man, we observed that they were as inconsistent as they were fanciful.  Among the fancies embodied in the myths was noted the theory that the world, or various parts of it, had been formed out of the body of some huge non-natural being, a god, or giant, or a member of some ancient mysterious race.  We also noted the myths of the original union of heaven and earth, and their violent separation as displayed in the tales of Greeks and Maoris, to which may be added the Acagchemem nation in California.[1]  Another feature of savage cosmogonies, illustrated especially in some early Slavonic myths, in Australian legends, and in the faith of the American races, was the creation of the world, or the recovery of a drowned world by animals, as the raven, the dove and the coyote.  The hatching of all things out of an egg was another rude conception, chiefly noted among the Finns.  The Indian form occurs in the Satapatha Brahmana.[2]  The preservation of the human race in the Deluge, or the creation of the race after the Deluge, was yet another detail of savage mythology; and for many of these fancies we seemed to find a satisfactory origin in the exceedingly credulous and confused state of savage philosophy and savage imagination.

 

[1] Bancroft, v. 162.

[2] Sacred Books of the East, i. 216.

 

The question now to be asked is, do the traditions of the Aryans of India supply us with myths so closely resembling the myths of Nootkas, Maoris and Australians that we may provisionally explain them as stories originally due to the invention of savages?  This question may be answered in the affirmative.  The Vedas, the Epics and the Puranas contain a large store of various cosmogonic traditions as inconsistent as the parallel myths of savages.  We have an Aryan Ilmarinen, Tvashtri, who, like the Finnish smith, forged “the iron vault of hollow heaven” and the ball of earth.[1] Again, the earth is said to have sprung, as in some Mangaian fables, “from a being called Uttanapad”.[2]  Again, Brahmanaspati, “blew the gods forth like a blacksmith,” and the gods had a hand in the making of things.  In contrast with these childish pieces of anthropomorphism, we have the famous and sublime speculations of an often-quoted hymn.[3]  It is thus that the poet dreams of the days before being and non-being began:--

 

[1] Muir, v. 354.

[2] Rig-Veda, x. 72, 4.

[3] Ibid., x. 126.

 

“There was then neither non-entity nor entity; there was no atmosphere nor sky above.  What enveloped [all]? . . .  Was it water, the profound abyss?  Death was not then, nor immortality: there was no distinction of day or night. That One breathed calmly, self-supported; then was nothing different from it, or above it.  In the beginning darkness existed, enveloped in darkness.  All this was undistinguishable water.  That One which lay void and wrapped in nothingness was developed by the power of fervour.  Desire first arose in It, which was the primal germ of mind [and which] sages, searching with their intellect, have discovered to be the bond which connects entity with non-entity.  The ray [or cord] which stretched across these [worlds], was it below or was it above?  There were there impregnating powers and mighty forces, a self-supporting principle beneath and energy aloft.  Who knows? who here can declare whence has sprung, whence this creation?  The gods are subsequent to the development of this [universe]; who then knows whence it arose?  From what this creation arose, and whether [any one] made it or not, he who in the highest heaven is its ruler, he verily knows, or [even] he does not know.”[1]

 

[1] Muir, Sanskrit Texts, 2nd edit., v. 357.

 

Here there is a Vedic hymn of the origin of things, from a book, it is true, supposed to be late, which is almost, if not absolutely, free from mythological ideas.  The “self-supporting principle beneath and energy aloft” may refer, as Dr. Muir suggests, to the father, heaven above, and the mother, earth beneath.  The “bond between entity and non-entity” is sought in a favourite idea of the Indian philosophers, that of tapas or “fervour”.  The other speculations remind us, though they are much more restrained and temperate in character, of the metaphysical chants of the New Zealand priests, of the Zunis, of Popol Vuh, and so on.  These belong to very early culture.

What is the relative age of this hymn?  If it could be proved to be the oldest in the Veda, it would demonstrate no more than this, that in time exceedingly remote the Aryans of India possessed a philosopher, perhaps a school of philosophers, who applied the minds to abstract speculations on the origin of things.  It could not prove that mythological speculations had not preceded the attempts of a purer philosophy.  But the date cannot be ascertained.  Mr. Max Muller cannot go farther than the suggestion that the hymn is an expression of the perennis quaedam philosophia of Leibnitz.  We are also warned that a hymn is not necessarily modern because it is philosophical.[1]  Certainly that is true; the Zunis, Maoris, and Mangaians exhibit amazing powers of abstract thought.  We are not concerned to show that this hymn is late; but it seems almost superfluous to remark that ideas like those which it contains can scarcely be accepted as expressing man’s earliest theory of the origin of all things.  We turn from such ideas to those which the Aryans of India have in common with black men and red men, with far-off Finns and Scandinavians, Chaldaeans, Haidahs, Cherokees, Murri and Maori, Mangaians and Egyptians.

 

[1] History of Sanskrit Literature, p. 568.

 

The next Vedic account of creation which we propose to consider is as remote as possible in character from the sublime philosophic poem.  In the Purusha Sukta, the ninetieth hymn of the tenth book of the Rig-Veda Sanhita, we have a description of the creation of all things out of the severed limbs of a magnified non-natural man, Purusha.  This conception is of course that which occurs in the Norse myths of the rent body of Ymir.  Borr’s sons took the body of the Giant Ymir and of his flesh formed the earth, of his blood seas and waters, of his bones mountains, of his teeth rocks and stones, of his hair all manner of plants, of his skull the firmament, of his brains the clouds, and so forth.  In Chaldean story, Bel cuts in twain the magnified non-natural woman Omorca, and converts the halves of her body into heaven and earth.  Among the Iroquois in North America, Chokanipok was the giant whose limbs, bones and blood furnished the raw material of many natural objects; while in Mangaia portions of Ru, in Egypt of Set and Osiris, in Greece of Dionysus Zagreus were used in creating various things, such as stones, plants and metals.  The same ideas precisely are found in the ninetieth hymn of the tenth book of the Rig-Veda.  Yet it is a singular thing that, in all the discussions as to the antiquity and significance of this hymn which have come under our notice, there has not been one single reference made to parallel legends among Aryan or non-Aryan peoples.  In accordance with the general principles which guide us in this work, we are inclined to regard any ideas which are at once rude in character and widely distributed, both among civilised and uncivilised races, as extremely old, whatever may be the age of the literary form in which they are presented.  But the current of learned opinions as to the date of the Purusha Sukta, the Vedic hymn about the sacrifice of Purusha and the creation of the world out of fragments of his body, runs in the opposite direction.  The hymn is not regarded as very ancient by most Sanskrit scholars.  We shall now quote the hymn, which contains the data on which any theory as to its age must be founded:--[1]

 

[1] Rig-Veda, x. 90; Muir, Sanskrit Texts, 2nd edit., i. 9.

 

“Purusha has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet.  On every side enveloping the earth, he overpassed (it) by a space of ten fingers.  Purusha himself is this whole (universe), whatever is and whatever shall be. . . .  When the gods performed a sacrifice with Purusha as the oblation, the spring was its butter, the summer its fuel, and the autumn its (accompanying) offering.  This victim, Purusha, born in the beginning, they immolated on the sacrificial grass.  With him the gods, the Sadhyas, and the Rishis sacrificed.  From that universal sacrifice were provided curds and butter.  It formed those aerial (creatures) and animals both wild and tame.  From that universal sacrifice sprang the Ric and Saman verses, the metres and Yajush.  From it sprang horses, and all animals with two rows of teeth; kine sprang from it; from it goats and sheep.  When (the gods) divided Purusha, into how many parts did they cut him up?  What was his mouth?  What arms (had he)?  What (two objects) are said (to have been) his thighs and feet?  The Brahman was his mouth; the Rajanya was made his arms; the being (called) the Vaisya, he was his thighs; the Sudra sprang from his feet.  The moon sprang from his soul (Mahas), the sun from his eye, Indra and Agni from his mouth, and Yaiyu from his breath.  From his navel arose the air, from his head the sky, from his feet the earth, from his ear the (four) quarters; in this manner (the gods) formed the world.  When the gods, performing sacrifice, bound Purusha as a victim, there were seven sticks (stuck up) for it (around the fire), and thrice seven pieces of fuel were made.  With sacrifice the gods performed the sacrifice.  These were the earliest rites.  These great powers have sought the sky, where are the former Sadhyas, gods.”

The myth here stated is plain enough in its essential facts.  The gods performed a sacrifice with a gigantic anthropomorphic being (Purusha = Man) as the victim.  Sacrifice is not found, as a rule, in the religious of the most backward races of all; it is, relatively, an innovation, as shall be shown later.  His head, like the head of Ymir, formed the sky, his eye the sun, animals sprang from his body.  The four castes are connected with, and it appears to be implied that they sprang from, his mouth, arms, thighs and feet.  It is obvious that this last part of the myth is subsequent to the formation of castes.  This is one of the chief arguments for the late date of the hymn, as castes are not distinctly recognised elsewhere in the Rig-Veda.  Mr. Max Muller[1] believes the hymn to be “modern both in its character and in its diction,” and this opinion he supports by philological arguments.  Dr. Muir[2] says that the hymn “has every character of modernness both in its diction and ideas”.  Dr Haug, on the other hand,[3] in a paper read in 1871, admits that the present form of the hymn is not older than the greater part of the hymns of the tenth book, and than those of the Atharva Veda; but he adds, “The ideas which the hymn contains are certainly of a primeval antiquity. . . .  In fact, the hymn is found in the Yajur-Veda among the formulas connected with human sacrifices, which were formerly practised in India.”  We have expressly declined to speak about “primeval antiquity,” as we have scarcely any evidence as to the myths and mental condition for example, even of palaeolithic man; but we may so far agree with Dr.  Haug as to affirm that the fundamental idea of the Purusha Sukta, namely, the creation of the world or portions of the world out of the fragments of a fabulous anthropomorphic being is common to Chaldeans, Iroquois, Egyptians, Greeks, Tinnehs, Mangaians and Aryan Indians.  This is presumptive proof of the antiquity of the ideas which Dr. Muir and Mr. Max Muller think relatively modern.  The savage and brutal character of the invention needs no demonstration.  Among very low savages, for example, the Tinnehs of British North America, not a man, not a god, but a DOG, is torn up, and the fragments are made into animals.[4]  On the Paloure River a beaver suffers in the manner of Purusha.  We may, for these reasons, regard the chief idea of the myth as extremely ancient— infinitely more ancient than the diction of the hymn.

 

[1] Ancient Sanskrit Literature, 570.

[2] Sanskrit Texts, 2nd edit., i. 12.

[3] Sanskrit Text, 2nd edit., ii. 463.

[4] Hearne’s Journey, pp. 342-343.

 

As to the mention of the castes, supposed to be a comparatively modern institution, that is not an essential part of the legend.  When the idea of creation out of a living being was once received it was easy to extend the conception to any institution, of which the origin was forgotten.  The Teutonic race had a myth which explained the origin of the classes eorl, ceorl and thrall (earl, churl and slave).  A South American people, to explain the different ranks in society, hit on the very myth of Plato, the legend of golden, silver and copper races, from which the ranks of society have descended.  The Vedic poet, in our opinion, merely extended to the institution of caste a myth which had already explained the origin of the sun, the firmament, animals, and so forth, on the usual lines of savage thought.  The Purusha Sukta is the type of many other Indian myths of creation, of which the following[1] one is extremely noteworthy.  “Prajapati desired to propagate.  He formed the Trivrit (stoma) from his mouth.  After it were produced the deity Agni, the metre Gayatri, . . . of men the Brahman, of beasts the goat; . . . from his breast, and from his arms he formed the Panchadasa (stoma).  After it were created the God Indra, the Trishtubh metre, . . . of men the Rajanya, of beasts the sheep.  Hence they are vigorous, because they were created from vigour.  From his middle he formed the Saptadasa (stoma).  After it were created the gods called the Yisvadevas, the Jagati metre, . . .  of men the Vaisya, of beasts kine.  Hence they are to be eaten, because they were created from the receptacle of food.”  The form in which we receive this myth is obviously later than the institution of caste and the technical names for metres.  Yet surely any statement that kine “are to be eaten” must be older than the universal prohibition to eat that sacred animal the cow.  Possibly we might argue that when this theory of creation was first promulgated, goats and sheep were forbidden food.[2]

 

[1] Taittirya Sanhita, or Yajur-Veda, vii. i. 1-4; Muir, 2nd edit., i. 15.

[2] Mr. M’Lennan has drawn some singular inferences from this passage, connecting, as it does, certain gods and certain classes of men with certain animals, in a manner somewhat suggestive of totemism (Fornightly Review), February, 1870.

 

Turning from the Vedas to the Brahmanas, we find a curiously savage myth of the origin of species.[1]  According to this passage of the Brahmana, “this universe was formerly soul only, in the form of Purusha”.  He caused himself to fall asunder into two parts.  Thence arose a husband and a wife.  “He cohabited with her; from them men were born.  She reflected, ‘How does he, after having produced me from himself, cohabit with me?  Ah, let me disappear.’ She became a cow, and the other a bull, and he cohabited with her.  From them kine were produced.”  After a series of similar metamorphoses of the female into all animal shapes, and a similar series of pursuits by the male in appropriate form, “in this manner pairs of all sorts of creatures down to ants were created”.  This myth is a parallel to the various Greek legends about the amours in bestial form of Zeus, Nemesis, Cronus, Demeter and other gods and goddesses.  In the Brahmanas this myth is an explanation of the origin of species, and such an explanation as could scarcely have occurred to a civilised mind.  In other myths in the Brahmanas, Prajapati creates men from his body, or rather the fluid of his body becomes a tortoise, the tortoise becomes a man (purusha), with similar examples of speculation.[2]

 

[1] Satapatha Brahmana, xiv. 4, 2; Muir, 2nd edit., i. 25.

[2] Similar tales are found among the Khonds.

 

Among all these Brahmana myths of the part taken by Prajapati in the creation or evoking of things, the question arises who WAS Prajapati?  His role is that of the great Hare in American myth; he is a kind of demiurge, and his name means “The Master of Things Created,” like the Australian Biamban, “Master,” and the American title of the chief Manitou, “Master of Life”,[1] Dr. Muir remarks that, as the Vedic mind advances from mere divine beings who “reside and operate in fire” (Agni), “dwell and shine in the sun” (Surya), or “in the atmosphere” (Indra), towards a conception of deity, “the farther step would be taken of speaking of the deity under such new names as Visvakarman and Prajapati”.  These are “appellatives which do not designate any limited functions connected with any single department of Nature, but the more general and abstract notions of divine power operating in the production and government of the universe”.  Now the interesting point is that round this new and abstract NAME gravitate the most savage and crudest myths, exactly the myths we meet among Hottentots and Nootkas.  For example, among the Hottentots it is Heitsi Eibib, among the Huarochiri Indians it is Uiracocha, who confers, by curse or blessing, on the animals their proper attributes and characteristics.[2]  In the Satapatha Brahmana it is Prajapati who takes this part, that falls to rude culture-heroes of Hottentots and Huarochiris.[3]  How Prajapati made experiments in a kind of state-aided evolution, so to speak, or evolution superintended and assisted from above, will presently be set forth.

 

[1] Bergaigne, iii. 40.

[2] Avila, Fables of the Yncas, p. 127.

[3] English translation, ii. 361.

 

In the Puranas creation is a process renewed after each kalpa, or vast mundane period.  Brahma awakes from his slumber, and finds the world a waste of water.  Then, just as in the American myths of the coyote, and the Slavonic myths of the devil and the doves, a boar or a fish or a tortoise fishes up the world out of the waters.  That boar, fish, tortoise, or what not, is Brahma or Vishnu.  This savage conception of the beginnings of creation in the act of a tortoise, fish, or boar is not first found in the Puranas, as Mr.  Muir points out, but is indicated in the Black Yajur Veda and in the Satapatha Brahmana.[1]  In the Satapatha Brahmana, xiv. 1, 2, 11, we discover the idea, so common in savage myths—for example, in that of the Navajoes—that the earth was at first very small, a mere patch, and grew bigger after the animal fished it up.  “Formerly this earth was only so large, of the size of a span.  A boar called Emusha raised her up.”  Here the boar makes no pretence of being the incarnation of a god, but is a mere boar sans phrase, like the creative coyote of the Papogas and Chinooks, or the musk-rat of the Tacullies.  This is a good example of the development of myths.  Savages begin, as we saw, by mythically regarding various animals, spiders, grasshoppers, ravens, eagles, cockatoos, as the creators or recoverers of the world.  As civilisation advances, those animals still perform their beneficent functions, but are looked on as gods in disguise.  In time the animals are often dropped altogether, though they hold their place with great tenacity in the cosmogonic traditions of the Aryans in India.  When we find the Satapatha Brahmana alleging[2] “that all creatures are descended from a tortoise,” we seem to be among the rude Indians of the Pacific Coast.  But when the tortoise is identified with Aditya, and when Adityas prove to be solar deities, sons of Aditi, and when Aditi is recognised by Mr. Muller as the Dawn, we see that the Aryan mind has not been idle, but has added a good deal to the savage idea of the descent of men and beasts from a tortoise.[3]

 

[1] Muir, 2nd edit., vol. i. p. 52.

[2] Muir, 2nd edit., vol. i. p. 54.

[3] See Ternaux Compans’ Nouvelles Annales des Voyages, lxxxvi. p.  5.  For Mexican traditions, “Mexican and Australian Hurricane World’s End,” Bancroft, v. 64.

 

Another feature of savage myths of creation we found to be the introduction of a crude theory of evolution.  We saw that among the Potoyante tribe of the Digger Indians, and among certain Australian tribes, men and beasts were supposed to have been slowly evolved and improved out of the forms first of reptiles and then of quadrupeds.  In the mythologies of the more civilised South American races, the idea of the survival of the fittest was otherwise expressed.  The gods made several attempts at creation, and each set of created beings proving in one way or other unsuited to its environment, was permitted to die out or degenerated into apes, and was succeeded by a set better adapted for survival.[1] In much the same way the Satapatha Brahmana[2] represents mammals as the last result of a series of creative experiments.  “Prajapati created living beings, which perished for want of food.  Birds and serpents perished thus.  Prajapati reflected, ‘How is it that my creatures perish after having been formed?’  He perceived this:

‘They perish from want of food’.  In his own presence he caused milk to be supplied to breasts.  He created living beings, which, resorting to the breasts, were thus preserved.  These are the creatures which did not perish.”

 

[1] This myth is found in Popol Vuh.  A Chinook myth of the same sort, Bancroft, v. 95.

[2] ii. 5, 11; Muir, 2nd edit., i. 70.

 

The common myth which derives the world from a great egg—the myth perhaps most familiar in its Finnish shape—is found in the Satapatha Brahmana.[1]  “In the beginning this universe was waters, nothing but waters.  The waters desired: ‘How can we be reproduced?’  So saying, they toiled, they performed austerity.  While they were performing austerity, a golden egg came into existence.  It then became a year. . . .  From it in a year a man came into existence, who was Prajapati. . . .  He conceived progeny in himself; with his mouth he created the gods.”  According to another text,[2] “Prajapati took the form of a tortoise”.  The tortoise is the same as Aditya.[3]

 

[1] xi. 1, 6, 1; Muir, Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, 1863.

[2] Satapatha Brahmana, vii. 4, 3, 5.

[3] Aitareya Brahmana, iii. 34 (11, 219), a very discreditable origin of species.

 

It is now time to examine the Aryan shape of the widely spread myth about the marriage of heaven and earth, and the fortunes of their children.  We have already seen that in New Zealand heaven and earth were regarded as real persons, of bodily parts and passions, united in a secular embrace.  We shall apply the same explanation to the Greek myth of Gaea and of the mutilation of Cronus.  In India, Dyaus (heaven) answers to the Greek Uranus and the Maori Rangi, while Prithivi (earth) is the Greek Gaea, the Maori Papa.  In the Veda, heaven and earth are constantly styled “parents”;[1] but this we might regard as a mere metaphorical expression, still common in poetry.  A passage of the Aitareya Brahmana, however, retains the old conception, in which there was nothing metaphorical at all.[2]  These two worlds, heaven and earth, were once joined.  Subsequently they were separated (according to one account, by Indra, who thus plays the part of Cronus and of Tane Mahuta).  “Heaven and earth,” says Dr. Muir, “are regarded as the parents not only of men, but of the gods also, as appears from the various texts where they are designated by the epithet Devapatre, ‘having gods for their children’.”  By men in an early stage of thought this myth was accepted along with others in which heaven and earth were regarded as objects created by one of their own children, as by Indra,[3] who “stretched them out like a hide,” who, like Atlas, “sustains and upholds them”[4] or, again, Tvashtri, the divine smith, wrought them by his craft; or, once more, heaven and earth sprung from the head and feet of Purusha.  In short, if any one wished to give an example of that recklessness of orthodoxy or consistency which is the mark of early myth, he could find no better example than the Indian legends of the origin of things.  Perhaps there is not one of the myths current among the lower races which has not its counterpart in the Indian Brahmanas.  It has been enough for us to give a selection of examples.

 

[1] Muir, v. 22.

[2] iv. 27; Haug, ii. 308.

[3] Rig-Veda, viii. 6, 5.

[4] Ibid., iii. 32, 8.

 

 
 
 
 

 

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