While working on my second post about Ṛgveda translation, I rediscovered some interesting Veda-related tidbits, and thought I’d share some stories and links while I get my research together.
Warning: Slightly fluffy post. This is more “fun with Ṛgveda” than anything.
***When Thomas Edison was ready to demonstrate his groundbreaking invention, the gramophone, he invited celebrated scholar Max Müller to make the first-ever recording. Müller chose to chant Ṛgveda I.1.1:
aghnimīḷe purohitaṃ yajñasya devaṃ ṛtvījam |
hotāraṃ ratnadhātamam ||
Addressing the European audience, he explained that he had selected the śloka because, “Vedas are the oldest text of the human race, and aghnimīḷe purohitaṃ is the first verse of Ṛgveda.” He then added, “In the most primordial time, when the people of Europe were jumping like chimpanzees, from tree to tree and branch to branch, when they did not know how to cover their bodies but with fig leaves, did not know agriculture and lived by hunting and lived in caves – at that remote past, Indians had attained high civilization, and they gave to the world universal philosophies in the form of the Vedas.”
The original recorded chant has been preserved here.
***And speaking of recording: Gustav Holst is best known as the composer of The Planets (opus 32), but his lesser-known works include the “symphonic poem” Indra (op. 13), the accompanied voice solos of Hymns from the Rig Veda (op. 24), and a selection of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (op. 26). For the latter two, Holst taught himself Sanskrit; finding the existing English translations of Ṛgveda too stilted for singing, he opted to create his own librettos.
In my opinion, the Choral Hymns and solo Hymns are musically fascinating, and sometimes sublime, but while Holst is so talented with orchestration, he sometimes lacks a good lyricist’s ability to wed syllables and notes seamlessly. Still, the results of his Sanskrit studies are well worth a listen.
(Opus 13 has been removed from YouTube, which is a shame; Indra is an instrumental interpretation of the Indra-Vṛtra battle. It’s an airy, almost delicate piece with surprisingly vibrant moments. If I again discover a link, I’ll post it here.)
***Other (Western) musicians have taken inspiration from Ṛgveda, with some unusual results.
The German vocalist Mona Mur, for example, has recorded an industrial/minimalist version of Griffith’s translation of Rig Veda VIII.93; a brief preview is available here.
And the final album of orchestral/electronic band E.S. Posthumus, Makara, had four tracks named for Vedic luminaries (Varuna, Ushas, Vishnu, and Indra); the pieces were used extensively in television Olympics coverage and throughout the 2010 Celebrity Master Chef.
*** A story now, to take a break from the music: Ṛgveda VIII.80 tells the tale of Apalā, a woman alone and rejected. (The reasons for this vary – she was ugly, she had a skin disease, she was barren – the hymn’s words have been interpreted many ways. The general idea is that there was something wrong with her.) She presses Soma for Indra, and when he comes to take the offering, she asks him for the boon of healing.
So Indra pulls the girl three times through the wheel of his chariot. She sheds flesh each time and emerges the third time beautiful, with “sun-like skin.”
According to folklore, the first layer of skin shed by Apalā, prickly and sharp, transformed into the hedgehog. The second layer, tough and rough, changed into the crocodile’s hide, and the third, smoother and changeable like Apalā herself, became the chameleon.
*** Finally, a lovely piece of news: Ṛgveda is to be included in UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” Register of 2007. The project intends to “honor significant landmarks in the documentary heritage and record them in its ‘Memory of the World Register’ as world’s inheritance. The program seeks to guard against collective amnesia, calling upon the preservation of the valuable archival holdings and library collections all over the world, ensuring their wide dissemination.”
Of course Ṛgveda, that eternal knowledge, would still exist even if every copy were destroyed and every singer silent. But still, Veda is a perfect choice for this endeavour, and I am glad that the folks in charge of this project felt the same way!
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