Cosmology in the Rigveda

The Third Premise

The following article was originally published in The Hindu on 9 July, 2002.

Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet

Director, Aeon Centre of Cosmology

The recent articles of David Frawley and Michael Witzel concerning a possible historic content in the Rig Veda have opened up areas that need to be explored. It is an undeniable fact that the work of scholars such as Frawley has dealt a blow to the upholders of the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), the colonial-inspired speculations on the origins of Indian civilisation. It was simply the product of a mindset that had to justify colonisation and wholesale destruction of ancient cultures. Finally it is being laid to rest and other voices are heard.

However, in the effort to disprove the quasi-defunct theory of a civilisation imported from perhaps Central Asia, the defenders of the age and place of the Saraswati Civilisation have also missed the point. David Frawley’s conjectures regarding the numerous references to oceans and seas in the Rig Veda are a case in point. While offering suggestive evidence that the composers of the hymns did not descend into the subcontinent from a landlocked region, Frawley’s interpretation of the Rig Veda as a purely historic document fails to take into consideration that the text is the product of the vision of Rishis; ‘poets’, according to Witzel. We cannot overlook this fact in seeking to unravel its mysteries.

It is curious that apart from Sri Aurobindo (The Secrets of the Veda), few are willing to accept the Vedic symbols for what they are. Thus, the true character of the text is lost, and the true historic value the Rig Veda does indeed contain. But this historic content has to be discovered on the basis of the language the Rishis employed. In this regard, I find Witzel has been more faithful to the original sense and purpose than Frawley.

For example, let us consider the sea imagery. Frawley and others have used it to reinforce their theories. However, lacking the proper preparation, scholars cannot appreciate the cosmological character of the Rig Veda. In a cosmological context – and none will deny the cosmic moorings of Vedic culture – the sea is the cosmic ocean in which the galaxies and systems are immersed. In some cases it is the ecliptic of our particular solar system in which the planets (‘ships’, ‘golden boats’) navigate. This does not displace the theories of a more mundane interpretation because, similar to dream experiences, the images chosen by the subject as ‘symbols’ in the night time experience are usually taken from the physical world he or she knows in the waking state.

We find this cosmic intent corroborated by Witzel. His reading of the references to oceans and seas is closer to the mark than Frawley’s. He quotes Rig Vedic references to the ‘four oceans’, or the ‘eastern and western oceans’; or else the Atharvaveda ‘northern, upper ocean’. All of these are clear and unmistakable pointers to the cosmological content of the Veda. They cannot be interpreted otherwise, as Frawley has sought to do. Specifically, they are references to the cardinal points on which the Earth is balanced as she voyages through the cosmic sea in orbit of the Sun. The Atharvaveda mention of the northern ocean is especially meaningful since that would refer to the Capricorn north cardinal point, precisely the ‘upper hemisphere’ in cosmic harmonies, which still today holds pride of place in Hindu culture. Witness the annual celebration of the Makar Sankranti, the Sun’s apparent entry into Capricorn (PNB, 1975, 1981, 2001, 2002). This month/sign, Capricorn, is further honoured in the Veda itself since it is in that month of the twelve that the Aryan warrior is victorious.

The ancient dictum of Hermes Trismegistos can be applied here: ‘As above, so below.’ The ‘above’ is the cosmic ocean that may well find its reflection in the physical ocean the Rishi knows so well in his experience of life in ancient Bharat. The sea, the river, the ocean were and remain such vibrant parts of the culture that their incorporation in the hymns does suggest that the Vedic people did not descend upon the subcontinent from some land-locked location; which in any case finds no mention in the Rig Veda, to my knowledge. But unless taken in its cosmic perspective, much of the true meaning is lost. Nor can the formulas involving cosmic energies (the Gods and Goddesses) of the Veda be applied today as they had been in the ancient past.

For instance, Frawley refers to the births of Agastya and Vashishta as ‘born in a pot or kumbha’, the Sanskrit word. He interprets this as ‘a vessel or a ship’ to reinforce his theory of a seafaring civilisation. To begin, I must indeed agree with Witzel that for a civilisation at home with the oceans as Frawley sustains, one fails to understand why the Rishi would need to make Agastya emerge from a pot if indeed he had been born at sea! A pot is a pot and a ship is a ship!

More to the point, in making this deduction Frawley misses an important clue. Kumbha in the Rig Veda is what it still is today, thousands of years after the hymns were recorded: the zodiacal sign Aquarius, the Water Carrier, who, from the jar he carries, dispenses upon the whole world the waters of a divine substance; it is known in Sanskrit as Kumbha. This is the same Kumbha that gives its name to the world-famous Mela we celebrate year after year during the very same zodiacal month of Kumbha (PNB, 1978, 1981, 2001, 2002).

A point needs to be made here. Myths evolve from the cosmic script, and not the reverse. In the Indian context regarding the Kumbha Mela, mythology tells us that the precious amrit from the Moon was taken in a jar back to Earth. Where drops of this immortalising substance fell, the ground was sanctified. Thereafter, celebrations were held in those locations according to specific planetary progressions. We can recognise here elements of the same cosmic script in the pictograph of the Aquarius Water Carrier.

Indian scholars will contend that these zodiacal figures are equally ‘imports’, similar to an ‘imported civilisation’. Therefore, those who seek to support their theories of an indigenous culture will argue that the zodiac as we know it today was brought to India by the Greeks, long after the Rig Veda was penned; and that therefore its symbols cannot possibly be found in the Veda.

These arguments are easily countered. A simple perusal of the praises to Vishnu (RV, I, 154) will prove that the so-called Western Zodiac was not only fully known in Vedic times but that it was a fundamental part of the culture (PNB, 1981). Vishnu’s famous three strides (to measure the universe) cannot be more revealing. The first ‘step’ is like a lion (Leo), according to the Veda; the second is a bull (Taurus); the third, and most revealing of all, is the Friend. This is the same Aquarius of Agastya’s birth, which is also known as the sign of the Friend. More conclusively, they are given in their correct backward moving order, and are Vishnu’s own zodiacal domains because of their quality of PRESERVATION (‘Fixed’ in zodiacal terminology, stable, balancing). This is just one among many explicit references in the Rig Veda to the tropical zodiac with the same symbols still in use throughout the world, except in India.

To further illustrate their universal reach, we find the very same images recorded in The Revelation of St John (Chapter 12, 7.), written on the Greek island, Patmos, around 70 AD (PNB, 1976). With respect to that same cosmic sea the visionary sees four ‘beasts’ therein: the first is a Lion, the second is a Calf, the third is a Man, and the fourth an Eagle. If the Eagle, the fourth sign, was left out of Vishnu’s measuring it is because this Eagle is Garuda, his own carrier. He begins his measuring from that point in the wheel, also known as Scorpio, and takes ‘three steps’. Scorpio, otherwise known as the zodiacal Eagle, would be the fourth in correct sequence, similar to John’s text.

The stumbling block in discovering the tropical zodiac in the Rig Veda is another ‘lobby’ we have to contend with: vested interests of the ‘Vedic Astrologers’. Witzel begins his rejoinder to Frawley by providing us with the latter’s credentials as a prominent practitioner of this school, an ‘unacademic’ pursuit.

I must take the matter a step further by reminding both Frawley and Witzel that the composers of the hymns did not have credentials that would satisfy contemporary academia. Their method of discovery was through Yoga, which opened up vistas as wide and as deep as the cosmic oceans of which they sang. To fathom the meaning of such texts it is clear that academic credentials are simply not enough; others are demanded. To begin, since the hymns reveal an indisputable cosmic content, surely this would be the best approach. But this is where the various ‘lobbies’ come in with their vested interests.

Frawley will not be able to make use of the zodiacal clues such as the births of Agastya and Vashishta from a ‘kumbha’ precisely because of his Vedic Astrology proficiency. Let it be clear that I make this point not to lend weight to Witzel’s contention that this lessens Frawley’s qualifications as a scholar, but rather that this involvement limits his perception.

Vedic Astrology is actually a misnomer. It has little to do with the Veda and should rather be called post-Vedic astrology (PNB, 2001, 2002). Though this would be a lengthy discussion and cannot be treated in this brief space, it has to be mentioned since it is responsible for the very clear cosmological/zodiacal content of the Veda to be missed. The propagators of so-called Vedic Astrology ignore references to the tropical zodiac simply because they refuse to believe that this zodiac, with the same hieroglyphs and pictographs we use today, can form a part of the Veda. This is another un-Vedic ‘import’, it is believed, a foreign imposition of a much later date, and hence it cannot be found in the ancient Veda. What they fail to admit is that their so-called Vedic Astrology finds no place at all in that Veda!

The Rig Veda is replete with references to what is now considered a tropical zodiac import and in no way related to the sidereal zodiac in vogue for the past 1000 years in India. This is another case in point to support Frawley’s closing statement, also quoted by Witzel but for different reasons. Frawley justifiably laments the fact that India, unlike any other nation on Earth, is so ‘negative’ regarding the ‘ancient glories of its land’. Following Frawley’s line, we must then question why India has such difficulty accepting the true origins of the zodiac used throughout the world today, clear traces of which are rooted in its own most ancient sacred text, thereby throwing an entirely new light on the subject of its origin as well as its age? This might well make India the originator of that cosmic script, and not Mesopotamia as currently believed. It would further clarify much of what is considered ‘history’, such as the kumbha of Agastya’s birth, mentioned above. Even more significantly, with this cosmological key, the Epics tell a very different story. Their ‘history’ is revealed.

There can be no doubt that Witzel has dealt the knock-out punch, at least for this round. His reading of the text is closer to the original conception, though he has no cosmological foundation to interpret the images accurately. Nonetheless, by calling the Vedic ocean ‘mythical’, and the description of the night time sky as that ‘ocean’, he has pointed readers in the right direction. His reading of the text is certainly closer to the ancient spirit.

I have given here only a few hints of the cosmological content of the Rig Veda (for further discussion, see However, I must close by stating that history is indeed recorded in the Veda, as well as in the Epics, but one has to use correct cosmic formulas to make this discovery, bearing in mind that the ancients were not at all concerned with keeping records for posterity as we do today. Their concern was the vast movement of consciousness and the oneness of micro and macrocosm; and the eternal character of the cosmos is what adds a timeless value to the language they used to compose the hymns. If we learn that language we can easily understand what appear to be cryptic phrases. However, we must also bear in mind that the Rig Veda is not a textbook or a manual. It is a collection of praises, hymns, in a free-flowing language whose multi-dimensions are largely ignored today. But in the Vedic Age, as the scripture reveals, this language was universal and required no elaboration. To make a connection with that ancient culture, we have to live the same inner experience, leaving aside the methods of scholarship for a while, as well as all our conditioned preferences and vested interests, if we want those symbols of another age to speak to us once again.

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