One of the more controversial subjects relative to the Vedas would certainly be the Purushamedha and Ashvamedha rituals.There has been significant conflict between academics and traditional scholars pertaining to the meaning and practice of these rituals. In this article, I suggest a new examination, not of the literal rituals, but in the sound structure and a new application of vowels of said terms, and I suggest a new model for interpretation of this and other key terms within the Vedas.
Academics have commonly used the argument that the Purushamedha is a reference to a human sacrifice.[i] An idea that is commonly offensive to many followers of Hinduism, as this concept is commonly used to invalidate Hinduism. No doubt on the level of the words themselves, it would initially appear compelling, especially considering the meaning of the term medha. As a masculine noun, medha does literally refer to a sacrifice. And some academics appear to view Purusha in terms of a literal human being. Their argument is that their conclusion is arrived through deductive reasoning and critical thinking, something I have, on occasion, personally observed some academics criticize Hindus for having a lack of. Some academics have implied that Hindus lack skills in critical thinking and the ability to present a logical fact based argument.
The problem, in my opinion, is that often the Indology academic prefers to work within a limited and/or literal form of interpretation when convenient. Such thinking has birthed repressive ideologies such as the Aryan Migration, which was rooted in a need to reconcile Biblical timelines. Many are not aware that the commonly known Aryan Invasion initially appeared as an Aryan Migration, per Abbé Dubois. (Klostermaier-loc 593)[ii], this ‘theory’ was purchased by none other than the infamous East India Company and the rest is literally ‘history’, albeit a distorted history from the position of tradition. (Klostermaier-loc 593)[iii] For these reasons, there is a need for additional theological arguments based upon traditional insight, application and a deeper understanding of the Vedas.
Though the eyes of the traditionalist, the view is quite different. While academics and traditionalists would concur that medha is a masculine noun and both would concur that medha does refer to a sacrifice, the traditionalist does not see Purusha as a literal person, rather it is viewed as a cosmic sacrifice. In reality, with even a simplistic reading of the Purusha Suktam this should be obvious, as the first verse states:
The Purusha has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes and a thousand feet. He permeates the earth and (in all directions) universe and extends beyond 10 fingers.
Rg Veda 10.90.1[iv]
Translation by Yogi Baba Prem
In light of this, it should be somewhat obvious to a reader that the reference is more cosmic than an individual. Yet, the conflict in interpretation is persistent and long-lived.
Likewise, the same could be said for the Ashvamedha. While the Ashvamedha is commonly viewed as a literal horse sacrifice, the question remains, ‘Could there be more depth in the meaning of Ashvamedha than simply a literal horse sacrifice?’
Resolution Based Upon Tradition
My argument to resolve these diametrically opposed views involves a new examination of the Vedas. (Here references to the Vedas will refer to the Rg Veda.) Within the Vedas, masculine and to a lesser degree neuter nouns are somewhat prolific. Feminine nouns are less frequent, which has often led to a pseudo belief that the feminine is not represented within the Vedas, despite compelling evidence otherwise.
An examination of a rik or verse within the Vedas reveals two primary factors, namely the word (as in written form in this age which is given a masculine attribute via being written) and the expression/pronunciation of the word or sound (which is feminine).[v] The pronunciation of the word is given a feminine quality regardless of the noun being masculine, feminine or neuter. This is represented by the Vedic deity Vak or speech, which is feminine. The word and the pronunciation of the word are in effect a concept that is more aligned with tantra and marks the appearance, within the Vedas, of what later became known as the tantric tradition.
Tantra within the Vedas, and for our purposes, is a weaving together, and for our purposes, a weaving together of masculine and feminine principles.[vi] This idea of tantra is furthered by the view that a rik or verse, when comprised of two lines, favors one line representing the masculine and one the feminine.The chanting of the two lines together is a tantric merging of the masculine and feminine. The question arises, “Could there be a deeper layer of tantric concepts within the Vedas? And relative to our two terms in question (Purushamedha/Ashvamedha), is there a significant relationship between the Sanskrit letters ‘a’ and ‘ā’ at the end of each word?”
There are three primal vowels that have long forms: a, i and u. (We are not considering rules of prosody within this article.) To examine the questions from the previous paragraph and to stay within the context of this article, we will use medha and medhā. As already noted, medha is a reference to a sacrifice and is a masculine noun. Medhā is a reference to knowledge, wisdom and even a facet of the intellect. It is a feminine noun. One must wonder, “Are their two obvious streams hidden within the Vedas?” Meaning the short ‘a’ being the manifestation of the masculine, as in Purushamedha meaning the sacrifice of the Purusha, and a second hidden meaning being the feminine noun (ā), as in Purushamedhā meaning knowledge of the Purusha?
To examine this, one must recognize that the aksharas (Sanskrit letters) represent an unfolding of consciousness. In this model, ‘a’ represents pure consciousness and ‘ā’ represents the first energy to unfold from consciousness. (Frawley) ‘Ā’ is the initial expansion of consciousness, and within some traditions, the sound ‘a’ is viewed as Shiva and ‘ā’ is viewed as shakti. (Frawley) Within the Shaivite tradition, the relationship between ‘a’ and ‘ā’ is sometimes seen as a relationship between Shiva and Shakti.[vii]
It appears that when examining Purushamedha, as a word, an alternative interpretation would be Purushamedhā indicating knowledge of the Purusha. In other words, tantra is applied to weave the masculine and feminine nouns together, not to create some sort of neuter noun, rather to create deeper insight and understanding into the meaning of the term in question.
Understanding the Symbology of Ashvamedha.
While academics persist in focusing on only a literal horse sacrifice in the Ashvamedha, the greater picture is commonly missed by focusing upon the masculine noun without additional inquiry. Within the texts themselves, we see the horse sacrifice eventually became a goat sacrifice. And greater clarity is provided by the Shatapatha Brahmana which is clear in defining the goat as speech.[viii] This indicates that the sacrificial offering is speech, which would be known as the feminine expression of the Vedic word. Here goat (aja) is spelled in the masculine but is merged with feminine expression (word and speech). If the goat is speech, then the ashva (horse) is prana. As speech and prana are powerfully connected with one another and commonly known as Vak shakti. This view would be supported by the feminine counterpart of ashvamedhā, or feminine expression of the word supporting ‘knowledge of the horse’, ‘or knowledge of prana/speech.’
I have briefly illustrated how the relationship of masculine and feminine is ubiquitous within Hindu thought and tradition, as well as the Rg Veda. It is quite likely that an undercurrent between masculine and feminine is found throughout the Vedas and its grammatical structure. Allowing one to gain literal understanding from the gender noun presented in the text and a profound glimpse into a deeper message within the Vedas via the concurrent feminine form. If correct, this clearly resolves the conflict between traditionalist and academics and clearly tilts the scale significantly toward the traditionalist. It is unclear if this view can be applied equally to all nouns, yet tradition does allow for numerous interpretations of the texts. It is my hope that this will inspire others to investigate this further.
[i] Mitra, Rajajendralala “On Human Sacrifice in Ancient India” Journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal Vol. XLV part 1, P.118 1876
[ii] Klostermaier, Klaus K. “A Survey of Hinduism” 3rd ed. 2007 Albany:SUNY
[iv] Sanskrit Text taken from the “Rg Veda” 10.90.1-2 Translation by Yogi Baba Prem
[v] Frawley, David “Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound: Secreets of Seed (Bija) Mantras” 2010 Twin Lakes:Lotus Press This view is introduced and supported by David Frawley
[vi] Within the Vedas, the term tantra appears but refers to weaving together. Academics have tried to separate Vedic and Tantric despite traditions views that are different and examples found within two Gitas (Bhagavad and Uddhava) that refer to both traditions in one sentence, as well as the suggestion by others that they are not separate systems as described by academics.
[vii] This view of Shiva/Shakti representation with ‘a’ and ‘ā’ is introduced and supported by David Frawley in his book “Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound” Obviously, there are numerous views found within a variety of traditions.
[viii] Kak, Subhash “The Ashvamedha, The Rite and its Logic” 2004 Delhi:Motilal Banarsidass Transliterated Sanskrit text is also used from this text referencing the “Shataphata Brahamana.”
The article has been republished from author’s blog with permission.
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Yogi Baba Prem Th. D (religious) Yogacharya, Veda Visharada has studied the classical systems of yoga and has been focused on the Vedas for the past 13+years. He has studied Upavedas and Vedangas such as Ayurveda, Jyotish and spends most of his time in contemplation of the Vedas and related Vedic texts. His Vedic Study has been under the direction of Dr. David Frawley (Acharya Vamadeva Shastri). He is an Acharya under the lineage of Mahavatar Babaji. He has written several books including ‘An Introduction to Astrological Yoga’ which examines the relationship between the Vedas, astrology and yoga. Learn more about his work at www.vedicpath.com