When the croak blended with the hymn

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

“The music of the Frogs comes forth in concert like the cows lowing with their calves beside them.” – 7.103.2. Rig Veda. When I set out to read the translation of the Rig Veda this summer, I had not expected to chance upon a line of this kind. Maybe none would. Why had this hymn on ‘frogs’, sandwiched between praise for Indra-Soma and Parjanya been hidden from me for all these years? Perhaps because the Veda was as Swami Vivekananda called it ‘eternal as the soul, without beginning and without end’. Perhaps the croak of the frog was too cacophonous in a work whose ‘every word is sacred and eternal’. Or rather perhaps I was simply ignorant. But the croak was something of a wake up call for me. In the tussle between the ‘ritualistic theory’, ‘the psychological theory’ and several ideological vantage points, the fauna, I felt, had been ignored. And the ‘Spotted’ and ‘Green’ frog were silent, nay, had been silenced.

So what are the frogs? The frog is a good omen in the Veda. The croak of the frog was said to foretell the coming of rains which were the axis of the agrarian society of the Vedic poets. The hymn has a thematic contiguity with the preceding hymn on Parjanya, rain anthropomorphised (Parjanya would therefore later be collapsed with Indra). The last hymn on Parjanya (102) which reads:

Sing forth and laud Parjanya, son of Heaven, who sends the gift of rain May he provide our pasturage. Parjanya is the God who forms in kine, in mares, in plants of earth, And womankind, the germ of life. Offer and pour into his mouth oblation rich in savoury juice: May he for ever give us food.

beautifully flows into the early verses of the frog hymn which read:

They who lay quiet for a year, the Brahmans who fulfil their vows, The Frogs have lifted up their voice, the voice Parjanya hath inspired.

The juxtaposition of the frog with the Brahmin is also notable; and was probably prompted by the fact that the role of the Brahmin was severely wound with rainfall. Not only were the sacrifices and Yajnas meant to please the Gods who would bestow rain to the villages; but also directly supposed to invite rain (as per the naturalism of the Vedic-Upanishadic corpus) via the smoke produced by the sacrificial fire. The hymns that accompanied the Yajna in the Vedic imagination gracefully blended with the croak.

The tender imagery surrounding the frog world that follows could pass off as a conception of a passionate nature-lover: conversations between the frogs, happy tears of the father frog on seeing his son, frogs giving men the bleat of the goat and the bellow of the cow.

The Rig Veda consistently asserts itself as a society that is pleased by heavy rains, swollen rivers, and bountiful harvests. The animals it extols originate in that sedentary space. The bull, for instance. (For my article on Nandi, the bull-god click here) The bull (when castrated, ox) is an instrument for ploughing the field and drilling canals. The bull transforms both the soil and river into sources of livelihood. The bull is used several times as a simile in describing the gods. One curious instance is that of Vishnu. Vishnu is a minor god in the Rig Veda. He unites the sky and earth with three strides (this would later be tied to the Vamana Avatara). His wide strides are compared to those of the bull in the first book. Several gods such as Vayu and Brihaspati are simply called ‘the bull’. The most important quality of the bull is his strength since it is that which allows the ploughing of the field. When Indra’s adventures are narrated, the bull becomes a suitable metaphor.

Indra, the Bull, made his ally the thunder, and with its light milked cows from out the darkness. (1.33.10 RV)

Moreover there is a particular semblance between the two. Indra is the destroyer of dams on rivers. By breaking fortresses, bridges, and dams, he allows the rivers and streams to flow freely. The annihilation of obstruction is a customary motif in the Vedic canon and obstructions are personified by the Dasyus and Asuras, Vrita and Vala. Indra is lauded greatly as the slayer of the two demons. Indra becomes as a result the god of flux. As I have said the bull plays a comparable role in the agrarian system. It allows water to flow to the fields. While taming the soil it sets the water free for the farmer, at least sets it visible for the farmer.

And the bull’s female counterpart – the cow needs no mention. The following hymn (XXVIII) from the 6th Mandala is dedicated to the cow:

These are ne’er lost, no robber ever injures them: no evil-minded foe attempts to harass them. The master of the Kine lives many a year with these, the Cows whereby he pours his gifts and serves the Gods. The charger with his dusty brow o’ertakes them not, and never to the shambles do they take their way. These Cows, the cattle of the pious worshipper, roam over widespread pasture where no danger is. To me the Cows seem Bhaga, they seem Indra, they seem a portion of the first-poured Soma. These present Cows, they, O ye Indra. I long for Indra with my heart and spirit

While the bull is associated with the taming of nature and therefore the consumption of power involved, the cow is associated with food and the final products and therefore the prosperity that abounds. Beyond question, cows enjoy a position of privilege in the Vedic society. They are a token and store of value.

However a question that can’t help but be touched upon is that of cow-eating in the Rig Veda. It is among the most hotly debated issues in Ancient Indian history. It might be useful to observe that Swami Vivekananda who I have quoted early in this article found justification for his opinion that beef consumption would do good to Indians, in the Vedas too. Much appears to hinge on the verse on Surya’s (the daughter of Savitr) wedding to Soma, in the Tenth Mandala. The translation I rely on reads as:

The bridal pomp of Sūrya, which Savitar started, moved along. In Magha days are oxen slain, in Arjuris they wed the bride.

The key is the term ‘GAvah’ which has been translated to cattle (the plural of ‘Go’). Many traditional scholars however contend that ‘Go’ stands for sun rays and that ‘hanyate’ should be read as reduction rather than slaying; therefore the line would now mean that in Magha days, the sun rays are reduced. Hence, this verse, argue traditional scholars, is a allegorical depiction of a natural phenomenon. Scarce are the chances for this debate to settle. We may in the meanwhile proceed to view more fauna.

Among the bovines, buffaloes also frequent the Veda. They are among the meat that Indra consumes. The seventh book in painting Indra’s ferocity claims that while Agni (with whom he is often paired) prepared three hundred buffaloes, Indra ate them and drank several lakes of Soma.

But an animal of a significantly variant order is the horse. It is an animal of glamour and aspiration in the Rig Veda. The horse could be described as a luxury good as against the necessity commodities in fowl and cattle. It is the vehicle of the heroes. The fifth book in talking about the wind-deities Maruts, says:

Where are your horses, where the reins? How came ye? how had ye the power? Rein was on nose and seat on back. The whip is laid upon the flank. The heroes stretch their thighs apart, Like women when the babe is born. (5.61)

Palpably, the contrast with the representation of say, cattle is stark. Furthermore, there are hymns dedicated to the  horse as well. Hymn 163 of the First Book refers to the emergence of the horse from the waters. It is said to be mounted by Indra. As is common to the Vedic poet, he calls the animal by different names including those of the beloved gods: “thou art Aditya” it says, and “thou art Yama”. The horse is then invited to follow a goat, its “kin” into a sacrifice. The sacrifice is presented in the preceding hymn as well. It seems to be a highly lavish sacrifice to which all the Gods and men are invited. All the 21st reader can say comfortably is, “as befits the beast”. The description of the  slaying:

May the fleet Courser’s halter and his heel-ropes, the head-stall and the girths and cords about him. And the grass put within his mouth to bait him,—among the Gods, too, let all these be with thee. What part of the Steed’s flesh the fly hath eaten, or is left sticking to the post or hatchet, Or to the slayer’s hands and nails adhereth,—among the Gods, too, may all this be with thee. Food undigested steaming from his belly, and any odour of raw flesh remaining, This let the immolators set in order and dress the sacrifice with perfect cooking. What from thy body which with fire is roasted, when thou art set upon the spit, distilleth, Let not that lie on earth or grass neglected, but to the longing Gods let all be offered. (1.162)

The serving:

They who observing that the Horse is ready call out and say, the smell is good; remove it; And, craving meat, await the distribution,—may their approving help promote labour. The trial-fork of the flesh-cooking caldron, the vessels out of which the broth is sprinkled, The warming-pots, the covers of the dishes, hooks, carving-boards,—all these attend the Charger. The starting-place, his place of rest and rolling, the ropes wherewith the Charger’s feet were fastened, The water that he drank, the food he tasted,—among the Gods, too, may all these attend thee. Let not the fire, smoke-scented, make thee crackle, nor glowing caldron smell and break to pieces. Offered, beloved, approved, and consecrated,—such Charger do the Gods accept with favour. The robe they spread upon the Horse to clothe him, the upper covering and the golden trappings, The halters which restrain the Steed, the heel-ropes,—all these, as grateful to the Gods, they offer. If one, when seated, with excessive urging hath with his heel or with his whip distressed thee, All these thy woes, as with the oblations’ ladle at sacrifices, with my prayer I banish.

In some verses the poets of the Veda having offered oblations to the gods request from them in the same breath: chariots, riches, and horses. Such verses give us a fair overview of the creative space that the horse occupies. And multiple times, Indra being the king of Gods is called ‘the horse’ too. In short, it needs no iteration that the horse was conceived as an animal that sits well with opulence.

The horse is also a good vehicle to soar to the skies. I am thinking of Dadikravan. Dadikravan is an air-borne animal that is associated with light and the dawns, Ushas and Asvinis. Some scholars read it as the horse of the Asvinis. A hymn dedicated to Dadhikravan from the fourth book says:

Let us recite the praise of Dadhikravan: may all the Mornings move me to exertion; Praise of the Lord of Waters, Dawn, and Agni, Brhaspati Son of Angiras, and Surya. Brave, seeking war and booty, dwelling with the good and with the swift, may he hasten the food of Dawn. May he the true, the fleet, the lover of the course, the bird-like Dadhikravan, bring food, strength, and light. His pinion, rapid runner, fans him m his way, as of a bird that hastens onward to its aim, And, as it were a falcon’s gliding through the air, strikes Dadhikravan’s side as he speeds on with might. (4.40)

The references to birds in the translations could very well seem an anomaly to the idea of the Asvinis’ horse. I must admit that I went a step further. I wondered while reading in summer if Dadikravan could be conflated with another bird-being in the Veda, Garutman.

One needs to be cautious in approaching Garutman. Garuda or Suparna finds little mention but a well-known verse in hymn 164 of Mandala 1 lists it among the various names of gods. We also see that this is a winged being. In the Rig Veda itself, Garutman is not associated with Vishnu. I do not reckon the mention of Garutman in any of Vishnu’s verses or vice-versa. However as we know later Garuda or Garutman enter Vaishnava iconography and acquired Vahana status. For that we would have to wait.

Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it. What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water? Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider. That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever. – (10.129) Rig Veda, on creation

About the Author:

I am Revanth Ukkalam a history buff and student at Ashoka University. To most people I am known as somebody who is either a hermit who has made his hostel room his haven or a wanderlust who has hit the road. In my room I read books almost entirely non-fiction. Being an obsessive reader has allowed me to write an amateur historical novel by my tenth standard, which was published by my high school. When I am not reading books, about books, or talking about them I find myself engrossed in classic Telugu films. I am also social-media savvy and on my Instagram handle ukkalam.ssr I write about literature and history and on the other handle, thesleepingbuddha I manufacture niche memes for lovers of Indian art. I publish occasional write-ups on www.prajnanambrahmablog.wordpress.com.

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