Taking offence: Bangalore  starts a movement to shame Penguin Books



What was the relationship between the people who composed the Vedas (the ancient Sanskrit
texts beginning with the Rig Veda, in around 1500 BCE) and the people who lived in the Indus

River Valley? Where were the people of the Indus Valley Civilization after the end of the IVC? The
myth of the mutual creation of the gods Brahma (the creator) and Vishnu (one of the great male gods
of Hinduism) provides us with a basic metaphor with which to consider the connections between
Vedic and non-Vedic aspects of Hinduism. It is a third way of dealing with false dichotomies:
Where the image of the man/rabbit in the moon represented two simultaneous paradigms, and the
image of one woman’s head on another’s body represented the fusion of one culture with another,
the mutual creation of Brahma and Vishnu represents such a fusion in which neither can claim
The non-Veda, if I may call it that, has been a largely uncredited partner of Hinduism, for we have
heard it only at those relatively late historical moments when it crashed the Sanskrit club. The only
way we can tell the story of the literature of the Hindus is to begin with those texts that survived—
the Sanskrit texts—but at the same time we must acknowledge, right from the start, from the time of
the Rig Veda, the presence of something else in these texts, something that is non-Vedic.
Between about 2000 and 1500 BCE, one culture in Northwest India was dying and another was
beginning to preserve its poetry. Fade out: Indus Valley Civilization (IVC). Fade in: the Vedas.
Each of these cultures may have been in some way a prequel to Hinduism. The objects of the IVC,
things without words, give us a certain kind of information about the people who lived there, but no
evidence of where the people of the IVC went after the death of their cities (and, presumably, their
texts). With the Vedas we have the opposite problem, words without (most) things (just a few pots
and an altar or two), and many words about things, but without much physical evidence about the
daily life of the people who first spoke those words or, again, about where they came from. Before
we can begin to talk about people, however, we need to say a word about words, about language,
and about the prehistory of the people who composed the Rig Veda.


“ From the dawn of history, *Indo-European speakers lived in India, in the Punjab, where they
composed the Rig Veda.” A stronger version of the theory adds: “ They emigrated to Iran (where
they composed the Avesta), Anatolia (leaving that early Hittite inscription), Greece and Italy (where
they incorporated local languages to develop Greek and Latin), and, finally, ancient Britain.” (The
most extreme version of this guess adds: “ All the languages in the world are derived from
Sanskrit.”18) In this view, the Vedic people may have been, rather than invaders (or immigrants)
from southern Russia, “ indigenous for an unknown period of time in the lower Central Himalayan
regions,”19 particularly in the Punjab. A variant of this argument presupposes not the same
centrifugal diffusion that underlies the first two guesses (simply radiating from India instead of the
Caucasus) but a centripetal convergence, into India rather than from the Caucasus: Separate
languages came together in India, influencing their neighbors to produce a family resemblance; the
people who spoke those separate languages came together and then took back home, like souvenirs,
bits of one another’s languages.

Why couldn’t it have happened that way? In reaction to the blatantly racist spin and colonial
thrust of the first two guesses, which imply that Europeans brought civilization to India, this theory
says, “ Look, we in India had civilization before you Europeans did!” (This is certainly true; no
matter where they came from or what their relationship was, the people of the Indus were building
great cities and the people of the Vedas creating a great literature at a time when the British were
still swinging in trees.) And then it goes on to say, “ You came from us. The people who created
Vedic culture did not enter India; they began in India.” As a theory, it is reasonable in itself, but
there is considerable evidence against it,20 and both linguistic and archaeological arguments render it
even more purely speculative than the Aryan invasion theory. 21 It has the additional disadvantage of
being susceptible to exploitation by the particular brand of Hindu nationalism that wants the
Muslims (and Christians) to get out of India: “ We were always here, not even just since the Rig
Veda, but much, much earlier. This land was always ours.”


Theirs was a “ portable religion,”12 one that they carried in their saddlebags and in their heads. As
far as we can reconstruct their rituals from what is, after all, a hymnal, they made offerings to various
gods (whom we shall soon encounter below) by throwing various substances, primarily butter, into
a fire that flared up dramatically in response. The Vedic ritual of sacrifice (yajna) joined at the hip
the visible world of humans and the invisible world of gods. The sacrifice established bonds
(bandhus), homologies between the human world (particularly the components of the ritual) and
corresponding parts of the universe. Ritual was thought to have effects on the visible and invisible
worlds because of such connections, meta-metaphors that visualize many substances as two things at
once—not just a rabbit and a man in the moon, but your eye and the sun.
All the poems of the Rig Veda are ritual hymns in some sense, since all were sung as part of the
Vedic ceremony, but only some are self-consciously devoted to the meaning of the ritual. The verses
served as mantras (words with powers to affect reality) to be pronounced during rituals of various
sorts: solemn or semipublic rituals (royal consecrations and sacrifices of the soma plant), life cycle
rituals (marriage, funeral, and even such tiny concerns as a baby’s first tooth), 13 healing rituals, and
both black and white magic spells (such as the ones we will soon see, against rival wives and for
healthy embryos). Yet even here pride of place is given to the verbal rather than to the physical
aspect of the sacrifice, to poems about the origins and powers of sacred speech (10.71, 10.125). The
personal concerns of the priests also inspire considerable interest in the authors of the poems (most
of whom were priests themselves): The priest whose patron is the king laments the loss of his royal
friend and praises faith and generosity, while other priests, whose tenure is more secure, express their
happiness and gratitude (10.33, 101, 117, 133, 141).
Although detailed instructions on the performance of the rituals were spelled out only in the later
texts,bd the Rig Veda presupposes the existence of some protoversion of those texts. There were
animal sacrifices (such as the horse sacrifice) and simple offerings of oblations of butter into the
consecrated fire. The more violent sacrifices have been seen as a kind of “ controlled catastrophe,” 14
on the “ quit before you’re fired” principle or, more positively, as life insurance, giving the gods
what they need to live (soma, animal sacrifices, etc.) in order that they will give us what

The gambler’s wife is one of a more general company of long-suffering wives, devoted but often
deserted, who people ancient Hindu literature and the society that this literature reflects. In the Rig
Veda, a text dominated by men in a world dominated by men, women appear throughout the poems
as objects. Like the gambler whom Savitri warned, every Vedic man valued equally his two most
precious possessions, his cattle and his wife. A man needed a wife to be present when he performed
any Vedic sacrifice, though she had to stay behind a screen. 49 Women also appear occasionally as
subjects, even as putative authors, of Vedic poems (10.40, 8.91). 50 And women may have had a
voice in poems that treat women’s interests sympathetically, such as magic spells to incapacitate
rival wives and to protect unborn children in the womb (10.184), and in the Vedic ritual that an
unmarried virgin performs to get a husband.51 One of these latter poems is appropriately dedicated to
Indrani (“ Mrs. Indra”), the wife of Indra (who is, like his Indo-European counterparts—the Greek
Zeus and the Norse Odin, German Wotan—a notorious philanderer). It says, in part: “ I dig up this
plant, the most powerful thing that grows, with which one drives out the rival wife and wins the
husband entirely for oneself. I will not even take her name into my mouth; he takes no pleasure in
this person. Make the rival wife go far, far into the distance. [She addresses her husband:] Let your
heart run after me like a cow after a calf, like water running in its own bed (10.145).” Some spells,
like this spell to protect the embryo, are directed against evil powers but addressed to human
beings, in this case the pregnant woman: “ The one whose name is evil, who lies with disease upon
your embryo, your womb, the flesh eater; the one who kills the embryo as it settles, as it rests, as it
stirs, who wishes to kill it when it is born—we will drive him away from here. The one who
spreads apart your two thighs, who lies between the married pair, who licks the inside of your
womb—we will drive him away from here. The one who by changing into a brother, or husband, or
lover lies with you, who wishes to kill your offspring—we will drive him away from here. The one
who bewitches you with sleep or darkness and lies with you—we will drive him away from here
There is precise human observation here of what we would call the three trimesters of pregnancy
(when the embryo settles, rests, and stirs). Though the danger ultimately comes from supernatural
creatures, ogres, such creatures act through humans, by impersonating the husband (or lover! or
brother!) of the pregnant woman. This poem provides, among things, evidence that a woman might
be expected to have a lover, a suspicion substantiated by a Vedic ritual in which the queen is made
to list her lovers of the past year,br though that moment in the ritual may represent nothing more
than a “ jolt of sexual energy” that the wife, as locus of sexuality, particularly illicit sexuality (since
most forms of sex were licit for men), was charged to provide for the ritual.52 More substantial is the
early evidence in this poem of a form of rape that came to be regarded as a bad, but legitimate, form
of marriage: having sex with a sleeping or drugged woman. It appears that a woman’s brother too is
someone she might expect to find in her bed, though the Rig Veda severely condemns sibling
incest;53 it is also possible that the brother in question is her husband’s brother, a person who, as
we shall see, can have certain traditional, though anxiety-producing, connections with his brother’s
Women were expected to live on after the deaths of their husbands, as we learn from lines in a
funeral hymn addressed to the widow of the dead man: “ Rise up, woman, into the world of the
living. Come here; you are lying beside a man whose life’s breath has gone (10.18).” The poet
urges the widow to go on living. Certainly she is not expected to die with her husband, though
“ lying beside a dead man” may have been a survival from an earlier period when the wife was
actually buried with her husband;54 the Atharva Veda regards the practice of the wife’s lying down
beside her dead husband (but perhaps then getting up again) as an ancient custom.55 On the other
hand, women in the Vedic period may have performed a purely symbolic suicide on their husbands’
graves, which was later (hindsight alert!) cited as scriptural support for the actual self-immolation of
widows on their husbands’ pyres called suttee.
Several poems explore the relationships between men and women, mortal and immortal. These
poems present narratives centering on courtship, marriage, adultery, and estrangement, often in the
form of conversations (akhyanas) that zero in on the story in medias res, taking it up at a crucial
turning point in a plot that we are presumed to know (and that the later commentaries spell out for
us).56 The conversation poems, which often involve goddesses and heavenly nymphs, are
particularly associated with fertility and may have been part of a special ritual performance involving
actors and dancers.57 The dialogues with women present situations in which one member of the pair
attempts to persuade the other to engage in some sort of sexual activity; sometimes it is the woman
who takes the role of persuader,58 sometimes the man.59 In general, the mortal women and immortal
men are successful in their persuasion, while the quasi-immortal women and mortal men fail.60
Apala, a mortal woman, has a most intimate relationship with Indra, as we gather from the story
told in the poem attributed to her (a story spelled out by later commentaries) (8.91). She was a
young woman whose husband hated her (“ Surely we who are hated by our husbands should flee and
unite with Indra,” v. 4) because she had a skin disease (the ritual makes her “ sun-skinned,” v. 7).
She found the soma plant (“ A maiden going for water found soma by the way,” v. 1), pressed it in
her mouth, and offered it to Indra (“ Drink this that I have pressed with my teeth,” v. 2). Indra made
love to her; she at first resisted (“ We do not wish to understand you, and yet we do not
misunderstand you,” v. 3) and then consented (“ Surely he is able, surely he will do it, surely he
will make us more fortunate,” v. 4). She asked him to cure her and to restore fertility to her father
and to his fields (“ Make these three places sprout, Indra: my daddy’s head and field, and this part of
me below the waist,” v. 5-6). Indra accomplished this triple blessing (“ Indra, you purified Apala
three times,” v. 7) by a ritual that may have involved drawing Apala through three chariot holes
(“ in the nave of a chariot, in the nave of the cart, in the nave of the yoke,” v. 7), making her slough
her skin three times (according to later tradition, the first skin became a porcupine, bt the second an
alligator, and the third a chameleon61).
Apala wants to be “ fortunate” (subhaga), a word that has three closely linked meanings: beautiful,
therefore loved by her husband,bu therefore fortunate. In other poems, a husband rejects his wife not
because she lacks beauty but because he lacks virility (10.40); “ fortunate” then assumes the further
connotation of having a virile husband.bv Finally, it means having a healthy husband, so that the
woman does not become a widow. For his failing health too may be the woman’s fault; certain
women are regarded as dangerous to men. For instance, the blood of the bride’s defloration threatens
the groom: “ It becomes a magic spirit walking on feet, and like the wife it draws near the husband
(10.85.29).” The blood spirit takes the wife’s form, as the embryo-killing ogre takes the form of her
husband/lover/brother. Sex is dangerous.

One long poem (10.85) celebrates the story of the marriage of the moon and the daughter of the
sun, and another (10.17.1-2) briefly alludes to the marriage of the sun to the equine goddess
Saranyu. But these are not simple hierogamies (sacred marriages), for the celestial gods also share
our sexual frailties. To say that a marriage is made in heaven is not necessarily a blessing in the
Vedic world; adultery too is made in heaven. (In the Ramayana [7.30], Indra’s adultery with a
mortal woman creates adultery for the first time on earth.) The moon is unfaithful to the sun’s
daughter when he runs off with the wife of the priest of the gods (Brihaspati) (10.109). And the sun’s
wife, Saranyu, the daughter of the artisan and blacksmith Tvashtri, gives birth to twins (one of
whom is Yama, god of the dead) but then runs away from the sun. She leaves in her place a double
of herself, while she herself takes the form of a mare and gives birth to the horse-headed gods, the
Ashvins (10.17.1-2).62 Saranyu belongs to a larger pattern of equine goddesses who abandon their
husbands, for while stallions in Vedic ritual thinking are domesticated male animals (pashus), fit for
sacrifice, mares belong to an earlier, mythic Indo-European level63 in which horses were still
thought of as wild animals, hunted and perhaps captured but never entirely tamed.
Not all the females in the Rig Veda are anthropomorphic. Abstract nouns (usually feminine) are
sometimes personified as female divinities, such as Speech (Vach)64 and Destruction (Nirriti). There
are also natural entities with feminine names, such as Dawn and Night and the Waters (including the
Sarasvati River) and terrestrial goddesses, such as the nymphs (Apsarases), the forest, and Earth
(Prithivi), who is regarded as a mother. And there are divine wives, named after their husbands
(Mrs. Indra, Mrs. Surya, Mrs. Rudra, Mrs. Varuna, Mrs. Agni) 65 and at least one divine husband,
named after his rather abstract wife: Indra is called the Lord of Shachi (shachi-pati), pati meaning
“ husband” or “ master” (literally “ protector”) and shachi meaning “ power” (from the verb shak or
shach). Together, they suggest that Indra is the master of power or married to a goddess named
Shachi, which became another name for Indrani. So too later goddesses played the role of the shakti
(another form derived from the same verb) that empowered the male gods. But no goddesses (except
Vach, “ Speech”) have any part in the sacrifice that was the heart of Vedic religion.66
Most Vedic creator gods (like most Vedic gods in general) are male, but one Vedic poem
imagines cosmic creation through the down-to-earth image of a female, called Aditi (“ Without
Limits,” “ Infinity”), who gives birth to a baby