Creation in the Rig Veda

Exterior (shutters) of The Garden of Earthly Delights — Wikimedia Commons

One of its several narratives in comparative perspective

The Ṛg Veda contains various accounts of the creation of the universe, including the famous Nāsadīya Sūkta which I have previously discussed. That sets out a rather philosophically sophisticated and speculative idea about a single monistic principle whereby the universe comes into being or brings itself into being. According to another, we might say, more practical account, creation of the universe is described in terms of the raw material it was made from. As Professor Stella Kramrisch explains –

“Other creation myths of the cosmos are by sacrifice or by art. Each of these presupposes a materia prima: the Puruṣa, or cosmic Man, whom the gods sacrifice into creation (10.90), or a sculptor’s clay or metal which Viśvakarman molds or welds together into the shapes of heaven and earth (10.81.2,3), or else wood out of which the gods made heaven and earth (10.81.4).”

However, the main creation myth in the Rig Veda is one where Tvaṣṭṛ and Indra are the responsible parties. At a first stage, the god Tvaṣṭṛ created the sky and earth to the raw material to build himself as a home. As Professor W. Norman Brown explains

“Earlier than Sky and Earth, that divine pair, was the god Tvaṣṭṛ … When he made sky and earth, his idea seems to have been very immediate and personal: they constituted a house … and he made them together”

However, Tvaṣṭṛ was not destined to live peacefully in this new home for long. Owing to a soma-related altercation between Tvaṣṭṛ and Indra which I have described elsewhere, Indra –

“drank the soma that made him expand and be strong, and he forced apart Heaven and Earth filling the space between them and being, we may suppose, the informing power of the atmosphere.”

As Prof. Kramrisch explains, this was an act of violence at the point of creation of our universe –

“The act of separating the monad and making two who had been one is the work of a third. He is the creator god of this world. … God Indra, in particular, is the creator of this world. He separated heaven and earth, made them two … The act of creative violation and the power of keeping apart the pair so that they become Father Heaven and Mother Earth … is the test by which a creator god establishes his supremacy. … He is hero and artist in one.”

We see this act of creative strength in verses such as the following, where Tvaṣṭṛ is building his home –

This is the most skilful of skilful gods who produced the omnibenevolent Sky and Earth,

Who carefully measured out the two atmospheres [and] adorned them with undecaying pillars.

[Ṛg Veda 1.160.4 of Ṛṣi Dīrghatamā Aucithyaḥ; my own translation]

Indeed, there are striking parallels between this Vedic story and the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish. Recorded on tablets from the 7th century B.C. library of Ashurbanipal, it is thought to originally date from perhaps up to a thousand years earlier, or the 19th century B.C. As the Ancient History Encyclopaedia explains –

“From a regional agricultural deity, Marduk took on increasing significance for the city of Babylon … becoming finally the most important and powerful god of the Babylonian and wider Mesopotamian pantheon … The Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, tells the story of Marduk’s rise to power.”

Salient points of similarity include the battle between Tiamat, who takes on the form of a dragon, and Marduk. After slaying Tiamat, Marduk uses the material from her corpse in creation. As Wikipedia explains –

“Slicing Tiamat in half, he made from her ribs the vault of heaven and earth. Her weeping eyes became the source of the Tigris and the Euphrates, her tail became the Milky Way.”

Stefan Stenudd explains that there appear to be two separate and independent creation myths combined in the Enuma Eilsh narrative, one about the raw materials from which the universe was created, and the other a more abstract conception, paralleling the two creation accounts in Genesis –

“The first one is in the beginning, where the waters of Tiamat and Apsu are joined, and the second one is when Marduk has killed Tiamat and uses her corpse to build the world. The similarity to Genesis is obvious: In Genesis I the first creation is done in seven days, in Genesis II it is done again, but in a different order and with differing methods.”

Indeed, in an earlier phase of the story, there is a battle between Ea and Apsȗ, where Ea slays Apsȗ and then seemingly turns his body into a home for himself, perhaps a bit like how Tvaṣṭṛ created Heaven and Earth to be his house at the first stage of the Rig Vedic creation story.

“He bound Apsû and killed him …

He set his dwelling upon Apsû …

He called it Apsû, whose shrines he appointed …

Then he founded his living-quarters within it …”

[Enuma Elish Tablet 1 lines 69, 71, 76, 77]

Further, just as Indra is a second-generation god who came to be more prominent than the earlier-generation of gods such as Varuṇa and the Nāsatyas (Aśvins), similarly Marduk is a late-generation god from the Old Babylonian period who came to be more prominent than the older gods such as Ea and Enlil. The function of attributing the heroic deed of slaying the dragon (Vṛtra/ Tiamat) in both cases facilitates the rise of the new deity (Indra/ Marduk) to chief position.

There are indeed many close parallels between these two creation myths beyond those mentioned here, and doubtless also with other ancient creation myths, such as that of Genesis, and also the ancient Greek creation myth, which features a struggle between supreme god Zeus and the monster or dragon Typhon. We may end with a benediction from the Rig Veda which captures the ancient cosmology –

These two, Sky and Earth, omnibenevolent, well-ordered — maintain the poet of the middle atmosphere.

The bright sun moves according to dharma between two well-made bowls [which are] two goddesses.

[Ṛg Veda 1.160.1 of Ṛṣi Dīrghatamā Aucithyaḥ; my own translation]

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