Talking with the rivers

A translation from the Rig Veda

Image: Beas River at Kullu, Himachal Pradesh – Wikimedia Commons (Jupitus Smart)

Rivers have been revered since time immemorial in cultures across the world.  For ancient peoples, the pure waters provided by rivers to drink and to water crops must have seemed to be a blessing from nature or from the gods.  In the Rig Veda, the sapta-sindhu or seven rivers stand pre-eminent.  Two among these, the Vipāśā (Beas) and Śutudrī (Satluj) rivers are the interlocutors of the sage Viśvamitra in a fascinating and unique conversation translated here.

An earlier article discussed how poets in the Indo-European tradition have been called on to render the great deeds of warriors into verse so that they will be remembered by posterity.  In this conversation, we now see how these two rivers make terms with Viśvamitra, agreeing to both check their flows so that he and his party can ford them.  And in return, Viśvamitra will memorialise in verse the heroic deed of Indra in slaying the dragon Vṛtra, thereby commemorate the rivers themselves, and also guarantees that they may resume their flow after his party has crossed.

The Rig Veda is well-known for its wordplay, and here we find a nice play on the expression ‘namaste’ in the verse.  The rivers greet Viśvamitra with ‘namaste’, , the literal meaning of which is about bowing down, and indeed Viśvamitra’s request to them is that they bow down so that their tide is low.  In agreeing to do so, at a practical level, they become easily fordable by Viśvamitra and his party, and at a symbolic level, they perhaps show respect to Viśvamitra for his prowess in poetry, a venerable skill indeed, that has allowed the memory of these bronze-age activities to be retained up until the present day. We may also say that Viśvamitra has kept his word to the rivers inasmuch as the heartfelt worship and devotion to these and other rivers across the world still goes on.

The dynamism of the waves leaping and crashing forward is also vividly depicted by the writer of this verse.  Another feature is that Viśvamitra sometimes seem to use the third person, both when referring to himself and when referring to the rivers.

In making this translation, I consulted the translations by Professors Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton and by Prof. Ralph Griffith, both of which I found very helpful.  As Prof. Jamison and Prof. Brereton write, “That it is the poet who succeeds in temporarily stopping the rivers is yet another example of the power of properly formulated speech to control the physical world.”

Viśvamitra speaks –

Eagerly leaping forward from the lap of the mountains, like unbridled mares,
Brightly as mother cows licking [their calves], the Vipāśā and Śutudrī rush and flow

Let loose by Indra, coursing, longing to move towards the sea, like a chariot-horse,
Surging, crashing with waves, flowing into each other, bright ones

To the very motherly river I have come, [and] to the broad, beautiful Vipāśā we have come,
Like mothers licking a calf, heading towards the same repository.

The rivers speak –

Yes, we are surging with flow, heading towards the repository ordained by the gods,
Streams rushing forward, course unchecked.  With what wish does the sage invoke us?

Viśvamitra speaks –

Stop your flowing for a moment, you ordained ones, for my pleasant speech.
[I have] an important request for the river.  Wanting help, I, son of Kuśika, invoked [you].

The rivers speak –

Indra, wielding [his] vajra, rent us into our channels.  He destroyed Vṛtra, who had kept in the rivers.
Savitṛ, dexterous god, led [us].  We broad [rivers] go along his course.

This heroic deed of Indra should be celebrated forever, that he cut down the serpent.

He destroyed the blockade.  The waters came back, desiring a course.

Eulogist, do not neglect these words until later generations proclaim them due to you.

Poet, cherish us in [your] verses.  Don’t make us dishonoured among people.  Namaste.

Viśvamitra speaks –

Oh, good sisters, listen to the poet. He has come to you from afar, with waggon [and] with chariot.
Bow down easily.  Rivers, be easy to ford, with your tides below axle-height.

The rivers speak –

Poet, we will listen to your words.  You have come from afar, with waggon [and] with chariot.
I will bow down to you like a swelling maiden.  I will open my arms for you like a young woman to a young man.

Viśvamitra speaks –

When the Bharatas, a troop striving to gain cattle, driven forward by Indra have got across you,
[Your] current, course unchecked, will speed on.  I grant you [this], [you] who are benevolent [and] worthy of the sacrificial ritual.

The Bharatas, desirous of cows, have crossed.  The sage has received the kindness of the rivers.
Surge forward, speeding along, giving prosperity.  Fill yourselves to the brim.  Go fast.

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 3 Sūkta 33 Verses 1-12 (all except last verse) of Ṛṣi Gopavana Ātreya; my own translation]

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