The following thesis is likely to scandalize many Hindus. It concerns the venerable sound Om, or Aum. This was chosen by the Vedic editor, known only as “editor” (Vyasa), to be the very first word of the Rg-Veda: Aum agnim ile…, “I worship the Fire…” Its written form, the Aum sign, is universally recognized as the symbol of Hinduism. So, a lot is at stake when we open the discussion on its origin.
What I will be saying here is essentially that Hindu spirituality, which since Swami Vivekananda calls itself “scientific”, has evolved just like science. The truth was not revealed by a supernatural being at the beginning. Instead, the first discoveries were humble and then a gradual progress was made.
Thus, the doctrine of reincarnation and karma was not there since the beginning. On the contrary, the Rg-Veda is silent about it, and the Chandogya Upanishad explicitly describes how it was newly introduced. Attention, please: it is not the much-maligned “Western Orientalists” who invented this, but the most venerated Hindu scripture itself that says it.
This does not imply that the belief in reincarnation didn’t exist in Vedic times. Just like Vedic Sanskrit was only one among several Indo-Aryan dialects (which have brought forth the present North-Indian languages), and just like the Vedic religious tradition was but one among several (preserved in the much later recorded Puranas), beliefs about the afterlife were several and coexisted. We similarly find belief in reincarnation, belief in an afterlife and the belief that everything ended at death existed side by side among the Greeks and Romans and other peoples.
But fact remains that in the Rg-Veda, the belief in reincarnation is absent. Instead, there was an explicit belief, informing a funeral ritual, that human souls went to a specific area of the starry sky. Hindus have e-mailed me many verses from the Rg-Veda which in their opinion contained a reference to reincarnation – mostly the very verses about which I had shown that they are about something else, usually about the restoration of health and vitality after an illness, rather than about a new body after death. Closer analysis has so far failed to find any clear mention of reincarnation – thus proving the Upanishadic information about reincarnation as a new doctrine.
Those who read reincarnation into Rg-Vedic verses display a very typical phenomenon among religious types the world over: they project their present beliefs onto the whole tradition. In reality, their present beliefs have a historical origin, and were not present in early stages of their tradition. In this case, the belief in reincarnation was newly introduced and proved very convincing. People who practiced meditation reported that one side-effect of it was the remembering of past lives. The Buddha even claimed to know all his past lives and recounted past events with the additional information that back then, he himself was in this or that incarnation.
Then it was further developed, and a difference with widespread tribal beliefs in reincarnation set in, by the combination with the Vedic notion of karma, “action”, in particular “action at a distance”. Just as a Vedic sacrifice set in motion a subtle mechanic that caused the materialization of the desired event (victory on the battlefield, restoration of health, a woman’s favours), the ethical contents of your life set in motion a subtle mechanic causing the events of your next life.
We are not concerned here with whether this belief is true or false, only with the fact that it was a historical development. First the doctrine of reincarnation and karma did not exist, then it was adopted, then it was further developed. It was not revealed at the beginning and then preserved as best as possible; no, it was gradually discovered. There was progress inside India’s religious traditions.
The spiritual significance of the syllable Om or Aum is described in the Mandukya Upanishad and in many more recent works. Its phonetic components A, U and M are said to correspond to the three states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, sleeping. Similarly, it should correspond to other threesomes, such as Earth-Atmosphere-Heaven and Sattvas-Rajas-Tamas (the three qualities: Transparency-Energy-Mass).
Its origin is said to lie with yogis who, immersed in meditation, heard this sound. In different forms of yoga, known collectively as Nada-yoga, this internal hearing of sounds is deemed a mark of yogic accomplishment. The humming sound or temple-bell sound was vocalized as Aum. This way, the origin of Aum is linked with the origin of yoga.
Our general thesis will therefore be that yoga, like Aum, has a historical origin and development. We do not believe that it was age-old, revealed at the beginning of creation. It was a human discovery, that grew from its childhood forms to reach maturity in its classical form as laid down in parts of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Since then, it has also undergone transformations, such as the development of Hatha Yoga, and unfortunately also senile distortions.
Western scholars, convinced of the Aryan invasion theory, accepted that the spiritual sense of Aum has become established, but denied that this was were it originated. They preferred something down-to-earth which later got reinterpreted in a spiritual sense. So far, so good: I also think this is a realistic scenario, satisfying the demands of our generally evolutionist view of mankind. But because of the Aryan invasion theory, they perforce wanted to bring the ethnic confrontation with the “native Dravidians” in. So they decided the origin of Aum lay with a Dravidian word for “yes”, Aam.
This sounds convincing for those eager to be convinced, but there is no indication for it at all. Note that the first Dravidian writings are a thousand or more years younger than the first appearance of Aum in the Rg-Veda, and were produced in coastal Southeast India, thousands of kilometers from the cradle of the Rg-Veda: the Saraswati basin west of in present-day Haryana. Note also that Vedic Sanskrit shows some borrowing of words from unknown languages, but that borrowing from Dravidian (e.g. Mina, “fish”) picked up only later. So, that the Vedic seers would have borrowed such a central term from Dravidian is unlikely. It is not more than an ad hoc hypothesis, and not a very persuasive one either.
Dirghatamas is believed to have been the court-priest of the early Vedic king Bharata. This king patronized the origin of the Vedic tradition. He was a descendent of Puru, hence his tribe is called Paurava, and the clan of which he was the ancestor, is called Bharata. The Mahabharata describes a fraternal fight within this royal clan. India itself is named Bharat after him. The name Dirghatamas, “long darkness”, may be a nickname chosen for its descriptive aptness: he was known as a star-gazer, and some of his astronomical findings are mentioned in the hymns attributed to him, Rg-Veda 1:140-164. He is also said to be the brother of Bharadwaj, known as the principal author of Rg-Vedic book 6 and leader of the earliest clan of seers, the Angiras.
In the history of religion, everybody knows big names like the Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed. Few people know the lesser names, and if you ask the average man on the street in the West, none will know the name Dirghatamas. Even in India, only a minority will know it. But, together with Yajnavalkya, first formulator of the all-important doctrine of the Self (Atmavada), Dirghatamas was one of the key thinkers of mankind.
His most famous hymn is Rg-Veda 1:164. Among the celebrated elements from it, most people will know the simile of the two birds, one eating and the other just looking on (later a parable for the ego and the Self); the first division of the circle in 12 and in 360; the concept of creation through sacrifice; and the much-quoted (and sometimes abused) phrase Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti, “truth is one, but the wise ones give it many names”. It is this hymn that also gave me the clue to the real origin of Aum.
What, then, does Dirghatamas say about the origin of Aum? Nothing explicit, for then it would be too clear and easy, and Hindus themselves could have been reminded of it on the best authority. As later explained in the Upanishads, the gods are fond of enigmatic expression, so you have to read between the lines for the true story. The juxtaposition of two elements is, in this case, significant.
On the one hand, verse 39 asks for the “syllable” of praise to the gods. The composer says it is a mystery, though known to the select people present. But the whole hymn talks of a sound not longer than a syllable.
On the other, in the preceding verses, the sound made by the cows is repeatedly mentioned, as well as the care of the cow for her young. The root vat- means “year” (Latin vetus, “having years”, “old”), the word vatsa means “yearling”, “dependent child”, hence “calf”. What goes on between cow and calf is vatsalya, still the Hindi word for “tenderness”, “affection”. This affection is uttered by the cow’s lowing and the calf’s lowing back. Repeatedly, the cow is praised and the sound of the cow is invoked.
So my penny dropped: the syllable that encompasses all Vedic hymns, that is also used in the beginning of the opening hymn, Aum, is nothing but a human vocalization of the sound made by the cow. In English it is usually rendered as Mooh.
In some religions, it would be blasphemous to explain the most sacred sound as nothing but the lowing of the cow. Not so in Vedic Hinduism. The cow may or may not always have been inviolable, but she has always been held sacred. The cow was the centre of the Vedic cowherd’s economy. A Vedic boy grew up tending the cattle, like Krishna, a fulltime activity punctuated by the sound of cows lowing. Long before the yogi heard a sound during his meditation, the Vedic or pre-Vedic cowherd was familiar with the lowing of his cattle. This he vocalized as Aum and he imitated the sound in what he held most sacred: the hymns to the gods assembled in the Veda collections.