About the Rig-Veda (c. 1000 B. C.)

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About the Rig-Veda

(c. 1000 B.C.)

The Rig-Veda is a collection of more than one thousand hymns revered as sacred texts of the Hindu religion. The original hymns are in an archaic form of Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-European language brought to India by the Aryans, who migrated from the west around 1500 B.C.

The Rig-Veda—the name means “hymns of supreme sacred knowledge”—is one of four Vedas, the most sacred books of Hinduism. In fact, the Rig-Veda is considered the most important book of Vedic scripture. The hymns began as part of sacred rituals in the lives of the Aryan people but survived to become a cornerstone of Hinduism. Because the Hindus regarded the Rig-Veda as being divinely inspired, or “heard” directly from the gods, they thought it only fitting that later generations also “hear” the hymns. Thus, even after Sanskrit became a written language, the hymns were transmitted orally by Vedic priests.

Generations of Brahmans, or Hindu priests, learned the Vedic hymns according to a strict method of memorization. Today we can appreciate how effective this method was by comparing written versions of the Rig-Veda made by different scribes at different times: The hymns appear in practically the same words in each manuscript.

The Vedas reveal a great deal about early Indo-European civilizations. We know that the Aryans who came to India were nomads, people with no permanent home. According to the Vedic hymns, the Aryans eventually settled down and became farmers who raised crops and livestock, built simple huts, wore woven wool clothing, made iron tools, and developed communities. The hymns also tell us that the Aryan settlers had their share of social problems, including drunkenness, gambling, and fighting. Above all, the hymns reveal that the Aryans were a highly poetic people who worshiped the forces of nature.

The Aryans laid the foundation for a powerful religious faith: Hinduism. Hindu worship today generally departs a great deal from the rituals outlined in the ancient Vedic texts. On occasions such as weddings and funerals, however, Brahman priests in modern India still solemnly chant hymns from the Vedas.


from the Rig-Veda

translated by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty 



The goddess Night has drawn near, looking about on 
    many sides with her eyes. She has put on all her glories. 


The immortal goddess has filled the wide space, the 
    depths and the heights. She stems the tide of darkness 
    with her light.


The goddess has drawn near, pushing aside her sister 
    the twilight. Darkness, too, will give way.


As you came near to us today, we turned homeward to 
    rest, as birds go to their home in a tree.


People who live in villages have gone home to rest
    and animals with feet, and animals with wings, even the 
    ever-searching hawks.


Ward off the she-wolf and the wolf; ward off the thief. 
    O night full of waves, be easy for us to cross over.


Darkness—palpable, black, and painted—has come 
    upon me. O Dawn, banish it like a debt.


I have driven this hymn to you as the herdsman drives 
    cows. Choose and accept it, O Night, daughter of the 
    sky, like a song of praise to a conqueror.

About the Panchatantra

(c. 100 B.C.–c. A.D. 500)

The Panchatantra is an anonymous collection of tales written in Sanskrit, dating from between 100 B.C. and A.D. 500. The Panchatantra consists of fables, tales meant to teach moral lessons, organized into five sections. (The word Panchatantra means “five books.”) The ambitious goal of the Panchatantra is stated in its introduction: “This work ... has traveled the world, aiming at the awakening of intelligence in the young.” 

The stories in the Panchatantra are a combination of prose and poetry, with prose used for telling the tales and poetry for summing up the morals. Whereas earlier Indian works involve a religious element, the Panchatantra is a practical guide to surviving and thriving in the everyday world. Like many subsequent story collections, such as The Thousand and One Nights (see page 546), Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (see page 669), and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Panchatantracontains a frame story that serves as an introduction and gives the tales a thematic unity.

In the frame story, Vishnusharman, a Brahman priest, is given the task of teaching three simple-minded princes about niti, which is loosely translated as “the wise conduct of life.” A person with niti can get the better of evil or unscrupulous rivals or plotters by turning the tables on them—a useful talent in statecraft.

Teaching the princes is not an easy task, since the requirements for niti are physical and financial security, steadfastness, fulfilling friendships, and intelligence. The Brahman meets the challenge by instructing the princes to memorize the stories contained in the five books of the Panchatantra, which he claims to have written. Each book consists of fables and witty sayings that focus on a particular theme: losing friends, winning friends, losing profits and possessions, declaring war or establishing peace, and acting rashly.

The stories of the Panchatantra were translated into Middle Persian in the sixth century A.D. During the Middle Ages the book was translated into Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German, and Italian. Since then, many of the stories have become world classics. The Panchatantra has appeared in some two hundred versions in more than fifty different languages and has influenced the literatures of many lands.

The Mice That Set Elephants Free

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