RV 8.43.11 and beef-eating

thompson at jlc.net thompson at jlc.net
Mon Feb 24 01:53:37 UTC 1997

In his recent posting Narahari Achar raises some interesting points about
the terms ukSA'nna and vaZA'nna.  In fact this sort of controvery over
proper interpretation has been a perennial problem in Vedic studies, going
back to the dispute between Bergaigne, on the one hand, and Ludwig and
Grassmann, on the other, concerning the distinction between the *meaning*
and the *reference* of terms like Vedic go'.

But first a simple distinction has to be made: the term for 'cow' here is
not go' but rather vazA', which, as was mentioned in a previous post, is
now understood to mean "non-pregnant cow".  The traditional gloss has been
"sterile, barren," but Falk has shown that it can also refer to cows that
have not yet borne a calf.  In any case, this precludes the possibility
that this passage refers to Soma and *milk*, since the vazA' cow does not
give milk [and therefore is, in fact, a prime candidate for sacrifice, and

But let us assume for the sake of argument that we are dealing with the
term go'.  I still hesitate to accept Narahari Achar's interpretation.  Of
course, there are many passages in the RV where this term seems to refer
not only to milk and other cow products, but also to the earth, the rays of
the sun, to stars, to clouds, the goddess VAc, etc.  But as Bergaigne
rightly argued, such references do not justify a translation of the term
go' as "earth, star, cloud" etc.  No matter how a poet might use the term
go', to *refer* to any one of these or other objects, the term's *meaning*
remains, unambiguously and exclusively, "cow."

To translate go' as "sun-ray" in a passage like 4.1.13-17, where the
goddess USas is compared to a milk-cow [dhenu'] and is said to be the
mother of the "cows", is to completely overlook the poet's use of metaphor.
While an *interpretation* of the word go' in this passage as a reference
to sun-rays may be reasonable, a *translation* of go' as "sun-ray" not only
would be wrong; it would also result in the distortion, in fact the total
loss, of the richly allusive, metaphorical language of the hymn.

The reason that I am able to be continually interested in the RV, in spite
of no monetary, academic, political or spiritual rewards [i.e., no instant
enlightenment concerning otherwise inaccessible levels of consciousness],
is that it displays a richness of language and thought that is more complex
than is generally appreciated. I just happen to appreciate such things.

To return specifically to RV 8.43.11: let us look at what is said there,
and in the hymn in general.  As Beatrice Reusch nicely points out, Agni is
characterized as *eating* many things in this hymn. In fact, he [or "it" --
if we are meant to think of a fire rather than a god] is voracious, and
ultimately perhaps omnivorous.  The "eating" theme is very pronounced.  In
my view, no valid interpretation can ignore this [because it is right there
in the text].  In some sense, this theme is metaphorical, even if we
interpret it as referring to Agni, the god, as a real rather than imaginary
creature.  The metaphor invites us to see this god in terms of the
attributes that are given to him in the hymn [a metaphor is quite literally
a "transfer" of attributes from one member of an equation to the other].
Just as the Scottish poet, who says "my luv is like a red, red rose...",
intends that we see his "luv" in terms of the fragiility, the beauty, the
intangible fragrance, and the thorny, painfully short life-span of roses,
so our Vedic poet, VirUpa, clearly intends that we see Agni in terms of
this voraciousness, as an omnivore,and in particular, in this stanza, as an
eater of bulls and non-milk-giving cows. I won't get into the significance
of food in Vedic, but clearly Agni needs food, among which are included
bulls and cows.  Maybe Agni, as a god, as a concept [e.g., essence of
life], or as a terrestrial fire, does not "literally" eat such things, as
Narahari Achar correctly suggests.  Nevertheless, the poet clearly invites
us to imagine so by using such words as ukSA'nna and vaZA'nna. I cannot see
how this interpretation can be avoided.

By the way, I'm not *on principle* against symbolic interpretations; I just
am suspicious when they abandon their ties to the literal.

Sorry if I have been long-winded, pedantic, or worse.

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