the gods

thompson at thompson at
Mon Jun 2 23:51:25 UTC 1997

In response to Howard Resnick's recent post:

I have an abiding interest in all kinds of discourse, and so I do see that
there is value in classifying discourse-genres as you are trying to do. I
won't question your motivation; instead I'll talk about my own. Greg
Downing and I were engaged in making a distinction between literal and
metaphorical assertions about a god named Agni. Now what is it that
motivates such a distinction?

As far as I'm concerned, this distinction was *not* intended to cast any
doubts, or convictions either way, about this god's existence [the
existence or non-existence of Agni might be of interest to theologians or
mythologists, but I am *not* one of those]. When I question whether a
particular assertion is literal or metaphorical what concerns me is the
nature of the utterance, the intentions of the utterer, the interpretation
of the audience, the role of the utterance in the given hymn, etc. These
are questions which any philologist or linguist might [and should] ask
about any given speech act or text.

In Vedic many statements are made about Agni, of course, both as god and as
terrestrial element. In my view it is often very difficult to tell which is
being referred to. In fact, sometimes the name 'Agni' seems to refer
instead to some abstract, or perhaps intangible, life-force found, e.g., in
plants, in the waters, as well as in the hearts of inspired poets.

Now in the very first line of the very first hymn of the RV, Agni is called
puro'hita. I think that it is reasonable to ask whether this is a literal
or a metaphorical assertion. Does the stanza suggest that Agni is a priest?
If so, are we to understand that Agni is a priest in the same sense that
Madhuchandas VaizvAmitra [the hymn's presumed author] is a priest?  Now if
I suggest that the stmt "Agni is a puo'hita" is metaphorical, what I mean
is that the qualities that are attributed to human priests, like MV, are
transferred to Agni the god ['metaphor' literally = 'transfer']. [Of
course, there is the other possibility: that the transfer goes in the other
direction, from the divine to the human: in which case the humans are
trying to behave like gods -- I don't want to get into that interesting
issue, though]. If on the other hand I suggest that this stmt is literal
what I mean is that there isn't any transfer of qualities from one realm
[the human] to the other [the divine]. Of course there is also the
underlying problem of understanding the relationship [bandhu] between the
celestial figure Agni and the terrestrial fire [agni']. Etc.

RV 1.1 might appear to some to be a simple, straight-forward, conventional
hymn. I don't think it is, and I don't think we understand it. Just to
show that this is not just some idiosnycratic view of mine, one solitary
Vedicist in a vast sea of indifference, let me cite:

Hans Schmeja: _Interpretationen aus dem Rigveda_ [Innsbruecker Beitraege
zur Kulturwissenschaft, Sonderheft 61, 1987].

The first chapter of this extended article treats RV 1.1, comparing the
translations of Geldner, Mylius, and Thieme. The variations are significant
enough, and Schmeja's discussion cogent enough, to persuade me that we are
not ready yet for an algebra of Vedic discourse. In fact, I think that we
are still at the level of, say, counting.

So you see, we are operating at *very different levels*, which is why we
haven't succeeded in communicating very well. But perhaps we can change

best wishes,

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