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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.
Night
from the Rig-Veda
translated by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
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 simpleminded 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
from the Panchatantra
translated by Arthur W. Ryder
A deer named Spot arrived, panting with thirst and quivering for fear of hunters’ arrows. On
seeing him approach, Swift flew into a tree, Gold crept into a grass-clump, and Slow sought an
asylum in the water. But Spot stood near the bank, trembling for his safety.
Then Swift flew into the air, inspected the terrain for the distance of a league, then settled on his
tree again, and called to Slow: “Slow, my dear fellow, come out, come out! No evil threatens you
here. I have inspected the forest minutely. There is only this deer who has come to the lake for
water.” Thereupon all three gathered as before.
Then, out of friendly feeling toward a guest, Slow said to the deer: “My good fellow, drink and
bathe. Our water is of excellent quality, and cool.” And Spot thought, after meditating on this
invitation: “Not the slightest danger threatens me from these. And this because a turtle has no
capacity for mischief when out of water, while mouse and crow feed only on what is dead. So I
will make one of their company.” And he joined them.
Then Slow bade him welcome and did the honors, saying: “I trust your circumstances are happy.
Pray tell us how you happened into this neck of the woods.” And Spot replied: “I am weary of a
life without love. I have been hard pressed on every side by mounted grooms and dogs and
hunters. But fear lent speed, I left them all behind, and came here to drink. Now I am desirous
of your friendship.”
Upon hearing this, Slow said: “We are little of body. It is unnatural for you to make friends with
us. One should make friends with those capable of returning favors.” But Spot rejoined:
“Better with the learnèd dwell,
Even though it be in hell
Than with vulgar spirits roam
Palaces that gods call home.
“And since you know that one little of body may be of no little consequence, why these selfdepreciatory remarks? Yet after all, such speech is becoming to the excellent. I therefore insist
that you make friends with me today. There is a good old saying:
Make friends, make friends, however
strong
Or weak they be:
Recall the captive elephants
That mice set free.”
“How was that?” asked Slow. And Spot told the story of
The Mice That Set Elephants Free
There was once a region where people, houses, and temples had fallen into decay. So the mice,
who were old settlers there, occupied the chinks in the floors of stately dwellings with sons,
grandsons (both in the male and female line), and further descendants as they were born, until
their holes formed a dense tangle. They found uncommon happiness in a variety of festivals,
dramatic performances (with plots of their own invention), wedding-feasts, eating-parties,
drinking-bouts, and similar diversions. And so the time passed.
But into this scene burst an elephant-king, whose retinue numbered thousands. He, with his
herd, had started for the lake upon information that there was water there. As he marched
through the mouse community, he crushed faces, eyes, heads, and necks of such mice as he
encountered.
Then the survivors held a convention. “We are being killed,” they said, “by these lumbering
elephants—curse them! If they come this way again, there will not be mice enough for seed.
Besides:
An elephant will kill you, if
He touch; a serpent if he sniff;
King’s laughter has a deadly sting;
A rascal kills by honoring.
Therefore let us devise a remedy effective in this crisis.”
When they had done so, a certain number went to the lake, bowed before the elephant-king, and
said respectfully: “O King, not far from here is our community, inherited from a long line of
ancestors. There we have prospered through a long succession of sons and grandsons. Now you
gentlemen, while coming here to water, have destroyed us by the thousand. Furthermore, if you
travel that way again, there will not be enough of us for seed. If then you feel compassion
toward us, pray travel another path. Consider the fact that even creatures of our size will some
day prove of some service.”
And the elephant-king turned over in his mind what he had heard, decided that the statement of
the mice was entirely logical, and granted their request.
Now in the course of time a certain king commanded his elephant-trappers to trap elephants.
And they constructed a so-called water-trap, caught the king with his herd, three days later
dragged him out with a great tackle made of ropes and things, and tied him to stout trees in that
very bit of forest.
When the trappers had gone, the elephant-king reflected thus: “In what manner, or through
whose assistance, shall I be delivered?” Then it occurred to him: “We have no means of
deliverance except those mice.”
So the king sent the mice an exact description of his disastrous position in the trap through one
of his personal retinue, an elephant-cow who had not ventured into the trap, and who had
previous information of the mouse community.
When the mice learned the matter, they gathered by the thousand, eager to return the favor
shown them, and visited the elephant herd. And seeing king and herd fettered, they gnawed the
guy-ropes where they stood, then swarmed up the branches, and by cutting the ropes aloft, set
their friends free.
“And that is why I say:
Make friends, make friends, however
strong,....
and the rest of it.”
Before You Read
Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948), leader of India’s fight for independence from British rule, is
considered the father of his country. As a young lawyer, Gandhi worked for the rights of Indians
living under the racist and repressive government of South Africa. From the 1920s to the mid1940s, he led a prolonged satyagraha (noncooperation) campaign for Indian independence from
the rule of Great Britain. Though Gandhi was often arrested and imprisoned for his actions, he
urged his followers to hold to the principles of nonviolent resistance even in the face of violent
tactics by those in power. After independence was granted by the British crown, Gandhi, himself
a Hindu, fought desperately, and in the end ineffectively, to ease the religious tension between
India’s Muslims and Hindus. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.
Today Mohandas K. Gandhi (also called Mahatma, meaning “Great Soul”) has assumed mythic
stature as the embodiment of the principle of civil disobedience, or noncooperation with unjust
laws.
The following is an excerpt from a 1916 speech on the principle of satyagraha and its use in the
fight against the South African government. The speech was made to Gandhi’s Hindu supporters
after a prayer meeting at Kochrab Ashram in India, the retreat that served as Gandhi’s first
headquarters.
PUBLIC DOCUMENT
from On Nonviolent Resistance
SPEECH
Mohandas K. Gandhi
There are two ways of countering injustice. One way is to smash the head of the man who
perpetrates injustice and to get your own head smashed in the process. All strong people in the
world adopt this course. Everywhere wars are fought and millions of people are killed. The
consequence is not the progress of a nation but its decline…. Pride makes a victorious nation
bad-tempered. It falls into luxurious ways of living. Then for a time, it may be conceded, peace
prevails. But after a short while, it comes more and more to be realized that the seeds of war
have not been destroyed but have become a thousand times more nourished and mighty. No
country has ever become, or will ever become, happy through victory in war. A nation does not
rise that way; it only falls further. In fact, what comes to it is defeat, not victory. And if,
perchance, either our act or our purpose was ill-conceived, it brings disaster to both belligerents.
But through the other method of combating injustice, we alone suffer the consequences of our
mistakes, and the other side is wholly spared. This other method is satyagraha. One who resorts
to it does not have to break another’s head; he may merely have his own head broken. He has
to be prepared to die himself suffering all the pain. In opposing the atrocious laws of the
Government of South Africa, it was this method that we adopted. We made it clear to the said
Government that we would never bow to its outrageous laws. No clapping is possible without two
hands to do it, and no quarrel without two persons to make it. Similarly, no State is possible
without two entities, the rulers and the ruled. You are our sovereign, our Government, only so
long as we consider ourselves your subjects. When we are not subjects, you are not the
sovereign either. So long as it is your endeavor to control us with justice and love, we will let you
to do so. But if you wish to strike at us from behind, we cannot permit it. Whatever you do in
other matters, you will have to ask our opinion about the laws that concern us. If you make laws
to keep us suppressed in a wrongful manner and without taking us into confidence, these laws
will merely adorn the statute books. We will never obey them. Award us for it what punishment
you like; we will put up with it. Send us to prison and we will live there as in a paradise. Ask us
to mount the scaffold and we will do so laughing. Shower what sufferings you like upon us; we
will calmly endure all and not hurt a hair of your body. We will gladly die and will not so much as
touch you. But so long as there is yet life in these our bones, we will never comply with your
arbitrary laws.