Book Review: The Rig Veda, translated by Wendy Doniger

The Rig Veda is one of the great classics of world religious thought. A collection of disparate hymns to various deities, foremost among whom are Indra, Agni, and Soma, it has come a long way from its roots in the syncretism of Aryan and pre-Aryan Indian religious systems. While the culture it reflects is a semi-nomadic warrior society that has recently conquered and subdued a settled agrarian (and ostensibly peaceful) culture of the Indus Valley, by the Upanishadic era (beginning in earnest circa 500 BCE) the hymns it contains were being reinterpreted along more mystical, spiritual, and even incipiently monotheistic lines.

Doniger does a fair job in capturing all of this in her selections and commentary in this book. The sample size is fair, as this contains about 10% of the actual Rig Veda. It is, alas, not always entirely representative of the source material, however. This is due to an unfortunate disposition toward those minute and stupid things modern academics are interested in. The table of contents, for example, in which the various hymns featured in this sampling are listed by theme, reveals an interesting predilection toward the obsessions of liberal academics. Indra, the primary god of the Aryan religious system, has 21 pages total of this book, for example, and Soma, both a god and a hallucinogenic plant whose use was widespread in the Vedic religious system, has 18 pages of hymns dedicated to him. The theme of “women,” however, which, outside of natural sexual desire and the need to perpetuate society and species through procreation, was not an especially intense concern of the Vedic authors, receive a whopping 32 pages, more pages than any other subject! The result is that, rather than presenting a sample representative of the content of the Rig Veda and the concerns of the society from which it emerged, Doniger instead provides a sample that entirely reflects the concerns of her academic colleagues.

All of this is unfortunate, but it does not make the book entirely worthless, as such academic idiocies so often do. The positive aspect of this concern with academic fetishes over all else is that Doniger does not, as Eknath Easwaran and other translators of and commentators upon Indian religious texts so often do, allow the superstitions and predispositions of modern Hinduism to determine the content or commentary. Modern Hindus, under the influence of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, among other later works, read back their monism and its accompanying mysticism into the Vedic texts and many academics, in their grovelling before foreignness, one symptom of the rampant Western self-hatred of the academic, are all too happy to oblige them in this ahistorical outlook. This is, of course, entirely unhelpful for the honest interested party who really seeks to understand a text within its historical and cultural origins rather than within the mythology and ex post facto justifications that have grown up around it.

To summarize, I applaud Doniger for her willingness to be honest about the polytheistic warrior culture of the Rig Veda. I only wish she were as honest about her own atheistic sex-fetish culture in academia. If she were, this sample translation of the foremost Veda would have been of more value. As it is, I recommend it as a decent introduction insofar as the reader is aware of the biases of Doniger and her compatriots.

“The Scholars” by W.B. Yeats

Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?


I move with the Rudras, with the Vasus, with the Adityas and all the gods. I carry both Mitra and Varuna, both Indra and Agni, and both of the Asvins.

I carry the swelling Soma, and Tvastr, and Pusan and Bhaga. I bestow wealth on the pious sacrificer who presses the Soma and offers the oblation.

I am the queen, the confluence of riches, the skilful one who is first among those worthy of sacrifice. The gods divided me up into various parts, for I dwell in many places and enter into many forms.

The one who eats food, who truly sees, who breathes, who hears what is said, does so through me. Though they do not realize it, they dwell in me. Listen, you whom they have heard: what I tell you should be heeded.

I am the one who says, by myself, what gives joy to gods and men. Whom I love I make awesome; I make him a sage, a wise man, a Brahmin.

I stretch the bow for Rudra so that his arrow will strike down the hater of prayer. I incite the content among the people. I have pervaded sky and earth.

I gave birth to the father on the head of this world. My womb is in the waters, within the ocean. From there I spread out over all creatures and touch the very sky with the crown of my head.

I am the one who blows like the wind, embracing all creatures. Beyond the sky, beyond this earth, so much have I become my greatness.

Rig Veda 10.125

The passion to punish

But thus I counsel you, my friends: Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangman and the bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had — power.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part 2, “On the Tarantulas”