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A Comparison of Translations of Rig Veda I.164.17


This comparison of four different translations of Rig Veda I.164.17 and the same verse in the Atharva Veda reveals how varied the translations can be as a result of their filters in terms of word interpretations, belief systems and schools. I give a background context of the scholar-translators and then their translations.

Shyam Ghosh

Shyam Ghosh: RGVEDA for the Layman, A Critical Survey of One Hundred Hymns of the Rigveda. This volume serves as an excellent mind-opening introduction for the beginner and includes his word meanings.

"Shyam Ghosh (1904-2000) was a Vedic research scholar. He had studied other Hindu scriptures as well some of which he had translated and published. Having boycotted his school at the call of Mahatma Gandhi, in 1920 Shyam Ghosh joined Freedom Movement and participated in meetings and the rallies organized by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders. After a few years of self education he worked his way to the editorial staff of three national daily newspapers before being selected as the editor of the Air journals the Indian listener awaz and sarang. Later he was shifted to the publication division of the same ministry as Deputy director and then on to the finance ministry where he worked as financial advisor to the director general of supply and disposal.

"He had always been averse to personal publicity. An author should be judged by his work and not by his personal qualifications was his firm view. Some of his other works are: The Original Yoga (1980-1999) and Hindu Concept of Life and Death (1989-2002)." [ExoticIndia.com]


17. Thus whatever is emitted by the rays in the far beyond and becomes diffused, later on manifests in the organs of sense and, by staying in there, perhaps nourishes them. That force surely does not divide itself or becomes variegated (indistinct) by going far away; or, if so, whither could it collect at the end?

Note: The Rishi Dirghatamas is speculating on the origin of the cosmic force — where it exists and in what form — and how it transmits consciousness into the organs of the human body.



R.L Kashyap (12 volume translation of the entire text)

R.L Kashyap is Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering at Purdue University, Indiana, USA. He has a Master’s degree from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and obtained a PhD. from Harvard University. He is the Trustee & Honorary Director of the Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture in Bangalore.

R.L. Kashyap’s translations reflect the teachings of Sri Aurobindo and his theories on the Rig Veda, which have been collected in the book “Secret of the Veda”. Aurobindo’s teachings are based in his acceptance of human evolution. Thus the translations reflect the idea that through experience and suffering, humans are evolving towards a supra-mental superconscient state — contrary to the tradition of cyclical time being devolutionary, meaning we begin as the One and move down through the cycles into 'solidification' and inevitable dissolution.

T.V. Kapali Sastry further expanded Sri Aurobindo’s ideas. T.V. Kapali Sastry was considered a ‘brilliant intellect’ and wrote in Sanskrit, English, Tamil and Telugu published in 12 volumes. His magnum opus is said to be ‘Siddhañjana’ (1945), a commentary on the first Ashtaka of the Rig Veda, which explores the spiritual and psychological depths of the ancient hymns. T.V. Kapali Sastry finds astonishing echoes of the Veda in the tantra, in thought and in practice. He holds that the tantra is as old as the Veda and both have a common origin. [From the back cover of “Unveiling the Light in the Veda” by R.L. Kashyap; and “New Light on the Veda” (1952) by T.V. Kapali Sastry].


17. Below the far-off (domain), or above the lower,

The Ray-cow has stood up,

Bearing her calf with her feet.

Where has she gone away, to which half (ardha) has she gone?

Where is she given birth?

(Clearly) it is not in this herd.

Notes: Line 1: The reference is to our manifestation, which is below the superconscient ocean (supraketam) and above the inconscient ocean (apraketam).

Line 2. The Ray-cow is the same as the heavenly mind (devam manah). Looking at the limitations of our ordinary world one wonders where this heavenly mind has gone.


R.L. Kashyap says that this verse is also in the Atharva Veda 9.9.17. Here is the translation I have by Devi Chand, which is based on Swami Dayananda's interpretation. Swami Dayananda (1824-1883) was the founder of the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement of the Vedic tradition, which denounced idolatry and ritualistic worship. He contributed to the Indian independence movement and believed that the Vedas should be available in languages readable by the common man.

Atharva Veda 9.9.17:

Beneath the upper realm above, this lower one, this power of God sustaining the universe is visible everywhere.

None knows whence it comes and whither it goes, and to what Gracious God it returns.

How it creates innumerable creatures is not known.

God Himself belongs not to the world of Matter.



Swami Amritananda (translation of Rig Veda I.164 only)

This translation is published in a paperback form as “Rig Vedic Suktas, Asya Vamiya Suktam” in 2003 by the Sri Ramakrishna Math in Chennai; and therefore would reflect the teachings of the tantric mystic Vaishnava Bhakti saint Ramakrishna. However, Swami Amritananda refers to the interpretations of Sayana.


17. The cow (oblation in the form of a cow) carrying her calf (Agni) underneath her forefeet and then above her with her hind-feet has risen. Where has she gone? For whose sake did she turn back when half way? Where does she deliver? Certainly not amidst the herd.



H.H. Wilson (4 volume translation of entire text)

H.H. [Horace Hayman] Wilson (1786-1860) relies on Sayana (who died in 1387 AD), specifically the Bhasya of Sayanacarya. H.H. Wilson was an English orientalist who according to WIKI became interested in Sanskrit and prepared the first Sanskrit-English Dictionary in 1819. He staunchly opposed the practice of making English the sole medium of instruction in Indian schools.

In 1832 Oxford University selected Dr. Wilson to be the first occupant of the newly founded Boden chair of Sanskrit. His translation of the Rig Veda was first published in 1866. The 2002 Indica/Parimal Publications version has been "edited and revised with an exhaustive introduction and notes by Ravi Prakash Arya and K.L. Joshi." This was my first complete version and sometimes I find clues to the meaning, but it is by no means my favourite.


17. The cow, holding her calf underneath her fore-feet, and then above with her hind feet, has risen up; whither is she gone; to whom has she turned back when half-way; where does she bear young: it is not amidst the herd.

Notes: Where Agni Sun Star, etc. – This is rather obscure: according to the Scholiast, the cow is the burnt-offering and the calf is Agni, and the positions of the two indicate the station of the offerer with respect to the sun: or the cow may typify the solar rays collectively and the calf the worshipper.



The multiple meanings of the Sanskrit word ‘gau’

The M. Monier-Williams Sanskrit-to-English Dictionary has six double-columned pages of meanings for the word ‘gau’ or ‘go’ including ‘herds in the sky’ or stars; and yet this word has often been translated as ‘cow’. Shyam Ghosh interprets the meaning to be our ‘sense organs’. The Sanskrit word ‘vatsam’ (found in this verse 17) literally means offspring, yearling, or calf. Shyam Ghosh expands the meaning by resorting to the root of the word ‘vatsam’ which is √vad and is defined as: to speak, to communicate, and to indicate.

Semantics of Rig Veda by R.L. Kashyap: In Yaska's Nighantu, which dates at least prior to 1000 BCE, "The word 'gau' whose common (ordinary) meaning is 'cow' occurs in the four lists with titles, prithivi (earth), rashmi (ray), vak (speech) and suryarashmih (rays of the Sun)."

David Frawley provides a useful explanation of the profound confusion concerning the Sanskrit word ‘gau’ and the misunderstandings that have risen from that confusion:

“Its range of meaning is so great, we have nothing even close. ‘Gau’ is symbolically a cow. … From the cow as the basic wealth of the ancients, it meant wealth, nourishment and value generally. Yet even this is only the beginning. It means a ray of light… As such, it more generally means light. Light for the Seers was also consciousness. The Cow was the receptive mind… The Cow is the Divine Word-Wisdom… As such, the cow is the Goddess, who is inwardly consciousness and outwardly the sky, the dappled cow being the night sky with its stars. … There is an additional root √ga meaning to sing. … The cow in its most correct sense means an archetype, word, note or number, the essential unit. It is the knowledge that is the measure of all things…”

D. Frawley: “The ancient language appears primitive at first with its endless references to cows and horses and solicitations for food and wealth. However, as we get to know it better, we find a wealth of deeper associations emerging, multiple meanings of word justified by word plays in the hymns themselves. … Finally, we reach a point where the ancient language spreads its wings for us and we find an inexhaustible depth of meaning, etymological associations of vast proportions moving on multiple levels.”



Purusha in the Rig Veda

Another good example of how the meaning of Sanskrit words has changed over the centuries is the word Purusha. In later times ‘purusha’ came to mean the human being, ‘man’ – but according to the highly enlightening scholar S.K. Ramachandra Rao, who I feel has some of the best insights into the Rig Veda, the later meaning of purusha as man is “never employed in the Vedic hymns in this sense.”

S.K. Ramachandra Rao says that the etymology of ‘purusha’ “signifies that which goes ahead, that which fills all with strength, that which lies inside the township [the human body is often called a nine-gated city in Sanskrit literature].”  Derived from the root √pri the word ‘purusha’ has the “sense of protecting, pervading, filling.”

Purusha is distinguished from Prakriti and in the Samkyha system, the origin of which is unknown and debated, Purusha is said to be masculine, while Prakriti is feminine. S.K.R. Rao says that the word was taken to be synonymous with ‘atman’ and therefore is the ultimate unitary cosmological principle as well as the subtlest psychic reality. The word occurs in the hymns of the Rig Veda and in the Upanishads. The word ‘brahma’ does not occur in the Rig Veda.

Rig Veda X.90 is the Purusha Sukta and was composed by the Rishi Narayana. R.L. Kashyap says that this is the most popular of all the Suktas in the four Vedas and is also found in the Taittririya Aranyaka. Several of its mantras are found in the Upanishads wherein the word ‘purusha’ is elucidated, especially in the authoritative Chandogya Upanishad. Sri Kapali Sastry thought that the Purusha in the Rig Veda was the same as the uttama Purusha in the Bhagavad Gita.

Thus you see how threads of the eternal primordial wisdom encoded in the Rig Veda were woven into later works and simultaneously misunderstood in Kali Yuga confusion. My feeling is that the last and best understanding of the Rig Veda is found in the Upanishads, specifically the Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Katha, and Mundaka. If you want to understand the Rig Veda, these ancient superlative texts will serve as a guiding light.


"Everyone has the right to the highest wisdom…”

The scholar Professor K. Satchidananda Murty: "The Veda itself claims to be a universal scripture meant for all human beings. Whoever has the sincere desire and capacity is eligible to study it either in the original Sanskrit or in its translations. …Everyone has the right to the highest wisdom…”

V. Susan Ferguson




RGVEDA for the Layman, A Critical Survey of One Hundred Hymns of the Rigveda, with Samhita-patha, Pada-patha and word meaning and English translation, by Shyam Ghosh; Munishiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2002, Nandi, Indira.

RIG VEDA SAMHITA: Mandala – 1 (Part Three), Suktas 122-191, (Text in Devanagari, Translation and Notes), by R.L. Kashyap; Saksi, Published in collaboration with ASR, Melkote; Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture, Bangalore, India, 2009.

Semantics of Rig Veda, by R.L. Kashyap; Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture, Bangalore, India, 2006.

Rig Vedic Suktas Asya Vamiya Suktam, A Contemplative Study Translated by Swami Amritananda; Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Chennai, 2003.

RGVEDA SAMHITA, Volumes I-IV, Sanskrit Text, English Translation and Notes According to the Translation of H.H. Wilson and Bhasya of Sayanacarya; Edited and revised with an exhaustive introduction and notes by Ravi Prakash Arya & K.L. Joshi; Indica Books, Parimal Publications, Delhi, 2002.

UNVEILING THE LIGHT IN THE VEDA, T.V. Kapali Sastry, Compiled from Siddhanjnana & Other Essays on the Veda, by Dr. R.L. Kashyap; Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, India, 2001.

SECRET of the VEDA, by Sri Aurobindo (written between 1914-20); Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, WI; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, Pondicherry India, 1995.

The Artharvaveda, Sanskrit text with English translation, by Devi Chand M.A., with Glossary & Index; Munshiram Manoharal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2002.

WISDOM of the ANCIENT SEERS, Mantras of the Rig Veda, by David Frawley; Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd, Delhi, 1994, 2001.

RGVEDA-DARSANA, Purusha – Sukta, Volume Four, by S.K. Ramachandra Rao; Kalpatharu Reseach Academy Publication, 1999

THE ROOTS, VERB-FORMS and PRIMARY DERIVATIVES of the SANSKRIT LANGUAGE, (A Supplement to His Sanskrit Grammar, 1879), by William Dwight Whitney; Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd, Delhi, 1963 - 2006.

A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy, Sanskrit Terms Defined in English, John Grimes; Indica Books, 2009.

Sanskrit-English Dictionary, M. Monier-Williams; Two volumes, Recomposed and improved edition; Indica Books and Parimal Publications, New Delhi, 2008.









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