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An Introduction to the Purusa Sukta
Where is the Purusa Suktam in the Vedas?
Hindu religious sources are classified as "Sruti'" or "smrti". Sruti -- that which is heard -- is of the nature of divine revelation. We believe that the Vedas, hymns composed by seers and sages beginning as best as we can date them in 3000 BC, were sung under divine inspiration. This is why they are Sruti. These sages "heard'' them as the voice of the Divine.
Only two bodies of hymns are recognized as divinely composed. One being the Vedas, and the other, the Thiruvaymozhi of Kari Maran Sadagopan, or Shri Nammazhvar, which are recognized as equivalent to the 4 Vedas in the Ubhaya Vedanta school, the Shri Vaishnava tradition. The six compositions of Kaliyan Nilan, or Shri Thirumangai Azhvar, are recognized as the 6 Vedangas.
[Note: ubhaya vedanta refers to the twofold vedanta, seen through the two eyes of the Sanskrit Upanisads and the Tamil Divya Prabandham. They are of paramount and equal authority to Shri Vaishnavas.]
Smrti is that which is remembered, and includes a large part of the commentary of the Vedas, different Puranas, epics, and other sources.
The Purusa Suktam is one of the Panca Suktams of the Shri Vaishnava sampradaya or tradition. The other four are the Narayana Suktam, Shri Suktam, Bhu Suktam, and the Nila Suktam.
The Purusa Suktam is seen earliest in the Rg Veda, as the 90th Suktam of its 10th mandalam, with 16 mantrams. Later, it is seen in the Vajasaneyi Samhita of the Sukla Yajur Vedam, the Taittriya Aranyaka of the Krishna Yajur Vedam, the Sama Veda, and the Atharva Veda, with some modifications and redactions.
In South India, the Purusa Suktam, Vishnu Suktam, Shri Suktam, and Narayana Suktam are generally chanted together in parayanam.
The Shri Rudram, Purusa Suktam, Upanisads, the Gita, and the Vishnu Sahasra Namam are also recommended for daily parayanam - chanting.
Since the Purusa Suktam is seen in all Vedas, it is cited as the essence of all Srutis by Veda Vyasa in the Mahabharata. Saunaka, Apastamba, and Bodhayana have also written concerning the use of the Purusa Suktam.
What does the Purusa Suktam talk about?
The Purusa in the title of the Purusa Sukta refers to the Parama- purusa, Purusottama, Narayana, in his form as the Virat Purusa. He was the source of all creation. It describes this form of his, as having countless heads, eyes, legs, manifested everywhere, and beyond the scope of any limited method of comprehension. All creation is but a fourth part of him. The rest is unmanifest.
Purusa as Brahma remained inactive, and Aniruddha Narayana, one of the four aspects of Narayana in the first tier at the base of the Visaka Yupa, asked him ``Why do you do nothing?'' ``Because of not knowing,'' Brahma replied. ``Perform a yajna. Your senses, the devas, shall be the rtviks. Your body shall be the havis. Your heart, the altar. And I shall be He who enjoys the havis - the offering. From your body sacrificed, shall you create bodies for all living creatures, as you have done in kalpas before this.'' Thus says the Sakalya Brahmana.
This yajna was called "sarvahut'', the offering of all. The act of creation itself grew out of yajna, the rite of sacrifice. Who was worshipped at this sacrifice? It was the Purusa. Who performed it? Brahma, the creative aspect of the Purusa. Who were the rtvik priests ? The devas, who are the Purusa's senses. Who was tied as the beast of the sacrifice? Brahma, again. What was barhis, the altar of the sacrifice? All of nature. Who was the fire? The Purusa's heart. What was sacrificed? Again, the Purusa Himself, His great body that contained all of creation.
In a way, this is a message of love, that the Purusa would consume himself in the fire of creation, to create all the worlds. From this sacrifice did all of creation emanate. This is central to the message of the Purusa Sukta.
vedahametam purusam mahantam
aditya varnam tamasah parastat |
tam evam vidvan amrta iha bhavati
na anyah pantha vidyate 'yanaya ||
"This great Purusa, brilliant as the sun, who is beyond all darkness, I know Him in my heart. Who knows the Purusa thus, attains immortality in this very birth. I know of no other way to salvation."
What about this translation attempt?
The redaction I have attempted to translate is based to a large part on theistic tradition and approach, rather than a critical approach. This is because this is the way this wonderful cosmogenical song speaks to me. My sources for the translation are to put it mildly, a hodgepodge. I have little skill in Sanskrit myself, and have had to borrow heavily from these sources:
Purusa Sukta Bhasya of Ranganatha Muni.
(Ranganatha Muni (12th century) is also known as Periya Jiyar or Nanjiyar in the Shri Vaishnava Sampradaya. )
Hymns from the Rig Veda, by Jean Le Mee. New York: 1975.
Hymns from the Vedas, by Avinash Chandra Bose. Bombay: 1966.
``Anna'' 's translation into Tamil of the Purusa Suktam. Madras: 1986.
Rg bhasya samgraha, Chanana, ed., Orient Publishing House, Delhi: 1965.
Hopefully, that works. And now, on with the show!