It is difficult to pin the origins of the Rig Veda to a particular date, though most scholars agree that it was composed in about 1500 BCE in an archaic form of Sanskrit in the region straddling both India and Pakistan now known as the Punjab. It is generally regarded as one of the oldest and most influential religious texts in the world.

Its contents were orally transmitted until approximately 300 BCE, when they started being recorded on papyrus or velum. The text is comprised of ten parts or mandalas consisting of 1028 hymns (suktas) invoking deities that are used in rituals still practiced to this day.

Vedic priests invoked a wide pantheon of gods, some of whom represented natural and cosmic phenomena, such as Agni, keeper of the sacrificial fire, Surya, the sun god, Ushas, the goddess of dawn, the Rudras of storms and thunder, and Indra, the rain god, while others embodied abstract human qualities such as Mitra (friendship), Varuna (moral authority), Indra (kingship), and Vac, a goddess (speech).

The main ritual activity in the Rig Veda was an elaborate ceremony that revolved around ingestion of a hallucinogenic sacrament called Soma (thought by some to be a type of psychedelic mushroom) led by priest-shamans or Munis venerated for their mastery of the natural world and magical feats. Ritual sacrifice was the axis around which Vedic ontology was arranged. The hierophants designed ritual actions on the material plane to affect corresponding parts of the universe via gnomic portals known as bandhus that connect the visible and invisible worlds.

Happy new year

In Vedic cosmology, the act of Creation is seen as analogous to human procreation. Heaven, personified as the deity Dyaus, impregnates his consort, the earth goddess, Prithivi, with rain, rejuvenating the parched land and giving birth to new life in the form of crops and vegetation. This never-ending cycle of birth, death and regeneration is celebrated in Kashmir on the first day of the bright half of the month of Chaitra (March-April) as Navreh, derived from the Sanskrit nava varsha, literally meaning “new year”. This year it takes place on April 13, 2021.

On the night before Navreh, a platter containing rice, bread, a bowl of curd, some salt, a few walnuts or almonds, a silver coin, a pen, a mirror and seasonal flowers is placed nearby so it is the first thing one lays eyes on in the morning. This ritual, known as Thal-bharun (filling of the platter), is similar to the Iranian Haft-Seen celebrated during Nowruz, the traditional Zoroastrian New Year.

The origins of both festivals can be found in the Zoroastrian culture of ancient Persia, which is closely related to the Vedic civilisation of north India. On the western coast of India, the Parsi community of Gujarat and Maharashtra has ensured the continuity of its Zoroastrian heritage by proudly celebrating Nowruz.

Both traditions were once part of the Avestan or Eastern Persian culture that was spread over present day Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pashtun parts of Northern Pakistan and Gilt-Baltistan. Ancient Hindus called themselves Arya and their homeland, Arya-varta. The oldest epigraphic evidence of the word Arya was discovered in a 2,500-year old inscription from East Iran in which the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes are hailed as beings of “Aryan stock” (arya arya chiça).

Language and philosophy

The language that evolved into the Indo-European languages, including Sanskrit and Farsi, originated in the Caspian Sea region from where it spread to the Iranian Plateau, to Europe, North India and the Tigris-Euphrates River Valleys. In the process, the root language underwent systematic phonetic change, but thanks to the immaculately preserved religious tracts of ancient Iran and North India – the Avesta and the Vedas – their commonalities can be easily discerned.

The language of the old Avestan gathas (hymns) that are attributed to the prophet Zarathustra himself, are close to the Sanskrit of the Rigveda, indicating that they were not more than a few centuries apart. It is in fact entirely possible to locate verses in the most archaic sections of the Avesta, which simply by phonetic substitutions compensating for geography and the passage of time can be turned into coherent Sanskrit. In the Gathas we find a society of priests, herdsmen and farmers – nomadic peoples, very much like those of the Vedic era, with tribal structures that may in some cases have expanded into small kingdoms.

On closer inspection of the root texts, we can discern the glimmerings of what later came to be known as Hindu philosophy. Amid the liturgical invocations lie nuggets of profound wisdom about the nature of the Self and Cosmos. For example, a crucial verse in the 10th book of the Rig Veda says, “In the beginning was the nonexistent, from which the existent arose.”

Even the reality of the nonexistent is questioned: “Then there was neither the nonexistent nor the existent.” These early ruminations are expanded upon later in the Upanishads and form the core of Hindu philosophy based on the doctrine of monism and moksha or release from the cycle of birth and death (Samsara).

‘Who am I?’

When Roberto Calasso plunged into the Vedic corpus to prepare for his opus Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India (1998), he was similarly dazzled; not by what was apparent but what remained unseen and unknowable. At the heart of his opus is a question, ka, which in Sanskrit is an interrogative pronoun meaning “Who?” (and also “what?” or “which?”).

The answer to this existential query is discovered in the asking of the question itself.

An unbroken transmission from the Vedic era to modern times can be seen in the teachings of seers such as Ramana, Nisargadatta and Jiddu Krishnamurthi. “Who Am I”, or unmediated self-enquiry, they said, is the most direct means of apprehending the true nature of reality.

Calasso agrees. “Knowledge,” he says, “is not an answer but a defiant question: Ka? Who?...” For the Vedic people, he wrote, everything came from consciousness, in the sense of pure awareness devoid of any other attribute.

The author reflects on his nascent spiritual journey, finding himself humbled before the vast body of knowledge in front of him. He asks rhetorically if these ancient technologies of transformation can be replaced by a “secularised society that can no longer see nature or any other power beyond itself and believes it is itself the answer for everything.”

In Calasso’s Ardor (2014), we are led on a bumpy but exhilarating ride through the Vedic corpus with the author as our guide. Ardor, he says, “begins and ends with something that was to become central in the West only at the beginning of the 20th century.” The Vedic people not only “wanted to think,” but they “wanted to be aware of thinking.”

The book is centred on the Satapatha Brahmana, an 8th century BCE commentary on the Vedic rites. Here, sacrifice represents the symbolic destruction of all that one holds dear, including ones ideas of self, identity and temporality. “The sacrifice is a journey – linked to a destruction. A journey from a visible place to an invisible place, and back.”

During new year celebrations in Kashmir and Iran, oblations offered into the holy fire mark the beginning of a new cycle around the sun, a new life and a new hope. The Vedic Yajna (Yasna in Persian), symbolises the burning of the old to make way for the new. By drinking Soma, participants are rendered immortal and god-like: “If soma is desired just as much by gods as by men, it will also become their factor in common” wrote Calasso. “For only in rapture can gods and men communicate.”