Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": MYTH AND RITUAL


('Shatapatha Brahmana,' XI, 5,)

This selection from one of the latest and best known of the Brahmanas is a welcome expansion of a love story begun, but not concluded, in the most famous of the Rig Veda 'dialogue' (samvada) hymns, X, 95. The tale recurs in the Mahabharata and the Puranas, and was used by Kalidasa for his drama Vikramorvashi.

The Gandharvas and the Apsarases-ancient classes of celestial beings who in the later Samhitas are often associated with waters and trees-are, like many forest creatures, sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile to men. King Pururavas falls happily in love with the nymph, Urvashi, until the Gandharvas separate the lovers by a ruse and the lonely king seeks the ritual means whereby he too may become a proper forest creature, a Gandharva.

The nymph Urvashi loved Pururavas the son of Ida.1 When she married him she said: You must embrace me three times a day, but never lie with me against my will. Moreover I must never see you naked, for this is the proper way to behave to us women !'

She lived with him long, and she was with child by him, so long did she live with him. Then the Gandharvas said to one another: 'This Urvashi has been living too long among men ! We must find a way to get her back !'

She kept a ewe with two lambs tied to her bed, and the Gandharvas carried off one of the lambs. 'They're taking away my baby,' she cried, 'as though there were no warrior and no man in the place!' Then they took away the second, and she cried out in the same way.

Then he thought to himself. 'How can the place where I am be without a warrior and a man?', And, naked as he was, he leapt up after them, for he thought it would take too long to put on a garment.

Then the Gandharvas produced a flash of lightning, and she saw him as clearly as if it were day-and she vanished. . . .

Bitterly weeping, he wandered all over Kurukshetra 2. There is a lake of lotuses there, called Anyatahplaksha. He walked on its banks, and there were nymphs swimming in it in the form of swans3.

And she noticed him, and said: 'That's the man with whom I lived!' 'Let us show ourselves to him,' they said. 'Very well,' she replied, and they appeared to him [in their true forms] 4

Then he recognized her and entreated her:

'O my wife, with mind so cruel,

stay, let us talk together,

for if our secrets are untold

we shall have -no joy in days to come!'

Then she replied:

'What use is there in my talking to you!

I have passed like the first of dawns.

Pururavas, go home again!

I am like the wind, that cannot be caught.'.

Mournfully Pururavas said:

'Today your lover will perish,

he will go to the furthest distance and never come back.

He will lie in the lap of disaster, 5

and fierce wolves will devour him.'.

She replied:

'Pururavas do not die! do not go away!

do not let the fierce wolves devour you!

Friendship is not to be found in women,

For they have hearts like half-tamed jackals!'6

And then she said to him:

'When I dwelt in disguise in the land of mortals

and passed the nights of four autumns,7

I ate a little ghee 8 once a day,

and -now I have had quite enough! . . .

But her heart pitied him, and she said, 'Come on the last evening of the year, then, when your son is born, you shall lie one night with me.'

He came on the last night of the year, and there stood a golden palace. They told him to enter, and brought her to him.

She said: 'Tomorrow the Gandharvas will grant you a boon and you must make your choice.' He said: 'You choose for me I' She answered: 'Say, "Let me become one of you!"'

In the morning the Gandharvas gave him a boon, and he asked: 'Let me become one of you.'

'There is no fire among men,' they said, 'which is so holy that a man may become one of us by sacrificing with it.' So they put fire in a pan, and said: 'By sacrificing with this you will become one of us.' He took it and his son, and went homeward. On the way he left the fire in the forest and went to a village with the boy. When he came back the fire had vanished. In place of the fire was a pipal tree and in place of the pan a mimosa. So he went back to the Gandharvas.

They said: 'For a year you must cook enough rice for four [every day]. Each time [you cook] you must put on the fire three logs of the pipal anointed with ghee . . . and the fire which is produced [at the end of the year] will be the fire [which will make you one of us]. But that is rather difficult,' they added, 'so you should make an upper firestick of pipal wood and a lower one of mimosa wood, and the fire you get from them will be the fire [which will make you one of us]. But that too is rather difficult,' they added, 'so you must make both the upper and lower firestick 9 of pipal wood, and the fire you get from them will be the fire.'

So he made an upper and a lower firestick of pipal wood, and the fire he got from them was the fire [which would make him one of them]. He sacrificed with it and became a Gandharva.


1 And of Buddha, son of Soma. It is interesting to note that Pururavas belongs to the lunar race of kings, often mythically associated, like the Gandharvas themselves, with the heavenly soma. He is the ancestor of Puru, Bharata, Kuru, Pandu and the other protagonists of the Mahabharata.

2 The sacred 'field of the Kurus,' that great north Indian plain where the battle celebrated by the great epic was fought.

3 Some kind of aquatic bird (ati).

4 The following five stanzas are from Rig Veda, X, 95, 1, 2, 14-16, the 'dialogue' preserved by the priests who recite the Rig Veda. Our Rig Veda contains 18 stanzas; the Satapatha-brahmana was apparently aware of the first 15 of these

5 Nirriti, Destruction, the wife of Adharma and mother of death. (Hopkins, E. W., Epic Mythology [Strassburg: Trubner, 1915 1, P. 41.)

6 Salavrika, of uncertain meaning. J. Eggeling translates as 'hyenas,' while A. Weber suggests 'werewolves' may be intended. (J. EggeIing [trans,]. Satapatha-brahmana Oxford 1900; SBE XLIVI, P. 71,ff. 4.)

7 i.e., four years.

8 Clarified butter.

9 The churning-sticks used to produce fire.

Translation by A. L. Basham, in his The Wonder That Was India (London, 1954), PP. 405-7

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