Sanskrit’s Nearest Neighbour
The Theosophist, March, 1896
Re-Print from the Madras Mail
There is a charming story in one of the Upanishads, a story full of the most delicate humour, which tells how the manifested forces of things set themselves up as the rivals of the one lasting reality, of which the manifested forces are but the moods and humours:—
“The Eternal, won victory for the bright ones, the Devas; in the victory of the Eternal, the bright ones magnified themselves; ‘this victory is ours’, they declared, ‘this might is ours.’
The Eternal, knowing this, became manifest to them. But they could not discern what the power was.
They said to the Fire-lord:—’Thou knower, discern for us what power this is.’
‘Be it so,’ said he.
He ran to it; it addressed him:—’Who are thou.’
‘I am the Fire-lord,’ said he, ‘I am the knower.’
‘Then what valour is in thee?’
‘I could burn up the whole world,’ said he,’ whatever there is on earth.’
Then the Eternal laid down a grass before him, saying:—’Burn up this’; and the Fire-lord came up to it with all his might, but could not burn it up. Therefore he returned again;’I could not discern what power this is,’ said he.
“So they addressed the Wind-lord:—’Oh Wind-lord, discern what power this is’, said they.
‘Be it so’, said he.
‘He ran to it; it addressed him:—’Who are thou?’
‘I am the Wind-lord,’ said he; ‘I sleep in mother-space.’
‘Then what valour is in thee?’
‘I could take p the whole world,’ said he, ‘whatever there is on earth.’
Then the Eternal laid down a grass before him, saying:—’Take up this.’ And the Wind-lord came up to it with all his might, but could not take it up. Therefore he returned again:—’I could not discern what power this is,’ said he.
“So they addressed the Sky-lord:—’Mighty one, discern what power this is,’ said they.
‘Be it so,’ said he.
He ran to it; but it vanished before him.
But there, in the shining ether, he met a woman resplendent, Umâ Haimavtî. He addressed her:—’What power is this?’ said he. And she replied:—’This is the Eternal; and in the victory of the Eternal ye magnified yourselves.’ and thus he knew that it was the Eternal.
“Therefore these bright ones are above the other bright ones, as it were,—Fire-lord, Wind-lord, Sky-lord,—because they approached the Eternal most nearly. And because the first knew that it was the Eternal, the Sky-lord is above the other bright ones, for he touched it most nearly, and he first knew that it was the Eternal.”
So ends the story of the one Life and the manifest lives. A study of many of the Upanishads would elad us to see in the three bright ones symbols of physical life, emotional life, and transcedental life—the three living vestures of the one eternal Self that wears them as garments. In the Self’s victory over chaos and void, the lives magnified themselves till they were humiliated and learned wisdom from Umâ Haimavatî, the woman resplendent, whom the Sky-lord met in the shining ether.
Who then is this Umâ Haimavatî, who is depicted here as the bringer of wisdom, the initiator of the gods? To summarize all that has been written of this wonderful personage would be a long story; it is enough to say that the general tendency is to identify her with Ammâ or Ambikâ the wife of the sectarian god Siva, who enjoys the worship of the Sivaite sects. And there is a further tendency to see in this Ammâ, the mother-goddess of the dark Dravidians—the old personified Earth-mother of Southern India. But it always seemed to me that there was a far better and simpler derivation of Umâ; and one, moreoever, far more in harmony with her position in this story, and the interpretation of it by the most famous Indian sages. The word Umâ is a very familiar one, in constant every day use in a great group of languages which every one recognizes as being Sanskrit’s closest kin. These languages as the Slavonic tongues in their two groups, one of which is dominated by Russian, the other by Polish. In all these Slavonic tongues, spoken today by at least a hundred million people, the name of Umâ, with a perfectly clear and admirable meaning, is of familiar and incessant occurrence. It may be heard any day in Great Russia, in White Russia, in Little Russia; in Poland, whther within the Czar’s dominions or in the Austrian provinde of Galicia; all round the Austrian Empire, in Moravia and Bohemia on the North; in Bukovina and Slavonia; in the Slavonish Provinces round about Görz and Laybach; in the Austrian Provinces, Bosnia, Herzegovina; then again the name of Umâ echoes down the coasts of Dalmatia to Montenegro, and across the Turkish border to Servia and Bulgaria. And in every one of these kindred tongues the name of Umâ bears the same meaning. Everywhere it signifies wisdom, understanding, insight, knowledge. Its compounds—verbs, adjectives, adverbs, nouns—are practically unlimited; so that therei s no Slavonic word more definite, more uniform, more universal, than this word Umâ, meaning wisdom. And that in Sanskrit also Umâ meant wisdom it testified to by the sage Sankarâchârya and the prodigiously learned Sâyana, the commentator and interpretor of the Vedas; so that there is no difficulty at all in supposingthat the initiator of the gods in the Upanishads story is the same wisdom, personified in Indra, that is so universally recognized, though in an impersonal form, wherever Slavonic languages are spoken.
That this is very likely—a simple name among the Slavs personified by the speakers of Sanskrit—one may very easily prove without going beyond the Vedic Pantheon. There is, for instance, the god agni, to whom, in eight out of the ten circles of hymns in the Rig Vega, the opening praises are addressed. That Agni became fully personified in the later Vedic age is not a matter of doubt; while it is equally beyond doubt that his name, not personified, is the common name for fire among the Slavs. If ognya, which the Slavs pronounce agnya, the commonest word for fire, has become personified in India as Agni the Fire-lord, what is more natural than to suppose that Umâ, the ordinary name for wisdom, became likewise personified as the “woman resplendent: whom Indra met in the ether,—personified Wisdom, the revealer of the Eternal. Then take another Vedic god, Vâyu or Vâta, the god of the wind; in the Slavonic tongues both names are found, in veter, the wind, and veyet, to blow. Here agin, common Slavonic words appear personified in Sanksrit, and if so, then why not also Umâ, the Goddess, Wisdom. Exactly the opposite has taken place with the Sanskrit word jivana, life or living; in India it has hardly a trace of personal colour, but among the old Slavs, and chiefly the Bohemians, Jîvana or Dziwanna is the Goddess, Life.
Then again, two gods are common to the Vedic and Slavonic Pantheons; first, the god Bhaga, who has the gift of wealth or fortune in India, and whose name appears in words like Bhgavân and Bhgavat; in Slavonic this god becomes Bog, and the changes of sound are perfectly regular and harmonious. The initial aspirate in Sanskrit is lost, just as in the words bhavamas, bhavatas, which become in Slavonic byvaiem, byvaiete, “we be, you be.” The Sanskrit neutral vowel becomes short o in Slavonic, as was the case also with the initial of the Fire-god Agni. The Rain-god of the Vedas, also Parjanya the Thunderer, became in Slavonic the Rain-god Perun; and it is not a thousand years ago since Perun’s great image stood on the hill outside Kieff. These phonetic relations are so close that one may say that the Sanskrit words re-appear in Slavonic with no marked and radical phonetic difference; no such difference as, for example separate Sanskrit, phonetically, from Greek. And since this is so, we are justified in supposing that another Vedic god, Varuna, who represents the wide firmament, and more especially the firmament at night, is closely connected with the Slavonic adjective voron or vorondi meaning, blue-black, dark blue, of black. In Russia, the word is often appropriated to the blue-black raven. Exactly the same word may very well have appeared in Sanskrit to pain the blue-black wings of night, the firmament of raven hue. It is possible, though not at once so evident or certain, that Indra, the Vedic Rain-god, who releases the treasures of the clouds and conquers drought, amy be connected with the Slavonic word indevit, to be covered with hoar-frost, rime, or sleet. But the unity between Slavonic and Sanskrit in the case of the Vedic gods Agni, Vâta, Bhaga, Parjanya, and the Slav goddess Jîvana, is quite incontestible and uncontested. And in the case of the word Veda, the connection between Slavonic and Sanskrit is equally undoubted. From this root ved come Slavonic word like vedat, to know; vedatel, an adept; vedun, a wizard; vedunya or vedma, a witch. Here the same root occurs in English also; while from the kindred root vid, to see, come the Slavonic words videt or vidat, to see; vidok, seer; vîd, sight; and a host of others.
One may multiply Sanskrit and Slavonic affinities to any extent. We may take as an appropriate illustration the Upanishad containing the story quoted at the beginning of this study, the Kena Upanishad. Here the title even declares its addinity with Slavonic, for in Slavonic, kena, viz., “by whom,” would be written kem, with the same meaning. Then the word pat, in Sanskrit to fall, or fly, is in Slavonic pad, to fall; praiti, i.e., goes forth, in Sanskrit, is close enough to the Slavonic, proitti to go forth; the Sanskrit shra, to hear, is almost the Slavonic slu, the two liquids being constantly interchanged. Then again, the famous Sanskrit word Deva, a god, which in old Vedic times was rather an adjective, meaning shining, or glorious, is closely repeated on the Slavonic div-ni wonderful, glorious; and, as we have already said, bhavamah becomes in Slavonic byvaiem. So that in the first Sanskrit passage that comes to hand, six or seven close resemblances between the Slavonic and ancient Indian idiom may easily be found in the first two or three lines, and this closeness holds out through the whole of the two languages. With this fact of widely extended and very close resemblances, phonetically almost complete, and the very striking illustration of the Vedic gods, we may readily grant the unity of the Slavonic and Sanskrit Umâ, wisdom; and passing from this peculiar case to a universal statement we may say without hesitation, the Slavonic is Sanskrit’s nearest neighbour. For though many of these relations may be traced here and there in other Indo-European tongues, all of them will be found nowhere but in Slavonic.