Buffaloes, crocodiles and sacrifices—A guest post by Krishna Del Toso

The following is a guest post by Krishna Del Toso cogitating on how to interpret a text. You can read more about him on Academia, here.

Some time ago a friend of mine was working on his PhD thesis and asked me to help him deal with a Ṛgveda (RV) passage, namely, RV 10.28.10cd, because he does not handle any of the Asian and South-Asian languages.

In this blog-post I’d like to recall my observations and add some further thoughts on RV 10.28.10-11ab. To begin with, I must confess that I’m not an expert of Vedic studies, but exactly for this reason I believe it would be profitable (at least for me) to share here my interpretation of the passage under concern and see if someone has on it a better angle than I.

Let’s start from RV 10.28.10:

su̱pa̱rṇa i̱tthā na̱kham ā si̍ṣā̱yāva̍ruddhaḥ pari̱pada̱ṁ na si̱ṁhaḥ |
ni̱ru̱ddhaś ci̍n mahi̱ṣas ta̱rṣyāvā̍n go̱dhā tasmā̍ a̱yatha̍ṁ karṣad e̱tat ||

RV 10.28 is a dialogue between the sacrificer and Indra. The 10th stanza occurs in the portion of the hymn in which Indra tells the sacrificer some short faunistic episodes, in the form of apophtegms. My opinion is that these episodes are somehow related to the sacrifice and have the purpose to illustrate by way of metaphors and images some aspects of it.

For the sake of comparison, let’s first consider Jamison and Brereton’s English translation (2014, p. 1420), which is to my knowledge the most recent we have available:

“The eagle caught its talon just so, like a lion entrapped into a snare. The buffalo also got trapped, when it was thirsty. The monitor-lizard plowed this way for him”.

The RV is such an old text that we can hardly have access today to a full understanding of its cultural, social and religious background. Nonetheless, this translation really seems not to make much sense, beginning with the fact that siṣāya, if I’m not wrong, is a first person singular verbal form, but Jamison and Brereton take it as referring to suparṇa, which they translate as “eagle”. Therefore, siṣāya suggests that here Indra is speaking of something he has done. The term suparṇa, moreover, indicates a bird “with beautiful leaves/wings” and is used sometimes also to refer to, for instance, a peacock, a cock and so on, whereas itthā and na suggest a comparison. Accordingly, what pādas ab seem to say is something like this: “I [=Indra] tied (siṣāya) in this manner (itthā) the suparṇa by its claw (nakham), like (na) a lion (siṁhaḥ) trapped (āvaruddhaḥ) by a snare (paripadaṁ)” [I take ā in this case as an emphasizing particle].

Now, what kind of bird is this suparṇa? Well, I’m not totally sure, but I suspect that it could be a cock, because of the presence of nakham, whose meaning is “claw” but can also refer, more specifically, to the “spur of a cock” (if so, it would be a synecdoche for claw).

So, let’s assume Indra has tied a cock, and not an eagle. It is certainly not an action worthy of a victorious and powerful god as he is. Consider that when I was a kid, I too did it a number of times on my grandparents’s home farm. But, unlike my boyish practice in tying cocks, Indra’s cock-tying expertise has the power of sacrifice and Word on his part. Indeed, the comparison between the humble cock and the mighty lion could be justified by the sacrificial context of the hymn. I’m thinking of Indra (who in this case plays the role of alter-ego of the sacrificer himself), here, who ties a cock for a sacrifice* and magnifies the scene by equating the cock to the most powerful wild animal ever, i.e., the lion. The equation of the cock and the lion entails that the cock sacrifice becomes, at least virtually, a lion sacrifice. We know how much Vedic seers held in high regard the transformative power of words over reality, so if we call this cock “like a lion” (na si̱ṁhaḥ), some lion-ness will have by all means to manifest itself into the beautifully-winged non-flying bird.

  • [Note: In all this, what I do not know is if there are references to cock-sacrifices in the Vedic literature.]

Now, let’s examine pādas cd. What I don’t understand in Jamison and Brereton’s translation is how a monitor-lizard can plow a (any) way. Perhaps is Indra referring to the groove left behind on the sand by the monitor-lizard’s tail? But again this solution seems to me to be quite picturesque and hardly fits with the sacrificial context of the hymn.

It took me a few days to figure out a possible interpretation, but at the end I came out with the following one which I consider less weird than Jamison and Brereton’s. I take the two pādas as a single sentence and I suggest the following translation: “Withheld (niruddhaś) indeed (cin) is the thirsty (tarṣyāvān) buffalo (mahiṣas), from it (tasmā) the alligator (godhā = gosāpa) is tearing off (karṣad) this (etad) foot (ayathaṁ )”. Can you see how plausible is the scene now? Indra is speaking about a buffalo that, because it’s thirsty, goes to a river or a pond to assuage its thirst, and at this point an alligator (or another big reptile) comes out of the water and bites it… a hunting action I’m sure we all are familiar with, having watched it in a number of naturalistic documentaries on the Indian fauna when we were teenagers. And if this is not an uncommon event in modern India, much more frequent it must have been in ancient times.

To finish with, let’s give a look to the first part of the following stanza. As it happens for pādas a and b, the text sets a comparison also between pādas cd and the following RV 10.28.11ab, which takes on the image just illustrated and expands the narrative supposedly (or hopefully) in a figurative way:

tebhyo̍ go̱dhā a̱yatha̍ṁ karṣad e̱tad ye bra̱hmaṇa̍ḥ prati̱pīya̱nty annai̍ḥ |

My interpretation is: “[In the same way] the crocodile is tearing off this foot to those who abuse (pratipīyanty) of the brahmin’s [or: of Brahman’s] foods (annaiḥ)”. The “foods” (plural), in the light of the subject-matter of the hymn, may refer either to the sacrificial offering or to the part of it that at the end of the sacrifice is left for the priests.

To conclude, what I see in RV 10.28.10-11ab is a sketch of two moments of the sacrificial activity: the tying of the animal (in this case probably a cock, magnified into a lion), and the warning not to take away the sacrificial offering or the priests’s part of it, otherwise a terrifying fate will meet the culprit: s/he’ll be hunted by a crocodile… and s/he could also lose one of her/his legs. So, let me add, if you really can’t resist and abuse that food anyway, at least don’t go and drink from the river!

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog: elisafreschi.com, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

One Reply to “Buffaloes, crocodiles and sacrifices—A guest post by Krishna Del Toso”

  1. On a non-Indological note for your interesting and ‘less weird’ interpretation certainly: crocodile, not alligator.

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