dIvAkIrtya-s, eclipses and severed heads

We saw how the aitareya brAhmaNa describes the divAkIrtya-s as the frame of solstice points that “holds up” the sun. The pa~nchavimsha brAhman 4.6 describes the divAkIrtya-s, just as the taittirIya and kaTha texts, in the context of the solstice rite but also adds a second context: namely that of the eclipse. It repeats a famous tale of the dAnava svarbhAnu (PB4.6.13-15): ” The demonic svarbhAnu seized the sun with darkness. The gods drove the darkness with the dIvAkIrtya. The divAkIrtya-s are the rays of the sun, by means of the rays they indeed take hold of the sun.” The it states that the bhrAja and AbhrAja sAmans remove the darkness from the upper part of the sun, the vikarNa and mahAdivAkIrtya from the middle part and the bhAsa from the lower part. This suggests a progressive movement of the eclipse with different parts of the sun liberated successively from it. The term svarbhAnu is a very overt reference to the solar eclipse because the same term is used from the earliest times (the atri maNDala of the RV) to describe the eclipse which was observed and predicted by the atri-s using their quadrants (turIya in the RV). Following the dIvakIrtya-eclipse connection of the sAmavedic tradition through other vedic texts we move into a series of more cryptic allusions that might provide parallels with later day pauranic mythology.

So far in studying the dIvakIrtya-s we had not alluded to the evidence from the shukla yajurvedic tradition. We find a rather notable allusion to it the shatapatha brAhmaNa in 4.1.5 of the shatapatha brAhmaNa. This section of the SB first begins by mentioning of how the bhR^igu-s and angirasa-s saw the svargo loka. It goes on to describe the restorative act of the ashvin-s by providing the earliest version of the famous tale of chyavana, sukanyA and sharyAta mAnava in the context of the offering made to the ashvin-s (SB This offering is related to the ashvins as the divine physicians restoring the severed head of the yaj~na. The blindness of chyavana followed by his restoration is, at its heart, a solar restoration myth superimposed on the the history of the bhArgava-s. The ashvin offerings in this context are connected to the divAkIrtya-s that restore the head to the yaj~na as per SB

vishIrShNA vai yaj~nena yajadhva iti kathaM vishIrShNetyupa nu nau hvayadhvam atha vo vakShyAva iti tatheti tA upAhvayanta tAbhyAm etam AshvinaM graham agR^ihNastAvadhvaryU yaj~nasyAbhavatAM tAvetad yaj~nasya shiraH pratyadhattAM tad adastad divAkIrtyAnAm brAhmaNe vyAkhyAyate yathA tad yaj~nasya shiraH pratidadhatus-tasmAd-eSha stute bahiShpavamAne graho gR^ihyate stute hi bahiShpavamAna AgacatAm

Then in SB the tale of yet another bhArgava, dadhichi is mentioned in relation to the restoration of his head by the ashvin-s in the context of the madhuvidyA. Thus, the divAkIrtya-s are here cryptically linked to the restoration of the sun’s brightness by the ashvin-s. Thus, the severed head of the yaj~na in the pravargya might also be linked to solar restoration.

This leads us to the those mysterious mantras of RV 10.170/171 which clears some of this up: The vikarNa sAman amongst the divAkIrtya-s is based on RV 10.170.1. This sUktaM is noteworthy in some other respects: 1) It uses the word bhrAjaH which corresponds to the name of one of the divAkIrtya-s. 2) Prominent words in this sUktaM like s [vi]bhrAT, bhrAjaH, jyotiH, divaH, ayuH, satya, dharman occur as [or as parts of] the magical stobhas of the divAkIrtya-s. 3) This is one of those relatively few mantra-s to the sun [sUrya] in the RV. 4) It has the word asura in a negative connotation– such a negative usage of asura is rare in the RV and occurs elsewhere in the context of sUrya and the eclipse (svarbhAnu is also called asura).

When we look more carefully at the second mantra some interesting elements come to light:

vibhrAD bR^ihat subhR^itaM vAja-sAtamaM dharman divo dharuNe satyam arpitam |
amitrahA vR^itrahA dasyuhantamaM jyotir jaj~ne asurahA sapatnahA ||
We note that first hemistich contains the words subhR^itaM, dharman, dharuNe, all implying bearing, propping or supporting of the heavens, which relates with the basic theme of the divAkIrtya-s as a prop of sUrya as described so vividly in the aitareya brAhmaNa. In the second hemistich where we encounter the phrase “jyotir jaj~ne asurahA …” i.e. he generated a light that smote the asura. This atypical use of the negative asura along with its smiting reminds one of the the sUktaM of atri (RV 5.40) where the negative asura is repeatedly used to describe the solar eclipse. These observations together suggest that the sUktaM RV 10.170 comprised a “proto-divAkIrtyA”, which already was linked to elements seen in the classical divAkIrtya-s.

Interestingly, the very next sUktaM RV 10.171 of iTant bhArgava describes the severed head of makha. In this sUktaM in the second mantra indra is said to taken away the skin from the head of makha: “tvaM makhasya dodhataH shiro .ava tvacho bharaH” (RV 10.171.2). The 4th mantra is again pretty striking:

tvaM tyamindra sUryaM pashchA santaM puras kR^idhi | devAnAM chit tiro vasham || (RV 10.171.4)
Bring, indra, the sun to the front that is lingering behind, hidden against the wishes of the deva-s.

This finally completes a rather tangled path — the itAnt bhArgava sUktaM is recording an eclipse with two allegories: 1) the skin being taken of the head of makha. The head of makha is the severed head of the sacrifice that became the sun as per the brAhmaNas. 2) The sun being hidden against the wishes of the god. Thus, juxtaposition of the makha and the vibhrAD hymn in the RV maNDala 10 is unlikely a chance event — it follows the real tradition recorded in the shatapatha brAhmaNa 4.1.5 where the head of makha/yaj~na is restored by the divAkIrtya-s.

So the tangled contextual information suggests that in the vedic mind several different “regenerative” events used a similar set of motifs for description and ritual enactment: 1) The regeneration of the sun after sinking in winter in the northern latitudes of the early Indo-Europeans. 2) The restoration of the sun after an eclipse. 3) The restoration of the world axis, the frame of the sun after a precessional shift. Hence, not surprisingly, the sauchika agni hymn which concerns itself with precession also introduces the important number of the Saros cycle in a cryptic way.

Finally, this motif of the severed head in relation to the eclipse lingers on in the Hindu world, reappearing in the purANas as head of rAhu who eats the sun. Here again the head of the asura is severed by viShNu, just as indra slays svarbhAnu in the veda. We suspect that there was a para-vedic viShNu-centric Indo-Aryan stream where the myth of rAhu arose from the same old base motifs found in the Indo-European world.

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