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Negation in Sanskrit: Rig Veda X,129

Domenico Pacitti (1991)

[The Sanskrit transcription on this web page is best viewed on WindowsXP or later.]

5.3. Take, for example, the much celebrated Vedic hymn from the tenth book of the Rig Veda.[1]

The opening words,

/1/ nāsadāsīn no sadāsīt tadānī

are particularly arresting and may be literally rendered:

/2/ Neither what is not was nor what is was then,

or more naturally:

/3/ There was not what is not, and there was not what is, then.[2]

This is obviously intended to mean that the dualism which allows distinctions, the most fundamental of which would be at the ontological level between the existent and the nonexistent, was absent. Yet the epistemological barrier does not present itself to the sage-poet who proceeds intuitively rather than rationally, finding wisdom in his heart.

The break with the chronological order of stages can, I think, be explained by the need to emphasise the negative from the start: that the natural order for the poet was not NEG+POS is suggested by the reverse order (“the bond between what is and what is not”) in verse 4.[3]

Another reason could be to enshroud the hymn from the outset within the remote vagueness of the night of time. The use of the verb forms nāsad and sad in preference to the static infinitive āsti allows more forceful negation of the vitality and exuberant flow of being, thus suggesting the isolation of the One breathing inexhaustibly of its own accord.

The preponderance of negatives, of rhetorical questions and orthodox imagery point to the contemplation of transcendence: the mystic’s sense of his own insignificance in comparison with the One.

But the gods came after the creation, and the One was born of that intense desire that the sage-poet can with due thought recover within his own heart. Here we have a major move away from passive spiritual acceptance towards an independence of spiritual vision and indeed philosophical enquiry. And this is born also of doubt, as the last words of the hymn jolt the reader into understanding; for the great questions of creation can be answered only by Him who surveys this world – unless even He does not know (“yadi vā naveda”).

Even as we move away from a passive contemplation of transcendence, the negative continues to serve as a major force in the language of the sublime.

It strikes me as a significant fact that the opening words of the hymn may be made to yield a number of mutually incompatible meanings. For it follows from:

/1/ Neither what is not was nor what is was.


/2/ It is neither the case that what is not was nor that what is was.

/3/ It can neither be asserted or denied that what is not was nor that what is was.

/4/ Both what is not was not and what is was not.

/5/ What was was neither what is not nor what is.

We may further divide /1/ into,

/1A/ What is not was not.


/1B/ What is was not.

These four legitimate construals of /1/ may be further elucidated. /2/ has the structure,


and expresses the dual rejection of a negative in the first instance and an affirmative in the second. This suggests a mistaken way of perceiving things attributable to those who persist in talking in terms of there having either been or not been that which at the present is not or is. /3/ is closely related to /2/ but rather emphasises the impossibility of assertion or denial of a state of affairs which falls beyond the bounds of linguistic expression. /4/ wants to reduce the presently existent and nonexistent to the same level of non-existence in the past. /5/ has the structure,


and postulates – or reifies – some being, thing or state of affairs which is neither locatable in the existent or the nonexistent in terms of our present ontology.

More light will be shed on this by closer examination of /1A/ and /1B/, being the two constituent elements of /1/. In both cases there is an ambiguity relating to compoundability, or composition: by reasoning from the properties of the constituent parts (of either /1A/ or /1B/) to properties of the whole (of either) we will interpret in sensu composito, whereas by reasoning from properties of the whole to properties of its constituent parts we will interpret in sensu diviso.

Thus What is not was not, taken in sensu composito, will mean that what is not now was not then, such that now and then are similar in having the same not. Since what is not = nothing, what we are saying here in effect is that the nothing before creation was the same as the nothing now.

But taken in sensu diviso, it will be saying that the nothing before creation was different from the nothing now.

Likewise, What is was not may be taken to mean either that all that there is now was nonexistent then, or else that it was different or other.

Furthermore, with due attention to the sequence of tenses as grammatically rather than literally functional in the strict temporal sense, the original text can also yield – as an alternative to /1/ - the following possibility:

/6/ Neither what was not was nor what was was.

Again, interpretations /2/ - /5/ may be taken to apply with the relevant temporal modifications. The sense of /6/ that “then” had no past could be taken as meaning that there was not what had no life (in the first part, which seems acceptable), and there was not what had life (in the second part – which is, on the face of it, unacceptable). The sage-poet may in this sense be understood as having raised the question of how it is possible for there not to have been what had life, or how it could be possible for what has life to have no life. But here life may reasonably be construed as structural life with the clues coming in verses 2 and 3: structure is the literal sense of the noun praketa = distinction in verse 2 and structural is the negated sense in the adjective (a)praketa =  indistinct  in verse 3. Perhaps, then, life is only truly life when it is structural, the power of distinguishing being an act of intelligence either prior to or contemporary with the birth of the gods.

The absence of the structure would in this light be identified with the absence of reality.

Even more possibilities – and indeed more sense – can be added to the overall situation if we bear in mind the Wittgensteinian thesis which, as we have seen, shows the shape of the boundary between the existent and the nonexistent as being dependent on both.

We should also attend to the relevant idea that there may be things or states of affairs or whatever which have real existence, but which simply cannot be grasped in thought, that somehow lie beyond our mental faculties. And this will play an important part in what can be said about what there is.

5.4. But how does all of this affect our reading of the text? The opening words are commonly interpreted as a criticism directed against those who held that the initial state was one of nonbeing and the hymn has been interpreted as a discussion of the relation between the order of knowledge and the order of reality.

Philosophers nowadays proceed from restrictions on thought to restrictions on being, but the ancients proceeded in the opposite direction from being to thought: if something was not, then it could not be thought. Thus for the ancients ontology may be seen to precede epistemology.

Whatever else may be said, I think that the opening words of the hymn are far from clear and also highly complex. It seems to me that this must be understood as a deliberate ploy on the part of the poet, as I reject the alternative of carelessness as unreasonable; for every poet knows the importance of the first and last lines. (Note: In the light of the above argument, I reject the hypothesis that the NEG+POS order was dictated simply by metrical criteria.) I want to suggest that some of the poem’s discrepancies can be resolved if we consider the opening words as  a sort of challenge or riddle. In this way the remainder of the first verse and the second together represent familiar images, at times in the form of questions. The third introduces the first instance of ambivalence with respect to desire to know and the fire of passion ("tapasas"). The subsequent intense desire ("kāmas") is, with even greater difficulty, to be understood as giving strength to thought. And the sages, who, by searching in their hearts with thought, found that this was the link between what is and what is not (note the reverse word order), are, I suggest, to be conceived of as those readers who will succeed with force of thought in perceiving the riddle and its supposed solution. Thus the reins (verse 3) are pulled sideways in order to check the disproportionate pull of the horse of carnal desire.

If not in terms of the present interpretation, how are we to understand the question in the sixth verse (“And who knows, who could say whence this creation came?”) which flatly disregards everything that has been said up to that point? And what about the doubt expressed in the final verse as to whether in fact the creation as such has taken place at all? Have we not been told the facts in the first part of the hymn? I think these facts must be construed as parts of various versions – another reason why chronological order is not respected. Finally, the poet’s riddle is a challenge to man in his rationality, which must be exercised and developed, and blind faith in the ethical imperative and in the gods rejected, since even the god in the highest heaven may himself not know the answer.

Geldner (1951, p.359) too sees that the sage-poet’s purpose is not to present an account of the creation but rather to present the problem of the emergence of something out of nothing:

“Der anonyme Dichter will kein eigentliche Schöpfungsgeschichte lehren. Ihn beschäftigt nur das Problem der Entstehung der realen Welt aus dem Nichts“.

He even speaks of the hymn as a riddle forever enshrouded in darkness:

“Aber das letzte Rätsel, der letzte Ursprung der Welt bleibt noch ebenso dunkel wie zuvor“.

But I am not sure that Geldner sees the further significance of the multiplicity of meanings within the very first words, as I have tried to show, a veritable riddle within the Riddle.

It is worth observing at this point that problems concerning the negative encountered in the Wittgenstein and Rig Veda illustrations, while of great value in themselves as well as at our third level of meaning (emotive depiction), do not necessarily arise in that form within my own account. For I have argued for negative qualification as always representing a judgement (not necessarily accepted or even asserted) over ordinary sense. And this holds true also at the ontological level.

Thus I regard what is not as having no autonomous existence but as representing a judgement over what is as not being in a particular place, manner, time, etc.

At the cosmogonic level too I hold that for there to be being now there must always have been being; for if something is said to have come out of nothing, that nothing may seem in retrospect as having been a potential something, which suffices for its construal as something and not nothing, and here my position is close to that of C.S. Peirce (see pages 38-40 of D. Pacitti, The Nature of the Negative).

I applaud Edwards (1732, p.202 & 207) when he writes:

“That there should absolutely be nothing at all is utterly impossible. The mind can never, let it stretch its conceptions ever so much, bring itself to conceive of a state of perfect nothing. It puts the mind into mere convulsion and confusion to endeavor to think of such a state, and it contradicts the very nature of the soul to think that it should be; and it is the greatest contradiction, and the aggregate of all contradictions, to say that there should not be. ‘Tis true we can’t so distinctly shew the contradiction by words, because we cannot talk about it without speaking horrid nonsense and contradicting ourselves at every word, and because ‘nothing’ is that whereby we distinctively shew other particular contradictions. But here we are run up to our first principle, and have no other to explain the nothingness or not being of nothing by. Indeed, we can mean nothing else by ‘nothing’ but a state of absolute contradiction.”

And again:

“When we go to inquire whether or no there can be absolutely nothing we speak nonsense. In inquiring, the stating of the question is nonsense, because we make a disjunction where there is none. ‘Either being or absolute nothing’ is no disjunction, no more than whether a triangle is a triangle or not a triangle.”

But I do not share Edwards’ conclusion (or premise?) that the being which must therefore eternally be is God. For this, it seems to me, would be a reification of process: that the mind is an emergent property of functioning on the part of physical particles does not necessitate the existence of an additional physical entity.

It is not surprising that the question of negative facts tends to be a burning issue; thus Russell (1956, p.211) writes:

“When I was lecturing on this subject at Harvard I argued that there were negative facts, and it nearly produced a riot: the class would not hear of there being negative facts at all.”

But John’s not breaking the window when we expected him to do so I interpret once again as the expression of a higher order judgement in respect of its unfulfilled affirmative counterpart.



nāsadāsīn no sadāsīt tadānī nāsīd rajo no vyomāparo yat |
kuha kasya śarmannambha kimāsīd ghahana ghabhīram ||
na m
tyurāsīdamta na tarhi na rātryā ahna āsītpraketa |
svadhayā tadeka tasmāddhānyan na para ki canāsa ||
tama āsīt tamasā ghū
amaghre.apraketa salila sarvamāidam |
yadāsīt tapasastanmahinājāyataikam ||
kāmastadaghre samavartatādhi manaso reta
prathama yadāsīt |
sato bandhumasati niravindan h
di pratīyākavayo manīā ||
tiraścīno vitato raśmire
āmadha svidāsī.a.a.at |
retodhāāsan mahimāna āsan svadhā avastāt prayati
parastāt ||
ko addhā veda ka iha pra vocat kuta ājātā kuta iya
visṛṣṭi |
arvāgh devā asya visarjanenāthā ko veda yataābabhūva ||
visṛṣṭiryata ābabhūva yadi vā dadhe yadi vā na |
yo asyādhyak
a parame vyoman so agha veda yadi vā naveda ||

The above Sanskrit text and romanized transcription of Rig Veda, X, 129 are reproduced  from the Sacred Text Archive with due acknowledgement.

[2] The following is the celebrated rendering of the hymn by Max Müller (1849-73):

Then there was not non-existent nor existent:
there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter?
was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal:
no sign was there, the day's and night's divider.
That one thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature
apart from it was nothing whatsoever.

Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness,
this All was undiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and formless;
by the great power of warmth was born that unit.

Thereafter rose desire in the beginning,
Desire the primal seed and germ of spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart's thought
discovered the existent's kinship in the non-existent.

Transversely was their severing line extended:
what was above it then, and what below it?
There were begetters, there were mighty forces,
free action here and energy of yonder.

Who verily knows and who can here declare it,
whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
The gods are later than this world's production.
Who knows, then, whence it first came into being?

He, the first origin of this creation,
whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven,
he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows it not.

Note that Müller's renderings "non-existent" and "existent" in the opening line we shall be concerned with fails to preserve the dynamism of the of the full verb intact. Macnicol (1938, p.56) follows Müller in this and also erroneously construes "tadānī" as the grammatical subject. Mascarò (1962, p.13 & 1965, p.9) translates: "There was not what is nor what is not", preserving the vitality of the verb intact but unfortunately crucially reversing the negative-affirmative order to affirmative-negative. Zaehner (1968, p.11) renders: "Then neither Being nor Not-being was", thereby according mistaken precedence to Being over Not-being and totally stripping the original of its verbal vitality through the freezing effect of nominalisation. As has been pointed out by others, Geldner (1951, p.359) in his preface to the hymn seems to treat the terms "Nichtsein" and "Nichts" as synonymous while invariably rendering "ásat" "Nichtsein".

[3] kāmastadaghre samavartatādhi manaso reta prathama yadāsīt |
sato bandhumasati niravindan h
di pratīyākavayo manīā ||

"In the beginning intense desire, which was the first seed of thought, became this: and the sage-poets found, by searching in their hearts with thought, that this was the bond between that which is and that which is not."

But what, then, could this bond be between what is and what is not? If what is is essentially vital, then it is able to die so that it ceases to be in the sense of dying. But is it not equally possible for what is not to be something? For if it were nothing then there would be a relationship between something and nothing. But a relationship must be between two things that are, or else the relationship itself could not be. If what is not is construed as what no longer lives, then in talking about what is not we are talking about something and not nothing. There is an undeniable reality about the thoughts or feelings or behaviour that a dead man might have were he still alive. For if it were not an undeniable reality, there would be no sense in speaking about what he would have like or disliked, or how he might have acted or reacted in a given set of circumstances. It is in this sense that there is truth and rightness in talking about what is not as though it were, since what we are calling what is not will have attributes. Aristotle saw that things which pass into "nonbeing" could not become nothing but rather "not-being-X" (De Generatione et Corruptione, 319a, 22). Is there, then, no real passing away? If nothing is not and what is not is, then that is because what is not is something, to be precise, the very same thing that is. Not, then, is a qualification over is. If it were not a qualification over is, then it would be a qualification over nothing, and hence no qualification at all. Such a sentence could have no meaning. Thus it is not only possible for what is not to be something: it is necessary. As we shall see, the tenses in the Vedic hymn are less explicit than in modern English and other modern European languages, but – as in the case of modern (and classical) Chinese – the absence of any formal tense marker (other than the temporal adverbs, of course, which are not, however, obligatory) can be a source of strength rather than weakness in that this may more readily produce a perspective, as it were, sub specie aeternitatis, unlimited by temporal restrictions. Our common concept of time may itself be considered an unnecessary restriction since what truly exists remains unaffected by change and decay. That vitality in man which may be viewed sub specie aeternitatis is sometimes called the soul. And it is in this sense that we may consider the soul to be immortal (cf. Plato, Republic, 611b-612a). Furthermore, Plato (Timaeus, 37d-38c) in his conception of time as a moving image of eternity saw that was and shall be are only "generated forms of time", mistakenly applied to eternal being. Only is is the appropriate term: was and will be are more properly applicable to becoming. Within the context of Indian thought early manifestations of man's preoccupaton with time may be seen in RV,X,190, where time itself is born of the cosmic waters, and even more clearly in the classic AV,XIX,53 hymn, where time is worshipped as the supreme mover and god of all creatures. The reality of time then fluctuates in subsequent thinkers in proprtion to the extent to which perception of the "real" world is held to be possible through the channel of the phenomenal world. Thus, time for Shankara is essentially illusory, whereas for Rāmānuja it is real though of subordinate status. But Nāgārjuna (100-165?), the Mahāyāna Buddhist, in a manner reminiscent of Parmenides, Zeno and Melissus, had forcefully argues the unreality of change, matter and, consequently, of time. See Renou (1948) on the origin of the concept of māyā, and Renou (1955) for the persistence of the being/nonbeing "twinning" in the Vedas. The attribution of properties to existent/nonexistent entities is well discussed by Prior (1976, pp.106-135). Aristotle's classic discussion of time is at Physics, 218a-224a. Thus, insofar as what is not is a judgement over what is, the "bond" between what is not and what is will be a bond between judgement and being, between epistemology and ontology, a bond which is ultimately dependent on the very essence of our humanity. When a well-known contemporary physicist (Hawking, 1988, p.175), envisaging a future discussion of why we and the universe exist, writes: "If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God", one wants to tell him that, like Narcissus and the pool, what he would then be looking at would be the undistorted image of his own face. As to the time ambiguity, see page 42 of D. Pacitti, The Nature of the Negative.

Cited Works

  • Anderson, W.E. (ed.), 1980. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol.6: Scientific and Philosophical Writings. Yale.

  • Aristotle, Physics.

  • ––– De Generatione et Corruptione.

  • Edwards, J. 1732. "Of Being." In Anderson (1980), 202-207.

  • Geldner, K.F. 1951. Der Rig-Veda. Cambridge, Mass.

  • Hawking, S.W. 1988. A Brief History of Time. London.

  • Macnicol, N. 1938. Hindu Scriptures. Engl. transl. by N. Macnicol. London.

  • Mascarò, J. 1962. The Bhagavad Gita. Engl. transl. by J. Mascarò. Harmondsworth, Middlesex.

  • Müller, Friedrich Max 1849–73. Rig-Veda with Commentary (6 vols.). London.

  • Peirce, C.S. 1960. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, C. Hartshorne & P. Weiss (eds.). Cambridge, Mass.

  • Plato, Republic.

  • –––  Timaeus.

  • Prior, A.N. 1976. The Doctrine of Propositions and Terms. London.

  • Renou, L. 1948. "Sur la phrase négative dans le Rigveda." Bulletin de la société linguistique de Paris, XLIII, 43-49.

  • Russell, B. 1956. Logic and Knowledge, R.C. Marsh (ed.). London.

  • Zaehner, R.C. 1968. Hindu Scriptures. Engl. transl. by R.C. Zaehner. London.

Note: This text is an extract from Domenico Pacitti, The Nature of the Negative: Towards an Understanding of Negation and Negativity. Giardini, Pisa, 1991 (pp.41-48).

In the same series of philosophical readings from the published work of Domenico Pacitti