Editor’s note: Sri Aurobindo tells us that the legend of the lost cows and of Angirasa Rishis gives us an important key to understand the deeper secret of the Veda. But for this we first must know the symbolism hidden in the legend. An important word, ‘go‘ – the Sanskrit word for cow, which also means ‘light’ gives us an important clue.
The following is excerpted from Kireet Joshi’s book titled, The Veda and the Indian Culture, pp. 13-15 (Motilal Banarsidass, 1991). We have made a few minor grammatical and formatting revisions for the purpose of this digital presentation.
The legend is simple. The Cows have been lost and the Angirasa Rishis are in search of these lost Cows. The sacrifice is to be performed, and the Angirasas have to chant the true word, the Mantra. Indra of all the gods is invoked. He comes down to help with his thunderbolt in which enter the powers of all the gods. Indra is the hero and fighter, and the battle is waged against certain powers, the Dasyus and the Panis.
Sarama, the heavenly hound runs forward and finds out the Cows in the cave of the Panis. Indra strong with the Soma-wine and the Angirasas, the Rishis, who are his companions, follow the track. They enter the cave or violently break open the strong places of the hill. They defeat the Panis and drive upward the liberated herds.
The conquest is effected. And although Indra “has done it once for all in the type by means of the Angirases, yet he repeats the type continually even in the present, he is constantly the seeker of the cows, gaveṣaṇa, and the restorer of the stolen wealth.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 15, p. 141)
There are several variations of this legend in the Veda.
Sometimes there is no reference to Sarama or the Angirasas or the Panis. Agni is referred to as the God who breaks up the dark cave and restores the lost radiances. Sometimes both Agni and Indra have been described as having joined together in the battle over the Cows. “You two warred over the Cows, O Indra, O Agni.” (RV, VI.60.2).
Sometimes it is Agni and Soma who are referred to as having joined together in the battle. “O Agni and Soma, that heroic might of yours was made conscient when you robbed Panis of the Cows.” (I.93.4). Sometimes the Ashwins also are credited with the same achievement. “You two (Ashwins) open the doors of the strong pan full of the kine.” (VI.62.II).
Brihaspati is, however, more frequently the hero of this victory. “Brihaspati, coming first into birth from the great Light in the Supreme other, seven-mouthed, multiply-born, seven-rayed, dispelled the darknesses; he with his best that possesses Stubha and the Rik broke Vala into pieces by his cry. Shouting Brihaspati drove upwards the bright herds with speed the offering and they lowed in reply.” (IV.50.4&5). And again in VI.73.1&3 we have the following: “Brihaspati who is the hill-breaker, the first born, the Angirasa…. Brihaspati conquered the treasure (vanuni), great pens this god won full of the kine.”
The Angirasa Legend in the Veda
Sometimes the Maruts also are associated in this action. Pushan also (the Increaser, a form of the Sun-god) is invoked for the pursuit and recovery of the stolen cattle. “Let Pushan follow after our kine, let him protect our war-steeds…. Pushan, go thou after the kine…. Let him drive back to us that which was lost.” (VI.184.108.40.206). And in the hymn of Madhuchhandas (I.II.5) we have this striking image that gives a clue to all the variations of the legend, while addressing Indra, “Oh lord of the thunderbolt, thou didst uncover the hole of Vala of the Cows; the gods, unfearing, entered speeding (or putting forth their force) into thee.”
To understand the deeper secret of the Veda, this legend of the lost Cows and of the Angirasa Rishis seems to promise us a key. Now the important word that is used for the Cow is go. But the word ‘go‘ has also another meaning, viz., light, and it is this meaning which gives us the clue.
The legend of the lost Cow is really about the lost light.
The Vedic Rishis seem to suggest that there has occurred in the world process an event whereby the spiritual light has become obscured or has become concealed. And that this event has a relationship with an action of Panis, the sons of darkness. This concealment of light does not amount to the cancellation of light.
There is no destruction of light. But there is nonetheless an effective covering of light. This covering is the Night of Darkness. But there is in it a secret light, which is the cherished possession of the forces of darkness. These forces are described as Dasyus and Panis, of whom Vritra and Vala are the Chief leaders.
This is the distinctive feature of the Vedic idea of evil and darkness.
For in this view, evil and darkness have in their deepest profundities their own cure. It is true that according to the Veda, evil and darkness have to be combated, but the end of the combat is not merely the destruction of evil and darkness, but also the recovery and manifestation of the light which is concealed in them.
In other words, the light is not only to be discovered and possessed at the supreme height, in Swar and in Surya Savitri. The discovery of the light in Surya Savitri is followed and completed by the discovery and uncovering of the light in the very depths of darkness, of Inconscient, tamas.
It seems that the whole legend of the Angirasa Rishis, who are described in the Veda as pitarah, forefathers, is a parable of a momentous effort and war waged by them in their search of the light that is at the end of the tunnel of darkness. It has been affirmed through this legend that one meets in the process of this discovery an opposition from the armies of Vritra and Vala, but also help from the gods.
The gods, according to this legend, can be invited by a sacrifice, which in its inner significance, means the kindling of the inner aspiration, Agni.
Each god can be invoked by a specific word, a Mantra, and the gods, when activised by the power of the Mantra, operate effectively in a war with the forces of darkness. Gods are thus partners of men in their struggle and battle. This battle has not only an upward movement but also a downward movement. Every step of conquest presents a gate leading to a further and a darker depth, requiring a greater and intenser help of the gods.
Thus, there is in the Veda the affirmation of the possibility of the recovery of the Sun that is lying in the darkness.
It is said that the Sun, ‘that Truth’, was the thing found by Indra and the Angirasa in the cave of the Panis. By the rending of their cave, the Veda declares, the herds of the divine dawn which are the rays of the Sun of Truth ascend the hill of being and the Sun itself ascends to the luminous upper ocean of the divine existence, led over it by the thinkers like a ship over the waters till it reaches its farther shore.
In simple terms, the light is one, it is the same everywhere.
It is not merely there above, it is also here below. In fact, the distinction between the above and below is itself a false distinction. It is true that ignorance is an effective phenomenon, but it is also something which can be effectively destroyed, so that the light above and the light below are both realized as the one identical light.
Spirit above is not the only light. Matter below is also that very light, and matter too can be pierced by which the light which is concealed in its bosom can be made manifest. This is the deep secret of the Veda, and it is that which is held as a promise for an eventual realization in the history of the earth.
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