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Slightly different versions of the Sukta appear in different Vedas. One version of the suktam has 16 verses, 15 in the anuṣṭubh meter, and the final one in the triṣṭubh meter. Another version of the Sukta consists of 24 verses with the first 18 mantras designated as the Purva-narayana and the later portion termed as the Uttara-narayana probably in honour of Rishi Narayana. Some scholars state that certain verses of Purusha Sukta are later interpolations to the Rigveda. One of the reasons given is that it is the only hymn in all the Vedas that mentions the four varnas by name - although the word "varṇa" itself is not mentioned in the hymn.
The Purusha Sukta gives a description of the spiritual unity of the universe. It presents the nature of Purusha, or the cosmic being, as both immanent in the manifested world and yet transcendent to it. From this being, the Sukta holds, the original creative will (identified with Viswakarma, Hiranyagarbha or Prajapati) proceeds which causes the projection of the universe in space and time. The Purusha Sukta, in the seventh verse, hints at the organic connectedness of the various classes of society.
The Purusha is defined in verses 2 to 5 of the Sukta. He is described as a being who pervades everything conscious and unconscious universally. He is poetically depicted as a being with thousand heads, eyes and legs, enveloping not just the earth, but the entire universe from all sides and transcending it by ten fingers length - or transcending in all 10 directions. All manifestations, in past, present and future, is held to be the Purusha alone. It is also proclaimed that he transcends his creation. The immanence of the Purusha in manifestation and yet his transcendence of it is similar to the viewpoint held by panentheists. Finally, his glory is held to be even greater than the portrayal in this Sukta.
Verses 5-15 hold the creation of the Rig Veda. Creation is described to have started with the origination of Virat, or the cosmic body from the Purusha. In Virat, omnipresent intelligence manifests itself which causes the appearance of diversity. In the verses following, it is held that Purusha through a sacrifice of himself, brings forth the avian, forest-dwelling and domestic animals, the three Vedas, the metres (of the mantras). Then follows a verse which states that from his mouth, arms, thighs, feet the four varnas (classes) are born. This four varna-related verse is controversial and is believed by many scholars, such as Max Müller, to be a corruption and a medieval or modern era insertion into the text.
After the verse, the Sukta states that the moon takes birth from the Purusha's mind and the sun from his eyes. Indra and Agni descend from his mouth and from his vital breath, air is born. The firmament comes from his navel, the heavens from his head, the earth from his feet and quarters of space from his ears. Through this creation, underlying unity of human, cosmic and divine realities is espoused, for all are seen arising out of same original reality, the Purusha.
The Purusha Sukta holds that the world is created by and out of a Yajna or sacrifice of the Purusha. All forms of existence are held to be grounded in this primordial yajna. In the seventeenth verse, the concept of Yajna itself is held to have arisen out of this original sacrifice. In the final verses, yajna is extolled as the primordial energy ground for all existence.
The concept of the Purusha is from the Samkhya Philosophy which is traced to the Indus Valley period. It seems to be an interpolation into the Rigveda since it is out of character with the other hymns dedicated to nature gods.
The Purusha Sukta is repeated with some variations in the Atharva Veda (19.6). Sections of it also occur in the Panchavimsha Brahmana, Vajasaneyi Samhita and the Taittiriya Aranyaka. Among Puranic texts, the Sukta has been elaborated in the Bhagavata Purana (2.5.35 to 2.6.1-29) and in the Mahabharata (Mokshadharma Parva 351 and 352).
Many 19th and early 20th century scholars questioned as to when parts or all of Purusha Sukta were composed, and whether some of these verses were present in the ancient version of Rigveda. They suggest it was interpolated in post-Vedic era and is a relatively modern origin of Purusha Sukta.
As compared with by far the largest part of the hymns of the Rigveda, the Purusha Sukta has every character of modernness both in its diction and ideas. I have already observed that the hymns which we find in this collection (Purusha Sukta) are of very different periods.
That the Purusha Sukta, considered as a hymn of the Rigveda, is among the latest portions of that collection, is clearly perceptible from its contents.
That remarkable hymn (the Purusha Sukta) is in language, metre, and style, very different from the rest of the prayers with which it is associated. It has a decidedly more modern tone, and must have been composed after the Sanskrit language had been refined.
There can be little doubt, for instance, that the 90th hymn of the 10th book (Purusha Sukta) is modern both in its character and in its diction. (...) It mentions the three seasons in the order of the Vasanta, spring; Grishma, summer; and Sarad, autumn; it contains the only passage in the Rigveda where the four castes are enumerated. The evidence of language for the modern date of this composition is equally strong. Grishma, for instance, the name for the hot season, does not occur in any other hymn of the Rigveda; and Vasanta also does not belong to the earliest vocabulary of the Vedic poets.
B. V. Kamesvara Aiyar, another 19th-century scholar, on the other hand, disputed this idea:
The language of this hymn is particularly sweet, rhythmical and polished and this has led to its being regarded as the product of a later age when the capabilities of the language had been developed. But the polish may be due to the artistic skill of the particular author, to the nature of the subject and to several other causes than mere posteriority in time. We might as well say that Chaucer must have lived centuries after Gower, because the language of the former is so refined and that of the latter, so rugged. We must at the same time confess that we are unable to discover any distinct linguistic peculiarity in the hymn which will stamp it as of a later origin.
Scholarship on this and other Vedic topics has moved on decisively since the end of the twentieth century, especially since the major publications of Brereton & Jamison and many others, and views such as the above are nowadays of interest only as part of the history of indology, and not as contributions to contemporary scholarship.
The verses about social estates in the Purusha Sukta are considered to belong to the latest layer of the Rigveda by scholars such as V. Nagarajan, Jamison and Brereton. V. Nagarajan believes that it was an "interpolation" to give "divine sanction" to an unequal division in society that was in existence at the time of its composition. He states "The Vedic Hymns had been composed before the Varna scheme was implemented. The Vedic society was not organized on the basis of varnas. The Purush Sukta might have been a later interpolation to secure Vedic sanction for that scheme". Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton, a professor of Sanskrit and Religious studies, state, "there is no evidence in the Rigveda for an elaborate, much-subdivided and overarching caste system", and "the varna system seems to be embryonic in the Rigveda and, both then and later, a social ideal rather than a social reality".
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- Historical Vedic religion
- List of suktas and stutis
- Nasadiya Sukta (Hymn of Creation)
- Agganna Sutta — a Buddhist critique
- Varna (Hinduism) and Caste system in India
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