SaramA and the PaNis: A Mythological Theme in the Rigveda
The myth of SaramA and the PaNis is found in the Rigveda X.108.
The hymn, as Griffith notes, “is a colloquy between SaramA, the messenger of the Gods or of Indra… and the PaNis or envious demons who have carried off the cows or rays of light which Indra wishes to recover”.1
But, according to Macdonell, the hymn is about “the capture by Indra of the cows of the PaNis… (who) possess herds of cows which they keep hidden in a cave far beyond the RasA, a mythical river. SaramA, Indra’s messenger, tracks the cows and asks for them in Indra’s name, but is mocked by the PaNis.”2
Clearly, there is a basic difference in the above descriptions of the myth: Griffith’s description suggests that the cows were stolen by the PaNis, and are sought to be recovered by Indra; Macdonell’s description suggests that the cows belong to the PaNis and are coveted by Indra.
The myth is a complex one, which has developed many shades and facets in the Rigveda itself. We will examine this myth as follows:
of the Vedic myth.
Primitive myths came into being out of efforts to arrive at explanations for the phenomena of nature.
One very common phenomenon in nature is the daily transition from day to night and night to day. This was conceived of in mythical terms as an eternal struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness: the forces of darkness, with unfailing regularity, stole away the Sun or its rays, leading to the onset of night. The forces of light, with equal regularity, rescued the Sun, or recovered its rays, leading to the onset of daytime.
The forces of light had a specific name: Devas (from div-, “light”). The forces of darkness, however, did not have such a clear-cut name, as darkness (being merely the absence of light) is a negative phenomenon. The action of stealing and hiding away the Sun or its rays was likened to that of the miserly traders and merchants who hoarded goods and money, hence the name PaNi, originally meaning trader or merchant, was applied to them.
In the course of time, a regular phenomenon of nature was converted into a single mythical incident: the incident involving SaramA and the PaNis.
The progressive development of the three main mythical entities in the SaramA-PaNi myth (ie. SaramA, the PaNis, and the cows) may be noted:
1. SaramA is progressively:
2. The PaNis are progressively:
3. The cows are progressively:
The myth starts off with the idea of the PaNis, the demons of darkness, stealing the rays of light and hiding them away at night, and SaramA, the Dawn, recovering them in the morning, as a matter of daily routine.
The original concept of the rays of light is still present in early hymns (VI.20.4; VII.9.2), but these rays of light are more regularly depicted as cows.
SaramA, who searches out and recovers the rays of the Sun is soon conceived of as a kind of hound, “the hound of Indra, who tracked the stolen cows”.12
A regular phenomenon gradually becomes a single incident: SaramA’s searching out and tracking of the cows stolen by the PaNis becomes a major incident in itself, and develops new angles. In some versions, the PaNis, merchants and boarders of wealth, now become the owners of the cows, and Indra becomes the covetous God who covets these cows. SaramA now becomes a messenger of Indra and the Gods in their quest for the cows of the PaNis. This is the myth represented in hymn X. 108.
The further development of this myth may be noted:
1. In X. 108, as D.D. Kosambi points out, “the hymn says nothing about stolen cattle, but is a direct, blunt demand for tribute in cattle, which the PaNis scornfully reject. They are then warned of dire consequences.”13
As we have seen, Macdonell notes that the PaNis “possess herds of cows which they keep hidden in a cave far beyond the RasA, a mythical river. SaramA, Indra’s messenger, tracks the cows and asks for them in Indra’s name, but is mocked by the PaNis.”14
The gist of the hymn is as follows:
Here, the hymn ends; and the battle which follows, in which Indra defeats the PaNis, is to be assumed.
2. The myth is also found in the JaiminIya BrAhmaNa, II.440-442. Here, the cows are again clearly referred to as. the cows of the Gods stolen by the PaNis. This time, the Gods first send SuparNa, the eagle or the “Sun-bird”. However, the PaNis bribe him into silence, and he accepts their gifts and returns without any information. The enraged Gods strangle him, and he vomits out the curds, etc. received from the PaNis.
Then the Gods send SaramA. She crosses the RasA and approaches the PaNis. She is also offered bribes, but ( as in the Rigveda) she refuses their blandishments and returns to Indra with the information that the cows are hidden inside the RasA. She and her descendants are then blessed by a grateful Indra.
3. The myth is found, finally, in the BRhaddevatA, viii 24-36.
Here, the myth develops a curious twist. The same. sequence of events takes place, but this time SaramA accepts the bribe of the PaNis, and apparently transfers her loyalties to them. When she returns to Indra and refuses to disclose the hideout of the cows, Indra kicks her in a rage. She vomits out the milk received as a bribe, and then goes back trembling to the PaNis.
Thus, as the myth develops, we find a radical transformation in the relationship between SaramA and the PaNis. From being initially hostile to each other, the two are increasingly identified with each other, and the nature of the original myth is completely lost.
A side development in this whole myth is the development of the concept of the SArameyas, the sons of SaramA, as the hounds of Yama. They are a pair of four-eyed hounds who guard the pathway leading to the Realm of the Dead, and conduct the souls of the dead to their destination.
It will also be necessary to examine the characteristics of another Vedic God, PUSan, who represents one of the forms of the Sun. PUSan is one of the older deities in the Rigveda, being more prominent in MaNDala VI than in later MaNDalas (five of the eight hymns to PUsan in the Rigveda are in MaNDala VI), and many of his characteristics later devolve onto SaramA and the PaNis in Vedic as well as in other mythologies.
The main characteristics of PUSan are:
1. PUSan is basically an Aditya or Sun-God, and it is clear that he represents the Morning Sun: “according to SAyaNa, PUSan’s sister is USas or Dawn.”15 Moreover, in I.184.3, the ASvins are called PUSans; and the ASvins, as Griffith notes in his very first reference to them “are the earliest bringers of light in the morning sky who in their chariots hasten onward before the dawn, and prepare the way for her”.16
2. PUSan’s main function, however, is as the God of roadways, journeys and travellers: “As knower of paths, PUSan is conceived as a guardian of roads. He is besought to remove dangers, the wolf, the waylayer from the path (1.42.1-3)… He is invoked to protect from harm on his path (6.54.9) and to grant an auspicious path (10.59.7). He is the guardian of every path (6.49.8) and lord of the road (6.53.1). He is a guide on roads (VS.22.20). So, in the SUtras, whoever is starting on a journey makes an offering to PUSan, the road-maker, while reciting RV 6.53; and whoever loses his way turns to PUSan (AGS 3.7.8-9, SSS 3.4.9). Moreover in the morning and evening offerings to all gods and beings PUSan the road-maker receives his on the threshold of the house.”17
3. Another important function of PUSan is as the God who helps find lost objects, particularly lost animals, and especially lost cattle: “As knower of the ways, he can make hidden goods manifest and easy to find (6.48.15). He is in one passage (1.23.14-15; cp. TS 126.96.36.199) said to have found the king who was lost and hidden in secret… and asked to bring him like a lost beast. So, in the SUtras, PUSan is sacrificed to when anything lost is sought (AGS 3.7.9). Similarly, it is characteristic of PUSan that he follows and protects cattle (6.54. 5,6,10; 58.2; cp. 10.26.3)… and drives back the lost.”18 Moreover, “PUSan is the only god who receives the epithet paSupA ‘protector of cattle’ (6.58.2) directly (and not in comparison).”19
Hymn VIII.29, which refers (in riddle form) to the particular characteristics of various Gods, refers to PUSan, in its sixth verse, as follows: “Another, thief like, watches well the ways, and knows the places where the treasures lie.”
A very distinctive characteristic of PUSan is his close association with
the goat: “His car is drawn by goats (ajASva) instead of horses.”20
This feature is emphasised throughout the
5. Another very important function of PUSan is that “he conducts the dead on the far path to the Fathers…… and leads his worshippers thither in safety, showing them the way (10.17.3-5). The AV also speaks of PUSan as conducting to the world of the righteous, the beautiful world of the gods (AV 16.9.2; 18.2.53). So PUSan’s goat conducts the sacrificial horse (1.162.2-3).”21
In post-Vedic Indian mythology, all these entities more or less faded away: neither SaramA nor the PaNis nor PUSan have any important role to play in Puranic mythology.
the word PaNi and its variant form VaNi (found only twice in the Rigveda:
I.112.11; V.45.6) persisted into later times and provided the etymological
roots for a very wide range of words pertaining to trade, commerce and
economics, and business activities: paN, “to barter, purchase, buy,
risk”; ApaNa, “market, shop”; ApaNika, “mercantile”; paNa,
“a coin vANI/baniA, “trader”; vANijya, “commerce”, etc.
The PaNis are found in Teutonic mythology as the Vanir:
1. The word Vanir is clearly cognate to the word VaNi which is a variant form of PaNi, found twice in the Rigveda (I.112.11; V.45.6) but increasingly more frequently later. As YAska points out in his Nirukta (II.17), the word VaNi is derived from the word PaNi: paNih vaNij bhavati.
2. The Gods (Devas) and the PaNis are two equal and opposite forces (being the forces of light and the forces of darkness in the eternal struggle between day and night). However, the Devas, since they represent the more positive and more desired phenomenon of light, are considered to be desirable and worthy of worship; while the PaNis, who represent the more negative (ie. being merely the absence of light) and less desired phenomenon of darkness, are considered to be demonic and unworthy of worship. In I.151.9, the PaNis are depicted as hankering after the divinity (devatvam) of VaruNa and Mitra (who are called Asuras or Great Gods in the fourth verse of the hymn).
In Teutonic mythology, “besides the Aesir… there was a second race of Gods, the Vanir.”22 This race was considered less divine than the Aesir (Asura), and less worthy of worship. Hence, the overriding concern of the Vanir was “that their rank should be recognised as equal to that of the Aesir so that they… would receive an equal right to the sacrifices made by the faithful.”23
The rivalry between the Aesir and the Vanir is reflected throughout Teutonic mythology, and the Aesir come out triumphant in every skirmish. This includes the struggle for the sacred mead (reflected in Indian mythology as the struggle between the Gods and demons for Soma, or for Amrita, the divine nectar): “Odin used trickery to obtain the sacred mead, source of wisdom and poetry, which he then shared with the Äsir… the message is clear: the Äsir gained wisdom, while the Vanir proved themselves incompetent.”24
The Rigveda, it must be noted, represents an analogous situation, where the Gods are the Devas or Asuras (Aesir) and the demons are the PaNis (Vanir). In later Indian mythology, the PaNis fade away, and the demons acquire the name Asura.
3. There is a shift in nuance between the status of the PaNis in the Rigveda and the Vanir in Teutonic mythology: while the PaNis are outright demons (the forces of darkness), the Vanir are a second, if inferior, race of Gods.
However, the field of association and operations of the Vanir is exactly the same as that of the PaNis, but in a positive sense:
The PaNis are associated with “the rays of light”25 and with “the rain-clouds”,26 but they are associated as demons who steal these rays of light and these rain-clouds, and try to prevent mankind from receiving the benefits of these gifts of nature. At the same time, they are associated with trade and commerce, and with “hoarded wealth”27, as “demons watching over treasures”28 and, again, denying mankind the benefit of this wealth and these treasures.
However, in the case of the Vanir, these negative features have become positive: “They provided the fields and pastures and forests with sunlight and life-giving rain… From them came the harvests, game, and all kinds of riches in general.”29 They are also identified with traders and merchants, and with maritime activities: “the Vanir were also the protectors of commerce and navigation.”30
4. The main incident of hostilities between the Gods (Devas) and the PaNis described in the Rigveda is the SaramA incident in which a female messenger passes between the two (and which is followed by a war in which Indra and the Gods defeat the PaNis). The provocation for this incident, as depicted in X.108, is nothing but the wealth of the PaNis which is coveted by Indra and the Gods.
In Teutonic mythology also: “One Nordic tradition represents that war broke out between the belligerent Aesir and the peace-loving Vanir.”31 This war is preceded by an incident involving a female messenger: “One day, the Vanir sent to the Aesir - on a mission which is not explained - a Goddess by the name of Gullveig. This Goddess was highly skilled in all the practices of sorcery, and by her art had acquired much gold. When, alone, she reached the Aesir, they were, it is supposed, tempted by her riches. They seized her and submitted her to torture.”32 Later she returned to the Vanir in a battered state.
BRhaddevatA, SaramA has shifted loyalties and is now close to the PaNis.
In the Teutonic myth, Gullveig is already one of the Vanir. She is
now a messenger from the Vanir to the Gods (rather than from the Gods to
the PaNis). But she is still the key to the coveted wealth of the
Vanir, and she is tortured by the Gods until she yields this wealth (as
SaramA is kicked by Indra until she vomits out the milk received from the
SaramA and the PaNis are found in Greek mythology as Hermes and (his son) Pan, who also represent, at the same time, PUSan and his goat.
It will be noted that all the concerned Vedic entities, SaramA, the SArameyas, the PaNis, and PUSan, are merged into the character of Hermes:
1. The word Hermes is an exact cognate to the word SaramA: the correspondence between the names (though not that between the identities or functions) has been noted by many scholars, including Max Müller; and the Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology tells us that “many etymologies have been proposed for the name Hermes. Some suggest a connection with the Vedic Sarameyas derived from SaramA.”33
The word Pan is clearly cognate to PaNi.
2. SaramA in the Rigvedic hymn is “the messenger of the Gods or of Indra”,34 and specially of Indra.
Hermes is also primarily “the messenger of Zeus”,35 thereby corresponding to SaramA in both name and function.
3. The SArameyas, the offspring of SaramA, are the guides to the Realm of the Dead: their main function is “to guard the path of the departed spirit and lead it to the place of Yama”.36 This is originally one of the functions of PUSan who “conducts the dead on the far path to the fathers”.37
(Incidentally, the Atharvaveda 18.4.55 refers to the “harmya of Yama”40, which is taken to mean a tomb.)
4. The PaNis are basically concerned with trade and commerce: they are “in accordance with the original meaning of the word, merchants or traders”.41 This original meaning of the word has survived to this day in different words pertaining to trade and commerce, as we have seen. Another “meaning of paN (is) to risk, to wager, to bet”.42
An important and special function of Hermes is as “the God of Commerce, the God of Profit - lawful and unlawful - and the God of games of chance”.43
This characteristic of Hermes is even more pronounced in the related South European mythology of the Romans (the Greeks and Romans shared a common pantheon, with different names for basically the same Gods), in the name. of his Roman counterpart Mercury: “The name Mercury is connected with the root merx (merchandise) and mercari (to deal, trade)”, and he is “exclusively the God of merchants… preside(s) over messages and over commerce”.44
5. PUSan is first and foremost a God of travellers: as we saw, “PUSan is conceived as a guardian of roads. He is besought to remove dangers, the wolf, the waylayer from the path… He is invoked to protect from harm on his path… and to grant an auspicious path… He is the guardian of every path… and lord of the road… So, in the SUtras, whoever is starting on a journey makes an offering to PUSan, the road-maker… and whoever loses his way turns to PUSan… Moreover in the morning and evening offerings to all gods and beings PUSan the road-maker receives his on the threshold of the house.”45
Likewise, “Hermes was above all thought of as the god of travellers, whom he guided on their perilous ways. His image was placed where country roads branched and at crossroads in towns.”46
6. SaramA is originally “the Dawn who recovers the rays of the Sun that have been carried away by night”.47
Hermes is not directly identified with the dawn - he has developed further from his roots - but traces of this origin can be seen in his attributes:
Mercury, the Roman counterpart of Hermes, also retains traces of his origin: “among animals, the cock was especially sacred to him”.50
7. The canine motif is very prominent in the Rigvedic myth: SaramA and the SArameyas are conceived as hounds, and even the PaNis, in one place at least (VI.51.14) are conceived as wolves.
Hermes, however, is conceived as a handsome young man wearing winged sandals and a helmet, and carrying a staff with two entwined serpents facing each other. The reason for this is simply that in Classical Greek art and iconography, all the Gods and Goddesses, unless ugliness is a specified attribute in their description, are depicted as men and women of perfect form and classic beauty.
However, the functions and characteristics of Hermes show that he must originally have been conceived as a kind of dog before the compulsions of Greek art and iconography took over:
Writing in a different context, Malati Shendge makes a point which is relevant here: “Although in Avesta no dog is associated with Yama, an indirect link may be seen in his being described as ‘a good shepherd’. To a shepherd, a dog is an important mate who helps him to look after and protect his flock.”52
This function is performed by dogs in most mythologies of the world: not only in the Rigveda and the Avesta, but even in Egyptian mythology where we have “Anubis, ancient jackal-headed Egyptian deity… His name means watcher, and guardian of the dogs. With Upuant, he presides over the abode of the dead and leads them to the judgement hall…”54
8. The main myth pertaining to SaramA and the PaNis, as we have seen, is the one represented in one whole hymn (X.108) in the Rigveda, and in other developed versions in the JaiminIya BrAhmaNa (II.440-442) and the BRhaddevatA (viii, 24-36).
Incredibly, this myth is found in Greek mythology in three different forms, all of which are individually traceable to the original Vedic myth:
The Encyclopaedia of Classical Mythology tells us that “in the mountains (of Greece) there were numerous ‘caves of Pan’ into which the cattle were herded in bad weather”.56 (ie. to protect them from the rain).
The first point to be noted is that Zeus (like Indra) possesses a dog. This dog itself is stolen. It is found jointly by Hermes and Iris (who is a female “messenger of the Gods”58).
As per the original myth, Hermes should have been both the dog of Zeus as well as the female “messenger of the Gods” who finds the stolen cows of Zeus. However, Hermes has been transformed so that he is neither a dog nor a female. Hence, the original SaramA-PaNi myth is found in a jumbled form: cows are absent in this version, and Hermes finds the dog of Zeus with the help of the female “messenger of the Gods”!
Here, however, Hermes, who combines in himself the characteristics of both SaramA and the PaNis, is himself the thief: “On the very day of his birth, Hermes… displayed his mischievous nature by stealing the cattle which had been confided to the care of Apollo… He separated fifty heifers which he drove before him under cover of the night to the banks of the Alpheus… shutting up the heifers in a cavern... (later) Zeus… instructed Hermes to return the heifers.”59
Here, we find all the distinctive motifs of the SaramA-PaNi myth: the stolen cattle of the Gods, the cave hiding place on the banks of a river, the connection of the theft with night time, etc. Hermes (in the role of the PaNis) steals the cattle; and Hermes himself (in the role of SaramA) recovers them at the instructions of Zeus.
without noticing the SaramA-PaNi connection, the Larousse Encyclopaedia
of Mythology notes that Apollo’s heifers are “analogous to the cows
of the Vedic Indra”.60
The study of the mythology of the Rigveda is definitely of great importance in the study of Indo-European history. But it is necessary to understand the exact sense in which it is important: it is important in the sense that a proto-Indo-European mythology can be reconstructed from a comparative study of different Indo-European mythologies, but not in the sense that the mythology is itself an actual representation of history.
Unfortunately, an entire academic industry has been built up on the basis of the interpretation of mythology as an actual representation of history, with mythological entities and events being interpreted as actual historical entities and events.
Thus, the PaNis of the Rigveda, who are identical with the Vanir of Teutonic mythology (as the Gods or Asuras of the Rigveda are with the Aesir) are clearly purely mythical entities, and have nothing whatsoever to do with historical entities or events either in India or in northern Europe.
Nevertheless, at the eastern end of the Indo-European belt, the PaNis of Vedic mythology are identified as the non-Aryan inhabitants of India, conquered by invading Aryans entering India from the northwest; and at the same time, at the western end of the Indo-European belt, the Vanir of Teutonic mythology are identified as the non-Aryan inhabitants of Scandinavia, conquered by invading Aryans entering Scandinavia from the southeast!
The Everyman’s Encyclopaedia of Non-Classical Mythology tells us: “In Nordic myth, the Vanir were the culture heroes of a race which seems to have preceded the Aesir in Scandinavia”.61
Likewise, Shan M.M. Winn tells us about Scandinavia: “we must consider the possibility that the region was once inhabited by a people who were neither Indo-European nor patrilineal. The mythical subordination of the Vanir may echo a historical conquest, in which a matrilineal, agrarian society was disrupted and finally replaced by a new Indo-European ideology originating from elsewhere.”62
After all that we have discussed, is any comment required on this kind of “historical” interpretation of mythology?
The importance of mythology in the study of Indo-European history, it must be repeatedly emphasised, lies in the comparative study of different Indo-European mythologies.
As we have seen, modified or transformer versions of fragments of the SaramA-PaNi myth are found in Teutonic mythology as well as in Greek mythology.
What is crucial to our analysis is the fact that the versions of Teutonic and Greek mythology bear absolutely no discernible similarity to each other. If not for the common point of comparison with Vedic mythology, it would be virtually impossible to guess that the Vanir of Teutonic mythology are even remotely connected to Hermes and Pan of Greek mythology; or that the Teutonic mythical incident is in any way connected to any of the three versions in Greek mythology.
We have already made clear in our earlier book that any comparative study of the different Indo-European mythologies (Vedic, Iranian, West Asian, South European, West European, North European, East European) shows a situation where:
1. Practically all the elements in any reconstructed proto-Indo-European mythology are found in Vedic mythology, whereas only a few of them are found in any other Indo-European mythology.
2. The common elements are found in Vedic mythology in their most primitive forms, closest to the original nature-myths; while fragments of the original myths, in later developed versions, are found in the other Indo-European mythologies.
3. Each of the other Indo-European mythologies has several elements in common with Vedic mythology, but hardly any with any of the others (not counting historical borrowings, such as Greek Apollo in Roman mythology).
4. In respect of common elements, the Vedic version provides the connecting link, often the only one, between the versions in the other mythologies.
Furthermore, considering the theory that the Indo-Iranians had a common history after their separation from the other Indo-Europeans, till they separated into India and Iran respectively, Iranian mythology has no connection with any other mythology except Vedic.
This situation does not fit in with any model of Indo-European origins and dispersals which places the Indo-European homeland outside India.
In fact, the particular myth we are examining, that of the PaNi/Vanir/Pan, goes far in corroborating our case for an Indian homeland:
The Teutonic Vanir and Greek Pan are definitely derived from the Vedic PaNi, both linguistically (since VaNi is a later form of PaNi), as well as from the point of view of mythical development.
But, in the Rigveda itself, the word PaNi refers to two distinct entities: firstly, it refers to actual merchants and traders, and, secondly, it refers to the mythical PaNis or demons of darkness. So the question arises: which came first, the merchants or the demons?
The fact is that almost all the Western scholars are unanimous in placing the merchants first: Griffith tells us that “the original meaning of the word” is “merchants or traders”;63 and that from first being used in reference to “a miser, a niggard, an impious man who gives little or nothing to the Gods,” the word PaNi came to be “used also as the name of a class of envious demons watching over treasures, and as an epithet of the fiends who steal cows and hide them in mountain caverns”.64
Macdonell also tells us that “the word PaNi occurs… in the sense of a ‘niggard’… from this signification it developed the mythical meaning of demons… who primarily withhold the treasures of heaven”.65
word PaNi in the Rigveda, which is the precursor of the Teutonic Vanir
and Greek Pan, originally meant “a merchant or a trader” in the earlier
part of the Rigveda, then it certainly means that the Vedic people were
already a settled and commercially prosperous people in the geographical
region indicated by the Rigveda before the development of the mythical
concept of the PaNis (and consequently of the Vanir and of Pan).
20ibid., p. 35.
25HOR, fn.IX.111.2, etc.
26HOR, fn.I.121.4, etc.
40VM, pp. 173-174.