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Custom and Myth

Page: 26

In the Rig Veda, then, we dimly discern a parting between a mortal man and an immortal bride, and a promise of reconciliation.

The story, of which this Vedic poem is a partial dramatisation, is given in the Brahmana of the Yajur Veda. Mr. Max Müller has translated the passage. {66a} According to the Brahmana, ‘Urvasi, a kind of fairy, fell in love with Pururavas, and when she met him she said: Embrace me three times a day, but never against my will, and let me never see you without your royal garments, for this is the manner of women.’ {66b} The Gandharvas, a spiritual race, kinsmen of Urvasi, thought she had lingered too long among men. They therefore plotted some way of parting her from Pururavas. Her covenant with her lord declared that she was never to see him naked. If that compact were broken she would be compelled to leave him. To make Pururavas break this compact the Gandharvas stole a lamb from beside Urvasi’s bed: Pururavas sprang up to rescue the lamb, and, in a flash of lightning, Urvasi saw him naked, contrary to the manner of women. She vanished. He sought her long, and at last came to a lake where she and her fairy friends were playing in the shape of birds. Urvasi saw Pururavas, revealed herself to him, and, according to the Brahmana, part of the strange Vedic dialogue was now spoken. Urvasi promised to meet him on the last night of the year: a son was to be the result of the interview. Next day, her kinsfolk, the Gandharvas, offered Pururavas the wish of his heart. He wished to be one of them. They then initiated him into the mode of kindling a certain sacred fire, after which he became immortal and dwelt among the Gandharvas.

It is highly characteristic of the Indian mind that the story should be thus worked into connection with ritual. In the same way the Bhagavata Purana has a long, silly, and rather obscene narrative about the sacrifice offered by Pururavas, and the new kind of sacred fire. Much the same ritual tale is found in the Vishnu Purana (iv. 6, 19).

Before attempting to offer our own theory of the legend, we must examine the explanations presented by scholars. The philological method of dealing with myths is well known. The hypothesis is that the names in a myth are ‘stubborn things,’ and that, as the whole narrative has probably arisen from forgetfulness of the meaning of language, the secret of a myth must be sought in analysis of the proper names of the persons. On this principle Mr. Max Müller interprets the myth of Urvasi and Pururavas, their loves, separation, and reunion. Mr. Müller says that the story ‘expresses the identity of the morning dawn and the evening twilight.’ {68} To prove this, the names are analysed. It is Mr. Müller’s object to show that though, even in the Veda, Urvasi and Pururavas are names of persons, they were originally ‘appellations’; and that Urvasi meant ‘dawn,’ and Pururavas ‘sun.’ Mr. Müller’s opinion as to the etymological sense of the names would be thought decisive, naturally, by lay readers, if an opposite opinion were not held by that other great philologist and comparative mythologist, Adalbert Kuhn. Admitting that ‘the etymology of Urvasi is difficult,’ Mr. Müller derives it from ‘uru, wide (


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