Centuries after the historical Buddha, who was born centuries after the writing of the Rgveda, the scholar-monk Nāgārjuna appeared. He was one of the scholars who studied and taught at Nalanda in northern India, the then largest Buddhist centre of learning. He appeared at a time when the old school, Hīnayāna, later transformed into Theravāda, had major problems with new Dharma-interpretations that would eventually lead to what is now known as the separation between Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna. And we may conclude that Nāgārjuna was one of the driving forces behind this philosophical renovation or alteration or elucidation of old teachings.
He too wished to state a MIDDLE WAY but may have felt that he could not possibly just repeat Buddha’s words that had become so eagerly claimed by the old school, for he was the new guy on the block and new guys have new things to say.
Nāgārjuna therefore had to come up with innovative ideas that would bring as many old-school monk-students as possible to his side. As Nāgārjuna developed a radical line of thought on the subject of emptiness (sunyā or sunyatā) he reached back to find ancient sayings on the subject that would give his new words some acquired age.
One has the impression that he could not find adequate roots for it in the Vedas. The Nasadiya Sukta (Rv.10.129, mantra 2) says:
“Na mrutyura āsīd amrtam na tarhi na rātryā ahna āsīt praketah |
ānīd avātam svadhayā tad ekam tasmād dhānyan na parah kim canāsa || 2 ||”
(After Ralph T.H. Griffith’s translation which deviates severely from the original text and content):
“There was neither death nor immortality. Nor was there the torch of night and day. It (sva) ((1) breathed windlessly; it (sva) was it. There was that (sva), only that.”
As we may be aware, this Vedic nothingness has nothing to do with the absence of substance or ens in beings and things. It speaks about the primordial, completely empty universe in which even the word/sound (Skr.: vak) was as yet absent.
(1)Sva as a form of svabhāva, own-being, which Griffith,educated with a Bible at hand which first lines indeed have some similarity with the mantra here presented, understood as deity, God’s face on earth as Christians would like to see it. There may be no other example in his translations where Griffith so brazenly inserts a Vedic mantra into the Christian theology:
“Then there was neither death nor immortality Nor was there then the torch of night and day. The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining. There was that One then, and there was no other. In the beginning there was nothing. There was neither light nor darkness, neither the sun nor the moon, nor the earth, but one undivided nothingness.”
Griffith just simply adds a version of the Biblical verse to the mantra and connects it – one had already heard a few things about this weird and wonderful thing – with nothingness, a word of which we find no trace in this particular mantra.