The Profound Confusion Concerning gau.

Susan Ferguson at Metaphysical Musing (“online since 17 Dec 1996”!) has a wonderful comparison of translations of Rig Veda I.164.17; following an image of a notebook page with interlinear transliterations and translations of a Devanagari text that brings back nightmarish flashbacks of Sanskrit class, she presents four different translations that show “how varied the translations can be as a result of their filters in terms of word interpretations, belief systems and schools.” The versions are strikingly diverse, and she follows them with this delightful exegesis:

The M. Monier-Williams Sanskrit-to-English Dictionary has six double-columned pages of meanings for the word ‘gau’ or ‘go’ including ‘herds in the sky’ or stars; and yet this word has often been translated as ‘cow’. Shyam Ghosh interprets the meaning to be our ‘sense organs’. The Sanskrit word ‘vatsam’ (found in this verse 17) literally means offspring, yearling, or calf. Shyam Ghosh expands the meaning by resorting to the root of the word ‘vatsam’ which is √vad and is defined as: to speak, to communicate, and to indicate.

Semantics of Rig Veda by R.L. Kashyap: In Yaska’s Nighantu, which dates at least prior to 1000 BCE, “The word ‘gau’ whose common (ordinary) meaning is ‘cow’ occurs in the four lists with titles, prithivi (earth), rashmi (ray), vak (speech) and suryarashmih (rays of the Sun).”

David Frawley provides a useful explanation of the profound confusion concerning the Sanskrit word ‘gau’ and the misunderstandings that have risen from that confusion:

“Its range of meaning is so great, we have nothing even close. ‘Gau’ is symbolically a cow. … From the cow as the basic wealth of the ancients, it meant wealth, nourishment and value generally. Yet even this is only the beginning. It means a ray of light… As such, it more generally means light. Light for the Seers was also consciousness. The Cow was the receptive mind… The Cow is the Divine Word-Wisdom… As such, the cow is the Goddess, who is inwardly consciousness and outwardly the sky, the dappled cow being the night sky with its stars. … There is an additional root √ga meaning to sing. … The cow in its most correct sense means an archetype, word, note or number, the essential unit. It is the knowledge that is the measure of all things…”

I am irresistibly reminded of a dustman’s dumpling. Thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. It may be just a coincidence, but second surah in the Quran is called Al-Baqara (The Cow).

    Haven’t thought much about metaphysical significance of cows, but there might be something deep here

  2. My first thought is that there could have been convergent roots where homophones came into play.

    Also as I know Milky Way goes back to via lactea and γαλαξίας κύκλος, I wonder if the Sanskrit term is similar.

  3. WP says it is मंदाकिनी Maṃdākinī ‘[the] calm or unhurried [one]’.

  4. Wow.

    Stephanie W. Jamison’s rather conventional translation: “Below the upper (realm), above the lower here [=at the horizon], the cow [=Dawn] carrying her calf [=the Sun] has stood up by her foot. In which direction is she? Toward which side did she go away? Where does she give birth, for it is not within the fold?”

    Where does Ushas give birth to Surya?

  5. Surat Al-Baqara is named after the Golden Calf, the idol worshipped by the Israelites during Moses’ absence, since this is among the many stories recounted in the chapter. So a reasonable take on the broader religious significance would be that cattle, as a natural signifier of great wealth in the pastoral context, make a tempting (but unjustified) object of worship.

  6. Stu Clayton says:

    It’s always something mundane that gets transcendentalized, so you can listen to it when it’s not there. A cow becomes Divine Word-Wisdom, a village tyrant becomes God of the Old Testament. That, I believe, is a sufficient explanation for the support Trump has among evangelicals. He’s just as erratic and vindictive, and apparently capable of anything.

    Unde malum is not a main worry when you’re confronted with it.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    My first thought is that there could have been convergent roots where homophones came into play.

    Of course you’re right. The root isn’t √vad, but a √vat < PIE *√wet that hasn’t survived anywhere else in Sanskrit.

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    From the linked piece: “Thus you see how threads of the eternal primordial wisdom encoded in the Rig Veda were woven into later works and simultaneously misunderstood in Kali Yuga confusion.” Perhaps similar wording could be used to sum up scholarly controversies and disagreements in other fields?

  9. Yes, I think I’ll adopt “Kali Yuga confusion” as a catchall explanation for the general messiness of life.

  10. Trond Engen says:

    Since I know next to nothing of Sanskrit or the Vedas, I’ll walk right into the cowshed. I really don’t think this is as confusing as it appears. These translations have different purposes. Some appear to be concerned with the literary meaning of the Vedic text, others try to convey the metaphysical meaning within a (historical or contemporary) school of thought.

    One should be careful about which extended and poetic meanings and connotations of “cow” to evoke — or at least not evoke all at once. Some of the listed meanings, like “wealth”, “nourishment” and “head of count” are worldly, almost bureaucratic, and with parallels everywhere you look. They are important in understanding why the cow came to be so important in the Vedas, and what morals could be drawn from the story, but maybe not the imagery itself.

    I think it’s more promising to look at the connections to celestial objects. I first read the passage as describing a solar eclipse, but I think it makes more sense as being about the cycle of day and night. Agni is fire, and if the identification with the calf is correct, it could also be the rising sun. The herd is the stars. The cow is the sky or maybe the bright sky or daylight. And the calf becomes a cow and gives birth to a new cow.

    As one translator has it, The cow, holding her calf underneath her fore-feet, and then above with her hind feet, has risen up; whither is she gone; to whom has she turned back when half-way; where does she bear young: it is not amidst the herd.

    Then, of course, any poet or preacher can use mataphysical aspects of the heavenly cow to draw moral lessons. “Like the shift of day and night, so is the shift of fortunes.” “Enlightenment comes, and with understanding comes doubt, but out of this doubt is born new enlightenment.”

    Also, Aargau.

  11. Trond Engen says:

    … and then I couldn’t resist fixing a typo.

  12. Just remember to fix your typos while I’m still awake and ready to rescue comments!

  13. six double-columned pages of meanings

    Seems more like half a column of a triple-columned page, followed by several pages of cowpaths, oxcarts, cowcumbers, and other compounds. Which pretty much matches what the OED has for cow.

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