PURUSHA SUKTAM is a hymn from the tenth part (mandala) of the Rigveda. Literally it means the hymn of man.
Unlike the collective life of insects and animals governed only in inborn instincts, the social life of man is partly instinctive and partly a product of human ingenuity. Men live and work together by subordinating individual instincitive behaviour to mutually accepted norms of social conduct, to norms evolved in the interests of peaceful co-existence.
Agriculture and social division of labour have been two most remarkable inventions of man. The first enables man to live a settled life, instead of wandering in search of food. The second enables him to improve his skills and output, and to realize the benefits of mutual exchange of goods and services.
These two inventions are the very basis of human society; with their help the society lives on forever, independently of the short-lived individuals constituting it, and with norms of conduct evolved over time, and with memories of the past, and with optimism for the future. Ancient poets have glorified this supra-human character of society in many of their compositions. The Purusha-Sukta is a beautiful example of such glorification. The quality of the Sanskrit original is untranslatable, and only its contents may be paraphrased briefly as below.
‘Let us sing to the glory of society. It has multiplied a thousandfold. It occupies the whole earth, and rises in spirit beyond.
‘All that we see is because of society whatever was and is to be. The society has gained immortality with its ability to grow its own food. What we see of it now is but a quarter, and the rest of it extends in spirit into the past and the future.
‘The society supports all this diverse life. All life progresses to conform to its image. The society expands to create cultivable fields and livable villages.
‘The society evolves by offering short-lived mortal men in its continuing sacrifice. The sacrifice, fuelled by works of each generation, yields the common heritage of mankind and all knowledge helpful to future generations. This eternal sacrifice of perishable men gives human society a life everlasting.
‘In a sense, the society itself is being sacrificed and is born again with renewed vigour. Giving a human form to the society, we may say priests and teachers are its expressive face, rulers and warriors its protective arms, traders and farmers its supporting thighs and servants and labourers its transporting feet.
‘To conceive of the world in the image of man, we may say the sun and moon are its eyes and mind, water and fire its mouth, air its breath, sky its head, earth its feet, and the ethereal space its body. This world is itself a continuing sacrifice, in which we see all matter and energy evolving into new forms by consuming whatever existed before.
‘The supra-human powers guiding the advance of society re-enact this sacrifice in the material world in regard to human society with perishable men as the offering, and obtain in return common norms for advancement of society. It is with the help of these norms that mankind rises up to the heavens to attain the status of divine immortality’.
Such inspired praise and anthropomorphic deification of society in the Purusha-Sukta finds its parallels in many other ancient hymns. The simplest meaning of the name, ‘Narayana’ for the supreme god means the general will of society as expressed in its customs and traditions. Man is ‘Nara’ , and his passage in time and space is ‘Ayana’, the basis of all customs and traditions. The ancient poets said in effect, ‘God made man in his image, and vice versa’.