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Exploring Usas, Vedic Goddess of the Dawn

-Michael J Dangler

Very recently, I've come into a relationship that I can't describe with Usas.

Yeah, I've talked about her before, but I've never really explained who she is.

"Usas" (in transliteration from the Vedic, there should be a dot under the first "s", which is pronounced kinda like "sh" if I'm reading my transliterations correctly):

Her name, specifically, is the word "dawn". It's a feminine noun. The interesting thing about Vedic deities is that they are the things they are named for. Agni is fire, no matter where that fire may be kindled. Indra is thunder. Prthivi is the earth and atmosphere. There's no invocation necessary, no need to call out because they're already there.

(Bet ya'll didn't know that you were all entertaining a Vedic deity every time you lit a candle on your altar, did ya?)

So, in short, anyone who has ever watched the sun rise has seen Usas, and everyone has experienced her in some way. I suspect that the time I've spent reading her hymns in the Rgveda is what has really allowed me to begin conversation with her, what really opened the ways for this relationship.

Calling it "patronage" right now isn't correct. This goddess and I are more in a courtship phase, really: I'm spending time becoming deeply familiar with her, and she's becoming more familiar with me.

I first heard her name in Austria, at Walking With Fire in 2005. There, I received little more than the following information:

  • Usas is a goddess of the dawn.
  • She is the wife of Surya
  • She is the lover of Agni on the side

And that was it.

Then, out of the blue, Ceisiwr Serith sent me a copy of A.A. MacDonnell's Vedic Mythology. I spent some time reading through the extremely good (even if also extremely dense) information provided in that book, and eventually came across the entry for Usas, who I remembered from my brief encounter above. There, I found references to Rgvedic passages, along with the phrase that is so perfectly descriptive of Usas:

"Usas is the most graceful creation of Vedic poetry, and there is no more charming figure in the descriptive religious lyrics of any other literature."

When I conceived of doing morning and evening devotionals in time with sunrise and sunset, I knew I was asking a lot of myself. I decided, though, to write prayers to deities who I knew would be "around" at those times. Usas and Ratri were the first two I thought of.

When I wrote the prayers, I didn't really think much of writing them in a Rgvedic style. I mean, who writes like that anymore? But I did slip back into MacDonnell and crack a few RV passages for inspiration. What I ended up with were a pair of fairly good prayers that I was pretty happy with:

A maiden dancing, dancing
on the rim of the world
Resplendent, Radiant
I blush to see you rise from your bath
the colours of the sky drip from your bosom
as you open the ways for the sun
Greetings, Usas, who opens the gates of heaven.
Ratri, daughter of heaven
weaving the web of sacrifice
and conducting my prayers with bright rays.
As Usas comes each morning, so do you at night
Cloaked in stars, brightly shining
Maintaining the order of our lives.
Allow me to sleep, my head in your lap
As you sit upon the sacrificial grass.

I found new breath in my religious life when I worked through these devotionals, and I found a sense that I am happiest when I am with my deities, rather than with anything else; in many ways, I see most of my life being given over to that as time goes on.

But over time, the rituals became too demanding and began to clash with my mundane life (when sunrise is at 7:54 AM and you have to be at work by 8 AM, things start to get a bit too close together), and so I stopped doing them.

I picked them up again briefly, but daylight savings threw me for a loop. Now, though, I find that I'm able to pick them up, and the recent acquisition of a copy of Maurer's RV translations, Pinnacles fo India's Past: Selections from the Rgveda (received, again, out of the blue from a close friend), along with my experience in Greece of the private show that Usas put on for me as I arrived and the revelations I experienced on Mt. Olympus has sparked a renewed interest.

When I returned from Trillium, the Maurer book was waiting for me at my office. I turned first to see if the hymn I most love, V.80, was in this edition, and I was once again enraptured by the description of this goddess. Up until this point, I had only experienced translations of the RV done by scholars (good for literalism but horrid for poetry) or by poets (great for poetics but abyssmal for scholarship). Maurer may not be a poet, but he's the closest any scholar has come, and he renders the verses beautifully.

He also echos MacDonnell's sentiment about Usas: "the hymns to Usas are surely among the finest poetry in the Rgveda."

So now I sit, the Rgvedic verses in front of me, MacDonnell and the Rgveda Bhramanas next to it, and the dawn always less than 24 hours away. And I find that I'm decidedly infatuated with Usas, this beautiful maiden who greets us each morning, who awakens the pious with her breath across the eastern horizon.

Rgveda I.30.20-22
20. What mortal do you enjoy, O immortal Dawn? Where do you love?
To whom, O radiant, do you go?

Usas is a lover of mortals, a facet of her that is much-commented on in modern scholarship. This is a triplet that is used to praise Usas in the Rgveda Brahmanas, and given my current relationship with this deity, I understand exactly the question this poet is asking.

21. For we have had you in our thoughts whether near or far away,
Red-hued and like a dappled mare.

If you want a deity never to be far from your thoughts, daily devotions are the way to go. With Usas, the sunrise devotional is particularly key in this relationship. I imagine that with Agni, the kindling of fire at each devotional would be key. But Usas is not ever far from my thoughts these days.

22. Hither, O Daughter of the Sky, you come with these which strengthen you,
And send your riches down to us.

The blessings of the Vedic gods are all very particularly like this. It is experiencing these riches, though, that lets you fully understand just how concretely these gods offer their blessings to us.


Yes, "infatuation" is the way I describe this relationship. A "courtship." It's not "patronage", and the longer I court this deity, the more I find myself thinking our relationship may never enter this "further" stage. It may never exit this "basic" stage.

And that, I think, is what I love most about this relationship. I think that I am simply not interested in forming deeper relationships in any areas of my life right now than this. . . I have formed them in the past, and those relationships remain intact, but the longer I experience this relationship with Usas, the more I feel that this is how my relationships should all be: ever new, ever renewed, and ever dawning.

I simply don't wish for more than that anymore, and I haven't for a very long time. This may very well be why I found Usas to be such an amazing goddess.

I've chosen to memorize some of Usas' hymns recently, and you might hear me speak them at the occasional festival in the near future.

This has also caused me to go back to the dictionary: I'm finding myself uncertain about the pronunciations of several of the words used to describe her, less because I speak them incorrectly, and more because the Rgveda is not designed to be read, but spoken, and I don't really feel like pronouncing words that I rarely use incorrectly.

(oddly, a reading of Peter Pan can teach anyone just how little they know of the English language)

The word "ruddy", for instance (tinged in red), is not like the mythical Notre Dame football player, "Rudy", but rather like the "rudderless child" I've often felt like.

Refulgent (brightly shining) is more like "re ful gent" (with "gent" sounding more like the "Treaty of Ghent" than the short for "gentleman") than it is like "re full gant."

Of course, now that I've seen and practiced the pronunciations correctly, I have no idea whether I was saying them correctly or incorrectly before. But I am confident that I know how to say them now.

It's been brought up that my courtship of this particular goddess, a goddess of perfect order and perfect truth, is vastly different (and possibly at odds) with my Discordian ways. In fact, while Eris is (of course) the goddess of discord and chaos, Usas is the perfection of cosmic order.

Curiously, though, this tension within me has always existed, and I have never felt that there is any sort of disconnect or oddity in these relationships; indeed, they seem perfectly natural to me. There's no real way to explain it to someone outside of my own head, I'm afraid, except in the most base way: order requires disorder to prevent brittleness, and disorder requires order to retain identity. This isn't so much a reflection of me "growing up" (don't even start to assume that!) so much as a reflection of my own "deepening" in life and religion.

I don't know where this courtship will go, but I'm positive that it will be a positive thing in my life, and it's a direction I need to go at this time.


Hymns to Usas in the Rgveda (links are to Griffith's translations and likely contain typos, but some are translated also by Maurer):

  1. RV I.48
  2. RV I.49
  3. RV I.92*
  4. RV I.113
  5. RV I.123
  6. RV I.124
  7. RV IV.51
  8. RV IV.52*
  9. RV V.79
  10. RV V.80*
  11. RV VI.64
  12. RV VI.65
  13. RV VII.75
  14. RV VII.76
  15. RV VII.77
  16. RV VII.78
  17. RV VII.79
  18. RV VII.80
  19. RV VII.81
  20. RV X.72

   * – Indicates that Maurer has a superior translation of this hymn.

IV.52 and V.80 tend to be two of my favourites.


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