Thursday, December 23, 2010

Home on the Range

I have always assumed that my surname, Angsten, was derived from the German Angst, with its negative connotations of fear and anxiety. While not exactly inspiring, it seemed suitable to a writer of adventure thrillers. In researching my latest novel, however, I've discovered a more positive spin on the name. It now appears perfectly--even cosmically--appropriate for an author named Angsten to be writing what I'm currently writing: a contemporary thriller about the origins of eastern mysticism and the age-old quest for liberation.

I've been doing a lot of reading on the ancient Vedic people--the Indo-European or 'Aryan' tribes that swept down into India from the steppes of central Asia early in the second millenium BCE. Like most of the Indo-Europeans, these Vedic nomads were in constant need of fresh pastureland for their cattle and horses. The Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger, in her recent book, The Hindus, describes them as basically "cattle herders and cattle rustlers who went about stealing other people's cows and pretending to be taking them back."In this regard--as well as in their fondness for gambling--the Vedic people resembled the cowboys of the 19th-century American West. They were driven, like their vast herds of horses, "to move on, always to move on, to new lands." This insatiable urge for expansion was supported by their religion and expressed in their collection of spoken prayer known as the Rig Veda--the oldest religious poetry in the world.

Among these poems the word prithu--'expansiveness'--is frequently encountered. Derived from the name of a mythical king who hunted cattle on the broad plain, prithu connoted something like 'the wide-open spaces.' And that's where my surname comes in:
"The opposite of this word prithu is the word for a tight spot, in both the physical and the psychological sense; that word is amhas, signifying a kind of claustrophobia, the uneasiness of being constrained in a small space. (Amhas is cognate with our word 'anxiety' and the German Angst.) In this context, amhas might well be translated, 'Don't fence me in,' since it occurs in a number of Vedic poems in which the poet imagines himself trapped in a deep well or cave, from which he prays to the gods to extricate him."
For these ancient cowboys, then, the term from which the name 'Angsten' is derived was less an expression of fear and anxiety than of the inherent human yearning for freedom.
That yearning went beyond the physical plane; it literally drove these cattle rustlers into the spiritual realm. The ninth book of the Rig Veda celebrates a fiery hallucinogenic plant known as soma, which played a key role in several important Vedic rituals. The following is a typical passage:
We have drunk the soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods. What can hatred and the malice of a mortal do to us now? The glorious drops that I have drunk set me free in wide space. (8.48.3)
The entire book reiterates this blissful theme of transcendence. Professor Doniger concludes: “The feeling of expansiveness, of being set free in wide space, is not merely a Vedic political agenda, an expression of the lust for those wide open spaces, it is also a subjective experience of exhilaration and ecstasy.”

Though today we do not know what the soma plant was, it's easy to imagine its possible influence on history. The Vedic hymns it inspired formed the fountainhead of Indian civilization and the beginnings of Hinduism, the world's oldest living religion. It may just be possible, as many have suggested, that it was soma that spurred those early cowboy/mystics to probe deeper into the nature of reality, to learn how to harness the wild horse of the mind, to whip a galloping thought across the infinite Ground of Being.