The Development of tejas from the Vedas to the Purāṇas

(Abstract from: Paolo Magnone, “The Development of ‘Tejas’ from the Vedas to the Purāṇas”, Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens, Wien, xxxvi (Suppl. 1993), p. 137-147)

The word tejas, from root tij ‘sharpen’ and hence originally meaning ‘sharpness’, came very soon to express the notion of a peculiar ‘substance-power’ with distinctive fiery connotations. Such notion of tejas is very prominent, especially in the epic and puranic literature, and has often attracted the attention of scholars, but its development has not yet been subjected to thorough investigation. This paper anticipates a few results of the author’s current research, offering some hints to bridge the gap between vedic and puranic usage.
Although the word tejas occurs only sparingly in the Ṛg Veda, and regularly only in connection with the root meaning, as other tij-derivatives, the germs are already visible of a metaphorical extension of the basic meaning of ‘sharpness’ pointing to the later acception. The frequency increases considerably in the Atharva Veda, where tejas is usually found associated with other ‘Daseinmächte’ such as varcas, ojas and the like. In the Brāhmaṇas tejas is consistently connected with fire as a specific ‘energy’. The upanisadic usage is heterogeneous, but a few passages can be singled out in which tejas comes decidedly to the foreground as one of the ultimate constituents of reality. Such doctrines as the well known teaching of Uddālaka Aruṇi to his son Śvetaketu in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad on the threefold propagation of being through the hierarchy of tejas, āpas and anna, and still more some later Maitrāyaṇī doctrines, may be regarded as the early antecedents of the distinctive epic-puranic development of the notion of tejas as a (kind of) energy wielded by the supreme Lord for the accomplishment of his cosmic tasks.
Tejas plays a central role in some of the most characteristic mythical themes of each of the great gods of Hinduism, such as Viṣṇu’s avatāras, Śiva’s interrupted love-making to Pārvatī and Skanda’s unnatural birth from the spilt seed, the severing of Brahmā’s unauspicious fifth head, the origin of Devī, and Sūrya’s shaping on Viśvakarman’s lathe, to mention but a few.
By analysing the vast corpus of tejas myths motive-wise it is possible to enucleate from the context its most significant traits, and thereby gain a deeper insight into its authentic meaning. Only a few can be mentioned here. In the Purāṇas tejas is a kind of energy with fiery connotations. In spite of its ancient association with procreation and seed, it is typically destructive — or if at all creative, it regularly carries destructive implications or undertones. Its dangerous potential can be traced back to the notion of excess which is already inherent in the rigvedic usage. Tejas may be congenital in some overpowerful beings, both animate — such as gods, demons, seers, kings — and inanimate — such as weapons and poison, but its ultimate source is the supreme Lord, who can infuse it either directly or indirectly. Hence tejas is not permanent, like a property: rather, as is appropriate to a substance-power, it is eminently liable to be lost or transferred or withdrawn in consequence of sin, impurity, defeat, death or simply purposelessness ensuing from final success. Although on the one hand the Bhagavad Gītā’s proclaim holds good that all tejas comes from the Lord, yet it also obeys its intrinsic laws, which the Lord himself cannot infringe — a paradoxical impotence on which is built the common pattern of so many avatāra myths. An explanation is to be sought in the enduring dialectic rooted deep in Indian culture and sprouting along the course of its development the conflicting branches of monism and theism, ritualism and devotion, belief in magic and surrender to grace.