The pañcāgnividyā and the pitṛyāna/devayāna

in Vedic Cosmology and Ethics

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Important issues are mostly treated in texts representing (almost) all the Vedas. Sometimes the parallel passages show a chronological relation, since they seem to react on each other’s versions.

In the case of the theme of the two paths to life after death we may expect a similar competition between the Vedas. Since this subject is connected with the theories of rebirth and release, which are missing in old Vedism, it is only to be found in later Vedic texts (Upaniṣads and late sections in the Brāhmaṇas). Here it turns out indeed that all the Vedas contributed to the treatment of the topic.

The theme consists of some subthemes. In order to analyse its development we first have to define these subthemes. The resulting sketch of the interrelation between the passages does not claim to trace the actual development of ideas on rebirth and release. It is quite possible that theories concerning these subjects were formulated outside the classical circles of Vedic tradition and that the Vedic texts gradually accepted them. This gradual process of influencing may have been reflected in these texts which continued to use old formulations and frames of reference.

The subthemes are the following:

  1. The connection with the Agnihotra ritual

  2. The motif of the Kṣatriya who teaches the theory to a Brahmin

  3. The description of the cycle of rebirths in the form of five symbolic sacrifices (Agnihotras) (the pañcāgnividyā)

  4. The description of the journey to heaven with its tests and of the destiny of the rejected

  5. The separation of the path of the released and of the one who will be reborn which already takes place on earth (the devayāna and the pitṛyāna)

  6. The ultimate situation of the one who follows the devayāna.

1 Connection with the Agnihotra

Subtheme 1 connects the idea of an exchange between heaven and earth with the daily Agnihotra. The gods send rain and receive back the smoke of the milk oblations, which again is changed into rain. This is a ritualistic adaptation of older ideas of exchange in which the water sent to earth evaporates and thus returns to heaven.

One of the oldest associations with the Agnihotra is found in the Ṛgvedic ŚāṅkhB 2, 7: the gods create man from water by way of plants (the result of rain), food and seed (the product of food) in order to receive food in return from beings like themselves. This looks like a creation myth and actually it may be interpreted as an aetiological myth explaining the origin of the Agnihotra sacrifice (the subject of Adhyāya 2 of this Brāhmaṇa). However, what is done by man in return, is performed everyday, whereas the creation of man looks once-only in this passage. Nevertheless it is clear that the basic idea of this text refers to the recurrent creation of human beings in accordance with the Upaniṣadic parallels. The transformation of food into seed and of seed into a human being presupposes an already existing human being who eats and procreates. So in spite of its mythic presentation the text teaches a water doctrine according to which man forms the final product of chain of transformations starting with rain from heaven. This man gives the Agnihotra libations in exchange, but the text does not state that these libations are ultimately transformed into rain. The cycle is neither complete nor automatic, since the cooperation of the ritualist is required. There is no reference to personal rebirth or to attempts to become released from this cycle of existence. The motif of the glorious Kṣatriya is still missing. Everything is focused on the Agnihotra and the exchange between heaven and earth by way of ritual. For this passage see Bodewitz (1973, 245–246).

A similar conception of exchange between heaven and earth by way of the Agnihotra is found in the Yajurvedic ŚB 2, 3, 1, 10–11. Here the ultimate product of rain given by the gods is milk (based on the transformation of plants which are eaten, into milk; cf. also ŚB 1, 3, 1, 25; 7, 1, 2; 18). Human beings should return what belongs to the gods in the Agnihotra. Human seed does not play a role in this water doctrine.

On the other hand ŚB 7, 4, 2, 22 shows a different aspect of the water doctrine and more corresponds with the discussed passage from the ŚāṅkhB: “this (terrestrial world) sheds seed upwards from here (in the form of) smoke; it becomes rain in yonder world, and that rain yonder world (sheds) from above: hence (creatures) are born within these two worlds, and therefore these two worlds are seed-shedders” (tr. Eggeling). Here, however, every reference to the Agnihotra is missing.

ŚB 11, 6, 2 represents a further development. Instead of milk human seed forms the product of rain. This rain is produced by the libations of the Agnihotra which rise to heaven. The idea of exchange is maintained, though the deities do not play any role at all. The series of transformations starts on earth with the Agnihotra. The final product of the series of transformations is not just man or any human being, but the son of the Agnihotra-sacrificer.

This looks like a vague reference to, and a misinterpretation of, the doctrine of rebirth. The later doctrine was still undeveloped in the Brāhmaṇa which like other Vedic texts only knows the conception of the son as the continuation of the father. As sons may live together with fathers their birth cannot be regarded as a real rebirth.

The present passage, however, calls this son the renascent world (loka pratyutthāyin) and this terminology, though strictly speaking it refers to the two Agnihotra libations, seems to represent an adaptation by the ritualists of the rising theory of rebirth on earth to their own ideas on being born in one’s own son. Anyhow, this sort of “rebirth” has a positive rather than a negative value in this passage.

The transformations between the actual Agnihotra and the birth of a son are described in terms of five symbolic Agnihotras, though the word pañcāgnividyā (subtheme 3) is still not used. Subtheme 2 is also present in the context.

Subtheme 1 (the Agnihotra) also forms the background of several passages in the Sāmavedic JB. In 1, 17–18 the Agnihotra produces a heavenly ātman with which one may become united after death. The water doctrine (the series of developments from rain to human being) is only mentioned in a verse which one has to recite in order to obtain entrance to the highest heaven. There is no reference to Agnihotra libations which are transformed into rain.

JB 1, 45–46 and 49–50 occur in the context of the Agnihotra section (JB 1, 1–65) and deal with several of the mentioned subthemes (however not with 2, the motif of the Kṣatriya). The Agnihotra may implicitly form the background of the pañcāgnividyā of 1, 45, but explicit references to this ritual are missing.

In the Upaniṣads all the references to the Agnihotra subtheme have disappeared. Subtheme 1 only belongs to the older stages.

2 The Kṣatriya Motif

Subtheme 2 is entirely missing in the Jaiminīya passages, but it emphatically appears in ŚB 11, 6, 2, where king Janaka meets three Brahmins, i.a. Śvetaketu and Yājñavalkya, interrogates them on the Agnihotra and then concludes that their knowledge is not sufficient, since they do not know the rise, progress, support, contentment, return and renascent world of the libations (an obscure indication of the pañcāgnividyā). Yājñavalkya dissuades his fellow-Brahmins from an official debate, arguing that defeating a Kṣatriya would hardly make impression on the people, whereas being defeated by a Kṣatriya would be a disaster. Thereupon Yājñavalkya overtakes king Janaka who had driven away and asks him to tell the doctrine of the Agnihotra, which turns out to be some sort of pañcāgnividyā.

It is remarkable that the Kṣatriya motif is missing in the JB. Only in this respect ŚB 11, 6, 2 agrees more with the Upaniṣads. For the Upaniṣadic passages this motif was discussed by Renate Söhnen (1981).

The Kṣatriya is Citra Gāṅgyāyani in KauṣU 1, 1 and Pravāhaṇa Jaivali in ChU 5, 3 and BĀU 6, 2, 1–8. In all the three passages Śvetaketu and his father Uddālaka Āruṇi are the Brahmins. The parallelism of the ChU and BĀU passages is clearer than of KauṣU and the other two Upaniṣads.

The relation between the passages in which the new doctrine is taught by the Kṣatriya has been analysed by most scholars as:

1. BĀU, 2. ChU, 3. KauṣU. The posteriority of the Kauṣītaki version of the doctrine may be correct or not, but this does not imply that the introductory passages in the KauṣU (the subtheme of the Kṣatriya motif) likewise should be late. These passages do not form a unity. KauṣU sometimes makes the impression of being rather late, but some passages breathe the spirit of the Brāhmaṇas.

An elaborate stylistic and psychological analysis of the three parallel passages brings Söhnen to the conclusion that at least in the introductory portion of the three parallels the relative chronology should be: 1. KauṣU, 2. ChU, 3. BĀU. The argumentation is attractive, though not cogent.

3 The pañcāgnividyā

The third subtheme started in ŚB 11, 6, 2 (as stated above). The places in which the five symbolic Agnihotras are performed are the intermediate space, heaven, earth, man and woman. All kinds of cosmic entities are equated with ritualistic entities. The oblations for the successive “sacrifices” arise from the preceding ones.

It is evident that the above mentioned passage from the ŚB should be older than the parallels from the Upaniṣads (ChU and BĀU) and probably even older than the parallel from JB 1, 45. The latter rather closely agrees with the version of the two mentioned Upaniṣads. In one and the same passage the one subtheme (the Kṣatriya motif) looks late, whereas the other (the theory of the five fires) makes the impression of being older.

For the relation between the pañcāgnividyā passages of JB 1, 45, ChU 5, 3–9 and BĀU 6, 2, 10–14, see Bodewitz (1973, 110 ff.), where, however, no definite conclusions are drawn on their interrelation. The evidence for argumentations pro or contra one of the passages is too meagre. On account of its position within an Agnihotra section of a Brāhmaṇa it is to be assumed that at least JB 1, 45 should be older than the two Upaniṣadic passages.

4 The Journey to Heaven

The fourth subtheme first occurs in Jaiminīya texts. JB 1, 18 does not start from the cremation, but begins with the “lifebreath” or “soul” which leaves the body at death. This “soul” ultimately reaches the highest deity, the sun, after having passed some doorkeepers and examinations. There is some repetition in this testing of the insight of the deceased who has to show that he knows his cosmic origin (in accordance with the water doctrine which teaches that all seed ultimately comes form the moon), that he rejects human individuality and that he acknowledges his identity with the highest deity.

In JB 1, 18 the deceased or his soul successfully passes the doorkeepers of the sun, the Seasons, by reciting a verse in which the Seasons are addressed as playing a role in the water doctrine.

At his arrival with the sun the soul is again tested. This section of the passage has a parallel in the later Jaiminīya text JUB 3, 14, 1–6.

The journey to the sun-god does not have many stations in this description. The successful deceased first meets the Seasons and then the Sun itself. The one who fails does so in the interrogation by the sun. He is dragged away by the Seasons and comes into the power of night and day (which probably implies that he suffers punarmṛtyu). There is no reference to rebirth on earth.

In JB 1, 46 the deceased rises upwards from the cremation-fire (the funeral pyre), gives the wrong answer to the doorkeeper of the Sun (one of the Seasons) and is rejected. He may stay during some time in a world obtained on account of his merits, but ultimately he has to die again, i.e. he does not overcome “redeath” (punarmṛtyu). There is no indication that after this “redeath” one is reborn again on earth. The pitṛyāna (a term not used in this context) indeed ends in some sort of pitṛloka.

In JB 1, 49 the successful variant is described. The journey to heaven and the highest deity takes the deceased from the smoke of the funeral pyre to the night, from the night to the day, from the day to the halfmonths etc. The journey brings the deceased out of phenomenal time symbolized by subdivisions of the year. There is still no distinction between the smoke and the flame, between the dark and the light items. One of the Seasons is again the doorkeeper and the successful deceased gives the correct answer in the form of a verse which also occurs in JB 1, 18. Since in this verse the vocative plural of the Seasons occurs, and in JB 1, 46 and 49 only one Season acts as doorkeeper, we may assume that JB 1, 18 represents a more original version.

KauṣU 1, 1 forms a continuation of the Jaiminīya passages on the journey to heaven. Thieme (1951–1952) extensively discusses this passage. He tries to show that three authors are responsible for the rather confusing description, that the order of some sections should be changed and that some interpolations have to be assumed. In his view the first author would have composed KauṣU 1, 2 directly followed by 1, 4. In the latter section the first and the second half should change place. In 1, 2 the moon as doorkeeper asks the deceased: “Who are you?” The direct answer found in the text, i.e. a verse in which the deceased shows his knowledge of his divine or cosmic origin (see Bodewitz 1969; this vol. pp. 23–28) is left out by Thieme. In this way the connection with the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa (1, 18 and 1, 50) disappears.

It is evident, indeed, that the composition of KauṣU 1, 2 is rather confusing. The moon acts as a doorkeeper and asks a question, whereas the deceased answers the seasons (rather than the moon) in agreement with the situation of JB 1, 18. The reason for introducing the moon was that here the separation of the people who are reborn on earth from those who reach Brahmā takes place.

KauṣU 1, 2 makes the situation even worse by adding an answer in which the deceased identifies himself with the moon. This identification, connected with the wordplay on ka meaning “who?” and Ka (the highest deity), should have been reserved for the conversation with the highest deity (1, 5–6). By leaving out part of 1, 2 Thieme does not obtain a convincing composition. He should rather have deleted the answer containing the identification. The verse recited by the deceased contains a plural vocative (“O, Seasons”). Therefore JB 1, 18 represents the most original version. In JB 1, 49–50 a single doorkeeper (one of the seasons) plays a role. In KauṣU 1, 2 this season is replaced by the moon. The verse to be recited forms the continuum in the transmission and obviously should be retained.

The problem of the KauṣU passage is that it contains too many tests for the deceased on his way to the highest goal. First the moon asks a question. It is only in connection with this first test that the failure of a deceased is described. He is sent back to earth from the moon in the form of rain and will be reborn on earth. The next selection takes place at lake Āra (1, 4) which can only be passed by people having enough knowledge. The next obstacle is the river Vijarā (1, 4), a representation of one of the well-known items in the travels to the throne of God in many religions. Finally Brahmā asks him about his identity (1, 6) and even a complete interrogation is added (1, 7). In between the deceased has already proved his qualification several times. At the end of 1, 4 he his even said to enter Brahman. Moreover the order of the stations in the journey to the highest god or principle is rather confusing.

Therefore it is understandable that Thieme assumes several layers in the text. In the first layer the one who passes the first test (taken by the moon) would directly afterwards reach the second obstacle, lake Āra, in the second half of 1, 4, which should be placed before the first half. For this change see also Frenz (1969, 79 ff.).

The second author according to Thieme would have added 1, 3 and 1, 5. In 1, 3 a journey to the Brahmaloka starts on earth and consequently can hardly continue the travel of the deceased who has already passed the moon. In 1, 5 the arrival at the palace of Brahmā, pictured as a king, is described.

The third author would have added the end of 1, 3 and of 1, 4 (where it is said that the deceased enters Brahman). Indeed, reaching the throne of Brahmā and entering Brahman seem to be two different versions, though it is uncertain whether actually separate authors should be assumed.

5 The Separation of the devayāna and the pitṛyāna

In the last discussed subtheme the deceased are tested during their journey to heaven or the highest goal. The classical Upaniṣadic texts on the differentiation of the path to the highest bliss from the path to an ultimate return to earth (subtheme 5) start from a differentiation which is already decided before death. The bright path is associated with wisdom and ascetic practices performed outside the village. People following this path go along the devayāna. The ritualists in the village and other people who are concerned with merits follow the pitṛyāna which ends in rebirth on earth.

Such a differentiation, which is not only characterised by a twofold path which starts already on earth, but which also introduces two other important issues, rebirth on earth and a disqualification of the ritual as a means for reaching the highest aims, is not found in the Brāhmaṇas. It starts in the Upaniṣads, i.e. in ChU 5, 10 and BĀU 6, 2, 15 in connection with passages dealing with the pañcāgnividyā.

Here the change from the one to the other ideology becomes quite manifest. These passages belong to the latest layers in Vedic literature. Actually they are the first which show a criticism of the existent orthodox tradition.

There are some parallels in later, Atharvavedic Upaniṣads: Praśna Upaniṣad 1, 9–10 and Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 1, 2, 10–11. Here again the distinction between light (the sun) and darkness (the moon), between deliverance and rebirth, becomes evident. The late Atharvavedic texts do not contribute much new information.

6 The Ultimate Situation of the One Who Follows the devayāna

In the last subtheme the ultimate situation of the successful “soul” is described.

In ŚB 11, 6, 2 this motif is still missing. According to JB 1, 18 the deceased identities himself with the highest deity called the sun and obtains the ātman in the sun which he had produced before by offering the Agnihotra. In spite of the mythological description we might call this some sort of mokṣa, be it not from rebirth, since this concept was still unknown. The deceased does not live on in a paradise, but becomes one with the highest deity. In the parallel JB 1, 50 there is no interrogation by the sun culminating in an identification. The deceased reaches salokatā, i.e. coexistence in one world, with the sun.

KauṣU 1, 5–6 replaces the sun by Brahmā and has the same identification as JB 1, 18. The (perhaps later added) references to entering Brahman, indicate that mokṣa here forms the ultimate goal in spite of the mythic description of the path to and through heaven.

According to ChU 5, 10, 2 a non-human being leads the successful deceased to Brahman along the devayāna. There is no clear description of what actually takes place, though some sort of mokṣa may have been implied. In BĀU 6, 2, 15 a similar being leads the deceased to the Brahman-worlds from which there is no return. The description of the ultimate situation does not look very mokṣa like.

In PrU 1, 10 the sun seems to be the final goal in connection with the search for the Self. MuU 1, 2, 11 mentions the sun as the station to be passed on the way to the immortal Puruṣa and the imperishable ātman.

Summarizing the results of this treatment of the subject we may draw up the following survey in which the passages figure as units though they may consist of several layers. The subthemes are mentioned and the distribution of the texts among the Vedic schools is taken into account. The chronological stratification of the parallel passages should be regarded with much reservation, since sometimes one subtheme of a passage seems to point to lateness whereas another definitely does not. The fact that these passages may consist of several layers should warn us against rash conclusions.

It is clear that two main streams can he discerned. The one starts from the theory of the origin of life in connection with the exchange between heaven and earth, which especially becomes manifest in the Agnihotra. This stream produces the pañcāgnividyā. The other is based on the assumption that one may obtain immortality with the sun or any highest deity and even reach union with him. Here again a connection with the Agnihotra is made. However, the ultimate admission to the highest deity is based on knowledge and the deceased may fail in a test. This stream produces the theory of the two paths (pitṛyāna and devayāna, terms with a much older history). The journey to the highest deity and the theory of the cosmic origin of life on earth become mixed up in the doctrine of the two paths.


ŚāṅkhB 2, 7 (Ṛgveda)

1. Agnihotra; 3. (foretype of the) pañcāgnividyā

ŚB 11, 6, 2 (Yajurveda)

1. Agnihotra; 2. Kṣatriya; 3. pañcāgnividyā

JB 1, 45–46 (Sāmaveda, Jaiminīya)

1. Agnihotra; 3. pañcāgnividyā; 4. Failure during a test in the journey to heaven

ChU 5, 3–10 (Sāmaveda, Kauthuma)

2. Kṣatriya; 3. pañcāgnividyā; 5. pitṛyāna/devayāna starting on earth and connected with good or bad karman and knowledge; 6. Contact with Brahman

BĀU 6, 2 (Yajurveda)

2. Kṣatriya; 3. pañcāgnividyā; 5. pitṛyāna/devayāna starting on earth; 6. Staying in the Brahman-world

PrU 1, 9–10 (Atharvaveda)

5. pitṛyāna/devayāna; 6. The sun as the final goal

MuU 1, 2, 10–11 (Atharvaveda)

5. pitṛyāna/devayāna; 6. The sun, the Puruṣa and the ātman as the final goal


JB 1, 18 (Sāmaveda, Jaiminīya)

1. Agnihotra; 4. Journey to heaven; 6. Contact and identification with the sun

JUB 3, 14, 1–6 (Sāmaveda, Jaiminīya)

6. Contact and identification with the sun, = JB 1, 18 end

JB 1, 49–50 (Sāmaveda, Jaiminīya)

4. Journey to heaven; 5. Short indication of coexistence in one world with the sun

KauṣU 1 (Ṛgveda)

2. Kṣatriya; 4. Journey to heaven or rebirth on earth according to karman; 6. Contact with Brahmā or entering into the Brahman

Looking at the basic concepts of transmigration, karman and mokṣa one may observe that return on earth is missing in the passages from the Brāhmaṇas. In JUB 3, 28, 4 rebirth on earth is mentioned for the first time. It is not described as something undesirable, but as a free choice. In the preceding passage reaching the world of Brahman is regarded as impossible. The deceased is sent from the sun to the moon and from the moon to the sun. This would be the highest to be obtained. Instead of one of these heavenly worlds one might also win rebirth on earth. However, JUB 3, 28, 5 objects against this optional return to earth that life in heaven is preferable to life on earth. Here we see vague references to the theory of rebirth. The authors of this text are struggling with new ideas about which they seem to have got some incomplete information. Return on earth is possible as a positive achievement, but ultimately rejected on account of a pessimistic judgement of life on earth (a quite late, un-Vedic conception). The world of Brahman is the final goal, but the text states that this cannot be reached. Instead of mokṣa life in one of the heavens still forms the ideal.

The pañcāgnividyā of the passages in the ŚB and the JB still has no relation to rebirth on earth. The doctrine only explains the origin of man.

The deceased who are tested during their journey to heaven and rejected are not said to return to the earth in the Brāhmaṇas. They reach a pitṛloka and ultimately become the victim of punarmṛtyu (“redeath”). In the KauṣU, however, those who fail are sent back to the earth by the moon (in accordance with the pañcāgnividyā as formulated by the Upaniṣads).

The doctrine of karman is found in KauṣU 1, 2 and ChU 5, 10, 7, but it is missing in the BĀU parallel.

The concept of mokṣa gradually develops in these texts. It is still completely absent in the ŚB. In the JB the sun forms the aim, but in spite of the mythic description a union with this highest power seems to be intended. Instead of the sun Brahmā is the highest deity in the KauṣU. Apart from some (interpolated?) references to entering Brahman the description of Brahmā as a monarch sitting on a throne and of the festive welcome of the deceased does not look like an improvement in comparison with the JB. Even the parallel passages of ChU and BĀU hardly pay attention to the exact nature of the mokṣa which awaits the deceased at the end of the devayāna.

We are still in the first stage of development of the complex of rebirth, karman and mokṣa. The older passages from the Brāhmaṇas, in which these conceptions were either still unknown or hardly understood, form the starting point for the Upaniṣadic texts, which now, however, clearly reject the claims of the Brahmin priests and their rituals.

First published in Studies on Indology: Prof. M.M. Sharma felicitation volume, 1996, pp. 51–57.

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Vedic Cosmology and Ethics

Selected Studies


Table of Contents

Index Card


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