Pits, Pitfalls and the Underworld in the Veda

in Vedic Cosmology and Ethics

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The underworld and, especially in post-Vedic texts, hell are often denoted by words meaning pit or hole1 and falling in general, denoted by the verb pat, is often associated with going to hell2 and the result of sins, though sometimes a moral and social fall may be meant.3 However, this complex of ideas raises some questions. Why are hell and the underworld called a hole or a pit?4 And how should one interpret some Vedic passages in which falling into a pit cannot or need not refer to going to hell or descending into an underworld? Sometimes the falling into a pit is a metaphor for being confronted with some disaster. On what sort of concrete falling is this metaphor then based?

In order to find a solution we first have to examine the unmistakably concrete instances of falling into a pit and the metaphors based on it and to establish the exact meaning of the words denoting some sort of pit or hole. Here the metaphorical use is even more instructive than the few concrete cases of falling into a pit.

In the metaphorical use the falling into a pit is sometimes mentioned together with bumping against a so-called sthāṇu. In the predominantly ritualistic Vedic literature these mishaps concern esoteric mistakes in the performance of a ritual. The sacrifice comes to ruin due to some unexpected obstacles and one might translate the falling into a pit as meeting with a metaphorical pitfall,5 i.e. not a pit slightly covered so that wild animals may fall into it, but a hidden danger. The sthāṇu then might be called a metaphorical stumbling-block or stumbling-stone, i.e. a cause of error. What is now the concrete pit and what the concrete stumbling-block?

In order to be applicable to the metaphorical use these causes of ruin should be more or less hidden, at least not easily recognizable in particular situations. The concrete pitfall meant for wild animals fulfills this requirement. Since it forms the basis for the metaphor in Western languages, there is no reason to reject it right away in ancient India. However, the evidence of the texts points to a different situation.

From some translations one gets the impression that Vedic Indians used to fall into pits or holes and bump with their heads against pillars. Here the requirement of unexpectedness is not fulfilled, unless one assumes that Vedic Indians were absent-minded like the Greek Presocratic philosopher Thales who fell into a pit while looking at the stars.6

In connection with sthāṇu I have shown that the metaphor is based on chariots hitting upon a short stump (Bodewitz 1973, 70, n. 5; see also 1976, 95, n. 7). For such sort of accidents see also Sparreboom (1985 s.v. rathabhreṣa). Such a crash is not a collision (as in the case of cars in modern times), since horses do not run into trees. The chariot crashes when one of its two wheels or the axle knocks into a short stump of a tree. Therefore TS 7, 3, 1, 1, yó vái prajávaṁ yatā́m ápathena pratipádyate yá sthāṇúṁ hánti is not convincingly translated by Hoffmann (1975, 32) with “wer von dahineilenden (Leuten) in Unwegsamkeit gerät, wer an einen Baumstamm stösst.” Instead of “Baumstamm” I would prefer “Baumstumpf.” These obstacles are indeed treacherous like possible mistakes (based on esoteric interpretations) in Vedic ritual.

Since falling into a pit is sometimes mentioned together with hitting upon a stump of a tree, one may assume that again the chariot plays a role. Walking human beings seldom fall into ravines. However, driving one’s chariot into a ravine is also rather exceptional. Mostly one sees the ravine and consequently the metaphorical pitfall can hardly be based on such rare incidents.7 Moreover, ravines are found near hilly tracks and it is not to be expected that Vedic Indians were driving there (at least not at full speed). So we may assume that fissures8 in the earth are meant, which indeed can be treacherous in the case of fast driving.

An accident with a fissure seems to be implied in PB 15, 3, 7 anena dāre nāsṛnmeti tad adārasṛto ’dārasṛttvaṁ vindate gātuṁ na dāre dhāvaty adārasṛtā tuṣṭuvānaḥ “(Because they thought): ‘By means of this (Sāman) we have not fallen into a pit’ (dāre nāsṛnma), thence it has its name adārasṛt. He who in lauding has practised the adārasṛt, finds a way out of his difficulties and does not run into a pit” (tr. Caland). Here the pitfall is metaphorical and gātu denotes a way out, but the metaphor is clearly based on finding a passable “road” (gātu) without the risks of crashing with the chariot due to fissures or splits in the terrain. Here Caland translates dāra with “pit,” but in the parallel passage of JB 3, 247 (1919, 286) with “Spalte,” which better suits the etymology and the situation. The use of the verbs sar and dhāv seems to point to driving a chariot (cf. the turns of phrase ājiṁ sar or dhāv). Vedic Indians were no joggers. In a note on his translation of PB 15, 3, 7 Caland translates the JB parallel “We have not fallen into the pit,” but the verb sar does not mean “to fall” and it is doubtful whether the dāra is an enormous pit into which a man or a man with horse and chariot may fall.

Sāyaṇa’s commentary on PB 15, 3, 7 explains dāra as meaning śvabhra. This term denotes a hole or cleft into which animals flee when seeing a human being in ChU 1, 9, 7. It does not look like a hole or pit into which human beings let alone horses and chariots may fall. ṚV 2, 27, 5 refers to avoiding such clefts (pári śvábhreva duritā́ni vṛjyām) and Geldner here rightly makes the comparison refer to somebody driving a chariot: “möchte ich die Abwege wie (ein Wagenfahrer) die Spalten vermeiden.”9

However, the compounds kartapatyam and gartapatyam would seem to refer to falling into a pit. JB 2, 11 compares a mistake in the ritual which would create a gap or fissure with kartapatyam translated by Lokesh Chandra (1950, 23, n. 7) with “falling into a hole.” The comparison with making a break for breathing in a recitation is expressed with yathā kartaṁ patet tādṛk tat in JB 1, 139 (Bodewitz 1990, 78 “this would be like falling into a pit”). In PB 16, 1, 9 the omission of a particular rite (before performing an other one) is called a gartapatyam and he who makes this fault jīyate pra vā mīyate (“this is a falling into a pit: he either loses his property or dies prematurely,” tr. Caland, who criticizes the translation of the parallel ŚāṅkhB 16, 9 by Keith). PB 4, 5, 13 calls a particular abrupt transition in the ritual (due to the omission of a Pṛṣṭhya) a kartapraskandam (“it is similar to falling into a pit”). In all these cases no explicit reference to driving a chariot is to be found, but the main point of the comparison is the interruption of a planned course (the ritual as a journey) which is due to a fissure (a gap or omission in the ritual route); so a reference to driving a chariot may be implied.

The problem is formed by the use of the verb pat, which in contrast with dhāv or sar would denote a downward movement provided it should mean “to fall.” The exact meaning of praskand in PB 4, 5, 13 kartapraskanda is also uncertain. It might refer to passing over (the rim or edge of) something and then could refer to a chariot passing at full speed a fissure and crashing. The usual connotation of jumping of the root skand does not suit the falling down in a deep hole.10

The root pat, however, originally hardly denoted falling down in the older Veda. See Hoffmann (1975, 181, n. 6) “pat ‘fliegen’ steht sonst in der älteren Sprache nur selten synonym mit ava pad ‘fallen’, z.B. kartáṁ pat ‘in eine Grube fliegen, stürzen, fallen’ ”; Gotō (1987, 204, n. 404); Kuiper (1991b, 116) “pat … means ‘to fly’, patati ‘falls’, although inherited … is one of the old words that do not occur until the Mahābhārata. There are, however, some exceptions in a less formal style.” These authors refer i.a.11 to AV 4, 12, 7 kartáṁ patitvā́ occurring in a hymn used for healing wounds and fractures. Now the question is who is involved in this “falling into a pit” (Kuiper) and what kind of pit is meant. For somebody who has fallen into a ravine a Vedic charm (“with an herb”) will hardly be adequate. A simple fracture caused by running or driving into a fissure might be meant. It is even possible that (at least in some of the verses of this hymn) a horse instead of a human being forms the injured victim. Bloomfield (1897, 386) more or less rejects this suggestion of Adalbert Kuhn, but we should take into account that the use of the term carman in this hymn hardly points to human beings and that 4, 12, 6 explicitly refers to a chariot.

So we may assume that in connection with horses and chariots and the dangerous fissures in wild terrains the root pat is nearer to dhāvati and sarati than to avapadyate. In several languages verbs meaning “to fly” are used to denote running or driving at full speed. Kuiper also refers to ṚV 6, 4, 5 hrútaḥ pátataḥ parihrút “ ‘catching up with those who fall into a hindrance’ (according to Geldner).” Here again a downward movement (a real fall) does not play a role. If high speed is not essential here, the suddenness of the accident may be expressed (just as in the turn of phrase “to fall in love”).

The fact that an accusative instead of a locative is used in the construction with these verbs might also indicate that the accidence does not imply a falling in a deep, spacious hole (and staying there for the time being), though this is rather uncertain.12 More decisive might be the quotation of a Brāhmaṇa text in Śaṅkara’s Bhāṣya on Vedāntasūtra 1, 3, 30 where it is observed that teaching a Mantra without knowing the seer, the deity or the Brāhmaṇa means that one sthāṇuṁ varcchati gartaṁ vā pratipadyate. Kane (1941, 356) renders “falls on a stump or in a pit.” The sthāṇu is correctly rendered with “stump,” but the falling cannot be taken literally, since instead of avapadyate the verb pratipadyate is used. Here the expressions are not used metaphorically (there is not a yajñasthāṇu), but the result of a mistake is an actual confrontation with a sthāṇu or a garta. There is also no clear connection between the mistake or fault and the accident, at least as far as sthāṇu is concerned. Of course we may have here a general expression for coming to ruin,13 but then there is still no clear implication of going to a hell or underworld.

Does all this imply that words denoting a fissure, pit or hole never refer to hell and underworld and that falling into a gárta or kartá (i.e. a spacious hole, possibly representing the underworld) is always excluded, since in the discussed text places these words denoted a small fissure? I do not think so. Outside the contexts of driving a chariot other connotations of these terms are possible.14

The term śvábhra, which (as seen above) denotes a cleft to be avoided by charioteers in ṚV 2, 27, 5, means hell in post-Vedic texts. In ŚB 5, 2, 3, 2–3 a self-produced hollow (i.e. a hole which was not produced by digging) (íriṇa) and a cleft (śvabhrapradará) are associated with Nirṛti (representing death and underworld). Cf. also ŚB 7, 2, 1, 8. It is evident that clefts or holes may also have further implications than being just obstacles for chariots. In ŚB 11, 2, 3, 815 the śvábhrāḥ and the pradarā́ḥ stand in opposition to a mountain and therefore might be more than just small fissures. See also ŚāṅkhB 26, 1, where, it is true, the cleaving of a metre is treated and one might expect a kartapatyam crash of a chariot in the form of a metaphor or comparison, but the comparison runs: “It is as if from a mountain peak one would fall into a ravine”.16

So the context defines the connotation of hole or fissure; sometimes an obstacle for a chariot or for a sacrifice on its path is meant, sometimes a larger hole or even an abyss. The disaster of a crash with a chariot apparently has no connection with the concept of hell. In metaphors it is associated with ritualistic problems.

For a connection between hell or underworld and a hole one expects a hole in which a human being may fall and stay. On the other hand all kinds of small openings in the earth are associated with an underworld of the Pitṛs.17

The underworld or hell may either be referred to in connection with (sometimes even small) openings in the earth giving entrance to an underworld or with a chasm, ravine or pit in which one may actually fall during lifetime on earth or metaphorically after death.

There are not many indications about falling into such a hole. People may be thrown into it. See AB 8, 11 on robbers throwing a wealthy man into a pit.18 See also ŚB 12, 2, 3, 12 “Such, indeed, are the wilds and ravines of sacrifice … and if any venture into them without knowledge, then hunger or thirst, evil-doers and fiends harass them, even as fiends would harass foolish men wandering in a wild forest” (tr. Eggeling). In ṚV 10, 8. 7 Trita apparently is lying in a hole (vavré antár). Cf. ṚV 1, 106, 6 on Kutsa who was thrown into a hole (kāṭé níbāḷhaḥ).19 There are no indications that Trita and Kutsa were sinners or demons punished by being thrown into such a hole.20

On the other hand, throwing into a hole is often associated with punishment and sometimes the hole may represent some sort of hell or underworld. See ṚV 7, 104, 3 duṣkṛ́to vavré antár … prá vidhyatam, where again vavré antár21 is found. The whole hymn contains some further references to a realm of the dead or hell.22

ṚV 1, 121, 13 mentions some other sorts of sinners (here people who do not sacrifice) and in this connection the term kartá is used: ápi kartám avartayó ’yajyūn “… rolltest du die Opferlosen kopfüber in den Abgrund” (Geldner). It is evident that here Indra does not make people crash with chariots, but kills them. Probably the kartá is not “an abyss” but rather “the abyss,”23 i.e. the underworld or hell. Cf. ṚV 9, 73, 8, where it is said that Soma(?) pushes downwards (áva … vidhyati) the unacceptable who do not observe the religious obligations (ájuṣṭān … avratā́n) in the hole. ṚV 9, 73, 9 expresses the wish that the powerless should fall into the hole (kartám áva padāty áprabhuḥ). There is no reason to assume here a crash with a chariot.24 The wish not to fall into the hole is found in ṚV 2, 29, 6 trā́dhvaṁ no devā nijúro vṛ́kasya trā́dhvaṁ kartā́d avapádo yajatrāḥ “Behütet uns, ihr Götter, vor dem Verschlingen(?) des Wolfes, behütet uns vor dem Fall in die Grube, ihr Verehrungswürdige!” The fact that kartá here occurs together with being eaten by a wolf might indicate that the underworld or hell are meant, since wolves are not especially living in abysses. Cf. the Purūravas hymn ṚV 10, 95, 14–15, where wolves devour a deceased (who has committed suicide).

The meaning of the term kṛntátra is not certain. Probably it denotes a ravine. See ṚV 10, 86, 20 and especially ŚB 12, 2, 3, 12 on the yajñāraṇyā́ni and the yajñakṛntatrā́ni (v.l.), the wilds and the ravines which a long sacrifice finds on its path. Of course the term may also denote a smaller cleft and then a kartapatyam would be meant. Cf. AB 5, 16, 23–24 on the intention of avoiding a cleavage of the Stomas (astomakṛntatrāya), a context reminding of the ritual kartapatyam. On the other hand, the obscure verse ṚV 10, 27, 23 seems to refer to later gods than the first, who came upwards from the (and definitely not a) kṛntátra, which can hardly be interpreted otherwise than as the nether world in this cosmogonic context. So the word for abyss or ravine may also denote the abyss, the underworld.

One may assume that mostly the throwing into a large hole or ravine offers the basis for a metaphor denoting a transfer to hell25 and that the smaller pits symbolize the openings to an underworld which is associated with Pitṛs rather than with sinners. However, this distinction is not always made. See the well-known Uttaṅka-episode of the MBh to which Kuiper (1979, 83) refers: “In the former of the two relevant passages the entrance to the nāgaloka is a ‘wide, big hole’ (vivṛtaṁ mahābilam), in the latter, the serpent … disappears in an anthill, which is the entrance to the nether world. Since the abode of the Asuras under the earth is identical with that of the nāgas … the vivṛtam mahābilam (MBh 1.3.137) and the asuravivara, a term used in classical literature for the entrance to the nether world, are synonyms.”

The terms kartá, gárta etc. which in some Brāhmaṇa passages were shown to denote fissures in the earth dangerous for chariots, refer to larger holes in an older text like the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā and there may even be associated with hell and underworld. We will show that also in Vedic texts later than the ṚV all kinds of holes in the earth symbolize the underworld, even small holes.

The Pitṛs might have been associated with holes in the earth since originally the corpses were buried instead of cremated. Moreover, after the cremation, the bones were buried. If one would assume this connection, the holes should not symbolize an underworld seen as the common realm of the deceased. Holes indeed have been interpreted as graves and these graves as metaphorically denoting death and nothing more by some scholars who deny the early Vedic occurrence of the conception of an underworld. See e.g. Converse (1971, 134) regarding the pit (kartá) into which people do not want to fall as “simply the grave.” As I have observed in the past (Bodewitz 1994, 29; this vol. p. 100), deceased are neither hurled into a grave nor do fall into it. Butzenberger (1996, 61–63) tries to explain away every reference to an underworld or hell in the older portions of the ṚV by associating the holes, pits etc. with particular forms of burying. These words for graves could also metaphorically denote death. For a refutation of Butzenberger’s ideas on rock-graves and of his etymology of kartá, see Bodewitz (1999c, 116, n. 6; this vol. p. 137, n. 6). Since kartá and gárta cannot be proved to be exclusively holes dug by people, the association with graves is unlikely. In our discussion of kartapatyam and gartapatyam it has become clear that the pits belong to the terrain and were not made by human beings. This is not to say that all the pits denoted as gárta are natural pits.

It has to be admitted that the pit dug in order to contain the jar filled with the collected bones is sometimes called a garta.26 This jar, however, is not always buried. It may also be placed at the root of a tree (since such a root is associated with the world of the Pitṛs) or even be thrown into the water. I doubt whether this pit or hole became the technical term denoting the grave. Like every hole it was connected with the underworld, a concept which probably was based on the earlier custom of burial.

At the cremation ritual according to ĀśvGS 4, 4 a pit is dug in which a waterplant is put. The latter seems to represent the subterranean waters. From this pit, the text states, the deceased moves to heaven. The pit forms a remnant of older conceptions of life after death before the introduction of cremation. Two views of life after death seem to have been combined.

Pits in general are associated with the Pitṛs. The placing of the sacrificial post is accompanied with verses from TS 1, 3, 6; e.g. “Pure be the world where the Pitṛs sit” accompanies the pouring of water into the hole in which the post is fixed. Here it is evident that the pit is not associated with the grave of an individual, but represents the world of the deceased (i.e. the underworld).

TS 6, 3, 4, 2 states: “With ‘Thou art the seat of the Pitṛs’ he spreads the strew, for that which has been dug is sacred to the Pitṛs. If he would erect the post without strewing, it would just have been dug and be sacred to the Pitṛs.”

See also ŚB 3, 6, 1, 13 “… for a pit (kū́pa) that is dug is sacred to the Pitṛs”; 3, 6, 1, 14 “… for that part (of the post) which is dug into the earth is sacred to the Pitṛs.” Here the aspect of digging seems to be essential for the association with the Pitṛs and the link might be the grave dug for the deceased, but elsewhere other holes also symbolize the underworld.

ŚB 5, 2, 1, 7 “The post has a hole (gárta) (in which it will be placed)27 and is not pointed at the bottom. For the hole is sacred to the Pitṛs. He thus obtains the world of the Pitṛs.”

ŚB 3, 7, 1, 7 observes that the part of the post which is dug into the ground is sacred to the Pitṛs. Cf. also ŚB 3, 7, 1, 25; MS 3, 9, 4; KS 6, 5. VādhS 4, par. 63 associates the removal of the Asuras from the world of the Pitṛs with that part of the Yūpa which is inserted in the earth.

Not only the portion of the sacrificial post which is below the earth is associated with the Pitṛs. The same applies to that portion of plants which is below the earth, i.e. the roots. See ŚB 13, 8, 1, 15 and 20. This is especially the case with the sacred grass which is cut off near the root. The root-part is dedicated to the Pitṛs (ŚB 2, 4, 2, 17, in the context of ancestor worship).

Digging too deep in the construction of the sacrificial altar is associated with the Pitṛs (TS 2, 6, 4, 2).

Holes in the earth are not only connected with the Pitṛs but also with hell and destruction. Thus TS 5, 2, 4, 3 states that a self-made (i.e. a naturally produced) hole or cleft is the abode of Nirṛti. ŚB 5, 2, 3, 2–3 deals with the same subject. Cf. also TS 2, 5, 1, 3.

According to MS 3, 8, 4, someone who has rivals should use a sacrificial place before which a hole or pit is found (átha yásya devayájanasya … purástād íriṇaṁ28 vā kartó vā bhrā́tṛvyavān yajeta). The implication is clear. The rivals should be thrown into this hole. It is perfectly clear here that the kartá has nothing to do with graves and represents the underworld or hell.

The terms gartamít and garteṣṭhā́ have been erroneously associated with actual graves instead of with the world of the Pitṛs in some translations and dictionaries. There are two different contexts involved.

The first concerns one stake or pole, the second more than one. In the first case the insertion of the pole into a hole (made before) plays a role. ĀpŚS 7, 9, 8 prescribes that the “unbearbeitete untere Teil, wenn später der Pfahl eingesenkt werden wird, unsichtbar sein wird” (Caland). In a note Caland refers to MS 3, 9, 4: 3.118.7 yád úparasyāviḥ kuryā́d garteṣṭhā́ḥ syāt pramā́yuko yájamāno, which he translates with “Wenn er (einen Teil) des Upara sichtbar machte, so würde er (n.l. der Pfahl) in einem Grabe stehen und der Opferveranstalter würde vor seiner Zeit sterben.” He also observes that instead of garteṣṭhā́ḥ syāt KS 26, 6: 2.128.14 has gartamít syāt and that elsewhere (KS 25, 10: 2.118.5) gartamít corresponds to pitṛdevatyà in the TS. So it is evident that a gárta is associated with Pitṛs, but one may doubt whether gárta itself means “grave” (Caland “Grab”). Is it self-evident that a term denoting a hole right away refers to the grave and this in a society where cremation had become the rule? In a note on the next Sūtra (ĀpŚS 7, 9, 10), in which bestrewing the hole with grass is prescribed, Caland observes: “Die Grube wird mit Gras bestreut, weil die einfache Grube (ursprünglich als Grab) den Vätern (d.h. den Toten) zukommt.” Here the hole is interpreted as a reminiscence of the grave. However, there is no indication that gárta originally meant “grave” and that later on all kinds of holes became associated with graves because the hole par excellence used to be the grave in the past.

One may also compare ŚB 3, 6, 1, 18, where the fixing of the Udumbara pole in (a hole in) the earth is treated. By pressing the earth around the pole in such a way that the earth in the hole becomes level with the surrounding ground one achieves that the pole is ágartamit.29 The implications are the same as discussed above. Not making visible the lower part of the pole (which like every lower part inserted in the earth symbolizes the Pitṛs and their world) obscures the association with Pitṛs and the underworld. Moreover one avoids making visible the lower part of the pole by leveling the earth around it. In this way the original hole (like every hole in the earth symbolizing the world of the Pitṛs) becomes invisible and the pole is no more (visibly) standing in a gárta (hole) or in the gárta (the underworld). The BR does not realize the identity of gartamít and garteṣṭhā́ as appears from the translation “in eine Grube versenkt” and “in der Grube d.i. im Grabe befindlich.”

The second case refers to eleven poles which by their arrangement seem to form a gárta. See Caland’s translation of TS 6, 6, 4, 2 (in a note on ĀpŚS 14, 6, 7): “Wem er wünscht, dass er vor der Zeit sterbe, für den richte er die Elfzahl der Pfähle so auf, dass sie ein Loch herstellt.” Keith translates: “… he should set it up for him in a grave fashion” and observes: “gartamítam does not mean ‘in eine Grube versenkt’ as taken in the Petr. Lexx., but is clearly a noun, and the construction is that of a cognate accusative.” The criticism of the BR rendering is correct insofar as in the present context it is unsuitable. However, I agree with Caland here in taking gárta as a hole rather than as a grave. The eleven poles create a hole (be it above instead of in the earth) and since every hole, pit or fence was associated with the underworld, one thus produces future death for the enemy.

The adjective gartya occurring in ŚāṅkhB 10, 2 may give some information on the relation between the Pitṛs and the gárta. Three types of trees to be used for the sacrificial pole are described. These three correspond with three worlds: the heavenly one (which suits best), the one connected with human beings (an option) and the one which is called gartya (and is rejected). The order is clearly gods, human beings, Pitṛs30 (since the Pitṛs as a totality are associated with the gárta). The gartya tree has its rind downwards. Keith translates the adjective with “fitted for a hole” and MW’s dictionary with “deserving to be thrown into a hole.” This does not make sense. In the succession heaven (world of gods), world of men, world below this, the last item (denoting the world of the Pitṛs) is gartya: “associated with the gárta, the underworld.” The association is not based on digging, but only on the downward movement; therefore “associated with the grave” does not make much sense. Moreover, the context requires the assumption of a complete world rather than of the grave of an individual.

We have to conclude that all kinds of references to pits, holes, chasms, abysses etc. should be interpreted in the context of a general idea about the Vedic underworld. It has been shown in this article that not all pits and holes suit this picture of the Vedic view of life after death. Sometimes the pits represent causes for accidents in actual life and metaphorical pitfalls in the performance of Vedic ritual. There are also references to holes and abysses into which people may be thrown. Sometimes these may be interpreted as references to hell or at least an underworld. Moreover, every kind of fissure in the earth may represent an entrance to a world below the earth. Whether a hole forms a symbol of the underworld into which one is thrown or of an entrance to a subterranean realm, so much is clear that the concept of an undivided underworld and of a hell forming the ultimate destination of sinners and enemies can be supported by the material of the texts.

In this article I have only treated the pits and holes. Other concepts like a place which is dark, down or far away, i.e. the opposite of the world of light hoped for and promised in the texts dominated by the solemn rituals, will be treated elsewhere. I have shown already in the past (Bodewitz 1994; this vol. ch. 8 and 1999c; this vol. ch. 11) that in the oldest Vedic texts (the Ṛgveda and Atharvaveda Saṁhitās) the underworld was the most original concept (just as in other cultures) and that it was continued in the Atharvaveda.

In post-Vedic literature hell and the underworld of the Pitṛs are amply testified. The fact that the literature between the mentioned oldest Vedic texts and the post-Vedic literature is mainly focused on life after death in heaven is easily explained. These texts were mainly interested in the highest goal (not obtainable for everybody). The references to an underworld for most people (i.e. for some Pitṛs) have to be gleaned from a material which aimed at other destinies. Still, it is clear that the world of the Pitṛs was not exclusively located in heaven.31

Seeing that the underworld was not only represented in the oldest Vedic literature but also in related ancient cultures, and that the post-Vedic literature clearly and elaborately shows this concept one may safely conclude that the stray references to it in the Vedic prose texts between the Saṁhitās and the post-Vedic literature form traces of an undercurrent which had never dried up. How would it be possible to explain the post-Vedic references to an underworld otherwise? How could the Pitṛloka of the Brāhmaṇas, which was almost described as a dependance to the hotel of the gods, have become degraded to a subterranean place? Such a development does not convince, the more so since, as observed already, the concept of an underworld generally precedes that of a world in heaven for the mortals. Therefore I assume that the places where a hole, pit, chasm etc. are mentioned, provided they do not concern actual holes on earth or pitfalls in the esoteric interpretations of Vedic ritual, should refer to the undivided underworld or to the hell of sinners. They cannot be explained by assuming references to graves (since burial did not form the prevailing funeral custom anymore) or to the pits in which the bones were sometimes buried after cremation. Such holes were not representative for the collective world of the Pitṛs. The Pitṛs hanging in a garta in the story of Jaratkāru in the MBh were not hanging in a family grave. Already in the Veda gárta represented the underworld.

First published in Indo-Iranian Journal 42, 1999, pp. 211–226.

E.g. bila and śvabhra in post-Vedic literature and perhaps kartá, gárta, kṛntátra, kāṭá, párśāna and vavrá in the Veda. The term bíla denotes the cave of Vala (ṚV 1, 11, 5) and of Vṛtra (ṚV 1, 32, 11), i.e. the nether world, which is opened by Indra.

See e.g. Nirukta 1, 11 narakaṁ pat; BhG 16, 16 patanti narake ’śucau; BhāgP 5, 6, 11 tamasy andhe … prapatiṣyanti; Manu 11, 36 narake … patanti. Already JB 1, 325 uses the root pat in connection with hell: atho trayas sāmnas svargās trayo nārakāḥ. prastute purādes sa nārakaḥ. tad dviṣantaṁ bhrātṛvyaṁ pātayitvādis svargo lokaḥ. tasmin ātmānaṁ dadhyāt “There are also three heavens and three hells of the Sāman. The moment after the Prastāva and before the beginning (Ādi), that is a hell. Having made fall one’s hating rival there the beginning is heaven for him. Therein he places himself.”

E.g. in the case of the patita.

The conception of the underworld regarded as a hole need not be based on a Vedic metaphor. See van Baaren (1987, 118, in connection with the general belief in an underworld): “The idea of a deep hole in the ground or a cave is also widespread.”

Butzenberger 1996, 62 even translates vavrá with “pitfall,” though no falling is mentioned in the context and a metaphorical pitfall does not play a role. The translation by Keith of ŚāṅkhB 16, 9 “… prepares for himself a pitfall” is criticized by Caland in a note on his translation of PB 16, 1, 2.

See Plato, Theaetetus 174a. MBh 2, 28, 18 (garte mattaḥ prapatati pramattaḥ sthāṇum ṛcchati) indeed makes the topic of garta + sthāṇu refer to unconcentrated people falling into pits and bumping against trees. Older translations and commentaries have misunderstood this sentence (e.g. by interpreting garta as “hell”). Van Buitenen correctly renders “A drunk falls into a hole, a distracted man walks into a tree trunk.” It is evident that the MBh no more understood the original meaning of the disaster produced by gartas and sthāṇus.

BĀU 4, 3, 20 refers to falling into a ravine as something which one sees in a dream (a nightmare) (gartam iva patati). The possibility of an actual fall into a ravine, be it occurring in a comparison with a ritualistic detail, is found in ŚāṅkhB 11, 4 (cf. GB 2, 3, 11), where “mounting without falling into a garta” is mentioned. The opposition between mounting and falling would seem to be between mountains and ravines. Since, however, this mounting is described as heavenly the falling into a ravine might be regarded as entering the underworld or hell.

In MNU 200 an acrobat walks over a sword laid over a cleft (karta). Such a cleft, fissure or hole must be smaller than a ravine and broader than a small fissure in the earth. In ŚāṅkhB 11, 4 someone passes a pit (karta) by means of a beam. Obviously the context determines the width of the gap, hole or fissure.

Cf. ṚV 8, 47, 5 pári ṇo vṛṇajann aghā́ durgā́ṇi rathyó yathā “Uns sollen die Übel meiden wie Wagenlenker die schlimmen Wege” (tr. Geldner).

The compound agartaskandya (ŚāṅkhB 11, 4; see n. 7) is translated with “not having holes to be lept over” by MW’s dictionary, which may be correct.

The compounded verb pra-pat might mean “to fall down.” However, in ṚV 10, 95, 14 (the hymn dealing with Purūravas and Urvaśī) prapátet has been variously interpreted. Most translators take pra-pat here as “to run away.” However, when your wife has actually run away, it is useless to threaten with running off yourself. In ŚB 11, 5, 1, 8 (where the same motif is treated and some verses from the ṚV are quoted) Eggeling renders with “to rush away,” but in a note he observes: “Or, will fall down” (referring here to translations by Max Müller, Weber and others). In this context Purūravas neither threatens to run away (useless) nor to fall down. His threat is committing a suicide by throwing himself down. Thus it is also interpreted by the ŚB. See also KathāSS 9, 61 prapātābhimukhī “inclined to precipitate one’s self from a rock.” The mentioned scholars do not refer to JB 1, 325 pātayati (see n. 2).

See n. 7, where gartam (acc.) obviously denotes a ravine.

Cf. Caland’s translation of AV 1, 20, 1 ádārasṛd bhavatu quoted in ĀpŚS 2, 20, 6: “Wir sollen … nicht in eine Spalte (d.h. ins Unglück) geraten.”

The term kāṭá, which seems to denote the same as kartá and gárta, also creates confusion about its exact meaning. See Mahīdhara’s commentary on VS 16, 37 and 16, 44 in which it is interpreted as viṣamamārga (i.e. a path with fissures and other bumpinesses) and as resp. a durgāraṇyadeśa (a part of the wilderness in which travelling is difficult) or a kūpa (a pit, hole).

“Now, wherever (in the ritual) they (i.e. the primeval seers) had done too much, it (i.e. the sacrifice) was as it were a mountain; and wherever they had done too little, it was as it were chasms and clefts.” Eggeling simply translates the asyndetic plurals with “pit.” It is clear that here again (just like in the case of kartá, gárta and dāra) a gap in the ritual continuity might be meant. ŚB 11, 2, 3, 9 also expresses the wish that the sacrifice may complete its course (i.e. have no accident in the form of a kartapatyam?).

Henseler (1928, 143) denotes kartá as “l’ abîme” in his discussion of the Vedic concept of hell.

Gonda (1965b, 121) observes that ants are chthonic animals and hence related to the deceased. They create openings to the nether world. See also Krick (1982, 133) on fissures associated with Nirṛti. Krick emphasizes the salty aspect, but I would draw attention to the fact that rents, fissures and holes play a role. She observes on moles (p. 134): “Der Maulwurfshaufen bildet einen Zugang zum Totenreich.” See also Kuiper (1979, 83 f.) on the Uttaṅka-episod in the MBh where the anthill likewise gives an entrance to the nether world. According to MS 3, 14, 19 the mole is offered to the Pitṛs.

yathā ha vā idaṁ niṣadā vā selagā vā pāpakṛto vā vittavantam puruṣam araṇye gṛhītvā kartam anvasya vittam ādāya dravanty evam eva ta ṛtvijo yajamānaṁ kartam anvasya vittam ādāya dravanti yam evaṁvido yājayanti.

In AV 12, 4, 3, giving a lame cow to a Brahmin results in tumbling into a kāṭá. See Bodewitz (1999c, 110; this vol. p. 139), where it is assumed that the term denotes hell since falling into the nā́raka loká occurs in 12, 4, 36. However, the verb ard used in 12, 4, 3 has a rather specific meaning and does not just mean “to fall” (see Gotō 1987, 103). The lameness of the given cow may correspond to the tumbling of the giver who tumbles into a pit (or the pit?) like a lame man or becomes lame by falling into a pit.

In JB 1, 184 Trita is left by his brothers in a well (kūpa) and his brothers leave with all the cattle. See also Geldner’s introduction to ṚV 1, 105 for further references. In ṚV 1, 105, 17 (just as in JB 1, 184) Trita is in a well (into which he seems to have been thrown: kū́pé ’vahito) rather than in a hole (as in ṚV 10, 8, 7). In the Trita and Kutsa stories myth and storytelling seem to have been mixed up.

ṚV 4, 1, 13 and 5, 31, 3 use vavré antár in connection with the Vala myth. This shows that the vavrá may be a rather large cave. In these two text places the cave represents the subterranean world from which light is obtained in the myth and received in daily life.

See Bodewitz (1994, 30; this vol. p. 101 f.) and (1999c, 110; this vol. p. 139) on the parallel AV 8, 4. Butzenberger (1996, 61–63) assumes that the vavrá would denote the grave or metaphorically death, but vavrā́m̐ anantā́m̐ áva sā́ padīṣṭa (ṚV 7, 104, 17) clearly shows that such an interpretation is excluded, since graves are not endless. In 7, 104, 5 the Atrins are thrown down (ni-vidh) in a or the párśāna, a term which likewise may denote a cave.

Caland renders JB 3, 247 na vai dāre ’sṛnma with “Wir sind nicht in die Spalte geraten” in his Auswahl (1919, 285 f.) and with “We have not fallen into the pit” in a note on his translation (1931) of PB 15, 3, 7. The use of the definite article may be accidental, since he translates the PB version with “in a pit” and further on in the JB version he writes “Er besiegt und erschlägt seinen feindlichen Nebenbuhler, er lässt seinen Nebenbuhler in eine Spalte geraten, er selbst gerät nicht in die Spalte.” It is uncertain, however, whether dāra (as we have assumed above) here can only refer to a dangerous fissure in the terrain. The issue is a battle in which the loser will definitely die. So getting into a dāra may be a metaphor for dying. Would this extermination be expressed with “incurring heavy damage”? And would vijayate hanti dviṣantaṁ bhrātṛvyaṁ dāre dviṣantaṁ bhrātṛvyaṁ sārayati really mean “Er besiegt und erschlägt seinen feindlichen Nebenbuhler, er lässt seinen Nebenbuhler in eine Spalte geraten”? The other instances of being confronted with pitfalls discussed above did not necessarily refer to fatal accidents (in actual practice or in the metaphor). The compound adārasṛt is also found in AV 1, 20, 1 (where it is mostly incorrectly translated) and the relevant verse (used in a ritual against an enemy) is quoted by ĀpŚS 2, 20, 6 (translated by Caland with “Wir wollen, o Gott Soma, nicht in eine Spalte (d.h. ins Unglück) geraten”). The dāra may be the underworld, the destiny of the deceased.

Geldner makes this obscure hymn refer exclusively to the art of making poetry. In 9, 73, 6 the duṣkṛ́taḥ then would be “die Stümper” (the poor poets or singers) who fail to reach the finish in a race (pánthāṁ ná taranti) and according to him the same image would be found in 9, 73, 9. Perhaps he interprets kartám áva pad as a kartapatyam. However, as we have shown above, there is a great difference between pat and ava-pat. Moreover, I doubt whether the duṣkṛ́tas may be interpreted as weak poets. Even Gonda (1966, 127) has some doubts in spite of the fact that he tried to interpret sukṛta and duṣkṛta as the correct and wrong performance of a ritual (for a criticism see Bodewitz 1993b, 70 ff.; this vol. p. 173 ff.).

Kane (1953, 154 f.) observes that “the sages of the Ṛgveda had some faint glimmerings of (or belief in) the idea of a dark deep pit below the earth to which wicked people were relegated by the gods” and in this connection he refers to some of the text places discussed above.

See, e.g., BPiS 1, 12 (Śrautakośa 1958, 810 emending Caland’s text); 3, 10; ĀśvGS 4, 5, 6.

Eggeling’s translation “The post has a hollow (at the top), and is not pointed at the end” is rather odd.

Falk (1986, 79) and Krick (1982, 133) emphasize the salty aspect of the íriṇa but in my view the fissure or hole is essential.

Eggeling’s translation of this passage is unsatisfactory, especially his reference to “an (ordinary) hole (round trees for watering).” He translates ágartamit with “and thus it is not planted in an (ordinary) hole.”

See Kuiper (1979, 12 f.) and cf. TS 6, 6, 4, 1; MS 4, 7, 9; ŚB 3, 7, 1, 25; ĀpŚS 14, 6, 10.

In previous publications I have drawn attention to the fact that earlier views on life after death in a Vedic underworld or hell were mainly neglected, overseen or rejected in the last seventy years. It is fair to state here that at least Horsch (1971, 111, n. 15d) realised the implications: “Die Welt der Väter (pitṛloká) wird mehrfach erwähnt: sie liegt unter der Welt der Menschen und Götter, ist also unterirdisch.” See also p. 110, n. 15c, “Alte gegensätzliche Anschauungen über Yama’s Reich im Jenseits kommen immer wieder zum Durchbruck.”

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Vedic Cosmology and Ethics

Selected Studies


Table of Contents

Index Card


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