The Waters in Vedic Cosmic Classifications

in Vedic Cosmology and Ethics
Open Access

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According to most publications the Vedic conceptions of the cosmos are either bipartite (heaven and earth) or tripartite (i.e. including the intermediate world).1 Actually the difference between the two is not fundamental. The threefoldness is based on a preference for triadic series2 and seems to form an amplification of the bipartition.3 In some texts we also find a sevenfold universe.

The cosmographical dualism of earth and heaven does not seem to belong to a more extensive structure. However, there is a different dualism, already noticed by Kirfel (1920, p. 13* f.), of upper world and underworld. Whether Kuiper’s view (1979, 5) that this dualism is based on the two moieties of the tribal organization, is correct, is difficult to prove or to disprove. It is a fact, at least, that this dualism fits into a larger structure of binary oppositions: Asuras-Devas, chaos-cosmos, non-Aryans-Aryans, night-day, darkness-light, evil-good.4

Indeed, heaven and earth, too, form a dualism non-existent before the cosmogony which differentiated light and darkness. However, the basic opposition in the structure is between positive and negative and in this connection the subterranean underworld rather than earth itself forms an antithesis to the light of heaven. This means that the real dualism concerns either underworld (the abode of the Asuras) and heaven (the world of the Devas) or underworld and the tripartite universe as a totality. The latter bipartition may also be formulated as a quadripartition in which one fourth lies outside the cosmos.

Most of the texts mention the tripartition only. Their concern is cosmos rather than chaos, day-time rather than night-time, cosmology rather than cosmogony. Sometimes the tripartite classification is extended to a fourfold or even fivefold division, e.g. due to the fact that the cosmic classification is combined with a different, fourfold5 or fivefold one. This extension of the tripartition also plays a role in the current horizontal classifications of the quarters of space.6 The classification of the quarters and the cosmic classification discussed in the present paper seem to agree in this respect.7

Now the problem is that the cosmic triad forms a totality of three superposed levels, above which there seems to be no room for something else. The contents of the fourth or fifth item in these classifications are the subject of this paper.

Sometimes the regions (diśaḥ) form the fourth item.8 The fourth element often represents something that on the one hand is added to a threefold totality and on the other hand includes the three preceding items.9 This may refer to the Viśve Devas (the All-gods after Vasus, Rudras and Ādityas, but at the same time “all the gods”) or to the Anuṣṭubh, which is a separate metre after Gāyatrī, Triṣṭubh and Jagatī, but does not add a number of syllables in each Pāda and is regarded as the totality of these metres.10 In fact the regions also belong to all the elements of the tripartite universe. They are spatial totality.11 In some classifications totality is implicitly or even explicitly mentioned in connection with the fourth item.12

The cosmic tripartition is mostly associated with three gods or natural phenomena: Agni (fire), Vāyu (wind) and Āditya (sun). In the fourfold classification the fourth deity is the moon. The moon, however, is not situated above the sun, but alternates with it. Here the originally spatial classification does not work anymore. The world of the moon is night13 rather than a particular space in the cosmos. Actually night is the fourth element of the quadripartition, which lies outside the cosmos and as such is comparable to the underworld.

Now it is interesting to note that in some passages the sphere or world associated with the moon is the waters.14 Sometimes Soma plays a role in fourth position. Here Lüders’ views should be mentioned. As is well known, he assumed a celestial ocean. His rather positivistic approach made him believe that the fourth classificatory item, the waters, should be lying above the third.15 In his view the following data of the Brāhmaṇas are based on later developments:

  • celestial waters above heaven instead of in heaven;16
  • the identity of Soma and moon;17
  • waters under the earth.18

I have some doubts about his views and especially object to his one-sidedly cosmographical approach in which the nocturnal aspect, which has mythological rather than cosmographical implications, does not receive due attention. Moreover, classifications of the Brāhmaṇas are not to be interpreted as cosmographical stratifications.

Some scholars have completely accepted Lüders’ views, others have expressed criticism (without entirely denying the existence of celestial or supercelestial waters) and Kuiper regards the celestial ocean as mythologically identical with the subterranean waters during the night-time, in which the whole situation is reversed and Varuṇa resides in heaven among the waters at the roots of the inverted cosmic tree.19 It may be true that some references to celestial waters do not seem to fit into this structure, since the nocturnal implication is missing.20 However, more than one conception may have existed side by side. Therefore, it is useful to study the nocturnal associations of the celestial waters in the classifications and to try to find indications about possible connections with the subterranean waters, which continue the primeval waters of chaos.21

The tripartite cosmos is only in evidence during the day-time. At night the sun, the representative of cosmos, returns to chaos and disappears in the nether world in order to return at daybreak, the cyclical repetition of cosmogony.

Lüders did not fail to observe that the sun disappears in the waters or ocean at night.22 In his view, however, this ocean was permanently in or above heaven, in accordance with his cosmographical approach. At the end of his life he seems to have connected this celestial ocean with the Vṛtra and Vala myths and to have realized the cosmogonic aspects of these myths.23 However, it is hardly conceivable that a celestial ocean should form the starting point of a cosmogony that has to produce heaven as its result.24

Moreover, the association of moon and waters would be rather obscure, if these waters should have cosmographical rather than mythological implications. If, however, these waters represent the primeval waters, night is a return to the chaos before cosmos.

The equation of celestial ocean, nocturnal sky and primeval waters or chaos excellently fits into the fourfold structure in which the fourth element represents totality as well as indistinctness.25 The undifferentiated state, the asat situation26 existing before the sat of cosmos, represents the totality of the universe, the pre-cosmic situation which returns at night, something different from the cosmic triad, but at the same time covering this whole universe.

We also meet with fivefold cosmic classifications. These are mostly based on a bipartition of the fourth item of the fourfold classification. In an equation with the five prāṇas the triad is amplified with the regions (i.e. spatial totality) as well as with the moon (as fifth item) in BĀU 1, 3, 12 ff. The fivefold Sāman produces fivefoldness out of fourfoldness in ChU 2, 17, 1: earth—atmosphere—sky—regions—ocean. Instead of differentiating totality and the nocturnal situation (the waters) the same text (2, 20, 1) makes a differentiation in the nocturnal situation itself in order to agree with the fivefoldness of the Sāman: Agni—Vāyu—Āditya—Nakṣatrāṇi—Candramās.27

ṢaḍvB 2, 1, 10 ff. differentiates the aspect of totality in order to produce fivefoldness out of fourfoldness: fourth = Anuṣṭubh—Prajāpati—sarvam; fifth = Paṅkti—Soma—regions. Moreover, moon and regions are associated, for Soma definitely means moon here.

TU 1, 7 splits up and intertwines totality and the nocturnal situation. Regions and the moon form the fourth, intermediate regions and the stars the fifth item.

As a precursor of the seven well-known worlds28 of later times (bhūr-, bhuvar-, svar-, mahar-, janar-, tapo- and satyaloka) ŚāṅkhB 20, 1 mentions the following seven worlds, named after the corresponding gods: Agni,29 Vāyu, Indra, Varuṇa (4),30 Mṛtyu (5), Brahman and as seventh the Nāka (the vault of heaven). The parallel JB 1, 333 ff. enumerates Agni, Vāyu, Āditya, Varuṇa (4), Mṛtyu (5), Aśanāyā (Hunger, 6), and Brahman. Cf. also JB 3, 341 ff.: Agni, Vāyu, Candramās, Āditya,31 Varuṇa (5), Mṛtyu (6), Aśanāyā (7), Kāma (8), Suvar, and Nāka.

It is obvious that the sevenfold distribution of these passages (with some corruptions, changes and additions) is based on three elements: a) the cosmic triad; b) the world of Varuṇa, i.e. the waters as the fourth item of the classifications discussed above, here differentiated in order to obtain sevenfoldness: nocturnal waters, moon, death and its most well-known representative: hunger; c) release from repeated dying, the world of Brahman, which transcends the day-situation (1–3) and the night-situation (4–6) and means eternity. It is significant that JB 3, 341 ff. places Kāma together with Hunger and Death in the sphere of non-release below Suvar and Nāka (= Brahman, or Brahman and Nāka, in the other versions).

In this classification the threefoldly differentiated fourth position (Varuṇa, Death, Hunger) does not refer to spatial totality. In fact, Brahman is the absolute totality here. The nocturnal aspect and the waters are represented by Varuṇa.32 The main emphasis falls on death,33 the aspect of the nether world. Again spatial superposition hardly plays a role.

The moon is also frequently associated with death.34 This may refer to the nocturnal situation and the underworld rather than to the fact that the moon as a celestial body should be the abode of the deceased. ChU 4, 12, 1 connects the Anvāhāryapacana fire (i.e. the Dakṣiṇāgni, the symbol of nether world and death) with waters, regions, stars and moon, i.e. with the fourth classificatory item. AB 3, 15 equates the Anuṣṭubh, the fourth item, with the paramā parāvat, which elsewhere is also associated with death and underworld.35 This Anuṣṭubh is also equated with the waters (ŚāṅkhB 24, 4), with the night (AB 4, 6) and with Varuṇa (TB 1, 7, 10, 4) and at the same time with satyānṛta. Cf. ŚB 7, 4, 1, 6 (ā́pas = satyám) and ŚāṅkhB 3, 1 (the moon is devasatyam). So death, night, moon, waters, Varuṇa and ṛta/satyam belong together in fourth position.36

Finally I would discuss a passage in ṢaḍvB and JB, which may shed some light on the connection between the fourth position and the subterranean waters. It deals with the Dhurs, particular modifications applied in the singing of the first six Gāyatrī verses of the Out-of-doors laud (Bahiṣpavamāna). The first verse is the so-called Retasyā (the verse of seed); the second and following are so modified as to become a Gāyatrī, Triṣṭubh, Jagatī, etc. The text correlates metres, cosmic entities and vital powers.

ṢaḍvB 2, 1, 9–30 has the following fivefold distribution (after the Retasyā):



– Agni

– earth



– Indra

– atmosphere



– Sūrya

– heaven



– Prajāpati

idaṁ sarvam



– Soma

– regions and seasons37

With regard to the vital powers the cosmic triad is associated with prāṇāpāna (1), cakṣus (2) and śrotram (3) and at first the fourth and fifth items are left out of account. Later on (ṢaḍvB 2, 2, 8–13) vāc38 and samānodāna are included as fourth and fifth. In this way five metres are equated with four vital powers (prāṇa being differentiated into four airs). The point is that the Retasyā verse, which stands outside the usual classification and here precedes the Gāyatrī, had to be included. This Retasyā now became associated with the usual fifth vital power: manas. The latter is elsewhere equated with the moon39 and Prajāpati, with waters and totality or indistinctness, i.e. with the nocturnal situation and totality, the symbols of the fourth or fifth position in the classifications.

The Retasyā verse, the first verse, is not only connected with manas, but also with Prajāpati and idaṁ sarvam by ṢaḍvB. This means that the position before and under the Gāyatrī, under Agni and under the earth, i.e. the underworld, symbolized by the Retasyā, is put on a level with the fourth position of the usual classifications by ṢaḍvB. Both Retasyā and Anuṣṭubh represent Prajāpati and idaṁ sarvam, i.e. totality, here. Subterranean sphere and the fourth position (in this passage only implying totality) seem to be interchangeable.

The parallel JB 1, 102 equates four vital powers with four metres and four cosmic spheres. The fifth metre, the Paṅkti, is not associatied with a vital power; the equation of Retasyā and manas, to be expected on account of ṢaḍvB, is missing. However, JB 1, 270, dealing with the same subject, mentions all the five vital powers. Here, indeed, manas becomes associated with the Retasyā. Now it is interesting that its corresponding cosmic sphere is the waters, which here replace idaṁ sarvam of the ṢaḍvB.

Combining the data of ṢaḍvB and JB we may, therefore, notice that subterranean waters, totality and the nocturnal situation of the fourth position belong together. If this particular distribution in which the items under and above the triad are connected, is not due to the particular arrangement of the Dhur verses, this may support the theory of the cosmic reversal during the night, in which the subterranean waters represent the nocturnal sky. The fact that the primordial chaos and its continuation, the subterranean waters, as well as the fourth, classificatory position, are connected with the aspect of totality, seems to speak in favour of this supposition.

*First published in Indologica Taurinensia 10, 1982, pp. 45–54.
1The classifications discussed in this paper have no relation with the four quarters or regions and the centre (zenith and nadir). They are vertical rather than horizontal, but on the other hand they also have non-spatial implications.
2I agree with Gonda (1976, 50) that the cosmic tripartition is not based on a tripartite social structure. Kuiper (1979, 47) observes: “For the present the true meaning of this remarkable tripartition must remain an open question.” See, however, also Gonda (1974b, 6) on the number three regarded as “the higher synthesizing unity of which two other entities are parts or individual aspects.” See further Gonda (1976, 8 and 49 f.).
3This world and yonder world are complementary as a “dualité unité.” Gonda (1974a, 28–32) does not connect this dualism with a hypothetical dual organization of the ancient Indian social or political units. See also Gonda (1970, 145, n. 56).
4Kuiper (1970, 105).
5See Organ (1973) who deals with the extension of tripartition to quadripartition in general and is rather speculative and confused. His “four hypotheses to account for the introduction of a fourth to an original three,” namely expansion, transcendence, integration and polarization (10 ff.) do not convince in all respects. Gonda (1976, 119) observes: “It is therefore clear that those cases in which a triad is either amplified or related to a whole consisting of four parts, those cases in short, in which mention is made of a fourth, should not be put on a par. The fourth can be interpreted in various ways and its relation with the three can vary with the context.”
6See Kuiper (1979, 47) on “the question how this tripartite system was fitted into the normal quadripartite system of classification, which turns clockwise from the East to the North. … The problem of finding a fourth group for the North has been solved in different ways, which will be discussed below.” See also p. 49: “If the poet gives a quadripartite classification, the fourth is either Bṛhaspati with the ‘singers’ (= Aṅgirasas) or Tvaṣṭṛ … this complementation of the triad was due to the need of adapting it to the cosmic classification …” It should be observed here that “cosmic classification” in Kuiper’s terminology means the classification of the quarters. See further p. 52: “The problem of how to extend this system by a fourth group is solved in different ways, depending on whether a fifth group is added for the centre or not.”
7See Kuiper (1979, 34 f.) commenting on ŚB 1, 2, 4, 8–11: “In these words we find an awareness of the existence of a world beyond the world of order, a world of disorder and formless Chaos, over which gods and men had no control.” The mentioned passage obviously forms a combination of the classification of the quarters with the cosmic classification of the worlds. See also Gonda (1976, 120) on this passage in connection with the cosmic fourth.
8E.g. TS 4, 2, 1, 2; ŚB 6, 5, 2, 6 (see Gonda 1976, 117); ŚB 6, 1, 2, 10 (see Kuiper 1979, 51, n. 163); ChU 3, 18, 2 (where the usual association of the quarters and śrotram is found).
9Bodewitz (1973, 87, n. 26); Gonda (1976, 8; 115 ff.); Kuiper (1979, 34–35).
10See Bodewitz (1973, 87 f.). JB 1, 238 ff. connects the Anuṣṭubh with representatives of totality such as Prajāpati and the Viśve Devas. See also PB 4, 5, 7 and 4, 8, 9 (Anuṣṭubh = Prajāpati). According to ŚāṅkhB 15, 2 and 16, 3 the Anuṣṭubh is the metre of Soma, the typical representative of the fourth position in cosmic classifications. PB 11, 5, 17 calls the Anuṣṭubh the womb of the metres. It may be observed here that according to the Brāhmaṇas the night is likewise a yoni into which the whole cosmos disappears at the end of the day and out of which it is reborn the next day. This yoni aspect of the fourth item in the classifications should be kept in mind in the following discussion of the fourth world.
11Kuiper (1979, 51, n. 163).
12In GB 1, 5, 15 the fourth item is equated with sarvam. The waters as the fourth item are not only associated with the All-gods (Viśve Devas), but also with all the gods: sárve devā́ḥ (ŚB 10, 5, 4, 14), sárvā devátāḥ (AB 2, 16; TB 3, 2, 4, 3; 3, 3, 4, 5; 3, 7, 3, 4; 3, 9, 7, 5; ŚāṅkhB 11, 4) and even with sárve kā́māḥ (ŚB 10, 5, 4, 15).
13AB 4, 6 connects the Anuṣṭubh (i.e. the fourth item) with the night.
14TB 1, 7, 6, 3 (candrá = ā́paḥ); GB 1, 5, 15 (candramāḥ = āpaḥ). The waters as fourth item may also appear as rain. See PB 12, 8, 8 (Anuṣṭubh = rain) where Caland’s note on his translation is not satisfactory. See further ŚāṅkhB 24, 4 (āpo vai anuṣṭubh); 18, 2 (asti vai caturtho devaloka āpaḥ); ŚB 4, 4, 5, 21 (ā́po hy ètásya [sc. sómasya] lokáḥ); ChU 4, 6, 3 (earth—atmosphere—heaven—samudra).
15Lüders (1951, 273): “Ist aber der Himmel die dritte Stätte, so muß die vierte Stätte, der samudrá, noch höher sein als der Himmel.” In Lüders’ view Sāyaṇa is wrong in interpreting the fourth place as cāndramasaṁ sthānam, because he was “von der späteren Auffassung des Soma befangen.” This refers to ṚV 9, 96, 19. See also p. 274: “Die Reihenfolge: Erde, Luftraum, Himmel, Somawelt läßt keinen Zweifel darüber—daß die letzte als die höchste gilt.”
16Lüders (1951, 127): “das Meer im Himmel wurde über den Himmel verlegt.”
17Lüders (1959, 698 ff.). This identification were to have arisen “am Ende der altvedischen Periode.” For a criticism of this view see i.a. Lommel (1953, 403). Gonda (1965a, 50) supports Lüders’ view.
18Lüders (1951, 126): “Bis in die Lieder des ṚV. and AV. läßt sich aber das unterirdische Meer nicht zurückverfolgen.”
19Kuiper (1972, 150 ff., with references to other publications).
20The connection between rain and Varuṇa is problematic. Is Varuṇa a nocturnal spender of rain in ṚV 5, 85, 3? See Kuiper (1972, 154): “The principal difference between the Marut-passages and the Varuṇa-hymn is that in the latter we are concerned with the nocturnal sky, which was identical with the cosmic waters. That is why Varuṇa did not need to draw the water before causing the rain to fall on earth: the kávandha was, indeed, immediately at his disposal.” This sounds hardly convincing. On the other hand the connection between rain and the (likewise nocturnal) moon is a well-known theme in Vedic India. On Varuṇa’s relation to the moon see Lommel (1953, 404).
21Kuiper (1979, 27) on the primeval waters (connected with Varuṇa) which “have been incorporated in the cosmos as part of the nether world.”
22See also MS 4, 1, 5 (to which Minard 1956, § 500 refers) on the day entering into the waters at night.
23Lüders (1951, 174, n. 2; 332, n. 6; 387, n. 5).
24A similar problem is formed by the conception of the highest heaven (paramá vyòman) as the womb of creation. See Kuiper (1975, 117 f.). Perhaps this paramá vyòman should be regarded as “higher” than heaven in the classificatory system only. It may refer to the nocturnal sky, which lies outside the cosmos and as such is situated beyond or above the heaven of day-time. It may even be connected with the waters. See e.g. ŚB 8, 2, 3, 13, where ā́pas and Prajāpati Parameṣṭhin are equated (tā́ hí paramé sthā́ne tiṣṭhanti). Is there a connection between this paramá sthā́ne and Viṣṇu’s paramá padá? It is true that Viṣṇu’s highest padá is his third, whereas waters and the nocturnal sky mostly form the fourth item in the classifications. However, they also may play a role in a tripartition in which the intermediate space is left out and the moon forms the third item, i.e. a tripartition consisting of the dualistic cosmos + the extra-cosmic entity (2 + 1). See e.g. BĀU 1, 5, 11–13 (earth, heaven, waters; fire, sun, moon). The symbolism of the three sacred fires is based on the tripartition earth, heaven, nocturnal sky (= nether world). Cf. also AV 11, 3, 20 (“… one below the other, the three, sea, sky, earth,” tr. Whitney).
25According to JB 1, 238 ff. the Anuṣṭubh (i.e. the fourth item) is to be equated with Prajāpati and the Viśve Devas (totality) as well as with manas (indistinctness). This mánas is áparimita (ŚB 1, 4, 4, 7; ŚāṅkhB 26, 3), ánirukta (ŚB 1, 4, 4, 5) and anantá (ŚB 14, 6, 1, 11 = BĀU 3, 1, 9). It is also equited with Prajāpati in TB 2, 2, 1, 2; 3, 7, 1, 2; ŚB 4, 1, 1, 22; ŚāṅkhB 10, 1; 26, 3; JUB 1, 33, 2. It denotes totality (sarvam, GB 2, 5, 15) and it is also connected with the moon (TB 3, 10, 8, 5; ŚB 10, 3, 3, 7; JUB 3, 2, 6; 1, 18, 5) and the deceased (ŚB 14, 4, 3, 13 = BAU 1, 3, 16). It is associated with the (nocturnal sky) ocean (ŚB 7, 5, 2, 52; 8, 5, 2, 4) and with the eye of the ocean (the moon?) (PB 6, 4, 7), with the waters (JUB 1, 25, 9) and with (Varuṇa’s?) ṛta (JUB 3, 36, 5). It is not only manas that is aparimita, but also the fourth item in general. See TB 3, 2, 4, 6. On the indistinctness see further Gonda (1976, 120). Heaven, regarded as the “beyond” rather than as the sky of the day-time, was also described as boundless (ananta). See Gonda (1966, 112). Yonder world (asau lokaḥ) is asaṁmita, aparimita, ananta and anirukta (see Gonda 1966, 87). Heaven (the svargaloka) is not always the third loka. It may also be the fourth. See Gonda (1966, 91).
26See Kuiper (1979, 38, n. 121 and also p. 13) on the undifferentiated ásat in connection with Prajāpati and totality.
27Cf. ChU 2, 2, 1 for a different adaptation to the fivefold Sāman: 1–2 earth-fire, 3 intermediate space, 4–5 sun-heaven. ChU 4, 12, 1, however, combines the nocturnal situation, the waters and the representatives of totality by associating the Anvāhāryapacana fire with āpaḥ, diśaḥ, nakṣatrāṇi and candramāḥ.
28Kirfel (1920, 24* f.) interprets them as the seven planets. He assumes an eightfold distribution in ŚB 11, 6, 3, 6. Actually the classification is fourfold there and the items 7–8 (moon-stars) belong together as the fourth “world.”
29The world corresponding to Agni is the earth, here called upodaka, which undoubtedly means “the world which lies upon the (subterranean) waters.” Caland misinterprets the Jaiminīya parallel by translating “der ‘am Wasser befindliche’ Raum” (1919, 128). Keith adopts the varia lectio apodaka (“the world of Agni without water”). See also Gonda (1966, 56). Kirfel (1920, 5) separates upodaka from Agniloka.
30The world of Varuṇa, the fourth world, is called adhidiva (“over the sky,” tr. Keith). Probably this name implies “above the heaven of daylight” and refers to the nocturnal sky which in classifications is placed “above” heaven.
31Obviously Candramās and Āditya should change place and the moon should occupy the fourth position, where it is associated with Varuṇa and Death.
32See Kuiper (1979, 86) on “the classification upon which the mythic cosmology is based, viz. sun: day-time sky: upper world versus moon: night-time sky: nether world. This led to identifying the water under the earth and the underworld jar with nocturnal sky and the moon. Classificatorily the second group consists of different aspects or manifestations of Varuṇa’s world.” See also Kuiper (1964, 107 ff.).
33For the association of Varuṇa and death see Kuiper (1979, 12; 62; 71–73 and 1964, 108).
34See e.g. Gonda (1965a, 43).
35Kuiper (1979, 98). For the position of the deceased in the underworld (i.e. under the earth) see Kuiper (1979, 12 f.), referring to the sequence devā́ḥ, manuṣyāḥ, pitáraḥ.
36According to ṚV 9, 96, 19 the samudrá is the turī́yaṁ dhā́ma.
37I.e. spatial and temporal totality, here in association with the nocturnal situation (Soma = moon) or perhaps with the waters (Soma as the symbol of the amṛtā āpaḥ).
38vāc either occupies the first position in the usual classifications (on account of the association with Agni) or the fourth (on account of the equation with the Anuṣṭubh). For the latter cf. JB 1, 238 ff.
39For the equation of moon (= manas) and seed (retas = the Retasyā verse) see Gonda (1965a, 43 and 48).

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