Life after Death in the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā

in Vedic Cosmology and Ethics
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The information on life after death provided by the oldest Vedic text is rather scarce. In the most recent handbook on Vedic literature (1975c, 138 f.) and in his handbook on Vedic religion (19782, 98, 181) Gonda only incidentally referred to the situation of the deceased in the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā (ṚV). There is no systematic treatment of “Leben nach dem Tode” (19782, 10, mentioned without further comment).

However, Oldenberg extensively discussed the early Vedic ideas on life after death in his handbook of Vedic religion (19172, 523 ff.). It is strange that Oldenberg’s views on the places of the dead were neglected by most scholars with the exception of Arbman (1927b, 1928). Oldenberg’s ideas may be summarized as follows. In the ṚV we find references to heaven and hell, the abodes of the minorities of elite and criminals. The more original conception of afterlife would have concerned a dark realm lying under the earth, but different from hell.1 Traces of the original conception of an underworld would be discernible in later Vedic texts and even in the ṚV itself. It was especially in this second edition that Oldenberg emphasized the original character of Yama’s world as a subterranean realm of the dead.2

Arbman (1927b, 342–345) discussed “Die Jenseitsvorstellungen der rigvedischen Dichter nach der Auffassung der abendländischen Forschung” and stated that most Indologists assumed that the future of the deceased would consist of either heaven or hell (the latter sometimes being replaced by total annihilation). Having summarized Oldenberg’s views Arbman rightly concluded that his theory “richtig aufgefaßt, in der Tat eine Retusche des Bildes notwendig macht, das man sich früher von dem Jenseitsglauben der vedischen Zeit gemacht hatte und auch später beibehalten hat” (p. 345). However, with a few exceptions mentioned by Arbman, scholars did not react: “Man hält an der früheren Auffassung fest, die durch einen stillschweigenden Konsensus die alleinherrschende geworden zu sein scheint, ohne sich durch seine Ausführungen beeinflussen zu lassen oder sie einer Entgegnung zu würdigen, was um so merkwürdiger ist, als Oldenberg schwerwiegende Gründe für seinen Standpunkt beigebracht hat” (p. 349).

Arbman’s study (i.a.) tried to prove that Oldenberg’s views on the subterranean realm of the dead were right, but that the assumption of an Ṛgvedic conception of hell was untenable.3 In the continuation of his article Arbman concluded: “Dagegen scheint es keinem Zweifel zu unterliegen, daß Himmel und Totenreich sozusagen die beiden Pole bildeten, um die herum der ganze vedische Jenseitsglaube sich drehte. Und damit haben wir auch einen Schlüssel zur Entstehung der indischen Höllenvorstellung gefunden. Eine Hölle als etwas für sich im Verhältnis zum Totenreich, wie auch Oldenberg die Sache auffassen wollte, … hat die älteste vedische Zeit nicht gekannt. Vielmehr ist die Hölle durch eine sehr natürliche Entwicklung aus dem Totenreich entstanden … . Je mehr man sich daran gewöhnte, den Zutritt in den Himmel von gewissen ethischen Bedingungen abhängig zu machen und ihn als eine Belohnung für das Wohlverhalten des Menschen auf Erden anzusehen, desto mehr neigte man auch dazu, in dem Hinabstürzen ins Totenreich eine Folge begangener Sünden zu sehen. Dies bedeutete indessen keineswegs, daß die Vorstellung des Totenreiches einfach durch die der Hölle ersetzt wurde. Vielmehr lebten beide Ideen neben- und unabhängig voneinander fort. So kennt die spätere vedische Literatur, wie wir früher gesehen, ganz gut ein allgemeines Reich der Toten, aber auch eine Hölle” (1928, 232 f.).

Arbman’s support of Oldenberg is rather convincing. His criticism of the assumption of an Ṛgvedic hell may raise some doubts, since some of the descriptions of the nether world in the ṚV may refer to a realm of the dead as well as to a hell and both conceptions occur together in post-Ṛgvedic texts. His sketch of a possible evolution from the one conception to the other is interesting, but can hardly be substantiated by textual proofs. Moreover, the tendency to sketch so-called logical evolutions is nowadays less accepted than in his times. Yet, whether the idea of hell did develop from the conception of a realm of the dead or not, still it has to be admitted that hell hardly played a role in the ṚV and that descriptions of judgment, punishment and cruelties are entirely missing.

What did modern Indological scholarship do with Oldenberg’s and Arbman’s theories? I have already observed that some handbooks hardly took notice of their propositions. In 1925 Keith published his “Religion and Philosophy of the Veda,” which of course could not take into account what Arbman had written on the problem. According to Keith “The chief place of the dead in the conception of the Rigveda is unquestionably heaven” (1925, 2:406). Further he accepts the belief in hell. Without referring to Oldenberg Keith states: “As compared with the clear conception of the dwelling of the spirit in the highest heaven or in hell, there is little trace in the Vedic literature of the more simple and perhaps more primitive conception which regards the dead as dwelling in the earth, whether actually in the place of burial, or in the under world” (410 f.). Repeating Oldenberg’s arguments for the conception of a subterranean realm of the dead in Vedism he nevertheless observed: “It is probable that in the Indo-Iranian period there had already developed the conception of the distinction between the heavenly lot of the blessed dead and the dismal fate in hell of the evil” (413). Keith successfully mystified the issue and Arbman’s publication remained practically unnoticed in indological literature.

It has already been observed that the major and oldest part of the ṚV hardly refers to life after death. This silence on a crucial problem requires an explanation, at least a hypothesis. If it is really true that ideas on life after death found in post-Ṛgvedic texts have to be assumed as present in the oldest Vedic period we either have to detect them in the ṚV or to give an explanation of their absence.

Both Oldenberg and Arbman tried to adduce evidence in proof of their assumption of life after death which was neither celestial nor belonging to the sphere of hell. However, they treated the ṚV more or less as a unity and did not try to connect the rise of new ideas on life after death in heaven with chronological differences within the text of the ṚV. Arbman (1928, 223 and passim) was inclined to associate the more primitive conception of the underworld and the more original aspects of Yama (both found in post-Ṛgvedic texts) with popular Vedism (“volkstümlich”) and the ideas of the Ṛgvedic poets with “den höheren Kreisen.” Traces of these popular conceptions (by other scholars mostly interpreted as references to hell), however, would be discernible. Since Arbman was mainly interested in the underworld and possible traces of this Hades are found throughout the whole ṚV, he did not pay attention to the fact that the positive afterlife (in some sort of paradise) is only found in a limited number of maṇḍalas of the ṚV. Later literature mostly emphasized the fact that only the tenth book of the ṚV took interest in life after death.4 The relative silence of the old family books requires an explanation.

Kuiper (1979, 68 f.) observes: “It has often struck scholars that Death, for instance, is rarely mentioned in the old family collections. It may be considered significant that in the tenth book of the Rigveda there are fifteen occurrences of the word mṛtyú, whereas in the other books it does not occur at all, except in one of the latest interpolations inserted after the composition of the Padapāṭha (VII. 59. 12 mṛtyór mukṣīya, see Oldenberg, Prolegomena, p. 511). Saying that ‘the thoughts of the poets of the RV., intent on the happiness of this earth, appear to have rarely dwelt on the joys of the next life’ [quotation from Macdonell 1897, 169] does not provide an explanation for this fact, nor can the characterization of their spirit as diesseitig or positive be regarded as such. One is driven to the conclusion that there was an intentional euphemistic reticence. The only explanation so far proposed for this reticence is the theory that the Rigvedic hymns differed from those of the later Saṁhitās in that they had been composed for a specific seasonal festival, during which Varuṇa was particularly dreaded as he had probably again become an Asura for a short while.”

This interesting hypothesis, however, raises some questions. One may assume a taboo associated with death or the god of death, but this cannot apply to the positive aspects of life after death. Moreover, even the family books are not silent on dying and the fear of death. Whether Kuiper’s hypothesis about the function of the hymns is correct or not, does not matter for our problem. Almost every hymn (in and outside the family books) contains wishes put forward by the singers (ṛ́ṣis). These wishes are expressed for beneficiaries who may be either the poets themselves, or their patrons, or both of them, and in these wishes we might expect references to a happy life in heaven. It is remarkable that references to life after death in heaven are missing in the family books. That the authors of the hymns did not deal with the less positive aspects of life after death (in a hell or in a shadowy, dark realm of the dead), is not surprising and need not be associated with the function of the family books. The ṛ́ṣis requested positive items like richness, prosperity, cattle, cows and horses, gold, women, victory, superiority, power, children, especially sons, brave sons, heroes, rewards, dákṣiṇās, honour, a complete life-time, non-dying etc. It is their claim that their hymns and the sacrifices (or both in combination) will produce this welfare for the patrons or the sacrificers (and directly or indirectly for themselves). They also ask for a continuation of the life of patrons and of themselves. Since the aim of the sacrifices in texts later than the ṚV was i.a. reaching heaven, one may ask why the poets of the family books did not mention this (for their patrons) most attractive prospect. And why did the authors of some hymns outside the old family books actually hold the prospect of life in heaven to e.g. the givers of rich dákṣiṇās?

A possible answer to this question might be that the poets of the old books still had not developed the conception of life in heaven for mortal beings. Therefore stray references to “immortality” in the oldest books are nowadays rightly interpreted as “non-dying,” “deathlessness,” i.e. remaining alive on earth.5 Confusion between the real immortality of the gods and this so-called “immortality” (= continuance of life) perhaps could not play a role in the minds of the old Vedic ṛ́ṣis, since life in heaven among the immortals in their views was excluded for mortals.

It is not to be denied that the aims of the poets and their patrons were rather “diesseitig” (in Geldner’s translation the most frequently occurring noun is undoubtedly “Reichtum”), but this attitude does not exclude a continuation of such wishes in life after death. Just as for the Red Indians life after death was represented as “the happy hunting-grounds,” Vedic texts often describe it as a continuation of earthly joys. Oertel (1943, 9–11) even collected several Brāhmaṇa passages on “Viehbesitz in der Himmelswelt.”

If now the poets of the old books perhaps still had no ideas about a blessed afterlife, one may ask the question whether the possibility of life after death as such was acknowledged by them. In the absence of clear traces of a blissful life in yonder world in the oldest books, it would be odd to assume that all the references to dying and its possible aftermath should exclusively concern hell. An opposition of hell in the old books to some sort of paradise in the later layers can hardly be explained and the sole existence of a conception of hell in the old books looks improbable. Therefore one may either accept Arbman’s theory of a shadowy underworld or deny the presence of every idea on afterlife.

Most scholars assume that death is not the absolute end of the life of mortals in the ṚV in agreement with the information provided by other cultures. “Belief in some kind of existence after death is one of the more common elements of religion, as history and anthropology show” (van Baaren 1987, 116b). “In many other religions the continuity of life after the death of the individual is of slight interest, because the stress falls firmly on life on earth. The continued existence of man after death may not be wholly denied, but neither is it considered to be of any importance” (117a). “The idea of an underworld as the dwelling place of the departed is probably the commonest of all concepts in this sphere” (118b). “In many cultures the otherworld is viewed as a shadowy state, gray and dull … It is a dull, colorless place of half-existence … a place of diminished existence” (Kelsey 1987, 134a). “The Mesopotamian Arallu and the Hebrew She’ ol both designated a great pit of darkness and dust under the earth that was not a hell (in the sense of any implication of judgment), but simply an abode for the unfortunate dead” (Smith 1987, 115a).

In her thesis of 1971 Converse draws far-reaching conclusions from the absence and presence of references to life after death in the several layers of the ṚV: “The Aryans of the earliest hymn collection accepted as constitutive the difference between men as mortal and gods as immortal, and they regarded death as the end of individual existence. There is no belief in immortality. The hope is for a full, prosperous, long life and sons to carry on the family line. A full-fledged doctrine of personal immortality suddenly appears near the end of book 9. In the last addition to the Ṛgveda, book 10, a small number of hymns also express the belief in immortality, but most hymns were found to retain the older view” (p. 2 of the abstract).

The thesis does not contain any reference to the theories of Oldenberg and Arbman. Since it was not officially published as a book, it remained unnoticed in most of the Indological literature. This dissertation may be unsatisfactory in several respects, but the evidence collected in it as well as the conclusions based on this evidence cannot simply be ignored.

Converse discerns five layers in the ṚV: (1) book 2–7, (2) book 1, 51–191, (3) book 8 and 1, 1–50, (4) book 9, (5) book 10. Only in one hymn of the fourth layer and in the fifth layer the doctrine of immortality would appear. Its introduction is explained as the result of an acculturation between the Aryans and the non-Aryan Dāsas.6 I will first check the evidence of the older layers and then discuss Converse’s theory.

(1) book 2–7

In the first layer clear references to life after death are indeed not manifold.

The long darkness of 2, 27, 14d may denote life in the underworld, the realm of the dead, but the formulation is rather vague and according to Converse (1971, 133) should simply describe death.

2, 29, 6d refers to falling in a pit. Converse (p. 134) regards this pit as “simply the grave,” whereas Oldenberg (19172, 539) deals with this verse in his treatment of hell in the ṚV: “daß damit etwas Bestimmteres gemeint ist, als ein Ende mit Schrecken, wird kaum zu erweisen sein.” Other references to this pit (kartá) clearly show that it can hardly denote the grave, since deceased are neither hurled into a grave nor do they fall into it. Arbman (1928, 204) makes the pit refer to the underworld rather than to hell: “… der Ausdruck bezieht sich wie parśāna, Abgrund, und vavra, Gefängnis, Hölle oder dgl., auf den tiefen unterirdischen Ort, der der finstere Gegenpol des Himmels ist.” The fact that sinners are hurled into the pit and that non-sinners ask to remain free from it, might imply that the dark pit is an undivided realm of the dead.

4, 5, 14 contains a reference to ā́sat, according to some scholars denoting hell, an interpretation of the term rejected by Converse (1971, 134 f.) who regards this ā́sat as total non-being or annihilation. Unfortunately 4, 5 is full of obscurities, which still have not been satisfactorily solved. 4, 5, 5d mentions an idáṁ padám which is gabhīrám, interpreted by Geldner in his translation as “dieses geheimnisvolle Wort,” explaining it as “die zu findende Spur und das Rätselwort, dessen Lösung dem Dichter aufgegeben ist” (1951, 1:424). Converse, starting from an “abysmal situation” rejects the association with hell (“the ‘abysmal’ place or station”), which had been assumed by some scholars.7 Arbman (1928, 200) translates “… die sind für jenen tiefen Ort … geboren” and explains: “sie sind (im voraus) dem Tode geweiht, sie konnen nicht in den Himmel kommen.” In view of the uncertainties the discussed hymn does not prove much.

5, 32, 5d támasi harmi according to Converse (p. 136) would refer to the grave and its darkness. However, Indra kills the demon Śuṣṇa; he is not an undertaker who buries him. Moreover the term harmyá can hardly denote a grave.8

7, 89, 1a (mṛnmáyaṁ gṛhám) indeed may refer to the grave: “May I not go to the house of clay.”9

7, 104 contains an enumeration of curses, most of them connected with the death of the adversaries. According to Converse (p. 136) “they indicate no conception of life after death either in heaven or hell.” However, 7, 104, 3a–c índrāsomā duṣkṛ́to vavré antár, anārambhaṇé támasi prá vidhyatam / yáthā nā́taḥ púnar ékaś canódáyat does not confirm this. Asking for absence of return would seem to indicate the possibility of some form of life after death. Oldenberg (19172, 538 f.) discusses this verse and other verses of this hymn in the context of his treatment of hell and concludes: “Die Ausdrücke dieser sind doch zu positiv, um auf bloße Vernichtung gedeutet zu werden” (p. 539). This view is supported by Arbman (1928, 198–205), who, however, would prefer to make this subterranean realm refer to an undivided nether world.

The mentioned hymn 104 contains several indications of a rather concrete realm of the death, e.g. 3ab already cited, ní párśāne vidhyatam (5d), ā́ vā dadhātu nírṛter upásthe (9d), tisráḥ pṛthivī́r adhó astu (11b), víśvasya jantór adhamás padīṣṭa (16d), vavrā́ṁ anantā́ṁ áva sā́ padīṣṭa (17c).

However, Converse concludes her survey of possible references to the darker aspects of life after death with the statement: “The above references are representative of all the books of Stratum I, and they clearly indicate … that death was regarded normally as the termination of individual existence” (1971, 337). This does not convince.

The positive aspects of life after death in a world of deceased ancestors are likewise negated by Converse. It is true that there are no clear references to Yama as the god of death in books 2–7, whereas in the late books this god presides over some sort of paradise. There can be no taboo associated with an auspicious Yama. It is also true that references to the deceased ancestors (the Fathers) are rare. They are mentioned in 2, 42, 2c (“the quarter of the Fathers”), 3, 55, 2 (a request to gods and Fathers), 6, 52, 4d (invoked for help at the ritual), 6, 75, 10a (“Ihr Brahmanen, ihr Väter, ihr Somawürdige” [tr. Geldner 1951, 2:177]), 7, 35, 12 (invoked for help at the ritual together with gods and Ṛbhus) and 7, 76, 4 (referring to some deified, mythical forefathers, probably the Aṅgirasas: “Sie waren die Mahlgenossen der Götter, die wahrhaftigen Seher der Vorzeit. Die Väter fanden das verborgene Licht wieder; sie, deren Worte in Erfüllung gehen, brachten die Uṣas hervor” [p. 250]). Some other references mentioned by Converse clearly do not concern the Fathers.

Converse (pp. 139–146) unconvincingly tries to associate the Pitṛs in all the contexts with non-Aryan Dāsas, Dravidians. It has to be admitted, however, that every reference to a world of the Pitṛs or to a pitṛyāna is missing. In some cases (e.g. 4, 1, 13, not treated by Converse) these Pitṛs seem to be a distinguished class of mythical seers. The absence of clear references to a large category of “blessed forefathers” living in a realm of the dead is striking.

Reaching a positive, auspicious life after death in a heavenly sphere might also be denoted by terms denoting immortality. It has long been observed that terms like amṛ́ta and amṛtatvá in the ṚV (and even in post-Ṛgvedic texts) often or even mostly do not designate life in heaven when associated with mortals and Converse was not the first to draw attention to this fact. E.g. 5, 55, 4c utó asmā́ṁ amṛtatvé dadhātana “and lead us to immortality” (Converse 1971, 156) need not refer to life after death. Boyer (1901, 457 ff.) already collected the material on the “immortalité terrestre” and several scholars have repeated his conclusions. The Maruts produce rain, which means continuation of life, called non-dying or amṛtatvá, in 5, 55, 4c and in other places like 5, 63, 2c.

Converse did not discuss 3, 43, 5d kuvín me vásvo amṛ́tasya śíkṣāḥ translated with “Gewiß wirst du mir unsterbliches Gut zudenken” by Geldner who observes in a note: “vásv amṛ́tam … ist das amṛtatvám, das sonst der Somatrank verleiht” and refers to i.a. 9, 113, 710 (1951, 1:385). I doubt whether 3, 43, 5 really should refer to immortality.

After a rather lengthy discussion of the material Converse (1971, 163) concludes: “There is in Stratum I no realm of the dead, no Yama ruling over it, and the very few references to the ‘Fathers’ represent them as some sort of demons connected with the conquered indigenous population, not the spirits of the forefathers. The constitutive distinction between men and gods, maintained throughout, is that gods are immortal and men are not.” Though not accepting all her conclusions (e.g. concerning the nature of the Fathers) I have to admit (after having checked all the material of book 2–7) that references to immortality in heaven are entirely missing and that there is no clear indication of the belief in a realm of the dead. At most we may acknowledge the existence of Pitṛs whose nature, number and place are quite obscure. Still there are some traces of a gloomy underworld as assumed by Arbman.

(2) book 1, 51–191, (3) book 8 and 1, 1–50

For some reasons Converse preferred to take layers (2) and (3) together (i.e. books 1 and 8). She extensively discussed the culture and religion reflected in these two layers (pp. 164–196) and tried to show non-Aryan influence and traces of an acculturation between Aryans and Dāsas. Still she had to conclude that “there is nothing new that comes into the Ṛgvedic beliefs about man’s fate after death … . There is no indication at all, in contexts where later it is always included, of a belief in and desire for immortality after death. There is no reference to going to be with either the gods or the fathers, and there is no realm of the fathers … Stratum II also, in spite of the inclusion of early and late hymns, almost without exception expresses these same views” (203 f.). “As in Stratum I heaven is unattainable for mortals both in Stratum II and in Stratum III. One possible exception is the famous riddle hymn, I 164, which contains many late elements, is obscure intentionally, and seems to refer to those who have mystic knowledge of the mysteries of the universe as winning for themselves amṛta; it is impossible to know exactly what is meant, and in any case the hymn comes from a much later time” (206 f.).

Though the evidence is admittedly scanty, I still believe that there is some material both on a realm of the dead and on life after death in heaven (the latter occurring for the first time in the ṚV).

The long darkness of Vṛtra (1, 32, 10d) may simply denote death and final annihilation and does not refer to human beings, but the same expression was found in 2, 27, 14d in connection with human beings. The formulation, however, is rather vague.

In 1, 35, 6b one of the three heavens is said to be situated in Yama’s world and to be virāṣā́ṭ (“subduing or harbouring men”). Are we entitled to take with Converse (p. 203) one of the three heavens as the earth and to assume “that Yama is meant to symbolize man”? According to Geldner’s note on his translation the “Welt des Todes und der Manen” is meant here (1951, 1:43).

“Going on Yama’s path” in 1, 38, 5c indeed does not refer to immortality, but I doubt whether “Yama here clearly stands for the limitation imposed upon life by mortality, and thus for death” (Converse 1971, 203). Indeed, the poet wants to be rescued from untimely death, but the expression used here seems to imply more than terrestrial death as the final annihilation (see also Arbman 1928, 205). The immortality asked for in the preceding verse 4c may simply denote continuation of life on earth.

The comparison with somebody who is sleeping in the womb of Destruction (nírṛter upásthe) in 1, 117, 5a does not point to a happy realm of the dead, but does it imply that death is “a dark sleep, an end” (Converse 1971, 205)? Or should we assume a gloomy underworld, a dull and dark place of diminished existence?

The formulation of 1, 121, 13d ápi kartám avartayó ’áyajyūn “You hurled the non-sacrificers towards the pit” seems to imply a clear spacial conception of the underworld. Indra sent them to hell (or the nether world) rather than to a grave or a pitfall, and there is no reason to take kartá with Converse (p. 205) as death.11

8, 30, 3cd mā́ naḥ patháḥ pítriyān mānavā́d ádhi, dūrám naiṣṭa parāvátaḥ “führet uns nicht vom väterlichen Wege des Manu weit ab in die Fernen!” (Geldner) may refer to the nether world. See Arbman (1928, 208) on parāvát.

This is all the material available on the realm of the dead, the underworld or hell. There are, however, also some possible references to life after death in heaven.

1, 31, 15cd states: “Wer süße Speise vorsetzt, in seiner Wohnung ein gutes Lager bereitet und ein lebendes Tier opfert, der kommt zu oberst im Himmel” (Geldner). This is the sort of information one might expect in the ṚV. It is strange that Converse does not discuss this evidence.

1, 73, 7b diví śrávo dadhire yajñíyāsaḥ “… haben die Opferwürdigen im Himmel Ruhm erworben” (Geldner) probably refers to the ancient Ṛṣis who more or less had become deified.

However, 1, 125, 5ab nā́kasya pṛṣṭhé ádhitiṣṭhati śritó, yáḥ pṛṇā́ti sá ha devéṣu gacchati “Auf die Höhe des Himmels versetzt bleibt er da. Wer spendet, der kommt zu den Göttern” (Geldner) undoubtedly promises life after death in heaven to mortals. Converse (p. 206) tries to explain away this evidence by observing that “the ‘ridge of heaven’ appears to be the sacrificial ground where the sacrificer brings his offerings to the gods … . The sacrificer ‘goes to the gods’ with his offering at the sacrifice … . There is no question here of ‘going to the gods’ in the sense of becoming immortal.” I have my doubts on this interpretation. On the other hand stanza 6cd states: dákṣiṇāvanto amṛ́taṁ bhajante, dákṣiṇāvantaḥ prátiranta ā́yuḥ, “Die den Sängerlohn geben, genießen die Unsterblichkeit; die den Sängerlohn geben, verlängern ihr Leben” (Geldner), a formulation which might as well refer to “immortality” (= non-dying) on earth.

More clear is 1, 154, 5 f.: “An seinen lieben Zufluchtsort möchte ich gelangen, an dem die gottergebenen Männer schwelgen … . Zu euer beider Wohnstätten wünschen wir zu gelangen” (tr. Geldner interpreting pā́thas in 5a as “Himmel”). I doubt whether these unequivocal statements should simply denote “a happy, prosperous life under Viṣṇu’s rule” (Converse 1971, 206).

In the eighth book only 8, 48, 3ab ápāma sómam amṛ́tā abhūmā́, áganma jyótir ávidāma devā́n “Wir haben jetzt Soma getrunken, Unsterbliche sind wir geworden; wir sind zum Lichte gelangt, wir haben die Götter gefunden” (Geldner) may give evidence for the assumption of immortality in heaven. However, Converse (p. 200) concludes: “There is absolutely nothing in the hymn that refers to a life in heaven with the gods or fathers.” Light would mean prosperity and knowing or finding the gods would be a standard phrase for having met the gods at the sacrifice. It has to be admitted that the further information of this hymn does not concern life in heaven and that a realm of the blessed deceased is not mentioned. However, a vision of immortality or life in heaven may have been expressed in this verse. In the same hymn the Fathers are mentioned (13ab): “Du, Soma, bist mit den Vätern im Einvernehmen, du reichst so weit wie Himmel und Erde” (Geldner). The explanation of Converse (p. 201), in which “the alliance (association) of the indigenous ‘Fathers’ with the Aryan soma ritual” is adduced as proof of the worldwide spread of Soma, is too childish and needs no further comment.

Actually, Converse is only willing to accept the evidence of the admittedly obscure and late hymn 1, 164, but does not treat it. The relevant verses are 23d (“Nur die haben die Unsterblichkeit erlangt, die wissen”), 30d (“Die unsterbliche (Seele) ist gleichen Ursprungs mit dem Sterblichen”) and 33a (“Der Himmel ist mein Vater, der Erzeuger, dort ist mein Nabel”) (Geldner).

We may conclude on layers (2) and (3) that the same (scarce) references to an underworld as found in layer (1) seem to play a role and that undoubtedly life in heaven begins to form an ideal for the sacrificers or patrons, promised to them by the poets.

(4) book 9

The fourth layer consists of book 9 and here Converse only accepts the evidence of one hymn, 9, 113.12 This would be “the first clear, certain statement of a belief in an immortal life after death for the human soul in the realm of Yama” (208 f.). It is indeed striking that the Soma hymns do not give more information, but are we really to attribute this to the fact that “the belief in immortality was not originally part of the religious belief of the Aryans” (209)? The hymn would be “full of materials of indigenous origin, and terms not found in Strata IIV” (212).

Before mentioning the evidence of this hymn I would first like to discuss some other possible indications of life after death. The negative aspect of the underworld is found in 9, 73, 8/9d: “er stößt die mißliebigen Gesetzlosen hinab in die Grube” / “Der Unvermögende soll dabei in die Grube abstürzen” (Geldner). The terminology (i.a. kartá) reminds of earlier references to a life in the underworld.13 Immortality in heaven may play a role in 9, 94, 4bc śríyaṁ váyo jaritṛ́bhyo dadhāti / śríyaṁ vásānā amṛtatvám āyan “den Sängern verleiht er Herrlichkeit und Kraft. Mit Herrlichkeit sich umkleidend gingen sie in die Unsterblichkeit ein” (Geldner), but this evidence is admittedly doubtful.

9, 113 contains several references to life in heaven: “Wo das ewige Licht ist, in welche Welt die Sonne gesetzt ist, in diese versetze mich, o Pavamāna, in die unsterbliche, unvergängliche Welt!” (7a–d); “Wo Vivasvat’s Sohn (Yama) König ist, … dort mache mich unsterblich!” (8a–d); “Wo man nach Lust wandeln darf im dreifachen Firmament, … wo die lichtvollen Welten sind …” (9); “… wo der Höhepunkt der Sonne ist” (10b); “Wo Wonnen, Freuden, Lüste und Belustigungen wohnen, wo die Wünsche des Wunsches erlangt werden” (11a–c) (Geldner).

(5) book 10

In this article there is no room for an extensive treatment of the evidence of the tenth book. Converse had to accept the clear references to life after death: “there are twelve hymns which certainly express such a belief and five more which probably assume it or allude to it” (246). We may summarize the information.

The Pitṛs are mentioned several times and often it is clear that they are not some mythical, deified forefathers like the Aṅgirasas. The deceased have to be situated in heaven: paramé viyòman (10, 14, 8b), mádhye diváḥ (15, 14b), paramé janítre (56, 1d, mentioned together with tṛtī́yena jyótiṣā [b], in a hymn dedicated to a dead horse whose situation may be transferred to human beings), sukṛ́tām u lokám (16, 4d; cf. 17, 4c yátrā́sate sukṛ́to yátra té yayúr), uccā́ diví (107, 2a), svargá u tuvám ápi mādayāse (95, 18d, the only Ṛgvedic occurrence of svargá), the harmyá of Yama (114, 10d), yásmin vṛkṣé supalāśé, deváiḥ saṁpíbate yamáḥ (135, 1ab), idáṁ yamásya sā́danaṁ, devamānáṁ yád ucyáte (135, 7ab). Somehow a heavenly situation is described, though apart from 10, 135, contact with deities other than Yama (and in 14, 7cd Yama and Varuṇa) is scarcely mentioned.

The negative counterpart of this world of the blessed (almost neglected by Converse) may be seen in the following verses which deal with either the dark world to which one wishes the adversaries to be sent or the gloomy world of the dead from which one wants to be rescued (for the time being?). This dark, nether world need not be a hell, since punishment, tortures, judgment and moral aspects do not play a role: eṣā́ tvā pātu nírṛter upásthāt (10, 18, 10d, accepted by Converse 1971, 253 as the only evidence of Nirṛti being more than just death viewed as total annihilation), nírṛter upásthe (95, 14c, where vṛ́kā rabhasā́sas will eat the deceased who is not a criminal), nírṛter upásthāt (161, 2c, referring to the nearness of Mṛtyu from which the [almost] deceased may be fetched back by means of a charm), andhéna … támasā sacantām (89, 15c = 103, 12d; cf. 4, 5, 14d ā́satā sacantām), prapáted ánāvṛt, parāvátaṁ paramā́m (95, 14ab), párām evá parāvátaṁ, sapátnīṁ gamayāmasi (145, 4d), ádharaṁ gamayā támaḥ (152, 4d).

The luminous, celestial yonder world is not reached by everybody. Some qualifications are required. The heavenly abode is called the sukṛ́tāṁ loká (10, 16, 4d), yátrā́sate sukṛ́taḥ (17, 4c). The svargá afforded to Purūravas (95, 18d) looks like an exception. 114, 10c seems to refer to the “Lohn der Priester nach deren Tod im Hause des Yama” (Geldner 1951, 3:338). The givers of Dakṣiṇās (horses and gold) reach heaven: “Hoch oben im Himmel haben die Dakṣiṇāgeber ihren Stand, die Rosseschenker, die sind bei der Sonne. Die Goldschenker werden der Unsterblichkeit teilhaft, die Kleidschenker verlängern ihr Leben” (107, 2) (Geldner).

The hymn 10, 154 mentions some blessed forefathers whose world should be reached by the deceased: “Die durch Kasteiung unbezwingbar waren, die durch Kasteiung zum Sonnenlicht gegangen sind, die die Kasteiung zu ihrer Herrlichkeit gemacht haben” (2a–c); “Die in den Kämpfen als Helden streiten, die ihr Leben opfern, oder die Tausend als Dakṣiṇā schenken” (3a–c); “Die die ersten Pfleger der Wahrheit, die wahrhaftigen Mehrer der Wahrheit waren, zu den Kasteiung übenden Vätern …” (4a–c), “Die als Seher tausend Weisen kennen, die die Sonne behüten, zu den Kasteiung übenden Ṛṣi’s, o Yama, zu den durch Kasteiung (neu)geborenen soll er gelangen” (5). The exact interpretation of the hymn (quoted in Geldner’s translation) may be uncertain, but it is clear that several categories are mentioned: brave warriors, liberal patrons, ascetics and persons (probably mystics) dedicated to the Ṛta.

It is remarkable that in the tenth book the usual benefits of liberality are mentioned by the poets, but that immortality in heaven as a reward for liberality only occurs in a hymn dedicated to the Dakṣiṇā (10, 107) and in a funeral hymn (10, 154). The immortality promised to the givers of Dakṣiṇās in 1, 125, 6cd still seems to refer to the continuation of life on earth and in 10, 107, 2d strange enough the expression prátiranta ā́yus again turns up in spite of clear indications of immortality in heaven. On the other hand 1, 125, 6 is preceded by a verse which rather concretely refers to heaven.14 Perhaps the promise of immortality in heaven came to substitute continuation of life on earth.

Having surveyed the material we arrive at the conclusion that Converse was not right in assuming total annihilation as the prospect of the deceased in the ṚV (with the exception of 9, 113 and some hymns in the tenth book). It has to be admitted, however, that a dark underworld is not frequently mentioned and that immortality in heaven only occurs in late portions of the text (including some four or five references in the first book not accepted as such by Converse).

There is no reason to assume that information on a happy life in heaven was withheld on purpose in the older books. The theory of Converse about non-Aryan influence, however, does not convince in spite of the undeniable acculturation between original Aryans and the autochthonous population; at least it is not proved.

The reticence of the future of the deceased in the old books may be due to the fact that life after death was regarded as gloomy for all the deceased. There was no reason to hope for it or to promise it to the liberal patrons. The darkness of the underworld was consigned to the adversaries. For themselves and for their patrons the poets hoped that this “life” after death could be postponed or temporarily avoided. There are not many references to the Pitṛs, but this need not imply that every form of life after death was beyond the mental horizon of these poets. The possibility of becoming deified (to some extent) was not unknown to the poets of the old books. However, this was only reserved for some mythical ancestors, the Aṅgirasas and the Ṛbhus. No claim to this is made on behalf of the later mortals. Pitṛs regarded as a large category of deceased turn up as soon as the prospects for the deceased had become ameliorated. The funeral hymns of the tenth book accompany rituals. Here we find references to a world of the blessed dead. Though the hymns may be rather late, an institution like a ritual presupposes some tradition. It is unclear when and how ideas on life in a heavenly world were developed. This much is clear that the oldest parts of the ṚV do not show any traces of them.

In my treatment of the material I have followed the chronological and philological approach of Converse (which was combined with a hypothesis on non-Aryan influences formulated like an archaeological report). Arbman following Oldenberg tried to show that Yama’s realm in heaven was a later development.

Ideas on life after death may also be examined in the context of a structuralistic approach which starts from the opposition of the upper and the nether world and does not care too much about historical developments. I refer here to Kuiper’s publications on cosmogony and cosmology collected in 1983. The subterranean world would represent some form of continuation of primeval chaos and in this subterranean world we may expect the dead to “live.” Unfortunately the destiny of the dead is only incidentally treated in his treatment of the basic concept of Vedic religion based on the cosmogonic myth.

Let me first refer to some statements made by Kuiper (1983). The stone house (harmyá) of Varuṇa is the nether world which forms the continuation of primeval chaos. From this house the sun rises. “The notion of darkness appears to be intimately associated with this ‘stone house’. It was, indeed, the dwelling-place of the dead, just as Varuṇa was the god of death. Hence also Yama was supposed to dwell in it. The same association with darkness is also found in the story of Indra bringing the bellicose Śuṣṇa ‘into the darkness, into the stone house’ … What is said of Yama’s abode must also be true of Varuṇa’s, for the dead who follow the paths along which the blessed fathers have gone ‘will see both kings, Yama and the god Varuṇa, revelling in their particular ways’ [ṚV X, 14, 7cd]. Varuṇa’s nether world is called a ‘stone house’ because he dwells in the depth of the cosmic mountain” (1983, 68 f.).

Inside this stone house or rock the sun (invisible during the night) is situated. “Indeed, what the seer aspires to see is the mystery of Agni’s presence in the darkness of the ‘stone house’, just as it had been seen by the gods and mythical seers who (probably at the beginning of the new year) descended into the nether world as ‘sun-finders’ (svarvíd-, svardṛ́ś-)” (1983: 71, referring to Vasiṣṭha’s vision of ‘the sun in the rock’ in 7, 88). A vision of celestial beatitude is also found in 9, 113, 7–11. “Irrespective of whether, in a visionary state of mind, the poet here aspires to see the bliss of the blessed dead or rather prays for a place in the ‘immortal world’ in afterlife, this much is clear that this is the traditional picture of the blissful life in Yama’s realm” (p. 82). “Thus we are entitled to state that according to the Rigveda Yama’s and Varuṇa’s world contains the eternal light and is luminous” (p. 83).

It should be observed here that “the blissful life” in the nether world can hardly be called “the traditional picture.” It is almost exclusively found in connection with visionary texts and it is missing in the old books. The interesting parallels with Zaraϑuštra’s religion adduced by Kuiper might, however, indicate that the very exceptional traces of Vedic mysticism regarding the nether world should not be interpreted as purely late developments. The parallelism of Ṛta and Aša in the context of Aryan mysticism connected with light and sun might imply that 10, 154, 4 yé cit pū́rva ṛtasā́pa, ṛtā́vāna ṛtāvṛ́dhaḥ / pitṝ́n tápasvato yama, tā́ṁś cid evā́pi gacchatāt does not refer to a cult of speaking the truth (Geldner: “die ersten Pfleger der Wahrheit”), but to mysticism concerning Ṛta and the sun. In the next stanza the same ascetics are said to protect the sun (yé gopāyánti sū́riyam, 5b). However, in the old books of the ṚV “to see the sun” means “to remain alive” and the dark underworld (the realm of the dead) is not illuminated by the sun and seems to be comparable with the shadowy subterranean world of other cultures: nobody is longing for it.

In the dualism of upper world and nether world we may take together heaven and earth, gods and mortals; but the nether world forms a problem, since it is difficult to combine blessed dead with sinners and demons. Kuiper connects the deceased with Varuṇa, Yama and the nether world and associates the terms used to denote the underworld (the world below the cosmic mountain, the deep pit, the darkness, the harmyá, the parāvát and nírṛti) with them. On the other hand the deceased are sometimes situated in heaven and in the third world (or the third step of Viṣṇu). This may be explained by assuming an equation between the nether world and the night-sky and between the primeval world and a third world which transcends the dualism of upper and nether world. To some extent I am willing to accept this, since in the Brāhmaṇas Varuṇa (the god of the underworld and death) is also associated with the fourth world which represents totality and night. However, the connection of adversaries, evil people and demons with terms like darkness, deep pit, bottomless darkness etc. (regions or situations from which the Vedic poets want to be saved) seems to contradict the wish of some poets to reach similar places which are then called blissful and containing the sun. There is no denying that the sun enters the nether world at night and leaves it in the morning, but this is at variance with the long and deep darkness which qualifies it. The undivided nether world of sinners and saints, of devoted ritualists and demons, still forms a problem.

In my view the destination of the deceased was indeed the unhappy underworld to be compared with Hades, as assumed by Arbman. The vision of the bliss of light in the darkness probably was only conceived by some visionary mystics. The fact that indications of a blissful life in the afterworld are only to be found in late portions of the ṚV need not imply that ideas on this sort of life after death were developed in a late phase of Vedism. Perhaps there was an old tradition of Aryan mysticism. The old books of the ṚV, however, do not seem to belong to this tradition. The opposition between popular Vedism and hieratic or elitarian Vedism, assumed by some scholars, is unfounded, since the poets of the old books composed their hymns for an elite and still did not refer to blissful prospects in heaven. The real opposition seems to be between traditional, orthodox, ritualistic Vedism and other groups (not necessarily non-Aryan) which concentrated on a mysticism which agreed with the basic ideas of Vedic mythology, but was absent in the greater part of the ṚV.

*First published in Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens 38, 1994, pp. 23–41.
1Oldenberg (19172, 548) “Die Masse der Toten aber stellte man sich wohl weder als so hoch begnadet noch als in jene tiefsten Tiefen hinabgestoßen vor.”
2Oldenberg (19172, 544) “Nicht nur hier und dort durchscheinend, sondern in großer Breite sind andere, ältere Vorstellungsmassen sichtbar, als die dem Leser des Ṛgveda zunächst entgegentretenden.”
3Arbman (1927b, 385 f.) “… so wird man vor die fast unabweisbare Schlußforderung gestellt, daß auch die Rigvedasänger sich den Tod in derselben [i.e. identical with the post-Ṛgvedic texts] sinnlich-konkreten Weise als eine wirkliche Fortdauer der Verstorbenen in einem düsteren, unterirdischen Hades vorstellten, von der nur die befreit waren, denen es gelungen war, sich schon zu Lebzeiten den Zutritt zum Himmel und damit ewiges Leben zu sichern. Ich möchte glauben, daß die meisten religionsgeschichtlich orientierten Leser dieser Untersuchung dahin neigen werden, sich dieser Annahme ziemlich vorbehaltlos anzuschließen, und zwar aus dem Grunde, weil die Vorstellung eines Totenreiches zweifelsohne einen in jeder Hinsicht primitiveren Glauben als die eines himmlischen Paradieses repräsentiert. Denn während die letztere sich ganz gut als eine Entwicklung aus der erstgenanten verstehen läßt, scheint es ganz unmöglich, diese aus jener genetisch zu erklären. Somit muß auch der Hadesglaube der späteren vedischen Texte als ein—immer noch durchaus lebendiges—Überbleibsel aus weit älteren Zeiten aufgefaßt werden.”
4See e.g. Renou (1956, 26).
5See Thieme (1952b), whose interpretation of terms like amṛ́ta had its predecessors, and Gonda (1959c, 97): “amṛta- is ‘life’ in the sense of ‘continuance of life, vitality, attainment of old age, being secure against a premature death’.”
6Converse (1971, 441 f.) “There is evidence of Dāsa princes turning from the old worship to the Vedic religion, and that the Dāsas are not primarily just a servant population. Thus in the first hymns the relation to the Dāsas is enmity, in the second there is incorporation only of a special few singled out by action of the gods, and finally there is a sort of co-existence with those Dāsas who had remained within the Ārya territory and the desire for peace with those who bordered it. And it is in this last situation that the new doctrine of immortality makes its appearance in the Vedic hymns.”
7See, however, the doubts expressed by Oldenberg (1909, 270).
8See Kuiper (1983, 262b s.v.) who interprets the stone house as the cosmic rock or hill, as the nether world (see especially p. 69).
9See Kuiper (1979, 71); see, however, also Lincoln (1982).
10“Wo das ewige Licht ist, in welche Welt die Sonne gesetzt ist, in diese versetze mich, o Pavamāna, in die unsterbliche, unvergängliche Welt!” (Geldner).
11On kartá see also Arbman (1928, 205).
12Converse (1971, 208) “… the next to the last hymn of Book IX (at the end of an un-ordered, latest portion).”
13See also Arbman (1928, 200).
14See above, p. 104.

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Vedic Cosmology and Ethics

Selected Studies


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