Redeath and Its Relation to Rebirth and Release

in Vedic Cosmology and Ethics
Open Access

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The concept of redeath (or repeated death), though being of fundamental importance in the development of the history of Vedic ideas, has been treated in a rather stepmotherly fashion by most of the handbooks. E.g. Oldenberg (19172) only mentions the “Wiedertod” in a footnote (565, n. 1), where he refers to a footnote in his Die Lehre der Upaniṣaden. The term punarmṛtyu is found only twice in Gonda (1960, 197; 206).

In 1906 Oltramare indeed extensively treats “La victoire sur la seconde mort” (pp. 505–509), but its origin and position in the history of Vedic conceptions do not become clear. He refers to the fear of Brahmin thinkers for the ultimate end of life in yonder world, but fails to explain why this fear arose in some late Vedic texts.

Keith (1925) dedicates 26 lines to the renewed death (pp. 572–573) in which he emphasizes its origin and its transition to the concept of rebirth. As usual his explanation is only based on common sense. The fear of repeated death would have developed “in accordance with the desire to distinguish the diverse degrees of good acquired by different modes of sacrifice … the Brahmans had to consider the claim of the richer of their patrons, and had to promise them more in the world to come than the poorer, who offered and gave less” (572).

One may doubt the correctness of this rationalization, since the term punarmṛtyu is only found in rather late Vedic texts, whereas rich sacrificers were already living in the most ancient period. Moreover, it is not quite clear how the fear (thrice mentioned by Keith) for this particular type of death should be connected with the alleged business instinct of the Brahmins. Why was this fear absent in the earlier period? Did the Brahmins later on kid their patrons into this obsession and simultaneously offer some expensive solutions? The defeat of punarmṛtyu by means of e.g. the simple Agnihotra hardly fits into Keith’s socio-economic model. His association of redeath with the later concept of rebirth (“It remained only to transfer it to the present world and the effect of transmigration was reached,” p. 573) sounds rather simplistic in the absence of any foundation in the texts. Still these ideas about a growing fear for redeath and a logical transition from redeath to rebirth are found in several later publications.

As already observed Gonda (1960) only twice mentions the term punarmṛtyu, once (p. 197) in his treatment of “Prajāpati und die rituelle Überwindung des Todes” (187–197) and once (p. 206) in the discussion of “Brahman-Ātman, Karman-Lehre und Erlösungsstreben” (197–213), but it is not clear how he conceives the position of the concept. On the one hand the Agnicayana produces “Unsterblichkeit” (a term consistently placed between quotation-marks and on p. 196 further explained as “richtiger wäre: die Fortdauer des Lebens”) and in this connection the victory over punarmṛtyu is also mentioned; on the other hand the defeat of punarmṛtyu through the Agnicayana is treated in the context of obtaining eternal life in yonder world (p. 206). Is this immortality different from “Unsterblichkeit” procured by every Agnicayana?

Moreover Gonda’s explanation of the origin of the concept of punarmṛtyu raises some questions: “Die hier auf Erden durch rituelles Werk und religiöses Verdienst gewonnene Welt war nach herkömmlicher Ansicht vergänglich … . Die alte Furcht vor Zerstörung und Vernichtung nach dem Tode … wandelt sich in Angst vor neuem Sterben im Jenseits, vor dem Wiedertod (Punarmṛtyu)” (p. 206). If the traditional view about life after death would be that it is not unlimited (a view which, as far as I can see, was first expressed in the late punarmṛtyu passages and not earlier), then one expects an explanation of the fact that only in late Vedic texts the fear for this repeated dying is formulated. And how could fear for immediate annihilation at death develop into fear for redeath?

Gonda also gives a second explanation of the origin of the concept of redeath: “Diese zweifellos durch das zyklische Denken und durch die Furcht, daß rituelle Verdienste im Jenseits verloren gehen können (TB 3, 10, 11, 2), mitbestimmte Überzeugung wird uns verständlicher, wenn wir lesen, daß der Eintritt ins Totenreich als eine neue Geburt betrachtet wurde. Sobald aber, in den Brāhmaṇas, die Wiedertod-Idee Einfluß gewinnt, zeigt sich das Jenseits in einer anderen Beleuchtung, in schärferen und beängstigenderen Konturen” (206). Why should one try to defeat redeath in yonder world, if yonder world is described “in … beängstigenderen Konturen”? Moreover, rebirth in yonder world is only an expression denoting that death was not total annihilation. People are not reborn as children in heaven; so there is no need to assume death as a logical end of life in yonder world.

According to Gonda the only solution for redeath was ritual in the circles of the priests. “Noch in der BĀU. (1, 2, 7; 1, 5, 3; 3, 3, 2) wird der esoterischen Kenntnis der rituell-kosmischen Zusammenhänge diese befreiende Kraft beigelegt. In Verbindung mit der Ātman-Lehre vollzog sich jedoch in diesen Vorstellungen eine Änderung. … Nur diejenigen, die sterben, nachdem sie hier das Selbst gefunden haben, werden—so lautet nun die Lehre—wahrlich frei, … Von jetzt an tritt die Furcht vor dem Wiedertod im Jenseits in den Hintergrund” (p. 206).

One may doubt whether fear of punarmṛtyu was removed by the doctrine about the ātman. Ritual and the esoteric knowledge about this ritual were perfectly able to avert this fear. In my view it was the ritualistic mokṣa aiming at immortality in heaven which was replaced by a different aim: mokṣa from rebirth and mokṣa in Brahman. The smooth transition from the one idea to the other, as pictured by Gonda, does not convince.

Studies on the doctrine of transmigration and its origin mostly pay attention to punarmṛtyu. Since real immortality in heaven excludes rebirth on earth, the concept of immortality is critically examined by some scholars. Now it is a fact that amṛta and amṛtatva often do not refer to immortality on a level with the immortality of the gods, but to non-dying or continuation of life on earth. This was already observed by Boyer (1901, 451–499; especially p. 454 and 457 ff.). According to Boyer (p. 464) the fact that amṛtatva could denote a long life on earth rather than unlimited immortality, should imply that references in the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā to amṛtatva in yonder world also exclude the possibility of an endless immortality in heaven. Thus the idea of punarmṛtyu would be very old, though the term as such is only found in late Vedic texts. It is doubtful whether we may assume such an implicit punarmṛtyu. Moreover, Boyer is not quite consistent in his argumentation. On p. 466 f. he adduces a few verses from the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā in which immortality is asked for or promised and in this connection he observes that apparently this amṛtatva in the sense of real immortality should be an exception.

So Boyer seems to accept life in heaven as a fact for the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā and immortality as an exception, though first he had tried to show that the term amṛtatva as such only denoted a long life on earth as well as in heaven. However, it can be proved that the concept of life after death in heaven is very exceptionable in the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā. There is no reason to assume that this life in heaven which in texts after the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā was obtained by all the meritorious sacrificers, should be regarded as limited. The concept of punarmṛtyu is a late innovation. In this respect I disagree with Boyer (474 ff.).

As to the transition from redeath to rebirth Boyer excluding the possibility of total annihilation observes that “une solution très simple” was unavoidable: dying is going to yonder world and therefore dying in yonder world is going to this world. Unfortunately the passages in which punarmṛtyu is found never refer to rebirth on earth and so the logical solution cannot be proved.

In 1927b–1928 Arbman makes a distinction between heaven (reserved for gods and the chosen few) and the realm of the dead. The punarmṛtyu is located by him in the latter world and regarded as an ever repeated rather than as a second death: “Das ‘Jenseits, jene andere Welt,’ wo der Mensch wieder und wieder vom Tode getroffen wird, ist nicht anderes als ein dunkel und unbestimmt gefaßtes Totenreich, das als solches zum ‘Himmel’ (svargaloka), der ‘Welt der Götter’ (devaloka) im Gegensatz steht, die der Macht des Todes entrückt ist” (1928, 238). This seems doubtful. Indeed once or twice we find indications about a repetitious death, but mostly punarmṛtyu refers to dying a second time. Moreover, it is uncertain whether this punarmṛtyu should exclusively be associated with the unsuccessful and non-meritorious deceased. I am under the impression that punarmṛtyu also hits the deceased who have stayed some time in a yonder world which is not the gloomy realm of the dead assumed by Arbman. Arbman does not explain the lateness of the references to this concept.

Rodhe (1946) extensively quotes passages on punarmṛtyu (86–91; 97–100), but hardly clarifies the background and origin of this concept. His observation that “this idea may have served as a stage in the development of the idea of man being born to a new life on earth” (p. 87) is neither further elaborated nor substantiated.

In his article of 1971 Horsch tries to give some explanations. Following Boyer he states: “Da man sich das Weiterleben im Jenseits nach Analogie zum irdischen Dasein vorstellte, lag die Annahme nicht fern, daß man auch in der andern Welt sterben könnte” (p. 134). However, the parallelism of life in yonder world and on earth is not complete, since the deceased is not supposed to be reborn in heaven as a child. Moreover, Horsch does not convincingly explain why the idea of punarmṛtyu appeared so late in Vedic literature.

He mentions three points: 1) In the later Brāhmaṇa period there would be an increasing interest in yonder world; 2) The Agnicayana ritual, with which punarmṛtyu is often associated, deals with immortality; 3) Ritualism lost popularity and became replaced by esoteric knowledge (p. 141). It is true that the mentioned three points coincide with the rise of the concept of punarmṛtyu, but their relation to this concept is still unclear. Realizing this Horsch tries to define “das soziale Milieu dieses ritualistisch-spekulativen Kreises” and then concentrates on the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa. His remark “Vorerst fällt auf, daß in der wichtigsten Quelle, dem Brāhmaṇa der hundert Pfade, nur jene Bücher die Wiedertod-Konzeption vertreten, die mit dem Namen Yājñavalkya in Beziehung stehen (Buch II und X f.), während die Śāṇḍilya-Abschnitte (Buch VIX) nichts davon berichten” (p. 141) raises some questions. The most important passages are found in ŚB 10, which is not a Yājñavalkya book, but a (late) Śāṇḍilya book dealing with the esoteric interpretation of the Agnicayana.

Horsch (1971) also associates the punarmṛtyu concept “mit den nicht-hieratischen Kulturbereichen jener Zeit und mit dem Kṣatriya-Milieu” (p. 142). It is doubtful whether punarmṛtyu may be associated with Kṣatriyas and at the same time with the Agnicayana, since this ritual has not specific relation to kings.

In an excursus of his article of 1989, Witzel deals with the emergence and spread of the concept of recurrent death and emphasizes its lateness. Having discussed the distribution of the term over the several Vedic schools he concludes: “The origin of the word (and of the concept) punarmṛtyu is, therefore, in all probability, to be found in the late Śāṇḍilya tradition of ŚB, e.g., not in the extreme East of Northern India, but in a more Western region” (pp. 204–205; see, however, also his n. 264: “Unless further research shows that ŚB 10, although a Śāṇḍilya book, was composed in the East by members of the Śāṇḍilya school”).

I do not underrate the importance of such a geographic stratification, but warn against attaching too much importance to it in connection with religious concepts. We have to take into account that in those times Vedic peoples rather than Vedic ritualistic schools moved through North India, though “The territory of a Vedic school mostly coincides with that of a particular tribe” (Witzel 1989, 116–117). For a Vedic ritual Yajurvedins like the Śāṇḍilyas always had to cooperate with Ṛgvedins and Sāmavedins. The references to and quotations from each other’s texts prove that Vedic religion in North India more or less formed a continuum in a particular period. Moreover individual Brahmins used to travel from the one region to the other (see also Witzel, p. 117). Therefore, for tracing the origin of a Vedic religious concept the relative chronology of the texts is more essential than their geographical background. Essential concepts like punarmṛtyu did not migrate through North India with moving tribes, peoples or Vedic schools. The map (Witzel, p. 202) showing the spread of the concept of recurrent death looks like a survey of the spread of cultures and archeological artefacts, but the situation of Vedic concepts and ideas requires a different approach.

The concept of punarmṛtyu is found in a limited number of text places, which have one aspect in common: their lateness. Witzel (1989, 203, n. 260) collected about 40 passages with the help of Vishva Bandhu’s concordance s.v. punarmṛtyu. See also Horsch (1971, 140, n. 52) for some references to late Vedic Sūtras and a passage in AB 8, 25, 2 which does not mention the term but deals with the concept: na punar mriyate. There are also a few references in the JB left out by Witzel, since they are not found in Caland (1919) and therefore are missing in Vishva Bandhu’s concordance. The lateness of the passages implies that they belong to a period in which the whole of North India including the Eastern part had an easy exchange of ideas.

The concept of redeath lost its significance as soon as the concepts of rebirth and release had become accepted. The limited period in which punarmṛtyu played a role indicates that it belonged to a period of transition to new ideas.

Most scholars interpret the concept of punarmṛtyu as a precursor of punarjanman in their theory of Vedic continuity. Rebirth would even be the logical outcome of redeath. Horsch (1971, 139) bluntly states: “Kein Zweifel besteht über den entwicklungsgeschichtlichen Zusammenhang von Wiedertod and Seelenwanderung.” Trying to save the Aryan continuity Horsch (1966, 478) observes on the transition from redeath to rebirth: “Übrigens: der Schritt vom Leben im Jenseits zum Wiedertod ist nicht größer als der vom Wiedertod zur Wiedergeburt im Diesseits. Am Arischen Ursprung des ersten Schlusses hat indes noch niemand gezweifelt.”

In her thesis of 1971 Converse attributed both the doctrine of rebirth and the concept of redeath to non-Aryan influences. Unfortunately Converse ascribed almost everything to the indigenous people (associated by her with the Indus civilization, Dravidians and Proto-Jainism). The idea of life after death would be a late penetration of indigenous influence in the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā. The punarmṛtyu as well as the Agnicayana by which it can be overcome, are interpreted as indigenous concepts and institutions. I will not elaborately discuss this thesis, which contains interesting observations side by side with pure nonsense, and I will not deal with all the arguments adduced in support of the hypothesis that all the interesting developments are due to indigenous influence. I just quote some statements on the general position of punarmṛtyu in Vedic ideology.1

Why should Vedic ritualists have adopted the doctrine of rebirth in the form of an adaptation (namely redeath)? In all the passages where punarmṛtyu occurs, the result of this repeated death is not described. If redeath were only a stage in the introduction of the doctrine of rebirth, one would expect at least one or two passages where rebirth as the result of redeath is mentioned. The late GB twice mentions punarmṛtyu side by side with punarājāti (1, 1, 15; 1, 3, 22). Both are defeated. It is evident, however, that these passages do not play a role in a development from redeath to rebirth.

The point is that the texts do not dwell on redeath and the fear for it. It is the defeat of punarmṛtyu which is emphasized, as was also realized by Converse: “… and the emphasis is less on the view of existence from which the fear arose than on the fact of the ready remedy of ritual and its minutiae” (p. 390).

Actually, the problem of punarmṛtyu always turns up together with its solution. This second death (in yonder world) is not treated as the common fate of all human beings. It is especially connected with the topic of the transitoriness of the (mostly ritual) merits. By implication most of the ritualistic claims on immortality are rejected. Only some specific rituals and particularly the esoteric knowledge connected with these rites qualify for eternal life in heaven.

It is hard to imagine that in the latest stage of the Vedic ritualistic literature some authorities would have spontaneously rejected the claims of all the previous ritualists and have introduced the transitoriness of the merits obtained by the rites described in the older texts. Or, to put it in other words: would the ritualists have doubted their own efficacy and have developed a fear for death in yonder world?

In my view the problem of punarmṛtyu, introduced together with its solution and with emphasis on this solution, reflects the reaction of the ritualists to attempts made by non-ritualists to devalue the ritualistic claims. These ritualists probably tried to refute the opinion of other circles that ultimately the merits become exhausted in heaven. By defeating punarmṛtyu real immortality is obtained. This victory is some sort of ritualistic mokṣa. Converse observes, that “it is significant to note that when the doctrine of transmigration does appear in the Vedic literature it immediately replaces that of punarmṛtyu” (p. 390). I would rather say that as soon as the doctrine of mokṣa obtained by non-ritual means had appeared, the topic of becoming released from death in yonder world by means of particular rituals disappeared. There is no reason to substitute punarmṛtyu by rebirth (which could easily be combined with punarmṛtyu as its consequence).

The real substitution is that of sacrifice as the path leading to immortality by other methods of release. The devayāna as described by ChU 5, 10, 1 and BĀU 6, 2, 15 is reserved for the people in the araṇya, whereas the ritualists in the grāma enter upon the pitṛyāna (ChU 5, 10, 3; BĀU 6, 2, 16). By way of compromise knowledge of the pañcāgnividyā is also mentioned as a qualification for the devayāna-mokṣa: The five fires of this doctrine are represented as symbolic Agnihotra fires, but the actual performance of the Agnihotra hardly plays a role anymore. This is even more evident in the parallel passage KauṣU 1, 2. Knowledge and asceticism substitute the ritual.

It is difficult to prove or disprove that these ascetics and other people living in the araṇya were non-Aryans. Moreover the problem of ethnicity is more difficult than sometimes assumed. The acculturation between Aryans and non-Aryans started already before the period of the oldest Upaniṣads. It is clear, however, that the people in the araṇya did not (exclusively) consist of retired sacrificers and one may suppose that the concept of mokṣa from rebirth originated with renouncers who were in competition with the Vedic orthodoxy of the ritualists. These renouncers need not be regarded as non-Aryans, but indigenous influence may have played a role.

The point is that Vedic literature (to some extent even including the Upaniṣads) was dominated by the ritualists and that other aspects of Vedic religion were hardly represented in the texts. Still there are some stray references to religious paths other than ritual.

In TB 3, 12, 8, 5 the bricks of the fire-altar are (i.a.) interpreted as satya, śraddhā, tapas and dama. According to AB 2, 13 the gods reached heaven by means of yajña, śrama and tapas. JUB 4, 26, 15 equates the three sacred fires with karma (sacrifice?), śama and dama. In the Upaniṣads enumerations of religious practices are found: yajña, dāna, tapas, anāśaka (BĀU 4, 4, 22); yajña, mauna, anāśakāyana, araṇyāyana (ChU 8, 5, 1–3); tapas, dāna, ārjava, ahiṁsā, satyavacana (ChU 3, 17, 4); tapas, dama, karma (KeU 4, 8); ṛta, satya, tapas, dama, śama, agnayas, agnihotra, hospitality, mānuṣa (read mānasa?), prajā, satya, tapas (TU 1, 9); satya, tapas, dama, śama, dāna, dharma, prajana, agnayas, agnihotra, yajña, mānasa, nyāsa ( 10 = MNU 505–516).

The ritualists and the non-ritualists form an opposition in the pitṛyāna-devayāna texts of ChU and BĀU. The non-ritualists obtain mokṣa from the cycle of rebirths. Release from punarmṛtyu is the aim of the ritualists and is only found in some late Brāhmaṇa/Āraṇyaka texts and in the BĀU. In the other Upaniṣads it no more plays a role. This means that the concept of release from punarmṛtyu is only found in a limited number of texts covering a very short period. It looks like an ultimate effort of the ritualists to hold their ground in a difficult period in which other aims were threatening the position of the sacrifice.

The theme of the victory over punarmṛtyu (to be regarded as a reaction against the scepticism of the non-ritualists who doubted the eternity of sacrificial merits and consequently of life in heaven) must have been developed somewhere in North India in the period when the latest strata of Brāhmaṇa literature were composed. If our hypothesis on the background of this theme is correct, there is no need to look for a geographical localization of its origin. Reactions against the claims of Vedic ritualism may have arisen everywhere, though the outskirts of the traditional Aryan culture (especially the extreme East) would seem to be a probable place of origin.

Witzel (1989, 204–205) assumes that the starting point lies with the Śāṇḍilya tradition of the late tenth book of the ŚB and therefore concludes that the origin of the punarmṛtyu concept is to be found “not in the extreme East of Northern India, but in a more Western region” or even more to the South, where the Jaiminīyas may be localized (p. 205). However, JB 1, 245 describes a discussion at the court of Janaka of Videha in which a local Brahmin fears the competition of the Brahmins from the country of the Kurus and Pañcālas, travelling Brahmins who show contempt of the peoples beyond the borders of Aryan civilisation. Ultimately he turns out to know more than these Kuru-Pañcāla Brahmins and it is his claim that this knowledge will bring king Janaka beyond punarmṛtyu. Moreover, several other passages dealing with punarmṛtyu describe discussions in Videha, e.g. JB 1, 23–25. Horsch (1971, 141–142) emphasizes the connection with North East India.

Horsch also attaches much importance to the association with the Kṣatriyas (p. 142). Now it is a fact that esoteric discussions often took place at the court of kings and that especially innovating aspects are often attributed to Kṣatriyas. However, the topic of a Kṣatriya who teaches a Brahmin a lesson is not significantly associated with the theme of the victory over punarmṛtyu (especially in comparison with the early passages on rebirth).

Witzel (1989, 205) draws attention to the fact that the Agnicayana and the Agnihotra play an important role in discussions on punarmṛtyu and in this connection observes: “It is to be noted that both rituals were of immediate concern for non-Brahmins as well; many Kṣatriyas take part in the discussions about the Agnihotra, a standard topic of the brahmodyas and other types of public debates. The Agnicayana was, due to its costs and the elaborate rituals involved, of interest especially to the royal families and the well-to-do gentry.” However, the Agnicayana is not a specifically royal ritual like the Rājasūya or the Aśvamedha and the performance of the Agnihotra for Kṣatriyas is even problematic according to some texts (see Bodewitz 1976, 116–118).

It is rather to be observed that Kṣatriyas play a role as organisers of, or participants in, interesting esoteric discussions and that for some reasons the Agnicayana and the Agnihotra often formed the subject of these discussions.

Therefore we have to look for the ideological background of the passages in which punarmṛtyu (and especially its being overcome) play a role. The Agnicayana is undoubtedly important in this connection, but it is remarkable that the extensive treatment of this ritual in ŚB 6–8 contains no references at all to the concept.

In my discussion of the punarmṛtyu passages I will only treat the elements which are essential for the claims on immortality. The theme of the victory over punarmṛtyu is found in the description of several rites which in this connection only once play a role and therefore are hardly relevant for our analysis. Moreover, several passages just mention the theme without giving any further information. Still a certain concentration on a limited number of rituals is to be discerned: the Agnicayana, the Agnihotra and the Brahmayajña.

These three rituals have one thing in common: the aspect of representing a symbolic sacrifice or of being sometimes substituted by a symbolic version. In this respect they may be associated with the debate between the ritualist and the non-ritualist. They seem to represent the answer of the traditional Vedic ritualist to the criticism of people outside the ritualistic circles who preferred wisdom (vidyā or jñāna) to action or ritual (karman). The interiorized ritual does not attach much importance to the actual performance. The symbolism, the knowledge of the implications and the relation to man himself are essential. The adhiyajña, adhidaiva and adhyātma approach of Vedic religion is especially evident in the esoteric discussions on the Agnicayana2 and (to some extent) the Agnihotra. The performance of the ritual affects the situation of man and cosmos and actualizes the macro-microcosmic identification. The ritual has a threefold scope of action: itself, cosmos and man. It is also said that elements of the ritual are actually placed inside man himself.

The Brahmayajña is not a real yajña, not even a real sacrifice. It consists of the study and recitation of the Veda. On the Brahmayajña (= Svādhyāya) in relation to actual sacrifices on the one hand and the sphere of the araṇya on the other see Malamoud (1977, 5 ff.). Malamoud (p. 9) rightly connects this Svādhyāya with the Ātmayajña. For the relation between the Agnihotra and the Ātmayajña substitute (in the form of the Prāṇāgnihotra) see Bodewitz 1973, 213 ff.

For our research many places are not interesting.3 The remaining text places will be discussed. I start with the Agnicayana passages:

TB 3, 11, 8, 5–6 deals with the Nāciketa piling of the altar and forms the possible source of KaṭhU 1. Actually it is a Kaṭha text inserted in TB. This particular piling of the altar removes punarmṛtyu (and in the second boon of Naciketas also the destruction of merits, the cause of punarmṛtyu). The direct context does not explain the specific nature of this Nāciketa piling. Further on, however, in that section of the text which was no more translated by Deussen (1897, 263; see now Dumont 1951, 653), the interiorization of this ritual becomes evident. Prajāpati threw gold into the fire. It did not satisfy him. Then he threw this gold into himself, into his heart, into Agni Vaiśvānara. We may connect this statement with KaṭhU 1, 14 (nihitaṁ guhāyām). See Bodewitz (1985, 9–13; this vol. pp. 69–72) on the interior Agnicayana in this Upaniṣad.

ŚB 10, 1, 4, 14 equates the sacrificer who piles the altar with Agni, the immortal. A microcosmic counterpart of the ritual and the cosmic entity is produced. The tripartite aspect of the ritual is stressed just as in KaṭhU 1, 17–18 (see Bodewitz 1985, 12–13; this vol. p. 73).

ŚB 10, 2, 6, 19 deals with the immortality of the Agnicit in a context which again starts from the cosmic, ritual and the microcosmic tripartition.

ŚB 10, 4, 3, 9–10 (not mentioned by Witzel 1989, since the term punarmṛtyu is missing, though the concept plays a role) makes a distinction between those who know an esoteric interpretation of the Agnicayana and those who do not. The latter become the victim of death again and again in yonder world, whereas the first come to life again after death and become immortal. Immortality is obtained after separation from the body, the only prey of death. This means that the old ideal of living on in heaven with a (new) body is rejected. One may reach this immortality either through action or ritual (karman) or through knowledge (vidyā). The text, however, rectifies this statement by saying that the fire-altar (or the piling of this altar) is karman as well as vidyā. In my view this rejection of the opposition between karman and vidyā reflects the discussion current in those times on the preferable ways leading to immortality. The Brāhmaṇa simply equates ritualism with the path of wisdom.

ŚB 10, 5, 1, 4 describes how on account of a particular knowledge of the piling of the altar the sacrificer passes the sun and leaves the world of mortality (cf. JB 1, 11: Agnihotra). The next paragraph (10, 5, 1, 5) states that the body of the immortal then will consist of Ṛc, Yajus and Sāman (cf. JB 1, 2: Agnihotra). The text continues (10, 5, 2) with a tripartite equation in which the man in the sun, the gold man below the altar and the manikin in the right eye (a primitive conception of the soul) are identified. The threefoldness is again emphasized and 10, 5, 2, 6 states that one need not mind destroying the altar (after the conclusion of the ritual), since it is yonder world. The ritual is just a means for establishing the immortality of the sacrificer.

ŚB 10, 6, 1, 4–9/11, though belonging to the Agnicayana section, deals with Agni Vaiśvānara, which is variously interpreted by the participants in a debate with Aśvapati Kaikeya (a king). Aśvapati identifies Agni Vaiśvānara with man himself. The knowledge of Agni Vaiśvānara overcomes punarmṛtyu. In the parallel ChU 5, 11–18 Agni Vaiśvānara is replaced by Ātman Vaiśvānara and the term punarmṛtyu is no more used. The knowledge of the Ātman Vaiśvānara is here connected with a ritual (ChU 5, 18, 2–5, 19–24), a symbolic sacrifice, an Ātmayajña, a Prāṇāgnihotra. Here the Upaniṣad also follows its source, since ŚB 10, 6, 2 likewise continues with the eating of food; the threefold eater is the sun (cosmic), Agni (ritual) and the breath. Cf. MaiU 6, 2 atha ya eṣo ’ntare hṛtpuṣkara evāśrito ’nnam atti sa eṣo ’gnir divi śritaḥ sauraḥ (an Upaniṣad dealing with the interiorization of the Agnicayana as well as of the Agnihotra). In the discussed passage the fire altar is placed inside man. The same is found in KaṭhU 1,14.

The Brahmayajña is associated with defeating punarmṛtyu in ŚB 11, 5, 6, 9, where it is also stated that one attains sātmatā with Brahman. In the next Brāhmaṇa (11, 5, 7) the daily study is praised and equated with ritual (11, 5, 7, 3 “And whatever portion of the sacred poetry he studies for his lesson, with that ritual is sacrificed by him who knowing thus studies his lesson”). Study may substitute ritual and overcome redeath.

2, 14, 1 likewise deals with study (Adhyāya = Brahmayajña) in a passage on punarmṛtyu and makes the one who studies reach sāyujya with Brahman, a turn of phrase also used by ŚāṅkhB 21, 1 in connection with smiting away death, the evil (an implicit punarmṛtyu passage); see also BGS 3, 8, 5–6 on reaching brahmaṇas sāyujyaṁ salokatām and overcoming punarmṛtyu. Study is described as a symbolic sacrifice. See also 2, 19, 1 on a brahmopasthāna which secures freedom from punarmṛtyu. BaudhDhS 2, 6, 8–9 describes the Svādhyāya-Brahmayajña as a symbolic sacrifice (equation between ritual and microcosmic entities), which destroys punarmṛtyu.

In ŚāṅkhĀ 13, 1 the Brahmayajña which drives away repeated death is associated with someone whose body is prepared for indifference to desire and concentration on the ātman. The whole passage concerns meditation and the search for Brahman/ātman.

ŚB 12, 3, 4, 11 (context: sattra and sacrifice in general) deals with placing all the worlds, all the gods, all the Vedas and all the vital powers (i.e. all the imperishable) inside oneself and conquering redeath.

JB 1, 46 mentions the situation of someone who does not overcome redeath, since he misses the required knowledge about his own identity. From JB 1, 49–50 and 1, 18 it appears that one can become more successful by knowing one’s non-individuality and by identifying oneself with the highest deity, the sun. The successful soul obtains salokatā with the sun (1, 50), the unsuccessful one (1, 46) does not return to earth for rebirth. He stays during some time in a world won by his merits and ultimately will be reached by redeath. Implicitly the Agnihotra plays a role in the defeat of punarmṛtyu.

JB 1, 245–246 (Jyotiṣṭoma) comments upon three Virājs: the cosmic, the sacrificial and the human, by which one may get rid of redeath. This reminds us of the threefold approach in the Agnicayana.

JB 1, 252 (not found in Caland 1919 and not containing the term punarmṛtyu and therefore not mentioned by Witzel) deals with death in heaven (cf. JB 2, 350) which is passed and states that someone who knows particular numeral agreements between Stomas in the Jyotiṣṭoma and cosmic as well as microcosmic entities, will not die again (na punar mriyate). The ideology of the Ātmayajña is present in so far as one places oneself in all the mentioned cosmic entities (especially referring to the year and its subdivisions) and thereby cosmifies oneself. The threefold approach is again striking. It is also remarkable that the body is regarded as the evil, death, which should be overcome. Cf. JUB 3, 38, 10, where it is stated that with a body one becomes the victim of death and that the bodyless is immortal. The old Vedic ideal of continuing life in heaven with a perfect body has already become defeated by new conceptions in which immortality loses its connection with an incorporated individual.

Most of the passages discussed above deal with the Agnicayana and the Brahmayajña. The contribution of the Agnihotra is less conspicuous, though there are many contexts in which punarmṛtyu is found that belong to Agnihotra sections. Probably these rituals were especially associated with religious aims which retained some relevance in later times.

TU 1, 9 and 10 (= MNU) mention together agnayas and agnihotra among the aims in life lower than saṁnyāsa (see quotation above). I think that agnayas should refer to the several types of agnicitis.

The Agnicayana forms the central ritualistic and esoteric subject of Yajurvedic Upaniṣads like the MaiU, the KaṭhU, the ŚvetU and the TU. The Agnihotra also plays a role in the MaiU. Here we are in the sphere of the symbolic or interiorized rituals, the Ātmayajñas. Probably both the Agnicayana and the Agnihotra formed the ultimate foundations of the ritualists in the competition of the paths of salvation. It was their symbolism rather than the actual performance which carried weight and in this respect these Vedic rituals (together with the pseudo-ritual of the Brahmayajña) could be associated with defeating punarmṛtyu.

It is evident that the concept of punarmṛtyu which is almost exclusively found in passages where its defeat is described, should be interpreted in the context of an antagonism between ritualism and other paths leading to final bliss. The defeat of punarmṛtyu is the answer of the ritualists (the Brahmins) to the challenge of the non-ritualists who say that ultimately everybody will die in the heaven promised by the Brahmins. The only passage in AB dealing with punarmṛtyu (8, 25) conspicuously defends the position of the Brahmin (in this case as the Purohita). Here, in this relatively old passage, where the ritual hardly plays a role, still no concessions are made to new ideas, but in the later texts almost all the old Vedic ideals concerning life after death are given up. Overcoming punarmṛtyu does not produce individual immortality but amounts to selfannihilation in Brahman, i.e. some sort of mokṣa. For such a release, however, one does not need a ritual. Even the Ātmayajña, the last strategic weapon of the ritualistic texts, could not avail against meditation and non-ritual practices.

*First published in Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik 20, 1996, pp. 27–46.
1Converse (1971) “In the case of the punarmṛtyu references in the Ṛgveda Brāhmaṇas it would appear that the ritual structure, and the preoccupation of the priests with it, both provided a means of entry into Vedic religion for an indigenous conception, perhaps of rebirth, and at the same time masked it and reoriented it entirely to the ritual system” (p. 316); “… and the doctrine of punarmṛtyu may represent attempts to neutralize the transmigration doctrine by adaptation and incorporation without relinquishing the importance of this life and this world” (p. 378 f.); “Most scholars have held that the punarmṛtyu concept was an early stage in the development, from Vedic conceptions, of the doctrine of transmigration. However, … it would appear rather that the punarmṛtyu concept represents a stage in the incorporation of the indigenous doctrine of transmigration” (p. 390).
2The interiorization of the Agnicayana is evident in several Yajurvedic Upaniṣads: MaiU (see Van Buitenen 1962, passim; Bodewitz 1973, 275 ff.; the opening of the Upaniṣad even identifies the Agnicayana with Brahmayajña); TU (see Van Buitenen 1962, 29 ff.; Bodewitz 1973, 291 f.); KaṭhU (Bodewitz 1985; this vol. ch. 6); ŚvU (Oberlies 1988).
3AB 8, 25 (Purohita), ŚāṅkhB 25, 1 (Viṣuvat), TB 3, 9, 22, 4 (apunarmāra in connection with Aśvamedha); 3, 10, 10, 4 (Agnicayana); ŚB 2, 3, 3, 9 (Agnihotra); ŚB 10, 6, 5, 8 (Aśvamedha); ŚB 11, 4, 3, 20 (Mitravindā rite); ŚB 12, 9, 3, 11–12 (Sautrāmaṇī); JB 1, 6 (Agnihotra); 1, 13 (Agnihotra); 1, 23; 25 (Agnihotra); 2, 350–351 (punarmṛtyu also called mṛtyu in heaven; not in Caland 1919, not mentioned by Witzel); JUB 3, 35, 7–8; 4, 28, 6 (unless the connection between the Sāvitrī and Svādhyāya as a Brahmayajña is overemphasized); GB 1, 1, 15; 1, 3, 22; BŚS 2, 11 (Agnyādhāna); 28, 4 (Prāyaścitti); VādhS 3, 9 (Agnyādhāna); BĀU 1, 2, 7 (Aśvamedha; cf. ŚB 10, 6, 5, 8); BĀU 1, 5, 2; 3, 2, 10; 3, 3, 2; HirŚS 18, 4, 61; BGS 3, 8, 6.

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Vedic Cosmology and Ethics

Selected Studies


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