In handbooks of Vedic religion and Hinduism life after death in the Veda, especially in the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā, is often represented in a rather simplified way. It is almost exclusively the heavenly continuation of life that receives attention. Realizing that this cannot have been the destination of all human beings, some scholars assume a belief in hell. However, the data on hell are rather scarce in the oldest Vedic text.1 It looks as if the opposition of hell and heaven was a later development.
In other, comparable, cultures instead of heaven an underworld plays a role (van Baaren 1987, 118), e.g. in Greece. So a concept of a subterranean life after death might have preceded the later generally found idea of immortality in heaven. Some scholars have even assumed that originally annihilation was the ultimate destination of all beings (e.g. Converse 1971, 337), in spite of the fact that “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, 116). The fate of the deceased might also be connected with the funeral customs. Since, however, life does not end with the funeral rites but with death, ideas on souls leaving the body should also be taken into account.2
In his handbook of Vedic religion Oldenberg (19172, 523 ff.) accepted the opposition of heaven and hell for the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā, but assumed an underworld comparable to Greek Hades as the original ultimate destination of man. Since the traces of this situation as sketched by him were rather scarce and especially in later Vedism heaven represented the exclusive aim of the ritualistic texts, Oldenberg’s views were not generally accepted.3
In a likewise surprisingly neglected article of 1927b–1928 Ernst Arbman tried to revive Oldenberg’s theory. In the latest handbook on Vedic religion Gonda (19782, 98, 181) completely overlooked Oldenberg’s and Arbman’s views, though von Glasenapp in his concise handbook on Indian religions had correctly observed that originally the world of the forefathers was conceived as “ein unter der Erde liegendes Totenreich” and that this subterranean realm was shifted to “ein überirdisches Reich”; he added, “Die Vorstellung von der Unterwelt wird damit aber nicht aufgegeben” (1955, 84).
In 1994 I published an article on life after death in the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā (see this vol. ch. 8) in which I continued the line of thought of Oldenberg and Arbman and tried to show that paradise in heaven was only found in the latest layers of this text. In the same year Klaus Butzenberger wrote a paper on this subject, which was published in 1996. It is evident that my article was brought to his attention in a very late phase. He refers to it, but does not discuss or criticize it, reserving his criticism for Arbman.4
Butzenberger (1996, 71 ff.) assumes that the Vedic concept of life after death in heaven developed in consequence of changing funeral customs. When burial was substituted by cremation the realm of the dead became situated in heaven. Butzenberger, however, does not accept the association of the earlier practice of burial with a subterranean world of the dead.5 The possible references to this underworld in the older layers of the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā are interpreted by him as referring to the grave.6 Both hell and nether world would be absent in the older Veda. It even looks as if Butzenberger wants to regard the introduction of cremation as coinciding with the discovery of life after death. If that assumption is made, it would be strange that burial was not completely given up at once, since cremation automatically results in a transfer to heaven according to Butzenberger. Excellent conduct and merits would not matter any more. Butzenberger does indeed draw this far-reaching conclusion and observes that suddenly a common eschatological perspective open to everybody was developed.
This is not convincing. As in other religions, the prospects of immortality in heaven in Vedism do not depend on automatisms like the technique of the funeral. You can’t buy a ticket to heaven. Heaven has to be won by specified merits. By focusing on cremation and burial, Butzenberger also misinterpreted the Vedic conceptions of the soul and neglected the crucial moment of dying. It is evident that he has barely read Arbman’s publication on life after death (1927b–1928), let alone Arbman’s articles of 1926–1927a on primitive and Vedic conceptions of the soul, though these were elaborately discussed by me in a publication of 1991 included in Butzenberger’s bibliography but entirely neglected by him. It is a pity that he also did not take into account the important material of the Atharvaveda Saṁhitā on life after death and the soul.
As a text in its final shape the Atharvaveda Saṁhitā is definitely much later than the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā, but part of its contents may reflect views which are older and more original. The references in this text to dark and deep places and to downward paths to these places cannot be interpreted as concerning the grave for several reasons.
If we take into account the date of the text, we would not expect any mention of the grave, since cremation had already substituted burial. Looking at the contents, which might reflect older ideas and institutions, here, too, one has to conclude that references to the grave are excluded, since this text deals e.g. with free-souls which temporarily have left the body and should be called back to this world by Atharvaṇic magic. Such a free-soul which is described as having gone downward and which should come upwards, cannot be situated in a grave. Unconscious people simply do not yet have a grave.
In Butzenberger’s view, however, there is no concept of a soul in the older layers of the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā7 and the totality of the person moves to yonder world (1996, 65). Probably starting from the undoubtedly correct assumption that in yonder world souls without a body cannot drink Soma or have sex he emphasized the undividedness of the deceased person. It is true that in heaven body and soul appear together, but somewhere between death and the admission to heaven a so-called soul must be assumed acting apart from the body. This is also the case with seriously ill people who have lost consciousness and whose return to the body the Atharvaṇic magicians try to realize.
Before presenting the main results of my examination of the Atharvaveda material I have to state that though the Paippalāda recension may be older and more original, I follow the arrangement of the Śaunaka, since this recension is better documented and major differences are not to be expected for our subject.
The non-heavenly associations with death are to be found both in books 1–7 (the most authentic Atharvaṇic books) and in 8–12 and are almost missing in books 13–20. They can be distinguished into four categories, 1) hell; 2) the destination of unfavourable persons or items; 3) places allotted to rivals and enemies; 4) references to unconscious diseased who should not go down to the realm of death or should return from there.
The first category, which supposes sins and their punishment, is attested in six hymns.8 In five cases disrespectful behaviour towards Brahmins (especially the refusal to give a cow to them) forms the sin.9 In one case (20, 128, 2) defiling a sister, harming a friend and slighting one’s elders are the offences. Hymn 8, 4 (= ṚV 7, 104; see Bodewitz 1994, 29 f.; this vol. p. 101) deals with sinners in general (duṣkṛ́tas), liars, wicked people, demons, sorcerers etc.
The punished deceased go to hell. The term nā́raka is used in 12, 4, 36 and there it stands in opposition to Yama’s world. In the same hymn (12, 4, 3) the sinner falls into a pit (kāṭá), which proves that pit and hell denote the same. In 5, 19, 3 the punished transgressors have to sit in a stream of blood, devouring hair. One may compare the Bhṛgu story in Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa 1, 44, where likewise the maltreatment of Brahmins is punished in this way. In the Brāhmaṇa the place of punishment is the para loka to which Bhṛgu’s free-soul went after he lost his consciousness. It is even possible that Yama under the name of Krodha is ruling in that world (Bodewitz 1973, 109, n. 24).
According to Butzenberger (1996, 64, n. 30), who follows Arbman (1928, 233, n. 1) here, the first explicit references to a hell are found in AV 5, 19, 3 and 12, 4, 36 (see above). He does not mention 12, 4, 3, probably on account of the fact that kāṭá resembles kartá, which he interprets as the grave, in some contexts just representing death or annihilation.10
The sinners or wicked persons mentioned in 8, 4 (= ṚV 7, 104) are said to be thrown into a or the pit or cave (vavré antár), in darkness which offers no support (anārambhaṇé támasi)11 (8, 4, 3); in an abyss (párśāne) (AV ); to be placed in the lap of Nirṛti (8, 4, 9); to be pressed down below all the three earths (8, 4, 17). Oldenberg (19172, 538 f. discussing the Ṛgvedic source) here assumes a hell and observes that the description is too detailed to be interpreted as a metaphor for pure annihilation, whereas Arbman (1928, 198 f.) rejects Oldenberg’s analysis and draws attention to the fact that this hymn (ṚV 7, 104) is full of references to death and annihilation. Since in the most original Vedic ideas about death, life after death would be staying in some sort of Hades, the realistic references to a nether world would actually be metaphorical denotations of death and not refer to a hell according to Arbman. Butzenberger (see n. 10) also assumes metaphorical descriptions of death, but now based on concrete references to all kinds of graves.
In my view we should anyhow assume here a reference to an actual nether world, whether this is a Hades or a hell. Sinners are (i.a.) mentioned in the hymn, but it is true that punishments beyond death are missing. Living on after death seems to be implied by the wish that these evil beings should not return to the earth.12 The fact that together with the sinners even demons are mentioned is not in favour of interpreting the destination of all the destroyed beings as an actual, undivided realm of the dead.
In 12, 5, 64 the transgressors have to go from Yama’s seat to the worlds of the sinners (pāpalokā́n) which are called the parāvátas. No concrete further punishments are mentioned.
They who likewise have not correctly treated the Brahmins in 5, 18, 3 do not go the world of the Pitṛs. Their exact destiny and further punishment are not reported.
2 Destination of Unfavourable Persons or Items
For the second category, in which sin does not play a role, again six hymns13 provide the material. The unfavourable items are the Sadānvas (insects?) and sorceresses (2, 14, 3), fever (5, 22, 2–4), birds of ill omen (6, 29, 3), Piśācas (6, 32, 2), witch-craft (8, 5, 9), the flesh-eating cremation-fire (12, 2, 1; 8–10) and death (Mṛtyu) (12, 2, 21).
They should go to the lower house (adharāṅ gṛhás, 2, 14, 3), downwards (adharā́k or nyàk, 5, 22, 2–4; 12, 2, 1), to Yama’s house (6, 29, 3), to Yama’s subjects or vassals (12, 2, 8), to Yama (6, 32, 2), to the world of the Pitṛs (12, 2, 9), along the path of the Pitṛs (12, 2, 10), along a path which is different from that of the gods (12, 2, 21), to the farthest distances (párā … parāvátas, 8, 5, 9).14
It is obvious that heaven is not their destination. It is also clear that Yama here cannot be the heavenly god, since birds of ill omen and Piśācas can hardly be associated with the seat of Yama. The references to Yama’s subjects, the world of the fathers, paths used by the fathers etc. might point to Yama’s world in heaven, but the direction is explicitly said to be downward (adharā́k). Even if the latter term would mean “southward,” heaven can hardly be regarded a suitable place for the cremation fire. References to the grave are excluded here.
3 Rivals and Enemies
In this category15 again sin is not evident, but the place wished for the deceased is obviously not positive. Apart from the neutral designation “Yama’s dwelling-place” (2, 12, 7), everywhere darkness, downward movements and far distances play a role: darkness (12, 3, 49); lowest darkness (1, 21, 2; 9, 2, 4; 9; 10; 17–18; 10, 3, 9; 13, 1, 32); downwards (nīcáir, 9, 2, 1; 9, 2, 15), (adharā́ñc, 9, 2, 12), ádhara (7, 31, 1; 10, 3, 3; 13, 1, 31); farthest distance (páramā/párā parāvát, 3, 18, 3; 6, 75, 2). In 10, 3, 9 the term rájas is used side by side with adhamáṁ támas and therefore seems to denote the dark underworld. Cf. Greek erebos (Mayrhofer 1994, 426). It is striking that Yama’s dwelling-place is mentioned once in this category.
The three mentioned destinations refer to sinners, unfavourable items and enemies and might be taken together as hell,16 though sins and punishment often do not play a role. There are some common elements such as darkness, a low position or a downward movement and far distance. It is remarkable that Yama is sometimes associated with the second and third destinations, but is explicitly not connected with that destination which might be called hell.
4 Return of the Deceased or Almost Deceased
In the last category the possible destination of every deceased human being is referred to. Death is described as undesirable and there is no prospect of life in heaven. References to the gloomy world of death are found in five hymns.17
The deceased, who is probably unconscious, should come out of the lap of perdition (nírṛter upásthāt, 3, 11, 2; 7, 53, 3); he is taken upwards (úd) out of the fetters of perdition (nírṛtyāḥ pā́śebhyas, 8, 1, 3); he knows the ascent (udáyanam pathás; āróhaṇam; ākrámaṇam, 5, 30, 7); should rise upwards (utkram, 8, 1, 4); (uday, 8, 2, 8); come upwards out of the deep black darkness of death (udéhi mṛtyór gambhīrā́t kṛṣṇā́c cit támasas pári, 5, 30, 11); ascend (udroh; āroh) out of darkness (7, 53, 7; 8, 1, 8); come to the light (8, 2, 2); is taken from the lower (ádharasyās) to the upper earth (8, 2, 15); should not become someone living under the earth, a bhū́migṛha (5, 30, 14); is freed from the otherworldliness (amutrabhū́yād ádhi) of Yama (7, 53, 1); should not go down the path of darkness (8, 2, 10); should not go to the Pitṛs (apparently living in darkness, since the directly following verse deals with the ascent out of darkness) (8, 1, 7); should not go to darkness (8, 1, 10 and 8, 2, 1, adding rájas to támas), or to the lowest darkness (8, 2, 24). Darkness should not find him (8, 1, 16) or has gone away from him (8, 1, 21).
The verbs used to indicate the removal from Yama’s deep and dark world (mostly with the magician as the subject) are udhar (8, 2, 15), āhar (3, 11, 2; 7, 55, 3; 8, 1, 3), udbhar (8, 1, 3; 8, 2, 23), punar ā bhar (8, 2, 1), udgrabh (8, 1, 2) and utpar (8, 1, 18–19; 8, 2, 9).18
This is a far cry from the description of life in heaven with Yama. One might try to explain all this as metaphors denoting death seen as total annihilation. However, the references to a particular downward road, to a stay under the earth and to taking away the deceased or almost deceased or his soul from this location below to the world of the living are too specific.
How should we explain this pessimistic outlook in view of the many references to life after death in heaven? Of course, to some extent the different situations might explain the different expectations. In the funeral ceremonies life in heaven is the expected prospect pictured by the priests. In the context of some sacrifices the same prospect may be sketched for the sacrificer. The theological and ritualistic functions are of fundamental importance here.19 In the text places where human beings should be rescued from death described as dark and down, magic and medicine come to the fore. In most cultures doctors fight against the demon of death and when they fail priests and preachers promise eternal bliss after death.
Nevertheless I am under the impression that a more fundamental distinction should be made here. Life after death in heaven is a legacy from the latest20 layers of the ṚV. The ideas about a nether world (a Hades) which is not exclusively reserved for sinners and demons seem to represent older conceptions (which probably live on in later literature).
The bliss of heaven is described in the 18th book dealing with the funeral ritual. This is not surprising since this material is largely based on the 10th book of the ṚV. Outside this book about 25 hymns21 in the first 12 books refer to heaven. The majority of these hymns is partially or completely used in the typically Atharvaṇic rites called savas or savayajñas in which Brahmins receive all kinds of animals or rice-messes as gifts or as oblations.22 Actually, in almost all the hymns in which life after death in heaven plays a role, items are given to Brahmins or deposited in or with them by way of oblation. Let me summarize the qualifications for heaven gathered from the relevant hymns.
The Brahmins receive rice-messes23 and several kinds of animals, sometimes together with rice-messes, namely a cow,24 a goat,25 a sheep (3, 29, 1–3), and a draught-ox (4, 11, 6). The importance of sacrifice in general, or combined with liberality, or specified by a reference to the full moon or the householder’s fire, is emphasized in five hymns.26 Once a Brahmin complains about not being employed as a priest (7, 103). There is no mention of well-known śrauta rituals. We are in the sphere of the gṛhya or the specific Atharvavedic ritual in which the Brahmins more or less replace the gods. Once hospitality for Brahmins (9, 6) is equated with the sacrifice. In almost all these hymns the Brahmin as a receiver of a gift or of an oblation or of an investment for the heavenly future of the giver (once in the form of a house)27 forms the central element.
How should we interpret this situation? I think that the discovery of heaven as the destination of normal human beings took place rather late, since it is not found in the family books of the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā. Soon it became claimed by the ritualists for the sponsors of śrauta sacrifices and the givers of enormous Dakṣiṇās. The poets of the Ṛgveda already referred to large numbers of cattle given by previous hosts and expected to get at least as much now, though in the oldest layers they still could not promise heaven for their benefactors. In the late Brāhmaṇas and the old Upaniṣads many cows are given by kings to the winners of debates or even to partners in a discussion. At the well-known sacrifices the investments for sacrificial victims and fees were impressive. Though the text of the Atharvaveda Saṁhitā contains more technical information about the śrauta ritual than the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā, the position of the Atharvavedins originally was rather weak at this ritual.
The Atharvavedic savayajñas often required no more than a rice-mess or one cow, not to mention the cheaper animals. In several cases sacrificial victim or oblation and the fee for the Brahmin were identical. The merits obtained by these simple Atharvaṇic rites are sometimes equated with those of śrauta rituals, e.g. the daily Agnihotra (3, 28), the Pravargya (4, 11) and Soma sacrifices (4, 34). Even giving hospitality to a Brahmin is equated with Soma ritual (9, 6).
Moreover the oblations, victims and gifts connected with the savayajñas were glorified in such a way that Bloomfield became irritated.28 This concerns the rice-mess (4, 34; 35; 11, 3), the cow (10, 9; 10), the goat (4, 14; 9, 5) and the draught-ox (4, 11).
The message is clear. Ritualized liberality towards Atharvavedic Brahmins29 is as effective as, and much cheaper than, śrauta ritual. Therefore these simple rites got the name of savas, as if they would belong to the Soma ritual, though the etymologies of the Soma savas and of the Atharvaṇic savas are different.30 These savayajñas, though also found in the most original Atharvaveda section books 1–7, actually represent a late31 reaction to the claims made by Ṛgveda Saṁhitā book 10 or even later śrauta texts.
The negative reports on life after death in the underworld represent the more original conceptions of the Atharvaveda. The occurrence of both ideas on yonder world in one and the same layer of the text has a parallel in the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā, where in book 10 life after death in heaven occurs besides a dark realm of the dead.32
The subterranean position of Yama did not disappear in spite of his transfer to heaven in the latest layers of the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā and in the savayajñas of the Atharvaveda Saṁhitā. See e.g. the situation of the epics as described by Hopkins who refers to “Yama’s rājadhāni enveloped in darkness” and his observation, “All human beings who die have to go the Yama’s abode, but the inhabitants of Kurukṣetra do not have to ‘see the province of Yama,’ that is, on dying they will go direct to heaven” (Hopkins 1915, 109). On the nether world in the epic see also Kuiper (1979, 81–88).
Even in pre-epic texts we see references to dark worlds. Worlds wrapped in blinding gloom are said to belong to the Asuras in VS 40, 3. This might be regarded as denoting hell, but BĀU 4, 4, 11 “lokas covered with blind darkness and called ‘joyless’ ”33 are the destination of those who simply do not have the right knowledge.
By way of conclusion I would like to draw attention to the association of sleep or dream and death. Yama is sleep’s lord and Varuṇa’s wife bore sleep (AV 6, 46, 1). The bad dream should be given to the enemy, but the good dream is the agent of Yama (19, 57, 3). However, in AV 16, 5 svapna (sleep) is associated with all kinds of evil (“you are ender, you are death, you are son of perdition, son of extermination, of calamity”) and is still called agent of Yama.34 It is not only Yama who is equated with sleep and dreams. ŚB 12, 9, 2, 2 directly identifies the Pitṛs with sleep (and men with being awake). Such Pitṛs seem to be associated with the night rather than with the light of heaven.
Conclusion: the negative aspects of Yama and death did not disappear in spite of the discovery of heaven by some circles in the Vedic tradition.