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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.

1 Hell

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.

*First published in Indo-Iranian Journal 42, 1999, pp. 107–120.
1See Long (1987, 132) on “a genuine, if relatively undeveloped conception of hell in the Vedic literature” with a reference to ṚV 7, 104 (= AV 8, 4).
2Bertholet (19854, 265) “Das J[enseits] unter der Erde zu suchen, ist aus der Sitte der Erdbestattung hervorgegangen.”
3They were, however, overlooked rather than criticized or rejected. Keith (1925, 2:410 f.) on the one hand observes that “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 underworld,” on the other hand he gives an impressive survey of Oldenberg’s arguments in favour of it. On p. 413 he assumes that the only Indo-European “idea of the fate of the dead was that of a continued existence in a shadowy and imperfect condition, best represented to us by the Hades of Homer. Of this there may be seen traces in the Vedic conception of the future of the dead.” The development of ideas on this subject in the Veda is not clearly sketched by Keith.
4See Butzenberger (1996, 56, n. 1) “In the first paper, however, he resorts to some diffuse digressions into comparative anthropology, thus introducing concepts and ideas that are foreign to early Indian eschatology.” This criticism is unfair and absurd and lacks any argumentation.
5See p. 61, n. 17 “Thus, there is no evidence at all for assuming a collective subterranean realm of the dead.” See also p. 64 “Likewise, it seems premature to understand the texts referred to above as descriptions of an underworld, a kind of Hades or even a hell.” On the other hand, further on in his confusing article, which looks more like a puzzle than a well structured argument, the rise of the conception of an underworld seems to be accepted. See p. 78 “The devayā́na leads into heaven, the pitṛyā́na, however, into the world of Yama, which may also be a shadowy underworld”; p. 86 and especially p. 106, “In the later layers of the Ṛgveda, we have already been able to detect a tendency towards distinguishing between two types of yonder world: a heavenly abode for the righteous, and a shadowy underworld for the mischievous and criminals. At first, this dichotomy seems to have been resorted to in order to deal with the positive and negative elites, while the majority of the deceased were supposed to join in a less spectacular destiny. With more time slipping by, however, the extraordinary was more and more considered common-place, and a ‘two-valued’ eschatology was about to form.” However, since the idea of an underworld belongs to the oldest cultures and is well spread, the late development of a Vedic conception concerning this underworld is hardly acceptable. Moreover, the sketched development exists only in Butzenberger’s thought and is not supported by evidence from the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā. See Bodewitz (1994; this vol. ch. 8).
6See Butzenberger (1996, 61, n. 17) on kartá “pit, hole”; p. 62, n. 18 on vavrá “cave, deep pit.” It has to be observed that this sort of descriptions of a nether world were already found in other and older cultures. See van Baaren (1987, 118), “The idea of a deep hole in the ground or a cave is also widespread.” The custom of inhumation in historical Vedic times is also not quite certain. See Caland (1896a, 166), “Ein sicherer beweis für die beerdigung der Arier in ältester zeit scheint mir nicht vorhanden zu sein. … Eine spur davon, dass einst, in vorvedischer, vorgeschichtlicher zeit, die leiche beerdigt wurde, meine ich in den ritualbüchern entdeckt zu haben.” Butzenberger even assumes the existence of rock-graves (see n. 11) by combining a debatable etymology of kartá (derived from kart “to cut”) with the undeniable fact that vavrá should denote something inside a rock. Since kartá, kāṭá and gárta denote the same, substrate may be assumed. See also Kuiper (1991a, 36) for further arguments. Moreover, in the Vala myth the cave in which the cows are locked up is not only called vavrá but also ádri, áśman, párvata, upahvará (all terms denoting a rock or mountain, in fact the nether world; see n. 11). The Vala is a cave with a covering rock, not something cut into a rock. The term párśāna, which likewise denotes the nether world, is mostly interpreted as “abyss,” though its etymology is uncertain. It may, however, also mean rock, if we connect it with pāṣāṇa which perhaps is non-Aryan; see Kuiper (1991a, 25).
7See 1996, 74, n. 66; and p. 99 “in Vedic eschatological thought, the conception of a soul is not generally acknowledged.”
8AV 5, 18–19; 8, 4; 12, 4–5; 20, 128.
9AV 5, 18, 13 (injuring a Brahmin); 5, 19, 3 (spitting on a Brahmin); 12, 4, 3 (giving a lame one to a Brahmin who asks for a cow); 12, 4, 36 (not giving the cow asked for); 12, 5, 64 (taking away the cow of a Brahmin and oppressing him).
10Butzenberger (1996, 61, n. 17) “The mortals ask to be spared from the horrors of premature death or total annihilation.”
11Butzenberger (1996, 62 f.) unconvincingly connects anārambhaṇé with vavré, which he interprets as “a cavity hewn in a rock for a certain purpose, e.g. for serving as a grave” (p. 62, n. 18) and then “the darkness is no place at all, but only a concomitant symptom of abiding at a certain place, i.e. in the grave” (p. 63, n. 21). Since, however, the term vavrá also denotes the rock or cave in which the cows of the Vala myth were penned in, it may here refer to the nether world. See Kuiper (1983, 72) on the equation of vrajá, valá and áśman (referring in a note to ṚV 4, 11, 13 áśmavrajāḥ sudúghā vavré antár). This is also Varuṇa’s “stone house” (harmyá). “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” (Kuiper 1983, 68 f.). See further Schmidt (1968, 242) “Morgenröten und Sonne verbringen die Nacht in dieser Gebirgshöhle, die auch mit der Unterwelt identisch sein mag.” On vavrá see Schmidt (1968, 135, n. 1) and Arbman (1928, 204, n. 1). For the association of the underworld and darkness see also Heiler (1961, 519), who does not mention the Veda, but refers to the “Haus der Finsternis” with Homer.
12See Bodewitz (1994, 30; this vol. p. 101). On the land of no return as a denotation of the Assyrian-Babylonian realm of the dead see Arbman (1928, 209, n. 2), who also gives references to Greek conceptions.
13AV 2, 14; 5, 22; 6, 29; 6, 32; 8, 5; 12, 1.
14These distances are reached across ninety streams. In a note on his translation Griffith refers i.a. to ṚV 1, 121, 13 “Casting them forth beyond the ninety rivers, thou dravest down into the pit the godless.” In this parallel a concrete nether world if not a hell is referred to.
15AV 1, 21; 2, 12; 3, 18; 6, 75; 7, 31; 9, 2; 10, 3; 13, 1.
16 JB 1, 325 mentions three symbolical hells (nārakas) into which one throws down (pātayati) the rivals. Thus in later times the third category was explicitly connected with hell though moral faults and specified punishments are missing.
17AV 3, 11; 5, 30; 7, 53; 8, 1–2.
18It is difficult to ascertain whether these descriptions of yonder world forming the destination of ordinary people who are not sinners, demons or wicked enemies, would imply that an undivided underworld has to be assumed. There are some items in common, but it is remarkable that the few clear references to a hell seem to stand apart from the descriptions of the nether world at large.
19Keith (1925, 407) dealing with the Vedic Saṁhitās in general observed: “the total absence of anything which could be regarded as natural in the heaven of warriors is a striking reminder that the conceptions of Vedic India, in so far as they are within reach of our knowledge, were the ideas of priests and not of the whole community.” Here should have been referred to one exception, ṚV 10, 154, 3. However, it is clear that winning heaven in battles makes the role of the Brahmins quite superfluous. In the AV heaven can only be obtained by sacrifices (almost exclusively Atharvaṇic) and Dakṣiṇās or other services paid to Brahmins. AV 11, 4, 11 (speaking the truth) and 11, 4, 18 (knowing the truth about Prāṇa) form a unique exception; cf. ṚV 10, 154, 4–5 referring to ascetics who are dedicated to Ṛta and are wise.
20See Bodewitz (1994; this vol. ch. 8). It is remarkable that those portions of the Atharvaveda Saṁhitā which resemble the older layers of the ṚV and make a śrauta impression, hardly show traces of life after death in heaven. Just as in the ṚV heaven is indicated as sukṛtásya/sukṛtā́m loká; see Gonda (1966). However, in the ṚV we find this designation of heaven only in the 10th book and no more than once or twice, whereas in the AV just as in some Brāhmaṇas the world of merit or of the meritorious is frequently mentioned. In ritualistic texts these meritorious persons mostly are sacrificers, but Gonda (1966, 115 ff.) is wrong in restricting the merits to the accurate and correct performance (see Bodewitz 1993b, 70 ff.; this vol. p. 245 ff.), the more so since winning the world of merit in the AV is reserved for people who organize very simple rituals with emphasis on liberality towards the Brahmins.
21AV 3, 28–29; 4, 11; 4, 14; 4, 34–35; 6, 117; 6, 119–120; 6, 122–123; 7, 5; 7, 80; 7, 103; 9, 3; 9, 5–6; 10, 9–10; 11, 1; 11, 3–4; 12, 3–4. The list may be not complete. In nine cases successive hymns contain references to life in heaven. The total number of hymns with references to heaven and of those which refer to an (undivided) underworld (for sinners, demons and ordinary people) is almost the same in the first 12 books.
22See Gonda (1965b). The hymns are AV 3, 29; 4, 11; 4, 14; 4, 34; 4, 35; 6, 117; 6, 119–120; 122–123 (forming part of the anuvāka 6, 114–124, which in its totality is used at the Savayajñas; see Gonda 1965b, 118); 9, 3; 9, 5; 10, 9; 10, 10; 11, 1; 11, 3; 12, 3; 12, 4.
23AV 4, 34–35; 11, 1; 11, 3, 19–51; 12, 3.
24AV 3, 28, 5–6; 10, 9, 5–6; 10, 10, 32–33; 12, 4, 36.
25AV 4, 14, 2–6; 9, 5, 1.
26AV 6, 120, 1–3; 6, 122–123; 7, 5, 3; 7, 80, 1–4.
27AV 9, 3, 10. See Gonda (1965b, 378, 384).
28Bloomfield (1899, 87). Gonda (1965b, 64–66) is much more positive about these hymns (sometimes perhaps too positive). See also Gonda (1965b, 29) on “the tendency to exalt the efficacy of a special rite or type of rite—which in these cases is comparatively simple—and to make it take the place of other important rites or even a complex of other ceremonies.”
29Bloomfield (1899, 76–79) dealing with hymns “in the interest of Brahmans” emphasizes their greed (see p. 79). Gonda (1965b, 18 ff.), who often rightly corrected some misinterpretations of Bloomfield, perhaps too severely criticized him on this point. Indeed “It is not the receiver, but the giver who derives most reward and benefit from it” (p. 20) and the Brahmin secures a place in heaven for someone who organizes these savayajñas and gives the Dakṣiṇās, but the Brahmins do not forget to underline their role and the importance of receiving the oblations and the fees. Gonda (p. 30) observes on the cows given to the Brahmins that they are to be regarded as “going to heaven and as conducing the sacrificer to the same celestial regions. That is their ritual function and that is what matters from the point of view of these texts, not the profit of the priests,” but here I would emphasize the words “from the point of view of these texts” and remark that the authors of these texts were the receivers of these cows. So Gonda’s argumentation is unconvincing not to say rather innocent. It is remarkable that reaching heaven is especially associated with giving cows and that the few references to hell in the AV concern withholding these cows from the Brahmins and taking these cows from them.
30See Gonda (1965b, 11 ff.), who, however, also observes that “the sava is represented as a ‘symbolical soma sacrifice’.” (p. 27). Mayrhofer (1996, 713–716) is rather vague on the two terms savas and does not refer to Gonda.
31The relative lateness of the savayajñas also appears from the fact that one of the essential elements, the rice-mess, uses rice, a product never mentioned in the ṚV. See also Gonda (1965b, 42). Heesterman (1993) unconvincingly tries to associate the savayajñas and their characteristic odanas with a very early period, observing that “… the odana would seem to predate the gṛhya-śrauta divide” (106), and referring to “the odana ritual’s pre-śrauta … character” (108) and to “the odana ritual that does not yet know the ritualistic apparatus of the śrauta” (190). It is obvious that the savayajñas and the hymns associated with these rituals in the AV know the details of the śrauta ritual, but form a reaction.
32For references to the latter see Bodewitz (1994, 35; this vol. p. 106) (ṚV 10, 18, 10; 95, 14; 161, 2 nírṛter upásthāt/upásthe; 89, 15; 103, 12 andhéna … támasā sacantām; 95, 14; 145, 4 paramā́/párā parāvát; 152, 4 ádharaṁ támas). One might add here the Gaupāyana hymns ṚV 10, 57–60, in which an unconscious person is called back to life, just as is the case in several Atharvaveda hymns. See especially 10, 60, 10 yamā́d aháṁ vaivasvatā́t subándhor mána ā́bharam. According to the next verse apparently the soul and the disease change place and the disease should go down: “Nach unten weht der Wind, nach unten brennt die Sonne. Nach unten wird die Kuh gemolken, nach unten soll dein Gebreste fahren!” (tr. Geldner). Cf. AV 5, 22, 2–4 on fever which should go downwards.
33Gonda (1966, 53). On the joyless worlds obtained by someone who only gives old cows as Dakṣiṇās see KaṭhU 1, 3.
34For the association of Yama and dreams see also KauṣU 4, 2; 4, 15. Kuiper (1979, 31 f.) extensively discusses the relation between sleep and death and observes: “In several archaic religions Sleep is thought of as residing, together with death, in the primeval waters or ‘outside the finite world’, as de Buck put it. Every night man is sleeping there and his awakening is a new birth.” So sleep shares some characteristics with unconsciousness and has to do with the conception of a free-soul which may move to the nether world and stay there permanently at death.

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Vedic Cosmology and Ethics

Selected Studies


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