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The Vedic term sukṛtá denotes that which has been done well. In Vedic religion it refers to the merits which qualify the one who has carried out this sukṛtá (and is, therefore, called sukṛ́t), for heaven (the sukṛtásya loká as well as the sukṛ́tāṁ loká). Since concepts like “merit” have a more or less ethical connotation in many cultures and compounds consisting of derivations from a verb meaning “to do” and an adverb like “well” express something in the ethical sphere in many related languages, the Vedic compounds sukṛtá and sukṛ́t have often been interpreted as “piety, benevolence, charity” and the people characterised by these qualities.

Grassmann (1873) already translated the nouns sukṛ́t and sukṛtá with “der gut handelnde, der Gute, Fromme” and “gutes werk, gutes Handeln, Tugend, Frommigkeit.” The interpretation of other and later dictionaries does not differ fundamentally.1

The assumed relation to virtue would qualify sukṛtá as an excellent, Vedic precursor of good karman as this term is used in the classical doctrine of karman. The problem is that the complex of saṁsāra and karman is interpreted by some scholars as a late ethicisation of old ideas on reincarnation. Those scholars deny the existence of ethical conceptions in the Vedic period before the Upaniṣads. An ethical concept of sukṛtá would, therefore, undermine this theory.

Now karman determining the destiny of man after life on earth is mostly connected with Vedic kárman denoting Vedic ritual. This ritual would likewise have no ethical implications. The sacrificial action indeed automatically procures effects, especially also for life after death, be it not for a new existence on earth. The classical doctrine of karman then might be an ethicisation of the ritualistic ideology and together with the ethicisation of non-ritualistic ideas about reincarnation have produced the theory that man is reborn on earth in accordance with his morally good and bad actions in previous lives.

Such a theory presupposes the absence of ethics in earlier Vedism and would deny the ethical connotation of the term sukṛtá assumed by the dictionaries and found in most of the translations of Vedic texts. Moreover, the obvious connection between sukṛtá and Vedic ritual forms a problem. If the term sukṛtá would more or less coincide with Vedic kárman in the sense of ritual and if Vedic ritual is non-ethical, the sukṛtá cannot be ethical either and consequently its translation would be incorrect.

Gonda (1966, 115–130) extensively discussed the meaning of the terms sukṛtá and sukṛ́t in connection with sukṛtásya loká and sukṛ́tāṁ loká. He rejected the current translations of these terms and tried to prove that they would mainly, if not exclusively, refer to the ritual, its performers (or rather the institutors of the rituals, the sacrificers) and the merits obtained by these rituals.

It is not clear whether Gonda followed other scholars in this respect. At least he does not mention them. His discussion of the material mainly consists of a criticism of dictionaries and translations. He already announced his treatment of the relevant terms in an earlier publication (1965b, 125): “ ‘World of meritorious work’ (sukṛtásya lokám), i.e. the ‘celestial’ state gained and achieved by a person’s religious and ritual merits. The comm. on AV rightly explains: yāgādijanyasya puṇyasya phalabhūtaṁ lokam. (It is my intention elsewhere to revert to this expression).” His treatment of sukṛtá in the mentioned book Loka (1966) shows the influence of the Indian commentaries (especially Sāyaṇa). Since Gonda’s copious notes in The Savayajñas form the reflection of many years of teaching and reading Vedic texts, it is doubtful whether Sāyaṇa was his inspiration. I think he used the evidence of the commentary to support his views. It is remarkable that Monier Williams’ Dictionary in the revised edition mentions as one of the meanings of sukṛt “making good sacrifices or offerings,” here referring to MW (i.e. his own additions, to some extent based on the Śabdakalpadruma). Gonda does not mention this interpretation of sukṛt which should be related to súkṛta “well done or made or formed or executed” (the adjective) rather than to sukṛtá “a good or righteous deed, meritorious act, virtue, moral merit” (the noun), though his views on sukṛ́t (and, based on these, on sukṛtá) are similar.

According to Gonda (1966) sukṛtá should primarily refer to the good and correct performance of the rituals. This would imply that the meanings of the adjective súkṛta and of the noun sukṛtá correspond more than assumed by the dictionaries. Wackernagel (1905, 20) notices the shift of accent in connection with sukṛta (adjective súkṛta, noun sukṛtá), but his translation does not refer to a clear shift of connotation: “wohl getan” and “gute Tat.”2 In these translations the quality or correctness of a performance do not seem to play a role.

Gonda admits (1966, 115 f.) that sometimes the adjective sukṛ́t may mean “doing good, acting well, benevolent,” but in several places it would “simply mean ‘doing good, behaving well’ from a religious or ritual point of view” (116). This formulation unfortunately is rather vague, since “behaving well from a religious point of view” may include all kinds of ethically positive actions, whereas “a correct ritual behaviour and the performance of sacrificial ceremonies” (116) refers to one specific aspect of religion, as appears from Gonda’s discussion of text places where the ritual plays a role. Gonda emphasizes the correct performance. He may be right in criticizing some translations in which benevolence and piety form the characteristic of the sukṛ́t, but one may doubt whether sukṛ́t mainly denotes the one who performs his ritual well.

He supports his interpretation of sukṛ́t by referring to the adjective súkṛta meaning “well made” (122–124). The substantive sukṛtā́ would denote “the lasting merit, the effective and positive result of the correct performance of ritual acts” (125). It is obvious that this substantive indeed refers to lasting merits and that these merits may (i.a.) be acquired by performing sacrifices, but it is doubtful whether the correctness of the performance is essential.

The possible agreements between sukṛtá and the classical doctrine of karman did not escape Gonda (1966, 125 f.): “This idea runs therefore in the ritual sphere of Vedism parallel with—or it is in this sphere the predecessor of—what in later times when the doctrine of transmigration has fully developed is, with a derivative of the same root kṛ-, called a man’s good karman-, which, being the fruit of his deeds, i.e. of the correct performance of his socio-religious obligations, determines his future situation, viz. a sojourn in heaven and a rebirth in a good position.” The same rules of causality, indeed, provide a future life for the one who produces sukṛtá and the one who accumulates positive karman. However, how are we to explain the transition from ritual correctness and exactitude to ethical goodness? Does not sukṛtá refer to merits in general?

Gonda (1966, 116) tried to bridge the gulf between the correct performance and the ethical merit by sometimes stretching his definition. He referred to good actions “from a religious or ritual point of view” (in his discussion of the meaning of sukṛ́t). “The correct performance of his socio-religious obligations” defines classical karman (126). Indeed, both sukṛtá and kárman seem to have religious implications and both refer to merits acquired for life after death (though the classical karman is degraded by the doctrine of mokṣa). However, it is confusing to emphasize ritual correctness and at the same time to speak about the religious sphere at large.

The term sukṛtá in ṢaḍvB 1, 6, 1 is translated with “good karma” by Bollée (1956, 38) and Gonda (1966, 129) accepts this translation adding: “The only question which is not explicitly answered is that as to the character of the ‘good karma,’ how and by what activities it was acquired. The context itself points, of course, in the direction of ritual performances.” It cannot be doubted that the context deals with ritual, as all the Brāhmaṇas deal with ritual. It is also true that in this particular passage a wrong approach of the ritual prevents sukṛtá from being produced in yonder world. However, in ritualistic texts merits are usually acquired by sacrifices and there is no strict proof that sukṛtá should always coincide with ritual, let alone with correct performance of rites (even if in a particular passage ritual mistakes abolish the merits).

In a note Gonda (1966, 129) tried to show that the compound sukṛtyā́ should denote “skill,” especially “ritual skill.” It is evident that in his interpretation sukṛtá, sukṛ́t, súkṛta and sukṛtyā́ should almost exclusively refer to the skill of the ritualist and the merits obtained by the correct performance. The first member of the compounds then would have no moral or ethical implications. There is no denying that “to act su” or rather the compounds based on this hypothetical construction may refer to skill in some contexts, but I doubt whether the merits accumulated for life after death would primarily be based on craftmanship, correctness of performance, accuracy etc. In my view merits may be acquired in several ways. In ritual texts sacrifices produce merits. The fact that one performs or rather organizes sacrifices is meritorious. There is no relevant distinction between sacrifices which are well performed and those of which the performance is less perfect, though the pair of opposite svìṣṭa and dúriṣṭa (followed by the genitive yajñásya) is sometimes mentioned.

How could a “sacrificer” (i.e. a Yajamāna) who hardly performs actions during the sacrifice and leaves these to his priests, acquire more or better sukṛtá on account of a better performance by his priests? The skill belongs to the priests, the merits of the sacrifice (just like other merits) are obtained by the Yajamāna whose sacrificial skill is hardly relevant.

The root kṛ has several connotations. It may refer to performing or executing something, but also to acting in general, i.e. to behaving oneself in a particular way. To some extent sukṛtá may be compared with súcarita, since the roots kṛ and car have several connotations in common. According to Monier Williams’ Dictionary sucarita means “well performed” (adj.) and “good conduct or behaviour, virtuous actions” (subst.). The ethical meaning is quite obvious, but especially in compounds the adjective may also refer to performing religious duties.3 However, the difference between the nouns súcarita and sukṛtá is that súcarita denotes good behaviour in general, whereas sukṛtá on the one hand is the single merit qualifying for life in heaven and on the other hand, if Gonda were right, might almost exclusively be connected with ritual. In other words, the problem is whether the only qualification for heaven consists of ritual and whether the compounds in which sukṛtá and derivations from the root kṛ play a role should exclusively refer to the aspect of performance and execution. One may also ask the question whether in Vedic texts the term kárman has ethical connotations or should only be associated with craftmanship and ritual.

Tull (1989, 2) follows Gonda in emphasizing the ritualistic meaning of sukṛtá. I quote: “In the context of Vedic ritual thought good and bad apparently refer to a valuation of action based on ritual exactitude; good being equated with the correct performance of the rite, bad with the incorrect performance … . This interpretation of the karma doctrine differs from the doctrine’s apparent meaning in later texts, which propose that an individual attains a specific state in the afterlife, or is reborn, according to the moral quality of all sorts of actions performed prior of death.” In his view even in the old Upaniṣads (e.g. BĀU 3, 2, 13) karman would refer to ritual: “The supposed range of the Upaniṣadic karma doctrine’s ethical concern contrasts sharply with the limited sphere of Brāhmaṇic ethics, which values behavior in terms of ritual performance. Yet, rather than turn to the Brāhmaṇas’ ritual orientation, which is an obvious aspect of the early Upaniṣadic karma doctrine, scholars preferred to interpret this doctrine through imposing on it a broad notion of ethics. This approach resulted not only in the estrangement of the karma doctrine from its original context but, in an odd circular argument, in the estrangement of the thought of the Upaniṣads from that of the Brāhmaṇas. For, if karma in its earliest appearance in the Upaniṣads was indeed broadly ethical in scope, then the doctrine itself evinced a gulf between Brāhmaṇic and Upaniṣadic thought” (p. 13).

Indeed, the puṇya and the pāpa karman of the Upaniṣads may be compared with the sukṛtá and duṣkṛtá of the Brāhmaṇas but then the question arises whether sukṛtá and púṇya exclusively refer to the ritual rather than to merits in general (which in the Veda are often represented by sacrifices) and whether duṣkṛtá (a term not discussed by me till now) may ever denote poorly performed ritual.

I think that the combination of sukṛtá with duṣkṛtá clearly shows the untenability of the thesis that sukṛtá should exclusively refer to the ritual. If it would turn out that duṣkṛtá does not denote “poorly performed ritual” but should be interpreted as “demerit” in general, then it is unlikely that its counterpart would have a more specific meaning than “merit.”

For his daring interpretation of duṣkṛtá Tull (1989, 31) tries to find support with Gonda: “According to Jan Gonda, these terms—sukṛta, sādhu kṛta, puṇyakṛta, puṇya karman (the terms used in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad to denote ‘good action’)—and their opposites—duṣkṛta, pāpa karman (‘bad action’ in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad)—represent two parallel complexes in the Vedic ritual sphere.” Checking Gonda (1966, 115–130), however, we do not find such outspoken judgements on “two parallel complexes in the Vedic ritual sphere.” Actually, I believe that the parallelism of sukṛtá and duṣkṛtá caused some problems to Gonda. He (121 f., n. 30) denoted these terms as “merit” and “demerit,” but relegated the treatment of the word duṣkṛtá to a footnote (126–128, n. 53), the longest ever published by him. Tull (1989, 31) only quotes the sentence to which the note was appended: “omissions, negligence or reprehensible behaviour in the ritual or religious sphere” (Gonda p. 126 f.) and concludes: “In view of the established meanings of these terms in the Vedic ritual sphere, the phrase ‘one becomes good by good action’ in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad may refer only to the acquisition of, and a consequent state of becoming one with, the merit (the ‘good’) or demerit (the ‘bad’) accumulated through a lifetime of sacrificial activity” (1989, 31). Actually, “reprehensive behaviour in the … religious sphere” may refer to all kinds of bad behaviour, since ethics in the Vedic period pertain to religion. Moreover, Gonda did not establish the ritual meaning of duṣkṛtá. On the contrary, he showed in his lengthy note that duṣkṛtá mostly refers to something like sin (which is entirely different from “poorly performed ritual”).

It seems that Gonda, being a true philologist, did not want to leave out material which hardly suited his point of view about sukṛtá and then relegated this awkward material to a note. If duṣkṛtá indeed just means sin or bad behaviour, then it is unlikely that its positive counterpart sukṛtá would exclusively have the specific meaning “correct performance of ritual.” The good behaviour which produces merits for life after death, may include all kinds of activities. The fact that in ritual texts these merits are especially acquired by sacrificing does not prove that sukṛtá and the correct performance of ritual are identical.

What Gonda (probably in despair) relegated to a note, was completely ignored by Tull, who more or less suggests that Gonda would have interpreted duṣkṛtá as poorly performed ritual. This is absolutely not correct. If Gonda could have proved that duṣkṛtá meant “poorly performed ritual,” he would not have allowed this opportunity to pass. There is no need for me to show here that duṣkṛtá means sin or wrong deed, since Gonda already proved this in his elaborate note.

The other negative term which is associated with poorly performed ritual by Tull, i.e. pāpa karman, likewise has no exclusive relation to the ritual. I hope to show this in an other publication (Editors: see ch. 19). We may also take into account compounds like pāpakṛ́t, pāpakārín, pāpakṛ́tvan, pāpakṛtyá and in post-vedic texts pāpakarman, pāpakarmin and pāpakāraka. In these compounds referring to established categories (sins and sinners) there is no trace of an established category of clumsy ritualists.

If now we want to show parallelism the following couples may be mentioned: sukṛ́t—duṣkṛ́t, puṇyakṛ́tpāpakṛ́t, sukṛtáduṣkṛtá, puṇyakṛtyā́pāpakṛtyā́, in which the negative compounds obviously refer to sins and crimes. The positive compounds indeed occur in ritual contexts and there may denote merits acquired by sacrifices, but the correctness of the performance hardly plays a role.

According to Gonda (1966, 121, n. 30): “The very occurrence of the compound vi-sukṛt- corroborates the view that sukṛt- was a fixed, more or less ‘technical’ term.” I think that visukṛ́t is an incidental mistake, where visukṛtá is required. In KauṣU 1, 4 we find side by side visukṛta and viduṣkṛta. It is evident indeed that both sukṛtá and duṣkṛtá are technical terms (merits and demerits qualifying and disqualifying for heaven). It is also evident that the other couples, mentioned above are likewise fixed terms and that duṣkṛ́t, duṣkṛtá and pāpakrtyā́ hardly can be interpreted as fixed terms for poorly performed ritual and clumsy ritualists.

The compound duṣkṛtá occurs in the Ṛgveda without reference to demerits disqualifying for heaven. It just denotes crime and evil behaviour and has no connection with the performance of rituals.4 The sin denoted by duṣkṛtá may be committed openly or secretly, even with or without intention, while asleep, or while awake, as appears from ṚV 10, 164 where Geldner translates duṣkṛtā́ni with “Sünden.” AV 11, 8, 20 opposes theft, duṣkṛtá and deceit (vṛjiná) to truth, sacrifice and great glory.5 It is evident that duṣkṛtá refers to evil behaviour and has no relation to the way of performing something, since even during sleep duṣkṛtá may be produced.

Even the positive compound sukṛtá often denotes merits which have no connection with sacrifice, let alone with the correctness of its performance. According to BĀU 6, 4, 3 one may even take away the sukṛtá of women, which obviously cannot refer to the performance of rituals. The sukṛtá denotes the stock of good merits which guarantees a prolonged stay in heaven. JUB 3, 14, 6 states: yad u ha vā asmiṁlloke manuṣyā yajante yat sādhu kurvanti tad eṣām annādyam utsīdati … There is more than just sacrifice which qualifies for heaven. The merit acquired by sukṛtá is also called sukṛtá and this merit may become imperishable.6 In his translation of ŚB 1, 6, 4, 16 Eggeling incorrectly denotes this by “imperishable righteousness.” It is quite clear that the merit (acquired in whatever way) is imperishable. Gonda (1966, 125) rightly rejects Eggeling’s rendering, but his own interpretation (“… lasting merit, the effective and positive result of the correct performance of ritual acts”) is likewise unconvincing, since it only takes into account the merit based on ritual and even on the correctness of its performance.

In my view sukṛtá as a fixed term denotes the merits acquired on earth and their results in heaven. As such these merits need not be ethical, since these merits are partly to be obtained by actions like rituals which have no moral implications. However, the term sukṛtá already has ethical aspects in the oldest Vedic literature, where it does not exclusively function as a collective term denoting merits required for heaven. The emphasis on performance and ritual is to be rejected. The opposition of sukṛtá and duṣkṛtá definitely proves that sukṛtá should be associated with merits and to some extent even with moral merits rather than with the accuracy and correctness of (ritual) actions.

*First published in Studies in Indology and musicilogy: P.N. Kawthekar felicitation volume, 1993, pp. 69–76.
1See e.g. Monier-Williams’ Dictionary: “doing good, benevolent, virtuous, pious” and “a good or righteous deed, meritorious act, virtue, moral merit; a benefit, bounty, friendly aid, favour.”
2See also Wackernagel (1905, 42): “gut getan” and “gutes Tun.”
3See Manu 11, 116 sucaritavrata “well performing religious observances.”
4See ṚV 8, 47, 13 yád āvír yád apīcyàṁ dévāso ásti duṣkṛtám where Geldner translates with “Missetat” and compare 10, 100, 7 “We have not committed any great sin (duṣkṛta) against you secretly, nor openly …” (tr. Rodhe 1946, 136).
5Cf. TB 3, 3, 7, 10, where deceit, untruth and duścarita are opposed to honesty, truth and good behaviour.
6See ŚB 1, 6, 1, 19; 1, 6, 4, 16; 2, 6, 3, 1.

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Vedic Cosmology and Ethics

Selected Studies

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