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The origin of the karman doctrine is sometimes assumed to lie in the Vedic sacrificial theories, since the term karman does not only denote act, action, activity, but also sacrificial act, rite or ritual at large. Moreover good acts (sukṛtāni) producing merits (one of the meanings of sukṛta) are often associated with rituals. The lasting merits of meritorious acts in the form of sacrifices then would prepare the way for the karman doctrine, which is no more purely ritualistic and includes remuneration on earth after rebirth.

It is indeed true that the Vedic term karman mostly refers to the ritual, as is to be expected in Vedic ritualistic texts. However, the classical karman doctrine is more or less ethical (i.e. dealing with good and bad activities), whereas Vedic ritual is definitely not. Here lies a problem. In an other publication1 I hope to show that the Vedic couple of sukṛta and duṣkṛta should be interpreted as “merit” and “demerit” and that it cannot be exclusively associated with ritual. Of course merits are especially obtained by sacrifices in ritual texts, but demerits are even in these texts rather general and can hardly be connected with sacrifices in the sense of the omission of sacrifices or the performance of bad sacrifices.

Tull (1989) tries to prove the Vedic, ritualistic origin of the karman doctrine by associating good karman and sukṛta with the good performance of ritual and bad karman and duṣkṛta with its bad or poor performance. The ritual exactitude would be decisive. This means that Vedic karman and sukṛta / duṣkṛta would miss every ethical implication. Merit and demerit would solely be based on technical achievements and failures in the sphere of rituals. The transition to the classical karman doctrine then becomes hard to explain. According to Tull even the references to karman in the old Upaniṣads would exclusively bear on ritual. The ethical aspects were only introduced in late Upaniṣadic texts.

Tull fails to explain how the completely amoral, Vedic, ritual doctrine of karman developed into the ethical, non-ritual, classical karman doctrine of the later Upaniṣads. Moreover, it is unclear how the doctrines of karman and saṁsāra could have spread over whole India and be represented in early Buddhism and Jainism, if karman even in the older Upaniṣads was still exclusively associated with ritual and Vedic diehards. It seems that Tull shifts the problem of the transition from ritual exactitude to moral activity to a later period in order to save the Vedic origin of the doctrine, but by doing so he does not solve the problem and now creates chronological problems in the context of all-Indian culture.

His starting point is the assumption of bias on the side of Indologists of an earlier generation: “At the simplest level, this viewpoint owes much to a larger tendency among these scholars to disparage ‘priestcraft,’ a perspective rooted in the philosophy of enlightenment. In its application to the ancient Indian context this tendency led scholars to separate the Brāhmaṇas, ritual texts par excellence and the exclusive possession of the Vedic sacerdotalists, from the Upaniṣads, discursive texts that seek to express the nature of reality. Accordingly, the karma doctrine, which is first articulated in the Upaniṣads, was seen as addressing itself to issues not germane to the Vedic ritual tradition.” (1989, 2–3).

It is not to be denied that the older Upaniṣads have strong connections with the corresponding Brāhmaṇas. It is, however, doubtful whether these Upaniṣads just represent a next phase in the development of Vedic, ritualistic continuity. The fact that the classical passages on rebirth and mokṣa depict Brāhmins and traditional Vedic ritual as losers and non-Brāhmins and retirement from this world as winners should have some implications for Vedic orthodoxy and especially its ritual lead to rebirth. Release is obtained by people who do not sacrifice in the village, but retreat to the forests (or wilderness). Tull tries to save the ritual tradition by associating the renouncer with the interiorization of the ritual, but he fails to provide any proof for this.

One should also bear in mind that Vedic ritual (= karman according to Tull) tended to become a method of salvation. The late Brāhmaṇas tried to develop some sort of ritualistic mokṣa. In the classical doctrine of karman and mokṣa every karman (including ritual) prevents mokṣa.

Even in the oldest Upaniṣads we see traces of this new approach. It is evident that the ritualistic attempt to reach mokṣa by means of sacrifice (= karman), especially in connection with the release from renewed death (punarmṛtyu), which would secure eternal life after death, could not prevent the non-ritualistic paths leading to mokṣa from winning the competition.

Tull tries to bridge the gulf between the Brāhmaṇas and (some portions of) the older Upaniṣads by denying ethics in both types of Vedic texts and making everything refer to the ritual. If a possible Vedic origin on the karman doctrine has to be rescued, however, it is preferable to look for ethical aspects of karman in the ritual texts and in the Upaniṣads.

The purpose of this paper is to provide the scanty material on non-ritual, Vedic karman and thus to show a possible origin of the classical karman doctrine. This does not imply that the whole complex of rebirth and karman can be explained by this material. Rebirth in connection with karman is absolutely missing in the pre-Upaniṣadic literature. We can only show that merit and demerit in the Veda have lasting implications for life after death (be it not on earth after rebirth) and that especially demerits have no relation with ritual.

In the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā the Vedic ideal, heaven, is obtained by merits which are not confined to the performance of rituals, let alone to ritual exactitude. The giving of dakṣiṇās seems to be essential. See Boyer (1901, 468), who further mentions asceticism, valour in battle and the cult of the Ṛta (p. 469). This statement disagrees with Windisch’ observation (1908, 58) that the oldest form of the doctrine of karman regarded karman as sacrificial work. See also Rodhe (1946, 111): “In the Indian tradition as well as by modern scholars the word iṣṭāpūrta is interpreted as sacrificial merits (iṣṭa) and good works (pūrta) … . It seems quite justifiable, as Bloomfield and others claim, to regard the idea of iṣṭāpūrta as a preparation of the doctrine of karman.” He further remarks that in the later texts, the Brāhmaṇas, “… karman is a central term for meritorious sacrificial work” instead of the older iṣṭāpūrta (Rodhe 1946, 117). Horsch (1971, 126–129) discussing the older concept of karman (i.e. in the period before the Brāhmaṇas) shows that in the 41 places in the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā where the term karman is found, it mostly refers to mythical acts of the gods, hardly to the common acts of man and often to the ritual. The term sukṛta would also be ritual rather than ethical. He concludes that more and more in these old Vedic texts the merits become connected with ritual. Even in the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā already the way was paved for the karman doctrine by sacrificial merits: “Dies impliziert eine rituelle Vorwegnahme des kárman-Gesetzes bereits für den Ṛgveda” (p. 127), though he has to admit in a note that according to ṚV 10, 154, 2–5 tapas, dakṣiṇā, death in a battle and the cult of the Ṛta provide happiness in heaven: “Also nicht nur rituelle Werke sichern dem Menschen religiöses Verdienst (púṇya) für das Jenseits” (127, n. 38a). It is true that one hymn (10, 154) does not prove much on non-ritual merits qualifying for heaven, but one should take into account that the whole Saṁhitā does not often refer to life after death at all. The scarce information on heaven obtained by other means than the performance of rituals shows that the good, accurate performance is not essential. Merits in general are the criterium. These merits do not have strictly moral implications. They are connected with different lifestyles (associated with particular roles in society, e.g. the valour of the warrior in the battle) and with different religious methods (sacrificing, liberality towards singers and priests, asceticism). One should not be surprised to find an increasing emphasis on ritualism in the ritual texts that followed on the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā.

Till now we have only paid attention to merits and heaven. There are also demerits and it is beyond doubt that even the oldest texts had some ideas on good and bad, i.e. on ethics to be connected with the later karman doctrine, though some scholars would deny every trace of morality in the older Veda.

ṚV 8, 47, 13 and 10, 100, 7 refer to duṣkṛta done openly or secretly against the gods by man. It is obvious that sin rather than bad ritual karman is meant here. Rodhe (1946, 135–170) extensively discusses the Vedic concept of sin. It becomes clear that the boundaries between sin and evil in general are ather vague. Rodhe (146–147) emphasizes the fact that sin in the ṚV has not much to do with the will of the sinner, that personal repentance is missing and that there are no clear distinctions made between sin and other kinds of evil. Mistakes in the ritual might also be regarded as sins.

It may be true that sin defined as an intentional act of transgression of divine or moral laws is not identical with Vedic concepts denoting something like sin. However, one should be careful in drawing conclusions from the rather loose application of terms for sin in the Veda and take into account that modern English likewise freely uses the term sin, e.g. in expressions like “it’s a crying sin,” “it would be a sin (= a pity) to …,” “what a sin (= pity) about that,” “it’s a sin (= too bad) (= a crime) about that. …” Nobody will assume that in modern society the idea of sin as a moral category is entirely missing on account of the fact that the term sin is used in matters which are amoral.

Anyhow, it is clear that bad acts committed by man may be seen in a moral perspective in old Vedic texts. Terms like duṣkṛta and karman associated with a pejorative adjective do not exclusively refer to mistakes in the ritual sphere. Sin and evil (coming from outside) may be denoted by the same term. In connection with the verb “to do” (karoti) and its derivations the evil committed by Vedic man is not exclusively ritual, but may also refer to ethical transgressions, just like the English term “sin” is not exclusively ethical, but may also refer to mistakes which are a pity. The context defines the connotation of the terms and since most of the Vedic texts deal with the sacrifice, the committed evil often may be interpreted as ritual rather than as moral. Still, there are passages in which ritual mistakes do not form the subject of the texts.

Since the Brāhmaṇas form the literature out of which the Upaniṣads, in which the doctrine of karman is evidently present, have developed, it may be useful to examine some text places in this literature where karman has no ritual connotations.

AB 3, 33, 1 akṛtaṁ vai prajāpatiḥ karoti “Prajāpati does something not done” (said of P. who made love to his daughter).

ŚB 13, 5, 4, 3 pārikṣitā́ yájamānā aśvamedháiḥ paro’varám ájahuḥ kárma pā́pakaṁ púṇyāḥ púṇyena kármaṇā “The righteous Pārikṣitas, organizing horse-sacrifices, destroyed sinful work one after the other by their righteous work.” The puṇya karman indeed refers to ritual, but the pāpaka karman has no ritual implications. Horsch (1966, 140, see also p. 299) here assumes the first occurrence of karman with ethical implications: “kárman hier erstmals in ethischer Bedeutung?”

AB 7, 27, 1 pāpasya vā ime karmaṇaḥ kartāra āsate ’pūtāyai vāco vaditāro yac chyāparṇā imān utthāpayateme ’ntarvedi māsiṣata “There sit those doers of an evil deed, speakers of impure speech, the Śyāparṇas. Remove them. They should not sit within the sacrificial enclosure.” In the next paragraph (7, 28) the exclusion of Indra from the sacrifice on account of his sinful deeds is treated. So one may assume that the “doers of an evil deed” likewise have committed some sins.

ŚB 13, 4, 3, 10 refers to “evil-doers” (pāpakṛtaḥ) in connection with a term denoting robbers.

AB 7, 17, 4 tad vai mā tāta tapati pāpaṁ karma mayā kṛtam “The evil deed done by me, dear one, torments me” (said by Ajīgarta who had sold his son in order to be sacrificed). This passage shows that Horsch (1971, 129) is wrong in attributing the ethical interpretation of karman to the end of the Brāhmaṇa period and in emphasizing its rareness: “Gegen Ende der Brāhmaṇa-Periode taucht vereinzelt eine sittliche Konzeption des kárman auf.” On tapati in connection with karman see also TU 2, 9 etaṁ ha vāva na tapati kim ahaṁ sādhu nākaravam / kim ahaṁ pāpam akaravam. The idea of repentance was not wholly absent in the Veda.

TB 3, 12, 9, 7–8 eṣá nityó mahimā́ brāhmaṇásya / ná kármaṇā vardhate nó kánīyān / tásyaivā́tmā́ padavít táṁ viditvā́ / ná kármaṇā lipyate pā́pakena “This is the eternal greatness of the Brahmin. He does not increase by kárman, nor does he become less. His ātman knows the path. Knowing him (the ātman) one is not polluted by evil karman.” I have left the term karman untranslated, since here (perhaps for the first time) it is used with its classical connotation. Cf. BĀU 4, 4, 23 which quotes this verse with some variation. See also KauṣU 3, 8 on the ātman which does not increase by good action or diminish by bad action and MaiU 2, 7 on the ātman which is not overcome by the positive or negative results of the actions. BĀU 1, 4, 15 states that by knowing the ātman one does not lose one’s merits in yonder world.

ŚB 11, 2, 7, 33 sá yát sādhú karóti tád antarvedỳ átha yád asādhú tád bahirvedí “Whatever good deed man does that is inside the Vedi; and whatever evil he does that is outside the Vedi.” The context refers to the weighing of the good and evil deeds in yonder world and in spite of the ritual application (being inside or outside the Vedi) good and evil here are merits and sins in general. The passage also uses the terms sādhukṛtyā́ and pāpakṛtyā́. See also ŚB 13, 5, 4, 1 on pāpakṛtyā́ mentioned together with the slaughter of Brahmins (one of the great sins).

JB 1, 18 iyad asya sādhu kṛtam iyat pāpam “So much good and so much evil has been done by him.” Here the prāṇa of the deceased announces the good and bad karman to the gods. See also JB 1, 15–16 on the separation of the good and bad deeds and getting rid of the bad deeds: “When the one who knows thus departs from this world, his good deeds rise up together with his breath (prāṇa) and his evil deeds are left with his corpse. As to this they say: ‘It is difficult to be sure (that this will happen), when being about to die he will still have remained with his evil deeds. If (however) he gets rid of them already during his lifetime, it is perfectly known.’ Then indeed it (i.e. the effect of his evil deeds) passes into the Agnihotra.” Obviously traces of the karman doctrine are present in this passage in which good and evil deeds have nothing to do with ritual. By ritual means, however, one tries to remove the effects of bad karman.

The Āraṇyakas and Āraṇyaka-like texts likewise contain references to evil deeds outside the ritual sphere.

JUB 4, 25, 4 tad yathā śvaḥ praisyan pāpāt karmaṇo jugupsetaivam evāharahaḥ pāpāt karmaṇo jugupsetākālāt “As one about to decease the next day would guard himself against an evil action, even so he should day by day guard himself against an evil action until the time (of death).” Evidently bad karman has effects on life after death.

JUB 1, 5, 1 idaṁ vai tvam atra pāpam akar nehaiṣyasi yo vai puṇyakṛt syāt sa iheyād “This evil you have committed here. You will not come here. Forsooth, he who has done good deeds, he will come here.” This is spoken by the god of death who judges the deceased. The pāpa evidently denotes sins and there is no reason to assume a reference to ritual mistakes.

JUB 2, 13, 5 tad yad iha puruṣasya pāpaṁ kṛtam bhavati tad āviṣkaroti / yad ihainad api rahasīva kurvan manyate ’tha hainad āvir eva karoti / tasmād vāva pāpaṁ na kuryāt “What evil is done here by man, that it (i.e. speech = Brahman) makes manifest. Although he thinks that he does it secretly, as it were, still it makes it manifest. Verily, therefore one should not commit evil.” Secret crimes are discovered by the gods who milk speech (= Brahman) by means of its calf, Agni (death). Perhaps this implies that at death the gods get all information on the evil deeds of man.

1, 8, 4–6 deals with the future worlds (i.e. the destiny after death) of good and bad people (puṇyapāpānām). The bad aśarīrā́ḥ prapadyante yathā́puṇyasya kármaṇaḥ and mṛtvā́ púnar mṛtyúm āpadyante adyámānāḥ svakármabhiḥ. This passage combines some sort of karman doctrine (the puṇya and apuṇya or even their quantity are decisive) with the old-fashioned theory of punarmṛtyu. Cf. ŚB 10, 5, 3, 12 where man becomes again and again the food of Death. In this Āraṇyaka there is still no reference to rebirth on earth, whereas yathākarma in KauṣU 1, 2 refers to the way man is reborn. Cf. also BĀU 4, 4, 5 yathākārī yathācārī tathā bhavati. Since 1, 8, 4–6 opposes the pāpa to the puṇyakṛt and the pāpa obviously is a sinner, the term puṇyakṛt here need not exclusively refer to the performer of auspicious rites, but may indicate every meritorious person.

2, 1, 6 chādayanti ha vā enaṁ chandāṁsi pāpāt karmaṇoya evam etac chandasāṁ chandastvam veda “The metres (chandāṁsi) protect (chādayanti) against evil behaviour (bad karman) for him who knows thus why metres are called metres.” Keith translates pāpa karman here with “illhap,” which denies the own activity expressed by karman. For protection against wrong behaviour compare TB 3, 3, 7, 9 pā́hi māgne dúścaritād.

This material may suffice to show that in pre-Upaniṣadic literature ideas about crime, bad behaviour, sins were not absent and that bad deeds had effects on live after death. There is no need to treat Upaniṣadic passages containing similar conceptions. In the Upaniṣads the effects of this negative karman pertain to rebirth.

The material on positive karman in pre-Upaniṣadic literature is less clear, since merits in these texts often may refer to the ritual. Still, there are passages in which a non-ritual kárman is undeniable.

TB 3, 2, 1, 4 yajñó hí śréṣṭhatamaṁ kárma “for sacrifice is the best activity (or: produces the best karman).” Cf. ŚB 1, 7, 1, 5. Other forms of activity are acknowledged and the term kárman itself does not denote ritual.

ŚB 12, 7, 2, 11 tád vā́ etát strīṇā́ṁ kárma yád ūrṇā sūtráṁ “This wool and thread, is women’s work.” Again kárman has no ritual connotations, but this passage does not give any information on the effects of the activity.

In the ŚB the term karman is mostly used in the ritual sphere and where activity in general is meant, the moral aspect is often missing. See, however, the following passage:

ŚB 11, 1, 5, 7 pāpmā́ vái vṛtró yó bhū́ter vārayitvā́ tíṣṭhati kalyā́ṇāt kármaṇaḥ sādhós tám etád índreṇaivá vṛtraghnā́ pāpmā́naṁ vṛtráṁ hanti “Vṛtra is evil. With the help of Indra, the slayer of Vṛtra, he thus slays Vṛtra, the evil, which ever keeps him from prosperity, virtue and good behaviour.” Here karman may be taken with kalyāṇa or with sādhu or with both. As some gods protect man against evil activities, Vṛtra keeps him from good behaviour. The ritual does not play a role here, but the effect of the positive behaviour is not mentioned.

AB 6, 32, 17 devā vai yat kiṁ ca kalyāṇaṁ karmākurvaṁs tat kāravyābhir āpnuvaṁs tathaivaitad yajamānā yat kiṁ ca kalyāṇaṁ karma kurvanti tat kāravyābhir āpnuvanti “Whatever good they did, the gods obtained with the Kāravyā (verses). Verily thus also the Yajamānas obtain with the Kāravyās whatever good they do.” Since the kāravyā verses cannot be applied in every sacrifice, the words yat kiṁ ca kalyāṇaṁ karma can only refer to positive behaviour in general, the effects of which are secured by the application of these verses in a particular ritual. Thus the merits of the sacrificer (required for life after death) are not lost.

TB 3, 3, 7, 10 opposes ṛjukarmam (sic), satyam and sucaritam to vṛjinam, anṛtam and duścaritam. Cf. ṚV 2, 27, 3 on the Ādityas who see vṛjina and sādhu.

In this publication I will not discuss sukṛta which in my view includes all kinds of merits and does not exclusively refer to the ritual. In some of the quoted passages on demerits or sins the positive counterpart also played a role (see 1, 8, 4–6 on life after death; ŚB 11, 2, 7, 33 on sādhukṛtyā; JB 1, 18 on sādhu kṛtam). It is clear, however, that preliminary stages of a positive karman outside the ritual sphere are rather rare. In these texts the most positive action is the performance of sacrifices which produces merits that provide life after death in heaven. This ritual karman on the one hand was involved in a more or less ethical classification of actions, since as merit (puṇya) it formed the counterpart of pāpa (sin). Thus ritual is good karman. On the other hand ritual also formed a mārga, a path leading to the highest aims. As such it formed the counterpart of e.g. śama, dama, jñāna. It was the way of activity. The classical karman doctrine places all karman below mokṣa, probably on account of the fact that ritual, which ultimately pretended to provide a ritualistic mokṣa, was regarded as karmamārga and rejected. Moreover, the renouncers searching for mokṣa repudiated all activity in the world including sacrificial karman which was performed in the village.

Scholars who take the ritual karman as the origin of the karman doctrine do not take into account the fact that ritual only refers to positive karman, whereas the doctrine concerns both positive and negative karman. Ideas on negative, non-ritual karman are not missing in Vedic literature.

However, the karman doctrine is associated with rebirth on earth (which is not found in the pre-Upaniṣadic texts) and already in the earliest texts it cannot be detached from ideas on mokṣa which do not highly esteem even the positive karman (whereas the Vedic highest merit, the sacrifice, is chief aim in religion). Therefore it is difficult to assume that ritual karman, let alone the accuracy of its performance, would have formed the primary source for the doctrine. We may only conclude that merits and demerits, good acts and sins, already in the Veda had implications for life after death and that some traces of ethics were not absent in pre-Upaniṣadic texts.

*First published in Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office centenary comm. vol. (1892–1992), 1993, pp. 221–230.
1See Bodewitz (1993b; this vol. ch. 18).

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Vedic Cosmology and Ethics

Selected Studies


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