Editors’ preface

in Vedic Cosmology and Ethics
Open Access

The present book contains a collection of articles by Henk Bodewitz concerning Vedic thinking about the destiny of man after death and related ethical issues. That heaven was the abode of the gods was undisputed, but was it also accessible to man in his pursuit of immortality? Was there a realm of the deceased or a hell? What terms were used to indicate these yonder worlds? What is their location in the cosmos and which cosmographic classifications are at the root of these concepts? Which paths lead to the hereafter and what is here the function of Vedic ritual in competition with knowledge? Who is qualified for which world? What ideas underlie the doctrine of karman, rebirth, and salvation? And to what extent do certain ideas originate in circles different from those of the Brahmin priests? These and other questions have challenged Bodewitz to a critical study and an in-depth investigation of Vedic texts, from the oldest to the younger ones, and to present what the texts are saying irrespective of large theoretical issues that have been formulated about the topic.

Ethical aspects became the main subject of his more recent studies. In the opening sentence of his article “The Vedic concepts ā́gas and énas” (2006b, ch. 21 in this volume), we read: “Some years ago I planned to write a monograph on virtues and vices, merits and demerits, and good karman and sins in the Veda, but soon discovered that several preliminary studies would be required.” He had already written two articles on merits and demerits in the early 1990s, and four more were to follow including the article just mentioned.

In appreciation of Henk Bodewitz’s work, we decided to realize his original plan to write a monograph on vices and merits in the Veda, and to extend it to his earlier research on how Vedic texts represent and refer to “yonder world” with its two extremes, “heaven” and “hell,” as these may—or may not—result or be expected to result from merits and demerits in this life.

For this purpose, and in consultation with the author, we have selected twenty-three articles and classified these in two major parts with the themes Yonder World (seventeen articles) and Vices and Virtues (six articles). Within these two parts, the articles are arranged chronologically, with the exception of “The Hindu doctrine of transmigration: its origin and background.” This article, originally intended as a lecture for a larger Dutch audience, viz. the members of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) in 1992, was later on adapted for publication in a scientific journal (1997–1998). It turns out to be, in its last version, an excellent introduction to “Vedic cosmology and ethics,” more particularly to the two themes of this book, Yonder World and Vices and Virtues. Because of its more general character, it is accessible to non-Vedic specialists as well and it is placed as the introductory article.

Articles 2 and 3 are written in German. To accommodate the readers not familiar with German, it was decided to translate these articles into English, including citations of and references to Geldner’s German translation of the Ṛgveda and those of other translations of Vedic texts not into English. These translations are included as Appendix 1 and 2. In the English articles, the citations in other than English languages are maintained in the original language, mainly German and French.

Because Bodewitz himself wrote the article which so excellently suits as an introduction to the whole volume, the editors confine themselves to a few considerations which highlight the wider background and current scientific importance of Bodewitz’s work on Vedic cosmology and ethics. In the work of Bodewitz, familiarity with the encyclopedic works that Jan Gonda (19782, 1975c and 1977) wrote on Indian religion and literature in general and on Vedic studies in particular, is often presupposed. In case an argument in one of his articles is not immediately clear, it may therefore be helpful to consult these manuals by his predecessor.

According to Bodewitz, many questions have remained underexposed in the handbooks on Vedic religion. In the twenty-three articles selected for this volume, he tries to fill this gap. The volume has become a rich source of Vedic text places made accessible by explanations and translations. The author combines accuracy in the treatment of the textual material with the conviction that this material is the main source for interpretation. To let the texts “speak for themselves” is, of course, what his teacher and predecessor Jan Gonda (1905–1991) tried to achieve in his work. As Bodewitz (1994a, 12) wrote in an obituary of Gonda:

Gonda took the available texts as starting-point and sometimes declared that these were the only authorities, which could clarify what the people of the culture concerned had thought. The texts would speak for themselves.

Of course, Gonda was not entirely unbiased regarding the material in the texts, just like any other philologist. Unfortunately, he seldom explicitly formulated his basic assumptions. In the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of 1982 Karel Werner attempted to indicate what Gonda thought the ancient Indians thought and in this connection he suggested some of the sources of inspiration for his thinking.

In another obituary of Gonda, Bodewitz (1994b, 321) observed that Gonda, as a real philologist, “preferred texts to theories and material to methodology.” In the article by Karel Werner to which Bodewitz referred, the author (1982, 16) tried to paraphrase the main views which were nevertheless, in spite of Gonda’s preference of texts to theories, guiding his philological approach to Vedic texts:

Vedic man experiences reality around and within himself as a structural and dynamic complex of meaningful processes which were mutually interdependent, and which provided the opportunity for numinous feelings to rise in him.

Like Gonda, Bodewitz prefers “texts to theories and material to methodology.” Accordingly, Bodewitz formulated as a general guideline in interpreting Vedic ritual: “Every explanation which bases itself on one factor, selected in the framework of a general theory, runs the risk of creating a smooth, but one-sided and more or less theoretic outline of development into which only part of the textual and other evidence fits” (Bodewitz 1973, 330). Unlike Gonda, however, Bodewitz is more interested in “Vedic man,” in his human condition—his experience in life, his commitment to or relativization of the ritual system, and his beliefs regarding an afterlife and regarding the world in which he is living—than in the gods and powers that are supposed to surround him. In his study on the term dyumna in a passage in the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa, he regards an interpretation which is too far removed from practical life (“zu wenig Anknüpfungspunkte mit der Praxis”) as being, for that reason, suspect (“daher verdächtig”: this vol. p. 30). It is in this context noteworthy that the Vedic text to which Bodewitz devoted most of his scholarly career, the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa, has as speciality its remarkable focus on “a modest plane of existence, human rather than cosmic” (O’Flaherty 1985, 113) where other Brāhmaṇas give more space to myths in which gods and demons are central. The last in a long series of theses which were either guided by Bodewitz or in which he was a member of the jury, was the dissertation by Dr. Masato Fujii, “The Jaiminīya-Upaniṣad-Brāhmaṇa: A Study of the Earliest Upaniṣad Belonging to the Jaiminīya Sāmaveda” (Helsinki, October 2004), under the guidance of Prof. Asko Parpola.

Whereas Gonda dealt in masterly fashion with the entire domain of Vedic studies and Indian, mainly Hindu, religion and explored all accessible source texts, Bodewitz concentrated his scholarly work on a difficult and even now still insufficiently investigated subdomain of Vedic prose texts: texts of the Brāhmaṇa genre, which includes, in the large sense of the term, Āraṇyakas and (the older) Upaniṣads. These texts are linguistically later than the better known Vedic Saṁhitās, i.e., collections of Vedic hymns, chants and ritual formulas, of the Ṛgveda and the Atharvaveda, the Sāmaveda and Yajurveda. Familiarity with these collections is presupposed in the ancient discussions in the Brāhmaṇa texts.

With his choice to focus, from the beginning of his scientific career onwards, on Vedic prose texts of the Brāhmaṇa genre, Bodewitz continued the preferred specialization of Gonda’s predecessor in Utrecht, Willem Caland (1859–1932): the study of Vedic ritual texts, especially Brāhmaṇas and Sūtras, including the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa, which Caland helped to discover and which he partly edited and translated for the first time. This text became the subject of Bodewitz’s dissertation and of one other major publication, both published in Leiden (1973 and 1990). Even if a few scholars worked on Vedic ritual prose texts, these remained almost incomprehensible to the larger public and even to major Sanskrit scholars of the time, such as F. Max Müller (1859, 352 f.), who referred to the Brāhmaṇas as “a literature which for pedantry and down-right absurdity can hardly be matched anywhere … These works deserve to be studied as the physician studies the twaddle of idiots and the raving of mad men …”

One of the characteristics of texts of the Brāhmaṇa genre is the importance of peculiar identifications in numerous passages. Such identifications are, accordingly, frequently discussed in the studies Bodewitz devoted to the Brāhmaṇa texts. It should be noticed that these identifications and their diversity were, in fact, not at all favourably received at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Sylvain Lévi observed in 1898, for instance, that the Vedic gods “Mitra and Varuṇa are, randomly, the intelligence and the will, the decision and the act, the waning moon and the waxing moon. The disparity between these interpretations demonstrates the fantasy in them” (“Mitra et Varuṇa sont, au hasard des rencontres, l’ intelligence et la volonté, la décision et l’ acte, la lune décroissante et la lune croissante. L’ écart de ces interprétations en démontre la fantaisie,” Lévi 1898, 152). Around twenty years later, Oldenberg continued the critical approach started by Sylvain Lévi and provided, for the first time, a systematic analysis of the way of reasoning followed in Brāhmaṇa texts. His work (1919) can serve as a preliminary “key” to the interpretation of the Brāhmaṇa texts. He noted (p. 111) that the identifications in the Brāhmaṇas are often in the form of a god, invoked at the ritual that is to be explained, or a ritual tool (the sacrificial spoon, for instance), the substance to be offered, or any liturgical element (for instance a metre or a melody that is used in the recitation or chant) which is then identified with some natural phenomenon, with some element in the macrocosm or in the microcosm. Although Max Müller felt the presence of a strong dogmatism in the Brāhmaṇa texts, the discussions we find there are, in fact, “not rigid, dogmatic but rather loose” (Thite 1975, 48). The problem of how to interpret the ubiquitous and utterly divergent identifications has been discussed several times: Oldenberg (1919) emphasized the conceptual aspect of the identification, whereas Stanislav Schayer (1925) emphasized its magical implications; Gonda (1965c) integrated both perspectives in his position (Houben 1997, 65 ff.), and Parpola (1979) studied the Brāhmaṇical identifications from a broader cultural anthropological perspective.

The identifications expressed in Brāhmaṇa texts in nominal sentences or through other syntactical means do not imply a full-fledged identity, A = B, but some kind of bandhu “relationship”—which is the term the ancient authors of Brāhmaṇa texts themselves used when reflecting on their own arguments. The same authors also categorized their identifications. Frequently mentioned categories are those concerning the ritual (adhiyajñam, as an adverb), those concerning the macrocosm (adhidaivam) and those concerning the individual (adhyātmam). The identifications thus testify to a correlative mode of thinking and to the effort of the authors of Brāhmaṇa texts to classify the realities they encounter in the universe.

These “pre-scientific” systems of classification are of considerable importance in the arguments proposed by the ancient authors of Brāhmaṇa texts, and they have hence frequently received the attention of Bodewitz in the form of detailed analyses. Thus, for example, the articles “The waters in Vedic cosmic classifications” (1982, ch. 4) and “Classifications and yonder world in the Veda” (2000a, ch. 14) discuss respectively the vertical and horizontal positioning of three, four or more “worlds” and the related identifications. The author emphasizes the significance of the fourth item in these classifications as being not only the fourth but also the totality of the three. The article “The fourth priest (brahmán) in Vedic ritual” (1983, ch. 5) shows how the function of this priest can be explained “within the framework of the classifications” (page 64 below). To be noted throughout is the advice of the author himself (page 174): “mostly some empathy with the associative way of thinking helps to solve the problems.”

In general, Bodewitz focuses on Vedic terms and their exact meaning, criticizing others who are going too far, and carefully avoiding reading too much in them himself. His criticism is extensive and his own conclusions are cautious accordingly. The results are illuminating and provide Vedic research with a solid basis to further build upon. In spite of all the technical details needed to clarify much-debated questions, all the articles of this volume deal with fundamental issues, such as a belief in an afterlife, the path leading to immortality, and questions whether “redeath” (punarmṛtyu) would lead to rebirth (punarjanman). By way of illustration, a few examples follow.

Bodewitz wrote five studies on the question to what extent the Vedic texts bear witness to a belief in an afterlife in heaven, a realm of the dead or a hell. In “Life after death in the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā” (1994, ch. 8), the author discusses the text places that the Ṛgveda provides about this topic. These are scarce and give rise to different interpretations. On the basis of the little material that is available, the author comes to a cautious conclusion that there are indeed, though vague, references to a heaven and a realm of the dead or a hell. Ideas about an associated value judgment (punishment, sin) are mostly absent, certainly in the oldest family books. Five years later, a second article focusing on this subject, “Yonder world in the Atharvaveda” (1999c, ch. 11) was published.

Three other articles deal with particular terms referring to the netherworld. In “Pits, pitfalls and the underworld in the Veda” (1999b, ch. 12) the author examines words like gárta, kartá, kāṭá and others. These have the general meaning of hole or pit, but also refer to a subterranean world. Even in the oldest Vedic texts of the Ṛgveda, passages occur where words for hole have this meaning. According to the author, these holes are not individual, man-made graves as Converse (1971) and Butzenberger (1996) assume. The article “Distance and death in the Veda” (2000b, ch. 13) focuses on the meaning of parāvát, which is literally distance, a distant place associated with negativity. Based on ten text passages in the Ṛg- and Atharvaveda, the author comes to the conclusion that in the Ṛgveda the parāvát is simply distance, but never the destination of people after their death. This last meaning it acquires in the Atharvaveda and it then becomes the realm of the dead. “The dark and deep underworld in the Veda” (2002a, ch. 17) discusses five groups, among which demons, sick people and sinners, who are sent down or thrown down to deep and dark places along downward paths according to pre-Upaniṣadic text passages.

In “Redeath and its relation to rebirth and release” (1996b, ch. 10), the author disputes the prevailing theory that the concept of punarmṛtyu arose from the idea that, like on earth, life in the hereafter is finite, leading to the assumption that punarmṛtyu is followed by punarjanman. On the basis of several observations and a discussion of the relevant text places, the author comes to the conclusion that punarmṛtyu does not lead to rebirth, but its defeat leads to mokṣa.

The second part of this volume contains articles dealing with Vedic man’s view on “vices and virtues,” which to some extent result from his view on cosmology and “yonder world.” The two parts correspond to two subsequent major periods in Bodewitz’s work, which are, however, not disjunct but overlap for almost 10 years. Interest in the thematics of “vices and virtues” was reinforced when an overarching theme was formulated by researchers of the then Department of Languages and Cultures of South and Central Asia at Leiden University in the mid-1990s, namely: “norms and values.” More precisely, the theme concerned “the tension between values or norms on the one hand, and, on the other, the constraints of ordinary life or worldly aims leading to their non-observation, circumvention or even alteration” in the various cultures and religions studied in the department. It motivated the organisation of guest lectures and seminars, and led to a collective volume with the title Violence Denied: Violence, Non-violence and the Rationalization of Violence (ed. Houben and van Kooij, 1999), in which the first article is the one devoted to “Hindu ahiṁsā and its roots” by Bodewitz. Although this article deals with one of the virtues discussed in the second part of this volume—and a virtue which together with its English calque “non-violence” has been famously interpreted, adapted and developed for modern contexts by Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and others—it is mainly devoted to demonstrating how the term had an entirely different meaning in Vedic texts than in these later Indian and modern interpretations. In pre-Upaniṣadic Vedic texts, it never refers to “not inflicting violence to others” but to “not receiving any injury.”

With regard to the development or the rising of new ideas, the author constantly takes into account the possible influence from other than ritualistic groups (ascetics, mystics or non-Aryan autochthone populations) and the fact that some thoughts or ideas that are found only in later Vedic texts, may express old ideas. This point of view is visible in most of his work, but may be illustrated here by referring to two articles on the terms sukṛtá and karman published in 1993 (ch. 18 and 19), which are concerned with “good” and “evil.” Gonda and others (e.g. Tull and Rodhe) did not assign any ethical meaning to sukṛtá, which qualifies for reaching heaven, nor to karman. They believed that the merits of sukṛtá have been obtained by correctly performed ritual and that karman is ritual activity. Bodewitz shows that in the oldest Vedic texts sukṛtá can also indicate merits obtained in a different way, for example through good behaviour. Likewise, he finds evidence for a good and a bad karman without relation to ritual but acknowledges that the connection between karman and rebirth is still missing.

In another important contribution with a much broader scope, “Sins and vices: their enumerations and specifications in the Veda,” Bodewitz discusses the lists of cardinal and major sins in the Veda and their parallels in the Western and Christian tradition (ch. 22). These are preceded in the present volume by two studies on “Vedic aghám: evil or sin, distress or death?” (ch. 20), and “The Vedic concepts āgas and énas” (ch. 21), published in 2006. The positive side is treated in “Vedic terms denoting virtues and merits” (2013, ch. 23), in which the semantic ranges of the terms sukṛtam and the “latecomer” puṇyam are meticulously examined. The terms “denote general qualifications for life after death,” in particular regarding entrance to heaven, at least in the oldest Vedic literature. The merit, Bodewitz argues, consisted of sacrifices, and the accompanying liberality and hospitality. These, however, might contain a moral connotation.

Finally, it may be noted that the reader will frequently encounter translations into German by Karl Friedich Geldner of the Vedic verses under discussion. His standard translation was published in 1951 in Harvard Oriental Series vols. 33–35. These German translations may seem at present somewhat odd when the rest of the argument put forward is in English. However, it only shows that at the time of writing no even just remotely acceptable scholarly translation into English was available. The only other scientific and heavily annotated translation of the Ṛgveda that received the honour of being frequently cited, also by Bodewitz (and by his predecessor Gonda in his later work), is the one by Louis Renou into French, which remained, however, incomplete at around 90 % of the Ṛgveda as a whole. Even if the publication of a new, scholarly translation into English by Stephanie Jamison and Joel Brereton in 2014 (Oxford) is an important contribution to the field, the references to Geldner’s German translation of the Ṛgveda obviously retain their value.

Editorial Notes

The twenty-three articles have been published in various scientific journals and collections over a period of more than forty years. As a result, both the general layout and the reference style used were quite different. It was obvious that these non-substantive aspects should be made consistent for the present volume.

The general layout and presentation have been adjusted on the following points:

  • the numbering of the subheadings is indicated everywhere with 1, 2, 3, etc.: both letters (a, b, c, etc.) and Roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.) have been replaced; subheadings without numbers are numbered; in article 11 and 13, subheadings have been added;
  • endnotes have been converted to footnotes;
  • extra space between paragraphs has sometimes been introduced, whether or not to replace a previously used asterisk;
  • text titles have a starting capital and are non-italic;
  • abbreviations of texts have no periods;
  • some variation in the rendering of Vedic and Sanskrit terms (by means of the stem or, in the case of a neuter, the stem + ending, e.g. sukṛtá or sukṛtám) is accepted and left as it is;
  • a special remark is required on the indication of Vedic accents in this volume, which follows everywhere the system adopted in his articles by Bodewitz, which, in turn, is generally in accordance with the system followed by his predecessors such as Willem Caland, Louis Renou, Armand Minard, Karl Hoffmann, etc. Some Vedic texts are transmitted with accent, others without; and for those Vedic texts which are transmitted with accent, a few different systems have been used, traditionally and in editions, to indicate accent, even if the underlying, linguistically relevant accent of a word—which allows us to infer, for instance, whether a compound was intended as a bahuvrīhi (exocentric) or as a tatpuruṣa (determinative) compound, or whether a finite verb belongs to the main clause or to a subordinate clause—is generally the same. The words pitṛ́ ‘father’ and mātṛ́ ‘mother’ have the accent on the same syllable, whether they occur in the Ṛgveda or in the Śatapatha-Brāhmaṇa—and even the accent on corresponding words in other Indo-European words are on the same syllable, for instance in old Greek and even in modern Greek: patéras, mitéra. (The proposal that in the case of the Śatapatha-Brāhmaṇa the current recitational accent should be indicated instead of the normalized linguistic accent (Chaubey 1975 and 1978, Cardona 1993) was never accepted by Bodewitz. Justly, as it would require the acceptance of the bhāṣika-sūtra, a late Vedic appendix, a pariśiṣṭa of a pariśiṣṭa, as old.) In his earliest publications, however, the one on “Der Vers vicakṣaṇād ṛtavo …” (1969) and his dissertation Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa I, 1–65 (1973), the quotations are only indicative and the reader has to find the accent in available editions of the Ṛgveda, Atharvaveda (Śaunaka), Śatapatha-Brāhmaṇā. This was the usual style of Jan Gonda, up to the early seventies and often even later, as indicating the accent on a typing machine was quite laborious, and not regarded as indispensable in discussions of semantic and stylistic issues.

The application of a uniform reference style had more consequences. Some of the older articles mentioned the full title of the consulted books or articles in the current text or in a foot- or endnote. In that case, later references to the same publication made use of l.c., o.c. or op. cit. These references have been converted to the author-date system and the full title is included in the joint reference list. With these adjustments some notes became unnecessary and these are removed. On the other hand, notes have also been added. For in some places it has been decided to move a long list of text places or a long quotation to a (new) footnote.

As a result, the number of footnotes of some articles has changed. This change means that already existing references by other authors to a particular note are no longer correct. This is taken for granted. Of course, cross-references by the author himself have been adapted. If an article referred to is included in the present collection, the comment [this vol. p. …] is added.

All articles had, of course, a separate bibliography. A joint reference list has now been made for the entire volume. This merger made it necessary to use the extensions a, b, etc. after the year, if there were several publications from the same year by the same author. A common list of abbreviations has also been made with the necessary adjustments.

By re-editing these twenty-three articles we believe to do justice to Henk Bodewitz’s work and at the same time present a valuable contribution to the field of Indology and related religious and cultural studies, and to the history of ideas as well. For a complete survey of his work, see the website https://www.dutchstudies-satsea.nl/deelnemers/hendrik-wilhelm-henk-bodewitz/.

Finally, we thank Henk and Janneke Bodewitz for their hospitality and cooperation during the preparation of this volume and making relevant books available from their private library. We thank Hans Bakker for having accepted our invitation to write a preface in which he has very well captured Henk Bodewitz’s character, his humour and determined fighter spirit in four decades of Dutch Indology. We thank the J. Gonda Fund Foundation (KNAW) for awarding a grant for this project. We also thank Carmen Spiers for checking the translations from German into English. We thank the editors of the journals and the collections for their permission to republish the articles. And we kindly thank the editorial board of the Gonda Indological Series for accepting the volume in this prestigious series, co-founded, ca. 25 years ago, by Henk Bodewitz.

The editors

November 2018

Vedic Cosmology and Ethics

Selected Studies


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