Rebirth is absent in the Vedas. How prevalent was it at the Buddha's time?

A recent thread on the meaning of bhava developed into a discussion on the place of rebirth belief in the Buddha’s society. Instead of discussing it there, I decided to open a new thread about it. (@Jayarava and @kaccayanagotta)

It is commonly assumed that the Brahmanical religion always was about rebirth, and this assumption was also present in the other thread. But, as Bronkhorst wrote, “The tendency to look for the origin of the theory of karma and rebirth in the Vedas, once popular, is being severely criticized these days.”

Of course Hindus belief that rebirth was always part of their scriptures, so they read it back into the Vedas. But some more “unbiased” scholars do not agree. Wikipedia quotes Olivelle in the Blackwell Companion to Hinduism:

The second half of the first millennium BCE [i.e. the period of the Buddha] was the period that created many of the ideological and institutional elements that characterize later Indian religions. The renouncer [samana] tradition played a central role during this formative period of Indian religious history…Some of the fundamental values and beliefs that we generally associate with Indian religions in general and Hinduism in particular were in part the creation of the renouncer tradition. These include the two pillars of Indian theologies: samsara—the belief that life in this world is one of suffering and subject to repeated deaths and births (rebirth);

Some other scholars on the matter:

  • Jayatilleke in Survival and Karma In Buddhist Perspective: “The belief [in rebirth] was not of very great antiquity. It is absent in the Vedas […] and the early Upaniṣads present a variety of views, some of which clearly reject rebirth.”
  • Joshi in Brahmanism, Buddhism, and Hinduism: "Karma and rebirth were entirely unknown to pre-Upaniṣadic Vedic religion or Indo-Aryan civilization.”
  • Keith in The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads: “The Rigveda and the Vedic literature of the [pre-Buddhist] period of the Samhitas and the Brahma.nas presents us with no clear proof of the belief in the transmigration of the dead. … [I]t must in all likelihood be deemed to be an idea which entered the religion of the Veda with the advance of aboriginal influences.”
  • Reat in Karma and Rebirth in the Upaniṣads and Buddhism: “In an attempt to cloak this non-Vedic rebirth idea in orthodoxy, the Upanisadic sages allude to Vedic verses, but these verses originally had no connexion with rebirth. The afterlife belief in the Rig Veda is simply that after death, the soul leaves the body and enters heaven or hell or eternity.”

Moreover, in the scriptures that followed the Vedas, the early Upanishads, the concept of rebirth is rare and not treated consistently. Bronkhorst wrote in Greater Magadha that “the merger of Vedic ideas with the doctrine of rebirth and karmic retribution has not succeeded all that well […]. The new doctrine remains a recognisably foreign element [in the Upaniṣads]. […] The new belief [in rebirth] was hesitantly welcomed by some Brahmanical texts, ignored by others, and rejected by yet others.”

Given the general fundamentalist attitude of Brahmins, it is no wonder only a part of them adopted the rebirth ideas. The Upanishads were likely considered heretical at the time, since they are said to be secret teachings. So it is not a given that rebirth was the prevalent belief in India at the time, certainly not among the Brahmins.

This underlines the importance of rebirth to the Buddha’s ideas. Because it indicates he did not simply adopt it from the main religion of the time. Now, I’m not claiming the idea was new to the Buddha, because the Jains at least had the idea too (as did many cultures all over the world). But I would not be surprised if he did help make it vastly more popular.

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Greetings! :wave: Good to see you :slight_smile:

I apologize in advance: I do not have the energy to make complicated posts with well cited examples about this issue. You, someone else, or I may end up convincing myself later on, but as of right now, I’d prefer not to spend the hours it would take.

That said, this is a major interest of mine nowadays. And what I can say is that Bronkhorst’s ideas on rebirth and karma have been proven heavily wrong by the ingenious Vedic scholar Joanna Jurewicz. She has also demonstrated that rebirth goes back all the way to the RgVeda, and she has demonstrated the importance of it as it evolved through the Brahmanical tradition even post-Buddha.

She has three books on the development of Vedic ideas. One on the Rig Veda, the next on pre-Buddhist texts (Rig Veda, Atharvaveda, Brahmanas, and early Upanisads), and another on post-Buddhist smrti texts. They are all very long and complicated, yet extremely insightful and full of colorful information.

All the way back to the Rig Veda, the idea of a permanent heaven went out of fashion rather quickly. The idea that even in heaven, people relied on food that was earned via ritual and faith, etc. grew early on. Eventually people would be rained back down to be born in their family and build up a space in heaven with ritual again.

I recently read this rather short yet insightful article on the topic:
Food and Immortality in the Veda: A Gastronomic Theology? by Carlos Lopez. You may find it helpful :slight_smile:

Another very helpful one that is short is by Joanna Jurewicz: Rebirth eschatology in the Rg Veda. It discusses how this belief worked in small-scale Vedic society as opposed to the evolving ideas of rebirth past the Rig Veda.

A more general overview by Gregory Shushan discusses rebirth and other afterlife conceptions in the Vedas here. This discusses non-rebirth-esque views that existed as well and how they relate or differ. This is probably one of the best overviews on the subject in a very brief, neat, and clear way. It goes through several Vedic passages and consistently shows how ideas of rebirth go back as far as the Rig Veda and are extremely apparent in other Brahmanas, etc. (but it is not all uniform: some may be annihilated, others immortal, others reborn again and again, etc.).

Despite references to immortality and to the world of the immortals in the Rig Veda, there are early indications of a belief in rebirth as the inevitable conclusion to a temporary stay in a heavenly realm (at least for those who escape annihilation), the length of which is determined by one’s ritual conduct on earth.
Gregory Shushan

(This agrees with the article by Carlos Lopez and Jonna Jurewicz on rebirth being found in the Rig Veda, ‘immortality’ not actually being permanent, etc.)

The scholars you quoted as saying that rebirth was virtually non-existent are sorely, sorely mistaken. To be honest, one would almost have to never have read these texts in any depth to say that the idea is just “the soul goes to heaven or hell” as Reat does, for instance. That idea is so clearly false with even a cursory overview of the material. A more detailed analysis of a passage is in the Jurewicz article. I leave an excerpt from her conclusion here related to rebirth:

Let us recapitulate the rebirth eschatology reconstructed on the basis of the Rgvedic evidence: the dead person, properly cremated, was poured as a Somic oblation into the cremation fire. He reached the sun, where he enjoyed the contradictory afterlife state. Then he was sent back by the sun in the form of rain to be reborn among his relatives. This rebirth eschatology has all the features of the rebirth eschatology characteristic of small-scale societies.

Even beyond rebirth, the afterlife is much more complicated than a heaven hell duality or some immortal soul in Abrahamic heaven. There are of course parallels, but as Shushan, Lopez, and Jurewicz (staying with only these three for now) demonstrate, the view must be from scholars who were unfamiliar or before Vedic scholarship had developed to understanding the texts very well.

I may come back later and edit in citations; I apologize again for the lack right now. I just thought it would be good to at least drop Joanna Jurewicz’s name here who is probably one of the world’s leading scholars on this issue if not the leading scholar. Any critical read of the Brāhmanas/early Upanisads will show that their ideas of rebirth and karma are not just out-of-place additions from other ideas; they are extremely consistent and knowledgable with centuries of earlier Vedic tradition and ideas.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the standard description of ‘right view’ (mundane right view) in the suttas (such as in MN 117) is highly general and is not anti-Brahamanical; if anything it utilizes a lot of Brahmanical terminology. The terminology there speaks of ‘this world’ and the ‘other world,’ of sacrifice and giving, of basic ideas of morality leading to rebirth, etc. Although Brahmanism was not a unified institution and indeed many ideas existed, the description of right view is not at all at odds with what many brahmins would have thought. We can also add the fact that in the earlier strata of suttas, the Buddha and (especially contemplative) Brahmins are ideologically much more compatible in terms of various realms of existence, our actions influencing our afterlife, etc. This was discussed in the PhD dissertation Early Buddhism and Its Relation to Brahmanism by Gabriel Ellis (who is or was a poster here as well!). I don’t want to exaggerate the similarities as some in the past have done, but I do think this is worth pointing out. There is a good essay on this from the forum here some may be interested in.

All of that said, I agree that the idea that the Buddha blindly adopted rebirth from some mainstream Brahmanism is mistaken. You make a good point too in pointing out that the ideas of contemplative brahmins such as those found in the Upanisads were not the mainstream for the average person, although the Buddha was likely familiar with these as we see in the suttas. He had a very different idea of rebirth, of the deities, of the process, etc. from many people. In more orthodox Brahmanism, it’s all about ritual (even though moral behavior is also an important factor going back a long time); it all involves pre-scientific views of natural processes and travelling among astral bodies; the evolution of consciousness and craving do not drive it (though ideas about this evolved over time and have earlier roots); the process is not always universal, ‘egalitarian,’ or consistent; there are several factors involved from external agents (family members giving offerings or priests preparing your funeral/rituals and so on); etc. The Buddha brought many unique ideas to the table, but the idea of rebirth itself was not at all unknown to the Vedas or Brahmanical tradition. I also agree that the Buddha was probably a major factor, if not the main contributor, to rebirth gaining such popularity in later Indian philosophy. This seems to be one of the most impactful aspects of Buddhism on Brahmanism and into Hindu systems!

EDIT: Two translations of RgVedic passages on rebirth, discussed by Jurewicz above.

‘Release him to his fathers and again down from them, who, poured into you, travels according to his will. Let him who wears life come to his offspring. Let him join his body, Jātavedas!’
RgVeda 10.16.5

‘O Agni, sow again the one you burnt [before]!’
RgVeda 10.16.13

(Notice the same farming simile for rebirth that the Buddha frequently uses attested all the way back to the RgVeda!)

I will also leave this excerpt from “Fire, Death, and Philosophy” by Joanna Jurewicz:

Many scholars assume rebirth theory was introduced during the time of the early Upaniṣads and came from royal circles that adopted non-Brāhmaṇical concepts and taught the Brahmins about them. … Yet, scholars like Tull (1989), Killingley (1997) have presented evidence for earlier accounts of the rebirth theory. In Jurewicz (2008b, 2010), I have shown that the concept of rebirth is attested already in the ṚV. Cremation is conceived in terms of a sacrifice in which the deceased is a Somic oblation. As during sacrifices performed in his life he reaches the sun where, having drunk Soma from the solar source, he transforms himself into a perfect being called Aṅgiras. It is believed that on the sun he meets his fathers and Yama. The deeds he performed during his life … influence him which is conceived in terms of their union with him (ṚV 10.10.14.8). Then he comes back in the form of rain to be reborn as a member of his own family. … I have also shown that traces of the belief in rebirth are present in earlier thought (AVŚ 11.5.13-14, 15.7.2-5, ŚB 10.4.3.10-11). … We will also see that the context of the expositions of the JB and JUB attesting the rebirth theory is purely Brahminic.

The Jaiminiya Brāhmaṇa contains a detailed description of how rebirth works in various paths and with the Five Fires (very similar to what is described at BU, CU, etc.), and as a brāhmaṇa, this would be the major text for the Vedic śākhā it belonged to, dictating their ritual action and interpretations of the Veda.

In the book’s conclusion, she writes:

As I have shown, it is possible that the belief in rebirth within the range of one’s family or clan was so well entrenched in early Vedic thinking that the composers did not feel necessary to elaborate it more extensively. … This topic is reconsidered again in the Upaniṣads when a new practice is found which leads to the possibility of not being reborn. Throughout the early Veda, the state reached after death was the state which was reached during supernatural cognition performed in one’s life. According to the earlier tradition, attested in the Saṃhitās and the Brāhmaṇas, the range of the supernatural cognition was the borderline sphere between the two aspects of reality, so it was believed that everyone came back to the earth after death. The Upaniṣadic practice allowed the practitioners to reach the unmanifest aspect of reality.

For male brahmins especially—who seem to nearly always be the only people whose afterlife situation is much addressed—having sons was of extreme importance. Having a son was part of gaining immortality, in that they make offerings for the deceased relatives, and it seems another part of this is that they will bear off-spring in the family through which one could be reborn when the time comes. This was a major point of controversy and tension in the Brahmanical tradition as more and more celibate contemplatives came along. Eventually it led to the development of the āśrama system that many know today in modern Hindu circles. This is discussed by Patrick Olivelle in his work ascetics and brahmins for those interested.

Finally, I’d just add that in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (as is a continuation of earlier Vedic thought and which continues later on as well), reality must manifest itself in constant death and killing to stay alive. It kills itself to live and be born a-new, thus being the killer and the killed. Even Prajāpati, the Creator, dies and is resurrected — what to say of mortal humans who are supposed to repeat his actions in ritual? I would argue that the model of reality presented in the ŚB nearly necessitates a belief in some kind of rebirth—and this is precisely what we see elaborated in the BU section of it in a way very similar to JB, JUB, CU, etc. It seems to me that it was likely taken for granted by many brahmins that reality was cyclical, like a sacrifice with oblations and heat (eater and eaten) giving birth to one another, and that the afterlife of man followed the same pattern. As Prof. Jurewicz says, the Upaniṣads are where the ideas of escaping and transcending this come up; it does not seem to have been perceived of as suffering by the majority at the time. In fact, it was a manifestation of reality, immortality, ritual, winning worlds/space (lóka; something mentioned by name in the suttas and the Brahmanical texts), etc.


From Obeyesekere 2002 on small-scale rebirth eschatologies and their evolution. This is what Jurewicz sees evidence of in the Rig Veda.

That’s my spiel! I best not add more info for now.

Mettā!

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1. _Address the powerful one with these hymns. Praise Parjánya. With reverence seek to entice him here. The Bull, loud roaring, swift to send his bounty (kánikradad vṛṣabhó jīrádānū) lays in the plants the seed (rétas) for germination.

achā vada tavasaṃ ghīrbhir ābhi stuhi parjanyaṃ namasā vivāsa |
kanikradad vṛṣabho jīradānū reto dadhāty oṣadhīṣu gharbham ||

2. He smashes apart the trees, smashes the demons. All life fears him who wields the mighty weapon. And the blameless one shrinks from the one of bullish powers, when Parjánya, thundering, smashes those who do ill.

vi vṛkṣān hanty uta hanti rakṣaso viśvam bibhāya bhuvanam mahāvadhāt |
utānāghā īṣate vṛṣṇyāvato yat parjanya stanayan hanti duṣkṛtaḥ ||

3. Like a charioteer lashing out at his horses with a whip, he reveals his rain-bearing messengers. From afar the thunderings of the lion rise up, when Parjánya produces his rain-bearing cloud.

rathīva kaśayāśvāṃ abhikṣipann āvir dūtān kṛṇute varṣyṛṃ aha |
dūrāt siṃhasya stanathā ud īrate yat parjanyaḥ kṛṇute varṣyaṃ nabhaḥ ||

4. The winds blow forth, the lightning bolts fly. The plants shoot up; the sun swells. Food springs abundant for all living creatures, whenever Parjánya quickens earth with his seed.

pra vātā vānti patayanti vidyuta ud oṣadhīr jihate pinvate svaḥ |
irā viśvasmai bhuvanāya jāyate yat parjanyaḥ pṛthivīṃ retasāvati ||

5. At whose command the earth (pṛthivī) bobs before you, at whose command the hoofed (livestock) quiver, at whose the plants take on all forms (viśvarūpāḥ) — you, Parjánya — extend to us great shelter.

yasya vrate pṛthivī nannamīti yasya vrate śaphavaj jarbhurīti |
yasya vrata oṣadhīr viśvarūpāḥ sa naḥ parjanya mahi śarma yacha ||

6. Grant us rain from heaven, Oh Maruts; make the streams of the bullish stallion swell forth. Come nearby with this thundering, pouring down the waters as the heavenly father.

divo no vṛṣṭim maruto rarīdhvam pra pinvata vṛṣṇo aśvasya dhārāḥ |
arvāṅ etena stanayitnunehy apo niṣiñcann asuraḥ pitā naḥ ||

7. Roar! Thunder! Deposit the seed (gharbham)! Fly around with your water-bearing chariot. Drag the water-skin unleashed, facing downward. Let the low-land hollows and the up-land heights be level.

abhi kranda stanaya gharbham ā dhā udanvatā pari dīyā rathena |
dṛtiṃ su karṣa viṣitaṃ nyañcaṃ samā bhavantūdvato nipādāḥ ||

8. The great bucket — lift it up, pour it down. Let the brooks unleashed, flow forward. Inundate Heaven and Earth with ghee. Let there be a good watering hole for the prized cows.

mahāntaṃ kośam ud acā ni ṣiñca syandantāṃ kulyā viṣitāḥ purastāt |
ghṛtena dyāvāpṛthivī vy undhi suprapāṇam bhavatv aghnyābhyaḥ ||

9. When, Oh Parjánya, roaring and thundering you smash those who do ill, all of this here, whatever is on the earth, rejoices in response.

yat parjanya kanikradat stanayan haṃsi duṣkṛtaḥ |
pratīdaṃ viśvam modate yat kiṃ ca pṛthivyām adhi ||

10. You have poured rain: hold it back. You have made the wastelands fit for travel. You have begotten the plants for nourishment, and you have found inspired thought for the creatures.

avarṣīr varṣam ud u ṣū ghṛbhāyākar dhanvāny atyetavā u |
ajījana oṣadhīr bhojanāya kam uta prajābhyo 'vido manīṣām ||

RV V.83 (Parjánya) ~ Atri Bhauma
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Cleary Old Indic-speaking Indo-Europeans entering the subcontinent ca 1500 BCE did not believe in a cyclic afterlife. No Indo-Europeans did. This is uncontroversial

Joanna Jurewicz showed that rebirth is found in book ten of Ṛgveda, the last book in the collection and the last to be composed. And if Jurewicz is not well known, then Richard Gombrich talked about this a lot in his Numata Lectures and the subsequent book What the Buddha Thought. So rebirth does appear in the Ṛgveda, but not until the end of the long period of composition, around ca. 1200-1000 BCE.

ṚV contains numerous stories naming Yama as “the man who discovered the way to the fathers”. Yama was a human being not a deva. So the Brahmins even recorded and celebrated their discovery of rebirth in India in the myth of Yama.

As Gananath Obeyesekere points out, in his extensive book on rebirth, punarbhava was a pan-Indian belief. The Vedic peoples encountered the idea and adopted it many centuries before the Buddha is supposed to have lived.

By Bṛhadāraṇyka Upaniṣad (ca 800 CE), still some centuries before Buddhism (no one believes Bronkhorst on this score), rebirth was first linked to the correct performance of the saṃskāras (rites of passage) especially the śrāddha or death ritual. It was actions (karman) performed in these saṃskāra rituals that determined one’s afterlife destination. Note that some people include BU in the category “Vedas”. Vedanta is still Veda.

Buddhists borrowed this concept whole, so that we also link saṃskārāḥ to karma, but with a twist. Note also that in Vedic, preta (past participle of pra√i) just means “the departed” and is just the normal way of referring to the recently dead. Buddhist eschatology is profoundly influenced by Brahmanism. And note carefully that Gautama is an ostentatiously Brahmin name, as are Siddhārtha, Māyā, and Prajāpatī.

So rebirth is not “absent from the Vedas” at all. It first appears in the Vedas and is developed in the Vedas. And all long before Buddhism was conceived.

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Since these discussions tend to be based on impressions or academics who have fixed opinions or wikipedia, etc. it’s best to quote the original texts.

On the one hand, as contributors have mentioned, rebirth was present (and developed) in RV and AVŚ. Naturally, pre-Buddhist Brahmins originally developed algorithms of worship offering, e.g. in TB 3.1.5.6: "He indeed conquers the world of Brahman, he who offers that oblation and who thus knows it”.

But there is not yet a (ethical or meditation-based) karma rebirth logic. So was this a contribution of the Buddha? The invention of “Do X and you’ll be reborn as Y”?

I don’t think this can be maintained. We have to assume that general karma algorithms were already developed by pre-Buddhist samanas, and that Kosala Brahmins were already influenced by that before the Buddha and started their own speculations (e.g. in DN 13).

The most like scenario is that the Buddha presented his own version of karma based rebirth. It’s not as cool as to believe that the Buddha invented something new out of thin air, but truth doesn’t care about idealizations. How detailed his teaching was in that regard is impossible to say. The scholastic matrices that rigidly parallel jhanas with rebirth realms (e.g. in AN 4.123-125) clearly belong to a post-Buddha layer of the suttas. The same applies to ‘karmic threat’ suttas like SN 19.1-21, SN 1.33, or SN 1.49.

M Witzel has several theories of the presence of certain ideas of death and “redeath” in the Vedas. Esp with the heavenly world of ancestors. I think he indicates that there was a belief among the Vedic people (the Kurus?) that Kurukshetra (the place) was where one ascended to heaven - to go to another world. I forget how he presents the idea of their rebirth/redeath.
I could not find his papers but did find this piece by Henk Bodewitz -

Redeath and Its Relation to Rebirth and Release

Thomas McEvilley discussed pan-cultural ideas about rebirth, which he found to be an extremely widespread belief. But he identified three characteristics of rebirth belief that were found only in the leading Indic religions (Buddhism, Brahmanism, Jainism) as well as the older Greek philosophers.

  1. rebirth is a (more-or-less) endless cycle
  2. rebirth is determined by one’s actions (karma)
  3. the goal of spiritual life is to be free from this cycle

Now, it seems clear from kaccayanagotta’s piece that point 1 was true of the Vedas, although jayarava’s qualification is important:

It is also clear that all three points obtained by the time of the Upanishads, which introduced the idea of liberation.

What is less clear to me is the second point: what exactly was the role of kamma as moral deeds, as opposed to kamma as ritual?

It’s not uncommon for a religious class to uphold correct ritual performance, mediated by priests, as the gateway to heaven, while also maintaining that ethical conduct is necessary (see: Catholic Church). What do we know about the pre-Buddhist relation between these things?

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Yes, this is something to investigate. In Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth (Obeyesekere 2002), the author discusses how rebirth eschatologies are common all across the world and share an elementary structure. He discusses how many scholars have been mistaken in thinking that karma explains rebirth in Indic systems. Rather, he points to the fact that ethical action (like karma) driving the process is actually a later development from earlier systems of rebirth that we find across the globe. I posted an image of this basic structure in my post above. Usually though the idea is that ancestors live their life, die, and then live in some kind of ancestor realm or other world for a time before coming back to a body within their kin group or in some relation to it. A common theme/motivation behind this process is that ancestors will come back to their body and be among their family again. In other words, rebirth and the gaining of a new body is seen as a positive thing.

These same themes are underlyingly present in Brahmanical texts before karma was heavily ethicized and saṁsāra a major idea. As several scholars I’ve linked to discuss, it seems probable that the idea of kṣatriyas (or non-brahmins) influencing beliefs in rebirth in the Brahmanical tradition may be true of the ideas surrounding karma (rather than the idea of rebirth itself as was previously assumed).

I also think that the line we may draw today between “ethically good/bad” and “ritually good/bad” was not the same line that would have been perceived by the brahmins themselves. The vocabulary surrounding the performance of ritual link ethical words with proper gesture, performance, and behavior. I think we should keep in mind that ritual was not just some theatrical offering for luck; in the Brāhmaṇas, a major theme is giving the ritual meaning by demonstrating how ritual constructs and maintains the universe and social order itself via metaphysical connections (bandhu). The Upaniṣads go into more secretive connections of the same sort. Performing proper ritual then is pleasing to the gods, to your deceased ancestors/fathers, to the universe, to one’s afterlife, etc. This would be rather important and it could be devastatingly “evil” to do a wrong ritual. If we think in terms of Catholicism, saying a series of pre-determined prayers can turn one into a ritually pure/good person if they have sinned. In Judaism or Islam, breaking a rule like eating one type of meat over another is immoral. Brahmanism may have had more elaborate ritualistic schemes, but the concept of ritual=ethos is not too foreign. Ṛta as a kind of cosmic harmony maintained between the gods and men via ritual, love, community, etc. is an extremely prevalent theme, and we see already a mix between religious performance and ethos that is heavily intertwined.

The Upaniṣads are also where we see heavy internalization of ritual. Things like breathing replace outer fire rituals and so on. If we internalize proper ritual in actions, we also internalize ethical behavior in bodily action. I personally see a very clean shift towards internalization of karma → ethicization of karma (and this may have been influenced by surrounding religious ideas). Hopefully someone more knowledgeable on the connection between ideas of karma comes along though. This is definitely an avenue I’ll pursue to see what can be learned.

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Rta is the foundation of vedic ethics. And as far as I know it is based in amity, companionship, diplomacy, alliance, treaty, contract. (This has an archaeological record). The figure is Aditi (light) and the two brothers, the Adityas, Mitra (solar god)-Varuna (god of horizon). Varuna is the big guy who causes you to suffer if you don’t honour the bond (because it is natural law). He’s the one who carves out and maintains the tracks of the universe.

I should also add, personal relation with Varuna is indicated in the Rgveda.

Oh and I will also add that, based on preliminary looks, this particular set of beliefs maybe could belong to a seafaring folk who were concerned with the well-being of a royal who was distant by sea. There are definite connections to the Levant, and lately I have been reading something about a connection between Elamite, semitic languages and archaic vedic (sanskrit).

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"1.2 The Buddha: Problematizations of the Veda and Vedic sacrifice

“Buddhist critiques of the Veda and Vedic sacrifice began with works attributed to its founder.
There are several suttas that directly take up the subject of Vedic sacrifice.
25 However, in those suttas, the Buddha does not reject the notion of sacrifice itself. Following his trait of reinterpreting others’—mostly Brahmanical—concepts and thus assimilating them into Buddhist vocabulary, 26 the Buddha, rather than advising his Brahmin interlocutors to dispense with Vedic sacrifice, proposes to perform “reinterpreted” sacrifices infused with Buddhist values.27 The proposal is, according to the Buddha, not only to perform sacrifice in a more perfect form; it is also to avoid unwanted consequences that would befall the performer as the result of the sacrificial act. That is to say, the Buddha’s reinterpretation lies in showing that Brahmin sacrifice is not the path to the goal that it claims to be fulfilling and that it instead brings negative effects due to its immoral aspects.”—Hyoung Seok Ham

AN 4:39

Thanks everybody for the discussion. I can’t respond to everybody in detail, of course, so I’ll just respond to this:

Thanks. I read Jurewicz before, but the others are new to me.

But these three papers are actually good examples of the kind of arguments you need to be willing to allow to read rebirth into the early Vedas:

  • Jurewicz’s arguments are very philological, essentially arguing that everybody else, including the commentary, has interpreted certain passages incorrectly. (That’s not disproving anything, but in my experience already doesn’t bode well. :laughing:) Her—I’m assuming the pronouns—translation suggestions seem far-fetched and out of context. I can expand if anybody wants. For example, she’s reading two grammatical cases in one single word in the same time (“to the afterlife” and “from the afterlife” in one word), which is very unnatural at best. Plus it does not even disprove the standard reading of just one case of “to the afterlife”, in which case the idea of rebirth disappears from that line. And the context is cremation, at which point one naturally passes to the afterlife; not coming back from there.
  • When discussing rebirth belief in the early Vedas Shushan repeatedly says things like “possibly suggesting”, “seems to convey”, “it is not entirely clear what actually happens”, and such—all of which shows that it is not all that obvious even if you are open to the idea. Also, Shushan says there is a variety of after-death beliefs.
  • Lopez suggestion that food in the afterlife is impermanent and that therefore “dying again” of the Brahmanas refers to rebirth is nothing much more than an inference on his part. As he says, very similar to Shushan actually, “the texts never make clear what happens when [again-dying] takes place, whether one returns to this world or not.” Moreover, he says about the early Vedas including the Rig Veda that “for the most part, immortality is understood as permanent”, meaning there is little or no talk of rebirth there. So the problem is, this single word “again dying” is according to Shushan the clearest reference to rebirth, but even he says it can be interpreted differently (e.g. a kind of permanent death even in the afterlife), and it is not found in the earliest strata of texts.

It is no wonder, then that even Jurewicz admits that “lots of scholars” disagree with rebirth being present in the Vedas. I think it is a stretch to suggest she heavily disproved them, at least in this paper you referred.

The very fact that scholars have this discussion in the first place is telling in itself. If rebirth were a fundamental tenet of the Vedas, wouldn’t we expect it to be stated unambiguously at least once? I mean, the idea would be fundamental to (parts of) the religion, and it’s not hard to say something like “he will be born again”. But such statements just aren’t there, and the best we have is basically inferences and grammatical ambiguities.

And even if rebirth is mentioned in the Vedic texts, clearly it was an extremely marginal idea. And the Upanishads treat it very inconsistently as well. So then it still supports my suggestion: that the orthodox brahmins may not have been open to the idea.


All that said, I’m not sure exactly how much all of this matters. :smiley: (To be completely fair, when I started this discussion I was mainly intending to keep the bhava thread clean of it, and didn’t expect I would be (so far) the only one to agree with the scholars I quoted—which just fyi aren’t minor figures as far as I know.)

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I think part of the problem is that you seem to be expecting the RgVeda to be like a Buddhist sutta. These texts are not religious treatises on philosophical ideas that state in abstract language what they think. They use layers of complex figurative language and symbolism to convey highly polysemous and intentionally ambiguous content open to interpretation from other poets and brahmins who induce religious experience and come to cognize these religious states for themselves (in their belief system). It can seem highly “philological” and yet be entirely intentional from the composers: these are poems using word play and symbolism to convey mystical ideas.

As for the line you find implausible, that is only one line. There are several passages in the RgVeda that all point to this, and consistent developments in expected patterns on account of this reading in later exegesis. Jurewicz if anything tends to favor the intelligence and comprehension of exegetical commentators, not go against them. If by commentary you mean modern anachronistic commentary in smrti tradition, then this makes sense: these commentaries often read ideas into the texts that are not there according to their needs.

Of course, yes. There are a variety of beliefs and ideas and nobody is claiming rebirth was a mainstream assumption everybody had. What is being said is that these concepts go back a long time. Even Obeyesekere 2002 thinks rebirth was not explicit in earlier Veda and yet he predicts, based on other evidence, that the Vedic people very probably had some kind of rebirth belief assumed in their society and belief system (before the other arguments from the above citations were around).

As these authors and others here have said, the question of the afterlife itself is hardly described until the later strata of the RgVeda where we find these ideas. Moreover, inference from consistent ideas is essential to interpreting the Veda. For instance, if all food is impermanent and food is what people subsist on, and we also find several references to people transforming into rain to rejoin their offspring, and transformation from the Sun to Rain is a consistent idea elsewhere, and these same concepts are later made explicit in models of rebirth, we start to get the idea that rebirth is pretty much implied without being stated. Absence of direct statements is not evidence of absence of those concepts.

The earliest strata of the RgVeda is much further removed from the Buddha’s context either way. Early Vedic society was not the Gangetic Plain circa 500-400BCE.

I understand where you’re coming from, but would just like to push back on some of the underlying reasoning here. It seems appealing, but in reality this is just how the Vedic texts are: full of polysemy, intentional homophony, inference, underlying concepts left unspoken that need drawn out, ambiguity, etc. We can say with almost certainty that these ideas are there. When we look and analyze the actual meaning of the statements, it becomes clear. But I would also like to say that yes, it is not as though this were like the Buddhist suttas where a complex and consistent rebirth eschatology is made explicit in abstract language; that does not come up until the Brāhmanas (JB, JUB). And as I said:

If a pre-Buddhist Brāhmana contains clear descriptions of rebirth, this school of brahmins clearly followed this as their authoritative text for understanding the Veda and their religious praxis. Whether or not one agrees with the RgVeda’s relevance then, this fact is undeniable: schools of brahmins pre-Buddha had canonical explanations of rebirth. When we take all of this into account, we can also add in the evidence from the suttas: many brahmins are presented as having no qualms or in fact receiving teachings from the Buddha on how to be reborn in realms/deities that are borrowed over from Brahmanical pantheons and cosmologies. Therefore,

I do not think there is evidence from the suttas for this idea, nor from the Veda. I can see the argument that brahmins would have disagreed that some kind of immortal heaven wasn’t possible (this disagrees with the contemplative Upanisads even, who understand the brahmaloka to be permanent), but being reborn in various realms and sometimes returning seems to be assumed. Again, the idea of ‘this world and the other world’ is what we are asked to accept in MN 117—a more Brahmanical phrasing than Buddhist one. In other words, it seems to me that what brahmins may have disagreed with is that “all bhavas are impermanent,” but not that there is rebirth for some beings/people and that there are other realms with an afterlife in varying dimensions that are not always permanent (and many, as evidenced by JB, would have had sophisticated ideas about rebirth).

Mettā

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I’m not expecting them to be like the suttas. What I’m saying is, as you seem to be agreeing actually when you say it’s “intentionally ambiguous content open to interpretation”, that rebirth is not “extremely apparent” in the Vedas, that not “any critical read” will obviously show this, that Jurewicz doesn’t “heavily disprove” the opposing ideas.

And all I’d personally ask for is just one reference to rebirth that isn’t this ambiguous. I don’t think it’s a big ask from such a big body of work.

There isn’t. But in the suttas we generally have the more open-minded/heretical Brahmins discussing with the Buddha, I would assume. It’s the ones who were already disappointed with the tradition of sacrifice and so forth. Still, there are quite a few references in the suttas to these very old Vedic practices as well, which suggests many Brahmins were still very conservative, possibly holding on to the afterlife beliefs they’ve had for a long time too.

Anyway, it would be interesting to see how often the Brahmins introduce the topic of rebirth and how often the Buddha does.

But that’s the thing, only in the Buddhist context these words unambiguously refer to rebirth. If we take them literally, for Brahmins they could simply have referred to this world and the afterlife, without necessarily implying rebirth, akin to how Christians talk of “this world and The World To Come”. It wouldn’t be the first time that the Buddha adopted brahmin terminology but twisted it around.

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Did anyone ever notice that the Rsi stopped composing poetry? I have no idea about the story of the missing Rsis.

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For the record, I was referring to the ideas that rebirth is just thrown into the Upaniṣads and does not fit in, that no such ideas are expressed pre-Upaniṣad, etc. The RgVeda, as I said, is another matter. I would say that it is very clear that there are several passages referring to rebirth once one is familiar with the philosophical context of the RgVeda, and I will quote some below (@Meggers has already quoted a passage). Also, it is somewhat of a ‘big ask’ to ask for a clear, abstract, philosophical statement about the nature of the afterlife process in the RgVeda—these types of texts are simply not how the RgVeda operates. But either way, as I said several times, the Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa contains a description of two paths of the afterlife with rebirth, and the Brāhmaṇas were the main texts that schools of brahmins used and compiled for understanding ritual/exegesis, etc. The descriptions in the JB, JUB, CU, BĀU, etc., no surprise, all have rebirth doctrines that match up with what we see in the RgVeda—people going to astral bodies from cremation fires, being converted into food/water, eventually brought back for people to give birth to them.

Also, the paper I sent is a short excerpt analyzing a few portions of the RgVeda. Joanna Jurewicz, in her ~450 pg. monograph on the RgVeda which is extremely well esteemed, has two entire chapters dedicated to the afterlife/sacrifice in the RgVeda with several different sections of the 10th mandala referring to rebirth and also how these ideas are integrated throughout the entire philosophical system of the text itself. Other chapters elaborate some of these ideas as found in other sections of the text. I would recommend reading that (Fire and Cognition in the RgVeda) and then ‘Fire, Death, and Philosophy’ which discusses the RgVeda, Atharvaveda, Brāhmaṇas and early Upaniṣads. These texts cannot just be quoted and understood at face value; they take detailed analysis and deconstruction (again, unlike the Buddhist suttas for instance which make much clearer philosophical statements in abstract terminology).

In the 10th Mandala, people are cremated, rise up to the sun (which is understood as a cosmic sacrificial fire), drink Soma/enjoy ultimate bliss, and then become the oblation in that same Sun-fire in the form of rain falling back to earth. This is found all throughout RV 10.16 and RV 10.14.8. I will not use it as “evidence” because understanding the RgVeda takes hundreds of pages of analysis, not a simple quotation. Instead, I will quote from the Brāhmaṇas which spend lots of words on describing the rebirth process. Nevertheless, this is a more “abstract” passage that is not filled with such complicated metaphor:

sáṁ gachasva pitÉbhiḥ sáṁ yaméneṣṭāpūrténa paramé vyòman |
hitváyāvadyám púnar ástam éhi sáṁ gachasva tanvã suvárcāḥ || (10.14.8)
Unite with fathers, unite with Yama, with sacrifices and good deeds in the
highest heaven! Leaving evil, come back again to the house, unite with your
body, o beautifully radiant!

Jurewicz (2010) builds on what Renou (1956) thought in agreeing that this is probably in reference to rebirth after drinking Soma on the Sun. One comes back to their body having been purified and essentially cleansed by the heat of the Sun (as is a common Vedic theme).

JB 1.17-18 and 1.45-50 are where we see descriptions of the Five Fires and afterlife paths with rebirth.
I will quote just one relevant section from JB 1.45 from Bodewitz (1973). There is simply too much material to quote it all on the forum here.

Man is Agni Vai£vanara. Its fuel is speech, its flame sight, its smoke breath, its sparks mind, its coals hearing. In this same Agni VaiSvanara the gods day by day offer food. From this oblation when it has been offered seed [semen] comes into existence.
Woman 7 is Agni Vai^vanara. Its fuel is the vagina, its flame the vulva, its smoke desire (?), 8 its sparks the feelings of enjoyment, its coals the coitus. In this same Agni VaiSvanara the gods day by day offer seed. From this oblation when it has been offered man comes into existence.
Thus in this fifth creation man is born from the gods. At the fifth creation the divine waters speak with a human voice. 9 And when* he goes to yonder world —
46 — his (funeral) fire is Agni VaiSvanara. Its fuel is the herbs and trees, its flame is just the flame (of the fire), its smoke just the smoke, its sparks just the sparks, its coals just the coals. In this same Agni VaiSvanara the gods day by day offer man. From this oblation when it has been offered man comes into existence (and goes) to yonder world. 10 That is for him the world in which he resurges.
Of that god who shines here 11 night and day, the half-months, the months, the seasons and the year are the guards. Night and day are forerunners (who announce his coming). 12 To 13 him one of the seasons, who has a hammer in his hand, 14 comes down along a ray of light and asks him: “Who art thou, man?” 13 In case he has some (but not the perfect) knowledge he may withhold (his name from the interrogator). 16 Then he strikes at him (with his hammer). Of him when he has been stopped the good works disappear in three parts. 16 He (i.e. the Rtu) takes one third. One third diffuses in the air. Together with one third he (i.e. the deceased) descends in the direction of this world. 17 The world which is won by him on account of his gifts, in that he stops. Thereupon even him Death ultimately reaches. Repeated dying is not overcome by him who 18 knows (only) thus.

There is much more in depth analysis of all of this and the other passages that relate to it throughout the text of course from many scholars, and it has long been uncontroversial that this is all about rebirth (the above passage being just one excerpt from one section of the text).

The model of Five Fires is the model of reality conceived in terms of cycles of sacrifice. We find this to explain rebirth in the earliest Upaniṣads as well (BU, CU, KU, JUB, etc.). Basically, there are fires and oblations. In JB 1.4, the fires are: sun, thunder, earth, man, woman. The oblations which are “offered” into these metaphorical fires are: immortality and water, king Soma, rain, food, and semen. When an oblation is offered into one fire, the heat transforms it into the next sacrifice in the line of fires. So for instance, food is offered into man (digested in his stomach), which turns into semen offered into woman. This then forms a cycle of sacrifice in how the world operates. The next one is the cremation pyre (into which man is offered), and from there rises to the Sun (the first in the list) via smoke of the fire. Notice that the person being offered into the sun is “immortality and water” (which is consistent with other Vedic conceptions), and yet this is a cycle of rebirth. “Amrta” (deathlessness/immortality) is not necessarily the state of the person—who will be reborn—but the immortal state to which they temporally go and join their fathers/the Sun. There is a possibility to join the Sun permanently though as well (and thus this would be a permanent form of heaven). Jurewicz (2016) summarizes the two paths:

From what has been said it follows that the JB presents two possibilities for the afterlife which the BU and CU will elaborate more precisely. The first possibility ends with a return to the state of life and death and the second in union with the sun. There are three factors on which the afterlife depends. The first is the deeds deceased performed during his life. The second is knowledge of one’s origin. The third is somehow connected with a properly performed cremation.

Jurewicz (2016), in conclusion to this section of the JB, writes:

Bronkhorst (2007) claims that the difference between the earlier Vedic thought and the culture of Magadha is the belief in transmigration which in the next incarnation depends on previous deeds. He claims that such a belief is not attested in the early Veda (2007: 115). Taking into account the evidence of the JB, the problem is more complex. According to this text, the future incarnation depends on deeds. Firstly, it depends on gifts the deceased gave during his life (in the first path). Secondly, it depends on deeds of those who are still alive and can perform the proper cremation rite (in the second path). This line of thinking is continued in the JUB (see section 5.2). It is worthwhile mentioning that even in the ṚV the concept of deeds (iṣṭāpūrtá, ṚV 10.14.8), which unite with the deceased in the sun, imply their influence on him. … The two possible ways of the deceased are seen as the result of the proper performance of the Agnihotra and the cremation rite. This also weakens Bronkhorst’s hypothesis about the non-Brāhmaṇical source of a belief in rebirth.

The same ideas are continued in the JUB, which is usually understood as an Āraṇyaka (rather than an Upaniṣad) despite what the name seems to suggest, and dates to the Brāhmaṇa period. There, rebirth is also explicitly defined and explained in complex ways via the Five Fires model (and with 3 afterlife paths, as opposed to just two in the JB which relate to knowledge/performance of ritual). JUB 3.13-14 describes how people ascend to the immortal world of heaven/the Sun as per usual, and then how from there they come to be re-born in the human womb and so on via good deeds. All of this is again consistent with the general philosophy of the RgVeda and the specific passages alleged to be about rebirth, and also with the thought of the Brāhmaṇas themselves (rather than some super-imposed external belief). Even the travel path the deceased take through astral bodies and so forth calls on the same passages in RgVeda 10.16.

In my previous post, I discussed how the nature of reality presented in the ŚB in a way necessitates there be some form of rebirth as at least a possibility or factor of existence for some people. Jurewicz (2016) sees the same thing and says the following:

As I have shown elsewhere (Jurewicz 2004), the successive stages of functioning of the cosmos can be seen as the successive acts of offering milk into fire which repeats the first creative act of Prajāpati in which he offered milk to fire and thus redeemed himself from total annihilation (ŚB 2.2.4, see chapter 3.1.1). Viewed from this perspective, the model of the Five Fires presents the functioning of the cosmos in terms of Agnihotra which ensures the safe manifestation of Prajāpati within its frames. There is a close similarity between Prajāpati who creates fire from himself and the sacrificer who, in the Agnyādheya rite, kindles fires which are identified with his breaths, i.e. with his self (JB 1.1-2)28. In this fire-self the sacrificer has to perform the Agnihotra in order to obtain long life and immortality after death as Prajāpati did in illo tempore and does all the time in order to manifest himself as the cosmos. It is worth adding that in the model of the Five Fires the composer of JB 1.45 uses the word visr̥ ṣṭi in reference to the cosmic sacrifices as if he wanted to emphasise the creative role of the processes described in the model.

Gregory Shushan, in the article I posted, also lists many examples from the ŚB that agree with different afterlife paths, some involving being burnt by the sun (offered in oblation→rebirth), impermanence in afterlife realms, etc. as is again expected. This again confirms that the model of the Five Fires / constant sacrifice in relation to rebirth specifically is completely at home within the Brahmanical tradition. Time and again we see how ritual prepares one for the afterlife where there is travel among different bodies or perhaps cycles of cosmic sacrifice, and how one may be reborn in a womb or on earth, or perhaps admit into some kind of eternal existence, perhaps even be annihilated. There is a degree of freedom and choice for those who know the Veda and performed good karma, and rebirth among ancestors or existence in the manifest aspect of reality seem to be occasionally perceived as a positive expression of one’s immortality (as opposed to Upaniṣadic ideas where transcending into the unmanifest aspect is an escape from rebirth into a state of immortality they come to perceive as superior). There are certainly a plethora of ideas, though!

Mettā!

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Just wait until they turn Indra into a white bull, with thunderbolt, cloud, stormy ways, always eager for a fight. But yes, well said.

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I just wanted to pop in here and say, for many years I have been wanting to see a deeper sense of inquiry and understanding of pre-Buddhist Vedic/Upanishadic ideas in relation to the suttas, and I am so happy to see it happening. I’m learning a lot from these threads.

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As nobody mentioned him I’ll throw one more name to the topic, Richard Seaford of University of Exeter. I came across his work recently by listening to a podcast where he introduced his idea that the monetisation (particulary the spread of the coinage) was a crucial factor for a intellectual revolution in the 6th century BCE in Greece and northern India. This revolution consisted of 3 ideas:
1.) monism
2.) the idea of an inner self
3.) and rebirth determind by the ethical quality of the previus life.
He argues that the combination of these ideas in 6th century BCE emerged in India and Greece and nowhere else and money was the main factor here.
I think it is quite interesting, many of his papers can be found on academia, e.g. https://www.academia.edu/41253972/Money_Reincarnation_and_Karma

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Hi @_Gost,

Welcome to the D&D forum!

Enjoy the multiple resources here available: may these be of assistance along the path.

Should you have any questions about the forum, feel free to contact the @moderators.

With Metta,
Ric
On behalf of the moderators

Just wanted to join in the praise. As someone not so familiar with the Vedic stream, these topics are a delightful read.

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