Rebirth & reincarnation in the Brahman Vedas

Dear forum

I have been reading suttas to Brahmans recently because I am trying to learn what exactly Brahmans believed at the time of the Buddha. My impression is Brahmans were mostly concerned with Brahma rather than with rebirth & reincarnation since I have, so far, not read any EBTs which have a systematic discussion about rebirth & reincarnation between the Buddha & Brahmans.

I apologise for sounding lazy however I know some members here have studied the pre-Buddhist Vedas thoroughly.

I ask if knowledgeable members could kindly post here some quick references & quotes to teachings about rebirth & reincarnation found in the pre-Buddhist Vedas (and also any EBTs where Brahmans display their doctrines of rebirth & reincarnation or any past thread topics on this forum).

Thank you. With metta


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Sorry, I don’t meet the criteria you’ve asked for (I haven’t studied the Vedas - never mind thoroughly - and don’t cross the threshold of desired knowledgability), but while you’re waiting for better answers, on the off-chance that it hasn’t been included in your review, there is this line in MN95 that may pertain to your interest:

The brahmin Cankī to other brahmins: Sirs, the recluse Gotama holds the doctrine of the moral efficacy of action, the doctrine of the moral efficacy of deeds; he does not seek any harm for the line of brahmins.


I also do not meet the criteria for your inquiry, my apologies.

However, I have read about these texts (not extensively), and, from specifically Western scholarship, and from someone not specialized in such scholarship, the narrative about that scholarship that I inherited, is that belief rebirth is a post-Vedic innovation.

I would need to do a fair amount of searching to make that anything more than internet gossip, essentially, but I will add that to my list of pet projects related to this site and forum and I will see if I can re-find some of these sources to substantiate that rather extreme view I presented.


Thanks for that. I was reading the Brahmanavagga in the MN on the weekend thoroughly for the 1st time. I suppose I should read Chapter 7 of the SN also. I then looked at Wikipedia, which states:

The idea of reincarnation has early roots in the Vedic period (c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE), predating the Buddha and the Mahavira. The concepts of the cycle of birth and death, samsara, and liberation partly derive from ascetic traditions that arose in India around the middle of the first millennium BCE. Though no direct evidence of this has been found, the tribes of the Ganges valley or the Dravidian traditions of South India have been proposed as another early source of reincarnation beliefs.

Hinduism’s Rigveda makes references to reincarnation in the Brahmanas layer. Though these early textual layers of the Vedas, from 2nd millennium BCE, mention and anticipate the doctrine of Karma and rebirth, the idea is not fully developed. It is in the early Upanishads, which are pre-Buddha and pre-Mahavira, where these ideas are more explicitly developed in a general way. Detailed descriptions first appear around the mid 1st millennium BCE in diverse traditions, including Buddhism, Jainism and various schools of Hindu philosophy, each of which gave unique expression to the general principle.

However, the Brahmanavagga in the MN does not appear to give the same impression as Wikipedia because the MN contains no systematic discussion of reincarnation by the various Brahmans with the Buddha. Instead, the MN gives the impression the Brahman religion was of a similar genre to the Old Testament religion, having a preoccupation with both birth lineage & being born from Brahma (God) as a superior, special or ‘chosen’ social class.

This said, MN 97 & MN 98 contain some kammic themes in relation to ‘birth’, although I could not decide with MN 97 whether Sariputta was putting words into the Brahman’s mouth rather than reflecting the Brahman’s pre-existing belief system.

Below is my summary of the relevant suttas that give the impression reincarnation was not a major preoccuption or doctrine of the Brahmans:

Good Gotama, brahmans speak thus: ‘Only brahmans form the best caste, all other castes are low; only brahmans form the fair caste, all other castes are dark; only brahmans are pure, not non-brahmans; only brahmans are own sons of Brahmā, born of his mouth, born of Brahmā, formed by Brahmā, heirs to Brahmā.’ What does the good Gotama say about this?” MN 93

Sir, do not go to see the recluse Gotama. It is not proper, Master Cankī, for you to go to see the recluse Gotama; rather, it is proper for the recluse Gotama to come to see you. For you, sir, are well born on both sides, of pure maternal and paternal descent seven generations back, unassailable and impeccable in respect of birth. MN 95

Earlier, humans recollect, the name and clan of their mother and father and are reckoned accordingly. If born with the warriors, he is reckoned a warrior, with the Brahmins a Brahmin, with the ordinary class, one of that class and with the low caste, one ofthat caste. MN 96

What do you think, Dhanañjanin? There is the case where a certain person, for the sake of his mother & father, does what is unrighteous, does what is discordant. Then, because of his unrighteous, discordant behavior, hell-wardens drag him off to hell. Would he gain anything by saying, ‘I did what is unrighteous, what is discordant, for the sake of my mother & father. Don’t [throw] me into hell, hell-wardens!’ Or would his mother & father gain anything for him by saying, ‘He did what is unrighteous, what is discordant, for our sake. Don’t [throw] him into hell, hell-wardens!’?"

“No, master Sariputta. Even right while he was wailing, they’d cast him into hell.”

“What do you think, Dhanañjanin? Which is better: hell or the animal womb?”

“The animal womb is better than hell, Master Sariputta.”

“… Which is better: the animal womb or the realm of the hungry shades?”

“… the realm of the hungry shades…”

“… the realm of the hungry shades or human beings?”

“… human beings…”

“…human beings or the Four Great King devas?”

“…the Four Great King devas…”

“…the Four Great King devas or the devas of the Thirty-three?”

“…the devas of the Thirty-three…”

“…the devas of the Thirty-three or the Yama devas?”

“…the Yama devas…”

“…the Yama devas or the Tusita devas?”

“…the Tusita devas…”

“…the Tusita devas or the Nimmanarati devas?”

“…the Nimmanarati devas…”

“…the Nimmanarati devas or the Paranimmitavasavatti devas?”

“…the Paranimmitavasavatti devas…”

“…the Paranimmitavasavatti devas or the Brahma world?”

“Did Master Sariputta say, ‘Brahma world’? Did Master Sariputta say, ‘Brahma world’?”

Then the thought occurred to Ven. Sariputta, “These brahmans are set on the Brahma world. What if I were to teach Dhanañjanin the brahman the path to union with the Brahmas?”

MN 97

The subject of “birth”, O Gotama, is contention’s cause with us: he, a Bhāradvāja, does declare “birth” is due to brahmin caste, while I say it’s by karma caused: know it thus, O One-with-Eyes. MN 98

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The opening chapter of Gananath Obeyesekere’s Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth is quite a good overview of both the subject and the ways that modern indologists have wrestled with it. See attached file.

Chapter 1: Karma and Rebirth in Indic Religions: Origins and Transformations Obeyesekere, chapter 1.pdf (140.6 KB)

Also, the source that Obheyesekere cites in his first endnote is available online:

Hendrik Bodewitz, The Hindu Doctrine of Transmigration: Its Origin and Background, link


This post by Bhante Sujato contains some excerpts and links to the Brihadarannyaka Upanishad which talks a bit about pre-Buddhist ideas of kamma and rebirth:


Chapter 7 of the SN seems to bring the same results & impression. Here, there is no mention by Brahmans about rebirth or reincarnation, apart from attaining Brahma (brahmapattiyā).

The brahman of the Bharadvaja clan… went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, addressed him in verse:

You live alone in the forest
with rapturous mind.

I suppose it’s in longing
for the three heavens unexcelled (tidivaṃ anuttaraṃ),
in the company of the ruling lord of the worlds,
that, staying here in the wilderness, desolate,
you practice austerities
for attaining Brahma (brahmapattiyā).

SN 7.18


At that time the brahman Sangaarava was living there, a “purity-by-water” man who believed in purification by water… It is like this, good Gotama. The evil deeds that I do in the day I cause to be borne away in the evening, and the evil deeds that I do in the night I cause to be borne away in the morning. That is the benefit I expect from [this practice.] SN 7.21


Thank you Dhammanando. This is contrary what is in Wikipedia in terms of the Bràhmanas (so I best follow that up). I have not noticed mention of ‘Upanishads’ in the Pali suttas. Thus, at first glance, the historical chronology below may possibly be questionable, at least in terms of kammic inheritance. I will read the link more thoroughly at a later time.

There are virtually no references to rebirth or to an ethical notion of karma in the Vedas or in the Bràhmanas, the oldest texts belonging to the Hindu tradition. The first significant references appear in an early Upanishad, the Brhadàranyaka Upanisad, probably composed sometime before the sixth century b.c.e., followed by the Chàndogya and the Kausítaki. A hundred years or more later these theories appear in full bloom in the so-called heterodox religions— particularly in Buddhism and Jainism—that have karma and rebirth at the center of their eschatological thinking.

Here is some literature:

Bodewitz, H. W. (1999). Yonder world in the Atharvaveda. Indo-Iranian Journal, 42(2), 107-120.

Jurewicz, J. (2008). Rebirth Eschatology in the Ṛgveda: In Search for Roots of Transmigration. Indologica Taurinensia, 34, 183-210.

Shushan, G. (Ed.). (2009). Conceptions of the afterlife in early civilizations: universalism, constructivism and near-death experience (Vol. 6). A&C Black.

Shushan, G. (2011). Afterlife Conceptions in the Vedas. Religion Compass, 5(6), 202-213.

Shushan starts his article summary with:

What can we generalize about Vedic afterlife conceptions? Some thematic, structural elements found throughout the texts include: ascent and descent to upper and lower realms; existence in non-physical states; dissolution into component parts which go to different places; encounters with deities and ancestors; barriers, obstacles, perils and demons of various kinds; an afterlife fate determined by moral, religious or spiritual merit; and identification of the deceased with various deities, celestial bodies, seasons, natural phenomena, etc., indicating a transcendental, godlike state.


Thank you Raivo. This is also very useful. Again, are Vajnavalkya & Upanishads mentioned in the Pali suttas? I will research these leads. Bhante Sujato writes here:

… a specific doctrine that explains ethical action and its consequences, and appears at a specific time and place. That time was a few generations before the Buddha; the place was the region of Mithila, in between the Sakyan republic and Vesali. This was when the great Upanishadic sage Vajnavalkya flourished. Among many other crucial innovations in the Brahmanical teachings, he is responsible for the earliest clear statements on kamma. At that time, this teaching was an esoteric doctrine. In later years, of course, this compelling doctrine became firmly established in both Buddhism and Jainism, and due in part to their influence, became known throughout Hinduism.

Re the date of the Brihadaranyaka and other early Upanishads, their pre-Buddhist provenance is a long-established conclusion in Indic studies. It is true, a few scholars have recently challenged this. I have reviewed their arguments and found them to be very thin. This was some time ago, so I can’t recall the details off the top of my head. If there are any specifics, bring them to the table and we can have a look. But there are so many aspects of the Brihadaranyaka that seem early – doctrinal development, social/political conditions, settings, language – that I would need some very good reasons for changing my mind.

The following is part of a dialogue in the Brihadarannyaka Upanishad

‘And here there is this verse: “To whatever object a man’s own mind is attached, to that he goes strenuously together with his kamma; and having obtained the end (the last results) of whatever kamma he does here on earth, he returns again from that world (which is the temporary reward of his deed) to this world of kamma.

‘So much for the man who desires. But as to the man who does not desire, who, not desiring, freed from desires, is satisfied in his desires, or desires the Self only, his vital spirits do not depart elsewhere,- being Brahman, he goes to Brahman.


Thank you Gabriel. I better take to care to not overdose. I was also emailed this, for the record: The Ågveda, ‘small scale’ societies and rebirth eschatology: Joanna Jurewicz.

Kind regards :seedling:

Short of having studied the pre-Buddhist Vedas thoroughly, or claiming to be especially knowledgeable, here are some potential leads to add to the above:

As mentioned above (Gabriel 2017-06-05 10:03:16 UTC #9) Johanna Jurewicz is said to be an authority, at least with respect to the RGVeda poetry, which is apparently the earliest layer of written Indic cosmology (which includes theory of human life and death,…). Her major work – Fire and Cognition in the RGVeda (2010) appears to be one of the most comprehensive and detailed analyses of the RGVeda.

In that book, at the conclusion of a section titled “The rebirth cycle in RV 10.14.8”, she writes (p. 319):
The RGVedic evidence attests a belief in the return of the dead to be reborn among their relatives. This means that the main contribution of the Upanisadic thought is not that it introduces the concept of rebirth but that it makes it universal, not restricted to family members and dependent on moral value.

She footnotes that statement with “Cf. Gombrich 1996, Obeyesekere 2002.” Oddly, for such a monumental and meticulous piece of scholarship, with ca. 480 items listed in the Bibliography, the reference to Gombrich 1996 is missing there. Presumably it is Richard F. Gombrich’s How Buddhism Began (1996), which can be freely downloaded. Gombrich attempts to summarize the Upanisadic teachings relevant to the Buddha on pp. 31-32 (in an Ebook version of the 2nd edition of his book (2005) that can be downloaded).

The other reference reads: “Obeyesekere G., 2002, Imagining Karma. Ethical Transformation in Ameridian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.” – same author that Dhammanando mentioned, different work. Jurewicz also lists 4 or 5 works of Bodewitz.

Some here may recognize Johanna’s book as the basis for Linda Blanchard’s Dependent Arising in Context (2012). (This may be the same “Linda” who participates in SuttaCentral discussion occasionally?)

The paper by Jurewicz cited by Gabriel can be found on-line. In the bibliography to the Fire and Cognition book, she lists some 25 of her own works, a couple of those in Engish I’ve downloaded and read. Not being able to find the book itself on the internet (other than a review of it), I corresponded with Linda a couple of years ago about finding the book. She said it’s available in Poland. Last December I did find it on-line, in a Polish book outlet. It was all in Polish, but looked just like any Amazon-type page; clicking on buttons that looked like the usual “add to cart”, “check-out”, enter name, address, credit card etc., it worked. A couple of weeks later the book arrived (cost ca. $30US).

The index to Linda’s book lists a dozen or so references to rebirth. Perhaps most relevant, on page 16:
… The Vedic system was built on the assumption that the rites practiced throughout a lifetime , as well as keeping the gods, ancestors, and the universe nourished, enabled the Sacrificer to nourish his self, his ātman, in the same way – constantly building and perfecting himself and his world, in both the present world and the world he would inhabit after death. The concept was that during the ritual the Sacrificer died (he/his equivalent was what was being sacrificed), he made his way up to his world, and returned to earth a new man – literally (but, to our point of view, figuratively). Over the course of a lifetime of such rituals in which the ātman was perfected, he would “die” and “be reborn” many times…

Btw: Linda’s book is dedicated to, among a couple of others, Professor Richard Gombrich, with whom she has studied.


actually I’m fortunate to have Joanna as my PhD supervisor!


Good fortune indeed Gabriel !

Does your area of specialty also relate to investigating relationships between Vedic and Buddhist literature?

Are you yourself in Poland, or does Joanna also work internationally? (She’s so fluent in the English language.)

The theory of “cognitive linguistics” would seem a potentially valuable contribution to the area of “EBT” research. (I’m slowly plowing thru the “Fire and Cognition” book, which is quite weighty; especially interested in how that theory is applied, and might be potentially useful in other realms.)

Btw: Could you confirm for me the correct pronunciation of Joanna’s name? Running it by, a while ago, a couple of friends who are American-born Polish, I was told something like “Jo-HAN -nah” (which is why I mistakenly used “Johanna” above) “’YUR-reh-vitch”.

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(1) Gabriel 2017-06-05 10:03:16 UTC #9
Jurewicz, J. (2008). Rebirth Eschatology in the Ṛgveda: In Search for Roots of Transmigration. Indologica Taurinensia, 34, 183-210.

(2) Deeele 2017-06-05 10:26:13 UTC #11
“… I was also emailed this, for the record: The Ågveda, ‘small scale’ societies and rebirth eschatology: Joanna Jurewicz.”

These two references appear to be the same paper – the text is identical;
(1) spells-out references in the footnotes, and supplies a date of publication (2008);
(2) uses abbreviations and supplies a formal Bibliography, not is not

As you’ve probably already gathered, this paper, in either form, would appear well-suited for your purposes here. The book by the same author that I brought up, though a bit later (2010), deals with a much larger context. I mentioned it because it would be a factor in “studying the pre-Buddhist Vedas thoroughly.”

Linda Blanchard’s take on it all, however, may interest you (if you’re not already familiar with her book), as it elaborates Jurewicz’s research specifically in terms of the paticca-samuppāda doctrine, which appears to play a central role in the Buddha’s message as radically reinterpreting traditions he was born into.

Good thread !

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Pronouncewiki is great for this. Just scroll down to hear several native speakers pronouncing it.

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Thanks. It does not interest me. I recall discussing these previously somewhere & responded to the negative towards them.

Paticca-samuppāda is a specific cause & effect doctrine, which shares a cause & effect explanation as with many a doctrine. Further, paticca-samuppāda is about the origination or creation of suffering, which shares a cause & effect doctrine as with many creationist myths.

For example, if you explain to a child how elves make toys at the North Pole and reindeer deliver the toys at Xmas with Santa Claus, this is a cause & effect myth but is not necessarily similar to paticca-samuppāda.

In other words, I recall commenting elsewhere my opinion that Blanchard & Jurewicz were way off the mark about paticca-samuppāda, even though they may be experts in Vedic history.

Sorry, while I can empathize with the enthusiasm of Blanchard & Jurewicz, this meditation object of Paticca-samuppāda should not be mistaken for speculative myths from Brahmanism & Judaism.

There is an American monk named Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who has written an internet PDF called ‘Shape of Suffering’. It can simply be googled. This PDF explains the actual reality of Paticca-samuppāda, which has no relationship to any creationist myth but explains what is going on within the minds of homo sapiens every day, every hour, even every minute, yet homo sapiens do not discern it.

In Thailand, there is a phrase: “The birds fly in the sky but do not see the sky; the fish live in the water but do not see the water; similarly, the homo sapiens dwell in paticca-samuppāda but do not see it”.

This was a good thread for myself to learn about the history of reincarnation before Paticca-samuppāda was diminished by being introduced into it. MN 38 explains exactly why Paticca-samuppāda probably has no relevance to this thread. I would suggest you read it with appropriate faith rather than get excited about Blanchard & Jurewicz.

“Bhikkhus, knowing and seeing in this way, would you run back to the past thus: ‘Were we in the past? Were we not in the past? What were we in the past? How were we in the past? Having been what, what did we become in the past?’?”—“No, venerable sir.”—“Knowing and seeing in this way, would you run forward to the future thus: ‘Shall we be in the future? Shall we not be in the future? What shall we be in the future? How shall we be in the future? Having been what, what shall we become in the future?’?”—“No, venerable sir.”—“Knowing and seeing in this way, would you now be inwardly perplexed about the present thus: ‘Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where will it go?’?”—“No, venerable sir.”

“Bhikkhus, knowing and seeing in this way, would you speak thus: ‘The Teacher is respected by us. We speak as we do out of respect for the Teacher’?”—“No, venerable sir.”—“Knowing and seeing in this way, would you speak thus: ‘The Recluse says this, and we speak thus at the bidding of the Recluse’?”—“No, venerable sir.”—“Knowing and seeing in this way, would you acknowledge another teacher?”—“No, venerable sir.”—“Knowing and seeing in this way, would you return to the observances, tumultuous debates, and auspicious signs of ordinary recluses and brahmins, taking them as the core of the holy life?”—“No, venerable sir.”—“Do you speak only of what you have known, seen, and understood for yourselves?” —“Yes, venerable sir.”

“Good, bhikkhus. So you have been guided by me with this Dhamma, which is visible here and now, immediately effective, inviting inspection, onward leading, to be experienced by the wise for themselves. For it was with reference to this that it has been said: ‘Bhikkhus, this Dhamma is visible here and now, immediately effective, inviting inspection, onward leading, to be experienced by the wise for themselves.’

MN 38

As for the books posted here, including the books you repeated, I hope to get around to reading them.

My interest in starting this thread is to learn about Brahmanism rather than pre-Buddhist non-Brahman ideas so I hope to be able to distinguish between Brahman views on reincarnation & the views of non-Brahmans.

Before we get over-excited with cravings for future becoming & future reincarnations (which the Buddha called “blameworthy”), I thought I would make this clear.

Non-Brahmans may have developed reincarnation views before the Buddhas but my reading of the suttas gains the impression Brahmans themselves were not overly concerned with reincarnation but were keen on going to heaven with Brahma, similar to a Christian.

Definitely not. In the EBTs, the Buddha was called the ‘Spiritual Doctor’. The same as a doctor, the Buddha discerned the disease or illness of sorrow & went looking for the cause of that disease or illness of sorrow, as follows:

Monks, before I attained supreme Enlightenment, while I was still a Bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: 'This world, alas, has fallen into sore distress (kicchaṃ)". SN 12.10

That is all paticca-samuppāda is, to me. The etiology of the illness & sickness of sorrow, which is summarised for those that over-complexitize in MN 28.

Now this has been said by the Blessed One: “One who sees dependent origination sees the Dhamma; one who sees the Dhamma sees dependent origination.” And these five aggregates affected by clinging are dependently arisen. The desire, indulgence, inclination, and holding based on these five aggregates affected by clinging is the origin of suffering. The removal of desire and lust, the abandonment of desire and lust for these five aggregates affected by clinging is the cessation of suffering.’ At that point too, friends, much has been done by that bhikkhu.” MN 28[quote=“cjmacie, post:12, topic:5571”]
Gombrich attempts to summarize the Upanisadic teachings relevant to the Buddha

Unfortunately, the more these kinds of ideas are entertained, embraced & rejoiced in, the more the foundation of Buddhism, namely, the Perfectly Self-Enlightened Buddha, is diminished & refuted.

The Perfectly Self-Enlightened Buddha unambiguously said in this 1st sermon that his teachings were about things he had never heard before.

Take care :rabbit2:

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I hope it isn’t too tangential, especially with this in mind:

but I’ve been reading from DN2 and remembering your post, suddenly thought how weird it is that while six other competing schools of thought are covered there the views of the Brahmins are not.

I don’t know whether it is just far too much of a stretch, but nevertheless wonder if this sutta, in conjunction with what we learn about the Brahmins elsewhere, can be used to learn anything about the Brahmin doctrine held at the time of the Buddha (eg. we can see a number of schools explicitly reject kamma and at the same time explicitly reject rebirth, from the suttas already mentioned above we can feel in some way confident that the Brahmins were exponents of the doctrine of kamma - from this might we infer they necessarily had to hold some sort of rebirth view… just wondering out loud :slight_smile: ).

Possibly. I recall when I skimmed some of the recommended books it was said, at least in respect to some of the pre-Buddha sages, that they were similar to the Buddha, i.e., of the warrior caste. This is particularly what I want to investigate & research.

Thanks. I will try to get around to reading it on the weekend. I was flat out working today. Got to make $$$.

Certainly. I tend to believe in evolution and collective history and sense Brahmanism was similar to Judaism & other tribal or social class-centric theistic religions which all arose as a similar genre of religion at a certain time in history. This is what I am investigating.

Kind regards :slight_smile:

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[quote=“Dhammanando, post:16, topic:5571, full:true”]

Pronouncewiki is great for this. …[/quote]
Handy tool, and interesting to hear multiple variations (and explore other language-speakers). Thanks