27 February 2015

Rebirth in the Ṛgveda

Most modern discussions of the afterlife in the Vedas say that rebirth/reincarnation is not found in the Ṛgveda. Conventionally speaking, the first mention of rebirth in India literature is thought to be in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (4.4). This text was composed somewhat before Buddhism and probably in or near the kingdom of Kosala (within reach of the śrāmaṇa religions). The idea of karma in relation to rebirth is introduced by a king (kṣatriya) and many scholars take this to mean that the Brahmins adopted rebirth from a śrāmaṇa group.

Joanna Jurewicz has shown that despite the conventional understanding that there is evidence for belief in rebirth in the Ṛgveda. This essay will walk through her discovery and comment on the relevance for Buddhist rebirth. Jurewicz's discovery begins with by revisiting a well known passage in the Ṛgveda. In RV 10.16.5 we find this passage. I cite Wendy Doniger's translation to show the conventional understanding of this stanza.
áva sr̥ja púnar agne pitŕ̥bhyo yás ta ā́hutaś cárati svadhā́bhiḥ |
ā́yur vásāna úpa vetu śéṣaḥ sáṃ gachatāṃ tanúvā jātavedaḥ ||
Set him free again to go to the fathers, Agni, when he has been offered as an oblation in you and wanders with the sacrificial drink. Let him reach his own descendent, dressing himself in a life-span. O knower of creatures, let him join with a body. 
Here the dead person is treated like a sacrificial offering (āhuta) to the fire (agni). Agni transforms offerings into smoke and wafts them up to the sky where the devas live. Jurewicz makes the point that in Vedic eschatology the fathers or ancestors also dwell in the sky or heaven.

Jurewicz points about that pitṛbhyaḥ can either be dative and ablative and that all translators to date have read it as dative (to the fathers). But really there is no apriori reason not to read it as ablative (from the fathers).

Jurewicz analyses the verb ava√sṛj according to the principles of George Lakoff. She points out that the concrete meaning is 'untie' as in 'untie a bound captive, or a tethered animal'. Abstractly this can refer to forgiveness for wrongdoing. In a ritual context untying the animal means to sacrifice it, as the victim is bound to a post before being killed. The verb ava√sṛj can also refer to releasing an arrow. Jurewicz speculates that the bow-string might be seen as binding the arrow which is then release from captivity when the archer looses it (though 'to [let] loose' an arrow is also a metaphor in English and I think refers to the right hand hold (back) the bow-string and the arrow). Another sense of ava√sṛj is the releasing of the waters by Indra (RV 10.133.2, 8.32.25). In this usage the preverb ava takes its most obvious meaning of 'down'. When Indra releases the waters, rain pours down and rivers flow down from the mountains (an image also found in the Pāḷi Canon). Thus there is a strong argument for emphasising the reading of "release him down from the fathers again."

However we read pitṛbhyaḥ it raises the question of why the text asks Agni to do this again (punar). "Send him to the the fathers again" or "release him from the fathers again." One obvious reading is that the poet conceives of this happening repeatedly, i.e. that he believes that one is born, dies and goes to the ancestors repeatedly.

The other padas of the verse support this reading. Although śeṣa  (literally 'remainder') can mean what is left after the fire has burned out, in the Ṛgveda it definitely also means 'offspring'. In addition āyuḥ refers to a human life. In her consideration of the word svadhā, which qualifies the movement of the dead (ta ā́hutaś cárati svadhā́bhiḥ "The sacrificial offering proceeds with svadhā"), Jurewicz says "Most scholars in their translations choose words denoting will, right or autonomy." Doniger, by contrast relates svadhā to soma, the drug laced liquid imbibed as a stimulant and ladled onto the fire as an offering. However, Jurewicz argues that the main idea being conveyed here is 'contradictoriness'. This captures the sense that the unmoving dead body is none-the-less able to travel (as smoke from the fire) up to heaven.

Jurewicz proposes the alternate reading of the verse:
"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, Jatavedas!"
On this reading the verse is quite clearly a reference to rebirth. Jurewicz's sensitivity to the nuances of the language allow us to see this verse in a new light. This does not exclude the other readings seen by other translators. Language does this. It covers a wide range of possibilities that are apparent to the community of speakers and which are often lost in translation. What we assume about the context may influence how we make editorial and translation decisions.

In my next essay I will explore the role of Yama in discovering the pitṛloka. Yama had to find his way there, and since the way there is the correct performance of the śrāddha or funeral rights, then this suggests a memory of the adoption of rebirth eschatology, probably in India, since Vedic speakers do not share this idea with anyone other Indo-Europeans.

The discovery of rebirth this early in Indian history is important. Because it means that if Vedic speakers did adopt rebirth from outside their immediate cultural sphere, as seems likely, they did so very early in their time in India. A broad consensus places the composition of the Ṛgveda in the time period 1500-1200 BCE. To my knowledge no one has suggested that śrāmaṇa culture can be found in the Vedic āryavarta or homeland in the Western Ganges Valley, nor is there evidence for śrāmaṇa culture at this early stage. It also suggests that some kind of rebirth eschatology was widespread in the Ganges Valley when the Vedic speakers arrived. And what was introduced in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad was not rebirth per se, but the linking of rebirth to good (puṇya) and evil (pāpa) actions.

To my mind this is a blow to those who argue that rebirth was foreign to the Buddha and interpolated into Buddhism. An interesting parallel is the Brahmanical social institution of varṇa or class, that develops into jati or the system of caste. Buddhist texts often treat varṇa as foreign. There are many arguments about how and to whom it might apply. Brahmins insistence on being the best caste are regularly undermined. There are actual arguments about caste. No such arguments occur with rebirth as the focus. Similarly there are discussions about the role of Brahmā in the world. But rebirth is simply a background idea that is never challenged. There are those who explicitly reject any kind of afterlife (e.g. Prince Pāyāsi) but they are treated as misguided and untrustworthy.

When we discuss the appearance of Indic languages and culture in India we used to speak of invasions. The invasion theory has long been untenable. Most likely small, related bands of Indic speakers—Vedic and related dialects—began moving into the sub-continent and were assimilated by the existing population, leaving little genetic trace. In the language of the Ṛgveda we see many loan words from the Dravidian language family and quite a few from Munda (or Austro-Asiatic), structured in such a way as to suggest that Munda speaking people were met first. See Witzel (1999). This trickle of incomers from Iran and now Afghanistan has continued to the present, sometimes overshadowed by invasions proper (Alexander of Macedonia, the Kushans, etc). Rebirth like many features of Indian languages appears to be a regional feature of the Indian subcontinent. A few relics of the migration have been preserved, such as the retentions of the scheme of assessing morality by actions of the body, speech and mind, a scheme which comes from Zoroastrianism. 



Jurewicz, Joanna. The Ṛgveda, ‘small scale’ societies and rebirth eschatology. Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. http://www.ocbs.org/lectures-a-articles-ocbsmain-121/63-the-rigveda-small-scale-societies-and-rebirth-eschatology

Witzel, Michael. (1999) Substrate Languages in Old Indo-Aryan (Rgvedic, Middle and Late Vedic).
Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies. 5(1): 1-67.
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