The Vedic Origins of Karma: Cosmos as Man in Ancient Indian Myth and Ritual


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J. C. Heesterman has recently observed that the Vedic sacrificial texts propose "a separate self-contained world ruled exclusively by the comprehensive and exhaustive order of the ritual." The closed world of the Vedic sacrifice recalls the larger closure of the Hindu universe, depicted from an early period as an egg "whose total contents can never increase but can only be redistributed." As Wendy O'Flaherty has noted within the world egg "the Hindu cosmos in a series of receding frames, circles within circles." This image of circles within circles leads back to the world of the Vedic sacrifice, which itself consisted of a series of concentric circles; and so articulates again the close resemblance between the world of the ritual and the larger cosmos.

The world of the sacrifice is intentionally made to resemble the larger cosmos. The Vedic ritualists sought, in their own sacrificial activity, to recreate the primordial events, which shaped the cosmos. An often-quoted passage that appears in the Satapatha Brahmana thus declares: "This [ritual act] done now is that which the gods did then [in the beginning]." What the gods did then was to create the world, an event that the late Vedic texts often depict as having occurred through the sacrifice of ananthropomorphic being, whose dismembered body was formed into the ordered cosmos.

However, the death and destruction implicit in the primordial event created an untenable situation for the sacrificer; in particular, the reenactment of the cosmogony would seem to have required the sacrificer to give up his own life. The Vedic Ritualists attempted to circumvent this actuality by employing various substitutes [ranging from grain and animals to a gold effigy] for the sacrificer's own person. Moreover, the closed world of the ritual, with its carefully delimited boundaries, seems to have been constructed to keep out the reality of death; for, just as the sacrificial arena itself represented a symbolic cosmos, so, too, the death that occurred in the ritual was only symbolically that of the sacrificer. There was one situation, however, in which the body of the sacrificer was used as the material of the offering; namely, the funeral rite, which is appropriately called the final sacrifice (antysti). This final sacrifice, in which the death of the sacrificer is a real death, moves the sacrificer from the world of the ritual to the larger cosmos.

This transition forms the subject of what is considered to be the earliest statement of the karma doctrine, a statement that appears in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad. After discussing how the deceased enters into the various planes of the cosmos, a process that replicates the dismemberment of the primordial man, the famed Brahmanic sage Yajnavalkya is asked: "What then becomes of this person?" Yajnavalkya then enunciates the doctrine of action (karman): "Indeed one becomes good by good action, bad by bad apparently refer to a valuation of action based on ritual exactitude; good being equated with the correct performance of the rite, bad with the incorrect performance. And, since the funeral sacrifice is not performed by the sacrificer who is about to attain either a good or bad state, Yajnavalkya is apparently referring not to the funeral sacrifice but to the actions of a lifetime of sacrificial performances. The nature of that activity, which had been contained in the closed world of the ritual, now determines the conditions of the sacrificer's afterlife within the larger cosmos.

This interpretation of the karma doctrine differs from the doctrine's apparent meaning in later texts, which propose that an individual attains a specific state in the afterlife, or is reborn, according to the moral quality of all sorts of actions performed prior to death. If the context in which Yajnavalkya enunciates his doctrine of action is presumed not to be that of the Vedic ritual, then this general meaning can easily be seen in Yajnavalkya's statement, "one becomes good by good action, bad by bad [action]." And, in fact, this was precisely how nineteenth and early twentieth century Indologists tended to view this and other presentations of the karma doctrine in the Upanisads. These scholars remained curiously silent about the doctrine's attachment here to the paradigmatic event of the Vedic ritual, the sacrifice of the cosmic man, and focused instead on how, in isolation, the phrase "one becomes good by good action, bad by had [action]" seemed to express a principle of morality extending to all sorts of actions.

How and why scholars of an earlier generation adopted this view of the karma doctrine is discussed in the first chapter of this book. At the simplest level, this viewpoint owes much to a larger tendency among these scholars to disparage "priestcraft," a perspective rooted in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. In its application to the ancient Indian context this tendency led scholars to separate the Brahmanas, ritual texts par excellence and the exclusive possession of the Vedic sacerdotalists, from the Upanisads, discursive texts that seek to express the nature of reality. Accordingly, the karma doctrine, which is first articulated in the Upanisads, was seen as addressing itself to issues not germane to the Vedic ritual tradition. There is strong textual evidence, however, suggesting the continuity of the Brahmanas and the Upanisads: their physical contiguity; their use of a similar "idion"; their claims of a shared authorship. In the early Upanisads, the Brahdaranyaka and the Chandogya in particular, the Vedic rites represent the starting point for the disquisition into the nature of what is real: beneath increasingly greater levels of abstraction lies the concrete event of the sacrifice.

It is this ritual substratum that scholars of an earlier generation failed, or were simply unwilling, to recognize in their examination of Upanisadic thought. Such lack of recognition, I believe, was at the base of these scholars' inability to understand generally the origin of the karma doctrine, for at least certain aspects of the doctrine are clearly rooted in the conceptual context of the Vedic ritual milieu. Certainly, the notion that particular actions lead an individual after death to the attainment of a particular state ("becoming good by good action, bad by bad") reflects precisely the sort of effective action that, albeit in the closed world of the ritual, was believed to result from the sacrifice. In examining this ritual substratum I shall draw out some of the difficulties inherent to the sacrifice; in particular, those that resulted from the relationship of the officiants, who performed the ritual, to the sacrificer (yajamana), who was performed the ritual, to the sacrificer relationship affected notions of the attainments of the afterlife-that is, the transition from the world of the ritual to an existence in the larger cosmos-is clearly articulated in the formulation of the Upanisadic karma doctrine.

In moving from the world of the ritual to the larger cosmos the sacrificer becomes saloka, "one together with the world [s]." The ability to attain this state implies that the sacrificer's own existence is in some sense correlative to that of the cosmos-though perhaps this relationship could not be realized in the sacrificer's ordinary experience. The late Vedic cosmology expresses this idea of a correlation between man and cosmos in the ideology of the cosmic man [Purusa in the Rgveda, Prajapati in the Brahmanas]. The investigation of this ideology-as the notion that the cosmos arose from the sacrifice of a primordial anthropomorphic being expresses it-is the subject of Chapter 2, "The Cosmos as Man: The Image of the Cosmos in Vedic Thought." This myth's implicit notion that the cosmos has the shape of a man reflects the belief that man might potentially integrate h

Item Code: IDE391
Cover: Hardcover
Edition: 1990
Publisher: Sri Satguru Publications
ISBN: 8170302412
Language: English
Size: 8.8" X 5.8"
Pages: 191
Other Details: Weight of the Book: 315 gms