Vedic Origins of the Karmic Doctrine and Rebirth
Before becoming a doctrinal formulation in the early Upanisads, karma had its antecedent roots in ancient Vedic ritual constructions:
The word Karman (from which the term Karma is derived) in the pre-Upanisadic literature means any religious act or rite (as sacrifice, oblation etc. especially as originating in the hope of future recompense and as opposed to any speculative religion or knowledge of spirit). The word Karman occurs about forty times in the Rg. Veda (Rg) and means work or deed, especially ritual or sacrificial act.
(Y. Krishan, The Vedic Origins of the Doctrine of Karma)
The Image of the Cosmos in Vedic Thought
Early Vedic texts contain several considerations on the shape of the cosmos. The Rgveda alone contains two basic images: “a bipartite cosmos, consisting of the two spheres of heavens and earth, and a tripartite cosmos, consisting of the three spheres of heavens, atmosphere, and earth.” (Herman Tull, The Vedic Origins of Karma) Eventually, during the late-Vedic period this notion of the cosmos evolved into Cosmic Being: Purusha, Cosmic-Being, Self, Consciousness, or Universal Principle. This primordial Cosmic-paradigm was a representation of the One that “sacrifices”, and ritual actions were created that breathed-life into an otherwise static representation. This became known as a primeval anthropomorphic being:
The above is a representation of this 1000-headed Cosmic Being standing on the head of Vishnu:
(Herman Tull, ibid)
“By identifying oneself with the mythical Purusa and by ritually repeating the mythical event and so reactivating its inherent power for the benefit of oneself and with a view to one’s own reintegration one believed oneself to achieve one’s own ‘rebirth.’, The idea that the cosmos arose from the body of a primeval man leads to the belief that man might potentially integrate himself with the cosmos. The correlation the Purusa cosmogony establishes between body and cosmos, senses and natural phenomena, clearly facilitates the process of integration.” (Tull, ibid)
Hence in the early Vedic period, after the appropriate [fire] ritual, the souls of the just would reconstitute within the Cosmos as a whole. The Fire Altar (Agnicayana), which is depicted in the main head of this blog, became the instrument for one’s journey into the afterlife.
The Agnicayana ritual consists of two phases: the building of the altar, and its utilization in a Soma sacrifice. According to the ritual system’s classification, the Soma sacrifice constitutes the main part of the Agnicayana ritual, while the building of the fire altar represents an ancillary part of the rite. The authors of the Satapatha Brahmana’s Agnicayana section exhibit an overwhelming concern with describing the construction of the altar and seem only nominally interested in describing the main Soma ritual. (Tull, ibid)
Interestingly enough, the Esoteric Buddhist Shingon “Goma Ritual” has its origins in these Vedic-roots; the Vedic Fire God, Agni, is invoked at the start of every Shingon Goma (Homa) Ritual:
Even within Roman Catholicism, the ancient rite of lighting a ceremonial fire—the fire that ignites Light into the world—is conducted by the priest at the start of the Easter Vigil; afterwards the Easter Candle is lit from the flames of this fire—signifying Christ—the Light Bearer of the World:
Another term for sacrifice is iṣṭa. Derived from the root yaj, it means sacrificed, worshipped with sacrifices; and isṭam means sacrificing, sacrifice, sacred rite. In Rg. X 14.8, the spirit of the dead man is addressed so that, in heaven, he will unite with the pitṛs (forefathers) and Yama, the Lord of the blessed dead and then receive iṣṭāpūrta, the cumulative beneficial potential of his sacrificial karma, iṣṭa or yajña. We are of the View that this iṣṭāpūrta, a ritualistic concept, provided the core and the framework from which the classical concept of Karma developed.
In other words the soul is a transmigrating entity; it transmigrates from earth to heaven, where it enjoys the accumulated fruits of iṣṭāpūrta.
(Y. Krishan, The Vedic Origins of the Doctrine of Karma)
It was critical during the rituals that the priest “know his stuff”. In these rites the sacrificer depended on the officiating priest guiding his soul’s afterlife journey. Hence, this implies that the sacrificer’s “rebirth” follows not his physical death, but rather the sort of symbolic death associated with the ritual performance.” (Tull, ibid)
As a parallel, within the Funeral Rite (and Mass) of Roman Catholicism, prayers are made by the priest cleansing the deceased from all sin thus opening the doors into the heavenly dominions—“may the Angels lead you into Paradise.” All of this is done, of course, through the “sacrifice” of the Mass wherein “dying with Christ, one is able to rise with him in the glory of the Resurrection”. These antecedent “ritual-roots” go deep into the Roman pagan past, which in turn was influenced by the ancient Vedic Rites themselves.
Returning again to the Vedic-Upanisadic ritual formulations:
The Jaiminiya Upanisad Brahmana clearly distinguishes between the event of an individual’s actual death and his “death” in the ritual sphere in particular, as an aspect of the initiation rite: “This [man] indeed dies for the first time when the emitted seed is produced. . . Then he dies for the second time when he becomes initiated. . . Then he dies for the third time when he dies.” In the symbolism of the Vedic ritual, the initiation represents a death to the world of ordinary experience, out of which the sacrificer is “born” into the world of the rite. This notion of a new birth is expressed through the identification of the sacrificer, as he undergoes the initiation rites, with an embryo. The “beforehand world,” which man makes when he is initiated and into which he is born, is the world of the ritual. This world is prepared for the sacrificial performance just as man is through the preliminary event of the initiation rite.
The idea that death does not occur once but rather several times in an individual’s lifetime is an important factor in interpreting the late Vedic notions of the afterlife. In particular, the symbolic death that the sacrificer experiences in the ritual provides a model for the physical death that marks the end of his lifetime; the factors that lead the sacrificer to specific attainments in the ritual sphere operate in the same fashion when the individual embarks on his final journey to the otherworld. Moreover, this final journey is itself brought about through a ritual event, the funeral rites, aptly named the final sacrifice (antyesti). …this final rite is also an initiation, through which the deceased enter the otherworld and join the community of the gods and ancestors. (Tull, ibid)
As these notions evolved, one’s soul was either relegated back into the kinship of this world, pitryana, or if one was fortunate enough, would be reborn in a heavenly plane, devayana. Yet, a third category developed, adhoyana, the path of the sinners, who were to be covered in eternal darkness. Thus, we see the shift away from sacrificial responsibility to an individualized one based on merit. Yet, the two were still intertwined. Those who performed good deeds (karmic actions) in their lives, such as sacrifices and obligatory duties, and hence virtuously observing the laws and the code of conduct enshrined in the Vedas, would guarantee themselves a favorable rebirth.