Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Beginnings Of Ethical Thought In The Rig Veda

( Originally Published 1922 )

THE Rig Veda may seem a somewhat barren field for the study of Ethics. There is in it no ethical speculation in the strict sense, and even moral conduct receives but small attention. It may be said without exaggeration that none of the questions treated in modern European ethical works have yet been raised. There is no discussion of the moral end ; there are no problems arising out of seemingly conflicting duties, nor regarding the relation of the individual to society. And yet in any study of Indian ethical thought we shall find it desirable to begin with the Rig Veda, for we shall find there the springs of the ethical thinking as well as of the religious thinking of the Hindus. The river of Hinduism has followed a strangely tortuous course, in which it has been fed by many streams, but at every point it retains something of the character of those springs in which it took its rise. There are no doubt many ethical conceptions in modern Hindu thought that we shall not be able to trace back to the Vedas, but on the other hand there are many that we can so trace back, and there are others that are less direct developments of tendencies that may be discovered there. In the history of Greek philosophy we find in the ethical maxims, crude and fragmentary as they are, of the Seven Wise Men, the germs of ethical ideas developed in the thinking of Plato and Aristotle ; and the task which we here undertake is one which is parallel to that undertaken by historians of Greek thought.

There is a further consideration that makes it imperative that we should begin our study of the history of Hindu ethics with the Rig Veda. Ethics for most European students means the ethical systems wrought out by Ancient Greek and Modern European philosophers. And these again presuppose the civilization, social organization, and, to put it broadly, the whole culture of these comparatively limited sections of human society. The thought of Ancient Greece and Modern Europe represent, indeed, but a single stream of thought. It is a stream that has been joined by many tributaries. Yet the thought and life of Modern Europe are so related to those of Ancient Greece that the modern student readily feels himself at home in the study of the latter.

When we turn to Indian literature, on the other hand, we find a civilization, social organization, and intellectual outlook, that in their character were almost as remote from those of the West, and that until modern times were as free from the influence of the West as we can well imagine. In thinking of the ethical problems that confront us in Western thought, we are apt to forget how much is presupposed in the very setting of these problems. The setting is familiar to us, and consequently its significance tends not to be fully recognized. But in studying the problems of Indian ethical thought we shall at every point be conscious of the need of understanding the conditions under which they arose, especially the religious and social conditions. A study of Indian ethics will, accordingly, involve some study of problems not themselves strictly ethical, and also some study of conditions that held prior to the rise of ethical speculation proper. In undertaking this study, it will be necessary for us to seek in the Vedas and in other Indian literature the germs from which ethical ideas developed, and also to exhibit features of Indian life and thought, the connexion of which with our subject may seem even more remote.

The Rig Veda consists of hymns addressed to the gods, hymns of praise and prayer. Most of the gods were originally personifications of natural phenomena. In some cases the connexion has become obscure, and in almost all cases features have been introduced into the characters of the gods that cannot be shown to have any connexion with the original physical phenomena. Yet the characters and in many cases the names of the gods point to such an original identification.

Such a natural polytheism, if nothing more could be said regarding it, could not obviously form a foundation for any satisfactory ethic, nor indeed for a very satisfactory morality. The absence of unity in the universe as it is conceived by the strict polytheist, the existence of Powers antagonistic to each other, or at any rate not united in purpose ; these are features characteristic of all systems of natural polytheism that we know. Such a religious outlook cannot have as its counterpart a conception of the ideal life as a unity in which the unifying principle is a single absolute good. In Greece, for example, it was only when the religious myths came to be regarded as myths that ethical speculation in the strict sense began. The myths of the Rig Veda represented to the ancient Aryan almost literal truth, and consequently we cannot expect to find in the Hymns ethical speculation of a very advanced order.

In the character of the Vedic gods the moral features are far less prominent than the physical. The gods are not generally conceived as immoral. There are no doubt stories related of some of the gods that reveal moral imperfection. In the character of Rudra there are features of a sinister order. He sends plagues upon man and beast ; he is a robber, a deceiver, and a cheat. He is, generally, the god of destruction, a god to be feared and held in awe, as able to inflict or avert evil. To his sons, the Maruts, similar qualities belong in a less degree. Before the Maruts every creature is afraid. Yet even in these gods we find qualities of a higher ethical value. Rudra is celebrated as a healer as well as a destroyer ; he both heals, and possesses and grants to men healing remedies.

These are the only gods in whom evil qualities are markedly obtrusive. It is characteristic of the Vedic gods rather that ethical qualities find but comparatively little place in their characters. We may read hymn after hymn without coming to a single moral idea or epithet. Praise of the power and skill of the gods, prayer for temporal benefits, and celebration of the power of the sacrifices, these are the chief themes of the Rig Veda. Yet all this has to be qualified. The religion of the Rig Veda is not a crass polytheism. In certain notable ways its polytheism is modified. First of all, the gods are not in all cases sharply distinguished from one another. There are gods with identical qualities so that one or another god may be invoked indifferently. Again there are pairs and larger groups of gods with identical qualities, who are invoked jointly, as for example Indra-Agni, Indra-Soma, and Mitra-Varuna. Even more important than this is the fact that the worshipper tends to attribute to the god whom he addresses the qualities not of a god but of God. This is the tendency that Max Muller has characterized as Henotheism. It is most marked in the case of certain gods, notably Indra, Varuia, Mitra, and Agni. The names of the various gods are but names under which a single Reality is invoked. The following passages illustrate the tendency :

They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and he is heavenly, nobly winged Garutman.
To what is One sages give many a title : they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan.

Again two gods are regarded throughout the Rig Veda as occupying a position higher than the others. Varuna is the greatest of the gods. The pre-eminence that belongs to him is not represented by the number of hymns addressed to him, for in this respect he ranks behind several other gods, but it lies in the supreme moral authority that resides in him. Indra, on the other hand, is celebrated as, in a special degree, the possessor of power. With Varuna is very frequently conjoined Mitra, who is hardly recognized as having any separate character. The home of Mitra-Varuna is in heaven .l There they sit in their golden dwelling-place, supporters of mankind. Their eye is the sun, and with it they watch mankind. To Mitra-Varuna the Sun reports the deeds of men, watching the deeds of living creatures like a herdsman. In the fields and houses their spies keep unceasing watch, and their spies are true and never bewildered. Nothing can happen without Varunas knowledge, or without his sanction. Even the gods themselves follow his decree. These are but some of the functions that mark him out as supreme.

Indra, as has been said, is celebrated as the possessor of power rather than as a moral ruler. It was he who conquered Vritra, a deed which is celebrated in many hymns, and it is deeds like this that are typical of his character. He is also praised as liberal in the gifts that he bestows on men. In the later parts of the Rig Veda there are passages where features of a more distinctively moral nature are ascribed to him, but over against these there are others where deeds of a less worthy kind are described. It is very significant that by the time when the Atharva Veda was composed, Indras position had been raised and Varunas lowered : the supreme place in the pantheon, occupied in the Rig Veda by one who was pre-eminently the moral ruler of the universe, had been usurped by one whose special qualification was the possession of power, exercised non-morally. In this fact there are implications that will claim our attention later.

We have so far said nothing of a conception that has far more importance than any other for our ethical study of the Rig Veda, the conception of Rita. This is a term which it is difficult to translate by any single English equivalent, but which we shall try to explain. It is usually rendered ` Law or ` Order by English translators of the Vedas, ` Ordnung by the Germans. It represents in a way both natural and moral order, and also that order which characterizes correct worship of the gods through sacrifice and prayer and all else that belongs to service of the gods. The idea does not emerge for the first time in the Rig Veda, but has been traced back to Indo-Iranian times. It is the Asa of the Avesta, and is identical with the arta in such Persian names as Artaxerxes and Artaphernes. But in the Rig Veda it has a new richness of content. It is through rita that the rivers flow ; the dawn is born of rita ; by lita the moon and stars keep their courses. Again ` under the yoking of rita the moon and the stars keep their courses. Again ` under the yoking of rita the sacrificial fire is kindled ; by rita the poet completes his hymn ; the sacrificial chamber is designated the ` chamber of rita. These, chosen almost at random, are illustrations of the functions of rita as cosmic order and as the order that is involved in the proper expression of mans relation to the gods. But these two senses in which the term is used are not clearly distinguished from one another, nor from the third sense of moral order. It is the same law or order that governs the course of nature, that is involved in the right ordering of the sacrifice, and that is manifested in the moral law. It is to this last aspect of rita that we must here specially direct our attention. But it will not always be possible to keep the different aspects apart from each other. The ` lords of order are pre-eminently Varuna and Mitra.

Those who by Law uphold the law, Lords of the shining light of Law,
Mitra I call and Varuna.

But the same function is attributed to many other gods, notably to the other members of the group known as the Adityas. It is, however, pre-eminently Varuna who is the guardian of rita in the sense of moral order, and it is specially as the possessor of this supreme moral authority that he is celebrated as the chief of the gods. Indra is represented as saying :

But thou, O Varuna, if thou dost love me,
O King, discerning truth and right from falsehood, come and be Lord and Ruler of my kingdom.

We do not look for strict consistency of thought in the Vedas, and no doubt numerous passages may be quoted in which other gods are given the supremacy. But the tendency is to attribute the preeminence to Varuna, and this in virtue of his ethical qualities, because he is guardian of rita.

While recognizing this, we must be careful not to understand rita viewed as moral order, as possessing the full connotation that the term `moral order has in modern speech. Bloom-field surely goes too far when he says that ` we have in connexion with the rita a pretty complete system of Ethics, a kind of Counsel of Perfection . Language such as this is, to say the least of it, misleading. Any system of ethics that might be discovered in the Rig Veda is of a very rudimentary sort. Yet it is very significant that at this early stage we should find such a unifying conception as that of Law or Order, pervading all things, expressing itself in the order of nature and in the manifestations of mans religious life, and tending to be associated with one Supreme God. It is a conception that might seem to be full of hope for the future of the religious and ethical development of the people of India. But unfortunately long before the Vedic period ended other conceptions had arisen and displaced it, and in the history of Indian ethical thought it has not been upon the idea of an overruling God, righteous in Himself, seeking righteousness of His people, and helping them in the attainment of it, that the moral life has been grounded.

When we inquire further as to the content of rita thus viewed ethically, we find that rita is specially identified with truth.

All falsehood, Mitra-Varuna, ye conquer, and closely cleave unto the Law eternal.
Far from deceits, thy name dwelleth in holy Law.

The Laws of Varuna are `ever true . We may indeed say that truth is the law of the Universe ; it is the foundation not only of moral but of cosmic order.

Truth is the base that bears the Earth.
From Fervour kindled to its height, Eternal Law and Truth were born.

And more striking than any of the other passages quoted is the description of Mitra-Varuna as ` true to Law, born in Law, the strengtheners of Law, haters of the false.

Beyond this identification of rita with truth there is little definite mention of ethical qualities that go to form its content. The pretty complete ethical system of which Bloomfield speaks certainly is not more than an embryonic one. We have references to Brihaspati, the ` upholder of the mighty Law as ` guilt-scourger and `guilt-avenger ; the Adityas, `true to eternal Law, are the `debt-exactors ; the prayer is offered to Varuna that he would loose the worshipper `from sin as from a bond that binds me : may we swell, Varuna, thy spring of Order . We find these and other gods besought to loose their worshippers from sin and to forgive sin. It is clear enough that rita stands for moral order and is opposed to sin or unrighteousness, but we search in vain for clear indications as to forms that conduct in accordance with rita takes as against conduct that is sinful. Not only so, but in following the scattered hints that we find as to the content of morality, it is difficult to discover any guiding thread. The conception of rita is so wide in its application that it loses correspondingly in depth.

On the other hand, when we approach the problem of the content of morality from the point of view of the `good, we get as little satisfaction. For the writers of the Vedic hymns there were many goods, equally the objects of prayer to the gods—health, length of life, offspring, victory over enemies, skill in warfare, honour, freedom from sin. The goods that they sought were mainly those obvious goods that appeal to a comparatively undeveloped people. The virtues and vices that are definitely mentioned are such as have a bearing on life lived in pursuit of these simple ends. Following what scattered hints are to be found as to the content of the moral life, we may note in the first place that it is probable that moral duties were regarded as being owed only to ones own people. In one place we are given a classification of sins as those committed ` against the gods, our friend, and our houses chieftain , and again we have a reference to sins committed against ` the man who loves us . . a brother, friend or comrade, the neighbour ever with us or a stranger. The stranger here referred to is no doubt the stranger within ones gates of ones own race. On the other hand, the Dasyus, the aboriginal inhabitants of the land, are contrasted with the Aryas as a wicked and godless people, and to them no special duty is recognized.

Again in the small list of moral duties that we can put together, those that have to do with religious observance occupy, naturally, a prominent place. Liberality towards the priests is an important duty.

Agni, the man who giveth guerdon to the priests, like well-sewn armour thou guardest on every side.

There are many eulogies of the liberal man, among the most notable being that of the hymn to Dakshina, and the hymn in praise of Liberality.` In the latter, especially, we have the idea of liberality freed very largely from sacerdotal implications. ` The riches of the liberal, it is said, ` never waste away.

The man with food in store, who, when the needy comes in miserable case begging for bread to eat,

Hardens his heart against him—even when of old he did him service, finds not one to comfort him?.

The grounds on which the duty is inculcated in this hymn are utilitarian, but it is likely that these utilitarian considerations are a later support to a duty, the significance of which was at first religious. This idea of liberality is one that found a place permanently in the thought and practice of the Hindu people, and all through it retains something of its original character.

Rita has been shown to be identified with truth : truth is a principle that belongs to the constitution of the universe. As a natural application of this, truthfulness is demanded of man, and lying is condemned as a sin. In one prayer the Waters are entreated to remove far from the worshipper the sin of lying or false swearing. The sin of `injuring with double tongue a fellow mortal is held up for condemnation. We meet in one hymn the protest, ` I use no sorcery with might or falsehood, and the indignant exclamation, `Agni, who guard the dwelling-place of falsehood? Who are protectors of the speech of liars? In a notable hymn Indra-Soma are praised as in a special way the supporters of truth and enemies of falsehood. Soma slays him who speaks untruly, and protects that which is true and honest. The prayer is offered that the speaker of untruth may be ` like water which the hollowed hand compresses. And special punishment is invoked on false accusers.5

Crimes of fraud and violence are condemned. To injure with double tongue a fellow mortal, ` to cheat as gamesters cheat at play, to lay a snare for another, to threaten another without offence of his, to be evil-minded, arrogant, rapacious, are sins against ones fellow-men that are held up to reprobation. The hatred even of foemen is more than once referred to as sinful. The adversary, thief, and robber, those who destroy the simple and harm the righteous, the malicious—upon these judgement is invoked.

Notable also is the place that is given to friendship. In a hymn to the praise of Vach (speech), it is said that he who has abandoned his friend who knows the truth of friendship has no part in Vach ; ` naught knows he of the path of righteous action .

In all this there is nothing specially significant. The virtues and vices are such as we expect to see marked in such an early type of society ; they are such as are connected with the very coherence of a society maintaining itself amid hostile peoples.

This brief discussion may help us in considering the idea of sin that is so prominent in some parts of the Rig Veda. We must be careful not to read into it all that belongs to the same conception in Modern Europe. It includes not only moral failure, but laxity and error in the performance of religious duties. It may be not only the outcome of conscious choice but may be committed sleeping as well as waking, in ignorance as well as with full knowledge. One may be involved in the sin of others, so as to suffer for it, notably ` sins committed by our fetters. Sin which one has committed clings to one like a disease.

Provide, O Soma-Rudra, for our bodies all needful medicines to heal and cure us.

Set free and draw away the sin committed which we still have inherent in our persons.

The sinner is bound as with fetters that he cannot shake off" ; ` he is caught as in a noose. Further, sin is regarded as disobedience of the commands of the gods, especially of Varuna, though also of Indra, Agni, and other gods, and this disobedience leads to anger on the part of the god and to punishment.

What was the nature of the punishment meted out to the sinner? It would seem that in places the doctrine of future punishment in Hell is taught, for example in the following passage :

Like youthful women, without brothers, straying, like dames who hate their lords, of evil conduct,

They who are full of sin, untrue, unfaithful, they have engendered this abysmal station.

This abysmal station is probably rightly interpreted as narakasthanam or hell. Similarly, in another passage, Indra-Soma are prayed to ` dash the evil-doers into the abyss, into bottomless darkness, so that not even one of them may get out. But more frequently in the Rig Veda we have the idea of punishment without these eschatological implications. In many passages it is indicated that the wages of sin is death, but frequently the punishment is executed by the hands of men, to whom the gods hand over the wicked. Indra is besought to ` discern well the Aryas and the Dasyus ; punishing the lawless, to give them up to him whose grass is strewn, i.e. to him who sacrifices to the god. Again, Brahmanaspati is referred to as ` Guilt-scourger, guilt-avenger, who slays the spoiler, and upholds the mighty law. Again, it is said that he ` punishes the spiteful. The ` prison of the gods 6 is mentioned along with that of ` mortals as the punishment of sin. In these and in many other passages, the nature of the punishment is vague and indefinite. The injured god may work out his purposes in punishing sin, through men, or in other ways by sending misfortune, sickness, or death to the sinner.

While the idea of punishment is prominent in parts of the Rig Veda, the ideas of release from sin and forgiveness of sin are hardly less prominent. We do not find a sense of the guilt of sin comparable to what we find in Christian literature, or in the Psalms. We find nothing like the cry of the Psalmist, burdened with a sense of guilt, ` Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight. In the Rig Veda the sting of sin seems to lie chiefly in the punishment which it brings with it, and the typical form of prayer regarding sin is that the worshipper may be freed from punishment. There are no doubt passages that would suggest a deeper sense of the significance of guilt, notably in prayers to Aditi and Varuna, who are implored to release from sin. Professor Macdonell has pointed out that while many gods are petitioned to pardon sin, `the notion of releasing from it is much more closely connected with Aditi and her son Varuna, whose fetters that bind sinners are characteristic, and who unties sin like a rope and removes it . We find passages such as this :

Loosen the bonds, O Varuna, that hold me, loosen the bonds, above, between, and under.
So in thy holy law may we, made sinless, belong to Aditi, O thou Aditya.

Aditi and Varuna are doubtless pre-eminently the releasers from sin, but the same function is less frequently attributed to Agni, Aryaman, and other gods.

The power of forgiving sin belongs to many gods, to Varuna, Aditi, Agni, Mitra, Savitri, Aryaman, Sun, Dawn, Heaven, and Earth. The following passages are typical :

Pardon, we pray, this sin of ours, O Agni,—the path which we have trodden, widely straying.
Dear Friend and Father, caring for the pious, who speedest nigh and who inspirest mortals.

If we, men as we are, have sinned against the gods, through want of thought, in weakness, or through insolence, Absolve us from the guilt and make us free from sin, O Savitri, alike among both gods and men.

The distinction between the two functions of forgiving and releasing is after all not very fundamental. Sin is conceived as something that, once committed, continues, and adheres to a man and this is characteristic of sin committed in ignorance as well as of sin committed insolently, of sin committed by another which has been transmitted to a man as well as of sin committed by ones self. It is a thing, the presence of which works evil, and the worshipper prays that it may be removed, that he may be freed both from it and its consequences.

We meet in the Rig Veda the germ of two ideas that are in some ways more significant than anything that we have yet discussed. Perhaps most noteworthy of all is the idea of tapas, which is not by any means prominent in the Rig Veda, but which appears in the late tenth book. It is an idea of such great importance in the development of Indian thought and practice, that it is necessary that attention should be drawn to it here. We are told in the Creation Myth that it was through tapas that the Primal Being began to create. By tapas rita was produced. Indra conquered heaven by means of tapas. Again, the practice of tapas leads to the reward of heaven. The first meaning of the word tapas is heat, and in the passages referred to this original meaning is still prominent. Then it came to be applied specially to the heat or fervour of devotion ; and lastly we have the familiar meaning of austerity or self-mortification. We can hardly read this last meaning into any of the uses of the term in the Rig Veda. But it is noteworthy that in one hymn at any rate in the tenth book there are described to us some of the ascetic practices that came later to be connected with tapas. R V. x. 136 is a hymn in praise of the long-haired Munis, wearing soiled garments of yellow hue, wandering about upon the earth, who have thus attained fellowship with the deities of the air. Here we have an idea foreign to the other books of the Rig Veda, but an idea which once introduced was destined to remain and to develop.

Another idea which is even less obtrusive in the Rig Veda contains the germ of a still more significant ethical conception. Sacrifice is known as ishta and the presents given to the priests as purta. To him who offers sacrifices and gifts the gods grant their favour.

Indra aids him who offers sacrifices and gifts : he takes not what is his and gives him more thereto.
Increasing ever more and more his wealth, he makes the pious dwell within unbroken bounds.

Ishta and purta became compounded into a single word, Iskitapurta, and ones Ishtapurta, what one has given in sacrifice and in presents to the priests, comes to be regarded as having separate, substantial being. With this the pious are united after death.

Do thou join the Fathers, do thou join Yama, join thy Ishtapurta in the highest heaven.

This was the germ from which the idea of Karma was later developed. Its content became deepened so as to include not merely ones sacrifices and gifts, but ones whole activity. And its significance changed with the emergence of belief in trans-migration. But the essential idea remained in it—of something stored up in life, a sort of bank on which one should draw after death. The idea of Karma has been perhaps the most significant and determining in the development of ethical thought in India.

Home | More Articles | Email: