Immortality and re—death in the Brahmanas

In document Death, dying and bereavement in a British Hindu community. (Page 89-92)

Originally I had intended to explore the relationship between religious belief and adjustment, but the amount of ethnographic material I needed to

3.2 Ancient Indian concepts of death and the afterlife .1 Life after death in the Vedic Sarahitas

3.2.2 Immortality and re—death in the Brahmanas

Concepts about the after-life grow more complex in the Brahmanas, and immortality in heaven is not guaranteed. Th e m a n w h o has failed to fulfil his debts properly is subject to re-death, punarmrtyu, of which, according to Keith,

m e n are in deep fear. Th e idea is that the passing once through death is not enough; even after death, w h e n m a n is in enjoyment of the precious boon of immortality, he ma y be robbed of it, and have once again to face the terrors of dissolution C 3. The idea of a second death is, however, that of a second death in the future life, not of rebirth on earth and death in the ordinary sense. I— ] In the Satapatha Brahmana [....], a distinction is made between those born for immortality after death in the world to come, and those born after death only to fall again and again into the power of death. (1925:464) In the TaittirTya B r a h m a n a , the myth of Naciketas illustrates the preoccupation with the problem of death and redeath. T h e young m a n goes to Yama's kingdom following an argument with his father over the thoroughness of his sacrifice. Yam a is absent, and to m ake amends for his lack of hospitality, offers him three boons. Firstly, the young m a n asks to be received back kindly by his father, secondly he asks to have his sacrifices and gifts to priests made imperishable, and thirdly he wishes to be s h o w n h o w to cast off punarmrtyu. H e is told that this is possible, and he can ensure the second and third by means of the Naciketa fire of the sacrifice (TB III.II.8; Keith, 1925:441; Kane V 1953:1535; cf. Kat.Up. 3.10.11).

Even the gods, themselves are mortal, and must do this in order to win immortality through the only immortal one, Agni (i.e. through sacrifice), thus linking concepts of death with ideas of ritual correctness.

It is thus through the regular performance of the fire sacrifice and reading the Vedas that the sacrificer is guaranteed that only his body will be burned w h e n he dies and is placed on the pyre: "Even as he is born from his father and mother, so is he born from the fire. Th e m a n w h o does not offer the agnihotra, however, does not pass to n e w life at all", but is doomed "to die again and again in yonder world" (SB II.3.8-9). M a n is thus, in a sense, born three times: first w h e n he is born from his parents, then while performing the sacrifice, and the third time w h e n he dies and proceeds to a n e w existence (SB XI.2.1.1, IJ.2.2.14, X.4.4; Kane IV 1953:1534; Panikkar 1977: 383). The m a n w h o reads the Vedas, thus fulfilling one of his debts* *, is likewise freed from dying and attains the same nature as Brahman (SB XI.5.6.9; Malamoud 1983; cf. Ch.10 below).

There is little indication of a belief in rebirth in this world, punarjanma, although a growing consciousness of the cycles of nature

indicate the idea ma y be present in germ (SB 1.5.3.14). Th e cycles of the moon, according to Gonda, also contribute to the growth of the concept:

As death was often conceived as transition to another life, the life cycle of h u m a n beings, which is subject to growth and decay, to birth and death, to alternate periods of being alive and being dead, could easily be compared to and regarded as being governed by the cycle of the moon. (1965:43)

There are also references to dispersal of the body into the elements and cosmos (SB X.3.3.8, XIV.6.2.13, XI.6.4-10). If parts of the body and attributes are dispersed at death, that which reaches heaven and

II. R n a m , H r n a : There «re five great debt* which men owes: to the gods, the rgis, the pi trs and fellow man (SB. 1 . 7 .2. 1-50) . In addition, in the SB he also owe* a debt to death, and hia aacrifiee purchase* himself back from death (SB 111,6.2.16). Mmnusmpti III.l refer* to five great sacrifice*: study of the Veda (Brahma sacrifice); pitpymgnm, sacrifice to the ancestors; sacrifice to the gods, dev*; bhutm sacrifice to living creatures and the m snu g y m sacrifice to guests.

experiences re-death, or achieves immortality, must be something which survives these changes. It is no longer the whole person that goes to which the true self could be identified, thus making it i m m u n e to the ravages of repeated births and deaths" (1982:58). This spiritual reality is heaven. Death demands the body as his portion, so that "he w h o is to become immortal either through knowledge, or through holy work, shall become immortal after separating from the body" (SB X.4.3.9). Koller states that it was "logical to seek a solution to the problem of redeath in an intangible or spiritual reality, with which the true self could be identified, thus making one i m m u n e to the ravages of repeated births and deaths"

crime, and of scales of justice, although it is not karma as it emerges later:

In the next world they place his good and evil deeds in a balance.

Whichever of the two shall outweigh the other, that he shall follow, whether it be good or evil. N o w whosoever k n o w s this places himself in the balance in this world and is freed from being weighed in the next world; it is by good deeds and not by bad that his scale outweighs. (SB XI.2.7.33)

In the story of Bhrgu, the arrogant young m a n is sent to the four regions, East, West, South, and North, by Varuna, his father. He sees horrible sights of m e n dismembering each other and eating each other, crying aloud, and is told, "Thus indeed, these dealt with us in yonder world, and so w e n o w deal with them in return" (SB XI.6.1.). Here evil deeds are rewarded by equal punishments, and the only w a y out, Varuna tells the badly shaken youth, is through the agnihotra, the regular fire offering, explaining the allegorical symbolism of the various sights Bhrgu has seen with reference to aspects of the sacrifice. It indicates a greater emphasis on ethical conduct, with appropriate rewards and punishments in the after life, but not yet karma as understood in the Upanisads.

In document Death, dying and bereavement in a British Hindu community. (Page 89-92)

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