Lecture 4, Part 1: Sacrifice and the Problem of Violence by Bharati

To the reader…

This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit (and other non-English) terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Though it not strictly necessary or even recommended, I try to transliterate most terms. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.


Sacrifice and the Problem of Violence

1. One problem of organizing Indian Thought into a course of study is that the thematic and the chronological get mixed up no matter how hard you try to keep them separate. If we were to do this course chronologically starting with the Vedic philosophy and then moving to the Upaniṣadic philosophy and the later, post-Upaniṣadic trends, it will give the impression of an orderly evolution of thought, which will be an unrealistic impression because that is not how ideas evolve. In fact, there seems to be very little that is orderly about the evolution of ideas.

2. Take for example the idea of sacrifice which is the first big theme that we are looking at. We quickly realize that it is connected to other themes. It is connected to the theme of Varṇa hierarchy. It is connected to the question of violence and non-violence; therefore, it is connected to the supposed conflict between Brahmanical thinking and Buddhist thinking. It is also something that disrupts the chronology. Because if sacrifice is related to the question of violence and non-violence and if violence and non-violence are the questions which become very important in the 20th century, then we have to ignore the chronology for a minute and look at those also. So, there is a constant adjustment that one has to make between the thematic and the chronological. Therefore, I have decided not to stick to either one of these exclusively but to try and combine the two. So, the initial impression you will get from these lectures is that our discussion of the Indian thought is untidy and confusing. But that’s unavoidable because any one approach will do injustice to the actual nature of the thinking or the evolution of thought.

3. The other thing which you must have also realized by now, and I mention this only in passing, is that while the name of the course is Indian Political Thought, when it comes to pre-modern thinking, it is not always easy to distinguish clearly between the political and the non-political. We assume for instance that what is being talked about regarding sacrifice in the Vedic thinking had political relevance, but whether it had political relevance for the Vedic people and whether “political relevance” meant for them the same thing that it means for us today is a completely different matter. We often deceive ourselves into thinking that what is political for us was also political for them. Probably it was not. It is very hard for us living in the 20th and 21st century to fully understand what was political for the Vedic civilization.

4. So, we are taking those aspects of Vedic thinking which through Indian history seem to have become recurrent themes and have reappeared in the 19th and 20th century. Our selection of certain themes and our designation of them as “political” is heavily biased or influenced by the present. That is something we must remember. Let us not think that questions that have contemporary political relevance for us also had the same relevance in the past. Let us not be surprised then to find all sorts of themes, ideas, and texts from, for example, Ṛgveda or a particular ritual text from ancient India, accommodated under the umbrella of Political Thought. Today, if someone were to write a text or a treatise on rituals, you will not regard it as a political tract unless it also says something about Varṇa hierarchy and how that hierarchy cannot be violated. That’s to say, unless it goes into those themes that are political or have become political today, it will not be considered as a political text. So, we are in a way looking at pre-modern India through a particular lens. If you remove that lens and use some other lens, it will look very different and we will be selecting very different themes and texts. That’s the small but important clarification that I wanted to make.

5. Coming back to the mixing of the chronological and the thematic, you will see how all these are interconnected. You will have to excuse me if I move back and forth in time because if I were to stop talking about violence regarding sacrifice in the Vedic society or with Upaniṣadic thought or even for that matter the Bhagavadgītā and not come to the 20th century, then I will have to revisit this later by which time you will have probably forgotten all the complexities of this discussion. So, I will have to move back and forth both across time and across themes, which is going to make things very untidy but there seems to be no alternative to it.

6. Now the theme that we have taken up is the theme of sacrifice. I have been using interchangeably words like “ritual” and “sacrifice”. But I must clarify that there is a distinction there. All cultures have rituals. All religions have rituals. Those who regard themselves as practicing or believing Hindus today also have rituals in their daily lives or on certain specific occasions like marriage or death in the family. Sacrifice is one part of this huge area of rituals. Of course, it is an important part, and, for the Vedic civilization, it was the most important part. The other rituals which are non-sacrificial in nature are a later growth, by which I don’t mean the medieval period because already in early Indian history, you see that development. What happens is that the big sacrifices go in decline. After the late medieval period, you hardly come across instances of the Vedic sacrifices having been performed. There was one such event which was filmed in Kerala and was studied by some scholars.[1]

7. But as a part of our contemporary life, we don’t see big Vedic sacrifices being performed. Though sacrifices go in decline, other rituals which do not require sacrifices increase and they are a part of today’s Hindu self-understanding. So, if you ask a person who is a practicing Hindu or a believer what it means for her to be a Hindu, one of the things she is likely to say is that these are the observances that she or her family follows, but these observances very often have nothing whatsoever to do with sacrifices in the technical sense. For the identity of Hinduism as a distinctive religion, sacrifices with Vedic genealogy are central even if they are not performed today. For the purpose of self-understanding sacrifices remain important, whereas in terms of practice, it is the non-sacrificial observances which have endured or and have even proliferated.

8. Concerning sacrifice, two major words keep coming up in the ancient texts: yajña and homa.[2] Yajña has naturally got to do with fire, and the very first word of the Ṛgveda is agni.[3] A plain translation of agni would be fire. But here, it has got a lot of other meanings. Agni is a deity himself. Agni is also sometimes described as one of the priests symbolically. And of course, agni is also the medium through which what you offer in the fire is carried to the gods. So, it is all these three things and the exact meaning depends on the context. A simple understanding of how sacrifices work, or what is a sacrifice, is something which is already there in the material I gave you, particularly Michael Witzel’s essay.[4] We will start with the simple understanding and then move towards something which is more and more complex and perhaps disturbing for us moderns.

9. The simple understanding is that there is a particular place which is the place prepared for a particular sacrifice ritual. Certain specialized priests come. They light the sacrificial fire. And on behalf of the sacrificer or the patron, the yajamāna, they offer certain things in the fire which are supposed to be offerings to the gods. And when these material things offered in the fire along with the praise of the gods reach the gods through the medium of fire, they are pleased and they reciprocate by granting you your wishes. Thus, there is a certain ethos of hospitality involved here but there is also a great deal of reciprocity where you please the gods and when they are pleased, they grant you your wishes. That’s the simple model of how sacrifices are supposed to work.

10. There is a slightly later understanding which is a variation on this: that it is the technique which matters. If you do it correctly, then gods are bound to oblige. Despite themselves, they have to grant you what you wish for. Here the emphasis has subtly but very importantly changed from the actual attempt to praise and please gods to doing it perfectly, that is to the technique. It is the efficacy of the technique which gets emphasized which means that if you do it correctly, then gods have to grant you your wishes. They have no option because of the very mechanism of the act. That’s the variation. If you ask me for an early illustration of this, one particular instance I can think of is in the Mahābhārata. When Duryodhana is talking to his parents before the great war, he says, I am going to do this sacrifice, and gods will have to oblige. We could say then that by the time of the composition of the Mahābhārata (which of course spans the last few centuries BCE and few centuries after CE), the original Vedic idea of pleasing the gods had already undergone a change. But we don’t know how widely accepted this new idea was. We simply don’t have enough evidence.

11. Let’s go back to the simple understanding and try and complicate it a little bit because this is only one of the ways in which it is understood. Remember that the original sacrifice was that of the dismemberment of the Cosmic Man or the Puruṣa. And all other sacrifices are supposed to be similar in their essence, though not in their procedure. If they are similar in nature, the implication is that sacrifice is something which creates by destroying. The Cosmic Man had to be destroyed in order to create this world. This is the idea you must have come across in Brian Smith’s chapters. It means that every sacrifice must also be doing the same thing essentially. It may not appear to be doing the same thing because sacrifices change in their form and in their technique, but essentially, they must be doing the same thing. Now if every sacrifice is an imitation of the original sacrifice, and if the original sacrifice was about destroying something in order to create something, then it must be the case that underlying the philosophy of sacrifice is this idea that you can only create by destroying something.

12. For the duration of the sacrifice, the patron or sacrificer actually becomes the Cosmic Man. Now surely you are not dismembering him. If you go on dismembering people, then no one will offer sacrifices! The sacrificer cannot be dismembered in a literal way. Therefore, there has to be some substitute and it is the substitute which is offered in the fire.[5] So the idea which I said was the idea of giving gifts to gods seems to be deeper than that. That is, the idea seems to be that this particular material that I offer in the fire is actually a part of me, and by giving it away and offering it to gods, I am actually giving away a portion of myself. The literal idea of dismemberment is turned into a symbolic or metaphoric idea of offering in the fire that which is a part of you.

13. If wealth is part of you, then you offer wealth. If cattle are part of you, you offer cattle. In the sacrifice, a certain correspondence is established between the patron and that which belongs to the patron, the material, and it is the material which is offered by which is meant that it is the sacrificer’s parts which are being offered. Why is this idea important? Why must we move beyond the simple idea of reciprocal exchange of gifts? Because that is too benign. And there was nothing benign about the Vedic sacrifice. There is evidence to suggest that the original idea of sacrifice was something very violent and extremely bloody. The word “blood” and the very idea of blood becomes important in later myths and in Tamil mythology, or the temple myths, are full of the idea of blood.

14. The original sacrifice was violent and competitive. Remember that it is not always one solitary sacrificer sacrificing. There could be several sacrificers and there would be a competition amongst them because naturally gods cannot go everywhere at the same time, or at least that is what was believed! You had to attract gods to your sacrifice rather than someone else’s, and so sacrifices were competitive and violent and hence the connection of sacrifice to violence. The idea here is again that nothing can be created without sacrificing or destroying something.

15. The scholar David Shulman has said that the Hindu world is a “closed circuit” and that nothing new can be added to it.[6] Which means that if anything is to be created, then something which is already there has to be destroyed. Destruction and creation are supposed to be intimately connected to each other because life and death are connected to each other. They seem to be each other’s polar opposites but they are connected in the sense that unless you kill something, something new will not be born, that unless you destroy something, something new will not be created. And therefore, sacrifice which is a ritualized act of destroying something or killing something or giving up something, is a creative sacrifice. It is a creative destruction. And that is why you are giving away something.

16. One of the formulas of sacrifice, which captures the essence of what a sacrifice is, is to say that what is offered is not mine: idaṃ na mama. When you offer something in the fire, you have to say that this is not mine: [agnaye idaṃ na mama (This is for Agni, not for me)]. And by saying that, you give up that which was yours. The idea is that by giving up something which was yours, there will be something new and you will get it. So, unless you kill somebody, someone who is unborn will not be born. Unless there is death, there will not be life. It was believed that what happens in the act of killing is that a certain — and this is an interpretation which is open to dispute — vacuum is created which attracts life, and therefore killing results in regeneration.

17. I talked about blood a little while ago and I said that early Tamil thinking is full of ideas of blood. Here the thought is that blood is actually regenerative, that spilling blood is like growing food in the soil. And that therefore, war which can be understood as the ritualized shedding of blood is also that which creates new possibilities, new wealth, new life, etc. So, life and death are each other’s unavoidable correlates. There is an unending cycle of life and death. And it is only within this cycle that you can do something. You cannot stop this cycle, the only way you can do something within this cycle is to kill or give up something, offer something or somebody.

18. There are any number of stories whose basic motif is of a king who doesn’t have children. Particularly, he doesn’t have a male child. In ancient Indian thinking, which has percolated to the general Hindu thinking later on, it is very important to have a male heir because it is only through the male heir that continuity is guaranteed. You are going to die in a physical sense but in another sense, you can also live on and experience immortality if you have a male child. Hence the cultural value given to the having of a male child.

19. There are stories in different parts of the country in which a king who does not have a male child prays or does penance and his desire for a male child is granted on the condition that the son will have to be sacrificed at the age of, say, 12, or that the son will die.[7] The king is distraught, and doesn’t know what to do. He says yes to it because he very much wants to have a child but he is all the time worried that this child is going to grow up and as predicted, at the appointed time, going to die. So, he tries ways of avoiding that. At this point variations on the story begin.[8] In many versions, like the logic of Greek tragedy,[9] whatever the king does to avoid fate, actually contributes to the death of the child.

20. Another variation is that, suppose there is a very close family member or a childhood friend who offers himself to the god, saying kill me instead but spare the child, and at the last moment god is pleased by this supreme gesture by the friend of the king’s son, the child is spared, and everybody is happy. If you don’t get lost in these variations but just look at the core of the story, then the core is that you will get a son but the son will have to be offered in a sacrifice. You will not get anything unless you offer something. Of course, it is very dramatic that precisely what you had asked for has to be sacrificed. And it becomes an insoluble problem also. But often, the situation is not as tragic as that. It’s usually in the form of you offering x and getting y in return. But this offering is not as benign or as peaceful as offering milk in the fire and then getting some wealth or some success later on. It can be something very violent, and originally it was indeed supposed to be very violent.

21. So, what has happened is that we have moved from the simple idea of sacrifice as reciprocal exchange of gifts through which you please gods to the idea of sacrifice as essentially a creative destruction and arrived at the idea of violence which is inherent in sacrifice. Now we are not the first people to have realized this. The ancient Indians themselves realized this. So, let’s look at the various ways in which they saw this, dealt with it, and tried to find ways out of it.


[1] This is a reference to the Athirathram (in Malayalam) or Atirātra-Agnicayana which was last performed in 2011 at Panjal in Thrissur disctrict in Kerala and attended by Prof. Michael Witzel and students of the South Asia Insititute, Harvard University. The report may be read here. It was also performed in 1975 and famously studied and videotaped by Frits Staal who produced a two volume book titled Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, first published in 1983, in collaboration with C. V. Somayijapad and M. Itti Ravi Nambudiri and with pictures taken by Adelaide deMenil.[^]

[2] Long-ish digression about the difference between the pronunciations of n, ṇ, and ñ which are IAST transliterations of न, ण [example, the name Kaṇva (कण्व) who is a sage mentioned in the Ṛgveda], and ञ. The jña in yajña is ज्ञ which is an irregular ligature (combination) of ज (ja) and ञ (ña).[^]

[3] Ṛgveda 1.1.1 (trans. Jamieson and Brereton, vol. 1, p. 89):

Agni do I invoke — the one placed to the fore, god and priest of the sacrifice.[^]

[4] Michael Witzel, “Vedas and Upaniṣhads,” in The Blackwell Companion to Hinduisim, ed. Gavin Flood (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), pp. 77–81.[^]

[5] On “substitution”, consult Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith, “Sacrifice and Substitution: Ritual Mystification and Mythical Demystification,” Numen 36, no. 2 (1989): 189–224, https://doi.org/10.1163/156852789X00045.[^]

[6] David Shulman, Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition (Princeton: Princeton Legacy Library, 2016 [1980]), p. 90.

The Hindu universe is a closed circuit: nothing new can be produced except by destroying or transforming something else. To attain more life — such as a son, or a “rebirth” of the sacrificial patron himself — the life of the victim must be extinguished. Life and death are two facets of a single, never-ending cycle: thus a son may be born to a childless king on condition that that this same son will inturn be sacrificed.[^]

[7] Consider the story of King Hariścandra as told in the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa 7.13–17 (trans. Martin Haug, vol. 2, pp. 460–69). [The story is more famous however for its connection with Śunaḥaśepa.][^]

[8] In the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (9.7.10–13, trans. G. V. Tagare, vol. 3, p. 1161) where a slightly different version of the story is told, Hariścandra delays the god Varuṇa thus:

Varuṇa demanded, “Now a son is born to you, worship me by sacrificing that child”. Hariścandra replied, “When a (prospective) victim crosses the first ten days of his life, it becomes fit for sacrificial purpose.” When the time limit of ten days was over, Varuṇa arrived and asked the king to worship him (with that child). Hariścandra replied, “It is after dentition that an animal becomes fit for sacrifice.” (After the dentition of the child, Varuṇa appeared again and said, “Now that the teeth have appeared, do you worship me with the child?” “But the victim will be fit for sacrifice when its teeth have fallen.” (Varuṇa appeared again and (demanded, “The teeth of the sacrificial animal have fallen, now worship (me with him)”. “But a victim becomes pure when its teeth grow again.” replied Hariścandra. [and so on…][^]

[9] Consider, for example, the story of Oedipus as told by Sophocles in Oedipus, the King or Oedipus Tyrannus.[^]


Haug, Martin, trans. 1863. The Aitareya Brahmanam of the Rigveda. 2 vols. Bombay: Government Central Book Depot.

Jamison, Stephanie W., and Joel P. Brereton, trans. 2014. The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Staal, Frits. 1983. Agni, the Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar. 2 vols. Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press.

Witzel, Michael. 2003. ‘Vedas and Upaniṣhads’. In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, edited by Gavid Flood, 68–101. Oxford: Blackwell.

Shulman, David. 2016 [1980] Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Smith, Brian K., and Wendy Doniger. ‘Sacrifice and Substitution: Ritual Mystification and Mythical Demystification’. Numen 36, no. 2 (1989): 189–224. https://doi.org/10.2307/3270036.

Sophocles. 1994. Sophocles: Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus. Translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones. The Loeb Classical Library 20. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Tagare, Ganesh Vasudeo, trans. 1976. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Vol. 3. Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology 9. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.


Lecture 3, Part 2: The Significance of Sacrifice by Bharati

To the reader…

This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit (and other non-English) terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Though it not strictly necessary or even recommended, I try to transliterate most terms. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.


The Significance of Sacrifice

18. Let’s now look at those sacrifices which are supposed to be performed by human beings because that was at the centre of the Vedic civilisation. It is impossible to settle the question where the Aryans came from. We don’t have the time or the expertise to settle that question here. So I am going to provisionally accept the hypothesis that somewhere between Europe and Asia, there was a region from where different groups of human beings — this region is, in modern terminology, called the steppes — started migrating in different directions, one of which came to India and settled in what is today Punjab in India and Pakistan. And over a period of time, they started moving eastwards.

19. The reason I accept this hypothesis only provisionally is because the research on this is not conclusive. Going by the linguistic and mythological evidence, there is a strong chance that this particular thesis about there being one central place, and from there groups of people fanning out in different directions, carrying with them their ideas, is correct. Wherever they went, those ideas got transformed, but those ideas also retained some degree of family resemblace to each other.

20. Plus of course, there are phonetic and other linguistic similarities which indicate that this thesis could be correct. So, let’s assume that this thesis is correct. Not a great deal really hangs by it for our purposes but we need to have some thesis to start with. So, there were these people who migrated out of the Eurasian landmass, some of them settled in undivided Punjab and after they settled down, there was the composition of philosophical poetry which eventually came to be known as the Vedas. What is the time period we are talking about? Again, one can only be approximate. It is possible that most of the Vedic texts were composed between 1500 BCE and 500 BCE. There is thus an enormously long 1000 year period during which the Vedas are likely to have been composed. Within that, the Ṛgveda was probably composed first but that doesn’t matter to us very much.

21. The sacrifices which people started performing and some of the sacrifices which people even today do go by the common name yajña. But since yajña is very often associated with this idea of fire being at the centre of it and some of the rituals are independent of fire, let’s simply use the common word sacrifice. The basic idea behind these sacrifices — and we are not talking about the primeval sacrifice but the sacrifices which human beings are enjoined, i.e., asked, to perform — is that you praise gods through sacrifices and in return they give you something. From what I read a little while ago, about ‘being’ and ‘nonbeing’, etc., from that Sacrifice to these sacrifices, there is a huge change in the way you understand things and in the level of things. Here it is very matter of fact. Gods have powers. They can do things. You praise them so that they will bless you with what you want. This is a very old idea and, in a simple form, it surives even today. You go to a hospital where someone you know is undergoing a treatment or is going to have a surgery. Very thoughtfully, someone has constructed a small temple just next to the hospital. You go there and pray and say: let the surgery go well, let this person get well, I’ll offer you 100 coconuts or 10,000 rupees. And after the surgery you go and offer the deity what you had promised.

22. The only different between this modern, very common, practice and the older one is that you first offer and the gods oblige – which means that in modern times, gods have become more trusting! In earlier times, they probably knew that human beings could be cheats and therefore the Ṛgvedic gods had to be pleased before they obliged us. What do the moderns get? The basic idea is that of reciprocity, a transaction. You don’t simply pray saying: I am a sinner; I am helpless; there is no one like you; I am lost without you. That strand which derives not out of desire for material benefits but seeks salvation appears much later in the Bhakti (devotional) poetry. Whereas here, in the Vedic context, it is very clear. You want progeny, or wealth, or victory over rivals, or whatever. All these are very common human desires. You ask Indra or Varuṇa or someone else to bless you with what you desire and while you do so, you sing the glory of that particular god.

23. You also offer ritualistically various tangible things in the fire. As I said, there are two models. One is the simple model of inviting gods to the site of the sacrifice. There is a site where a particular kind of grass is laid on which gods are supposed to come and sit. The priest chants a particular formula (a mantra) whereby the gods are invited to come. Then they are seated there or asked to sit there. And the priests sing their praise. They tell stories about what happened once upon a time when Indra was faced by a demon. There was this demon which was in the form of a serpent and encircled a mountain which stored water and Indra used his weapon, the vajra, and not only vanquished the demon but also released water from the mountain, and so on. This narration is supposed to take place in the presence of Indra, and it is meant to please him.

24. So imagine a situation where you are performing a sacrifice; the priest has already invited the god Indra; Indra is supposed to have come and taken seat at the site; and the priest starts saying: Oh Indra! You are the Mighty! You are the most powerful! When Vṛtra, the demon, the serpent, had encircled the mountain and obstructed the water, it was you who killed him. And when you killed him with you Vajra, your mace, the serpent got fragmented and there was a flow of water gushing out of the mountain.[6] This is how great you are. Please show this great power to bring about a material change in the life of this person — help him prevail over his enemy, his rival; save his cattle from illness. And in return, you offer Indra something.

25. Now, how do they know Indra actually came at the sacrifice? Well, they believed that he did. And how did they know that their praise, their appeal to Indra, was successful? They knew it when the person who financed the sacrifice got what he wanted. You give something to the gods and they give you something in return. You do it either by inviting gods to the place of the sacrifice or your offerings are carried by the flames of the sacrificial fire to the heavens where gods reside. Fire is supposed to be the carrier of whatever you offer to gods. These are two simple models. Either gods come to your sacrificial site. Or, they remain where they were, you offer them various things through the fire. And mind you, some of these sacrifices are extremely elaborate.

26. The reason why so many ritual texts emerge around this simple idea is because those people actually believed what they were doing. And since they believed in what they were doing, they wanted their actions to be efficacious. They thought that if you make a small mistake in your actions or in the pronunciation of the mantras, then not only will you fail to get what you wanted but you might actually produce some other result.[7] There are two components here. One is of course actions. Those actions could be, for example, pouring ghee in the fire. It is accompanied by certain formulas which are recited by the priests. It is the accompaniment which is more than a simple accompaniment. The ancient Indians believed in the power of words, they believed that certain mantras or verbal formulas or chants, when uttered at a particular time and in a particular manner, could actually bring about certain tangible results. Therefore, both words and actions were important.

27. No surprise then that the prescriptions regarding these two (that is, words and actions) were extremely detailed: what formula and what words to chant; how to pronounce the words; what should be the sequence of the mantras and the actions; what should be the direction which you should be facing; what should be the season; what kind of grass you should use; what kind of ghee you should use; if it is animal sacrifice, what kind of animal; whether the animal should be young or old; where to tie the animal; how to prevent the animal from screaming (because if the animal starts screaming, it is supposed to be inauspicious); what sort of grains to use, etc. The ancient Indians were not only great classifiers, but they were also great ones for details. The enormous detail into which they go is just mind boggling; and that is why you have the Brāhmaṇa texts, a whole corpus of Brāhmaṇa texts and a whole class of specialists, people who were ritual experts. Just as not everybody was a Brahmin, not every Brahmin was an expert in rituals.

28. There is a small and fascinating side story which I want to tell you before I get back to the main point. It shows what sort of dilemmas these people faced once they got the idea that there is a reciprocal exchange between human beings and gods. The priest who chants these formulas gets dakṣiṇā from the one who has started the sacrifice, the yajamāna. The dakṣiṇā is supposed to be inauspicious. Now that will come as a surprise to many who are familiar with this idea of a priestly class living off of the dakṣiṇā that they get from the benefactors. But technically, it is supposed to be inauspicious. Why so? There is an intriguing thought behind it.

29. The thought is this. Every sacrifice performed by a human being is actually an imitation and a repitition of the cosmic or original sacrifice. No matter what you may ask for, the act of that sacrifice mimics the original sacrifice which was about the death of the Cosmic Man out of which the cosmos was born. The original sacrifice was about death and rebirth. Therefore, every sacrifice human beings perform is also about death and rebirth. And since death is inauspicious, every sacrifice which involves dakṣiṇā is inauspicious. The Brahmin priest who takes dakṣiṇā from the yajamāna is actually taking from him a certain impurity, there is transference of impurity, and he has to find ways of cleansing himself. So while in the modern anti-Brahmin movements, Brahmins have been lampooned for cultivating superstition and living off people’s offerings, originally, the problem that they faced was how to get rid of this impurity. And the reason why impurity comes is because sacrifice is ultimately about polluting events like birth and death.

30. This idea of the transference of impurities ought to be explored further but we can’t. We have to be selective about a topic which is a separate field of research by itself. The pre-modern India, and particularly ancient India, is a mind bogglingly complex and messy and as yet little understood reality. It’s a little bit of it that we are taking and connecting it to a certain political reality which runs through the history of India. While that is alright, we must also be mindful of the fact that the whole Brahmanical thinking about ritual is so complex and at times so bewildering that you realise that if it were not for the modern political perspective, we would probably be studying it in a very different way. I mentioned the connection between dakṣiṇā and impurity just to make you aware of the dilemmas that Brahmanical thinking faced in early India.

31. Coming back to the sacrifices, the reason we are talking about sacrifices is because the explantion of the varṇa hierarchy is tied with the idea of sacrifice. The exclusion of a certain class from sacrifice is tied with one of the cosmogonic stories which says that every other class was born with a sacrifice. It was only one class which came out of the Cosmic Man without a sacrifice. And therefore that particular class has no adhikāra, no competence, no entitlement if you wish, to perform sacrifice. Thus, in Brahmanical thinking, the justification why Shudras do not have the right or the adhikāra — “right” is not a very good translation, let’s say adhikāra or competence — ultimately goes back to the story of the primeval sacrifice. That in the primeval sacrifice, that is the sacrifice of the Cosmic Man, when various classes were coming out of different parts of the body, every class came out of it with a sacrifice, it was only one class which came out without a sacrifice. And therefore they do not have the adhikāra to perform sacrifice.

32. But the importance of sacrifice goes beyond that. It has to do with one of the faultlines between ancient Brahmanical thinking and the early Buddhist thinking. Remember, we are trying not to generalise this as Hinduism vs Buddhism. To generalise it would amount to homogenising both Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism has had a varied kind of existence and has evolved so much that you cannot really speak of Hinduism as something homogeneous. Similarly with Buddhism which has had an enormous variety of schools and sects. I am focussing on early Buddhism and the early Brahmanical thinking. The early Brahmanical thinking starts with the composition of some of the old Upaniṣads and has as its object the centrality of sacrifice to Brahmanical thinking and practices. To put it somewhat crudely, it is the rejection of that sacrifice, the rejection of sacrifice in the form of rituals, which explains the conflict or oppostion between the early Buddhist thinking and the early Brahmanical thinking. That takes the form of the opposition between the householder and the renunciate. The early Buddhist thinking emphasises renunciation and renunciation involved giving up sacrifice (an idea found in some of the Upaniṣads also). That is why understanding sacrifice is important.

33. Another reason why we need to understand sacrifice clearly is because violence and non-violence, and the thinking around it which runs through Indian intellectual history, had been about sacrifice. Originally, the question of violence was posed within the context of Brahmanical rituals and in terms of the violence involved in killing the sacrificial victims. Is there violence in it or not? Brahmanical thinking made strenous efforts to say that when you sacrifice an animal, you are offering that animal to gods, which means that the animal is being reunited with its essence in god and therefore there is no violence. Buddhist thinking deliberately takes an empirical and matter-of-fact position and says that you are after all killing somebody in the name of sacrifice. It obviously involves violence. Thus the problem whether or not there is violence in killing animals in sacrifice is the first serious thinking about violence and non-violence in Indian civilisation.

34. There is a long but very useful (and a very reader friendly!!) essay on all that I have been saying with greater systematicity and more examples which I am going to recommend you.[8] Along with that, I would also urge you to read the particular section from the Ṛgveda about existence and nonexistence which I read out to you. Not everyone will actually care for that kind of poetry, but I think that you should read it for the breathtaking philosophical reflection which it represents.


[6] The story of Indra’s victory over Vṛtra is told in the Ṛgveda 1.32.[^]

[7] For an introduction to the Vedic belief in the power of words or mantras (or the tangible connection between mantras and the effects they are supposed to bring), see “The Brahmanical Background” in A Śabda Reader: Language in Classical Indian Thought, trans. and ed. Johannes Bronkhorst (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019). To quote a pertinent passage:

Mantras are power formulas, the mere utterance of which (by the right person and in the right circumstances) brings about an effect. Most of the Vedic mantras were meant to be uttered in the context of Vedic rituals, which constitute the right circumstances. The right person is the right kind of Brahman engaged in the performance of one of these rituals. But whatever the circumstances and whoever the person, mantras, by the mere fact of being uttered, can have an effect on the outside world. It was considered a given that there is and has to be a connection between linguistic utterances (the mantras) and the objective world.[^]

[8] Jamison and Brereton’s Introduction to their 3 volume translation of the Ṛgveda, Michael Witzel’s “Vedas and Upaniṣads”, and Patrick Olivelle’s “The Renouncer Tradition” all [of which were prescribed for the course] discuss issues germane to this lecture. It is not clear which Bharati is referring to.[^]



Jamison, Stephanie W., and Joel P. Brereton, trans. 2014. The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bronkhorst, Johannes, ed. 2019. A Śabda Reader: Language in Classical Indian Thought. Translated by Johannes Bronkhorst. Historical Sourcebooks in Classical Indian Thought. New York: Columbia University Press.

Olivelle, Patrick. 2005. “The Renouncer Tradition.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, edited by Gavin Flood, 271–88. Blackwell Companions to Religion 5. Oxford: Blackwell.

Witzel, Michael. 2003. “Vedas and Upaniṣads.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, 68–101. Oxford: Blackwell.


Lecture 3, Part 1: The Rigvedic Myth of Origin by Bharati

To the reader…

This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit (and other non-English) terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Though it not strictly necessary or even recommended, I try to transliterate most terms. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.


The Rigvedic Myth of Origin

1. Last time we started with the well-known essay by A. K. Ramanujan, “Is there an Indian way of thinking?” [See Lecture 1, Part 1.] and then we immediately went on to look at a work which presents to us, the modern readers, an elaborate classificatory system or scheme of the Vedic corpus. [See Lecture 2, Part 3.] If you look at these two readings, you will notice that there is a connection between the two in the sense that the context-dependent thinking that Ramanujan is talking about ultimately derives from a very elaborate metaphysics of this world which first gets presented in a very enigmatic form in the Ṛgvedic or other vedic texts and then eventually gets elaborated in what is called as the Brāhmaṇa texts.

2. These Brāhmaṇa texts are elaborations of the ritual formulas, and, in some cases, expositions of the rituals. But the Brāhmaṇa texts come not in the form of simple descriptions as to how to perform a particualar ritual but come along with stories which are supposed to explain why things are what they are.[1] I told you that these stories, what Brian Smith calls “cosmogonies”, are not to be found at one place but are scattered over several texts and it is Brian Smith who has put them together for our benefit. So there is a certain systematization which has been done which was not there in the original.

3. The authors of those Brāhmaṇa texts, most probably Brahmins, were not in some sort of a conspiracy saying: Okay, let’s propose a certain explanation of the world so that it will help us or some other group. Surely, there is a connection between the authorship — the social background of the authors — and these stories, the implications of those stories, if these stories become eventually persuasive. And they seem to have become persuasive if the early Indian history is some sort of evidence to go by. The persuasiveness of these stories arises out of the fact that the original myth is not proposed with respect to social classes alone. In fact, the social classes and their hierarchical ordering is something which is muted in these stories.

4. What comes across instead is an elaborate classification of probably everything the Brahmin authors found in this world. Often examples are given of particular plants, directions, parts of the day, poetic metres. Through these examples of the flora, the fauna, and various kinds of poetry, a very persuasive idea is proposed that says: Look, everything in this world is afterall hierarchically ordered, and the reason why it is hierarchically ordered is because it comes from, or is emitted by, the Cosmic Man, Puruṣa . (Cosmic Man is just a working translation of Puruṣa.) So it is the primeval Cosmic Man who emitted from the different parts of his cosmic body these different flora and fauna and therefore there is this hierarchical relationship between them. And tucked into this very elaborate classification somewhere is also the mention of different classes. The idea here is to suggest that if Brahmins and Kṣatriyas are, along with so many other entities in this world, emitted by different parts of the Cosmic Man, then, like those entities, they, i.e., the various classes, must also be hierarchically ordered. Or it is only natural that they should be hierarchically ordered. So, the hierarchical relationship between social classes is supposed to get its sanction from being part of an elaborate scheme. At the root of it is of course this idea that there was this Cosmic Man.

5. What I did not tell you is that this original act of creation is also supposed to be some sort of a sacrifice.[2] Those of you who are familiar with the early Indian society would have come across this idea of yajña or ritual sacrifice which was central to the Vedic civilisation. There is a reason why it is central to this civilisation. It is not only the case that a whole lot of rituals were organised around the idea of sacrifice but these various sacrifices originated out of the first sacrifice. It means that the creation of this world, including the social world, is an act of sacrifice. The Cosmic Man is supposed to have been sacrificed. Who were the sacrificers in this case? Various gods. They sacrificed the Cosmic Man and it is out of that original sacrifice that this whole world is supposed to have come. There is an interesting detail here. All the other later sacrifices which human beings are supposed to offer are offered to various gods — whether it is Agni, or Indra, whereas that original sacrifice out of which everything came into being is something which is not offered to gods, but is actually performed by gods themselves. That’s the origin myth.

6. Origin myths come into existence, get circulated, get talked about, and become persuasive because the actual origins of any society are always lost in remote times, shrouded in mystery. The idea that there must be an exact point in time at which this or that society came into existence is not acceptable to the modern way of thinking. The ancient Indian civilisation, or any ancient civilisation, unlike the moderns using modern historiographical, archaeological or philological techniques, resorts to myths in order to explain to itself where it came from. This idea that we must find out where we came from is something which is very common to most civilisations and that is why there is a settled category called origin myths. So myths are an attempt by people who are not using modern methods to explain to themselves how or where they came from.

7. Evidently, this is not a politically innocent or neutral exercise. It is not neutral of power relations. Remember that the society that we are talking about, ancient Indian or any other society, had already come into existence at a certain point. It had already had a certain crystallisation of relations of power between social classes within it. That had already happened. And then at some point, some people within that society started asking this question: Where did all this come from? So, naturally their answer is also going to include the existence of the power relations that they find in their society. Their answers are also going to, to use modern terminology, justify or legitimise those power relations. And they do so by making the power relations between different Varṇas a part of the entire cosmic hierarchy. They make the Varṇa hierarchy seem obvious or natural. They make it seem as if it is part of the divine scheme that Brahmins are superior to the rest of the classes. So the persuasiveness comes out of the technique of dispersal. Let’s say you are at time t2, the present. You start with the existing hierarchy and project it backwards to an original moment, t1, when hierarchies in all the domains are supposed to have emerged. It is this backward projection and the dispersal of the purpose of explaining the origins that makes the origin myths so persuasive.

8. Coming back to this idea of sacrifice. When those of us who are influenced by modern ways of thinking — and I suppose that makes most of us — read these texts or extracts from these texts, we come across many difficulties, even if someone has translated, classified, and edited those texts for us. For example, when you were reading those cosmogonies in Brian Smith, though those stories are only one or two paragraphs long, it must have been difficult for you to fully understand those stories. Partly because those stories texts not written by a single author at a single point in time, not even the books of the gveda. Its ten books [each called a maṇḍala, meaning “circle”] were not necessarily written by the single author or a single group of authors. Nor were they written at the same time. Book 10, which is [the source of the myth of the Cosmic man and] going to be important for us, was probably written the last and certain sections of that particular Book which again are important for our purposes were probably added even later. This practice of adding material is called interpolation. It is a problem with all the Indian texts. And it is only the experts who can tell what is interpolated and what is not.

9. Let say, a text is composed in the period between 2nd century BCE and 2nd century CE. Much later in the 5th century CE, someone adds a paragraph or a passage or a chapter. Because that person is so well versed in that tradition, they know the style so well, that they can make it look like the original. So, what they write gets merged with the original text. For laypersons like us, there seems to be no difference between the two. But he may have added something very different. And that changes the meaning or the orientation of the entire text. The particular passage about the Varṇa hierarchy, about the Shudras having come from the feet of the Cosmic Man, so on and so forth, seems to have been added to the Ṛgveda much later. It doesn’t seem to be there from the time when it was originally composed. This is what is called interpolation and only the experts can tell you which is original and which is added later. That is one problem we have with these texts.

10. The second problem is that modern thinking, particularly modern social scientific thinking, doesn’t proceed in a narrative way. We don’t think in terms of stories. We think in terms of non-narrative analyses of social processes. We talk about land relations, exploitative mechanisms, or government’s policies, but these are not presented as stories in which we are supposed to believe in order to understand an institution or a practice. But stories constitute the major medium through which ancient texts proceed. The Mahābhārata , one of the major epics, is virtually a sea of stories, a sea that Salman Rushdie’s Haroun would have liked.[3] But those stories and even the so-called didactic or philosophical parts of the Mahābhārata are supposedly parts of larger stories and the way the epic is constructed is that you have a larger story within which you have a smaller story within which you have a still smaller… So, story within a story within a story is how the epic is constructed.

11. We are not used to making either sociological or philosophical points through the medium of stories whereas stories are the medium through which these ancient texts proceed. If you try to read the cosmogonies, you will notice that these are all stories. For example, in one case the story says that the sacrifice went away in the morning, didn’t come back in the afternoon, came back only in the evening, and that is why this sacrifice is to be performed in the evening. The very imagination of the sacrifice as an entity which goes away and comes back only in the evening and therefore it has to be performed in the evening is, I suppose, just not modern. And that is another reason why it might be difficult to appreciate these texts.

12. The third reason is that we in the 20th and 21st century India, irrespective of what our ideology might be, are deeply influenced by the political events of modern India. These political events might include the current wave of nationalism, which is different from the early 20th century nationalism, or it might include the non-Brahmin movement which happened around the same time. It could be any of those political currents. It is these ideological trends which come in the way of appreciating and sometimes even understanding these texts. I think it is very important to momentarily suspend some of our political ideologies — and when I say suspend, I don’t mean give up — and read these texts for what they are. Before I critque a particular text, I must try and understand the text on its own terms. It’s only when I read and understand it on its own terms that I will be able to critique it effectively.

13. When I start doing this with some passages of the Ṛgveda for example — and not the whole of the Ṛgveda because that would be thousands of pages — I come across a wonderful passage here, a passage which perplexes me, charms me, and also makes me wonder what the poet or the poets may have meant. It is again about origins, about the origins of the world. But unlike the passage that we have been discussing for a while regarding the varṇa hierarchy, this is an entirely philosophical passage which begins by saying, and I’ll read it in a minute, that in the beginning there was neither being nor non-being. These are deeply philosophical terms but let us translate them somewhat crudely and say: In the beginning there was neither existence nor non-existence. This idea that in the beginning there was nothing, that there was neither being nor even non-being, is an idea which itself is difficult to understand. That it should come in Ṛgveda which we believe to be very early or which we think is philosophically primitive makes you wonder what exactly the poets were trying to say. This nothingness before the coming into existence of this world is suggested by saying that in the beginning, there was neither being nor non-being; in the beginning there was neither truth nor falsehood; in the beginning there was neither death nor deathlessness. This is the point at which there emerges something called being or existence.

14. Before I read this, let me draw you attention to the fact that the idea of truth – that truth is somehow dependent on falsehood and is connected with falsehood, if there is no truth there will be no falsehood, that good and evil are also dependent on each other, that these are pairs, and they come into existence as pairs, and they will go away as pairs, and that there was a time when there was neither truth nor falsehood, that there was neither good nor evil – is an idea which is very important in later thinking. It becomes important because the very model of the conflict between good and evil is based on a certain misunderstanding of the Vedic position regarding the relationship between good and evil. Good and evil are of course antagonists but they are antagonists of a sort which is more like rivals in a wrestling match. They need each other. Neither of them can exist without the other. And it is their being together which marks this world. What is true of good and evil is true of truth and falsehood also.

15. The modern idea, based on a misunderstanding of the Vedic position, but also a selective reading of the Puranic position on truth and falsehood and good and evil, deludes itself into thinking that you can actually divide this world, and society, ideologically, politically, or morally into those who are good and those who are evil and that finally evil will be vanquished by good. This is a very selective, limited, and, I think, distorted understanding of what the Vedic position is. The reason I mention this is because a lot of modern political thinking, particularly of the nationalist variety, which claims to take inspiration from the ancient Indian philosophy is a limited and I dare say a somewhat distorted understanding, and this is something that only some of the leaders of the 20th century who had a deeper understanding or were trying to have a deeper understanding realised. We talk in terms of truth versus falsehood, or good versus evil, but there is never going to be a point where there will be only good and no evil, or truth with no falsehood. Because the presence of truth means that there is falsehood, and good means that there is evil, and these pairs are like axes around which the social and cosmic world revolvs, and when these pairs are dissolved, the world as we know it will also be dissolved and there will be nothing. And you are once again at a point where there is neither existence nor non-existence. This is why this myth of origin is important. Let me read it out.

In the beginning there was no non-existent and there was no existent …
[Some people translate it as Being and Nonbeing, that there is something and that there is nothing: this is the polarity. And the text is saying that the polarity did not exist which means that there was neither anything that existed nor was there non-existence. Now, how does one understand this? I don’t pretend to understand this and I don’t think I can explain this to you, but I am just reading it out to give you a sense of some of the philosophical speculations in the Vedas which coexist side by side with those speculations which have deep political and social consequence also.]
There was neither the big space nor the heaven beyond, neither death nor deathlessness.
What stirred? And in whose control?
Was there water? The abyss was deep.
There was no sign of night or day.
That One breathed without wind through its independent power.
There was nothing other than it.
Darkness there was, hidden by darkness, in the beginning.
A signless ocean was everything that there was.
The potential was given by emptiness.
The One was born by the power of heat.
[This last line indicates something which becomes important later; that heat means a certain kind of tapas which ignites existence.]
Desire evolved in the beginning which was the first seed of thought.
[Desire is kāma which I have seen translated elsewhere as “love” — both translations have problems. Now this is an interesting and intriguing arrangement of images and ideas. The origin of this world is supposed to be kāma not in the sense of sexual acts but in the form of cosmic desire or cosmic love which is not connected to anything physical or bodily but is connected with thought.]
Searching in their hearts through this fire of thought,
Sages found the connection of the existent and the non-existent.
Their cord was stretched crosswise.
Was there something above? Was there something below?
Were there powers of insemination and powers of expansion?
[And it ends with a certain position: that nobody knows.]
Who really knows? Who shall here proclaim it?
Whence things come to be? Whence this creation?
The gods are on this side, along with the creation of this world.
So who does know whence it came to be?
This creation: when it came to be?
When it was made or when it was not made?
He who is this observer in the highest heaven, he surely knows.
Or if he does not know, does he know? [Ṛgveda 10.129]

16. It ends with the skeptical question, with this expression or question: Or if he does not know, does he know? Which again is a way of leaving open the question without answering it definitely. Does anyone know the origins of this world? There is no definite answer to that. This is in stark contrast to the other story about the origin of the world which says that the sacrificial victim/Cosmic Man/Puruṣa is sacrificed by gods — not human beings.

The sacrificial victim, born at the very beginning, they sprinkle with water on sacrificial grass.
With him as oblation, [The Cosmic Man himself is offered as sacrifice.] the gods performed the sacrifice and also the Sādhyas and the Ṛshis performed the sacrifice.
From that wholly offered sacrificial oblation were born the verses [So, the verses of the various ancient texts are supposed to have been born out of that sacrificial act.] and the sacred chants [The sacred chants are supposed to have come out of the sacrifice.]
From it were born the meters [the poetic metres.], the sacrificial formula [The very idea of human beings performing sacrifice, by using certain mantras or certain sacrificial formulas, itself is born out of this primitive or primeval or original sacrifice.]
From it horses were born and also those animals who have double rows of teeth.
Cows were born from it and from it were born goats and sheep.
When they divided Purusha, in how many different portions did they arrange him?
What became of his mouth? What became of his two arms? What were his two thighs and what his two feet were called?
His mouth became the Brahmin. His two arms were made into Rajanya [Kṣatriyas].
His two thighs [In some versions, it is belly.] the Vaishyas, from his two feet the Shudra was born.
The moon was born from the mind. From the eye the sun was born [That is, the eye of the Cosmic Man/ Puruṣa].
From the mouth of the Cosmic Man, Indra and Agni were born. From the breath of the Cosmic Man, Vāyu [or the breath] was born.
From the navel of the Cosmic Man was created atmosphere. From the head of the Cosmic Man, heavens issued forth. …[Ṛgveda 10.90.6–14.]

17. So you can see that this is an account of where everything came from. It is remarkable for two reasons. First, because it is the only place probably in the Vedas where social classes are mentioned, and they are mentioned in a hierarchical manner. In this regard, there is room to believe that this particular part about the different social classes was added later when the existence of the Shudras as a class had already been established. Second, while it talks about the beginning of everything that there is, there seems to be something even before the beginning. Before the beginning there was Cosmic Man and the Cosmic Man was sacrificed by gods. So there were gods, there were sages: there were certain divine entities and there was this comic man who was sacrificed and divided into different things. In a certain other version, he is supposed to have emitted all these. It is the original Sacrifice which brings sacrifices, with small “s”, into existence.


[1] For a survey of the Vedic corpus, see Michael Witzel, “Vedas and Upaniṣhads,” in The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), 68–101.[^]

[2] Ṛgveda 10.90.6–7 (trans. Jamison and Brereton, vol. 3, p. 1545)

When, with the Man [Puruṣa] as the offering, the gods extended the sacrifice, spring was its melted butter, summer its firewood, autumn its offering. On the ritual grass they consecrated that sacrifice, the Man, born at the beginning. With him the gods sacrificed, (also) the Sadhyas and those who were seers.[^]

[3] Reference to Salman Rushdie’s 1990 novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories.[^]


Jamison, Stephanie W., and Joel P. Brereton, trans. 2014. The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Witzel, Michael. 2003. “Vedas and Upaniṣhads.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, 68–101. Oxford: Blackwell.


Lecture 2, Part 3: Classifying the Universe by Bharati

To the reader…

This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit (and other non-English) terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Though it not strictly necessary or even recommended, I try to transliterate most terms. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.
  3. It is recommended that you have read, or at least have a copy for reference, the chapters “Classifying Society” and “The Origins of Class” from Brian K. Smith’ Classifying the Universe (1994). [Google Drive Link]


Classifying the Universe

24. The themes that are important in understanding Indian political thinking are: the idea of hierarchy and challenges to this idea; the idea of royal power and the connected idea of violence; violence and nonviolence; and the idea of the outsider. These are the main ideas through which I’ll try to discuss political thinking in India. At some point of course we need to connect this to modern India. But since a lot that preoccupies the modern Indian intellectuals and which, through their preoccupation, gets modified, has its origins in early India, we need to understand that thinking well.

25. The themes that I am going to look at are the idea of hierarchy and inequality and challenges to this idea, the idea of royal power and the connected idea of violence, violence and nonviolence, and the idea of the outsider, someone who is excluded from society. These are the main ideas through which I’ll try and organise my discussion of pre-modern India. At some point of course we will come to modern India but since this course is not entirely about modern India, two-thirds of it in fact is about pre-modern India, we will be spending a lot of time with pre-modern India.

26. Those of you who are not history students may want one reliable history book for ready reference. There are many good history books. But the one which is accessible and comprehensive is by Upinder Singh (A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India [2009]). I mentioned it at the beginning of this lecture [See Lecture 2, Part 1, Para 1]. That is what I would recommend but feel free to consult other books also.

27. Please note that we are positioning ourselves between history and philosophy. When it comes to violence, for example, we will be looking at what scholars have to say regarding the discussion of violence in the Mahābhārata, or in the Buddhist philosophy. But the primary interest here is not going to be philosophical. Because if you were to discuss violence or dhamma philosophically, we would be looking at very different sorts of texts. We are neither looking at the ancient India as historians nor are we looking at it as philosophers or students of philosophy. We are positioning ourselves somewhere between the two and trying to see what kind of power relations existed and how these power relations were challenged through the medium of ideas and texts. That is going to be our primary concern. And since hierarchy is one of the themes that I’ll be discussing, I think Brian Smith’s work, which is called Classifying the Universe, particularly two chapters of the book, would be a good starting point.[18]

28. What is it that Brian Smith says? I started talking about it last time. The idea here is very simple but also contentious.

29. Before I proceed to explain Smith’s thesis, I should explain what I mean by ‘old’ or ‘older’ texts. I mean the Vedic texts, not only the better known parts of the Vedas like the Ṛgveda, or the Yajurveda, but also the allied texts which are called the Brāhmaṇas. There is likely to be some confusion about the word Brāhmaṇas, and this is true not only for students from outside but also for the Indian students. So let me clarify.

30. We will be using three similar sounding words but they are actually very different. The first is the word brahman. It is supposed to mean a certain kind of an elemental cosmic power which gets expressed in this world in certain entities. So brahman is one of the cosmic powers. There is no other way I can describe it at this stage. (It is said that no one can adequately describe the brahman !!) That is brahman. The members of the social class which is supposed to express this cosmic quality are called Brahmins. In Indian languages we call them brāhmaṇa, but I will deliberately avoid using that form because it will cause confusion. We will instead keep using the Anglicised form, i.e., Brahmins. Though I don’t like it, I will use it to refer to that particular class in order to avoid confusion.

31. And finally the texts called Brāhmaṇa. These are allied texts which are part of the Vedic textual corpus. Many of these texts deal with rituals. But these are not simply manuals of rituals. They also explain why a particular ritual has to be done in a particular way and the answer to “why” often comes in the form of a story, which is what Brian Smith calls “cosmogony”. It is these tales that you find in the Brāhmaṇas. So when I say Brāhmaṇa, I mean texts which belong to ancient India and which are part of the broader Vedic corpus. But they are not to be confused with the class of Brahmins. So brahman, Brahmin, and Brāhmaṇas. In the Brian Smith work that I mentioned, you will very often find references given in an abbreviated form. In brackets, for example, you will very often find references to something like ŚB with the accent on S — and you can ask the research scholars what the accent means and they will hopefully be able to explain it.[19] ŚB is an abbreviation of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa. TB would mean Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa. JB would mean Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa. If you don’t care for the full forms at this point, that’s okay. But remember that these abbreviations are abbreviations of the names of the ancient texts from which the particular extract or quotation has been taken by Brian Smith.

32. Coming back to the idea of classifying the universe, it is both simple and also incredible that a whole society, a whole civilisation, actually believed in these stories for centuries. It is said that there was an original man which in the Ṛgveda is called puruṣa.[20] This cosmic man either emits or brings forth, depending on how exactly you translate the Sanskrit words, different entities in this world. Depending on which part of the cosmic man a particular entity has come out of, the location of that entity within a broad hierarchy is determined.[21] The classification scheme is derived from this hierarchy.

33. What Brian Smith has done is to put together fragments of the classification scattered across a whole lot of texts. You will not find the entire classification given exhaustively at one place in one text. It is only by looking at all the cosmogonic tales scattered over a whole corpus of texts that you come to understand the scheme of classification. No single text will give you the entire classification. And between one text and another, you will also find some inconsistences. But Brian Smith’s argument is that the inconsistencies are minor compared to the consistencies and continuities, and that from this entire corpus, you do get a fairly consistent, clear, and ordered idea of what the authors of those texts visualised.

34. Coming back, for reasons which are not always open to logic or logical explanation, it is assumed that those entities which came out of — sometimes it is “coming out”, sometimes it is “became”, so there are variations — the entities that came out of the mouth of the cosmic man were supposed to be the supreme or the most superior. If there is a particualar metre of poetry which came out of the mouth of the cosmic man, then it is supposed to be the most superior metre. If there is a particular animal which came out of the mouth of the cosmic man, then that animal is supposed to be superior to all other animals. If there is a particular bodily function which came out of the mouth of the cosmic man, let’s say speech, it is supposed to be superior to all other bodily functions. This way, you go on classifying everything in the world. The word “mouth” is of course an English translation of the Sanskrit word mukha. Remember that in modern Indian languages where some of the Sanskrit words areadopted, they have acquired a somewhat different meaning. In Malayalam, Mukhamukam would, I suppose, mean “face to face”, whereas it has a very distinct sense of mouth in the original word mukha. And this association of superiority with that which came out of mouth or mukha can be seen in the designation of the chieftain in a particular body, in a particular group for example, as mukhya and mukhīya. You can see that there is a connection there.[22]

35. What is interesting is that the texts do not start by saying: Brahmins are superior because they came out of the mouth of the cosmic man. Social classes or the location of the social classes in the cosmic hierarchy and by implication in the social hierarchy is something which is muted there, and that is where we find the persuasive power of this strategy. The strategy used by the texts is to talk about classification in general. You are talking about animals, you are talking about birds, you are talking about plants, you are talking about metres, you are talking about medicine, you are talking about everything, and you are classifying everything according to whether that thing came from the mouth or from the chest or the belly or the feet of the cosmic man.[23] So you’ll say, this came from the mouth, this came from the chest or the arms of the cosmic man, this came from the belly of the cosmic man, this from the feet, and therefore this is number one, this is number two, and this is number three and so on.

36. I was telling you the other day that the original classification was tripartite but right within the Brāhmaṇas, you see the development from tripartite division to four-fold or five-fold or six-fold division.[24] And that has got something to do with changes in society. But the important thing is that the superiority of the Brahmins, or the relative superiority of the Kṣatriyas, is not argued in an open and explicit manner. By saying that they come from such and such part of the cosmic man and therefore they are superior, the argument is made a part of, and is conceived within, a whole set of stories or arguments or justifications which together tell you that everything in this world can be classified depending on where it came from. And if everything can be classified, then human beings can also be classified. If every entity’s position in the cosmic hierarchy depends on which part of the cosmic man’s body it came from, then naturally the location of specific classes in the social hierarchy depends on where they came from. That is where you get this idea that Brahmins, Kṣatriyas, and Vaiśyas belong to a certain hierarchy.

37. You might ask why they are assigned this place in the hierarchy. The only answer is that there is something called brahman which has expressed from within itself various entities like metres, animals or particular parts of the day. The power of brahman gets expressed in let’s say the direction called the east. It gets expressed in the part of the day called morning. Similarly, it also gets expressed in a particular class called Brahmins. And therefore, they are superior. So their being superior is supposed to be part of a larger argument or a larger classification where everything which came from the mouth of the cosmic man is superior to everything which came from other parts of the body of the cosmic man. If Brahmins came from the mouth of the cosmic man (or became the mouth of the cosmic man), then obviously they are superior. That’s the argument. What are these basic powers which get expressed in the universe? According to the ancient Indian texts, these are brahman, kṣatra (which is variously translated as power, might, realm, etc.), and viś. And these three get expressed in different entities in the world. To be precise, the argument is not that Brahmins come from the mouth but brahman comes from the mouth of the cosmic man and it is embodied by the Brahmins and therefore they are superior to the rest of the classes.

38. What about the Śūdras? As I said the other day, originally it was a tripartite division and therefore, the common people were the Vaiśyas. It is only a little later that the class of the Śūdras gets added and then the description of the Śūdras and Vaiśyas gets transformed because whatever was earlier lumped together under the category of Vaiśyas is now divided between Vaiśyas and Śūdras.

39. What about the animals? Let us take an example which might surprise many people. The cow, as you know, has been regarded as the holy animal for many centuries in India. We don’t really know how far back it goes. What we know is that it was not always the case that cows were regarded as so holy that you cannot kill them. That was not always the case. But somewhere in the evolution of texts and ideas, the idea that cow is a holy animal and you cannot kill it somehow gets established. And then in the late-Medieval, British, and the post-Independence period, it becomes a hugely controversial issue and sometimes it becomes the trigger of communal riots. The interesting bit here is that in the ancient classificatory scheme the cow is not associated with Brahmins, which is to say that cow is not a Brahmanical animal. The Brahmanical animal in these texts is the goat. Horse is sometimes regarded as a Kṣatriya animal, and sometimes as a Śūdra animal. And the cow is in many of these texts is regarded as a Vaiśya animal. And the explanation is very simple. There is an association here between what Vaiśyas were supposed to be engaged with, namely agriculture, and the cow.[25]

40. When we say that goat is a Brahmin animal or that cow is a Vaiśya animal, what is the textual position? The textual position is that goat expresses the quality of Vedic power or brahman, and since the power of brahman comes from the mouth of the cosmic man, goat is superior to other animals. Thus you go on exhaustively classifying entities in the world according to this scheme, and while you are doing it — while you are talking about the gāyatrī metre comes from the mouth, therefore it is superior to other metres, etc. — you also say that some human beings also express brahman, and that therefore they are superior to others.

41. Remember that this cannot be taken as a historical account of the origins of the Varṇa system. If you ask the question, how did Varṇas come into being? How did caste come into being? The answer is not what the Brāhmaṇa texts say. For an answer to that question, we will have to turn to archaeologists and historians and they may be able to give you a partial answer depending on the data or evidence available. What the Brāhmaṇa texts or the older Sanskrit texts are doing is, to use a modern social scientific language, legitimising a division of society in a hierarchical order which already existed in some form.

42. The Varṇa system or the caste divisions must have already been there when the Brāhmaṇa texts started getting composed. The task of these Brāhmaṇa texts was to justify it. In order to justify it, they go into the cosmological origins of this society. This origin as they present it is imaginary. But what is imaginary can be powerful, it can be persuasive. And if it becomes persuasive, a whole society or a whole civilisation comes to believe it, challenges to social hierarchy get weakened. Remember, the texts are talking about origins, about how this world came into being, but they are talking about it in a mythological way. The society which they are trying to depict is already there with its hierarchy. The task of these Brahmin authors of the Brāhmaṇa texts is to justify that hierarchy. And they do so by telling the story of the cosmic man.

43. This is not presented only as a justification of the superiority of the Brahmins over the Kṣatriyas, but also that of the gāyatrī metre over the triṣṭubha metre, or that of the goat over the horse, or that of the east over south, etc. I am surprised that the direction south is identified with kṣatra and Kṣatriya because in later texts south gets associated with a lot of inauspicious or excluded sects and practices. But let’s keep that aside. The Brāhmaṇa texts are trying to persuade you about the naturalness of the varṇa or the caste hierarchy (which is already present when the texts are composed) by saying that it has divine origins, by saying that it is not just the Brahmins but several entities or several aspects of this cosmos which are superior to others. So, when the ideas of superiority and inferiority get universalised to cover all the entities in the world, there is a kind of dispersal of the notion of varṇa hierarchy and it is the dispersed idea of the varṇa hierarchy which gets projected backward onto the entire universe.

44. There are two temporalities, or chronologies, we are talking about here (keeping aside the third temporality of the actual emergence of the varṇa system). One is the chronology which is internal to these texts. The Brāhmaṇa texts are saying that this happened, then that happened and finally that happened. The other chronology is of the Brahmin authors writers writing these texts. They find a hierarchical society already in place and take up the self-assigned task of justifying it by way of mythological explanation of the origins of society using a very astute strategy. What the Brahmin authors of these texts are doing is one chronology. What these texts say happened in the mythological past is another chronology. These two chronologies must not be confused. If you do, you will completely miss the ideological function of these texts. The authors of these texts, as far as we know, were Brahmins. And if it is the case that in the cosmology that they give you, the Brahmins come at the top, then it is obvious that one of the functions of these texts was to justify their own superior position. But when we say a superior position, it is a rather one-dimensional world. Because depending on the situation and the period of history we are talking about, that superiority might get slightly modified or get slightly compromised. So what we should really be talking about is the relationship between Brahmins as the priestly class and the Kṣatriya as the ruling class.

45. I hesistate to say Kṣatriya class because not all rulers in ancient India were Kṣatriyas. Some of them came from the Śūdra category. In fact, at one stage in Indian history, the Śūdra kings are credited with having brought to an end the anarchy resulting from internecine power struggle between various Kṣatriyas. This trend of Śūdras becoming kings continued even later. As a result there were controversies regarding the exact ritual status of this or that King.

46. The reason for such controversies can be attributed to the status conferring power of the Brahmins – which they used selectively and deliberately. But the fact that there were controversies – or question marks – indicates that the varṇa of someone who had become the ruler could become a matter of dispute. Therefore, let’s not have a very easy identification between rulers and Kṣatriyas. Śūdras too became kings. And of course, once they became kings, they claimed the Kṣatriya status which was sometimes recognized by the priests. Therefore what is important is the nexus between the priestly class and the ruling class, between those who are supposed to express the cosmic power of brahman and those who express the cosmic power of kṣatra, between Brahmins and Kṣatriyas. Brahmins held the ritual power to recognize the varṇa status of the rulers, but at the same time they depended on the rulers for various things. Their nexus, their relationship, the tension between the two of them is what we need understand. One of the things that I am going to take up is the theme of rulers, the theme of the king and various representations of the royal power in the ancient texts.

47. But before that, I would like to make sure that you have understood what Brian Smith is saying. I could go on and say a little more about what Brian Smith’s classification but it will not help you very much unless you have yourself tried to read at least parts of his book. The material he presents is full of stories of various kinds from the ancient texts. Those stories may be difficult to read, understand, and enjoy initially but if you plod through them and start getting used to them you will actually enjoy them and you will see a whole ideological justification at work. When today people say so and so is superior and so and so is inferior, it indicates an ideology which has already established itself. But in these texts which belong to ancient India, you can see the workings of that ideology. You can see it being established and striving to become persuasive. And that is why these cosmogonies are important. Read it soon so that I can wind up with this discussion of Brian Smith and move on to a discussion of royal power.


[18] Brian Smith, “Classifying Society,” and “The Origin of Class,” in Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varṇa System and the Origins of Caste (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 26–85.[^]

[19] Śa is the transliteration of श, to be differentiated from Ṣa which stands for ष. The two characters practically sound the same. The special characters used in transliteration have ‘diacritical marks’.[^]

[20] Reference to the famous puruṣasūktam at Ṛgveda 10.90.[^]

[21] Ṛgveda 10.90.9–12 (trans. Jamison and Brereton, Vol 3, p. 1539):

9. From this sacrifice, when it was offered in full, the verses and chants were born. Meters were born from it. The sacrificial formula—from it that was born. 10. From it horses were born and whatever animals have teeth in both jaws. Cows were born from it. From it were born goats and sheep. 11. When they apportioned the Man, into how many parts did they arrange him? What was his mouth? What his two arms? What are said to be his two thighs, his two feet? 12. The brahmin [brāhmaṇa] was his mouth. The ruler [rājanya] was made his two arms. As to his thighs—that is what the freeman [vaiśya] was. From his two feet the servant [śūdra] was born. [^]

[22] Consider the Taittirīya Saṃhitā (trans. Arthur Berriedale Keith, Vol 2. p. 557–58):

Prajāpati desired, ‘ May I have offspring.’ He meted out the Trivṛt from his mouth. After it the god Agni was created, the Gāyatrī metre, the Rathantara [chant], of men the Brahman, of cattle the goat; therefore are they the chief [mukhyā], for they were produced from the mouth.[^]

[23] Consider the Pañcaviṃśa Brāhmaṇa 6.1.10 (trans. Brian K. Smith, “Classifying the Universe: Ancient Indian Cosmogonies and the Varṇa System”, p. 248):

He emitted from his middle, from his penis, the seventeen-versed (saptadaśa) hymn of praise; along with it he emitted the jagatī among the metres, the Vishva Devas among the gods, the Vaishya among men, the rainy season among the seasons. Therefore the Vaishya, although devoured (by the others) does not decrease, for he was emitted from the penis. Therefore he has abundant animals, for the Vishva Devas are his gods, the jagatī his metre, the rainy season his season. Therefore he is the food of the Brahmin and the Rājanya, for he was emitted below (them).[^]

[24] The puruṣasūktam (see previous note) speaks of a four-fold division. An instance of a five-fold classification appears in the Taittirīya Saṃhitā (, trans. Arthur Berriedale Keith, Vol 2. p. 327):

I place thee in the going of the waters; I place thee in the rising of the waters; I place thee in the ashes of the waters; I place thee in the light of the waters; I place thee in the movement of the waters. … The metre the Gāyatrī; the metre the Triṣṭubh; the metre the Jagatī; the metre the Anuṣṭubh; the metre the Paṅkti.[^]

[25] But see Romila Thapar (From Lineage to State: Social Formations in the Mid-First Millennium BC in the Ganga Valley [New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990], pp. 4–5) for a criticism of the translation of viś as peasantry.[^]


Keith, Arthur Berriedale, trans. 1914. The Veda of the Black Yajus School Entitled Taittiriya Sanhita. 2 vols. The Harvard Oriental Series. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jamison, Stephanie W., and Joel P. Brereton, trans. 2014. The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Singh, Upinder. 2009. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. Noida: Pearson.

Smith, Brian K. 1989. “Classifying the Universe: Ancient Indian Cosmogonies and the Varṇa System.” Contributions to Indian Sociology 23 (2): 241–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/006996689023002002.

Smith, Brian K. 1994. Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste. New York: Oxford University Press.


Lecture 2, Part 2: Nationalist Re-presentations by Bharati

To the reader…

This is part of a series of posts on Indian Political Thought. They are transcripts of lectures delivered recently by Bharati. Each lecture will be divided into a number of parts and published separately. Bharati has not only endorsed their publication but also checked and improved the transcripts; for which, the blog renders its gratitude. However, yours truly and their good friend are responsible for tracing, checking, and arranging the references. These references are neither authoritative nor exhaustive; treat them simply as the attempts of two cluelesss students at helping themselves and other clueless students understand the lectures just a little better. Often they are pointers to material that might interest the slightly more advanced reader. Some are simply interesting (we hope) pieces of trivia.

Some things before you proceed:

  1. Sanskrit (and other non-English) terms are transliterated following the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST) standard. Though it not strictly necessary or even recommended, I try to transliterate most terms. Familiarity with Devanagri sounds is recommended.
  2. Please use the footnote markers ([1], [2], etc.) to jump to footnotes and back to the text.


Nationalist Re-presentations

14. There is a very popular and old Hindi devotional song, ṭhumaka calata rāma candrā.[12] Many singers have sung this song. It’s a 16th century bhajan [written by Tulasidas] which has become very popular in modern times. It talks about Sri Ramchandra as a child who is, as young people today would call, “cute”. Basically, Ramchandra is depicted in this song as an endearing little child. But in today’s India, this is hardly the image which is popular or which is circulated. A very different kind of Ramachandra is circulated.

15. I have a picture here — which I will show you in a minute [picture will me made available shortly] — of a bronze statue which is probably from the 11th to the 13th century period. Its origins are in South India but it was found in Sri Lanka, or what used to be called Ceylon. You might find it hard to believe that this is a Hanuman statue. He not only does not look very large and muscular, but he also doesn’t have any weapons in his hands. In calendar art in modern times, he is always shown along with Ram and Sita or Ram, Laxman, and Sita. But here he is shown independent of them. And the gesture he has is… well, it is hard to interpret what kind of gesture it is because we don’t know the surrounding idols and statues and other references. It is certainly not of aggression, protection, or intimidation. You find none of those stances here.

16. I believe that today, if you look at the calendar art or other recent images, you will rarely find Hanuman of this kind. This says something. I think we need to pause a little and wonder why this has happened. The muscular Hanuman with his weapons was represented in the pre-modern period. I am not denying that. And you do find references to that also. But along with that kind of Hanuman, you also have a Hanuman of this sort who is hardly recognizable. So when it comes to various poetic, literary, or iconographic representations of gods and goddesses and even their stories, you have a whole range of representations in premodern India and that range gets restricted in modern India.

17. It starts being restricted, I suppose, from the second half of the 19th century. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Kṛṣṇacarita is a very good example. I’ll probably have an occasion to say a little bit about it later but to anticipate, Krishna — another very popular god in India — has been represented through several paintings, songs, and treatises in which you find a whole range of manifestations. What happens in the hands of Bankim is that he starts converting Krishna into a very serious philosophical/spiritual figure.[13] In Bengal, and in eastern India in general, Krishna was, along with his philosophical or other associations, always associated with the Gopis. You may say that this is supposed to be taken in a metaphysical sense and it is not to be taken literally. True. But, regardless of the correct interpretation, the fact is that there are many stories and songs in folk culture of his playfulness and his many quarrels with the Gopis. Bankim thinks that it is all meaningless verbiage.[14] His favoured image of Krishna as a philosopher. That is the representation of Krishna that Bankim Chandra gives you.[15] The argument here is not that just because one Bankim Chandra somewhere in India converted a playful and multifaceted Krishna into a one-dimensional Krishna, suddenly the whole of India started believing in a new representation of Krishna. I am only taking Bankim Chandra as a representative of a certain trend which gets accentuated in the 20th century.

18. So, for all gods and goddesses and their stories, there was always a huge range of representations and different people at different times for different reasons believed in one or the other representation. How far they were able to coexist with each other, we don’t know. But they seem to have coexisted because these representations have survived. In the 19th and 20th century, that range gets restricted and only certain ideas about gods and goddesses, only certain texts, and only certain arguments, get picked up. This happens not because there is some kind of conspiracy. Functioning under the pressure of colonial historiography, Indian nationalists responded by picking up only that which they thought was ‘respectable’. It is part of the same process that the Vedas were made to function as the civilizational foundations of India.

19. Our philosophy is supposed to be represented fully in the. It is part of the same trend that Śaṅkarācārya becomes the pre-eminent philospher, roughly from the 19th but more critically from the 20th century. And Advaitavedānta becomes the Indian philosophy. Upaniṣads come to be seen as the essence of Indian wisdom. We come to have a self-image as a tolerant society. The diversity of representations and sects and ideas that I talked about is explained very often by saying that we are very accommodative and tolerant people. But if you look at the evidence, whatever evidence that has survived, it is mixed. You find evidence for tolerance and accommodation, but you also find evidence for persecution and tensions and outright conflict between different sects.

20. I was talking about the range of texts. Now, the actual range of texts from pre-modern India, even if you restrict yourself to just the ancient part, is enormous. If you further restrict it to Sanskrit texts, excluding texts from other languages, even then it is a huge range. Out of all this range, the educated modern Indians, and sometimes even the academics, seem to be talking only of the Vedas, and within that only of certain select parts of the Vedas. What is actually meant by the Vedas is a big corpus of texts. But everyone talks about the Ṛgveda. And within the Ṛgveda, we talk only about some parts. The same is the case with the Upaniṣads. And all these texts are supposed to represent the origin of an internally harmonious tradition — forgetting that Śaṅkarācārya himself, when he was commenting on various important texts, including the Gītā, was referring to and combating, criticising, rebuking, several ideas which were circulating before his times. Unfortunately, some of these texts or ideas have not survived. But even among the texts that have survived, we tend to forget the whole range and we tend to get fixated depending on our persuasion either on Śaṅkarācārya or Rāmānujācārya, or we say these are three or four important acharyas, and they are the ones whose philosophy has shaped the Hindus. So there is this enormous constriction of texts that we take seriously, and consequently the limited range of ideas that we take seriously.

21. In assuming a millennia long unbroken tradition of philosophy, we overlook that over time the way we understand certain key terms changes. Earlier I was talking about how rāṣṭra and loka have been completely changed into “nation” and “people” which they were not supposed to mean originally. But along with these changes, sometimes there is also a kind of an inflation or a generalisation. Take a very crucial term in ancient Indian texts, the word karma. In the ancient texts, the word karma occurs frequently and it has several specific meanings depending on the context. What happens during the nationalist movement is that a particular or specific meaning of the term as a ritual action gets somehow effaced and it is the general sense of karma as action (by which one means any action) that gets picked up. This general meaning of the term becomes crucial in several commentaries of the Bhagavadgītā in the 20th century.[16] So it is not always a restriction of the range to something specific, but sometimes it is also the inflation of a particular idea or a particular term that takes place.

22. For a long time, people were anxious to prove to the world that we had political theory but they did not have sufficient textual evidence. Because manuscripts of the Arthaśāstra, which is now being talked about and has been researched on considerably, were not available anywhere. That the text existed was undoubted because it was known through references to it in other texts. But the full text of the Arthaśāstra was not available. So when in the early 20th century, by sheer coincidence and fortuitous events, one manuscript of the text surfaces, it becomes an important discovery.[17] Intellectually it is an important discovery. That is an old text which you know exists but which you don’t have. And if it suddenly emerges, of course you would get excited. But the excitement in the early 20th century had the context of nationalism. At last there was a very tangible proof that we too had something called Political Thought in ancient India. That was the political significance of this intellectual discovery. But we stopped looking beyond the Arthaśāstra.

23. So, a lot has happened in the 20th century which has greatly influenced our understanding of ancient India. And as I was saying the other day, it acted as a stimulus. It is doubtful whether without the tension between nationalism and colonialism, so much attention to the study of the Indian history would have been given. Perhaps not. In a way the tension acted as a stimulus. But it also confined our attention to the past within a certain frame. One of the things we need to do is to take pre-modern India, both ancient and medieval, out of this frame and try and look at these texts and ideas independently.


[12] See Appendix 1.[^]

[13] Bankim concludes at the end of his study (trans. Alo Shom, “Conclusion”):

To conclude, we find Krishna to be a bright example of a complete man. He was unconquered and unconquerable. He was pure-hearted, virtuous, loving, kind, dutiful, a follower of Dharma, a Vedic scholar, a master of ethics, someone who had only goodwill for the human race, who was just, merciful, impartial but also one who did not hesitate to punish the punishable. Krishna was not possessive in his attitude. He was humble, disciplined and dedicated like a yogi. Krishna functioned like a human being within the limits of human abilities but his inborn genius raised him to superhuman status. Through his superhuman abilities, he rose towards godliness.[^]

[14] Bankim explains (away) Krishna’s antics with the gopis thus (ibid., “The Gopis of Vajra”) :

In the Mahabharata, there is no mention of the gopis. … So, we can conclude that the tales of Sri Krishna’s promiscuity and lovemaking with the gopis were created afterwards. Nevertheless, the word gopijanapriya (the beloved of the gopis) was used by Draupadi in her prayer to Krishna when she was being disrobed. This is quite natural. In Vrindavana, ever since his childhood, Krishna was loved by one and all — men and women alike. He had a pleasing personality. He must have been a handsome youth in his growing years. And, young people, girls and boys, collecting together and dancing or just spending time together, each having girlfriends and boyfriends of their own is a natural aspect of human behaviour that is usually accepted without fuss both in civilised and uncivilised societies. It is acceptable, therefore, that Krishna was a beloved boyfriend of the gopis. From time to time, however, in many societies, mixing with the opposite sex is objected to and sometimes even the slightest intimacy is criticised. It seems to me that in Krishna’s lifetime, Vrindavana was a free society in this respect and his friendship with the gopis was not a matter of criticism.[^]

[15] See Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism, 19. impr, Oxford India Paperbacks (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 22–24. A sustained treatment is provided by Sudipta Kaviraj in the essay “The Myth of Praxis: Construction of the Figure of Kṛṣṇa in Kṛṣṇacarita,” in his The Unhappy Consciousness: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and the Formation of Nationalist Discourse in India, SOAS Studies in South Asia (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 72–106.[^]

[16] See [reference will be added the relevant lecture is uploaded].[^]

[17] Discovered in 1904 by Rudrapatna Shamasastry, librarian of the Oriental Research Institute in Mysore. First published in 1909, and translated into English in 1915. In the introductory remarks to his translation of a portion of the Arthaśāstra for Indian Antiquary in 1905, Shamasastry writes:

Considering the widely-spread fame of the work among Sanskrit writers, it seems strange that MSS. [manuscripts] of [the Arthaśāstra] should be very rare. Fortunately for the study of Indian historical subjects, a pandit of the Tanjore District of the Madras Presidency who had in has possession a MS. of the Arthaśāstra, together with an imperfect commentary on it by Bhaṭtaavāmi, was generous enough to hand over the two MSS. to the Mysore Government Oriental Library. They are on palm-leaf in the Grantha characters and do not appear to be more than a century or two old. The MS. of the Arthaśāstra seems to be fairly correct, with the exception of a few clerical errors and omissions of a line or two in some places. (p. 6)

R. Shamashastry, “Chanakya’s Land and Revenue Policy,” Indian Antiquary 34 (1905).[^]

Appendix 1

This is a transliteration and translation of the song. For those interested, D. V. Paluskar’s rendition is recommended. The translation is by user rshankar at rasikas.org.

ṭhumaka calata rāmacaṃdra bājata paijaniyām̐.
kilaki kilaki uṭhata dhāya girata bhūmi laṭapaṭāya,
dhāya māta goda leta daśarathakī raniyām̐.
aṃcala raja aṃga jhāri vividha bhāṃti so dulāri,
tana mana dhana vāri vāri kahata mṛdu bacaniyām̐.
vidrumase aruṇa adhara bolata mukha madhura madhura,
subhaga nāsikā meṃ cāru laṭakata laṭakaniyām̐.
tulasīdāsa ati ānaṃda dekhake mukhāraviṃda,
raghuvara chabike samāna raghuvara chabi baniyām̐
ṭhumaka calata rāmacaṃdra bājata paijaniyām̐.

The anklets (pāyajāniyā) on his feet make a tinkling sound (bājata) as the toddler Rāma (rāma caṃdrā) walks/moves (calata) unsteadily (ṭhumaka).

Bubbling with laughter (kilaka kilaka), he falls, gets up (uṭhaṭa), runs (dhāya), stumbles (laṭapaṭae) and falls (girata) to the ground (bhūmi).

Seeing this, the queens (rāniyā) of daśaratha (daśaratha), his mothers (māta) run (dhāya) and pick (leṭa) him up and hold him on their laps (goda).

Using the pallu (aṃcala) of their sarees, they clean the dirt and bruises (jhāri) from his limbs (aṃga), and comfort and caress (dulārī) him (so) in many ways (vividha bhām̐ti).

Completely surrendering themselves to him (vāri vāri) with their bodies (tana), minds (mana), and material possessions (dhana), they speak (kahaṭa) soft and sweet (mṛdu) words (bacaniyām̐) of comfort.

With lips (adhara) that are redder (aruṇa) than (se) a coral (vidruma), his mouth (mukha) utters (bolata) extremely sweet (madhura madhura) words, while beautiful (cārū) nose-rings dangle (laṭakaṭa laṭakaniyā) from (meṃ) his lovely (subhaga) nose (nāsikā).

The composer, Tulsidas, experiences extreme/heightened (ati) bliss (ānaṃda) as he sees/takes in (dekha ke) this lotus-like face (mukhāraviṃd), and coming up empty for appropriate similes to liken Rāma face to, he declares it incomparable, saying that only Rāma’s (raghuvara) face (chabi) can (baniyā) compare (ke samāna) to Rāma’s face!

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Chattopadhyay, Bankimchandra. 2011. The Essence of Bankim Chandra’s Krishna Charitra. Translated by Alo Shome. New Delhi: VS Publishers.

Kaviraj, Sudipta. 1995. “The Myth of Praxis: Construction of the Figure of Kṛṣṇa in Kṛṣṇacarita.” In The Unhappy Consciousness: Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and the Formation of Nationalist Discourse in India, 72–106. SOAS Studies in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Nandy, Ashis. 2005. The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism. 19. impr. Oxford India Paperbacks. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Shamashastry, R. 1905. “Chanakya’s Land and Revenue Policy.” Indian Antiquary 34.