Lecture Five: Seers 5.5

5.5 Death, re-death, and immortality


If birth, taken in its cosmological dimension, provides a core domain for exercising the visionary imagination, death completements it in doing so. A key archeological feature associated with the emerging and spreading of Homo Sapiens is the concern for the deceased and the practice of ritual burial. Of course, death is a particularly charged emotional event for both individuals and their community, and multiple layers of meaning surround death rituals and practices. Perhaps it is not theoretically impossible to conceive of a small-scale community that believes in annihilation after death, but in order to conceive of death as the annihilation of the living agent, one needs first to conceptualize the living agent as necessarily dependent on a living individual body. However, the majority of archeological and textual evidence shows that most of known ancient cultures and civilizations, including the Vedic one, did believe in some form of afterlife and subscribed to the broad communitarian model of agency we described in Lecture Three. Starting from this premise, the dissolution of an individual body does not necessarily entail the dissolution of the agent(s) that inhabit that body.

A standard belief that surfaces in a variety of different small-scale societies around the world is the idea that, after death, the deceased have to travel to the otherworld, often conceived of as the world of their (fore)fathers. This afterlife destination is often described as a magnified version of the worldly shape and structure of the ordinary community life. The world of the fathers might be more or less geographically remote from the world of the livings, but once there the deceased enjoy a form of existence similar in structure to the one enjoyed during life. Here, a crucial concern is the path that the newly deceased must travel in order to reach this otherworldly destination. The path is dangerous and proper shamanic or ritual guidance is considered to be essential. But once the task is accomplished, the deceased will enjoy their new dwelling place. At this level, the world of the fathers is not conceived in terms of ethical rewards or punishment but maintains a generally positive tone.

Prima facie evidence suggests that this sort of view is at play also in the Ṛg-Veda. For instance, in one hymn, the god Yama, the king of the dead, is invoked in order to ensure that the deceased will travel safely to the world of the fathers (The Rig Veda, X.14, Engl. transl. by Wendy Doniger 1981, 43-45). The idea of joining the fathers after death is a powerful image through which the community asserts the strong embedment of the individual within their kinship. As I am born from my parents, after death I shall join them again. Origin or separation, and reunion or death are thus the two complementary halves of the process of becoming. Here we find, applied to the case of death, the principle we already noticed in more general terms with respect to cosmological birth. In the case of birth, a preceding union is split apart; in the case of death, a preceding division is recomposed in unity. If one observes this process from the point of view of the whole community as such, then birth and death are just the rhythmic movements of separation and reunion of the same original pool of agents.

However, this communitarian view can lead one to take one further step: if I am born from my parents and, after death, I will rejoin my forefathers, then shall I remain there with the forefathers forever? When I was born, I did not arise from nothing, since my birth was the labor (heat) that led to the separation from a more original kinship (Aditi, ‘that one’). In some way, I must already be there in the world of the forefathers before coming to this life, in that same place where I shall travel back after death. But then, perhaps I shall also come back again from that otherworld to this world. Reflection on the complementary duality between union and separation can lead to a conception of the community itself as weakly embodied in any set of currently existing individuals. The actual community stretches to both past and future generations, and encompasses both the worlds of those who are actually living and the world of the forefathers. In this respect, there seems to be a fixed cycle between these two domains: birth is rebirth, is coming to the world of the living from the world of the forefathers, and death is re-death, is moving back from the world of the living to the world of the forefathers.

Unlike later sources, the Ṛg-veda does not seem to explicitly discuss rebirth. Nonetheless, there are hints that suggest both a ‘coming back’ of the deceased and the idea that moving to the otherworld is not a permanent state.[1] Rebirth (or re-death) is closely associated and dependent upon a communitarian model of agency, and through this view, the community empowers itself and is embodied throughout time (past and future) and domains of reality (the world of the living and the world of the dead). Following the cycle of rebirth and re-death, any individual remains fully encompassed within their own community, reasserting (and re-empowering) their own kinship. The newborn is never a stranger, but a forefather coming back to life, and the deceased one is not exiled forever, they will come back to their community at some point. While individual bodily life arises and passes, the community as a whole remains. Notice how this model applies to the domain of birth and death an otherwise common observation that encompasses all sorts of natural phenomena, from the cycling of the seasons, to the reproduction of the same animal and vegetal species.

The seer’s vision enables him to know this cycle, and eventually help other members of his community to travel through it. In this respect, the seer performs a function akin to that of the shaman in small-scale societies. However, the seer does not (at least always) wish for himself to travel through this same cycle. Consider again the exalted exclamation ‘we became immortals.’ Against the backdrop of a cyclical (and non-ethicized) view of birth and death, this exclamation can be understood as the claim of having escaped from this cycle altogether. One might think about immortality in antithesis to annihilation at death, and thus to become immortal is to be spared from such annihilation. But this sort of interpretation is hardly applicable in the case of the seer (and in Vedic culture more generally), in which death is not conceived of as annihilation in the first place (since agency is not conceived in such a way that death could be easily interpreted as annihilation). But if death is conceived as a transfer from one world to another, in the broader context of a cyclical view of birth and death within the same community, then immortality must involve escaping from this sort of cycle.

The first who discovered immortality were the gods, and the gods instructed the seers, who now make other human beings aware of this possibility. Those who became immortals stop cycling within the same community, they are separated from it forever to some extent, since they are no longer subject to be born again among the livings. Hence, immortality is also a way of expressing one’s departure from the life of the community. Immortality is a way of expressing, using a communitarian shared pool of meanings and images, a form of emancipation from the community itself. Death is a bond in the sense that one must return to support the renewal of one’s own community. Immortality, breaking apart this bondage, entails no longer having to contribute in this way to the community’s life, being freed from this burden, emancipated. This is an exceptional achievement, surely not the standard goal of most community fellows. And yet, its rarity does not count against its feasibility in the seer’s view. To better understand this point, we need to clarify (i) what immortality does not entail, and (ii) why the seer might seek this form of immortality.

In the Ṛg-veda, immortality does not (and cannot) mean some form of ultimate or ‘mystical’ (in the sense discussed in Lecture Four) reunion with a transcendental principle, in which one’s perceived individuality would be entirely dissolved forever. As we shall discuss in Lecture Six, this latter view was indeed how the escape from the cycle of rebirth was conceived by subsequent trends in the Indian culture. Continuity with an older tradition is often a way of justifying the acceptance of otherwise newly introduced views. This urged the proponents of more recent views to forcefully project them back onto the Ṛg-veda itself, which was then taken both as a polemical target and as a source of legitimation. Attempts have always been made to retrospectively interpret the Ṛg-veda such that it hints at the later view of immortality as mystical reunion with the absolute principle.[2]

This understanding of immortality is not tenable from the point of view of the seers of the Ṛg-veda because their model of poietic vision does not allow for this sort of complete fading away into an undifferentiated principle. Indra, one of the paradigmatic examples of a being who became immortal, is not someone who disappeared in an ineffable eternal unity with the All, but rather a warrior, actively engaged in the world, and yet freed forever from the need to be reborn and die again. Aditi is the mother of all creates, and the first Man had in itself the whole cosmos, and yet, this primordial unity is never conceived of independently from a principle of separation, division, articulation, determination. Aditi is also the daughter of Dakṣa, the first Man is the first sacrificial victim that spreads out the world.

The immortality of the early Vedic seers is something different from the immortality of the later mystics. One way of acknowledging this difference is by exploring a potential failure in the seer’s attempt at securing mastery over uncertainty. As mentioned, the seer gains certainty trough vision, not necessarily or primarily through what is seen, but rather through the sort of experience that leads to vision, which is accompanied by a sense of euphoric enthusiasm, assurance, confidence, self-affirming power (the victorious Indra). And yet, this vision is likely to arise in ways that detach the seer from the way life is ordinarily experienced. The most emblematic case is perhaps offered by the exercises of imagining birth, which entail both the ability of penetrating the mystery of existence and nonexistence, but also the need to detach oneself and withdraw (even if only temporary) from the ordinary way of conceiving and perceiving. Moreover, the very poietic nature of these exercises prevents the seer from transmuting their vision into dogmatic positions. Visions are evoked through riddles; akin to dream-like images, they cannot be pinned down and solidified in ways that would allow for a complete dominion over them. The experience of the boundless is antithetical to the boundaries imposed by exact views and analytical knowledge. As a result, the sort of certainty that arises for the seer is hard to communicate to the other members of the community and somehow puts the seer at odds with them. Vision separates.

The paradox of visionary experience can thus be stated as follows. On the one hand, the seer is fully embedded in his community and its worldview. Building on it, the seer develops his poietic practice (akin to shamanic practice) which leads to vision. The quality of this visionary experience produces an effect of utmost certainty and thus of mastery over the uncertainty (darkness) that ordinarily haunts human beings. On the other hand, to develop and cultivate this poietic practice, the seer must separate himself somehow from his community, he must forego the ordinary way of experiencing reality, and cannot pretend to convert his visions into something that could be readily shared by others. Visions are not commodities that can be easily split apart, re-packaged, and sold. The greater and profounder the seer’s mastery, the greater the distance between the seers and the rest of his community. Seeking light, the seer ends up surrounding himself behind a veil of obscurity.

We can thus rephrase the paradox of mastery introduced at the beginning of this lecture in terms that would fit more directly the context of ancient Vedic culture. Consociation not only address basic needs, but it creates new needs. The stronger the consociation, the smaller the individual emancipation from these needs. However, in order to emancipate itself, the individual needs to conceptualize that emancipation, but that can only be done within a domain of meanings that is socially shared. Meaning is yet another social good. Emancipation needs to be intelligible as such, but the individual cannot but understand their own emancipation through a set of meanings that the individual has previously inherited from their own society. This does not mean that the individual has no room for manoeuvre in terms of creating new meanings, but it does entail certain constraints. A complete leap outside of any shared horizon of meaning would actually be a leap into meaninglessness. Hence, even emancipation from consociation is not a complete break with society. In terms of the practice of self-mastery, this entails that self-mastery remains itself inherently uncertain, because at any point in the spectrum of possible views it settles, it is threatened by either submission to consociation and its demands, or meaninglessness due to the alienation of the individual, in their struggle for emancipation, from their own social background of meaning. The Vedic seer struggles with this issue by addressing it directly from the side of meaning. He inherits and develops communitarian meanings, which he alters and refashions through his poietic visionary practice. The stronger and more autonomous this practice becomes, the more certain and empowering it will feel for the seer, but also the more remote it will be from the communitarian background, hence also more obscure, more impenetrable. The trade-off for emancipation is undermining the meaningfulness of meaning, its social rooting, and hence turning light into darkness.

Immortality is the epitome of this divide. It expresses the fact that a consumed seer will never come back to his community; at some point, he will remain in the world of his visions. This does not hint at a mystical union with an underlying absolute ontological principle, but rather indicates that the seer will have to leave his community and become a god, an immortal one, one who does not come back to his own kin. In a sense, this form of immortality is also very much a form of complete death, understood as complete emancipation from the community (in a model in which one primarily is the social persona enacted within the community). And yet, emancipation could not possibly be complete without also undermining the sort of certainty that vision produced. Complete emancipation would entail a complete disavowal of the whole hermeneutic background to one’s experiences and the whole horizon of meanings provided by the community, which also constitute the ground for all visionary experience. In emancipating himself from his community, the seer is on the verge of undercutting his own visionary power. An isolated seer is a barren cow.

Gods are not indifferent to what happens in human communities, they are involved with human affairs, they try to deal with their distance and separation by recovering some degree of interaction. The paradox consists in the fact that by moving towards greater certainty, one has to move towards greater separation, but in doing so, one eventually recedes from that same ground that allowed vision to develop, and this undermines any attempt to gain certainty through vision. Wanting to avoid this result, one will have to move backward somehow, becoming an immortal who still cares for his own community. Yet, this would require taming vision, making it more sharable, and hence less powerful, and as a consequence less capable of bestowing certainty. Either way one takes, certainty can be sought but never fully achieved.[3]

This paradox is already hinted at in the liminal role that shamans occupy in many cultures, being both feared and revered, taking leading roles within their community, but also playing on their margins. The Vedic seer expresses this sort of complexity and tension within its own vocation. From a historical perspective, this paradox can also explain some of the later developments that occur in the Vedic culture. So far, we have focused on the seers themselves, but the Ṛg-veda is just the bedrock of a more complex edifice of Brahminic ritual practices. The brahmin is not necessarily a seer himself, but someone who is skilled in the hymns, and knows how they should be performed in the appropriate contexts and circumstances. The brahmin is more akin to a ritual specialist than to a shaman. In a sense, the brahmin’s task is to bridge the gap between the original vision of the ancestral rishis (now shifted back into a more or less legendary past) and the concrete needs of the community living in the present. However, this offers only an apparent resolution to the paradox we just sketched. Insofar as the brahmin’s ritual actions are not based on a form of direct vision, they quickly reduce to a sort of orthopraxis, in which certainty is based primarily on knowing and following the traditional rules preserved within the community. Memory substitutes living vision (although it might occasionally re-enact that vision) but doing so the brahmin can no longer claim to be he himself the one who sees and thus be ensured and empowered by what he sees. The brahmin is not someone who can proclaim ‘I became immortal.’ And for this reason, as we shall see in the next lecture, Brahmanical ritual came to be regarded by some groups as ultimately inadequate for bringing about genuine salvation and liberation. While salvation could still be conceived in terms of full mastery over uncertainty, engaging with the problems that this mastery entails prompted important changes in how immortality ought to be conceived.[4]

  1. Gananath Obeysekere, Imagining Karma (2002) provides a detailed cross-cultural examination of rebirth beliefs in various small-scale societies and ancient cultures. Comparing these data with the extant information from the Vedic culture, it is possible to envisage that rebirth was endorsed at that stage, either within the Vedic culture itself, or perhaps as a result of its interplay with other groups that were integrated or under its influence (keeping in mind that ancient India was already a highly multicultural aggregate). However, Obeysekere invites us to distinguish between various steps that can be taken in articulating a rebirth eschatology. Shamanic cultures might not entail beliefs in rebirth; those who endorse beliefs in rebirth, might not further accept the idea of ethical rewards or punishments after death; and those who accept the latter, might not take the even further step of regarding the whole rebirth process as ruled by ethical principles (karma). Based on available evidence, it is possible that the early Vedic culture accepted rebirth just as a cyclical transfer between the world of the living and that of the forefathers. This view is further discussed and defended by Richard Gombrich, What the Buddha Thought (2009), chapter 3. For a detailed discussion of relevant texts from the Ṛg-veda, see Miller 1974, sect. 3, part 3. Herman Tull, The Vedic Origins of Karma (1989) provides a detailed examinations of brahmin sources to show that the doctrine of karma and rebirth that surfaces in the Upaniṣads (cf. Lecture Six) should not be regarded as a radical break with respect to the previous tradition. For present purposes, it is worth noticing that if rebirth views do not necessarily entail the idea of ethical reward, any view of an escape from rebirth necessarily requires taking for granted the rebirth cycle. The idea of ‘immortality’ in the Ṛg-veda is difficult to account for in terms of default survival among the forefathers (since this is no special achievement, but something available to all members of the community). It is more likely that it points to a way of escaping the cyclical transfer back and forth between the world of the living and that of the dead. Hence, the very ambition or experience of ‘becoming immortal’ witnessed by several seers can be taken as implying an already established background in which the rebirth cycle in its non-ethical form was taken for granted.
  2. For instance, Miller 1974, 196-199 articulates this sort of interpretation.
  3. Taylor (1989, 423) makes the following comment about the Romantic and post-Romantic view of the artist and its vocation: ‘a view has come down to us from the Romantics which portrays the artist as one who offers epiphanies where something of great moral or spiritual significance becomes manifest—and what is conveyed by this last disjunction is just the possibility that what is revealed lies beyond and against what we normally understand as morality. The artist is an exceptional being, open to a rare vision; the poet is a person of exceptional sensibility. This was a commonplace among the Romantics. But this also opens the artist to exceptional suffering. In part this was thought to lie in the very fact of a rare sensibility, which must open one to great suffering as well as great joy. But in part it comes from the idea that the artist’s vocation forces him or her to forgo the ordinary satisfactions of life in the world, to forgo successful action and fulfilled relationships. This is the predicament which D. H. Lawrence in a comment on Beethoven’s letters called ‘the crucifixion into isolate individuality.’ Being cut off from ordinary fulfilments can also mean being cut off from other people, on the margins of society, misunderstood, despised.’ Now, let us duly acknowledge all the obvious and immense differences that separate nineteenth-century Western visions of art and the first-millennium BCE Indian Vedic culture. Having done so, mutatis mutandis, it is far from impossible to see that what Taylor uncovers with respect to Western nineteenth-century Romanticism is in fact not an absolutely unique phenomenon, and perhaps the ancient Vedic seer already knew something about that (which does not mean that the seer was a sort of Romantic artist, but rather that both characters might encounter the same sort of challenges, albeit proceeding from very different backgrounds). The pivot of this experience of separation consists in the way in which one’s imaginary power of accessing an epiphany of meaning is inevitably linked with one’s own community, while also create a gulf with that and which is seemingly impossible to bridge.
  4. From a historical point of view, one might notice a sort of cycle between communitarian embeddedness and individual emancipation, which might well be at work since the very beginning of human sociability. Discussing the evolution and survival of shamanic aspects in more complex ancient cultures, McEvilley comments (The Shape of Ancient Thought, 2002, 262): ‘The shaman was an independent and isolated worker by definition. His power dreams were his alone; his relationships with the spirit allies were his alone. Powers that rise in part from inner sources are hard to share with colleagues, each of whom is a shaman, too, with his own relationship system in the power realms, and no two systems quite alike. For the transition to the state this power relationship was externalized to lessen its uncontrollability and generalized to a caste of people to eliminate what Eliade calls the individual shamanic ‘vocation.’ This is the moment when shamanic individualism began to give way to the priestly profession. In a priestly college there is a hierarchy, and each individual is not free to assert his or her own model of the whole. A society’s transition from shaman to priest involves, therefore, the abandonment of the individual power vision in favor of a doctrine codified by the leaders of the priesthood.’ Building on what was discussed in Lecture Three, we can thus see that shamanism originally emerges out of a strong form of communitarian experience, which leads to a more individualizing form of practice, and in turn calls (when society itself evolves towards larger structures) for a new re-socialization (in the form of ritualization and orthopraxis). The cycle might then likely continue in its subsequent iterations (explored, in part, in Lecture Six).


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