RV transmigration

George Thompson thompson at handel.jlc.net
Mon May 13 18:09:36 EDT 1996

I have received several interesting but skeptical responses to my claims
for a RV belief in transmigration.  Perhaps I can begin my defense by
referring to a private note sent earlier to Mani Varadarajan:

"It is a pleasure to respond to your note.  You are quite right. The
tradition does attribute this stanza [i.e., RV 4.26] to VAmadeva, and I do
not challenge the tradition on this.  However, the stanza [along with the
two following] is also called an Atmastuti [in BD it is called
AtmasaMstAva], and it is understood that VAmadeva is speaking as if he were
Indra.  This has puzzled scholars, who uniformly [as far as I know],
attribute the 3 stanzas to Indra, or to VAmadeva adopting the role of
Indra.  This is why, in my note, I say:

'The speaker continues on for two more stanzas proclaiming his glorious
deeds.  Or are they rather Indra's deeds?  Or is the speaker impersonating
Indra?  Or rather, is Indra entering into the speaker and speaking through

So from my point of view, my interpretation is consistent with that of the
BAU.  Even if, as the BAU says, these are VAmadeva's words, don't they
still seem to imply that VAmadeva was an incarnation of Manu, of SUrya,

In short, in my note I wish to show that the UpaniSads and the RV, at least
in this case, are consistent, and that the handbooks that suggest otherwise
are wrong."

In response to this note, Mani makes an interesting distinction between
what is going on in the RV passage and its interpretation at BAU 1.4.10.
There, he says:

"the upanishad understands vAmadeva to be
saying that through his consciousness of Brahman,
he was manu, sUrya, and everything else. There is no
implication of karma or rebirth in the upanishad's
usage of this quote."

Similarly, in his skeptical response to my claims, Madhav Deshpande observes:

"Indra, being a god, has the ability to assume
multiple forms with his maayaa 'the mysterious power'.  This is indeed
different from the karmically guided rebirth of the Upanizads.  It is more
like the incarnations of VizNu, a more self-motivated agentive appearance
of god as someone or another:  prakRtim svaam adhizThaaya sambhavaamy
aatmamaayayaa (BG)."

In fact, the BhG also contains an example of the "literary genre" which I
am now engaged in studying [as do also several UpaniSads].  I name it the
Atmastuti because of my Vedic bias, but it is widely attested, not only in
other IE traditions, but in several non-IE traditions as well [e.g.,
Sumerian, Zuñi, Hawaiian, Australian: I would hope that there is no
question of borrowing among these, at least!].  In all these cases, the
impersonation of the god seems to imply the reincarnation of the god, or at
least the temporary manifestation of the god on earth.  If these do not
seem to reflect a doctrine of transmigration exactly like the classical
doctrine of India, I still claim that it is in these, in particular in the
RV version of this genre, that the classical doctrine has its roots.

By the way, if Mani's interpretation is correct, and VAmadeva is asserting
his consciousness of Brahman, and thereby his unity with all things, what
becomes of a doctrine of transmigration and reincarnation?  Doesn't it

There is also more evidence from the RV, besides the Atmastutis.  Consider
terms like zatA´tman and purutmán, for example.

I still think that the handbooks are wrong.  What I see in this evidence is


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