RV transmigration

thompson at handel.jlc.net thompson at handel.jlc.net
Mon May 13 03:24:24 UTC 1996

I know that the conventional view is that a doctrine of transmigration does
not arise until the UpaniSads.  And I concede that there is nothing very
explicit in the RV [certainly there is no 'direct reference to a doctrine
of transmigration' there], but I would invite you to consider the
Atmastutis, which I have been studying in light of IE parallels.  Take for
example RV 4.26, the well-known hymn that presents the myth of the capture
of Soma from heaven.  The utterance of the first few stanzas, at least, are
traditionally attributed to Indra.  They appear to be a "song of
self-praise", in which Indra seems to boast of his participation in the
deed, and in which he celebrates his ecstasy under the influence of that
drink of immortality.  In the opening stanza he says:

"I was Manu and I was SUrya. I am KakSIvat, the RSi, an inspired sage. I
defeated Kutsa, son of Arjuna. I am the Kavi Uzanas.  See me [as I am]!"

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

In my view, whatever is going on here, there is strong suggestion of
transmigration in this passage, as there are in many other passages.  In a
forthcoming paper I will attempt to demonstrate this more fully.

But one more point here: if horses can be incarnations of the sun [note the
repeated references to the sacrificial horse's "highest birth" in RV 1.163;
he is also directly identified with Yama, Aditya and Trita there],
presumably poets can also be incarnations of their priestly predecessors,
or perhaps even of the gods themselves.

Thus, while there may not be 'direct references' to a doctrine of
transmigration in the RV, there is, I think, good evidence that the poets
of the RV believed in something like transmigration, as did their IE
ancestors, and furthermore that they  performed their hymns as if there
were such a thing.

Finally, if I may say so without offending, I would recommend that we stop
relying on the pronouncements of old handbooks of Vedic, and start reading
texts like the RV with our own eyes.  There remain many very interesting
and largely unobserved things in them.


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