RV transmigration

thompson at handel.jlc.net thompson at handel.jlc.net
Tue May 14 21:04:52 UTC 1996

Peter Claus' observation that RV 4.26.1:

"seem[s] to describe something like spirit possession or some sort of
shamanistic ritual rather than what I think of as a (formal)
doctrine of either transmigration or reincarnation"

seems to me to be very pertinent. Likewise his remarks about our "vaguely
defined" doctrine of transmigration.  In fact it has seemed to me that we
have been operating with divergent definitions of "transmigration."  John
Gardner seems to be making the same point, helping to clarify things by
characterizing the classical doctrine as "retributive karma", which I am in
no way claiming to be present in the RV.

So it will certainly help if we defined our terms more clearly.  What I see
in the RV is no formal doctrine.  The RV is not that kind of text: it is
not about doctrine; it is, in my view, about performance. Those of us who
wind up studying the RV are more or less inevitably oriented toward
philology, the study of texts.  As a result, in my opinion, many of the
most interesting features of that text have been lost on us.  It does not
disturb me at all to consider RV Atmastutis in light of spirit possession
or shamanism [I had thought of mentioning Haitian spirit possession, but
refrained because I didn't have textual reference at hand: that's thinking
like a philologist...].

possession.  Are we promiscuously mixing categories?  Or are these
phenomena somehow related?  While I do not claim that they are all
identical, I do claim that they are significantly related.

Finally, re a remark of Gardner's concerning a "dynamic of multiple
identities": the Atmastutis also may suggest that "Vedic identity" is in
fact a far more fluid, dynamic, and unstable thing than what we, in the
late 20th century, have come to think of as identity, a relatively fixed
and predictable thing [unless we dabble in post-modernism, of course...].

Thanks for the interesting responses.

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