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Vrata divine and human in the early Veda.

The relationship between Rigvedic and post-Rigvedic usages of the word vrata has not been adequately explained, despite several studies of the concept. This paper distinguishes three aspects of the word's meaning in the Rg Veda and in the "mantra-period" texts: (1) 'rule' in the general sense of a fixed articulation of will or authority; (2) as the attribute of a god, it denotes the distinctive natural and social laws that the god ordains and maintains; (3) in verses in which the god's vrata is closely linked with specific rites (the morning and evening offerings, the three soma pressings) it acquires the sense of 'rule of ritual observance'. In these contexts, this rule of ritual performance is an obligation to be fulfilled by "descendants of Manu," who may be called vratyas of the god. RV 7.103.l and AV 4.11 foreshadow the narrower, technical application of the word in the prose yajus texts, the brahmanas, and the ritual sutras, viz., an ascetical regimen undertaken by a yajamana or student, under the super intendence of Agni Vratapati.


BEGINNING WITH THE prose yajus mantras and the brahamana texts, the word vrata denotes a specifically defined, somewhat ascetic regimen (e.g., the vrata of an isti rite, the soma diksa, the observances of a student of Veda) intended to purify and empower the performer, giving him a quasi-divine capacity to accomplish special rites or to study. In the dharma literature (and in usage up to the present), vrara refers to a (mildly) ascetic regimen of behavior (such as a fast), often combined with a program of worship to a specified deity, by which the performer may obtain virtually any specified mundane or otherworldly objective-especially divine assistance in some matter, such as worldly prosperity or the expiation of guilt. In fact, vrata becomes the most generic term in Brahmanism for rules or regimens in which a fixed rule of behavior, involving restrictions as well as prescribed actions, is thought to produce specified results for whoever performs it.

Compared with the term's clear semantic contours in later times, the Rigvedic meaning has long been disputed. The current consensus derives vrata from PIE *wer-/wre- ('speak'); it thus closely parallels Av. uruuata ('command,' 'rule'). (1) A few studies have attempted to specify the Vedic meaning of the word. Hanns-Peter Schmidt has argued at great length that vrata in all cases means 'Gelubde' ('vow') in the sense of "a sort of promissory oath." (2) The gods' vratas in the Rg Veda would thus be promises they make to humanity, which their actions fulfill. Paul Hacker refuted Schmidt's findings in a long article. He notes first that even the vratas of the classical literature are not properly called 'vows' (despite similarities with Christian vows, and the ubiquity of this gloss in translations). Although the element of "act, service, or way of life" for a divine purpose represents the later idea of vrata well enough, the word "vow" preeminently denotes the promise or declaration of intent. The vrata per se co nsists in a set of regular activities, and the verbal or mental declaration of intent--when it is mentioned at all--is designated as the samkalpa, which is "what makes a series of actions or abstentions into a vrata." (3)

I would carry Hacker's objections on this point a bit further. In Classical Greek and Latin usage, a "vow" ([epsilon][upsilon][chi][eta], votum) was a promise to make an offering to a divinity, contingent upon first receiving a god's help--Marcel Mauss' do ut des. This contingency, in particular, is quite foreign to the Indian notion, which regards the actual regimen--and not the declaration of intention, or promise--as essential to producing the result. In fact, the "contingent vow" is attested in modem times in the Rajasthani bolari, bolma, or votana, and the Marathi navas, all of which are distinguished from vrata. (4)

Joel Brereton has adjudicated this debate, finding in Hacker's favor. He argues that a vrata is (1) a commandment, implying an obligation (and not a promise, as Schmidt claimed); (2) "an action which is governed by a commandment and so is considered an expression of that commandment"; and (3) "'authority', the power to command, to oblige someone to do something." (5) He shows that the vratas of the gods are authoritative: they determine the order of all things and beings in the world, and imply the idea of man's moral obligation to adhere to divine models. Although Hacker also stresses this point, he resists equating vrata with 'commandment', for this word points to the assertion of authority which is never (in the Rg Veda) directly referred to, and obscures the fact that divine will-represented by the vrata--is embodied in paradigmatic divine actions. Thus, he says, a god's vrata "is established through [that god's] concrete activity, i.e., not through an act of lawgiving." (6) It is an order or pattern, ari sing directly out of divine precedent, that is continually actualized in the world, such that creatures and things adapt themselves to it, and comply with it. The verbs taking vrata as their object most frequently in the Rg Veda define a coherent set of actions: on the one hand, the upholding or protection of, and compliance with, vratas; on the other, the destruction or violation of them. Hacker observes (7) that in most cases the vrata is something the gods follow ([anu-]sac-, anu-i-, [anu-]car-, etc.), keep (raks-, pa-, dhr-), violate ([pra-]mi-), or deceive (dabh-); he supposes "that the word originally and properly belongs to the sphere of the gods, and that the human vratas are so called perhaps only by analogy to those of the gods." (8)

I will show that the Rg Veda does sometimes envision the vrata as a regular course of ritual observance corresponding to the particular character of the deity to whom the rites pertain. This indicates a semantic extension of the term vrata from 'rule' in the sense of 'governance' or 'ordinance' to "rule of ritual action'. This paves the way for later, more narrow applications of the word to designate specific, initiatory regimens required for worship and Veda study. This semantic development shows that the usual gloss 'vow' or 'Gelubde' is not apt, since a ritual vrata is a rule adopted, not a promise made. (9) In what follows, I will review selected passages to illustrate the range of applications of the term, the ways in which divine vratas are distinctive of the gods to whom they belong, and ways in which the vratas of certain gods are closely associated with a course of ritual observance incumbent upon those "descendants of Manus" who have established a relationship with the gods.


Before turning to passages in which a vrata figures as a law governing divine or ritual action (which might be called religiously "marked" usage, insofar as vrata becomes a technical term), we should note the contexts in which it appears to mean 'rule', 'standard mode of action', in a general sense. In such an unmarked context, there seems to be little sense of moral obligation; rather the vrata is what is characteristic of someone or something. The word vrata often has this meaning when it occurs in final position in adjectival (bahuvrihi) compounds. (10) "Let Heaven and Earth--they who drip honey, who milk out honey, whose rule is honey (i.e., sweet)--prepare honey for us" (madhu no dyavaprthivi mimiksatam madhuscuta madhudughe madhuvrate [RV 6.70.5ab]). "Let this bull, who follows the rule of the bull, purifying himself, striking those who curse (us), make riches for the worshiper" (esa vrsa a vrsavratah pavamano asastiha \ karad vasuni dasuse [9.62.11]). "Who follows the rule of the bull" means "who acts like a bull," who is virile by nature, or, perhaps more precisely, who, as a rule, is fecundating.

Agni is known by his golden demeanor: "Here the gods have set ... shining Agni of the shining chariot, of the yellow rule of conduct (harivratam) ... impatient, very splendid..." (candram agnim candraratham harivratam ... bhurnim devasa iha susriyam dadhuh [RV 3.3.5ad]). Harivratam is virtually glossed by the adjectives candram, candraratham, and susriyam, which all describe Agni's apparent form and action. The terms vivrata and savrata are antonyms meaning "following divergent rules, discordant" and "following the same rule, concordant," respectively. (11) These compounds in -vrata constitute a fixed idiomatic usage, in which the meaning of vrata is relatively constricted: 'rule' as an expression of authority is reduced to 'tendency' or 'manner'.

Numerous verse mantras from post-Rg Veda sources use vrata alongside words for interior, mental and psychological, states, which suggests that vrata crystallizes an act of will. Some of these verses are applied in the rite of initiation into Veda study, at the moment when the teacher touches the student's heart, e.g., RVkh 3.15:

mama vrata hidayam te dadhami mama cittam anu cittam te astu

mama vacam ekavrata (12) jusasva brhaspatis tva ni yunaktu mahyam (13)

I place your heart under my rule (vrata). Let your thought follow my thought. Take delight in my word as one who has a single rule (eka-vrata) (14) (or: single-minded [eka-manas]). Let Brhaspati join you to me.

In the initiation, the preceptor speaks these words so that the initiate will become amenable to his will. Almost the same words are uttered in the wedding ceremony to subordinate the bride to the groom (e.g., PGS 1.8.6-8); indeed, the marriage has frequently been styled the Vedic initiation of a woman, and she stands in the same relation to her husband as the student to the teacher--one of absolute obedience and humility. In the latter ritual application, the name of the "lord of progeny," Prajapati, is inserted in place of the name of the "lord of prayer," Brhaspati, since Prajapati is more directly concerned with the purposes of marriage, while Brhaspati governs the study of Veda.

These ritual contexts reinforce the impression given by the mantra itself: the speaker aims at bringing about conformity in the "heart," that is, the seat of cognition (manas) and will, of another. Vrata here is the authority wielded by the teacher (or husband) over the thoughts of the student (or wife). Mama vacam ("my word, my voice"), in a rare juxtaposition with vratam, may evoke the etymological sense of "command." Yet the variant reading points the other way: the variant readings in the textual sources of ekamanah ("having only one thought, single-minded") and ekavrata ("having only one rule" or "with one rule"), in the same position in the sentence may reflect a perceived synonymy. Since manas and vrata occur side-by-side in several similar mantras (see below), their alternation suggests that in such usage they are close in meaning. In referring to one who is obedient or amenable, their similarity probably lies in their evocation of the initiate's interior, volitional disposition. The reading ekavratah nicely suggests the convergence of two vratas: the initiate's will is subordinated to--becomes one and the same as--the master's.

The Atharva Veda is particularly rich in passages in which vrata occurs parallel to manas, cets citta, hrdaya, and/or akuti (e.g., 2.30.2, 6.64.2 and 3 [= RV 10.191.3 and 4, MS 2.2.6, TB]). AV3.8.5-6 (= 6.94.1-2) is worth noting, especially since these verses are prescribed for use in the upanayana (e.g., KausS 55.17-18), which introduces the vrata of brahmacarya:

sant vo manamsi sam vrata sam akutir namamasi

aham grbhnami manasa manamsi mama cittam anu cittebhir eta

ami ye vivrata(h) sthana tan vah sam namayamasi (15) (5)

mama vasesu hrdayani vah krnomi mama yatam anuvartamana eta (6)

We bend together your thoughts, your rules (vrata), your intentions; we make those of you there who are discordant (vivrata) bend (your wills) together.

I grasp (your) minds with (my) mind; follow my thought with your thoughts; I put your hearts in my powers; go and follow along my way.

The vivid language of coercion reinforces the idea that vrata is an interior phenomenon akin to thought and intention. Moreover, a comparison of RVkh 3.15a (above) with AV 3.8.6c shows vrate in a context nearly parallel to (plural) vasesu ("in [my] will").


If vrata in the generic sense means 'rule' in the sense of a fixed, characteristic mode of behavior that manifests one's will (whether or not the idea is present that it results from or is expressed in a command), what of the vratas of the gods? In this context, we shall see that the general notion of rule is developed into an ideal of divine governance. The Vedic poet-theologian takes perennial empirical "facts" as evidence of the gods' authority over the world, an authority made real through their action in the world. The ubiquity and apparent persistence of such facts are made the basis for a notion of immutable and eternal law.

Moreover, although we may speak broadly of divine vratas as an aspect of Vedic views of divinity, we must also recognize that they do not compose a homogeneous group. Each deity's vrata defines its nature and role in the world. Likewise, different deities play differing roles in the context of worship; thus, a survey of the vratas of the various gods will throw light also on the ritual vratas. We must begin by observing that some gods are more noted for their vratas than others. Vratas are attributed to most of the gods at some point in the Rg Veda corpus, but when we can ascertain the divine agent of the vrata--about half of the time--it is most frequently Varuna (twenty-four instances, including eight instances jointly with Mitra, and once jointly with Mitra and Savitr), Agni (fifteen, plus two jointly), Soma (twelve), Indra (twelve, plus two jointly), Savitr (ten), and the "All Gods" (Visve Devah) (seventeen). (16) Relative to the number of hymns and mentions each of them receives in the corpus, it seems t hat the vratas of Varuna and Savitr (and the Visve Devah) get disproportionate attention. This has led some scholars, especially Luders, Thieme, and Brereton, to link the concept of vrata historically and conceptually to the Adityas, in general, and to Varuna, in particular. (17)


In his study of the group of deities called Adityas, Brereton defends the claim that vrata and varuna are etymologically related, and indeed that they mean virtually the same thing: "commandment" or "authority." (18) Thus, he defines Varuna as the god of commandments, preeminent among the group of personified abstract principles called the "Children of innocence (Aditi)," who are the heavenly sponsors and defenders of the rules of good conduct, and the punishers of offense (agas) against those rules. Whether or not we fully accept this etymological argument, or this understanding of Varuna's name, it is likely that the Vedic poets made this connection.

Varuna governs first the primordial disposition of space (as Indra is even more frequently said to do): vertically, by propping apart the two firmaments, heaven and earth, to create the mid-space; laterally, by extending the earth outward (hence its epithets, prth[i]vi and urvi, 'the wide, extensive'). Within this matrix, he ordains for all things a position and an ambit:

astabhnad dyam asuro visvaveda dmimita varimanam prthivyah

asidad visva bhuvanani samrad visvet tani varunasya vratani (8.42.1)

The all-knowing lord propped up the sky; he measured out the breadth of the earth.

The sovereign has taken his seat before all creatures. All these are Varuna's laws (vrata).

Varuna's vratas--the things he has willed--constitute (despite the lack of any formal utterance) a sort of law, an ordainment by action. His vratas likewise determine the proper alternation of night and day:

ami ya rksa nthtasa ucca naktam dadrdre kuha cid diveyuh adabdhaani varunasya vratani vicakasac candrama ndktam eti (1.24.10)

Those stars, which, fixed above, shine at night, must go somewhere by day--Varuna's laws (vrata) are not violated!--the moon goes shining brightly at night.

The establishment of order in complementary opposition is Varuna's primary concern: thus, day and night are the white and black garments that Varuna makes for himself to wear, "according to his ordinances" (anu vrata, 8.41.10).

Similarly, just as Varuna and Mitra together establish the basic order (rta) of the cosmos (e.g., 5.62.3), they are also the source of the social order in its broadest sense: "By (your) rule, you have made a secure abode (for humanity); by (your) establishment, you make the peoples occupy their (proper) places" (vratdna stho dhruvaksema dharmana yatayajjana, 5.72.2ab). Here, vrata (a crystallization of authority) and dharman (lit., 'that which is established or upheld') are complementary manifestations of the gods' authority: their paradigmatic acts created the habitable world for mankind; the moral aspect of their rule--a corollary to the cosmogonic aspect- determines the proper and harmonious organization of society. The parallelism here suggests to me a convergence in meaning. (19)

Besides his role as benevolent ruler, Varuna, who monitors human action (20) and who cannot be deceived (adabdha, e.g., 7.60.5), punishes those who deceitfully violate his vratas. Brereton notes that while the Adityas as a group are praised for upholding righteousness (rta) and punishing transgressors, Varuna alone tends to be invoked when the transgressor himself prays for mercy (7.87.7, 88.6, 89.5). (21) Here, the wrongdoer--no longer portrayed as some "other," a rival--acquires a voice and admits his fault:

yac cid dhi te viso yatha pra deva varuna vratam / minimasi dyavi-dyavi

ma no vadhaya hatnave jihilanasya riradha / ma hrnanasya manyave (1.25.1-2 2)

Even though we violate your ordinance (vrata) day after day, O god Varuna, as the people (violate a king's), do not subject us to the deadly weapon of the enraged, nor to the fury of one who is angry.

The poet enters a guilty plea in hopes of a suspended sentence from the judge. He acknowledges his guilt, but insists that he has erred through human nature, that such behavior is typical of human beings. By thus diffusing the responsibility, he hopes to incline the god toward patience and mercy. But these passages definitely suggest that humans, of all creation, are most inclined to deviate from divine vratas, a theme that recurs in passages that discuss other gods' vratas, as well.

Similar prayers for forgiveness are addressed to other gods too. (See 4.54.3 to Savitr, and 8.48.9 and 10.25.3 to Soma, all cited below.) Yet these other gods show mercy merely by not withholding their gifts to men; Varuna, as god of Order (rta), is more vividly described as moved to anger and penal retribution. Varuna punishes by binding the guilty. Even then, the bound prisoner may apply for parole, affirming that he will henceforth "stay clean" by adhering to Varuna's will, by following his law:

ud uttmdm, varuna pasam asmad dvadhamam vi madhyamam srathaya

atha vayam aditya vrate tavanagaso aditaye syama (1.24.15)

Loosen up the upper snare from us, O Varuna, loosen down the lower, loosen away the middle one. Then may we be under your rule (vrata), O Aditya, guiltless so that we may be unbound (aditaye).

Renewed conformity to the divine vrata restores one to a state of "freedom from fetters" (aditi). (22)

Varuna's ordinances (vrata) are thus the standard of an ethical order as well as of the cosmic order: they govern the broadest range of activities, although ritual obligations are sometimes specified. By adhering to his ordinances one can overcome typically human weaknesses.


Savitr in the Rg Veda wields the power of instigation or impulse. He is invoked especially at sunset, (23) as in the beautiful hymn 2.38, in which the god's vrata is mentioned five times. Here, "Savitr has divided the species according to their places" (sthaso jammani savita vy akah [7c]): the aquatic creatures in the waters, the wild animals on the dry land, the birds in the woods, the herds in the paddock (vv. 7-8). Yet even more prominent is his role as bringer of rest at the end of the day: "Stirring, he has risen (and) divided up the set times (rtu)" (ut samhayasthad vy rtumr adardhar [4c]). He comes at dusk, and neither nature nor humanity can resist him:

visvasya hf srustaye deva urdhvah pra bahava pruthupanih sisarti

apas cid asya vrata a nimrgra ayam cid vato ramate pdrijman (2)

asubhis cid yan vf mucati nundm driramad atamanam cid etoh

ahyarsunam cin ny ayam avisyam dnu vratam savitur moky agat (3)

samdvavarti visthito jigisur visvesam kamas caratam amabhut

sasvam apo vikrtam hitvy agad anu vratam savitur daivyasya (6)

Since to have the obedience of everyone, the high, broad-palmed god stretches forth his arms, (24) under his rule (vrata) even the waters are still, even this wind rests in its circulation.

Even the one who goes with swift (horses) now unharnesses (them); he has made even the wanderer rest from his journeying; he has checked the eagerness even of those who dart like snakes (? ahyarsu): in accordance with Savitr's rule (vrata), the Release (25) has come.

The adventurer (jigisu) who has gone far away turns back; the desire of all who wander has turned homeward. (26) Everyone has come back, leaving his work unfinished, in accordance with the rule (vrata) of the divine (daivya) Savitr.

He rules over all things, and none--not even those inclined to lawlessness, not even the gods themselves (v. 9)--violate these vratas (cf. 7cd).

The special character of Savirt's vrata is indicated by his name. He is generally called Deva Savitr, which, though it serves as a name, is clearly a descriptive title: "heavenly impeller" or "impeller god." This literal sense was recognized by the poets, who frequently adjoined other forms of the root su- ("impel, stimulate, arouse") to the name, as in the very first line of the present hymn: "The Impeller God (Deva Savitr), the Driver (vahni), has gotten up to give impulse, as is continually his task" (ud u sya devah savita savaya sasvattamam tadapa vahnir asthat [lab]). (27)

Brereton has noted that the terms (pra)sava and saviman seem to function as synonyms for vrata, especially in the context of Savitr. (28) I would rather say that these terms clarify the particular nature of Savitr's vrata: to impel. Savitr's impulse is not merely inspiration or stimulation; it is an enlivening energy that propels things and beings to action and brings them to rest in good time. Yet even if this energy is virtually irresistible, it is not exactly the same as vrata in general--compelling principle, law, or authority--since, for instance, it is never said to be violated or followed. (29) On the other hand, Savitr's epithet satyasava points to the nature of his vrata, indicating that his impulse is efficacious: "Whatever he with his lovely fingers set in motion (su-) upon the breadth of the earth and on heaven's height, that (effect) of his is real (satyam asya tat)" (ydt prthivya va rimann a svangurir varsman divah suvati satyam asya tdt [4.54.4cd]). By his impulse, the Impeller, like Varuna in 1.25.1, has the power to remove the guilt of human error:

acitti yac cakrma daivye jane dinair daksaih prabhuti purusatvata

devesu ca savitar manusesu ca tvam no dtra suvatad and-gasah (4.54.3)

If we have acted thoughtlessly before the divine folk, by (our) weak intelligence, by (our feeble) power, (our mere) humanness, among both gods and men, O Savitr, impel us (su-) (to become) guiltless here.

Savitr's regular advent correlates with specific ritual obligations on the part of worshipers (30) (the offspring of Manu), which, when fulfilled, entitle men to a share of what the gods enjoy:

abhud devah savita vandyo nu na idanim ahna upavacyo nrbhih

vi yo ratna bhajati manavebhyah srestham no atra dravinam yatha dadhat

devebhyo hf prathamam yajniyebhyo mrtatvam suvasi bhagam uttamam

ad id damanam savitra vy urnuse nucind jivita manusebhyah (4.54.1-2)

Arisen is the Impeller God whom we should praise, whom men should address at this time of the day--who distributes wealth to the offspring of Manu--so that he may lay before us here the best goods.

While, first, you send (su-) immortality, as the highest share, for the venerable gods, then, O Savitr, you reveal (your) gift to humans: lives upon lives. (31)

Savitr gives to religiously observant men a gift only slightly less wonderful than what he has already given the gods, an idea found also in 2.38.1: "While now he distributes wealth to the gods, so he provides the offering-maker a share in well-being (svasti)" (nunam devebhyo vi hi dhati ratnam athabhajad vitihotram svastau); and in verse 5ab of 4.54, where Savitr provides mountains for the gods and houses for men. (32)

Man's ritual obligation is suggested in verse 6ab: "Your thrice-daily impellings (sava), which send (a-su-) good fortune day by day ..." (ye te trir ahan savitah savaso dive-dive saubhagam asuvanti). This verse contains a word-play: savd is both 'impelling' and '[soma-] pressing', so Savitr's impellings correspond to the times for pressing the soma. Both 2.38 and 4.54 begin by pointing to the evening, at the third soma pressing, as the time when Savitr arrives to provide a share of the gods' wealth. In this case, verse 2 quantifies this gift in terms of life: just as he brings about immortality (amrtatva) for the gods, he gives to "the descendants of Manu" (manusa, i.e., the community of worshipers) "lives in due sequence" anucina jivitah), that is, the unending sequence of generations.

In this hymn, the poet expresses many of Savitr's actions by the verb su- (the root of sava, etc.): he stimulates, impels, and sets gifts in motion to gods and men. And this activity produces enduring, real (satya) effects (v. 4): the gods he directs to reside in the mountains; humans, in their households. The assignment of a proper place to each being, which other gods accomplish by other means (that embody their vratas), is here the result of Savitr's impulse (sava) (v. 5).


If Varuna and Savitr rule from on high, Agni's vratas while no less grand and world-shaping, spring from a much nearer and more tangible source: the fire itself, Agni's body. Agni's household presence is invoked at the time of Savitr's evening sava (2.38.5ab): "In various houses, a whole life long, stands forth Agni's mighty, household flame" (nanaukamsi duryo visvam ayur vi tisthate prabhavdh soko agneh). Agni's own vratas manifest his kratu (intention), which gives rise to his characteristic activities:

vrata te agne mahato mahani tava kratva rodasi a tatantha tvam duto abhavo jayamanas tvam netd vrsabha carsaninam (3.65)

The laws (vrata) of you, the great one, are great, O Agni: by your will you have spanned the two worlds. As you were being born, O bull, you became the messenger, the leader of the peoples.

Agni's characteristic act is to move between heaven and earth, providing a conduit for men's offerings to reach the world of the gods. Agni willingly serves as the worshiper's messenger to the gods, bringing invitation to the sacrifice. "[When you were] being born (jayamana)" suggests a primordial moment when he "became (abhavah)" messenger and leader, when his vratas were established. But it also points to the fact that Agni is born again and again on earth whenever fire is lit, whenever a sacrifice is prepared.

Agni is not just the effective agent of sacrificial offering; he is also the luminous signal of worship, indicating the occasion and place of worship: "Agni appears with pious intention (dhi) as the ancient beacon of worship, for his aim is to cross (between the worlds)" (agnir dhiya sa cetati ketur yajnasya purvyah / artham hy asya tarani [3.11.3]). Agni's shining flame is emblematic of the worshiper's ardent wish to please the gods--he embodies dhi, inward vision or insight that leaps up in inspired words of praise.

It is this dual ritual role in the household--of embodying the prayer and carrying the offering, conveying them both to heaven--that justifies his being called "the undeceivable leader, the swift ever-new chariot of the tribes of the descendants of Manus" (adabiryah puraeta visam agnir manusinam / turni rathah sada navah [3.11.5]). We shall see below that, because his divine activity (his serving as messenger between earth and heaven) belongs so fully to the ritual sphere, his vrata's often must be understood as rules governing men's ritual duties as well. These rules are what distinguish the tribes of Manu from the Dasyus, the pious from "those not governed by the rules of worship" (avrata, apavrata). (33)


The rushing waters are girls (yuvati). ever young, united in Indra's rule:

sanai sanija avdnir aviitd vrata raksante amrtah sdhobhih pura sahasra janayo na patnir duvasyanti svasaro ahrayanam (1.62.10.)

From of old the immortal, unquenched, sibling streams, by (their) force, have kept the ordinances; the many thousand sisters, like married women, are devoted to the bold one.

The "bold one" is Indra, by whose authority the waters flow as they do. Their powers (sahas) are the force of their currents, (34) and these demonstrate the zeal of their devotion to the god. As it happens, several verses clearly show that Indra's vratas govern the waters (1.101.3, 2.24.12, 7.47.3, 8.40.8), but this is also sometimes said of the vratas of other gods (e.g., of Soma in 9.82.5). In fact, the obedience of the waters might be considered a trope used of divine vratas in general.

The special character of Indra's vratas emerges more clearly in verses that recall his heroism. In particular, the soma-offerer is keen to invite him "who alone is preeminent by his wondrous deeds, great and mighty by his vratas" (ya eko asti dmasana maham ugro abhi vrataih [8.l.27ab]), "Indra, whose great manliness Heaven and Earth (strengthen), (35) in whose rule (vrata) are Varuna and Surya, whose rule the rivers follow" (yasya dyavaprithivi paumsyam mahad yasya vrate varuno yasya surayh / yasyendrasya sindhavah sascati vratam [l.l01.3abc]). These verses set vrata parallel, in poetic phrasing, with Indra's marvelous activity (damsana) and virility (paumsya). This parallelism clarifies the special nature of Indra's vrata, much as it helped us connect Savitr's vratas with his impulse ([pra]sava).


Soma, who is both god and the plant that provides the drink of immortality, is generally described in the context of the ritual of pressing the plants, offering the juice in sacrifice, and drinking it. Thus, when the poet says, "King Soma, have mercy on us with (your) blessing; know that we are your devotees' he speaks on behalf of himself and other good worshipers who are dedicated to Soma's ordinance or ritual observance (8.48.8ab). In the phrase tava smasi vratyas tasya viddhi, vratya denotes one who follows Soma's vrata. But what sort of vrata is that?

The answer appears when we consider the whole thought:

soma rajan mrilaya nah svasti tava smasi vratyas tasya viddhi

alarti daksa uta manyur indo ma no aryo anukamam para dah

tvam hi nas tanvah soma gopa gatre-gatre nisasattha nrcaksah

yat te vayam praminama vratani sa no mrla suskha deva vasyah (8.48.8-9)

King Soma, have mercy on us with your blessing; know that we are your devotees. Intelligence (daksa) and excitement (manyu) are stirring (within us), O Drop; do not hand us over capriciously to the stranger (i.e., our rival).

Since you, O Soma, protector of our body, have sat down in each limb as an overseer (nrcaksas), it' we violate your ordinances, have mercy on us kindly, as a good friend, O god.

The second line of stanza 8 describes the effect of drinking the soma juice, which probably constitutes Soma's blessing (svasti). Drinking soma presupposes pressing the soma ritually, a complex gesture of homage to the god Soma. Stanza 9 clarifies the relationship between the soma-presser and the god. The human soma-drinker is subject to King Soma's laws because Soma, by pervading the whole body of the devotee and filling it with vital energy, becomes governor of that body. Soma observes men (nrcaksas) from an intimate vantage point. Whereas Varuna and Mitra and Savitr are said to supervise men from heaven, Soma does so from within the body itself! (36) If the devotee then violates Soma's laws, we should note (recalling 1.25.1) that the violation arises from a typical human failing in the face of divine vratas in general, and not from a singular occurrence: "Indeed, I violate your ordinances through simpleness, O Soma. So be merciful to us, as a father to a son" (uta vratani soma te praham minami pakya / adha piteva sunave ... mrla no abhi ... [l0.25.3abce]).

The bulk of the Rigvedic hymns to Soma are those of Mandala 9, which address Soma Pavamana, Soma as he purifies himself (as the pressed juice flows through the woolen strainer). These hymns form an explicitly "liturgical" text, a hymnal for the soma-pressing ceremony. In this context, Soma, like Agni, crosses between the realms of the gods and of men:

isana ima bhuvanani viyase yujana indo hartiah suparnyah tas te ksarantu madhumad glurtam payas tava vrate soma tisthantu krstayah (9.86.37)

As master you traverse these worlds, O Drop, yoking (your) fine-winged bay mares. May the peoples pour out the honeyed ghee (and) the milk for you; may they remain in your rule (vrata), O Soma.

Remaining under the rule of Soma means making sacrificial offerings in the soma rites. Rule as governance takes concrete form as a rule of conduct, a ritual precept incumbent upon the five peoples (lit., "plowings," krsti). If all the gods delight in Soma's vrata (9.102.5), it is because this means drinking the soma-drink that is offered to them in worship. In 9.61.24 Soma Pavamana is encouraged to be vigilant over (jagrhi) his vratas; he is enjoined in 9.53.3 to smash him who attacks his vratas, which are "not to be challenged by the evil-minded" (nadhrse ... dudhya); in 9.70.4 he protects "the vratas of the lovely ambrosia": especially the latter passage, which alludes to the soma-drink, suggests that the vratas meant in such verses are ritual institutions, rather than abstract cosmic laws. Finally, the movement of the flowing soma-juice as it is pressed and strained in the rites provides the basis for three overlapping analogies:

isur nd dhanvan prati dhiyate matir vatso na matur upa sarjy udhani

urudhareva duhe agra ayaty dsya vratesy api soma isyate (9.69.1)

As an arrow upon the bow, the thought is placed; it is let loose, as a calf to its mother's udder; as a (cow) of broad streams, coming at the head (of the herd), he gives milk--to/in this (worshiper)'s observances (vrata), too, does Soma gush. (37)

When soma stalks are placed upon the pressing stones, a thought, a prayer, an intention is conceived--embodied physically in the plant, the potential offering. As the juice is pressed, the arrow (the prayer) is set in motion toward its mark, and, in another sense, Soma hastens toward the sacrifice like a hungry calf to the cow. Finally, the poet likens the pressing of the stalks to the milking of a "broad-streamed" cow that eagerly rushes to be milked. In the last line, the poet "translates" these images for us: Soma eagerly flows toward his vratas, which we must again take to mean--most immediately, anyway--the ritual observances themselves.

In none of the verses and hymns to Soma are we ever far from the actions of the sacrificial ritual. The vrata followed by the vratya of 8.48.8 (above) implies not merely some abstract conception of the god Soma's agency in the world, but the regular observance of the rules of soma ritual, by means of which Soma's divine potential is activated on behalf of men. In a hymn (10.57) entreating the gods and ancestors for long life, on the occasion of a soma sacrifice (v. 3), the poet begins: "Let us not depart from the path, nor from sacrifice of the soma-offerer, O Indra" (ma pra gama patho vayam ma yajnad indra sominah... [lab]). The hymn ends (v.6): "May we, O Soma, follow in your ordinance (vrata), bearing mind in (our) bodies (and) having offspring" (vayam soma vrate tava mdnas tanusu bibhratah / prajavantah sacemahi). The ritual context makes it clear that Soma's vrata implies the offering of soma sacrifices. The ideal of following in the vrata is explicated by the first verse: not straying from the path, wh ich is the worship ritual (yajna) of the soma-offerer.


The vratas of the gods constitute a manifestation of divine will in the "natural" patterns and processes of phenomena (such as the flow of water) in the observable world. The "way the world is" then is seen as a confirmation of divine agency. More particularly, the vratas of individual gods reflect the primary attribute or special function associated with each deity. Hence, Varuna's vrata makes him protector of what is right and true, and punisher of wrong-doers; Savitr's vrata is perceived in his instigation of activity and in all things in the world, as well as its suspension at set times; Agni's vrata is to serve as a link between men and the gods, between earth and heaven; Indra's vrata is to display manly strength and power; Soma's is to fill the earth and the worshiper with Indra-like bodily vigor and quasi-immortality by flowing in the ritual. RV 9.112.l recognizes that vratas (human, but also divine) naturally differ:

nananam va u no dhiyo vi vratani jananam

Our thoughts are various; the rules (vratd) of men diverge: the carpenter seeks what is broken; the doctor, a sick man; the priest, a soma-presser; 0 Drop, flow round for Indra!

taksa ristam rutam bhisag brahma sunvantam ichatindra-yendo pari srava

Vrata here is a habitual occupation, profession, or regular pursuit. It is a function of will, but of a mundane rather than divine or pious sort. The opening lines have the sound of a maxim, illustrating a truism of common experience. And the refrain, providing the transition to a divine context, encourages Soma Pavamana--Soma being purified for offering--to follow his own inclination and profession: to flow for Indra.


In the passages examined so far, the vrata has been a pattern of divine agency and authority distinctive of each god's character. Collectively, they define a cosmic and social order that calls for a human response: for righteousness and ritual piety, in general. In many cases, especially in hymns to Agni and Soma, the word vrata takes on a ritual significance, although we still have not reached its late-Vedic meaning: a class of specific observances ancillary to the business of ritual worship (yajna). Yet we may identify even in the Rg Veda some passages that anticipate that meaning by explicitly associating the vrata with a concrete set of rites. (38) These passages often take the form of a more or less formulaic reference to a divine vrata that is juxtaposed with a specific ritual activity, such that the parallelism appears to explain the vrata. We have seen this already in the hymns to Soma: "May the peoples pour out the honeyed ghee (and) the milk for you; may they remain in your rule (vrata), O Soma" (ta s te ksarantu madhumad ghrtam payas tava vrate soma tisthantu krstayah [9.86.37cd]).

Similarly, the poet of RV 2.8.3 speaks of a vrata of regular ritual service when he invokes Agni, "who is praised for his beauty in houses at dusk and dawn, whose ordinance is not violated..." (ya u sriya damesu a dososasi prasasyate / yasya vratam na miyate). This line points to the agnihotra (or its archaic prototype), the simple offering into the fire at the morning and evening twilights. The vrata here is not simply a distant, heavenly matter, but is fulfilled damesu, in households, which is where Agni carries out much of his work. RV 3.3.9 poetically illustrates the reciprocity between the gods and men that inheres in ritual practice:

vibhava devah suranah pari ksitir agnir babhuva savasa sumadrathah

tasya vratani bhuriposino vayam upa bhusema dama a surktibhih

The joyful god Agni with his chariot embraces the bright dwellings with might.

May we, in (our) home, attend with well-turned verses to the vratas of him who nourishes many.

Agni's governing and beneficent presence (pari-bhu-) "with his might" in every human habitation is cited as the justification for men to attend to (upa-bhus-) his vratas with the fruits of their mental powers, the "well-turned verses." The domestic setting, in both halves of the verse, points to the centrality of the fire service as the basis of this reciprocity.

When Agni is acting in his priestly capacity, his vrata is spoken of as a course of ritual that he proceeds to (pra-i-) (cf. the later use of upa-i- with vrata):

eti pra hota vratam asya mayayordhvam dadhanah sucipesasam dhiyam

abhi srucah kramate daksinavrto ya asya dhama prathamam ha nimsate (1.144.1)

The priest [Agni] goes forth to his observance (vrata) with (divine) ability, sending up his brightly adorned thought; be approaches the rightward-turning ladles, which are the very first to kiss his [Agni's] dwelling-place.

Agni's vrata here is at once his ordained divine function and the mundane priestly function. (39) Agni himself is still the (divine) actor here, but the vrata should be understood as the regular program of worship. Other passages make explicit the idea that the deity's vrata belongs also to those who perform services of worship to that deity. In 1.128.1, Agni's vrata is twinned with the human ritualist's vrata, which reflects and mimics its divine prototype:

ayam jayata manuso dharimani hota yajistha usijam anu vratam agnih svam anu vratam

visvasrustih sakhiyate rayir iva sravasyate

adabdho hota ni sadad ilas pade parivita ilas pade

He was born in Manus' establishment (dhariman) (40)-- Agni, best-worshiping offering-priest (hotr) according to the rule (vrata) of those who are zealous, according to his own rule (vrata). He who has the obedience of all (41) (comes) to him who seeks his friendship, as wealth (comes) to one who seeks glory. The undeceivable offering-priest has sat down at the place of libation (id), enrobed (with the paridhis?) at the place of libation.

Agni's vrata is placed in apposition to the vrata of "the zealous ones" (usij)--those who are willing and eager to praise and sacrifice. Indeed, Agni himself is elsewhere described with this word (RV 1.60.4; 3.2.4, 9; 3.3.7, 8; 3.27.10; 10.45.7): "He is the immortal offering-bearer, the eager (usij), well-disposed messenger..." (sa havyaval amartya usig dutas canohitah [3.11.2]). Vedic ritualists, the descendants of Manus, carry on the age-old tradition (viz., the dhariman) of fire-offering (see below), made possible by Agni's exemplary and benevolent service as the best of offering-makers (hotr), for which he is often praised.

Adhering to Agni's vrata becomes a criterion of belonging to the society of those who are obedient to Agni and who seek his friendship (1.128.1c). Those who adhere to Agni's ritual rule by performing sacrifices (yajna)--namely, Manus' tribes, manuso visah)--receive his aid, while those who do not adopt this rule are overcome:

agnim hotaram ilate yajnesu manuso visah nana hy agne 'vase spardhante rayo aryah turvanto dasyunt ayavo vrataih siksanto avratam (6.14.2cd-3)

Manus' tribes venerate Agni the offering-priest in (their) worship services (yajna).

For in various ways the riches of the stranger vie for (your) aid, O Agni. The Ayus overcome the Dasyu, seeking to defeat the vrata-less with vratas.

In this passage, the avrata Dasyu is defined by his lack of the ritual observance that is the basis of the success of those who revere Agni.

In recognition of his indispensable ritual role, Agni is regarded as the god in charge of all the divinely ordained rules ("all the fixed rules [vrata] that the gods made meet in you," tve visva samgatani vrata dhruva yani deva akrnvata [1.36.5]), as well as the pious man's guide ("the one has appeared who is best at finding the way to go, in whom [the gods] set the rules," adarsi gatuvittamo yasmin vratani adadhuh [8.103[93].lab]). Agni will be confirmed in this role in later mantra and brahmana texts, where the scope of the vrata is radically narrowed to apply only to the yajamana, the "worshiper" who sponsors the yajna. The worshiper declaring his adoption of the vrata regimen for an isti service invokes the aid of Agni "Vratabhrt" (Bearer of Vratas), and declares his intention to Agni "Vratapati" (Lord of the Vrata): "O Agni, Lord of the Regimen, I will take up the regimen. We declare it to you; guard it for us. May we be equal to it" (agne vratapate vratam alapsye tat te prabrumas tan no gopaya tan sakey am [MS 1.4.1; cf. TS 1.6.7, KS 31.15, MS 1.4.5, SB]). (42) A similar formula is used by the new brahmacarin during his initiation into the vrata of brahmacarya (e.g., MB 1.6.10-14): "Agni, Lord of the Regimen, I will follow the regimen (vratam carisyami)...."

In verses addressed to Soma or Indra, the ritual dimensions of vrata are often those of the soma pressing. We have seen that Soma's vrata's are discussed so fully within the rubric of the ritual that it is difficult to form a more abstract idea of them. Standing in Soma's law means making offerings (9.86.37); following in Soma's ordinance implies sticking to the path of the somasacrificer (10.57.1-6). The soma-juice itself rushes eagerly to the vratas--that is, the ritual observances--of the soma-sacrificer, like a cow eager to be milked, like a calf eager to suckle, like an arrow off the bow (9.69.1). The vratya of 8.48.8--the observer of Soma's vrata--is the soma-sacrificer; indeed, this word comes close to vratacarin (first appearance: RV 7.103.1). Indra's vratas, in turn, are typically mentioned in connection with the Soma rites, for the soma drink is a key factor in Indra's manliness, and is a source of strength and immortality for the human ritualist, as in 1.83.3:

ddhi dvayor adadha ukthyam vaco yatasruca mithuna ya saparyatah

asamyatto vrate te kseti pusyati bhadra saktir yajamanaya sunvate

You have placed a speech full of praise on the two, the couple who wait on (you), holding out the ladle; unopposed, he lives and thrives in your rule (vrata); (your) good power is for the worshiper who presses (soma for you).

Living in Indra's vrata here implies pressing the soma and making offerings of it. From this regular observance of the ritual, the worshiper partakes of the god's blessed power, his manliness and vigor.

There are besides these a few exceptional cases where the word vrata is (or may be) meant in one of the technical senses in which it occurs in the ritual codes. The famous "Frog Hymn" at the end of Mandala 7 of the Rg Veda, begins by comparing the frogs revived by the monsoon rains to "brahmins following a vrata" (brahmana vratacarinah, 7.103.1), alluding both to the beginning of the "school year". (v. 5) and to the commencing of a Soma sacrifice (using the technical term atiratra in v. 7). Both these events call for the observance of a vrata: that of the brahmacarin and that of the diksita, respectively. The hymn can hardly be referring to anything else, although this is the only unambiguous case of the term used in this sense in the Rg Veda.

Another stanza praises the cow that provides milk for the offerings as vrata-ni:

ya gaur vartanim paryeti niskrtam payo duhana vratanir avaratah

sa prabruvana varunaya dasuse devebhyo dasad dhavisa vivasvate (10.65.6)

The cow that travels the path to the appointed place, giving milk, bringing the vrata hither, let her, announcing (the offering) to Varuna [and] to the worshiper, offer worship with the oblation to the gods, to Vivasvat.

Of course, vrata in this compound may simply be "divine ordinance" in the abstract, but the concrete, ritual setting, and the juxtaposition with milk-giving, provide a basis for interpreting the compound as "carrying out the rule" of the worship service (as Geldner suggests). It is quite conceivable that in this instance vrata might designate the milk-preparation allotted to the diksita as his sole sustenance during the course of the sacrifice--milk which is supposed to be taken from a designated cow. In any case, the verb ni- is not otherwise used with vrata to mean "carry out" or "follow." (43) This would not be the only case of a term known otherwise from the srauta ritual literature making a rare appearance in the Rg Veda; atiratra (7.103.7) is another, more obvious example. Moreover, it makes sense to speak of the lowing cow as announcing the imminent offerings both to the gods and to the yajamana (the dasvas): her lowing as she is brought to be milked signals the start of the yajamana's diksa fast, whic h, in turn, marks the start of the soma ritual. Her milk might normally be offered in the daily Agnihotras; the vrata-milk is equated with the Agnihotra oblation, and actually replaces it during the soma performance. (44) Figuratively speaking, by providing this milk she herself becomes a worshiper making an oblation of her own (dasad dhavisa)!

A (probably later) hymn from the Atharva Veda mentions a vrata that seems to be a specific ritual. In AV 4.11, the sun, addressed metaphorically as the draft-ox (anadvdh), surveys the cattle (i.e., all living creatures?); "milks out" all beings, past, present, and future (bhutam bhavisyad bhuvana duhanah); and supports, measures out, and pervades "the three paths" (earth, midspace, and heaven) (vv. 1-2). It thereby "follows all the vratas of the gods" (sarva devanam carati vratani) (v. 2). What is important here is that the sun/draft-ox is also called a "heated hot milk pot" (gharmas taptah) (v. 3), indeed, "that gharama which is four-footed" (gharmam... yatamas catuspat (v. 5). The gharma is the clay pot that is heated on a fire, filled with milk, and then poured out in offering (mixed cow's and goat's milk for the Asvins, and then curds for Indra) during the Pravargya rite. (45) The gharama is mentioned in the Rg Veda; it was probably an independent rite, but was later made ancillary to the soma ritual. Thi s hymn mentions a vrata "of the hotmilk pot" and "of the draft-ox":

yena devah svar aruruhur hitva sariram amrtasya nabhim tena gesma sukrasya lokam gharmasya vratena tapasa yasasyavah (6)

dvadasa va eta ratrir vratya ahuh prajapateh tatropa brahma yo veda tad va anaduho vratam (11)

By means of whom the gods ascended to heaven, quitting the body, to the navel of the immortal, by him may we go desiring glory to the world of well-done deeds, by means of the regimen of the hot-milk-pot (gharmasya vratena), by means of fervor (tapasa).

They say that these regimen-nights of Prajapati (ratrir vratyah) are twelve; he who knows that brahman is in that--that is the "regimen of the draft-ox (anaduho vratam)."

If the gharma/draft-ox is a divinity, then the meaning of 'divine law' might apply. But the juxtaposition with tapas, 'fervor', encourages us to envision a ritual context, since tapas is the product of strenuous activity, especially sacrificial activity. But what ritual context? Does the gharma here pertain to the Pravargya rite (or its presrauta ancestor)? The three milkings mentioned in verse 12, on the other hand, correspond to the three soma-pressings. Considering that the draft-ox has earlier been identified with Indra, there is reason to think the soma sacrifice is meant.

Here, perhaps, the vrata is not simply commitment to ritual practice, but a formal ritualized consecration for worship--viz., the disksa observed by the soma worshiper for the duration of the ceremonies. The fourteenth-century commentator Sayana glosses tapas as that "which arises from observing the rules of diksa, etc., and from fasting and so forth" (tapasa diksadiniyamajanitena anasanadina ca). He quotes TS and KS 23.6 as evidence that the consecration lasts twelve nights-hence, the twelve nights of the "draft-ox's vrata" (v. 11). Alternatively, there is Jan Houben's suggestion that this gharmasya vrata refers to the avantaradiksa, an intensification of the Veda student's general vrata of brahmacarya and the required regimen prescribed for studying the mantras and brahmana of the Pravargya. Considering that none of the particular ascetic characteristics of either of those regimens is mentioned, the "draft-ox vrata" may simply be a fixed twelve-day sequence of gharma offerings, aimed at generating tapas and earning divine favor. But it may still be considered a step toward the isti-vrata and somadisksa of the srauta system insofar as it is a vrata linked with a specific offering. These latter regimens purify and symbolically divinize the worshiper through his observance of ascetic discipline so that he may approach the gods in the yajna. Like the brahmacarin's vrata, they are rules overseen by Agni Vratapati, who is invoked to witness and aid the practitioner's pious toil. (46)


In the Rg Veda we encounter the vrata as a fundamental attribute of divine authority, a law determining the shape and patterns of the physical and social world. Each deity's vratas are distinctive, manifesting that deity's characteristic activity. Divine vratas also call for conformity in human behavior, particularly in the form of ritual observance. Certain verses--particularly those devoted to Agni, Soma, and Indra, the primary recipients of sacrificial offerings--require a reading of vrata as a routine practice of sacrificial service which the patron of the offering has an obligation to perform. Moreover, in such verses (examined in the last section) the vrata is the rule of performing specific rites, such as Agnihotra (in the case of Agni) and the soma sacrifice (for Indra or Soma). To be in the god's vrata--and thereby to receive his blessings (and avert his wrath)--is to follow the prescribed course of worship. In most cases (i.e., except in RV 7.103 and perhaps 10.65), there is still no indication of what this observance requires beyond the offerings themselves, but the idea is there that yajna entails conformity to a divine model, a conformity that must be consciously adopted and maintained as an act of allegiance and obedience to the deity. In the Rg Veda, the ritual vrata appears to apply to all ritual participants, and is not restricted to the yajamana until the period represented in the literature of the Yajur Veda.

In AV 4.11.6 and 11, the vrata attains a form resembling the "classical" one, namely, a temporary ascetic regimen serving as a consecration for making a particular type of oblation, a regimen resembling the vrata of brahmacarya (attested amply in AV 11.5 and B 11.5.4) and the srauta vrata and diksa as described in the Yajur Veda. In these last texts, the term vrata becomes the ritual technical term that it remains thereafter. In retrospect, what the early Veda contributes to the later-attested ascetical rules is the basic idea that observing a rule (vrata) of ritual service can put a human worshiper in accordance with divine laws (vrata) and thereby confer divine blessings. The Atharva Veda and the various brahmana texts combine this premise with the notion that the observance of such rules requires sustained exertion (srama) and fervid dedication to fasting and celibacy (i.e., tapas). The ascetical vrata of the srauta ritual regularizes the notion of conformity by speaking of the ritual divinization of the yajamana.

I am happy to acknowledge the support of a junior research fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies, and valuable suggestions received at various stages from Mary McGee, Richard Lariviere, Stephanie Jamison, and an anonymous reviewer for the Journal. An early version of this paper was presented as part of a panel on vrata in Hinduism at the 1994 annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies, in Boston.

(1.) Hanns-Peter Schmidt (Vedisch 'vrata' und awestich 'urvata' [Hamburg: DeGruyter, 1958], 7-14), gives a history of research on this term and of the various etymologies suggested. Among them, W. D. Whitney ("On the Etymology of the Sanskrit Noun vrata," JAOS 11 [1885]: ccxxix-ccxxxi), was led to derive it from the root vrt-, 'turn, proceed', based on the traditional notion of a vrata as a path, something "gone on" or "followed"; so too, separately, A. Ludwig (Der Rigveda [Prague, 1876-88], 3: 266). Abel Bergaigne (Le religion vedeique d'apres les hymnes du Rig-Veda [Pads: Vieweg, 1883], 3:210-71) and F. Max Muller (Rig-Veda-Sanhita [London, 1869], 1: 225-28) derive it from vr- ('protect'), giving as its earliest meaning 'what is protected, set apart'. R. Roth (Uber Yasna 31 [Tubingen, 1876]) recognized the connection with Av. uruuata, and the etymology from PIE *wer/wre- ('speak') was first proposed by Adalbert Bezzenberger, Bezzenberger's Beitrdge 1 (1877): 253f. See Manfred Mayrhofer, Kurtzgefasstes etym ologisches Worterbuch des Altindischen (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1956-80), 3: 278f., for more references.

(2.) Schmidt, op. cit.

(3.) Paul Hacker, Vrata, Nachrichten der Akademie der Wissen-schaft in Gottingen, Phil.-hist. K1., no. 5 (Gottingen: Vanden-hoeck & Ruprecht, 1973). Raghunandana, Ekadasitattva, quoted in P. V. Kane, History of Dharmasastra (Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1974), 5: 30, n. 63: samkalpa-visaya-tat-tat-karmaiva vratam ("A vrata is the ritual action defined by an intention").

(4.) See, e.g., Ann Grodzins Gold, Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1988), 142, 186-87; Lindsey Harlan, Religion and Rajput Women (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1992), 48-49. Gold glosses the Rajasthani terms as "pledge" or "vow" (the terms are derived from verbs of speaking). These vows usually are promises to go on pilgrimage, or to perform certain rites while on pilgrimage. Mary McGee ("Desired Fruits: Motive and Intention in the Votive Rites of Hindu Women," in Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women, ed. J. Leslie [Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press, 1991], 80-81) explains navas as a "kind of votive rite, which I call 'contractual' or 'conditional'..." One of McGee's informants explained: "A vrata is service to God without any expectations; a navas puts God on the spot" (navas devas sankat ghalne; vrat nirapeks seva karne [McGee's trans.]).

(5.) Joel Brereton, The Rgvedic Adityas, American Oriental Series, no. 63 (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1981), 70f.

(6.) Hacker, 121.

(7.) Ibid., 121-22.

(8.) Ibid., 116. T. Elizarenkova (Language and Style of the Vedic Rsis [Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1995), 52-53) sees this dual usage as a broad pattern in Rigvedic language, in which the significance of words depends on whether the context is one of divine or human activity. She glosses the term as "(god's) behest" or "divine law" in the first case, and "(worshipper's) vow" in the second. Her argument is worth considering, but she does not explain the relationship between the two senses adequately.

(9.) Despite the fact that the etymon of vrata denoted something spoken, I prefer to avoid Brereton's gloss 'commandment', which seems to emphasize unduly the speech component, since the Rg Veda never alludes to the pronouncing or declaring of a vrata.

(10.) See Schmidt, 93-101 (substituting for "Gelubde" as necessary).

(11.) vivrata: RV 8.12.15, 10.55.3; AV 3.8.5 = 6.94.1. savrata: RV 3.30.3, 3.54.6, 6.70.3, 10.65.8.

(12.) Other texts have in place of ekavrata: ekavrato: or (AGS, JGS): ekamana.

(13.) SGS 2.4.1; AGS 1.21.7; PGS 2.2.16; MB 1.2.21 (te hrdayam dadhatu); GGS 2.1.24; KhGS 1.3.31; JGS 1.12:11.15-16 (mayi vrate...).

(14.) ekavrata, although probably a bahuvrihi, shows anomalous accent and case ending (as if from eka-vratas-, cf. JGS's ekamana[h]). However it might also be a karmadharaya with the rare instrumental singular in -a, but with regular accent, which would translate as "with a single rule."

(15.) vivrata's missing visarga is found in MS 2.2.6 and many AV manuscripts (W. D. Whitney, tr., Atharva-Veda Samhita HOS 7-8 [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1905], 97). Other variants: MS 2.7.11ab, TS, VS 12.58ab.

(16.) Tabulations from Schmidt, 15-16, slightly adjusted.

(17.) See, e.g., Heinrich Luders, Varuna, 2 vols. (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1951-59). In the Rg Veda, Varunais the main addressee of barely ten hymns (together with Mitra, in another twenty-three; with Indra, in six); Savitr gets only eleven; the Visve Devah receive about sixty-five full hymns. Compare this with Indra's two hundred fifty-odd hymns, and Agni's two hundred, and Soma's one hundred twenty.

(18.) Brereton, 83-92; this etymological relation goes back to A. Meillet, "Le dieu indo-iranien Mitra," Journal asiatique 10(10) (1907): 143-59. Georg von Simson ("Vom Ursprung der Gotter Mitra und Varuna," Indo-Iranian Journal 40 [1997]:1-35) has argued that the deities Mitra and Varuna were originally one, with the title *mitro (raja) varunas (cf. the odd vocative mitrarajana varuna of 5.62.3b, which he deems a later reanalysis of the misunderstood title). The last word he sees as a genitive form of a proposed substantive *varu ('wide space', cf. uru and Av. vouru, 'wide'), surviving only in this fixed formula, where it was misunderstood as a nominative and assigned to a separate deity. The title would mean "mediator of the wide space," and was applied, he claims, to the planet Venus, in its dual role as morning- (Mitra) and evening-star (Varuna). However, an anonymous reviewer for the Journal points out an important grammatical objection to von Simson's theory: "the -n extension in the oblique of neuter n-stems is not all that old and so such a form is unlikely to form part of a fixed, old collocation."

(19.) Hacker in fact proposes that the relationship between vrata and dharman can be explained by the use of forms of the verb dhr- with vrata, especially in the bahuvrihi compound dhrtavrata, which he interprets as "who has laid down a vrata" (Hacker, 127-33).

(20.) RV 1.25.11; 1.50.6; 6.68.3; 7.60.3, 61.5, 65.1; 8.25.9; by means of spies: 1.25.13; 6.67.5; 7.61.3, 87.3.

(21.) Brereton, 96-97.

(22.) Brereton goes further, translating aditi as "innocence." This clarifies an important aspect of the term's meaning, but obscures the central imagery of punishment and forgiveness as binding and release: aditi as a noun denotes the absence of bonds or restrictions.

(23.) Harry Falk ("Savitr und die Savitri, Wiener Zeitchrift furdie Kunde Sudasiens 32 [1988]: 5-33) argues not only that Savitr in the Rg Veda must be distinguished from the sun, but that "der Schwerpunkt der Aktivitat Savitrs liegt also zu Beginn der Nacht" (ibid., 13), as Bergaigne also observed (see n.1). Falk identifies Savitr with the Milky Way, as it touches the horizon in India around twilight at the summer solstice, which links Savitr with the rainy season and the opening of the period of Veda study.

(24.) In this image of two extended arms, Falk sees the two halves of the Milky Way rising from the horizon at dusk at the summer solstice (as he calculates that they did in north India in the second millennium ac.), signalling the start of the rainy season.

(25.) moki, lit., "release" (hapax legomenon); generally understood to mean 'nightfall' Falk (ibid., 28-29) sees a double-entendre throughout the verse. The first line refers to the wind in the midspace, and also to the rapacious vratyas as they desist from their raids at the start of the monsoon. Likewise, the ahyarsu ("Schlangenshpie[beta]er") is both peacock and vratya bearing the staff tied with snake-skin. He notes that moki can then suggest the "Befreiung" from the vrata (ritual rule of conduct) to which they normally adhere. All this is in line with his interpretation of the hymn as an evocation of the onset of the rainy season.

(26.) Falk (ibid., 30) takes this line to have the vratya as its subject, and sees double meanings throughout the verse.

(27.) A. A. Macdonell, Vedic Mythology (Strassburg: Trubner, 1898), 34.

(28.) Brereton, 308-14.

(29.) For this reason, I would avoid Brereton's translations of (pra)sava and saviman as "compulse" or "compelling commandment," which obscure the distinctive aspects of Savitr's activity by assimilating it fully to the notion of vrata.

(30.) By "worshiper" I mean the yajamana, the sponsor of Vedic rites.

(31.) I.e., the regular succession of generations, from father to son, which is the early Vedic conception of worldly immortality. This ideal is enunciated in a series of wisdom verses in AiB 7.13 (33.1).

(32.) In a somewhat elliptical verse: indrajyesthan brhadbhyah parvatebhyah ksayam ebhyah (sc. men) suvasi pastyavatah. See Brereton, 94-96, n. 45; Ralph L. Turner, A Comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Aryan Languages (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979), s.v. 8017.

(33.) Schmidt, 93-98, surveys passages with these terms.

(34.) K. F. Geldner (Der Rig-Veda aus dem Sanskrit ins Deutsche ubersetzt. HOS 33-35 [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1951] [= RVC], 1: 82) construes this verse differently: "Seit alters halten die verschwisterten Strome, die unsterblichen, die durch keine Gewalten bezwungen werden, seine Gebote. Viele tausend Schwestern beeifern sich (um ihn) wie vermahlte Frauen um den nicht Schuchternen." Sayana glosses avanih with "the fingers," i.e., the fingers of the offerer that assist him in making offerings, a common idea in ritual discussions. Given Sayana's assumption that the vratas are "rites connected with Indra" (indrasambandhini karmani), this reading is reasonable.

(35.) Sc. vardhatah; cf'. 8.15.8, etc. I thank a reviewer for the Journal for this reference.

(36.) Cf. 9.70.4d, where Soma thus oversees both gods and men: "as overseer (nrcaksas), (Soma) supervises both the tribes (i.e., divine and human)" (ubhe nrcaksa anu pasyate visau). Translations of the adjective nrcaksas vary: Whitney: "surveyor of men"; Geldner: "mit Herrscheraugen"; Renou: "au regard de maitre" (Etudes vediques et panineenees, 18 vols. [Paris: Institut de civilisation indienne, 1955-69] [= E VP]), "Overseer" is a compromise.

(37.) Pada d has given rise to divergent interpretations. Geldner, RVU, 3: 59: "Zu den Werken dieses [in a footnote: "des Dichters oder des Opfernden?"] ist der Soma erwUnscht"; Renou, AVP, 9: 18: "le soma se met-en-marche vers les obligations-rituelles de (l'officiant que) voici" (cf. note, p. 77). Note that both authorities assume a ritual meaning for vratesu. The locative could also mean "in his observances."

(38.) In fact, scholastic authorities frequently regarded vrata virtually as a synonym for Karman, beginning with Yaska, who gives this gloss consistently: Nirukta 2.13 (on RV 3.59.2 and 1.24.15 = VS 12.12), 11.23 (on RV 10.64.5), 12.32 (on RV 9.73.3), 12.45 (on RV 5.46.7=AV 7.49. 1).

(39.) Sayana understands a human priest here, but also considers the possibility that Agni himself is being called the hotr-priest in that he is the invoker (ahvatr) of the gods.

(40.) dhariman here may refer concretely to Manus' ritual arena, which he has "set up" (a reading supported by padas f and g), or more abstractly to the ritual institutions that Manus embraces.

(41.) Renou translates visvasrustih as "pretant oreille a toutes choses" (EVP, 12:30), and Geldner (RVU, 1: 178) and Schmidt (p. 66) read "allerhorend" (following H. Grassmann, Warterbuch zum Rigveda [Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1872-75], col., 1305), but I think we must understand it in the context of 2.38.1 and 1.69.7, where srusti seems to denote "compliance" or "obedience."

(42.) The Padapatha reads: tat \ sakeyam; KS 4.14 has tac chakeyam and singular verbs.

(43.) Geldner (RVU, 3: 238) and Renou (EVP, 5: 57) read vrata-ni as "die Vorschrift ausfuhrend" and "qui conduit le voeu (divin)," respectively. Schmidt (p. 69) points Out that ni-never means "ausfuhren" and so rejects Geldner's reading. The Petersburg dictionary (O. von Bohtlingk and R. von Roth, Sanskrit-Worterbuch, 7 vols. [St. Petersburg: Buchdruckerei der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1855-75], s.v.) offers "die Vrata-milch fuhrend" as a possibility for vratani, but Schmidt, who considers the phrase "ganz ungewi[beta]," is inclined to doubt that this technical usage goes back so far.

(44.) On the vrata-cow and the vrata-milk, see, for example, SB, BSS 6.6-7, BhSS 10.9.11-10.11.14; on the vrata-milk = Agnihotra, see KB 7.3.

(45.) For the Pravargya rite, see J. A. B. van Buitenen, The Pravargya: An Ancient Indian Iconic Ritual Described and Annotated (Poona: Deccan College, 1968); Stella Kramrisch, "The Mahavira Vessel and the Plant Putika," JAOS 95 (1975): 222- 35; Jan Houben, The Pravargya Brahmana of the Taittiriya Aranyaka (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991), 21-25 (esp. nn. 39-41), 34-35, 131, n. 153; and idem, "On the Earliest Attest-able Forms of the Pravargya Ritual: Rg-Vedic references to the Gharma-Pravargya, Especially in the Atri-family Book (Book 5)," Indo-Iranian Journal 43 (2000): 9-33. The heating of the vessel captures the heat and brightness of the sun, and transfers it to the worshiper. The Pravargya mantras and brahmana--also known by the older name sukriyani in the Taittiriya corpus--are a part of the saumya kanda, study of which itself requires the observance of the sukriya vrata. Thus, study of the Pravargya passages required a double strengthening of the brahmacarya, (This avantaradiksa is distinct from th at the soma sacrifice, which is an intensification of the diksa regimen before the actual soma pressing.)

(46.) See KS 23.1-6, 31.15-32.7; MS 1.4.10,3.6.1-7; TS 1.6.7, 6.1.1-5; SB, 3.1.1-3.2.2, 11.5.4; etc. I analyze these regimens in chs. 3 and 4 of The Uses of Asceticism: Rules of Discipline in the Emergence of Classical Hinduism (to be published).
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Author:Lubin, Timothy
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
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Date:Oct 1, 2001
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