Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Vrata Divine and Human in the Early Veda

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Vrata Divine and Human in the Early Veda

Article excerpt

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. …

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