Vedic Person and Morality


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  • In one famous Vedic hymn (Ṛgveda 10:90), which proved to be influential in a number of later Hindu schools of thought, the universe itself is understood as a cosmic person (Puruṣa).
  • This Puruṣa is sacrificed in a primordial ritual procedure, and from parts of his body emerge the various creatures of the earth, elements of time and space, elements of the sacrifice, and most importantly categories of the social world, called varṇa.
  • These four varṇa s (brahmin priest; kṣatriya warrior; vaiśya agriculturalist or trader; and śūdra servant) become the basis of social organization expressed in later legal and religious texts. The model earthly Vedic person is one who studies the Vedas, sacrifices, and tends to the sacrificial fires and therefore becomes ritually and morally responsible for the cosmos.
  • And yet such a person is also a seeker. Ṛgveda 10:90 ends with a philosophical paradox: "with the sacrifice the gods sacrificed to the sacrifice." This enigma also sets the tone for much of Vedic cosmology: acceptance of multiple versions of creation; Vedic cosmology is questioning and searching, not doctrinal or creedal in nature.
  • One of the most famous cosmological hymns, the Nasadīya hymn (Ṛgveda 10:129), speaks of the world beginning from nothingness, where "the One breathed, windless," and then coming into existence through the power of heat. Desire is the primal seed, and the sages create by stretching a cord across the void.
  • Yet even this spare, poetic cosmology ends with a query: Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of the universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen? … perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not—the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows perhaps he does not know. (O'Flaherty, 1981, pp. 25–26)