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Death Hospitals in Kashi (Kasi)

The people of the Hindu tradition travel from near and far on the brink of death to inhale their final breath in their sacred City of Banaras. Banaras’ city circumference is marked by the panch-kroshi (also spelled, panch-kosi), a pilgrimage route that, at times, has approximately tens of thousands of pilgrims walking along its paths. The entire route of the panch-kroshi is about 50 miles long and generally takes five days to complete (Parry 15). The pilgrimage route of panch-kroshi is deemed so extraordinary due to the belief of the Hindu’s that all who die within this boundary will attain moksa, a Hindu’s lifelong quest for liberation (Justice 20). Hindu’s refer to the sacred city of Banaras as Kashi and speak of the attainment of moksa as ending the unwanted cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This continuous cycle, known as mukti, exists for each Hindu until moksa is accomplished (Justice 49). Kashyam marnam mukti means ‘death in Kashi is liberation’; this often quoted Sanskrit tag beautifully sums up the almost universal belief of a Hindu (Parry 21). Once this liberation has been attained, mukti ceases and the ghost of the dead is able to rise up past hell and rebirth, into heaven where it stays unchanging forever. Exceptions and regulations exist for proper attainment of moksa; a few exceptions to reaching moksa HoweverHmay be ones final thoughts, and which riverbank in Banaras one dies. The city of Banaras is located between Delhi and Calcutta in the middle of the Ganges valley (Parry 33). The Ganges River separates Banaras into two riverbanks, the west and the east. The west bank is where one will find the Manikarnika Ghat, which is the center of Kashi where it is often believed that on the west bank of Banaras, “[the] universe is created at the beginning of time and the universe burns at the end of time” (Justice 20). It is on the west bank that moksa is granted (provided the right frame of mind and other requirements have been met). The east bank is usually vacant due to people’s fear of dying on that side of the bank because of the belief that those who expire on the east bank will not attain moksa; instead, rebirth as a jackass will occur (Justice16).

As previously mentioned, there are regulations to the attainment of moksa for a Hindu. It is sometimes said that the physical act of dying in Kashi is, in fact, not a direct guarantee to mukti. Also, it is not guaranteed that one will attain mukti immediately after death. The mindset at the moment of death is what determines the speed and level of mukti that the dying will achieve. If one dies in Kashi but does not have the proper mindset at the moment of passing to achieve immediate mukti, then they will be reborn again a specified number of times before the process is ended, finally allowing them to proceed to heaven (Justice 172). There are four levels of mukti that one can arrive at, which level is attained is based on the dying thoughts one produces. Salokya is when one resides in the same world as god; samipya, the dead remain near to god; sarupya, one will take the same form of god and in sayuja, the highest level, one actually becomes merged with god (Justice173).

Within the City of Banaras there are places set up where people and a few of their loved ones are welcome to stay while they await the final breath of a family member. These places are similar to a hospital but instead of the goal of saving the dying, their purpose is to let people die in a way that allows them to attain immediate, and the highest-level of, mukti while in Kashi. Two of the hospitals that will be discussed still exist in Kashi today, although unfortunately with declining popularity. The Ganga-labh Bhavan, the first of these death hospitals, is located in the most populous area of Manikarnika and is unfortunately difficult to travel to, especially when attempted by those who are weakened by encroaching death. The three-story Ganga-labh Bhavan was once used as a Manikarnika police station; it began by two rich capitalist families, one of which traveled to Kashi bringing their grandmother for kashi-labh (promise of salvation). They found it difficult to locate a place to settle while they stayed in Manikarnika and began to wonder how anyone lower than their financial situation would find accommodation either. This capitalist family joined with another, together, they chose to lease this former police station and begin running it as a hostel where people are welcome to stay while they, or a loved one dies (Justice 59). It is thought that since the beginning of the Ganga-labh Bhavan approximately 10 000 people have died and 12 000 have registered between the walls of this three-story building (Justice 58). Since the introduction of the Ganga-labh Bhavan there are a number of rules to be followed to maintain order and allow the ghat (river frontage) to function the way it was intended to. Some of these rules include: a dying pilgrim can stay at most fifteen days; untouchables and those with infectious diseases are not permitted to stay; do not associate with the noble people staying at the rest house next door; pay special attention that you do not do things which may trouble or inconvenience others; within twenty-four hours of the pilgrim becoming Kashi-labh (‘the profit of Kashi’, attainment of salvation), the accompanying people must free up the Bhavan (Justice 60-61). It is evident through these rules that a caste system exists up until the moment of death and that the ghat is there for a purpose. Even the dying are not equal, although their bodies are deteriorating in the same fashion, some Hindu’s are still seen as more prestigious and noble than others; the act of dying itself does not even change the rules and roles of a caste system.

The second, and currently the most favoured of these hospitals of death is the Kashi-labh Muktibhavan. A man named Jaydal Dalmia, whose mother happily passed away within the boundary of Kashi, founded the Muktibhavan. After their mother’s death and death ceremonies were completed, Dalmia and his brother used the left over rupees for religious purposes and purchased a building with the intention to provide a satsang where music, religious chanting and recitation of the Bhagavad-Gita would take place. Dalmia and his brother had no intention of producing a home for the dying, but they did invite those who were fading from life to join them in their satsang. After a year or more, people started to travel to the Muktibhavan for the purpose of dying, and thus, the death hospital that it is today began (Justice 63-65). Muktibhavan is not in the center of Manikarnika as the Ganga-labh Bhavan is, yet it is the more used of the two; this is because Muktibhavan is in a less crowded area and has easier access from the railway station (Justice 126). Although Muktibhavan is further from the “center of the universe” it is said to have a more religious feel due to the constant spiritual chants, music, and the reading of the Bhagavad-Gita (Justice 126). A major objective of the Muktibhavan is to yield the maximum spiritual benefit of each guest by providing amenities that capitalize on the spiritual atmosphere for the dying. The services offered by the Muktibhavan include specific rituals and a list of rules and restrictions designed to create a religious environment. A number of these regulations include: only those faithful believers and sick on the brink of death are allowed to stay; a place to stay will be available for fifteen days, if there is a special need, with the permission from the manager, one will be able to stay; the making of food must be done on a closed stove using charcoal, there should not be any type of smoke in the rooms or verandas; those infected with infectious diseases cannot stay; incompatible, indecent or reprehensible behaviour will not be tolerated (Justice 174). The underlying rules of each of the hospitals of death within Kashi are quite similar which makes sense since they each are vying for the same purpose.

The Holy City of Banaras has been around in the eyes of believers since existence itself began. The tradition of dying within the panch-kroshi will continue for as long as the belief of dying within the boundaries of panch-kroshi attains that moksa. As travel to Kashi continues the sacredness of each of the death hospitals, Ganga-labh Bhavan and Kashi Labh Muktibhavan, will persist. They will continue aiding the dying on their journey to their sacred space in heaven through achieving the highest level of mukti. As the tradition of dying in Kashi continues, so will it also draw in new believers through the popularity that it has attained, and so on the cycle will continue.


Justice, Christopher (1997) Dying the good death: the pilgrimage to die in India’s Holy

City. Shakti Nagar: Sri Satguru Publications

Parry, Jonathan P. (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University


Further Recommended Readings

Filippi, Gian Giuseppe (1996) Mrtyu: concept of death in Indian traditions:

transformation of the body and funeral rites. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld

Oestigaard, Terje (2005) Death and Life – giving waters: cremation, caste and

cosmogony in karmic traditions. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Prakash, Satya (1985) Hindu Religion and Mortality. New Delhi: Asian Publication


Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Bhagavad-Gita




Ganges Valley



Manikarnika Ghat









Jaydal Dalmia

Death Rites


Notable Websites

Written by Sarah Richardson (March 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

Changing Attitudes Regarding the Indian Caste System

There are four major varnas in India: Brahmin (priestly class), Ksatriya (military and ruling class), Vaisya (merchants and traders), and Sudra (labourers). At the bottom and separate from the varnas one finds the Dalit, formally called untouchables. Dalit are considered unclean, and as a result, in the past interaction with those outside their group had not been permitted. There are also subgroups called jatis found within the varnas. Varnas and jatis are typically understood to make up the Indian caste system, which determines the social hierarchy in India. However, changes are taking place in India concerning how people view the caste system and how it shapes their lives. One study shows that college students have adopted more liberal ways of thinking that have diminished the importance of the ancient caste system in their eyes. Another study shows how the effects of globalization have changed the mindsets of youth in upper-class New Delhi, causing a drastic departure from the views of the older generation concerning issues such as marriage and religion. A final article explores the status of Dalit women in Indian society today and indicates that problems such as poverty, oppression, and abuse still exist in light of these changing views. Hence, while the influence of the Indian caste system may be disappearing in India, many inequalities still persist in light of changing attitudes.

Research conducted among college students in the cities of Bangladore, Calcutta, and Delhi indicates that caste distinctions among Indians are eroding and being replaced with more liberal views. As students are subjected to western ideas, pressures regarding caste, expectations for marrying within one’s caste, and rules for interacting with “Dalits” (untouchables) have become less important. For instance, 67.5 percent of college students surveyed believe one’s occupation, not caste, determines one’s status (Anant 194). The research also says that 69.7 percent do not support the theory of karma, which suggests that actions from a previous life determine one’s caste (196). Very noteworthy is the fact that 64.4 percent believe the caste system should be abolished altogether. Sixty-nine percent say it is okay to marry someone from another caste, and 86 percent say they would eat food that was touched by a Dalit (199). An interesting point from this study is that females are generally more liberal in their attitudes than males (196). The findings of this research, done in 1978, suggest that even twenty-eight years ago, religion and the caste system were playing a less significant role in the lives of Indians, who instead opted for a more liberal view.

Another study, conducted more recently, also suggests that this trend is taking place among upper-middle class youths in the city of New Delhi. This particular study suggests the effects of globalization are causing western influences to manifest themselves among India’s elite (Mathur 161). The study compares and contrasts the views of Delhi’s youth aged 18-26 with those held by middle-aged persons aged 46-62. For example, 62 percent of the older group believed parents should choose their children’s spouse, whereas 73 percent of the youth believed the children should decide (167). Another example indicates that 64 percent of the older generation do not believe love is an important component for those getting married. However, 57 percent of the younger generation believe love is important prior to getting married. Even more interesting is the fact that while 70 percent of the older generation believe one should marry within their religion, only 25 percent of the youth feel the same way. An interesting finding in the study indicates that while 83 percent of the older generation are proud to be Indian, 95 percent of the youth feel the same way (168). On the other hand, 59 percent of the younger generation claim they would migrate to a more advanced, developed country if given the opportunity, whereas only 30 percent of the older generation said the same (169).

The author interpreted this apparent contradiction by stating that “increasing nationalism could be one of many responses to the erosion of one’s cultural identity” (170), and that “the youth are not rejecting India, but what they consider outmoded in their culture” (177). The study also makes some interesting concluding statements, declaring that “Many of the elite youths surveyed here would have more in common with youths in advanced, developed countries than with their own parents” (170). The findings of this study appear to support its argument. The article ends by saying, “most middle-class Indians have learned to de-emphasize the importance of ethnic markers to their sense of identity that they feel as Indians” (171).

Despande takes the findings even further. Taking for granted that the forces of globalization and liberalism have been at play in India for some time, the author takes a close look at how women have been effected by the diminished importance of traditional ideas pertaining to the caste system and religion. In her article she states “While a small proportion of Indians (of both sexes) can claim that caste does not matter, …this freedom from caste is impossible for [lower caste women], who endure a combination of poverty and gender discrimination that keeps them illiterate, low paid, malnourished, and unhealthy…” (32) The author states that despite changing perspectives, “Dalit women are worse off than upper-caste women in terms of standard of living” (27). The author also explores the assumption which holds that the conduct and behavior of upper-caste women is more heavily regulated than Dalit women, and as a result, Dalit women enjoy greater autonomy in their lives. However, the research done by the author suggests that this assumption simply is not true. That is, they do not enjoy “greater autonomy to compensate for their greater poverty” (28). The author states that the majority of Dalit women are not allowed to decide how to care for themselves, nor do their husbands consult with them in making decisions that affect the whole family. Furthermore, Dalit women are also more prone to domestic violence and abuse. She concludes by saying that, “An assessment of the material aspects of the gender-caste overlap suggest that more than fifty years after Indian independence, the economic condition of women continues to be defined and constrained by their caste status” (33). So despite changes in how the caste system is regarded, inequalities left behind by the powerful distinctions it imposed are still an important issue in India.

So one sees that the importance of caste is disappearing as people are more willing to interact and associate with those from different castes, including the Dalit. Religion has taken on a less significant role in the lives of Indians, and traditional ideas pertaining to the caste system have been challenged even by the privileged youth of the upper castes as well as by college students. Forces of liberalism and globalization have been at play, as western influences serve to weaken the status quo. Nevertheless, despite such changes, inequality, poverty, and discrimination are still the reality among women at the bottom of the social ladder. Unfortunately, even as caste distinctions disappear, problems pertaining to class inequality still remain. Thus, in light of caste distinctions being less visible now, the consequences of such distinctions continue to manifest themselves plainly.


Anant, Santokh (1978) “Caste Attitudes of College Students in India.” European Journal of Social Psychology. Vol. 8. 193-202.

Deshpande, Ashwini (2002) “Assets Versus Autonomy? The Changing Face of The Gender- Caste Overlap in India.” Feminist Economics. Vol. 8, No. 2. 19-35.

Mathur, Smita & Gowri Parameswaran (2004) “Intergenerational Attitudinal Differences about Consumption and Identity among the Hindu Elite in New Delhi, India.” Journal of Intercultural Studies. Vol. 25, No. 2. 161-173.

Further Reading

Anant, Santokh (1975) “The Changing Intercaste Attitudes in North India: A follow-up after four years.” European Journal of Social Psychology. Vol. 5, No. 1. 49-59.

Borooah, Vani K. & Sriya Iyer (2005) “Vidya, Veda, and Varna: The Influence of Religion and Caste on Education in Rural India.” Journal of Development Studies. Vol 41, No. 8. 1369-1404.

Arora, Kriti (2006) “Living in Refuge: Kashmiri Pandit Women.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. Vol 7, No. 1. 113-120.

Related Research Topics

effects of globalization on Indian society; economic and social conditions of Dalit men and women; Liberal influences in Indian culture; public education and its role in forming perceptions; attitudes of class inequality in India; socio-economic conditions of women within India; ancient Hinduism and the Indian caste system; relationship between caste and religion; intercaste relationships; views of women on the caste system as compared to men.

Notable Relevant Websites

Written by Noah Heninger (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Hindu Varna System

Within the Hindu tradition there are many explanations about origins of the class (or varna) system within Indian society. Some are mythic and others are socio-historical, and both play enormous roles in the Hindu culture. Although there are numerous myths to explain the creation of the varnas, the Purusa-Viraj (sometimes referred to as Purusa-Sukta, or the Hymn of Man) will be summarized and referenced. This particular story/hymn is found within the Rig Veda, a very significant text in Hinduism, which may have its origins between 1500 to 1200 BCE (Muller in Flood 37), although its precise date of origin is a matter of some debate. David Mandelbaum states that the varnas are the primordial makeup of society (Mandelbaum 22). And to this day, this system persists in much of India (Smith 19). The four social classes that have been set out within the Purusa-Viraj are the Brahmins, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras.Each class has its own distinctive set of duties and functions to be performed and also carried out within society.Although this provides a view on what the class system of India is like, one needs to remember that this is an Orthodox view, and that not everyone in India promotes the Brahmins, the class system, or even the Vedas.There are also heterodox perspectives to consider.

This famous hymn describes how the world was created by dismembering the cosmic giant, Purusa, thus forming the four social varnas from certain body parts.Along with the creation of the human being, animals, seasons, verses, meters, and other such elements were formed (Doniger O’Flaherty 29-30).

11 …When they divided the Man, into how many parts did

they apportion him? What do they call his mouth, his

two arms and thighs and feet?

12 His mouth became the Brahmin; his arms were made into

the warrior [ksatriyas], his thighs the People [vaisyas], and from his feet the Servants were born [sudras]…[ Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, The Rig Veda: An Anthology, (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), p. 31. These are the only two paragraphs that have come from this translated book ]

This particular section of the hymn provides a basis for understanding the classical Orthodox Indian varna system. The varna system categorizes the four groups hierarchically with the Brahmins at the top. The hymn reinforces this hierarchy by placing one class above another anatomically; the Brahmins emerge from the mouth, and the Sudras emerge from the feet of Purusa.

Brahmins are characterized by being the closest to the deities and being the most familiar with the scripts and texts of Vedic Hinduism (Mandelbaum 223). Their work tends to involve less laborious work compared to that of the other varnas, for the Brahmins study the original works (usually memorizing them) and performing rituals (Mandelbaum 188). Before the texts were written down they were passed along orally and memorized. Brahmins were the only groups within the Aryan community to learn the Veda and carry out yajna (ritual sacrifice) (Smith 14).This is because the Veda was sacred and purported to be something to which only the Brahmin class could access. A result of the Brahmins’ close relationship to the gods, as well as constantly being under the public eye is that they have to be meticulous about their ritual purity.The Brahmins are therefore cautious about whom they are in contact with, what they eat, and other acts that cause ritual pollution (Mandelbaum 181).Brahmins, by virtue of their lifestyle and purity concerns, are subject to the least amount of pollution.Pollution increases as one moves down the hierarchy with the Sudra experiencing the most (Das 129).These duties and responsibilities explain why the Brahmins emerge from the mouth according to this Orthodox view.For the mouth is what speaks the Vedas and passes on the texts to fellow Hindus.Therefore a Brahmin stresses purity, piety, learning, and priesthood (Mandelbaum 451).

The second class is the Ksatriyas who are known as the warriors. They are said to emerge from the arms of Purusa in the Purusa-Sukta hymn. They are the protectors and enforcers of Indian society. Their duty is to see that the “relationships between the castes are maintained and that the hierarchy of society is preserved” (Mandelbaum 452). This provides a sense of security to others in the community because Ksatriyas are thought to be ready to use their force wisely and for the right reasons. When the Ksatriyas abuse their power they are seen to be going against their dharmic duty. Their role is to uphold their attributes of honour, virtue, force and masculinity (Mandelbaum 451). All of these attributes produce a class of great warrior who have pride in their status. The Hindu Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharta offer teachings on how a true Ksatriya is expected to act and fulfill his duties.

Vaisyas are the third varna, and members of this class are said to preside over the everyday domain, dealing with agriculture, produce and livestock (Smith 29). They are the ones who provide a market for the community, for they are skilled in trade and crafts (Mandelbaum 453). The Purusa-Sukta hymn states that this varna is produced from the thighs of Purusa.Their dedication to hard work in commerce and farming provides a rationale for why the largest body part is a representation of them.The Vaisyas are expected to take pride in their “steadiness, thrift, intelligence, purity, and piety” (Mandelbaum451).Members of classes lower than this one are considered to be far less highly regarded than those of classes above them.

The above three varnas (the Brahmins, Ksatriyas, and Vaisyas) constitute a group known as the “twice born” or dvija. This status of being “twice born” begins with the upanayanam rite, (the Sacred Thread Ceremony). In this ritual, a boy from one of these classes would traditionally and formally be separated from his mother and begin a period of formal religious study (Mandelbaum 448). After the sacred verse is taught by a spiritual mentor, he is given a sacred thread to be worn across the left shoulder (Mandelbaum 448). By this ritual, one notes how the “twice born” tangibily separate themselves from the Sudras. The “twice born” are expected to differ in such things as style of life and daily ritual (Mandelbaum 223).A major difference is that the lowly Sudra servants may not participate in Vedic sacrifice (Smith 29).

The fourth and final varna according to the Hindu Orthodox system are the Sudras.Their duty is to carry out unskilled tasks, and to serve the higher castes (Das 81).This particular class is not known for shifting in status and are often called the untouchables (Mandelbaum 461).Because their duty is to serve, one can conceptualize why they are produced from the feet of the cosmic giant Purusa.

Thus far the Orthodox view of the class system has been presented, but this is not to say it is the only view. The heterodox systems of Buddhism and Jainism provide a contrast. These two religions reject the Vedas as revealed truth and the orthodox teachings of Brahmans (Flood 82). It is worth noting that in the past the Brahmins were not the only group that wielded economic, political and intellectual power, and thus their articulation of the acceptable or orthodox way of life was not the only mood of religious practice among the vast majority of Indians (Rhys-Davids 69). Within the orthodox class system described above it is evident that there are certain obligations to be fulfilled in each class. However, heterodox religious-philosophies might “accept people from a wider social spectrum” (Flood 90). This openness, then, does not hold men and women to such strict class categories and dharmic duties, which allows a more encompassing practice of religion.

From the description of each of the varnas’ duties and responsibilities, one can begin to comprehend the rationale behind the Orthodox explanation of the origins of the caste system, as found in the Purusa-Sukta. It is but one myth that provides a religious justification for the Hindu varna system, and attempts to establish a hierarchy.


Das, Veena (1982) Structure and Cognition: Aspects of Hindu Caste and Ritual. 2nd ed. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Doniger O’Flaherty, Wendy (1981) The Rig Veda: An Anthology. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Flood, Gavin (1996) An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mandelbaum, David (1970) Society in India: Change and Continuity. 2 vols. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Rhys-Davids (1970) Buddhist India. Delhi: Hindustan Press.

Smith, Brian (1994) Classifying the Universe: The Ancient Indian Varna System and the Origins of Caste. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Readings

HChuyen, GillesH (2004) Who is a Brahmin? : the politics of identity in India. New Delhi: Manohar.

Fuller, C.J. (1996) Caste today. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Gould, Harold A (1987-1990) The Hindu caste system. Delhi: Chanakya Publications.

Topics for Further Investigation

socio-historical origins






twice born class or dvija

upanayanam rite





Websites that Complement this Topic






Article written by Jodie Beddome (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

Dharma Sutras

One might wonder what exactly “Dharma Sutra” means and how it came about. It is a blend of the two components ‘dharma’ and ‘sutra’. Therefore this blend obviously means ‘sutras’ dealing with ‘dharma’ (Banerji 1). It is hard to define Dharma itself as it could be interpreted in many ways. However, it is often understood as religion or moral code (Sekhar 1).Hence, I would say that Dharma Sutras deal with directions about our domestic, social and religious lives.

The origin of Dharma Sutra, just like the many other ancient Indian literature, is veiled in shadows. The Dharma Sutra is part of the Kalpa Sutras which is derived from the Vedas. Therefore from this significance we can say that Dharma Sutra is also written during the Vedic age. The Vedas have two different aspects, speculative and ritualistic (Banerji 7). Much later into the Vedic age, literature becomes more focus on rites and rituals. As the civilization was growing, this led to the preparation for shorter and easier manuals of these ritualistic works. In the process of trying to do this, the Kalpa Sutras were composed. To distinguish heterogeneous matters within the Kalpa Sutras, it was classified into three distinct classes. These were the Śrauta which deals purely with Vedic rites, Grhya which deals with domestic rites performed before the domestic fire and Dharma which deals principally with the rules of conduct and Vyavahāra.

People tend to overlap and think that Grhya Sutra and Dharma Sutra deal with the same idea. However, they do not deal with the same idea; instead they have a close comparison of the contents within these sutras. Grhya Sutra deals absolutely with just the domestic rites and the procedure of how one is supposed to go about doing the rites. Dharma Sutra not only deals on the ‘law’ or righteousness but also on the broader stand about the conduct of men, secular law (Vyavahāra) and duties of the king (rājadharma). Even then still, people wonder “What is the reason of the overlapping of the contents of these two types of works in respect of certain rites, e.g. upanayana, vivāha, etc (Banerji 10)?” The easiest response to this would be that, Grhya Sutra really stresses on the procedure of the different rites and goes really into details. On the other hand, Dharma Sutra accounts for the various customs and practices connected with these rites excluding the details of procedure. Although some of the topics covered in both the sutras are similar, they are both independent types of works apparently composed to serve different purposes.

Before going any further into the details of the Dharma Sutras, we should know the differences between Dharma Sutras and Dharma Sastras. Both of these texts are closely connected as both deals with the same or allied topics (Banerji 2). Even then there are differences to be noted between them. There are eight main points of differences; Form, Language, Divine Origin, Arrangement of topics, Historical priority, and Affiliation. Form: majority of the work of Dharma Sutras is composed in text intermixed with verse, however for the Dharma Sastras, it is entirely in verse. Language: Dharma Sutras contains many outdated forms than the Dharma Sastras. Affiliation to Vedic School: most of the Dharma Sutras betray some preference in the quotations for certain Vedas or Vedic Schools whereas the Dharma Sastras do not (Banerji 2). These are just some of the differences between Dharma Sutras and Dharma Sastras.

To this day, the only four remaining works which are related on the topic of Dharma are the Āpastamba, Baudhāyana, Gautama and Vasistha (Olivelle 3). Āpastamba and Baudhāyana are the only two Dharma Sutras that were brought down from Kalpa Sutras (Olivelle 3). Majority of the work which dealt with dharma appeared to have been composed during the Common Era.

The Āpastamba contains thirty praśnas (lit., “questions”) or books. Of these, the first 24 compromises of the Śrauta Sutra, 25-26 compromises of the collections of ritual formulas to be used in domestic rites, 27 compromises of the Grhya Sutra, 28-29 compromises of the Dharma Sutra and the final book on Śulva Sutra. The Āpastamba belongs to the Taittirīya branch of the Black Yajurveda. It has been conserved better than the rest of the Dharma Sutras. This could be proved by the only one surviving commentary of Haradatta (Olivelle 20). The laws of the Āpastamba are very straight forward and strict as it is the oldest Dharma Sutras. It deals with matters of civil law such as inheritance and brief sections on the orders of life. An example of a law of the Āpastamba underlying the caste system is that: “If someone kills a Ksatriya, he should give a thousand cows to erase the enmity, a hundred if he kills a Vaiśya, and ten if he kills a Sudra.” (Olivelle 61)

The Gautama Dharma Sutra did not have any connection with the Kalpa Sutras. It was composed as a separate thesis. Traditionally, the Gautama has been associated with the Sāmaveda (Olivelle 116). This is proved in the book, the twenty-sixth chapter, where the atonement is taken from the Sāmavidhāna Brāhmana which belongs to the Sāmaveda. Only one of the two commentaries could be said is a useful source. That was by Maskarin; however the other commentary by Haradatta is not really a useful source as he merely worked on what Maskarin had wrote before. This would be plagiarism in today’s world. An example of a law of the Gautama underlying the caste system is that: “If someone kills a Ksatriya, he should observe the standard vow of chastity for six years and give a thousand cows together with a bull; if he kills a Vaiśya, he should do so for three years and give a hundred cows together with a bull; and if he kills a Śūdra, he should do so for one year and give ten cows together with a bull.” (Olivelle 175)

The Baudhāyana Dharma Sutra is also part of the Kalpa Sutras just like the Āpastamba. Āpastamba was preserved really excellent compared to the rest of the Dharma Sutra; however Baudhāyana text was tampered around and inter-mixed a lot. Baudhāyana contains more detailed descriptions of rituals- sacrifices, twilight worship, bathing, quenching libations than any other Dharma Sutras (Olivelle 191). An example of a law of the Baudhāyana underlying the outcaste system is that: “When someone associates with an outcaste- not, however, by officiating at his sacrifices, by teaching him, or by contracting a marriage with him- but by traveling in the same vehicle or sitting on the same seat as he, or by eating together with him, he himself becomes an outcaste within a year.” (Olivelle 249)

The Vasistha Dharma Sutra, just like the Gautama Dharma Sutra, did not have any connection with the Kalpa Sutras. It also came down as a separate text. Traditionally, Vasistha has been associated with the Rgveda (Olivelle 346). It does not have a strong ancient commentary to prove its work; therefore, Vasistha Dharma Sutra might also have addition of works from different people over time. The Vasistha represents a trasitional phase from the prose Dharma Sutras to the verse Smrtis (Olivelle 346). An example of a law of the Vasistha is that: “If someone kills a Ksatriya, he should do the same for eight years; if he kills a Vaiśya, for six years; and if he kills a Sudra, for three years.” (Olivelle 435)

The Dharma Sutras were not really investigated well in Hindu studies in the past. It has limited sources and commentaries notes to prove its accurate date and existence. However, from the following books of sources, which guided me through this article, the related websites which gave me some knowledge on this topic, Dharma Sutras is indeed a wide text. From the four remaining Dharma Sutras, Āpastamba, Gautama, Vasistha and Baudhāyana we can see similar laws but phrased in different ways. The punishment for the same concept of sin done is different or phrased differently within the Dharma Sutras. Therefore one has to read and understand the different Dharma Sutras in general and also in detail.


Olivelle, Patrick (2000) Dharma Sutras: The Law Codes of Apastamba, Gautama, Baudhayana, and Vasistha. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers

Creel, B Austin (1977) Dharma in Hindu Ethics. Calcutta: South Asia Books

Singh, Balbir (1981) Dharma: Man, Religion and Society. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. Humanities Press Inc. Atlantic Highlands New Jersey.

S. J. Sekhar, Vincent (2003) Dharma: In early Brahmanic, Buddhist and Jain traditions. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Banerji, Sures Chandra (1962) Dharma Sutras: A Study in Their Origin and Development. Calcutta: Sankar Bhattacharya for Punthi Pustak.

Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Shova Gurung (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Rsis of Ancient Indian Tradition

Rsis are unique figures in Indian culture with a distinct status. Their role in Indian culture in both ancient and modern times is significant. Despite their importance to Indian tradition, the topic of the rsis has not been explored in the literature to as great an extent as many other topics within the study of Indian religious tradition. Much of the literature that exists lacks academic objectivity, which can lead to bias, limiting the usefulness of those sources. Even so, the amount of scriptural material dealing with rsis is overwhelming, as are the seemingly endless categories and classifications within the broad designation of rsi, and as a result this study will only briefly explore the legends and traditions of the rsis.

To satisfactorily define the rsis is a fairly daunting task in itself, given the wide variety of descriptions and scriptures associated with them. Mitchiner describes a rsi as “one who seeks to bring about change, a transformation both of himself and also of his environment” (246). This definition is broad, and by no means comprehensive. Some of the rsis’ means of implementing change must be described in order to understand Mitchiner’s definition. First, and perhaps foremost, the rsis are said to be composers of Vedic hymns, or rather, those to whom Vedic hymns are shown by means of divine revelation (Mitchiner 172). According to Mitchiner, rsis are said to have composed all ten books (mandalas) of the Rgveda and various Dharma Sastras (books of law and duty,) among other things (172-176). The rsis also performed the distinct (albeit closely related) role as teachers, passing on the knowledge revealed to them. While the Vedas emphasize rsis as seers, the Epics and Puranas emphasize rsis as teachers (182). Pandey (2-3) notes a distinction between categories of rsis, namely between saksatkritadharma (direct seers of hymns) and asaksatkritadharma (those who could not directly perceive divine truth.) Rsis of both categories, however, are said to have observed other important traditions as well.

The rsis’ position as seers of hymns is linked to their traditions of sacrifice, as many hymns are said to have been “seen” during the performance of sacrifice (Mitchiner 177). By offering sacrifice (yajna,) the main goal is said to have been “svarga-loka” (paradise) and ‘brahmaloka’ (eternal residence of the god Brahma)” (Pandey 158). It is by reaching such a realm that the foremost Seven Rsis are said to have become stars in the sky (Mitchiner 249). Other aims of sacrifice also included the acquisition of sons, wealth and cattle, but not all sacrifices performed by rsis were in pursuit of personal gain. Some literature tells of rsis performing sacrificial rituals for kings and their families, fulfilling the role of family priests (purohitas) (Mitchiner 178). Mitchiner points out that in most cases “men are urged to perform the same sacrifice in order to fulfill the same aim” (178), whether that aim is obtaining heaven or obtaining earthly goals (178-180).

Agastya, one of the legendary Seven Rsis, Cidambaram Temple Sculpture, Tamil Nadu
Agastya, one of the legendary Seven Rsis, Cidambaram Temple Sculpture, Tamil Nadu

Another rsi tradition was that of asceticism (tapas.) The word tapas is derived from the Sanskrit tap, basically meaning heat, and tapas has come to mean “the basic idea of inwardly heating oneself, through the performance of various religious and ascetic practices” (Mitchiner 187). In the Atharvaveda it is said that through the practise of severe austerities, one could acquire supernatural abilities (Pandey 187). These powers (siddhis) are said to have been wide ranging. Through severe practices of tapas, one could acquire the ability to fly, to fulfill one’s desires, and to escape old age and even death (Mitchiner 206). Siddhis were not the only goal of tapas, however. In the Vedas, immediate goals were often sought, such as wealth or victory over enemies, however the goals of tapas could also be more abstract, for example the “destruction of past sins and deeds (karma) (Mitchiner 201). Pandey (187-188) outlines several ascetic practices that rsis are said to have engaged in including: sitting “motionless like wood” (187) for extended periods, laying on various beds designed to cause pain and following strict diets. Rsis reportedly chose isolated locations (often called hermitages) to practice tapas in order to be “free from the disturbances and distractions of the world around” (Mitchiner 190). Hermitages were often located in forested or mountainous areas, especially in the Himalayas around the sources of the river Ganga, or in the pine forests of the southern slopes of the Himalayas, which remain a popular location for modern ascetics (190). Some rsis maintained hermitages and dwelled there for extensive periods, and became known as asramavasis or hermitage dwellers (Pandey, 5).

Another common method of practicing tapas is by abstaining from sexual activity, or more specifically by avoiding the spilling of semen. Rsis practicing total celibacy were referred to as urdhvaretas (having the seed drawn upward) and are held in high regard (Mitchiner 233). There are several tales in which the gods (or Indra, specifically,) seeing the power that the rsis acquired through tapas as a threat to their (or his) status or well being, sent beautiful water nymphs (asparas) to seduce them. Some tales tell of rsis succumbing to the temptation of the asparas, while others are said to have prevailed and subsequently used their supernatural abilities to curse the asparas (234-235). Interestingly, by some accounts all rsis are said to have married, which is seemingly at odds with their status as celibate ascetics. It has been said that only after Siva, the ideal ascetic, made clear his intention to marry Parvati, that the foremost Seven Rsis became unashamed of marriage (235-236). Marriage, or at least the performance of sexual intercourse, however, is essential to many accounts, which claim the rsis as the progenitors of all creation (Pandey 241, Mitchiner 248).

Having described the rsis without extensive breadth or detail, it is already clear that they occupy a large and enigmatic place in Indian scriptural history. They are legendary for their roles as seers and revealers, teachers, devout ascetics, celestial bodies, celibate urdhvaretas and (perhaps most interestingly) progenitors of all existence. They are difficult to define, largely because of their dynamic roles in Indian religion. However, it is their dynamic nature that has made them so integral to the scriptures in which they play such a broad role.


Mitchiner, John E. (1982) Traditions of the Seven Rsis. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Pandey, Chandra Bhanu (1987) Risis in Ancient India. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan.

Related Readings

The following is a brief list of readings pertaining, at least in some aspects, to the material discussed in the work above. For more comprehensive research, one might be advised to look into various scriptural texts through which rsi tradition has been maintained. It is scriptural texts such as the Vedas, the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana that provide the greatest wealth of knowledge on the legends and traditions associated with rsis.

Brent, Peter (1972) Godmen of India. New York: Quadrangle Books.

Doniger, Wendy (1993) Purana perennis. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

MacDonell, Arthur Anthony (2004) History of Vedic Mythology. New Delhi: Sanjay Prakashan.

Oldenberg, Hermann (1988) The Religion of the Veda. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (1999) Seer of the Fifth Veda. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Related Topics

Presented here is a brief list of topics that one who is interested in rsi tradition might also enjoy researching:

Topics within the study of rsis:

  • The Seven Rsis
  • Brahmana lineages (gotras) claiming descent from rsis
  • Legendary Rsi authorship of scriptural texts

Topics related to the study of rsis:

  • Traditions and culture of gurus
  • Vedic sacrificial rituals and practices
  • Indian ascetic traditions
  • Puranic mythology

Related Websites

The websites provided in the following list pertain not to rsis specifically, but rather provide valuable resources on Hindu tradition in general. While not necessarily academically defensible, these pages provide a wealth of information for casual study and reference:

Written by Alex Masse (Spring 2006) who is solely responsible for its content


Early civilizations from around the world demonstrate that since antiquity there has been a fascination with the relationship between good and evil. This dual nature is apparent in the early Vedic literature contained within the Hindu tradition. The Vedic texts are believed to have been in composition around 5000 BCE; however, some scholars speculate that the texts had been written even earlier (Brown 1965: 23). One of the more prominent sections of the Vedic texts is the Rg Veda; a compilation of praises made to various deities who are to this day, worshipped by the Hindu people. There are many deities that are venerated by those who follow the Hindu tradition; some more eminent than others. The Hindu deities are divided into two opposing branches in the Rg Veda; the Asuras and Devas.

The Asuras are defined as being powerful titans or demons and are considered to be the gods of the primeval world and the predescendants of the Devas (Kuiper 112). In general, the Asuras are associated with the underworld and represent the malevolent nature of the Hindu tradition (Bodewitz 213). In most western religions the idea of the demon is in direct relation to all that is evil in the world, and much folklore is written about them. In Hinduism, despite the Asuras being composed of demons; they also possess the potential to create the truly wondrous, including life itself (Srinivasan 546). This ambivalent character of the Asuras is, on a small scale, a manifestation of the Hindu tradition as a whole.

An influential representative of the Asuras is the mighty demon Vrtra. In the Rg Veda, Vrtra is portrayed as being a three headed serpent, and thus all dragons or worms slain by heroes of Aryan mythology are seen as the embodiments of Vrtra (Wake 375). Vrtra is perceived to dwell above earth in the clouds, and when there is a draught, it is said that the Asuras are in rebellion against the Devas (Wake 375).

In contrast to the Asuras are the Devas. The term Deva stems from the old Indo-European word for Celestial gods (Kuiper 112). Included in the Devas are some of the deities such as Varuna and Indra (Embree 12). Many scholars insist that the Devas are the ‘sons’ of the primordial Asuras, and that there was a split that caused the formation of the two opposing forces. The Devas can be considered the more ‘honourable’ gods in comparison the Asuras who are thought to dwell in the underworld. Although there is a division amongst the Hindu deities, the two sectors overlap considerably. In the tale of the Battle between Indra and Vrtra, the two represent the Devas and the Asuras respectively. However there are many other characters that end up swapping sides mid battle such as Agni, Varuna, and Soma who desert the Asuras in favour of the Devas (Brown 101).

One of the more revered Devas is Indra. The Rg Veda contains approximately 1000 hymns dedicated to him. Indra is the god of storms and lightening and is also considered to be the king of the gods (see Rodrigues 487). When the Hindu people are facing a battle it is often Indra whom they revere. Indra is closely related to the intoxicating drink known as Soma; portrayed as ‘drunk’. Indra is the key representative of the Devas, for it is him who destroys Vrtra and frees the water that was trapped in the clouds.

The Battles that ensue between good and evil are apparent in many if not all of the worldly religions. It is this battle that keeps the forces aligned and produces a harmonic peace that we humans try to maintain. Across the earth there is many versions of the battle that is extremely similar to the one fought between Indra and Vrtra in Hinduism. For instance, the legend of Indra and Vrtra is reproduced in Latin mythology as that of Hercules and Cacus (Wake 376).


Brown, Norman W. (1942) “The Creation Myth of the Rig Veda.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 62, no.2 (June): 85-98.

Brown, Norman W. (1919) “Proselyting the asuras (A Note on the Rig Veda 10.124).” Journal of the American Oriental Society 39: 100-103.

Embree, Ainslie T. The Hindu Tradition: Reading in Oriental Thought. New York: Random House Inc, 1972.

Hopkins, Washburn E. (1916) “Indra as God of Fertility.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 36: 242-268.

Kramrisch, Stella. (1963) “ The Triple Structure of Creation in the Rg Veda.” History of Religions 2, no.2: 256-285.

Kuiper, F.B.J. (1975) “The Basic Concept of the Vedic Religion.” History of Religions 15, no. 2 (November): 107-120.

Srinivasan, Doris M. (1983) “Vedic Rudra-Siva.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 103, no.3 (Jul.-Sep.): 543-556.

Wake, Staniland C. (1873) “The Origin of Serpent-Worship.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 2: 373-390.

Related Topics for Further Investigation













Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by Kerri Norman (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

Ayurveda: The Ancient Hindu Science of Health and Medicine

Some time ago, around the fifth century AD, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa Hsien visited the city of Pataliputra. It was here, in this ancient northern Indian city, that he discovered an organized system of medical provisions that eventually became known as Ayurveda (Wujastyk 2). Ayurveda, which literally means “the knowledge of science for longevity” is said to have materialized at the beginning of time when life itself was created. It is therefore thought to have no concrete beginning and will thus continue until the end of creation (Sharma 719). Ayurveda is an all encompassing system of medical practices that includes both preventative and prescriptive measures, advice on exercise, diet, morality as well as specific medical teachings for the professional physician, focusing on aspects of diagnosis and therapy (Wujastyk 3). There are two Ayurvedic classics, the Carakasamhita and Susruta’s Compendium. Both of these texts describe diagnoses, pharmaceuticals, human body and treatment among other things, however, the Carakasamhita is the text in which the roots of Indian medicine originate (Wujastyk 31). These texts, as well as Ayurveda’s other teachings and doctrines, suggest that this could have been the world’s first organized medical system and have thus laid the foundation for the medical procedures that are practiced today.

Ayurveda’s exact roots are difficult to trace as its practices go back to prehistory around the time when people started to become conscious of their health and became aware that they had to take measures to improve and preserve their lives (Sharma 719). While it is hard to set a concrete time when actual Ayurvedic practices came about, by the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, Ayurveda was well developed and the attitude of people towards health practices was advanced (Sharma 719). The ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were intricately planned to include drainage systems, public wells and waste removal structures indicating their appreciation of proper sanitation (Sharma 720). Excavations of these cities found stag-horn and cuttlefish bone suggesting that vegetables, animals and minerals were used as sources for drugs (Sharma 720).The ash of Stag-horn and the cuttlefish bone were useful in treating cardiac pain, respiratory disorders and diseases of the ear and, interestingly, many of these ancient remedies are still used today (Sharma 720). In addition to the use of certain drugs, Indus peoples placed great emphasis on personal hygiene and cosmetics use including the use of collyrium for preventing and curing eye diseases (Wujastyk 184). With their intricate techniques and insightful knowledge into therapeutics, the Indus Valley Civilization played a vital role in the development of Ayurveda. Today, Ayurveda is a living system of medicine in India. In 1970, the Indian Parliament set up a Central Council for Ayurveda recognizing its integral role in Indian Medicine (Wujastyk 9). This counsel provides accredited colleges, standardized qualifications and professional training in Ayurveda. By 1983, there were approximately 100 accredited Ayurvedic training colleges in India (Wujastyk 9). It is clear that the ancient practice of Ayurveda continues to prevail in the medicinal practices of today. The treatments, practices and therapies of Ayurveda revolve around a central concept: the body. The pancha-bhuta theory asserts living creatures are formed from the five forms of matter: earth, fire, wind, water and akasa and therefore the body is in a perpetual state of flux just as nature is (Kakar, 231). The central process of the body is digestion and is seen as “cooking” and known as “fire in the belly” (Kakar 232). When food enters the belly it is cooked by the digestive fire and turns into the first of several body tissues quickly becoming flesh and eventually reaching the highest bodily essence: semen (Wujastyk 5). Networks of tubes carry the fluids of the body from place to place, and interestingly, blockage of these tubes is vital in Ayurveda’s explanation of insanity (Wujastyk 6).

In keeping the bodily elements in balance, the consumption of environmental matter in the right form, proportion and combination must be taken into consideration (Kakar 231). Therefore, diet is essential to Ayurveda emphasizing that any food used for medicinal purposes should be avoided to maintain physical well being (Kakar 231). A pure, bland diet is recommended, emphasizing Ayurveda’s belief in the mutual relationship between food and the “mind” (Kakar 269). Different foods are believed to have different qualities that each affected the body in a variety of ways. It was believed that sour foods increased promiscuity while red chilies and pepper activated a person’s urge to dominate others; even water at different temperatures had diverse effects (Govindan 23). Certain types of mind prefer certain types of food and therefore, one of the first questions that a physician asked their patient pertained to what foods the individual had consumed (Kakar 269).

The Carakasamhita, or “Caraka’s Compendium,” is the text in which classical Indian medicine really begins and the text that sheds the light on real medical practices (Wujastyk 39). The present-day Carakasamhita, the oldest Samhita of Ayurveda available today, was not the work of a single author but has three distinct authors: Atreya-Agnivesa in the pre-Buddhist period (1000BC), Caraka in the post-Buddhist period (2-3rd century BC) and Drdhabala in the classical period (4-5th century AD) (Sharma 728). The compendium consists of 120 chapters divided into eight parts: Sutra – on pharmacology, food, diet, etc.; Nidana – on causes of eight diseases; Vimana – topics such as taste and nourishment; Sarira – on philosophy, anatomy and embryology; Indriya – on diagnosis and prognosis; Cikitsa – on therapy; Kalpa – on pharmacy and Siddhi – on further general therapy (Wujastyk 41). Included in the Vimana section is a chapter on epidemics. Mosquitoes, rats, earthquakes and bad water are all recognized as possible causes of epidemics highlighting the exceptional thinking of these people in recognizing disease vectors and carriers. In addition, the chapter reflects on the classification of diseased patients into three categories: those who can be cured, those who cannot be cured but can be improved and those who are incurable (Wujastyk 49). The Carakasamhita recommends that physicians do not get involved with patients of the incurable type. Natural urges are highlighted in another chapter of the Carakasamhita. This chapter emphasizes the urges which should be suppressed and those that should not (Wujastyk 53). It was stated that a wise man was not to suppress the urges of urine or feces, sneezing, yawning or the urging of hunger and thirst. However, the urges of fury, pride, envy and excessive passion should be suppressed (Wujastyk 54). The Carakasamhita highlights many vital aspects of Ayurveda and plays an important role in the interpretation of Ayurvedic theory.

Similar to Caraka’s Compendium, Susruta’s Compendium also consists of sections relating to Ayurvedic practices (Larson 108). One section, Nidana, highlights surgery. While Caraka goes into brief descriptions, Susruta goes into great detail about all aspects of surgery (Wujastyk 106). It emphasizes that a good surgeon will be one who has witnessed operations and developed practical experience. He should be clean, keep his nails and hair short and dress in a white garment (Wujastyk 130). Knives, integral parts of surgeon’s equipment, are also discussed and include: types, sizes, proper handling and sharpening techniques (Wujastyk 124). Also included is how a surgeon must be able to diagnose the ailments by either the five senses or interrogation and, after this, how he is to treat the problem through various surgical techniques included in the Compendium (Wujastyk 131).

In addition to surgery, some of the most fundamental components of Ayurveda treatments are the use of drugs. Physicians had to be well acquainted with the identification of drugs as well as their properties and actions (Sharma 722). Drugs were used by external application, internal administration and, as well, the use of natural remedies such as sun-rays, fire, water and air were recognized as having important therapeutic qualities (Sharma 722). Essential components of drugs were plants as they were often a main source of which drugs came from. The osadhi-sukta of the Rg Veda is a document on the knowledge about plants in that age with soma being recognized as the king of herbs (Sharma 724). Some of the plants were cultivated while others grew in the wild (Sharma 724). Sometimes, herbs were combined for medicinal purposes and since a physician was to have complete knowledge of the plants, when administered, desired results were often observed (Sharma 724).

Ayurveda encompasses many different aspects of Indian medicine and is widely regarded as the world’s first organized medical system (Wujastyk 5). Both the Carakasamhita and the Susrutasutra are integral in the interpretation of Ayurvedic theory and provide insight into the forward thinking of the people of this time (Larson 108). They also provided a trustworthy reference for teachings in Ayurveda which furthered the development of the medical system and preservation of both the mind and body (Wujastyk 31). As well, they formed a basis in which many therapies originate today. While the body, drugs, surgeons and classics have all been discussed, Ayurveda includes many more essential components that have not been included here. However, all of Ayurveda’s components are equally important; these are just the ones I have chosen to highlight. With its intricate techniques, exceptional treatments and brilliant procedures, Ayurveda has undoubtedly played an enormous role in ancient medical practices as well as in laying the foundation for the medical practices seen today.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Gaur, Banwari and Santosh Sharma, eds. (2000) Researches in Ayurveda Past and Present. Jaipur: Publication Scheme.

Govindan, S.V. (2003) Fundamental Maxims of Ayurveda. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Kakar, Suhir (1982) Shamans, Mystics and Doctors. New York: Random House.

Kumar, Deepak ed. (2001) Disease and Medicine in India. New Delhi: Tulika Books.

Larson, Gerald “Ayurveda and the Hindu philosophical systems” (1993) Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice. Ed. Thomas P. Kasulis. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Selvester, Joseph (1997) Ayurveda: 5000-Year Old Medical Science for the Next Millenium. Total Health. 19(5), 56.

Sharma, P.V. “Development of Ayurveda from Antiquity to AD 300” (1999) The Dawn of Indian Civilization (up to c. 600 BC). Ed. G.C. Pande. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Wujastyk, Dominik (1998) The Roots Of Ayurveda. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

Related topics for Further Investigation

Fa Hsien
Central Council for Ayurveda
Pancha-bhuta theory

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic ayurvedic_cures/index.shtml

Article written by: Carlie Boras (March 2006) who is solely responsible for content

Related Readings (The Upanisads)

Chakravarti, S. C. (1935) The Philosophy of the Upanisads. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Deussen, Paul (1906)The Philosophy of the Upanishads. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1966.

Hume, R. (trans.) (1921) The Thirteen Principal Upanisads. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keith, A. B. (1925) The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanisads. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nikhilananda, Swami (1949-59) The Upanishads, 4 vols. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center.

Olivelle, Patrick (1996) Upanisads: A New Translation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Radhakrishnam, S. (1967) The Principal Upanisads. London: Allen & Unwin.

Soma: Mysterious Vedic Plant and Deity

In the realm of Hinduism, Soma can be recognized as, and is considered to be, a god (deva), a magical and hallucinogenic plant, and the juice of that plant. Soma is extraordinary in that it is recognized as one of only a few plants humans have ever deified (see Wasson 3). There are a large variety of other sacred plants (even within India), but none of which have had quite the impact, influence, and controversy that Soma has. Soma is directly related to the RgVeda and plays an important part in understanding the text. This is because 120 of its thousand or so hymns are entirely devoted to the plant-god Soma. I shall separately discuss Soma as a god (deva) first and then Soma as a plant, placing more emphasis on the latter.

The Vedic god Soma, in the Rg Veda, was considered to be the king of plants, and the bestower of immortality (amrita) (Basham 14). Turner and Coulter (2000) describe Soma thus: “The deity Soma is a moon god, a god of the flowing waters, a god of inspiration, ecstasy and inspiration” (Turner & Coulter 438). Soma was originally known as the god of ecstasy, with his nectar, amrita, being the food of the gods (Jansen 67). Soma, as a god, is believed to be the personification of Soma juice. There are a few myths that surround the origins of Soma as a god. One of the most popular indicates that Soma is a form of Indra (lord of the thunderbolt), and that it was Indra who first discovered Soma. Another popular myth claims that the goddess Sarasvati (She who is Full of Juice) found Soma in the Himalayas and then brought Soma to share with the other deities (Turner & Coulter 436). Soma is said to have given Indra, through its highly intoxicating serum, supreme powers that he used against his enemies, which eventually uplifted him to the highest status among Vedic devas. The common lineage account for Soma is that he was the son of either Dharma (deity who embodies righteousness) or Varuna (god of the oceans). Soma is sometimes said to be married to Surya (the sun-god) to whom he holds a strong bond (Ions 77).

Scholars surmise that Soma was a form of a plant that was naturally produced high in the mountains of India that, after extracting and consuming the juices, was thought to be hallucinogenic and empowering, invoking a surrealistic religious experience. Soma was not only contained to India. For instance, Soma appears to be very similar, if not the same, as hoama, which was consumed by the Zoroastrians, in what is modern-day Iran, around the same time Soma was popular in India (approximately 3250 years ago). The Zoroastrians, like the Hindus, also discussed the rituals that used the sacred plant hoama in their sacred scripture known as the Avesta. The Avesta is thought of as the Zoroastrian version of the Hindu RgVeda (Basham 14).

Many possibilities have been put forth in the attempt to identify Soma, some of them being ephedra, rhubarb, chicory, and hashish or cannabis sativa. One of the most accepted theories of Soma is that espoused by R. Gordon Wasson. Wasson proposed that Soma was, in fact, not a plant but a wild mushroom known as Amanita muscaria or the fly-agaric. This was the first time that a mushroom had been identified as Soma. In 1968, Wasson published his book entitled Soma: the Divine Mushroom of Immortality. The main hypotheses of Wasson is explained as: “In a word, my belief is that Soma is the Divine Mushroom of Immortality, and that in the early days of our culture, before we made use of reading and writing, when the RgVeda was being composed, the prestige of this miraculous mushroom ran by word of mouth far and wide throughout Eurasia, well beyond the regions where it grew and was worshipped” (Wasson 9). Using the RgVeda as his primary source, Wasson was able to decipher what he thought to be the identity of Soma. Wasson believed that the other theories for Soma did not reflect the clues hidden in the RgVeda and were therefore not relevant to the identity of Soma. Wasson also believed that the origins of Soma could be traced as far back as the “Sacred Element” in shamanic rites of many northern Siberian tribes (Wasson 10). The fly-agaric, as Wasson attested, is an inebriant in two forms:

1. Taken directly in the form of raw mushroom, juice, or mixed with another substance such as water, milk, curds, or honey.
2. Taken through the urine of a person who has ingested the fly-agaric.

It is only in these two forms that Soma could be ingested or consumed (Wasson 25). Wasson’s argument has gained much popularity because of its reference to historical, scientific, and religious means to solve the mystery of Soma.

In the form of an entheogenic plant or similar substance, Soma was used, primarily, if not always, by Brahmin priests as a state-altering substance that allowed themselves to be intimately connected with the gods during Vedic rituals. This connection was regarded as being the conduct through which one could possibly see a god (deva) in an earthly light through an incarnation made possible by the priests’ consumption of Soma (see Williams 110-111). Soma, therefore, offered sustenance and energy to the devas and ecstasy to the Brahmins. Williams clearly explains the importance of the Brahmin priests and Soma during rituals: “As the Soma experience of seeing and hearing the devas began to be referred to in ancient hymns, the magical formulas of the prayers (mantras) and the science of control of the universe through the Vedic sacrifices placed the priests (Brahmin) at the center of the Vedic worldview” (Williams 271). Through this view, Brahmin priests and Soma were equated as being the center of all Vedic religious experience.

As mentioned above, Soma played an extremely important role in Vedic rituals. Some of the most famous rituals are the consecration of the king (rajasuya), the “drink of power” ritual (vajapeya), and various fire rituals (agnistoma). Soma has also been compared to and equated with many Vedic deities. For example, the Vedic deity Indra (lord of the thunderbolt) was the most popular of the Vedic deities and was known to be the ultimate consumer of large amounts of Soma (Fowler 100). Many poets of the RgVeda compare Soma directly with Surya (sun-god) and his mythological horses, hari. Also, Soma has an intimately close connection with Agni (fire-god) because of the equality that is drawn between its inebriating qualities and the subtlety of flames, respectively (Wasson 39). Both Soma and Agni were the major sacrifices described in the RgVeda; therefore, they were both distinctly connected in their roles regarding communication with the other Vedic deities. Through the close connection and comparison between itself and devas, Soma had a very influential role in developing and sustaining the Vedic tradition.


Basham, A.L. (1989) The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ions, Veronica (1984) Library of the Worlds Myths and Legends: Indian Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1976) The Origins of Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

________ (1980) Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stutley, Margaret (1989) Hinduism: The Eternal Law. Northampton, England: Aquarian Press.

Turner, Patricia, and Charles Russell Coulter (2000) Dictionary of Ancient Deities. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wasson, R. Gordon (1968) Soma, The Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Ethno-Mycological Studies 1. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Williams, George M. (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC: CLIO.

Zaehner, R.C. (1966) Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Readings

Kalyanaraman, Srinivasan (2004) Indian Alchemy: Soma in the Veda. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Knipe, David (1991) Hinduism: Experiments in the Sacred. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Patton, Laurie L. (2005) Bringing the Gods to Mind: Mantra and Ritual in Early Indian Sacrifice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sivaraman, Krishna (1989) Hindu Spirituality: Vedas through Vedanta. New York: Crossroad.

Spess, David L. (2004) Soma: The Divine Hallucinogen. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press

Staal, J. F. (2001) “How a psychoactive substance becomes a ritual: the case of Soma.” Social Research, Fall.

Chakraborty, Uma (1997) Indra and Other Vedic Deities: A Euhemeristic Study. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Wasson, R. Gordon. “The Soma of the Rig Veda: What Was It?” Journal of the American Oriental Society 91, no. 2 (1971): 169-91.

Related Research Topics

RgVeda, Vedic rituals, Brahmin priests, mantra, immortality (amrita), Indra, Sarasvati, Dharma, Varuna, Agni, agnistoma, vajapeya, rajasuya, hari, Zoroastrian, hoama, Avesta, Amanita muscaria.
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Article written by Jamie Lalonde (Spring 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

Demons in Vedic Literature

In Hinduism, demons are often considered to be anthropomorphic. They can be classed into four basic categories; these are abstract, celestial, atmospheric, and terrestrial demons. Although demons may be classed in these groups the divisions between categories are not clearly delineated. They are often named by their appearance or activity (see Bhattacharyya 35) and it is thought that some groups of demons, such as the Dasas and Dasyus, may have been based on indigenous peoples that were in opposition to the Aryans (Bhattacharyya 44). There are a few demons of divine lineage. While, for the most part, these spirits were considered to be forces of evil there are some terrestrial spirits that were thought to be helpful at harvest, or in battle. Arbudi is an example of one such demon who was thought to assist tribesmen in times of war by causing fear in the enemy (see Bhattacharyya 35). The abstract demons are not often conceived as having a physical form. Rather they are usually thought of in a more impersonal way as hostile powers that fly about in the air. They are intangible substances that cause disease, problems in childbirth, and guilt. One of the primary tasks of sorcery was to deflect these demons (Bhattacharyya 35). The Aratis are abstract demons of illiberality mentioned in the Rg Veda (Bhattacharyya 36). They are always conceived as feminine. Nirriti is another example of an abstract demon thought of as the antithesis of Rta (Bhattacharyya 36). Another group of injurious spirits mentioned in the Rg Veda are the Druhs (Bhattacharyya 36). In the Atharva Veda fever is conceived as being a demon (Bhattacharyya 40). Although not necessarily considered as demons, disembodied spirits also may be considered hostile forces. The most common forms of such spirits are Bhutas, Pretas, and Pisacas. Bhutas are hostile spirits and although modern usage of the word denotes a malevolent spirit of the dead that is most likely not its early meaning (Bhattacharyya 36). The Preta are thought of as souls in waiting and are not necessarily evil or malignant (Bhattacharyya 38). The third group, the Pisacas, are described as being in opposition to the Pitrs in the later Samhitas (Bhattacharyya 39). (A common feature of different classes or groups of demons is that they are typically conceived as being in opposition to another specific class or group of beings. So the Pisacas are enemies of the Pitrs, the Asura enemies of the gods and so on.) The Pisacas are often referred to as kavyad, which means “eaters of raw flesh,” and are thought of as infesting homes and villages. There are many incantations against them (Bhattacharyya 39). Agni is often invoked to restore the sick whose flesh is eaten by the Pisacas (MacDonell 238). Examples of celestial demons are the Asura. They are considered to be the primary adversaries of the gods. They only appear as the enemies of men on rare occasion (MacDonell 226). In the Brahmanas the Asura are associated with darkness, thus the days belong to the gods and the nights to the Asura (Bhattacharyya 46). However, the term asura did not always mean demon. In early hymns in the Rg Veda the word appears to have been translated as lord, denoting a leader who is respected and commands some kind of fighting force. Those beings called asura may also have been believed to wield a kind of magical power called maya (Wash 52). It is not until the Atharva Veda and the Brahmanas that the term comes to mean demon exclusively (Wash 114, 170). The Asura are also described as the offspring of Prajapati and in many of the passages in the Brahamanas are represented as superior to the gods in the arts of civilized life. They are sometimes thought of as being the elder brothers of the gods (Bhattacharyya 47). The gods and the Asura are often fighting with each other and during fights between the two groups the gods are often repeatedly defeated by the Asura due to a lack of leadership (Bhattacharyya 47). However, ultimately the gods win the conflicts (O’Flaherty 58). The Asura are said to be defeated because they do not follow the correct method of sacrifice. The main contest between the gods and Asura is over immortality (Bhattacharyya 48). There is one legend where the gods and Asura collaborate and churn the ocean to produce an elixir of immortality. The gods then trick the Asura out of their share of the elixir (O’Flaherty 61). Counted among the atmospheric demons are the Panis. They are primarily considered to be enemies of Indra, although they are also enemies of Agni, Soma, Brhaspati, and Angirases. They are often mentioned as a group and are known for their cows and great wealth (MacDonell 227). One hymn in the Rg Veda describes how Indra steals the cattle belonging to the Panis (Bhattacharyya 43). Among the individual atmospheric demons mentioned, one of the most important is Vrtra. His name is derived from the root vr meaning “to cover” or “encompass”. Thus he is said to encompass the waters and rivers. He is conceived to be a serpent in form and references are made to his head, jaws, and hissing. He is also described as being without hands or feet. Vrtra is said to have powers over lightning, mist, hail, and thunder. His mother is Danu. His chief adversary is Indra. It is said that Indra was born to slay him. He is believed to have a hidden home where he escaped the waters that Indra released. Some scholars believe that Vrtra is possibly a demon of drought while others propose that he was originally a frost and winter demon (Bhattacharyya 43,44). In the Brahmanas Vrtra is interpreted as the moon and is believed to be swallowed by the sun (representing Indra) at the new moon (MacDonell 231). The Dasas and Dasyu are classed as either atmospheric (MacDonell 228,229) or terrestrial demons (Bhattacharyya 35). Both groups are considered to be enemies of Indra. The Dasas are mentioned in the Samhitas and Brahmanas and their name means “slave” or “servant”(Wash 161,162). Susna is a Dasas mentioned in the Rg Veda. He is described as a horned serpent and is thought to be a demon of drought. He shares some of the characteristics of Vrtra (Bhattacharyya 45). The Dasas are similar to the Dasyu. The Dasyu are described as vowless (avrata), and possessing tricks. They are not to be trusted. The Dasyu are said to seek to scale heaven and are defeated by Indra (Wash 146-150). The Raksasas are terrestrial demons. The term is often used as a generic name for all terrestrial demons. They are the enemies of mankind (Bhattacharyya 41). In the Rg Veda they are always said to be evil and are something to be rid of (Wash 140,144). They have the forms of vultures, dogs, owls, and other birds. As birds they are often thought of as flying around at night (MacDonell 236). They are also capable of taking human form. In human form they molest women, and hurt children (Bhattacharyya 41). They are considered dangerous during pregnancy and childbirth and at weddings. During a wedding little staves are shot in the air with the purpose of injuring Raksasas in the eye. They are believed to be able to enter a person through the mouth and cause disease, madness, and destroy the powers of speech (MacDonell 236). They are dominant in the evening and at night. Raksasas are described as dancing around houses in the evening making loud noises and drinking out of skullcaps. They hate prayer and often attack sacrifices (Bhattacharyya 41). Spells can be found in the Atharva Veda for nullifying the sacrifices of an enemy by using Raksasas to disrupt the sacrifice (MacDonell 237). The Rg Veda mentions people known as raksoyuj (yoker of Raksasas) who are believed to be capable of invoking a Raksasa to injure others (Bhattacharyya 42). When in human form, Raksasas typically have some gross deformity such as being three headed, two mouthed, bear necked, horned, five footed, or four eyed. They can be male or female and are often associated with the colors blue, yellow, or green. They can also have families and kingdoms and are considered to be mortal (MacDonell 236). In two hymns in the Rg Veda the Raksasas are more clearly defined as being either yatus or yatudhanas. Yatus are responsible for creating confusion at sacrifices and yatudhanas are eaters of the flesh of horses and men, and drink cow’s milk. Raksasas are considered to have no power in the east as the rays of the rising sun disperse them. A falling meteor was considered to be the embodiment of a Raksasa. Agni is the god most often invoked to oppose them by burning them (Bhattacharyya 42). The pantheon of demons is indeed varied and interesting. There are many different groups of demons each having unique roles in the world of myth and stories presented in the Vedic literature.


Bhattacharyya, N. N. (2000) Indian Demonology. Delhi: Manohar Publishers. MacDonell, A. (2004) History of Vedic Mythology. New Delhi: Sanjay Prakashan. O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1976) The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. Wash, Edward Hale (1986) Asura in Early Vedic Religion. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Indra Agni Soma Demons in the epics Demons in Puranic literature

Rg Veda

Brahmanas Atharva Veda


Prajapati Vrtra Incantations against demons


Wedding rituals Rituals surrounding pregnancy and childbirth Battles between gods and asura Pitrs Maya

Noteworthy Websites Article written by Jerrah Sawatsky (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.