A peek into the vedas

The Vedic Concept of Human Personality by Karel Werner is a fascinating paper on many aspects of human life as discussed in the Vedas. I want to write about the concepts of human personality and immortality as thought of in ancient India.

Human personality

The human personality, as written about in the Vedas, is composed of three layers. The deepest layer is called Aja, and may be thought of as the indestructible life force inside a person. It is not expressed in any real way by the person, and is simply transferred to the next body on the person’s death. The middle layer, called Tanū, may be thought of as the blueprint of the person. It contains details of the physiology of the person, how they will react to situations, their temperament, etc. The outermost layer is Śarīra, and is composed of fire, wind, water, etc. It is the visible manifestation of the person, and is destroyed when a person is burnt upon death. Werner notes that although the Vedas don’t state in any one place that the human personality is shaped by these three layers, it can be inferred from the text as a whole that this is indeed the case.

Although this is a convincing picture of human personality as perceived by the ancients, it seems a too much of a coincidence that Freud’s interpretation of the human personality also contained three layers, with one hidden layer that is largely inaccessible by the person. It is possible that Werner, who wrote this paper in 1978, was too influenced by Freud’s interpretation of the personality, and hence wanted to see the same truth reflected in ancient texts. Regardless of whether this actually happened, Werner does a good job of painting the ancient conception of human personality as sophisticated and nuanced.

Immortality

In Hinduism, it is thought that “good” people, in this case riśi‘s, Aryans who had died in battle, and other people who had devoted their lives to worship, go to heaven (swarga lok), and that bad people go to hell (narak lok). However, what about people who are reincarnated in a different body after death? Do they not go to either heaven or hell?

It was initially thought that the Vedas said that once people went to heaven, they would remain there forever, thus attaining immortality. Similarly, very evil or cruel people would go to hell, and remain there forever in a large pit of fire. Other “average” people, who were not extraordinarily good or bad, would go to neither, and be reincarnated instead. Werner argues that this is the wrong picture.

He says that each person is classified into a good or bad person upon death, and goes to either heaven or hell. But when they get there, they don’t stay there forever. They are soon sent back back to the earth to be reincarnated. Immortality is a gift that is greater than “merely” going to heaven, and that is why there are many verses in the vedas that pray for immortality as distinct from going to heaven. Even the gods, who lived in heaven, didn’t have immortality at first, and only acquired it after the churning of the ocean for nectar (samudra manthan). Hence, it is common for gods to age and die in Hindu mythological stories.

Well, all of this applies only if you’re an Aryan. If you’re some other race, you can do whatever. I think Putin has taken this observation to heart.

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Graduate student

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