Major changes in South Asian rituals in 1500-500 BCE

Suraj N. Kurapati

  1. Abstract
    1. 1 Introduction
      1. 1.1 Vedic Rituals
        1. 1.2 Upanishads
          1. 1.3 Buddhism
            1. 1.4 Jainism
            2. 2 Major Changes
              1. 2.1 Cosmology and Sacrifice
                1. 2.2 Ethics and the After-Life
                  1. 2.3 Suffering and Liberation
                  2. 3 Conclusion
                    1. References
                      1. Footnotes


                        A brief account of major south Asian Vedic, Upanishadic, Buddhist, and Jainist rituals and their changes during 1500-500 BCE is given in this article. In particular, there is an overall shift from a utilitarian to a respect-for- persons ethical perspective in the belief systems as time progresses.

                        1 Introduction

                        The following sections outline major Vedic, Upanishadic, Buddhist, and Jainist rituals during the 1500-500 BCE period. Once these rituals have been introduced, a brief account of their major changes is given in Section 2.

                        Keep in mind that the chronological order (from most ancient to most recent) in which these belief systems emerged is roughly [1]:

                        1. Vedism
                        2. Upanishadism (Asceticism)
                        3. Buddhism and Jainism

                        1.1 Vedic Rituals

                        The most important Vedic ritual is the sacrifice [1], which is said (by brahmins) to maintain the universal order while preventing “chaos and calamity” [1]. This ritual is organized by wealthy sponsors who make preparations for [1]:

                        During the sacrifice, brahmins chant the sacred Vedas and invite the gods to join them. Concurrently, animals are slaughtered and a generous supply of soma drink is created from the soma plant [1]. Next, the gods arrive from the heavens and join the participants (brahmins, the sponsors of the sacrifice [1], and sometimes entire villages or tribes [2, p. 44]) in feasting on the freshly slaughtered animals and indulging in the hallucination- inducing1 soma drink [1]. Finally, the sacrifice is often concluded with plentiful acts of sexual intercourse (commended by soma, the warrior God) amongst the participants [1].

                        As [1] eloquently states, the Vedic sacrifice can be summarized as “eat, drink, and be merry.”

                        1.2 Upanishads

                        The primary ritualistic focus of the Upanishads is to facilitate the attainment of knowledge and understanding [1]. Thus, the Upanishads brought about significant scientific and philosophical development.

                        Major Upanishadic rituals are [1]:

                        1.3 Buddhism

                        The primary ritualistic focus of Buddhism is to become liberated (nirodha) from the cycle of rebirth (samsara) and from suffering (dukkha) induced by desires [1]. Thus, major Buddhist rituals are [1]:

                        1.4 Jainism

                        Similar to Buddhism, the primary ritualistic focus of Jainism is to become liberated from the cycle of rebirth (samsara) [1]. However, in contrast to Buddhism, the practice of non-violence (ahimsa) is given top priority in Jainism [1]. Thus, major Jainist rituals are [1]:

                        2 Major Changes

                        The following sections outline major changes and trends in concepts fundamental to the belief systems under discussion.

                        2.1 Cosmology and Sacrifice

                        During the heyday of the Vedic period, we see mass performances of the Vedic sacrifice because Vedic worshippers believed that proper performance of said rituals maintains the order of the universe [1], [2, p. 45]. However, towards the end of the Vedic period, when Upanishadic influence had established itself, we see questioning of earlier Vedic theories of cosmology–namely, that the universe resulted from the great Vedic sacrifice of the primeval being named purusha or prajaapati [1], [2, p. 45], [3, p. 35]. For example, [2, p. 45] shows an interesting quotation which illustrates such questioning:

                        But, after all, who knows, and who can say,
                        Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
                        The gods themselves are later than creation,
                        So who knows truly whence it has arisen?

                        This quotation also shows a decline in the power of the Vedic gods because it suggests that they are secondary to some unmentioned entity which created the Vedic gods. This unmentioned entity might be the Upanishadic brahman, which transcends the universe and everything in it (including the Vedic gods).

                        2.2 Ethics and the After-Life

                        The early Vedic worshippers (associated with the Rig Veda) were not concerned with the after-life [1] whereas the Upanishads, Buddhism, and Jainism were. This concern in the latter belief systems emerged from the Upanishadic concepts of the seven underworlds [1], [3, p. 48]; seven heavens [1], [3, p. 46]; and the numerous hells [1], [3, p. 49]. In the concept of the hells, Upanishadists believed that they would be punished in one or more hells by the God yama according to their kharma2 or conduct [1], [3, p. 49-52]. That is, if one exhibits bad (violent, materialistic, etc.) conduct before one dies, then one will be punished accordingly by God yama [1].

                        The new, Upanishadic idea of kharma heavily influenced Buddhism and Jainism for they too stress the importance of proper ethical conduct-however, the latter use it as a stepping stone in achieving liberation from the cycle of rebirth [1].

                        2.3 Suffering and Liberation

                        Upanishadism, Buddhism, and Jainism all promote the goal of being liberated from the cycle of rebirth, but they do so in slightly different ways. For example, consider the following distinctions.

                        Here we see a shift in goals from knowledge oriented Upanishadism to prevention of suffering in Buddhism and Jainism. Thus, the human condition or circumstance is given more importance as we move in time towards 500 BCE.

                        3 Conclusion

                        As we move chronologically from 1500 BCE to 500 BCE, we see a shift-more or less-from a utilitarian to a respect-for-persons ethical perspective or concern for the human condition. That is, the people of this time period became less concerned with actively maintaining the order of the universe and focused on improving their personal or inter-personal circumstance. This shift also brought about greater importance on personal responsibility in exhibiting and practicing proper3 ethical conduct.


                        1. D. Basu, “History 29: Traditional Histories of India,” presented at University of California, Santa Cruz, CA, March-June 2005.

                        2. R. Thapar, A History of India, vol. 1, Chippenham, Wiltshire, Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1966.

                        3. C. Dimmit and J.A.B. van Buitenen, Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1978.


                        1. Upon ingesting the soma drink, participants are said to experience fantastic visions; uplifting, incredible, superhuman sensations; and a desire to engage in sexual intercourse [1]. 

                        2. The Upanishadic version of kharma is different from that of Vedism, for the latter used the term to justify the varna or caste system [1], [2, p. 46]. 

                        3. Each belief system under discussion has its own respective idea of what is proper or good ethical conduct.