The Vedic period in Indian thought, which saw the emergence of the Sanskrit hymns known as the Vedas, began around 1200 B.C. during the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age in the region of northern India ranging from the upper Indus valley to the lower Ganges and from the Himalayan foothills to the Vindhya Mountains. Vedic thought continued through a middle phase involving the composition of the interpretive Brahmanas and Upanishads, the latter largely philosophical dialogues, followed by the later Puranas, which began to be composed about 350 A.D. and continued to about 1500 A.D..
The four Vedas—the Rigveda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda—consist of some 1,028 hymns in Vedic Sanskrit, composed over several centuries by poets in various priestly groups. They are metrical hymns dedicated to specific deities for recitation or chanting in connection with religious sacrifice, and are considered shruti (“what is heard”), that is, directly revealed, as distinct from texts that are smriti (“what is remembered”), that is, of human origin. The oldest of Hindu scriptures, the Vedas were originally passed down orally with exquisite precision, and continued to be transmitted orally long after Vedic culture employed writing for other purposes.
Attached to specific Vedas are additional expository and interpretive texts, the Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. The Brahmanas are largely prose works, intended to interpret and explore the meaning of the Vedas.
The Upanishads focus on ritualistic worship and on knowledge of Brahman. There are more than 200 Upanishads, comprising ten principal works: the Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, and Brihadaranyaka Upanishads. Because the Upanishads arose during a period of social, economic, and religious change, as Patrick Olivelle observes, they also display the emergence of central religious concepts in both Hinduism and in the new religious movements of the time, Buddhism and Jainism: such concepts as the doctrine of rebirth, the law of karma that regulates rebirth, techniques of liberation from rebirth, the disciplines of yoga, ascetic self-denial and mortification, and the renunciation of sex, wealth, and family life. It is the Upanishads, viewed by many scholars as the pinnacle of early and classical Hindu literature, that continue to play a role of particularly great influence in Hinduism; they have been of central importance in Indian religion, philosophy, and culture for almost three millennia. Heterodox traditions later developing from these roots include the Jain and Buddhist traditions.
The Rigveda, probably complete by about 900 B.C., provides what some scholars regard as the earliest mention of sati, the practice of self-immolation by a wife on her husband’s funeral pyre. The passage seems to describe a ritual practice in which the new widow lies on the pyre beside her husband’s corpse, but then, apparently, retires before the pyre is set alight. It is not known whether this is the vestige of an older custom involving actual live cremation of the widow, or a gesture symbolizing the end of a marriage. Nor is it known whether it was originally restricted to nobility or the higher castes, a privilege for the wives of nobles and kings. In this text, sati is clearly viewed as a privilege of the virtuous wife. In a much later period of Hindu thought, the Brahma Purana speaks of sati, but casts it as an obligation or duty.
The Chandogya Upanishad is one of the earliest of the Upanishads in date of composition; it is pre-Buddhist, and probably dates from the 7th or 6th century B.C. In the passages presented here it expresses what appears to be dedication to living a “full length of life,” as does the Isha Upanishad: “One may desire to live a hundred years.”
The Isha Upanishad (also called the Ishavasya Upanishad or the Samhita Upanishad) is normally placed first in collections of the Upanishads, though it is not the oldest; it probably dates from the last few centuries B.C.. It is one of the shortest of all the Upanishads. The poem also focuses on those who “kill the self,” explicit in the third stanza. This phrase has many possible interpretations—variously supported by different scholars—ranging from extreme self-abnegation, to destruction of the bodily self, to destruction of the spiritual self by material concerns. The Isha Upanishad also contains highly negative judgments of suicide in the conventional sense: those who commit suicide are condemned to an extremely harsh afterlife. In seeming contrast, according to S. Radhakrishnan, the Jabala Upanishad seems to justify suicide, in certain conditions.
Throughout the Sanskrit literature the term aatma hatya, or “killing (or murder) of the soul,” is used for suicide; it remains the term for suicide in modern Hindi. There is an ongoing debate as to whether in the ancient texts aatma hatya refers to literal, physical, or spiritual suicide, as in certain yogic practices that are held to separate the soul from the body—especially stopping the action of thinking. On the other hand, the Sanskrit literature also includes references to circumstances under which it is not sinful for a Hindu to commit suicide in the physical sense. Some texts in the Sanskrit literature also distinguish between akaal mrityu, “untimely death,” an inauspicious death also including accidents and murder, as well as suicide, and kaal mrityu, “timely death,” a good death. Suicide is not automatically “untimely,” as death in specific circumstances—e.g., in the city of Varanasi (Skanda Purana) or drowning in the Ganges (Padma Purana). Expiational suicide is also the only way to atone for the murder of a Brahmin or other serious sins. In general, observes Karin Andriolo, suicide is accepted as renunciation, when approaching enlightenment; you do not lay hands on yourself but rather let nature take its course with you: you go into the water and drown, or fall from a cliff, or walk into the mountains and freeze. This distinction remains active in Hindu thought today.
See also Rammohun Roy’s [q.v.] “Translation of a Conference Between an Advocate For, and an Opponent Of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive” for an extensive debate concerning the significance of early Hindu scriptural texts.
Rigveda X.18.7, ed. Kane, pp. 199-200; Brahma Purana 80.75; Chandogya Upanishad and Jabala Upanishad 5, in S. Radhakrishnan, ed. and tr., The Principal Upanisads. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 510-511. Isa Upanishad, in Upanishads, tr. Patrick Olivelle. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1996. Quotation in introduction from Patrick Olivelle, tr., Upanishads. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, see esp. introduction. Material in introduction also from Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History. New York: Penguin, 2009, F. Max Müeller, ed., The Sacred Books of the East, vol. 1. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1879; Karin R. Andriolo, “Solemn departures and blundering escapes: traditional attitudes toward suicide in India,” International Journal of Indian Studies 3, 1 (1993):1-68, and personal communications from Karin Andriolo and Christine Everaert.
Let these women, whose husbands are worthy and are living, enter the house with ghee (applied) as corrylium (to their eyes). Let these wives first step into the pyre, tearless without any affliction and well adorned. Rise up, woman, into the world of the living. Come here; you are lying beside a man whose life’s breath has gone. You were the wife of this man who took your hand and desired to have you.
The individual soul identical with the infinite Brahma
- Verily, this whole world is Brahma. Tranquil, let one worship It as that from which he came forth, as that into which he will be dissolved, as that in which he breathes. Now, verily, a person consists of purpose (kratu-maya). According to the purpose which a person has in this world, thus does he become on departing hence. So let him form for himself a purpose.
- He who consists of mind, whose body is life (prana), whose form is light, whose conception is truth, whose soul (atman) is space, containing all works, containing all desires, containing all odors, containing all tastes, encompassing this whole world, the unspeaking, the concerned—
- this Soul of mine within the heart is smaller than a grain of rice, or a barley-corn, or a mustard seed, or a grain of millet, or the kernel of a grain of millet; this Soul of mine within the heart is greater than the earth, greater than the atmosphere, greater than the sky, greater than these worlds.
- Containing all works, containing all desires, containing all odors, containing all tastes, encompassing this whole world, the unspeaking, the concerned—this is the Soul of mine within the heart, this is Brahma. Into him I shall enter on departing hence. If one would believe this, he would have no more doubt.—Thus used Sandilya to say—yea, Sandilya!
A person’s entire life symbolically a Soma-sacrifice
- Verily, a person is a sacrifice. His [first] twenty-four years are the morning Soma-libation, for the Gayatri meter has twenty-four syllables and the morning Soma-libation is offered with Gayatri hymn. The Vasus are connected with this part of the sacrifice. Verily, the vital breaths (prana) are the Vasus, for they cause everything here to continue (vas).
- If any sickness should overtake him in this period of life, let him say: ‘Ye vital breaths, ye Vasus, let this morning libation of mine continue over to the mid-day libation. Let not me, the sacrifice, be broken off in the midst of the vital breaths, of the Vasus.’ He arises from it; he becomes free from sickness.
- Now the [next] forty-four years are the mid-day libation, for the Trishtubh meter has forty-four syllables and the mid-day libation is offered with a Trishtubh hymn. The Rudras are connected with this part of the sacrifice. Verily, the vital breaths are the Rudras, for [on departing] they cause everything here to lament (rud).
- If any sickness should overtake him in this period of life, let him say: ‘Ye vital breaths, ye Rudras, let this mid-day libation of mine continue over to the third libation. Let not me, the sacrifice, be broken off in the midst of the vital breaths, of the Rudras.’ He arises from it; he becomes free from sickness.
- Now, the [next] forty-eight years are the third libation, for the Jagati meter has forty-eight syllables and the third libation is offered with a Jagati hymn. The Adityas are connected with this part of the sacrifice. Verily, the vital breaths are the Adityas, for [on departing] they take everything to themselves (adadate).
- If any sickness should overtake him in this period of life, let him say: ‘Ye vital breaths, ye Adityas, let this third libation of mine continue to a full length of life. Let not me, the sacrifice, be broken off in the midst of the vital breaths, of the Adityas.’ He arises from it; he becomes free from sickness.
- Verily, it was this that Mahidasa Aitareya knew when he used to say: ‘Here, why do you afflict me with this sickness—me, who am not going to die with it?’ He lived a hundred and sixteen years. He lives to a hundred and sixteen years who knows this.
Recognition of the unity underlying the diversity of the world
- By the Lord (isa) enveloped must this all be—
Whatever moving thing there is in the moving world.
With this renounced, though mayest enjoy.
Covet not the wealth of anyone at all.
Non-attachment of deeds on the person of a renouncer
- Even while doing deeds here,
One may desire to live a hundred years.
Thus on thee—not other than this is it—
The deed (karman) adheres not on the man.
The forbidding future for slayers of the Self
- Devilish (asurya) are those worlds called,
With blind darkness (tamas) covered o’er!
Unto them, on deceasing, go
Whatever folk are slayers of the Self. . .
A dying person’s prayer
- With a golden vessel
The Real’s face is covered o’er.
That do though, O Pushan, uncover
For one whose law is the Real to see.
- O Nourisher (pusan), the sole Seer (ekarsi), O Controller (yama), O Sun (surya), offspring
of Prajapati, spread forth they rays! Gather thy brilliance (tejas)! What is they fairest form–
that of thee I see. He who is yonder, yonder Person (purusa)—I myself am he!
- [My] breath (vayu) to the immortal wind (anila)!
This body then ends in ashes! Om!O Purpose (kratu), remember! The deed (krta) remember!
O Purpose, remember! The deed remember!
The Atri enquired of Yajnavalkya. On being asked how one who does not wear the sacred thread can be (treated as) a Brahmana, Yajnavalkya answered, this alone is the sacred thread of him that purifies himself by the offering and sipping water. This is the procedure for becoming a recluse. (For one who is weary of the world but not yet fit to become a recluse the following are prescribed), he may choose a hero’s death (by following the path of the warrior in the battlefield), he may fast unto death, throw himself into water or enter fire (burn himself to death) or perform the last journey (walk unto death). Then the wandering ascetic who (puts on) orange robes, who is shaven, who has non-possession, purity, non-enmity, lives on alms, obtains the state of Brahman. If he is diseased he can renounce by mind and speech. This is not to be done by one who is healthy. Such a renouncer becomes the knower of Brahman, so said the venerable Yajnavalkya.
BRAHMA PURANA 80.75
It is the highest duty of the woman to immolate herself after her husband.
PADMA PURANA V.60.55
A man who, knowingly or unknowingly, willfully or unintentionally dies in the Ganges, secures on death heaven and moksha [release from the cycle of rebirth].
SKANDA PURANA VI.22.76
He who dies in Kashi [Varanasi] does not incur the sin of suicide but secures his desired objects.