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A History of Sanskrit Literature by MacDonell

Though death is the path of Yama


In

one of the funeral hymns (x. 14, 7) the dead man is thus addressed:--

Go forth, go forth along those ancient pathways To where our early ancestors departed. There thou shalt see rejoicing in libations The two kings, Varuna the god and Yama.

Here a tree spreads its branches, in the shade of which Yama drinks soma with the gods, and the sound of the flute and of songs is heard. The life in heaven is free from imperfections or bodily frailties, and is altogether delectable. It is a glorified life of material joys as conceived by the imagination, not of warriors, but of priests. Heaven is gained as a reward by heroes who risk their lives in battle, but above all by those who bestow liberal sacrificial gifts on priests.

Though the Atharva-veda undoubtedly shows a belief in a place of future punishment, the utmost that can be inferred with regard to the Rigveda from the scanty evidence we possess, is the notion that unbelievers were consigned to an underground darkness after death. So little, indeed, do the Rishis say on this subject, and so vague is the little they do say, that Roth held the total annihilation of the wicked by death to be their belief. The early Indian notions about future punishment gradually developed, till, in the post-Vedic period, a complicated system of hells had been elaborated.

Some passages of the Rigveda

distinguish the path of the fathers or dead ancestors from the path of the gods, doubtless because cremation appeared as a different process from sacrifice. In the Brahmanas the fathers and the gods are thought to dwell in distinct abodes, for the "heavenly world" is contrasted with the "world of the fathers."

The chief of the blessed dead is Yama, to whom three entire hymns are addressed. He is spoken of as a king who rules the departed and as a gatherer of the people, who gives the deceased a resting-place and prepares an abode for him. Yama it was who first discovered the way to the other world:--

Him who along the mighty heights departed, Him who searched and spied out the path for many, Son of Vivasvat, gatherer of the people, Yama the king, with sacrifices worship. (x. 14, 1).

Though death is the path of Yama, and he must consequently have been regarded with a certain amount of fear, he is not yet in the Rigveda, as in the Atharvaveda and the later mythology, a god of death. The owl and pigeon are occasionally mentioned as emissaries of Yama, but his regular messengers are two dogs which guard the path trodden by the dead proceeding to the other world.

With reference to them the deceased man is thus addressed in one of the funeral hymns (x. 14):--

Run on thy path straight forward past the two dogs, The sons of Sarama, four-eyed and brindled, Draw near thereafter to the bounteous fathers, Who revel on in company with Yama.

Broad-nosed and brown, the messengers of Yama, Greedy of lives, wander among the people: May they give back to us a life auspicious Here and to-day, that we may see the sunlight.

The name of Yama is sometimes used in the Rigveda in its primary sense of "twin," and the chief of the dead actually occurs in this character throughout a hymn (x. 10) of much poetic beauty, consisting of a dialogue between him and his sister Yami. She endeavours to win his love, but he repels her advances with these words:--


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