This is part 3 of the series Vedas and Ancestors.
The third and fourth sūkta-s of kāṇḍa 18 of Atharva Veda has 73 and 89 verses respectively. Many of the verses in the third sūkta are also found Rig Veda. Some of the verses are extremely difficult to interpret from the point of dharma śāstra-s because some of the mantras are about women getting remarried after the death of their husbands.
“The woman at your side (the corpse of the dead) is the one to uphold the dharma followed by you. Give her wealth and progeny.” Progeny in this verse is difficult to explain. There are interpretations that this reference is with regard to her next birth. But the next verse overrides this interpretation, which says, “Lady! Why are you lying by the side of the lifeless; come to this world (from the thoughts about her deceased husband); go to your second husband (the verse uses the word didhiṣu which means second husband). You have now established conjugal relationship with him (second husband).” This remarriage concept is emphatically approved by Rig Veda in (X.18.8), through the same verse which says, “Rise, O, woman; accept now as your caretaker (referring to the new life partner), someone among the living ones (possibly the choice is left to the woman concerned). The person with whom you have been living all these days is now dead. May you, through this new husband beget children for yourself and for your late husband who took you by the hand (probably referring to the need of a male offspring to perform annual ceremonial rites.) or for this new man (probably for performing funeral rites) and be happy in rejoicing.” The words “took you by hand” could mean a marriage ceremony performed with Agni as a witness. In a marriage, Agni is invoked and the couple goes around the fire by the man holding the hand of the woman. In fact, there are several verses in Maṇḍala X of Rig Veda on this subject. More than the conjugal relationship in re-marriages, Vedas ensure the safety of women. There are explanations contrary to this interpretation, but they are very frivolous in nature and should be ignored. Safety and security of women in those days were top priorities. Another verse says, “You are not born to undergo this misery. By knowing the paths of gods, go with this man and live with him and make him to reach the heaven (at the time of his death at a later date).”
After praying to Agni that Agni should extinguish after burning the corpse, further prayers are made to the corpse thus: “Go to the world of ancestors. Prepare your causal body for your journey to the world of ancestors or any place you like. (Causal body leaves the gross body at the time of death. It is believed that the causal body stays near the corpse till the corpse is burnt.) Leave your gross body here (for consummation by Agni). Lets gods make me live long (probably it is meant to mean that gods become happy on seeing his sincerity in performing the last rites to the dead). O! Forefathers! Go back and live (in the heaven; probably praying for cessation from transmigration). Bless us with wealth (material wealth and brave progeny).” Blessings are always sought from the ancestors, as they are given the same status given to gods. This is followed by several verses in the form of prayers to Agni and pitṛ-s. There are a few verses to Earth. “Let these women (remarried) be good wives and well dressed (wearing flowers and applying eye liners, etc.) Let them live without disease and sorrow. Let them predecease their husbands.” There are couple of verses addressed to Indra seeking knowledge for their (the family of deceased) children. “Can we attain that Light?” possibly asking for liberation from transmigration. Indra is the most invoked god in all Vedic rituals. Again the corpse is addressed: “The different oblations we offer to you along with sesame seeds (oblations offered to pitṛ-s end with svadhā as against oblations offered gods end with svāhā) will be given to you by Yama. Take rest in Yama’s kingdom. Come back again to this world and be born in our lineage.”
Third sūkta in a nut shell encourages remarriage for women. It prays to the causal body of the dead to go to the world of Yama for a sojourn. During the period of sojourn, the causal body is sustained with the oblations offered in this world. There are two kinds of prayers. First prayer is that the departed soul should not be reborn and become one with the Supreme Light. If this is not possible (due to his karmas), prayers are made that he should be reborn in the same family.
Sūkta four begins by making prayers to Agni, who is considered as the carrier of the effects of oblations to various gods. Hence in all the fire rituals, Agni is given utmost importance. Even while performing fire ritual for gods, first Agni is invoked and only in the midst of the invoked Agni (when the flames appear from the well kindled Agni with the help of samidh-s) the god in whose favour Agni is invoked is invoked. Similarly, in the ancestral rites also, Agni is first invoked and only in the invoked Agni, pitṛ-s are invoked. Without properly invoking Agni, the benefits of any fire rituals do not reach the respective gods. Even in the funeral pyre (at the time of cremation, performed on the chest of the dead) Agni is invoked.
Prayers are made to Agni to take the dead through the path in which gods travelled, possibly to the world of Indra or heaven. “Take him (or her) to heaven through the path treaded by gods, righteous people and sages and take him to the third firmament of svarga (svarga means heaven and there are seven types of heavens). There are a number of verses in praise of Agni to take care of the causal body of the dead during its journey to the higher planes. There is a reference to a vessel called caru in which the material for oblations is prepared mainly out of rice or wheat or barley and mixed with curd, ghee, honey, water, etc. Then Agni is prayed that the oblations made out of the above material along with sesame seeds should make Agni a well nourished god (probably out of gratitude). Sesame seeds are used only during ancestral rites. It is said that the very smell of sesame seeds (fumes while roasting sesame seeds) make the ancestors happy.
There are indirect and subtle reference to certain gifts like gifting cows and grains. Whenever gifts are given during funeral rites, they are given along with the sesame seeds as they are believed to stabilize the gifts in the ancestral world. Prayers are then made to the ancestors through Agni and their blessings are sought for progeny of the performer of the rites. Pitṛ-s are also told that whatever being offered by the performer will reach him in heaven through Yama. Then goddess Sarasvatī is invoked (Sarasvatī is mentioned in several places in all the Vedas, who is not just the goddess of speech; but she is considered as the representative of the Supreme Lord. Rig Veda X.17.7 explains this thus: “The true seekers of divine knowledge invoke the goddess of speech. They worship the goddess of speech at the sacred altar. The virtuous people pray to goddess Sarasvatī. May the divine goddess of speech bestow blessings upon the dedicated devotees.” This verse goes to prove two points. One there are no two Sarasvatī-s in Vedas; two, she bestows her blessings only on the dedicated devotees possibly underlining the importance of performing ancestral rites, only in this context. Sarasvatī mentioned in Vedas should be referring to Parāśaktī). Even the residents of the Southern side (referring to pitṛ-s, as it is believed that the world of ancestors is positioned in the southern side (the cardinal compass point at 180°) invoke Sarasvatī. There are verses which talk about the son wearing the golden ring worn by his deceased father, probably symbolically declaring him as the head of the family after the demise of his father.
The kāṇḍa 18 ends with salutations to Agni, Yama, great grandfather, grandfather, just deceased father, ancestors who continue to live in the earth and in the upper worlds and also to those who have become one with the Brahman. The different qualities of the ancestors are also described and obeisance is paid to all those qualities individually and these qualities are energy, essence, anger, dreadfulness, auspiciousness and pleasantness. By paying obeisance to Agni, the kāṇḍa is concluded.
(to be continued)