Rtam and the Rig Veda

published on November 4, 2013

Dr. Vijaya Rajiva

The Rig Veda, Hinduism’s most ancient  document, sacralised the word ‘Rtam’ in its ten books. Rtam has been considered the most important concept of the Rig Veda and has been translated as the eternal  cosmic order similar (but not identical) to such concepts in the ancient world, e.g. Maat in Egypt, Tao in China. While this concept in Egypt and in China are no longer operative in these countries’ religion or philosophy, the Rtam continues to be central to India, via the concrete embodiment of Rtam, the Devas and Devatas of the Rig Veda. These gods and goddesses continue to be devoutly worshipped in India.  Rtam itself is a manifestation of the eternal Sat, eternal, existential Being. Hence, today we have Veda Agama, the latter standing for temple worship of the gods and goddesses, great and small.

Rtam manifests in the three worlds of sky, atmosphere and earth. In society it stood for Dharmic social practice in human relations.

Rtam was also seen in the cosmic cycle as depicted in Vedic astronomy, and which in turn influenced the various sciences such as that of architecture and medicine (Vastu Shastra, Ayurveda etc).

This continuity was maintained  in the Vedic age and till the present through the agency of the Yajna, the Vedic sacrifice to the cosmic order and the Agamic worship of gods and goddesses in Hindu temples. A lesser but still significant role was played by the evolution of the concept of Dharma, the social order that maintained society and through this to the cosmic order Rtam. The Dharma Shastras, the codifying of the rules of Dharma sought to maintain the social order. We shall return to the subject of Dharma and the Social Order.

Rtam, Sat, Yajna, Dharma,Brahman (as the power of the word exemplified in mantra) are the central themes of the Rig Veda. Scholar and historian Prof Shivaji Singh has pointed these out  in his essay ‘The Continuity of Vedic Culture : New Paradigms'(2010) Here, we shall look at Rtam.

Rtam is usually referred to as rta, which is the root stem. Rtam is in the neuter nominative according to Apte’s Sanskrit Dictionary (available online for ready reference). Here we shall use the form Rtam. It has been dealt with by Western scholars such as Monier Williams (Sanskrit-English Dictionary) . Recently, CR. Heckaman, has gone to some length in trying to define Rtam (Towards A Comprehensive Understanding of Rta in the Rig Veda, pdf,1980). He rejects the dictionary meanings of the word as being inadequate because these are influenced by a variety of factors : reading meanings from other languages into Sanskrit. A good example would be translating Rtam simply as Law, Order etc. (Monier Williams).

Heckaman argues that the word should be read in the context of the lines in which it occurs, hence one gets the associations as part of a package of meanings. His entire monograph is well worth a read since it is written as a thesis submitted to a university and is carefully argued. A brief excerpt is cited here:

” . . . . this term is associated with images of wide/safe/free space, pathways upon which entities may travel free from harm, light, and the sound which destroys evil and dispels ignorance. . . . in its specific applications-as the mode of being of the sat, as that which regulates and stabilizes all phenomena in space and time, as the sacrifice and the effective force of the sacrifice, and as “truth” in speech- rta works to provide the cosmos with the benefit inherent in the images and associations which encompass it. The conclusion of the thesis is that although no single image, association or specific application can adequately define rta, these when melted together into a unified bond, provide the rationale for viewing this complicated term as a kind of ‘force’ or ‘power’ which is the necessary precondition for the freedom, safety, security, stability, truth, order, law etc. of the established cosmos” (p.5 of 91, pdf).

For our purposes it is useful to retain the meaning of Rtam as Cosmic Order. It occurs some 390 times in the Rig Veda (Heckaman claims 450) and as said above it is the central conception of the Rig Veda. Dr. Subhash Kak who has written extensively on Archaeoastronomy in the Rig Veda, thinks in terms of Cosmic Cycles. This gives added emphasis to the idea of Cosmic Order, which recurs in certain patterns, in space and time and scale. The word he uses is ‘recursion’.

Rtam as Cosmic Order and Harmony :

What follows is based partially on the views of Subhash Kak, CR. Heckaman and Dr. BVK.Sastry. Dr.Kak  interprets the Rig Veda as an astronomically oriented document and Heckaman looks at the textual evidence in the Rig Veda itself to outline what he calls is the established cosmos and its manifestation in the dynamic Rtam.

Let us begin with the Kak approach. Professor Kak has written extensively on the question of the astronomical basis of the Rig Vedic fire altar and the world view that lies behind the Rig Vedic hymns (riks). The two most important works are The Astronomy of the Vedic Altars (1993) and The Astronomical Code of the Rig Veda (3rd. edition, 2011).

Both works and indeed all his writings on the subject present the world view of the Rishis as based on the harmony of the movement of the sun, the moon, the planets and the stars. There is pattern here and regularity and the Vedic fire altar attempts to replicate (and perhaps recreate ?) this universal harmony. The two most important of the Rig Vedic rituals (the sacrifice) are the Agni Stoma and the Agnicayana.

The Devas and Devatas (gods and goddesses)who are worshipped at the sacrifice belong to the 3 worlds of earth, heaven and the atmosphere. Agni the god who is the chief recipient of worship stands both for himself and the unity of all the gods and goddesses.

The time chosen for the sacrifice is calculated on the movements of the solar year, the lunar year and the movement of the planets. The mathematical basis of these calculations is elaborated in some detail by the author. Hence, Vedic mathematics and Vedic astronomy begin with the Rig Veda. Dr. Kak does investigate some of the later works, especially the Satapatha Brahmana and he utilises arguments also from the Vedanga Jyotisha, but in the two works mentioned above, his focus is on the Rig Veda.

The hymns of the Rig Veda are considered to be Apaurusheya, of non human origin. Dr. Kak points out that the significance of this is that the hymns are descriptions of the eternal Rtam and hence of non human origin, not that they existed in a given form as such.

Dr. Kak, as seen above, deals with the ‘established cosmos’ as Dr. Heckaman calls it. Dr. Heckaman deals with issues of cosmogony, that is, the origins of the cosmos. His emphasis is on the establishment of Rtam, the emergence of cosmos out of chaos and the emergence of beings who inhabit this cosmos, both human and divine. In this perspective many of the Rig Vedic hymns call upon the divine manifestations of Rtam (Devas and Devatas) to come to the aid of humans.

Dr. Sastry emphasises the words Sacred Speech or Chandas in speaking about the Rig Vedic hymns. Chandas mirrors the sounds of the cosmos and is not social language. Hence, the Yajna (Vedic sacrifice) is conducted with a careful repetition of the Sacred Speech (Dr. Sastry’s reflections communicated in private emails).This Chandas or Sacred Speech is mentioned by Panini as distinguished from Chandas in social usage. One may say that the specific metres of Sacred Speech are governed by the motion of the established cosmos. Dr. Sastry goes as far as to say that they actually capture this motion.

Rtam and Dharmic Practice:

The traditional Dharma Shastras,post Vedic treatises, have handed down the injunctions of the Rishis as interpreted by respective writers. By this time the fourfold division of society into the reciters of the Veda (Brahmanas, those who knew the sacred word or mantra),  the defenders of society (kshatriyas), the creators of wealth (vaishyas) and the agriculturalists and manual labourers (shudras) had congealed into a fairly loose but recognisable division of society into 4 segments. This can be named as Varnashrama Dharma. Each Varna or division had its own social rules and as well the broad division of an individual’s life into that of the student, the householder, the retiree from society and the sannyasin.

The word Dharma was linked to Rtam as Law. It social practice depended on the interpretations by various writers on the subject.

The elaborate descriptions in Manusmriti (an important Dharmashastra) may convey only a misleading sense of the rigidity of the system. Caste or jati was a later development necessitated by the division of labour owing to commercial and industrial activities. In that sense the srenis (caste organisations) were similar to the guilds of medieval Europe. For a somewhat different but extremely challenging view of the contemporary views of varna, jati and kula, the reader is referred to the essay ‘Traditional Taxonomy of Varna, Jati and Kula ‘ by Dr. B.V.Venkatkrishna Sastry’ (Waves, 2011, pdf).

Untouchability arose shortly after. Scholars have speculated on its rise and have set the date for around 300 BCE( before the Christian era). Dr. Ambedkar believes that the Untouchables were fallen Shudras who did not accept the social rules and regulations of the time. Still others believe that these populations were the result of the captives taken in war (similar to the helots of ancient Sparta). Whatever its origins, its practice has been banned by the Indian Constitution. That it continues in varying degrees in varying parts of India is a reality that the Hindus of India must take seriously and strive earnestly to eliminate. The Government of India and as well the various NGos and social organisations such as the RSS have done good work in that regard , but much more needs to be done and Hindu society in general need to wake up to this reality.

Varna, Caste and Untouchability are three distinct phenomena.

As is well known Mahatma Gandhi campaigned against Untouchability. What is less well known is that he endorsed both Varna and Caste. He believed that the four fold division of labour in society (Varna) gave balance and stability to society. Caste also provided for pride in one’s work and the production of meangingful wealth for society. Contemporary scholars such Prof. Vaidyanathan of the Bangalore IIT and writer and economist S. Gururmurthy have written relevantly about the actual role played by caste organisations in promoting economic growth even in contemporary India. The srenis of ancient India were the engines of the country’s famed prosperity. It follows then that there should be some care and caution before the entire system is eradicated, lock, stock and barrel, as some have advocated.

Dharmic Practice for the Contemporary World :

In a previous article ‘ Proto-African-Indian Sanskrit and the word Aryam’ (Haindava Keralam, Oct.23,2013) the present writer had spoken about the views of Madhav S. Golwalkar (popularly called Guruji) as presented in the book by Dr. Shrinivas Tilak called Reawakening to a secular Hindu Nation (2008). It is worth repeating those views here since they bring to light the real intent and meaning of the social message of the Rishis of Vedic times :

Dr Tilak begins his account with a distinction between Sarva and Vishwa. Sarva is an undivided perfectly seamless whole. Vishwa is a totality or a composite of individual parts that retain their individuality or distinction even when encompassed or englobed in a totality.

Ethically speaking Vishwa is a principle implying reciprocal (though reasonable)concern for one another. Hence there is individual freedom and choice in relation to social good and the community. The bond between individuals is guided by what is called Sapekshata, which is a bond per se. Dr. Tilak does not use the word Rtam, instead he focuses on Dharman, a close relative of the cosmic harmony of Rtam. Hence, Dharma/Dharman reflects the cosmic harmony Rtam. Consequently, any social bonding must follow the pattern of Rtam’s harmony.

Tilak goes on to remark that “the secular character of the state in India’s past was attributable to Hinduism’s tolerant nature, which was institutionalised through the concept of Dharmasapekshata” (p. 17) or Dharmic bonding.

Hence, a non Hindu who is a citizen of India has (according to Golwalkar) to meet his/her national responsibility (rashtra dharma), duty to society (samajdharma) and family responsibilities (kuladharma) like all other citizens. Only in his /her personal faith can one choose any path that satisfies one’s spiritual or theological urge.

Hence, Golwalkar did not demand any adherence to Hinduism by non Hindus. Dr. Tilak points out :

” Golwalkar posited that the present day Indian society and nation would need an equivalent of the modern notion of civil religion that is neverthless rooted in Dharma and in the civilisation of India.This would necessitate a conscious reformulation of Dharma to make it more acceptable to the majority of Indians as well as one that is more compatible with the needs of a modern secular state. The move to reawaken and to recreate a Hindu nation would not be one of return to primordial unity as it once existed in ancient times but rather of rebuilding a compatible structure without eliminating the now existing diversity, plurality, or individuality. If the tradition is to be reconciled with the secular and democratic needs of the state in today’s India with the beliefs and behavioural patterns of India’s diverse population, its symbols must be reformulated through a process of transformation and transvaluation.

By transformation Golwalkar understood retaining of certain structurally recognizable features of the symbol but changing other aspects of its form. Transvaluation would mean retaining the form of the symbol but interpreting it to have a meaning other than the traditional meaning” (pp.18-19).


If Rtam is to be interpreted seriously by contemporary Hindus then the full implications of the Rig Veda must be opened up again to the discussion and debate that was characteristic of ancient India and which had been suppressed by the long night of both the Islamic period and the colonial regime, and in post independent India, with its unquestioning acceptance of colonial models of India’s heritage.

(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university).

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