Event — Webinar

The regions of the cosmos in Vedic classifications

An online interactive lecture by Per-Johan Norelius, IIAS Research Fellow with a fellowship from the J. Gonda Foundation of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW).

The Lecture

The cosmology of Vedic India (ca. 1200-500 BCE) divided the universe into a horizontal plane, consisting of the four cardinal points, and a vertical plane, made up of the three 'worlds', earth, atmosphere, and sky. Through a network of macro-microcosmic correspondences, the various regions of the universe are correlated to gods, body-parts or vital faculties, social classes, sacred texts and meters, and so on. Thus, for instance, the earth is correlated with the god Agni (Fire), with the faculty of speech, and with the Brahmin class, among other things.

The meaning and purposes of this classificatory system have been the subject of much scholarly discussion since the 19th century. In recent years, one controversial theory, proceeding from the fact that the system operates largely with triads (three worlds, three sacred texts, etc.), has taken the three social classes (Brahmins, warrior-noblemen, and commoners) to be the “basis” of the system; all the other triads would serve as coded representation of the social hierarchy, the chief purpose of the classifications being to legitimize the superiority of the Brahmin class. Another, structuralist interpretation sees instead an underlying dualism as the basis of the system, with some regions of the universe, connected with light, life, and heaven, being set against others, associated with darkness, death, and the underworld.

Per-Johan Norelius will discuss some recent research on the Vedic cosmic classifications and take a closer look at some disputed categories in the system, which, it will be argued, can only be understood in the light of some Vedic ideas about the structure of the universe and the sources of life and fertility on earth.

The Speaker

Per-Johan Norelius studied Sanskrit, Latin, and religion at the universities of Gothenburg and Stockholm. He completed his PhD in the History of Religions at Uppsala University in the fall of 2021 with a dissertation on soul-conceptions in Vedic India. He is currently a Gonda fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies, Leiden.