Rico Altman-Merino

The Genealogy of Addiction, from Vedas to Manu


ISSUE 8 | HUNGER | SEP 2011

The prominence of addiction in the societies of classical India is a matter of curiosity to Westerners because we are used to relegating the phenomenon of addiction to the margins and the special cases. To us, it is an inconvenience so remarkable as to be easily avoided. In the literature of ancient Indian civilization at its apex, the vigorous pursuit of pleasure seems to be matched only by the obsessive ethical projects of its elimination. In this article I hope to provide a basis for a future project which will take full account of this richly applicable category. I will proceed chronologically, as the title suggests, from the religious crisis embodied in the Vedas to the competing solutions offered in the Upanishads and the Brahmanas to the attempt to integrate those approaches in the Laws of Manu. At the risk of falling into the common stereotype that everything in India is about religion, I argue here that the development of the idea of addiction (prasanga) is not only rigorously religious in nature at the outset, but is strongly linked to the development of classical Indian religious thought in general.

Cursory interpretations of ancient Indian religion can often give the impression that, until the sudden revolt of asceticism and meditation, the Vedic religious order was steeped in sensuous fecundity, that the sacred wove itself into the texture of the profane, as if gods walked the earth side by side with men. In the compilation of essays entitled The Inner Conflict of Tradition, J.C. Heesterman argues that, on the contrary, meditative brahmanism, rooted in the renunciation of the sensory world, actually has its origins in the earliest known Vedic religion. He proposes that the religion attested in the earliest Vedic texts (probably 1250 BCE) bore marks of an even more ancient, even pre-Vedic custom (perhaps 2000-1500 BCE), in which two hostile priestly parties engaged in violent and destructive battles to “win” the potlatch-like sacrificial contest and thereby acquire some kind of political or material advantage over one another. Here, the play of sacredness is based on a complementarity between oppositions such as life and death, purity and impurity.

In a sense, this ritual would not have been recognized by its successors as part of a shared tradition. Battle sacrifice did not so much attach itself to the contingencies of the world (pleasure, reproduction, disease, conflict, death), which presumes an interior/exterior opposition, as much as it attempted to enclose those contingencies in its ritual space, represent them symbolically, and thus control their effects. To talk of this institution’s “relation” to sensory functions would be to miss the very immanence of the custom to life itself; the archaeological record even suggests that the loser of the sacrificial contest was beheaded. Thus, the ideas of ritual success and failure were of the most demanding order, and were the organizing principles of this system and its sacredness. And yet there is no consideration of desire as an important human concept in relation to the accomplishment of sacrifical domination (Vedic myth, of course, abounds in stories which reflect on desire [kama, which also means “pleasure”] as an attribute of the gods). Instead, the key notion to keep in mind at this point in our genealogical inquiry is the complementarity of life and death, purity and impurity, success and failure; in any of these binaries, the loss of the negative term would render the system incoherent.

By the time of the composition of the Rig Veda (c. 1250 BCE), a historical moment of religious reform had taken place, during which the agonistic character of the sacrifice is abolished, yielding to a lone ritual observant. The attempted removal of anything considered to be evil, dirty, or violent allows the prescribed order of sacrifice to be invoked, for the first time, not as a venue for competition over the goods of life, but as an immovable, transcendant, and complete code of conduct—in other words, the positing of dharma1. Death, impurity, profanity, failure are relegated outside the program of religious imperatives. In Heesterman’s words: “it is in the consideration of the shrauta ritual that the unresolved dilemma of the dharma’s traditional order stands out most clearly, for the revealed shruti has nothing to say about the world, its concerns and conflicts.”2 Since shruti texts (including the Vedas themselves) instruct only in the conduct of human life within the sacrificial context3, the injunction to conduct oneself in exclusive accordance with the revealed order dramatically limits the scope of the brahmins’ proper engagement with society. After the priestly reformers relegate all traces of death and destruction outside the sacrificial system, they are no longer contained in a tension with life, purity, and sacredness, and so they are dispersed. They become invisible attributes of objects of the mundane world, and the ritualist finds it difficult to distinguish between those objects and the evil residues, expelled from the space of the sacrifice into the world at large, that linger in the field of sense data. This opposition between ritual space and social space gives rise for the first time to the notion of attachment (sanga), though it should be understood specifically as the dependence of a ritual function on an external, secular function. Heesterman mentions a priest’s reliance on his wealthy patron as an example of this type of sanga.

The brahmin is obliged on the one hand to maintain the ultimate authority of dharma, and on the other hand to come face to face with the religious pollution that has been unleashed onto the sensory world. His ethical world bifurcates into two possible paths. In the ritualist path, he encloses himself in the order of the shrauta ritual, too intimidated by the dangers and conflicts of the ritually unprescribed world. In the renunciant path, he internalizes the ritual itself by drawing analogies between elements of sacrifice and objects of the world. The renunciant has forsaken the action of sacrifice and instead acquires knowledge of sacrifice. He has interrogated the outside world. He has focused his mind on the residues of religious evil and has acquired knowledge of them. Armed with such knowledge, he is capable of maintaining affairs with the world without incurring the consequences of their destructiveness and impurity.

The meditative texts known as the Upanishads are the classical philosophical sources of renunciant brahminism, and the oldest of them (known as mukhya upanishad, probably c. 800-600 BCE) are considered revealed (shruti) according to pious belief. In them, the conflicts within the Vedic tradition are fleshed out, and a more deliberate and conscious response to them is developed. For the purposes of this inquiry, the question arises, what exactly is being renounced? If Heesterman’s view is to be believed, the tensions that produced renunciant brahminism existed prior to the redaction of the early Upanishads and their subsequent widespread veneration and recitation. But it is only by the time of the Upanishads themselves that this renunciation is canonically linked to formal statements of theology. The original renunciatory impulse gives way to a whole new cosmological ideology that supports it and justifies it.

“Prajapati’s offspring were of two kinds: gods and demons. Indeed, the gods were the younger of his offspring, while the demons were the older; and they were competing for these worlds. So the gods said to themselves: ‘Come, let us overcome the demons during a sacrifice by means of the High Chant.’” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.4)

In this passage, the old Vedic gods are fashioned as fixtures of the world. Though they are immortal, and people offer sacrifices to them, they themselves offer sacrifices and chant Vedic verses, as if they are but humans in service to yet higher forms of divinity. Moreover, they are symbolically linked to the needs and conflicts of the exterior world. In contrast to the old Vedic gods, the transcendent underpinning of the dharmic order is reworked as moksha, liberation from the fetters of earthly existence and rooted in knowledge. This liberation from the shrauta ritual order now means that meditation on the sacrifice actually replaces the sacrifice itself, as alluded to above. In fact, a huge proportion of upanishadic text is devoted to drawing analogies between the worldly attributes of the priest and his sensory capacities as a sacrificer:

“This is his completeness—his mind is himself; his speech is his wife; his breath is his offspring; his sight is his human wealth, for people find wealth with their sight, while his hearing is his divine wealth, for people hear it with their hearing; and his body is his rites, for one performs rites with one’s body.” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.17)

On one level, this sort of metaphorization of ritual is a survival of that body of concerns that was first prompted by the reform of agonistic sacrifice, the instinct toward ritual enclosure that we saw immediately following that reform, before the bifurcation into ritualism and renunciation. But the metaphorization gives way to a specifically renunciant brahmin imperative to gain knowledge of the “hidden connections”4 between ritual action and earthly realm. From a renunciant perspective, the ritualists, so concerned for the autonomy of their enclosed space from profane reality, are attached to ritual through a desire for heaven, just as foolish people and those who do not know the Vedas are attached to their sensory powers.

At nearly the same time as the composition of the Upanishads, the body of ritualist texts known as the Brahmanas are composed (c. 800 – 600 BCE). The authors and redactors of the Brahmanas are essentially the successors to the tradition of the enclosed sacrifice; they stand opposed to the authors and redactors of the Upanishads. The relation of the Brahmana texts to the nonritual world is to define those aspects which are to be specifically excluded from proper religious conduct, as below:

“Bhrigu, the son of Varuna, thought he was better than his father, better than the gods, better than the other Brahmins. Varuna thought, ‘My son doesn’t know anything. Let’s teach him a lesson.’ He took away his life’s breaths, and Bhrigu fainted and went beyond this world to the world beyond. There he saw a man cut another man to pieces and eat him; and then a man eating another man, who was sreaming; and then a man eating another man, who was soundlessly screaming. He returned from that world and told Varuna what he had seen. Varuna explained that when people who lack true knowledge and offer no oblations cut down trees for firewood, or cook for themselves animals that cry out, or cook for themselves rice and barley, which scream soundlessly, those trees, and animals, and rice and barley take the form of men in the other world and eat those people in return. ‘How can one avoid that?’ asked Bhrigu. And Varuna replied that you avoid it by putting fuel on the sacred fire and offering oblations.” (Jaiminiya Brahmana, 1.42-44)

Again, the sacred realm is linked in a series of analogies to the profane realm. Yet clearly the message—perform correct sacrifice, and the rest will take care of itself—is totally divorced from the renunciant message that knowledge of the sacrifice, far better than sacrifice itself, permits the possessor of that knowledge to walk the earth untouched by the invisible debris of cosmic evil. At the same time, the stories embedded in both sets of texts show a loosening from their original polar stances and indeed a degree of mutual influence; the Brahmanas hedge by adding knowledge to correct sacrifice, while Upanishads admit that while knowledge is better than sacrifice, sacrifice is also fine.

The Laws of Manu (in Sanskrit, Manusmriti, c. 200 BCE- 200 CE) attempt definitively and comprehensively to mend this breach. The Manu text represents the most influential early codification of religious law into what is recognized as classical Indian religious orthodoxy, or dharma. Although rigidly traditionalistic in its self-representation, the very boldness with which the Manu text puts forth its codification represents a dramatic break in the ritual system. Pre-Vedic battle sacrifice related to the vast contingency of the world by representing it symbolically within itself. The Vedic system of ritualism embodied in the Brahmanas related to the same set of contingencies by prescribing in detail how they are to be detached from the sacrificial order. And the ethic of renunciation embodied in the Upanishads pointed out that the sacrificial order itself is subject to contingencies as long as its realization is confined to the level of action, and therefore attempts to liberate it fully by realizing it instead through the level of knowledge. The Manu text valiantly attempts to integrate all these expectations, and moreover to define a body of codes that are both derived from eternal dharma and universally applicable to man and his complete set of moral concerns. For the first time since the agonistic battle sacrifice, contingency is allowed to assert itself:

“Acting out of desire is not approved of, but here on earth there is no such thing as no desire; for even studying the Veda and engaging in the rituals enjoined in the Veda are based on desire. Desire is the very root of the conception of a definite intention, and sacrifices are the result of that intention; all the vows and the duties of restriction are traditionally said to come from the conception of a definite intention. Not a single rite is ever performed here on earth by a man without desire; for each and every thing that he does is motivated by the desire for precisely that thing. The man who is properly occupied in desires goes to the world of the immortals, and here on earth, he achieves all the desires for which he has conceived an intention.” (Manu 2.2-5)

Here for the first time we are given an explicit theory of desire in relation to a moral code. Both the ethic of renunciation in the Upanishads and the insular ritualism of the Brahmanas sought to eliminate any notion of human contingency as an attribute of their codes. Only by directly undermining that project, and embracing a notion of attachedness as something that frames man’s relation to his own affairs, can the Manu text undertake its own project, to put forth a practical and complete set of instructions for correct conduct. And yet, the evils of desire and the virtues of successful resistance against addiction underpin nearly every rule that the Manu text promulgates!

The most famous expression of the idea of addiction is the analogy of the human sensory powers to a group of horses: “A learned man should keep trying hard to restrain his sensory powers as they run amok among alluring sensory objects, like a charioteer restraining his race-horses.” (Manu 2.88) From the perspective of the earlier ritual attitudes toward the sensory world, to put forth this metaphor is a clear encroachment on religious space. Imagine a life lived each moment as the charioteer! The Manu text effectively foments crisis by locating the threat of addiction at every turn, and by then warning against it in the strongest terms. “Desire is never extinguished by the enjoyment of what is desired, it just grows stronger, like a fire that flares up with the oblation, and burns a dark path.” (2.94)

As alluded to above, addiction underpins nearly all instruction; where previously all one had to do to affirm the absolute autonomy of dharma was to ensure a reasonable spatial and symbolic interval between religious and secular space, in Manu, desire is immanent in all of man’s affairs. The text explains that the “confused classes” (10.25), people whose parents belonged to different social classes, are the result of sexual addictions. The simple notion of prohibition is insufficient to the task of this text, whose project is to uphold prohibitions insofar as they both lead a person to failure and rob him of his autonomy.

The Manu text, then, is faced with the idea that all desire is attachment (Upanishads), and that all attachment leads to ruin (Brahmanas). Yet is also faced with the idea that desire underpins all human activity, good and bad. (The latter idea was rooted in the agonistic sacrifice that aspired to material goods or political control, and there is no doubt that beneficial sacrifice survived as a brahmin institution throughout the period of pre-Manu Vedic meditative development). In order to navigate this tricky and contradictory system of imperatives, the text devises strategies to apprehend one’s own attachments:

“Someone may attain all of these desires and someone may reject them all, but the rejection of all desires is better than the attainment. Those sensory powers that take voluptuous pleasure in the sensory objects cannot be restrained by non-indulgence as well as by constant understanding. The Vedas, rejection of desires, sacrifices, restraints, the generation of inner heat—they never bring perfect success to a man whose nature has been corrupted. A man who neither thrills nor recoils when he hears, touches, sees, tastes, or smells anything—he should be known as a man who has conquered his sensory powers.” (2.95-98)

The Manu text commends desire as the root of correct sacrifice (above), and certainly commends sacrifice as a dharmic imperative that leads to the fulfillment of worldly goals. Yet it also commends knowledge as a superior replacement to correct action. These movements within the text are almost frantic, but their purpose is clearly to put a spotlight on addiction and to hold it out as the anti-ideal. It allows the Manu text to mend the breach between ritualism and renunciation, to stipulate the existence of constructive versus destructive desires.

The idea of addiction is in opposition to the idea of autonomy, and thus contingency, that which allows bare facts to arrive on the scene and exercise dominance over it, is at the root of addiction. From the beginning, what is warned against is an imagined spatial relationship with some contingency—the unritual exterior, action as incommensurate with knowledge, attachment to pleasure, attachment to success, and finally, addiction, the near-unseverable attachment. At each stage of the development of the idea of addiction, the play of contingency has determined not only a couple of key terms in each respective discourse, but the whole code, the whole manner in which dharma is approached.


1 Dharma (n): law, right, order, society, custom, duty, propriety, religion; literally, that which upholds or supports; cognate with Latin firmus, “stable,” and Greek thronos, “throne.”

2 Shruti refers to a relatively small body of old texts that are thought to be divinely given, as opposed to those designated smriti, passed on as a matter of tradition. Shrauta is a derivation of shruti, and refers to practices that are ideologically or programmatically aligned with the privilege enjoyed by shruti texts.

3 Remember, in the system of agonistic battle sacrifice, the inherent oppositions of productive life are contained within the ritual.

4 A traditional gloss on the name upanishad itself.

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