ṚTA (Skt., "cosmic order") represents the Vedic notion of an impersonal and powerful force upon which the ethical and physical worlds are based, through which they are inextricably united, and by which they are maintained. Ṛta is the universal truth that gives effective strength to Vedic ritual practices, that serves as the foundation for proper social organization, and that preexists even the Vedic gods themselves, who find in it the very source and essence of their power. In many ways, ṛta stands as the Vedic antecedent for the notion of dharma (the established order of things, proper behavior, fitting truth), a concept of central importance not only to the various forms of Hinduism but also to the teachings of Buddhism, Jainism, and other South Asian religious systems.
The term ṛta is based on the Sanskrit verbal root ṛ ("go, move"), which itself reflects the Indo-European verbal root *ar ("fit together properly"). Thus ṛta signifies the cosmic law that allows the universe to run smoothly, the dynamic structure in which every object and all actions have their proper place and in which all parts support and strengthen the whole in a flowing symbiosis. The word is related through *ar to the Greek harmos, from which the English harmony derives, and to the Latin ars ("skill, craft"), the source of the English art and artist. Accordingly, the term ṛta connotes the experience of a "finely tuned" universe whose laws can give creative power to those gods and cultic specialists who understand its structures.
The Ṛgveda (c. 1200 bce) commonly assigns to the gods such epithets as "he who possesses ṛta," "he who grows according to ṛta," or "he who is born of ṛta," descriptions representing the Vedic notion that the gods derive their strength from their adherence to cosmic law. If they—or humans, for that matter—were to go against the structures of ṛta, they would then be said to be anṛta, a common synonym for vṛjina ("crooked, wrong") and even asatya ("untrue"). Thus even the gods must obey the laws of ṛta. The principles of ṛta (like those of the Zand Avestan asha, a Zoroastrian notion to which ṛta is linguistically and conceptually related) function in eternal opposition to any principle of disjunctive or disintegrative power (druh ; Av., druj ) as well as to those personal demons and humans who seek to disrupt impersonal cosmic order by means of harmful magical practices (yātu ).
Throughout the Vedic period ṛta was understood to be an impersonal law and was never personified or hypostatized into a deity. Characteristically, the primary agent or guardian of the laws of ṛta is the god Varuna, who—in Vedic times at least—was an ethical sky god whose omniscient judgment the Vedic cult admired and feared.
As the impersonal source of cosmic and ethical order, ṛta includes important creative aspects. The gods find their ability to create the world precisely in their ability to recognize the principles of ṛta. These creative dimensions appear frequently in Vedic salutatory depictions of natural processes. Thus the wonderful facts that the sun rises in the east every morning and that water runs downhill are trustworthy cosmic events because they reflect the truth of cosmic harmony (see Ṛgveda 1.105.12). Furthermore, Vedic tradition held that the very structures of ṛta allow the human community access to the powers that drive the universe itself. This is most apparent in the performance of the ritual: since proper cultic activity embodies the structures and processes of cosmic law, the incorrect performance of the ritual would signal the collapse of cosmic order and would be as devastating to the Vedic community as it would be if the sun were not to rise or rivers not to flow.
The most complete study of ṛta continues to be Heinrich Lüders's Varuṇa, vol. 2, Varuṇa und das Ṛta (Göttingen, 1959). Shorter discussions may be found in Hermann Oldenberg's Die Religion des Veda (Berlin, 1894), pp. 195–221; Edward Washburn Hopkins's Ethics of India (New Haven, 1924), pp. 2ff., 40–44; and F. Max Müller's Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (London, 1879), pp. 237–250.
William K. Mahony (1987)
"Ṛta." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rta
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