Indo-European Language and Society

Chapter 15. Credence and Belief


The exact formal correspondence between Lat. crē and Sanskrit śraddhā– is a guarantee of ancient heritage. Studies of the uses of śraddhā– in the Rig Veda show that the meaning of the word is “act of confidence (in a god), implying restitution (in the form of a divine favor accorded to the faithful).” The expression of the same complex notion, the IE *kred-, recurs in a secular sense in Latin crēdō ‘to entrust something with the certainty of recovering it’.


Like the designations for “wages,” those which relate to the notion of “loan” or “borrowing” did not originally have an economic sense.
A “loan” is money or valuables entrusted to another to be given back subsequently. This definition will be found applicable to certain terms, some of which are common to several Indo-European languages, while others are the result of recent developments.
We shall first consider a Latin term with a wider meaning, which is explained by correspondences of wide extent and antiquity. This is Latin crēdō and its derivatives. From the time of the earliest texts the meaning of “credit” is extended to include the notion “belief.” The very range of the meaning poses the question of how these notions are connected in Latin, for the corresponding terms in other languages also show the antiquity of the notion and the close association of the two senses.
The dialect distribution of the terms is striking: on the one hand Latin crēdō and Irl. cretim, and at the far end of the Indo-European territory Skt. śraddhā, a verb and a feminine noun, with the parallel Avestan zrazdā-, a verbal stem and also a noun. In Indo-Iranian, the sense is likewise “believe” with the same construction as in Latin, i.e. governing the dative. Hans Köhler has studied in detail in his dissertation (Göttingen 1948) the notion of śraddhā in Vedic and Buddhistic literature.
We have here one of the most ancient correspondences in the Indo-European vocabulary; it is remarkable because (as has already been noted) it is attested only at the two extremities of the common territory; and, as in the case of a number of important terms relating to beliefs and institutions which have the same distribution, such a survival is indicative of an archaism.
This fact is corroborated by the antiquity of the formation. We are dealing with an ancient verbal compound, formed by means of the verbal root *dhē-. The prototype is easily restored as *kreddhē– ‘to put the *kred’; phonetically crēdō comes from *crezdō, corresponding to Skt. śraddhā. In Avestan, where *srazdā would have been expected, we have zrazdā with an initial z by assimilation; thus all the forms are in exact agreement. Such an identity of forms under these conditions is a guarantee that we have a lexical heirloom which has been faithfully preserved.
When J. Darmesteter first established this correspondence, he saw in the first element the word for “heart” (Lat. cor, cordis). This interpretation was quickly abandoned for various reasons which we shall have to reconsider because the etymological problem is again under discussion. In the current view *kred is regarded as a separate word signifying “magic power”; *kreddhē– thus signifies “to put one’s *kred in somebody (which results in trust).” This is not exactly simple but we cannot a priori expect such a notion to correspond to modern ideas.
The problem was reconsidered by Köhler, who examined the sense of the verb and the noun in Vedic and has shown what seems to follow therefrom for the Indo-European etymology. According to him, Darmesteter’s etymology, positing *kred as the word for “heart,” was wrongly rejected. If we return to the explanation of *kreddhē– as “to put one’s heart into somebody,” we can see without difficulty how the different senses attested could have developed, which remained constant in Indic, both in Vedic and Pāli, including the late sense of “desire.” If the Vedic term refers to “belief,” this is not a theological credo, but the trust which the faithful put in the gods, in their might, particularly in Indra, the god of aid and succor, who is the mightiest of the gods. The central religious conception in a religion of sacrifice, which is what Vedic religion is, is expressed according to Köhler by a succession of three terms: Treue (faith), Hingabe (devotion), Spendefreudigkeit (pleasure in giving, generosity in giving). The evolution from “faith” to “lavish offering (in the sacrifice)” first took place in the noun and then in the verb.
The deified concept is met with in the Vedic texts: Śraddhā is the goddess of offering. Subsequently, in an ecclesiastical context, the term came to denote the “trust” of the layman in the brahman and in his power, a trust which correlates with generosity in the offering. In this way we pass from trust in the gods to the power of the offering.
The rest of Kohler’s study is concerned with the history of the term in the Upaniṣad and the Buddhistic texts, which attest to the survival of the notion of “belief” and the notion of “generosity in offering.” The initial sense would therefore have been “to place one’s heart,” and this is the old etymology which Köhler proposes to revive, and he submits that it is demonstrated by notions culled from Vedic.
How much of this will stand up to examination? Let us leave for the moment the etymology, to which we shall return at the end. If śraddhā in Vedic signifies “believe, have trust in,” we are not told how “belief” can be defined. It would appear that this notion was similar in Vedic to that of “belief” in Latin or Irish, where it was already established from the beginning. This being so, we have to rely solely on the etymology to reach a conclusion about the original sense.
In fact, with the help of the texts cited exhaustively by Köhler, it is possible to characterize this notion a little more precisely. The term śrad– is not combined with verbs other than –dhā, except once with kar– (kr̥– ‘make’). But śradkar– is artificial and unclear: everybody agrees on that. It must also be noted that the verb śraddhā– is often treated as a compound with a preverb or one in which the components can be severed, śrad and dhā. Such belief is never a belief in a thing; it is a personal belief, the attitude of a man vis-à-vis a god; never a relation of man to man, but a relation of man to god; the śraddhā is addressed particularly to Indra, the national god, the hero whose exploits fill the Rig Veda. By a well-known transfer, every time a divinity has a function, it is that divinity who is needed by man to accomplish the same function on earth; this is why man has need of Indra in order to be himself victorious in battle.
1. We begin with a text which shows under which conditions this trust is placed in Indra.

śráddhitaṃ te mahatá indriyā́ya
ádhā manye śrát te asmā́ adhāyi
vŕ̥ṣā codasva mahaté dhánāya

Rig Veda I, 104, 6
We have trust in your great Indrian might, and it is for this reason that I have thought (manye): trust has been put in you, rush forward like a bull to win the great prize of combat.

The subject here is winning the prize in a combat, it is not war, but single combat, a joust. Whether gods or the representatives of the gods are involved, each has his partisans and the cause of the god is that of all those who support him, because they put their faith, their trust in the god.

2. We next have a passage in which, for the first and probably the only time, there appears a question about the origin of the gods and a doubt as to their existence (Rig Veda II, 12, 5): “He of whom they ask ‘where is he?’ the terrible (god) of whom they also say ‘he does not exist,’ he diminishes (mināti) the possessions of the ari (the rival) just like (a player) does the stake; have confidence in him, só aryáḥ puṣṭī́r víja ivā mināti śrád asmai dhatta.”
The subject is a joust, in which the god whose existence some venture to doubt carries all away, reduces the stake of the rival. Therefore, śrad asmai dhatta ‘believe in him!’
This god is the champion who carries the hopes of the man whose cause he represents; the man must reinforce his might by making this śraddhā; thus he places śrad in him so that he may triumph in the combat; the god must justify this trust by his previous exploits.
3. In another text (X, 147, 1) śrad te dadhāmi ‘I place my trust in you, because you have crushed the dragon and accomplished a manly exploit’. This refers to the combat of Indra with Vr̥tra, a previous exploit which obliges the faithful to give him his trust.
4. Next comes an invocation to the divine twins, the Nāsatyas (the Aśvins, who correspond to the Dioscuri), the twins who are gods of healing and learning (X, 39, 5): “We invoke you to pledge yourselves to renew your favors to us, Ο Nāsatyas, so that this ari (the clan companion) may have trust in you.”
They are anxious to obtain proof from these heavenly physicians that they are capable of helping man, so that the “other” (the ari) who does not believe in them will henceforward grant them his trust and be their supporter.
5. Why?—a text gives the answer (VII, 32, 14): “Which man, Ο Indra, would attack him whose treasure you are” (tvāvasu ‘who has you as his wealth, his fortune’). “In entrusting himself to you, śraddhā te, the hero endeavors to gain the prize (of combat) on the decisive day.”
6. “Because I have said: in choosing you, Ο Indra and Agni, we must take away in combat this sóma from the Asuras (who are the enemies of the gods), come to support the śrad and drink of the pressed cup of sóma (suta).” (I, 108, 6).
7. “O Indra, gladdened by the śraddhā and by drinking of the sóma, you have in favor of Dabhīti (this is the name of a man) put to sleep (the demon) čumuri.” (VI, 26, 6).
The response to our “why?”—cf. (5) above—is therefore: because the god who has received the śrad returned it to the faithful in the form of support in victory.
In conformity with the general tendencies of the religious vocabulary, there develops here an equivalence between the abstract action śrad and the act of offering: to put one’s śrad in the god is tantamount to making him an oblation; hence the equivalence between śrad on the one hand and yaj– and all the other verbs of oblation on the other. We see that there is no need for the “generosity” which Köhler believed was the semantic constituent of the word.
If we ventured to propose a translation for śrad, it would be “devotion” in the etymological sense: a devotion of men to a god for a contest, in the course of a combat, or a competition. Such a “devotion” permits the victory of the god who is the champion, and it confers in return essential advantages on the faithful: victory in human contests, healing of sickness, etc. “To have confidence” is to put one’s trust (in someone), but with the implied obligation of return service. In Avestan, the notion is defined in the same way: here, too, we find an act of faith manifested towards a god, but specifically in order to obtain his help in combat. The act of faith always implies the certainty of remuneration; it is to secure the benefit of what has been pledged that this devotion is made.
So similar a structure in different religious contexts guarantees the antiquity of the notion. The situation is that of a conflict among the gods, where humans intervene by espousing one or the other of the causes. In this engagement men give a part of themselves to reinforce that god whom they have chosen to support; a return service is always implied, some recompense from the god is expected. Such is apparently the basis of the secularized notion of credit, trust, whatever the thing trusted or entrusted.
The same framework appears in all manifestations of trust: to entrust something (which is one of the uses of crēdo) is to hand over to another person without considering the risk something that belongs to you, but which for various reasons is not actually given, with the certainty of receiving back what has been entrusted. It is the same process both for a religious faith in the proper sense, and for trust in a man, whether the pledging (“engagement”) is performed by words, promises or money.
We thus reach far back into the distant past of prehistory, at least the outlines of which we can discern: trials of strength between clans, between divine and human champions, in which it is necessary to vie in strength or generosity in order to assure victory or to win in gambling (gambling is a truly religious act: the gods gamble). The champion needs people to believe in him, to entrust their *kred to him, on the condition that he lavishes his benefits on those who have thus supported him: there is some sort of do ut des (‘I give that you may give’) between men and gods.
What is the *kred? Does the analysis which we have just completed justify the conclusion which Köhler drew that *kred must come from the word for “heart”? The old objection against this interpretation persists. The form *kred is not identical with the name for heart in Indo-Iranian: this is a strange, but indisputable fact. Indo-Iranian differs from Latin cor(d), Gr. kē̂r, kardía, Gothic hairtō, Sl. srŭdĭce, in that the initial consonant reflects a voiced aspirated stop: hr̥d-, hārdi in Sanskrit, zəred– in Avestan.
Whatever the explanation, there is not the least trace in Indo-Iranian of the voiceless dorsal plosive attested everywhere else. Thus the form *kred cannot be identified with the name for “heart.” Even in the western group where the form presents an initial k-, we find for “heart” *kerd, *kord, *kr̥d (zero-grade), but never *kred.
There is a further, and this seems to me a still more serious, difficulty, one of sense: yet this is the aspect of the question to which least attention is paid. What is represented in Indo-European by “heart”? In the first place it is the organ par excellence: one throws the heart of a man to the dogs. In the second place, the heart is the seat of a number of emotions. The reader of Homer knows that courage and thought reside in the heart, certain emotions manifest themselves there, especially anger, and this explains the sense of a derivative verb like the Old Slavic srŭditi, Russ. serdiť ‘irritate’ (Old Slav. srŭdĭce, Russ. serdce ‘heart’). The derivative nouns are bound up with the same ideas: in Latin secors, concors, together with the abstract nouns like concordia, vecors ‘who is out of his heart, his faculties’, as well as the verbal derivative recordor ‘to remind (oneself)’. The heart is simply an organ, the seat of an affection, a passion, possibly of memory, but no more.
What is never attested in any Indo-European language is an analytical phrase like “*to put one’s heart into somebody.” To anyone who is familiar with the phraseology, the style, the way of thinking of the ancients, this would be just as strange an expression as “to put one’s liver.” Only an illusion born of modern metaphors could have made anybody imagine such an Indo-European turn of phrase as “to place one’s heart into somebody.” We would search in vain in ancient texts for the least trace of such a phrase. This interpretation must definitely be discarded. Unfortunately we cannot propose anything definite to put in its place: *kred remains obscure; it does not appear except in this combination, never as an independent word. From the point of view of etymology, the word is completely isolated.
Thus all we can do is to hazard a conjecture: *kred may be some kind of “pledge,” of “stake,” something material but which also involves personal feeling, a notion invested with a magic power which all men possess and which may be placed in a superior being. There is no hope of giving a better definition of this term, but we can at least restore the context which gave rise to this relationship that was first established between men and the gods, and later came to be established between men.