The Vedas

Definition

by Cristian Violatti
published on 18 January 2013

The Vedas are a collection of hymns and other ritual texts of the old Indic society. They were first composed sometime before 1500-1000 BCE in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent, present day Pakistan and northwest India, but they were at first transmitted orally over many generations before eventually being committed to writing.

Like the Homeric epics, parts of these collections were composed in different periods. We do not know much about the authors of these texts: in Indian tradition the focus tends to be on the ideas rather than on the authors, perhaps a wiser approach that allows one to look at the message without being influenced by the messenger. Vedic literature is religious in nature and as such tends to reflect the worldview, spiritual preoccupations and social attitudes of the Brahmans or priestly class of ancient India.

The Vedas present a multitude of gods, most of them related to natural forces such as storms, fire, wind, etc. The basic texts are the Samhita (“Collections”) of the four Vedas:

  1. Rig-Veda (“Knowledge of the Hymns of Praise”, for recitation)
  2. Sama-Veda (“Knowledge of the Melodies”, for chanting)
  3. Yajur-Veda (“Knowledge of the Sacrificial formulas”, for liturgy)
  4. Atharva-Veda (“Knowledge of the Magic formulas”, named after a kind of group of priests). 

The Rig-Veda is the oldest, largest and most important and it includes just over a thousand hymns. There are many gods mentioned in the Vedas and also multiple creation stories. Many times the text will refer to a specific god as the greatest god of all, and later another god will be mentioned as the greatest god of all. The same happens with the creation stories, most of them totally inconsistent with each other. We can also learn something from the texts about the Aryans’ lifestyle, clothing, food, social structure and other aspects of their society but we must keep in mind that the texts have a strong priestly bias.

The Pre-Vedic religion, the oldest known religion of India which the invading Aryans found among the natives, was apparently an animistic and totemic worship of many spirits dwelling in stones and animals, in trees and streams, in mountains and stars. Some of these spirits were good, some others were evil, and great magic skill was the only way to control them. Traces of this old religion are still present in the Vedas. In the Atharva-Veda, for example, there are spells to obtain children, to avoid abortion, to prolong life, to ward off evil, to woo sleep and to harm or destroy enemies.

The Rig-Veda deals with many gods but there are some who get a lot of attention. More than half the hymns invoke just three top-rated gods of the moment: Indra (250 hymns), Agni (200 hymns) and Soma (just over 100 hymns). Indra was the head of the ancient Hindu pantheon. He is the Storm-god (sometimes he is referred to as the Sky-god and also as the god of war.) “Who wields the thunderbolt” and probably his most celebrated story was the smiting of the demon-serpent Vritra. The legend says that Vritra kept all the waters trapped in his mountain lair and Indra was the one who slew the serpent and released the waters.

I have slain Vritra, O ye hast’ning Maruts;
I have grown mighty through my own great vigour;
I am the hurler of the bolt of Thunder
For man flow freely now the gleaming waters.

(Mackenzie, Donald, Indian Myth.,54)

The story might sound very simple, but it has a deep significance: the waters are vital for the health of any human community; by hoarding them, the serpent has upset the natural order, whereby, wealth and nourishment are allowed to circulate, and Indra must thus do battle to restore the order.

He, who slew the Dragon, freed the Seven Rivers, and drove the
kine forth from the cave of Vala,
Begat the fire between both stones, the spoiler in warrior's
battle, He, O men, is Indra.

(Rig-Veda 2.12.3)

Even the Heaven and the Earth bow down before him, before his
very breath the mountains tremble.
Known as the Soma-drinker, armed with thunder, the wielder
of the bolt, He, O men, is Indra.

(Rig-Veda 2.12.13)

Myths are products of beliefs, and beliefs are products of experience. It is quite probable that this story reflects the concerns and experiences of communities based on the agricultural mode of life, where water (and its wise management) is one of the most valuable assets. In this case, the beliefs have consequently been influenced by agricultural experiences, and the myths have been given an agricultural significance. Dragon-slaying myths are told all over the world and they can be found in many other Indo-European traditions.

Returning to the texts, Agni was the god of fire and Soma was the personification of an old sacred soma plant, whose juice was holy and intoxicating to gods and men. There was a time when Agni was the most important of the Vedic gods: he was the flame that lifted the sacrifice to heaven, he was the lightning that pranced through the sky, he was the fiery life and spirit of the world, he symbolized “the vital spark”, the principle of life in animate and inanimate nature. He was also the messenger who interceded with the gods on behalf of mankind. In early Vedic times, the dead might be either buried or cremated. These two customs were based upon different beliefs regarding the future state of existence. Those who practised the cremation ceremony in early times appear to have believed in an organized Hell or Hades, to which souls were transferred through the medium of fire. By doing this, they ensured that the spirit of the dead would not remain among the living. For this reason, the worshippers of Agni burned their dead, just like in other ancient cultures such as the Greeks. We find traces of this custom even in Homer when he makes the haunting ghost of Patroklos exclaim:

“Never again I will return from Hades when I have received my meed of fire”

(Iliad 23.75)

Because religion often deals with the great questions of life, there are also hymns that address matters such as Creation, the order of the universe and the origin of social conventions. Varuna, who began as the encompassing heaven, grew with the development of his worshippers into the most ethical and ideal deity of the Vedas, watching the world through his great eye, the sun. He was thought to know everything, to enforce justice and to preserve the world’s smooth functioning. Varuna was the custodian and executor of an eternal law called Rita; this was at first the law that established and maintained the stars in their courses; gradually it became also the law of right, the cosmic and moral rhythm which every man must follow if he is not to go astray and be destroyed.

There is also a hymn to Purusha, a primordial deity who is sacrificed by the gods. Purusha’s mind became the Moon, his eyes the Sun, the Sky came from his head, and the Earth came from his feet. We also read in the same hymn one of the first indications of a caste system that was introduced by the Indo-Europeans with its four major divisions: up at the top there are the Brahmans or priests, and they come from Purusha’s mouth; then we find the Kshatriyas, or warrior rulers, and they come from Purusha’s arms; the Vaishyas, or the commoners (land-owner, merchants, etc.), from Purusha’s thighs and then the Shudras, or labourers and servants, from Purusha’s feet. This last lowest caste was descended from the natives who inhabited the land before the Aryans arrived and were excluded from the Vedic religion. Outcasts were people who did not even fit in this caste system, typically those who were born from, say, a brahman father and a shudra mother. They had no caste, no place at all in the system and their lives were truly miserable. Brahmans are mentioned first in the caste structure and this is not a coincidence, since they had a high social status. Vedic religion is also referred to as Brahmanism to distinguish it from the later related but distinct set of religious beliefs and practices that are called Hinduism.

However, even hymns thought to embody eternal truths can still show perplexity in many ways. There is a famous creation quote in the Rig-Veda which suggests a certain scepticism on the knowledge related to the great question of life.

Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day's and night's divider.
That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.
Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.
Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.
Sages who searched with their heart's thought discovered the existent's kinship in the non-existent.
Transversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below it?
There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder
Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
The Gods are later than this world's production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not. 

(Rig-Veda 10.129.1-7)

It seems quite an extraordinary idea that even the gods, even the Highest Seer in the Highest Sky, could possibly not know it all.

Ritual was believed to maintain the order of the cosmos. There were sacred ceremonies that had to be performed in order for things to keep working smoothly. This approach lead to an idea of religion as deal-making: in return for sacrifices and rituals, the gods would return their favour under the form of protection and prosperity. But things did not always work out that way and when things went poorly, kings tended to blame the Brahmans. The priests would in turn argue lack of training or would say that the gods would ignore poor quality offers, thus the solution required more expertise and more royal support. Brahmans did not want any privileges to be cut, so they developed a new literature which specified, sometimes in very exacting detail, exactly how rituals had to be performed. They stated the precise quantity and quality of material to be used and they also specified the exact pronunciation of sacred words. These texts were added to the Vedas with the idea that, if sacrifices were performed exactly as they said, then the gods would be compelled to respond. Obviously these new rituals did not always work either and there were some others in the Indic society who believed that this whole business of ritual and sacrifice had been taken too far.

There were, then, some who started to question the priestly class. Was religion a matter of ever more specialised and detailed rulebooks? What was the real meaning of ritual and sacrifices? Some adherents began to devote their lives to religious questions, living as ascetic hermits, rejecting ordinary material concerns, giving up family life and shifting their attention from prosperity in this life to the nature of ultimate reality. Their speculations and philosophy were compiled into texts called The Upanishads. External fire was part of the Vedic rituals along with sacrifices and these now shifted into an internal fire: there is a power that comes from asceticism, from self-denial for religious reasons. There are a number of practices linked to this new religious approach: meditation, celibacy, fasting, etc. Other people argued that the ritual itself was not important, but rather, the spiritual reality that was behind the ritual. Going through a ritual step-by-step in one’s mind might be just as effective as the actions or words. The Upanishads contain serious philosophising, and the authors of these texts took up most of the religious and spiritual concerns and elaborated answers with a very different mind-frame than the Brahamanic tradition. These new collections of texts are perhaps the greatest product of the Hindu mind.

Written by , published on under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.

Bibliography

  • DURANT, WILL. The Story of Civilization, Vol. I: Our Oriental Heritage. New York - 1963, 1963.
  • FORTSON, BENJAMIN W. Indo-European language and culture: and introduction. Blackwell Publishing - Chichester, 2010.
  • MACKENZIE, DONALD A. Crete & Pre-Hellenic Myths and Legends. The Guernsey Press Co. Ltd - London, 1995.
  • MACKENZIE, DONALD A. Indian Myth & Legend. Geddes & Grosset - London, 2008.
  • PUHVEL, JAAN. Comparative Mythology. The John Hopkins University Press - Baltimore, 1989.

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  • Joshua J. Mark wrote on 17 January 2013 at 00:24:

    A very interesting and engaging piece. I especially appreciate the line, "Myths are products of beliefs, and beliefs are products of experience." It's such a simple sentence but really very profound. Thanks for such a fine work. Very much enjoyed it.

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Timeline

Visual Timeline
  • c. 1700 BCE - 1100 BCE
    The Rig Veda written, mentioning the god Rudra (Shiva) for the first time.
  • c. 1700 BCE - 150 BCE
    The Vedic Period in India.
  • 1500 BCE
    The Indus Valley is invaded by Aryans - nomadic northerners from central Asia.
  • c. 700 BCE
    Indian scholars codify and reinterpret Aryan beliefs to create the Upanishads texts forming the basis of Hinduism.
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