The Indian religious traditions consider the Vedas to be of divine origin and Apaurseya or those which were not composed by any human effort. These Vedas deal with various subjects besides discussing the several gods and goddesses and other religious beliefs. Indeed it is not only the earliest body of the religious beliefs, preserved in the literary form, but it also represents a more primitive phase of thought than is recorded in any other literature. It can, moreover, be traced step-by-step through the various stages of development. It is, finally the source of the modern Hinduism which can thus be historically followed up to its. origin, throughout a period of well over thousands of years. As natural result of its value to the investigator of the religious thought in general, the study of Vedic religion gave birth in the later half of the nineteenth century, when these sacred books also attracted the attention of the foreign scholars.
The ideology of the Vedic literature hovers round the Vedic gods, the fire sacrifices, and the sacrificial animals, Indeed the concept of the Vedic gods is quite' an original one and is based on the forces of nature primarily, though in the later texts several other factors like magic and other tantrik practices entered the Vedic ideology. The Atharvaveda indeed happens to be the spokesman for such magical practices. During the initial Vedic literature the gods like Rudra, Visnu, Prajapati and Indra, the most powerful of the Vedic gods, were conceived in abstract form and not in human form, nor were their iconographical features prescribed. It was, therefore, left to the imagination of the worshippers. to adore them in a suitable form.
The gods and the universe happened to be the creation of Supreme soul, irrespective of their being Indra, Agni, Mitra, Varuna, Asvanikumaras, Soma, Surya or Prthivi. The all pervading Supreme Soul was considered to be eternal and everlasting. Indeed these gods were considered to be the forerunners of the later Brahmanical cult wherein they were adopted in one form or the other.
Let us take the case of Visnu who happened to be enjoying a somewhat insignificant position in the Vedic literature, but in the Rgveda, he was described to be an all pervading god. This quality was hardly available with any other early Vedic gods. In the Brahamnic literature one could peep into his performances as Trivikrama form taking the three strides in order to measure the universe. This episode has been believed to be the earliest reference to the incarnations of Visnu. But even at this stage he was never described to possess four arms or his attributes. The earliest attribute held by him possibly was the gada or the club when he was known as Gadadhara. It may be recalled here that Visnu was also found represented in a second century B.C. inscribed sculpture from Malhar (Madhya Pradesh) in which he is holding a gada in both the hands. This goes on to testify that the earliest specimen of Visnu appears in his Gadadhara form. Now with the passage of time, the Puranas developed stories about his other attributes like samkha, cakra and lotus. The Puranas testify that Visnu received the samkha after the killing of the demon of the same name in the deep ocean. The cakra, however, is stated to be originally with Siva and Visnu had to meditate upon Siva to receive it from him for the killing of a demon. Siva obliged Visnu, after putting the devotion of Visnu to test. Siva as cakradanamurti is therefore quite a popular motif in Indian plastic art, particularly in the medieval period. As far as the lotus is concerned, nothing definite about its being the attribute of visnu could be said, but the Puranas contain a story according to which the four-faced Brahma emerged seated over a lotus, the stalk of which emerged from the navel of Visnu.
Brahma on the other hand, was mostly known in the early Vedic literature as Prajapati, who was responsible for the creation of the universe. But his form of having four faces and four arms developed at a considerable later date, also earning him the title of Pitamaha. It has not been possible to trace out the reason for the development of this type image as an old one or the grandfather. But possibly it was due to his being constantly associated with the creation.
Siva was known as such in the Rgveda where he was popularly conceived as Rudra in an abstract form and the word Siva appears only once in the Rgveda. All his iconographical features, making him five faced, four armed, marriage with Sati and the Parvati, with the bull as his vehicle developed at quite a late stage in the ancient Indian literature and art.
Vrsapakapi, happened to be a monkey god in the Vedic literature, who enjoyed the proximity of Indra, but was adopted in the subsequent times as Mahakapi or Hanuman as per the evidence of the Brahma Purana.
Ganapati, no doubt appears in the Vedic texts, but he is not to be found as Ganesa, the son of Siva of the later Puranic period. He, no doubt, happens to be chief of the ganas, but the term Ganapati has also been used for Rudra or Siva. Therefore, the Puranic Ganapati entirely is the developed form of Vedic Ganapati.
Similarly, Indra, the so powerful a Vedic god, in due course of time was relegated to the insignificant position of a Dikpala in the art and literature of the later period. Similar is the position with the other Vedic deities. Indeed ever since the dawn of civilization on earth, several deities have appeared in human, composite or even animal forms, dominating the Indian religious thought in one or the other forms, while some of them disappeared from the Indian religious scene as rapidly as they had mushroomed, some of them disappeared with the passage of time, and still others came down to the modern times in an improved or modified form.
It may be recalled that the Rgveda was originally spread over together with the Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda into over a thousand Sakhas. The study of the Rgveda started from Rsi Paila. The hymns were composed in the form of metres forming the texts. On the basis of the Mahabhasya the number of the Rgveda's Sakhas has been counted as twenty-one. But currently only Sakala, Baskala, Asvalayana, Samkhyayana and Mandukayana only are available. Inspite of the fact that except Sakala, the Samhitas of the other Sakhas are not available, but they are found mentioned at several places. Some of them find mention in the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and others in the Srout Sutras. Therefore the existence of the five Sakhas is confirmed.
Date of the Vedas
The knowledge of Indo-Aryans is based on the evidence of the Vedic literature, of which the chief constituents are the four collections known as the Rgveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda, but none of them has been properly dated. On linguistic grounds, the language of the Rgveda, the oldest Veda may be said to be the oldest of all and scholars have given it the date of 1000 BC, but its constituents may be-and certainly are in the oldest parts-of much more ancient date and the latest parts, resembling the Atharvaveda, consisting of charms etc. are surely of much later date. The Rgveda is neither historical nor a heroic poem but mainly a collection of hymns by a number of priestly families recited or chanted by them with appropriate solemnity at sacrifices to gods. Naturally, it is poor in historical data. The Samaveda hardly counts at all as an independent text. The Yajurveda, on the other hand (if the Brahmanas pertain to the Black Yajurveda, are left out of account), are nothing but the collections of short magic spells used by certain class of priests at the sacrifices. For the history of the Indian people of the Vedic age, the Atharvaveda is certainly most important of the four Vedas, describing, as it does, the popular beliefs and superstitions of the humble folks.
The Vedic Religion
Before embarking on the topic of the Vedic gods, it would be proper to have a bird' s eye view of the Vedas and the Vedic religion, the geographical distribution and the mode of life of the Vedic people. Broadly speaking the Vedic religion comprises of, besides the Vedic deities, of mythology and the magic. Religion means on the one hand, the body of the beliefs entertained by men regarding the divine or the supernatural power, and on the other hand, that sense of dependence on those powers which is expressed by word in the form of prayer and praise, or by both in the form of rituals and sacrifices. Mythology means the body of myths or stories which give an account of gods and heroes describing their origin and surroundings, their deeds and activities. Mythology is thus included in, though not co-extensive with, that aspect of religion which is concerned with belief. Magic on the other hand means, that body of practices which instead of seeking to gain the goodwill of the divine benevolent powers by acts of worship is largely directed against the hostile agencies.
The religion of the four Vedas regarded as a whole is connected with the worship of the gods largely representing the personification of the powers of nature, the propitiation of the demonic beings comes only to a limited extent within its sphere. The oldest and the most important of the four Vedas is the Rgveda, from which considerable portions of the others are honoured, is a collection of hymns containing a large mythological element. These hymns are mostly the innovations of gods meant to accompany the oblation of-Soma juice and the fire sacrifices of melted butter. The hymns of the Atharvaveda, on the other hand, consist largely of spells meant for the magical application, while their religion is pronounced pantheism.
The Vedic beliefs on the other hand are mythological in nature and start from statements of the Rgveda to which the subsequent developments of the Vedic period are of sufficient importance in each case.
Judged by their fragmentary references, to the origin of the world, the poets of the Rgveda usually regarded it as having been mechanically produced like a building, the material being wood and heaven and earth being supported by earth. The agents in the construction are regularly either the gods in general or various individual gods. The last book of the Rgveda, however, contains a few hymns which represent others views. One of these (X -90), though among the latest of the period preserves a very primitive belief. It announces the origin of the world from the body of a primeval giant whom the gods sacrificed. His head became the sky, the navel the air, and his feet became the earth. From his various members, four castes were produced. This being called Purusa, or man, and interpreted pantheistically in the hymn itself as, "all this, both what has become and what shall be", reappears as the world-soul in the Atharvaveda and the Upanisads.
There are again two cosmogonic hymns of the Rgveda, which explain the origin of the universe, philosophically rather than mythologically as a kind of evolution of the existent (sat) from the non-existent (asat). In another hymn of the same type as a creator (dhita) is, after the evolution of the ocean through heat (tapas) introduced to produce in succession, sun and moon, heaven and earth besides air and ether. There is also a hymn (X.121) in which the heaven and the earth and the great woman are described as the creation of Hiranyagarbha, the golden egg who is said to have arisen in the beginning to be the one god above all gods and is finally involved as Prajapati, lord of all the created beings. It is to be noted here that in the cosmogonic hymns, the water is commonly thought as coming into the existence first. In the Atharvaveda the all-god appears as a creator under several new names.
The cosmogony of the Brahmanas requires the agency of the creator, Prajapati, who is not always the starting point. Sometimes the waters come rust and on them float the golden germ (Hiranya-garbhay) from which arises the spirit which produces the universe. The contradiction is due to the theories of the evolution and of creation being combined. One cosmogonic myth of the Brahmanas describes how the submerged earth was raised by a boar. The latter is post- Vedic mythology, developed into an incarnation of Visnu.
The heaven and earth are ordinarily regarded in the Rgveda as the parents of the gods in general. It is only very rarely that other gods are spoken of as the parents of the rest; the dawn is once said to be the mother of the gods and both Brahmanaspati and Soma are mentioned as their father. The cosmogonic hymns connect the origin of the gods chiefly with the element of water, but one of them describes the gods as having been born after the creation of the universe.
The Vedic beliefs regard the origin of man or the human race were somewhat fluctuating; the ultimate source of man was always thought to be divine. Agni, the god of fire, is at least once said to have begotten the race of man, and certain families of seers are regarded as independently descended through founders from the gods. Usually, however, the human race is traced to a first man, either Manu, or Yama, both of whom are the sons of Vivasvat or a Solar deity.
Nature of the Vedic Gods
The Vedic society believed in a number of gods or the supernatural beings varying in character and power. They comprise of two main groups-on the one hand, gods who are almost exclusively benevolent and receive worship, while on the other hand are the demons who are quite hostile in nature and whose operations have to be counteracted with the help of the gods or ritual expedients. The divine power again may be classed as higher gods, whose power pervades the world and controls the great phenomena of nature; and as lesser divinities whose activities are restricted to a limited sphere or are conducted on a similar scale; for instance tutelary deities and else. The divine nature is further shared by men of days gone by, ancient heroes, who are associated with the deeds of the gods and ancestors, who live with the gods and receive worship like them. Finally at the bottom of the scale are many inanimate objects and implements which are deified being invoked and worshipped like the divine beings.
(a) The Higher Gods The gods are usually listed in the Rgveda and Atharvaveda, as well as the Brahmanas to be thirty-three in number, but there are occasional deviations or inconsistencies as regard to their belief or their number. Troops of deities, such as the sun gods are, of course, not regarded as included in that number. The thirty-three are in the Rgveda, which are divided into three groups of eleven distributed in earth, air and the heaven, the three divisions of the universe. These three groups now containing eight, eleven and twelve deities respectively appear in the Brahmanas under the names Vasus, Rudras and Adityas. The gods as have already been shown were believed to have had a beginning, but they were not thought to have all come into being at the same time; for the Rgveda refers occasionally to other gods and the Atharvaveda speaks of the gods as having existed before the rest. Certain deities, moreover, are described as the off springs of others. The Atharvaveda and the Brahmanas also expressly state that the gods were originally mortals, adding that they overcame death with the practice of austerity. The same aspect is highlighted in the Rgveda too, where the gods are said to have acquired immortality after drinking Soma.
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