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Vedic Mythology

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Item Code: NBZ744
Author: A.A. Macdonell
Publisher: Shivalik Prakashan
Language: English
Edition: 2022
ISBN: 9789385719448
Pages: 187
weight of the book: 0.55 kg.
Weight 550 gm
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Book Description
I. Religion and mythology. - Religion in its widest sense includes on the one hand the conception which men entertain of the divine or supernatural powers and, on the other, that sense of the dependence of human welfare on those powers which finds its expression in various forms of worship. Mythology is connected with the former side of religion as furnishing the whole body of myths or stories which are told about gods and heroes and which describe their character and origin, their actions and surroundings. Such myths have their source in the attempt of the human mind, in a primitive and unscientific age, to explain the various forces and phenomena of nature with which man is confronted. They represent in fact the conjectural science of a primitive mental condition. For statements which to the highly civilised mind would be merely metaphorical, amount in that early stage to explanations of the phenomena observed. The intellectual difficulties raised by the course of the heavenly bodies, by the incidents of the thunderstorm, by reflexions on the origin and constitution of the outer world, here receive their answers in the form of stories. The basis of these myths is the primitive attitude of mind which regards all nature as an aggregate of animated entities. A myth actually arises when the imagination interprets a natural event as the action of a personified being resembling the human agent. Thus the observation that the moon follows the sun without overtaking it, would have been transformed into a myth by describing the former as a maiden following a. man by whom she is rejected. Such an original myth enters on the further stage of poetical embellishment, as soon as it becomes the property of people endowed with creative imagination. Various traits are now added according to the individual fancy of the narrator, as the story passes from mouth to mouth. The natural phenomenon begins to fade out of the picture as its place is taken by a detailed representation of human passions. When the natural basis of the tale is forgotten, new touches totally unconnected with its original significance may be added or even transferred from other myths. When met with at a late stage of its development, a myth may be so far overgrown with secondary accretions unconnected with its original form, that its analysis may be extremely difficult or even impossible. Thus it would be hard indeed to discover the primary naturalistic elements in the characters or actions of the Hellenic gods, if we knew only the highly anthropomorphic deities in the plays of Euripides.

2. Characteristics of Vedic mythology. -Vedic mythology occupies a very important position in the study of the history of religions. Its oldest source presents to us an earlier stage in the evolution of beliefs based on the personification and worship of natural phenomena, than any other literary monument of the world. To this oldest phase can be traced by uninterrupted development the germs of the religious beliefs of the great majority of the modem Indians, the only branch of the Indo-European race in which its original nature worship has not been entirely supplanted many centuries ago by a foreign monotheistic faith. The earliest stage of Vedic mythology is not so primitive as was at one time supposed', but it is sufficiently primitive to enable us to see clearly enough the process of personification by which natural phenomena developed into gods, a process not apparent in other literatures. The mythology, no less than the language, is still transparent enough in many cases to show the connexion both of the god and his name with a physical basis; nay, in several instances the anthropomorphism is only incipient. Thus usas, the dawn, is also a goddess wearing but a thin veil of personification; and when agni, fire, designates the god, the personality of the deity is thoroughly interpenetrated by the physical element.

The foundation, on which Vedic mythology rests, is still the belief, surviving from a remote antiquity, that all the objects and phenomena of nature with which man is surrounded, are animate and divine. Everything that impressed the soul with awe or was regarded as capable of exercising a good or evil influence on man might in the Vedic age still become a direct object not only of adoration but of prayer. Heaven, earth, mountains, rivers, plants might be supplicated as divine powers; the horse, the cow, the bird of omen, and other animals might be invoked; even objects fashioned by the hand of man, weapons, the war-car, the drum, the plough, as well as ritual implements, such as the pressing-stones and the sacrificial post, might be adored.

This lower form of worship, however, occupies but a small space in Vedic religion. The true gods of the Veda are glorified human beings, inspired with human motives and passions, born like men, but immortal. They are almost without exception the deified representatives of the phenomena or agencies of nature 2. The degree of anthropomorphism to which they have attained, however, varies considerably. When the name of the god is the same as that of his natural basis, the personification has not advanced beyond the rudimentary stage. Such is the case with Dyaus, Heaven, Prthivi, Earth, Surya, Sun, Usas, Dawn, whose names represent the double character of natural phenomena and of the persons presiding over them. Similarly in the case of the two great ritual deities, Agni and Soma, the personifying imagination is held in check by the visible and tangible character of the element of fire and the sacrificial draught, called by the same names, of which they are, the divine embodiments. When the name of the deity is different from that of the physical substrate, he tends to become dissociated from the latter, the anthropomorphism being then more developed. Thus the Maruts or Storm-gods are farther removed from their origin than Vayu, Wind, though the Vedic poets are still conscious of the connexion. Finally, when in addition to the difference in name, the conception of a god dates from a pre-vedic period; the severance may have become complete. Such is the case with Varuna, in whom the connexion can only be inferred from mythological traits surviving from an earlier age. The process of abstraction has here proceeded so far, that Varuna's character resembles that of the divine ruler in a monotheistic belief of an exalted type. Personification has, how-ever, nowhere in Vedic mythology attained to the individualized anthropomorphism characteristic of the Hellenic gods. The Vedic deities have but very few distinguishing features, while many attributes and powers are shared by all alike. This is partly due to the fact that the departments of nature which they represent have often much in common, while their anthropomorphism is comparatively undeveloped. Thus the activity of a thunder-god, of the fire-god in his lightning form, and of the storm-gods might easily be described in similar language, their main function in the eyes of the Vedic poets being the discharge of rain. Again, it cannot be doubted that various Vedic deities have started from the same source 3, but have become differentiated by an appellative denoting a particular attribute having gradually assumed an independent character. Such is the case with the solar gods. There is, more-over, often a want of clearness in the statements of the Vedic poets about the deeds of the gods; for owing to the character of the literature, myths are not related but only alluded to. Nor can thorough consistency be expected in such mythological allusions when it is remembered that they are made by a number of different poets, whose productions extend over a pro-longed literary period.

3. Sources of Vedic Mythology. - By far the most important source of Vedic Mythology is the oldest literary monument of India, the Rigveda. Its mythology deals with a number of coordinate nature gods of varying importance. This polytheism under the influence of an increasing tendency to abstraction at the end of the Rigvedic period, exhibits in its latest book the beginnings of a kind of monotheism and even signs of pantheism. The hymns of this collection having been composed with a view to the sacrificial ritual, especially that of the Soma offering, furnish a disproportionate presentment of the mythological material of the age. The great gods who occupy an important position at the Soma sacrifice and in the worship of the wealthy, stand forth prominently; but the mythology connected with spirits, with witchcraft, with life after death, is almost a blank, for these spheres of belief have nothing to do with the poetry of the Soma rite. Moreover, while the character of the gods is very completely illustrated in these hymns, which are addressed to them and extol their attributes, their deeds, with the exception of their leading exploits, are far less definitely described. It is only natural that a collection of sacrificial poetry containing very little narrative matter, should supply but a scattered and fragmentary account of this side of mythology. The defective information given by the rest of the RV. Regarding spirits, lesser demons, and the future life, is only very partially sup-plied by its latest book. Thus hardly any reference is made even here to the fate of the wicked after death. Beside and distinguished from the adoration of the gods, the worship of dead ancestors, as well as to some extent the deification of inanimate objects, finds a place in the religion of the Rigveda.

The Samaveda, containing but seventy-five verses which do not occur in the RV., is of no importance in the study of Vedic mythology.

The more popular material of the Atharvaveda deals mainly with domestic and magical rites. In the latter portion it is, along with the ritual text of the Kausika sutra, a mine of information in regard to the spirit and demon world. On this lower side of religion the Atharvaveda deals with notions of greater antiquity than those of the Rigveda. But on the higher side of religion it represents a more advanced stage. Individual gods exhibit a later phase of development and some new abstractions are deified, while the general character of the religion is pantheistic! Hymns in praise of individual gods are comparatively rare, while the simultaneous invocation of a number of deities, in which their essential nature is hardly touched upon, is characteristic. The deeds of the gods are extolled in the same stereotyped manner as in the RV.; and the AV. can hardly be said to supply any important mythological trait which is not to be found in the older collection.

The Yajurveda represents a still later stage. Its formulas being made for the ritual are not directly addressed to the gods, who are but shadowy beings having only a very loose connexion with the sacrifice. The most salient features of the mythology of the Yajurveda are the existence of one chief god, Prajapati, the greater importance of Visnu, and, the first appearance of an old god of the Rigveda under the new name of Siva. Owing, however, to the subordinate position here occupied by the gods in comparison with the ritual, this Veda yields but little mythological material.

Between it and, the Brahmanas, the most important of which are the Aitareya and the Satapatha, there is no essential difference. The sacrifice being the main object of interest, the individual traits of the gods have faded, the general character of certain deities has been modified, and the importance of others increased or reduced. Otherwise the pantheon of the Brahmanas is much the same as that of the RV and the AV. and the worship of in-animate objects is still recognized. The main difference between the mythology of the RV and the Brahmanas is the recognized position of Prajapati or the Father-god as the chief deity in the latter.

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