The Gods of the Vedic Period
Nothing is known about the religious beliefs of people who were present in the country before the Harappan civilization. The Harappan age itself has been divided into three phases.
- Early / Pre-Harappan phase (3200 – 2600 BCE)
- Mature Harappan phase (2600-1900 BCE)
- Late Harappan phase (1900-1300 BCE)
The religion of the people of the Harappan phase has not been conclusively proved. The scripts available on seals of terracotta remain undeciphered. There are indications that people worshipped mother goddess figurines, Pashupati Mahadeva (Proto Shiva), Lingam, Pipal tree, Humped Bull, Unicorn etc. However, not a single structure qualifying as a temple has been found in any area. People might have participated in ritualistic baths.
The Vedic civilization which may have been contemporary to the Late Harappan phase must have provided a chance to intermix the Indo-Aryans with the predominantly Dravidian-speaking people of the Harappan civilization. Several words in Rigveda belong to Munda and Santhali languages which crept into the hymns of Rigveda due to this contact. The Indo-Aryans who composed the Rigveda were speakers of a sub-group of the Indo-European family of languages (old Sanskrit).
The Rigveda is a collection of 1028 hymns divided into 10 Mandals. In this Veda, we get a large number of Gods revealed in hymns by Rishis over hundreds of years which were transmitted from one generation to another by a skillful system of rote till they were written down about 2000 to 2200 years ago from now. The Vedas are, therefore, known as Shruti.
The Rig Vedic Gods were visualized by the Aryans as manifestations of human beings. They exhibited a friendly relationship with gods like a please-be-seated-and-have-a-drink-of-soma type of closeness. The only difference was that the gods were considered immortal while the humans were mortal. The gods were more powerful and free from weakness. Benevolence was their general characteristic. However, Varun and Rudra were exceptional. No temples existed in the Vedic age for worshipping gods. Idol worship had still not begun because there was no concept of a personal god. The forces of nature were personified as gods. Therefore, we can say that the religion of the Vedic period was animism. Sacrifice (yagna) was the only process for propitiating gods. This was a very expensive process which was undertaken by the rich, wealthy or kings. A small household Agnihotri was possible for those who were well-versed in Vedic rites. Carvings of the Yakshas and Gandharvas may have existed on stones.
The geographical area in which the Aryans resided is today parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sind, Punjab, parts of Haryana, Jammu and western Uttar Pradesh. The climate was neither too rainy nor too dry which was suitable for cow herding and a little amount of agriculture they practised. However, cows were the main wealth. Their residential areas were known as Brahmavarta which consisted of a large number of Aryan tribes in several groups. The rivers of the area have been vividly described in Rigveda which mentions the Indus (Sindhu) and its five tributaries namely the Jhelum (Vatista), Beas (Vipasa), Chenab (Askini), Ravi (Purushni), Sutlej (Sutudri) and Saraswati (which today is represented by the dry bed of Ghaggar Hakra).
The area was heavily forested and iron was not known for making axes. Their age was bronze age. The fire was the only tool available to them for clearing forests. They learned to propitiate their gods in this environment. The main gods of the Vedic period are described below.
- Indra: Indra was the greatest and the mightiest god of Aryans. He was the king of gods and was the wielder of the deadliest weapon Vajra (thunderbolt). He was considered the winner of forts (Purandar) controller of weather provider of rain and slayer of Rakshasas. Out of 1028 hymns found in Rigveda. About 250 hymns are attributed to Indra alone. All his characteristics have been fully described in various Suktas.
- Agni: Agni the god of fire was the second most important god. About 200 hymns are attributed to him. He resides everywhere. He resides in the sky as lightning, in the sea as vadawanal, in the forest as dawanal, and the human stomach as jatharanal. Yagya Agni was produced by rubbing firesticks. Agni was the carrier of Ahuti to every god for whom Ahutis were offered.
- Varun: He was the third most powerful god of Aryans. He was the god of personified water but his main task was the preservation of Rta (pronounced Rita) i.e., the physical and natural order which exists in the universe. He had his informers for tracking down anybody found going against Rta and his punishments were very harsh. People feared Varun who could not be easily appeased.
- Soma: By Soma, the Aryans referred to two entities. The first was the Soma plant from which an invigorating drink (Somarasa) was prepared—the second reference related to the Moon. The Soma plant was available in plenty in munjavat (Himalaya). As Moon, it was the inspiration for poets to compose hymns. In the 9th mandal of Rigveda, all the hymns attributed to Soma are found as a collection.
- Yama: Yama was the lord of death. It was considered that those who died after performing good deeds in life were destined to live happily in the Yamalok.
- Rudra: Rudra was a ferocious god wielding a bow and arrow. His arrows brought disease, so he was considered a dangerous god. He was a mountain-dwelling ascetic who instilled fear. However, he was also considered the guardian of all the healing herbs. The very powerful Mahamritunjaya Mantra is also for his propitiation.
- Pushan: Pushan was the god who aided in the transformation of day to night and from night to day. He was also the guardian of jungle paths and herdsmen.
- Surya: A very powerful god of Aryans who was the son of Dyaus. He traversed the sky in his flaming chariot driving away darkness and spreading light.
- Savitra: Savitra / Savitri was the deity of the rising Sun who sets everything in order every day and all entities become engaged in their allotted tasks. The famous Gayatri Mantra (3/62/10) is addressed to this divinity.
- Aditi: One of the very important female deities who is considered the mother of all gods.
- Vishnu: A benevolent god but still not frequently mentioned in Vedas.
- Maruts: Sons of Rudra able to personify into storms and violent winds usually accompanied Indra during battles.
- Vayu: The god of the air the foundations of Pran without which life is not possible.
- Ashwins: Ashwins are twin gods who are divine healers as well as guardians of war and fertility.
- Usha: Usha is the goddess of dawn mentioned about 300 times in Rigveda.
- Sinivali: The deity was worshipped for bestowing children.
There are a large number of minor gods and demi-gods also mentioned in Rigveda such as:
- Aranyani: Forest deity
- Ratri: Night deity
- Vishwedevah: A group of intermediate deities (40 verses attributed)
- Gandharvas: Band of celestial musicians
- Apsaras: Group of nymphs and celestial dancers
- Aryaman: Guardian of compacts and marriages.
However, the multiplicity of gods began to create confusion and slowly the Aryans began drifting towards monism – the concept of only one God. The concept of Brahma crystallized in the later Vedic literature (1000 BCE to 600 BCE) mainly in Upanishads. In the Nasdiya Sukta (Rigveda, 10/129) a glimpse towards monism is visible. The all-pervading, omnipresent omniscient and all-powerful is Brahma and the Atma residing in every living organism is but a small particle of the same powerful Brahma. An example of this relationship is available in Chhandogya Upanishad as a dialogue between Uddalaka (father) and Shvetaketu (son). Shvetaketu became a student at 12 and came back after receiving all education at the age of 24 years. However, he could not explain the minute knowledge of Atman. The dialogue begins with the command of Uddalaka (father).
‘Bring a banyan fruit’.
‘Here it is, sir’.
‘Cut it up’.
‘I’ve cut it up, sir’.
‘What do you see there?’
‘These quite tiny seeds, sir’.
‘Now, take one of them and cut it up’.
‘I’ve cut one up, sir’.
‘What do you see there?’
Then he told him:
‘This is the finest essence here, son, that you can’t even see – look on account of that finest essence, this huge banyan tree stands here. Believe, my son; the finest essence here – that constitutes the self of this whole world; that is the self (atman). And that’s how you are, Shvetaketu’.
- Prachin Bharat Ka Itihas Tatha Sanskriti – K. C. Srivastava
- Ancient and Medieval India – Poonam Dalal Dahiya
- A history of ancient and early medieval India – Upinder Singh
- The wonder that was India – A. L. Basham
I am a Vedic astrologer by profession. I have done Jyotish Acharya from Bhartiya Vidya Bhawan. I am devoted to my Sadguru Shri Sai Nath of Shirdi. I am also interested in spirituality. I love to guide people.