POETRY OF THE RIGVEDA
Before we turn to describe the world of thought revealed in the hymns of the Rigveda, the question may naturally be asked, to what extent is it possible to understand the true meaning of a book occupying so isolated a position in the remotest age of Indian literature? The answer to this question depends on the recognition of the right method of interpretation applicable to that ancient body of poetry. When the Rigveda first became known, European scholars, as yet only acquainted with the language and literature of classical Sanskrit, found that the Vedic hymns were composed in an ancient dialect and embodied a world of ideas far removed from that with which they had made themselves familiar. The interpretation of these hymns was therefore at the outset barred by almost insurmountable difficulties. Fortunately, however, a voluminous commentary on the Rigveda, which explains or paraphrases every word of its hymns, was found to exist. This was the work of the great Vedic scholar Sāyaṇa, who lived in the latter half of the fourteenth century A.D. at Vijayanagara (“City of Victory”), the ruins of which lie near Bellary in Southern India. As his commentary constantly referred to ancient authorities, it was thought to have preserved the true meaning of the Rigveda in a traditional interpretation going back to the most ancient times. Nothing further seemed to be necessary than to ascertain the explanation of the original text which prevailed in India five centuries ago, and is laid down in Sāyaṇa’s work. This view is represented by the translation of the Rigveda begun in 1850 by H. H. Wilson, the first professor of Sanskrit at Oxford.
Another line was taken by the late Professor Roth, the founder of Vedic philology. This great scholar propounded the view that the aim of Vedic interpretation was not to ascertain the meaning which Sāyaṇa, or even Yāska, who lived eighteen centuries earlier, attributed to the Vedic hymns, but the meaning which the ancient poets themselves intended. Such an end could not be attained by simply following the lead of the commentators. For the latter, though valuable guides towards the understanding of the later theological and ritual literature, with the notions and practice of which they were familiar, showed no continuity of tradition from the time of the poets; for the tradition supplied by them was solely that which was handed down among interpreters, and only began when the meaning of the hymns was no longer fully comprehended. There could, in fact, be no other tradition; interpretation only arising when the hymns had become obscure. The commentators, therefore, simply preserved attempts at the solution of difficulties, while showing a distinct tendency towards misinterpreting the language as well as the religious, mythological, and cosmical ideas of a vanished age by the scholastic notions prevalent in their own.
It is clear from what Yāska says that some important discrepancies in opinion prevailed among the older expositors and the different schools of interpretation which flourished before his time. He gives the names of no fewer than seventeen predecessors, whose explanations of the Veda are often conflicting. Thus one of them interprets the word Nāsatyau, an epithet of the Vedic Dioskouroi, as ” true, not false;” another takes it to mean “leaders of truth,” while Yāska himself thinks it might mean “nose-born”! The gap between the poets and the early interpreters was indeed so great that one of Yāska’s predecessors, named Kautsa, actually had the audacity to assert that the science of Vedic exposition was useless, as the Vedic hymns and formulas were obscure, unmeaning, or mutually contradictory. Such criticisms Yāska meets by replying that it was not the fault of the rafter if the blind man did not see it. Yāska himself interprets only a very small portion of the hymns of the Rigveda. In what he does attempt to explain, he largely depends on etymological considerations for the sense he assigns. He often gives two or more alternative or optional senses to the same word. The fact that he offers a choice of meanings shows that he had no earlier authority for his guide, and that his renderings are simply conjectural; for no one can suppose that the authors of the hymns had more than one meaning in their minds.
It is, however, highly probable that Yāska, with all the appliances at his command, was able to ascertain the sense of many words which scholars who, like Sāyaṇa, lived nearly two thousand years later, had no means of discovering. Nevertheless Sāyaṇa is sometimes found to depart from Yāska. Thus we arrive at the dilemma that either the old interpreter is wrong or the later one does not follow the tradition. There are also many instances in which Sāyaṇa, independently of Yāska, gives a variety of inconsistent explanations of a word, both in interpreting a single passage or in commenting on different passages. Thus çārada, “autumnal,” he explains in one place as “fortified for a year,” in another as “new or fortified for a year,” and in a third as “belonging to a demon called Çarad.” One of the defects of Sāyaṇa is, in fact, that he limits his view in most cases to the single verse he has before him. A detailed examination of his explanations, as well as those of Yāska, has shown that there is in the Rigveda a large number of the most difficult words, about the proper sense of which neither scholar had any certain information from either tradition or etymology. We are therefore justified in saying about them that there is in the hymns no unusual or difficult word or obscure text in regard to which the authority of the commentators should be received as final, unless it is supported by probability, by the context, or by parallel passages. Thus no translation of the Rigveda based exclusively on Sāyaṇa’s commentary can possibly be satisfactory. It would, in fact, be as unreasonable to take him for our sole guide as to make our understanding of the Hebrew books of the Old Testament dependent on the Talmud and the Rabbis. It must, indeed, be admitted that from a large proportion of Sāyaṇa’s interpretations most material help can be derived, and that he has been of the greatest service in facilitating and accelerating the comprehension of the Veda. But there is little information of value to be derived from him, that, with our knowledge of later Sanskrit, with the other remains of ancient Indian literature, and with our various philological appliances, we might not sooner or later have found out for ourselves. Roth, then, rejected the commentators as our chief guides in interpreting the Rigveda, which, as the earliest literary monument of the Indian, and indeed of the Aryan race, stands quite by itself, high up on an isolated peak of remote antiquity. As regards its more peculiar and difficult portions, it must therefore be interpreted mainly through itself; or, to apply in another sense the words of an Indian commentator, it must shine by its own light and be self-demonstrating. Roth further expressed the view that a qualified European is better able to arrive at the true meaning of the Rigveda than a Brahman interpreter. The judgment of the former is unfettered by theological bias; he possesses the historical faculty, and he has also a far wider intellectual horizon, equipped as he is with all the resources of scientific scholarship. Roth therefore set himself to compare carefully all passages parallel in form and matter, with due regard to considerations of context, grammar, and etymology, while consulting, though, perhaps, with insufficient attention, the traditional interpretations. He thus subjected the Rigveda to a historical treatment within the range of Sanskrit itself. He further called in the assistance rendered from without by the comparative method, utilising the help afforded not only by the Avesta, which is so closely allied to the Rigveda in language and matter, but also by the results of comparative philology, resources unknown to the traditional scholar.
By thus ascertaining the meaning of single words, the foundations of the scientific interpretation of the Vedas were laid in the great Sanskrit Dictionary, in seven volumes, published by Roth in collaboration with Böhtlingk between 1852 and 1875. Roth’s method is now accepted by every scientific student of the Veda. Native tradition is, however, being more fully exploited than was done by Roth himself, for it is now more clearly recognised that no aid to be derived from extant Indian scholarship ought to be neglected. Under the guidance of such principles the progress already made in solving many important problems presented by Vedic literature has been surprising, when we consider the shortness of the time and the fewness of the labourers, of whom only two or three have been natives of this country. As a general result, the historical sense has succeeded in grasping the spirit of Indian antiquity, long obscured by native misinterpretation. Much, of course, still remains to be done by future generations of scholars, especially in detailed and minute investigation. This could not be otherwise when we remember that Vedic research is only the product of the last fifty years, and that, notwithstanding the labours of very numerous Hebrew scholars during several centuries, there are, in the Psalms and the Prophetic Books of the Old Testament, still many passages which remain obscure and disputed. There can be no doubt that many problems at present insoluble will in the end be solved by that modern scholarship which has already deciphered the cuneiform writings of Persia as well as the rock inscriptions of India, and has discovered the languages which lay hidden under these mysterious characters.
Having thus arrived at the threshold of the world of Vedic thought, we may now enter through the portals opened by the golden key of scholarship. By far the greater part of the poetry of the Rigveda consists of religious lyrics, only the tenth book containing some secular poems. Its hymns are mainly addressed to the various gods of the Vedic pantheon, praising their mighty deeds, their greatness, and their beneficence, or beseeching them for wealth in cattle, numerous offspring, prosperity, long life, and victory. The Rigveda is not a collection of primitive popular poetry, as it was apt to be described at an earlier period of Sanskrit studies. It is rather a body of skilfully composed hymns, produced by a sacerdotal class and meant to accompany the Soma oblation and the fire sacrifice of melted butter, which were offered according to a ritual by no means so simple as was at one time supposed, though undoubtedly much simpler than the elaborate system of the Brāhmaṇa period. Its poetry is consequently marred by frequent references to the sacrifice, especially when the two great ritual deities, Agni and Soma, are the objects of praise. At the same time it is on the whole much more natural than might under these conditions be expected. For the gods who are invoked are nearly all personifications of the phenomena of Nature, and thus give occasion for the employment of much beautiful and even noble imagery. The diction of the hymns is, generally speaking, simple and unaffected. Compound words are sparingly used, and are limited to two members, in marked contrast with the frequency and length of compounds in classical Sanskrit. The thought, too, is usually artless and direct, except in the hymns to the ritual deities, where it becomes involved in conceit and mystical obscurity. The very limited nature of the theme, in these cases, must have forced the minds of the priestly singers to strive after variety by giving utterance to the same idea in enigmatical phraseology.
Here, then, we already find the beginnings of that fondness for subtlety and difficult modes of expression which is so prevalent in the later literature, and which is betrayed even in the earlier period by the saying in one of the Brāhmaṇas that the gods love the recondite. In some hymns, too, there appears that tendency to play with words which was carried to inordinate lengths in late Sanskrit poems and romances. The hymns of the Rigveda, of course, vary much in literary merit, as is naturally to be expected in the productions of many poets extending over some centuries. Many display a high order of poetical excellence, while others consist of commonplace and mechanical verse. The degree of skill in composition is on the average remarkably high, especially when we consider that here we have by far the oldest poetry of the Aryan race. The art which these early seers feel is needed to produce a hymn acceptable to the gods is often alluded to, generally in the closing stanza. The poet usually compares his work to a car wrought and put together by a deft craftsman. One Rishi also likens his prayers to fair and well-woven garments; another speaks of having adorned his song of praise like a bride for her lover. Poets laud the gods according to knowledge and ability (vi. 21, 6), and give utterance to the emotions of their hearts (x. 39, 15). Various individual gods are, it is true, in a general way said to have granted seers the gift of song, but of the later doctrine of revelation the Rigvedic poets know nothing.
The remark which has often been made that monotony prevails in the Vedic hymns contains truth. But the impression is produced by the hymns to the same deity being commonly grouped together in each book. A similar effect would probably arise from reading in succession twenty or thirty lyrics on Spring, even in an anthology of the best modern poetry. When we consider that nearly five hundred hymns of the Rigveda are addressed to two deities alone, it is surprising that so many variations of the same theme should be possible.
The hymns of the Rigveda being mainly invocations of the gods, their contents are largely mythological. Special interest attaches to this mythology, because it represents an earlier stage of thought than is to be found in any other literature. It is sufficiently primitive to enable us to see clearly the process of personification by which natural phenomena developed into gods. Never observing, in his ordinary life, action or movement not caused by an acting or moving person, the Vedic Indian, like man in a much less advanced state, still refers such occurrences in Nature to personal agents, which to him are inherent in the phenomena. He still looks out upon the workings of Nature with childlike astonishment. One poet asks why the sun does not fall from the sky; another wonders where the stars go by day; while a third marvels that the waters of all rivers constantly flowing into it never fill the ocean. The unvarying regularity of sun and moon, and the unfailing recurrence of the dawn, however, suggested to these ancient singers the idea of the unchanging order that prevails in Nature. The notion of this general law, recognised under the name ṛita (properly the “course” of things), we find in the Rigveda extended first to the fixed rules of the sacrifice (rite), and then to those of morality (right). Though the mythological phase presented by the Rigveda is comparatively primitive, it yet contains many conceptions inherited from previous ages. The parallels of the Avesta show that several of the Vedic deities go back to the time when the ancestors of Persians and Indians were still one people. Among these may be mentioned Yama, god of the dead, identical with Yima, ruler of paradise, and especially Mitra, the cult of whose Persian counterpart, Mithra, obtained from 200-400 A.D. a world-wide diffusion in the Roman Empire, and came nearer to monotheism than the cult of any other god in paganism.
Various religious practices can also be traced back to that early age, such as the worship of fire and the cult of the plant Soma (the Avestan Haoma). The veneration of the cow, too, dates from that time. A religious hymn poetry must have existed even then, for stanzas of four eleven-syllable (the Vedic trishṭubh) and of four or three eight-syllable lines (anushṭubh and gāyatrī) were already known, as is proved by the agreement of the Avesta with the Rigveda.
From the still earlier Indo-European period had come down the general conception of “god” (deva-s, Lat. deu-s) and that of heaven as a divine father (Dyauṣ pitā, Gr. Zeus patēr, Lat. Jūpiter). Probably from an even remoter antiquity is derived the notion of heaven and earth as primeval and universal parents, as well as many magical beliefs.
The universe appeared to the poets of the Rigveda to be divided into the three domains of earth, air, and heaven, a division perhaps also known to the early Greeks. This is the favourite triad of the Rigveda, constantly mentioned expressly or by implication. The solar phenomena are referred to heaven, while those of lightning, rain, and wind belong to the air. In the three worlds the various gods perform their actions, though they are supposed to dwell only in the third, the home of light. The air is often called a sea, as the abode of the celestial waters, while the great rainless clouds are conceived sometimes as rocks or mountains, sometimes as the castles of demons who war against the gods. The thundering rain-clouds become lowing cows, whose milk is shed and bestows fatness upon the earth.
The higher gods of the Rigveda are almost entirely personifications of natural phenomena, such as Sun, Dawn, Fire, Wind. Excepting a few deities surviving from an older period, the gods are, for the most part, more or less clearly connected with their physical foundation. The personifications being therefore but slightly developed, lack definiteness of outline and individuality of character. Moreover, the phenomena themselves which are behind the personifications have few distinctive traits, while they share some attributes with other phenomena belonging to the same domain. Thus Dawn, Sun, Fire have the common features of being luminous, dispelling darkness, appearing in the morning. Hence the character of each god is made up of only a few essential qualities combined with many others which are common to all the gods, such as brilliance, power, beneficence, and wisdom. These common attributes tend to obscure those which are distinctive, because in hymns of prayer and praise the former naturally assume special importance. Again, gods belonging to different departments of nature, but having striking features in common, are apt to grow more like each other. Assimilation of this kind is encouraged by a peculiar practice of the Vedic poets—the invocation of deities in pairs. Such combinations result in attributes peculiar to the one god attaching themselves to the other, even when the latter appears alone. Thus when the Fire-god, invoked by himself, is called a slayer of the demon Vṛitra, he receives an attribute distinctive of the thunder-god Indra, with whom he is often coupled. The possibility of assigning nearly every power to every god rendered the identification of one deity with another an easy matter. Such identifications are frequent enough in the Rigveda. For example, a poet addressing the fire-god exclaims: “Thou at thy birth, O Agni, art Varuṇa; when kindled thou becomest Mitra; in thee, O Son of Might, all gods are centred; thou art Indra to the worshipper” (v. 3, 1).
Moreover, mystical speculations on the nature of Agni, so important a god in the eyes of a priesthood devoted to a fire-cult, on his many manifestations as individual fires on earth, and on his other aspects as atmospheric fire in lightning and as celestial fire in the sun—aspects which the Vedic poets are fond of alluding to in riddles—would suggest the idea that various deities are but different forms of a single divine being. This idea is found in more than one passage of the later hymns of the Rigveda. Thus the composer of a recent hymn (164) of the first book says: “The one being priests speak of in many ways; they call it Agni, Yama, Mātariçvan.” Similarly, a seer of the last book (x. 114) remarks: “Priests and poets with words make into many the bird (i.e. the sun) which is but one.” Utterances like these show that by the end of the Rigvedic period the polytheism of the Rishis had received a monotheistic tinge.
Occasionally we even find shadowed forth the pantheistic idea of a deity representing not only all the gods, but Nature as well. Thus the goddess Aditi is identified with all the deities, with men, with all that has been and shall be born, with air, and heaven (i. 89); and in a cosmogonic hymn (x. 121) the Creator is not only described as the one god above all gods, but is said to embrace all things. This germ of pantheism developed through the later Vedic literature till it assumed its final shape in the Vedānta philosophy, still the most popular system of the Hindus.
The practice of the poets, even in the older parts of the Rigveda, of invoking different gods as if each of them were paramount, gave rise to Professor Max Müller’s theory of Henotheism or Kathenotheism, according to which the seers held “the belief in individual gods alternately regarded as the highest,” and for the moment treated the god addressed as if he were an absolutely independent and supreme deity, alone present to the mind. In reality, however, the practice of the poets of the Rigveda hardly amounts to more than the exaggeration—to be found in the Homeric hymns also—with which a singer would naturally magnify the particular god whom he is invoking. For the Rishis well knew the exact position of each god in the Soma ritual, in which nearly every member of the pantheon found a place.
The gods, in the view of the Vedic poets, had a beginning; for they are described as the offspring of heaven and earth, or sometimes of other gods. This in itself implies different generations, but earlier gods are also expressly referred to in several passages. Nor were the gods regarded as originally immortal; for immortality is said to have been bestowed upon them by individual deities, such as Agni and Savitṛi, or to have been acquired by drinking soma. Indra and other gods are spoken of as unaging, but whether their immortality was regarded by the poets as absolute there is no evidence to show. In the post-Vedic view it was only relative, being limited to a cosmic age.
The physical aspect of the Vedic gods is anthropomorphic. Thus head, face, eyes, arms, hands, fee, and other portions of the human frame are ascribed to them. But their forms are shadowy and their limbs or parts are often simply meant figuratively to describe their activities. Thus the tongue and limbs of the fire-god are merely his flames; the arms of the sun-god are simply his rays, while his eye only represents the solar orb. Since the outward shape of the gods was thus vaguely conceived, while their connection with natural phenomena was in many instances still evident, it is easy to understand why no mention is made in the Rigveda of images of the gods, still less of temples, which imply the existence of images. Idols first begin to be referred to in the Sūtras.
Some of the gods appear equipped as warriors, wearing coats of mail and helmets, and armed with spears, battle-axes, bows and arrows. They all drive through the air in luminous cars, generally drawn by horses, but in some cases by kine, goats, or deer. In their cars the gods come to seat themselves at the sacrifice, which, however, is also conveyed to them in heaven by Agni. They are on the whole conceived as dwelling together in harmony; the only one who ever introduces a note of discord being the warlike and overbearing Indra.
To the successful and therefore optimistic Vedic Indian, the gods seemed almost exclusively beneficent beings, bestowers of long life and prosperity. Indeed, the only deity in whom injurious features are at all prominent is Rudra. The lesser evils closely connected with human life, such as disease, proceed from minor demons, while the greater evils manifested in Nature, such as drought and darkness, are produced by powerful demons like Vṛitra. The conquest of these demons brings out all the more strikingly the beneficent nature of the gods. The character of the Vedic gods is also moral. They are “true” and “not deceitful,” being throughout the friends and guardians of honesty and virtue. But the divine morality only reflects the ethical standard of an early civilisation. Thus even the alliance of Varuṇa, the most moral of the gods, with righteousness is not such as to prevent him from employing craft against the hostile and the deceitful man. Moral elevation is, on the whole, a less prominent characteristic of the gods than greatness and power.
The relation of the worshipper to the gods in the Rigveda is in general one of dependence on their will, prayers and sacrifices being offered to win their favour or forgiveness. The expectation of something in return for the offering is, however, frequently apparent, and the keynote of many a hymn is, “I give to thee that thou mayst give to me.” The idea is also often expressed that the might and valour of the gods is produced by hymns, sacrifices, and especially offerings of soma. Here we find the germs of sacerdotal pretensions which gradually increased during the Vedic age. Thus the statement occurs in the White Yajur-veda that the Brahman who possesses correct knowledge has the gods in his power. The Brāhmaṇas go a step farther in saying that there are two kinds of gods, the Devas and the Brahmans, the latter of whom are to be held as deities among men. In the Brāhmaṇas, too, the sacrifice is represented as all-powerful, controlling not only the gods, but the very processes of nature.
The number of the gods is stated in the Rigveda itself to be thirty-three, several times expressed as thrice eleven, when each group is regarded as corresponding to one of the divisions of the threefold universe. This aggregate could not always have been deemed exhaustive, for sometimes other gods are mentioned in addition to the thirty-three. Nor can this number, of course, include various groups, such as the storm-gods.
There are, however, hardly twenty individual deities important enough in the Rigveda to have at least three entire hymns addressed to them. The most prominent of these are Indra, the thunder-god, with at least 250 hymns, Agni with about 200, and Soma with over 100; while Parjanya, god of rain, and Yama, god of the dead, are invoked in only three each. The rest occupy various positions between these two extremes. It is somewhat remarkable that the two great deities of modern Hinduism, Vishṇu and Çiva, who are equal in importance, should have been on the same level, though far below the leading deities, three thousand years ago, as Vishṇu and Rudra (the earlier form of Çiva) in the Rigveda. Even then they show the same general characteristics as now, Vishṇu being specially benevolent and Rudra terrible.
The oldest among the gods of heaven is Dyaus (identical with the Greek Zeus). This personification of the sky as a god never went beyond a rudimentary stage in the Rigveda, being almost entirely limited to the idea of paternity. Dyaus is generally coupled with Pṛithivī, Earth, the pair being celebrated in six hymns as universal parents. In a few passages Dyaus is called a bull, ruddy and bellowing downwards, with reference to the fertilising power of rain no less than to the lightning and thundering heavens. He is also once compared with a black steed decked with pearls, in obvious allusion to the nocturnal star-spangled sky. One poet describes this god as furnished with a bolt, while another speaks of him as “Dyaus smiling through the clouds,” meaning the lightening sky. In several other passages of the Rigveda the verb “to smile” (smi) alludes to lightning, just as in classical Sanskrit a smile is constantly compared with objects of dazzling whiteness.
A much more important deity of the sky is Varuṇa, in whom the personification has proceeded so far that the natural phenomenon which underlies it can only be inferred from traits in his character. This obscurity of origin arises partly from his not being a creation of Indian mythology, but a heritage from an earlier age, and partly from his name not at the same time designating a natural phenomenon, like that of Dyaus. The word varuṇa-s seems to have originally meant the “encompassing” sky, and is probably the same word as the Greek Ouranos, though the identification presents some phonetic difficulties. Varuṇa is invoked in far fewer hymns than Indra, Agni, or Soma, but he is undoubtedly the greatest of the Vedic gods by the side of Indra. While Indra is the great warrior, Varuṇa is the great upholder of physical and moral order (ṛita). The hymns addressed to him are more ethical and devout in tone than any others. They form the most exalted portion of the Veda, often resembling in character the Hebrew psalms. The peaceful sway of Varuṇa is explained by his connection with the regularly recurring celestial phenomena, the course of the heavenly bodies seen in the sky; Indra’s warlike and occasionally capricious nature is accounted for by the variable and uncertain strife of the elements in the thunderstorm. The character and power of Varuṇa may be sketched as nearly as possible in the words of the Vedic poets themselves as follows. By the law of Varuṇa heaven and earth are held apart. He made the golden swing (the sun) to shine in heaven. He has made a wide path for the sun. The wind which resounds through the air is Varuṇa’s breath. By his ordinances the moon shining brightly moves at night, and the stars placed up on high are seen at night but disappear by day. He causes the rivers to flow; they stream unceasingly according to his ordinance. By his occult power the rivers swiftly pouring into the ocean do not fill it with water. He makes the inverted cask to pour its waters and to moisten the ground, while the mountains are wrapt in cloud. It is chiefly with these aërial waters that he is connected, very rarely with the sea.
Varuṇa’s omniscience is often dwelt on. He knows the flight of the birds in the sky, the path of ships in the ocean, the course of the far-travelling wind. He beholds all the secret things that have been or shall be done. He witnesses men’s truth and falsehood. No creature can even wink without him. As a moral governor Varuṇa stands far above any other deity. His wrath is roused by sin, which is the infringement of his ordinances, and which he severely punishes. The fetters with which he binds sinners are often mentioned. A dispeller, hater, and punisher of falsehood, he is gracious to the penitent. He releases men not only from the sins which they themselves commit, but from those committed by their fathers. He spares the suppliant who daily transgresses his laws, and is gracious to those who have broken his ordinances by thoughtlessness. There is, in fact, no hymn to Varuṇa in which the prayer for forgiveness of guilt does not occur, as in the hymns to other deities the prayer for worldly goods. With the growth of the conception of the creator, Prajāpati, as a supreme deity, the characteristics of Varuṇa as a sovereign god naturally faded away, and the dominion of waters, only a part of his original sphere, alone remained. This is already partly the case in the Atharva-veda, and in post-Vedic mythology he is only an Indian Neptune, god of the sea.
The following stanzas from a hymn to Varuṇa (vii. 89) will illustrate the spirit of the prayers addressed to him:—
May I not yet, King Varuṇa,
Go down into the house of clay:
Have mercy, spare me, mighty Lord.
Thirst has come on thy worshipper
Though standing in the waters’ midst:
Have mercy, spare me, mighty Lord.
O Varuṇa, whatever the offence may be
That we as men commit against the heavenly folk
When through our want of thought we violate thy laws,
Chastise us not, O God, for that iniquity.
There are in the Rigveda five solar deities, differentiated as representing various aspects of the activity of the sun. One of the oldest of these, Mitra, the “Friend,” seems to have been conceived as the beneficent side of the sun’s power. Going back to the Indo-Iranian period, he has in the Rigveda almost entirely lost his individuality, which is practically merged in that of Varuṇa. With the latter he is constantly invoked, while only one single hymn (iii. 59) is addressed to him alone.
Sūrya (cognate in name to the Greek Hēlios) is the most concrete of the solar deities. For as his name also designates the luminary itself, his connection with the latter is never lost sight of. The eye of Sūrya is often mentioned, and Dawn is said to bring the eye of the gods. All-seeing, he is the spy of the whole world, beholding all beings and the good or bad deeds of mortals. Aroused by Sūrya, men pursue their objects and perform their work. He is the soul or guardian of all that moves and is fixed. He rides in a car, which is generally described as drawn by seven steeds. These he unyokes at sunset:—
When he has loosed his coursers from their station,
Straightway Night over all spreads out her garment (i. 115, 4).
Sūrya rolls up the darkness like a skin, and the stars slink away like thieves. He shines forth from the lap of the dawns. He is also spoken of as the husband of Dawn. As a form of Agni, the gods placed him in heaven. He is often described as a bird or eagle traversing space. He measures the days and prolongs life. He drives away disease and evil dreams. At his rising he is prayed to declare men sinless to Mitra and Varuṇa. All beings depend on Sūrya, and so he is called “all-creating.”
Eleven hymns, or about the same number as to Sūrya, are addressed to another solar deity, Savitṛi, the “Stimulator,” who represents the quickening activity of the sun. He is pre-eminently a golden deity, with golden hands and arms and a golden car. He raises aloft his strong golden arms, with which he blesses and arouses all beings, and which extend to the ends of the earth. He moves in his golden car, seeing all creatures, on a downward and an upward path. He shines after the path of the dawn. Beaming with the rays of the sun, yellow-haired, Savitṛi raises up his light continually from the east. He removes evil dreams and drives away demons and sorcerers. He bestows immortality on the gods as well as length of life on man. He also conducts the departed spirit to where the righteous dwell. The other gods follow Savitṛi’s lead; no being, not even the most powerful gods, Indra and Varuṇa, can resist his will and independent sway. Savitṛi is not infrequently connected with the evening, being in one hymn (ii. 38) extolled as the setting sun:—
Borne by swift coursers, he will now unyoke them:
The speeding chariot he has stayed from going.
He checks the speed of them that glide like serpents:
Night has come on by Savitṛi’s commandment.
The weaver rolls her outstretched web together,
The skilled lay down their work in midst of toiling,
The birds all seek their nests, their shed the cattle:
Each to his lodging Savitṛi disperses.
To this god is addressed the most famous stanza of the Rigveda, with which, as the Stimulator, he was in ancient times invoked at the beginning of Vedic study, and which is still repeated by every orthodox Hindu in his morning prayers. From the name of the deity it is called the Sāvitrī , but it is also often referred to as “the Gāyatrī” from the metre in which it is composed:—
May we attain that excellent
Glory of Savitṛi the god,
That he may stimulate our thoughts (iii. 62, 10).
A peculiarity of the hymns to Savitṛi is the perpetual play on his name with forms of the root sū, “to stimulate,” from which it is derived.
Pūshan is invoked in some eight hymns of the Rigveda. His name means “Prosperer,” and the conception underlying his character seems to be the beneficent power of the sun, manifested chiefly as a pastoral deity. His car is drawn by goats and he carries a goad. Knowing the ways of heaven, he conducts the dead on the far path to the fathers. He is also a guardian of roads, protecting cattle and guiding them with his goad. The welfare which he bestows results from the protection he extends to men and cattle on earth, and from his guidance of mortals to the abodes of bliss in the next world.
Judged by a statistical standard, Vishṇu is only a deity of the fourth rank, less frequently invoked than Sūrya, Savitṛi, and Pūshan in the Rigveda, but historically he is the most important of the solar deities. For he is one of the two great gods of modern Hinduism. The essential feature of his character is that he takes three strides, which doubtless represent the course of the sun through the three divisions of the universe. His highest step is heaven, where the gods and the fathers dwell. For this abode the poet expresses his longing in the following words (i. 154, 5):—
May I attain to that, his well-loved dwelling,
Where men devoted to the gods are blessèd:
In Vishṇu’s highest step—he is our kinsman,
Of mighty stride—there is a spring of nectar.
Vishṇu seems to have been originally conceived as the sun, not in his general character, but as the personified swiftly moving luminary which with vast strides traverses the three worlds. He is in several passages said to have taken his three steps for the benefit of man.
To this feature may be traced the myth of the Brāhmaṇas in which Vishṇu appears in the form of a dwarf as an artifice to recover the earth, now in the possession of demons, by taking his three strides. His character for benevolence was in post-Vedic mythology developed in the doctrine of the Avatārs (“descents” to earth) or incarnations which he assumed for the good of humanity.
Ushas, goddess of dawn, is almost the only female deity to whom entire hymns are addressed, and the only one invoked with any frequency. She, however, is celebrated in some twenty hymns. The name, meaning the “Shining One,” is cognate to the Latin Aurora and the Greek Ēōs. When the goddess is addressed, the physical phenomenon of dawn is never absent from the poet’s mind. The fondness with which the thoughts of these priestly singers turned to her alone among the goddesses, though she received no share in the offering of soma like the other gods, seems to show that the glories of the dawn, more splendid in Northern India than those we are wont to see, deeply impressed the minds of these early poets. In any case, she is their most graceful creation, the charm of which is unsurpassed in the descriptive religious lyrics of any other literature. Here there are no priestly subtleties to obscure the brightness of her form, and few allusions to the sacrifice to mar the natural beauty of the imagery.
To enable the reader to estimate the merit of this poetry I will string together some utterances about the Dawn goddess, culled from various hymns, and expressed as nearly as possible in the words of their composers. Ushas is a radiant maiden, born in the sky, daughter of Dyaus. She is the bright sister of dark Night. She shines with the light of her lover, with the light of Sūrya, who beams after her path and follows her as a young man a maiden. She is borne on a brilliant car, drawn by ruddy steeds or kine. Arraying herself in gay attire like a dancer, she displays her bosom. Clothed upon with light, the maiden appears in the east and unveils her charms. Rising resplendent as from a bath, she shows her form. Effulgent in peerless beauty, she withholds her light from neither small nor great. She opens wide the gates of heaven; she opens the doors of darkness, as the cows (issue from) their stall. Her radiant beams appear like herds of cattle. She removes the black robe of night, warding off evil spirits and the hated darkness. She awakens creatures that have feet, and makes the birds fly up: she is the breath and life of everything. When Ushas shines forth, the birds fly up from their nests and men seek nourishment. She is the radiant mover of sweet sounds, the leader of the charm of pleasant voices. Day by day appearing at the appointed place, she never infringes the rule of order and of the gods; she goes straight along the path of order; knowing the way, she never loses her direction. As she shone in former days, so she shines now and will shine in future, never aging, immortal.
The solitude and stillness of the early morning sometimes suggested pensive thoughts about the fleeting nature of human life in contrast with the unending recurrence of the dawn. Thus one poet exclaims:—
Gone are the mortals who in former ages
Beheld the flushing of the earlier morning.
We living men now look upon her shining;
They are coming who shall in future see her (i. 113, 11). In a similar strain another Rishi sings:—
Again and again newly born though ancient,
Decking her beauty with the self-same colours,
The goddess wastes away the life of mortals,
Like wealth diminished by the skilful player (i. 92, 10).
The following stanzas from one of the finest hymns to Dawn (i. 113) furnish a more general picture of this fairest creation of Vedic poetry:—
This light has come, of all the lights the fairest,
The brilliant brightness has been born, far-shining.
Urged onward for god Savitṛi’s uprising,
Night now has yielded up her place to Morning.
The sisters’ pathway is the same, unending:
Taught by the gods, alternately they tread it.
Fair-shaped, of different forms and yet one-minded,
Night and Morning clash not, nor do they linger.
Bright leader of glad sounds, she shines effulgent:
Widely she has unclosed for us her portals.
Arousing all the world, she shows us riches:
Dawn has awakened every living creature.
There Heaven’s Daughter has appeared before us,
The maiden flushing in her brilliant garments.
Thou sovran lady of all earthly treasure,
Auspicious Dawn, flush here to-day upon us.
In the sky’s framework she has shone with splendour;
The goddess has cast off the robe of darkness.
Wakening up the world with ruddy horses,
Upon her well-yoked chariot Dawn is coming.
Bringing upon it many bounteous blessings,
Brightly shining, she spreads her brilliant lustre.
Last of the countless mornings that have gone by,
First of bright morns to come has Dawn arisen.
Arise! the breath, the life, again has reached us:
Darkness has gone away and light is coming.
She leaves a pathway for the sun to travel:
We have arrived where men prolong existence. Among the deities of celestial light, those most frequently invoked are the twin gods of morning named Açvins. They are the sons of Heaven, eternally young and handsome. They ride on a car, on which they are accompanied by the sun-maiden Sūryā. This car is bright and sunlike, and all its parts are golden. The time when these gods appear is the early dawn, when “darkness still stands among the ruddy cows.” At the yoking of their car Ushas is born.
Many myths are told about the Açvins as succouring divinities. They deliver from distress in general, especially rescuing from the ocean in a ship or ships. They are characteristically divine physicians, who give sight to the blind and make the lame to walk. One very curious myth is that of the maiden Viçpalā, who having had her leg cut off in some conflict, was at once furnished by the Açvins with an iron limb. They agree in many respects with the two famous horsemen of Greek mythology, the Dioskouroi, sons of Zeus and brothers of Helen. The two most probable theories as to the origin of these twin deities are, that they represent either the twilight, half dark, half light, or the morning and evening star.
In the realm of air Indra is the dominant deity. He is, indeed, the favourite and national god of the Vedic Indian. His importance is sufficiently indicated by the fact that more than one-fourth of the Rigveda is devoted to his praise. Handed down from a bygone age, Indra has become more anthropomorphic and surrounded by mythological imagery than any other Vedic god. The significance of his character is nevertheless sufficiently clear. He is primarily the thunder-god, the conquest of the demon of drought or darkness named Vṛitra, the “Obstructor,” and the consequent liberation of the waters or the winning of light, forming his mythological essence. This myth furnishes the Rishis with an ever-recurring theme. Armed with his thunderbolt, exhilarated by copious draughts of soma, and generally escorted by the Maruts or Storm-gods, Indra enters upon the fray. The conflict is terrible. Heaven and earth tremble with fear when Indra smites Vṛitra like a tree with his bolt. He is described as constantly repeating the combat. This obviously corresponds to the perpetual renewal of the natural phenomena underlying the myth. The physical elements in the thunderstorm are seldom directly mentioned by the poets when describing the exploits of Indra. He is rarely said to shed rain, but constantly to release the pent-up waters or rivers. The lightning is regularly the “bolt,” while thunder is the lowing of the cows or the roaring of the dragon. The clouds are designated by various names, such as cow, udder, spring, cask, or pail. They are also rocks (adri), which encompass the cows set free by Indra. They are further mountains from which Indra casts down the demons dwelling upon them. They thus often become fortresses (pur) of the demons, which are ninety, ninety-nine, or a hundred in number, and are variously described as “moving,” “autumnal,” “made of iron or stone.” One stanza (x. 89, 7) thus brings together the various features of the myth: “Indra slew Vṛitra, broke the castles, made a channel for the rivers, pierced the mountain, and delivered over the cows to his friends.” Owing to the importance of the Vṛitra myth, the chief and specific epithet of Indra is Vṛitrahan, “slayer of Vṛitra.” The following stanzas are from one of the most graphic of the hymns which celebrate the conflict of Indra with the demon (i. 32):—
I will proclaim the manly deeds of Indra,
The first that he performed, the lightning-wielder.
He smote the dragon, then discharged the waters,
And cleft the caverns of the lofty mountains.
Impetuous as a bull, he chose the soma,
And drank in threefold vessels of its juices.
The Bounteous god grasped lightning for his missile,
He struck down dead that first-born of the dragons.
Him lightning then availed naught, nor thunder,
Nor mist nor hailstorm which he spread around him:
When Indra and the dragon strove in battle,
The Bounteous god gained victory for ever.
Plunged in the midst of never-ceasing torrents,
That stand not still but ever hasten onward,
The waters bear off Vṛitra’s hidden body:
Indra’s fierce foe sank down to lasting darkness.
With the liberation of the waters is connected the winning of light and the sun. Thus we read that when Indra had slain the dragon Vṛitra with his bolt, releasing the waters for man, he placed the sun visibly in the heavens, or that the sun shone forth when Indra blew the dragon from the air.
Indra naturally became the god of battle, and is more frequently invoked than any other deity as a helper in conflicts with earthly enemies. In the words of one poet, he protects the Aryan colour (varṇa) and subjects the black skin; while another extols him for having dispersed 50,000 of the black race and rent their citadels. His combats are frequently called gavishṭi, “desire of cows,” his gifts being considered the result of victories.
The following stanzas (ii. 12, 2 and 13) will serve as a specimen of the way in which the greatness of Indra is celebrated:—
Who made the widespread earth when quaking steadfast,
Who brought to rest the agitated mountains,
Who measured out air’s intermediate spaces,
Who gave the sky support: he, men, is Indra.
Heaven and earth themselves bow down before him,
Before his might the very mountains tremble.
Who, known as Soma-drinker, armed with lightning,
Is wielder of the bolt: he, men, is Indra.
To the more advanced anthropomorphism of Indra’s nature are due the occasional immoral traits which appear in his character. Thus he sometimes indulges in acts of capricious violence, such as the slaughter of his father or the destruction of the car of Dawn. He is especially addicted to soma, of which he is described as drinking enormous quantities to stimulate him in the performance of his warlike exploits. One entire hymn (x. 119) consists of a monologue in which Indra, inebriated with soma, boasts of his greatness and power. Though of little poetic merit, this piece has a special interest as being by far the earliest literary description of the mental effects, braggadocio in particular, produced by intoxication. In estimating the morality of Indra’s excesses, it should not be forgotten that the exhilaration of soma partook of a religious character in the eyes of the Vedic poets.
Indra’s name is found in the Avesta as that of a demon. His distinctive Vedic epithet, Vṛitrahan, also occurs there in the form of verethraghna, as a designation of the god of victory. Hence there was probably in the Indo-Iranian period a god approaching to the Vedic form of the Vṛitra-slaying and victorious Indra. In comparing historically Varuṇa and Indra, whose importance was about equal in the earlier period of the Rigveda, it seems clear that Varuṇa was greater in the Indo-Iranian period, but became inferior to Indra in later Vedic times. Indra, on the other hand, became in the Brāhmaṇas and Epics the chief of the Indian heaven, and even maintained this position under the Puranic triad, Brahmā-Vishṇu-Çiva, though of course subordinate to them.
At least three of the lesser deities of the air are connected with lightning. One of these is the somewhat obscure god Trita, who is only mentioned in detached verses of the Rigveda. The name appears to designate the “third” (Greek, trito-s), as the lightning form of fire. His frequent epithet, Āptya, seems to mean the “watery.” This god goes back to the Indo-Iranian period, as both his name and his epithet are found in the Avesta. But he was gradually ousted by Indra as being originally almost identical in character with the latter. Another deity of rare occurrence in the Rigveda, and also dating from the Indo-Iranian period, is Apāṃ napāt, the “Son of Waters.” He is described as clothed in lightning and shining without fuel in the waters. There can, therefore, be little doubt that he represents fire as produced from the rain-clouds in the form of lightning. Mātariçvan, seldom mentioned in the Rigveda, is a divine being described as having, like the Greek Prometheus, brought down the hidden fire from heaven to earth. He most probably represents the personification of a celestial form of Agni, god of fire, with whom he is in some passages actually identified. In the later Vedas, the Brāhmaṇas, and the subsequent literature, the name has become simply a designation of wind. The position occupied by the god Rudra in the Rigveda is very different from that of his historical successor in a later age. He is celebrated in only three or four hymns, while his name is mentioned slightly less often than that of Vishṇu. He is usually said to be armed with bow and arrows, but a lightning shaft and a thunderbolt are also occasionally assigned to him. He is described as fierce and destructive like a wild beast, and is called “the ruddy boar of heaven.” The hymns addressed to him chiefly express fear of his terrible shafts and deprecation of his wrath. His malevolence is still more prominent in the later Vedic literature. The euphemistic epithet Çiva, “auspicious,” already applied to him in the Rigveda, and more frequently, though not exclusively, in the younger Vedas, became his regular name in the post-Vedic period. Rudra is, of course, not purely malevolent like a demon. He is besought not only to preserve from calamity but to bestow blessings and produce welfare for man and beast. His healing powers are mentioned with especial frequency, and he is lauded as the greatest of physicians.
Prominent among the gods of the Rigveda are the Maruts or Storm-gods, who form a group of thrice seven or thrice sixty. They are the sons of Rudra and the mottled cloud-cow Pṛiçni. At birth they are compared with fires, and are once addressed as “born from the laughter of lightning.” They are a troop of youthful warriors armed with spears or battle-axes and wearing helmets upon their heads. They are decked with golden ornaments, chiefly in the form of armlets or of anklets:—
They gleam with armlets as the heavens are decked with stars;
Like cloud-born lightnings shine the torrents of their rain (ii. 34, 2). They ride on golden cars which gleam with lightning, while they hold fiery lightnings in their hands:—
The lightnings smile upon the earth below them
What time the Maruts sprinkle forth their fatness.
—(i. 168, 8).
They drive with coursers which are often described as spotted, and they are once said to have yoked the winds as steeds to their pole.
The Maruts are fierce and terrible, like lions or wild boars. With the fellies of their car they rend the hills:—
The Maruts spread the mist abroad,
And make the mountains rock and reel,
When with the winds they go their way (viii. 7, 4).
They shatter the lords of the forest and like wild elephants devour the woods:—
Before you, fierce ones, even woods bow down in fear,
The earth herself, the very mountain trembles (v. 60, 2).
One of their main functions is to shed rain. They are clad in a robe of rain, and cover the eye of the sun with showers. They bedew the earth with milk; they shed fatness (ghee); they milk the thundering, the never-failing spring; they wet the earth with mead; they pour out the heavenly pail:—
The rivers echo to their chariot fellies
What time they utter forth the voice of rain-clouds.
—(i. 168, 8).
In allusion to the sound of the winds the Maruts are often called singers, and as such aid Indra in his fight with the demon. They are, indeed, his constant associates in all his celestial conflicts.
The God of Wind, called Vāyu or Vāta, is not a prominent deity in the Rigveda, having only three entire hymns addressed to him. The personification is more developed under the name of Vāyu, who is mostly associated with Indra, while Vāta is coupled only with the less anthropomorphic rain-god, Parjanya. Vāyu is swift as thought and has roaring velocity. He has a shining car drawn by a team or a pair of ruddy steeds. On this car, which has a golden seat and touches the sky, Indra is his companion. Vāta, as also the ordinary designation of wind, is celebrated in a more concrete manner. His name is often connected with the verb vā “to blow,” from which it is derived. Like Rudra, he wafts healing and prolongs life; for he has the treasure of immortality in his house. The poet of a short hynm (x. 168) devoted to his praise thus describes him:—
Of Vāta’s car I now will praise the greatness:
Crashing it speeds along; its noise is thunder.
Touching the sky, it goes on causing lightnings;
Scattering the dust of earth it hurries forward.
In air upon his pathways hastening onward,
Never on any day he tarries resting.
The first-born order-loving friend of waters,
Where, pray, was he born? say, whence came he hither?
The soul of gods, and of the world the offspring,
This god according to his liking wanders.
His sound is heard, but ne’er is seen his figure.
This Vāta let us now with offerings worship.
Another deity of air is Parjanya, god of rain, who is invoked in but three hymns, and is only mentioned some thirty times in the Rigveda. The name in several passages still means simply “rain-cloud.” The personification is therefore always closely connected with the phenomenon of the rain-storm, in which the rain-cloud itself becomes an udder, a pail, or a water-skin. Often likened to a bull, Parjanya is characteristically a shedder of rain. His activity is described in very vivid strains (v. 83):—
The trees he strikes to earth and smites the demon crew:
The whole world fears the wielder of the mighty bolt.
The guiltless man himself flees from the potent god,
What time Parjanya thund’ring smites the miscreant.
Like a car-driver urging on his steeds with whips,
He causes to bound forth the messengers of rain.
From far away the lion’s roar reverberates,
What time Parjanya fills the atmosphere with rain.
Forth blow the winds, to earth the lightning flashes fall,
Up shoot the herbs, the realm of light with moisture streams;
Nourishment in abundance springs for all the world,
What time Parjanya quickeneth the earth with seed.
Thunder and roar: the vital germ deposit!
With water-bearing chariot fly around us!
Thy water-skin unloosed to earth draw downward:
With moisture make the heights and hollows equal!
The Waters are praised as goddesses in four hymns of the Rigveda. The personification, however, hardly goes beyond representing them as mothers, young wives, and goddesses who bestow boons and come to the sacrifice. As mothers they produce Agni, whose lightning form is, as we have seen, called Apāṃ Napāt, “Son of Waters.” The divine waters bear away defilement, and are even invoked to cleanse from moral guilt, the sins of violence, cursing, and lying. They bestow remedies, healing, long life, and immortality. Soma delights in the waters as a young man in lovely maidens; he approaches them as a lover; they are maidens who bow down before the youth.
Several rivers are personified and invoked as deities in the Rigveda. One hymn (x. 75) celebrates the Sindhu or Indus, while another (iii. 33) sings the praises of the sister streams Vipāç and Çutudrī. Sarasvatī is, however, the most important river goddess, being lauded in three entire hymns as well as in many detached verses. The personification here goes much further than in the case of other streams; but the poets never lose sight of the connection of the goddess with the river. She is the best of mothers, of rivers, and of goddesses. Her unfailing breast yields riches of every kind, and she bestows wealth, plenty, nourishment, and offspring. One poet prays that he may not be removed from her to fields which are strange. She is invoked to descend from the sky, from the great mountain, to the sacrifice. Such expressions may have suggested the notion of the celestial origin and descent of the Ganges, familiar to post-Vedic mythology. Though simply a river deity in the Rigveda, Sarasvatī is in the Brāhmaṇas identified with Vāch, goddess of speech, and has in post-Vedic mythology become the goddess of eloquence and wisdom, invoked as a muse, and regarded as the wife of Brahmā.
Earth, Pṛithivī, the Broad One, hardly ever dissociated from Dyaus, is celebrated alone in only one short hymn of three stanzas (v. 84). Even here the poet cannot refrain from introducing references to her heavenly spouse as he addresses the goddess,
Who, firmly fixt, the forest trees
With might supportest in the ground:
When from the lightning of thy cloud
The rain-floods of the sky pour down.
The personification is only rudimentary, the attributes of the goddess being chiefly those of the physical earth.
The most important of the terrestrial deities is Agni, god of fire. Next to Indra he is the most prominent of the Vedic gods, being celebrated in more than 200 hymns. It is only natural that the personification of the sacrificial fire, the centre around which the ritual poetry of the Veda moves, should engross so much of the attention of the Rishis. Agni being also the regular name of the element (Latin, igni-s), the anthropomorphism of the deity is but slight. The bodily parts of the god have a clear connection with the phenomena of terrestrial fire mainly in its sacrificial aspect. In allusion to the oblation of ghee cast in the fire, Agni is “butter-backed,” “butter-faced,” or “butter-haired.” He is also “flame-haired,” and has a tawny beard. He has sharp, shining, golden, or iron teeth and burning jaws. Mention is also often made of his tongue or tongues. He is frequently compared with or directly called a steed, being yoked to the pole of the rite in order to waft the sacrifice to the gods. He is also often likened to a bird, being winged and darting with rapid flight to the gods. He eats and chews the forest with sharp tooth. His lustre is like the rays of dawn or of the sun, and resembles the lightnings of the rain-cloud; but his track and his fellies are black, and his steeds make black furrows. Driven by the wind, he rushes through the wood. He invades the forests and shears the hairs of the earth, shaving it as a barber a beard. His flames are like the roaring waves of the sea. He bellows like a bull when he invades the forest trees; the birds are terrified at the noise when his grass-devouring sparks arise. Like the erector of a pillar, he supports the sky with his smoke; and one of his distinctive epithets is “smoke-bannered.” He is borne on a brilliant car, drawn by two or more steeds, which are ruddy or tawny and wind-impelled. He yokes them to summon the gods, for he is the charioteer of the sacrifice.
The poets love to dwell on his various births, forms, and abodes. They often refer to the daily generation of Agni by friction from the two fire-sticks. These are his parents, producing him as a new-born infant who is hard to catch. From the dry wood the god is born living; the child as soon as born devours his parents. The ten maidens said to produce him are the ten fingers used in twirling the upright fire-drill. Agni is called “Son of strength” because of the powerful friction necessary in kindling a flame. As the fire is lit every morning for the sacrifice, Agni is described as “waking at dawn.” Hence, too, he is the “youngest” of the gods; but he is also old, for he conducted the first sacrifice. Thus he comes to be paradoxically called both “ancient” and “very young” in the same passage.
Agni also springs from the aërial waters, and is often said to have been brought from heaven. Born on earth, in air, in heaven, Agni is frequently regarded as having a triple character. The gods made him threefold, his births are three, and he has three abodes or dwellings. “From heaven first Agni was born, the second time from us (i.e. men), thirdly in the waters.” This earliest Indian trinity is important as the basis of much of the mystical speculation of the Vedic age. It was probably the prototype not only of the later Rigvedic triad, Sun, Wind, Fire, spoken of as distributed in the three worlds, but also of the triad Sun, Indra, Fire, which, though not Rigvedic, is still ancient. It is most likely also the historical progenitor of the later Hindu trinity of Brahmā, Vishṇu, Çiva. This triad of fires may have suggested and would explain the division of a single sacrificial fire into the three which form an essential feature of the cult of the Brāhmaṇas.
Owing to the multiplicity of terrestrial fires, Agni is also said to have many births; for he abides in every family, house, or dwelling. Kindled in many spots, he is but one; scattered in many places, he is one and the same king. Other fires are attached to him as branches to a tree. He assumes various divine forms, and has many names; but in him are comprehended all the gods, whom he surrounds as a felly the spokes. Thus we find the speculations about Agni’s various forms leading to the monotheistic notion of a unity pervading the many manifestations of the divine.
Agni is an immortal who has taken up his abode among mortals; he is constantly called a “guest” in human dwellings; and is the only god to whom the frequent epithet gṛihapati, “lord of the house,” is applied.
As the conductor of sacrifice, Agni is repeatedly called both a “messenger” who moves between heaven and earth and a priest. He is indeed the great priest, just as Indra is the great warrior.
Agni is, moreover, a mighty benefactor of his worshippers. With a thousand eyes he watches over the man who offers him oblations; but consumes his worshippers’ enemies like dry bushes, and strikes down the malevolent like a tree destroyed by lightning. All blessings issue from him as branches from a tree. All treasures are collected in him, and he opens the door of wealth. He gives rain from heaven and is like a spring in the desert. The boons which he confers are, however, chiefly domestic welfare, offspring, and general prosperity, while Indra for the most part grants victory, booty, power, and glory. Probably the oldest function of fire in regard to its cult is that of burning and dispelling evil spirits and hostile magic. It still survives in the Rigveda from an earlier age, Agni being said to drive away the goblins with his light and receiving the epithet rakshohan “goblin-slayer.” This activity is at any rate more characteristic of Agni than of any other deity, both in the hymns and in the ritual of the Vedas.
Since the soma sacrifice, beside the cult of fire, forms a main feature in the ritual of the Rigveda, the god Soma is naturally one of its chief deities. The whole of the ninth book, in addition to a few scattered hymns elsewhere, is devoted to his praise. Thus, judged by the standard of frequency of mention, Soma comes third in order of importance among the Vedic gods. The constant presence of the soma plant and its juice before their eyes set limits to the imagination of the poets who describe its personification. Hence little is said of Soma’s human form or action. The ninth book mainly consists of incantations sung over the soma while it is pressed by the stones and flows through the woollen strainer into the wooden vats, in which it is finally offered as a beverage to the gods on a litter of grass. The poets are chiefly concerned with these processes, overlaying them with chaotic imagery and mystical fancies of almost infinite variety. When Soma is described as being purified by the ten maidens who are sisters, or by the daughters of Vivasvat (the rising sun), the ten fingers are meant. The stones used in pounding the shoots on a skin “chew him on the hide of a cow.” The flowing of the juice into jars or vats after passing through the filter of sheep’s wool is described in various ways. The streams of soma rush to the forest of the vats like buffaloes. The god flies like a bird to settle in the vats. The Tawny One settles in the bowls like a bird sitting on a tree. The juice being mixed with water in the vat, Soma is said to rush into the lap of the waters like a roaring bull on the herd. Clothing himself in waters, he rushes around the vat, impelled by the singers. Playing in the wood, he is cleansed by the ten maidens. He is the embryo or child of waters, which are called his mothers. When the priests add milk to soma “they clothe him in cow-garments.”
The sound made by the soma juice flowing into the vats or bowls is often referred to in hyperbolical language. Thus a poet says that “the sweet drop flows over the filter like the din of combatants.” This sound is constantly described as roaring, bellowing, or occasionally even thundering. In such passages Soma is commonly compared with or called a bull, and the waters, with or without milk, are termed cows.
Owing to the yellow colour of the juice, the physical quality of Soma mainly dwelt upon by the poets is his brilliance. His rays are often referred to, and he is frequently assimilated to the sun.
The exhilarating and invigorating action of soma led to its being regarded as a divine drink that bestows everlasting life. Hence it is called amṛita, the “immortal” draught (allied to the Greek ambrosia). Soma is the stimulant which conferred immortality upon the gods. Soma also places his worshipper in the imperishable world where there is eternal light and glory, making him immortal where King Yama dwells. Thus soma naturally has medicinal power also. It is medicine for a sick man, and the god Soma heals whatever is sick, making the blind to see and the lame to walk.
Soma when imbibed stimulates the voice, which it impels as the rower his boat. Soma also awakens eager thought, and the worshippers of the god exclaim, “We have drunk soma, we have become immortal, we have entered into light, we have known the gods.” The intoxicating power of soma is chiefly, and very frequently, dwelt on in connection with Indra, whom it stimulates in his conflict with the hostile demons of the air.
Being the most important of herbs, soma is spoken of as lord of plants or their king, receiving also the epithet vanaspati, “lord of the forest.”
Soma is several times described as dwelling or growing on the mountains, in accordance with the statements of the Avesta about Haoma. Its true origin and abode is regarded as heaven, whence it has been brought down to earth. This belief is most frequently embodied in the myth of the soma-bringing eagle (çyena), which is probably only the mythological account of the simple phenomenon of the descent of lightning and the simultaneous fall of rain.
In some of the latest hymns of the Rigveda Soma begins to be somewhat obscurely identified with the moon. In the Atharva-veda Soma several times means the moon, and in the Yajurveda Soma is spoken of as having the lunar mansions for his wives. The identification is a commonplace in the Brāhmaṇas, which explain the waning of the moon as due to the gods and fathers eating up the ambrosia of which it consists. In one of the Upanishads, moreover, the statement occurs that the moon is King Soma, the food of the gods, and is drunk up by them. Finally, in post-Vedic literature Soma is a regular name of the moon, which is regarded as being consumed by the gods, and consequently waning till it is filled up again by the sun. This somewhat remarkable coalescence of Soma with the moon doubtless sprang from the hyperbolical terms in which the poets of the Rigveda dwell on Soma’s celestial nature and brilliance, which they describe as dispelling darkness. They sometimes speak of it as swelling in the waters, and often refer to the sap as a “drop” (indu). Comparisons with the moon would thus easily suggest themselves. In one passage of the Rigveda, for instance, Soma in the bowls is said to appear like the moon in the waters. The mystical speculations with which the Soma poetry teems would soon complete the symbolism.
A comparison of the Avesta with the Rigveda shows clearly that soma was already an important feature in the mythology and cult of the Indo-Iranian age. In both it is described as growing on the mountains, whence it is brought by birds; in both it is king of plants; in both a medicine bestowing long life and removing death. In both the sap was pressed and mixed with milk; in both its mythical home is heaven, whence it comes down to earth; in both the draught has become a mighty god; in both the celestial Soma is distinguished from the terrestrial, the god from the beverage. The similarity goes so far that Soma and Haoma have even some individual epithets in common.
The evolution of thought in the Rigvedic period shows a tendency to advance from the concrete to the abstract. One result of this tendency is the creation of abstract deities, which, however, are still rare, occurring for the most part in the last book only. A few of them are deifications of abstract nouns, such as Çraddhā “Faith,” invoked in one short hymn, and Manyu, “Wrath,” in two. These abstractions grow more numerous in the later Vedas. Thus Kāma, “Desire,” first appears in the Atharva-veda, where the arrows with which he pierces hearts are already referred to; he is the forerunner of the flower-arrowed god of love, familiar in classical literature. More numerous is the class of abstractions comprising deities whose names denote an agent, such as Dhātṛi “Creator,” or an attribute, such as Prajāpati, “Lord of Creatures.” These do not appear to be direct abstractions, but seem to be derived from epithets designating a particular aspect of activity or character, which at first applying to one or more of the older deities, finally acquired an independent value. Thus Prajāpati, originally an epithet of such gods as Savitṛi and Soma, occurs in a late verse of the last book as a distinct deity possessing the attribute of a creator. This god is in the Atharva-veda and the Vājasaneyi-Saṃhitā often, and in the Brāhmaṇas regularly, recognised as the chief deity, the father of the gods. In the Sūtras, Prajāpati is identified with Brahmā, his successor in the post-Vedic age.
A hymn of the tenth book furnishes an interesting illustration of the curious way in which such abstractions sometimes come into being. Here is one of the stanzas:—
By whom the mighty sky, the earth so steadfast,
The realm of light, heaven’s vault, has been established,
Who in the air the boundless space traverses:
What god should we with sacrifices worship?
The fourth line here is the refrain of nine successive stanzas, in which the creator is referred to as unknown, with the interrogative pronoun ka, “what?” This ka in the later Vedic literature came to be employed not only as an epithet of the creator Prajāpati, but even as an independent name of the supreme god.
A deity of an abstract character occurring in the oldest as well as the latest parts of the Rigveda is Bṛihaspati, “Lord of Prayer.” Roth and other distinguished Vedic scholars regard him as a direct personification of devotion. In the opinion of the present writer, however, he is only an indirect deification of the sacrificial activity of Agni, a god with whom he has undoubtedly much in common. Thus the most prominent feature of his character is his priesthood. Like Agni, he has been drawn into and has obtained a firm footing in the Indra myth. Thus he is often described as driving out the cows after vanquishing the demon Vala. As the divine brahmā priest, Bṛihaspati seems to have been the prototype of the god Brahmā, chief of the later Hindu trinity. But the name Bṛihaspati itself survived in post-Vedic mythology as the designation of a sage, the teacher of the gods, and regent of the planet Jupiter.
Another abstraction, and one of a very peculiar kind, is the goddess Aditi. Though not the subject of any separate hymn, she is often incidentally celebrated. She has two, and only two, prominent characteristics. She is, in the first place, the mother of the small group of gods called Ādityas, of whom Varuṇa is the chief. Secondly, she has, like her son Varuṇa, the power of releasing from the bonds of physical suffering and moral guilt. With the latter trait her name, which means “unbinding,” “freedom,” is clearly connected. The unpersonified sense seems to survive in a few passages of the Rigveda. Thus a poet prays for the “secure and unlimited gift of aditi.” The origin of the abstraction is probably to be explained as follows. The expression “sons of Aditi,” which is several times applied to the Ādityas, when first used in all likelihood meant “sons of liberation,” to emphasise a salient trait of their character, according to a turn of language common in the Rigveda. The feminine word “liberation” (aditi) used in this connection would then have become personified by a process which has more than one parallel in Sanskrit. Thus Aditi, a goddess of Indian origin, is historically younger than some at least of her sons, who can be traced back to a pre-Indian age.
Goddesses, as a whole, occupy a very subordinate position in Vedic belief. They play hardly any part as rulers of the world. The only one of any consequence is Ushas. The next in importance, Sarasvatī, ranks only with the least prominent of the male gods. One of the few, besides Pṛithivī, to whom an entire hymn is addressed, is Rātrī, Night. Like her sister Dawn, with whom she is often coupled, she is addressed as a daughter of the sky. She is conceived not as the dark, but as the bright starlit night. Thus, in contrasting the twin goddesses, a poet says, “One decks herself with stars, with sunlight the other.” The following stanzas are from the hymn addressed to Night (x. 127):—
Night coming on, the goddess shines
In many places with her eyes:
All-glorious she has decked herself.
Immortal goddess, far and wide
She fills the valleys and the heights:
Darkness with light she overcomes.
And now the goddess coming on
Has driven away her sister Dawn:
Far off the darkness hastes away.
Thus, goddess, come to us to-day,
At whose approach we seek our homes,
As birds upon the tree their nest.
The villagers have gone to rest,
Beasts, too, with feet and birds with wings:
The hungry hawk himself is still.
Ward off the she-wolf and the wolf,
Ward off the robber, goddess Night:
And take us safe across the gloom.
Goddesses, as wives of the great gods, play a still more insignificant part, being entirely devoid of independent character. Indeed, hardly anything about them is mentioned but their names, which are simply formed from those of their male consorts by means of feminine suffixes.
A peculiar feature of Vedic mythology is the invocation in couples of a number of deities whose names are combined in the form of dual compounds. About a dozen such pairs are celebrated in entire hymns, and some half-dozen others in detached stanzas. By far the greatest number of such hymns is addressed to Mitra-Varuṇa, but the names most often found combined in this way are those of Heaven and Earth (Dyāvā-pṛithivī). There can be little doubt that the latter couple furnished the analogy for this favourite formation. For the association of this pair, traceable as far back as the Indo-European period, appeared to early thought so intimate in nature, that the myth of their conjugal union is found widely diffused among primitive peoples. Besides these pairs of deities there is a certain number of more or less definite groups of divine beings generally associated with some particular god. The largest and most important of these are the Maruts or Storm-gods, who, as we have seen, constantly attend Indra on his warlike exploits. The same group, under the name of Rudras, is occasionally associated with their father Rudra. The smaller group of the Ādityas is constantly mentioned in company with their mother Aditi, or their chief Varuṇa. Their number in two passages of the Rigveda is stated as seven or eight, while in the Brāhmaṇas and later it is regularly twelve. Some eight or ten hymns of the Rigveda are addressed to them collectively. The following lines are taken from one (viii. 47) in which their aid and protection is specially invoked:—
As birds extend their sheltering wings,
Spread your protection over us.
As charioteers avoid ill roads,
May dangers always pass us by.
Resting in you, O gods, we are
Like men that fight in coats of mail.
Look down on us, O Ādityas,
Like spies observing from the bank:
Lead us to paths of pleasantness,
Like horses to an easy ford.
A third and much less important group is that of the Vasus, mostly associated with Indra in the Rigveda, though in later Vedic texts Agni becomes their leader. They are a vague group, for they are not characterised, having neither individual names nor any definite number. The Brāhmaṇas, however, mention eight of them. Finally, there are the Viçvedevās or All-gods, to whom some sixty hymns are addressed. It is a factitious sacrificial group meant to embrace the whole pantheon in order that none should be excluded in invocations intended to be addressed to all. Strange to say, the All-gods are sometimes conceived as a narrower group, which is invoked with others like the Vasus and Ādityas.
Besides the higher gods the Rigveda knows a number of mythical beings not regarded as possessing the divine nature to the full extent and from the beginning. The most important of these are the Ṛibhus who form a triad, and are addressed in eleven hymns. Characteristically deft-handed, they are often said to have acquired the rank of deities by their marvellous skill. Among the five great feats of dexterity whereby they became gods, the greatest—in which they appear as successful rivals of Tvashṭṛi, the artificer god—consists in their having transformed his bowl, the drinking vessel of the gods, into four shining cups. This bowl perhaps represents the moon, the four cups being its phases. It has also been interpreted as the year with its division into seasons. The Ṛibhus are further said to have renewed the youth of their parents, by whom Heaven and Earth seem to have been meant. With this miraculous deed another myth told about them appears to be specially connected. They rested for twelve days in the house of the sun, Agohya (“who cannot be concealed”). This sojourn of the Ṛibhus in the house of the sun in all probability alludes to the winter solstice, the twelve days being the addition which was necessary to bring the lunar year of 354 into harmony with the solar year of nearly 366 days, and was intercalated before the days begin to grow perceptibly longer. On the whole, it seems likely that the Ṛibhus were originally terrestrial or aërial elves, whose dexterity gradually attracted to them various myths illustrative of marvellous skill.
In a few passages of the Rigveda mention is made of a celestial water-nymph called Apsaras (“moving in the waters”), who is regarded as the spouse of a corresponding male genius called Gandharva. The Apsaras, in the words of the poet, smiles at her beloved in the highest heaven. More Apsarases than one are occasionally spoken of. Their abode is in the later Vedas extended to the earth, where they especially frequent trees, which resound with the music of their lutes and cymbals. The Brāhmaṇas describe them as distinguished by great beauty and devoted to dance, song, and play. In the post-Vedic period they become the courtesans of Indra’s heaven. The Apsarases are loved not only by the Gandharvas but occasionally even by men. Such an one was Urvaçī. A dialogue between her and her earthly spouse, Purūravas, is contained in a somewhat obscure hymn of the Rigveda (x. 95). The nymph is here made to say:—
Among mortals in other form I wandered,
And dwelt for many nights throughout four autumns.
Her lover implores her to return; but, though his request is refused, he (like Tithonus) receives the promise of immortality. The Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa tells the story in a more connected and detailed form. Urvaçī is joined with Purūravas in an alliance, the permanence of which depends on a condition. When this is broken by a stratagem of the Gandharvas, the nymph immediately vanishes from the sight of her lover. Purūravas, distracted, roams in search of her, till at last he observes her swimming in a lotus lake with other Apsarases in the form of an aquatic bird. Urvaçī discovers herself to him, and in response to his entreaties, consents to return for once after the lapse of a year. This myth in the post-Vedic age furnished the theme of Kālidāsa’s play Vikramorvaçī.
Gandharva appears to have been conceived originally as a single being. For in the Rigveda the name nearly always occurs in the singular, and in the Avesta, where it is found a few times in the form of Gandarewa, only in the singular. According to the Rigveda, this genius, the lover of the water-nymph, dwells in the fathomless spaces of air, and stands erect on the vault of heaven. He is also a guardian of the celestial soma, and is sometimes, as in the Avesta, connected with the waters. In the later Vedas the Gandharvas form a class, their association with the Apsarases being so frequent as to amount to a stereotyped phrase. In the post-Vedic age they have become celestial singers, and the notion of their home being in the realm of air survives in the expression “City of the Gandharvas” as one of the Sanskrit names for “mirage.”
Among the numerous ancient priests and heroes of the Rigveda the most important is Manu, the first sacrificer and the ancestor of the human race. The poets refer to him as “our father,” and speak of sacrificers as “the people of Manu.” The Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa makes Manu play the part of a Noah in the history of human descent.
A group of ancient priests are the Angirases, who are closely associated with Indra in the myth of the capture of the cows. Another ancient race of mythical priests are the Bhṛigus, to whom the Indian Prometheus, Mātariçvan, brought the hidden Agni from heaven, and whose function was the establishment and diffusion of the sacrificial fire on earth.
A numerically definite group of ancestral priests, rarely mentioned in the Rigveda, are the seven Rishis or seers. In the Brāhmaṇas they came to be regarded as the seven stars in the constellation of the Great Bear, and are said to have been bears in the beginning. This curious identification was doubtless brought about partly by the sameness of the number in the two cases, and partly by the similarity of sound between ṛishi, “seer,” and ṛiksha, which in the Rigveda means both “star” and ” bear.”
Animals play a considerable part in the mythological and religious conceptions of the Veda. Among them the horse is conspicuous as drawing the cars of the gods, and in particular as representing the sun under various names. In the Vedic ritual the horse was regarded as symbolical of the sun and of fire. Two hymns of the Rigveda (i. 162–163) which deal with the subject, further show that horse-sacrifice was practised in the earliest age of Indian antiquity.
The cow, however, is the animal which figures most largely in the Rigveda. This is undoubtedly due to the important position, resulting from its pre-eminent utility, occupied by this animal even in the remotest period of Indian life. The beams of dawn and the clouds are cows. The rain-cloud, personified under the name of Pṛiçni, “the speckled one,” is a cow, the mother of the Storm-gods. The bountiful clouds on which all wealth in India depended, were doubtless the prototypes of the many-coloured cows which yield all desires in the heaven of the blest described by the Atharva-veda, and which are the forerunners of the “Cow of Plenty” (Kāmaduh) so familiar to post-Vedic poetry. The earth itself is often spoken of by the poets of the Rigveda as a cow. That this animal already possessed a sacred character is shown by the fact that one Rishi addresses a cow as Aditi and a goddess, impressing upon his hearers that she should not be slain. Aghnyā (“not to be killed”), a frequent designation of the cow in the Rigveda, points in the same direction. Indeed the evidence of the Avesta proves that the sanctity of this animal goes back even to the Indo-Iranian period. In the Atharva-veda the worship of the cow is fully recognised, while the Çatapatha Brāhmaṇa emphasises the evil consequences of eating beef. The sanctity of the cow has not only survived in India down to the present day, but has even gathered strength with the lapse of time. The part played by the greased cartridges in the Indian Mutiny is sufficient to prove this statement. To no other animal has mankind owed so much, and the debt has been richly repaid in India with a veneration unknown in other lands. So important a factor has the cow proved in Indian life and thought, that an exhaustive account of her influence from the earliest times would form a noteworthy chapter in the history of civilisation.
Among the noxious animals of the Rigveda the serpent is the most prominent. This is the form which the powerful demon, the foe of Indra, is believed to possess. The serpent also appears as a divine being in the form of the rarely mentioned Ahi budhnya, “the Dragon of the Deep,” supposed to dwell in the fathomless depths of the aërial ocean, and probably representing the beneficent side of the character of the serpent Vṛitra. In the later Vedas the serpents are mentioned as a class of semi-divine beings along with the Gandharvas and others; and in the Sūtras offerings to them are prescribed. In the latter works we meet for the first time with the Nāgas, in reality serpents, and human only in form. In post-Vedic times serpent-worship is found all over India. Since there is no trace of it in the Rigveda, while it prevails widely among the non-Aryan Indians, there is reason to believe that when the Aryans spread over India, the land of serpents, they found the cult diffused among the aborigines and borrowed it from them.
Plants are frequently invoked as divinities, chiefly in enumerations along with waters, rivers, mountains, heaven, and earth. One entire hymn (x. 97) is, however, devoted to the praise of plants (oshadhi) alone, mainly with regard to their healing powers. Later Vedic texts mention offerings made to plants and the adoration paid to large trees passed in marriage processions. One hymn of the Rigveda (x. 146) celebrates the forest as a whole, personified as Araṇyānī, the mocking genius of the woods. The weird sights and sounds of the gloaming are here described with a fine perception of nature. In the dark solitudes of the jungle
Sounds as of grazing cows are heard,
A dwelling-house appears to loom,
And Araṇyānī, Forest-nymph,
Creaks like a cart at eventide.
Here some one calls his cow to him,
Another there is felling wood;
Who tarries in the forest-glade
Thinks to himself, “I heard a cry.”
Never does Araṇyānī hurt
Unless one goes too near to her:
When she has eaten of sweet fruit
At her own will she goes to rest.
Sweet-scented, redolent of balm,
Replete with food, yet tilling not,
Mother of beasts, the Forest-nymph,
Her I have magnified with praise.
On the whole, however, the part played by plant, tree, and forest deities is a very insignificant one in the Rigveda.
A strange religious feature pointing to a remote antiquity is the occasional deification and worship even of objects fashioned by the hand of man, when regarded as useful to him. These are chiefly sacrificial implements. Thus in one hymn (iii. 8) the sacrificial post (called “lord of the forest”) is invoked, while three hymns of the tenth book celebrate the pressing stones used in preparing soma. The plough is invoked in a few stanzas; and an entire hymn (vi. 75) is devoted to the praise of various implements of war, while one in the Atharva-veda (v. 20) glorifies the drum.
The demons so frequently mentioned in the Rigveda are of two classes. The one consists of the aërial adversaries of the gods. The older view is that of a conflict waged between a single god and a single demon. This gradually developed into the notion of the gods and the demons in general being arrayed against each other as two opposing hosts. The Brāhmaṇas regularly represent the antagonism thus. Asura is the ordinary name of the aërial foes of the gods. This word has a remarkable history. In the Rigveda it is predominantly a designation of the gods, and in the Avesta it denotes, in the form of Ahura, the highest god of Zoroastrianism. In the later parts of the Rigveda, however, asura, when used by itself, also signifies “demon,” and this is its only sense in the Atharva-veda. A somewhat unsuccessful attempt has been made to explain how a word signifying “god” came to mean “devil,” as the result of national conflicts, the Asuras or gods of extra-Vedic tribes becoming demons to the Vedic Indian, just as the devas or gods of the Veda are demons in the Avesta. There is no traditional evidence in support of this view, and it is opposed by the fact that to the Rigvedic Indian asura not only in general meant a divine being, but was especially appropriate to Varuṇa, the most exalted of the gods. The word must therefore have changed its meaning in course of time within the Veda itself. Here it seems from the beginning to have had the sense of “possessor of occult power,” and hence to have been potentially applicable to hostile beings. Thus in one hymn of the Rigveda (x. 124) both senses seem to occur. Towards the end of the Rigvedic period the application of the word to the gods began to fall into abeyance. This tendency was in all likelihood accelerated by the need of a word denoting the hostile demoniac powers generally, as well as by an incipient popular etymology, which saw a negative (a-sura) in the word and led to the invention of sura, “god,” a term first found in the Upanishads.
A group of aërial demons, primarily foes of Indra, are the Paṇis. The proper meaning of the word is “niggard,” especially in regard to sacrificial gifts. From this signification it developed the mythological sense of demons resembling those originally conceived as withholding the treasures of heaven. The term dāsa or dasyu, properly the designation of the dark aborigines of India contrasted with their fair Aryan conquerors, is frequently used in the sense of demons or fiends.
By far the most conspicuous of the individual aërial demons of the Rigveda, is Vṛitra, who has the form of a serpent, and whose name means “encompasser.” Another demon mentioned with some frequency is Vala, the personification of the mythical cave in which the celestial cows are confined. In post-Vedic literature these two demons are frequently mentioned together and are regarded as brothers slain by Indra. The most often named among the remaining adversaries of Indra is Çushṇa, the “hisser” or “scorcher.” A rarely-mentioned demon is Svarbhānu, who is described as eclipsing the sun with darkness. His successor in Sanskrit literature was Rāhu, regarded as causing eclipses by swallowing the sun or moon.
The second class of demons consists of goblins supposed to infest the earth, enemies of mankind as the Asuras are of the gods. By far the most common generic name for this class is Rakshas. They are hardly ever mentioned except in connection with some god who is invoked to destroy or is praised for having destroyed them. These goblins are conceived as having the shapes of various animals as well as of men. Their appearance is more fully described by the Atharva-veda, in which they are also spoken of as deformed or as being blue, yellow, or green in colour. According to the Rigveda they are fond of the flesh of men and horses, whom they attack by entering into them in order to satisfy their greed. They are supposed to prowl about at night and to make the sacrifice the special object of their attacks. The belief that the Rakshases actively interfere with the performance of sacrificial rites remains familiar in the post-Vedic period. A species of goblin scarcely referred to in the Rigveda, but often mentioned in the later Vedas, are the Piçāchas, described as devouring corpses and closely connected with the dead.
Few references to death and the future life are to be found in the hymns of the Rigveda, as the optimistic and active Vedic Indian, unlike his descendants in later centuries, seems to have given little thought to the other world. Most of the information to be gained about their views of the next life are to be found in the funeral hymns of the last book. The belief here expressed is that fire or the grave destroys the body only, while the real personality of the deceased is imperishable. The soul is thought to be separable from the body, not only after death, but even during unconsciousness (x. 58). There is no indication here, or even in the later Vedas, of the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, though it was already firmly established in the sixth century B.C. when Buddhism arose. One passage of the Rigveda, however, in which the soul is spoken of as departing to the waters or the plants, may contain the germs of the theory.
1. In verse 10, which is a late addition; see p. 51, footnote.
2. A reference to dropsy, with which Varuṇa is thought to afflict sinners.