Vedism was the earliest form of the religion of the Indian branch of the great Aryan family — the form which was represented in the songs, invocations, and prayers, collectively called Veda, and attributed to the Rishis, or supposed inspired leaders of religious thought and life in India. It was the worship of the deified forces or phenomena of Nature, such as Fire, Sun, Wind, and Rain, which were sometimes individualized or thought of as separate divine powers, sometimes gathered under one general conception and personified as one God.
When the Indian branch of the Aryan family settled down in the land of the seven rivers (Sanskrit Sapta Sind/nt, Zend Hapta Hendu\ now the Panjab, about the fifteenth century BC, their religion was still nature-worship. It was still adoration of the forces which were everywhere in operation around them for production, destruction, and reproduction. But it was physiolatry developing itself more distinctly into forms of Theism, Polytheism, Anthropomorphism, and Pantheism.
Unlike the modern Hindus, the Aryans of the Veda ate beef; used a fermented liquor or beer made from the soma plant; and offered the same strong meat and drink to their gods. The terrible blood-drinking deities of modern Hinduism are scarcely known in the Veda. Buffaloes are indeed offered; and one hymn points to a symbolism based on human sacrifices, an early practice apparently extinct before the time of the Vedic singers. The great Horse-Sacrifice seems a substitution for the flesh and blood of a man.
While the aboriginal races buried their dead under rude stone monuments, the Aryans made use of the funeral-pyre as the most solemn method of severing the mortal from the immortal part of man. As he derived his natural birth from his parents; and a partial regeneration, or second birth, from the performance of his religious duties; so the fire, by setting free the soul from the body, completed the third or heavenly birth. His friends stood round the pyre as round a natal bed, and commanded his eye to go to the sun, his breath to the wind, his limbs to the earth, — the water and plants whence they had been derived. But 'as for his unborn part, do thou, Lord (Agni), quicken it with thy heat; let thy flame and thy brightness quicken it; convey it to the world of the righteous.'
To trace the origin of religion among such a people requires no curious metaphysical hypotheses. It only requires asking what would be the natural working of their devotional instincts, unguided by direct revelation. Their material welfare depended on the influences of sky, air, light, and sun (sometimes fancifully imaged in the mind as emerging out of an antecedent chaotic night); and to these they naturally turned with awe and veneration. Soon all such phenomena were believed to be animated by intelligent wills. At first the relationship between spirit, mind, and matter was imperfectly apprehended. Whatever moved was believed to possess life, and with life was associated power. Hence the phenomena of nature were thought of as mysterious forces, whose favour required propitiation. Next they received homage under the general name of Devas, 'luminous ones.'
Then, just as men found themselves obliged to submit to some earthly leader, so they naturally assigned supremacy to one celestial being called the 'light-father' (Dyupitar, Zeuy-narfip, Jupiter). Or, again, a kind of pre-eminence was sometimes accorded to the all-investing sky or atmosphere (Varuna, Olpavos), the representative of an eternal celestial Presence watching men's actions, and listening to their words by night as well as by day. Of course another principal object of veneration was the orb of the Sun called Mitra, often connected with another aspect of the Sun, Aryaman, whose influences fertilized lands, enriched pastures, and fructified crops.
Then other kindred natural phenomena, such as fire (Agni, Latin Ignis), and the dawn (Ushas, 'H&J?, Aurora), and Ida or Ira (Iris), were by degrees regarded with varying degrees of veneration. They all had names which still exist under different modifications among different branches of the Aryan stock, leading us to infer that they were among the most ancient objects held sacred in the original abode of the Aryan race, before the several members of the family separated.
There is even ground for conjecturing that triads of natural objects, such as Sky, Atmosphere, and Sun, or three forms of the Sun, called Aryaman, Varuna, and Mitra, were associated together and worshipped by the primitive Aryans in the earliest times. It is certain that the Aryan race, from the first development of its religious sense on the soil of India, has shown a tendency to attach a sacred significance to the number three, and to group the objects of its adoration in triple combinations.
As to the form of worship, that, too, was a natural process not yet burdened by tedious ceremonial observances. When men had personified and deified the forces with which they were surrounded, they gave them characters like their own. They attributed to them human tastes, likings, and predilections. They propitiated them by praise and flattery, accompanying their hymns and invocations with such presents and offerings of food and drink as would be deemed acceptable among themselves, and would be needed for the maintenance of their own vigor and vitality.
Perhaps the earliest and commonest offerings were rice and clarified butter. Then the exhilarating juice of the Soma plant, afterwards an essential ingredient in both Aryan and Iranian sacrifices, was used as a libation. But the form of worship, like the creed of the worshipper, was unfettered by precise rule or ritual. Each man satisfied his own religious instincts, according to his own conception of the character of the supernatural being or beings on whose favour his welfare was thought to depend.
The phenomena of nature were thought of as something more than radiant beings, and something more than powerful forces. To the generality of worshippers they were more distinctly concrete personalities, and had more personal attributes. They were addressed as kings, fathers, guardians, friends, benefactors, guests. They were invoked in formal hymns and prayers (mantras), in set meters (thandds).
These hymns were composed in an early form of the Sanskrit language, at different times—perhaps during several centuries, from the fifteenth to the tenth BC — by men of light and leading (Rishis) among the Indo-Aryan immigrants, who were afterwards held in the highest veneration as patriarchal saints. Eventually the hymns were believed to have been directly revealed to, rather than composed by, these Rishis, and were then called divine knowledge (Veda), or the eternal word heard (sruti), and transmitted by them.
These Mantras or hymns were arranged in three principal collections or continuous texts (Samititas). The first and 'earliest was called the Hymn-veda (Rig-veda). It was a collection of 1017 hymns, arranged for mere reading or reciting. This was the first bible of the Hindu religion, and the special bible of Vedism.
The second, or Sacrificial veda (Yajur), belongs to a later phase of the Hindu system. It was a liturgical arrangement of part of the same collection of hymns, with additions1 for intoning in a peculiar low tone at sacrificial ceremonies. Be it noted, however, that some of the hymns of the Rig-veda (for example, the horse-sacrifice hymn, I. 162) presuppose a ritual already definite and systematized. The third, or Chant-veda (Samai), was another liturgical arrangement of some of the same hymns for chanting at particular sacrifices in which the juice of the Soma plant was the principal offering.
A fourth collection — which might suitably be called the Spell-veda — was added at a later period. It was a collection of hymns — some of them similar to those of the Rig-veda, but the greater part original — by a particular class of priests called Atharvans. Many of the texts and formularies of this Atharva-veda were ultimately used as charms and spells, and are still so used in various parts of India.
Vedic deification of the Sky (Varuna, Ovparo's) remained a principal object of adoration. He was still occasionally exalted to the position of a Supreme Being. A well-known hymn in the Atharva-veda (IV. 16) describes him as ruling the world, as penetrating the secrets of all hearts, as detecting the plots of wicked men, as sending down countless messengers who for ever traverse the earth and scan its inmates, as numbering every wink of men's eyes, as wielding the whole universe in the manner of a gamester handling dice.
But the true gods of the Veda constituted a trinity of deities. They were the Fire-god (the earth-born Agni), the Rain-god (the air-born Indra), and the Sun-god (the sky-born Surya or Savitri)—one for each of the three worlds, earth, air, and sky (bkfir, blmvah, svar). These three gods were the special objects of worship of the early Indo-Aryan colonists.
All their other principal deities were either modifications of, or associated with, one or other of the members of this Vedic trinity. For example, the wind (Vayu) and the storm-gods (Maruts), led by the destroying god (Rudra), were regarded as intimate associates of the Rain-god Indra, and were really only forms and modifications of that god. On the other hand, the ancient Aryan deities, Varuna and Mitra, with Vishnu, were all mere forms of the Sun (Surya or Savitri, also called Pushan). Of course the Dawn (Ushas) was also connected with the Sun, and two other deities — the Asvins, probably personifications of two luminous points in the sky — were fabled as his twin sons, ever young and handsome, travelling in a golden car as precursors of the Dawn.
The early religion of the Indo-Aryans was a development of a still earlier belief in man's subjection to the powers of nature and his need of conciliating them. It was an unsettled system which at one time assigned all the phenomena of the universe to one first Cause; at another, attributed them to several Causes operating independently; at another, supposed the whole visible creation to be animated by one universal all-pervading spirit. It was a belief which, according to the character and inclination of the worshipper, was now monotheism, now tritheism, now polytheism, now pantheism. But it was not yet idolatry.
In Manu the belief in the Pitris or Fathers and the rules for their worship have assumed a most complicated character, and there are many passages that might be quoted by those who hold that in India also a belief in the Fathers came first, and a belief in the Devas followed afterwards. The name of the oldest and greatest among the Devas, for instance, is not simply Dyaus, but Dyaush-pita, Heaven-Father, and there are several other names of the same character, not only in Sanskrit, but in Greek and Latin also [ie, Jupiter]. Does it not look as if Dyaus, the sky, had become personal and worshipful, only after he had been raised to the category of a Pitri, a father, and that this predicate of Father must have been elaborated first, before it could have been used to comprehend Dyaus, the sky, Varu«a, and other Devas?
The Vedic poets believed in Devas, gods, if we must so call them, literally, the bright ones; Vitris, fathers; and Manushyas, men, mortals1. Who came first and who came after is difficult to say, but as soon as the three were placed side by side, the Devas certainly stood highest, then followed the Vitris, and last came the mortals. Ancient thought did not go so far as to comprehend the three under one common concept, but it paved the way to it. The mortals, after passing through death, became Fathers, and the Fathers became the companions of the Devas.
In Manu there is a decided advance beyond this point. The world, all that moves and rests, has been made by the Devas, but the Devas and Danavas were born of the Pitris, and the Pitris of the Rishis. The Rishis were originally the poets of the Veda, where their number is given as seven, the Sapta Rishaya. How they came to be placed above the Devas, and above the Pitris, is difficult to understand. The tradition about the Fathers and the Rishis and the Manus and Pragapatis goes on growing, different conceptions being mixed up together, each family or school adding their own legends, till in the Puranas the confusion exceeds all bounds, and the original germs of sense are smothered beneath a thick layer of mere nonsense.
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