Even the most inspired writers are the products of their environment. They gave voice to the deepest thoughts of their own epoch. A complete abandonment of the existing modes of thought is psychologically impossible. The writers of the Rhg Veda speak of the ancient makers of the path. [ idam nama RShibhyaH pUrvajebhyaH pUrvebhyaH pathi-kRdbhyaH. X. 14. 15. ] When there is an awakening of the mind, the old symbols are interpreted in a new way.
In pursuance of the characteristic genius of the Indian mind, not to shake the beliefs of the common men, but to lead them on by stages to the understanding of the deeper philosophical meaning behind their beliefs, the upaniShads develop the Vedic ideas and symbols and give to them, where necessary, new meanings which relieve them of their formalistic character. Texts from the Vedas are often quoted in support of the teachings of the upaniShads.
The thought of the upaniShads marks an advance on the ritualistic doctrines of the brAhmaNas, which are themselves different in spirit from the hymns of the Rhg Veda. A good deal of time should have elapsed for this long development. The mass of the Rhg Veda must also have taken time to produce, especially when we remember that what has survived is probably a small part compared to what has been lost. [ ‘We have no right to suppose that we have even a hundredth part of the religious and popular poetry that existed during the Vedic age.’ Max Müller: Six Systems of Indian Philosophy (1899), p. 41. ]
Whatever may be the truth about the racial affinities of the Indian and the European peoples, there is no doubt that Indo-European languages derive from a common source and illustrate a relationship of mind. In its vocabulary and inflexions Sanskrit [ samskRta : perfectly constructed speech. ] presents a striking similarity to Greek and Latin. Sir William Jones explained it by tracing them all to a common source. ‘The Sanskrit language,’ he said in 1786, in an address to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, ‘whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs, and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all without believing them to have sprung from some common source which perhaps no longer exists. There is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.’
The oldest Indo-European literary monument is the Rhg Veda. [ ‘The Veda has a two-fold interest: it belongs to the history of the world and to the history of India. In the history of the world, the Veda fills a gap which no literary work in any other language could fill. It carries us back to times of which we have no records anywhere, and gives us the very words of a generation of men, of whom otherwise we could form but the vaguest estimate by means of conjectures and inferences. As long as man continues to take an interest in the history of his race and as long as we collect in libraries and museums the relics of former ages, the first place in that long row of books which contains the records of the Aryan branch of mankind will belong for ever to the Rhg Veda.’ Max Müller: Ancient History of Sanskrit Literature (1859), p. 63. The Rhg Veda, according to Ragozin ‘is, without the shadow of a doubt, the oldest book of the Aryan family of nations.’ Vedic India (1895), p. 114.
Winternitz observes: ‘If we wish to learn to understand the beginnings of our own culture, if we wish to understand the oldest Indo-European culture, we must go to India, where the oldest literature of an Indo-European people is preserved. For, whatever view we may adopt on the problem of an antiquity of Indian literature, we can safely say that the oldest monument of the literature of the Indians is at the same time the oldest monument of the Indo-European literature which we possess.’ A History of Indian Literature, E.T. Vol. I (1927), p. 6. See also Bloomfield: The Religion of the Veda (1908), p. 17. He says that the Rhg Veda is not only ‘the most ancient literary monument of India’ but also ‘the most ancient literary document of the Indo-European peoples.’ ‘This literature is earlier than that of either Greece or Israel, and reveals a high level of civilisation among those who found in it the expression of their worship.’ according to Dr. Nicol Macnicol. See his Hindu Scriptures (1938), p. XIV. ] The word ‘Veda,’ from vid, to know, means knowledge par excellence, sacred wisdom. Science is the knowledge of secondary causes, of the created details; wisdom is the knowledge of primary causes, of the Uncreated Principle. The Veda is not a single literary work like the Bhagavad-gItA or a collection of a number of books compiled at some particular time as the Tri-piTaka of the Buddhists or the Bible of the Christians, but a whole literature which arose in the course of centuries and was handed down from generation to generation through oral transmission. When no books were available memory was strong and tradition exact. To impress on the people the need for preserving this literature, the Veda was declared to be sacred knowledge or divine revelation. Its sanctity arose spontaneously owing to its age and the nature and value of its contents. It has since become the standard of thought and feeling for Indians.
The name Veda signifying wisdom suggests a genuine spirit of inquiry. The road by which the Vedic sages travelled was the road of those who seek to inquire and understand. The questions they investigate are of a philosophical character. ‘Who, verily, knows and who can here declare it, where it was born and whence comes this creation ? The gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows, then, whence it first came into being ?’ [ X. 129 ] According to sAyaNa, Veda is the book which describes the transcendent means for the fulfilment of well-being and the avoidance of evils. [ iShTa-prApty-aniShTa-parihAraOralaukikam upAyam O grantho vedayati sa vedaH. ]
There are four Vedas: the Rhg Veda which is mainly composed of songs of praise; the yajur Veda, which deals with sacrificial formulas; the sAma Veda which refers to melodies; and the atharva Veda, which has a large number of magic formulas. Each contains four sections consisting of: (i) samhitA or collection of hymns, prayers, benedictions, sacrificial formulas and litanies; (ii) brAhmaNas or prose treatises discussing the significance of sacrificial rites and ceremonies; (iii) AraNyakas or forest texts, which are partly included in the brAhmaNas and partly reckoned as independent; and (iv) upaniShads.
Veda denotes the whole literature made up of the two portions called mantra and brAhmaNa. [ mantra-brAhmaNaOr veda nAmadheyam. Apastamba in yajna-paribhASha. ] mantra is derived by yAska from manana, thinking. [ Nirukta VII. 3. 6. ] It is that by which the contemplation of God is attempted. brAhmaNa deals with the elaboration of worship into ritual. Parts of brAhmaNas are called AraNyakas. Those who continue their studies without marrying are called araNas or araNamAnas. They lived in hermitages or forests. The forests where araNas (ascetics) live are araNyas. Their speculations were contained in AraNyakas.
yAska refers to different interpretations of the Vedas by the ritualists (yAjnikas), the etymologists (nairuktas) and mythologists (aitihAsikas). The bRhad-devatA which comes after yAska’s nirukta also refers to various schools of thought in regard to Vedic interpretations. It mentions Atma-vAdins or those who relate the Vedas to the psychological processes.
The Rhg Veda, which comprises 1,017 hymns divided into ten books, represents the earliest phase in the evolution of religious consciousness where we have not so much the commandments of priests as the outpourings of poetic minds who were struck by the immensity of the universe and the inexhaustible mystery of life. The reactions of simple yet unsophisticated minds to the wonder of existence are portrayed in these joOus hymns which attribute divinity to the striking aspects of nature. We have worship of devas, [ The devas are according to amara, the immortals, amarAH, free from old age, nirjarAH, the evershining ones, devAH, heavenly beings, tridasAH, the knowing ones, vibudhAH, and gods or deities, surAH. ] deities like sUrya (sun), soma (moon), agni (fire), dyaus (sky), pRhthivI (earth), [ In Greek mythology Zeus as sky-father is in essential relation to earth mother. See A. B. Cook: Zeus (1914) I, p. 779. ] maruts (storm winds), vAyu (wind), ap (water), uShas (dawn). Even deities whose names are no longer so transparent were originally related to natural phenomena such as indra, varuNa, mitra, aditi, viShNu, pUShan, the two asvins, rudra and parjanya. Qualities which emphasise particular important aspects of natural phenomena attained sometimes to the rank of independent deities. [ The ancient Greeks advanced the natural elements into gods by deifying their attributes. Apollo shone in the sun. Boreas howled in the mountain blasts. Zeus threatened in the lightning and struck in the thunderbolt. ] savitRh, the inspirer or life-giver, vivasvat, the shining, were at first attributes and names of the Sun but later became independent Sun-gods. Some of the deities worshipped by the different tribes were admitted into the Vedic pantheon. pUShan, originally the Sun-god of a small shepherd tribe, becomes the protector of travellers, the god who knows all the paths. Some deities have their basis in abstract qualities such as sraddhA, faith, manyu, anger. [ These occur in the latest hymns of the tenth book of the Rhg Veda. ] We also come across RHbhus or elves, apsaras or nymphs, gandharvas or forest or field spirits. [ The Vedic Indians were not phallus worshippers. sisna-devAH (Rhg Veda VII. 21. 5; X. 99. 3) does not mean phallus-worshippers. yAska says that it refers to non-celibates: ‘sisna-devAH a-brahmacaryAH,’ IV. 9. sAyaNa adopts this view: sisnena divyanti krIDanti, iti sisna-devAH, a-brahmacaryA ity arthaH. Though it is a bahuvrIhi compound meaning those whose deity is phallus, the word ‘deva’ is to be taken in its secondary sense, lakShyArtha. It means those who are addicted to sex life. The plural number also suggests that it is not a deity that is meant. Cp. the later Sanskrit. sisnodara-parAyaNAH. ‘Addicted to the gratification of sex and stomach.’ ] asuras who become the enemies of the gods in the later Vedic works retain in the Rhg Veda the old meaning of ‘possessors of wonderful power’ or ‘God’ which the corresponding word ahura has in the avesta. [ The Persians call their country Iran, which is the airiya of the avesta and signifies the land of the Aryans. Even to-day after centuries of Islam, the influences of Aryan thought are not altogether effaced. The Muslims of Persia tend to emphasise passages of the QurAn which are capable of a mystic interpretation. Professor E. G. Browne writes: ‘When in the seventh century the warlike followers of the Arabian prophet swept across Iran, overwhelming in their tumultuous onslaught an ancient dynasty and a venerable religion, a change, apparently almost unparalleled in history, was in the course of a few years brought over the land. Where for centuries the ancient hymns of the avesta had been chanted and the sacred fire had burned, the cry of the Mu’ezzin summoning the faithful to prayer rang out from minarets reared on the ruins of the temples of ahura mazda. The priests of Zoroaster fell by the sword; the ancient books perished in the flames; and soon non were left to represent a once mighty faith but a handful of exiles flying towards the shores of India and a despised and persecuted remnant in solitary Yezd and remote Kirman…. Yet, after all, the change was but skin deep and soon a host of heterodox sects born on Persian soil – Shi’ites, Sufis, Ismailis and philosophers arose to vindicate the claim of Aryan thought to be free and to transform the religion forced on the nation by Arab steel into something which, though still wearing a semblance of Islam, had a significance widely different from that which one may fairly suppose was intended by the Arabian prophet.’ A Year amongst the Persians (1927), p. 134. ]
Varuna, a god common both to the Indians and the Iranians, regulates the course of the sun and the sequence of the seasons. He keeps the world in order and is the embodiment of truth and order which are binding on mankind. He protects moral laws and punishes the sinful. The Vedic Indians approach Varuna in trembling and fear and in humble reverence and ask for forgiveness of sins. [ VaruNa becomes ahura mazda (Ormuzd), the supreme God and Creator of the world. In one of those conversations with Zoroaster which embody the revelation that was made to him, it is recorded, ahura says, ‘I maintain that sky there above, shining and seen afar and encompassing the earth all round. It looks like a palace that stands built of a heavenly substance firmly established with ends that lie afar, shining, in its body of ruby over the three worlds; it is like a garment inlaid with stars made of a heavenly substance that mazda puts on.’ Yasht XIII. Like VaruNa, who is the lord of rhta, ahura is the lord of aSha. As VaruNa is closely allied with mitra, so is ahura with mithra, the sun-god. avesta knows verethragna who is vrhtrahan, the slayer of vrhtra. dyaus, apAmnapAt (apAm napAt), gandharva (Gandarewa), krhsAnu (KeresAni), vAyu (Vayu), yama, son of vivasvant (Yima, son of Vivanhvant) as well as yajna (Yasna), Hotrh (Zaotar), Atharva priest (Athravan). These point to the common religion of the undivided Indo-Aryans and Iranians.
In the later avesta, the supreme God is the sole creator but his attributes of the good spirit, righteousness, power, piety, health and immortality become personified as ‘the Immortal Holy Ones.’ ] Indra, who is a king among the gods, occupying the position of Zeus in the Greek Olympus, is invoked by those who are fighting and struggling. Agni is the mediator between men and gods. The hymns speak of him as a dear friend, the master of the house, grhha-pati. He bears the sacrificial offerings to the gods and brings the gods down to the sacrifice. He is the wise one, the chief priest, purohita. Mitra is the god of light. When the Persians first emerge into history, Mitra is the god of light who drives away darkness. He is the defender of truth and justice, the protector of righteousness, the mediator between ahura mazda and man. [ Mithraism is older than Christianity by centuries. The two faiths were in acute rivalry until the end of the thrid century A.D. The form of the Christian Eucharist is very like that of the followers of mithra. ]
Mitra, Varuna and Agni are the three eyes of the great illuminator Sun. [citram devAnam ud agAd anIkam cakShur mitrasya varuNasyAgneH | AprA dyAvA prhthivI antarikSham sUrya AtmA jagatas tasthuShas ca || Rhg Veda I. 151. 1 ] Aditi is said to be space and air, mother, father and son. She is all comprehending. [ aditir dyaur aditir antarikSham, aditir mAtA, sa pitA, sa putraH | visve-devA aditiH panca-janA aditir jAtam, aditir janitvam || Rhg Veda I. 89.10. For Anaximander, the boundless and undifferentiated substance which fills the universe and is the matrix in which our world is formed, is theos. ] Deities presiding over groups of natural phenomena became identified. The various Sun-gods, sUrya, savitrh, mitra and viShNu tended to be looked upon as one. Agni (Fire) is regarded as one deity with three forms, the sun or celestial fire, lightning or atmospheric fire and the earthly fire manifest in the altar and in the homes of men.
Again when worship is accorded to any of the Vedic deities, we tend to make that deity, the supreme one, of whom all others are forms or manifestations. He is given all the attributes of a monotheistic deity. As several deities are exalted to this first place, we get what has been called henotheism, as distinct from monotheism. There is, of course, a difference between a psychological monotheism where one god fills the entire life of the worshipper and a metaphysical monotheism. Synthesising processes, classification of gods, simplification of the ideas of divine attributes and powers prepare for a metaphysical unity, the one principle informing all the deities. [ mahad devAnAm asuratvam ekam – Rhg Veda III. 55. 11 – ‘One fire burns in many ways: one sun illumines the universe; one divine dispels all darkness. He alone has revealed himself in all these forms.’
eka evAgnir bahudhA samiddha
ekaH sUrO visvam anu prabhUtaH |
ekaivoShAH sarvam idaM vibhAty
ekaM vaidam vi babhUva sarvam || Rhg Veda VIII. 58. 2.
Agni, kindled in many places, is but one; One the all-pervading Sun; One the Dawn, spreading her light over the earth. All that exists is one, whence is produced the whole world. See also X. 81. 3. ] The supreme is one who pervades the whole universe. He is gods and men. [ O naH pitA janitA O vidhAtA dhAmAni veda bhuvanAni visvA | O devAnAm nAmadhA eka eva tam samprasnam bhuvanA yanty anyA. – Rhg Veda X. 82. 3. ]
The Vedic Indians were sufficiently logical to realise that the attributes of creation and rulership of the world could be granted only to one being. We have such a being in PrajA-pati, the lord of creatures, Visva-karman, the world-maker. Thus the logic of religious faith asserts itself in favour of monotheism. This tendency is supported by the conception of rhta or order. The universe is an ordered whole; it is not disorderliness (akosmia). [ See Plato: Gorgias 507. E. ] If the endless variety of the world suggests numerous deities, the unity of the world suggests a unitary conception of the Deity.
If philosophy takes its rise in wonder, if the impulse to it is in scepticism, we find the beginnings of doubt in the Rhg Veda. It is said of Indra: ‘Of whom they ask, where is he ? Of him indeed they also say, he is not.’ [ II. 12. ] In another remarkable hymn, the priests are invited to offer a song of praise to Indra, ‘a true one, if in truth he is, for many say, “There is no Indra, who has ever seen him ? To whom are we to direct the song of praise ?” [ VIII. 100. 3 ff. ] When reflection reduced the deities who were once so full of vigour to shadows, we pray for faith: ‘O Faith, endow us with belief.’ [ X. 151. 5. ] Cosmological thought wonders whether speech and air were not to be regarded as the ultimate essence of all things. [ Germ of the world, the deities’ vital spirit, This god moves ever as his will inclines him. His voice is heard, his shape ever viewless: Let us adore this air with our oblation. X. 168. 4.] In another hymn PrajA-pati is praised as the creator and preserver of the world and as the one god, but the refrain occurs in verse after verse ‘What god shall we honour by means of sacrifice ? ‘ [ kasmai devAya haviShA vidhema ? X.121. ] Certainty is the source of inertia in thought, while doubt makes for progress.
The most remarkable account of a superpersonal monism is to be found in the hymn of Creation. [ X. 129. ] It seeks to explain the universe as evolving out of One. But the One is no longer a god like Indra or VaruNa, PrajA-pati or Visva-karman. The hymn declares that all these gods are of late or of secondary origin. They know nothing of the beginning of things. The first principle, that one, tad ekam, is uncharacterisable. It is without qualities or attributes, even negative ones. To apply to it any description is to limit and bind that which is limitless and boundless. [ See Brhad-AraNyaka upaniShad III.9.26.] ‘That one breathed breathless. There was nothing else.’ It is not a dead abstraction but indescribable perfection of being. Before creation all this was darkness shrouded in darkness, an impenetrable void or abyss of waters, [Cp. Genesis I.2, where the Spirit of God is said to move on the face of the waters, and the PurANic description of viShNu as resting on the Serpent Infinite in the milky ocean. Homer’s Iliad speaks of Oceanos as ‘the source of all things’ including even the gods. 14, 246, 302. Many others, North American Indians, Aztecs, etc. have such a belief.
According to Aristotle, Thales considered that all things were made of water. The Greeks had a myth of Father-Ocean as the origin of all things. Cp. Nrhsimha-pUrva-tApanI upaniShad I.1.
Apo vA idam Asan salilam eva, sa prajA-patir ekaH puShkara-parNe samabhavat, tasyAntar manasi kAmaH samavartata idaM srhjeyam iti. ‘All this remained as water along (without any form). Only PrajA-pati came to be in the lotus leaf. In his mind arose the desire, “let me create this (the world of names and forms).”
Two explanations are offered for the presence of identical symbols used in an identical manner in different parts of the world. W. J. Perry and his friends argue that these myths and symbols were derived originally from Egyptian culture which once spread over the world, leaving behind these vestiges when it receded. This theory does not bear close examination and is not widely held. The other explanation is that human beings are very much the same the world over, their minds are similarly constituted and their experience in life under primitive conditions does not differ from one part of the world to another and it is not unnatural that identical ideas regarding the origin and nature of the world arise independently. ] until through the power of tapas, [ tapas literally means heat, creative heat by which the brood hen produces life from the egg. ] or the fervour of austerity, the One evolved into determinate self-conscious being. He becomes a creator by self-limitation. Nothing outside himself can limit him. He only can limit himself. He does not depend on anything other than himself for his manifestation. This power of actualisation is given the name of mAyA in later VedAnta, for the manifestation does not disturb the unity and integrity of the One. The One becomes manifested by its own intrinsic power, by its tapas. The not-self is not independent of the self. It is the avyakta or the unmanifested. While it is dependent on the Supreme Self, it appears as external to the individual ego and is the source of its ignorance. The waters represent the unformed non-being in which the divine lay concealed in darkness. We have now the absolute in itself, the power of self-limitation, the emergence of the determinate self and the not-self, the waters, darkness, parA-prakrhti. The abyss is the not-self, the mere potentiality, the bare abstraction, the receptacle of all developments. The self-conscious being gives it existence by impressing his forms or Ideas on it. The unmanifested, the indeterminate receives determinations from the self-conscious Lord. It is not absolute nothing, for there is never a state in which it is not in some sense. [ See Paingala upaniShad I. 3. In the PurANas, this idea is variously developed. Brahma PurANa makes out that God first created the waters which are called nAra and released his seed into them; therefore he is called nArAyaNa. The seed grew into a golden egg from which BrahmA was born of his own accord and so is called svayambhU. BrahmA divided the egg into two halves, heaven and earth. I. I. 38ff.
The BrahmANDa PurANa says that BrahmA, known as nArAyaNa, rested on the surface of the waters.
VidyAraNya on mahAnArAyaNa upaniShad III. 16 says nara-sarIrANAm upAdAna-rUpANy annAdi-panca-bhUtAni nara-sabdenocyante, teShu bhUteShu yA Apo mukhyAH tA ayanam AdhAro yasya viShNoH so’yaM nArAyaNaH samudra-jala-sAyI.
Cp. Apo nArA iti proktA Apo vai nara-sUnavaH
ayanaM tasya tAH proktAs tena nArAyaNas smrhtaH ||
The viShNu-dharmottara says that viShNu created the waters and the creation of the egg and BrahmA took place afterwards. ] The whole world is formed by the union of being and not-being and the Supreme Lord has facing him this indetermination, this aspiration to existence. [Speaking of Boehme’s mystic philosophy which influenced William Law, Stephen Hobhouse writes that he believes ‘in the Ungrund, the fathomless abyss of freedom or indifference, which is at the root, so to speak, of God and of all existences … the idea of the mighty but blind face of Desire that arises out of this abyss and by means of imagination shapes itself into a purposeful will which is the heart of the Divine personality. ‘ Selected Mystical Writings of William Law (1948), p. 307. ] Rhg Veda describes not-being (asat) as lying ‘with outstretched feet’ like a woman in the throes of childbirth. [I. 10. 72. ] As the first product of the divine mind, the mind’s first fruit, came forth kAma, desire, the cosmic will, which is the primal source of all existence. In this kAma, ‘the wise searching in their hearts, have by contemplation (manIShA), discovered the connection between existent and the non-existent.’ [ kAma becomes defined later as icchA, desire and kriyA, action. It is the creative urge. Cp. with kAma, the Orphic god, Eros, also called Phanes, who is the principle of generation by whom the world is created. ] The world is created by the personal self-conscious God who acts by his intelligence and will.
This is how the Vedic seers understood in some measure how they and the whole creation arose. The writer of the hymn has the humility to admit that all this is a surmise, for it is not possible for us to be sure of things which lie so far beOnd human knowledge. [ See also I. 16. 4. 32, where the writer says that he who made all this does not probably know its real nature.
‘He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven,
He, verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.’ X. 129. 7 – English translation by Max Muller. ]
The hymn suggests the distinction between the Absolute Reality and Personal God, brahman and Isvara, the Absolute beOnd being and knowledge, the super-personal, super-essential godhead in its utter transcendence of all created beings and its categories and the Real manifested to man in terms of the highest categories of human experience. Personal Being is treated as a development or manifestation of the Absolute.
In another hymn, [ I. 10. 121 ] the first existent being is called PrajA-pati, facing the chaos of waters. He impregnates the waters and becomes manifest in them in the form of a golden egg or germ, from which the whole universe develops. [ hiraNya-garbha, literally gold-germ, source of golden light, the world-soul from which all powers and existences of this world are derived. It comes later to mean BrahmA, the creator of the world. In the Orphic Cosmogony we have similar ideas. Professor F. M. Cornford writes, ‘In the beginning there was a primal undifferentiated unity, called by the Orphics “Night.” Within this unity the world egg was generated, or according to some accounts, fashioned by Ageless Time (Chronos). The egg divided into two halves, Heaven and Earth. Mythically Heaven and Earth are Father and Mother of all life. In physical terms the upper half of the egg forms the dome of the sky, the lower contains the moisture or slime from which the dry land (Earth) arose. Between earth and heaven appeared a winged spirit of light and life, known by many names, as Phanes, Eros, Metis, Ericapaeus, etc. The function of this spirit, in which sex was as yet undifferentiated, was to generate life either by the immediate projection of seed from itself, or by uniting the sundered parents, Heaven and Earth in marriage. The offspring were successive paris of supreme gods; Oceanus and Tethys, Chronos and Rhea, Zeus and Hera.’ Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. IV (1926), p. 536.
Anaximander develops a scheme similar to the Orphic cosmology: (1) There is a primal undifferentiated unity. (2) A separation of opposites in pairs to form the world order. (3) A reunion of these sundered opposites to generate life. This formula is stated by Euripides (Melanippe, Fragment 484): ‘The tale is not mine; I had it from my mother; that Heaven and Earth were once one form, and when they had been sundered from one another, they gave birth to all things and brought them up into the light.’ ] He is called the one life or soul of the gods (devAnAm asuH). [ It is quite possible that the sAMkhya system was a development from the ideas suggested in this hymn. Primitive matter (waters) is said to be existent independently and puruSha first comes into determinate consciousness in intelligence (mahat or buddhi), which is a product of matter (avyakta). ] hiraNya-garbha is the first born determinate existent while brahman-Isvara, Absolute-God is in the realm of the transcendent. [ ko dadarsa prathamaM jAyamAnam asthanvantam yad anasthA bibharti | bhUmyA asursrhgAtmA kva svit ko vidvAMsam upAgAt praShTum etat || Rhg Veda I. 164. 4. This distinction which becomes established in the upaniShads has its parallels in other historical developments. Cp. the three Bodies of the Buddha, DharmakAya or the Absolute Reality, SambhogakAya, the personal God or the Logos and NirmANakAya or the historical embodiment of the Logos in a material body born into the world at a given moment of time. See Indian Philosophy by Radhakrishnan Vol. I, pp. 597-9. The Sufis regard Al Haqq as the Absolute Reality, the abyss of godhead, Allah as the personal Lord, and Muhammad the prophet as the historical embodiment. ] The world is said to be a projection, emission or externalisation of the ideal being of God, of the eternal order which is eternally present in the divine wisdom.
The PuruSha SUkta [ Rhg Veda X. 90. ] repeats in concrete form the ideal of a primeval being existing before any determinate existence and evolving himself in the empirical universe. The being is conceived as a cosmic person with a thousand heads, eyes and feet, who filled the whole universe and extended beOnd it, by the length of ten fingers, [ sa bhUmiM visvato vrhtvA aty atiShThad dasAngulam. ] the universe being constituted by a fourth of his nature. [ pAdo’sya visvA bhUtAni tripAd asyAmrhtaM divi. ] The world form is not a complete expression or manifestation of the divine Reality. It is only a fragment of the divine that is manifested in the cosmic process. The World-soul is a partial expression of the Supreme Lord.
Creation is interpreted in the Vedas as development rather than the bringing into being something not hitherto existent. The first principle is manifested in the whole world. PuruSha by his sacrifice becomes the whole world. This view prepares for the development of the doctrine which is emphasised in the upaniShads that the spirit in man is one with the spirit which is the prius of the world.
Within this world we have the one positive principle of being and yet have varying degrees of existence marked by varying degrees of penetration or participation of nonentity by divine being. God as hiraNya-garbha is nothing of the already made. He is not an ineffective God who sums up in himself all that is given.
Rhg Veda used two different concepts, generation and birth, and something artificially produced to account for creation. Heaven and earth are the parents of the gods; or the Creator of the world is a smith or a carpenter.
Again ‘In the beginning was the golden germ
From his birth he was sole lord of creation.
He made firm the earth and this bright sky; ‘ [ Rhg Veda X. 121. 1. ]
In this hymn PrajA-pati, the lord of offspring, assumes the name of hiraNya-garbha, the golden germ, and in the Atharva Veda and later literature hiraNya-garbha himself becomes a supreme deity. [ In the Atharva Veda he appears as the embrO which is produced in the waters at the beginning of creation. IV. 2. 8. ] The Rhg Veda is familiar with the four-fold distinction of (i) the Absolute, the One, beOnd all dualities and distinctions, (ii) the self-conscious Subject confronting the object, (iii) the World-soul, and (iv) the world. [ This list finds a parallel, as we shall see, in the hierarchy of being given in the mANDUkya upaniShad with its four grades of consciousness, the waking or the perceptual, the dreaming or the imaginative, the self in deep sleep or the conceptual, the turIya or the transcendent, spiritual consciousness which is not so much a grade of consciousness as the total consciousness.
Plato in the Timaeus teaches that the Supreme Deity, the Demi-urge, creates a universal World-Soul, through which the universe becomes an organism. The World-Soul bears the image of the Ideas, and the world-body is fashioned in the same pattern. If the whole world has not been ordered as God would have desired, it is due to the necessity which seems to reside in an intractable material, which was in ‘disorderly motion’ before the Creator imposed form on it. ]
The monistic emphasis led the Vedic thinkers to look upon the Vedic deities as different names of the One Universal Godhead, each representing some essential power of the diving being. ‘They call him Indra, Mitra, VaruNa, Agni. He is the heavenly bird Garutmat. To what is one, the poets give many a name. They call it Agni, Yama, mAtarisva.’ [ I. 164. 46. ekaM santam bahudhA kalpayanti. Rhg Veda X. 114. 4. See Bhagavad-gItA X. 41.
Zeus is the supreme ruler of gods and men; other gods exist to do his bidding.
Cp. Cicero. ‘God being present everywhere in Nature, can be regarded in the field as Ceres; or on the sea as Neptune; and elsewhere in a variety of forms in all of which He may be worshipped.’ De Nature Deorum.
For Plutarch and Maximus of Tyre, the different gods worshipped in the third century Roman Empire were symbolic representations of a Supreme God who is unknowable in his inmost nature.
‘God himself, the father and fashioner of all … is unnameable by any lawgiver, unutterable by any voice, not to be seen by any eye. … But if a Greek is stirred to the remembrance of God by the art of Phidias, an Egyptian by paying worship to animals, another man by a river, another by fire, I have no anger for their divergence; only let them know, let them love, let them remember.’
In the TaittirIya SaMhitA and Satapatha BrAhmaNa, it is said that PrajA-pati assumed certain forms of fish (matsya), tortoise (kUrma) and boar (varAha) for the attainment of certain ends. When the doctrine of avatAras, incarnations, becomes established, these three become the incarnations of viShNu. ] The real that lies behind the tide of temporal change is one, though we speak of it in many ways. Agni, Yama, etc., are symbols. They are not gods in themselves. They express different qualities of the object worshipped. The Vedic seers were not conscious of any iconoclastic mission. They did not feel called upon to denounce the worship of the various deities as disastrous error or mortal sin. They led the worshippers of the many deities to the worship of the one and only God by a process of reinterpretation and reconciliation.
The reaction of the local cults on the Vedic faith is one of the many causes of variety of the Vedic pantheon. People in an early stage of culture are so entirely steeped in the awe and reverence which have descended to them that they cannot easily or heartily adopt a new pattern of worship. Even when militant religions fell the tall trees of the forest, the ancient beliefs remain as an undergrowth. The catholic spirit of Hinduism which we find in the Rhg Veda has always been ready to give shelter to foreign beliefs and assimilate them in its own fashion. While preferring their own, the Vedic Indians had the strength to comprehend other peoples’ ways.
There is no suggestion in the Rhg Veda of the illusory character of the empirical world. We find varied accounts of creation. The Supreme is compared to a carpenter or a smith who fashions or smelts the world into being. Sometimes he is said to beget all beings. He pervades all things as air or ether (AkAsha) pervades the universe. He animates the world as the life-breath (prANa) animates the human body, a comparison which has been developed with remarkable ingenuity by rAmAnuja.
Rhg Veda raises the question of the nature of the human self, ko nu AtmA. [ I. 164. 4. ] It is the controller of the body, the unborn part, ajo bhAgaH, [ X. 16. 4. ] which survives death. It is distinguished from the jIva or the individual soul. [ I. 113. 161; I. 164. 30. ] The famous verse of the two birds dwelling in one body, which is taken up by the upaniShads, [ See MuNDaka upaniShad III. 1. 1; SvetAsvatara upaniShad IV. 6.] distinguishes the individual soul which enjoys the fruits of actions from the spirit which is merely a passive spectator. [ I. 164. 17. atra laukika-pakSha-dvaya-drhShTAntena jiva-paramAtmAnau stUyete. SAyaNa. ] This distinction between the individual soul and the supreme self is relevant to the cosmic process and is not applicable to the supreme supra-cosmic transcendence. Those who think that the distinction is to be found in the Supreme Transcendence do not know their own origin, pitaraM na veda.
[ yasmin vrhkShe madhvadaH suparNA
nivisante suvate cAdhi visve
tasyed AhuH pippalaM khAdv agre
tan nonnasad yaH pitaraM na veda. – Rhg Veda I. 164. 22. ] The individual souls belong to the world of hiraNya-garbha.
‘Let this mortal clay (self) be the immortal god.’ [ Rhg Veda VIII. 19. 25.] ‘Vouchsafe, O Indra, that we may be Ou.’ [ tve indrApy abhUma viprA dhiyaM vanema rhtayA sapaMtah. Rhg Veda II. 11. 12. ] One can become a devata, a deity, by one’s own deeds. [ bRhad-AraNyaka upaniShad IV. 3. 32; see also IV. 1. 2. devo bhUtvA devAn Apyeti; see also TaittirIya upaniShad II. 8. ] The aim of the Rhg Veda is to become like gods. The individual soul can become the Universal Spirit.
The way to spiritual attainment is through worship [ The solitary reference to a temple is in Rhg Veda X. 107. 10. where the word deva-mAna, building of a god, occurs. ] and moral life. Vestiges of Yoga discipline are found in a late passage [ Rhg Veda X. 136. See also Aitareya brAhmaNa VII. 13. ] which describes the kesins or the long-haired ascetics with their Ogic powers that enabled them to move at will in space. Of a muni, it is said that his mortal body men see but he himself fares on the path of the faery spirits. His hair is long and his soiled garments are of yellow hue. vAmadeva when he felt the unity of all created things with his own self exclaimed: ‘ I am Manu, I am sUrya.’ [ aham manur abhavaM sUryas cAham. Rhg Veda IV. 26. 1. ] So also King Trasadasyu said that he was Indra and the great VaruNa. [ aham rAjA varuNo. Rhg Veda IV. 42. 2. ]
The cardinal virtues are emphasised: ‘O Mitra and VaruNa, by Our pathway of truth may we cross.’ [ rhtasya pathA vAm … tarema. VII. 65. 3. ] Mere memorising of the hymns is of no avail if we do not know the Supreme which sustains all.
[ rhco akShare parame vOman yasmin
devA adhi visve niSheduH
yas taM na veda kiM kariShyati
ya it tad vidus ta ime samAsate. – Rhg Veda X. 164. 39. See SvetAsvatara upaniShad IV. 8. ]
Primitive societies are highly complicated structures, balanced social organisations with their systems of belief and codes of behaviour. The fundamental needs of society are the moral and the spiritual, the military and the economic. In Indo-European society these three functions are assigned to three different groups, the men of learning and virtue, the men of courage and fight, and the men who provide the economic needs, [ Luther felt that the three classes were ordained by God, the teaching class, the class of defenders and the working class. ] the brAhmaNa, the kShatriya and the vaishya. Below them were the ShUdras devoted to service. These distinctions are found in the Rhg Veda, though they are not crystallised into castes. Ancient Iranian society was constituted in a similar pattern.
Even the gods are classified into the brAhmaNa, the kShatriya and the vaishya according to the benefits which they provide, moral, military or economic. Our prayers are for righteousness, victory and abundance. sUrya, savitrh are gods who confer spiritual benefits. Indra is a war god and Ashvins give us health and food. In Roman mythology Jupiter provides spiritual benefits, Mars is the god of war and Quirinus is the god of plenty.
Pitaras or fathers or ancestral spirits receive divine worship. The king of the ancestral spirits who rules in the kingdom of the deceased is Yama, a god who belongs to the Indo-Iranian period. He is identical with Yima of the Avesta, who is the first human being, the primeval ancestor of the human race. As the first one to depart from this world and enter the realm of the dead, he became its king. The kingdom of the dead is in heaven, and the dying man is comforted by the belief that after death he will abide with King Yama in the highest heaven. The world of heaven is the place of refuge of the departed. [ Rhg Veda IV. 53. 2; X. 12. 1. ] In the funeral hymn, [ Rhg Veda X. 14. ] the departing soul is asked to ‘go forth along the ancient pathway by which our ancestors have departed.’ The Vedic Heaven is described in glowing terms ‘where inexhaustible radiance dwells, where dwells the King Vaivasvata.’ [ Rhg Veda IX. 113. ]
There is no reference to rebirth in the Rhg Veda, though its elements are found. The passage of the soul from the body, its dwelling in other forms of existence, its return to human form, the determination of future existence by the principle of Karma are all mentioned. Mitra is born again. [ mitro jAyate punaH. X. 85. 19. ] The Dawn (uShas) is born again and again. [ punaH punar jAyamAnA. I. 92. 10. ] ‘I seek neither release nor return.’ [ na asyAH vasmi vimucaM na AvrhtaM punaH. V. 46. 1. ] ‘The immortal self will be reborn in a new body due to its meritorious deeds.’ [ jIvo mrhtasya carati svabhAbhir, amartO martyenA sa OniH. I. 164. 30; see also I. 164. 38. ] Sometimes the departed spirit is asked to go to the plants and ‘stay there with bodies.’ [ Rhg Veda X. 16. 3. ] There is retribution for good and evil deeds in a life after death. Good men go to heaven [ I. 154. 5. ] and others to the world presided over by Yama. [ X. 14. 2. ] Their work (dharma) decided their future. [ X. 16. 3. ]
In the Rhg Veda we find the first adventures of the human mind made by those who sought to discover the meaning of existence and man’s place in life, ‘the first word spoken by the Aryan man.’ [ Max Muller. For further information on the Rhg Veda, see Indian Philosophy by Radhakrishnan, Vol. I, Ch. II. ]