The word Veda is derived from the Aryan root “vid” which means “seeing”, vision or ideas. Vedas were the first impression of the human mind that is available to the world. The man has always curious to know how the universe was formed. How the life started? Where does the sun go after sunset? What causes rain, storm and weather? These inquisitives were not merely exploratory for the sake of knowledge but also important for man as only by knowing the cause of the reality, man can use this knowledge for their advantage.
One of the greatest characteristics of the intelligent mind of the man is to see the correlation between different sets of events and data. He learned from his experience and understood that if somehow, he can know the mind of weather, sun, moon, rain etc, he can perhaps control them or at least protects themselves from their fury. Thus the knowledge about the forces of nature was necessary for the improvement of the life of man. Weather, rain, sunlight, water plays the most important role for the cultivation of crops. Yet these entities were beyond the comprehension of the ancient man. He could however, see that there is no fixed pattern in such events which affected his life. For example, the rain, storm or weather could not be predicted as easily as they do not follow any predicted course of action. The same is true today even now despite of the tremendous growth of science. Despite of the scientific advancement, even the most sophisticate scientific instruments and supercomputers often fail to predict the forces of nature.
The unpredictability of such important events leads the man to believe that perhaps these forces of natures are similar to human beings since he knew from his experience that it is impossible to predict the human temperament and behaviour. Thus, they concluded by analogy and reason that these forces of nature must be super-powerful entities similar to human beings. Therefore, the next logical conclusion was that if they are similar to human beings, they can be pleased like a man pleases another man. This was the hypotheses that lead to development of the knowledge in the Vedic period.
The History of Veda
There are four Vedas: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. The Rig Veda was the first and the principle Veda and the Yajur and Sama Veda are very similar to Rig Veda. However, the Atharva Veda was written in the last to create a synthesis between the gods pf Aryans and the gods of the local tribes.
Each Veda consists of three parts known as Mantras, Brahmanas And Upanishads. The collection of mantras or hymns is called Samhita (Collection). The Brahmanas include the precepts and religious duties. The Upanishads are the concluding part of the Brahmanas which discusses the philosophical problems .
The Rig Veda principally consists of the hymns or prayers which are to be sung to please their gods. The Sama-Veda consist of the hymns to be sung at the time sacrifices while the Yajur Veda hymns are to sung for the sacrifices made at the ceremonial occasions. The Atharva Veda is the last of the Vedas which was written after the synthesis of the Aryans cultures were made with the local tribes. This Veda consists of the prayers of the gods of the local tribes.
Vedas represents the evolution of human thoughts over more than a thousand years. S Rathakrishnan estimate the period of Vedas (Vedic period) between 1500 BC to around 500 BC. Vedas have the simplicity and curiosity of a child and the young mind whose thoughts are not yet complicated due to the worldly influence. We can describe the salient features of Vedas as following
(a) Worship of Nature
The ancient man was quite amazed by the forces of nature like sun, weather, rain, storm etc. These forces are unpredictable and used to have amazing power at their command. Sun gave light and energy, the rain gave water for their crops, and the air gave them oxygen needed for life. They, therefore, called them deva (god) which means “the giver” as they gave the most important things to the man. The Aryans worshipped them as god. Initially, deva also meant “shining” as it included the shining entities like sun, moon, fire, thunderstorm etc. Gradually, the definition of deva was extended to include all the forces of nature which give some useful thing to the man. Thus the definition of deva extended to include, water, earth, air, rain. Gradually for every thing, the man had separate god. The man considered them like human beings in thoughts and form. Therefore like human beings they used to be born from superior god. Thus eventually all the gods become related to each other. They also thought like human beings, suffered from the human weakness, communicated with each other like human beings, discussed and debated the issues like man and they can be pleased the way we pleases another human being.
(b) The hierarchy of Gods
As there were many gods, the natural question was; who was the greatest god or the gods of the god? Who was the god, whose commands were obeyed by all other gods. This inquisitiveness was again the refection of the human civilization of the times, when, every society, every organization and even every family should be lead by one leader. Since the gods were perceived as human beings, they must also be following the similar system of hierarchy. After all what was the difference between the god and men? In the Rig Vedic period, there was little difference between men and gods. “What are men? Mortal gods. What are gods? Immortal men.”
In the initial conceptualization of the universe, men found that all entities of nature like sun, moon, wind etc exists between the earth and the sky. Therefore, they first believed that “Varuna” (the god of the sky) as the greatest god as other gods were below sky. The term Varuna is derived from the word “var” which means “cover” or “compass”. Thus the sky was considered to be like a cover which covered all the creatures of the heaven and earth. Varuna was believed to be watching the universe with his eyes viz. sun and moon. The early men observed that the sun, moon and starts, follow their predefined path as they appears again and again at regular intervals. Hence the concept of “Riti” or “The Law of Nature” was conceived. It was believed that every entity of the universe follows a law. Subsequently the law of the stars was extended to include the moral laws which must be followed by men. Gradually Varuna was believed to be the god who was the upkeeper of the moral values. He punishes man for his immoral actions while rewards the man for the moral actions. All other gods obey His order. He was also believed to be a merciful person who can forgive the sins of the men if men prey to him. The concept of prayer was similar to the prayer or request made to the father, king or the leader of the society. Thus almost all the hymns dedicated to Varuna consist of the prayers where the man admits his guilt, repents for his wrong action and preyed for the forgiveness of his sin. Overall, Varuna was a god who was perceived as a benevolent king. He implemented the “Rule of Law” in the universe and interfered in the affairs of the man rarely. He forgave when the person accepted his guilt and preyed for his forgiveness.
The other important gods of the Rig Vedic period were Sun, Vishnu, Ashvin (twins who represented dawn and dusk), Aditi (nature) and Agni (fire). However, in his period Vishnu (who subsequently became the Supreme God) was not the supreme god. Agni was gradually perceived as a god whose food was wood and ghee (butter).He shines like a sun and removes the darkness. Since the flames and smokes moved toward the sky (which was believed to be the place of heaven), gradually fire was perceived as the mediator between the heaven and the earth. Thus Agni was used for all sacrifices and offering to God since he could send those offering to gods in heaven.
Soma (alcohol) was considered to be the god of inspiration since it lifted the mood of the man and provided temporary happiness to them under the effect of alcohol. Alcohol suppresses the inhibition and provides temporary ecstasy and (false) power to the people. Hence, soma was perceived to be god-like as they believed that only god could give extraordinary powers to men.
In the agrarian economy, nothing could be more important to the farmers than weather, rain, storm, thunder which affected their crop. Indra, who was the god of whether, gradually acquired the top position amongst the gods. He was gradually perceived to be the ruler of sky, earth, water and mountains. He was depicted as the warrior who defeated all lesser gods to become the king of the gods. In the mythologies, Indra has to fight the other gods to rule over them. This shows that the materialism in men was gradually on rise. The only method of prosperity and power could come by best of the weather conditions that could yield good crops to the people. However, unlike sky which is somber and unmoving, weather is temperamental. The desired quantity of rain can give good crop but the excess of it can cause floods. Hence, the weather god has to be preyed to deliver only the requisite amount of his blessing and avoid curse. Indra was, thus, perceived like a feudalistic king who was law in itself. He could bestow privileges if he is pleased, but punish the man if he is displeased. Therefore, He was revered not with love but with fear as the man prey to the powerful king.
There were other minor gods like Vata or Vayu ((wind god), Maruti (storm god), Rudra (the militant god) ,Vak (the goddess of speech), Saraswati (the goddess of learing), Shakti (goddess of power).
(c) The Growth of Monotheism
As the Vedic period progressed, the earth became crowded with numerous gods. It is believed that the total number of gods became 330 millions. Thus there were different gods for each person However as the civilization grew in the Vedic period, the confrontation between the gods increased. Every one wanted to prove that his god is superior (Is it any different today?). Thus the need of creating a synergy and harmony between all the gods grew in the minds of Indian philosophers and the right thinking men. They also started realizing that it was difficult to establish the superiority of one god as we need the support of all the gods for our survival. Once it was established in the mind of the Aryans that no god can become supreme, then the need to find a single god who can be called the god of gods became important. There can be only one Supreme (god). Here the synthetic nature of Indian mind was at work. They wanted to create a harmony amongst the gods so as to create harmony amongst the people who were fighting in the name of god. Gradually the different gods were seen as manifestation of a single God who was Supreme.
The top position of God was gradually assigned to Vishwakarma who was perceived as all seeing gods who has on every side, eyes, faces, arms, feet, who produced heaven and earth though the exercise of his arms and wings. He knows all the worlds but he is beyond the comprehension of the mortals. In some places of Veda, the top position was assigned to Brahaspati (the Guru of Gods) or Prajapati (the lord of creature). However, the concept of a single Supreme God was not fully established in the period of Vedas and people continued to worship their individual god and accorded the supreme position to their god only.
(d) Monism or the Concept of Absolute
The Vedic period was the age of experimentation and learning. It had the purity of the mind of a child. The Vedic minds were experimentative and curious. For them, there was no precedents, no dogma, no principle which could have restricted their imagination and thoughts. Initially they conceptualized the forces of nature as gods whose nature were similar to human beings. Yet these hypotheses in the period of thousand years led to the inventions of millions of gods, one for every man. Then they tried to make one of them or a third god as the supreme god just like men make one of them as king or leader. The people were confused as to who is the real god? Whom should everyone worship? Yet no consensus was emerging. The thinking minds were not satisfied with the description of specialized gods. Gradually the concensus were emerging for a single God who made the whole universe. The quest for discovering a single law or single force governing the universe was becoming stronger.
Gradually the concept of monism started taking root in India, which intended to provide synergy between matter and mind, living and nonliving, men and god, creator and creation and all entities of nature. The man does not want to just observe the facts but also wanted to understand it. The realm of knowledge was moving from “What?” to “Why?” or from the senses to intellect. No past theory was found to be good enough to satisfy the inquisitiveness of the thinking minds of the Vedic era. Thus the prayers were increasingly addressed to the unknown god. Skepticism was in the air. The mind of the man was also not willing to accept that god was anthropomorphic (human like). Was He male or female?
Gradually men started applying neutral term “Sat” (True) to show that God is above sexes. They were increasingly getting convinced that there is something real of which Agni (Fire god), Indra (Weather god), Varuna (Sky god) were the manifestation. That something was not many but only one, impersonal, ruling over all that is unmoving and that moves, that walks or flies; that is differently born . “The real is one, the learned call it by various names, Agni, Yama and Materisvan. ”
This Supreme one was conceived to be the soul of the universe called “Parmatma” which was believed to be the only Absolute God. However, the Absolute was beyond the perception of human mind. We can’t perceive Him since He is so big, so powerful, so knowledgeable while the man have limited capacity to reason and understand. Thus the Absolute was perceived to be formless, impersonal, pure and passionate being who was the epitome of virtues and every thing which can be good.
However, Monism created paradoxical situations. If God is formless, whom should we worship, how should we worship. The man is used to understand only the forms which his senses can perceive. This formless god whose nature we don’t know, how can we ever know what he likes and what he dislikes? What he loves and what he not? Another difficulty was to express the formless god to the common people who are religious and faithful yet not very intelligent and logical. Thus the concept of Absolute god can’t be popular as He is too difficult to be understood. Only very evolved minds can understand the mystery of Absolute God.
The man needs a form to worship. Yet when God is given a form it becomes less than the Absolute God, thus become imperfect. However, if we make God formless, we can’t worship Him. Thus to resolve the contradiction of the Absolute and God it was logically believed that if God is present in every living and nonliving being, then worship of any form with devotion was considered as good as worshipping the real Absolute god. This perhaps gave rise to the cult of Bhakti or devotion and started the era of idol worship in the subsequent period.
Creation of Universe
The Vedic people have deep thoughts to understand the origin of the world and the universe. Initially the major gods like Indra, Varuna or Vishwakarma were believed to the creator of the universe. Since the gods were like human, so the universe was also believed to be created like a man builds a house from the bricks and mortars. Yet how the bricks and mortars were created becomes a mystery. Therefore, it was gradually accepted that all the matter is created by “desire” or “kama”. It was believed that the matter and all entities of the universe was created by the desire of the God. It was quite similar to the world we all create in our dream or imagination which is illusionary as the world of dream or imagination is over as soon as we are awake or our imagination is interrupted.
Since the world was believed to be crated by the desire or imagination of God, hence it can’t be real as it seems. It was thus given the name of “Maya” which is loosely translated as illusion. However the Maya is not an illusion but it may be conceived as veil or a smokescreen which covers the real self of the different entities or things from the common eye. The moment we understand the mystery of Maya we can see that all objects of the universe are not separate but part of the same Absolute or God. Maya was also sometimes referred as “Prakriti” or Nature and the cause of creation was referred as “Purusha” which means the soul of the matter of the universe.
The Vedic Religion
In the Vedic period, no organized religion was established. There were no temples, no idols, no priests and no religious texts. The relationship between the man and god was mainly utilitarian. There were gods for every need. Hence the people directly worshipped the god by offering prayers, mantras or hymns. Many of these hymns are still very popular amongst the Hindus. The Gods were like Kings in charge of a particular department of the universe. Hence you must please all gods by offering them prayers, offering and sacrifices. These Humanized gods have all the weakness of human beings. They could be pleased with prayers and get angry if they were not praised. They ate the tastiest food, drank soma and ghee. Man had direct communication with god without any need for priests or temples. These gods were not only godly but also cruel if you make Him angry. So it was always safer to be on the right side of the god.
In the initial phase of Vedic era, prayer was sufficed to please the god. Yet in the later period gods became more demanding (like man) and needed sacrifices and offering for pleasure. God and man were related to each other like “Father Heaven”, “Mother Earth” or brother Agni. They were like benevolent kings and queens who need to be worshipped for happy and prosperous life of the subjects.
The Relevance of Veda Today
The Vedic era gradually gave birth to the philosophical age of Upanishads, where attempts were made to shift from the nature worship and the get rid of the concept of multiple Gods. Yet the synthetic culture of India never gave up any concept which is ever born here. Hence over a period the new Gods came into being but the old gods continued to occupy their coveted place. Even today, most of the hymns (mantras) and rituals find heir origin in the Vedic period. The Nature Gods are still worshipped by most Hindus. Almost every temple have the deities of nature gods like Sun, Moon, Prajapati, Indra. Thus Veda gave the foundation on which the future Hinduism evolved and the future philosophies of Upanishads and Gita were formed.
Indian Philosophy, S. Radhkrishnan (Volume I), Oxford University Press, New Delhi (1999), pp 65.
Indian Philosophy, S. Radhkrishnan (Volume I), Oxford University Press, New Delhi (1999 ) Pp 85
Indian Philosophy, S. Radhkrishnan (Volume I), Oxford University Press, New Delhi (1999)Pp 94
Ekad Sadvipra bahudha vadanti
Abnim yamam matarisvanam ahuh (i. 164. 46)