By Jayaram V
Introductory notes: The Vedas are considered supreme
in Hinduism. They are used to verify spiritual truths as a standard
testimony. The following information about Vedic gods and goddesses
is culled from the Vedas only, especially from the hymns of the
Rigveda, which is the mother of the other three Vedas. Hinduism
underwent many changes in its long history. The gods who once ruled
the Vedic minds and cornered the major offerings during sacfificial
ceremonies were gradually replaced and relegated into a subordinate
position by subsequent developments which heralded the emergence
of its principal traditions, namely Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism
and Smaraism. In this, the ruling classes from all parts of India,
as patrons of priestly families, played a significant role, in addition
to many foreign rulers like Kushanas, Sakas, and Pahlavas. What
survived from the Vedic religion were the priestly traditions and
practices and their philosophical base. Therefore, those who do
not know or understand the transformational nature of Hinduism and
its metamorphosis in the post Vedic period may find this information
unfamiliar or unknown. There is an argument of colonial days in
Hinduism according to which the Vedic religion and culture overwhelmed
and dominated the Indian subcontinent and native cultures. The truth
is Vedic religion was submerged into Hinduism and became a significant
part of it along with several other native traditions. Their combined
strength makes Hinduism uniquely and significantly different from
the dogmatic and regimented religions of the world. Jayaram V
By Vedic gods we mean those divinities (devas) who are
mentioned in the four Vedas. Information about the gods and goddesses
worshipped by the Vedic people comes to us mainly from the Vedas
themselves. The Vedic people worshipped several gods. They propitiated
them for various purposes during sacrificial rituals, practice of
austerities and meditation.
The methods of worship and making ritual offerings are also laid
out in the Vedas. Of the four parts of the Vedas, the first part
called the Samhitas contain invocations or prayers to various gods
The second part called Brahmanas contain the methods and procedures
to be followed while making such offerings. The third part called
Aranyakas contain information about more complex sacrifices that
were not usually performed or well known to the public.
The fourth part called the Upanishad contain the secret knowledge
of internal rituals for achieving liberation. They provide information
about the hidden aspects of the deities and their symbolic significance
in the human body.
Justification for the worship of Vedic gods
According to the Vedas, Brahman manifested a part of Himself
during creation and diversified Himself into Isvara, Hiranyagarbha
and Viraj. He created the earth, the mid-region, the heaven. He
created gods and celestial beings, demons and humans/ God and celestial
beings reside in the heaven and the mid-regions respectively. Humans
and other mortal beings inhabit the earth or our world. The demons
reside in the nether regions below the earth. In the mortal world,
He manifested as Death (or Kala) and became its ruler. He created
hunger and thirst and subjected the beings, including the gods in
the heaven to the same. To satisfy them He created food of several
kinds. The gods have immense powers, but they do not have the ability
to make food for themselves. Human beings have the ability to make
food for themselves and others, but do not have the supernatural
powers of the gods. Brahman created this distinction to ensure that
both gods and humans live in harmony, depending upon each others,
and participate in creation by doing their dutiful duties. Thus
it is the duty (dharma) of gods to help humans and it is the duty
(dharma) of humans to live helplessly and help gods and other beings
with nourishment by performing sacrifices.
Gods in the macrocosm and microcosm
The Vedas declare that the human body is similar to the body
of the Cosmic Self, Purusha, who manifested in creation as the Lord
of the Universe. Just as there are four tiers in the universe, there
are four planes in a human body. The head
represents the sky or the heaven. The trunk including the chest
and the stomach represents the mid-region, where breath flows and
the heart beats. The hips and the legs represent the mortal world.
Just as the gods reside in the macrocosm, they reside in our bodies
also in their respective sphere as various organs, namely the organs
of action (karmendriyas) such as the five organs of speech, such
as hands, feet etc., the organs of perception such as the eye, the
ears, the nose, the tongue etc., and the internal organs, namely
the mind, the ego and the intelligence. Just as they depend upon
our sacrificial offerings in the external world for their nourishment,
they depend upon us internally for nourishment through the food
we eat. While in the external world, the gods receive their share
of offerings from fire who is the first recipient of the offerings
in the sacrifices since we pour them into fire only, in the body
also the gods receive their offering from the digestive fire which
resides in the digestive tract. From there the food is supplied
to various divinities through the five breathing channels called
Prana, Apana, Samana, Vyana and Udana. The Upanishads affirm that
just as Vayu rules the mid-region and pervades the earth and the
heaven, Prana pervades the whole body and acts as the overlord of
- The Churning of Oceans by gods and demons
Why the gods are worshipped
The Vedic sacrifices are essentially meant to achieve the four
aims of human life, namely fulfillment of obligatory duties (dharma),
wealth (artha), pleasure (kama) and liberation (moksha). Duty was
the foundation and liberation was the ultimate aims. The Vedas affirm
clearly that those who perform sacrifices for material ends or the
first three aims would be reborn again while those who achieve liberation
by living selflessly, fulfilling their obligations would never return.
Through the sacrifices and invocations the worshippers of the Vedic
gods seek, wealth, peace, happiness, progeny, fame and name, power
over the natural forces, destruction of enemies, longevity or a
full lifespan, good health, protection from misfortune, sickness
and loss of cattle.
Number of gods
The Vedic hymns allude to several gods. Based upon the number
of invocations addressed to each, we may identify the principal
ones. However, their actual number may far exceed our current estimates,
since the current version of the Vedas seem to be a remnant of the
original texts that existed in the early Vedic period. The Vedas
also allude to the existence of ancient gods who reside in the highest
heaven and participate in the universal sacrifice performed by Brahman.
In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, when Vidadgha Sakalya asked Yajnavalkya,
how many gods were there, he began the answer saying, "As many as
mentioned in the offerings made to the gods of the universe, namely
three hundred and three, three thousand and three." On beings queried
further, he reduced the number gradually from three thousand three
to thirty three, then to six, then to three, then to two, then to
one and half and finally to one. In the same conversation, he identified
33 gods as the important ones, namely eight Vasus, eleven Rudras,
twelve Adityas, Indra and Prajapathi Brahma. These gods belong to
different sphere in creation. Based upon the number of invocations
available in the Vedas, the following Vedic gods and goddesses are
important: Indra, Varuna, Agni, Rudra, Mitra, Vayu, Surya, Vishnu,
Savitr, Pusan, Usha, Soma, Asvins, Maruts, Visvadevas, Vasus, Adityas,
Vashista, Brihaspathi, Bhaga, Rta, Rhibhus, Heaven, Earth, Kapinjala,
Dadhikravan, Rati, Yama, Manyu, Purusha, Prajanya Sarasvathi. Aditi
is another prominent goddess. She is considered the mother of gods.
Although there are no hymns directly addressed to her, she is mentioned
in several of them.
Indra is the lord of the heavens. He is the most popular and powerful
of the Vedic deities. He is described as the god of the blue sky.
He rides a white elephant called Airavata and wields the dazzling
weapon of lightening called Vajrayudh made by another god Tvastur.
He fought many battles to drive the demons away and ensure victory
to the gods. He also destroyed many cities of his enemies. His most
famous achievement was slaying of Vratasura. He killed the demon
of the dark skies (symbolically the clouds) with his weapon (the
lightning) and released the cows (waters) that were held in captivity
Prone to drinking soma, often losing control over himself, mighty
and sensuous, always concerned about his survival and status as
the leader, at times scheming and at times troubled, Indra is more
like a king upon the earth than of heavens. He has a spiritual side
too. According to the Kena Upanishad, he is the only god to have
gone nearest to Brahman and was to know Him as Brahman. This act
of him earned him the right to become the ruler of heavens. In the
Chandogya Upanishad we are told that he studied under Prajapathi
Brahma and learned the secrets of immortality. in the images, Indra
is generally shown with four arms and as riding on a while elephant.
Sometimes he is shown with his wife, Sachidevi, but mostly alone.
With the emergence of Saivism and Bhagavatism in the post Vedic
period, the importance of Indra gradually declined.
If we find in Indra the qualities of a war lord or a typical king,
in Varuna we see the earliest signs of an omniscient, omnipresent,
omnipotent and compassionate God, the precursor the Upanishadic
Brahman. Varuna is the ruler of the worlds, the ordainer and enforcer
of law and upholder of the world order. In one of the Rigvedic hymns
he is described as the Lord of the earth and heaven who sustains
the tree that has its roots in heaven and braches down below. This
description reminds us of the famous Asvattha tree of the latter
Varuna is the knower of all and controller of all. He is the
supreme God capable of controlling and dispensing justice. "He knows
the path of birds that fly through heaven, and, Sovran of the sea.
He knows the ships that are thereon. True to his holy law, he knows
the twelve moons with their progeny. He knows the moon of later
birth. He knows the pathway of the wind, the spreading, high, and
mighty wind. He knows the Gods who dwell above. Varuna, true to
holy law, sits down among his people; he, Most wise, sits there
to govern. all."(R.V)
And how does he know all this? With innumerable spies (rays of
light) who are spread every where acting as his eyes and ears, he
knows all that goes on in this world. If two people talking together,
beware that Varuna is there watching every thing that is going on.
Born to Aditi, and friend and brother of Mitra, Varuna is the protector,
"the Holy One, helper of all mankind, the law maker whose holy laws
remain unweakened." Together with Mitra, he controls the world order,
Rta and when people transgress the moral order and commit sin, he
knows and punishes them. But if they repent and seek forgiveness,
he forgives them too.
He causes the rains to come down and the sun to travel. He makes
the rivers flow. The rivers that flows because of him know no weariness,
nor they cease flowing. Many invocations of Varuna repeatedly beseech
him to forgive sins, like this one," If we have sinned against the
man who loves us, have ever wronged a brother, friend, or comrade,
the neighbor ever with us, or a stranger, O Varuna, remove from
us the trespass. If we, as gamesters cheat at play, have cheated,
done wrong unwittingly or sinned of purpose, cast all these sins
away like loosened fetters, and, Varuna let us be thine own beloved."
Varuna lost much of his importance as an omnipotent and omnipresent
god after Indra assumed more prominence. He was subsequently relegated,
or rather demoted to the position of a dikpala or ruler of a quarter
(the western hemisphere) and lord of the oceans and water.
In the iconography he is depicted as the rider of a chariot drawn
by seven swans, with four hands and an umbrella over his head. In
some images the swans are replace by a crocodile, suggestive of
his lordship over the aquatic life.
Agni is the chosen Priest, God, minister of sacrifice, the hotar,
who lavishes wealth and dispels the darkness. Sapient-minded priest,
truthful, most gloriously great, ruler of sacrifices, guard of Law
eternal, radiant One, no sacrifice is complete without his presence.
His presence verily ensures the success of a sacrifice, because
whatever sacrifice he accepts goes to the gods. Agni is the messenger,
the herald, master of all wealth, oblation-bearer, much beloved,
who brings the willing Gods from the heavens and makes them sit
on the grass with him near the sacrificial altar.
He is appointed by Manu as the priest. He is often invoked along
with Indra, with whom he shares the passion for soma drink. He is
also invoked along with Maruts probably to ward off the dangers
of forest fires. Agni, was the earliest Angiras, a Seer. After his
holy ordinance the Maruts, were born with their glittering spears.
Addressed as immortal Jatavedas, many-hued effulgent gift of Dawn,
bearer of offerings and the charioteer of sacrifice, Agni is the
Lord of Red Steeds, who loves songs. Kind and bountiful giver of
gifts, of wondrous fame, Agni is the friend of all, loved by many
in their homes.
The Vedic Aryans were well aware of his destructive ability,
as he sets the forests aflame. "Urged by the wind he spreads through
dry wood as he lists, armed with his tongues for sickles, with a
mighty roar. Black is thy path, Agni, changeless, with glittering
waves! when like a bull thou rushes eager to the trees, with teeth
of flame, wind-driven, through the wood he speeds, triumphant like
a bull among the herd of cows, with bright strength roaming to the
everlasting air: things fixed, things moving quake before him as
he flies." We also know some thing about his origins. Matariswan
brought him down from the heavens and handed him over to the Bhrigus
In some of the hymns like the following ones, we see Agni being
elevated to the status of a supreme god, " Agni is the Vaivashnara
the center of all people ... He is in the sky as well as at the
center of the earth." A similar notion can be found in this hymns
also. "Commingling, restless, he ascends the sky, unveiling nights
and all that stands or moves, as he the sole God is preeminent in
greatness among all these other Gods."
In the images, Agni is depicted with two heads, long flowing
hair, a pot belly, six eyes, seven hands, four horns and three legs.
His seven hands represent the seven flames and the three legs represent
the three worlds which he reigns. His pot belly denotes his love
for rich oily food. His consorts are svaha and svadha. Being a dhoomaketu,
smoke is his banner. The Ram is his vehicle, and the ram being a
typical sacrificial animal, his association with it denotes his
connection with sacrificial rituals.
Rudra and Rudras
The Rudra of the Rigveda is a militant god of storms and lightening
and a "provider of medicines". Though he did not enjoy the same
status as Indra, Rudra definitely enjoyed his own importance in
the Vedic pantheon because of his tempestuous nature, his association
with storms and storm gods called Maruts and his ability to bring
medicines to the people to prolong their lives.
He is a fierce looking god, well built and golden in color, with
braided hair, "of firm limbs, multiform, strong, tawny, who adorns
himself with bright gold decorations. The strength of Godhead never
departs from Rudra." Father of Maruts, the Rigvedic hymns describe
him eloquently, "Of your pure medicines ... those that are most
wholesome and health bestowing, those which our father Manu hath
selected, I crave from. Rudra for our gain and welfare."
He wields the thunder bolt, bow and arrow, and sends down streaks
of lightening shaking the worlds, making people nervous with fear
and trepidation and disturbing the cattle in the cow pens. Intelligent,
and benevolent, he protects people from their enemies. We do not
know whether the Rigvedic Rudra was a precursor to the Rudra of
later times. But the resemblance in some fundamental traits between
the two and the appeal to both in prayers and supplications not
to harm the cattle and the people with their anger, is too evident
to be ignored.
The following hymn is one such example, which in many ways sounds
like a verse from the Svetavatara Upanishad, "O Rudra, harm not
either great or small of us, harm not the growing boy, harm not
the full-grown man. Slay not a sire among us, slay no mother here,
and to our own dear bodies, Rudra, do not harm. Harm us not, Rudra,
in our seed and progeny, harm us not in the living, nor in cows
or steeds, Slay not our heroes in the fury of thy wrath. Bringing
oblations evermore we call to thee. Even as a herdsman I have brought
thee hymns of praise: O Father of the Maruts, give us happiness,
Blessed is thy most favoring benevolence, so, verily, do we desire
thy saving help."
Some times the hymns refer to not just one Rudra but a group
of Rudras eleven in number. According to some this is a symbolic
reference to the ten vital breaths and the mind or suggestive of
his association with the Maruts.
Mitra and Varuna are both lords of the heaven. Together they
uphold the law, cause the cows to stream, the plants to flourish,
and, "scattering swift drops, send down the rain-flood". Both are
Adityas and mostly are invoked together probably because of their
close friendship. The watchful twain, most potent, together uphold
Rta or the moral order. "Firmly set in heaven is Mitra's home, and
Aryaman's and Varuna's. Thence they give forth great vital strength
which merits praise, high power of life that men shall praise."
We are informed from the hymns that Mitra stirs men to action and
sustains both earth and heaven. Both Mitra and Varuna are guardians
of the world, who sit in a gold hued chariot from day break and
behold the infinity. In course of time, Mitra came to be associated
with morning light, while Varuna with night sky.
Vayu is a described in the Rigveda as a beautiful god, ideally the
first partaker of soma juice which he seems to be especially fond
of. He is a friend of Indra and a hero who shares the glory of victory
with the latter. He is swift as mind, the thousand-eyed and the
Lords of thought. He drives a chariot yoked with steeds, whose color
vary from from red to purple and the number from two to hundreds
and even thousands, depending upon the occasion. He is praised in
the hymns as the Intelligence, who illumines the earth and heaven
and makes the Dawn to shine.
For him the dawn spreads her radiant garments in the dark and
distant skies. Invisible, he moves in the heavens as well as in
the human body as the vital breath, like Rudra, Vayu also brings
medicines to cure people. For his sake the cows yield milk, and
to him the coward prays for luck. He is a protector of people whom
he protects from every world and from the highest world of Gods
(their wrath). In the post Vedic period, Vayu became the lord of
the north western quarters and father of Hanuman and Bhima, symbols
of immense strength, loyalty and brotherhood, which were the original
qualities of Vayu as a trusted friend of Indra and protector of
people. Blue in color, he is depicted with four hands. He holds
a fan and a flag in two hands while the other two are held in abhaya
and varada mudras (postures).
Surya is the blazing sun. He is one of the Adityas, god among gods,
the light that is most excellent, golden colored, who rides the
skies in his golden chariot, drawn by seven bay horses, who are
described in the hymns as the daughters of heaven. He is said to
be extremely brilliant, with radiant hair, who files in the skies
like a bird and shines brightly like a jewel. Giver of power and
strength, destroyer of laziness and darkness, with bright light
radiating from him, he knows all that lives. Before him, the constellations
pass away, like thieves, together with their beams. Swift and all
beautiful , Surya is the maker of the light, who illumines the radiant
realm, who goes to the hosts of Gods as well as to the world of
mankind with his light. like Varuna, he is ever watchful. Because
of his power and golden color, he is also depicted as provider of
good health, who removes the heart disease and takes away the yellow
hue (jaundice) to be given to the parrots, starlings and haritala
trees. In the Vedic symbolism, Surya symbolizes Brahman. The world
of the sun is frequently mentioned as the place where the immortal
world of Brahman is located, which the liberated souls reach upon
their departure from the earth travelling by the northern path.
In the Vedic theology, the sun represented the highest and the best.
He is eulogized as the source of prana, who keeps the world alive
by brining light and vigor.
The Vishnu of the Rigvedic times, is a minor god,. He is one
of the Adityas, but with some qualities of the Vishnu of Bhagavatism.
Like the Vishnu of later days, he is a lover and protector of devotees
in whose loved mansion all god loving creatures live happily. Like
the Vishnu in his incarnation as Vamana, who strode the earth and
the heaven in two paces and then crushed the demon king Bali with
his third pace, the Vedic Vishnu is also a god of three strides,
who upholds the threefold existence, the earth, the heaven and all
living creatures and in whose three wide-extended paces inhabit
all living creatures.
The Rigveda says that a mortal man, can behold two steps of him,
who looks upon the light, but his third step no one venture to approach,
not even the feathered birds of air that fly with wings. Described
as the dweller of mountains and a bull with wide strides, who like
a rounded wheel, sets in swift motion his ninety racing steeds together
with the four, Vishnu is the ancient and the last, the primeval
germ, with power supreme. Together with his spouse, he ordains and
as a ruler of the three worlds, he helps the Aryan man, giving the
worshipper his share of Holy Law.
Savitr is an Aditya who is described as golden eyed, golden
handed and golden tongued. A solar deity, he is regarded as the
sun before sun rise, but sometimes distinguished from the sun. He
not only represents the golden sun of the morning, but the hidden
sun of dark night also. Riding a golden chariot he comes, looking
He moves both ways, upward and downward, and travels along "ancient
dustless paths in the air's mid region with two bright adorable
bays." From far away he comes to chases away all distress and sorrow,
the rakshasas and the Yatudhanas and illumines the worlds. Mounting
his golden chariot that is decked with colorful pearls and lofty
with golden pole, he goes to darksome regions to illumine them.
Drawing the gold-yoked car with his white footed Bays, he manifests
light to all the peoples. Held in his lap all men and all beings
attain immortality. The golden-handed Savitar, far-seeing, goes
on his way between the earth and heaven, drives away sickness, bids
the Sun approach us, and spreads the bright sky through the darksome
Like other Adityas, he is an upholder of law and forgiver of
penitent sinner. Some times he is described as superior to all the
other gods, whose statutes none disobeys. "Him whose high law neither
Varuna nor Indra, not Mitra, nor Aryaman, nor Rudra breaketh" The
Gayatri mantra is addressed to Savitr of adorable splendor for the
enlightenment of human consciousness.
Savitr is the most adorable, mysterious and effulgent god of
mystic realms, who is considered to be the goal, the purpose and
the object of meditation. When he descends into the consciousness,
a golden disc with bright pointed rays, the inner world is lit up
with the splendor of God and indescribable beauty. This author has
been told by experienced people that whenever and wherever the Gayatri
mantra is uttered with devotion and sincerity, the whole atmosphere
and the auras of the people who participate in the chanting are
lit up in this splendorous manner by the golden rays that descend
Pusan is a pastoral god. He is the lord of the paths, who protects
people from wild animals and makes their paths in solitary places
pleasant to tread. He is described variously as a cloud born god,
lord of the path, wonder worker, lord of all prosperity and wielder
of golden sword. Pusan is the guardian of cattle who shows the way
carrying a goad with a horny point to rich meadows where the grass
is thick and temperature moderate. He is often associated with Soma
as the whole world protectors, one from above and the other from
below. Pusan stirs our thoughts, drives away the enemies, inspires
the miserly to make generous donations. In some hymns he is also
invoked along with Indra, his friend, whom he helps to generate
ripe warm milk from the young raw cows. In some hymns he is described
as the goat borne and as the god who travels across the oceans in
golden ships to meet the Sun.
Usha is dawn, the daughter of the sky, lady of the light, who rouses
all life. She stirs all creatures that have feet, and makes the
birds of air fly up. Borne on a hundred chariots, she yokes her
steed before the arrival of the sun and is never late. Loved by
the Asvins, sister of gods, she eludes the Sun who is always eager
to catch her. She brings not just light to the sleeping mankind,
but hope, happiness, riches and all the good things. Goddess of
light and beauty, whom the Rsis of old time invoked for their protection
and help, Usha is the gods' beloved sister, whom she brings to the
earth for enjoying drops of the soma juice offered by the worshippers.
. Some of the hymns speak of not one dawn but many the dawns that
have gone before. The hymns addressed to Usha in the Vedas are among
the most poetic and beautiful hymns found in the Vedas. The following
verses illustrates this point.
"She, like a dancer, puts her broidered garments on: as a cow
yields her udder so she bares her breast, creating light for all
the world of life..."
" The Gotamas have praised Heaven's radiant Daughter, the leader
of the charm of pleasant voices."
"Bending her looks on all the world, the Goddess shines, widely
spreading with her bright eye westward. Waking to motion every living
creature, she understands the voice of each adorer. Ancient of days,
again and again born newly, decking her beauty with the self-same
raiment, the Goddess wastes away the life of mortals, like a skilled
hunter cutting birds in pieces."
" In pride of beauty like a maid thou goest, O Goddess, to the
God who longs to win thee, and smiling youthful, as thou shinest
brightly, before him thou discoverest thy bosom. Fair as a bride
embellished by her mother thou showest forth thy form that all may
see it. Blessed art thou O Dawn. Shine yet more widely. No other
Dawns have reached what thou attainest."
Both night and dawn are sisters, dutiful in their movements.
" Akin, immortal, following each other, changing their colors both
the heavens move onward. Common, unending is the Sisters' pathway;
taught by the Gods, alternately they travel. Fair-formed, of different
hues and yet one-minded, Night and Dawn clash not, neither do they
Soma is the god of inspiration, the intoxicant who stirs the
minds, lures the gods and brings them to the place of worship. One
of the most popular gods of the Rigvedic hymns, the entire 9th Mandala
of the scripture is dedicated to him. Also known as Indu or Soma
Pavamana, he brings joy into the lives of people, cures them from
diseases and leads them to the worlds of bliss and immortality.
He gives strength not only to mortals, but to the gods as well.
Because of him, Indra was able to slay Vrata. Because of him Agni
maintains his sway.
He is also known as Lord of the speech (Vachspati), because of
his intoxicating influence on the movement of speech. On the physical
plane Soma is some kind of intoxicating juice. It was probably extracted
from some leaves, or mushrooms or some other substance by pressing
them between two stones. We have completely lost the knowledge of
its preparation. People have been trying for the last several centuries
to know the exact ingredients with which the Vedic people used to
make Soma juice, but have not succeeded so far.
Even during the Vedic period the preparation of the Soma juice
was probably a complicated affair. The hymns suggests that the success
of extracting the soma juice depended upon the cooperation of gods,
which means that its preparation was not an easy affair and depended
upon several extraneous factors. Since the production of juice was
central to many invocations, the god of soma was invoked to ensure
that the juice flew abundantly and the ceremony would be successful.
We see this concern explicit in the following hymns from the
"Indu as, Indra's Friend, pour on us with a stream of sweetness,
like Parjanya sender of the rain." (The coming of rain is uncertain.
So is the extraction of soma.)
"May they in flowing give us wealth in thousands, and heroic
power, these Godlike Soma-drops effused like coursers by their drivers
urged, they were poured forth, for victory, swift through the woolen
straining-cloth, noisily flow the Soma-drops, like milch-kine lowing
to their calves they have run forth from both the hands." (The prayer
is for soma to flow swiftly and noisily through the cloth.)
" THE pressers from the Soma-press send forth thy juice for rapturous
joy the speckled sap runs like a flood. With strength we follow
through the sieve him who brings might and wins the kine, enrobed
in water with his juice. Pour on the sieve the Soma, ne'er subdued
in waters, waterless, and make it pure for Indra's drink. Moved
by the purifier's thought, the Soma flows into the sieve. By wisdom
it hath gained its home. With humble homage, Indra, have the Soma-drops
flowed forth to thee, contending for the glorious prize." (Note
the emphasis on the need for the purity of the juice for Indra's
The Asvins are twin deities whose origin is shrouded in myth,
mystery and symbolism. A number of hymns are addressed to them because
of their healing and curative powers. They said descend to earth
thrice a day to help the mankind with their restorative and curative
powers. The Asvins are considered to be the brothers of Usha, the
goddess of dawn and may actually represent twilight, when darkness
and light appear intertwined on the horizon just before dawn as
well as before dusk. They are praised in the hymns as wonder workers,
with nimble hands and miraculous healing powers.
The Rigvedic hymns describe them as lords of hundred powers,
who can make the blind and lame see and walk, the injured recover
quickly from their afflictions, help men produce offspring or the
cows yield more milk. They can reduce the heat in the human body,
cure the septic sores, store the germ of life in female creatures
and perform even surgery. Traveling in a chariot with three spokes,
they come down to the earth thrice a day carrying with them heavenly
Maruts are powerful and destructive storm gods, who lash the
world from end to end, make the mountains rock and reel, rend the
forest-kings apart, make the earth tremble, and drench the earth
with heavy rains. They are considered to be the progeny of Rudra,
the bulls of heaven, radiant men in serried rank and free from spots
and stains. But no one truly knows from where they sprang, for they
only know each other's birth. Bright is their spirit and wrathful
Mighty and well-armed, impetuous in their haste, decked in glittering
gold ornaments, they send their windless rain even on the desert
places. When they inundate the earth they spread forth darkness
even in day time, with the water filled rain clouds. Loud roarers,
giving strength, devourers of the foe, they make the winds and the
lightning with their powers.
Restless shakers, they drain the udders of the sky, and ever
wandering around, fill the earth full with milk. The Maruts are
positively destructive forces of the heave, ferocious but not wicked.
They are divine beings, who work for the welfare of the world and
men, though they do it in their quite noisy way. The Maruts give
strength to the worshippers to make them invincible in battle, bring
wealth to the people, increase their progeny and prolong life.
The word Visvadevas means lords of the universe. In the Vedas
a number of hymns are addressed to them. The Visvadevas are none
but the popular gods of the Vedas. When they were collectively invoked
through a common ritual, they were addressed as Visvadevas. In the
hymns of the Visvadevas, we generally find the names of such popular
gods as Bhaga, Daksa, Mitra, Aditi, Aryaman, Varuna, Soma, the Asvins,
Saraswathi, Vayu, Prithvi, Father Heaven, Soma, Pusan, Indra, Tarksya,
Maruts, Agni , Varuna, Mitra, Rta, and the dikpalas.
According to some scholars hidden in the hymns of the Visvadevas
are the seeds of monotheism. By addressing various gods collectively,
the Vedic people acknowledged the unity of these gods and their
inter relationships. The Rigvedic people believed that the devas
sprang from a common parentage and were helpful in nature, in contrast
to the demons who were wicked and troublesome. Although each god
in the pantheon was endowed with specific qualities and responsibilities,
the Vedic Aryans did not miss the larger picture and their underlying
connection in the order (Rta) of things.
The concept of Visvadevas changed during the post Vedic period
especially with the emergence of the Puranas and its rich lore of
mythology. The list was reduced to just ten gods namely Vasu, Satya,
Kratu, Daksa, Kala, Dhriti, Kuru, Pururavas, and Madravas.
Dhara (the earth), Anala (the fire), Apa (waters), anila (the
wind), Dhruva (the pole star), soma (the moon), Prabhasa (the light)
are the eight vasus who are described to be attendants of Indra,
the lord of the heavens. In course of time these deities attained
popularity in different areas. Dhruva became a symbol of austerity,
determination and a popular name in the Hindu pantheon because of
his association with the polestar. The earth became a mother deity,
bearing the burden of the beings, a symbol of patience and fortitude.
Soma came to be associated with soma juice and attained popularity
because of his significance in the Vedic rituals.
"Bright and pure as streams of water, free from all guile and
falsehood, blameless, perfect," these are gods of light, with many
eyes (rays) corresponding to the 12 months of the year and described
as the 12 spokes of the wheel of time. The Adityas are upholders
of Laws. " Upholding that which moves and that which moves not,
Adityas, Gods, protectors of all beings, provident, guarding well
the world of spirits, true to eternal Law, the debt-exactors," they
illuminate the world, drive away darkness, nourish the beings, regulate
relationships and personify the laws of the universe and mankind.
"Golden and splendid, pure like streams of water, they hold aloft
the three bright heavenly regions. Ne'er do they slumber, never
close their eyelids, faithful, far-ruling for the righteous mortal."
Originally six in the Rigveda, their number increased to 12 during
the later Vedic period. The 12 Adityas are: Mitra, Varuna, Aryaman,
Daksha, Bhaga, Amsa, Tvastr, Savitr, Pusan, Sakra, Vivasvat and
Visnu. We have given a general description of some of the Adityas
Vashistha is not a god but a sage, or the head of a particular
class of brahmin priests, who is described in a hymn as born to
Urvasi and Varunamitra out of their conjugal love. He is also described
as born from grass and as a fallen drop, whom gods in heavenly fervor
laid in a lotus blossom. He is also described as the leader of the
Bharatas, who brings the Saman. Indra has a great respect for him,
whom he probably helped with this prayers and blessings or with
his clan in the battle of ten kings.
Brahmanaspati, popularly known as Brihaspathi is eulogized in
the Vedas as Indra's lovely friend who gives wisdom, the healer
of disease, protector of bodies, who gives wealth, increases the
agricultural produce and protects the heroes in the battle field
from enemy heroes. He is the priest of heaven who makes the oblation
prosper. He promotes the course of sacrifice. Without Brahmanaspati,
no sacrifice is complete. He is the leader of the songs and also
the Law maker, whom both gods and mortals listen. He inspires the
heroes with his gifts and his blessings.
Addressed as the father of all sacred prayers, Brihaspati was
invoked by the Vedic Aryans, through prayers and sacrifice, probably
during war times, to quell the foe, slay demons, cleave the stall
of kine, and find the light. He is the upholder of justice, who
protects the worshippers from the evil-minded, arrogant, rapacious
man and would not allow the unworthy to ascend to the heavens. The
consumer of the foe, the sin's true avenger, he tames the fierce
enemy and protects his worshippers from the ambush and their enemy's
deadly blows. Brihaspati is also known as Ganapathi Brahmanaspati
and considered by some scholars as a precursor to the latter period
He is also an Aditya, son of Aditi, a god of bright light. He
is a giver and supporter and bestower of bliss, who discovers treasures
and whose gifts are faithful. Since he grants boons, horses and
heroes, he is approached by the rich and poor alike for abundance
and happiness. People forgot Bhaga, but his name remains even today
hidden in the name of Bhagavan.
Rta is the rhythmic pattern of the universe. It is the orderly
way in which the world regulates itself. Rta determines the usual
paths by which the heavenly objects, the sun, the moon, the stars,
the nine planets, conduct themselves. Rta is responsible for many
other things: the manner in which the seasons (ritus) come and go,
the way the rains fall upon the earth, the way the crops are harvested,
the way the people live and die, and the cattle yield wealth through
milk and progeny.
The Vedic people believed this universal order to be the work
of gods. They uphold Rta by virtue of their strength, unity and
upholding of the Law that governs the heaven and the earth. The
battle between god and demons was basically the battle between order
and chaos, between light and darkness, truth and falsehood. The
order prevails because of the strength and will of gods, especially
the Adityas, Indra, and Agni. In course of time the concept of Rta
gave way to the concept of Dharma and God as the upholder of dharma.
The Rbhus are wise and skilful craftsmen, dexterous-handed, deft
in work and gracious, who are said to be the sons of Sudhavan. They
were generally believed to possess special powers with which they
were able to make a cow out of a hide, give youth to their old parents,
shape tawny steeds for Indra and make four wondrous cups out of
a single chalice for gods. Rbhus bring prosperity and were probably
associated with the craft of chariot making and the earlier methods
of fire making. The hymns addressed to Rbhus generally mention the
names of Rbhu, Vibhvan, Vaja and speak of their craftsmanship and
how they were promoted to the rank of gods because of their skills
and their "cunning".
Heaven and Earth
In the hymns addressed to heaven and earth, they are referred
as two great mothers. Between them the God, the effulgent sun, travels
by fixed decree. These two, the Heaven and the Earth bestow prosperity
on all and sustain the region. They are holy, wise and the spirited.
They keep the truth of all that stands and all that moves and were
made beautiful by the sun with his garment of light.
Kapinjala is a bird of good omen with sweet and flute like melodious
voice whose sounds are compared to the utterances of a Sama-chanter.
The invokers of this bird of heaven pray for the protection of the
bird from the attacks of falcon, eagle and hunter's arrows. Associated
with good luck and happy omens, there are at least two hymns in
the Rigveda addressed to this mystic bird of melodious notes.
Dadhivakran is a mighty stallion that was given to Puru by gods.
It is swift of foot and shines bright. It is described as the giver
of many gifts, who visiteth all people, impetuous hawk, swift and
of varied color, like a brave King. Some hymns in the Rigveda are
entirely addressed to Dadhivakran.
Rati or Love
There is a hymn in the Rigveda addressed to sage Agastya by his
wife Lopamudra as an invocation to Ratidevi to come to the aid of
the aging couple and rekindle love in their bodies.
Yama is the controller, god of justice and ruler of the dead
and departed who go to the region of hell. Two fierce dogs, described
as Sarama's offspring, with four eyes and wide nostrils, look on
men and guard the pathway that leads the world of Yama. Yama is
master of knowledge. He taught young Nachiketa the secrets of Brahman,
fire sacrifice and immortality. In the Hindu mythology Yama is shown
as riding a he-buffalo, carrying a mace as his weapon and holding
a noose. He uses the noose to drag the deceased beings to the hells.
Sitting on a throne he reviews the deeds of men and accords punishment.
He is aided in this task by Chitragupta who keeps an account of
the deeds of the mortals when they were alive on earth. He is also
the ruler of the southern quarter, wears red garments and carries
a mace as his weapon.
The Rigveda describes Yama as Vivasvan's Son, who gathers men
together, who traveled to the lofty heights above men and who searches
out and shows the path to many. Dark-hued, insatiate, with distended
nostrils, Yama's two envoys said roam among the People and keep
a watch. "Into the six Expanses flies the Great One in Trkadrukas.
The Gayatri, the Trstup, all metres in Yama are contained."
There are some hymns in the Rigveda which are addressed to Manyu
a war god, wielder of thunder, slayer of foes, of Vrtra, and of
Dasyu, of surpassing vigor, fierce, queller of the foe, and self-existent.
He is beseeched to bring wealth and health. Manyu is a war god,
who is considered to be Indra himself. Probably the Abhimanyu of
the Mahabharata fame derived his name from this war hero.
The famous Purusha Sukta speaks of the Universal Purusha, of
a A THOUSAND heads, a thousand eyes, and a thousand feet who pervading
earth from every side fills a space ten fingers wide. "This Purusha
is all that yet hath been and all that is to be; the Lord of Immortality
which waxes greater still by food. So mighty is his greatness; yea,
greater than this is Purusa. All creatures are one-fourth of him,
three-fourths eternal life in heaven."
From this Purusha was born Viraj (world soul) and from Viraj
again a second Purusha (hiranyagarbha) was born. As soon as he was
born, the gods gathered and sacrificed him. From that great sacrifice,
from his various bodily parts were born all the animals, the Riks,
Sama hymns and Yajus, the sun and the moon and all the four castes,
Indra, Agni, Vayu, the earth and the sky and all the regions. The
Purusha Sukta is very controversial hymn. It raises a number of
interesting questions, about which we can only speculate but cannot
give a definite answer.
One interesting question is who were the gods who gathered and
sacrificed the second Purusha? Probably the original Purusha Sukta
referred to the origin of the gods, the heaven and the earth, the
various beings, elements, worlds and objects. It must have been
conveniently altered to justify the origin of the castes and perpetuate
a system that was alien to the Rigvedic Aryans.
Prajanya is a rain god, ferocious, whom all life fears, the bull
who lays in the plant, the seed, who smites the trees apart with
lightning and slays the demons. All life fears him and the sight
of his mighty weapon. He is the slayer of demons, who sends the
rains down. He made the desert places fit for travel probably by
bringing the rains.
When Parjanya fills the sky with rain-cloud, the winds burst
forth, the lightning flashes, the plants shoot up, food springs
abundantly for all creatures and earth bows low before him. At his
command the cattle fly in terror, the plants assume all colors and
the floods descend in torrents. Not just a god of rain and thunder,
Prajanya is also upholder of law who punishes the sinners and protect
the people. According to S. Radhakrishnan, " Prajanya is a sky god.
He seems to have become Indra, for Indra is unknown to other members
of the Aryan family. In the Vedas Prajanya is another name for the
In the Rigvedic hymn addressed to Saraswathi, she is depicted
as a river goddess, who slays the Parvathas with her might, casts
down those who scorn the gods and makes poison flow away from the
waters. She is the giver of opulence, strength and wealth. She has
seven sisters, sprung from three fold source, who is invoked in
every deed of might and sought for treasures.
In the hymn addressed to her, she is beseeched to keep flowing
gracefully and not to spurn people, so that they would not be forced
to go to far away countries. Saraswathi subsequently became a goddess
of learning and consort of Brahma. But in the Rigveda, she is a
river goddess with seven sisters, who helps the gods, destroys their
enemies and provides waters to the five tribes. There is no association
with either Brahma or with learning.
Suggested Further Reading
Tthe image of Sagara Manthan, Indra, Varuna, Agni,
Vayu, Rudra and Surya used in this article are either in public
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