Developments in the Early Vedic Tradition

Hayagriva restoring Vedas to Brahma

Hayagriva returning the Vedas to Brahma

by Jayaram V

"..writing is an urban phenomenon. To freeze the teachings of prophets in books regarded as sacred is to paralyze the spirit of research; it fixes so called established truths to create blind faith instead of search for knowledge. The nature of knowledge is to evolve. Like other aspects of human beings, it knows periods of progress and decline.- While the Gods Play by Alain Danielou 1

The sruti tradition - the divine origin of the Vedas

The Vedic tradition has been preserved for several centuries through a strict system of memorization of the hymns by heart. Students would memorize the hymns day after day and year after year for several years (generally 12) under the close supervision of a teacher till they remembered each and every word and its pronunciation by heart. No deviations and exceptions were allowed as the hymns were divine in origin and human beings had no authority to change them or amend them even by mistake. Sometimes the students were made to remember the hymns without knowing their meaning, because the accuracy of the pronunciation and memory of the original hymns were more important in the order of things than their comprehension. The Vedic hymns were used in karmakanda or performing the rituals. a Dilution of the tradition

The early Vedic priests were employed in the courts of kings and emperors. They used their Vedic knowledge for the welfare of the kings and their families. They chanted the mantras for their success in the battle field, or their general prosperity or for the protection and the protection of their kingdoms against diseases and natural calamities such as floods, famines, forest fires and electrical storms. If the kings were satisfied with their actions and convinced of their magical powers, they rewarded them with valuable gifts and protected them and their wealth.

Thus the relationship between the kings and the priests was one of enlightened self interest. As long as the king prospered, the priests prospered and maintained their hold on the king, his family and the nobility. Since their success very much depended upon the efficacy of the rituals, they strived to maintain the purity of the mantras and their accurate pronunciation and also adhere as correctly as possible to the procedural aspects of preparing the offerings, making the offerings and performing the rituals.

As a result, in the later Vedic period the ceremonial aspect (karmakanda) of the Vedas took precedence over their philosophical content (jnanakanda). While most of the Vedic mantras escaped corruption, the original meaning of many of the hymns was lost. Many hymns that were not used in the performance of the rituals or considered unnecessary for ceremonial purposes were also gradually forgotten. For a very long time the Vedas became mere books of chants or rituals, while their study and recitation became the exclusive privilege of a few priestly families, except for the Aranyakas and the Upanishads which were studied exclusively in small groups by people dwelling in the forests and hermitages.

Confrontation and compromise with native traditions

The early Rigvedic hymns are considered to be at least 5000 years old and composed before the priestly families associated with the early development of Vedism migrated from the Sindhu Saraswathi region to the Gangetic plains. According to an increasingly popular opinion, such migration might have happened around 2000 BC due to climatic changes and the gradual drying up of the river Saraswathi, which is now extinct, but dried up bed of which can still be seen in the satellite imagery taken from above the region.

The migration brought the Vedic community in direct contact and possibly conflict with people of diverse local traditions and kings who patronized several local gods, including Vishnu, Shiva, Rama, Krishna and Shakti. Some of these traditions believed in ritual magic and should have posed considerable challenge to the migrating Brahmanas, as they practiced similar rituals and offered protection to their patrons from enemies and calamities with their intervention invoking the power of gods.

These developments must have forced the priestly communities to make some compromises about their own beliefs and practices and accommodate new beliefs, rituals, and practices. In doing so they might have also tried to appease the local kings who believed in different gods to secure their support and patronage by acknowledging new deities and offering their services to worship them.

The developments must have led to the assimilation of many new beliefs and practices into Vedic religion, starting around 2000 BC, and continue until much later as its influence spread further east and south. During this period one can discern an increasing preponderance of magical rituals, as is evident in the hymns of the Yajurveda, followed by those of the Atharvaveda. The last Veda is even described in some instances as the Veda of the asuras (demons) since it contains many magical formulas to control others and destroy them if necessary.

The decline and fall of Vedism

The assimilation resulted in the collapse of the old order and the emergence of a new form of Vedism, which had elements of the past as a reminder of its continuity and superiority, while its gods lost their power and prestige and many rituals associated with them were either modified or discarded. The ancient gods of Vedas became mere attendant gods in the expanded and more colorful pantheon of the new order, ruled by the Trinity and their consorts, who were hardly mentioned in the Rigveda. The Vedic gods who hitherto depended upon human beings for their survival and nourishment were now replaced by deities of a more powerful order. They were recognized and extolled in the new literature as the masters of the humanity and rulers of their destinies having the power and the ability to grant them boons and powers beyond their imagination.

In the game of survival, the Vedic priests won but their religion was lost, as were their gods. Their names, epithets and their status in the pantheon were ascribed to the new gods. who were unknown to the Rigvedic priests, if not despised. It is a travesty of history that the early historians presented a picture of an aggressive Vedic community (which they identified with Aryans of European origin) spreading its power and influence all over the subcontinent and establishing Vedic religion as the dominant religion of the native people. The truth, however, is that Vedic religion of the Rigvedic times meekly submitted to the overwhelming influence of the regional traditions of ancient India such as Vaishnavism, Saivism and Shaktim and made peace with it. In the process, what remained of it was a mere semblance of the ancient religion, while its gods became vestiges of a lost glory that once dominated the Vedic world. The Vedas retained a semblance of authority and superiority, just like the Queen of England, but in truth their meaning and symbolism was lost forever. Scholars weaved stories of imagination around popular myths and legends associated with the new gods, infusing them with sublime religious and symbolic messages to establish their moral and spiritual authority and validate the new belief system and power structure. The trend continued as the emerging literature as a process of appeasement associated more weaknesses with the Vedic deities and ascribed more virtues, powers and glory to the emerging ones.

Vedic priests who previously ignored or ridiculed the traditions of Jainas, Ajivakas, Saivas, Samkhyas, Vaisheshikas, Vaishnavas, Vrishnis (of Lord Krishna) as the traditions of the low castes, made peace with them through a conciliatory process of integration and adoption. They accomplished it firstly, by admitting many popular gods and goddesses such as Vishnu, Siva and Shakti into Vedic pantheon and relegating their own deities into the background, namely Indra, Agni, Soma, Vayu and Varuna. These gods were made rulers of the directions and their heaven was recognized one in a series of several heavens and hells. The Vedic cosmology grew in dimensions, form a universe of four sphere to a universe of about 16 or 20, with Mount Meru as the center. To the two paths of afterlife, the path that went to ancestral world and the path that went to the world of Brahman, a third alternative was now added, the path that went straight to the hell, ruled by Yama, where sinner suffered excruciatingly painful punishments for their sins.

Such beliefs and practices radically altered the nature of Vedic religion and opened its doors to superstitious beliefs, magical rituals and complex philosophies. Secondly they incorporated into Brahmanism many native methods of worship such as idol worship, puja and temple rituals. We do not have evidence that the early Vedic people worshipped their gods in temples. This tradition seems to have grown in the interiors of the Indian subcontinent, as a continuation of ancient prehistoric practices and offered an easy and convenient means to the Vedic priests to establish their influence and continue their dominance. Thirdly, they also adopted and incorporated the fundamental concepts and ideas of many schools of philosophy such as Yoga, Samkhya and Vaisheshika. Fourthly, they expanded the scope of caste system to absorb the new converts into different caste divisions depending upon their social and vocational status and their political and economic influence. In the process many Sudra kings and kings of foreign origin were converted into Kshatriyas and given a legitimate role in the protection of dharma.

Those who were denied proper recognition or dissatisfied with the new developments turned to other sects and ascetic movements such as Jainism, and later Buddhism. The process reached its culmination in the post Gupta period when the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, was recognized as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu and Sankaracharya integrated many concepts of Saivism into Vedism through his reinterpretation of the Brahmasutras, the Upanishads and the Vedas from the perspective of the monistic schools of Saivism.

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Suggestions for Further Reading


1. I strongly recommend anyone who is interested in knowing this integration of Vedism with the native religions of ancient India to read the book.