The Context of Vedic India

by Porter Wiseman

The world of Vedic India is known largely through its religious texts; the Vedas, which gave the period its name. The Vedas recorded not only the religion of the Vedic people, but also details of their lives that give us a look at their culture and world view. Written down by the Aryan people between 1500 and 800 BCE these texts, composed and transmitted orally from as early as 6000 BCE, consist of hymns, spells, myths and rituals.

The Aryan people spoke an archaic form of Sanskrit, a language of the Indo-European language group and a close cousin to Greek and Latin. It is believed that these three languages, along with many others, shared a common ancestor, as did the people who spoke them. These nomadic horsemen (whose origins are still uncertain but may have come from Russia or Central Asia) swept across the ancient world, making appearances in Mesopotamia and Persia before journeying through the Khyber pass and into the Indus river valley.

Before the arrival of the Aryans, an urban culture had thrived in the Indus river valley. It was already in decline, partially due to desertification, when it was conquered by the cattle-herding Aryans, who brought with them horses, chariots, and iron weapons. In addition they also brought a patriarchal society based around the sacrificial worship of the sky god.

Over the course of the Vedic period, a transition was made from a cow-based herding economy to an agrarian one. Still, in early Vedic India, cows were the basis of the entire economy. A man's wealth was measured in the number of cows he owned and the word for war was gavisti, 'searching for cows.' ("India") The agrarian economy was based more on the growth of wheat (rice in more southern areas) an activity that was dependent upon the monsoons and the rivers that crisscross the Indian subcontinent. The importance of both cows and rivers has survived even in modern Hinduism, a testament to their importance to the Aryans, the ancestors of modern Indian culture.

The social structure of Vedic India had a number of important features. The government early on was largely by the rule of chieftains, but as time went on these chiefs became kings, and their territories, kingdoms. The word for chieftain was raja, and though the Vedas tell us little of the political situation, it can be inferred that the early government was a clan based system, which eventually became a true government, with taxes and a bureaucracy. (Ibid.)

These small kingdoms were widely separated and had little contact with one another, although they shared many cultural principles. Likewise, there was little contact with the world beyond India. Later such contact would blossom as would contact within India, eventually resulting in the great Indian empires.

There was an intimate connection between the priests and the chieftains. The priests performed the ceremonies that confirmed the rule of the raja, and granted the ruler status and closeness to the gods. The raja supported the priests and gave them wealth, influence and the stability necessary to support an elaborate religious hierarchy.

The priests and rulers were members of distinct classes. Along with two others, this comprised the basis of the caste system, another part of Vedic India that has survived to modern day. The Sanskrit word for caste is varna, meaning 'color,' and the division of the castes may have had something to do with keeping the Aryan people separate from the conquered natives. This theory is supported by the fact that the names of the upper three castes are of Indo-Aryan origin, while the name of the fourth caste is of non-Aryan origin.

Whatever the reasons for the caste system may be, the system pervaded the society of Vedic India. There were four major castes: the Brahmins, or priestly caste; the Ksatriyas, or warrior/noble caste; the Vaishyas, the farmer and tradesman caste, and the Shudras, a caste containing servants and menial workers. It was believed that these castes arose from the dismembered body of the god Purusa.

The religion of Vedic India was sacrifice based, taking as its example the primordial sacrifice of the god Purusa. Because of the importance of sacrifice, the gods Soma and Agni were among the most important in the Vedic pantheon. Agni was the god of the sacrificial fire, and Soma the god of the sacred drink and the moon.

'I invoke Agni, in his role of official of this cult, god of sacrifice, officiant, oblator who confers treasures beyond measure. Agni is worthy to be invoked by the ancient prophets, just as by the present ones; may he escort the gods here.' (Comte p. 26) Thus it is written in the Rg Veda, the most important of the four Vedas. Most offerings were burnt, and so Agni attained utmost importance, for without him, the all important sacrifices could not be performed. He was the agent of communication between heaven and earth and the 'mouth of the gods', who consumed their share of the offering through him. He was the god of all fire as well, including the fire of life and inspiration.

Soma was a moon god, the bringer of the cool of night and measurer of the rhythm of time. Soma, however, was also a drink, distilled from a plant of heavenly origin, possibly a mushroom. It was a beverage of the gods that brought immortality. The soma sacrifice was among the most important, for the consumption of soma was believed to bring one closer to the gods and the universe. Just as Agni, as the sacrificial fire, was an emissary between gods and men, so was Soma, for his drink brought intimate communion with the divine.

There were many other important gods in the Vedic pantheon. One of them was Varuna, an ocean god who bares strong resemblance to Poseidon. Originally, he was not the god of the sea but rather the god of the night sky, and all the stars were his eyes. It was said that when two people spoke, Varuna was the third party present. He was one of the two sovereign gods (the other being Mitra) and he was the master of magic and the binding force that held the world together. Varuna was the cosmic judge and the overseer of rta, the rhythm that pervaded the universe.

Rta was a concept crucial to the Vedic religion, and even today the echoes of this idea resonate through Hinduism. Rta was similar to the concept of ma'at in Egyptian cosmology: it was the basic pervading rhythm of existence, the law of nature, the way things were supposed to be. It was both moral and natural law. Because of rta the sun rose in the morning and the rivers did not flow backwards. Rta was also the ancestor of the doctrine of karma, and as such it provided the moral law of the cosmos. It was a cause and effect law that stated that good came back to its doer as good and bad as bad.

'India is king, the most important of the gods. This is the teaching. his strength and energy are without measure for he is endowed with vigor and his radiance is infinite.' (Comte p. 110) These are the words of the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic and the longest epic in the world. He was a storm god and a warrior, and also the inspiration of artists and the provider of wealth. He slayed the dragon Vtra, who represented universal disorder, the opposite of rta. He is also said to have led the conquest of the Indian subcontinent by the Aryans. In many ways he bore a resemblance to his counterparts in other parts of the Indo-Aryan world; like the Greek storm god, Zeus, he was king of the gods and had a fondness for mortal women. An exuberant and virile god, he exemplified the Aryan outlook on life.

All of this was to change, however. In the later part of the Vedic era, a collection of works known as the Upanishads were composed. Considered the last of the works known as Vedic, these works were written by the rsis, or seers, who also passed the other Vedas on to mankind. The Upanishads hypothesized the existence of a Universal Consciousness or Oversoul that they called Brahman. They stressed the fleetingness of this life, and first described the nature of the soul, called the atman. The atman was part of Brahman, a part that could be rejoined with the Oversoul when the individual possessing it attained enlightenment. Otherwise it would be trapped in the cycle of reincarnation. The concept of the reincarnation cycle was another idea first developed in the Upanishads. The Vedic gods paled in comparison to the depth of the Upanishadic world view.

The Upanishads brought great attention as well to the vast scale of time. This idea was developed further in later texts, and in the end, an image of vastness rivaling the scale of modern science emerged. This view of time was cyclic. Each cycle was divided into four yugas[1], or ages, each of increasing length and decreasing virtue (we live in the last, thekali yuga). The entire cycle of yugas was known as a mahayuga and totaled 4,320,000 years. After each mahayuga, another would begin, until one thousand had passed, a total that was equal to one day in the life of Brahma, the creator god. A day in the life of Brahma was known as a kalpa, which was also described as the length of time it would take for a single bird, rubbing its beak once against a great mountain per day, to wear that mountain to sand. But Brahma, like everything except Brahman, is mortal, and after one hundred of his years (311,040,000,000,000 human years) he dies, and the universe is completely dissolved. Then, after another hundred Brahma years, the universe, and Brahma, were reformed, and it all began again. On a scale that large, it is no wonder that beginning reincarnated for eternity was such a horrifying thought! (Kinsley p.139-140)

It was against this backdrop that further Indian civilization was to develop. Both the golden age of Asoka's rule, Buddhism, and modern Indian culture are all rooted in the Vedic age. It was at this time that the essential 'great ideas' were formed, though it would take many more centuries for them to come to their full glory.


Kinsley, David R. The Sword and the Flute. University of California Press,

Los Angeles, CA. 1975

Comte, Fernand. Mythology. W&R Chambers Ltd, New York, NY. 1991

Hiltebeitel, Alf. "Hinduism." The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History and Culture Selections from the Encyclopedia of Religion. eds. Mircea Eliade and Joseph M. Kitagawa et al. McMillian Publishing Company. New York, NY. 1989.

"India." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Britannica Advanced Publishing. 1995.

Creation of the Universe

by Araceli Perez

It would be ignorant to believe that there is only one explanation for the creation of the universe. The Vedic hymns present several cosmogonies. There are many interpretations for these myths resulting from there documentation on various levels of culture. It is purposeless to quest for the origin of each of these cosmogonies because most of these ideas and beliefs represent a heritage transmitted from prehistory all over the ancient world.

There are four essential types of cosmogonies that seem to have fascinated the Vedic poets and theologians. They are as followed: (1) creation by fecundation of the original waters; (2) creation by the dismembering of a primordial giant, Purusa; (3) creation out of a unity-totality, at once being and nonbeing; (4) creation by the separation of heaven and earth.[2]

The first cosmogony relates to the celebrated hymn of the Rg Veda. The god imagined as Hiranyagarbha (the Golden Embryo) hovers over the Waters, Hiranyabarbha enters the waters and fecundates them. This gave birth to Agni (the god of fire).[3]

The second cosmogony can be found in a hymn, the Purusasukta. Purusa is represented at once as cosmic totality and as an androgynous being. Creation proper is the result of a cosmic sacrifice. The gods sacrifice Purusa. From his dismembered body proceed the animals, the liturgical elements, the social classes, the earth, the sky, the gods: "His mouth became the Brahman, the Warrior was the product of his arms, his thighs were the Artisan, from his feet was born the servant" (strophe 12, after the translation by Renou). His head became the sky, his feet turned into the earth, the moon resulted from his consciousness, the sun from his gaze, his mouth transformed into Indra and Agni, and the wind from his breath. The hymn clearly states that Purusa precedes and surpasses the creation, though the cosmos, life, and men proceed from his own body.[4]

The Purusasukta parallels those which are found in China, among the ancient Germans and in Mesopotamia. They illustrate a cosmogony of an archaic type: creation by the sacrifice of an anthropomorphic divine being.

The third cosmogony, being the most famous hymn of the Rig Veda, is presented as a metaphysics. The question is asked, how Being could have come out of non-Being, since, in the beginning, neither "non-Being existed nor Being." There was neither men nor gods. The only thing that existed was its own impulse, without there being any breath." Nothing else existed, but Brahman which derived from heat. From the germ potential develops desire. This same desire "was the first seed of consciousness." This was an astounding declaration which anticipated one of the chief theses of Indian philosophical thought. The first seed then divided itself into "high" and "low", into a male principle and a female principle. "Brahman precedes the universe and creates the world by deriving from its own being, without thereby losing its idealism.[5]

The myth of the separation of heaven and earth is related to the Purusasukta. In both there is a violent division of a totality for the purpose of creating the world. Finally there is the creation by a divine being, the Universal Artisan, Visvakarman forms the world like a craftsman. This mythical motif is connected by the Vedic poets with the theme of the creation-sacrifice. Some of these myths are found among other Indo-European peoples. There are many myths similar to these which are documented in many traditional cultures. India is the only place to have given rise to sacrificial techniques, contemplative methods, and speculations so decisive for the awakening of a new religious consciousness as a result of these myths.[6]

Other Rituals

The Vedic Cult did not have one specific place were all rites were to be performed. These rituals were to be performed in the sacrificer's house or on a nearby open space with a grassy ground, on which the three fires were placed. There were both flesh and non flesh offerings. Among the non flesh offerings were milk, butter, cereals, and cakes. The goat, the cow, the bull, the ram, and the horse were also sacrificed. From the period of the Rg Veda the soma sacrifice was the most important one.

The rituals are divided into either the domestic class or the solemn class. Other than keeping up the domestic fire and the agricultural festivals, there are four things that are most important to private rituals. They are sacraments or consecrations in connection with the conception and birth of children, the introduction of the boy to his Brahmanic preceptor, marriage, and funerals. These are all basic ceremonies that involve non flesh oblations and offerings. As for the sacraments, also included are ritual gestures accompanied by formulas the master of the house would announce.[7]

The most important sacrament is the upanayana. This ritual constitutes the homologue of the puberty initiation. The preceptor transforms the boy into an embryo and keeps him for three nights in his belly. The preceptor conceives at the moment when he puts his hand on the child's shoulder, and, on the third day, the child is reborn in the state of brahmanhood.[8]

The simplest ritual of those of the solemn is the agnihotra ("the oblation of fire"). This ritual takes place at dawn and twilight and consists in an offering of milk to Agni[9]. The essential sacrifices, particularly part of the Vedic cult, are those of soma. The agnistoma ("praise of Agni") is performed once a year during the spring. Agnistoma consists in three days of "homage." The soma is squeezed in the morning, at noon, and in the evening. At the midday squeezing there is a distribution of honorariums: 7, 21, 60, or 1,000 cows, or , on occasion, all of the sacrificers's possessions. In this ritual all the gods are invited to participate.[10]

The most important and most celebrated Vedic Ritual was the asvamedha ("horse sacrifice"). This ritual was performed by a victorious king, who has obtained the dignity of "Universal Sovereign." The purpose of asvamedha was to cleanse pollution and insure fecundity and prosperity throughout the country. The preliminary ceremonies were performed in a period of one year. During this time the stallion was given liberty and put with one hundred other horses. It was not to approach the mares, in order to keep this from happening 400 young men were put on guard. The actual ritual itself lasted three days. At first some specific ceremonies such, as mares being shown to the stallion, the stallion being harnessed to a chariot, and the chariot being driven to the pond, were performed. On the second day many domestic animals were sacrificed. Finally the stallion was suffocated. The four queens, each accompanied by a hundred female attendants, circled the body. The principle wife laid next to the stallion, covered with a cloak, and performed sexual acts. While this went on the priests and the women also performed sexual acts. As soon as the queen rose, the horse and the other victims were cut up. Other rituals were performed on the third day, and finally the honorariums and the four queens or their attendants were distributed to the priests.[11]Bibliography

Eliade, Mircia. A History of Religious Ideas: volume one, From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Il. 1978.

Hiltebeitel, Alf. `Hinduism' The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, history and culture selections from The Encyclopedia of Religion. ed. Mircea Eliade. MacMillian Publishing Company, New York, NY. 1989.


by Eirik L. Harris

From Vedic literature, it can be seen that the ancient Indians were primarily interested in astronomy for its predictive features, its ability to allow them to forecast, in particular, the rainy season, which was of prime importance to all agricultural communities. The ancient Indians named and divided the sky into sections to enable them to better tell time and the coming of the seasons. However, this is not to say that the Vedics were removed from the theoretical or more abstract aspects of astronomical comprehension. There was more abstract Vedic interest, but much advancement in this arena waited until later periods in Indian history. Mythology also played a part in Vedic astronomy, as prominent constellations as well as the five planets visible to the Vedics were thought of as gods.

The ancient Indians divided the path of the moon into 27 equal parts called nakshatras, showing the variation of the relative position of the moon in comparison to the rest of the stars visible to the Vedic people. These nakshatras were quite important for determining times of the year, as can be seen in combination with Vedic mythology, and can also be used to determine how far back in history Vedic astronomy extended.

The myth of the god Janus shows both of these factors, the determination of the age of Vedic astronomy and different periods of the year. Janus had four heads, each of which represented a phase of the moon in Sagittarius (one of the nakshatras) which marked the four seasons. One head was the full moon (in Sagittarius) which gave the time of the spring equinox, another was the new moon, during which time the autumn equinox fell, still another was the half waning moon, marking the winter solstice, and finally came the head representing the half waxing moon, during which time came the summer solstice.[12] From current knowledge of the movement of the sphere of stars surrounding the earth, it can be calculated that the observations leading to the myth of Janus were made around 4000 BC. Additionally, within the Rg Veda is a verse observing the winter solstice in Aries, which would have placed it at around 6500 BC.[13]

It is possible to date the Rg Veda like this because a complete cycle in the procession of the equinoxes takes place either every 25,870 to 24,500 years according to modern astronomers (the exact time period is still disputed by modern day astronomers), meaning that the moon is only full in Sagittarius during the spring equinox every 25,000 years or so. Modern astronomers, however, were not the first to make the difficult calculations to discover the length of this cycle. The Vedics were able to do this and came up with the value of 25,870 years. How these ancient people were able to make these calculations, however is "as great a mystery as the origin of life itself".[14]

Further observations which could only have taken place around 4000 BC have also been recorded. These included the constellation Hydra, the god of darkness. The only time Hydra was fully visible to the people of northern India was in mid-winter, when the sun shone the fewest hours, hence the allusion to the god of darkness. More importantly, however, was the fact that the rains came when Hydra ceased to be completely visible.[15] This was very important to the farmers of North India, for they needed to know when the rains would come, so as to know when to prepare their fields and plant their crops.

While agrarian life played a large part in what aspects of astronomy were most important, it would be incorrect to assume that Vedic people were only interested in how astronomy related to their lifestyle. Unlike other societies, the Vedics did not mark their nakshatras with lines of any sort. Rather, their divisions were more open in that each nakshatra was represented by regions consisting of groups of stars as well as single stars which with no clear cut divisions. Ancient Indians even went so far as to catalogue the prominent stars in each nakshatra and classify them in terms of their brilliance. Additionally, these nakshatras were classified as male, female, and neuter, as well as singular, dual, and plural.[16] This overlaps with their view of the planets as gods and hints that the Vedic people thought of the nakshatras as deities as well.

These practices all show that astronomy was not only valued for its immediate usefulness to the Vedic farmers, and additional information supports this. Vedic astronomers recognized and noted many of the constellations known in modern times, including what are now know as Canis Major and Minor, the Great and Little Bears, Argo Navis, Orion, and Sirius. Additionally, the Vedic people knew that the moon shone by reflecting the light of the sun, and not by its own light, they thought of the universe as infinite, and they noted meteorites and comets as well as at least five eclipses in addition to five planets. Thus the idea of the Vedic people's intrinsic interest in astronomy for interest rather than for pure usefulness can be supported.

Returning to the calendar, the Vedic people divided day and night into 15 parts each, and the year into six seasons of 61 days total, each of two solar months. Solar years were also grouped in sets of five, or yugas.[17] Solar calendars were not the only type of calendars utilized by the Vedics, however, lunar calendars were also used, and an additional lunar month was added to lunar years every 30 lunar months in order to keep a synchronization between lunar and solar years. These were quite accurate, but did give discrepancies. A solar yuga was in actuality 1826.2819 days rather than 1830 and there were 1830.8961 days in 62 lunar months, not 1830, giving a deficit of approximately one tithi (a new or full moon day) per solar yuga in the latter case.[18] While these discrepancies must have been rectified, there seems to be no record of how or when this was done. This is due most likely to the fact that only religious texts of the period have been recovered. These texts were, of course, not interested in mathematics or astronomy in itself, rather only in how it related to mythology, religion, and living conditions. Thus, records of calculations were not included in the Vedas.

Another prime use of astronomy was, as was the case in many cultures, religious. In fact, the first text to deal solely with astronomy, the Ve danga-jyautisa which can be dated at around 1150 BC by looking at the positions of the sun and moon in the yugas mentioned in the text. This text defines astronomy as the science of time determination and gives the measure of the water clock, tells when intercalary months should be added or a tithi omitted, and other information which would have been necessary for Vedic priests to predict times for vedic sacrifices and other religious observances.[19]

Additionally, it is interesting to note that the Vedic people thought of time as relative, for, according to the Rg Veda, the sun made the division between day and night, which was of two types, those of men and those of gods (A year was a day and a night for the gods). It was further postulated that the age of the gods (two thousand of their years) multiplied by 71 formed a manorantara, or cycle. These cycles alternatively brought about the creation and destruction of worlds, and continued on indefinitely.[20] This is interesting not only as an indication of their view of the universe, but also as an indication in the scope of their thinking. It can be presumed that our earth was not the first of these cycles, and thus that they thought of the universe as being more than 730 thousand years old, a very long time to conceptualize.[21] It is almost impossible to come up with information on pure astronomy in the Vedic period of India since the only texts which appear to have survived are the Vedas, which were more concerned with religion and mythology than pure astronomy. Additionally, the texts on astronomy, such as the Ve danga-jyautisa, deal with astronomy in relation to the Vedic religion. Even the definition of astronomy in this book, "the science of time determination" shows that it will not contain information relating to all aspects of astronomy as it is known today. From what can be gleaned from the Vedas, however, it can be seen that the Vedic people were interested in astronomy for what it could give them in the way of predictive powers and religious calendars. It is interesting, though, that abstract thinking did enter into the minds of the Vedics, in their thinking of the universe as infinite. Additionally, the Vedics, who developed the Hindu-Arabic number system, were far enough advanced in mathematics to make many calculations, including that of the complete cycle of the progression of the equinoxes, though, again, as the Vedas were mainly religious, there is no mention as to how results like this were derived. Overall, the Vedic culture was very rich in astronomical thinking, and it is a shame that non religious texts did not last through the centuries, for they could have shone more light on the matter of the astronomical accomplishments of the Vedic people.


A Brief History of Astrology (on internet)

A History of India and Hindu Dharma (Copyright 1994, Himalayan Academy - on internet) . Bag, A. K., Shukla, K. S., Swarup, G., ed., History of Oriental Astronomy, New York: Cambridge UP, 1987. Hoeffer, Ferdinand, Histoire de l'Astronomie depuis ses Origines Jusqu'a nos Jours, Paris: Librarie Hachette, 1873. Plunket, Emmeline M., Ancient Calendars and Constellations, London: John Murray, 1903.