Ancient History & Civilisation


Pre-Vedic religion—Vedic gods—Moral gods—The Vedic story of Creation—Immortality—The horse sacrifice

The oldest known religion of India, which the invading Aryans found among the Nagas, and which still survives in the ethnic nooks and crannies of the great peninsula, was apparently an animistic and totemic worship of multitudinous spirits dwelling in stones and animals, in trees and streams, in mountains and stars. Snakes and serpents were divinities—idols and ideals of virile reproductive power; and the sacred Bodhi tree of Buddha’s time was a vestige of the mystic but wholesome reverence for the quiet majesty of trees.57 Naga, the dragon-god, Hanuman the monkey-god, Nandi the divine bull, and the Yakshas or tree-gods passed down into the religion of historic India.58 Since some of these spirits were good and some evil, only great skill in magic could keep the body from being possessed or tortured, in sickness or mania, by one or more of the innumerable demons that filled the air. Hence the medley of incantations in the Atharva-veda, or Book of the Knowledge of Magic; one must recite spells to obtain children, to avoid abortion, to prolong life, to ward off evil, to woo sleep, to destroy or harass enemies.*59

The earliest gods of the Vedas were the forces and elements of nature herself—sky, sun, earth, fire, light, wind, water and sex.62 Dyaus (the Greek Zeus, the Roman Jupiter) was at first the sky itself; and the Sanskrit word deva, which later was to mean divine, originally meant only bright. By that poetic license which makes so many deities, these natural objects were personified; the sky, for example, became a father, Varuna; the earth became a mother, Prithivi; and vegetation was the fruit of their union through the rain.63 The rain was the god Parjanya, fire was Agni, the wind was Vayu, the pestilential wind was Rudra, the storm was Indra, the dawn was Ushas, the furrow in the field was Sita, the sun was Surya, Mitra, or Vishnu; and the sacred soma plant, whose juice was at once holy and intoxicating to gods and men, was itself a god, a Hindu Dionysus, inspiring man by its exhilarating essence to charity, insight and joy, and even bestowing upon him eternal life.64 A nation, like an individual, begins with poetry, and ends with prose. And as things became persons, so qualities became objects, adjectives became nouns, epithets became deities. The life-giving sun became a new sun-god, Savitar the Life-Giver; the shining sun became Vivasvat, Shining God; the life-generating sun became the great god Prajapati, Lord of all living things.*65

For a time the most important of the Vedic gods was Agni—fire; he was the sacred flame that lifted the sacrifice to heaven, he was the lightning that pranced through the sky, he was the fiery life and spirit of the world. But the most popular figure in the pantheon was Indra, wielder of thunder and storm. For Indra brought to the Indo-Aryans that precious rain which seemed to them even more vital than the sun; therefore they made him the greatest of the gods, invoked the aid of his thunderbolts in their battles, and pictured him enviously as a gigantic hero feasting on bulls by the hundred, and lapping up lakes of wine.66 His favorite enemy was Krishna, who in the Vedas was as yet only the local god of the Krishna tribe. Vishnu, the sun who covered the earth with his strides, was also a Subordinate god, unaware that the future belonged to him and to Krishna, his avatar. This is one value of the Vedas to us, that through them we see religion in the making, and can follow the birth, growth and death of gods and beliefs from animism to philosophic pantheism, and from the superstition of the Atharva-veda to the sublime monism of the Upanishads.

These gods are human in figure, in motive, almost in ignorance. One of them, besieged by prayers, ponders what he should give his devotee: “This is what I will do—no, not that; I will give him a cow—or shall it be a horse? I wonder if I have really had somafrom him?”67 Some of them, however, rose in later Vedic days to a majestic moral significance. Varuna, who began as the encompassing heaven, whose breath was the storm and whose garment was the sky, grew with the development of his worshipers into the most ethical and ideal deity of the Vedas—watching over the world through his great eye, the sun, punishing evil, rewarding good, and forgiving the sins of those who petitioned him. In this aspect Varuna was the custodian and executor of an eternal law called Rita; this was at first the law that established and maintained the stars in their courses; gradually it became also the law of right, the cosmic and moral rhythm which every man must follow if he would not go astray and be destroyed.68

As the number of the gods increased, the question arose as to which of them had created the world. This primal rôle was assigned now to Agni, now to Indra, now to Soma, now to Prajapati. One of the Upanishads attributed the world to an irrepressible Pro-creator:

Verily, he had no delight; one alone had no delight; he desired a second. He was, indeed, as large as a woman and a man closely embraced. He caused that self to fall (v pat) into two pieces; therefrom arose a husband (pati) and a wife (patni). Therefore . . . one’s self is like a half fragment; . . . therefore this space is filled by a wife. He copulated with her. Therefore human beings were produced. And she bethought herself: “How, now, does he copulate with me after he has produced pie just from himself? Come, let me hide myself.” She became a cow. He became a bull. With her he did indeed copulate. Then cattle were born. She became a mare, he a stallion. She became a female ass, he a male ass; with her he copulated of a truth. Thence were born solid hoofed animals. She became a she-goat, he a he-goat; she a ewe, he a ram. With her he did verily copulate. Therefore were born goats and sheep. Thus indeed he created all, whatever pairs there are, even down to the ants. He knew: “I, indeed, am this creation, for I emitted it all from myself.” Thence arose creation.69

In this unique passage we have the germ of pantheism and transmigration: the Creator is one with his creation, and all things, all forms of life, are one; every form was once another form, and is distinguished from it only in the prejudice of perception and the superficial separateness of time. This view, though formulated in the Upanishads, was not yet in Vedic days a part of the popular creed; instead of transmigration the Indo-Aryans, like the Aryans of Persia, accepted a simple belief in personal immortality. After death the soul entered into eternal punishment or happiness; it was thrust by Varuna into a dark abyss, half Hades and half hell, or was raised by Yama into a heaven where every earthly joy was made endless and complete.70 “Like corn decays the mortal,” said the Katha Upanishad, “like corn is he born again.”71

In the earlier Vedic religion there were, so far as the evidence goes, no temples and no images;72 altars were put up anew for each sacrifice as in Zoroastrian Persia, and sacred fire lifted the offering to heaven. Vestiges of human sacrifice occur here,73 as at the outset of almost every civilization; but they are few and uncertain. Again as in Persia, the horse was sometimes burnt as an offering to the gods.74 The strangest ritual of all was the Ashvamedha, or Sacrifice of the Horse, in which the queen of the tribe seems to have copulated with the sacred horse after it had been killed.*75 The usual offering was a libation of soma juice, and the pouring of liquid butter into the fire.77 The sacrifice was conceived for the most part in magical terms; if it were properly performed it would win its reward, regardless of the moral deserts of the worshiper.78 The priests charged heavily for helping the pious in the ever more complicated ritual of sacrifice: if no fee was at hand, the priest refused to recite the necessary formulas; his payment had to come before that of the god. Rules were laid down by the clergy as to what the remuneration should be for each service—how many cows or horses, or how much gold; gold was particularly efficacious in moving the priest or the god.79 The Brahmanas, written by the Brahmans, instructed the priest how to turn the prayer or sacrifice secretly to the hurt of those who had employed him, if they had given him an inadequate fee.80 Other regulations were issued, prescribing the proper ceremony and usage for almost every occasion of life, and usually requiring priestly aid. Slowly the Brahmans became a privileged hereditary caste, holding the mental and spiritual life of India under a control that threatened to stifle all thought and change.81

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