Historical Vedic Religion
The historical Vedic religion (also known as Vedism or ancient Hinduism) refers to the religious ideas and practices among most Indo-Aryan-speaking peoples of ancient India after about 1500 BCE. These ideas and practices are found in the Vedic texts, and they were one of the major influences that shaped contemporary Hinduism.
According to Heinrich von Stietencron, in the 19th century, in western publications, the Vedic religion was believed to be different from and unrelated to Hinduism. The Hindu religion was thought to be linked to the Hindu epics and the Puranas through sects based on Purohita, Tantras and Bhakti. In the 20th century, a better understanding of the Vedic religion, its shared heritage and theology with contemporary Hinduism, has led scholars to view the historical Vedic religion as ancestral to “Hinduism”. The Hindu reform movements and the Neo-Vedanta have emphasized the Vedic heritage and “ancient Hinduism”, and this term has been co-opted by some Hindus. Vedic religion is now generally accepted to be a predecessor of Hinduism, but they are not the same because the textual evidence suggests significant differences between the two, such as the belief in an afterlife instead of the later developed reincarnation and samsāra concepts.
The Vedic religion is described in the Vedas and associated voluminous Vedic literature preserved into the modern times by the different priestly schools. The Vedic religion texts are cerebral, orderly and intellectual, but it is unclear if the theory in diverse Vedic texts actually reflect the folk practices, iconography and other practical aspects of the Vedic religion. The evidence suggests that the Vedic religion evolved in “two superficially contradictory directions”, state Jamison and Witzel. One part evolved into ever more “elaborate, expensive, and specialized system of rituals”, while another part questioned all of it and emphasized “abstraction and internalization of the principles underlying ritual and cosmic speculation” within oneself. Both of these traditions impacted Indic religions such as Buddhism and Jainism, and in particular Hinduism. The complex Vedic rituals of Śrauta continue to be practiced in Kerala and coastal Andhra.
Some scholars consider the Vedic religion to have been a composite of the religions of the Indo-Aryans, “a syncretic mixture of old Central Asian, new Indo-European elements”, which borrowed “distinctive religious beliefs and practices” from the Bactria–Margiana culture, and the remnants of the Harappan culture of the Indus Valley.
Main article: Vedic Mythology
According to Indologist Jan Heesterman, the terms Vedism and Brahmanism are “somewhat imprecise terms”. They refer to ancient forms of Hinduism based on the ideologies found in its early literary corpus. Vedism refers to the oldest version, states Heesterman, and it was older than Brahmanism. Vedism refers to the religious ideas of Indo-Europeans who migrated into the Indus River valley region of the subcontinent, whose religion relied on the Vedic corpus including the early Upanishads. Brahmanism according to Heesterman, refers to the religion that had expanded to a region stretching from the northwest subcontinent to the Ganges valley. Brahmanism included the Vedic corpus and non-Vedic literature such as the Dharmasutras and Dharmasastras, and was the version of ancient Hinduism that gave prominence to the priestly (Brahmin) class of the society. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Brahmanism separately refers to both the predominant position of the priests (Brahmans) and also to the importance given to Absolute Reality (Brahman) speculations in the early Upanishads, as these terms are etymologically linked.
The word Brahmanism was coined by Gonçalo Fernandes Trancoso (1520–1596) in the 16th century, and is related to the metaphysical concept of Brahman that developed from post-Vedic ideas during the late Vedic era (Upanishads). The concept of Brahman is posited as that which existed before the creation of the universe, which constitutes all of existence thereafter, and into which the universe will dissolve into, followed by similar endless creation-maintenance-destruction cycles.
Origins and development
The Vedic religion was probably the religion of the Vedic Indo-Aryans, and existed in northern India from c. 1750–500 BCE. The Indo-Aryans were a branch of the Indo-European language family, which originated in the Sintashta culture and further developed into the Andronovo culture, which in turn developed out of the Kurgan culture of the Central Asian steppes. The commonly proposed period of earlier Vedic age is dated back to 2nd millennium BCE.
The Vedic beliefs and practices of the pre-classical era has been proposed to be closely related to the hypothesised Proto-Indo-European religion, and shows relations with rituals from the Andronovo culture, from which the Indo-Aryan people descended. According to Anthony, the Old Indic religion probably emerged among Indo-European immigrants in the contact zone between the Zeravshan River (present-day Uzbekistan) and (present-day) Iran. It was “a syncretic mixture of old Central Asian and new Indo-European elements” which borrowed “distinctive religious beliefs and practices” from the Bactria–Margiana Culture (BMAC). This syncretic influence is supported by at least 383 non-Indo-European words that were borrowed from this culture, including the god Indra and the ritual drink Soma. According to Anthony,
Many of the qualities of Indo-Iranian god of might/victory, Verethraghna, were transferred to the adopted god Indra, who became the central deity of the developing Old Indic culture. Indra was the subject of 250 hymns, a quarter of the Rig Veda. He was associated more than any other deity with Soma, a stimulant drug (perhaps derived from Ephedra) probably borrowed from the BMAC religion. His rise to prominence was a peculiar trait of the Old Indic speakers.
The oldest inscriptions in Old Indic, the language of the Rig Veda, are found not in northwestern India and Pakistan, but in northern Syria, the location of the Mitanni kingdom. The Mitanni kings took Old Indic throne names, and Old Indic technical terms were used for horse-riding and chariot-driving. The Old Indic term r’ta, meaning “cosmic order and truth”, the central concept of the Rig Veda, was also employed in the Mitanni kingdom. Old Indic gods, including Indra, were also known in the Mitanni kingdom.
The Vedic religion of the later Vedic period was consolidated in the Kuru Kingdom, and co-existed with local religions, such as the Yaksha cults, and was itself the product of “a composite of the Indo-Aryan and Harappan cultures and civilizations”. White (2003) cites three other mainstream scholars who “have emphatically demonstrated” that Vedic religion is partially derived from the Indus Valley Civilization. The religion of the Indo-Aryans was further developed when they migrated into the Ganges Plain after c. 1100 BCE and became settled farmers, further syncretising with the native cultures of northern India.
Texts dating to the Vedic period, composed in Vedic Sanskrit, are mainly the four Vedic Samhitas, but the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and some of the older Upanishads are also placed in this period. The Vedas record the liturgy connected with the rituals and sacrifices. These texts are also considered as a part of the scripture of contemporary Hinduism.
Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?
— Nasadiya Sukta, Rig Veda, 10:129-6
The idea of reincarnation, saṃsāra, is not mentioned in the early layers of the historic Vedic religion texts such as the Rigveda. The later layers of the Rigveda do mention ideas that suggest an approach towards the idea of rebirth, according to Ranade.
The early layers of the Vedas do not mention the doctrine of Karma and rebirth but mention the belief in an afterlife. According to Sayers, these earliest layers of the Vedic literature show ancestor worship and rites such as sraddha (offering food to the ancestors). The later Vedic texts such as the Aranyakas and the Upanisads show a different soteriology based on reincarnation, they show little concern with ancestor rites, and they begin to philosophically interpret the earlier rituals. The idea of reincarnation and karma have roots in the Upanishads of the late Vedic period, predating the Buddha and the Mahavira. Similarly, the later layers of the Vedic literature such as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (c. 800 BCE) – such as in section 4.4 – discuss the earliest versions of the Karma doctrine as well as causality.
Ancient Vedic religion lacked the belief in reincarnation and concepts such as Saṃsāra or Nirvana. Ancient Vedic religion was an complex animistic religion with polytheistic and pantheistic aspects. Ancestor worship was an important, maybe the central component, of the ancient Vedic religion. Elements of the ancestors cult are still common in modern Hinduism, see Śrāddha.
According to Olivelle, some scholars state that the renouncer tradition was an “organic and logical development of ideas found in the vedic religious culture”, while others state that these emerged from the “indigenous non-Aryan population”. This scholarly debate is a longstanding one, and is ongoing.
Specific rituals and sacrifices of the Vedic religion include, among others:
- The Soma rituals, which involved the extraction, utility and consumption of Soma:
- The Agnistoma or Soma sacrifice
- Fire rituals involving oblations (havir):
- The Agnihotra or oblation to Agni, a sun charm
- The Agnicayana, the sophisticated ritual of piling the fire altar
- The new and full moon as well as the Seasonal (Cāturmāsya) sacrifices
- The royal consecration (Rajasuya) sacrifice
- The Ashvamedha (horse sacrifice) or a Yajna dedicated to the glory, wellbeing and prosperity of the kingdom or empire
- The Purushamedha
- The rituals and charms referred to in the Atharvaveda are concerned with medicine and healing practices.
The Hindu rites of cremation are seen since the Rigvedic period; while they are attested from early times in the Cemetery H culture, there is a late Rigvedic reference invoking forefathers “both cremated (agnidagdhá-) and uncremated (ánagnidagdha-)”. (RV 10.15.14)
Though a large number of names for devas occur in the Rigveda, only 33 devas are counted, eleven each of earth, space, and heaven. The Vedic pantheon knows two classes, Devas and Asuras. The Devas (Mitra, Varuna, Aryaman, Bhaga, Amsa, etc.) are deities of cosmic and social order, from the universe and kingdoms down to the individual. The Rigveda is a collection of hymns to various deities, most notably heroic Indra, Agni the sacrificial fire and messenger of the gods, and Soma, the deified sacred drink of the Indo-Iranians. Also prominent is Varuna (often paired with Mitra) and the group of “All-gods”, the Vishvadevas.
In the Hindu tradition, the revered sages of this era were Yajnavalkya, Atharvan, Atri, Bharadvaja, Gautama Maharishi, Jamadagni, Kashyapa, Vasistha, Bhrigu, Kutsa, Pulastya, Kratu, Pulaha, Vishwamitra Narayana, Kanva, Rishabha, Vamadeva, and Angiras.
Ethics — satya and rta
Ethics in the Vedas are based on concepts like satya and ṛta.
In the Vedas and later sutras, the meaning of the word satya (सत्य) evolves into an ethical concept about truthfulness and is considered an important virtue. It means being true and consistent with reality in one’s thought, speech and action.
Vedic ṛtá and its Avestan equivalent aša are both thought by some to derive from Proto-Indo-Iranian *Hr̥tás “truth”, which in turn may continue from a possible Proto-Indo-European *h2r-tós “properly joined, right, true”, from a presumed root *h2er-. The derivative noun ṛta is defined as “fixed or settled order, rule, divine law or truth”. As Mahony (1998) notes, however, the term can be translated as “that which has moved in a fitting manner” – although this meaning is not actually cited by authoritative Sanskrit dictionaries it is a regular derivation from the verbal root -, and abstractly as “universal law” or “cosmic order”, or simply as “truth”. The latter meaning dominates in the Avestan cognate to Ṛta, aša.
Due to the nature of Vedic Sanskrit, the term Ṛta can be used to indicate numerous things, either directly or indirectly, and both Indian and European scholars have experienced difficulty in arriving at fitting interpretations for Ṛta in all of its various usages in the Vedas, though the underlying sense of “ordered action” remains universally evident.
The term is also found in the Proto-Indo-Iranian religion, the religion of the Indo-Iranian peoples. The term dharma was already used in the later Brahmanical thoughts, where it was conceived as an aspect of ṛta.
The Vedic period is held to have ended around 500 BCE. The period between 800 BCE and 200 BCE is the formative period for later Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. According to Michaels, the period between 500 BCE and 200 BCE is a time of “ascetic reformism”. According to Michaels, the period between 200 BCE and 1100 CE is the time of “classical Hinduism”, since there is “a turning point between the Vedic religion and Hindu religions”. Muesse discerns a longer period of change, namely between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, which he calls the “Classical Period”, when “traditional religious practices and beliefs were reassessed. The brahmins and the rituals they performed no longer enjoyed the same prestige they had in the Vedic period”.
Some scholars consider the term Brahmanism as synonymous with Hinduism and use it interchangeably. Others consider them different, and that the transition from ancient Brahmanism into schools of Hinduism that emerged later as a form of evolution, one that preserved many of the central ideas and theosophy in the Vedas, and synergistically integrated new ideas. Of the major traditions that emerged from Brahmanism are the six darshanas, particular the Vedanta, Samkhya and Yoga schools of Hinduism.
Vedic religion was followed by Upanishads which gradually evolved into Vedanta, which is regarded by some as the primary institution of Hinduism. Vedanta considers itself “the purpose or goal [end] of the Vedas.”
According to David Knipe, some communities in India have preserved and continue to practice portions of the historical Vedic religion, such as in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh state of India and elsewhere. Of the continuation of the Vedic tradition in a newer sense, Fowler writes the following:
Despite the radically different nature of the Upanishads in relation to the Vedas it has to be remembered that the material of both form the Veda or “knowledge” which is sruti literature. So the Upanishads develop the ideas of the Vedas beyond their ritual formalism and should not be seen as isolated from them. The fact that the Vedas that are more particularly emphasized in the Vedanta: the efficacy of the Vedic ritual is not rejected, it is just that there is a search for the Reality that informs it.
According to German Professor Axel Michaels, the Vedic gods declined but did not disappear, and local cults were assimilated into the Vedic-brahmanic pantheon, which changed into the Hindu pantheon. Deities such as Shiva and Vishnu became more prominent and gave rise to Shaivism and Vaishnavism.
Interpretations of Vedic Mantras in Hinduism
The various Hindu schools and traditions give various interpretations of the Vedic hymns.
Mīmāṃsā philosophers argue that there was no need to postulate a maker for the world, just as there was no need for an author to compose the Vedas or a god to validate the rituals. Mīmāṃsā argues that the gods named in the Vedas have no existence apart from the mantras that speak their names. To that regard, the power of the mantras is what is seen as the power of gods.
Adi Shankara, an 8th-century CE philosopher who unified and established the main currents of thought in Hinduism, interpreted Vedas as being nondualist or monist. However, the Arya Samaj New religious movement holds the view that the Vedic mantras tend to monotheism. Even the earlier Mandalas of Rig Veda (books 1 and 9) contains hymns which are thought to resemble monotheism. Often quoted isolated pada 1.164.46 of the Rig Veda states (trans. Griffith):
Indraṃ mitraṃ varuṇamaghnimāhuratho divyaḥ sa suparṇo gharutmān,
ekaṃ sad viprā bahudhā vadantyaghniṃ yamaṃ mātariśvānamāhuḥ
“They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutmān.
To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan”.
Moreover, the verses of 10.129 and 10.130, deal with the one being (Ékam sát). The verse 10.129.7 further confirms this (trans. Griffith):
iyám vísṛṣṭiḥ yátaḥ ābabhūva / yádi vā dadhé yádi vā ná / yáḥ asya ádhyakṣaḥ paramé vyóman / sáḥ aṅgá veda yádi vā ná véda
“He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not, He who surveys it all from his highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps even he does not”
The non-Vedic śramaṇa traditions existed alongside Brahmanism. These were not direct outgrowths of Vedism, but movements with mutual influences with Brahmanical traditions, reflecting “the cosmology and anthropology of a much older, pre-Aryan upper class of northeastern India”. Jainism and Buddhism evolved out of the Shramana tradition.
There are Jaina references to 22 prehistoric tirthankaras. In this view, Jainism peaked at the time of Mahavira (traditionally put in the 6th century BCE). Buddhism, traditionally put from c. 500 BCE, declined in India over the 5th to 12th centuries in favor of Puranic Hinduism and Islam.
According to the historian and Sanskrit linguist Michael Witzel, some of the rituals of the Kalash people have elements of the historical Vedic religion, but there are also some differences such as the presence of fire next to the altar instead of “in the altar” as in the Vedic religion.