This is the fifth in a series of seven articles on certain aspects of the Rig Veda, written in simple language and avoiding technical terms. I aim posting an instalment each day.
Rig Veda mentions many female deities but none of them is central to the text. Ushas is the most celebrated goddess along with Aditi, Prithvi, Rathri, Sarasvathi and Vac. It does not however mean that Rig Veda is unimportant in understanding the Hindu goddesses. The female deities in Rig Veda form the basis for the emergence of the later Hindu goddesses such as Shakthi, Devi and other mother goddesses glorified in the puranas. In the Vedic lore the female power Shakthi was not seen as independent but as a force residing within the gods. They are treated with curiosity and love for the powerful natural phenomena and abstract forces they represent.
Ushas is the most important goddess in Rig Veda (sometimes viewed as representing several goddesses). She is celebrated in twenty hymns and mentioned more than three hundred times. She is delicate, shy, luminous and beautifully adorned. Ushas is compared to a graceful dancer. Daughter of sky (Dayus), consort of Sun and mother of Ashwins. She arrives each day in a chariot drawn by her sons. She leads Surya and reveals to the world his brilliance and fire.
She is identified with dawn; praised for driving away Rathri the darkness. She rouses life and sets life in motion. She bestows strength and fame; and like Prithvi is called the mother. She is associated with bounty and gifts that are given away at the time of sacrifices, though she has no part in sacrificial rituals.
The radiant Dawns have risen up for glory,
in their white splendor like waves of water;
She maketh paths all easy, fair to travel and rich;
hath shown herself benign and friendly.
We see that thou art good; far shines thy luster;
thy beams, thy splendor have flown up to heaven.
Decking thyself, thou makest bare thy bosom,
shining in thy majesty, thou Goddess Morning.
Sri Aurobindo describes her as “medium of awakening, the activity and growth of other gods; she is the first condition of the Vedic realization. By her illumination, the nature of man is clarified; through her, he arrives at the Truth and through her he enjoys beatitude”. Ushas also symbolizes each person’s awakening to truth. Ushas is the principle operating each time we connect, realize, or gain some insight into our life.
She is referred to as one “who sees all” and is invoked to drive away and punish enemies. She is also a skilled hunter who “wastes away peoples’ lives. “Perhaps there is in Ushas a hint of a goddess both nurturing and fierce.
Despite her importance in Rig Veda, she is rather forgotten later in the epics where Aditi gains more importance as the Mother principle and mother of gods.
Aditi is the mother principle. In Rig Veda she is the mother of all the gods and all creation. Her name stands for “boundlessness and freedom”. As one who unbinds, her role is similar to that of her son Varuna as the guardian of rta, the cosmic moral order. She is the supporter of all creatures. She is invoked for protection and wealth. Aditi is mentioned about sixty times in the Rig Veda; yet, no hymn is exclusively addressed to her. She is usually mentioned with other gods and goddesses. It is difficult to get a clear picture of her nature. She is not a consort of any god. She is also not related to a natural phenomenon. Physically, she is rather featureless. Unlike Ushas and Prithvi her nature is undefined. She appears to be an ancient deity whose original function and nature are forgotten in later Rig Veda.
Perhaps the most outstanding feature of Aditi is her Motherhood. She is Devamatri. She is the mother of Adityas. She is the mother of Indra, the mother of kings and of all the gods. She is also the mother of Vamana an incarnation of Vishnu. She is the source of the entire manifested reality-the past, the present and the future; “all that has been and will be born”.
She bestows safety, wealth and abundance. She is sometimes compared to a cow that provides health, nourishment and holiness. Her milk is compared to redemptive, invigorating drink Soma.
Sri Aurobindo addresses as the goddess of infinity and the infinite consciousness.
Aditi guard our herd by day, Aditi, free from guile, by night,
Aditi, ever strengthening, save us from grief!
And in the day our hymn is this: May Aditi come nigh to help,
With loving-kindness bring us weal and chase our foes.
Aditi is Heaven, Aditi is the Atmosphere,
Aditi is Mother (Mata), Father and the Son (putra) .
Aditi is the Universal Deities, Aditi is the Five Races,
Aditi is all that has been and will take birth.
Prithvi the earth principle is the mother while sky is as a father. The earth and Dyaus the sky principles are together referred to as Dyava-prithvi. She is the basis of all existence on the planet, of all beings animate or otherwise. She protects, she shelters and feeds. Without her support no existence is possible. She is the mother, warm, nurturing and protective. Prithvi is stable, fertile and benign forgiving our trespasses. She is sarvam saha. She is also Vasundhara, one who has in her womb all the riches.
O Mother, auspicious be thy woodland,
thy snow-clad mountains and thy ever-running streams.
May the Earth pour out her milk for us,
a mother unto me her son.”
Prithvi manifests herself in the scent of women and men,. She is the luck and light in men and splendid energy of maids.
Prithvi, along with Dyaus in the Rig Veda is praised for her supportive nature. She is frequently called ‘firm’, ‘she who upholds and supports all things’. She encompasses all things, is broad and wide, and is motionless. The waters they produce together are described as ‘fat, full, nourishing and fertile’. They protect people from danger, to expiate sin and to bring happiness. Together they represent a wide, firm realm of abundance and safety, a realm pervaded by the order of Rta, which they strengthen and nourish. They are un-wasting, inexhaustible and rich in gems.
Vishnu strides over her, and Parjanya. Prajapati and Vishwakarma all protect her,. Agni pervades her. She is the source of all plants, crops, and nourishes all creatures that live upon her.
Prithvi is also known as Indrani in Prithvisukta of Rig Veda, and Lakshmi or Shri or Bhoodevi etc.
In a funeral hymn the dead one is asked to go now to the lap of his mother earth, Prithvi the gracious and kind. She is requested not to press down too heavily upon the dead but to cover him gently as a mother covers her child with her garment.
“Approach thou now the lap of Earth, thy mother,
The wide-extending Earth, the ever-kindly;
A maiden soft as wool to him who comes with gifts,
She shall protect thee from destruction’s bosom.
“Open thyself, O Earth, and press not heavily;
Be easy of access and of approach to him,
As mother with her robe her child,
So do thou cover him, O Earth!”
There are numerous references to the Sarasvathi in the Rig Veda. She is the mighty river. She is a haven -sent stream to bless the earth and the celestial regions. She is bountiful, fertile and brings fruitfulness to earth. She is the best of mothers; the source of vigor and strength. She personifies purity, healing, life giving maternal divinity.
And as the river began to decline , the virtues and attributes of Sarasvathi merged with the goddess Vac. The flow of the river Sarasvathi came to be associated with the flow of speech. In later times both Vac and Saravathi became identical to represent wisdom, learning, intellect and culture.
In Rig Veda, Vac is the goddess associated with speech, a concept of central importance to the Vedas. Vac, the speech gives a sensible expression to ideas by use of words and is the medium of exchange of knowledge. She gives intelligence to those who love her. She is elegant, embellished in gold. She is the mother who gave birth to things by naming them. She is the power of the rishis. “She is the mysterious presence that enables one to hear, see, grasp and then express in words the true nature of things. She is the prompter of and vehicle of expression for visionary perception, and as such she is intimately associated with the rishis and the rituals that express or capture the truths of their visions.”.
The power of speech is honoured in several hymns.
Where, like men cleansing corn-flour in a cribble,
the wise in spirit have created language,
Friends see and recognize the marks of friendship:
their speech retains the blessed sign imprinted
In hymn 125 of the tenth mandala Vac or speech is praised having penetrated earth and heaven, holding together all existence.
In another passage of the Rig Veda, Vac is praised as a divine being. Vac is omnipotent, moves amongst divine beings, and carries the great gods, Mitra, Varuna, Indra and Agni, within itself. “All gods live from Vac, also all demigods, animals and people. Vac is the eternal being; it is the first-born of the eternal law, mother of the Vedas and navel of immortality.” The reason, the Vedic rishis paid such glowing tributes to Vac was perhaps because they attached great importance to intelligent communication through speech and to its purity.
In the later parts of the Rig Veda, Brahman (one of the three distinct voices in the Soma sacrifices) is associated with word without which speech is not possible. Brahma (word) and Vac (speech) are partners working towards good communication, spread of knowledge and for the fulfillment of the devotees’ aspirations. If word is flower, speech is the garland. If Vac is the weapons, it is Brahman that sharpens them. In Rig Veda the Vac-Brahman relation is a “growing partnership” (RV 10.120.5, and 9.97.34)
In the early Rig Veda, Sarasvathi is the river vital to their life and existence. Sarasvathi is described as ‘nadinam shuci; sacred and pure among rivers. It was, however, in Krishna Yajurveda, that Vac (speech personified, the vehicle of knowledge) for the first time is called Sarasvathi. The Aitreya Aranyaka calls her mother of Vedas. From here on, the association of Vac with Sarasvathi gets thicker.
Sarasvathi is invoked with Ida and Bharathi. The three, Ida, Bharathi and Sarasvathi are manifestation of the Agni (Yajnuagni) and are tri_Sarasvathi. The goddess Sarasvathi is also the destroyer of Vrta and other demons that stand for darkness (Utasya nah Sarasvati ghora Hiranyavartanih / Vrtraghni vasti sustuition).
As the might of the river Sarasvathi tended to decline, its importance also lessened during the latter parts of the Vedas. Its virtues of glory, purity and importance gradually shifted to the next most important thing in their life – speech, excellence in use of words and its purity. Emphasis shifted from the river to the Goddess. With the passage of time, Sarasvathi’s association with the river gradually diminished. The virtues of Vac and the Sarasvathi (the river) merged into one divinity- Sarasvathi; and she was recognized and worshipped as goddess of purity, speech, learning, wisdom, culture and intellect. The Rig Vedic goddess Vac thus emerged and shined gloriously as Vac-devi, Vedamatha, Vani, Sharada, Pusti, Vagishvari, Veenapani , Bharathi and Sarasvathi.
The association of the intellect and purity (Vac, Sarasvathi) with the word (Brahma) acquired a physical representation in the Puranas.
Origin of our popular gods in Rig Veda (6/7)