Rig Veda- its gods (4/7)

03 Sep

This is the fourth 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.


  1. A question commonly asked is whether Rig Veda speaks of one God or many gods. The Rig Veda does mention a number of gods such as Indra, Agni, Mitra, Varuna and others. The Vedas mention thirty-three deities; there is however a slight variation among the different traditions in naming them. According to the Shatapatha Brahmana, these thirty-three deities include eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Adityas, Dyaus, and Prithvi. The Rishi Yajnavalkya at one stage says “The eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Adityas, Indra and Prajapati are the thirty-three gods”. While according to Yaska_charya, the original thirty-three gods (eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Adityas and two Asvinis) are divided equally in three different planes of existence namely the celestial plane (dyuloka) the intermediate region (antarikshaloka) and the terrestrial region (bhurloka) each plane having eleven gods. The dyuloka (celestial plane) is presided over by Savitri or Surya; while antarikshaloka (intermediary space) is presided over by Indra or Vayu; and the bhurloka (terrestrial plane) is presided over by Agni.

2. Agni has a special position among the Vedic gods. Agni is the symbol of Paramatman  and all the other gods are different aspects or manifestations  of Agni. According to many scholars, the appropriate Vedic symbol of the Supreme is Agni. Agni is the fire principle that shines in the sun and is the energy that illumines and charges the universe. He is the one who carries our offerings to other gods. He is the enjoyer, devour (sarva baksha), digester, heat, lust and passion. He spreads, takes over and rules. Agni is the fire of life, the subtle energy in all beings and the fire of inner awakening. He is the friend of man and mediates on our behalf. He is the symbol of life, wisdom, knowledge, compassion and lordship. 

In the opening rik of the Rig Veda, Agni meele purohitam (RV. 1.1.1) Agni is not merely the principal deity, he is also the chief priest who conducts the yajna; he is the Hothru the priest who sings the riks; he is the priest who conducts the yajna and submits offering; and he is also the one who receives the offerings. He is all; he is everyone and everything. Agni is the mantra; he is the yajna; he is the offering; he is the one that receives the offerings. And, there is no mention of a human priest; and there are no descriptions of lighting the sacrificial fire. The opinion of the scholars is that Rig Veda refers to the internal churning (antar yajna) that takes place in everyone’s heart. Agni is that all-pervading universal principle. These ideas are expanded later in Upanishads and in Bhagavad gita (9.16)

Rig Veda again refers to Agni as the Rishi (RV.9.66.20); the first and the foremost among the Rishis (1.31.1; 3.21.3); he is the knower-of everything (10.91.3) and he is the one the one that pervades all life and existence.

3. It would be safer to make a distinction between The God the Supreme Principle the  substratum of all existence; and the gods who represent different aspects, powers and glory of the God. While the God is One, the gods are many. All the gods lead to One God. And, one should make a distinction between a path and the goal. The goal is consciousness of the Supreme in all its manifestations.

4. All gods mentioned in the Rig-Veda have human features such as the face, limbs etc, their forms are shadowy  but they have a distinct power and personality. For instance, Indra is endowed with strength and vigor; Pushan with ability to protect so is Vishnu, the sun stands for many forms of brilliance while Rudra represents the anger. The physical features represent a specific form of nature. For example, the seven tongues of the fire god represent the tongue of the flames. The names Visvedeva, Visvakarma, Prajapathi etc. are used to describe the indescribable form.

5. Yaska’s Nirukta (a glossary of technical terms found in the Vedas) discusses the question whether devatas have form, whether they are different gods or whether they are manifestations of the same God. Yaska_charya defines a Deva as one who gives gifts (devo daanat), who is effulgent (devo dipanaat), who illumines (devo dyotanat), and who resides in heaven or the celestial world (dyusthane bhavati  iti). After discussing the three different views (namely, they have form, they do not have form, and a combination of these two views), the Nirukta concludes that, in reality, there is only one devata who can be addressed in various ways depending upon the temperament of the aspirant. Yaska_charya confirms by saying Eka atma Bahudha Stuyate  meaning there is only One God and many praise by different names. He further says the many forms of gods are manifestation of the atman, One Reality – Ekasya atmanah anye devah pratyangani bhavanti . He emphasizes that the Sat Vastu  includes in itself different deities. Sayanacharya in his Rig_bashya_bhumika  says praise of any god  leads to the same tat (entity)- Tasmat sarvairapi parameshvara eve huyate .

5.1. The real is but One, bearing a multiplicity of names and forms. The origin of all deities is One, the nature of all deities is One and goal of all of them is One. The differences perceived in the deities are due to their functions and personalities, but they are different aspects of the same reality.

6. Rig Veda accepts the plurality of views and approach to the Supreme  knowledge. It recognizes that acquisition of knowledge by an individual is unique. No two paths are alike. It does not impose a blanket view. Rig Veda does not lay claim for discovering the ultimate truth nor does it prevent anyone from questioning opinions. On the other hand, it encourages  the seekers to think, contemplate, question and find their own solutions.

The comparison given in the Rig Veda is that of a person climbing  up a mountain range. He cannot envision all the grandeurs of the nature in one-step. When he is at an elevation, he gets a better view of the road that lies ahead than when he was at the base of the hill .He will have to go from one peak to another. The knowledge is infinite like a vast mountain, in which each peak corresponds to a level of understanding.

7. The framework that Rig Veda put forth was suggestive and flexible. The two principles of quality of life and the individual freedom were at the heart of its message. These were addressed to the society at large including its subcultures. The framework was woven around three concepts viz. rta, rna  and purusharthas. The principle of, rta  signifies natural or universal order and integrity of all forms of life and ecological systems, it recognizes our oneness with our environment and our unity with all life on earth; while rna  underlines the responsibility of man to his family, his community, his environment and to himself as a human being. An outflow from the above two is the notion that aims to set values in our normal day-to-day life. These relate to the acquisition of wealth (artha), pursuit of pleasure (Kama) guided and governed by Dharma. They form a group of three (tri-varga), as called by Gautama and Manu (2,224).This is common to all segments of the society.

Dharma in this context is characterized by human values like truth, compassion, self-restraint, non-enmity, forgiveness etc. It provides ample scope for individual conscience and liberty. 

[The fourth one, seeking liberation from phenomenal ills (moksha) is optional and is outside the set of three (apa _varga). It is not considered an ordinary human aspiration. Those who pursue this option are beyond the pale of the society and its disciplines.]

[There is a view that the term Deva s  means  ‘Those that shine’  derived from the root ‘div’ (to shine, illuminate). Adityas are called twelve sovereign principles. The twelve Adityas refer to the seasons- twelve months in a year, while the seven Adityas refer to the seven Planets or Grahas (excluding Rahu and Ketu, which are the head and tale of Vritrasura, or Svarbhanu);Thus forming the basis for naming the seven days of the week, nine planets and twelve months. The Adityas are children from Maya or Aditi (hence all representing Kala, or Time). They are represented as spokes in the wheel of time. Hence, the basis of Vedic Astrology and Astronomy. ]

What became of the Vedic gods

1. A word about the connection between the Vedic gods and purāņic  gods seems necessary  here. In Rig Veda a  god is neither less nor more than the other is. In the Veda, all the gods are pure and harmonious with no rivalry, jealousy and such other flaws. All of them are equal, bereft of impurities, endowed with auspicious qualities and all represent the Truth. Each Vedic god has a distinct power and personality, but he or she also carries the presence of the Supreme, “That one.” All the Vedic gods harmoniously work together in providing the divine inspiration to the individual .The Rig Vedic gods are kind and compassionate. They fulfill the desires and aspirations of the devotees.

2. At a much later period, the purāņās tried to convey the esoteric truths of the Veda in a popular form. However, in that attempt the qualities of the Vedic gods were partially humanized and endowed with human virtues/flaws. Thus in the purāņās, the various Gods work together sometimes, but also quarrel with one another. They are bitten by jealousy, envy, greed, arrogance, etc.

3.Many of the Puanic gods are transformations of the Vedic Devas .The now major puranic Gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are not prominent Devas in the Vedas; at the same time the prominent Vedic Devas do get diminished in stature  in the Puranas. For instance, in the Rig-Veda, Bŗihaspathi, Brahmaņaspathi, Brahma are the three gods to whom the rişhi Vāmadeva addresses his mystic hymn of praise. Brahmaņaspati/Bŗihaspati is a God of a very high order in Rig Veda. The two deities are closely connected to each other. Their names alternate .Brahnanaspati  is the lord of all sacred prayers and lord of Satya mantra. He is the destroyer of enemies; and no sacrifice is complete without invoking him. Brahnanaspathi is a partner with Brahma  in creation . Brihaspathi is the personification of peity, purity and knowledge. He intercedes  with gods on behalf of men and protects humankind from the wicked influences.

There are over one hundred riks  in praise of these two deities, giving a picture of their powers and personalities.  However, the statuses of these Gods undergo a huge change in the Puranas.

The Vedic Brihaspathi is reduced in the Puranas to become the preceptor of Devas and guardian of the planet Jupiter. Brahma becomes the Creator, one of the purāņic Trinity. He is however denied worship.

Brahmaņaspathi, the middle term that once linked the Vedic Brahma and Brihaspathi; as also the forerunner of Ganapathi has disappeared altogether.

Similar was the fate of other major gods of the Rig Veda such as Indra, Varuna, Vayu, Pushan et al.

But, more of that in another segment.


Female deities in the Rig Veda (5/7)

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Posted by on September 3, 2012 in Indian Philosophy, Rigveda


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