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Rig Veda -The gods that faded away(7/7)

Some of the major Rig Vedic gods have virtually disappeared today. They are no longer worshipped as  gods  in the sense that there are no temples built or services conducted  or worship offered to them regularly.  Let us talk about a few of such gods.

1. Bŗihaspathi, Brahmaņaspathi and Brahma

In the Rig-Veda, Brihaspathi, Brahmaņaspathi and Brahma are the three gods to whom the rishi Vāmadeva addresses his mystic hymn of praise.

Brahmanaspati/Bŗihaspati  is a God of a very high order in Rig Veda. The two deities are closely connected to each other. Their names alternate. They are names “of a deity in whom the action of the worshipper upon the gods is personified”. 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.

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. Brahmaņaspathi was the middle term that once linked the Vedic Brahma and Brihaspathi’ he was as also the forerunner of Ganapathi.  But, he has now virtually has disappeared from prayers and rituals; and is altogether forgotten.

 Brihaspathi is the personification of peity, purity and knowledge. He is called `the father of the gods,’ and a widely extended creative power is ascribed to him. He is also `the shining’, `the gold-colored,’ and `having the thunder for his voice.” Other epithets of Brihaspati are Jiva- the living, Didivis -the bright, Dhishana – the intelligent, and  for his eloquence, Gishpati- the lord of speech.

He intercedes with gods on behalf of men and protects humankind from the wicked influences. .

His position in Puranas gets rather complicated. Tara his wife is seduced by Soma (moon) and a son Budha is born to them. Tara accepts and announces that Soma is the father of Budha.

Brihaspathi is also mentioned as the father of Bharadwaja. He is the designated “Vyasa of the fourth Dwapara” age.

The Vedic Brihaspathi is reduced in the Puranas to become the preceptor of Devas and guardian of the planet Jupiter (Guru). In the present day, worship is offered to Brihaspathi because he is one among the nine planets and he is a benevolent planet.

Brahma: Brahma later became rather important in Brahmanas. Satapatha Brahmana says: “He (Brahma,) created the gods. Having created the gods, he placed them in these worlds: in this world Agni, Vayu in the atmosphere, and Surya in the sky.”

In puranas Brahma becomes the Creator, and one of the Trinity. But he is not prominent as the other two; he is rather in the shades. He is also denied worship. There are no temples built in his honor, except perhaps in Pushkar and one another place.

2. Indra : Indra is the most important Rig Vedic god, the first among the gods , described as “Yo jata eva prathamo manasvan; “ he who, from his very birth, is the first (of the deities)’, the lord of the universe etc.

As deity of the atmosphere, he governs the weather and dispenses the rain; he sends forth his lightning and thunder and he is continually at war with Vritra the demon of drought or inclement weather, whom he overcomes with his thunderbolts and compels to pour down the rain. Indra protects humans from evil forces.

He is frequently represented as destroying the “stone-built cities” of the Asuras or atmospheric demons. In his warfare he is sometimes represented as escorted by troops or Maruts, and attended by his younger brother Vishnu. More hymns are addressed to Indra than to any other deity in the Rig Veda, with the exception of Agni .For; he was revered for his beneficent character, as the bestower of rain and the cause of fertility. He was feared as the awful ruler of the storm and wielder of lightning and thunder.

Later, in Puranas all the virtues, attributes and power of Indra are  transferred to Vishnu.

Indra is demoted in Puranas to the level of a satrap. He is always in danger of losing his throne and is ever busy devising schemes to survive fresh attacks from asuras. He is scared of not only the villainous but also the most virtuous as he fears they might usurp his throne. It is a steep fall.

3.Mitra: Mitra, a friend invoked very often in the Rig-Veda along with Varuna has a separate identity.

He is one of the six Major Sovereign Principles, or the 12 Adityas – offspring of Aditi, the mother of the gods. Mitra is the divinity of contracts, of pledges. He represents Friendship and Solidarity.  He is comforting, benevolent, protecting.  He is opposed to quarreling, violence and encourages right action.  

His main influence is to make men abide by their promises and associate together. Mitra is the complement of Varuna, the favor of the gods.  Mitra and Varuna work together to rule the earth and sky.  They both encourage virtue and piety. Mitra-Varuna is basically the cosmic law, relation of man with man and man with gods.

He is the counter part of the Avestan Mithra.

Mitra today is virtually forgotten in Hinduism.

4.Agni: Agni is one of the most ancient and most sacred gods of the Rig Veda and great numbers of the hymns are addressed to him, more indeed than to any other god. He is one of the three great deities: Agni, Vayu (or Indra) and Surya who respectively preside over earth, air, and sky, and are all equal in dignity. Agni appears in three phases: in heavens as the sun, in mid-air as lightning, on earth as fire.

Agni is the Outer Expression of the Cosmic Whole, the bahiscara—the outer impulse.  Devouring and being devoured is the transformation of life, the very essence of the universe.  The entire universe is made of fire (Agni) and offering (soma).  He is the enjoyer, the digester, the consumer: sun, heat, stomach, lust, and passion.  The nature of Agni is to spread, to take over and rule.

He is also the mediator between men and gods, as protector of men and their homes, and as witness of their actions; hence his invocation at all solemn occasions, at the nuptial ceremony, etc.

Today, Agni has ceased to be an object of worship, but is honored during sacrifices.

5.Varuna : Varuna  one of the oldest deities in Rig Veda , was a major celestial Deva considered equal in status to Indra and was the guardian of the cosmic order (rta). Hence, the hymns addressed to Varuna are more devout and ethical in tone.

Varuna, in Rig Veda, is personification of the all-investing sky, the maker and upholder of heaven and earth. As such he is king of the universe, king of gods and men, possessor of illimitable knowledge, the supreme deity to whom special honor is due. He is also the chief among the Adityas.

By his laws the moon shines and the stars appear in the night sky, only to disappear mysteriously the next day.  Nothing happens without his knowledge; no creature can move without him.  He observes truth and duplicity in human beings.  He has unlimited control over the fate of human beings, knows the answer to everything, and is merciful even to sinners.  He is a wise guard of immortality.  The characteristics and functions that are ascribed to Varuna raise him far above all other Vedic gods.

In Rig Veda, Varuna is not specially connected with water, but there are passages in which he is associated with the element of water both in the atmosphere and on the earth. He is associated with Mitra. Varuna is also addressed as Asura and has his counterpart in Ahur Mazda the supreme god in the Avestha.

Today, Varuna is reduced to the guardian of water element. Varuna is no longer worshiped but is sometimes propitiated before voyages.

6.Vayu : The Rig Veda calls the presiding deity of the wind as Vata  or Vayu. The god conceived as the element (vata) moves wherever he wants, at his pleasure. Describing him as the soul and indweller of other gods, a sukta in the tenth mandala says: ‘the soul of the gods, the germ of the world, this divinity moves according to his pleasure; his voices are heard, his form is not (seen); let us worship that Vata with oblations.’ The wind god, Vayu, is ‘the messenger of gods’.

In Rig Veda , Vayu is  often associated with Indra, and rides in the same chariot  with him, Indra being the charioteer. According to the Nirukta, there are three gods specially connected with each other. “Agni, whose place is on earth; Vayu or Indra, whose place is in the air; and Surya whose place is in the heaven.” In the hymn Purushasukta, Vayu springs from the breath of Purusha. He is regent of the north-west quarter, where he dwells.

The Vayu later becomes a mere element in the Puranas. The Dwaita sect however elevated Vayu to a higher-level and Hanuman became mukhya_prana.

7.Visvedevas: They are referred often in Rig Veda (Rig Veda 1.3. 7-9).They are a group of Devas that include Agni , Varuna , Vayu,Surya , Mitra et al. They are the nature’s bounties. They represent intellectual and spiritual aspects in the universe. They are offered Soma in the Yagnas “O Visvedavas! The benevolent, eternal and omniscient gods, bears of riches accept our offerings” (RV 1.3.9)

Visvedeas were major gods and were worshipped for many boons. They do not now figure directly in daily prayers.

8.Parjanya: Parjanya, one of the Adityas, is the god of rains and rain clouds was an important deity in Rig Veda. He is also associated with Varuna and an overseer of rta , the cosmic order. Riks 5.63 and 7.101 are dedicated to him. He is  described as thunderstorm and torrential rain ; as a gift from heavens, feeding plant and animal life, and “liberating the streams. He is represented in Rig Veda as a Bull and sometimes as Indra.

Sing forth and laud Parjanya, son of Heaven,

Who sends the gift of rain
May he provide our pasturage.

 Parjanya is the God, who forms in kine,

in mares, in plants of earth,
And womankind, the germ of life.

 Offer and pour into his mouth oblation rich in savory juice:
May he forever give us food.

 Parjanya, today, is sometimes worshipped; but only during severe droughts.

 9.Savitir: Savitir one of the Adityas, is a younger member of the Vedic pantheon; the most handsome of the Vedic gods with raised arms that were golden (hiranya hasta) is the embodiment of gold. Savitir is the great inspirer. He dispels darkness. The Sun just before he arises is Savitir, according to Sayana. The most celebrated Gayathri mantra (Rig Veda 3.62.10) belongs to him

tat Savitur varenyam bhargo devasya dhimahi dhi_yoyonah prachodayath

10. Pushan: Pushan (one who nourishes) is a solar deity who is the keeper of herds and one who brings prosperity. Yaska says that when Sun appears with his rays he is Pushan. He has a charming appearance. He has immense wealth and has always at his command a chariot ready to ride. He is the greatest of the charioteers. Pushan wards off calamities that might occur on the road; so pray to him.

Pushan is the lord of marriages, journeys and roads. Hymns in Rig Veda, appeal to him to guard livestock and to find lost livestock. He is a supportive guide, a good god, leading his adherents towards rich pastures and wealth.

This celebrated rik is addressed to Pushan: ‘By the lid of the golden orb is your face hidden. Please remove it, O nourisher of the world, so that I may see you, I who am devoted to Truth.’

Hiranmayena patrena satyasyapihitam mukham
Tat tvam pusan apavrnu satya sharmaya drstaye

 11.Asvins :   twin sons of the sun and Ushas.. They are ever young and handsome, bright and of golden brilliance, agile, swift as falcons, and possessed of many forms; and they ride in a golden chariot drawn by horses or birds, as harbingers of Ushas, their mother, the dawn. “They are the harbinger s of light in the morning sky, who in their chariot hasten onwards before the dawn and prepare the way for her.”

Rig Veda praises the Asvins for protecting the widows.

They are horsemen. They are the doctors of gods and are the Devas of Ayurvedic medicine. Their attributes are numerous, and relate mostly to youth and beauty, light and speed, duality, the curative power, and active benevolence. The number of hymns addressed to them testifies to the enthusiastic worship they received. They were called Das and Nasatyas, Gadagadau and Swarvaidyau; or one was Dasra and the other Nastya.

According to Yaska_charya, the Asvins represent the transition from darkness to light, when the intermingling of both produces that inseparable duality expressed by the twin nature of these deities.. It agrees with the epithets by which they are invoked, and with the relationship in which they are placed. They are young, yet also ancient, beautiful, bright, swift, etc.; and their negative character, the result of the alliance of light with darkness, is expressed by dasra, the destroyer, and also by the two negatives in the compound nasatya (na + satya) ; though their positive character is again redeemed by the ellipsis of ‘enemies, or diseases’ to dasra, and by the sense of nasatya, not untrue, i.e., truthful.


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Posted by on September 4, 2012 in Indian Philosophy, Rigveda


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Rig Veda- its gods (4/7)

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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