Tag Archives: Rigveda

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Nine

Continued from Part Eight

Vac and Sarasvathi

sarasvathi Mysore style

A. Vac

The Rig-Veda, in its several hymns, contains glorious references to the power of speech.  An entire Sukta (RV. 10.7l) is devoted to the subject of speech; its various kinds ranging from the articulated to the in-articulate sounds in nature and to the gestures (ingita). For the Vedic seers who herd and spoke about their experiences, speech was the most wonderful gift from the divine. The splendour and beauty of Vac, the personification of wisdom and eloquence, is sung in several hymns. It is said; the Rishis secured the power of divine speech through Yajna; studied it; and, revealed it for the benefit of the common people.

Yajnena vaeah padavlyan ayan tam anv avladan rslsa praviatam tam abhnya vy adadhnh pnrutra tarn sapta rebha abhi sain navante (RV.10.71)

Vac is the inexplicable creative power of speech which gives form to the formless; gives birth to existence and lends identity to objects by naming them. It is the faculty which gives expression to ideas; calms the agitated minds; and, enables one to hear, see, grasp, and then describe in words or by other means the true nature of things. Vac is intimately associated with the Rishis and the riks (verses) that articulate or capture the truths of their visions. Vac, the navel of energy, the mysterious presence in nature, was, therefore, held in great reverence. Many of the later philosophical theories on this unique human faculty, the language, have their roots in Vedas.

 [ While the Rishis of the early Vedas were overwhelmed by the power of speech, the philosophers of the Upanishads asked such questions as: who is the speaker? Who inspires one to speak? Can the speech truly know the source of its inspiration?  They doubted; though the speech is the nearest embodiment of the in-dweller (Antaryamin) it might not truly know its source (just as the body cannot know its life-principle). Because, they observed, at the very beginning, the Word was un-uttered and hidden (avyahriam); it was silence. Ultimately, all those speculations led to the Self. But, again they said that Self is beyond mind and words (Avachyam; yato vacho nivartante, aprapya manasaa saha) ]


In the Rig-Veda, Vac, generally, denotes speech which gives an intelligent expression to ideas, by use of words; and it is the medium of exchange of knowledge. Vac is the vision, as also, the ability to turn that perceived vision into words.   In the later periods, the terms such as Vani, Gira and such others were treated as its synonyms.

Yaska (Ca. 5th-6th BCE), the great Etymologist of the ancient India, describes speech (Vac) as the divine gift to humans to clearly express their thoughts (devim vacam ajanayanta- Nir. 11.29); and, calls the purified articulate speech as Paviravi – sharp as the resonance (tanyatu) of the thunderbolt which originates from an invisible power (Tad devata vak paviravi. paviravi cha divya Vac tanyatus tanitri vaco’nyasyah – Nir. 12.30).

Vac, the speech-principle (Vac-tattva), has numerous attributes and varied connotations in the Rig-Veda.  Vac is not mere speech. It is something more sacred than ordinary speech; and carries with it a far wider significance.  Vac is the truth (ninya vachasmi) and the index of the integrity one’s inner being. A true-speech (Satya-vac) honestly reflects the vision of the Rishi, the seer. It is through such sublime Vac that the true nature of objects, as revealed to the Rishis (kavyani kavaye nivacana), is expressed in pristine poetry. Their superb ability to grasp multiple dimensions of human life, ideals and aspirations is truly remarkable.  Vac is thus a medium of expression of the spiritual experience of the Rig Vedic intellectuals who were highly dexterous users of the words. Being free from falsehood, Vac is described in the Rig-Veda as illuminating or inspiring noble thoughts (cetanti sumatlnam).

Chandogya Upanishad (7.2.1) asserts that Vac ( speech)  is  deeper than name (worldly knowledge) – Vag-vava namno bhuyasi  –  because speech is what communicates (Vac vai vijnapayati) all outer worldly knowledge as well as what is right and what is wrong (dharmam cadharmam) ; what is true and what is false (satyam canrtam ca); what is good and what is bad (sadhu casadhu ca); and, what is pleasant and what is unpleasant ( hrdayajnam cahrdayajnam ca).  Speech alone makes it possible to understand all this (vag-eva etat sarvam vijnapayati). Worship Vac (vacam upassveti).

dharmam cadharmam ca satyam canrtam ca sadhu casadhu ca hrdayajnam cahrdayajnam ca; yad-vai van nabhavisyat na dharmo nadharmo vyajnapayisyat, na satyam nanrtam na sadhu na’sadhu na hrdayajno na’hrdayajna vag-eva etat sarvam vijnapayati, vacam upassveti.

[Vac when translated into English is generally rendered as Word. That, however, is not a very satisfactory translation. Vac might, among many other things, also mean speech, voice, utterance, language, sound or word; but, it is essentially the creative force that brings forth all forms expressions as also the existence. It is an emanation from out of silence which is the Absolute. Vac is also the river and the embodied or god-personified as word, as well. It may not, therefore, be appropriate to translate Vac as Word in all events. One, therefore, always needs to take into account the context of its usage.]

There are four kinds of references to Vac in Rig Veda : Vac is speech in general; Vac also symbolises cows that provide nourishment; Vac is also primal waters prior to creation; and, Vac is personified as the goddess revealing the word. And, at a later stage, commencing with the Brahmanas, Vac gets identified with Sarasvathi the life-giving river, as also with the goddess of learning and wisdom.

According to Sri Sayana, Sarasvathi – Vac is depicted as a goddess of learning (gadya-padya rupena–prasaranmasyamtiti–Sarasvathi- Vagdevata)

Vac as Speech

As speech, the term Vāk or Vāc (वाक्), grammatically, is a feminine noun. Vac is variously referred to – Syllable (akshara or Varna), word (Sabda), sentence (vakya), speech (Vachya), voice (Nada or Dhvani), language (bhasha) and literature (Sahitya).

While in the Rig-Veda, the Yajnas are a means for the propitiation of the gods, in the Brahmanas Yagnas become  very purpose of human existence ; they are the ends in themselves. Many of the Brahmana texts are devoted to the exposition of the mystic significance of the various elements of the ritual (Yajna-kriya). The priests who were the adepts in explaining the objectives, the significance, the symbolisms and the procedural details of the Yajnas came into prominence. The all-knowing priest who presides over  , and directs the  course and conduct of  the Soma sacrifice is designated as Brahma; while the three other sets of priests who chant the mantras are named as hotar, adhvaryu, and udgatru

Here, Brahman is the definitive voice (final-word); while the chanting of the mantras   by the other three priests is taken to be Vac. Brahma (word) and Vac (speech) are said to be partners working closely towards the good (shreya)   and for the fulfilment of the performer or the patron’s (Yajamana) aspirations (kamya).  And, Brahma the one who presides and   controls the course of the Yajna is accorded a higher position over the chanters of the mantras. It was said; Vac (chanting) extends so far as the Brahma allows (yaávad bráhma vistham taávatii vaák– RV.10.114.8).

It was said;   if word is flower, speech is the garland. And, if Vac is the weapons, it is Brahma that sharpens them – codáyaami ta aáyudhaa vácobhih sám te shíshaami bráhmanaa váyaamsi. (RV 10.120.5 and 9.97.34)

According to Sri Sayana (Ca.14th century of Vijayanagara period and brother of the celebrated Sri Vidyaranya), the seven-metres (Chhandas) revered for their perfection and resonance (Gayatrl, Usnih, Anustubh, Brihati, Pankti, Tristubh, and the Jagati) are to be identified with Vac.

Dandin (6th century), the poet-scholar, the renowned author of prose romance and an expounder on poetics, describes Vac as the light called Sabda (s’abdahvyam jyotih); and, states that “the three worlds would have been thrown into darkness had there been no light called Sabda”.

Bharthari also asserted   that, all knowledge is illumined through words, and it is quite not possible to have cognition that is free from words (tasmād arthavidhā sarvā śabdamātrāsu niśritā Vakyapadiya: 1.123); ‘no thought is possible without language’; and ’there is no cognition without the process of words’.

And, Bhartrhari declares- ‘It is Vac which has created all the worlds’- vageva viswa bhuvanani jajne (Vakyapadiya. 1.112)

The concept of Vac  was extended  to cover oral and  aural  forms such as : expression , saying , phrase  ,  utterance sentence, and also the languages of all sorts including gesture (ingita).

Yaska says that all kinds of creatures and objects created by God speak a language of their own, either articulate or in-articulate (devastam sarvarupah pasavo vadanti, vyakta vac-ascha- avyakta- vacacha – Nir. 11.29).  He says that the Vac of humans is intelligible, articulate (vyakta vaco manushyadayah) and distinct (Niruktam); while the speech of the cows (animals) is indistinct (avyakta vaco gavayah).  Thus , Vac includes   even the sounds of animals and birds; mewing of cows, crackle of the frogs, twitter of the birds, sway of the trees and the breeze of hills;   and also the sounds emanated by inanimate objects such as : the cracking noise  of the  fissures in the stones due to friction  ; as also the beats of drum , the sound of an instrument.

Even the rumbling of the clouds, the thunder of the lightening and the rippling sounds of the streams are said to be the forms of Vac (praite vadantu pravayam vadama gravabhyo vacam vadata vadadbhyah – RV. 10.94.1)

It was said; the extant of Vac is as wide as the earth and fire. Vac is even extolled as having penetrated earth and heaven, holding together all existence. As Yaska remarks: Vac is omnipresent and eterna1 (vyaptimattvat tu Sabdasya – Nir.I.2)

Vac (word) belongs to both the worlds – the created and un-created.  It is both the subject of speech and the object of speech.

The Tantra ideology identified Vac with the vibrations of the primordial throb (adya-spanda) that set the Universe in motion; and , said  that all objects of the Universe are created by  that sound –artha-srsteh puram sabda-srstih.  

Thus, Vac broadly represents the spoken word or speech; its varied personified forms; and also the oral and aural non-literary sounds forms emanating from all animal and plant life as also the objects in nature.  Vac is, verily, the very principle underlying every kind of sound, speech and language in nature.

And, Vac goes beyond speech. Vac is indeed both speech and  consciousness (chetana), as all actions and powers are grounded in Vac. It is the primordial energy out of which all existence originates and subsists. Vac is also the expression of truth.

Yajnavalkya in the   Brhadaranyaka Upanishad explaining the relation between Vac and consciousness says that Vac (speech) is a form of expression of consciousness. And, he argues, there could be no speech without consciousness. However,  Consciousness does not directly act upon the principle of speech; but , it  operates through intermediary organs and breath to deliver speech.

Rishi Dīrghatamas exclaims: “When I partake a portion of this Vac, I get the first part of truth, immediately (maagan-prathamaja-bhagam-aadith-asya-Vac)” (RV. I.164.37.) But, he also says:”Vac has four quarters; only the wise that are well trained, endowed with intelligence and understanding know them all. For the rest; the three levels remain concealed and motionless. Mortals speak only with the fourth (RV. 1.164.45).”

Chatvaari vaak parimitaa padaani / taani vidur braahmaanaa ye manishinaah. Guhaa trini nihitaa neaengayanti / turiyam vaacho manushyaa vadanti. (Rigveda Samhita – 1.164.45)

Vac as goddess

Vac is also Vac Devi the divinity personified. Vac is called the supreme goddess established in Brahman Iyam ya paramesthini Vac Devi Brahma-samsthita (Rig-Veda.19.9.3).

She gives intelligence to those who love her. She is elegant, golden hued and embellished in gold (Hiranya prakara). She is the mother, who gave birth to things by naming them. She is the power of the Rishis. She enters into the inspired poets and visionaries, gives expression and vitality to those she blesses; and, enables them to turn precious knowledge into words. She is also said to have entered into the sap (Rasa) of plants and trees, pervading and enlivening all vegetation (Satapatha-brahmana

It is said;  Vac the first offspring of the  Rta, the cosmic order or principle or the Truth (Satya).And that Truth (Rta)  is not static or a mere question of morality. but, it is the dynamic order of the entire reality out of which the whole of existence comes into being  . She is proclaimed as the mother of the Vedas and as immortal. Again, it is said that Prajapati produced goddess Vac so that she may be omnipresent and propel all activities. She is Prakrti. In the later Vedic traditions, Vac is hailed as the very reflection of the greatness of the creator – vagva asya svo mahima (SB.,; and, in the Nighantu (3.3), Vac occurs as a synonym of the terms describing greatness, vastness etc – mahat, brhat.

And, at one place, Vac is identified with Yajna itself unto whom offerings are made – Vac vai yajanam (Gopatha Br. 2.1.12). Further, Vac is also the life-supporting Soma; and for that reason Vac is called Amsumathi, rich with Soma.

The idea of personifying Vac as a goddess in a series of imagery associating her with creation, Yajna and waters etc and her depiction as Shakthi  richly developed in the later texts, is said to have been inspired by  the most celebrated Vak Suktha or Devi Suktha   or Vagambhari Sukta  (Rig Veda: 10.125) . Here, the daughter of Ambhrna, declares herself as Vac the Queen of the gods (Aham rastri), the highest principle that supports all gods, controller all beings and manifest universally in all things.

Aham rastri samgamani vasunam cikitusi prathama yajniyanam / Tam ma deva vy adadhuh purutra Bhunisthatram bhury avesayantim // 3

She declares: It is I who blow like the wind, reaching all beings (creatures). Beyond heaven and beyond the earth I have come-to-be by this greatness.

Ahameva vata iva pra vamyarabhamana bhuvanani visva / paro diva para ena prthivyaitavat mahina sarri babhuva // 8

Vac, the primal energy the Great Mother Goddess, is thus described in various ways.

Vac is identified with all creation which she pervades and at the same time she spreads herself far beyond it. She is the divine energy that controls all and is manifest in all beings: ‘tam ma deva vyadadhuh purutra / bhuristhatram bhurya vesayantim’. Whatever the gods do they do so for her; and, all activities of living beings such as thinking, eating, seeing, breathing, hearing etc., are because of her grace.

[At another level, it is said; there are three variations of Vac the goddess – Gauri Vac, Gauh Vac and Vac. Of these, the first two goddesses are said to be personifications of the sound of thunder, whereas the goddess Vac is a deity of speech or sounds uttered or produced by earthly beings.

Gauri Vac, described as having a number of abodes (adhisthana-s) in various objects and places like the clouds, the sun, the mid-region, the different directions so on , is said to be  associated with sending forth rains to the earth, so that life may  come to being, flourish   and prosper on it perpetually.

Gauh Vac on the other hand is described in a highly symbolical language portrayed as cow. In the traditional texts, Vac, which expresses the wonder and mysteries of speech, was compared to the wish-fulfilling divine cow (dhenur vagasman, upasustutaitu –RV. 8.100.11). And, in the much discussed Asya Vamiya Sukta ascribed to Rishi Dirghatamas, Vac again is compared to a cow of infinite form which reveals to us in various forms (Gauri mimaaya… sahsraaraparame vyoman- Rig Veda 1.164).


Gauh Vac is symbolically depicted as a milch-cow that provides nourishment; and one which is accompanied by her calf (please see note below *). She constantly cuddles her calf with great love, and lows with affection for her infant. It is explained: the rains are her milk, the lowing sound made by her is the sound of thunder and the calf is the earth. Gauh Vac is hailed in the Rig-Veda (8.101.15) as the mother principle, the source of nourishment (pusti) and bestowing immortality (amrutatva).

And Vac is the goddess of speech; and, her origins too are in the mid-regions (atmosphere). Just as Gauh Vac, she also is compared to a milch cow that provides food, drink and nourishment to humans.

And again, the goddess Vac and goddess Sarasvathi are both described as having their origin or their abodes in the mid-region (Antariksha). Both are associated with showering the life-giving rains on the parched earth. And, Sarasvathi is also said to shower milk, ghee, butter, honey and water to nourish the student (adhyéti) reciting the Pavamani (purification) verses  which hold  the  essence of life (Rasa) , as gathered by the Rishis  (ŕ̥ibhi sámbhr̥ta ) – (Rig-Veda. 11.67.32).

Pāvamānī́r yo adhyéti ŕ̥ṣibhi sámbhr̥ta rásam | tásmai sárasvatī duhe kīrá sarpír mádhūdakám |11.67.32| ]

[* Note on cow

In the early texts, the cow is compared to Earth as an exemplary symbol of Motherhood. She is the life-giving, nourishing Mother par excellence who cares for all beings and nature with selfless love and boundless patience. The Mother goddesses such as Aditi, Prithvi, Prsni (mother of Maruts), Vac, Ushas and Ila all are represented by the cow-symbolism.

Further, the nourishing and life-supporting rivers too are compared to cows (e.g. RV. 7.95.2; 8.21.18). For instance; the Vipasa and the Sutudri the two gentle flowing rivers are said to be two be like loving mothers who slowly lick their younglings with care and love (RV. 3.33.1)

The cow in her universal aspect is lauded in RV.1.164.17 and RV. 164.27-29. She manifests herself together with her calf; she is sacrosanct (aghanya), radiant, the guardian mother of Vasus.  She created the whole of existence by her will.

Sri Aurobindo explains: in many of these  hymns,  milk (literally, that which nourishes) represents the pure white light of knowledge and clarified butter the resultant state of a clear mind or luminous perception, with bliss, symbolized by the honey (or Soma), as the essence of both. ]

Vac as Water (Apah)

Vac is sometimes identified with waters, the primeval principle for the creation of the Universe.

In the Vak Suktha or Devi Suktha  of Rig Veda (RV.10. 10.125), Apah, the waters, is conceived as the birth place of Vac. And, Vac who springs forth from waters touches all the worlds with her flowering body and gives birth to all existence. She indeed is Prakrti.  Vac is the creator, sustainer and destroyer. In an intense and highly charged superb piece of inspired poetry Vac declares “I sprang from waters there from I permeate the infinite expanse with a flowering body. I move with Rudras and Vasus. I walk with the Sun and other Gods. It is I who blows like the wind creating all the worlds”.

Vac as Brahman

Ultimately, Vac is identified with Brahman, the Absolute.

:- According to Sri Sayana, the  Vak Suktha or Devi Suktha   is a philosophical composition in which Vac the Brahmavidushi daughter of seer Ambhrna, after having realised her identity with Brahman – the ultimate cause of all, has lauded her own self. As such , she is both the seer and Vac the deity of this hymn. And Vac, he asserts, is verily the Brahman.

saccit sukhatmakah sarvagatah paramatma devata / tena hyesa tadatmyam anubhavanti sarva-  jagadrupena , sarvasyadhistanatvena sarvam bhavamti svatmanam stauti – (Sri Sayana on 10.125.1)

:-  In the fourth chapter of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, Yajnavalkya speaking about the nature of Vac, equated it with the Brahman (vāg vai brahmeti)  

: – The Jaimimya Upanishad Brahmana (2.8.6) also states that Vac indeed is the Brahman – Vagiti Brahma

 : Similarly the Aittariya Brahmana (4.211) declares: Brahma vai vak

 : – Bhartrhari commences his work of great genius, the Vakyapadia, with the verse (Shastra-arambha):

Anādinidhana Brahma śabdatattva yadakaram / vivartate arthabhāvena prakriyā jagato yata– VP.1.1.

[The ultimate reality, Brahman, is the imperishable principle of language, without beginning and end, and the evolution of the entire world occurs from this language-reality in the form of its meaning.]

It is explained; the Sabda, mentioned here is just not the pronounced or uttered word; it is indeed the Vac    existing before creation of the worlds. It is the Vac that brings the   world into existence. Bhartrhari, thus, places the word-principle – Vac – at the very core (Bija) of existence That Vac, – according to Bhartrhari is not merely the creator and sustainer of the universe but is also the sum and substance of it.

And, Vac as Sabda-Brahman is the creative force that brings forth all existence. Vac is also the consciousness (chit, samvid), vital energy (prana shakthi) that vibrates (spanda). It is an emanation from out of silence, which is the Absolute.

That Sabda-tattva (Sabdasya tattvam or Sabda eva tattvam) of Bhartrhari is of the nature of the Absolute; and, there is no distinction between Sabda Brahman and Para Brahman the Supreme Principle (Para tattva).  

 : – Vac was considered manifestation of all-pervading Brahman; and, Pranava (Aum) was regarded the primordial speech-sound from which all forms of speech emanated


B. Sarasvathi

In the Rig-Veda, Sarasvathi is the name of the celestial river par excellence (deviyā́m), as also its personification as a goddess (Devi) Sarasvathi, filled with love and bliss (bhadram, mayas).

And Sarasvathi is not only one among the seven sister-rivers (saptásvasā), but also is the dearest among the gods (priyā́ deveu).

Again, it is said, the Sarasvathi as the divine stream has filled the earthly regions as also the wide realm of the mid-world (antárikam) – āpaprúī pā́ rthivāni urú rájo antárikam | sárasvatī nidás pātu | ( RV. 6-61-11)

Sarasvathi as the River


Invoked in three full hymns (R V.6.6.61; 7.95; and 7.96) and numerous other passages, the Sarasvathi, no doubt, is the most celebrated among the rivers.

It is said; the word Sarasvathi is derived from the root ‘Sarah’, meaning water (as in Sarasi-ja, lotus – the one born in water). In the Nighantu (1.12), Sarah is one of the synonyms for water. That list of synonyms for water, in the Nighantu, comes immediately next to that of the synonyms for speech (Vac). Yaska also confirms that the term Sarasvathi primarily denotes the river (Sarasvathi Sarah iti- udakanama sartes tad vati –Nirukta.9.26). Thus, the word Sarasvathi derived from the word Sarah stands for Vagvathi (Sabdavathi) and also for Udakavathi.

The mighty Sarasvathi , the ever flowing river,  is also adored as Sindhu-mata, which term is explained by Sri Sayana as ‘apam matrubhuta’ the mother-principle of all waters; and also   as ‘Sindhunam Jalam va mata’ – the Mother of the rivers , a perennial source of number of other rivers . The Sarasvathi (Sarasvathi Saptathi sindhu-mata) of the early Vedic age must have been a truly grand opulent river full of vigour and vitality (Sarasvathi sindhubhih pinvamana- RV.6.52.6) on which the lives of generations upon generations prospered (hiranyavartnih).

[The geo-physical studies and satellite imagery seems to suggest that the dried up riverbed of the Ghaggar-Hakra might be the legendary Vedic Saraswati River with Drishadvati and Apaya as its tributaries.  For more ; please check Vedic river and Hindu civilization edited by Dr. S. Kalyanaraman.


It is said in the Rig-Veda; on the banks of Sarasvathi the sages (Rishayo) performed yajnas (Satram asata) – Rishayo vai Sarasvathyam satram asata). The Rig-Veda again mentions that on the most auspicious days; on the most auspicious spot on earth; on the banks of the Drishadvati, Apaya and Sarasvathi Yajnas (Ahanam) were conducted.

ni tva dadhe vara a prthivya ilayspade sudinatve ahnam; Drsadvaty am manuse apayayam sarasvatyamrevad agne didhi – RV.3.23.4 ]

There are abundant hymns in the Rig-Veda, singing the glory and the majesty  of the magnificent  Sarasvathi that surpasses all other waters in greatness , with her mighty (mahimnā́ , mahó mahī́ ) waves (ūrmíbhir)  tearing away the heights of the mountains as she roars along her  way towards the ocean (ā́ samudrā́t).

Rihi Gtsamada adores Sarasvathi as the divine (Nadinam-asurya), the best of the mothers, the mightiest of the rivers and the supreme among the goddesses (ambitame nadltame devitame Sarasvati).   And, he prays to her:  Oh Mother Saraswati, even though we are not worthy, please grant us merit.

Ámbitame nádītame dévitame sárasvati apraśastā ivasmasi praśastim amba naskdhi – (RV 2.41.16)

Sarasvathi is the most sacred and purest among rivers (nadinam shuci). Prayers are submitted to the most dear (priyatame) seeking refuge (śárman) in her – as under a sheltering tree (śaraá vr̥kám). She is our best defence; she supports us (dharuam); and, protects us like a fort of iron (ā́yasī pū́).

The Sarasvathi , the river that  outshines all other waters in greatness  and majesty is celebrated with love and reverence; and, is repeatedly lauded with choicest epithets, in countless ways: uttara sakhibhyah (most liberal to her friends); vegavatinam vegavattama (swiftest among the most speedy); pra ya mahimna mahinasu cekite dyumnebhiranya apasamapastama – the one whose powerful limitless  (yásyā anantó) , unbroken (áhrutas) swiftly flowing (cariṣṇúr aravá) impetuous  resounding current and  roaring (róruvat) floods,     moving with rapid force , like a chariot (rathíyeva yāti ), rushes  onward towards the ocean (samudrā́t)  with tempestuous roar;  bursting the ridges of the hills (paravataghni) with mighty waves .. and so on.

yásyā anantó áhrutas tveáś cariṣṇúr aravá | ámaś cárati róruvat | (RV. 6-61-8)

The Sarasvathi, most beloved among the beloved (priyā́ priyā́ su) is the ever-flowing bountiful (subhaga; ́jebhir vājínīvatī) energetic (balavati) stream of abounding beauty and grace (citragamana citranna va) which purifies and brings fruitfulness to earth, yielding rich harvest and prosperity (Sumrdlka). She is the source of vigour and strength. She personifies purity (Pavaka); her waters which are sweet (madhurah payah) have the life-extending (ayur-vardhaka) healing (roga-nashaka) medicinal (bhesajam) powers – (apsvantarapsu bhesajamapamuta prasastaye – RV. 1.23.19).

She is indeed the life (Jivita) and also the nectar (amrtam) that grants immortality. Sarasvathi, our mother (Amba! yo yanthu) the life giving maternal divinity, is dearly loved as the benevolent (Dhiyavasuh) protector of the Yajna – Pavaka nah Sarasvathi yagnam vashtu dhiyavasuh (RV. 1.3).

Sarasvathi is depicted as a purifier (pavaka nah sarasvathi) – internal and external. She purifies the body, heart and mind of men and women (10.17.10); and inspires in them pure, noble and pious thoughts (1.3.1012). Sarasvathi also cleanses poison from men, from their environment and from all nature (6.61.3).

Prayers are submitted to Mother Sarasvathi, beseeching her:  please cleanse me and remove whatever sin or evil that has entered into me. Pardon me for whatever evils I might have committed, the lies I have uttered, and the false oaths I might have sworn.

Idamapah pravahata yat kimca duritam mayi, yadva ahamabhidudroha, yadva sepe utanrtam (RV.1.23.22)

The beauty of Sarasvathi is praised through several attributes, such as: Shubra (clean and pure); Suyanam, Supesha, Surupa (all terms suggesting a sense of beauty and elegance); Su-vigraha (endowed with a beauteous form) and Saumya (pleasant and easily accessible). Sri Sayana describes the beauteous form of Sarasvathi: “yamyate niyamytata iti   yamo vigrahah, suvigraha…”

Sarasvathi is described by a term that is not often used  : ’ Vais’ambhalya’ , the one who brings up, nurtures and protects the whole of human existence – visvam prajanam bharanam, poshanam – with abundant patience and infinite love. Sri Sayana, in his Bhashya (on Taittiriya-Brahmana, 2. 5.4.6) explains the term as: Vlsvam prajanam bharanam poshanam Vais’ambham tatkartum kshama vaisambhalya tidrsi.

Thus, the term Vais’ambhalya pithily captures the nature of the nourishing, honey-like sweet (madhu madharyam ) waters of the divine Sarasvathi who sustains life (vijinivathi) ; enriching the soil ; providing abundant food (anna-samrddhi-yukte; annavathi) and  nourishment (pusti) to all beings; causing overfull milk in cows (kshiram samicinam); as  Vajinivathi enhancing vigour  and strength  in horses ( vahana-samarthyam)  ; and , blessing all of existence with happiness  (sarvena me sukham ) – (Sri Sayana’s  Bhashya on  Taittiriya-Brahmana).

Sarasvathi as goddess

Saraswati on Dark Green Ground

Yaska mentions that Sarasvathi is worshipped both as the river (nadi) and as the goddess (devata) – (vak kasmat vaces tatra Sarasvathi ity etasya nadivad devatavach cha nigamah bhavanti – Nirukta.2.23).

Yaska categorizes Sarasvathi as the goddess of mid-region – Madhya-sthana striyah.

Sri Sayana commenting on RV. 1.3.12, also mentions that Sarasvathi was celebrated both as river and as a deity – Dvi-vidha hi Sarasvathi vigrahavad-devata nadi rupa-cha.

 Following Yaska, Sri Sayana also regarded Sarasvathi as a divinity of the mid-region- ‘madhyama-sthana hi vak Sarasvathi’; and as a personification of the sound of thunder.

Thus, Sarasvathi, a deity of the atmosphere is associated with clouds, thunder, lightening, rains and water.  As Sri Aurobindo said; the radiant one has expressed herself in the forming of the flowing Waters.  

[Sri Aurobindo explaining the symbolism of thunder and lightning, says: the thunder is sound of the out-crashing of the word (Sabda) of Truth (Satya –vac); and, the lightning as the out-flashing of its sense (Artha) ]

Mysore style of painting of Sri Sharadamba

John Muir (Original Sanskrit Texts on the Origin and History of the People of India) remarks: It seems that Vedic seers were not satisfied with the river-form of Sarasvati; and, in order to make the river a living and active entity that alone could hear them, they regarded it as a river-goddess.

Thus, Sarasvati is a river at first; and, later conceived as a goddess

Sarasvathi, the best of the goddesses (Devi-tame) and the dearest among the gods (priyā́ deveu) is associated with Prtri-s (departed forefathers- svadhā́ bhir Devi pitŕ̥bhir; sárasvatī́m pitáro hávante) as also with many other deities and with the Yajna. She is frequently invited to take seat in the Yajnas along with other goddesses such as: Ila, Bharathi, Mahi, Hotra, Varutri, Dishana Sinivali, Indrani etc.

She is also part of the trinity (Tridevi) of Sarasvathi, Lakshmi and Parvati. 

Sarasavathi as Devata, the Goddess is also said to be one of the three aspects of Gayatri (Tri-rupa –Gayatri): Gayatri, Savitri and Sarasvathi. Here, while Gayatri is the protector of life principles; Savitri of Satya (Truth and integrity of all Life); Sarasvathi is the guardian of the wisdom and virtues of life. And, Gayatri is said to manifest in three forms: as Gayatri the morning (pratah-savana) as Brahma svarupini; Savitri in the midday (madyanh savana) as Rudra svarupini; and, as Sarasvathi in the evening (saayam savana) as Vishnu svarupini.

[ Sri Aurobindo interprets the divine Sarasvathi, the goddess of the Word, the stream of inspiration as: an ever flowing great flood (mahó ára)  of consciousness; the awakener (cétantī, prá cetayati)  to right-thinking (sumatīnām); as inspirer (codayitrī ́) who illumines ( vi rājati) all (víśvā) our thoughts (dhíyo); and, as truth-audition, śruti, which gives the inspired perception (ketúnā) – mahó ára sárasvatī prá cetayati ketúnā | dhíyo víśvā ví rājati –  RV.  I.3. 12]

Prayers are also submitted to Sarasvathi to grant great wealth (abhí no nei vásyo), highly nourishing food (aṁ, páyasā) and more progeny (prajā́ṁ devi didiḍḍhi na); to treat us as her friends (juásva na sakhiyā́ veśíyā); and, not let us stray into inhospitable fields (́ tvát kétrāi áraāni gamma) – RV. 6-61-14. Sarasvathi, thus, is also Sri.

The goddess Sarasvathi is also the destroyer of Vrta and other demons that stand for darkness (Utasya nah Sarasvati ghora Hiranyavartanih / Vrtraghni vasti sustuition).


In the Rig-Veda, the goddess Sarasvathi is associated, in particular with two other goddesses: Ila and Bharathi.

The Apri Sukta hymns (the invocation hymns recited just prior to offering the oblations into Agni) mention a group of three great goddesses (Tisro Devih) – Ila, Bharathi and Sarasvathi – who are invoked to take their places and grace the Yajna (ā no yajña bhāratī tyam etu, iā manuvad iha cetayantī; tisro devīr barhir eda syona, sarasvatī svapasa sadantu- RV.10.110)  . They bring delight and well-being to their devotees.

The three -Ida, Bharathi and Sarasvathi – who are said to be manifestations of the Agni (Yajnuagni), are also called tri-Sarasvathi.

[In some renderings, Mahi (ta bhat , the vast or great) is mentioned in place of Bharathi: Ila, Sarasvathi, Mahi tisro devir mayobhuvah; barhih sIdantvasridah. And Mahi, the rich, delightful and radiant (bhat jyotiḥ) goddess of blissful truth (ta jyoti; codayitrī sntānām), covering vast regions (vartrī dhiaā) is requested to bring happiness to the performer of the Yajna, for whom she is like a branch richly laden with ripe fruits (evā hyasya sntā, virapśī gomatī mahī; pakvā śākhā na dāśue – RV.1.8.8).

  And, Ila is sometimes mentioned as Ida. ]

Among these Tisro Devih, Sarasvathi, the mighty, illumines with her brilliance and brightness inspires all pious thoughts (RV.1.3.12 ;). Her aspects of wisdom and eloquence are praised, sung in several hymns. She evokes pleasant songs, brings to mind gracious thoughts; and she is requested to accept our offerings (RV.1.3.11)

Bharathi is hailed as speech comprising all   subjects (sarva-visaya-gata vak) and as that which energises all beings (Visvaturith)

Ila is a gracious goddess (sudanuh, mrlayanti devi). She is personified as the divine cow, mother of all realms (yuthasya matha), granting (sudanu) bounteous gifts of nourishments. She has epithets, such as: Prajavathi and Dhenumati (RV. 8.31. 4). She is also the personification of flowing libation (Grita). She is the presiding deity of Yajna, in general (RV.3.7.25)

According to Sri Sayana Ila, as nourishment, (RV.7.16.8) is the personification of the oblation (Havya) offered in the Yajna (annarupa havir-laksana devi). Such offerings of milk and butter are derivatives of the cow. And Ila, in the Brahmana texts, is related to the cow. And, in the Nighantu (2.11), Ila is one of the synonyms of the cow. Because of the nature of the offering, Ila is called butter-handed (RV. 7.16.8) and butter –footed (RV. 10.70.8).

The three goddesses (Tisro Devih) are interpreted as: three goddesses representing three regions: Ida the earth; Sarasvathi the mid-region; and Bharathl, the heaven. And again, these three goddesses are also said to be three types of speech.

Sri Sayana commenting on the verse tisró vacaa irayati prá váhniron… (RV.9.97.34), mentions Ida (Ila), Sarasvathi and Bharathi as the levels of speech or languages spoken in three regions (Tripada, Tridasatha – earth, firmaments and heaven). Among these goddesses, he names Bharathi as Dyusthana Vac (upper regions); Sarasvathi as Madhyamika Vac (mid-region); and Ida as the speech spoken by humans (Manushi) on the earth (prthivi praisadirupa).  Another interpretation assigns Bharathi, Sarasvathi and Ila the names of three levels of speech: Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari..

According to Sri Aurobindo, Ida, Sarasvathi and Bharathi represent Drsti (vision), Sruti (hearing) and Satya the integrity of the truth-consciousness.


C.  Vac identified with Sarasvathi

Rig-Veda does not, of course, equates Vac with Sarasvathi. But, it is in the Brahmana texts, the Nighantu, the Nirukta and the commentaries of the traditional scholars that Vac is identified with Sarasvathi, the Madhyamika Vac. The later Atharva-veda also speaks of Vac and Sarasvathi as one

It is particularly in the Brahmana that the identity of Vac with Sarasvathi begins – ‘vag vai Sarasvathi’ (Aitareya Brahmana 3.37). The notions such as – the one who worships Sarasvathi pleases Vac, because Vac is Sarasvathi – take root in the Brahmanas (yat sarasvatlm yajati vag vai sarasvatl; vacam eva tat prlnati atha – SB. 5.2). And, Gopatha Brahmana (2.20) in an almost an identical statement says that worship of Sarasvathi pleases Vac, because Vac is Sarasvathi (atha yat sarasvatim yajati, vag vai Sarasvathi, vacham eva tena prinati). Also, in the ancient Dictionary, the Nighantu (1.11), the term Sarasvathi is listed among the synonym s of Vac.

Such identification of Vac with Sarasvathi carries several connotations, extending over to the Speech; to the sacred river; and, to the delightful goddess inspiring true speech and sharp intellect, showering wisdom and wealth upon one who worships her devotedly.

As speech

As speech, Sarasvathi as Vac is adored as the power of truth, free from blemishes; inspiring and illuminating noble thoughts (chetanti sumatim). In the Taittariya Brahmana, the auspicious (subhage), the rich and plentiful (vajinivati) Vac is identified with Sarasvathi adored as the truth speech ‘Satya-vac’.

 Sarasvathi subhage vajinlvati satyavachase bhare matim. idam te havyam ghrtavat sarasvati. Satyavachase prabharema havimsi- TB. II. 5.4.

The Vac-Sarasvathi, the power of speech, is hailed as the mother of Vedas – Veda Mata. She is the abode of all knowledge; the vast flood of truth (Maho arnah); the power of truth (Satya vacs); the guardian of sublime thoughts (dhinam avitri); the inspirer of good acts and thoughts; the mother of sweet but truthful words; the awakener of consciousness (chodayitri sunrtanam, chetanti sumatinam); the purifier (Pavaka); the bountiful blessing with vast riches (vajebhir vajinivati); and the protector of the Yajna (yajnam dadhe)

Pavaka nah Sarasvathi, vajebhir vajinivati; yajnam vastu dhiyavasuh. Chodayitri sunrtanam, cetanti sumatinam; yajnam dadhe Sarasvathi.  Maho arnah Sarasvathi, pra cetayati ketuna; dhiyo visva vi rajati. (Rig-Veda. 4.58.1)

[Sri Aurobindo’s translation: “May purifying Sarasvathi with all the plenitude of her forms of plenty, rich in substance by the thought, desire our sacrifice.”She, the impeller to happy truths, the awakener in consciousness to right metalizing, Sarasvathi, upholds the sacrifice.” “Sarasvathi by the perception awakens in consciousness the great flood (the vast movement of the ritam) and illumines entirely all the thought.]

Vac- Sarasvathi is regarded the very personification of pure (pavaka) thoughts, rich in knowledge or intelligence (Prajna or Dhi) – (vag vai dhiyavasuh)

Pavaka nah sarasvatl yajnam vastu dhiyavasur iti vag vai dhiyavasuh – AB. 1.14.

In the Shata-patha-Brahmana (5. 2.2.13-14) , Vac as Sarasvathi is first taken to be her  controlling power, the mind (manas), the abode of all thoughts and knowledge,  before they are expressed through speech.

Again, the Shata-patha-Brahmana (I.4.4.1; 3. 2.4.11) mentions the inter-relations among mind (manas), breath (prana) and Speech (Vac). The speech is evolved from mind; and put out through the help of breath. The speech (Vac) is called jlhva Sarasvati i.e., tongue, spoken word. Vac-Sarasvathi is also addressed as Gira, one who is capable to assume a human voice.

Taittirlya Brahmana refers to Sarasvathi as speech manifested through the help of the vital breath Prana; and, indeed even superior to Prana (vag vai sarasvatl tasmat prananam vag uttamam – Talttirlya Brahmana,

The Tandya Brahmana identifies Sarasvathi with Vac, the speech in the form of sound (sabda or dhvani).  Here, Sarasvathi is taken to be sabdatmika Vac, displaying the various form of speech (rupam) as also the object denoted by speech (vairupam): vag vai sarasvati, vag vairupam eva’smai taya yunakti – TB. 16. 5.16.

As said earlier; Sarasvathi along with Ila and Bharathi is identified with levels of speech (Vac). In these varied forms of identifications, Sarasvathi is the speech of the mid-position. For instance; Sarasvathi is Madhyamika Vac (while Bharathi is Dyusthana Vac and Ila is Manushi Vac. Similarly, Sarasvathi is Madhyama Vac (while Bharathi is Pashyanti and Ila is Vaikhari). And again, Sarasvathi is said to represent the mid-region (while Ida the earth and Bharathl, the heaven).

By the time of the later Vedic texts, the identity of Vac with Sarasvathi becomes very well established. The terms such as ‘Sarasvathi –Vacham’, ‘Vac- Sarasvathi’ etc come into use in the Aharva-Veda. Even the ordinary speech was elevated to the status of Vac.

As the River

In the Aitareya Brahmana (3.37) Vac is directly identified with the life giving Sarasvathi (vag vai Sarasvathi). Even its location is mentioned.  Vac is said to reside in the midst of Kuru-Panchalas – tasmad atro ‘ttari hi vag vadati kuru-panchalatra vvag dhy esa – SB. 3. 2.3.15.

The Vac-Sarasvathi in the form of river (Sarasvathi nadi rupe) is the generous (samrudhika) loving and life-giving auspicious (subhage) splendid Mother (Mataram sriyah), the purifying (pavaka) source of great delight   (aahladakari) and happiness (sukhasya bhavayitri) which causes all the good things of life to flourish.


D.  Sarasvathi as goddess in the later texts and traditions

Sarasvathi, in the post-Vedic period, was personified as the goddess of speech, learning and eloquence.

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. Then, the emphasis moved 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 the divinity – Sarasvathi; and, she was recognized and worshipped as goddess of purity, speech, learning, wisdom, culture, art, music and intellect.

Vac which was prominent in the Rig Veda, as also Sarasvathi the mighty river of the early Vedic times had almost completely disappeared from common references in the later periods.

Vac merged into Sarasvathi and became one of her synonyms   as a goddess of speech or intellect or learning – as Vac, Vagdevi, and Vageshwari. And the other epithets of Vac, such as: Vachi (flow of speech), Veda-mata (mother of the Vedas), Vidya (the mother of all learning), Bhava (emotions) and Gandharva (guardian deity of musicians) – were all transferred to goddess Sarasvathi.

Similarly , the other Vedic goddesses – Ila, Bharathi, Gira, Vani , Girvani, Pusti,   Brahmi – all merged into Sarasvathi, the personified goddess of speech ( vāca sāma and vāco vratam) who enters into the inspired poets , musicians, artists and visionaries; and ,  gives expression and energy to those she loves (Kavi-jihva-gravasini)

Sarsavathi also acquired other epithets based on the iconography related to her form: Sharada (the fair one); Veena-pani (holding the veena); Pusthaka-pani (holding a book); japa   or akshamala-dharini (wearing rosary) etc.


E. Iconography

The iconography of goddess Sarasvathi that we are familiar with, of course, came into being during the later times; and, it was developed over a long period. There are varying   iconographic accounts of the goddess Sarasvathi. The Puranas (e.g.  Vishnudharmottara-purana, Agni-purana, Vayu-purana and Matsya-purana) ; the various  texts of the Shilpa- shastra (e.g. AmshumadbedhaShilpa-ratna, Rupamandana,  Purva-karana,  and Vastu-vidya-diparnava)  and Tantric texts ( Sri Vidyavarana Tantra  and Jayamata)  each came up with their own variation of Sarasvathi , while retaining her most uniformly accepted features.

The variations were mainly with regard to the disposition, attributes and the Ayudhas (objects held) of the deity. The objects she holds, which are meant to delineate her nature and disposition, are truly numerous. These include : Veena;  Tambura; book (pustaka); rosary (akshamala); water pot (kamandalu) ;  pot fille with nectar (amrutha-maya-ghata); lotus flowers (padma); mirror (darpana); parrot (Shuka); bow ( dhanus); arrow ( bana ); spear (shula), mace (gadha), noose( pasha); discus (chakra); conch (shankha); goad (ankusha);  bell (ghanta) and so on. Each of these Ayudhas carries its own symbolism; and, tries to bring forth an aspect of the deity. In a way of speaking, they are the symbols of a symbolism

In the case of Sarasvathi the book she holds in her hands symbolize the Vedas and learning; the Kamandalu (a water jug) symbolizes smruthi, vedanga and shastras; rosary symbolizes the cyclical nature of time; the musical instrument veena symbolizes music and her benevolent nature; the mirror signifies a clear mind and awareness; the Ankusha (goad) signifies exercising control over senses and baser instincts; and, the sceptre signifies her authority. The Shilpa-shastra employs these as symbols to expand, to depict and to interpret the nature of the idol, as also the values and virtues it represents.

There were also variations in the depictions of Sarasvathi  : complexion ( white (sweta) , red (raktha-varna) , blue  (nila) – as tantric deity and form of  Tara); number of eyes (two, three),number of arms ( four , six, eight), Posture ( seated – Asana, standing – sthanaka ; but never in reclining posture– shayana ), seated upon ( white lotus, red lotus or throne), wearing (white or red  or other coloured garments), ornaments ( rich or modest) and so on.

Interestingly, the early texts do not mention her Vahana (mount). But the latter texts provide her with swan or peacock as her Vahana or as symbolic attributes (lanchana).


The Shilpa text Vastu-vidya-diparnava lists twelve forms of Sarasvathi ( Vac sarasvathi, Vidya sarasvathi, Kamala, Jaya, Vijaya, Sarangi, Tamburi, Naradi, Sarvamangala, Vidya-dhari, Sarva-vidya and Sharada) all having four arms , but without the Vahana. They all are looking bright, radiant (su-tejasa) and happy (suprasanna).

Another Shilpa text Jayamata enumerates a different set of twelve forms of Sarasvathi (Maha-vidya, Maha-vani, Bharathi, Sarasvathi, Aarya, Brahmi, Maha-dhenu, Veda-darbha, Isvari, Maha-Lakshmi, Maha-Kali, and Maha-sarasvathi).

The tantric text, Sri Vidyarnava-tantra, mentions at least three Tantric forms of Sarasvathi: Ghata-sarasvathi, Kini-Sarasvathi and Nila–sarasvathi (blue-complexion; three eyes; four arms, holding spear, sword, chopper and a bell).

And, there is also Matangi who is also called Tantric-Sarasvati; and, she is of tamasic nature and is related to magical powers. Her complexion too varies from white, black, brown, blue or to green depending on the context, She also has many variations, such as:  Ucchista Matangini, Ucchista-Chandalini, Raja Matangini, Sumukhi Matangini, Vasya Matangini or Karna Matangini.

Bhuvanesvari, one of the ten Mahavidyas, is also linked to speech (vak); and, therefore, she is said to correspond to Sarasvathi,    Vagesvari.

Tara, in Buddhism, of blue complexion, associated with the speaking prowess, and seated on a lotus is called Nila (blue) Sarasvathi

The Vajrayana Buddhism too has its own set of Tantric Sarsavathi-s, like the six armed Vajra-Sarasvathi; the Vajra-sharada holding a book and a lotus in her two hands; and, Vajra-veena-sarasvathi playing on a veena. The other deities like Prajna-paramita and Manjushree have in them some aspects of the Sarasvathi.

The Jain tradition has Sarasvathi in the form of Sruta-devata; Prajnapti; Manasi and Maha-Manasi.


Sarasvathi, as Vagdevi, is depicted as gesturing scriptural knowledge with her right hand in Vyakahana-mudra; and, gesturing protection and assurance with her left hand in Abhaya-mudra. At times, she is shown with three eyes. She is decorated by a crown (makuta) with a crescent moon; and with a sacred thread across her chest (yajnopavitha).

sarasvathi Gkcp1

The Sarasvathi that is commonly depicted is an extraordinarily beautiful, graceful and benevolent deity of white complexion, wearing white garments, seated upon a white lotus (sweta-padmasina) , adorned with pearl ornaments ; and holding in her four hands a book, rosary , water-pot and lotus .


Her Dhyana –sloka reads:

Yaa Kundendu tushaara haara dhavalaa, Yaa shubhra vastranvita.
 Yaa veena vara dandamanditakara, Yaa shwetha padmaasana
 Yaa brahma achyutha shankara prabhutibhir Devaisadaa Vanditha 
Saa Maam Paatu Saraswatee Bhagavatee Nihshesha jaadyaapahaa  

Salutations to Bhagavathi Sarasvathi, the one who is fair like garland of fresh Kunda flowers and snowflakes; who is adorned with white attire; whose hand is placed on the stem of the Veena; who sits on white lotus; one who has always been worshiped by gods like Brahma, Vishnu and Shankar; May that goddess Sarasvathi bless us, protect us, and completely remove from us all stains of lethargy, sluggishness, and ignorance.


Continued in the Next Part

Sources and References

  6. Ritam “The Word in the Rig-Veda and in Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri
  8. 12. Vedic river and Hindu civilization; edited by Dr. S. Kalyanaraman
  9. Original Sanskrit Texts on the Origin and History of the People of India… Edited by John Muir
  10. Devata Rupa-Mala (Part Two) by Prof. SK Ramachandra Rao



Posted by on March 21, 2017 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Devi, Sanskrit


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Who were the Vratyas – the searching wanderers?

[This article attempts to trace the meaning that the term Vratya acquired  at various stages in the unfolding of Indian history; and, wonders how well that meaning mirrored the state of Indian society at that  given stage.]

Every civilization has certain unique features, which differentiate it from the rest. Indian civilization is distinguished by its resilience; continuity with change; and its diversity. The composite fabric of Indian civilization is woven with strands and shades of varying textures and hues.

Rig Veda repeatedly refers to the composite character of its society and to its pluralistic population. It mentions the presence of several religions, cults and languages; and calls upon all persons to strive to become noble parts of that pluralistic society.

The pluralistic character of that society was characterized not merely by its composition but also by the divergent views held by its thinkers. There were non -conformists and dissenters even among the Vedic philosophers. In addition, there were individuals and groups who were outside the pale of the Vedic fold; and who practiced, the pre-Vedic traditions; and rejected the validity of the Vedas and its rituals.

The prominent among such dissenters and rebels were the Vratyas. They were an atrociously heterogeneous community; and defied any definition. Even to this day, the meaning of the term Vratya is unclear; and is variously described. The amazing community of the Vratyas included magicians, medicine men, shamans, mystics, materialists, vagrant or mendicant (pari-vrajaka), wandering madmen, roaming- footloose warriors, mercenaries, fire eaters, poison swallowers , libidinous pleasure seekers and wandering swarm of austere ascetics.

Some of them were violent and erotic; while some others were refined and austere; and a lot others were just plain crazy. It was a random assortment of nuts and gems.

[ Even in the later times , Vratya was used as derogatory term. For instance ; in the Drona parva of the Mahabharata (14.1-15) the Vrishni-s and Andhaka-s were branded Vratyas – uncouth and uncultured.]

The Rig Veda mentions Vratyas about eight times (e.g. 3:26:6; 5:53:11; 5:75:9; 9:14:2); and five groups of the Vratyas are collectively called pancha-vrata (10:34:12). The Atharva Veda (15th kanda) devotes an entire hymn titled vratya- suktha to the “mystical fellowship” of the Vratyas. The Tandya and Jaiminiya Brahmanas too talk about Vratyas; and describe a sacrifice called Vratya-stoma, which is virtually a purification ritual.

The Rig Veda, generally, employs the term Vratya  to denote: breakaway group or an inimical horde or a collection of men of indefinite number; living in temporary settlements. The Atharva- Veda too, uses the word in the sense of a stranger or a guest or one who follows the rule; but, treats it with a lot more respect. Apparently, the perceptions changed a great deal during the intervening period.

The Jaiminiya Brahmana (2:222) describes  Vratyas   as ascetics roaming about themselves in an intoxicated state. The Tandya (24:18) however addresses them as divine-Vratyas (daiva vai vratyah). The Vajasaneyi-samhita refers to them as physicians and as guardians of truth. They seem to have been a community of ascetics living under a set of strange religious vows (Vrata).

Interestingly, Shiva –Rudra is described as Eka –Vratya* (AV celebrating the glory of one- hundred – and- eight forms of Rudra hails Rudra as Vrata-pathi, the chief of the Vratyas (TS.

[ The Atharva-veda (AV: 5. 1-7) speaks of seven attendants of the exalted Eka Vratya, the Vratya par excellence  : Bhava of the intermediate space in the East;  Sarva in the South; Pashupathi in the West; Ugra of the North; Rudra of the lower region; Mahadeva of the upper region ; Asani of  lightening ; and, Ishana of all the intermediate regions. It is said; though they are named differently they in truth are the varying manifestations of the one and the same Eka Vratya. While Rudra, Sarva, Ugra and Asani are the terrifying aspects, the other four: Bhava , Pashupathi a, Mahadeva and Ishana are peaceful aspects.

Of these, Bhava and Sarva by virtue of their rule over sky and earth protect the devote against calamities, contagious diseases and poisonous pollution.]

[*  However, Dr.RC Hazra in his work Rudra in the Rg-veda (page 243) remarks that Eka-Vratya is to be identified with Prajapathi ; and , not with Rudra,  as some scholars think.]

The Atharva Veda (15.2.a) makes a very ambiguous statement: “Of him in the eastern quarter, faith is the harlot, Mitra the Magadha, discrimination is the garment, etc…..” in the southern quarter Magadha is the mantra of the Vratya; in the other two quarters Magadha is the laughter and the thunder of the Vratya. (Mitra, maAtm, hasa and stanayitnii).  It is not clear what this statement implies. But it is taken to mean that the Magadha tribes were friends, advisers and thunder (strong supporters) of the Vratyas.

The implication of this is rather interesting. The breakaway group from among the Vedic people (including the pre Vedic tribes), that is, the Vratyas left their mainland and roamed over to the East; and ultimately settled in the regions of Magadha, where they found friends and supporters. The reason for that friendly reception appears to be that the Magadha tribes in Eastern India were not in good terms with the Vedic people in the Indus basin; and saw no difficulty in accommodating the Vratyas. And, more importantly, the Magadhas did not follow or approve the Vedic religion; and they, too, just as the Vratyas, were against the rites, rituals and sacrifices of the Vedic community.

The Vedic people too did not seem to regard the Brahman of the Magadha region. They were considered not true Brahmins, but only Brahmins by birth or in name (brahma-bandhu Magadha-desiya)- (Latyayana Srauta sutra .8.6)

The Vratyas roamed about, mostly, in the regions to the East and North-west of the Madhyadesha, that is, in the countries of Magadha and Anga .They spoke the dialect of Prachya, the source of the languages of Eastern India. It is also said ; the Vratyas  also spoke  the language of the initiated (dlksita-vac) , though not themselves initiated (a-dtksita), but as’ calling that which is easy to utter (a-durukta)t difficult to utter ‘ (Panchavimsa Brahmana, 17.1.9) .This may mean that the Vratyas were familiar and comfortable both in Sanskrit and Prakrit.

They lived alone or in groups, away from populated areas. They followed their own cult-rules and practices. They drifted far and wide; roamed from the Indus valley to banks of the Ganga. They were the wandering seekers.

[According to Mahamahopadhyay Haraprasad Sastri,the vast territory to the South of the Ganga and North of the Vindhya ranges extending from Mudgagiri (Monghyr) in the East to the Charanadri (Chunar) in the West was called the land of Magadha tribes. The Anga region was around Bhagalpur area.]

The Kesi-suktha  of Rig Veda (10:13:6); Latyayana –sruta-sutra (8.6-7); Bahudayana –sruta- sutra (26.32); Panchavimsati Brahmana (17. 1.9-15) and vratya- suktha of Atharva Veda (15th kanda), provide graphic descriptions of these magis, the Vratyas.  These descriptions put together project a truly impressive, colorful and awe-inspiring image of the wandering Vratyas.

They were distinguished by their black turbans (krishnam ushnisham dharayanti) worn in a slanting manner (LSS 8.6-7); a white blanket thrown across the shoulders(BSS 26.32);  displaying long matted hair (kesi); a set of round ornaments for the ears (pravartau); jewels (mani) hanging by the neck;  rows of long necklaces of strange beads swinging across the chest ; two (dvi) deer-skins tied together for lower garment, and sandals  of black hide , with flaps, for the feet (upanahau); carrying a lance (Pra-toda) , bow (AV 15.2.1)  and a goad (pratoda) ; and , riding a rickety   chariot / cart  ,with planks ( amargagamirthah) tied together with strings,   suitable for rough roads (vipatha) drawn by a  horse or a mule (LSS 8:6,10-11).The Vipatha was said in greater use in Eastern regions (Prachyartha). 

Panchavimsati Bralhmana (17.1.9-15) further states that the Vratya   leader (Grhapati) wore a turban (Usnisa), carried a whip (Pratoda), a kind of bow (Jyahroda*), was clothed in a black {krsnasa) garment and two skins (Ajina), black and white (krisna-valaksa), and owned a rough wagon (Viratha) covered with planks (phalakastirna). He also wore garment lined of silver coins (Niska). His shoes were black and pointed.

[* The descriptions of the Jya-hroda, a sort of arms carried by the Vratya, occur in the Pancavimsa Brahmana (17.1.14) as also in the Katyayana (22.4.2) and Latyayana (8.6.8) Sutras. It is described as a ‘bow not meant for use’ (ayogya’ dhanus); and also as a ‘bow without an arrow’ (dhanushka anisu). It obviously was a decorative-piece meant to enhance the impressive look of the Chief.]

And, the others, subordinate to the leader, had garments with fringes of red (valukantani damatusam) , two fringes on each, skins folded double (dvisamhitany ajinani), and footwear (Upanah).

Vratyas used a peculiar type of reclining seats (asandi)

Vratya Asandi

[A-sandi is a generic term for a seat of some sort, occurring frequently in the later Samhitas and Brahmanas, but not in the Rig-Veda.  In the Atharvaveda (AV. 15.3.2) the settle brought for the Vratya is described at length. It had two feet, lengthwise and cross-pieces, forward and cross-cords. It had a seat (Asada) covered with a cushion (Astarana) and a pillow (Upabarhana), and a support (Upasraya).

The Satapatha Brahmana (Sat.Brh. also describes the Asandi as an elaborate low seat, with diminutive legs; and, of some length on which a man could comfortably stretch himself, if he chose to. And, more than one person could sit on such a seat. It was said to be made of Khadira wood, perforated (vi-trinna), and joined with straps (vardhra-yukta). It perhaps meant a long reclining chair/ rest. The Asandi is described in the Satapatha Brahmana, as a seat for a king or a leader.]

They moved among the warriors (yaudhas), herdsmen and farmers.  They did not care either for the rituals or for initiations (adhikshitah); and not at all for celibacy (Na hi brahmacharyam charanthi).They did not engage themselves in agriculture (Na krshim) or in trade (Na vanijyam). They behaved as if they were possessed (gandharva grithaha) or drunk or just mad.

The scholars generally believe, what has come down to us as Tantra is, in fact, a residue of the cult-practices of the Vratyas. The Tantra, even to this day, is considered non-Vedic, if not anti-Vedic.

The Atharva Veda (Vratya Kanda) mentions that Vratyas were also a set of talented composers and singers. They found they could sing a lot better—and probably hold the notes longer—if they practiced what they called pranayama, a type of breath control. They even attempted relating their body-structure to that of the universe. They learnt to live in harmony with nature. There is, therefore, a school of thought, which asserts, what came to be known as Yoga in the later periods had its roots in the ascetic and ecstatic practices of the Vratyas. And, the Vratyas were, therefore, the precursors of the later ascetics and yogis.

It is said, the theoretical basis for transformation of cult-practices into a system (Yoga) was provided by the Samkhya School. Tantra thus yoked Samkhya and Yoga. Over a long period, both Samkhya and Yoga schools merged with the mainstream and came to be regarded as orthodox (asthika) systems, as they both accepted the authority of the Vedas. Yet, the acceptance of Samkhya and Yoga within the orthodox fold seemed rather strained and with some reservation, perhaps because the flavor -the sense of their non-Vedic origin rooted in the Vratya cult practices of pre  Vedic period –  still lingers on.

The German Indologist Jakob Wilhelm Hauer (1881 –1962) – who had made the beginnings of Yoga in India the theme for his doctor’s thesis –   in his Der Yoga als Heilweg (Yoga as a way of salvation) traces the origin of Yoga to the wandering groups of the Vratyas.

JW Hauer, who represented the leading commentators on Eastern thought in the days of CG Jung, mentions that many of the groups that had roots in the Vratya tradition (such as: Jaiminiyas, Kathas, Maitrayaniyas and Kausitakins) were eventually absorbed into the orthodox fold. He also remarks that Chandogya and Svetasvatara Upanishads are closer in spirit to the Vratya- Samkhya ideologies.

It is the Svetasvaratara Upanishad which declares Rudra as the Supreme, matchless and one without a second – eko hi rudro na dvitiiyaaya tasthu– SV.3.2. It establishes Rudra as the Absolute, the ultimate essence, not limited by forms and names – na tasya pratima asti yasya nama mahadyasha – SV.4.19)  ]

The Samkhya school, in its earlier days, was closely associated two other heterodox systems, i.e., Jainism and Buddhism. In a historical perspective, Samkhya-Yoga and Jainism – Buddhism were derived from a common nucleus that was outside the Vedic tradition. And, that nucleus was provided by the Vratya movement.

Interestingly, Arada Kalama, the teacher of Gotama who later evolved in to the Buddha, belonged to Samkhya School. Gotama had a teacherfrom the Jain tradition too; he was Muni Pihitasrava a follower of Parsvanatha. The Buddha later narrated how he went around naked, took food in his palms and observed various other rigorous restrictions expected of a Sramana  ascetic. The Buddha followed those practice for some time and gave them up, as he did not find merit in extreme austerities.  The Buddha, the awakened one, was a Yogi too. His teachings had elements of old-yoga practices such as askesis (self- discipline), control, restraint, release and freedom. The early Buddhism, in fact, preserved the Yogi – ideal of Nirvana.

Thus, the development of religions and practices in Eastern regions of India, in the early times, was inspired and influenced – directly or otherwise – by the Vratyas.

The contribution of the Vratyas, according to my friend DSampath, was that they gave a very time and space based approach to the issues.  They were the initial social scientists with rationality as the anchor, he says.

Some of the characteristics of the Vratya-thought found a resonant echo in Jainism and Buddhism. Just to mention a few: Man and his development is the focal interest; his effort and his striving is what matters, and not god’s grace; the goal of human endeavor is within his realm; a man or a woman is the architect of one’s own destiny ; and there is nothing supernatural about his goals and his attainments. There was greater emphasis on contemplation, introspection, pratikramana (back-to-soul),; and a deliberate shift away from  exuberant rituals and sacrifices seeking health, wealth and happiness.

The Vratya was neither a religion, nor was it an organized sect. It was a movement seeking liberation from the suffocating confines of the establishment and searching for a meaning to life and existence. The movement phased out when it became rather irrelevant to the changed circumstances and values of its society.  The Vratyas, the searching wanderers, the rebels of the Rig Vedic age, faded in to the shadowy corners of Vedic religion, rather swiftly; yet they left behind a lingering influence on other systems of Indian thought.


The Jain tradition claims that it existed in India even from pre- Vedic times and remained unaffected by the Vedic religion. It also says, the Jain religion was flourishing, especially in the North and Eastern regions of India, during the Vedic times.

Because of the basic differences in their tenets and practices, the two traditions opposed each other. As a part of that ongoing conflict, certain concepts and practices appreciated by one religion were deprecated by the other. The term Vratya was one such instance.

The term Vratya has a very long association with Jainism; and its connotation in Jainism is astonishingly different from the one implied in the Vedic tradition where it is employed to describe an inimical horde. On the other hand, Vratya in Jainism is a highly regarded and respected term. The term Vratya, in the Jaina context, means the observer of vratas or vows. Thus, while the Vedic community treated the Vratyas as rebels and outcasts, the tribes in the eastern regions hailed Vratyas as heroes and leaders (Vratya Rajanya).

The Vedic and the Jain traditions both glorify certain Kings who also were great religious Masters. In the Hindu tradition, Lord Rsabha – son of King Nabhi and Merudevi, and the ancestor of Emperor Bharata (after whom this land was named Bharatavarsha) is a very revered figure. The Rig Veda and Yajur Veda, too, mention Rishabhadeva and Aristanemi. According to the Jain tradition Rishabhadeva is the first Tirthankara of the present age (avasarpini); and, Aristanemi is the twenty-second Tirthankara.

The Jain tradition refers to Rishabhadeva as Maha-Vratya, to suggest he was the great leader of the Vratyas.

Further, the Mallas, in the northern parts of the present-day Bihar, with their capital at  the city of Kusavati or Kusinarawere a brave and warlike people; and were one of the earliest independent republics (Samgha). The Jaina Kalpasutra refers to nine Mallakis as having formed a league with nine Lichchhavis, and the eighteen Ganarajas of Kasi-Kos’ala.They were also said to be  a part of a confederation of eight republics (atthakula )  until they were vanquished and absorbed into the Magadha Empire, at about the time of the Buddha. The Mallas were mentioned as Vratya – Kshatriyas.

Similarly, their neighboring tribe, the Licchhavis who played a very significant role in the history and development of Jainism were also called as the descendants of Vratya-Kshatriyas. Mahavira was the son of a Licchhavi princess; and he had a considerable following among the Licchhavi tribe. In the Jaina Kalpa Sutra, Tris’ala, the sister of  Chetaka – the Lichchhavi chief of Vesali, is styled Kshatriyani  .

The Buddha too visited Licchhavi on many occasions; and had great many followers there. The Licchhavis were closely related by marriage to the Magadhas.

The Buddhist tradition has preserved the names of eminent Lichchhavis like prince Abhaya, Otthaddha, Mahali, general Siha, Dummukha and Sunakkhatta. The Mallas , like the Lichchhavis, were ardent champions of Buddhism. In the Mahaparinibbana Suttanta they are sometimes called Vasetthas

Pundit Sukhlalji explains,  the two ethnic groups of ‘Vratva’ and ‘Vrsala’ followed non-Vedic tradition; and both believed in non‑violence and austerities.  He suggests that both the Buddha and Mahavira were Kshatriyas of Vrsala group. He also remarks that the Buddha was known as ‘Vrsalaka’.

It is not surprising that the Licchhavi, Natha and Malla clans of Eastern India proved fertile grounds for sprouting of non-Vedic religions such as Jainism and Buddhism.

Thus, both Buddhism and Jainism were in tune with  the philosophic atmosphere prevailing in Magadha, around sixth century BC. Apart from his philosophical principles, the Buddha’s main contribution was his deprecation of severe asceticism in all religions and acceptance of a sensible and a rational approach to life.

The nucleus for development of those non Vedic religion was, reputedly, the ideas and inspiration derived for the Vratya movement.


In the mean time Vedic perception of Vratyas had undergone a dramatic sea- change.

Latyayana –sruta-sutra (8.6.29) mentions that after performing Vratya-homa the Vratya should Tri-vidya-vrti the threefold commitment to study of Vedas, participating in the performance of Yajnas; and giving and accepting gifts. These three were the traditional ways of the priestly class.

Apasthamba (ca. 600 BCE), the Lawgiver and the celebrated mathematician who contributed to development of Sulbasutras, refers to Vratya as a learned mendicant Brahmin, a guest (athithi) who deserves to be welcomed and treated with respect. Apasthamba, in support of that, quotes sentences to be addressed by the host to his guest from the passages in Atharva Veda (15:10 -13).

According to Atharva Veda, Vratya is a srotriya, a student of the scriptures, (of at least one recession), and a learned person  (Vidvan) faithful to his vows (vratas). In summary, the passages ask:

” Let the king , to whose house the Vratya who possesses such knowledge comes as a guest , honor him as superior to himself, disregarding his princely rank or his kingdom.

Let him, to whose house the Vratya possessing such knowledge comes as a guest, rise up of his own accord to meet him, and say “Vratya, where didst thou pass the night? Vratya, here is water; let it refresh thee .Vratya let it be as thou pleasest. Vratya, as thy wish is so let be it done.”

[From Hymns of the Atharva Veda, by Ralph T.H. Griffith…Hymn x and xi of Book 15]

[ tád yásyaiváṁ vidvān vrā ́tyo rājñó ’tithir gṛhān āgáchet  // – 15.10.1

Śréyāmsam enam ātmáno mānayet táthā kṣatrāya  nā ́ vṛścate táthā rāṣṭrāya nā ́ vṛścate // -1510.2

tád yásyaiváṁ vidvān vrā ́tya úddhṛteṣv agníṣu ádhiśrite agni hotré ’tithir gṛhān āgáchet // – 1`5.12.1

tád yásyaiváṁ vidvān vrā ́tya ékāṁ  rā ́trim átithir gṛhé vásati  / yé pṛthivyā ́ṁ púnyā lokā ́s tān evá ténā ́va runddhe// — 15.13.1 ]

There is, thus, a gulf of difference between the perception of the early and later Vedic periods. This amazing transformation seems to have come about as a result of sustained and successful contacts between the Upanishads and the systems of Samkhya and Yoga. There was a healthy interaction between the two streams of the Indian tradition. The Samkhya-Yoga ideas found a place in the Upanishads. At the same time, the Upanishads brought its impact on Buddhism and Jainism. The savants of orthodox tradition such as Kumarila Bhatta (ca.6th century AD) accepted the Buddhist schools as authoritative because they had their roots in the Upanishads. (Tantra vartika)

The ideologies of the two traditions moved closer during the period of Upanishads. It was a period of synthesis.


The term Vratya acquired a totally different meaning by the time of the Dharma Shastras. Manu Smruti (dated around third or second century BCE) states that, if after the last prescribed period, the twice-born remain uninitiated, they become Vratyas, fallen from Savitri. (Manusmriti: verse II.39)

Manusmriti (verse X.20)  also informs that those whom the twice-born  ( Brahmin , Kshatriya and Vaishya ) beget from  wives of equal caste, but who, not fulfilling their sacred duties, are excluded from the Savitri (initiation), must also designate by the appellation Vratyas.

The samskara of initiation or upanayana (ceremony of the thread) was considered essential for the dvijas (the twice-born). Manusmriti mentions the recommended age for upanayana and for commencing the studies. It also mentions the age before which these should take place.

In the eighth year after conception, one should perform the initiation (Upanayana ceremonies of sacred thread) of a Brahmana, in the eleventh year after conception (that) of a Kshatriya, but in the twelfth year that of a Vaisya. (MS: II.36)

The initiation of a Brahmana who desires proficiency in sacred learning should take place in the fifth year after conception, that of a Kshatriya who wishes to become powerful in the sixth, and that of a Vaisya who longs for success in his business in the eighth.(Ms: II.37)

The time for the Savitri initiation of a Brahmana does not pass until the completion of the sixteenth year (after conception), of a Kshatriya until the completion of the twenty-second, and of a Vaisya until the completion of the twenty-fourth. (MS: II.38)

After those (periods men of) these three (castes) who have not received the sacrament at the proper time, become Vratyas (outcastes), excluded from the Savitri (initiation) (MS. II.39)

garbhāṣṭame’bde kurvīta brāhmaasyaupanāyanam | 
garbhādekādaśe rājño garbhāt tu dvādaśe viśa || 36 ||

brahmavarcasakāmasya kāryo viprasya pañcame | 
rājño balārthina aṣṭhe vaiśyasyaihārthino’ṣṭame || 37 ||

ā odaśād brāhmaasya sāvitrī nātivartate | 
ā dvāviśāt katrabandhorā caturviśaterviśa || 38 ||

ata ūrdhva trayo’pyete yathākālamasask | 
sāvitrīpatitā vrātyā bhavantyāryavigarhitā || 39 ||

Oddly, the insistence on upanayana and making it compulsory seems to have come into vogue in the post-Upanishad period. During the Atharvana period, initiation was regarded as second-birth; and was associated with commencement of studies or as a requirement for performing a sacrifice. The significance of the second birth in the Vedic time was, therefore, largely, religious and not social. Not everyone was required to obtain the Upanayana samskara. The upanayana was a voluntary ceremony for those who wished to study or perform a sacrifice.

It was only after the Grihya-sutras crystallized, upanayana turned into a samskara, as a recognition of ones position in the social order.Some scholars , however , suggest, Vratya does not necessarily denote a person who has not undergone upanayana samskara; but, it refers to one who does not offer Soma sacrifice or keep the sacred fire(agnihotra).


 [ Dr. Ananat Sadashiv Altekar  ( 1898-1960)- who was the Professor and Head of the Department of Ancient Indian History and Culture at Banaras Hindu University –  (in his Education in Ancient India, 1934) explains that it was in the times of the Upanishads that the Upanayana ceremony gained greater importance. Upanayana literally meant taking a young boy to a teacher in order to hand him over to the latter for his education in the Vedas.  Thus, the Upanayana occasion  marked the entry of a student, as an inmate (Antevasin), into Guru-kula to pursue Vedic studies. The Upanayana was thus primarily linked to pursuit of studies; and, it was not compulsory for all.

And, again, an Upanayana had to be performed every time a student approached a new teacher; or, when he embarked upon a new branch of study. Dr. Altekar mentions that there were occasions when even married men had to undergo Upanayana while approaching a renowned teacher for learning a new subject (Br. Up.6.2.4). And, such a ceremony that was so often repeated, Dr. Altekar opines, could not have been an elaborate one. It was, by its very nature, a domestic and simple performance. The student had to approach the Teacher, holding the sacred fuel (Samitt), and indicating his complete willingness to learn and to serve the Teacher, as also to tend his sacred Agni-s (Ch.Up.6.5.5 and 5.11.7; and Mu. Up. 1.2.12).

An ardent young student entering a new phase of life after Upanayana was said to be born a second time – Dvija. (A similar notion of a ‘second-birth’ came into vogue in Buddhism when lay person was admitted into the Sangha)

According to Dr.Altekar,  for several centuries, Upanayana was not regarded as a Samskara ritual. And, it seems to have become a popular Samskara – ceremony only in the later times. In the earlier times, one was called a Vratya if he was not offering Soma sacrifice or if one was not tending to sacred fires. But, in the later times, the one who had not undergone a Upanayana Samskara came to labelled a Vratya. Subsequently, such a Vratya was re-admitted into the orthodox fold (even if his past three ancestors had failed to undergo Upanayana altogether- Vratya pita pitamaho va na Somam priveshya Vratyah – Sri Madhava’s commentary on Parasara Smriti), provided he underwent the purification ritual of Vratya –stoma (Paraskara Grihya Sutra 2.5)

In course of time, Upanayana came to be regarded as an essential bodily Samskara (Sarira samskara) for all the three classes. And, the non-performance of Upanayana would disqualify one from entering into a valid wedlock.

Although Manu prescribed 8th, 11th and 12th year as suitable for performance of the Upanayana for the Brahmana, Kashtriya and Vaishya boys, it was not taken by the later Law-givers as an absolute norm. For instance; Baudhayana considered anytime between 8 and 16 years of age, for all classes, as suitable. The change in the norm perhaps came about because of the change in the conception and the nature of the Upanayana. In the earlier times, Upanayana marked the commencement of Vedic education ; and, therefore, the child had to start learning at a quite young age. But when Upanayana became a bodily Samskara, any age between 8 and 16 was considered good enough. In any case, commencement of  Vedic studies after the age of 16 was discouraged, perhaps because it was thought that the boy’s capacity to absorb and learn a new subject might have by then gone rather slow.


Since the Upanayana ceremony was linked to commencement of education, the Upanayana of girls was as common as that of boys. There is ample evidence to show that such was the case. The Atharvaveda (XI. 5. 18) expressly refers to maidens undergoing the Brahmanharya discipline and the Sutra works of the 5th century B. C. supply interesting details in its connection. Even Manu includes Upanayana among the sanskaras (rituals) obligatory for girls (II. 66).

After about the beginning of the Christian era, the Upanayana for girls went out of vogue. But, Smriti writers of even the 8th century A. D. like Yama admit that in the earlier times the girls had the privilege of Upanayana and Vedic studies.

The discontinuance of Upanayana was disastrous to the educational and religious status of women. The mischief caused by the discontinuance of Upanayana was further enhanced by the lowering of the marriageable age. In the Vedic period girls were married at about the age of 16 or 17; but by Ca. 500 B. C. the custom arose of marrying them soon after the attainment of puberty. Later writers like Yajnavalkya (200 A. D.), Samvarta and Yama, vehemently condemn the guardian who fails to marry a girl before the attainment of the puberty. Therefore, the Smritis written by 11th century began to glorify the merits of a girl’s marriage at the age of 7, 8, or 9, when it was regarded as an ideal thing to celebrate a girl’s marriage at so young an age, female education could hardly prosper. ]


In any case, during the period of Dharma sastras, those who did not adhere to the prescriptions of the sastras and did not perform the prescribed rites and ceremonies were termed Vratyas.There were, obviously, many people who didn’t bother to follow the rules.

The smritis therefore, provided a provision for purification of the errant persons through a ritual (vratya stoma); and created a window for taking them back into the fold; and for rendering them eligible for all rites and rituals.

[ In the Puranas , the Sisunaga kings are mentioned as Kshattra -bandhus, i. e., Vratya Kshatriyas.]

The object of the entire exercise undertaken by the sastras, seemed to be to build and preserve a social order, according to its priorities .But, in the later periods these smaskaras lost their social significance, entirely. The social conditions deteriorated rapidly during the medieval period.  Even in the religious life, upanayana remained just a routine ritual, often meaningless. Agnihotra vanished almost entirely.

In a way of speaking almost all of us are Vratyas, in terms of the smritis.

[.. Let me digress, here, for a little while.

In the Vedic era, women were initiated into the thread ceremony. It was essential for both sexes who wished to study [Atharva Veda 11.5.18a, Satpatha Brahmana., and Taittariya Brahamana II.3.3.2-3]

Yama, a Law-giver even prior to Manu, upheld education for women, but stipulated the female students should not engage in begging their meals, wearing deer-skins or growing matted hair (as male students might do) [VirS.p.402]

All that changed radically, for worse, during the period of Dharma sastras. The woman lost the high status she once enjoyed in Vedic society. She lost some of her independence.  She became an  object to be protected.

The harsh prescriptions of the Dharma shatras have to be placed in the context of its times, in order to understand why such changes came about.

The period after 300 B.C witnessed a succession of invasions and influx of foreigners such as the Greeks, the Scythians, the Parthian, the Kushans and others. The political misfortunes, the war atrocities followed by long spells of anarchy and lawlessness had a disastrous effect on the society. Fear and insecurity haunted the common people and householders.

Sons were valued higher than the daughters because of the increased need for fighting males, in order to survive the waves of onslaughts. It was   imperative to protect women from abductors. The then society deemed it advisable to curtail women’s freedom and movements. The practice of early marriage perhaps came in as a part of those defensive measures. The education of the girl child was no longer a priority. The Sastras compromised by accepting marriage as a substitute for Upanayana and education. The neglect of education, imposing seclusion and insecurity that gripped their lives, had disastrous consequences upon the esteem and status of women .The society in turn sank into depravity.

The Manusmruti and other Dharmasastras came into being at the time when the orthodox society was under dire threat and when it was fighting for survival. The society had entered in to self preservation – mode. The severity of the Dharma Shastras was perhaps a defensive mechanism, in response to the threats and challenges thrown at its society.

Its main concern was preserving the social order and to hold the society together. Though the sastras pointed out the breaches in observance of the prescribed code of behavior, it was  willing to condone the lapses, purify the wayward and naughty; and admit them back into the orthodox fold. Further, It even readily took  under its fold the alien hordes such as Kushans, Yavanas (Ionians or Greeks), Sakas (Scythians) and others; and recognized them as Vratya – Kshatriyas…]


To sum up, Vratya in the early Rig Veda denoted an amorphous collection of heterogeneous groups of pre- Vedic tribes and  the dissenters from among the Vedic community, who rejected the Vedic concepts and extrovert practices of rites, rituals and sacrifices seeking from the gods gifts of health, wealth and glory. The Vratyas turned in to nomads and drifters. The wandering seekers roamed the land and finally settled down in the Magadha region, in the East, where they found acceptance.

The Vratyas appeared to be a set of extraordinarily gifted and talented people, who brought fresh perspectives to life and existence; to the relations between man and nature and between nature and universe. Their innovative ideas spawned the seeds for sprouting of systems of thought such as samkhya and Yoga. Those systems in turn inspired and spurned the movement toward rationalism and man -centered – non Vedic religious systems Jainism and Buddhism.

What the Vratyas did, in effect, was they deliberately moved  away from the extrovert and exuberant rites and rituals; brought focus on man and his relation with the nature and his fellow beings. Their scheme of things was centered round reason (not intuition). They turned the mind inwards, contemplative and meditative.

It is clear that in the ancient times, the two religious systems – one in the Indus valley on the west and the other along the banks of the Ganga in the east- developed and flourished independent of each other. Their views on man – soul –world – god relationships, differed significantly. Because of the basic differences in their tenets and practices, the two traditions opposed each other. They seemed to have even stayed away from each other. That, in a manner, explains why the Saraswathi is referred over fifty times in the Rig Veda, while the Ganga hardly gets mentioned.

Towards the later Vedic era something magical (chamathkar) appears to have taken place. By the time of Atharvana period, the concepts and perceptions of the two traditions seemed to have moved closer.The later Vedic traditions recognized and and accorded Vratyas a place of honor. That was  the result of  sustained and successful contacts between the Upanishads and the systems of Samkhya and Yoga; and the impact that Upanishads brought  on Buddhism and Jainism. It was the age of understanding and  synthesis.

The interaction between the two systems heightened during the period of the Buddha and Mahavira. In the later centuries, the texts of the orthodox school (e.g. Brahma sutras, Yoga Sutra, Panini’s grammar, Anu Gita etc.) devoted more attention and space for discussing the Buddhist principles, especially the theories relating to cognition.

The shift towards East was symbolized by the transfer of the intellectual capital of ancient  India from Takshashila (Taxila) to Pataliputra (Patna) and Nalanda, when Taxila was overrun by the invading Persians (third century BCE).That provided an impetus not merely for fresh activity within the orthodox schools , but also for greater interaction with the heterodox religions.

Both the traditions inspired, influenced and enriched each other over the centuries; absorbing and complementing each other’s principles and practices; and finally synthesizing into that fabulous composite culture, the Indian culture.

That synthesis was symbolized when the post Vedic tradition hailed and worshipped its god Ganapathy with the joyous chant Namo Vratapataye – salutations to the chief of the Vratyas.( Ganapaty-atharva-shirsha)

The Dharmasastras mark a period of degeneration in the orthodox society, as it reeled under the onslaught of hordes of successive invaders and plunderers. The concerns of security and survival took precedence over innovation, development and expansion. It became an inward looking society seeking for right answers and remedies to preserve its form and structure. It’went in to a self-preservation mode. Its society metamophasized and shrank into a pupa:  cautious and ultra conservative.

Vratya then meant someone naughty and unmanageable ( It appears , it is only the Marathi language that still retains such meaning of the term). Yet, the society could ill afford to abandon him to his whims and wayward manners. It was willing to pardon, purify and welcome him back in to its fold, clasping him dearly to its bosom. It was ready to accept even   the foreigners as its own.For instance ;  the medieval Rajput families descended from immigrant races from West in the distant past were treated Vratya-Kshatriyas ; and given pedigrees going back to Rama, Yadu, Arjuna and such other heroes of the mythologies

Thereafter, for a long period of time, the term Vratya went off the radar screen of the Indian religious life; because the samskaras and their associated disciplines had lost their sanctity and significance.

The only other occasions when Vratya came in to play , were in the context of the vratya stoma purifying ceremonies.

*.Vratya stoma ceremonies were performed before anointment and coronation of kings, in the middle ages. For instance, Shivaji went through Vratya stoma and upanayana ceremonies, on May 29, 1674, before he was crowned.(For details , please refer to Malhar Ramarao Chitnis – Siva chatrapathiche charitra Ed by K N Sane , 1924 – based on the reprorts of eyewitnesses and court officials )

*. Even as late as in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Hindus returning from foreign lands were purified through Vratya stoma.

*.Dr. S. Radhakrishnan stated that individuals and tribes were absorbed in to Hinduism through vratyastoma.(The Hindu View of Life)

*.Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami cites many instances of people forcibly converted to other faiths  re -admitted to Hinduism and issued Vratya stoma certificates.


At each stage in the evolution of Indian History, Vratya was accorded a different meaning; and that meaning amply mirrored the state of Indian society at that stage.

The obscure term Vratya, in a strange manner, epitomizes and conceals in its womb the tale of unfolding of Indian thought through the ages.


Sources and references:

 Early Indian Thought by prof.SK Ramachandra Rao

‘The Path of Arhat: A Religious Democracy’ by Justice T. U. Mehta

Jaina Tradition and Buddhism:

Rsabha in the Atharvaveda by Dr. Satya Pal Narang

Mention of Magadha in Vedic Literature

SanatanaDharma –sources

Sanathana Dharma – Vratya

Hymns of the Atharva Veda, by Ralph T.H. Griffith…Hymn x and xi of Book 15

Does Hinduism Accept Newcomers? Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami


Posted by on September 13, 2012 in History, Indian Philosophy, Rigveda, Vratya


Tags: , , ,

Rishis of the Rig Veda and oral traditions of the Vedas

This post is in response to comments and queries from Kaveriyamma. Those related to the Rishis of the Rig Veda, their linage, the female Rishis and the oral tradition.


A Rishi in Rig Veda is an author of a Rik, a mantra.  It is not a product of his reasoning or intellect, but of an intuitive perception. He envisioned the entities beyond the range of human senses,concived the self evident knowledge (svatah pramana) and realized the Truth by direct intution. Vamadeva , a Rishi in one of his hymns (RV 4.3.16) describes himself as the illumined one , expressing the Truth reveled to him(ninya vachasmi).

The term Rishi is defined as “rishati jnānena samsāra-pāram” meaning one who goes beyond the mundane world by means of knowledge. Further, some scholars think the root ‘drish‘ (sight) might have given rise to root ‘rish’ meaning ‘to see’.

Rishi is therefore a wise seer, a drastara, one who visualizes a mantra. He is also the one who hears. The seers were the “hearers of the Truth” (kavayaha sathya srutah) .Sri Aurobindo described Shruthi as “divine recordings of cosmic sounds of truth” heard by the Rishis.The Vedas are thus Shruthis , revealed scriptures. That is the reason , the Vedas are Apaurusheya , not authored by any agency.

Amarakosha, the Sanskrit lexicon, gives the synonym for the term Rishi as satyavachah, the one who speaks truth. A Rishi in the Rig Veda is a sage who realized the truth. However all sages are not Rishis; just as not all Rishis are Kavis.

(For more on Kavis, please see Kavi, Rishi and the Poet ).

Yasca_charya makes a significant  classification even among the Rishis.He draws a clear distinction between a Sakshath_krutha_Rishi , the seer who has the direct intutional perception; and the Shrutha_rishi , the one heard it from the seeres and remambered what he heard.

The Srutha_rishi is like the mirror or the moon that basks in the glory of the sun .The moon and the mirror both take in the glory of the sun and put forth the shine to the world in their own way. Similarly, the Srutha_rishi obtained the knowledge by listening to the Sakshath_ Krutha_ Rishi, and more importantly by remembering what he heard. The bifurcation of the Vedas/Upanishads on one hand (as Shruthi, as heard) ; and the Vedangas, Shastras, Puranas, Ithihasa etc. on the other (as smriti, as remembered) , stems from the above concept.  Smriti, in general, is secondary in authority to Shruti .

Rig Veda mentions about four hundred Rishis and about thirty of them were women. Before going into their names and other details, let us, briefly, talk about the mantras.


Poetry raised to its sublime heights is mantra to which a Rishi gives utterance. The Rishi visualizes a magnificent idea, through intuitive perception, crystallizes it and gives it an expression. . One cannot be a sublime poet unless one is a Rishi (naan rishir kuruthe kavyam).  Badarayana Sutra (244:36) says Rishi not only lives the mantra but also is the essence of it.

A mantra is usually prefaced by a segment made of three components, mentioning the Rishi who visualized the mantra, the Deva or the Devatha who inspired the mantra or to whom the mantra is addressed; and the metrical form of the mantra. Every time, one meditates on the deity uttering its mantra with devotion; one recalls its Rishi with reverence and gratitude. For instance, the most celebrated Gayatri   mantra which appears in Rig Veda at 3.62.10 is prefaced by a short description, Vishvamitra risihi, Savitha devatha, Gayatri chandaha, which says that the mantra was revealed to Rishi Vishwamitra; the illuminating spirit behind the mantra was Savitha Devatha from whom everything comes into being ; and it was conveyed to the Rishi in Gayatri chandas (a metrical form having three lines of 8 syllables each, a total of 24 syllables). Before one meditates on goddess Gayatri uttering her mantra, one submits salutations to its Rishi, Vishwamitra.

Yaska_charya also mentions that mantras have three layers of meaning (traye artha).The essential power of the mantras are to transport us to the world of ideas beyond the ordinary and to experience the vision that the Rishi had.

BOOKS of Rig Veda

The Rig Veda contains 10,552 mantras; grouped into 1, 028 Sukthas each of roughly ten mantras, spread over ten Mandalas (Books).The Mandalas are of uneven size. These mantras are authored by about 400 Rishis of whom about 30 are women. Each Rishi is identified by two names – his/her personal name and the name of his/her father or teacher or lineage. For instance, the first Suktha of Rig Veda was revealed to Madhuchchanda Vishwamitrah meaning that he was the son or the disciple of Vishwamitra; the Gayatri mantra was revealed to Vishwamitra Gathin meaning Vishwamitra was the son of Gatha. It also indicates whether the Rishi was a man or a woman; for instance, Ghosha Kakshivali (RV 10.39-40) was the wife of kakshivan another Rishi.

A   Rishi could be a man or a woman, could be a celibate or a householder or unmarried.

As mentioned, each hymn of the Rig Veda is attributed to a Rishi. Of the ten Mandalas (Books) six Mandalas, numbering from 2 to 7 are homogenous in character and are considered the oldest parts of the Rig Veda. Each of these six books was composed by a Rishi and by members of his family / disciples and of his Gotra. These Mandalas (2-7) are therefore often called Family Books. On the other hand, the books 1, 8 and 10 were not each composed by a distinct family of Rishis but by different individual Rishis. The Books #1 and 8 are almost Family Books as a majority of their hymns are composed by the family of Kanvas and many hymns are found in both the Books.  The Book # 9 is different from the rest; all the hymns therein are addressed to Soma (while not a single hymn is addressed to Soma in the Family Books) and by groups of Rishis. The tenth Book is a collection of various earlier and later hymns.Book # 10 appears to be of a later origin and of a supplementary character. The Books # 1 and 10 are the latest and the longest Books together accounting for about 40 percent of the bulk of the Rig Veda.

( )


There are certain texts called Anukramani (also called Anukramanika) which serve as Index to the Rig Veda and provide basic information about each hymn of the Rig Veda. The most well-known of the Aukramani is Katyayana’s sarvanukramani and is dated around the second century. The entries in the texts mention about each hymn specifying, the name of the Rishi who   authored the hymn; the Devatha who inspired or to whom the hymn is addressed; and the Chandas or the metre of the hymn. They are extremely useful in historical analysis of the Rig Veda.For more on Anukramanis, please see .

The following table indicates the number of hymns in the rig Veda, attributed to some main families.

Family No. of


Angirasa 3,619
Kanva 1,315
Vasistha 1,267
VIshwamitra 0,983
Atri 0,885
Brighu 0,473
Kashyapa 0,415
Grtsamanda 0,401
Agasthya 0,316
Bharata 0,170

( )

As regards female Rishis (Rishikas), about 30 of them are named in the Rig Veda. To name some of them: : Ghosha Kakshivati , Dakshina Prajapathya ,Vishvavara Atreyi,  Godha, Apala Atreyi, Yami Vivasvathi, Lopamudra, Romasha Svanya, Aditi Dakshayeni, Ratri Bharadwaja , Vasukra Pathni , Surya Savitri, Indrani, Sarma Devasuni ,   Urvashi, Shashwati Angirasi, Sri Laksha and others .

Lopamudra , a great Rishika in her own right , was the wife of Rishi Agasthya and Ghosha Kakashivati was the wife of another Rishi kakashivan . Daughters of the Rishis Bharadwaja , Angirasa and Atri were also Rishikas.Vishvavara, Romasha and Vach Ambrini stood out as other Rishikas of merit.


Tradition accepts that Rishi Veda_Vyasa categorized and compiled four Vedas by splitting the primordial single Veda and rendered the Vedas more amenable to study and to memorize. The task of preserving and perpetuating each  branch of the Veda, in its entirety and purity , was assigned to a specified Shakha (meaning branch).The followers of each Shakha ,  identified as Shakins  of that particular Vedic school, were responsible for preserving their assigned part of the Veda. Followers of each Shakha would learn and preserve one the four Veda Samhitas along with their associated Brahmana, Aranyaka, Upanishads and the Sutras such as Grhyasutra and Shrautasutra. Only a small number of these Shakhas have survived; the prominent among them are Sakala and Baskala. For more on Shakas, please see:

It is astounding that large bodies of Vedic texts have been preserved in oral traditions for over thousands of years, safeguarding their purity and entirety. How our ancients could successfully achieve such an unbelievable task, is truly remarkable.

In order to achieve this difficult task, an elaborate and a meticulous systems of recitations were devised. These systems of discipline with their  checks and balances , ensured the correctness of a text including the correct sequence of its words; purity of the language; exact pronunciation of the words; precise stress on syllables ; measured pause between syllables; appropriate tone, accent, modulation  and pitch of recitation; proper breath control etc. Shiksha one of the six Vedangas (limbs of Veda) that dealt with phonetics and phonology of Sanskrit, laid down rules for correct pronunciation of Vedic hymns and mantras.

Along with this, several patterns of Vedic chants were devised to ensure complete and perfect memorization of the text and its pronunciation including the Vedic pitch accent. These patterns called Pathaas ensured correct recital of the Veda mantra by weaving the mantras into various patterns and complex combinations of patterns. There are eleven acknowledged patterns or Patahaas Viz. Samhitha or vakhyaa, padaa, krama, jataa, maala, Sikhaa, rekhaa, dhvajaa, dandaa, rathaa and Ghana.

( )

The salient features of a few main Paathaas are as under:

Vakhya Pathaa or Samhitaa Pathaa: To recite the mantras in a straight sentence.

Pada Paathaa: to recite the mantras, word by word, instead of joining the words; to acquaint the student with the words in the text.

Krama Paathaa: the first word of the mantra is added to the second, the second to the third, the third to the fourth and so on, until the whole sentence of the mantras is completed. The order of words will be 1-2; 2-3; 3-4; 4-5 and so on. This helps to fix the words in their proper position and sequence. It also helps the students to understand changes occurring in swara in such a combination. The person who is well versed in reciting the Krama Paathaa is known as “Krama Vit.”.

Jata Paathaa: the first two words are recited together and then the words are recited in a reverse order and then again in the original order. Jata Paathaa is a play by twisting the Krama Paatha:   Krama + Inverse of Krama + Krama = jataa. The order will be 1-2-2-1-1-2, 2-3-3-2-2-3, 3-4-4-3-3-4, 4-5-5-4-4-5 and so on

Ghana Paathaa: This is one of the most popular form of recitations and requires years of learning and practice. A scholar proficient in recitation in this format is honored as Ghana_ paathi. In Ghana Paathaa the combination will be: 1-2-2-1-1-2-3-3-2-1-1-2-3  2-3-3-2-2-3-4-4-3-2-2-3-4, 3-4-4-3-3-4-5-5-4-3-3-4-5 and so on till last pada ends in that sentence. This is a complex combination of Jata Paatha and Pada Paatha in the following order:   jataa + 3rd Padaa + Inverse of 3 Padaas + 3 Padaas in Straightway = Ghana Paathaa.

The Samhita Paathaa and Pada Paathaa are called Prakrithi (or natural) Paathaas, as the words of the mantras occur in normal sequence. The rest are called Vikrithi (or artificial and not natural) Paathaas. Recently mathematical series have been devised to work out the Krama, Jata and Ghana Paatha patterns. For more on this and for greater details on Paathas please visit

By applying these stringent methods  of learning and complicated patterns of recital, each generation committed to memory long passages of its assigned texts through incessant practice spread over a number of  years, retained the form and content of the texts in their pristine condition and transmitted, orally, to the next generation. This was how the Vedic texts were retained in oral form, uncorrupted, over the centuries.



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


Tags: , , ,

Rig Veda – Position of women (2/2)

The following is the second part of the article Rig Veda – Position of women (1/2)posted on Oct, 09 2007. The first part dealt comprehensively with the position of women in the Rig Vedic period and also discussed a comment posted on an earlier post. It was considered , that instead of imposing a later day’s priorities and prejudices on a society of a bygone era, it would be apt to take a holistic and an independent look and examine from the angles of (a) fair and equitable treatment of women and (b) empowerment of women in the Vedic society.

Part one concluded that the social life portrayed in Rig Veda reveals a tolerant and moderately unbiased society characterized by    sanctity of the institution of marriage, domestic purity, a patriarchal system, an equitable position in the society for men and women and high honor for women. The women did receive a fair and an equitable treatment and they were empowered to deal with issues that mattered in the life around them.

The second part discusses the views of the rig Veda on certain specific issues such as the status of the girl child, her education, her marriage and married life, her right to property, Widowhood and remarriage.

Read on..

Girl child

Many hymns in Rig Veda express desire to beget heroic sons. There are no similar prayers wishing for a girl child. This perhaps reflected the anxiety of a society that needed a larger number of male warriors to ensure its survival. Sons were preferred to daughters, yet, once a daughter was born, she was raised with tender care, affection and love.

In the Rig-Veda, there is no instance where the birth of a girl was considered inauspicious .The celebrations and others samskaras were conducted with enthusiasm. In a particular case, twin daughters were compared to heaven and earth. The daughters were not unpopular. They were allowed Vedic studies and were entitled to offer sacrifice to gods. The son was not absolutely necessary for this purpose.

There is reference to the birth of an only daughter, who was assigned the legal position of a son; and she could perform funeral rites of her father and could also inherit the property. It indicates that the position of a girl in Rig Vedic times was not as low as it was to become in medieval times. (S. R. Shastri, Women in the Vedic Age– 1960).

Terry Brown in her book ‘Essential Teachings of Hinduism’ explains: “In ancient India a woman was  looked after not because she is inferior or incapable, but on the contrary, because she is treasured. She is the pride and power of the society.  Just as the crown jewels should not be left unguarded, neither should a woman be left unprotected.  If there are costly jewels, we do not throw them here and there like brass vessels. Costly material is protected”.


Education was an important feature in the upbringing of a girl child. Education was considered essential for girls and was therefore customary for girls to receive education. The girls with education were regarded highly. Vedic literature praises a scholarly daughter and says: “A girl also should be brought up and educated with great effort and care” (Mahanirvana Tantra). The importance of a girl’s education is stressed in the Atharva Veda which states,” The success of woman in her married life depends upon her proper training during the BrahmaCharya  (student period)”

According to Prof. A.S. Altekar (Education in Ancient India; Published by Nand Kishor & Brothers, Benaras – 1944), since the Upanayana ceremony was linked to commencement of education, the   Upanayana of girls was as common as that of boys. The girls were entitled to Upanayana (to receive sacred thread); and, to the privilege   of studying Vedas, just as the boys. The Atharvaveda (XI. 5. 18) expressly refers to maidens undergoing the Brahmanharya discipline; and, the Sutra works of the 5th century B. C. supply interesting details in its connection. Even Manu includes Upanayana among the sanskaras (rituals) obligatory for girls (II. 66).

Women performed religious rites after completing their education under a Guru. They were entitled to offer sacrifices to gods. The son was not absolutely necessary for this purpose.

There is ample and convincing evidence to show that women were regarded as perfectly eligible for the privilege of studying the Vedic literature and performing the sacrifices enjoined in it. The Rigveda contains hymns composed by twenty different poetesses, such as:  Visvavara, Sikata Nivavarl, Ghosha, Romasa, Lopamudra, Apala and Urvasi.

Even later in her life, Man could perform the Vedic sacrifices only if he had his wife by his side. According to Shrauta and Grihya Sutras, women chanted mantras along with their husbands while performing rituals.  And, the housewife was expected to offer oblations in the household (grihya) fire unaided by the husband, normally in the evening and sometimes in the morning also. In the Srattararohana ritual of the Agrahayaga ceremony, the wife used to recite a number of Vedic hymns ; and , the harvest sacrifices could be performed by women alone, ‘because such was the long-standing custom’.

There were eminent women in the field of learning and scholarship. These highly intelligent and greatly learned women, who chose the path of Vedic studies and, lived the ideal life of spirituality were called Brahmavadinis; and the women who opted out of education for married life were called ‘Sadyovadhus’. Co-education seems to have existed in this period and both the sexes got equal attention from the teacher. As many as about thirty Brahmavadins of great intellect and spiritual attainment are immortalized in the Rig Veda and are credited with hymns. They participated in philosophical debates with men and were highly respected. To name a few of those  significant women rishis   (rishikā)  who figure in the Rig Veda Samhitā:  Goshā Kakshivati, Lopamudra, Romasha,Sarama Devasuni , Yami Vaivasvathi , Rathir Bharadwaja  , Apala, Paulomi and others. Needlessto say they were held in high esteem  for their work to be included in the important religious text of the era. 

Incidentally, let me mention that, later, the Shatapatha Braahmana lists some 52 generations of teachers, of which some 42 are remembered through their mothers. The teachers were males. This list acts like a bridge between the end of the Rig-Veda time and the Shatapatha Braahmana time. It is remarkable that a patriarchal society should remember its teachers through their mothers. The preference over the names of their fathers indicates the important position of women as mothers in Vedic society. Their mothers were considered that valuable, as their sons were recognized through their names.;wap2


There is very little evidence of child (or infant) marriage in the Rig Veda. A girl was married at 16 or more years of age, when her physical development was complete. Marriage was solemnized soon after marriage. The Vedic rituals presuppose that the married pair was grown up enough to be lovers, man and wife, and parents of children (marriage hymn 140 and 141). These go to show that a girl was married after she attained puberty. Surya, the daughter of Surya (the Sun), was married to Soma (the Moon), only when she became youthful and yearned for a husband.

The Rig-Veda (v, 7, 9) refers to young maidens completing their education as brahmacharins and then gaining husbands. The Vedas say that an educated girl should be married to an equally educated man  “An unmarried young learned daughter should be married to a bridegroom who like her is learned. Never think of giving in marriage a daughter of very young age’” (RV 3.55.16).

Young women of the time could exercise their choice in the matter of their marriage. “The woman who is of gentle birth and of graceful form,” so runs a verse in the Rig Veda, “selects among many of her loved one as her husband. The term for the bridegroom was vara, the chosen one. ”The happy and beautiful bride chooses (vanute) by herself (svayam) her own husband” RV (27.12). The swayamvaras of the princesses are of course well documented.

Many marriages, as in the later day Hindu society today, involved the intercession of the families on either side, but a maiden was consulted and her wishes taken into account when the matrimonial alliance was discussed. The marriage hymns 139 in the Rig-Veda and the Atharvaveda indicate that the parties to marriage were generally grown up persons competent to woo and be wooed, qualified to give consent and make choice.

Young girls had the freedom to go out to attend fairs, festivals and assemblies’; the seclusion of women was not practiced. There is a reference to certain occasional festivals or gatherings called Samanas organized to help young boys and girls to get together. Rig Veda described Samana as where: Wives and maidens attire themselves in gay robes and set forth to the joyous feast; youths and maidens hasten to the meadow when forest and field are clothed in fresh verdure to take part in dance. Cymbals sound and seizing each other lads and damsels whirl a about until the ground vibrates and clouds of dust envelop the gaily moving throng. A girl often chose one of the suitors whom she met in these Samanas as her husband.

 Rig Veda talks of the seven steps and vows based on mutual respect, taken during marriage

A friend thou shall be, having paced these seven steps with me. Nay, having paced the seven steps, we have become friends. May I retain thy friendship, and never part from thy friendship. Let us unite together: let us propose together. Loving each other and ever radiant in each other’s company, meaning well towards each other, sharing together all enjoyments and pleasures, let us join our thoughts.

(Source: Taittiriya Ekagnikanda, I iii, 14. ; Sastri, 1918.)

It was appears that the bride was given by her parents gold, cattle, horses, valuables , articles etc. which she carried to her new home .She had a right to deal with it as she pleased. No doubt the dowry a girl brought with her did render her more attractive. “Howmuch a maiden is pleasing to the suitor who would marry for her splendid riches? If the girl be both good and fair of feature, she finds, herself, a friend among the people. “(Rig-Veda X .27.12)

There were also the woes of a father,” When a man’s daughter hath been ever eyeless, who, knowing, will be wroth with her for blindness? Which of the two will lose on him his anger-the man who leads her home or he who woos her?” (RV 10.27.11)

Marriage was an established institution in the Vedic Age. It was regarded as a social and religious duty; and not a contract. The husband-wife stood on equal footing and prayed for long lasting love and friendship. At the wedding, the bride addressed the assembly in which the sages too were present. [Rig Veda (10.85.26-27)]

[ The term Kanyadaan or the concept of the father gifting away his daughter does not appear in Rig-Veda  ]

Marriage was not compulsory for a woman; an unmarried who stayed back in the house of her parents was called Amajur, a girl who grew old at her father’s house. An unmarried person was however not eligible to participate in Vedic sacrifices.

A woman, if she chose, could marry even after the child bearing age. For instance Gosha a well known female sage married at a late stage in her life (her husband being another well known scholar of that time Kakasivan) as she earlier suffered from some skin ailment.

Monogamy normally prevailed but polygamy was also in vogue .Some scholars say that polyandry and divorce were also common. There are no direct references to that. I am not therefore sure of that.

Widows were allowed to remarry if they so desired; and faced no condemnation and ostracization socially.

Married life

A girl when she marries moves into another household where she becomes part of it. Her gotra changes from that of her father into that of her husband. She participates in performances of yagnas for devas and pitrs of her husband’s family. The bride takes charge of her new family that includes her husband, his parents, brothers and sisters; and others who lived there for some reason.

The Rig Veda hymn (10, 85.27) ,the wedding prayer , indicates the rights of a woman as wife. It is addressed to the bride sitting next to bridegroom. It touches upon few other issues as well.

“Happy be you (as wife) in future and prosper with your children here (in the house): be vigilant to rule your household in this home (i.e. exercise your authority as the main figure in your home). Closely unite (be an active participant) in marriage with this man, your husband. So shall you, full of years (for a very long life), address your company (i.e. others in the house listen to you, and obey and care about what you have to say).” (Rig Veda: 10, 85.27)

The famous marriage hymn (10.85) calls upon members of the husband’s family to treat the daughter in law (invited into the family ‘as a river enters the sea’) as the queen samrajni.

She is welcomed in many ways:

” Come, O desired of the gods, beautiful one with tender heart, with the charming look, good towards your husband, kind towards animals, destined to bring forth heroes. May you bring happiness for both our quadrupeds and bipeds.” (Rig Veda 10.85.44)

Over thy husband’s father and thy husband’s mother bear full sway. Over the sister of thy lord , over his brothers rule supreme”(Rig Veda 10.85.46)

“Happy be thou and prosper with thy children here; be vigilant to rule thy household, in this home ‘. (Rig-Veda 10.85.27)

The idea of equality is expressed in the Rig Veda: “The home has, verily, its foundation in the wife”,” The wife and husband, being the equal halves of one substance, are equal in every respect; therefore both should join and take equal parts in all work, religious and secular.” (RV 5, 61. 8)

She was Pathni (the one who leads the husband through life), Dharmapathni (the one who guides the husband in dharma) and Sahadharmacharini (one who moves with the husband on the path of dharma).

To sum up, one can say that the bride in the Vedic ideal of a household was far from unimportant and weak. She did have an important position in the family and yielded considerable influence.


Property –rights

The third chapter of Rig-Veda , considered its oldest part (3.31.1) commands that a son-less father accepts son of his daughter as his own son i.e. all properties of a son-less father shall be inherited by son of his daughter.

 Rik (3.31.2) commands that if parents have both son and daughter, son performs pindadaan (after death of father) and daughter be enriched with gifts.

 Rik (2.17.7) also attests share of a daughter in property of her father .

Married women inherited and shared properties. A Widow too was entitled to a share in the properties of the dead husband.

Widowhood and Remarriage:

Rig-Veda does not mention anywhere about the practice of the burning or burial of widows with their dead husbands. Rig Veda commands thewidow to return to her house, to live with her children and grand children; and confers on her the right to properties of her deceased husband. Rig Veda clearly approves marriage of the widow. Such women faced no condemnation or isolation in the household or society. They had the right to property inherited from the dead husbands. There are riks blessing the woman and her new husband, with progeny and happiness. Rig-Veda praises Ashwin gods for protecting widows.(X.40.8)

Ambassador O P Gupta, IFS has made an excellent presentation of the status of widows in Rig Vedic times

 ( )

According to him:

None of the riks in Rig Veda calls for the burning or burial of widow with body of her dead husband.

A set of14 Riks in 18th Mandala of the 10th book deal with treatment of widows.

Rik (X.18.8) is recited by the dead man’s brothers and others, requesting the widow to release her husband’s body for cremation. The Rik also commands the widow to return to the world of living beings, return to her home and to her children and grand children, “Rise, woman, (and go) to the world of living beings; come, this man near whom you sleep is lifeless; you have enjoyed this state of being the wife of your husband, the suitor who took you by the hand.”

This rik also, confers upon her full right on house and properties of her deceased husband. [It was only in the year 1995 the Supreme Court of India interpreted Section 14(1) of the Hindu Succession Act to allow Hindu widow full ownership rights over properties she inherits from her deceased husband]

Rig-Veda not only sanctions survival of a widow and her right to property; but also approves her marriage with the brother of her dead husband; and to live with full dignity and honor in the family. Rig Veda therefore expressly sanctions widow-marriage. Some scholars say the widow could marry any person, not necessarily the brother of the deceased husband or a relative.

Rik (x.18.8) blesses a woman at her second marriage, with progeny and prosperity in this life time::Go up, O woman, to the world of living; you stand by this one who is deceased; come! to him who grasps your hand, your second spouse (didhisu) ,you have now entered into the relation of wife to husband.

In rik (X.18.9) the new husband while taking the widow as his wife says to her: let us launch a new life of valor and strength begetting male children overcoming all enemies who may assail us.

AV(XVIII.3.4) blesses the widow to have a happy life with present husband ::O ye inviolable one ! (the widow) tread the path of wise in front of thee and choose this man (another suitor) as thy husband. Joyfully receive him and may the two of you mount the world of happiness.


During the post-Vedic period, woman lost the high status she once enjoyed in society. She lost some of her independence. She became a subject of protection.

The period after 300 B.C witnessed a succession of invasions and influx of foreigners such as the Greeks, the Scythians, the Parthian, the Kushans and others. The political misfortunes, the war atrocities followed by long spells of anarchy and lawlessness had a disastrous effect on the society. Fear and insecurity haunted the common people and householders. Sons were valued higher than the daughters because of the need for more fighting males, in order to survive the waves of onslaughts. It was also imperative to protect women from abductors. It therefore became necessary to curtail women’s freedom and movements’ .Early marriage was perhaps employed as a part of those defensive measures. The education of the girl child was no longer a priority. Sastras too compromised by accepting marriage as a substitute for Upanayana and education.

After about the beginning of the Christian era, the Upanayana for girls went out of vogue. The discontinuance of Upanayana was disastrous to the educational and religious status of women. The mischief caused by the discontinuance of Upanayana was further enhanced by the lowering of the marriageable age. In the Vedic period girls were married at about the age of 16 or 17; but by Ca. 500 B. C. the custom arose of marrying them soon after the attainment of puberty. Later writers like Yajnavalkya (200 A. D.), Samvarta and Yama, vehemently condemned the guardian who failed to get his daughter married before she attained puberty. Therefore, the Smritis written by 11th century began to glorify the merits of a girl’s marriage at the age of 7, 8, or 9, when it was regarded as an ideal thing to celebrate a girl’s marriage. It is not surprising that with marriage at so young an age, female education could hardly take off or  prosper.

The neglect of education,early marriage ,  imposing seclusion and insecurity that gripped their lives, had disastrous consequences upon the esteem and status of women . The society in turn sank into depravity.

The social conditions deteriorated rapidly during the medieval period.

For nearly 2000 years from 300 B.C. to A.D. 1800, truly the dark ages of India, the development of woman steadily stuttered though she was affectionately nurtured by the parents, loved by the husband and cared by her children.

Now, it is the time of reawakening. Women of India are beginning to get opportunities to establish their identity and be recognized for their potential, talent and capabilities. That is a good rebegining. The process must improve both in terms of its spread and quality. The ancient principles of equal opportunities for learning and development, equitable position in place of work and right to seek out her destiny, with honor; that guided the Vedic society must soon find a place in all segments of the society. It may sound like asking for the moon. But, that is the only option India has if it has to survive as a nation.




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


Tags: ,

Rig Veda – Position of women (1/2)

I had not planned a segment exclusively on the position of women in Rig Veda. I assumed I covered it briefly and adequately under Rig Veda – its society (1/7). However, after reading a comment posted by Amused666, which said, among other things, that “the condition of women was no less different in rig Vedic times to the times to the modern time. Female are weak and preferred to accept male dominance and males accepted and treated them as such” I thought I should say a little more on the subject and clarify the position.

As azygos in his comment addressed to Amused666 pointed out,” extrapolating the present to the past, so very often leads to spurious exegesis. The historian is not a moral eunuch but he cannot absolutely rationalize the past, based on understanding of the present. Whenever, we come across verses like 9.32, they are to be interpreted in the positive sense and context.”

I thank azygos for his response and agree with him. I am incapable of putting it across as picturesquely and as strongly as azygos did; yet let me try to explain. The events in an ancient text have to be interpreted in the context of its times and in the light of its ethos. What Amused666 did, instead, was to impose his views on the prejudice of gender bias on a generation that had an unbiased world view and a unique self perception.

There is a field of study called Hermeneutics that deals with cultivating the ability to understand a text by placing it in context of its times and the society in which it was located; and to appreciate the cultural and social forces that might have influenced its outlook. The spirit of Hermeneutics is essential to understand and appreciate an ancient text. Sadly, a lot of times comments are ejected either without reading a text or quoting it out of context or just driven by a whim, whatever. I presume the comment of Amused666 is somewhere in this region.

The verse “Yea, many a woman is more firm and better than the man who turns away from Gods, and offers not.” (Rig-Veda, 5.61.6) that Amused 666 referred to, actually means: a woman who is devoted to God is more highly regarded than a man who has no such devotion. And, it does not mean what Amused 666 chose to deduce. The basic idea seems to be that a pious woman is highly regarded than a male who does not respect gods and who is miserly. Stephen Knapp calls this verse, a kind of equality that is rarely found in any other religious scripture. It is also an indication that in matter of dharma, in the days of Vedic culture, women stood as a decisive force in spirituality and the foundation of moral development. In the Rig Veda, the idea of the family as the hub of religious worship is found. In this context, women were at the heart of the family structure, as wives and mothers who brought worship into the center of the household activities. Even in the current era, women in the house are in charge of the family rituals and prayers.

.[For more on Hermeneutics you may visit riverine’s blog ]

It might perhaps be more appropriate to take an objective and a holistic view rather than impose present day’s priorities and prejudices on a society of a bygone era. Accordingly, it is better we examine the women’s position in Vedic period, independently, from angles of (a) fair and equitable treatment of women and (b) empowerment of women.


To come back to the subject, I propose to state the position in an abstract and then briefly cite views of Rig Veda on certain issues concerning women of its society.


There are numerous hymns in the Rig-Veda indicating, women were assigned a high place in the Vedic society. In many aspects the present-day Indian woman had to wait a long time to regain some of the rights the Vedic women enjoyed. Further, they enjoyed a kind of liberty that actually had societal sanctions, on certain issues, which are not available to today’s Indian women.

The Vedic times were free from many of the social evils that harmed the Indian society in the later eras. Child marriage and a harsh dowry did not then exist. Widows were free to marry. They inherited rights to the dead husbands’ properties. Seclusion of women or Sati was not practiced; nor was untouchability. No man or woman was locked into a trade by birth. Members of the same family took to different crafts and trades. The Rig Veda (IX, 112) says: “A bard I am, my father a leech / And my mother is a grinder of corn / Diverse in means, but all wishing wealth/ Equally we strive for cattle.”

Women were generally not discriminated against merely on grounds of gender. Men and women had equal status in matters of education, marriage, Re-marriage, in managing the household, right to property, intellectual pursuit, participation in public debate and some women even participated in battles along with their men folk. There is a mention of a certain warrior Queen Vishpla who lost her leg in battle and was fitted with a metallic prosthesis; she returned to battle and continued to fight.

Women shared an equal standing with their men. There were women teachers, scholars, Brahmavadins and highly respected rishis. There were women warriors with bows. There were also the prostitutes who made a living and followed certain regulations.

They inherited and possessed property; they took share in scarifies and religious ceremonies; they attended the assemblies and state occasions; they also distinguished themselves as intellectual companions of their husbands, as friends and partners in their religious duties

No male was considered complete without his spouse, she was his ardangini. No auspicious ritual could be conducted or a submission made to family deities without accompanied by the wife. Why! The dead body of the husband could not be taken out for cremation without the permission of wife .

Let me also say, Rig Vedic society was not a perfect society. I wonder if there ever was a perfect society. Even Plato’s idealized Utopia was not perfect. Rig Vedic society too suffered from poverty, destitution; slavery and exploitation of the weak. There are references in Rig Veda to women rendered poor and destitute by their husbands’ addiction to gambling and liquor. There are poems sung by luckless gamblers in their drunken stupor lamenting the fate of their helpless wives and aged parents. The drunken gambler, poor and ever thirsty sinks deeper into debt as a stone into a ditch. The destitute wife of the gambler is distressed and so too is the mother of a son, not knowing where her wayward son had gone. There are scenes of roguish creditor pestering the wife of an insolvent gambler. The debtor in meanwhile with trepidation sneaks around a house under cover of darkness dreading his creditor. Does it not sound very modern?!

Other men make free with the wife of a man

Whose money and goods the eager dice have stolen.

His father and mother and brothers all say,

“He is nothing to us. Bind him, put him in jail!”

Abandoned, the wife of the gambler grieves.

Grieved too, is his mother as he wanders to nowhere.

Afraid and in debt, ever greedy for money,

He steals in the night to the home of another.

The sorrows and suffering that women endure in their day to day living do not subjugate and suppress women into weakness or male domination. They have an inherent strength. The inequalities the women of that age were subjected to were not directed against them for mere reason they were women. What you read just now was about depravity, social evil and injustice you find in any society, modern or otherwise. These do exist in all societies; just as the strong, affluent, educated, enlightened, independent and liberated women do .It would be wrong to generalize that all Vedic female were weak and preferred to accept male domination. It would be equally wrong to deduce that men treated them with equal disdain. The Vedic society was as good as any other society.

Nonetheless, the social life portrayed in Rig Veda reveals a tolerant and moderately unbiased society characterized by sanctity of the institution of marriage, domestic purity, a patriarchal system, an equitable position in the society for men and women and high honor for women. The women did receive a fair and an equitable treatment and they were empowered to deal with issues that mattered in the life around them.

Women enjoyed far greater freedom in the Vedic period than in later India. She had more to say in the choice of her mate than the forms of marriage might suggest. She appeared freely at feasts and dances, and joined with men in religious sacrifice. She could study, and like Gargi, engage in philosophical disputation. If she was left a widow there was no restrictions upon her remarriage.” Will Durant – Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage

“Among the many societies that can be found in the world, we have seen that some of the most venerating regard for women has been found in Vedic culture. The Vedic tradition has held a high regard for the qualities of women, and has retained the greatest respect within its tradition “-Stephen Knapp- Women in Vedic Culture.

“Women were held in higher respect in India than in other ancient countries, and the Epics and old literature of India assign a higher position to them than the epics and literature of ancient Greece. Hindu women enjoyed some rights of property from the Vedic Age, took a share in social and religious rites, and were sometimes distinguished by their learning. The absolute seclusion of women in India was unknown in ancient times.” R. C. Dutt – The Civilization of India




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


Tags: ,

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.


1 Comment

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


Tags: , ,

Rig Veda-origin of our popular gods in Rig Veda(6/7)

This is the sixth in a series of articles on certain aspects of Rig Veda.


Most of our popular gods of today have their origin in the Rig-Veda. It would be interesting to trace the origin of a few of our popular gods.

When I say gods, I am not referring to the God the Supreme principle the substratum of all existence but to the gods who represent different aspects, powers and glory of the God.  Each Vedic god has a distinct power and personality, but he or she also carries the presence of the Supreme, “That one.”  

The puranas tried to convey the esoteric truths of the Veda in a popular manner. In the process Puranas elevated some Vedic gods by endowing them  with virtues, which they loved to see; while at the same time they relegated some other Vedic gods to secondary status. I am not sure why the exercise of weeding out many and glorifying a few deties became necessary. I am clueless.

For instance, Bŗihaspathi, Brahmaņaspathi and Brahma were the three major gods of Rig-Veda; a large number of riks are in honor of these gods. In the Rig-Veda, Brahmaņaspathi/Bŗihaspathi is god of a very high order. 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 Vedic Gods underwent a huge change in the Puranas; when new set of gods that emerged by the permutation and combination of their own (Vedic gods) powers replaced them. The new gods took over and the old gods were virtually forgotten.

Ganapathi : The elephant-faced god Gaņapathi emerged out of some aspects of the Vedic god Brahmaņaspati. Ganapathi is therefore evoked by the Vedic rik associated with Brahmaņaspati (Jestha rajam brahmanaam Brahmanaspathi…). The word Gaņapathi means the lord of gaņas or hosts. In the Rig-Veda, the gaņās or hosts of Bŗihaspathi/Brahmaņaspathi are the chants, the riks and the stomas, the words of praise (RV. 4.50). They have little to do with the lower vital levels. However, in the purāņas, the hosts (gaņas) are the beings of the vital world and Gaņapathi is their lord. Ganapathi thus initially appeared on the scene as a tāntrik god of a lower order.

Ganesha emerged as a distinct deity in clearly recognizable form in the fourth and the fifth centuries during the Gupta period. His popularity rose quickly. The son of Shiva and Parvati; Ganesha with an elephantine countenance, a curved trunk, pair of big ears and a pot-bellied body of a human is now the Lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. He is the god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth. Ganesha also became one of the five prime Hindu deities (Surya, Vishnu, Shiva and Durga being the other four) worshipped in the panchayatana puja. A new tradition called Ganapathya thereafter came into existence. With the spread Indian trade to the Far- East, by around the tenth century, Ganesha a favorite with the traders and merchants reached the shores of Bali, Java, Cambodia, Malaya, Thailand and other islands.

Ganesha appears in Jainism too. A fifteenth century Jain text provides procedures for the installation of Ganapati images. Images of Ganesha appear in the Jain temples of Rajasthan and Gujarat; the earliest of which is dated around eighth century.

In Buddhism, Ganesha appears not only in the form of the Buddhist god Vināyaka, but also as a Hindu demon form with the same name (Vināyaka). As the Buddhist god Vināyaka, he is the dancing N ṛ tta Ganapati. Ganesha traveled to other countries along with Buddhism. In northern China, the earliest known stone statue of Ganesha carries an inscription dated 531 CE. In Japan, the Ganesha cult was first mentioned in 806 CE.

Brahma: The concept of Brahma as the creator in the purāņa is derived from the Brahmaņaspati/Bŗhaspati of the Rig Veda where they are the creators through the power of the Word. Puranas however denied  Brahma proper worship.

Between these two stages, Brahma is associated with the power to give a verbal identity to a thought. He is the creator and gives form to the formless. He represents Word. That word reaches sublime heights and becomes an intelligent tool for communication when it is associated with intellectual purity and excellence of Vac– the speech.

Vac (Sarasvathi). How the Vedic goddess Vac (speech) transformed into Sarasvathi the Puranic goddess of learning, wisdom, culture and intellect; is very interesting.

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 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.” (Rig Veda).

In a 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.

Vishnu: (the pervader) Vishnu initially had a lower position to that of Indra. He is the younger brother of Indra. In the Rig-Veda Vishnu is described as living and wandering on the mountains. He is one of the celestial gods and one of the Adithyas. He resembles Surya and has rays in his appearance.

He later evolved into the most signifificant God and Godhead. The ‘Vishnu Sukta‘ of the Rig Veda (1.154) mentions the famous three strides of Vishnu. It said that the first and second of Vishnu’s strides (those encompassing the earth and air) were visible and the third was in the heights of heaven (sky). The second mantra of the ‘Vishnu Sukta‘ says that within the three vast strides of Vishnu all the various regions of the universe live in peace.

Yaskacharya, in his Nirukta, defines Vishnu as ‘Vishnu vishateh; one who enters everywhere’, and ‘yad vishito bhavati tad vishnurbhavati; that which is free from fetters and bondages is Vishnu.’ Vishnu is also characterized, as ‘veveshti vyapnoti vishvam yah; the one who covers the whole universe, or is omnipresent. In other words, Vishnu became the omnipresent dimension of the supreme Lord.

With the advent of the golden age of the puranas in the Gupta period, the transformation of Vishnu into a supreme Godhead was complete. The virtues and glory of the Vedic Indra and Surya were transferred to puranic Vishnu. At the same time, the Indra was demoted to a demigod, stripped of his power and glory. Indra’s status in puranas is pathetic and he is flawed by envy, greed and other human failings. How sad!

In this process, Vishnu, in place of Indra, became the lord of the universe. The attributes and titles that once applied to Indra were now employed to describe Vishnu. Now, Vishnu (not Indra) is the omniscient and omnipresent Godhead; he is ‘ashrutkarna; whose ears hear all things; and “Svayambhuva” meaning ‘Self-existent’ or ‘Self manifested’

The Bhagavata Purana states that Yajna (Indra) took incarnation as Svayambhuva Manu. That Indra was Vishnu (as Svayambhuva). Vishnu in turn becomes Dhanvantri the divine healer, Prithu the King and the Rishis such as Kapila. His later Avatars are celebrated in various Puranas. On his association with Narayana, he is The Supreme Lord of the universe.

Rudra: In Rig Veda, Rudra is one of the intermediate level gods (antariksha devata) and is celebrated in three or four hymns and described as a fierce, armed with bow and arrows. He is endowed with strong arms, lustrous body and flowing golden hair. He is not purely benefic like other Rig Vedic gods, but he is not malevolent either. He punishes and at the same time rescues his devotees from trouble. He is the Shiva the auspicious one.

In Puranas, he becomes one of the Trinity and is the destroyer. He is the Lord of the universe, the cosmic dancer, the Supreme yogi and master of all yogis.

Vedic Rishi Vamadeva merges into to become one of five faces of Lord Shiva and the aspect of Vama or “preserver” associated with the element of water.

He is at his benevolent best when his consort Uma accompanies him. He is Sowmya (sa uma)


“The Indian mythology was (is) not a static affair, neither was it a luxury.  It was linked with the vital spiritual urges and needs of the people, who projected their most haunting dreams, hopes and cravings into their mythys.The changes were not wrought overnight nor was it easily. From the earliest times, the pantheon is the product of a continual clash and friction, not only with gods of other ethnic groups, but among those of various clans and families of the Indian society. Each family seems to have had its preferences for its own set of gods. Those gods who could represent larger segments of life and experiences, who could mobilize greater strength and significance, and later, who could annex other gods by virtue of their greater potentialities grew, while others faded out.

The very fact of the gods changing – growing or diminishing in significance – is a proof of the continual influx of new ideas and a creative conflict with existing ideas.

…..In this period of transition, popular sectarian gods were gradually replacing the older Vedic gods. This new approach to the gods remodeled their characters. The gods which adopted themselves best to the changing needs of times survived. One way they did was by shedding their Vedic characteristics   which were rather unsuitable. And, another was by aligning with tutelary gods that were already being worshipped.

Only those gods could adapt themselves who had been ‘minor’ in Rig-Veda, who did not have a detailed profile, i.e. those whose personalities were rather sketchy and suggestive, and could be filled and enriched with suitable traits. Gods like Asvins whose characters , functions and achievements had been too vividly described in Rig Veda  to afford introduction of new traits were found unsuitable and quietly dropped by the Purana (epic) literature. On the other hand, gods who were too transparently the personification of natural phenomena could not be transformed into popular powerful gods. Thus, Agni, Vayu, Mitra, Varuna, Parjanya, Surya, Soma, Savitr and Ushas had to give place to the new gods. Similarly, gods whose profile was too dim and had little potential for growth just faded out:  E.g. Pushan, Bhaga, Aryaman, Daksha, Amsha, Dayus, and Vivastvat etc.

Only those Vedic gods whose characters were not explicitly known, and who offered significant traits to be developed into rich and complex mythology survived and flourished.  For instance; Vishnu and Rudra were minor gods, but their profile indicated traits which could be expanded and enriched veraciously. Let’s take the case of Vishnu; he had the nucleus of ‘tri-pada-vikrama’ the collasal figure of measuring the universe with his three enormous strides; his solar nature; lustrous body; his friendship with Indra; vague references to his unparallel valor;– all these were excellent material for developing him into concrete mythological supreme god…From Indra he imbibed the demon-killing valor; from Surya and Savitr the brilliance and sheen associated with gold; from Mitra the kindly  , compassionate and benevolent attitudes towards all existence; and , from Bhaga the fortune bestowing generosity. From solar gods in general he inherited associations with Devayana; and consequently his roles as a savior……The component Vedic gods disappear one after another, after bequeathing their virtues to their successor. They last only so long as their living trait remains relevant to the spiritual needs or material aspirations of the society. “

Excerpts from ‘The Indian Theogony’ by Dr. Sukumari Bahttacharji (Cambridge University Press, 1970)



The concept of gods in Vedas:



The gods that faded away

-The for gotten gods of Rig Veda (7/7)

Leave a comment

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


Tags: ,