From The Bibliophile Library of Literature, Art, & Rare Manuscripts, Volume I, compiled and arranged by Nathan Haskell Dole, Forrest Morgan, and Caroline Ticknor; The International Bibliophile Society, New York-London; 1904; pp. 7-18.
TO what deities were the prayers and hymns of the Vedas addressed? This is an interesting inquiry, for these were probably the very deities worshiped under similar names by our Aryan progenitors in their primeval home. The answer is: They worshiped those physical forces before which all nations, if guided solely by the light of nature, have in the early period of their life instinctively bowed down, and before which even the more civilized and enlightened have always been compelled to bend in awe and reverence if not in adoration.
To our Aryan forefathers God’s power was exhibited in the forces of nature even more evidently than to ourselves. Lands, houses, flocks, herds, men, and animals were more frequently than in Western climates at the mercy of winds, fire, and water; and the sun’s rays appeared to be endowed with a potency quite beyond the experience of any European country. We cannot be surprised, then, that these forces were regarded by our Eastern progenitors as actual manifestations, either of one deity in different moods or of separate rival deities contending for supremacy. Nor is it wonderful that these mighty agencies should have been at first poetically personified, and afterwards, when invested with forms, attributes, and individuality, worshiped as distinct gods. It was only natural, too, that a varying supremacy and varying honors should have been accorded to each deified force — to the air, the rain, the storm, the sun, or fire — according to the special atmospheric influences to which particular localities were exposed, or according to the seasons of the year when the dominance of each was to be prayed for or deprecated.8
This was the religion represented in the Vedas and the primitive creed of the Indo-Aryans about twelve or thirteen centuries before Christ. The first forces deified seem to have been those manifested in the sky and air. These were at first generalized under one rather vague personification, as was natural in the earliest attempts at giving shape to religious ideas. For it may be observed that all religious systems, even the most polytheistic, have generally grown out of some undefined original belief in a divine power or powers controlling and regulating the universe. And although innumerable gods and goddesses, gifted with a thousand shapes, now crowd the Hindu Pantheon, appealing to the instincts of the unthinking millions whose capacity for religious ideas is supposed to require the aid of external symbols, it is probable that there existed for the first Aryan worshipers a similar theistic creed; even as the thoughtful Hindu of the present day looks through the maze of his mythology to the philosophical background of one eternal self-existent Being, one universal Spirit, into whose unity all visible symbols are gathered, and in whose essence all entities are comprehended.
In the Veda this unity soon diverged into various ramifications. Only a few of the hymns appear to contain the simple conception of one divine self-existent omnipresent Being, and even in these the idea of one God present in all nature is somewhat nebulous and undefined.
It is interesting to note how this idea, vaguely stated as it was in the Veda, gradually developed and became more clearly defined in the time of Manu. In the last verses of the twelfth book (123-125) we have the following: “Him some adore as transcendently present in fire; others in Manu, lord of creatures; some as more distinctly present in Indra, others in pure air, others as the most high eternal Spirit. Thus the man who perceives in his own soul, the supreme soul, present in all creatures, acquires equanimity towards them all, and shall be absorbed at last in the highest essence.”
In the Purusha-sūkta, of the Rig-veda, which is one of the later hymns, — probably not much earlier than the earliest Brahmana, — the one Spirit is called Purusha. The more common name is Atman or Paratman, and in the later system Brahman, neut. (naom. Brahmă), derived from root brih, to expand, and denoting the universally expanding essence or universally diffused substance of the universe. It was thus 9 that the later creed became not so much monotheistic (by which I mean the belief in one God regarded as a personal Being external to the universe, though creating and governing it) as pantheistic: Brahman is the neuter being, “simple infinite being,” — the only real eternal essence, — which, when it passes into universal manifested existence, is called Brahma; when it manifests itself on the earth, is called Vishnu; and when it again dissolves itself into simple being, is called Siva; all the other innumerable gods and demigods being also mere manifestations of the neuter Brahman, who alone is eternal. This, at any rate, appears to be the genuine pantheistic creed of India at the present day.
To return to the Vedic hymns — perhaps the most ancient and beautiful Vedic deification was that of Dyaus, the sky, as Dyaush-pitar, “Heavenly Father” (the Zeus or Jupiter of the Greeks and Romans). Then closely connected with Dyaus was a goddess, Aditi, “the Infinite Expanse,” conceived of subsequently as the mother of all the gods. Next came a development of the same conception called Varuna, “the Investing Sky,” said to answer to Ahura Mazda, the Ormazd of the ancient Persian mythology, and to the Greek Ouranos — but a more spiritual conception, leading to a worship which rose to the nature of a belief in the great Our-Father-who-art-in-Heaven. This Varuna, again, was soon thought of in connection with another vague personification called Mitra (= the Persian Mithra), god of day. After a time these impersonations of the celestial sphere were felt to be too vague to suit the growth of religious ideas in ordinary minds. Soon, therefore, the great investing firmament resolved itself into separate cosmical entities with separate powers and attributes. First, the watery atmosphere, personified under the name of Indra, ever seeking to dispense his dewy treasures (indu), though ever restrained by an opposing force or spirit of evil called Vritra; and, secondly, the wind, thought of either as a single personality named Vagu, or as a whole assemblage of moving powers coming from every quarter of the compass, and impersonated as Maruts or “Storm-gods.” At the same time in this process of decentralization — if I may use the term — the once purely celestial Varuna became relegated to a position among seven secondary deities of the heavenly sphere called Adityas (afterwards increased to twelve, and regarded as diversified forms of the sun in the several months of the year), and subsequently 10 to a dominion over the waters when they had left the air and rested on the earth.
Of these separately deified physical forces, by far the most favorite object of adoration was the deity supposed to yield the dew and rain, longed for by Eastern cultivators of the soil with even greater cravings than by Northern agriculturists. Indra, therefore, — the Jupiter Pluvius of early Indian mythology, — is undoubtedly the principal divinity of Vedic worshipers, in so far at least as the greater number of their prayers and hymns are addressed to him.
What, however, could rain effect without the aid of heat? a force, the intensity of which must have impressed an Indian mind with awe, and led him to invest the possessor it with divine attributes. Hence the other great god of Vedic worshipers, and in some respects the most important in his connection with sacrificial rites, is Agni (Latin Ignis), the god of fire. Even Sūrya, the sun (Greek Helios), who was probably at first adored as the original source of heat, came to be regarded as only another form of fire. He was merely a manifestation of the same divine energy removed to the heavens and consequently less accessible. Another deity, Ushas, goddess of the dawn, — the Eōs of the Greeks, — was naturally connected with the sun, and regarded as daughter of the sky. Two other deities, the Açvins, were fabled as connected with Ushas, as ever young and handsome, traveling in a golden car, and precursors of the dawn. They are sometimes called Dasras, as divine physicians, destroyers of diseases; sometimes Uāsatyas, as “never untrue.” They appear to have been personifications of two luminous rays imagined to precede the break of day. These, with Yama, “the God of departed spirits,” are the principal deities of the Mantra portion of the Veda.
We find, therefore, no trace in the Mantras of the Trimurti or Triad of deities (Brahman, Vishnu, and Siva), afterwards so popular. Nor does the doctrine of transmigration, afterwards an essential element of the Hindu religion, appear in the Mantra portion of the Veda, though there is a clear declaration of it in the Aranyaka of the Aitareya Brahmana. Nor is caste clearly alluded to, except in the later Purusha-sūkta.
But here it may be asked, if sky, air, water, fire, and the sun were thus worshiped as manifestations of the supreme universal God of the universe, was the earth also an object of adoration with the early Hindus? And unquestionably in the earlier 11 system the earth, under the name of Prithivi, “the broad one,” does receive divine honors, being thought of as the mother of all beings. Moreover, various deities were regarded as the progeny resulting from the fancied union of earth with Dyaus, heaven. This imaginary marriage of heaven and earth was indeed a most natural idea, and much of the later mythology may be explained by it. But it is remarkable that as religious worship became of a more selfish character, the earth, being more evidently under man’s control, and not seeming to need propitiation so urgently as the more uncertain air, fire, and water, lost importance among the gods, and was rarely addressed in prayer or hymn.
In all probability the deified forces addressed in the hymns were not represented by images or idols in the Vedic period, though doubtless the early worshipers clothed their gods with human form in their own imaginations.
I now begin my examples with a nearly literal translation of the well-known sixteenth hymn of the fourth book of the Atharva-veda, in praise of Varuna or the Investing Sky:
The mighty Varuna, who rules above, looks down
Upon these worlds, his kingdom, as if close at hand.
When men imagine they do aught by stealth, he know it.
No one can stand or walk or softly glide along
Or hide in dark recess, or lurk in secret cell,
But Varuna detects him and his movements spies.
Two persona may devise some plot, together sitting
In private and alone; but he, the king, is there —
A third — and sees it all. This boundless earth is his,
Both oceans [air and sea] find a place within his body, yet
In that small pool he lies contained. Whoe’er should flee
Far, far beyond the sky, would not escape the grasp
Of Varuna, the king. His messengers descend
Countless from his abode — forever traversing
This world and scanning with a thousand eyes its inmates.
Whate’er exists within this earth, and all within the sky,
Yea, all that is beyond, King Varuna perceives.
The winking of men’s eyes are numbered all by him.
He wields the universe, as gamesters handle dice.
May thy destroying snares cast sevenfold round the wicked,
Entangle liars, but the truthful spare, O king!
I pass from the ancient Aryan deity Varuna to the more thoroughly Indian god Indra.
The following metrical lines bring together various scattered texts relating to this Hindu Jupiter Pluvius: —
Indra, twin brother of the god of fire,
When thou wast born, thy mother Aditi
Gave thee, her lusty child, the thrilling draught
Of mountain-growing Soma — source of life
And never-dying vigor to thy frame.
Then at the Thunderer’s birth, appalled with fear,
Dreading the hundred-jointed thunderbolt —
Forged by the cunning Trastivri — mountain rocked,
Earth shook, and heaven trembled. Thou wast born
Without a rival, king of gods and men —
The eye of living and terrestrial things.
Immortal Indra, unrelenting foe
Of drought and darkness, infinitely wise,
Terrific crusher of thy enemies,
Heroic, irresistible in might,
Wall of defense to us thy worshipers,
We sing thy praises, and our ardent hymns
Embrace thee, as a loving wife her lord.
Thou art our guardian, advocate, and friend,
A brother, father, mother, all combined.
Most fatherly of fathers, we are thine,
And thou art ours; oh! let thy pitying soul
Turn to us in compassion, when we praise thee,
And slay us not for one sin or for many.
Deliver us to-day, to-morrow, every day.
Armed for the conflict, see! the demons come —
Ahi and Vritra and a long array
Of darksome spirits, Quick, then, quaff the draught
That stimulates thy martial energy,
And dashing onward in thy golden car,
Drawn by thy ruddy, Ribhu-fashioned steeds,
Speed to the charge, escorted by the Maruts.
Vainly the demons dare thy might; in vain
Strive to deprive us of thy watery treasures.
Earth quakes beneath the crashing of thy bolts.
Pierced, shattered, lies the foe — his cities crushed,
His armies overthrown, his fortresses
Shivered to fragments; then the pent-up waters,
13 Released from long imprisonment, descend
In torrents to the earth, and swollen rivers,
Foaming and rolling to their ocean home,
Proclaim the triumph of the Thunderer.
Let us proceed next to the all-important Vedic deity Agni, “god of fire,” especially of sacrificial fire. I propose now to paraphrase a few of the texts which relate to him: —
Agni, thou art a sage, a priest, a king,
Protector, father of the sacrifice.
Commissioned by us men thou dost ascend
A messenger, conveying to the sky
Our hymns and offerings. Though thy origin
Be threefold, now from air and now from water,
Now from the mystic double Arani,
Thou art thyself a mighty god, a lord,
Giver of life and immortality,
One in thy essence, but to mortals three;
Displaying thine eternal triple form,
As fire on earth, as lightning in the air,
As sun in heaven. Thou art a cherished guest
In every household — father, brother, son,
Friend, benefactor, guardian, all in one.
Bright, seven-rayed god! how manifold thy shapes
Revealed to us thy votaries! now we see thee,
With body all of gold, and radiant hair,
Flaming form three terrific heads, and mouths
Whose burning jaws and teeth devour all things.
Now with a thousand glowing horns, and now
Flashing thy luster from a thousand eyes,
Thou’rt borne towards us in a golden chariot,
Impelled by winds, and drawn by ruddy steeds,
Marking thy car’s destructive course with blackness.
Deliver, mighty lord, thy worshipers.
Purge us from taint of sin, and when we die,
Deal mercifully with us on the pyre,
Burning our bodies with their load of guilt,
But bearing our eternal part on high
To luminous abodes and realms of bliss,
Forever there to dwell with righteous men.
The next deity is Sūrya, the sun, who, with reference to the variety of his functions, has various names, — such as Savitri, 14 Aryaman, Mitra, Varuna, Pushan, sometimes ranking as distinct deities of the celestial sphere. As already explained, he is associated in the minds of Vedic worshipers with Fire, and is frequently described as sitting in a chariot drawn by seven ruddy horses (representing the seven days of the week), preceded by the Dawn. Here is an example of a hymn addressed to this deity, translated almost literally: —
Behold the rays of dawn, like heralds, lead on high
The sun, that men may see the great all-knowing god.
The stars slink off like thieves, in company with Night,
Before the all-seeing eye, whose beams reveal his presence,
Gleaming like brilliant flames, to nation after nation.
With speed beyond the ken of mortals, thou, O Sun,
Dost ever travel on, conspicuous to all.
Thou dost create the light, and with it dost illume
The universe entire; thou risest in the sight
Of all the race of men, and all the host of heaven.
Light-giving Varuna! thy piercing glance doth scan
In quick succession all this stirring, active world,
And penetrateth, too, the broad ethereal space,
Measuring our days and nights and spying out all creatures.
Sūrya with flaming locks, clear-sighted, god of day,
Thy seven ruddy mares bear on thy rushing car.
With these thy self-yoked steeds, seven daughters of thy
Onward thou dost advance. To thy refulgent orb
Beyond this lower gloom and upward to the light
Would we ascend, O Sun, thou god among the gods.
As an accompaniment to this hymn may here be mentioned the celebrated Gayatri. It is a short prayer to the Sun in his character of Savitri or the Vivifier, and is the most sacred of all Vedic texts. Though not always understood, it is to this very day used by every Brahman throughout India in his daily devotions. It occurs in the Rig-veda, and can be literally translated as follows: —
“Let us meditate [or, We meditate] on that excellent glory of the divine Vivifier. May he enlighten [or, stimulate] our understandings.”
May we not conjecture, with Sir William Jones, that the great veneration in which this text has ever been held by the 15 Hindus from time immemorial, indicates that the more enlightened worshipers adored, under the type of the visible sun, that divine light which alone could illumine their intellects?
I may here also fitly offer a short paraphrase descriptive of the Vedic Ushas, the Greek Eōs, or Dawn: —
Hail, ruddy Ushas, golden goddess, borne
Upon thy shining car, thou comest like
A lovely maiden by her mother decked,
Disclosing coyly all thy hidden graces
To our admiring eyes; or like a wife
Unveiling to her lord, with conscious pride,
Beauties which, as he gazes lovingly,
Seem fresher, fairer, each succeeding morn.
Through years on years thou hast lived on, and yet
Thou’rt ever young. Thou art the breath and life
Of all that breathes and lives, awaking day by day
Myriads of prostrate sleepers, as from death,
Causing the birds to flutter from their nests,
And rousing men to ply with busy feet
Their daily duties and appointed tasks
Toiling for wealth, or pleasure, or renown.
Before leaving the subject of the Vedic deities, I add a few words about Yama, the god of departed spirits. It appears tolerably certain that the doctrine of metempsychosis has no place in the Mantra portion of the Veda; nor do the authors of the hymns evince any sympathy with the desire to get rid of all action and personal existence, which became so remarkable a feature of the theology and philosophy of the Brahmans in later times. But there are many indirect references to the immortality of man’s spirit and a future life, and these became more marked and decided towards the end of the Rig-veda. One of the hymns in the last Mandala is addressed to the Pitris or father, that is to say, the spirits of departed ancestors who have attained to a state of heavenly bliss, and are supposed to occupy three different stages of blessedness; the highest inhabiting the upper sky, the middle the intermediate air, and the lowest the regions of the atmosphere near the earth. Reverence and adoration are always to be offered them, and they are presided over by the god Yama, the ruler of all the spirits of the dead, whether good or bad. The earlier legends represent 16 this god as a kind of first man (his twin sister being Yami), and also as the first of men that died. Hence he is described as guiding the spirits of other men who die, to the same world. In some passages, however, Death is said to be his messenger, he himself dwelling in celestial light, to which the departed are brought, and where they enjoy his society and that of the fathers. In the Veda he has nothing to do with judging or punishing the departed (as in the later mythology), but he had two terrific dogs, with four eyes, which guard the way to his abode. Here are a few thoughts about him from various hymns in the tenth Mandala of the Rig-veda: —
To Yama, mighty king, be gifts and homage paid.
He was the first of men that died, the first to brave
Death’s rapid, rushing stream, the first to point the road
To heaven, and welcome others to that bright abode.
No power can rob us of the home thus won by thee.
O king, we come; the born must die, must tread the path
That thou hast trod — the path by which each race of men,
In long succession, and our fathers too, have passed.
Soul of the dead! depart; fear not to take the road —
The ancient road — by which thy ancestors have gone;
Ascend to meet the god — to meet thy happy fathers,
Who dwell in bliss with him. Fear not to pass the guards —
The four-eyed brindled dogs — that watch for the departed.
Return unto thy home, O soul! Thy sin and shame
Leave thou behind on earth; assume a shining form —
Thy ancient shape — refined and from all taint set free.
Let me now endeavor, by slightly amplified translations, to convey some idea of two of the most remarkable hymns in the Rig-veda. The first, which may be compared with some parts of the thirty-eighth chapter of Job, attempts to describe the mystery of creation, thus: —
In the beginning there was neither naught nor aught;
Then there was neither sky nor atmosphere above.
What then enshrouded all this teeming Universe?
In the receptacle of what was it contained?
Was it enveloped in the gulf profound of water?
Then was there neither death nor immortality,
17 Then was there neither day, nor night, nor light, nor darkness,
Only the existent One breathed calmly, self-contained.
Naught else than him there was — naught else above, beyond.
Then first came darkness hid in darkness, gloom in gloom.
Next all was water, all a chaos indiscrete,
In which the One lay void, shrouded in nothingness.
Then turning inwards, he by self-developed force
Of inner fervor and intense abstraction, grew.
And now in him Desire, the primal germ of mind,
Arose, which learned men, profoundly searching, say
Is the first subtle bond, connecting Entity
With Nullity. This ray that kindled dormant life,
Where was it then? before? or was it found above?
Were there parturient powers and latent qualities,
And fecund principles beneath, and active forces
That energized aloft? Who knows? Who can declare?
How and from what has sprung this Universe? the gods
Themselves are subsequent to its development.
Who then can penetrate the secret of its rise?
Whether ’twas framed or not, made or not made, he only
Who in the highest heaven sits, the omniscient lord,
Assuredly knows all, or haply knows he not.
The next example is from the first Mandala of the Rig-veda. Like the preceding, it furnishes a good argument for those who maintain that the purer faith of the Hindus is properly monotheistic.
What god shall we adore with sacrifice?
Him let us praise, the golden child that rose
In the beginning, who was born the lord —
The one sole lord of all that is — who made
The earth, and formed the sky, who giveth life,
Who giveth strength, whose bidding gods revere,
Whose hiding place is immortality,
Whose shadow, death; who by his might is king
Of all the breathing, sleeping, waking world —
Who governs men and beasts, whose majesty
These snowy hills, this ocean with its rivers,
Declare; of whom these spreading regions form
The arms; by whom the firmament is strong,
Earth firmly planted, and the highest heavens
Supported, and the clouds that fill the air
Distributed and measured out; to whom
Both earth and heaven, established by his will,
18 Look up with trembling mind; in whoom revealed
The rising sun shines forth above the world.
Where’er let loose in space, the mighty waters
Have gone, depositing a fruitful seed.
And generating fire, there he arose,
Who is the breath and life of all the gods,
Whose mighty glance looks round the vast expanse
Of watery vapor — source of energy,
Cause of the sacrifice — the only God
Above the gods. May he not injure us!
He the Creator of the earth — the righteous
Creator of the sky, Creator too
Of oceans bright, and far-extending waters.
The hymn to Night is my last example. It is taken from the tenth Mandala of the Rig-veda: —
The goddess Night arrives in all her glory,
Looking about her with her countless eyes.
She, the immortal goddess, throws her veil
Over low valley, rising ground, and hill,
But soon with bright effulgence dissipates
The darkness she produces; soon advancing
She calls her sister Morning to return,
And then each darksome shadow melts away.
Kind goddess, be propitious to thy servants
Who at thy coming straightway seek repose,
Like birds who nightly nestle in the trees.
Lo! men and cattle, flocks, and winged creatures,
And e’en the ravenous hawks, have gone to rest.
Drive thou away from us, O Night, the wolf;
Drive thou away the thief, and bear us safely
Across thy borders. Then do thou, O Dawn,
Like one who clears away a debt, chase off
This black yet palpable obscurity,
Which came to fold us in its close embrace.
Receive, O Night, dark daughter of the Day,
My hymn of praise, which I present to thee,
Like some rich offering to a conqueror.
* From “Indian Wisdom.” By permission of author and Luzac & Co. 4th edition, post 8vo, cloth, price £1 1s.