Source: Translator's Introduction to A Vedic Reader for Students, by Arthur Anthony MacDonnell. Containing Thirty Hymns of the Rigveda in the original Samhita and Pada Texts, with Transliteration, Translation, Explanatory Notes, Introduction, Vocabulary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1917).
The Rigveda is undoubtedly the oldest literary monument of the Indo-European languages. But the exact period when the hymns were composed is a matter of conjecture. All that we can say with any approach to certainty is that the oldest of them cannot date from later than the thirteenth century This assertion is based on the following grounds. Buddhism, which began to spread in India about 500 , presupposes the existence not only of the Vedas, but also of the intervening literature of the Brāhmaṇas and Upanishads. The development of language and religious thought apparent in the extensive literature of the successive phases of these two Vedic periods renders it necessary to postulate the lapse of seven or eight centuries to account for the gradual changes, linguistic, religious, social, and political, that this literature displays. On astronomical grounds, one Sanskrit scholar has (cf. p. 146) concluded that the oldest Vedic hymns date from 3000 , while another puts them as far back as 6000 These calculations are based on the assumption that the early Indians possessed an exact astronomical knowledge of the sun’s course such as there is no evidence, or even probability, that they actually possessed. On the other hand, the possibility of such extreme antiquity seems to be disproved by the relationship of the hymns of the Rigveda to the oldest part of the Avesta, which can hardly date earlier than from about 800 That relationship is so close that the language of the Avesta, if it were known at a stage some five centuries earlier, could scarcely have differed at all from that of the Rigveda. Hence the Indians could not have separated from the Iranians much sooner than 1300 But, according to Prof. Jacobi, the separation took place before 4500 In that case we must assume that the Iranian and the Indian languages remained practically unchanged for the truly immense period of over 3000 years. We must thus rest content with the moderate estimate of the thirteenth century as the approximate date for the beginning of the Rigvedic period. This estimate has not been invalidated by the discovery in 1907 of the names of the Indian deities Mitra, Varuṇa, Indra, Nāsatya, in an inscription of about 1400 found in Asia Minor. For the phonetic form in which these names there appear may quite well belong to the Indo-Iranian period when the Indians and the Persians were still one people. The date of the inscription leaves two centuries for the separation of the Indians, their migration to India, and the commencement of the Vedic hymn literature in the north-west of Hindustan.
When the Indo-Aryans entered India, they brought with them a religion in which the gods were chiefly personified powers of Nature, a few of them, such as Dyaus, going back to the Indo-European, others, such as Mitra, Varuṇa, Indra, to the Indo-Iranian period. They also brought with them the cult of fire and of Soma, besides a knowledge of the art of composing religious poems in several metres, as a comparison of the Rigveda and the Avesta shows. The purpose of these ancient hymns was to propitiate the gods by praises accompanying the offering of melted butter poured on the fire and of the juice of the Soma plant placed on the sacrificial grass. The hymns which have survived in the Rigveda from the early period of the Indo-Aryan invasion were almost exclusively composed by a hereditary priesthood. They were handed down in different families by memory, not by writing, which could hardly have been introduced into India before about 700 These family groups of hymns were gradually brought together till, with successive additions, they assumed the earliest collected form of the Rigveda. Then followed the constitution of the Saṃhitā text, which appears to have taken place about 600 , at the end of the period of the Brāhmaṇas, but before the Upanishads, which form appendages to those works, came into existence. The creators of the Saṃhitā did not in any way alter the diction of the hymns here collected together, but only applied to the text certain rules of Sandhi which prevailed in their time, and by which, in particular, vowels are either contracted or changed into semi-vowels, and a is often dropped after e and o, in such a way as constantly to obscure the metre. Soon after this work was concluded, extraordinary precautions were taken to preserve from loss or corruption the sacred text thus fixed. The earliest expedient of this kind was the formation of the Pada or ‘word’ text, in which all the words of the Saṃhitā text are separated and given in their original form as unaffected by the rules of Sandhi, and in which most compounds and some derivatives and inflected forms are analysed. This text, which is virtually the earliest commentary on the Rigveda, was followed by other and more complicated methods of reciting the text, and by various works called Anukramaṇīs or ‘Indexes’, which enumerate from the beginning to the end of the Rigveda the number of stanzas contained in each hymn, the deities, and the metres of all the stanzas of the Rigveda. Thanks to these various precautions the text of the Rigveda has been handed down for 2,500 years with a fidelity that finds no parallel in any other literature.
The Rigveda consists of 1,017 or, counting eleven others of the eighth Book which are recognized as later additions, 1,028 hymns. These contain a total of about 10,600 stanzas, which give an average of ten stanzas to each hymn. The shortest hymn has only one stanza, while the longest has fifty-eight. If printed continuously like prose in Roman characters, the Saṃhitā text would fill an octavo volume of about 600 pages of thirty-three lines each. It has been calculated that in bulk the RV. is equivalent to the extant poems of Homer.
There is a twofold division of the RV. into parts. One, which is purely mechanical, is into Aṣṭakas or ‘eighths’ of about equal length, each of which is subdivided into eight Adhyāyas or ‘lessons’, while each of the latter consists of Vargas or ‘groups’ of five or six stanzas. The other division is into ten Maṇḍalas or ‘books’ (lit. ‘cycles’) and Sūktas or ‘hymns’. The latter method is an historical one, indicating the manner in which the collection came into being. This system is now invariably followed by Western Scholars in referring to or quoting from the Rigveda.
Six of the ten books, ii to vii, are homogeneous in character. The hymns contained in each of them were, according to native Indian tradition, composed or ‘seen’ by poets of the same family, which handed them down as its own collection. The tradition is borne out by the internal evidence of the seers’ names mentioned in the hymns, and by that of the refrains occurring in each of these books. The method of arrangement followed in the ‘family books’ is uniform; for each of them is similarly divided into groups addressed to different gods. On the other hand, Books i, viii, and x were not composed each by a distinct family of seers, while the groups of which they consist are constituted by being the hymns composed by different individual seers. Book ix is distinguished from the rest by all its hymns being addressed to one and the same deity, Soma, and by its groups being based not on identity of authorship, but of metre.
Family books.—In these the first group of hymns is invariably addressed to Agni, the second to Indra, and those that follow to gods of less importance. The hymns within these deity groups are arranged according to the diminishing number of stanzas contained in them. Thus in the second Book the Agni group of ten hymns begins with one of sixteen stanzas and ends with one of only six. The first hymn of the next group in the same book has twenty-one, the last only four stanzas. The entire group of the family books is, moreover, arranged according to the increasing number of the hymns in each of those books, if allowance is made for later additions. Thus the second Book has forty-three, the third sixty-two, the sixth seventy-five, and the seventh one hundred and four hymns. The homogeneity of the family books renders it highly probable that they formed the nucleus of the RV., which gradually assumed its final shape by successive additions to these books.
The earliest of these additions appears to be the second half of Book i, which, consisting of nine groups, each by a different author, was prefixed to the family books, the internal arrangement of which it follows. The eighth is like the family books as being in the main composed by members of one family, the Kaṇvas; but it differs from them in not beginning with hymns to Agni and in the prevalence of the strophic metre called Pragātha. The fact of its containing fewer hymns than the seventh book shows that it did not form a unit of the family books; but its partial resemblance to them caused it to be the first addition at the end of that collection. The first part of Book i (1-50) is in several respects like Book viii: Kaṇvas seem to have been the authors of the majority of these hymns; their favourite strophic metre is again found here; and both collections contain many similar or identical passages. There must have been some difference between the two groups, but the reason why they should have been separated by being added at the beginning and the end of an older collection has not yet been shown.
The ninth book was added as a consequence of the first eight being formed into a unit. It consists entirely of hymns addressed to Soma while the juice was ‘clarifying’ (pavamāna); on the other hand, the family books contain not a single Soma hymn, and Books i and viii together only three hymns invoking Soma in his general character. Now the hymns of Book ix were composed by authors of the same families as those of Books ii to vii, as is shown, for instance, by the appearance here of refrains peculiar to those families. Hence it is to be assumed that all the hymns to Soma Pavamāna were removed from Books i to viii, in order to form a single collection belonging to the sphere of the Udgātṛ or chanting priest, and added after Books i-viii, which were the sphere of the Hotṛ or reciting priest. The diction and recondite allusions in the hymns of this book suggest that they are later than those of the preceding books; but some of them may be early, as accompanying the Soma ritual which goes back to the Indo-Iranian period. The hymns of the first part of this book (1-60) are arranged according to the decreasing number of their stanzas, beginning with ten and ending with four. In the second part (61-114), which contains some very long hymns (one of forty-eight and another of fifty-eight stanzas), this arrangement is not followed. The two parts also differ in metre: the hymns of the first are, excepting four stanzas, composed in Gāyatrī, while the second consists mainly of groups in other metres; thus 68-84 form a Jagatī and 87-97 a Triṣṭubh group.
The tenth book was the final addition. Its language and subject-matter show that it is later in origin than the other books; its authors were, moreover, clearly familiar with them. Both its position at the end of the RV. and the fact that the number of its hymns (191) is made up to that of the first book indicate its supplementary character. Its hymns were composed by a large number of seers of different families, some of which appear in other books; but the traditional attribution of authorship is of little or no value in the case of a great many hymns. In spite of its generally more modern character, it contains some hymns quite as old and poetic as the average of those in other books. These perhaps found a place here because for some reason they had been overlooked while the other collections were being formed. As regards language, we find in the tenth book earlier grammatical forms and words growing obsolete, while new words and meanings begin to emerge. As to matter, a tendency to abstract ideas and philosophical speculation, as well as the introduction of magical conceptions, such as belong to the sphere of the Atharvaveda, is here found to prevail.
The hymns of the RV. are composed in the earliest stage of that literary language of which the latest, or Classical Sanskrit, was stereotyped by the grammar of Pāṇini at the end of the fourth century It differs from the latter about as much as Homeric from Attic Greek. It exhibits a much greater variety of forms than Sanskrit does. Its case-forms both in nominal and pronominal inflexion are more numerous. It has more participles and gerunds. It is, however, in verbal forms that its comparative richness is most apparent. Thus the RV. very frequently uses the subjunctive, which as such has entirely died out in Sanskrit; it has twelve forms of the infinitive, while only a single one of these has survived in Sanskrit. The language of the RV. also differs from Sanskrit in its accent, which, like that of ancient Greek, is of a musical nature, depending on the pitch of the voice, and is marked throughout the hymns. This accent has in Sanskrit been changed not only to a stress accent, but has shifted its position as depending on quantity, and is no longer marked. The Vedic accent occupies a very important position in Comparative Philology, while the Sanskrit accent, being secondary, has no value of this kind.
The Sandhi of the RV. represents an earlier and a less conventional stage than that of Sanskrit. Thus the insertion of a sibilant between final n and a hard palatal or dental is in the RV. restricted to cases where it is historically justified; in Sanskrit it has become universal, being extended to cases where it has no justification. After e and o in the RV. ă is nearly always pronounced, while in Sanskrit it is invariably dropped. It may thus be affirmed with certainty that no student can understand Sanskrit historically without knowing the language of the RV.
The hymns of the RV. are without exception metrical. They contain on the average ten stanzas, generally of four verses or lines, but also of three and sometimes five. The line, which is called Pāda (‘quarter’) and forms the metrical unit, usually consists of eight, eleven, or twelve syllables. A stanza is, as a rule, made up of lines of the same type; but some of the rarer kinds of stanza are formed by combining lines of different length. There are about fifteen metres, but only about seven of these are at all common. By far the most common are the Triṣṭubh (4 × 11 syllables), the Gāyatrī (3 × 8), and the Jagatī (4 × 12), which together furnish two-thirds of the total number of stanzas in the RV. The Vedic metres, which are the foundation of the Classical Sanskrit metres except two, have a quantitative rhythm in which short and long syllables alternate and which is of a generally iambic type. It is only the rhythm of the last four or five syllables (called the cadence) of the line that is rigidly determined, and the lines of eleven and twelve syllables have a caesura as well. In their structure the Vedic metres thus come half way between the metres of the Indo-Iranian period, in which, as the Avesta shows, the principle is the number of syllables only, and those of Classical Sanskrit, in which (except the śloka) the quantity of every single syllable in the line is fixed. Usually a hymn of the Rigveda consists of stanzas in the same metre throughout; a typical divergence from this rule is to mark the conclusion of a hymn with a stanza in a different metre. Some hymns are strophic in their construction. The strophes in them consist either of three stanzas (called tṛca) in the same simple metre, generally Gāyatrī, or of two stanzas in different mixed metres. The latter type of strophe is called Pragātha and is found chiefly in the eighth book.
This is concerned with the worship of gods that are largely personifications of the powers of nature. The hymns are mainly invocations of these gods, and are meant to accompany the oblation of Soma juice and the fire sacrifice of melted butter. It is thus essentially a polytheistic religion, which assumes a pantheistic colouring only in a few of its latest hymns. The gods are usually stated in the RV. to be thirty-three in number, being divided into three groups of eleven distributed in earth, air, and heaven, the three divisions of the Universe. Troops of deities, such as the Maruts, are of course not included in this number. The gods were believed to have had a beginning. But they were not thought to have all come into being at the same time; for the RV. occasionally refers to earlier gods, and certain deities are described as the offspring of others. That they were considered to have been originally mortal is implied in the statement that they acquired immortality by drinking Soma or by receiving it as a gift from Agni and Savitṛ.
The gods were conceived as human in appearance. Their bodily parts, which are frequently mentioned, are in many instances simply figurative illustrations of the phenomena of nature represented by them. Thus the arms of the Sun are nothing more than his rays; and the tongue and limbs of Agni merely denote his flames. Some of the gods appear equipped as warriors, especially Indra, others are described as priests, especially Agni and Bṛhaspati. All of them drive through the air in cars, drawn chiefly by steeds, but sometimes by other animals. The favourite food of men is also that of the gods, consisting in milk, butter, grain, and the flesh of sheep, goats, and cattle. It is offered to them in the sacrifice, which is either conveyed to them in heaven by the god of fire, or which they come in their cars to partake of on the strew of grass prepared for their reception. Their favourite drink is the exhilarating juice of the Soma plant. The home of the gods is heaven, the third heaven, or the highest step of Viṣṇu, where cheered by draughts of Soma they live a life of bliss.
Attributes of the gods.—Among these the most prominent is power, for they are constantly described as great and mighty. They regulate the order of nature and vanquish the potent powers of evil. They hold sway over all creatures; no one can thwart their ordinances or live beyond the time they appoint; and the fulfilment of desires is dependent on them. They are benevolent beings who bestow prosperity on mankind; the only one in whom injurious traits appear being Rudra. They are described as ‘true’ and ‘not deceitful’, being friends and protectors of the honest and righteous, but punishing sin and guilt. Since in most cases the gods of the RV. have not yet become dissociated from the physical phenomena which they represent, their figures are indefinite in outline and deficient in individuality. Having many features, such as power, brilliance, benevolence, and wisdom in common with others, each god exhibits but very few distinctive attributes. This vagueness is further increased by the practice of invoking deities in pairs—a practice making both gods share characteristics properly belonging to one alone. When nearly every power can thus be ascribed to every god, the identification of one deity with another becomes easy. There are in fact several such identifications in the RV. The idea is even found in more than one late passage that various deities are but different forms of a single divine being. This idea, however, never developed into monotheism, for none of the regular sacrifices in the Vedic period were offered to a single god. Finally, in other late hymns of the RV. we find the deities Aditi and Prajāpati identified not only with all the gods, but with nature as well. This brings us to that pantheism which became characteristic of later Indian thought in the form of the Vedānta philosophy.
The Vedic gods may most conveniently be classified as deities of heaven, air, and earth, according to the threefold division suggested by the RV. itself. The celestial gods are Dyaus, Varuṇa, Mitra, Sūrya, Savitṛ, Pūṣan, the Aśvins, and the goddesses Uṣas, Dawn, and Rātrī, Night. The atmospheric gods are Indra, Apāṃ napāt, Rudra, the Maruts, Vāyu, Parjanya, and Āpas, the Waters. The terrestrial deities are Pṛthivī, Agni, and Soma. This Reader contains hymns addressed to all these gods, with detailed introductions describing their characters in the words, as far as is possible, of the RV. itself. A few quite subordinate deities are not included, partly because no entire hymn is addressed to them. Two such belong to the celestial sphere. Trita, a somewhat obscure god, who is mentioned only in detached stanzas of the RV., comes down from the Indo-Iranian period. He seems to represent the ‘third’ or lightning form of fire. Similar in origin to Indra, he was ousted by the latter at an early period. Mātariśvan is a divine being also referred to only in scattered stanzas of the RV. He is described as having brought down the hidden fire from heaven to men on earth, like the Prometheus of Greek mythology. Among the terrestrial deities are certain rivers that are personified and invoked in the RV. Thus the Sindhu (Indus) is celebrated as a goddess in one hymn (x. 75, 2. 4. 6), and the Vipāś (Bïas) and the Śutudrī (Sutlej), sister streams of the Panjāb, in another (iii. 33). The most important and oftenest lauded is, however, the Sarasvatī (vi. 61; vii. 95). Though the personification goes much further here than in the case of other streams, the connexion of the goddess with the river is never lost sight of in the RV.
Abstract deities.—One result of the advance of thought during the period of the RV. from the concrete towards the abstract was the rise of abstract deities. The earlier and more numerous class of these seems to have started from epithets which were applicable to one or more older deities, but which came to acquire an independent value as the want of a god exercising the particular activity in question began to be felt. We find here names denoting either an agent (formed with the suffix tṛ or tar), such as Dhātṛ ‘Creator’, or an attribute, such as Prajāpati, ‘Lord of Creatures’. Thus Dhātṛ, otherwise an epithet of Indra, appears also as an independent deity who creates heaven and earth, sun and moon. More rarely occur Vidhātṛ, the ‘Disposer’, Dhartṛ, the ‘Supporter’, Trātṛ, the ‘Protector’, and Netṛ, the ‘Leader’. The only agent god mentioned at all frequently in the RV. is Tvaṣṭṛ, the ‘Artificer’, though no entire hymn is addressed to him. He is the most skilful of workmen, having among other things fashioned the bolt of Indra and a new drinking-cup for the gods. He is a guardian of Soma, which is called the ‘food of Tvaṣṭṛ’, and which Indra drinks in Tvaṣṭṛ’s house. He is the father of Saraṇyū, wife of Vivasvant and mother of the primaeval twins Yama and Yamī. The name of the solar deity Savitṛ, the ‘Stimulator’, belongs to this class of agent gods (cf. p. 11).
There are a few other abstract deities whose names were originally epithets of older gods, but now become epithets of the supreme god who was being evolved at the end of the Rigvedic period. These appellations, compound in form, are of rare and late occurrence. The most important is Prajāpati, ‘Lord of Creatures’. Originally an epithet of such gods as Savitṛ and Soma, this name is employed in a late verse of the tenth book to designate a distinct deity in the character of a Creator. Similarly, the epithet Viśvakarman, ‘all-creating’, appears as the name of an independent deity to whom two hymns (x. 81. 82) are addressed. Hiraṇyagarbha, the ‘Golden Germ’, once occurs as the name of the supreme god described as the ‘one lord of all that exists’. In one curious instance it is possible to watch the rise of an abstract deity of this type. The refrain of a late hymn of the RV. (x. 121) is kásmai devá̄ya havíṣā vidhema? ‘to what god should we pay worship with oblation?’ This led to the word ká, ‘who?’ being used in the later Vedic literature as an independent name, Ka, of the supreme god. The only abstract deity of this type occurring in the oldest as well as the latest parts of the RV. is Bṛhaspati (p. 83).
The second and smaller class of abstract deities comprises personifications of abstract nouns. There are seven or eight of these occurring in the tenth book. Two hymns (83. 84) are addressed to Manyu, ‘Wrath’, and one (x. 151) to Śraddhā, ‘Faith’. Anumati, ‘Favour (of the gods)’, Aramati, ‘Devotion’, Sūnṛtā, ‘Bounty’, Asunīti, ‘Spirit-life’, and Nirṛti, ‘Decease’, occur only in a few isolated passages.
A purely abstract deity, often incidentally celebrated throughout the RV. is A-diti, ‘Liberation’, ‘Freedom’ (lit. ‘un-binding’), whose main characteristic is the power of delivering from the bonds of physical suffering and moral guilt. She, however, occupies a unique position among the abstract deities, owing to the peculiar way in which the personification seems to have arisen. She is the mother of the small group of deities called Ādityas, often styled ‘sons of Aditi’. This expression at first most probably meant nothing more than ‘sons of liberation’, according to an idiom common in the RV. and elsewhere. The word was then personified, with the curious result that the mother is mythologically younger than some at least of her sons, who (for instance Mitra) date from the Indo-Iranian period. The goddess Diti, named only three times in the RV., probably came into being as an antithesis to Aditi, with whom she is twice mentioned.
Goddesses play an insignificant part in the RV. The only one of importance is Uṣas (p. 92). Next come Sarasvatī, celebrated in two whole hymns (vi. 61; vii. 95) as well as parts of others, and Vāc, ‘Speech’ (x. 71. 125). With one hymn each are addressed Pṛthivī, ‘Earth’ (v. 84), Rātrī, ‘Night’ (x. 127, p. 203), and Araṇyānī, ‘Goddess of the Forest’ (x. 146). Others are only sporadically mentioned. The wives of the great gods are still more insignificant, being mere names formed from those of their consorts, and altogether lacking in individuality: such are Agnāyī, Indrāṇī, Varuṇānī, spouses of Agni, Indra, and Varuṇa respectively.
Dual Divinities.—A peculiar feature of the religion of the RV. is the invocation of pairs of deities whose names are combined as compounds, each member of which is in the dual. About a dozen such pairs are celebrated in entire hymns, and about a dozen more in detached stanzas. By far the largest number of hymns is addressed to the couple Mitrā-Varuṇā, though the names most frequently found as dual compounds are those of Dyāvā-pṛthivī, ‘Heaven and Earth’ (p. 36). The latter pair, having been associated as universal parents from the Indo-European period onwards, in all probability furnished the analogy for this dual type.
Groups of Deities.—There are also a few more or less definite groups of deities, generally associated with some particular god. The Maruts (p. 21), who attend on Indra, are the most numerous group. The smaller group of the Ādityas, of whom Varuṇa is the chief, is constantly mentioned in company with their mother Aditi. Their number is stated in the RV. to be seven or, with the addition of Mārtāṇḍa, eight. One passage (ii. 27, 1) enumerates six of them, Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, Varuṇa, Dakṣa, Aṃśa: Sūrya was probably regarded as the seventh. A much less important group, without individual names or definite number, is that of the Vasus, whose leader is generally Indra. There are, finally, the Viśve devās (p. 147), who, invoked in many hymns, form a comprehensive group, which in spite of its name is, strange to say, sometimes conceived as a narrower group associated with others like the Vasus and Ādityas.
Lesser Divinities.—Besides the higher gods, a number of lesser divine powers are known to the RV. The most prominent of these are the Ṛbhus, who are celebrated in eleven hymns. They are a deft-handed trio, who by their marvellous skill acquired the rank of deities. Among their five main feats of dexterity the greatest consisted in transforming the bowl of Tvaṣṭṛ into four shining cups. The bowl and the cups have been variously interpreted as the moon with its four phases or the year with its seasons. The Ṛbhus further exhibited their skill in renewing the youth of their parents, by whom Heaven and Earth seem to have been meant.
Occasional mention is made in the RV. of an Apsaras, a celestial water-nymph, the spouse of a corresponding genius named Gandharva. In a few passages more Apsarases than one are spoken of; but the only one mentioned by name is Urvaśī. Gandharva is in the RV. a single being (like the Gandarewa of the Avesta), who dwells in the aerial sphere, guards the celestial Soma, and is (as in the Avesta) connected with the waters.
There are, lastly, a few divinities of the tutelary order, guardians watching over the welfare of house or field. Such is the rarely mentioned Vāstoṣpati, ‘Lord of the Dwelling’, who is invoked to grant a favourable entry, to remove disease, and to bestow protection and prosperity. Kṣetrasya pati, ‘Lord of the Field’, is besought to grant cattle and horses and to confer welfare. Sītā, the ‘Furrow’, is once invoked to dispense crops and rich blessings.
In addition to the great phenomena of nature, various features of the earth’s surface as well as artificial objects are to be found deified in the RV. Thus besides Rivers and Waters (p. 115), already mentioned as terrestrial goddesses, mountains are often addressed as divinities, but only along with other natural objects, or in association with gods. Plants are regarded as divine powers, one entire hymn (x. 97) being devoted to their praise, chiefly with reference to their healing properties. Sacrificial implements, moreover, are deified. The most important of these is the sacrificial post which is praised and invoked in a whole hymn (iii. 8). The sacrificial grass (barhis) and the Divine Doors (dvāro devīḥ), which lead to the place of sacrifice, are addressed as goddesses. The pressing stones (grāvāṇas) are invoked as deities in three hymns (x. 76. 94. 175): spoken of as immortal, unaging, mightier than heaven, they are besought to drive away demons and destruction. The Mortar and Pestle used in pounding the Soma plant are also invoked in the RV. (i. 28, 5. 6). Weapons, finally, are sometimes deified: armour, bow, quiver, arrows, and drum being addressed in one of the hymns (vi. 75).
The Demons often mentioned in the hymns are of two kinds. The higher and more powerful class are the aerial foes of the gods. These are seldom called asura in the RV., where in the older parts that word means a divine being, like ahura in the Avesta (cf. p. 134). The term dāsa or dasyu, properly the name of the dark aborigines, is frequently used in the sense of fiend to designate the aerial demons. The conflict is regularly one between a single god and a single demon, as exemplified by Indra and Vṛtra. The latter is by far the most frequently mentioned. His mother being called Dānu, he is sometimes alluded to by the metronymic term Dānava. Another powerful demon is Vala, the personified cave of the cows, which he guards, and which are set free by Indra and his allies, notably the Angirases. Other demon adversaries of Indra are Arbuda, described as a wily beast, whose cows Indra drove out; Viśvarūpa, son of Tvaṣṭṛ, a three-headed demon slain by both Trita and Indra, who seize his cows; and Svarbhānu, who eclipses the sun. There are several other individual demons, generally described as Dāsas and slain by Indra. A group of demons are the Paṇis (‘niggards’), primarily foes of Indra, who, with the aid of the dog Saramā, tracks and releases the cows hidden by them.
The second or lower class of demons are terrestrial goblins, enemies of men. By far the most common generic name for them is Rakṣas. They are nearly always mentioned in connexion with some god who destroys them. The much less common term Yātu or Yātudhāna (primarily ‘sorcerer’) alternates with Rakṣas. and perhaps expresses a species. A class of demons scarcely referred to in the RV., but often mentioned in the later Vedas, are the Piśācas, eaters of raw flesh or of corpses.
Not more than thirty hymns are concerned with subjects other than the worship of gods or deified objects. About a dozen of these, almost entirely confined to the tenth book, deal with magical practices, which properly belong to the sphere of the Atharvaveda. Their contents are augury (ii. 42. 43) or spells directed against poisonous vermin (i. 191) or disease (x. 163), against a demon destructive of children (x. 162), or enemies (x. 166), or rival wives (x. 145). A few are incantations to preserve life (x. 58. 60), or to induce sleep (v. 55), or to procure offspring (x. 183); while one is a panegyric of frogs as magical bringers of rain (vii. 103, p. 141).
Secular hymns.—Hardly a score of the hymns are secular poems. These are especially valuable as throwing direct light on the earliest thought and civilization of India. One of the most noteworthy of them is the long wedding hymn (x. 85). There are also five funeral hymns (x. 14-18). Four of these are addressed to deities concerned with the future life; the last, however, is quite secular in tone, and gives more information than any of the rest about the funeral customs of early Vedic India (cf. p. 164).
Mythological dialogues.—Besides several mythological dialogues in which the speakers are divine beings (iv. 62; x. 51. 52. 86. 108), there are two in which both agents are human. One is a somewhat obscure colloquy (x. 95) between a mortal lover Purūravas and the celestial nymph Urvaśī, who is on the point of forsaking him. It is the earliest form of the story which much more than a thousand years later formed the subject of Kālidāsa’s drama Vikramorvaśī. The other (x. 10) is a dialogue between Yama and Yamī, the twin parents of the human race. This group of hymns has a special literary interest as foreshadowing the dramatic works of a later age.
Didactic hymns.—Four hymns are of a didactic character. One of these (x. 34) is a striking poem, being a monologue in which a gambler laments the misery he has brought on himself and his home by his inability to resist the attraction of the dice. The rest which describe the various ways in which men follow gain (ix. 112), or praise wise speech (x. 71), or the value of good deeds (x. 117), anticipate the sententious poetry for which post-Vedic literature is noted.
Riddles.—Two of the hymns consist of riddles. One of these (viii. 29, p. 147) describes various gods without mentioning their names. More elaborate and obscure is a long poem of fifty-two stanzas (i. 164), in which a number of enigmas, largely connected with the sun, are propounded in mystical and symbolic language. Thus the wheel of order with twelve spokes, revolving round the heavens, and containing within it in couples 720 sons, means the year with its twelve months and 360 days and 360 nights.
Cosmogonic hymns.—About half a dozen hymns consist of speculations on the origin of the world through the agency of a Creator (called by various names) as distinct from any of the ordinary gods. One of them (x. 129, p. 207), which describes the world as due to the development of the existent (sat) from the non-existent (a-sat), is particularly interesting as the starting-point of the evolutional philosophy which in later times assumed shape in the Sāṇkhya system.
A semi-historical character attaches to one complete hymn (i. 126) and to appendages of 3 to 5 stanzas attached to over thirty others, which are called Dānastutis, or ‘praises of gifts’. These are panegyrics of liberal patrons on behalf of whom the seers composed their hymns. They yield incidental genealogical information about the poets and their employers, as well as about the names and the habitat of the Vedic tribes. They are late in date, appearing chiefly in the first and tenth, as well as among the supplementary hymns of the eighth book.
Geographical data.—From the geographical data of the RV., especially the numerous rivers there mentioned, it is to be inferred that the Indo-Aryan tribes when the hymns were composed occupied the territory roughly corresponding to the north-west Frontier Province, and the Panjāb of to-day. The references to flora and fauna bear out this conclusion.
The historical data of the hymns show that the Indo-Aryans were still engaged in war with the aborigines, many victories over these foes being mentioned. That they were still moving forward as conquerors is indicated by references to rivers as obstacles to advance. Though divided into many tribes, they were conscious of religious and racial unity, contrasting the aborigines with themselves by calling them non-sacrificers and unbelievers, as well as ‘black-skins’ and the ‘Dāsa colour’ as opposed to the ‘Āryan colour’.
Incidental references scattered throughout the hymns supply a good deal of information about the social conditions of the time. Thus it is clear that the family, with the father at its head, was the basis of society, and that women held a freer and more honoured position than in later times. Various crimes are mentioned, robbery, especially of cattle, apparently being the commonest. Debt, chiefly as a result of gambling, was known. Clothing consisted usually of an upper and a lower garment, which were made of sheep’s wool. Bracelets, anklets, necklaces, and earrings were worn as ornaments. Men usually grew beards, but sometimes shaved. Food mainly consisted of milk, clarified butter, grain, vegetables, and fruit. Meat was eaten only when animals were sacrificed. The commonest kind appears to have been beef, as bulls were the chief offerings to the gods. Two kinds of spirituous liquor were made: Soma was drunk at religious ceremonies only, while Surā, extracted from some kind of grain, was used on ordinary occasions.
Occupations.—One of the chief occupations of the Indo-Aryan was warfare. He fought either on foot or from a chariot, but there is no evidence to show that he ever did so on horseback. The ordinary weapons were bows and arrows, but spears and axes were also used. Cattle-breeding appears to have been the main source of livelihood, cows being the chief objects of desire in prayers to the gods. But agriculture was also practised to some extent: fields were furrowed with a plough drawn by bulls; corn was cut with sickles, being then threshed and winnowed. Wild animals were trapped and snared, or hunted with bows and arrows, occasionally with the aid of dogs. Boats propelled by paddles were employed, as it seems mainly for the purpose of crossing rivers. Trade was known only in the form of barter, the cow representing the unit of value in exchange. Certain trades and crafts already existed, though doubtless in a rudimentary stage. The occupations of the wheelwright and the carpenter were combined. The smith melted ore in a forge, and made kettles and other vessels of metal. The tanner prepared the skins of animals. Women plaited mats of grass or reeds, sewed, and especially wove, but whether they ever did so professionally is uncertain.
Amusements.—Among these chariot-racing was the favourite. The most popular social recreation was playing with dice (cp. p. 186). Dancing was also practised, chiefly by women. The people were fond of music, the instruments used being the drum (dundubhi), the flute (vāṇa), and the lute (vīṇā). Singing is also mentioned.
The diction of the hymns is on the whole natural and simple, free from the use of compounds of more than two members. Considering their great antiquity, the hymns are composed with a remarkable degree of metrical skill and command of language. But as they were produced by a sacerdotal class and were generally intended to accompany a ritual no longer primitive, their poetry is often impaired by constant sacrificial allusions. This is especially noticeable in the hymns addressed to the two ritual deities Agni and Soma, where the thought becomes affected by conceits and obscured by mysticism. Nevertheless the RV. contains much genuine poetry. As the gods are mostly connected with natural phenomena, the praises addressed to them give rise to much beautiful and even noble imagery. The degree of literary merit in different hymns naturally varies a good deal, but the average is remarkably high. The most poetical hymns are those addressed to Dawn, equal if not superior in beauty to the religious lyrics of any other literature. Some of the hymns to Indra show much graphic power in describing his conflict with the demon Vṛtra. The hymns to the Maruts, or Storm gods, often depict with vigorous imagery the phenomena of thunder and lightning, and the mighty onset of the wind. One hymn to Parjanya (v. 83) paints the devastating effects of the rain-storm with great vividness. The hymns in praise of Varuṇa describe the various aspects of his sway as moral ruler of the world in an exalted strain of poetry. Some of the mythological dialogues set forth the situation with much beauty of language; for example, the colloquy between Indra’s messenger Saramā and the demons who stole the cows (x. 108), and that between the primaeval twins Yama and Yamī (x. 10). The Gambler’s lament (x. 34) is a fine specimen of pathetic poetry. One of the funeral hymns (x. 18) expresses ideas connected with death in language of impressive and solemn beauty. One of the cosmogonic hymns (x. 129) illustrates how philosophical speculation can be clothed in poetry of no mean order.
In dealing with the hymns of the RV. the important question arises, to what extent are we able to understand their real sense, considering that they have come down to us as an isolated relic from the remotest period of Indian literature? The reply, stated generally, is that, as a result of the labours of Vedic scholars, the meaning of a considerable proportion of the RV. is clear, but of the remainder many hymns and a great many single stanzas or passages are still obscure or unintelligible. This was already the case in the time of Yāska, the author of the Nirukta, the oldest extant commentary (c. 500 ) on about 600 detached stanzas of the RV.; for he quotes one of his predecessors, Kautsa, as saying that the Vedic hymns were obscure, unmeaning, and mutually contradictory.
In the earlier period of Vedic studies, commencing about the middle of the nineteenth century, the traditional method, which follows the great commentary of Sāyaṇa (fourteenth century a.c.), and is represented by the translation of the RV., begun by H. H. Wilson in 1850, was considered adequate. It has since been proved that, though the native Indian commentators are invaluable guides in explaining the theological and ritual texts of the Brāhmaṇas and Sūtras, with the atmosphere of which they were familiar, they did not possess a continuous tradition from the time when the Vedic hymns were composed. That the gap between the poets and the interpreters even earlier than Yāska must have been considerable, is shown by the divergences of opinion among his predecessors as quoted by him. Thus one of these, Aurṇavābha, interprets nāsatyau, an epithet of the Aśvins, as ‘true, not false’, another Āgrāyaṇa, as ‘leaders of truth’ (satyasya praṇetārau), while Yāska himself thinks it may mean ‘nose-born’ (nāsikā-prabhavau)! Yāska, moreover, mentions several different schools of interpretation, each of which explained difficulties in accordance with its own particular theory. Yāska’s own interpretations, which in all cases of doubt are based on etymology, are evidently often merely conjectural, for he frequently gives several alternative explanations of a word. Thus he explains the epithet jātá-vedas in as many as five different ways. Yet he must have had more and better means of ascertaining the sense of various obscure words than Sāyaṇa who lived nearly 2,000 years later. Sāyaṇa’s interpretations, however, sometimes differ from those of Yāska. Hence either Yāska is wrong or Sāyaṇa does not follow the tradition. Again, Sāyaṇa often gives several inconsistent explanations of a word in interpreting the same passage or in commenting on the same word in different passages. Thus asura, ‘divine being’, is variously rendered by him as ‘expeller of foes’, ‘giver of strength’, ‘giver of life’, ‘hurler away of what is undesired’, ‘giver of breath or water’, ‘thrower of oblations, priest’, ‘taker away of breath’, ‘expeller of water, Parjanya’, ‘impeller’, ‘strong’, ‘wise’, and ‘rain-water’ or ‘a water-discharging cloud’! In short it is clear from a careful examination of their comments that neither Yāska nor Sāyaṇa possessed any certain knowledge about a large number of words in the RV. Hence their interpretations can be treated as decisive only if they are borne out by probability, by the context, and by parallel passages.
For the traditional method Roth, the founder of Vedic philology, substituted the critical method of interpreting the difficult parts of the RV. from internal evidence by the minute comparison of all words parallel in form and matter, while taking into consideration context, grammar, and etymology, without ignoring either the help supplied by the historical study of the Vedic language in its connexion with Sanskrit or the outside evidence derived from the Avesta and from Comparative Philology. In the application of his method Roth attached too much weight to etymological considerations, while he undervalued the evidence of native tradition. On the other hand, a reaction arose which, in emphasizing the purely Indian character of the Vedic hymns, connects the interpretation of them too closely with the literature of the post-Vedic period and the much more advanced civilization there described. It is important to note that the critical scholar has at his disposal not only all the material that was open to the traditional interpreters, and to which he is moreover able to apply the comparative and historical methods of research, but also possesses over and above many valuable aids that were unknown to the traditional school—the Avesta, Comparative Philology, Comparative Religion and Mythology, and Ethnology. The student will find in the notes of the Reader many exemplifications of the usefulness of these aids to interpretation. There is good reason to hope from the results already achieved that steady adherence to the critical method, by admitting all available evidence and by avoiding onesidedness in its application, will eventually clear up a large proportion of the obscurities and difficulties that still confront the interpreter of the Rigveda.
Last modified April 13, 2016