The hymns of the Rig Veda are considered the oldest and most important
of the Vedas, having been composed between 1500 BC and the time of the
great Bharata war about 900 BC. More than a thousand hymns are organized
into ten mandalas or circles of which the second through the seventh
are the oldest and the tenth is the most recent. The Hindu tradition
is that even the Vedas were gradually reduced from much more extensive
and ancient divine revelations but were perverted in the recent dark
age of Kaliyuga. As the only writings from this ancient period of India,
they are considered the best source of knowledge we have; but the ethical
doctrines seem to have improved from the ancient hymns to the mystical
Essentially the Rig Veda is dominated by hymns praising the Aryan gods
for giving them victories and wealth plundered from the local Dasas
through warfare. The Aryans apparently used their advances in weaponry
and skill in fighting to conquer the agricultural and tribal peoples
of the fading Harappan culture. Numerous hymns refer to the use of horses
and chariots with spokes which must have given their warriors a tremendous
advantage. Spears, bows, arrows, and iron weapons are also mentioned.
As a nomadic and pastoral culture glorifying war, they established a
new social structure of patriarchal families dominated by warriors and,
eventually with the power of the Vedas themselves, by priests also.
The Rig Veda does mention assemblies, but these were probably of the
warrior elite, which may have had some controlling influence on the
kings and the tribal priest called a purohita. The gods worshiped resemble
the Indo-European gods and were headed by the powerful Indra, who is
often credited with destroying ninety forts. Also popular was Agni,
the fire-god considered a messenger of the gods. Varuna and Mitra, the
gods of the night and day sky, have been identified with the Greek Uranos
and the Persian Mithras respectively. Dyaus, who is not mentioned nearly
as often, has been correlated with the Greek Zeus. Surya the sun-god
is referred to as the eye of Varuna and the son of Dyaus and rides through
the sky on his chariot led by his twin sons, the Asvins who represent
his rays; Ushas the dawn is his wife or daughter. Maruts are storm-gods
shaped by Rudra, who may have been one of the few indigenous deities
adopted by the Aryans. Like the Iranian Avesta, the Rig Veda refers
to the thirty-three gods.
Generally the hymns of the Rig Veda praise the gods and ask them for
worldly benefits such as wealth, health, long life, protection, and
victory over the Dasa peoples.
He, self-reliant, mighty and triumphant,
brought low the dear head of the wicked Dasas.
Indra the Vritra-slayer, Fort-destroyer,
scattered the Dasa hosts who dwelt in darkness.
For men hath he created earth and waters,
and ever helped the prayer of him who worships.
To him in might the Gods have ever yielded,
to Indra in the tumult of battle.
When in his arms they laid the bolt,
he slaughtered the Dasyus
and cast down their forts of iron.1
They call upon Brihaspati or Brahmanaspati, who has been related to
a Hittite thunder-god, to avenge the sinner and protect them from the
deceitful and wicked man. The Aryans did have a concept of eternal law
called rita, which the immortal Agni in serving the gods is said to
never break (Rig Veda III:3:1).
In Rig Veda III:34:9 Indra killed the Dasyus and "gave protection
to the Aryan color." Not only did the Aryans shamelessly pray for
booty in war, but they based their militarily won supremacy on the lightness
of their skin color compared to the dark colors of the native Dasyus.
They arrogantly proclaimed, "Let those who have no weapons suffer
sorrow." (Rig Veda IV:5:14.)
Renowned is he when conquering and when slaying:
'tis he who wins cattle in the combat.
When Indra hardens his indignation
all that is fixed and all that moves fear him.
Indra has won all kine, all gold, all horses, -
Maghavan, he who breaks forts in pieces;2
Indra is praised for killing thousands of the abject tribes of Dasas
with his arrow and taking great vengeance with "murdering weapons."
(Rig Veda IV:28:3-4) One hymn mentions sending thirty thousand Dasas
"to slumber" and another hymn sixty thousand slain. A hymn
dedicated to the weapons of war (Rig Veda VI:75) refers to a warrior
"armed with mail," using a bow to win cattle and subdue all
regions, "upstanding in the car the skillful charioteer guides
his strong horses on whithersoe'er he will." The arrows had iron
mouths and shafts "with venom smeared" that "not one
be left alive." Hymn VII:83 begins, "Looking to you and your
alliance, O ye men, armed with broad axes they went forward, fain for
spoil. Ye smote and slew his Dasa and his Aryan enemies."
Only occasionally did the authors of these hymns look to their own
Free us from sins committed by our fathers,
from those wherein we have ourselves offended.
O king, loose, like a thief who feeds the cattle,
as from the cord a calf, set free Vasishtha.
Not our own will betrayed us, but seduction,
thoughtlessness, Varuna! wine, dice or anger.
The old is near to lead astray the younger:
even sleep removes not all evil-doing.3
A hymn to the frogs compares the repetitions of the priests around
the soma bowl to the croaking of the frogs around a pond after the rains
come. (Rig Veda VII:103)
The basic belief of the prayers and sacrifices is that they will help
them to gain their desires and overcome their enemies, as in Rig Veda
VIII:31:15: "The man who, sacrificing, strives to win the heart
of deities will conquer those who worship not." Some awareness
of a higher law seems to be dawning in the eighth book in hymn 75: "The
holy law hath quelled even mighty men of war. Break ye not off our friendship,
come and set me free." However, the enemies are now identified
with the Asuras and still are intimidated by greater weapons: "Weaponless
are the Asuras, the godless: scatter them with thy wheel, impetuous
hero." (Rig Veda VIII:85:9)
Many of the hymns refer to the intoxicating soma juice, which is squeezed
from the mysterious soma plant and drank. All of the hymns of the ninth
book of the Rig Veda are dedicated to the purifying soma, which is even
credited with making them feel immortal, probably because of its psychedelic
influence. The first hymn in this book refers to the "iron-fashioned
home" of the Aryans.
In the first book of the Rig Veda the worshipers recognize Agni as
the guard of eternal law (I:1:8) and Mitra and Varuna as lovers and
cherishers of law who gained their mighty power through law (I:2:8).
In the 24th hymn they pray to Varuna, the wise Asura, to loosen the
bonds of their sins. However, the prayers for riches continue, and Indra
is thanked for winning wealth in horses, cattle, and gold by his chariot.
Agni helps to slay the many in war by the hands of the few, "preserving
our wealthy patrons with thy succors, and ourselves." (Rig Veda
I:31:6, 42) Indra helped win the Aryan victory:
He, much invoked, hath slain Dasyus and Simyus,
after his wont, and laid them low with arrows.
The mighty thunderer with his fair-complexioned friends
won the land, the sunlight, and the waters.4
Control of the waters was essential for agricultural wealth. Indra
is praised for crushing the godless races and breaking down their forts.
(Rig Veda I:174)
In the tenth and last book of the Rig Veda some new themes are explored,
but the Dasyus are still condemned for being "riteless, void of
sense, inhuman, keeping alien laws," and Indra still urges the
heroes to slay the enemies; his "hand is prompt to rend and burn,
O hero thunder-armed: as thou with thy companions didst destroy the
whole of Sushna's brood." (Rig Veda X:22)
One unusual hymn is on the subject of gambling with dice. The speaker
regrets alienating his wife, wandering homeless in constant fear and
debt, envying others' well-ordered homes. He finally warns the listener
not to play with dice but recommends cultivating his land. (Rig Veda
X:34) Hymn 50 of this most recent last book urges Indra to win riches
with valor "in the war for water on their fields." Now the
prayer is that "we Gods may quell our Asura foemen." (Rig
Veda X:53:4) A wedding ceremony is indicated in a hymn of Surya's bridal,
the daughter of the sun. (Rig Veda X:85)
The first indication of the caste system is outlined in the hymn to
Purusha, the embodied human spirit, who is one-fourth creature and three-fourths
eternal life in heaven.
The Brahmin was his mouth,
of both his arms was the Rajanya made.
His thighs became the Vaisya,
from his feet the Sudra was produced.5
The Brahmin caste was to be the priests and teachers; the Rajanya represents
the king, head of the warrior or Kshatriya caste; Vaisyas are the merchants,
craftsmen, and farmers; and the Sudras are the workers. In hymn 109
the brahmachari or student is mentioned as engaged in duty as a member
of God's own body.
The hymn to liberality is a breath of fresh air:
The riches of the liberal never waste away,
while he who will not give finds none to comfort him.
The man with food in store who,
when the needy comes in miserable case
begging for bread to eat,
Hardens his heart against him -
even when of old he did him service -
find not one to comfort him.6
But later we realize that the priests are asking for liberality to
support their own services, for the "plowing makes the food that
feeds us," and thus a speaking (or paid) Brahmin is better than
a silent one.
The power of speech is honored in two hymns.
Where, like men cleansing corn-flour in a cribble,
the wise in spirit have created language,
Friends see and recognize the marks of friendship:
their speech retains the blessed sign imprinted.7
In hymn 125 of the tenth mandala Vak or speech claims to have penetrated
earth and heaven, holding together all existence.
A philosophical hymn of creation is found in Rig Veda X:129. Beginning
from non-being when nothing existed, not even water nor death, that
One breathless breathed by itself. At first this All was concealed by
darkness and formless chaos, but by heat (tapas) that One came into
existence. Thus arose desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit. Sages
searching in their hearts discovered kinship with the non-existent.
A ray of light extended across the darkness, but what was known above
or below? Creative fertility was there with energy and action, but who
really knows where this creation came from? For the gods came after
the world's creation. Who could know the source of this creation and
how it was produced? The one seeing it in the highest heaven only knows,
or maybe it does not.