Rig Veda – The Oldest Scripture

The RigVeda (ऋग् वेद) is the oldest religious book of Hinduism. It is commonly believed to be composed around 1500 B.C. It is the oldest extant text in an Indo-European family language. The language used is vedic Sanskrit, an earlier version of classical sanskrit.

It contains 1028 verses, divided in to 10 books (called mandalas). The format for citation is [R.V.Book.Hymn.Verse]. Here is the list of the number of hymns in each book.

  1. 191 Hymns
  2. 43 Hymns
  3. 62 Hymns
  4. 58 Hymns
  5. 87 Hymns
  6. 75 Hymns
  7. 104 Hymns
  8. 103 Hymns
  9. 114 Hymns
  10. 191 Hymns

The RigVeda is the most ancient religious text of Hinduism. It is generally believed to have been compiled into its present form not later than 1300 B.C. It is generally thought that these verses were brought in by the Indo-Aryans, who came to India in ancient times. They shared a common origin with the Iraniyan-Aryans, worshipping the same gods such as MitraVarunaIndra. They also had the cult of fire worship and Soma (an intoxicating drink) and composed the verses in various different metres. There is a striking similarity between the language of the Rig Veda and the Zoarastrian holy bible, the Zend Avesta.

The language of the Rig Veda is very poetic, and is known as Vedic sanskrit, which differs quite a bit from the classical sanskrit of later times. It contains verses addressed to various deities, who are personification of the forces of nature. Many reasearchers believe that the verses in the Rig Veda were composed over a period of time, by various clans of seers. Each seer family had a favorite metre in which they compsed their hymns, although some metres were used by many different clans. It is believed that sometime around 600 B.C. collected these verses as a Samhita text. The compilers applied the rules of sandhi (a process by which two words are combined together by contracting vowels or turning them into semi-vowels) and fixed the text in its current form. The body of hymns was still transmitted by reciting, for there is no evidence that they preserved written records. Once the compilation was done, an ingenious device was used to preserve it as collected. Indexes called the Anukramanis were also prepared, which enumerate the number of stanzas contained in each hymn, the metre in which it is composed, the addressed deity formed a neat device for preventing distortions to the original text. This is the reason the main body of the work has been preserved so well over such a long period.

The RigVeda consists of 1017 hymns. The total is a little over 10,000 stanzas. The hymns vary quite a bit in their length. The entire material is commonly separated into 10 Mandalas or books. Each book consists of many Suktas (hymns). This is the preferred method when quoting from the Rig Veda. Books 2 through 7 contain hymns that were, according to tradition, “revealed” to seers of the same family, and the evidence for this view is that the name of the family occurs many times in the hymns. (a typical example will be to say. “….and this was seen by Angirasa”). It is generally believed that Books 1,8 and 10 are collections of hymns composed by different families. Book 9 has been composed by taking all the verses that were originally addressed to Soma, (to be chanted while the Soma juice was “clarifying”) and putting them in a single book. Possibly this division was made so that these verses could be chanted in the ritual purification of the Soma juice. It is also believed that Book 10 was a later addition, as the hymns in this book refer to the ideas presented in the previous books. Linguistic analysis also supports this theory.

The Gods that appear in the Rig Veda are personifications of the powers of nature. The hymns mostly invoke the protection of the Gods for various activities, such as protection from harm in war, protection from drought, boon for increased wealth (mostly cattle wealth). It can be seen that the Gods are being asked to come down and drink the Soma juice and accept the sacrificial offering (Havis) that is poured into the fire. Clarified butter was one of the common offerings. Agni (fire) holds a special place in sacrifices, as he is the link between man and the Gods. He is referred to as the Yajaman (master) of the sacrifice, who laps up the sacrificial offering with his many mouths (flames) and carries the oblations up to the god with smoke.

Indra is the chief deity in the Rig Veda. He is the Lord of thunder, of rainfall and of war. His blessings were invoked both for victory in war, as well as to dispel drought. He was frequently mentioned as being the Mightiest of the immortals, and his great power is frequently dwelled upon. The thunderbolt is his favorite weapon, and he is said to have battled and killed many demons.

Generally, the Gods in the Rig Veda can be seperated into their spheres of influence, namely, heaven, air and earth. The heaven is the dominion of Dyaus (the sky), Varuna, (the waters), Mitra (protector of oaths), Surya (the sun), Pusan and the Ashwini twins. The Goddesses associated with heaven are Usas (dawn) and Ratri (night). The Gods of the air are IndraApamNapatRudra (this name is later applied to Shiva in the Puranas), the Maruts, Vayu, Parjanya and the ocean. The deities of the eart are Prithivi (earth), Agni (fire) and Soma. There are also minor Gods, who don’t even have a single hymn addressing them entirely. Trita (lightning form of fire) and Matarisvan (he is said to have brought fire to mankind, so he is the Indian Prometheus) have only snippets of hymns addressed to them. Some rivers such as the Indus, Bias, Sutlej are also addressed as female deities by their ancient name. There are frequent references to the river Saraswati (different from Saraswati, the consort of Brahma in the Puranas). The river Sarasvati is believed to have dried up afer the Vedic period.

There are also Gods who are associated with abstract concepts. One of the ideas mooted is that their names were originally the appellations of other Gods, but became independent Gods in their own right with the passage of time. Dhatr is a deity, whose name originally belonged to Indra, but is later said to be an independant God who created the sun, the moon and the earth. A God named Tvastr, is also mentioned, who is the artisan of the Gods. He is a precursor of Vishwakarma of the later texts. This association is clearly seen for both Tvastr and Vishwakarma are said to have a daughter named Saranyu. The Rig Vedic Saranyu is the wife of Vivasvant (possibly the Sun) and is the mother of the primaeval twins Yama and Yami. The Saranyu who is the daughter of Vishwakarma is married to Surya, the sun. In the Rig Veda, the sun God is Savitr, who is associated with Surya.

Another important derived God is Prajapati (literally, lord of men), which was an appellation applied to various Gods, but became a separate God himself. The religion in the Rig Veda is mostly pantheistic, although one particular hymn [R.V.10.121] introduces the refrain,

is kasmai devaya havisha vidhema?

which literally means, “Which God should we worship with oblations?”. From the surrounding context it is clear that the answer is Prajapati.

One of the most important deities in the Rig Veda is Aditi. Her name literally means freedom, or “to unbind”. She is referred to as the mother of a group of Gods who are referred to as Adhithyas. In the Puranas she is the wife of sage Kashyapa and the mother of the Devas, who are known as Adhithyas. There is also a natural grouping of Gods in the Rig Veda, with certain gods being associated with these groups. For instance, the Adhithyas are said to be Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, VarunaDaksha, Amsa, Surya and Martanda. The other group is the Maruts who attend on Indra. There are also Vasus, whose number is not mentioned in the Rig Veda (but the Mahabharata gives their number as eight).

The Apsaras (celestial nymphs) are mentioned, and Urvashi is explicitly referred to by name. The Gandharvas are also mentioned, but are associated with guarding the nectar and with water. Various categories of demons are mentioned, and they are usually referred to as Rakshasas. The demons are rarely called Asuras in the Rig Veda, and this name is frequently applied to the Gods, specifically to Varuna. The Danavas, who are the sons of Danu are mentioned. The most often referred Danava is Vritra, who is visualized as a drought demon, who locked up all the clouds in a mountain. Indra freed the clouds by slaying Vritra. Other demons mentioned in the Rig Veda are Vala, Arbuda and Visvarapa and Svarbhanu. There is also a frequent reference to a class of demons who are called Dasas (or dark coloured). This fact has been used to support the Aryan invasion theory. (The assumption is that the original inhabitants of India were dark skinned, who were defeated by the fair-skinned, invading Aryans).

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