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The Gods of the Vedas

"Light us up with happiness, O Ushas, daughter of heaven, With great lustre, O radiant one, with wealth, O bountiful goddess.

Like a fair maiden comes Ushas, gladdening all She comes awakening four footed beasts, And makes the birds rise into the air. O Ushas, shine with shimmering radiance, O daughter of heaven, bringing us happiness As you shower your light upon the daily sacrifices."

hymn to Ushas, the goddess of dawn, in the Rigveda

The word ved, means to know and the four Vedas are Books of Knowledge. They are a collection of hymns and ritual incantations that were sung during the ritual sacrifices, called yajnas. These hymns, called mantras, are songs praising the pantheon of gods of the early Aryans and in them we find descriptions of the great deities. It was believed that the Vedas were not written but divinely revealed and heard by


This was the concept of Shruti, hearing, and so fi'i , rHturics these mantras were handed down as an oral

¦ i a-titit hi from one generation of the priesthood to the next. \ i inn. h emphasis was laid on correct pronunciation, the text ¥ is memorised and recited with amazing precision and so the Vcilii'. have come down to us relatively unchanged.

I'lie Rigveda, composed before 1200 B.C.E contains |028 hymns in praise of thirty-three gods and goddesses. I !ir 10,589 verses, divided into ten mandalas, or cosmic si. nons, were composed over many centuries by many p." is, often many generations of the same family of rishis, ot seers. The Rigveda is at the heart of the Aryan system . *i icligion while the other three Vedas are really extensions

¦ 'I this most important Veda. The Samaveda is a collection of holy chants selected from the Rigveda for use during the sacrifices. As these sacrifices became more elaborate with complex rituals, a class of pncsts rose who specialised in the performance of the sacrifices. The third Veda, the Yajurveda has esoteric lormulas, sacred invocations, the mantras and spells recited by the priests during the sacrifice. The fourth Veda, the Atharvaveda has a mix of hymns of praise and rituals, mantras and magic spells. Each Veda is divided into two sections—the Samhita with the hymns and mantras and the Brahmanas that are commentaries on the hymns.

The gods of the Rigveda are colourful deities. Magnificent kings like Indra and Varuna, auspicious like Agni and sacred like Soma. Among the goddesses are Ushas, Ratri and Prithivi. In appearance the gods and goddesses were imagined as ideal human beings and had a royal way of life. They rode through the air on horse-drawn chariots or on the back of animals and birds. The food they liked was the best food of the humans—oblations of milk and honey, grain and flesh. With it they drank the exhilarating juice of the soma plant.

Unlike humans, gods are immortal. The gods receive the prayers of humans and have the power to answer their prayers, by rewarding the good and punishing the evil. Some deities are somehow kinder than the others, others are more unpredictible and prone to anger. What makes them truly omnipotent is their ability to control the powers of nature, something that leaves us humans helpless. They can make storms cease and make the clouds rain, make the crops grow and if, angry, sweep the sky with thunder and lightning.

There was no clear hierarchy of the deities and every hymn calls the god it praises as the Supreme One. At times the same power is attributed to different gods. So both Indra and Varuna are called the king of the gods, Indra brings the rains and so does Varuna. The descriptions of the deities can at times be contradictory, changing from hymn to hymn. In one hymn Dyaus is the father of Indra, in another it is Tvashtri. The powers of Brahmanaspati, Prajapati, Brihaspati, and Brahma are interchangeable. Then many aspects of the same deity has different names and sometimes get treated as different gods. So Surya is also Pushan, Savitra, and Vishnu, Agni is Rudra, Varuna is Mitra. Still for a mythology that has survived for nearly five thousand years, the pantheon of Vedic gods is surprisingly vivid, well-ordered and fascinating in their colour and character. And among them if there was a trinity of powerful Vedic gods, it was the triad of Agni-Indra-Surya and with them was the celestial drink of Soma.

The gods also needed enemies they vanquished and evil they triumphed over. The Tattiriya Samhita puts evil in three i ategories—the asuras who oppose the gods, the rakshasas who are the enemies of men and the pisachas who trouble the dead. For the Aryans their enemies were the Dravidians and aborigine tribes that they were trying to conquer. So they were transformed into the demon asuras and rakshasas of their myths and shown being defeated by the Aryan gods. Primarily asuras and rakshasas were powerful kings and chieftains who were transformed into demons only because they opposed the Aryans. They acquired the bloody fangs and extra heads after this demonisation. The asura king Havana, as we know was a scholar, worshipper of Shiva, and a successful king of a prosperous kingdom. His undoing was his opposition to the Rama Avatar.

The oldest commentator of the Rigveda, Yaska divides the Vedic gods into three sections according to the three divisions of the universe. So the gods can be celestial, atmospheric or terrestrial deities. The celestial or dyusthana deities are Dyaus, Varuna, Mitra, Surya, Savitra, Pushan, Vishnu, Aditi, the Adityas, Ushas, and the Ashvins. The important atmospheric or madhyamsthana deities are Indra, Rudra, the Maruts, and Vayu. The terrestrial or prithvisthana deities are Agni, Brihaspati, Soma, Prithvi, and Yama. If we judge the power of the god according to the number of hymns dedicated to them, then the three Indra-Agni-Soma were clearly the most popular ones. And most of them are benevolent deities with the exception of the volatile, malevolent Rudra