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By Swami Harshananda
The Veda is the original seed from which the huge banyan tree of Hinduism has evolved. It has four aspects, of which the Ṛgveda is the first.
As per the hoary tradition, believed in by the Hindu orthodoxy, it was the sage Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana who gathered all the extant Vedic mantras of his times and divided them into four groups, thereby acquiring the honorific, ‘Vedavyāsa,’ or ‘Vyāsa’. This division was necessitated by the practical needs felt in the performance of a sacrifice. All the mantras used by the priest hotā (= ‘one who calls upon,) to invite the various deities to a sacrifice, were collected together and called the Ṛgveda. Each of its mantras is known as a ‘ṛc’ or ‘ṛk’.
Being the most ancient and the basic work, it has, naturally, influenced the other three Vedas as also all their sub-divisions.
2. Date of tAe Ṛgveda
The task of fixing a definite date or period for the Ṛgveda—or, for that matter, for any of the ancient Hindu scriptures—is
as arduous as mapping the movement of
a bird after it has settled down in its nest!
Some of the dates put forward or suggested by various scholars are as follows:
A. C. Dās : 25,000 B. C.
S. Śrīkaṇṭhaśāstrī : 10,000 B. C.
S. V. Veṅkaṭeśvara : 10,000 B. C.
B. G. Tilak : 6000 B. C.
Hermann Jacobi: 4500 B. C.
Haug M. : 2400 B. C.
Winternitz, Moriz : 2000 B. C.
Max Müller : 1200 B. C.
However, most of these scholars have based their research findings wholly or primarily on a few assumptions like the evolution of the language of the Ṛgveda, certain astronomical data (which may not have been proved beyond all doubts), noticeable changes in socio-political systems and so on. Hence none of these dates can be averred to be true, beyond all reasonable doubts.
As for the orthodox traditions, the Vedas are not books, but a body of knowledge revealed by the Creator at the beginning of each cycle of creation.
Suffice it to say that a serious and devoted study of the Book is more profit-able than such dry polemical discussions which lead us nowhere.
3. Methods of Division
Ancient Hindu tradition has divided the Ṛgveda in two different ways. The first is the Aṣṭaka Method and the second, the Maṇḍala Method. The former has been designed to facilitate easy memorisation,
by apportioning more or less equal number
of mantras to each section. In the latter method, the subject is more important.
The following tables give the details of both the methods:
THE AṢṬAKA METHOD Aṣṭakas Adhyāyas Vargas Mantras 1 8 265 1370 2 8 221 1147 3 8 225 1209 4 8 250 1289 5 8 238 1263 6 8 331 1730 7 8 248 1263 8 8 246 1281 8 64 2024 10,552 THE MAṆḌALA METHOD Maṇḍalas Anuvākas Sūktas Mantras 1 24 191 2006 2 4 43 429 3 5 62 617 4 5 58 589 5 6 87 727 6 6 75 765 7 6 104 841 8 10 103 1716 9 7 114 1108 10 12 191 1754 10 85 1028 10,552
The Vedic mantras used to be handed down by oral tradition. What the teacher would chant, the student had to attentively listen and repeat. Hence the Vedas have come to be known as ‘Śruti’ (‘what is
The Vedic ṛṣis (sages) had evolved a wonderful system of orally teaching and
learning these mantras* so that they could be preserved very correctly, especially the svaras or intonations, and transmitted to the posterity. As a result, even today, we can come across pundits who are capable of reciting the entire Ṛgveda faultlessly!
4. Śākhās or Branches
Since the Vedic mantras were continually revealed to the great sages in their mystical states and since they had to be kept in memory for transmitting them orally to the next generation, a saturation point was fast approaching, endangering the storing and transmission of Vedic wisdom itself. Realising this, Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana or Vedavyāsa divided the extant material into four groups and taught them to his four chief disciples: Paila, Vaiśampāyana, Jaimini and Sumantu.
This was the first division of the Vedic mantras into four groups that have come to be recognised as the, now well-known, four Vedas: Ṛgveda, Yajurveda, Sāmaveda and Atharvaveda.
However, since each of these four disciples had their own disciples too, some minor alterations and readjustments had to be made by them while teaching the Veda they had learnt from their teacher, Vedavyāsa. This was done mostly by rearrangement of the mantras to suit their local or ritualistic modes. Such modified forms came to be known as śākhās.
Though the Ṛgveda is said to have had 21 śākhās, only five have survived. They are: Śākala, Bāṣkala, Āśvalāyana,
Sāṅkhāyana and Māṇḍūkeya.
Obviously these have derived their nomenclatures from the sages of those names such as Śākala and Bāṣkala.
These five śākhās got further subdivided by the same process. The Visnu-purāna (3.4.21, 22) declares that the ṛṣi Śākala created five more śākhās and gave them to his five disciples—Mudgala, Gālava, Vātsya, Śālīya and Śaiśirīya.
This process was adopted by the teachers of the other three Vedas also.
5. Internal Divisions
Each of the four Vedas has again been subdivided internally into two parts: Mantra and Brāhmaṇa.
More often, this division is raised to four, adding two more sections, the Āraṇyaka and the Upaniṣad.
The Mantra section is more commonly called the Saṁhitā. In fact, the very word ‘Veda’ is used to indicate the Saṁhitā part only. Thus, Rgveda means the Rgveda-samhitā only, the other three being known by their special names.
The following are the names of these three sections of the Rgveda as available today:
Brāhmaṇas: Aitareya Brāhmana and
Kausltaki Brāhmana. Araṇyakas: Aitareya Āranyaka and
Sāñkhāyana or Kausitaki Āranyaka.
Upaniṣad: Aitareya Upanisad.
6. Rsis or Sages
The word ṛṣi has been derived from the root ṛṣ which has two meanings:
movement and knowledge.
- They are known as: samhitapatha, padapātha, kramapatha, jatapātha and ghana-patha.
When the sages were performing severe austerities to please īśvara or God and get spiritual wisdom, he appeared before them—this indicates movement on his part—and gave that knowledge which they were seeking, in the form of Vedic mantras. Hence they became ‘ṛṣis,’ sages to whom God Himself came and granted that knowledge.
According to the ancient Hindu tradition, no Vedic mantra should be recited without first uttering the name of the ṛṣi to whom it was revealed, the chandas or the metre in which it is composed, and the deity or god to whom it is addressed.
The number of the ṛṣis of the Rgveda is very large. There are nearly thirty women among them, such as Ghoṣā, Godhā, Viśvavārā, Apālā, Juhū, Saramā, Romaśā and so on.
A ṛṣi need not always be the mantra-draṣṭā, the original seer of the mantra. Others also—such as the one who rediscovered a mantra, one who expounded its meaning and significance, one who used it first in a Vedic sacrifice and so on—may deserve that title.
The ancient commentators and compilers of subsidiary Vedic treatises sometimes classify these ṛṣis into various groups. They are:
1) śatarcins (those to whom a hundred ṛks or more were revealed); mādhyamas (the middlings who got less rks); kṣudrasūktas (propagators of small sūktas); mahāsūktas (propagators of longer or bigger or more important sūktas).
2) maharṣis (the great ṛṣis); ṛṣis (sages of second grade, mostly the sons of the maharsis); ṛsīkas (sons of the ṛṣis); śrutarṣis (famous ṛṣis).
Several kulas (vaṁśas or lineages) of Vedic ṛṣis have been noted, especially in the purāṇas. The originators of these kulas are: Bhṛgu, Aṅgiras, Kaśyapa, Atri, Vasiṣṭha, Viśvāmitra, and Agastya.
Many great sages who became very well-known in later literature, were the descendants of these seven. Some of them are: Jamadagni, Dadhyaṅ Ātharvaṇa,
Cyavana, Ṛṣabha, Vāmadeva, Garga, Raibhya, Parāśara, Vyāsa and Devarāta.
7. Devafās or Deifies
As per the tradition of chanting the Vedic mantras—especially the ones from the Ṛgveda—a knowledge of the ṛṣi (sage), the devatā (deity or god) and the chandas (metre), is absolutely necessary.
Most of the sūktas of the Ṛgueda are hymns of prayer addressed to the various deities.
These deities are generally enumerated as thirty-three: eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Ādityas, Indra and Prajāpati. Quite a few other deities too find an important place. They are: Agni, Aśvins, Soma, Sūrya, Varuṇa, Vāyu, Viṣṇu, Viśvedevas and Yama.
There are also several female deities like Uṣas, Rātri, Vāc, Sarasvatī and Pṛthvī.
It is interesting to note that many inanimate objects like grinding stone, qualities like faith and emotions like anger have also been deified and described.
Who are these devas or deities? They are conscious entities with their own individualities having the powers to supervise certain aspects of the various functions of the universe.
These devas are usually classified
into three groups depending on their areas of operation.
For instance the devas of pṛthvī or earth are: Agni, Pṛthvī and Bṛhaspati.
Those operating in the antarikṣa or intermediary space are: Indra, Vāyu, Parjanya, Rudra and the Maruts.
The devatās stationed in the dyaus (heavenly region) are: Varuṇa, Mitra, Savitṛ, Sūrya, Pūṣan, Ādityas, Viśvedevas, Uṣas and Aśvinīdevatās.
There are statements in the Ṛgueda itself that Truth (or God) is one and all these devatās are its various aspects (vide 1.164.46; 7.58.2; 10.114.5).
8. Literary Grace
The Ṛgveda is not only the oldest scripture in the world, but also literary masterpiece.
The entire work is in verses of various metres. Though the total number of metres used is fifteen, only seven are more common. Of these again, only three— triṣṭubh, gāyatrī and jagatī—have been used extensively.
The selection of appropriate words and the ease with which they have been used are really admirable. Since large compound words have been totally avoided, the verses are easy to comprehend.
Description of the physical beauty of the Maruts (5.54.11) and the goddess Uṣas (1.92.4) is quite enchanting. Another verse on the same goddess (1.92.10) also reveals her ‘cruel’ nature since she ‘cuts away’ the lives of human beings even as the daughter of a hunter cuts off the wings of
a captured bird so that it can fly no more!
The seven verses in the second maṇḍala (2.39.2-7) describe the twin
deities, the Āśvins, in great detail with several similes like two great charioteers or two beautiful women (who are always together) or the two wheels of a chariot. The prayer addressed to them is for long life, strength and protection.
There are several Saṁuādasūktas, sūktas dealing with the conversations between Purūrava and Ūrvaśī (10.95), Yama and Yamī (10.10), Agastya and Lopāmudrā (1.179), Viśvāmitra and Nadīs (rivers, 3.33) as also Agni and the gods (10.51). There is also an interesting soliloquy of a gambler unburdening his piteous condition (10.34).
The Ūrvaśī-Purūrava saṁvāda reveals the deep mutual love and attachment in a married couple.
The Yama-yamī-saṁvāda reflects the glory of mature spiritual wisdom and its victory over carnal passions. The Agastya-Lopāmudrā-saṁvāda depicts the duty of a householder to have worthy offspring. In the Viśvāmitra-nadī-saṁvāda, Viśvāmitra who is travelling with the king Sudāsa and others prays to the river Vipāṭ and Śutudrī (Beas and Sutlej) to make way by lessening their flow. The rivers, being pleased with his prayer oblige him. In the Agni-devatā-saṁvāda, the gods discover Agni hiding in waters and pray to him to return, to take up once again his duties of carrying the havis (oblations) to them.
There are also several other sūktas wherein sentiments such as heroism, or beauties of nature, or humility and devotion to God, or war-scenes have been described. All these may be considered as
precursors to the later theories about the navarasas (nine sentiments) found in the works now known as Alaṅkāraśāstra.
The Sanskrit language of the Vedas in general and of the Ṛgveda in particular, is highly archaic and arcane. Without the help of ancient commentaries it is difficult to decipher them.
The Nighaṇṭu (a Vedic dictionary of hoary antiquity) and its commentary, (the Nirukta of Yāska (800 B. C.), are the
earliest sources of interpretation of the Vedic names and concepts.
It is of interest to note that even the Nirukta refers to some very ancient schools of Vedic interpretation such as adhi-daivatapaddhati (a system that recognises the presiding deity behind even physical objects), ākhyāna-samayapaddhati (enquiring into the historical aspects and fixing periods of time, taking the ākhyānas or stories as the basis), yājñikapaddhati (interpretation according to the needs of a yajña or sacrifice), naidānapaddhati (attempts to discover a basic or permanent meaning behind the Vedic words) and vaiyākaraṇapaddhati (the school of interpretation according to grammar).
The earliest commentary on the Ṛgveda available now is that of Skanda-svāmi (circa A. D. 630). He belonged to the deśa or the country Valabhī. His father was Bhartṛdhruva. His disciple was Harisvāmi who has written a commentary on the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa of the Śukta Yajurveda.
His commentary as available now is incomplete.
Veṅkaṭamādhava (11th century A. D.) is another author whose commentary on
the whole of the Ṛgveda is available. He
belonged to the Kauśikagotra (lineage) and was the son of Veṅkaṭārya and Sundarī.
His commentary is very brief. It has been printed also.
Madhvācārya (A. D. 1238-1317), also known as Ānandatīrtha, has written a nice commentary in verses on the first forty sūktas only. It is generally known as the Ṛgbhāṣya. Jayatīrtha (14th century A. D.) has written a gloss on it called Sambandhadīpikā.
This commentary of Madhvācārya deals with the mantras from three different angles and tries to show that the entire Veda teaches about Nārāyaṇa.
The greatest of all the commentators on the Ṛgveda is Sāyaṇācārya (A. D. 1315-1387) who has the unique distinction of having composed bhāṣyas or commentaries on all the four Vedas. He was the second son of Māyaṇa and Śrīmatī, and belonged to the Bhāradvājagotra. The renowned monk Vidyāraṇya (the founder of the famous Vijayanagara empire) was his elder brother, and Bhoganātha (another great scholar) was the younger one.
All the three brothers had served the empire as prime-ministers and ministers.
He has composed commentaries not only on the Saṁhitās of the Vedas but also on the Brāhmaṇas and the Āraṇyakas.
For a correct understanding of the Vedas a thorough knowledge of the six Vedāṅgas as also the Pūrvamīmāṁsā system based on the Sūtras of Jaimini (along with the bhāṣya of Śabarasvāmin [circa 100 B. C.]) is absolutely necessary. To be brought up in the sampradāya (ancient and continuous tradition, handed
down from the guru to the disciple) is
equally important. Sāyaṇa had the advantage of both. Hence his commentaries
should be considered as the most authoritative in every sense of the term.
During the 18th and the 19th centuries, quite a few European scholars like Bloomfield (A. D. 1855-1928), Grassman (A. D. 1809-1877), Kaegi (A. D. 1849-1925), Keith (A. D. 1879-1944), Ludwig (A. D. 1832-1912), Max Müller (A. D. 1823-1900), Macdonell (A. D. 1854-1930), Muir (A. D. 1810-1882), and Wilson (A.D. 1786-1860) have contributed to Vedic studies. Out of these, the work of Max Müller who translated and published the entire Ṛgveda with Sāyaṇa,s Commentary in 6 volumes, during the period 1849 to 1873, needs special mention. The works of Bloomfield and Wilson as also of Macdonell and Keith have been very useful to the students of Vedic studies.
However, the conclusions drawn by these European scholars are often off the mark, since they were not grounded in what the Hindus call, ‘sampradāya,’ the all-important ancient tradition, transmitted meticulously from generation to generation.
There are also enough grounds of suspicion to conclude that these scholars were motivated more to prove the superiority of Christianity over Hinduism than to study, understand and interpret the Vedas.
10. Philosophy of fhe Ṛgveda
The greatness of Hinduism, like the basic flow of a great river, lies in the fact that its value system at the core has remained intact in spite of centuries of vicissitudes, wrought about by external aggressions or internal upheavals. If
Vedānta is the pinnacle of all the Hindu philosophical systems, the Ṛgveda is its
mother-root. Almost all the ideas found later, in the Upaniṣads and allied scriptures, are already there in the Rgveda in a seed form, though not in one place.
True it is that the Rgveda praises several gods like Agni, Indra, Maruts and others, the number of mantras devoted to Indra and Agni being the maximum. However, they are not, like the Greek gods, separate and independent individuals in conflict with one another. That they are all different aspects or facets of one and the same Supreme Being, is also declared in several places (vide 1.164.46; 7.58.2; 10.114.5).
There is a clear reference to God the Supreme in several places even though different appellations have been used. They are, for instance: Ātmā (= Self; 1.115.1), Chāyā (= light; 5.44.6); Deva (= Being of light; 10.121); Hiraṇyagarbha (= Golden Egg; 10.221.1); Ka (= Prajāpati; 10.121); Pitā (= Father; 10.81.1); Puruṣa (= Being; 10.90.2); Savitā (= Sun; Creator; 3.62.10); Tvaṣṭā (= one who shapes; 3.55.19); Vena (10.123); Vidhātā (= Giver; 10.82.3); Viśvakarmā (= Creator of the world; 10.82.2).
Also, Indra, Agni and Varuṇa have often been praised as the Supreme Lord.
That God alone existed before creation and that he is the creator, protector and ruler of this world is clearly mentioned in several mantras (10.221.1-4; 10.82.1-6; 10.129).
As regards the mode of creation, what is described in the three famous sūktas— the Hiranyagarbha-sūkta (10.221.1-4), the Purusa-sūkta (10.90) and the Nāsadiya-sūkta (10.129)—is almost the same as the one found in the Upaniṣads.
God, who alone existed before creation, is the creator, sustainer and destroyer of the world. He does it as per his own free will. He is both the upādāna or the material cause and the nimitta or the efficient cause. He is not only immanent in the world (because he has created it out of himself), but also transcendent. Hence, he himself is everything he has created (vide 10.81.1; 10.5.7; 10.82.1).
The Ṛgveda also describes the several infinitely good and great qualities of God like omnipotence (3.59.1; 1.24.6), rulership (8.93.11), omniscience (6.51.2), transcendence (6.47.15), extraordinary brilliance (8.81.51), having a cosmic form (1.13.10), being the inner controller (1.67.34), incomparability (6.21.10) and so on. He is the greatest friend and protector of his devotees (1.75.4; 6.7.7). He is very generous and fulfils all their desires (10.80.1). He is supremely adorable (2.35.12).
The question that is normally discussed in the Vedānta system, viz., the identity or otherwise of the jiva (individual
soul) with Brahman (God), is not raised
or even mentioned in the Ṛgveda. However, the desire to attain the world of the immortal gods, expressed in 10.16, shows that these sages believed in an eternal soul and an eternal world (Pitṛloka, the world of manes; 10.14).
The aim of life is to attain God (6.31.4). What keeps the human beings away from him is pāpa or sin, evil ways of living. Hence one should pray to him for forgiveness (1.24.14), for being freed from sins and be guided on the path of righteousness (8.45.34; 5.82.5).
The spiritual disciplines that lead the aspirants to him are: faith in him as the
only support of life (8.45.20); prayer to him for being guided in the path of truth (10.133.6); prayer for spiritual wisdom before old-age comes (1.71.10); prayer for serving the Lord always (6.45.9); appeal for eternal protection (8.1.13; 8.61.17); devotion as the best means (8.70.3); intense longing to see him (6.3.4).
The concept of mokṣa or liberation as described in the Upaniṣads is not found here in that form. Breaking up of the physical body—after death—and its being merged in the five elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether) thereby freeing the jīva (soul) has been mentioned. The deity Agni leads the jīva by the path of the gods to the world of pitṛs (manes) ruled by Yama, wherein he lives happily.
11. Sociefy of the Ṛgvedic Times
The society of those times, as seen through the eyes of the Ṛgveda, was a virile and dynamic society. Its basic spirit was ṛta, the cosmic law and order, reflected in social and personal life, which
gave rise to the later concept of dharma.
This naturally made the people forge a strong relationship with the Vedic gods like Indra, Agni, Varuṇa and others, especially through the religious system of yajñas, which was widely practised.
However, there is no evidence to assume that temples and image worship as we have today, ever existed then. Based on one mantra (1.80.9) some scholars are inclined to think that group prayers might have existed.
The sages of the Rgveda had realised the importance of life here and now and that it afforded man a great opportunity for a glorious life after death, if led
properly. They never despised life. Hence they prayed for a strong body, pure sense-organs and long life (1.8.98; 3.53.18;
2.21.6). At the same time they also recognised the importance of moral and ethical values in personal and social life (9.73.1; 9.73.6; 8.31.13).
An important aspect of life in this world is earning wealth by right means and sharing the good things of life with others, especially the less fortunate ones, through dāna or giving gifts (5.24.2; 2.21.6;
3.14.6). In fact dāna was valued highly and hence hailed profusely (10.107.2; 10.117.3, 4).
Marriage was considered as a saṁskāra or sacrament and a woman had an honourable place in the family, not only as wife but also as mother (10.85.27, 44). The Vivāhasūkta (10.85) gives an idea of the Vedic concept of marriage.
It appears that a woman, under certain circumstances, had the freedom to choose her husband (10.27.12); and, a widow (probably childless) could remarry, the groom being the younger brother of her husband (10.40.2).
Even by the time of the Ṛgveda, sahagamana (a widow dying on the funeral pyre of her dead husband) had become a symbolical ritual.
Monogamy and polygamy were both common.
Father was the head of the family. Couples generally hankered for male offsprings though daughters were not looked down upon.
Both cremation and burial existed as the modes of disposal of the dead.
Other aspects of the life of the people
may now be considered. The Vedic society
had attained a high degree of civilisation and culture, contrary to the opinions expressed by the Western writers of the colonial era.
People lived in villages and towns, often protected by forts (1.114.1; 7.3.7). Though agriculture and dairy farming were the main occupations, other vocations like carpentry (9.112.1), smithy (9.112.2), medical profession (9.112.1), weaving (6.9.2), building ships (10.101.2) and leather work (7.63.1) were also practised.
Good methods of irrigation were known to the farmers (3.45.3; 7.49.2).
As regards food, clothing, jewels, decorative materials, weapons of war, animals like cows, horses and elephants, quite a high standard had been achieved. Drinking of the soma juice in sacrifices was highly eulogised. Eating of meat was quite common. Music and dance were well-known means of entertainment (10.18.3).
References to drinking wine and gambling, to thieves and robbers as also a few diseases are also there, from which protection was sought, from the gods.
Great kings and heroes, and also their valiant deeds, especially in battles and wars, find mention in quite a few places.
The division of the society into the four varṇas—brāhmaṇas, kṣattriyas, vaiśyas and śūdras—had come to stay. The brāhmaṇas wielded great influence on the whole society by their intellectual and spiritual power.
On the whole it can be easily conceded that the Ṛgvedic society was in no way undeveloped or barbaric. On the other
hand, it had attained a high degree of
civilisation and culture.
The Ṛgveda is not only the basic scripture of Hinduism, but also an authentic—though brief, and often poetic—record of all aspects of the life of the people of its times. It is not only a holy book but also a holistic replica of the contemporary society.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore