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The religion of the Vedic period (1500 BC to 500 BC) (also known as Vedism, Vedic Brahmanism, ancient Hinduism[note 1] or, in a context of Indian antiquity, simply Brahmanism[note 2]) is a historical predecessor of modern Hinduism, though significantly different from it.[note 3]
The Vedic liturgy is conserved in the mantra portion of the four Vedas, which are compiled in Sanskrit. The religious practices centered on a clergy administering rites. This mode of worship is largely unchanged today within Hinduism; however, only a small fraction of conservative Śrautins continue the tradition of oral recitation of hymns learned solely through the oral tradition.
Texts dating to the Vedic period, composed in Vedic Sanskrit, are mainly the four Vedic Samhitas, but the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and some of the older Upanishads (Bṛhadāraṇyaka, Chāndogya, Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana) are also placed in this period. The Vedas record the liturgy connected with the rituals and sacrifices performed by the 16 or 17 Śrauta priests and the purohitas. According to traditional views, the hymns of the Rigveda and other Vedic hymns were divinely revealed to the rishis, who were considered to be seers or "hearers" (Śruti means "what is heard") of the Veda, rather than "authors". In addition the Vedas are said to be "apaurashaya", a Sanskrit word meaning "uncreated by man" and which further reveals their eternal non-changing status.
The mode of worship was worship of the elements like fire and rivers, worship of heroic gods like Indra, chanting of hymns and performance of sacrifices. The priests performed the solemn rituals for the noblemen (Kshatriyas) and wealthy commoners Vaishyas. People prayed for abundance of children, rain, cattle (wealth), long life and an afterlife in the heavenly world of the ancestors. This mode of worship has been preserved even today in Hinduism, which involves recitations from the Vedas by a purohita (priest), for prosperity, wealth and general well-being. However, the primacy of Vedic deities has been seconded to the deities of Puranic literature.
Specific rituals and sacrifices of the Vedic religion include, among others:
- The Soma rituals, which involved the extraction, utility and consumption of Soma:
- Fire rituals involving oblations (havir):
- The royal consecration (Rajasuya) sacrifice
- The Ashvamedha or A Yajna dedicated to the glory, wellbeing and prosperity of the Rashtra the nation or empire
- The Purushamedha or symbolic sacrifice of a man, imitating that of the cosmic Purusha, cf. Purusha Sukta as well as, in its Śrauta form, the Ashvamedha.
- The rituals and charms referred to in the Atharvaveda are concerned with medicine and healing practices.
The Hindu rites of cremation are seen since the Rigvedic period; while they are attested from early times in the Cemetery H culture, there is a late Rigvedic reference invoking forefathers "both cremated (agnidagdhá-) and uncremated (ánagnidagdha-)".(RV 10.15.14)
Though a large number of devatas are named in the Rig Veda, only 33 devas are counted, eleven each of earth, space and heaven. The Vedic pantheon knows two classes, Devas and Asuras. The Devas (Mitra, Varuna, Aryaman, Bhaga, Amsa, etc.) are deities of cosmic and social order, from the universe and kingdoms down to the individual. The Rigveda is a collection of hymns to various deities, most notably heroic Indra, Agni the sacrificial fire and messenger of the gods, and Soma, the deified sacred drink of the Indo-Iranians. Also prominent is Varuna (often paired with Mitra) and the group of "All-gods", the Vishvadevas.
- See also philosophers of Vedic age
Vedic philosophy primarily begins with the later part of the Rigveda, which was compiled before 1100 BCE. Most of the philosophy of the Rigveda is contained in the sections Purusha sukta and Nasadiya sukta.
Ethics — satya and rta
Ethics in the Vedas are based on the concepts of Satya and Rta. Satya is the principle of integration rooted in the Absolute, whereas Ṛta is the expression of Satya, which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it. Panikkar remarks:
Ṛta is the ultimate foundation of everything; it is "the supreme", although this is not to be understood in a static sense [...] It is the expression of the primordial dynamism that is inherent in everything...."
The term is inherited from the Proto-Indo-Iranian religion, the religion of the Indo-Iranian peoples prior to the earliest Vedic (Indo-Aryan) and Zoroastrian (Iranian) scriptures. Asha[pronunciation?] (aša) is the Avestan language term (corresponding to Vedic language ṛta) for a concept of cardinal importance to Zoroastrian theology and doctrine.
Conformity with Ṛta would enable progress whereas its violation would lead to punishment. The term Dharma was already used in Brahmanical thought, were it was conceived as an aspect of Rta.
The concept of Yajna or sacrifice is also enunciated in the Purusha sukta where reaching the Absolute itself is considered a transcendent sacrifice when viewed from the point of view of the individual.
The Vedic period is held to have ended around 500 BC. The period after the Vedic religion, between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, is the formative period for Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. According to Michaels, the period between 500 BCE and 200 BCE is a time of "ascetic reformism".[note 4] Muesse discerns a longer period of change, namely between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, which he calls the "Classical Period":
...this was a time when traditional religious practices and beliefs were reassessed. The brahmins and the rituals they performed no longer enjoyed the same prestige they had in the Vedic pariod".
According to Muesse, some of the fundamental concepts of Hinduism, namely karma, reincarnation and "personal enlightenment and transformation", did not exist in the Vedic religion, developed between 800 BCE and 200 BCE:[note 5]
Indian philosophers came to regard the human as an immortal soul encased in a perishable body and bound by action, or karma, to a cycle of endless existences.
The Vedic religion gradually metamorphosed into the various schools of Hinduism, which further evolved into Puranic Hinduism. However aspects of the historical Vedic religion survived in corners of the Indian subcontinent, such as Kerala where the Nambudiri Brahmins continue the ancient Śrauta rituals, which are considered extinct in all other parts.
The Hindu samskaras
...go back to a hoary antiquity. The Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Grhyasutras, the Dharmasutras, the Smritis and other treatises describe the rites, ceremonies and customs.
The worshipping rituals developed in such a way that
A formal distinction was maintained between Srauta rites (rites using the Vedic hymns), which were necessarily performed by priests, and Griha ("domestic") rites, performed by the Aryan householder himself; but both the latter and the former were subject to priestly influence. Some domestic rites became almost indistinguishable from the priestly Srauta sacrifices; and, even where older ceremonies were retained, they were usually interwoven with elements of the priestly ritual.
Vedic religion was followed by Upanishads which gradually evolved into Vedanta, which is regarded by some as the primary institution of Hinduism. Vedanta considers itself "the purpose or goal [end] of the Vedas." The philosophy of Vedanta (lit. “The end of the Vedas"), transformed the Vedic worldview to monistic one. This led to the development of tantric metaphysics and gave rise to new forms of yoga, such as jnana yoga and bhakti yoga. There are some conservative schools which continue portions of the historical Vedic religion largely unchanged. (see Śrauta, Nambudiri).
Of the continutation of the Vedic tradition in a newer sense, Jeaneane D. Fowler writes the following:
The Vedic gods declined but did not disappear, and local cults were assimilated into the Vedic-brahmanic pantheon, which changed into the Hindu pantheon. Deities arose that were not mentioned or barely mentioned in the Veda, especially Shiva and Vishnu, and gave rise to Shaivism and Vaishnavism.
Interpretations of Vedic Mantras in Hinduism
The various Hindu schools and traditions give various interpretations of the Vedic hymns.
Mimamsa philosophers argue that there was no need to postulate a maker for the world, just as there was no need for an author to compose the Vedas or a god to validate the rituals. Mimamsa argues that the gods named in the Vedas have no existence apart from the mantras that speak their names. To that regard, the power of the mantras is what is seen as the power of gods.
Adi Shankara interpreted Vedas as being non-dualistic or monistic. However, Arya Samaj holds the view that the Vedic mantras tend to monotheism. Even the earlier Mandalas of Rig Veda (books 1 and 9) contains hymns which are thought to have a tendency toward monotheism. Often quoted isolated pada 1.164.46 of the Rig Veda states (trans. Griffith):
- Indraṃ mitraṃ varuṇamaghnimāhuratho divyaḥ sa suparṇo gharutmān,
- ekaṃ sad viprā bahudhā vadantyaghniṃ yamaṃ mātariśvānamāhuḥ
- "They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutmān.
- To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan".
- iyám vísṛṣṭiḥ yátaḥ ābabhūva / yádi vā dadhé yádi vā ná / yáḥ asya ádhyakṣaḥ paramé vyóman / sáḥ aṅgá veda yádi vā ná véda
- "He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not, He who surveys it all from his highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps even he does not"
The non-Vedic Shramana traditions existed alongside Brahmanism.[note 6][note 7][note 8] These were not direct outgrowths of Vedism, but movements with mutual influences with Brahmanical traditions, reflecting "the cosmologyand anthropology of a much older, pre-Aryan upper class of northeastern India". Jainism and Buddhism evolved out of the Shramana tradition.
There are Jaina references to 22 pre-historic Tirthankaras. In this view, Jainism peaked at the time of Mahavira (traditionally put in the 6th Century BCE). Buddhism, traditionally put from c. 500 BC, declined in India over the 5th to 12th centuries in favor of Puranic Hinduism and Islam.
- Vedic priesthood
- Vedic period
- Proto-Indo-Iranian religion
- Proto-Indo-European religion
- Vedic mythology
- Iranian mythology