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Historical Vedic religion

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Title: Historical Vedic religion  
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Historical Vedic religion

Map of northern India in the late Vedic period. The location of Vedic shakhas is labelled in green. Thar desert is in dark yellow

The religion of the Vedic period (also known as Vedism[note 1]) was the religion of the Indo-Aryans of northern India.[5] It is a historical predecessor of modern Hinduism, though significantly different from it.[note 2]

The Vedic liturgy is conserved in the mantra portion of the four Vedas,[6] which are compiled in Sanskrit. The religious practices centered on a clergy administering rites. This mode of worship is, largely unchanged, being practiced by a small fraction of conservative Śrautins who continue the tradition of oral recitation of hymns learned solely through the oral tradition.


  • Origins 1
  • Textual history 2
  • Characteristics 3
    • Rituals 3.1
    • Pantheon 3.2
    • Philosophy 3.3
    • Ethics — satya and rta 3.4
  • Post-Vedic religions 4
    • Post-Vedic Hinduism 4.1
      • Vedanta 4.1.1
      • Bhakti 4.1.2
      • Interpretations of Vedic Mantras in Hinduism 4.1.3
    • Sramana tradition 4.2
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • Sources 8
    • Published sources 8.1
    • Web-sources 8.2


The Vedic religion was the religion of the Indo-Aryans,[7][note 3] and existed in northern India from c. 1750 to 500 BCE.[9][note 4] The Indo-Aryans were a branch of the Indo-European language family, which originated in the Kurgan culture of the Central Asian steppes.[12]

The Indo-Aryans were pastoralists[13] who migrated into north-western India after the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization,[8][14][15][note 5] bringing with them their language[18] and religion.[19][20] They were closely related to the Indo-Aryans who founded Mitanni kingdom in northern Syria[21] (ca.1500-1300 BCE). Both groups were rooted in the Andronovo-culture[22] in the Bactria-Margiana era, in present northern Afghanistan,[21] and related to the Indo-Iranians, from which they split-off around 1800-1600 BCE.[23] Their roots go back further to the Sintashta culture, with funeral sacrifices which show close parallels to the sacrificial funeral rites of the Rig Veda.[24]

The Vedic beliefs and practices of the pre-classical era were closely related to the hypothesised Proto-Indo-European religion,[25][26] and the Indo-Iranian religion.[27] According to Anthony, the Old Indic religion probably emerged among Indo-European immigrants in the contact zone between the Zeravshan River (present-day Uzbekistan) and (present-day) Iran.[28] It was "a syncretic mixture of old Central Asian and new Indo-European elements",[28] which borrowed "distinctive religious beliefs and practices"[29] from the Bactria–Margiana Culture.[29] At least 383 non-Indo-European words were borrowed from this culture, including the god Indra and the ritual drink Soma.[30] According to Anthony,

Many of the qualities of Indo-Iranian god of might/victory, Verethraghna, were transferred to the adopted god Indra, who became the central deity of the developing Old Indic culture. Indra was the subject of 250 hymns, a quarter of the Rig Veda. He was associated more than any other deity with Soma, a stimulant drug (perhaps derived from Ephedra) probably borrowed from the BMAC religion. His rise to prominence was a peculiar trait of the Old Indic speakers.[21]

The Vedic religion of the later Vedic period co-existed with local religions, such as the Yaksha cults,[5][31][web 1] and was itself the product of "a composite of the indo-Aryan and Harappan cultures and civilizations".[32] David Gordon White cites three other mainstream scholars who "have emphatically demonstrated" that Vedic religion is partially derived from the Indus Valley Civilizations.[33] The religion of the Indo-Aryans was further developed when they migrated into the Ganges Plain after c. 1100 BCE and became settled farmers,[13][34][35] further syncretising with the native cultures of northern India.[5]

Textual history

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.



A Śrauta yajna being performed in South India.

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:[36]

  • 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[37]
  • The Purushamedha.
  • The rituals and charms referred to in the Atharvaveda are concerned with medicine and healing practices.[38]

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)[39][40]


Though a large number of devatas are named in the Rig Veda, only 33 devas are counted, eleven each of earth, space and heaven.[41] 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.[42] Also prominent is Varuna (often paired with Mitra) and the group of "All-gods", the Vishvadevas.[43]


See also philosophers of Vedic age

Vedic philosophy primarily begins with the later part of the Rigveda, which was compiled before 1100 BCE.[44] Most of the philosophy of the Rigveda is contained in the sections Purusha sukta and Nasadiya sukta.[45]

Major philosophers of this era were Rishis Narayana, Kanva, Rishaba, Vamadeva, and Angiras.[46]

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,[47] whereas Ṛta is the expression of Satya, which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it.[48] 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...."[49]

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 (aša) is the Avestan language term (corresponding to Vedic language ṛta) for a concept of cardinal importance[50] 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, where it was conceived as an aspect of Rta.[51]

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.[52]

Post-Vedic religions

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.[2][3][4][53] According to Michaels, the period between 500 BCE and 200 BCE is a time of "ascetic reformism".[54][note 6] 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".[56]

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:[4][note 7]

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.[58]

The Vedic religion gradually metamorphosed into the various schools of Hinduism, which further evolved into Puranic Hinduism.[59] 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.

Post-Vedic Hinduism

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.[60]

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.[61]


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."[62] 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.[63] There are some conservative schools which continue portions of the historical Vedic religion largely unchanged. (see Śrauta, Nambudiri).[64]

Of the continuation of the Vedic tradition in a newer sense, Jeaneane D. Fowler writes the following:


The Vedic gods declined[66] but did not disappear, and local cults were assimilated into the Vedic-brahmanic pantheon, which changed into the Hindu pantheon.[67] Deities arose that were not mentioned or barely mentioned in the Veda, especially Shiva and Vishnu,[66] and gave rise to Shaivism and Vaishnavism.[66]

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.[68] 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.[69]

Adi Shankara interpreted Vedas as being non-dualistic or monistic.[70] However, Arya Samaj holds the view that the Vedic mantras tend to monotheism.[71] Even the earlier Mandalas of Rig Veda (books 1 and 9) contains hymns which are thought to have a tendency toward monotheism.[72] 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".

Moreover, the verses of 10.129 and 10.130, deal with the one being (Ékam sát). The verse 10.129.7 further confirms this (trans. Griffith):

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"

Sramana tradition

The non-Vedic Sramana traditions existed alongside Brahmanism.[73][74][note 8][note 9][note 10] These were not direct outgrowths of Vedism, but movements with mutual influences with Brahmanical traditions,[73] reflecting "the cosmology and anthropology of a much older, pre-Aryan upper class of northeastern India".[75] Jainism and Buddhism evolved out of the Shramana tradition.[76][77]

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).[78][79] Buddhism, traditionally put from c. 500 BC, declined in India over the 5th to 12th centuries in favor of Puranic Hinduism[80] and Islam.[81][82]

See also


  1. ^ The term ancient Hinduism is also applied, but not appropriate. In the 19th century the term "Hinduism" was restricted to "living Hinduism", with its emphasis on Bhakti.[1] Under the influence of the Neo-Hinduistic reform movements, which emphasised the Vedic heritage, and the growing awareness of the continuity of certain elements, the term "ancient Hinduism" has been applied by some to the Vedic period.[1] Nevertheless, the period between 800 BCE and 200 BCE sees fundamental changes, which result in "Hinduism".[2][3][4] Other incorrect terms are Brahmanism and Vedic Brahmanism. The Encyclopædia Britannica of 2005 uses all of "Vedism", "Vedic Brahmanism" and "Brahmanism", but reserves "Vedism" for the earliest stage, predating the Brahmana period, and defines "Brahmanism" as "religion of ancient India that evolved out of Vedism. It takes its name both from the predominant position of its priestly class, the Brahmans, and from the increasing speculation about, and importance given to, Brahman, the supreme power."
  2. ^ Stephanie W. Jamison and Michael Witzel, Vedic Hinduism, 1992, "... to call this period Vedic Hinduism is a contradiction in terms since Vedic religion is very different from what we generally call Hindu religion – at least as much as Old Hebrew religion is from medieval and modern Christian religion. However, Vedic religion is treatable as a predecessor of Hinduism."
  3. ^ Michaels: "They called themselves arya ("Aryans," literally "the hospitable," from the Vedic arya, "homey, the hospitable") but even in the Rgveda, arya denotes a cultural and linguistic boundary and not only a racial one."[8]
  4. ^ There is no exact dating possible for the beginning of the Vedic period. Witzel mentions a range between 1900 and 1400 BCE.[10] Flood mentions 1500 BCE.[11]
  5. ^ The Aryan migration theory has been challenged by some researchers,[8][16] due to a lack of archaeological evidence and signs of cultural continuity,[8] hypothesizing instead a slow process of acculturation[8] or transformation.[14] Nevertheless, linguistic and archaeological data clearly show a cultural change after 1750 BCE,[8] with the linguistic and religious data clearly showing links with Indo-European languages and religion.[17] According to Singh, "The dominant view is that the Indo-Aryams came to the subcontinent as immigrants."[16]
  6. ^ According to Michaels, the period between 200 BCE and 1100 CE is the time of "classical Hinduism", since there is "a turning point between the Vedic religion and Hindu religions".[55]
  7. ^ Although the concept of reincarnation originated during the time of the Shramanic reforms and the composition of the Upanishads,[4] according to rishis believed in reincarnation and karma.[57]
  8. ^ Cromwell: "Alongside Brahmanism was the non-Aryan shramanic culture with its roots going back to prehistoric times."[73]
  9. ^ >Y. Masih (2000) In : A Comparative Study of Religions, Motilal Banarsidass Publ : Delhi, ISBN 81-208-0815-0 Page 18. "There is no evidence to show that Jainism and Buddhism ever subscribed to vedic sacrifices, vedic deities or caste. They are parallel or native religions of India and have contributed to much to the growth of even classical Hinduism of the present times."
  10. ^ P.S. Jaini, (1979), The Jaina Path to Purification, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, p. 169 "Jainas themselves have no memory of a time when they fell within the Vedic fold. Any theory that attempts to link the two traditions, moreover fails to appreciate rather distinctive and very non-vedic character of Jaina cosmology, soul theory, karmic doctrine and atheism"


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  6. ^ "The Four Vedas". About dot Com. Retrieved 7 November 2012. 
  7. ^ Singh 2008, p. 185.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Michaels 2004, p. 33.
  9. ^ Michaels 2004, p. 32.
  10. ^ Witzel 1995, p. 3-4.
  11. ^ Flood 1996, p. 21.
  12. ^ Anthony 2007.
  13. ^ a b Witzel 1995.
  14. ^ a b Flood 1996, p. 30-35.
  15. ^ Hiltebeitel 2007, p. 5.
  16. ^ a b Singh 2008, p. 186.
  17. ^ Flood 1996, p. 33.
  18. ^ Samuel 2010, p. 53-56.
  19. ^ Flood 1996, p. 30.
  20. ^ Hiltebeitel 2007, p. 5-7.
  21. ^ a b c Anthony 2007, p. 454.
  22. ^ Anthony 2007, p. 410-411.
  23. ^ Anthony 2007, p. 408.
  24. ^ Anthony 2007, p. 375, 408-411.
  25. ^ B. S. Ahloowalia (2009). Invasion of the Genes Genetic Heritage of India. Strategic Book Publishing.  
  26. ^ Roger D. Woodard (18 August 2006). Indo-European Sacred Space: Vedic and Roman Cult. University of Illinois Press. pp. 242–.  
  27. ^ Beckwith 2009.
  28. ^ a b Anthony 2007, p. 462.
  29. ^ a b Beckwith 2009, p. 32.
  30. ^ Anthony 2007, p. 454-455.
  31. ^ Basham 1989, p. 74-75.
  32. ^ White 2006, p. 28.
  33. ^ White, David Gordon (2003). Kiss of the Yogini. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 28.  
  34. ^ Samuel 2010, p. 48-51, 61-93.
  35. ^ Hiltebeitel 2007, p. 8-10.
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  45. ^ Krishnananda. Swami. A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India, Divine Life Society. p. 18-19.
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  57. ^ (Page 169) The Yoga Tradition By Georg Feuerstein
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  60. ^ Pandey, Rajbali, "Hindu Samskaras" (Motilal Banarasidass Publ., 1969)
  61. ^ Hopkins, Thomas J., The Hindu Religious Tradition (Belmont: Dickenson Publications, 1971), 15
  62. ^ Robert E. Hume, Professor Emeritus of History of Religions at the Union Theological Seminary, wrote in Random House's The American College Dictionary (1966): "It [Vedānta] is concerned with the end of the Vedas, both chronologically and teleologically."
  63. ^ "Patanjali’s Yoga Darsana – The Hatha Yoga Tradition," InfoRefuge.
  64. ^ Kelkar, Siddharth. UNESCO’s leg-up for city Veda research. Express India. Retrieved 16 June 2012.
  65. ^ P. 46 Perspectives of Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Hinduism By Jeaneane D. Fowler
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  67. ^ Michaels 2004, p. 39.
  68. ^ Neville, Robert. Religious ruth. p. 51. 
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  70. ^ Sharma, Chandradhar (1962). "Chronological Summary of History of Indian Philosophy". Indian Philosophy: A Critical Survey. New York: Barnes & Noble. p. vi. 
  71. ^ Light of Truth by Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Chapter 7
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  78. ^ Helmuth von Glasenapp,Shridhar B. Shrotri. 1999. Jainism: an Indian religion of salvation. P.24. "Thus not only nothing, from the philosophical and the historical point of view, comes in the way of the supposition that Jainism was established by Parsva around 800 BCE, but it is rather confirmed in everything that we know of the spiritual life of that period."
  79. ^ Dundas, Paul. 2002. The Jains. P.17. "Jainism, then, was in origin merely one component of a north Indian ascetic culture that flourished in the Ganges basin from around the eighth or seventh centuries BCE."
  80. ^ "Buddhism". (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 26 November 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition.
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Published sources

  • Anthony, David W. (2007), The Horse The Wheel And Language. How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped The Modern World, Princeton University Press 
  • Flood, Gavin D. (1996), An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University Press 
  • Hiltebeitel, Alf (2002), Hinduism. In: Joseph Kitagawa, "The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History, and Culture", Routledge 
  • Hiltebeitel, Alf (2007), Hinduism. In: Joseph Kitagawa, "The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History, and Culture". Digital printing 2007, Routledge 
  • King, Richard (1999), Orientalism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India and "The Mystic East", Routledge 
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  • Muesse, Mark William (2003), Great World Religions: Hinduism 
  • Samuel, Geoffrey (2010), The Origins of Yoga and Tantra. Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge University Press 
  • Smart, Ninian (2003), Godsdiensten van de wereld (The World's religions), Kampen: Uitgeverij Kok 
  • Von Stietencron, Heinrich (2005), Hindu Myth, Hindu History: Religion, Art, and Politics, Orient Blackswan 
  • White, David Gordon (2006), Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts, University of Chicago Press 
  • Witzel, Michael (1995), "Early Sanskritization: Origin and Development of the Kuru state", EJVS vol. 1 no. 4 (1995) 
  • Zimmer, Heinrich (1989), Pholosophies of India, Princeton University Press 


  1. ^ yakshaEncyclopedia Britannica,
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