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The Vedic Period in Northern India: Part Four, Concepts and Gods

2020-07-01

photo by Manfred Antranias Zimmer courtesy of pixabay.com

The Vedic period in northern India covers the centuries between about 1500 BCE and 500 BCE.  In this time, philosophies that form the basis for Brahmanism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism were developed.  In this and later posts, I will outline some of the major concepts that inform these philosophies.  All of the information in these posts is based on articles in Wikipedia.

The Indus Valley Civilization (also known as Harappan) had, as prominent features, a male and female God and Goddess, veneration of animals and plants, and the use of ritual bathing.  There is little or no surviving evidence of written records to help us understand the concepts central to Harappan religion.  It was only with the development of a shared oral tradition of documents that these concepts can be traced.  The Vedas were initially orally transmitted records that included things that we understand as “historical” and liturgical (religious) documents.  Vedas dating back to roughly 1750 BCE were eventually committed to writing by around 500 BCE.

Before the advent of oral or written documents, funerary practices are the most discoverable of the concepts in religion.  They involve the burial of human remains, which can be left in place indefinitely and retain traces of their significance.  At the start of the Harappan period, bodies were placed in wooden coffins and buried below the earth’s surface with artifacts, known as “grave goods.”  These burials remained relatively undisturbed until they were discovered by archaeologists during the last two hundred or so years.

The purpose of grave goods is unclear.  They may have been intended to dispose (or prevent re-use) of articles which were closely associated with the deceased, his personal possessions, or items which somehow contained his spirit.  They may also have been intended for the use of the deceased in another life.  This would imply that the companions of the dead expected him or her to awaken at some point and begin to live again.  The purposes only became better characterized when, in Egyptian lore, it was thought that the grave goods were useful to the deceased in his or her afterlife; even foodstuffs were included, indicating that the corpse could become hungry again.

During the early Vedic period, there was an important transition between burial of intact human remains and cremation.  This may be in part related to the development of ceremonies involving fire.  Fire ceremonies were called “homas” and could include the recitation of mantras and the burning of sacred herbs or other items.  Cremation was one form of a fire ritual.  The fire was called “Agni” and was considered a god.  Fire was used in rites of passage: of birth, marriage, and death.

However, Agni was not the greatest god– that was Indra, king of the gods.  Indra was conceived of as the god of thunder and of storms, but also the wielder of lightning.  The Rig Vedas (the first chronologically of the Vedas) refers to Indra in over a quarter of its hymns, more than any other god.  Indra is described as the god who brings forth rain and slays the demon Vritra, who is the thunderclouds and the ice-god.  In general, Indra destroys all obstacles.

There was no consistent hierarchy of gods in Vedic thought.  A person could worship any one god without saying the others didn’t exist or weren’t worthy of veneration.  This has led to numerous, non-competitive sects within Hindu mythology– devotees of individual gods who do not deny the others.  Agni was one of a trilogy: Agni, Indra, and Surya, the creator, maintainer, and destroyer.

The Rig Vedas also describe Varuna, the god who is the guardian of moral law.  He punishes those who sin without remorse and forgives those who repent.  Varuna is associated with Mitra, who is called the guardian of treaties.  Both are also described as aspects of Agni.

All of these gods, including those not mentioned such as Vishnu (“the supreme being” or “the controller of the entire universe”) are aspects of the same ultimate reality or Brahman.  In the Hindu denomination of Vaishnavism (or Vishnuism) Vishnu is revered as the supreme deity.  Vishnu adopts various incarnations or avatars to protect dharmic principles whenever the world is threatened with destruction.

In Smarta, one of the four major religious traditions of Hinduism, five gods were equally revered:  Shiva, Vishnu, Devi or Parvati, Surya, and an Ishta Devata (such as Kartikeya or Ganesha or any personal god of the devotee’s preference.)  The thought was to combine all the gods into the realization that everything is based on the single Brahman or ultimate reality.

All of the orthodox schools of Hinduism agree that there is Atman (soul) in every living being.  They extended the idea of “living being” to animals as well, suggesting that one should treat animals with the same reverence that one treats other humans.  This led to the embrace of vegetarianism and the thought that one should not kill animals for food or sport.

The orthodox Hindu schools differ from the heterodox Buddhism in one particular important aspect.  Orthodoxy held that the Atman was one and unchanging.  Buddhism disagreed and held that there is no single, unchanging self underlying the phenomena of the world.  Buddhism rejected the divine inspiration of the Vedas and held that they were human in origin.

This is a good place to stop for today.

 

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