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The development of religion in northern India: Part Six (a work in progress)


photo by Manfred Antranias Zimmer courtesy of

The Vedic period (1500-500 BCE) was characterized by a transition from dominance of a post-animist religion in which specific gods began to play a larger part in the story of religion.

Animism is a form of religion, thought to be the most primitive, in which every object, both animate and inanimate, has an inner “god” or “spirit” that “animates” it and gives it specific characteristics.  Thus, a stone has an inner spirit that causes it to behave like a stone.  A place, such as a meadow or a mountain, also has an inner spirit.  Even non-material objects, such as words and concepts, have their own spirits.

Dravidian religions were post-animist, but continued the worship of sacred trees and animals.  They subscribed to belief in a Mother Goddess and had a complex metaphysical system.  Shakti (or Parashakti) or Devi (or Mahadevi) is the Hindu version of the Dravidian Mother Goddess.  Harappan (Indus Valley) civilizations included a female figure in many small sculptures that were found in Harappan ruins.  There is a possibility that worship of the Mother Goddess involved human sacrifice with the blood of the victim offered to obtain fertility for the crops.

Wikipedia says that the scholar Lockard stated: “Hinduism can be seen historically as a synthesis of Aryan beliefs with Harappan and other Dravidian traditions that developed over many centuries.”

The Aryan religions probably included the gods Indra (supreme god), Agni (fire god), and Varuna (sky god.)  They also probably included the ethical concepts of satya (truthfulness) and rta (the concept of the natural order.)

The Dravidian and Aryan religions were synthesized into the historical Vedic religion, which is memorialized in the Rig Veda.  The language of the Rigveda is Sanskrit, which is separated from the Iranian language and evolved from the hypothetical proto-Indo-Iranian language.  After separation, the Iranians evolved a religion called Zoroastrianism (from the prophet Zoroaster or Zarathustra.)  In the early Iranian religion, Zoroaster preached a form of dualism in which Ahura Mazda was the supreme deity and was all good– opposed to Angra Mainyu, all evil.  This religion was memorialized in the Avestas, the foundational Zoroastrian religious documents.

In the Rigveda, the gods are numerous, beginning with Indra.  Agni is the second most important and is closely associated with Indra.  Soma or Chandra is the Moon god and is also the name of a drink made from the juice of a plant, for which preparation instructions are given in the text (the exact source of this plant is uncertain as it is not described, but it may have been ephedra sinica– the source of ephedrine.)   The Rigveda includes hymns to at least 33 major gods and goddesses, in addition to numerous minor deities.  Many of these divine personages have indistinct or overlapping identities.  Some are personifications of concepts or natural forces.  Others are associated with heavenly bodies.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten in the last few days.  To be continued.  I was distracted by a Pro Publica article about sudden deaths in Houston– see next post.



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