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PRABUDDHA BHARATAThe Concept of God in the Vedas  

 

 


     The Concept of God in the Vedas

 


     Swami Tattwamayananda

 

 

     (Continued from the previous issue)

 

 

     From Many to One

 

 

     At the earlier stages of spiritual evolution and metaphysical thought the Vedas mention the names of various gods and goddesses: Mitra, the Sun; Varuna, the god of night and of the blue sky; Dyu and Prithivi, the Sky and the Earth; Agni or fire god, the friend of all; Savitri, the Refulgent; Indra, the master of the universe; Vishnu (though not a major divinity in the Rig Veda), the measurer of the three worlds; and Aditi, the mother of all other gods (the Adityas).

 

     Gradually, however, we come across a tendency towards extolling a god as the greatest, controlling all other divine entities. This marks the progress of mans concept of God or the ultimate Reality from polytheism to monotheism, ultimately leading to monism. That is why the Rig Vedic rishi asks: Kasmai devaya havisha vidhema? To what god shall we offer our oblations? (1) And again, Ko dadarsha prathamam jayamanam? Who saw the first-born? (1.164.4)

 

     The first mandala of the Rig Veda brings out this idea most beautifully:

 


     They (the men of wisdom) call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and he is the heavenly, noble-winged Garutman. The Reality is one, but sages call it by many names; they call it Agni, Yama, Matarishvan (and so on). (1.164.46)

 

     The idea that names may be many and different but they all denote the one God occurs in Vishvakarma Sukta too. Therein it is stated:

 

 

     The name-giver of the gods is one; other beings come to him to inquire. (10.82.3)

 

     Samprashnam here refers to the two questions from the Nasadiya Sukta: Kah veda? Who had known? and Kah pravocad? Who had announced? These questions, which are in fact an enquiry into the one impersonal, attributeless, formless Principle behind all concepts of God, occur in the Hiranyagarbha Sukta (10.121, cited above), in the Shatapatha Brahmana (Ko hi prajapatih? Who is Prajapati?), and also in the Aitareya Brahmana (Ko nama prajapatirabhvat? Who became Prajapati?)

 

     One of the grandest conceptions of God in the whole of Vedic literature is found in the last chapter of the Shukla Yajur Veda Samhita, which is known as the Ishavasya Upanishad. It is said that whatever there is in this world is to be filled and covered with isha or Ishvara (ishavasyamidam sarvam). God creates this world, then enters into everything. The idea is put forward even more forcefully in the Taittiriya Upanishad:

 

 

     It created all this that exists. Having created (that) It entered therein. Having entered, It became the formed and the formless. (2)

 

     The Upanishad says that It contemplated and projected (created) the universe, and then entered into the created objects and became one with both the manifest, gross and concrete creation as well as the unmanifest, subtle and abstract.

 

     The universe is the abode of God. The Lord is the ruler of the universe as well as its indweller. The various aspects of gods and goddesses exist within the body of this Lord in their subtle and causal forms. At this stage He is called Prajapati or Hiranyagarbha. The concepts of Prajapati (the supreme Lord of all beings) and Vishvakarma (the Creator in instrumental mode) constitute an important stage in the conception of God in the Rig Veda. The idea of a great deity who is the repository of all power and virtue was a gradual and natural process of growth.

 

     Prithvi is the feet of this Lord; antariksha is his belly; dyu his head; the Sun and the Moon are his eyes; different corners of the universe are his ears. The microcosm and the macrocosm are the two dimensions of the same Ishvara. The concept of Prajapati or Hiranyagarbha marks an advanced state of monotheistic evolution of Vedic philosophy. The question repeatedly raised in the famous Hiranyagarbha Sukta, Kasmai devaya havisha vidhema? shows that polytheistic conceptions of the Godhead had been left behind by then.

 

     Anthropomorphism at an advanced monotheistic level is revealed in the Purusha Sukta, which is widely used in a number of rituals. The sukta says: Purusha evedam sarvam, yadbhutam yacca bhavyam; Purusha is all this world of movable and immovable objects. He constitutes the past, the present and also the future.

 

     The Purusha of the Purusha Sukta is the manifested state of unmanifested karana brahman. Possessed of an infinite number of heads, eyes and feet, he has enveloped the whole of his creation. He manifests as virat, the sum total of all existence. Depicting the macrocosmic dimension of creation, he reminds us of the essential unity and oneness of existence, the unity of God and His creation. The Hiranyagarbha Sukta announces: Hiranyagarbhah samavartatagre bhutasya jatah patireka asit; Hiranyagarbha was present at the beginning; when born, he was the sole lord of created beings. (10.121) From this stage it is only a small step to the Advaitic concept of an ultimate Reality without name, form or attributes.

 

 

     The Concept of God and Rita

 

 

     Rita is the cosmic order that guides not only the individual life of man, but also the totality of universal life. So, a god is sometimes called ritavan and a goddess ritavati. The god Varuna is supposed to be the custodian of rita, which, according to Vedic seers, is praised and glorified even by the devas. The Rig Veda calls Vishnu ritasya garbha, the embryo of rita. The dawn, the sun, the moon, in fact the entire universe, is based on rita. The twenty-third sukta of the fourth Rig Vedic mandala, addressed to the god Indra, ends with the glorification of rita. As a moral principle it encompasses the psychological life of individuals. As the cosmic Order or eternal Law it is responsible for the triumph of good over evil and light over darkness. Rita integrates chaos into cosmos, gives order to the universe and shows the righteous path for the mind to follow. It is the psychological principle teaching man how to lead a moral life. Thus we can see that according to the Vedic seers, the same ideal functions as the guiding principle for individual as well as universal life. That is why in the first sukta of the Rig Veda itself, addressed to Agni, the sages call their deity ritasya didivim, the illuminator of truth.

 

 

     The Concept of Self-surrender in Vedic Literature

 

 

     It may be interesting to note here that even the concept of prapatti or sharanagati (the path of self-surrender through total subservience to God), usually associated with the bhakti tradition, has its origin in the Vedas. This supreme ideal of devotion consists of six factors:

 

 

     A sattvic motive, abstinence from all kinds of disservice to God, conviction and unflinching faith in the saving grace of the Lord, seeking His grace, complete self-offering, and longing for the earliest extinction of this worldly existence constitute the six forms of self-surrender. (3)

 

     The Varuna Sukta found in the seventh mandala of the Rig Veda is, perhaps, the origin of the ideal of self-surrender which later became an essential element of Vaishnavism. In the first four mantras the rishi is repeatedly asking Varuna to have mercy on him, to bestow joy and happiness on him. He is craving for mercy and favour:

 

 

     May I never go, royal Varuna, to a house made of clay; have mercy, Almighty, have mercy. (Rig Veda 7.89.1)

 

     The word nyasa is often used to mean the sharanagati ideal that is normally denoted by prapatti in Vaishnava devotional scriptures. For example, it is said in the Taittiriya Aranyaka that self-surrender is the highest form of austerity: Etanyavarani tapamsi nyasa evatyarecayat. (4) It is also stated that, nyasa iti brahma, brahma hi parah; renunciation is Brahma, and Brahma is the Supreme. (5)

 

     Some of the Vedic statements, which form the origin of the six elements of the sharanagati ideal, may be identified as follows:

 

 

     He is the sun dwelling in the heavens, the air dwelling in the sky, Vasu (the appointer of the stations of all creatures) in the mid region, the fire existing in the altar (the agni on earth), the guest in the house; He dwells among men, among the gods, in Truth and in space. He is born in water, born on earth, born in the sacrifice, and born in the mountains. He is the Truth. (He is the Great One.) (6)

 

     The idea of sattvic motives, anukulyasya sangkalpa, that is reflected in the pervasive vision of the Supreme in the above mantra, has been expressed even more forcefully in the Rig Vedic shanti mantra beginning Vangme manasi pratishthita mano me vaci pratishthitam; May my speech be based on (be in accord with) my mind; may my mind be based on my speech.

 

     The ideal of complete abstinence from all types of negative action or disservice (pratikulyasya varjanam) is indicated in the Rig Vedic mantra:

 

 

     Saviour gods, speak favourably to us; let not sleep, nor the censurer overpower us. (8.48.14)

 

     Similarly, different aspects of the ideal of sharanagati are found in the following Vedic mantras:

 

 

     I invoke, at repeated sacrifices, Indra, the preserver, the protector, the hero, who is easily propitiated - Indra, the powerful, invoked by many. May Indra, the lord of affluence, bestow prosperity upon us. (7) (Faith in the saving grace of God.)

 

 

     O Bounteous One! You are our father and mother. (8)

 

 

     O Indra, with you as our helper, let us answer our enemies. You are ours and we yours. (9)

 

     The well-known shanti mantra of the Krishna Yajur Veda beginning with Saha navavatu; May He protect us, reflects the souls yearning to take refuge in God, goptritva-varanam.

 

     Offering prayers, performing Vedic rituals to various gods and goddesses and leading an integrated life of pursuit of the path of artha and kama without deviating from the path of dharma, in complete harmony with nature and the rest of creation - this was the guiding ethical principle of Vedic society. To understand the idea of God conceived at the early stages of Vedic thought, it is essential to take note of certain fundamental features of the Vedic scheme of life. The social life portrayed in Rig Veda reveals certain interesting features. Monogamy, sanctity of the institution of marriage, domestic purity, a patriarchal system, a just and equitable law of sacrifice, and high honour for women were some of the noteworthy features of the social life during the Vedic period. We find the Vedic seers praying for fullness of life:

 

 

     May we see the sun rise a hundred autumns. May we live a hundred autumns, hear (through) a hundred autumns, speak (through) a hundred autumns, and be happy and contented a hundred autumns, nay, even beyond these years. (10)

 

 

     The Origin of Advaita

 

 

     In the Bhagavadgita, Sri Krishna himself says that those who are devoid of proper knowledge of the real purport of the Vedas and the proper method of propitiating the Almighty, are deluded by ignorance. They think that they themselves are capable of performing Vedic sacrifices, even without the help or grace of God. (11)

 

     One of the most striking depictions of the relation between the macrocosm and the microcosm, the absolute and the relative, the ultimate cause and its effect (karana brahma and karya brahma) and the assertion that both are, in reality, infinite, full and perfect, occurs towards the end of the Shukla Yajur Veda Samhita in the shanti mantra for the Ishavasya Upanishad beginning with Purnamadah purnamidam; That (supreme Brahman) is infinite, and this (conditioned Brahman) is infinite.

 

     Several portions of the Shukla Yajur Veda Samhita (for instance, the Rudradhyaya) contain ideas that are strikingly Advaitic in content and form. Some mantras of the Purusha Sukta (which occurs in the Shukla Yajur Veda as well) are interpreted even by Sayanacharya in Advaitic terms. Commenting on the mantra beginning with Paridyava prithivi sadya itva parilokan paridishah parisvah; Having gone swiftly round the earth and heaven, around the worlds, around the sky, around the quarters, Sayana states: Here the nature of jiva is Brahman. (12)

 

     Similarly, the Krishna Yajur Veda Samhita too is full of mantras which have an Advaitic content. The Tandya Brahmana and the Samavidhana of the Sama Veda are equally rich in Advaitic ideas. So also the Atharva Veda.

 

     The literal meaning of Advaita has been explained by Madhusudana Saraswati as that in which there is no twofoldness. Shankaras Advaita siddhanta is not only the climax of philosophical speculation and the highest philosophy of ethics, but also a way of life. As the culmination of mans metaphysical contemplation and spiritual evolution it is the natural final goal of our spiritual sadhanas. In fact, some of the most beautiful Upanishadic verses which Shankara has interpreted in the light of Advaita occur in the Samhita portion of the Rig Veda. For example, the following mantra traditionally associated with the Mundaka Upanishad (3.1.1) is found in the Rig Veda as well:

 

 

     Two birds that are ever associated and have similar names, cling to the same tree. Of these, one eats the fruits of divergent tastes, and the other looks on without eating. (13)

 

     The mantra brings out the essence of Advaita philosophy and the identity of jiva and Brahman. The bird on the lower branch is the jiva and the one sitting on the upper branch of the tree as witness, without eating fruits, is God Himself. This mantra shows that though its philosophical and logical perfection is reached in Upanishadic literature, the origin of Advaita philosophy is, in fact, to be found in the Rig Veda Samhita itself.

 

     The well-known Devi Sukta (10.125) is another striking example of a Samhita mantra depicting Advaitic experience. The word cikitushi in the third mantra of this sukta is explained by Sayana as:

 

 

     She (the rishi) had known or realized as her own Self the supreme Brahman, that which must be realized.

 

     Innumerable mantras of the Rig Veda Samhita have been explained by Sayana in an exclusively Advaitic sense.

 

     The Rig Veda gives a great message in the first mantra of the thirteenth sukta of the tenth mandala. This is perhaps the most forceful expression of mans divinity and immortality found in the whole of Vedic literature. It runs as follows:

 

 

     O my sense organs and their presiding deities, I salute you (that is, I merge you all with the eternal Brahman through meditation). May this hymn of praise spread everywhere through the medium of the wise. May you all, children of immortal Bliss, and all those living in the bright (divine) worlds, listen to me!

 

     The famous Nasadiya Sukta (Rig Veda 10.129) contains the most sublime depiction of Advaitic monism that was later elaborated upon in the Upanishads and expounded by the great Shankaracharya. In this hymn all phenomena are traced to the one Principle which is beyond opposites like life and death, existence and non-existence, being and nonbeing, day and night, and so on. The one Reality is neither existence nor non-existence; it is beyond name and definition. The concept of maya, which explains why the perfect Reality appears as this imperfect world, has its roots in the Nasadiya Sukta. Here we may very well remember that Advaita is, after all, a matter of inner experience (anubhavaikavedyam; known through experience alone, in the language of Shankaracharya) and not a subject for philosophical speculation.

 

     The Nasadiya Sukta is perhaps the most scientific description of the ultimate Reality as well as of the projection of the phenomenal world. It makes the relative and the Absolute, nature and Spirit, the twin aspects of that one Reality and shows that men of wisdom (kavayah), who had controlled their senses, found out the ultimate cause of this world (which appears to be real) in their own hearts (hridi) through concentrated intellects (manisha).

 

 

     References

 

 

     1. Rig Veda, 10.121.
     2. Taittiriya Upanishad, 2.6.1.
     3. Ahirbudhnya Samhita, 37.28.
     4. Taittiriya Aranyaka, 10.62.
     5. Ibid.
     6. Rig Veda, 4.40.5.
     7. Rig Veda, 6.47.11; Atharva Veda, 7.86.1.
     8. Rig Veda, 7.98.11; Atharva Veda, 20.108.2.
     9. Rig Veda, 8.92.32.
     10. Shukla Yajur Veda, 36.24.
     11. See Ramanujas commentary on Bhagavadgita, 15.15.
     12. Sayanacharyas commentary on Shukla Yajur Veda, 32.12.
     13. Rig Veda, 1.164.20.





Visvarupadarshanam. Painting. Rajasthan. Early 19-th century A.D. Arjuna's vision of the Universal Form.
Visvarupadarshanam. Painting. Rajasthan. Early 19-th century A.D. Arjuna's vision of the Universal Form.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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