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PRABUDDHA BHARATAThe Concept of God in the Vedas  






               The Concept of God in the Vedas


            Swami Tattwamayananda


     The composite fabric of Vedic religion has been woven out of various shades of belief systems and forms of worship. This has given birth to multifarious concepts of the supreme Reality ranging from exuberant pantheism and polytheism to the most abstract type of monistic Advaitism.

     It is almost impossible to define the Vedas without reference to the concepts of dharma and brahman. The well-known synonyms of the Veda, shruti and amnaya, make this point clear. The term shruti is defined as 'shruyete dharmadharmau anaya iti shrutih; that by which one learns about dharma and adharma is shruti', and amnaya as 'amnayate upadishyate dharma ityanena; that by which one is instructed in dharma'. Shankaracharya's definition is more philosophical, scientific, and essentially monistic:

     'Herein, the Rig and other Vedas discuss That (Brahman) with a view to Its attainment; or they establish the existence (of Brahman); or they lead to the Paramatman that rests on Brahman, and are therefore termed Veda.' (1)

     In other words, Veda is that by the study of which we attain the knowledge of Brahman. Since the Sanskrit root vid can mean 'to know', 'to experience', 'to discover' or 'to learn', Shankaracharya's definition seems to be more comprehensive and relevant from the standpoint of the evolution of the concept of God in Vedic literature.

     Vedic Concept of God

     The Vedic literature reveals the origin, progress and culmination of man's concept of God or the ultimate Reality: from polytheism to monotheism and from monotheism to monism; from the many with names and forms to the one impersonal Reality that is beyond name and form.

     The Rig Vedic concept of the ultimate Reality is unique. It has monistic as well as dualistic components. The whole process of creation and evolution of nature (from a primeval state) is expressed in mythological language in the Rig Veda. Parallel to the evolution of the concept of Reality, we can also see the progress of the concept of God. The Vedic mind is seen to progress from prayers for long and happy life (pashyema sharadah shatam jivema sharadah shatam) to lofty idealism. There are verses in which the devotee asks various deities for wealth, intelligence and prosperity. For instance, 'Dhiyam pusha jinvatu Е; May Pushan, who is the benefactor of all, be propitious.' (2) On the other hand, in some verses the rishi says that the same god (Agni) appears in various forms as Indra, the giver of rains, Vishnu, who, dwelling within the hearts of all, protects the world, and so on. Several mantras in the Upanishads and several Vedic suktas describe the evolution of the Vedic mind. The Kena Upanishad, for example, asks: 'Keneshitam patati preshitam manah? Willed by whom does the directed mind go towards its object?'

     Though it can be argued that the central theme of the Rig Veda Samhita is the propitiation of gods and goddesses (devas and devis), yet behind these multifarious rituals and hymns runs the thread of gradual evolution of the concept of spiritual life. In most Vedic suktas the gods are depicted as the controlling and presiding powers behind natural phenomena, such as rain, storm and thunder. Very often, the same characteristics are attributed to various deities. The Vedic seers saw the moon, the stars, the sea, the sky, the dawn and nightfall as divine phenomena and not as integral parts of lifeless nature. Saraswati is described as 'nadinam shuci; sacred and pure among rivers'. (7.95.2) The rivers Vipash and Shutudri (modern Beas and Sutlej) are described as rushing to the ocean as charioteers (to their goal) at the behest of Indra: 'Indreshite Е samudram rathyeva yathah.' (3.33.2) Sometimes, it is asserted that the Reality behind the fire principle is one; the same Truth is behind the sun which illumines the universe; the same Reality underlies Ushas which makes everything effulgent, and so on. In the tenth mandala there is a mantra where the question is raised:

     'How many are the fires, how many suns, how many dawns, how many waters? I address you, O pitris (ancestors), not for the sake of disputation; I ask you sages, in order to know (the truth).' (10.88.18)

     In reply to this, there is the mantra in the eighth mandala where the unity of the divine principle is established:

     'Agni is one though ignited in various forms, the one sun rises in all the worlds, the one dawn lights up all this; the One alone has become all this.' (8.58.2)

     In the Nirukta, Yaskacharya has defined the word 'deva' as follows:

     'A deva is one who gives gifts (devo danat), who is effulgent (devo dipanat), who illumines (devo dyotanat), and who resides in heaven or the celestial world (dyusthane bhavati iti).' (3)

     The word isha is defined by Yaska as 'ishte iti ishah; because he controls and rules over the whole creation, he is called isha'. Following the first definition given for the word 'deva', the word isha is defined as one who bestows the eight powers like anima (the capacity to turn infinitesimally small), garima (the power to become massive in size), and the like. According to the Brahmavaivartaka Purana, Ishvara is one who rules, controls and bestows powers:

     To the ordinary man living in this world, external phenomena, which he perceives with his senses, constitute the only reality. So far as he is concerned God, whom he cannot see or hear, is just a word. As he progresses in rational thinking and evolves spiritually he realizes that the world-phenomena that he sees around him are always in a flux and therefore, being impermanent, cannot be the ultimate Reality. So he may consider this world as something inexplicable or indefinable. But when one reaches the highest level of philosophical contemplation and spiritual evolution one realizes that this phenomenal world is real only in a relative sense. God is the only true Reality; everything else is ephemeral.

     The Mimamsakas consider the devata as the very embodiment of the respective mantra. This idea has a special significance from the point of view of spiritual practice. In the beginning the aspirant considers the particular deity as saguna (with attributes) and sakara (with form), the very personification of the meaning of the particular mantra. But gradually, he elevates himself to a higher position and progresses to the next stage of realization. Here the aspirant prays to the Lord (with form):

     'By the lid of the golden orb is your face hidden. Please remove it, O nourisher of the world, so that I may see you, I who am devoted to Truth.' (4)

     Yaska's Nirukta discusses the question whether devatas have (human) form or not. After discussing the three different views (namely, they have form, they do not have form, and a combination of these two views), the Nirukta finally concludes that, in reality, there is only one devata who can be addressed in various ways depending upon the temperament of the aspirant. In fact, our concept of the Godhead is largely determined by our cultural milieu, intellectual make-up, and spiritual stature. That is why the Mimamsakas argue that the devata is of the form of the mantra itself.

     Most of the hymns of the Rig Veda, addressed to various gods and goddesses for help and protection, are prayers at various stages of evolution. In the fifth mandala, for example, there is a prayer where the sage prays to Indra, Varuna, Mitra and Agni for a happy life in this world:

     'May Indra, Varuna, Mitra, Agni, the waters, the herbs, and the trees be pleased (by our praise); may we, (resting) in the lap of the Maruts, enjoy felicity; do thou ever cherish us with blessings.' (5)

     Here, there is an echo of the monotheistic ideal. The same God appears in the form of Indra, Varuna and others. The seer expects that the gods will be pleased to hear his hymn.

     Evolution of the Concept of God

     In most of the hymns referring to various gods such as Surya, Agni, and so on, we can find the underlying divine principle to be the same Paramatman. The glory of the various gods and goddesses is, in fact, the glory of the same divine Reality. This idea is explained in the form of a story in the Kena Upanishad (belonging to the Sama Veda tradition). The Upanishad tells us that when gods like Agni and Vayu, forgetting that it was really Brahman's power that gave them strength to do various deeds, became proud of their mistaken greatness, Brahman appeared before them in the form of a yaksha and taught them humility. The Rig Veda also states that all gods and goddesses are under the control of Brahman:

     'All the gods have taken their seat upon the Supreme Space (in the form) of the imperishable riks (Vedas).' (6)

     At one stage, the Vedas speak of thirty-three different deities. The important principle behind the concept of Vedic gods and goddesses is that they are all reflections and manifestations of the one God. According to the Shatapatha Brahmana, these thirty-three deities include eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Adityas, Dyaus, and Prithvi.

     In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, sage Yajnavalkya tells Shakalya: 'In reality there are only thirty-three gods; the others are only their manifestations (mahimanah).' To the question from Shakalya, 'Which are those thirty-three gods?' Yajnavalkya replies: 'The eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Adityas, Indra and Prajapati are the thirty-three gods.'7 In the beginning Yajnavalkya had enumerated the number of gods as three hundred and three, and three thousand and three but, on repeated questioning, finally scales down their number to just one - Prana identified with Brahman.

     A sukta in the third mandala addressed to Agni says:

     'Three thousand three hundred and thirty-nine divinities have worshipped Agni; they have sprinkled him with melted butter, they have spread for him the sacred grass, and have seated him upon it as their ministrant priest.' (8)

     Agni is the symbol of Paramatman and all the other gods are different aspects or manifestations of the same Agni. According to many scholars, the most appropriate Vedic symbol for the supreme position among the innumerable Vedic gods is Agni. Agni is the fire principle that shines in the sun and also the one who carries our offerings to other gods. He is the friend of man and mediates on his behalf. He is the symbol of wisdom, knowledge, compassion and lordship. That was the reason he was worshipped by three thousand three hundred and thirty-nine gods.

     Suktas like the one which begins with 'Tvamagne prathamo anggira; You, Agni, were the first Anggiras rishi' (1.31.1) and the one which begins with 'Tvamagne dyubhistam; You Agni Е pure and all-radiating' (2.1.1) portray Agni as the embodiment of omnipotence and omniscience. The god Pavamana Soma, in fact, is Agni himself. Soma is symbolic of Brahman and realizing Pavamana is nothing but realizing Brahman.

     In the Vedic and Vedantic tradition the ultimate supreme Reality is designated (though it is beyond description or definition) as sat-chit-ananda. According to the Rig Vedic sages Agni, Surya and Soma are the symbols of sat, chit and ananda respectively. In other words Agni, Surya and Soma together constitute Satchidananda. Sometimes sat and chit are described as aspects of ananda, especially in the Upanishads (for instance 'Anando brahmeti vyajanat; (He) knew bliss as Brahman' (9)). Perhaps, that is why a whole mandala is devoted exclusively to Soma. The Rig Veda Samhita says:

     'The Soma flows, the generator of praises, the generator of Heaven, the generator of Earth, the generator of Agni, the generator of the Sun, the generator of Indra, and the generator of Vishnu.' (10)

     The Rig Vedic Gods

     It may be remarked here that some of the important and well-known deities of popular Hinduism do not appear prominently in the Rig Veda Samhita. This view is based on the number of suktas used to propitiate the individual gods. But we must remember that deities like Vishnu and Shiva who became very prominent during the Puranic period had their origin in the Rig Veda itself.

     It is said that devas are born of Aditi and dasyus, who stand in opposition to them, are born to Diti. They are the lords of light and darkness respectively. The Rig Veda describes Aditi as svarga, as antariksha, and as the mother of the universe. (1.89.10)


     Yaskacharya, in his Nirukta, defines Vishnu as 'vishnu vishateh; one who enters everywhere', and 'yad vishito bhavati tad vishnurbhavati; that which is free from fetters and bondages is Vishnu.' Vishnu is also characterized as 'veveshti vyapnoti vishvam yah; the one who covers the whole universe, or is omnipresent, is Vishnu.' The word itself originates from the root vish meaning 'to enter'. In other words Vishnu can be considered the omnipresent dimension of the supreme Lord.

     The 'Vishnu Sukta' of the Rig Veda (1.154) mentions the famous three strides of Vishnu so well known in later iconography and legends associated with this god. It is said that the first and second of Vishnu's strides (those encompassing the earth and air) are visible to men and the third is in the heights of heaven (sky). The second mantra of the 'Vishnu Sukta' says that within the three vast strides of Vishnu all the various regions of the universe live in peace:

     Here Vishnu is praised and his uniqueness and greatness are compared to that of the mighty lion who lives on top of a forested hill. Besides the praise of strength, glory and power, we can also notice the gradual evolution of the spiritual aspect (omniscience) of the Godhead. The Vedic seer prays to Lord Vishnu to enable him to reach his high abode, which is also the abode of spiritual bliss:

     'May I attain his favourite path in which god - seeking men delight - (the path) of Vishnu with giant strides, in whose exalted station is a (perpetual) flow of felicity - for he is truly a friend (to all).' (1.154.5)

     According to the Vedic sages this universe is constituted of three different planes of existence: the dyuloka (celestial plane) presided over by the deity Savitri or Surya; antarikshaloka (intermediary space) presided over by Indra or Vayu; and the bhurloka (terrestrial plane) presided over by the deity Agni.


     Indra is one of the important Rig Vedic gods and is described as 'Yo jata eva prathamo manasvan; He who, from his very birth, is the first (of the deities)'. (2.12.1) Indra is the lord of the universe. The idea of an omniscient and omnipresent Godhead is also applied to Indra when he is addressed as 'ashrutkarna; whose ears hear all things'. (1.10.9)


     The Rig Veda calls the presiding deity of the wind as Vata or Vayu. The god when conceived as the element (vata) is described as moving wherever he wants, at his pleasure. Describing it as the soul and indweller of other gods, a sukta in the tenth mandala says that we can hear his rushing sound but we are not able to see his form:

     'The soul of the gods, the germ of the world, this divinity moves according to his pleasure; his voices are heard, his form is not (seen); let us worship that Vata with oblations.' (10.168.4)

     The wind god, Vayu, conceived as god in contrast to the elemental wind, is called 'the messenger of gods':

     'O Vata, bring us medicinal balm; blow away all evil; you are the universal medicine; you move as the messenger of the gods.' (10.137.3)

     Mitra and Varuna are two deities who, on occasions, appear as friends. Mitra-Varuna are supposed to be the guides and protectors of rita. But in some later suktas, Mitra is associated with the light of dawn and akasha of night.

     Rudra, who came to be known as Shiva in the Puranas, also appears in the Rig Veda. (4.3)

     The Vedic gods are not depicted as independent of the rest or opposed to each other. Thus both Varuna and Surya are sometimes presented as being subordinate to Indra. Varuna and the Ashvins are often subordinate to Vishnu. A god who is praised along with others may be elevated to a supreme position in another context. For instance, Varuna, the controller of rita, literally controls 'the course of events and things'. In Rig Vedic literature rita is often used to mean dharma, which, as the stabilizing influence in all spheres of individual and collective life, is the bedrock of Indian culture.


     (To be concluded)




     1. Shankaracharya's commentary on Sanatsujatiya, 3.37.
     2. Rig Veda, 2.40.6.
     3. Nirukta, 7.15.1.
     4. Isha Upanishad, 15.
     5. Rig Veda, 7.34.25.
     6. Ibid., 1.164.39.
     7. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 3.9.3.
     8. Rig Veda, 3.9.9.
     9. Taittiriya Upanishad, 3.6.1.
     10. Rig Veda, 9.96.



International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015








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