By Adhitin Ratrija with N. Agnayi
When I first opened the Rgveda I knew only that Vedism was part of the eastern branch of the Indo-Europeans. I did not yet know of the complex deities overflowing with contradictory tales. I did not know that my beliefs were to be mirrored in those of karman, dharman, and Rta. And yet, it was only a short time before I found myself connecting to this ancient religion.
I was understanding ritual concepts that the scholars were puzzled by. I felt the connection to the gods and goddesses that embodied the very elements themselves. I saw my own life of beauty and violence, chaosand order, devotion and selfishness. It was all reflected back to me within the world of the Vedas.
Many years have passed since that moment. I now understand more than I did, and I laugh fondly at the things I thought I knew. The Vedas have become a truth to me. They are my sruti, my Rta, my dharman. They guide me on my way and assist me when I ask.
As I begin to reach out and talk about this subject, this world of Vedism, I find myself meeting many interesting characters. There are three questions which I find myself being asked by many people. They are deceptively simple questions that have me walk a tight rope between what the individual wishes to hear and what is the historical truth. And yet, no matter how many times I hear these questions I am always caught off guard. Each time one of the questions is asked it is as if I am hearing it for the first time:
Is Vedism a form of Hinduism?
Are Kali, Siva, Krsna, Laxmi, Ganesha, Rama, Sita, Hanuman or Durga Vedic?
To answer one question is to answer them all. It is to dig into the past of Vedism and tell all of what we know.
The Indo-Europeans are often split between two physical regions. The western branch includes those cultures who colonized north and west into Europe. The best known of these cultures are the Greeks, Romans, Celts, Slavs, and Norse. To the east the Indo-European cultures migrated into Asia, primarily India, Afghanistan, Iran, and other parts of what is now known as the Middle East. It is this eastern branch with which we are interested.
Dated at around 1700-1500 BCE, we begin finding archaeological remains of the Indo-European peoples in the Indus River valley. Much of this evidence is found in excavations of the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, both now in Pakistan. In both these sites, one finds the remains of an ancient society, then a break where that society suddenly disappears followed by evidence of a new society with an entirely different culture colonizing the same city.
This new society represents the first incursions of those peoples known as the Indic division of the Indo-European culture into the Indian Peninsula. Later, this culture would spread across the land, eventually taking the name of 'Arya' for itself; which which translates to noble'. It is from this root word that we derive the term for the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European's. These people we now also know as the Vedics.
The Vedic Texts
After having established themselves across the north of India, the Vedics eventually had the majority of their religious practices codified into four main works: the four Vedas. There were also several ancillary texts written as commentary, which make up a collection of works known as the Upanisads.
The holy texts are split into two categories: sruti-tradition and smrti-tradition. The sruti sources are ones that have been "heard." These texts were revealed by the Gods to specific Rsis (priests). The smrti sources are those that have been "memorized", and as such have been created by man without divine assistance but based on sruti texts.
The Vedic texts fall mostly within the category of sruti and are known as the Vedas and portions of the Upanisads Veda translates literally into "knowledge." The word veda is derived from the verb vid- which means "to know, to be aware of." Upanisad is broken up with "sad" meaning "sit" and most likely refers to the extreme secrecy that was to be enforced with the sharing of the Upanisads by having the student sitdng beside the teacher. This leaves the word Upanisad referring to "secret text."
There are a total of four Vedas. Three of the Vedas, the Rgveda, the Yajurveda, and the Samaveda, can be dated to between 1500-1200BCE. A fourth Veda—the Atharvaveda—was established slightly later, between 1200-1000 BCE. Each Veda consists of its the main text, or Samhita, as well as dedicated commentary and instruction on that text, which is known as the Brahmana.
The Rgveda consists of more than one thousand hymns that are arranged into ten books. These hymns were meant to be spoken to the gods during ritual and contain the myths of the Vedics. The Yajurveda is a collection of hymns from the Rgveda in the way they were meant to be used during ritual. The Yajurveda is split into two versions: the White Yajurveda and the Black Yajurveda. The basic differences are that the White Yajurveda keeps separate the Samhitas and Brahmanas while the Black Yajurveda mixes the two. There are additional differences in translations as well.
The Samaveda is a collection of songs to be sung during ritual. Some of the material is a reworking of the Rgveda, while the rest of the material is original. The Atharvaveda is a volume which deals specifically with magic and the use of rituals as cures, protection and curses.
The Samhitas are the actual text, or hymns, of each of the Vedas while the Brahmanas are the commentary upon the Vedas. The Brahmanas set out to explain, in detail, the going-ons of the Vedas.
The Upanisads generally date from about 800-600BCE and are made up of twelve Upanisads: the Brhadaranyaka, the Chandogya, the Taittiriya, the Aitareya, the Kausitaki, the Kena, the Katha, the Isa, the Svetasvatara, the Mundaka, the Prasna and the Mandukya. These texts are several ancillary texts written as commentary on Vedism in general.
While the Upanisads show more information on the Vedas, they also show a breaking away from traditional Vedic thought into the basic tenets of what would grow to become Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). The Upanisads are predominantly thought processes and commentary. The can be seen as a mix of smrti and sruti for the most part.
Past these texts you find yourself within the man made texts of the smrti-tradition. While this in no way demeans their value, it simply must be stated that to a Vedic these texts are made up or commentaries that have been quite removed from their original Vedic thought process.
Two smrti-tradition texts which are still of great use: the Grhya Sutras and the Crauta Sutras. The Sutras were roughly set down between 400 and 200 BCE, although this is just scholastic guess work. The Grhya Sutras deal specifically with household ritual to be performed by the householder. The Crauta Sutras depict elaborate rituals which included one or more clergy.
There are also the Aranyakas, or 'forest texts,' which give us greater insight into the breaking down of the Vedic religion. The Aranyakas, which some sdiolars link as sruti, were philosophical musings and speculation written by hermit-priests who had secluded themselves from society in order to concentrate on the study of the Vedas.
These later texts also include works on yoga, avastu, and jyotish. They also include the Kama Sutra, the Dharma Sutras and the Laws of Manu. In addition, such epics as the Mahabharata, the Gita and the Ramayana are man made creations said to be from the fourth century BCE.
Also worthy of a peripheral note are the holy texts of the Indo-Iranians. This culture was to go on to become the Zoroastrians, and the oldest portions of their holiest text, the Avesta, is dated to around 1000 BCE. Since the Indo-Iranians began as an offshoot from the Vedics, one finds similar god-names (the Vedic Mitra versus the Zoroastrian Mithra, for instance) as well as differing versions of some of the same myths. Occasionally, the Avestan version of a Vedic myth will reverse the point-of-view of the story, thus casting the Vedic Gods instead as demons. There is thus a good amount of evidence that the Vedic-Iranian split was not an amiable one, so the Avesta offers an interesting contrast for comparison.
The Vedic Religion
To the Vedics, the world consisted of three spheres. The first was the earth, the second was firmament (also called the sky), and the last was the intermediate region, or the space between the earth and firmament. Each of the three spheres was divided in additional sections. The ground and heaven were supported by beams, yet the sky was without support. This caused a great deal of discussion by the Vedic on why it did not fall.
The ancient Vedics believed in polytheism, believing all of their Gods to be separate individuals. The vast majority of the gods were the elements such as the wind (Vayu) with some gods being concepts such as speech (Vac).
Towards the end of the Vedic period the belief of kathenotheism came forward. Kathenotheism was the belief and practice that during a ritual, or worship, that the participants called for one God who would then embody all of the attributes of the other Gods within the pantheon.
This change in beliefs was one of the markers of the end of Vedism. From this step it went in monism. Monism is the belief in one God, or higher power, and that all other "gods" are manifestations, or avatars/incarnations, of the higher power.
To the Vedics, upon death, going to heaven was their goal. A great many rituals were performed to ask for the favor of the Gods and wash away shortcomings in an attempt to reach heaven. Heaven was seen as a place of light that was without the negative aspects of life. In heaven there was no disease, no want, no death, no darkness and no fear.
Heaven is shown as an ending to life on earth and a beginning of a life in Heaven with the Gods. There was no reincarnation in the Vedas. The Vedics began as a migratory culture. Due to matters of survival (such as food supply or grazing space), it was necessary for the early Indo-Aryans to maintain a mobile existence. Their existence was often contingent upon the ability to pack one's home and move to an entirely different location. They developed a ritual format where an open space was found and consecrated, then ritual was performed in the open with no permanent structures necessary.
Later, the Vedics were able to establish cities and consecrated permanent public spaces in which to hold ritual. It was merely the scale that changed. As the Vedics grew more successful, the rites grew larger and more elaborate. The format of the proceedings, however, still remained faithful to their roots. Later, after Vedism's fall, Hinduism began to favor private personal worship (called puja and often referring to the worship of idols as an aid in worshiping a god), and established elaborate buildings in which to gather and pray. It is this difference between open Yajna and private worship which in one aspect defines the difference between Vedism and Hinduism.
A few of the basic Vedic practices and beliefs are Rta, dharman, karman and Yajna.
Rta translates quite literally to 'order'. It is the order by which the universe, were it a perfect place, should run. One may conceive an illustration of Rta as literally 'a place for everything, and everything in its place'.
Dharman is personalized Rta. If the world were a play, then Rta would be its script, and dharman would be each individual's particular part. Why does Surya (the Sun) pass across the sky each day? Because it is Surya's dharman - his part in maintaining Rta - that he do so. And, being the steadfast upholder of Rta that he is, Surya fulfills his dharman by faithfully rising each dawn to traverse the sky until dusk.
Karman, then, translates to 'action'. Karman is the embodiment of the actions one takes and the deeds they do. Here there is no judgment of good or evil over these deeds, but one must understand that actions beget consequences. Once again, as in a play one may decide go 'off book' - throwing away their lines and bursting into an impromptu monologue, for instance. In just this same manner, one may choose to ignore their part, their dharman, and do solely as they wish.
They must understand, however, that this action naturally leads to consequence. The consequence may be bad, it may be good or it may be neutral.
Yajna is the term for Vedic ritual. It differs from many religious rituals in that it is public and elaborate, yet does not necessarily take place in an established enclosed space such as a temple or church. This is to be performed by the clergy and follows very strict rules.
The Vedics had their clergy split up into different types. Each of these types was responsible for a specific part in the ritual and attached to a specific Veda. Each member of the clergy went through years of training and was considered an expert in their field.
The four major priests are Hotr, Udgatr, Adhvaryu and Brahmin. It must be noted that all Vedic priests were Brahmins, and there is a specific role performed by a priest who is called Brahmin. This Brahmin is the chief priest of the ritual.
The Hotr is the priest who works with the Rgveda and is responsible for reciting. The Udgatris the priest of the Samaveda and is responsible for the singing done in ritual.
The Adhvaryu is the priest of the Yajurveda and is responsible for all of the points dealing with the ritual.
This includes setting up the ritual space, laying out the ritual items, preparing the ritual fire, gathering the ritual offerings, killing the sacrificial animals, cooking the sacrificial animals, and offering all of the sacrifices to the fire.
The Brahmin is often matched up with the Atharvaveda, but they must know all of the Vedas. It is their job to stand silently by the sacrificial fire and to act as a satellite of the ritual and to correct any mistakes that may happen during the ritual. Because of this, they must know all of the Vedic the Vedas and be familiar with all of the workings of the ritual.
There are several assistants to the four main priests and these assistants had their own titles and specific duties. Some of the additional priests were the Agnidhra (an assistant to the Adhvaryu), the Prastotr (an assistant to the Udgatr) and the Pratihartr (also an assistant to the Udgatr). There was also the Purohita, a Brahmin who performed domestic rituals and often was the primary Brahmin for the king.
The Vedic Society
Within the ancient society of the Vedics there was a class system which was reflected in the gods. This class system was split up into the Brahmins, the Kshatriya, the Vaisya and the Sudra. The Brahmins were the priest class, the Kshatriya were the ruler class, the Vaisya were the common people and craftsman, and the Sudra were the non-Vedic immigrants (often times serfs or prisoners of wars).
At the time of the Vedics, one was not classified to be within the Sudra class for their lifetime. It works much in the way that modern immigration works today with the individuals being accepted and free to seek out their profession once they had placed themselves within the society. The Sudra could remain Sudra for many generations. They remained such until they found themselves integrated into the society.
The class system was used more as descriptive terms than as a "birth right". Where you laid in the class system was based upon your skills, with the exception of royalty and the above mentioned immigrants.
The Vedics were omnivorous. They did eat meat. They ate cows and just about any other animal they could get hold of. They were not vegetarians or vegans.
The Vedics were defined as patriarchal and patrilineal. Despite the obvious male dominance, the Vedic period gave a certain power to women in its ritual dependant culture. The Vedics viewed rituals as a means of keeping the social and cosmic order of the world and women were vital within keeping these goals.
The coupling of a husband and wife was very important to the Vedics and to their ritual. It was required that any man who was to have a ritual performed had to be wed.
It can be easily suggested that almost every wife had some sort of Vedic training due to the timing of rituals. Every day Householder rituals were to be performed and often the male of the house would be away for periods at a time.
There is proof that there were women who recited the Vedas, sung the hymns and were Rsis. In short, there were female Brahtnins, some of which are credited with certain parts of the Vedas. It was also dependant on the wife to tend to the sacred fire so that it would never go out.
It was not until later times that women began to take on the roles as being impure and it was not until post-Vedic texts that wife burning became popular.
The Vedic Offshoots
The Vedic culture and religion eventually came to dominate, and define, India. Towards the end of the Vedicperiod the many scholars within Vedism began to start a process of thinking differently about how they were connected to the Gods, to Heaven and to Yajna. It was this questioning mixed with the ramped corruption of the Brahrnins that helped lead the way to Vedism's fall.
The people who had once practiced Vedism were now on their way to adopting new philosophies and ways of communing with the divine(s). The religions that splintered off from Vedism took ideas, thoughts and beliefs from Vedism and brought them into new ways of thinking that were meant to rebel against the Vedic religion, thus negating them as a different sect of Vedism.
Vedism was not allowed to evolve further as a religion, but instead it lay stagnant while other religions splintered off from it. These religions took specific beliefs within Vedisin and followed them to their own ends, thus ending the Vedic period and the religion of Vedism. Some of the the off shoot religions of Vedism are Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), Buddhism and Jainism.
Buddhism is the religion founded by the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, in the 6th Century BCE. Like many other offshoots from philosophies spawning from Upanasadlic speculation (Gautama himself was a Ksatriya, or noble, and well-versed in Vedic philosophy), it is a religion begun as a reaction to Vedism and the orthodoxy of that time. Buddhism sees the 'self' as a aggregate of many elements called 'skandhas' which include one's physical form senses, perceptions, deeds, and conceptions. It attempts to free its adherents from the cycle of birth, death, and re-birth by the doctrine of Enlightenment, and contends that salvation is only possible after the elimination of suffering, caused chiefly by attachment, striving, and seduction by the senses.
Jainism is the religion which gradually splintered from Vedism around the time of the Upanisads, and was systemized as a doctrine by Vardhadama (Mahavira) around 550 BCE. It believes in the body and soul as separate, with the soul enmeshed in karmic matter that it must work off in order to reach Nirvana. It's five highest principles, or Vrathas, are: Ahimsa (non-violence), Asathya Tyaga (relinquishing of anger, wrath, and deceit), Astheya (abstention from coveting or thievery), Aparigraha (relinquishing of anger, wrath, and deceit), Astheya (abstention from coveting or thievery), Aparigraha (relinquishment of excess, particularly in regard to property), and Brahmacharya (moderation in earthly pleasures).
Sanatana Dharma, or Hinduism, is not a religion. Rather it is a group of religions found within India that share common beliefs while still remaining very different. Many may even argue that it is not a religion but more a way of life. The term "Hinduism" was not developed by the practitioners, but by groups outside of the religions as a means for labeling the entire Indian people.
Often referred to as the successor religion to Vedism, the Hindu religions are no more the same religion as Vedism than Islam is the religion of the Christians. After the populace began to lose faith in the Brahmins (due primarily to elitism and corruption), they began to turn increasingly to the speculations within the Upanisads. In particular, the Aranyakas (which were originally penned by sunvassins, or hermit-priests living in the wild) provided a road map by which solitary practitioners could re-enact Vedic ritual without the actual physical activity of Yajna.
Also, other philosophical speculation during the late Vedic period, coming most often in the form of derivative texts called Sutras, fed the reform movement. These steps toward short cutting ritual eventually led to a much greater emphasis on private meditation, and an overall philosophy which embraced concepts such as reincarnation, Karma, Dharma, the caste system, and the personification of all gods into a single god-power known as Brahman. With the last step, Hinduism ceased as a polytheistic religion into fell the embrace of monism (monism being the belief in one supreme being and that all other beings are incarnations of the One).
There are many groups within Hinduism that claim a sort of "going back to the Vedas". While these groups are attempting to create a bond with the Vedas, they will never be followers of Vedism while they still hold their core ideals.
These core beliefs are at odds with those of the Vedas. Many followers of Hinduism do translate the Vedas to fit into Hindu thought by changing the translation to reflect the beliefs of monism, reincarnation, the caste system and absence of animal and human sacrifice. However, this poor translators.
A well known movement to go "back to the Vedas" is the Arva Samaj movement. This movement was started in 1875 by Dayananda Sarasvati. It was a movement within Hinduism that was meant to turn back to the Vedas. It was their belief that the Vedas alone were sacred and the only revelation of God. They also believed that all of the sciences of the modern world could be found within the Vedas.
As has been already stated, the Arya Samaj are followers of Hinduism. While they are attempting to go back to the Vedas they are not Vedic. While they do not except the texts past the Vedas, they are still monists, and uphold other Hindu views. In their reformations they rejected Brahaminic control and they are open to all castes and women.
This movement was the second movement of this sort, the first being Brahmo Samaj, both of which had political power. The movement of Arya Samaj helped to contribute to the Indian Nationalist movement and works to convert those Hindus who have turned to Christianity, Islam and other non-Hindu faiths.
There are additional Indian tribes which claim to perform Vedic rituals. However, when you take a ritual and strip it of it's meaning to replace it with new thoughts and beliefs it ceases to be what it was. As is the case in some Hindu tribes in India who make claims to performing Vedic ritual. They may be going through the motions but the two beliefs systems are vastly different.
Notably, when speaking about Hinduism we are talking about the Hindu religions within India. While sharing similar beliefs arid gods, the practices and tenants of Hinduism within Bali, Cambodia and Nepal is vastly different from that of Indian Hinduism. At this point in time, there is no proof that there are any people who practiced Vedism in an unbroken line from the time of the Vedics. Nor is there any proof that there are any practitioners of Vedism within India in the sense of organized religion. It is quite possible that practitioners of traditional Vedism do exist, but we have yet to hear of it.
Now we have come full circle, ending with the questions we began with:
Is Vedism a form of Hinduism?
Are Kali, Siva, Krsna, Laxmi, Ganesha, Rama, Sita, Hanuman or Durga Vedic?
Hopefully you have come to the conclusion that Vedism is not a form of Hinduism, not only because Vedism came before the Hindu practices but also because the differences between the two faiths. Vedism believes in polytheism, heaven, no reincarnation, no hell, Rta, dharman, karman, sruti and a class system. Hinduism believes in monism, reincarnation, judgement, Karma, Dharma, a caste system, smrti and Brahma.
By the same token one should know that the gods of Hinduism are not Vedic gods, owing in part to the differences between sruti and smrti.
Yet, is Hinduism Indo-European? If not, when did it cease to be such? It is my opinion that when the people rebelled against Vedism and began the offshoot religions that they ceased to be practicing an Indo-European religion.
These individuals turned away from their old religion and embraced a new one, leaving the old behind. Some terms and gods remain but their meanings and status are now quite different. The people rejected the old ways in favour of religions and philosophies that show a great disdain for the Vedic practices.
Logic then has us ask aren't these new religions just natural progressions of Vedism? I would argue that they are not. I would suggest that these new religions were guided by men to separate themselves from the human corruption within Vedism. This was not a natural evolution but a rebellion.
It is true that eventually the Vedic religion may have taken similar turns as the new religions. This is evident in the Brahmanas and Upanisads. However, had Vedism been allowed to eveolve and had it become monistic, or monothesitic, I feel it would still retain the names of the gods of the Vedas and not the new creations of the post-Vedic texts. So why Vedism? Why not Hinduism? Why not Jainism? Why not Buddhism?
When I came to Vedism it was a silent religion. It was facing the fierce battle of the old gods and the new gods, and losing. I felt I belonged more in Vedism than anywhere else: it shares my beliefs, I can converse with the gods, I connect with the rituals.
Why do I not practice one of the offshoot religions? There are three reasons. The first is that because Vedism was built around a nomadic people it was geared more towards community. Community is very important to me, as is the aiding of others. This is not to say there is nothing individualized within Vedism, rather it is very community based. The offshoot religions are more egocentric, focusing on the individual and their path.
The second is the fundamental belief systems. I do not believe in reincarnation. I believe in heaven. I do not believe in karma. I believe in karman. I do not believe in Dharma, Brahma, enlightenment, Gurus or the validity of the smrti texts. I believe in dharman, Rta, free-will and the sruti.
The third reason is one I have put a great deal of thought into. We all know that in many of the Indo-European cultures there are wars between the new gods and the old gods.
Imagine, if you will, that you worshiped the old gods. What would your feelings be towards the worship of the new gods? How would you react to the new gods turning the ways of the old gods on their head until they no longer reflected the old beliefs? What would you think to know your gods were to now live in the realm of scholastic research only? How would you feel knowing your gods were now shadows of their former selves, pushed to back burners and given little to no respect and ridiculed? What would you do in knowing that your gods are being forgotten?
In the Indo-European myth of the old gods and the new gods, the Vedic gods would be the old gods. The new gods are those of the offshoot religions. Rather than fight the old gods, the new gods have created new myths which ignore many of the old gods. This results in the vast majority of the old gods being forgotten with the remaining being demoted to lesser beings. The vast majority of Vedic gods are no longer worshipped. The exception to this is Vsnu.
Vsnu is a Vedic god and he did make it over to Hinduism favourably. Unfortunately, the Vsnu of Hindu lore is not the Vsnu of Vedic lore. The same is said of Surya, Usas and Sarsvati. Surya now has a very minor role, the brilliance of his consort Usas is all but forgotten in favour of Kali, Laxmi and Durga. Sarsvati, who was a minor river goddess deity in the Vedas, is seen as a major goddess of learning in Hinduism having swallowed up the Vedic goddess Vac.
I worship the old gods. I give no respect to the new gods whether they are post-Vedic, pre-Vedic or man made smrti creations. This is why Vedism. It is because Vedism is about bettering myself to help my community. It is because Vedism is not about tying yourself to the score cards of Dharma and Karma. Vedism is about taking responsibility for your actions and your choices. Vedism is about being responsible for your own life. Vedism is about having only one chance to get it right.
Vedism is about honouring the old gods.
- The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism by A. L. Basham
- Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion by William L. Reese
- Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads (2 Volumes) by A.B. Keith
- Religion of the Veda by Hermann Oldenberg
- The Vedic Index by Arthur Anthony Macdonell & A. B. Keith
- Women in World Religions by Avind Sharma (Editor)
- Upanisads translated by Patrick Olivelle
- The Religion of the Rigveda by H.D. Griswold
- Vedic Ritual: The Non-Solemn Rites by J. Gonda
"Why Vedism." submitted by info-manager on 15 May, 2019. Last modified on 19 February, 2022.
Page URL: https://www.adf.org/articles/cosmology/why-vedism.html
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