Historical Vedic religion

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Map of northern India in the late Vedic period. The location of Vedic shakhas is labelled in green. Thar desert is in orange

The religion of the Vedic period (1500 BC to 500 BC[1]) (also known as Vedism, Vedic Brahmanism, ancient Hinduism[note 1] or, in a context of Indian antiquity, simply Brahmanism[note 2]) is a historical predecessor of modern Hinduism, though significantly different from it.[note 3]

The Vedic liturgy is conserved in the mantra portion of the four Vedas,[6] which are compiled in Sanskrit. The religious practices centered on a clergy administering rites. This mode of worship is largely unchanged today within Hinduism; however, only a small fraction of conservative Śrautins continue the tradition of oral recitation of hymns learned solely through the oral tradition.

Textual history[edit]

Texts dating to the Vedic period, composed in Vedic Sanskrit, are mainly the four Vedic Samhitas, but the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and some of the older Upanishads (Bṛhadāraṇyaka, Chāndogya, Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana) are also placed in this period. The Vedas record the liturgy connected with the rituals and sacrifices performed by the 16 or 17 Śrauta priests and the purohitas. According to traditional views, the hymns of the Rigveda and other Vedic hymns were divinely revealed to the rishis, who were considered to be seers or "hearers" (Śruti means "what is heard") of the Veda, rather than "authors". In addition the Vedas are said to be "apaurashaya", a Sanskrit word meaning "uncreated by man" and which further reveals their eternal non-changing status.



A Śrauta yajna being performed in South India.

The mode of worship was worship of the elements like fire and rivers, worship of heroic gods like Indra, chanting of hymns and performance of sacrifices. The priests performed the solemn rituals for the noblemen (Kshatriyas) and wealthy commoners Vaishyas. People prayed for abundance of children, rain, cattle (wealth), long life and an afterlife in the heavenly world of the ancestors. This mode of worship has been preserved even today in Hinduism, which involves recitations from the Vedas by a purohita (priest), for prosperity, wealth and general well-being. However, the primacy of Vedic deities has been seconded to the deities of Puranic literature.

Specific rituals and sacrifices of the Vedic religion include, among others:[7]

  • The Soma rituals, which involved the extraction, utility and consumption of Soma:
  • Fire rituals involving oblations (havir):
  • The royal consecration (Rajasuya) sacrifice
  • The Ashvamedha or A Yajna dedicated to the glory, wellbeing and prosperity of the Rashtra the nation or empire[8]
  • The Purushamedha.
  • The rituals and charms referred to in the Atharvaveda are concerned with medicine and healing practices.[9]

The Hindu rites of cremation are seen since the Rigvedic period; while they are attested from early times in the Cemetery H culture, there is a late Rigvedic reference invoking forefathers "both cremated (agnidagdhá-) and uncremated (ánagnidagdha-)".(RV 10.15.14)[10][11]


Though a large number of devatas are named in the Rig Veda, only 33 devas are counted, eleven each of earth, space and heaven.[12] The Vedic pantheon knows two classes, Devas and Asuras. The Devas (Mitra, Varuna, Aryaman, Bhaga, Amsa, etc.) are deities of cosmic and social order, from the universe and kingdoms down to the individual. The Rigveda is a collection of hymns to various deities, most notably heroic Indra, Agni the sacrificial fire and messenger of the gods, and Soma, the deified sacred drink of the Indo-Iranians.[13] Also prominent is Varuna (often paired with Mitra) and the group of "All-gods", the Vishvadevas.[14]


See also philosophers of Vedic age

Vedic philosophy primarily begins with the later part of the Rigveda, which was compiled before 1100 BCE.[15] Most of the philosophy of the Rigveda is contained in the sections Purusha sukta and Nasadiya sukta.[16]

Major philosophers of this era were Rishis Narayana, Kanva, Rishaba, Vamadeva, and Angiras.[17]

Ethics — satya and rta[edit]

Ethics in the Vedas are based on the concepts of Satya and Rta. Satya is the principle of integration rooted in the Absolute,[18] whereas Ṛta is the expression of Satya, which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it.[19] Panikkar remarks:

Ṛta is the ultimate foundation of everything; it is "the supreme", although this is not to be understood in a static sense [...] It is the expression of the primordial dynamism that is inherent in everything...."[20]

The term is inherited from the Proto-Indo-Iranian religion, the religion of the Indo-Iranian peoples prior to the earliest Vedic (Indo-Aryan) and Zoroastrian (Iranian) scriptures. Asha[pronunciation?] (aša) is the Avestan language term (corresponding to Vedic language ṛta) for a concept of cardinal importance[21] to Zoroastrian theology and doctrine.

Conformity with Ṛta would enable progress whereas its violation would lead to punishment. The term Dharma was already used in Brahmanical thought, were it was conceived as an aspect of Rta.[22]

The concept of Yajna or sacrifice is also enunciated in the Purusha sukta where reaching the Absolute itself is considered a transcendent sacrifice when viewed from the point of view of the individual.[23]

Post-Vedic religions[edit]

The Vedic period is held to have ended around 500 BC. The period after the Vedic religion, between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, is the formative period for Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.[3][4][5][24] According to Michaels, the period between 500 BCE and 200 BCE is a time of "ascetic reformism".[25][note 4] Muesse discerns a longer period of change, namely between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, which he calls the "Classical Period":

...this was a time when traditional religious practices and beliefs were reassessed. The brahmins and the rituals they performed no longer enjoyed the same prestige they had in the Vedic pariod".[27]

According to Muesse, some of the fundamental concepts of Hinduism, namely karma, reincarnation and "personal enlightenment and transformation", did not exist in the Vedic religion, developed between 800 BCE and 200 BCE:[5][note 5]

Indian philosophers came to regard the human as an immortal soul encased in a perishable body and bound by action, or karma, to a cycle of endless existences.[29]

The Vedic religion gradually metamorphosed into the various schools of Hinduism, which further evolved into Puranic Hinduism.[30] However aspects of the historical Vedic religion survived in corners of the Indian subcontinent, such as Kerala where the Nambudiri Brahmins continue the ancient Śrauta rituals, which are considered extinct in all other parts.

Post-Vedic Hinduism[edit]

The Hindu samskaras

...go back to a hoary antiquity. The Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Grhyasutras, the Dharmasutras, the Smritis and other treatises describe the rites, ceremonies and customs.[31]

The worshipping rituals developed in such a way that

A formal distinction was maintained between Srauta rites (rites using the Vedic hymns), which were necessarily performed by priests, and Griha ("domestic") rites, performed by the Aryan householder himself; but both the latter and the former were subject to priestly influence. Some domestic rites became almost indistinguishable from the priestly Srauta sacrifices; and, even where older ceremonies were retained, they were usually interwoven with elements of the priestly ritual.[32]


Vedic religion was followed by Upanishads which gradually evolved into Vedanta, which is regarded by some as the primary institution of Hinduism. Vedanta considers itself "the purpose or goal [end] of the Vedas."[33] The philosophy of Vedanta (lit. “The end of the Vedas"), transformed the Vedic worldview to monistic one. This led to the development of tantric metaphysics and gave rise to new forms of yoga, such as jnana yoga and bhakti yoga.[34] There are some conservative schools which continue portions of the historical Vedic religion largely unchanged. (see Śrauta, Nambudiri).[35]

Of the continuation of the Vedic tradition in a newer sense, Jeaneane D. Fowler writes the following:

Despite the radically different nature of the Upanishads in relation to the Vedas it has to be remembered that the material of both form the Veda or "knowledge" which is sruti literature. So the Upanishads develop the ideas of the Vedas beyond their ritual formalism and should not be seen as isolated from them. The fact that the Vedas that are more particularly emphasized in the Vedanta: the efficacy of the Vedic ritual is not rejected, it is just that there is a search for the Reality that informs it.[36]


The Vedic gods declined[37] but did not disappear, and local cults were assimilated into the Vedic-brahmanic pantheon, which changed into the Hindu pantheon.[38] Deities arose that were not mentioned or barely mentioned in the Veda, especially Shiva and Vishnu,[37] and gave rise to Shaivism and Vaishnavism.[37]

Interpretations of Vedic Mantras in Hinduism[edit]

The various Hindu schools and traditions give various interpretations of the Vedic hymns.

Mimamsa philosophers argue that there was no need to postulate a maker for the world, just as there was no need for an author to compose the Vedas or a god to validate the rituals.[39] Mimamsa argues that the gods named in the Vedas have no existence apart from the mantras that speak their names. To that regard, the power of the mantras is what is seen as the power of gods.[40]

Adi Shankara interpreted Vedas as being non-dualistic or monistic.[41] However, Arya Samaj holds the view that the Vedic mantras tend to monotheism.[42] Even the earlier Mandalas of Rig Veda (books 1 and 9) contains hymns which are thought to have a tendency toward monotheism.[43] Often quoted isolated pada 1.164.46 of the Rig Veda states (trans. Griffith):

Indraṃ mitraṃ varuṇamaghnimāhuratho divyaḥ sa suparṇo gharutmān,
ekaṃ sad viprā bahudhā vadantyaghniṃ yamaṃ mātariśvānamāhuḥ
"They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutmān.
To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan".

Moreover, the verses of 10.129 and 10.130, deal with the one being (Ékam sát). The verse 10.129.7 further confirms this (trans. Griffith):

iyám vísṛṣṭiḥ yátaḥ ābabhūva / yádi vā dadhé yádi vā ná / yáḥ asya ádhyakṣaḥ paramé vyóman / sáḥ aṅgá veda yádi vā ná véda
"He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not, He who surveys it all from his highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps even he does not"

Sramana tradition[edit]

The non-Vedic Sramana traditions existed alongside Brahmanism.[44][45][note 6][note 7][note 8] These were not direct outgrowths of Vedism, but movements with mutual influences with Brahmanical traditions,[44] reflecting "the cosmology and anthropology of a much older, pre-Aryan upper class of northeastern India".[46] Jainism and Buddhism evolved out of the Shramana tradition.[47][48]

There are Jaina references to 22 pre-historic Tirthankaras. In this view, Jainism peaked at the time of Mahavira (traditionally put in the 6th Century BCE).[49][50] Buddhism, traditionally put from c. 500 BC, declined in India over the 5th to 12th centuries in favor of Puranic Hinduism[51] and Islam.[52][53][54]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In the 19th century the term "Hinduism" was restricted to "living Hinduism", with its emphasis on Bhakti.[2] Under the influence of the Neo-Hinduistic reform movements, which emphasised the Vedic heritage, and the growing awareness of the continuity of certain elements, the term "ancient Hinduism" has been applied by some to the Vedic period.[2] Nevertheless, the period between 800 BCE and 200 BCE sees fundamental changes, which result in "Hinduism".[3][4][5]
  2. ^ The Encyclopædia Britannica of 2005 uses all of "Vedism", "Vedic Brahmanism" and "Brahmanism", but reserves "Vedism" for the earliest stage, predating the Brahmana period, and defines "Brahmanism" as "religion of ancient India that evolved out of Vedism. It takes its name both from the predominant position of its priestly class, the Brahmans, and from the increasing speculation about, and importance given to, Brahman, the supreme power."
  3. ^ Stephanie W. Jamison and Michael Witzel, Vedic Hinduism, 1992, "... to call this period Vedic Hinduism is a contradiction in terms since Vedic religion is very different from what we generally call Hindu religion – at least as much as Old Hebrew religion is from medieval and modern Christian religion. However, Vedic religion is treatable as a predecessor of Hinduism."
  4. ^ According to Michaels, the period between 200 BCE and 1100 CE is the time of "classical Hinduism", since there is "a turning point between the Vedic religion and Hindu religions".[26]
  5. ^ Although the concept of reincarnation originated during the time of the Shramanic reforms and the composition of the Upanishads,[5] according to Georg Feuerstein the Rig-Vedic rishis believed in reincarnation and karma.[28]
  6. ^ Cromwell: "Alongside Brahmanism was the non-Aryan shramanic culture with its roots going back to prehistoric times."[44]
  7. ^ >Y. Masih (2000) In : A Comparative Study of Religions, Motilal Banarsidass Publ : Delhi, ISBN 81-208-0815-0 Page 18. "There is no evidence to show that Jainism and Buddhism ever subscribed to vedic sacrifices, vedic deities or caste. They are parallel or native religions of India and have contributed to much to the growth of even classical Hinduism of the present times."
  8. ^ P.S. Jaini, (1979), The Jaina Path to Purification, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, p. 169 "Jainas themselves have no memory of a time when they fell within the Vedic fold. Any theory that attempts to link the two traditions, moreover fails to appreciate rather distinctive and very non-vedic character of Jaina cosmology, soul theory, karmic doctrine and atheism"


  2. ^ a b Stietencron 2005, p. 231.
  3. ^ a b Smart 2003.
  4. ^ a b Michaels 2004.
  5. ^ a b c d Muesse 2003.
  6. ^ "The Four Vedas". About dot Com. Retrieved 7 November 2012. 
  7. ^ Prasoon, (Prof.) Shrikant. Indian Scriptures. Pustak Mahal (11 August 2010). Ch.2, Vedang, Kalp. ISBN 978-81-223-1007-8.
  8. ^ Ralph Thomas Hotchkin Griffith, The Texts of the White Yajurveda. Translated with a Popular Commentary (1899), 1987 reprint: Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, ISBN 81-215-0047-8.
  9. ^ Bloomfield Maurice. Hymns of the Atharva Veda. Kessinger Publishing (1 June 2004). P. 1-8. ISBN 1419125087.
  10. ^ Dudi, Amar Singh. Ancient India History. Neha Publishers and Distributors (10 January 2012). Ch. 9. Vedic Religion, Rituals. ISBN 978-93-80318-16-5.
  11. ^ Sabir, N. Heaven Hell OR??. Publisher: Xlibris (7 October 2010). P. 155. ISBN 1453550119.
  12. ^ Singhal, K. C; Gupta, Roshan. The Ancient History of India, Vedic Period: A New Interpretation. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors. ISBN 8126902868. P. 150.
  13. ^ "Botany of Haoma", from Encyclopædia Iranica. Accessed 15 June 2012
  14. ^ Renou, Louis. L'Inde Classique, vol. 1, p. 328, Librairie d'Ameriqe et d'Orient. Paris 1947, reprinted 1985. ISBN 2-7200-1035-9.
  15. ^ Oberlies (1998:155) gives an estimate of 1100 BC for the youngest hymns in book 10. Estimates for a terminus post quem of the earliest hymns are more uncertain. Oberlies (p. 158) based on 'cumulative evidence' sets wide range of 1700–1100
  16. ^ Krishnananda. Swami. A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India, Divine Life Society. p. 18-19.
  17. ^ P. 285 Indian sociology through Ghurye, a dictionary By S. Devadas Pillai
  18. ^ Krishnananda. Swami. A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India, Divine Life Society. p. 21
  19. ^ Holdrege (2004:215)
  20. ^ Panikkar 2001:350–351
  21. ^ Duchesne-Guillemin 1963, p. 46.
  22. ^ Day, Terence P. (1982). The Conception of Punishment in Early Indian Literature. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. P. 42-45. ISBN 0-919812-15-5.
  23. ^ The Purusha Sukta in Daily Invocations by Swami Krishnananda
  24. ^ Flood 1996, p. 82, 224–49.
  25. ^ Michaels 2004, p. 36.
  26. ^ Michaels 2004, p. 38.
  27. ^ Muesse 2011, p. 115.
  28. ^ (Page 169) The Yoga Tradition By Georg Feuerstein
  29. ^ Muesse 2003, p. 14.
  30. ^ Swami Krishnananda, A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India, Divine Life Society. p. 42
  31. ^ Pandey, Rajbali, "Hindu Samskaras" (Motilal Banarasidass Publ., 1969)
  32. ^ Hopkins, Thomas J., The Hindu Religious Tradition (Belmont: Dickenson Publications, 1971), 15
  33. ^ Robert E. Hume, Professor Emeritus of History of Religions at the Union Theological Seminary, wrote in Random House's The American College Dictionary (1966): "It [Vedānta] is concerned with the end of the Vedas, both chronologically and teleologically."
  34. ^ "Patanjali’s Yoga Darsana – The Hatha Yoga Tradition," InfoRefuge.
  35. ^ Kelkar, Siddharth. UNESCO’s leg-up for city Veda research. Express India. Retrieved 16 June 2012.
  36. ^ P. 46 Perspectives of Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Hinduism By Jeaneane D. Fowler
  37. ^ a b c Michaels 2004, p. 40.
  38. ^ Michaels 2004, p. 39.
  39. ^ Neville, Robert. Religious ruth. p. 51. 
  40. ^ Coward, Harold. The perfectibility of human nature in eastern and western thought. p. 114. 
  41. ^ Sharma, Chandradhar (1962). "Chronological Summary of History of Indian Philosophy". Indian Philosophy: A Critical Survey. New York: Barnes & Noble. p. vi. 
  42. ^ Light of Truth by Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Chapter 7
  43. ^ Macdonell, Arthur Anthony. Vedic Mythology. Forgotten Books (23 May 2012). P. 17. ISBN 1440094365.
  44. ^ a b c S. Cromwell Crawford, review of L. M. Joshi, Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism, Philosophy East and West (1972)
  45. ^ Dr. Kalghatgi, T. G. 1988 In: Study of Jainism, Prakrit Bharti Academy, Jaipur
  46. ^ Zimmer 1989, p. 217.
  47. ^ Jain, Arun. 2008. Faith & philosophy of Jainism. p. 210.
  48. ^ Svarghese, Alexander P. 2008. India : History, Religion, Vision And Contribution To The World. p. 259-60.
  49. ^ Helmuth von Glasenapp,Shridhar B. Shrotri. 1999. Jainism: an Indian religion of salvation. P.24. "Thus not only nothing, from the philosophical and the historical point of view, comes in the way of the supposition that Jainism was established by Parsva around 800 BCE, but it is rather confirmed in everything that we know of the spiritual life of that period."
  50. ^ Dundas, Paul. 2002. The Jains. P.17. "Jainism, then, was in origin merely one component of a north Indian ascetic culture that flourished in the Ganges basin from around the eighth or seventh centuries BCE."
  51. ^ "Buddhism". (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 26 November 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition.
  52. ^ P. 78 - 83 Freeing the Buddha: Diversity on a Sacred Path--large Scale Concerns By Brian Ruhe
  53. ^ P. 183 Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism, and Slavery By M. A. Khan
  54. ^ P. 110 A text book of the history of Theravāda Buddhism by K. T. S. Sarao, University of Delhi. Dept. of Buddhist Studies


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  • King, Richard (1999), Orientalism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India and "The Mystic East", Routledge 
  • Michaels, Axel (2004), Hinduism. Past and present, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press 
  • Muesse, Mark William (2003), Great World Religions: Hinduism 
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