I decided it was time to read the Rig Veda, and now I have, sort of. I’ve read Wendy Doniger’s compilation of 108 hymns from the book– 1/10 of the total. If she had done the whole thing it would amount to over 3000 pages, so I’m not feeling too guilty.
You may well be saying, the Rig what? The Rig Veda is the oldest text of Hinduism– also perhaps the oldest text still in religious use. It dates back 3500 to 4000 years ago. (The Old Testament is mostly under 3000 years old.) In form, it’s a set of over a thousand hymns, which were chanted or sung at animal sacrifices. (A rig is a hymn or poem. Veda is ‘knowledge’, cognate to English wit and Latin vedere ‘see’.)
Curiously, it’s not the oldest written text; it was transmitted orally, Brahmin to Brahmin, for most of those millennia. The transmission was highly accurate– the Rig Veda was remembered the same way from Kashmir to Kerala.
Whether it was understood is another question. It’s written in an archaic Sanskrit that can be baffling even if you understand classical Sanskrit. Plus it describes practices that are no longer practiced and gods that are no longer worshiped. The chief Vedic god was Indra, followed closely by Agni (fire), the Maruts (storm gods), the Ashvins (a pair of horse gods), Yama (death), and Soma (a drug, more on that below). Over the centuries worship switched to Vishnu and Shiva, each conceived by its worshipers as the supreme and only god (the others being forms they assume). Vishnu does get a few Vedic hymns; Shiva does not, though he’s associated with Rudra, who does. Shiva very likely originates as a Dravidian god, later adopted by the Indic peoples.
Curiously, there is evidence that Indra and crew replaced an even earlier set of gods. One of the minor Vedic gods is the sky god Dyaus. This is cognate to Zeus and Jupiter (= Dyaus father), as well as the Germanic god Tiw, the god of Tuesday. In the Vedas Dyaus is usually paired with Prithvi ‘Earth’, often addressed with her in the dual as Dyavaprithvi. And he changes sex! Sky-and-earth are usually addressed as females.
So, what are these poems like? Many are straightforward praise and asking of benefits, such as this hymn to Agni (1.1, the very first hymn in the Rig Veda):
I pray to Agni, the household priest who is the god of the sacrifice, the one who chants and invokes and brings most treasure.
Agni earned the prayers of the ancient sages, and of those of the present, too; he will bring the gods here.
Through Agni one may win wealth, and growth from day to day, glorious and most abounding in heroic sons.
…To you, Agni, who shine upon darkness, we come day after day, bringing our thoughts and homage to you, the king over sacrifices, the shining guardian of Order, growing in your own house.
Agni is the fire god, and thus is the fire of the animal sacrifice, which brings the sacrifice to the gods and brings blessings back. You obviously want to be on good terms with the messenger if you want your message to get through.
(The hymns tend to exaggerate the power of the god they’re dedicated to. So certain events and powers may be attributed to different gods at different times. The way you talked to gods was undoubtedly influenced by the way you talked to kings; treating them as more powerful than they were was good tactics.)
Sometimes the prayers are strange, almost opaque in their extended metaphors, as in this hymn about the sacrifice itself (1.164):
This beloved gray priest has a middle brother who is hungry and a third brother with butter on his back. In him I saw the Lord of All Tribes with his seven sons.
Seven yoke the one-wheeled chariot drawn by one horse with seven names. All these creatures rest on the ageless and unstoppable wheel with three naves.
Seven horses draw the seven who ride on this seven-wheeled chariot. Seven sisters call out to the place where the seven names of the cows are hidden.
Who saw the newborn one, the one with bones who was brought forth by the boneless one? Where was the breath and blood and soul of the earth?
(This actually reminds me a lot of Neil Gaiman, when he wants to represent spells and such. I suspect he’s done a lot of reading on folklore and borrowed the style.)
Now, a lot of this can be interpreted. E.g. Doniger tells us that the “priests” are the sacrificial fires. The middle brother is “hungry” because it’s the southern fire, seldom fed. The Lord of All Tribes is Agni; his sons are the priests. As with any jargon, one suspects that making the material difficult was part of the point.
A hymn to creation (10.129) starts out with some confident cosmology, but ends up buried in accumulated questions and doubts.
There was neither non-existence then; there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond… There was neither death nor immortality then…
Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing sign, all this was water. The life force that was covered with emptiness, that one arose through the power of heat.
…Their cord was extended across. Was there below? Was there above? There were seed-placers; there were powers….
Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of the universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisen– perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not– the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows– or perhaps he does not know.
Some of the most accessible material is not hymns to deities at all. There are conversations about sex between gods; a lament by a gambler whose life have been ruined by the dice; a benediction on arms and armor; a poem that is simultaneously about frogs and Brahmins.
Also intriguing is the nature of soma– from the text, a drink pressed from plants grown in the mountains. The effects seem to be exhilarating and hallucinatory (8.48):
I have tasted the sweet drink of life, knowing that it inspires good thoughts and joyous expansiveness to the extreme, that all the gods and mortals seek it together, calling it honey.
When you penetrate inside, you will know no limits, and you will avert the wrath of the gods. Enjoying Indra’s friendship, O drop of Soma, bring riches as a docile cow brings the yoke.
We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods. What can hatred and the malice of a mortal do to us now, O immortal one?
Soma is itself addressed as a god; indeed, by bulk, he gets more hymns than anyone but Indra and Agni.
The descriptions and the effects don’t really correspond to any known plant. Soma went out of use, perhaps because it was hard to get in northern India– this rules out marijuana, which has long been known. The Persians used a planet called haoma, a cognate, but its effects are mild. It can’t be wine or any fermented drink, because it was pressed and drunk immediately. An attractive hypothesis is that it’s Amanita muscaria, the mushroom used by Siberian shamans, and which happens to grow all across Eurasia but not in India.
Should you run out and read it? Well, not as your first venture into India, or Hinduism. I would still recommend the Ramayana for that. For ancient religious thought that’s still relevant today, try the Bhagavad-Gita. But if you’re interested in what people were doing and how they worshiped four thousand years ago, go for it.
(Doniger’s translation provides plenty of help on the obscure bits, which are many. Her book The Hindus: An alternative history would be a good book to read first.)