- Rig Veda
- The Rig Veda is the earliest of the four VEDAS central to the Brahminical tradition. According to tradition it was compiled by VYASA. It is usually dated from 1500 to 1000 B.C.E., but since it is an anthology, some of its more than 1,000 hymns might well be older. The great majority of the hymns are from five to 20 lines in length; very few exceed 50 lines in length.The Rig Veda contains hymns of praise to a pantheon of divinities. It also includes some cos-mogonic hymns—hymns that tell of the creation of the universe—that are extremely important for the development of later Hinduism. By far the greatest number of the hymns of the Rig Veda are devoted to INDRA, king of the gods, a deity connected with the storms and rain who holds a thunderbolt, and AGNI, the god of fire. The rest of the hymns are devoted to an array of gods, most prominently MITRA, VARUNA, SAVITRI, SOMA, and the ASHVINS.Less frequently mentioned in Rig Veda are the gods who became most important in the later Hindu pantheon, VISHNU and RUDRA (one of whose epithets was SHIVA, the benign). A num-ber of goddesses are mentioned, most frequently USHAS, goddess of the dawn. ADITI (she without limit) is a goddess who is said to be the mother of the gods.The Rig Veda, as are the other Vedas, is under-stood to be “composed by no man” (apaurasheya). It was considered to be an eternal text that is rediscovered during each new cosmic era. Com-monly, the Rig Veda is divided into eight cycles, or mandalas, but in it is also traditionally learned in 10 books.The RISHIS, poet-sages, are said to be respon-sible for “seeing” or hearing the verses in their divine form and recording them. Each Rig Vedic hymn has a rishi’s name attached and some full books or partial books are said to have been received by a single rishi. Prominent among the rishis are Vishvamitra, Atri, Bharadvaja, Vasishtha, Kashyapa, Jamadagni, and Gautama. Many of the other rishis are descendants of these major rishis.Book III of the Rig Veda, for instance, is said to be received by Vishvamitra and his descen-dants. Nearly all the hymns of book VI are said to be from Bharadvaja. All the hymns of book VII are from Vasishtha. Most of book IV is said to have been received by the rishi Vamadeva, the son of the rishi Gotama. All of book II is said to have been received by the rishi Gritsmada. There were apparently some women who received Vedic hymns, including Apala of the Atri family; Gho-sha, grand-daughter of Dirghatamas; Romasha; and Shashvati. The great majority of rishis were Brahmins and Kshatriyas, the two highest castes, but some verses were received by others.Scholars believe books I and X were recorded later than the others. Book X contains several cosmogonic hymns such as the PURUSHA Sukta, the Hymn of the Divine Man (Rig Veda X. 90), which highlight the theme of cosmic unity. The hymns were very influential in later Indian thought. Most hymns of the Rig Veda, however, are not philo-sophical; rather, they are directed toward various divinities as part of a ritual cult, which is explic-itly detailed in the BRAHMANAS. There are very few hymns of the Rig Veda that do not involve refer-ence to some ritual.The Rig Veda, as the other Vedas, was passed down from mouth to ear for millennia. It was for-bidden to write them, as they were the exclusive preserve of those authorized and qualified to use them properly. Much as in a shamanistic tradition, the Vedas were shared only among initiates who learned from a Vedic GURU. The earliest written texts appeared around the 15th century C.E.Further reading: S. N. Dasgupta, History of Indian Phi-losophy, vol. I (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975); J. C. Heesterman, The Broken World of Sacrifice: An Essay on Ancient Indian Ritual (Chicago: University of California Press, 1993); ———, The Inner Conflict of Tradition: Essays in Indian Ritual, Kingship and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Ralph T. H. Griffith, trans., Sacred Writings. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan, vol. 5, The Rig Veda (New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1992); Wendy O’Flaherty, The Rig Veda: An Anthology (Baltimore: Penguin, 1982); J. Frits Staal, AGNI: The Altar of Fire, 2 vols. (Berkeley, Calif.: Asian Humanities Press, 1983).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.