A Snapshot of Vedic Mythology 1: Basic Concepts

This is the first in a  series of posts on Vedic mythology presenting information drawn primarily from Bhattaracharyya’s A Cultural Index to Vedic Literature (New Delhi: Manohar, 2007), though I have filled out some of the sections with information drawn from other places as well. My purpose here is to record the notes that I have been gathering as I have been working on comparisons between Vedic and Old Irish mythology. (I am hoping to have this finished before the summer.)

Devayāna: The Way of the Gods

tasmād idandro nāma
idandro ha vai nāma
tam idandraṃ santam indra ity ācakṣate parokṣeṇa
parokṣapriyā iva hi devāḥ parokṣapriyā iva hi devāḥ
Aitareya Upanishad 1, 3.14

Therefore Idandra is the name
Idandra is the very name
They call him Indra hiddenly whom they call Idandra:
The gods truly love what is hidden; the gods truly love what is hidden;

This is the veneration of the Viśnadevas, all-gods. “The second stage in the conceptualization regarding the fate of the departed…” alongside Pitṛyāna, the Way of the Fathers — i.e. practicing faith (śraddhā), truthfulness (satya), and austerities (tapasyā) — leads to dwelling with the gods and not returning to the world. While departed, ancestors are still anxious to help their progeny, and a series of rites (the pitryāna) were directed toward sustaining and fostering this connection. Ritual traditions such as the Brahma-Yajña which centered on the reading of the Vedas but included techniques and necessities for purification and preparation were part of this.

Yajña or sacrifice is the core of Devayāna. Another rite, devayajña, invovles offering fuel sticks to fire with dedicatory invocations. It requires the maintenance of gārhapatya or prajāhita, a domestic fire ignited by attrition and maintained on a raised mound, from which other fires are lit for sacrifice. These are āhavanīya and dakṣinā. The most common substance of sacrifice is ghee, a kind of clarified butter (ghṛta in Vedic Sanskrit), and since Agni is considered to be the active principle in fire then he is called ‘butter-backed.’ Flesh and even human sacrifices are noted, and most major events and undertakings were cause for sacrifice. These must not be considered propitiatory, though, but rather as magical acts seeking specific outcomes such as procuring wealth or freedom from illnesses.

This focus on sacrifice may have been the originating principle behind the idea of karma, the belief that any action carries a potency to secure future joy or sorrow depending on its moral character. The belief in a bifurcated Otherworld in which evildoers are punished and do-gooders are rewarded seems to have blended with the magical virtues of properly performed ritual sacrifices such that a well-performed action has an occult force that attracts positive or negative consequences either in this or the next life.

Āgama & Nigama:

These are two different branches of Hindu belief and practice. Āgama contains the mystico-religious Pṛanic & Tāntric disciplines such as yoga while the philosophico-religious tenets and rituals like the Soma or fire-sacrifice belong to Nigama, the “pure Vedic tradition” according to Bhattaracharyya. “Later Pāśupata, Pāñcarātra and Śākta-Tāntric texts as well as those of Kashmir and Āgamānta Śaivism, Śaiva Siddhānta and Vīraśaivism belong to the Āgama tradition.” The Vedānta (goal or purpose of the Vedas) are known as nigamānta-vidyā: literally ‘skills related to nigama.’

Bhṛgu:

The name of a seer said to have sprung from Varuṇa and head of the class of ancestors  who are invited to the Soma sacrifice and said to have attained all their desires.

Ṛta:

This is the inherent moral order of the universe that upholds its physical order as well. It implies a natural law and it was meant to be reflected in the laws and ordinances denoted by the term dharma, which later would usurp the moral connotations of ṛta. Its physical basis is the Zodiac and associated with Aditi & Varuṇa her son.

Brahman: 

The Ultimate Reality or basis of existence in terms of apparent reality in saprapañca (a kind of positivist theology). This view holds that the universe is a transformation of Brahman. It is however a transfiguration of a ‘false’ or illusory basis according to niṣprapañca (a more transcendent perception of the divine and in some ways similar to Neo-Platonism). “The cosmic view of Reality is that the Real is the one substance out of which the many modes constituting the world have come forth and that Brahman is saguṇa, the bearer of attributes. Cf. Mahadevan, Cultural Heritage of India, I, 69.”

Brahman is also called Akṣara, the Imperishable, and is contrasted starkly with Ātman, the Self or inner reality of both the individual and the cosmos. Ātman expresses the ultimate essence of the universe that is shared with the animating breath in man. In one way (as I understand it) Ātman can be conceived as the soul of a man while Brahman might be conceived as the soul and body together in terms of what actually is. In another way, Brahman represents all that is — the universe in its entirety — but Ātman is the awareness of itself, so mankind is essentially the Ātman of the universe since it is through us that the universe is aware of itself.

Cosmology: 

Elements: Air (vāyu – wind), Fire (pitta – bile) & Water (kapha – phlegm)

The oldest stratum holds that there are three elements, though this increases to five in the later tradition, adding Earth and Space. The threefold division saw a reflection in the thirty-three gods that tradition defined as their proper number.

Three Realms: Earth, Atmosphere and Heaven

The vault of the heavens divides Earth and Atmosphere from the fiery realm of Heaven: dividing respectively into Water, Air and Fire. Each realm is subdivided into nine realms, each having three. Earth was conceived as a wheel marked by four compass points giving birth to Agni, while the air gave birth to Vāyu and the heavens to the Ādityas.

The heavens, as the realm of the gods, are headed by Prajāpati, and are divided according to a subtle hierarchy of associations defined by the Bandhutā Concept which associates with each deity a number (of precedence), metre, psalm, season, hour, place, priest, consort, oblations, gifts, cups and companions. Each of these incidences of association is referred to as a bandhu.

Parallel to this spatial cosmology is a threefold conception of divinities: gods, fathers and asuras. The number of gods is often set at 33 and the division between asuras and gods is both porous and ill-defined as the asuras are often spoken of as being hostile to men, but the central divine figures Varuṇa, Mitra and Aryaman are placed among them. This is not to say that each class of divinity matches a realm: quite the opposite. Each class moves and maps across all of the realms. The gaṇa, or group deities, are an exception to this; the Vasus are associated with earth, the Maruts or Rudras with air, and the Ādityas with the heavens. The other major group of deities, the Gandharvas, seem to elude an outright association.

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