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Historical Vedic Religion
Religious ideas and practices among most Indo-Aryan-speaking peoples of ancient India after about 1500 BCE
The historical Vedic religion (also known as Vedism or ancient Hinduism[note 1]) refers to the religious ideas and practices among most Indo-Aryan-speaking peoples of ancient India after about 1500 BCE. These ideas and practices are found in the Vedic texts, and they were one of the major influences that shaped contemporary Hinduism.
According to Heinrich von Stietencron, in the 19th century western publications, the Vedic religion was believed to be different from and unrelated to Hinduism. The Hindu religion was thought to be linked to the Hindu epics and the Puranas through sects based on Purohita, Tantras and Bhakti. In the 20th century, a better understanding of the Vedic religion, its shared heritage and theology with contemporary Hinduism, has led scholars to view the historical Vedic religion as ancestral to "Hinduism". The Hindu reform movements and the Neo-Vedanta have emphasized the Vedic heritage and "ancient Hinduism", and this term has been co-opted by some Hindus. Vedic religion is now generally accepted to be a predecessor of Hinduism, but they are not the same because the textual evidence suggests significant differences between the two.[note 2]
The Vedic religion is described in the Vedas and associated voluminous Vedic literature preserved into the modern times by the different priestly schools. The Vedic religion texts are cerebral, orderly and intellectual, but it is unclear if the theory in diverse Vedic texts actually reflect the folk practices, iconography and other practical aspects of the Vedic religion. The evidence suggests that the Vedic religion evolved in "two superficially contradictory directions", state Jamison and Witzel. One part evolved into ever more "elaborate, expensive, and specialized system of rituals", while another part questioned all of it and emphasized "abstraction and internalization of the principles underlying ritual and cosmic speculation" within oneself. Both of these traditions impacted Indic religions such as Buddhism and Jainism, and in particular Hinduism. The complex Vedic rituals of ?rauta continue to be practiced in Kerala and coastal Andhra.
Some scholars consider the Vedic religion to have been a composite of the religions of the Indo-Aryans, "a syncretic mixture of old Central Asian, new Indo-European elements", which borrowed "distinctive religious beliefs and practices" from the Bactria-Margiana culture, and the remnants of the Harappan culture of the Indus Valley.
According to Indologist Jan Heesterman, the terms Vedism and Brahmanism are "somewhat imprecise terms". They refer to ancient forms of Hinduism based on the ideologies found in its early literary corpus. Vedism refers to the oldest version, states Heesterman, and it was older than Brahmanism. Vedism refers to the religious ideas of Indo-Europeans who migrated into the Indus River valley region of the subcontinent, whose religion relied on the Vedic corpus including the early Upanishads. Brahmanism, according to Heesterman, refers to the religion that had expanded to a region stretching from the northwest subcontinent to the Ganges valley. Brahmanism included the Vedic corpus and non-Vedic literature such as the Dharmasutras and Dharmasastras, and was the version of ancient Hinduism that gave prominence to the priestly (Brahmin) class of the society. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, Brahmanism separately refers to both the predominant position of the priests (Brahmans) and also to the importance given to Absolute reality (Brahman) speculations in the early Upanishads, as these terms are etymologically linked.
The word Brahmanism was coined by Gonçalo Fernandes Trancoso (1520-1596) in the 16th century, and is related to the metaphysical concept of Brahman that developed from post-Vedic ideas during the late Vedic era (Upanishads). The concept of Brahman is posited as that which existed before the creation of the universe, which constitutes all of existence thereafter, and into which the universe will dissolve into, followed by similar endless creation-maintenance-destruction cycles.
Origins and development
Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?
The Vedic beliefs and practices of the pre-classical era has been proposed to be closely related to the hypothesised Proto-Indo-European religion,[note 8] and shows relations with rituals from the Andronovo culture, from which the Indo-Aryan people descended. According to Anthony, the Old Indic religion probably emerged among Indo-European immigrants in the contact zone between the Zeravshan River (present-day Uzbekistan) and (present-day) Iran. It was "a syncretic mixture of old Central Asian and new Indo-European elements" which borrowed "distinctive religious beliefs and practices" from the Bactria-Margiana Culture (BMAC). This syncretic influence is supported by at least 383 non-Indo-European words that were borrowed from this culture, including the god Indra and the ritual drink Soma. According to Anthony,
Many of the qualities of Indo-Iranian god of might/victory, Verethraghna, were transferred to the adopted god Indra, who became the central deity of the developing Old Indic culture. Indra was the subject of 250 hymns, a quarter of the Rig Veda. He was associated more than any other deity with Soma, a stimulant drug (perhaps derived from Ephedra) probably borrowed from the BMAC religion. His rise to prominence was a peculiar trait of the Old Indic speakers.
The oldest inscriptions in Old Indic, the language of the Rig Veda, are found not in northwestern India and Pakistan, but in northern Syria, the location of the Mitanni kingdom. The Mitanni kings took Old Indic throne names, and Old Indic technical terms were used for horse-riding and chariot-driving. The Old Indic term r'ta, meaning "cosmic order and truth", the central concept of the Rig Veda, was also employed in the Mitanni kingdom. Old Indic gods, including Indra, were also known in the Mitanni kingdom.
The Vedic religion of the later Vedic period was consolidated in the Kuru Kingdom, and co-existed with local religions, such as the Yaksha cults,[web 1] and was itself the product of "a composite of the Indo-Aryan and Harappan cultures and civilizations". David Gordon White cites three other mainstream scholars who "have emphatically demonstrated" that Vedic religion is partially derived from the Indus Valley Civilization. The religion of the Indo-Aryans was further developed when they migrated into the Ganges Plain after c. 1100 BCE and became settled farmers, further syncretising with the native cultures of northern India.[page needed][note 9]
The idea of reincarnation, sa?s?ra, is not mentioned in the early layers of the historic Vedic religion texts such as the Rigveda. The later layers of the Rigveda do mention ideas that suggest an approach towards the idea of rebirth, according to Ranade.
The early layers of the Vedas do not mention the doctrine of Karma and rebirth but mention the belief in an afterlife. According to Matthew Sayers, these earliest layers of the Vedic literature show ancestor worship and rites such as sraddha (offering food to the ancestors). The later Vedic texts such as the Aranyakas and the Upanisads show a different soteriology based on reincarnation, they show little concern with ancestor rites, and they begin to philosophically interpret the earlier rituals. The idea of reincarnation and karma have roots in the Upanishads of the late Vedic period, predating the Buddha and the Mahavira. Similarly, the later layers of the Vedic literature such as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (c. 800 BCE) - such as in section 4.4 - discuss the earliest versions of the Karma doctrine as well as causality.
According to Olivelle, some scholars state that the renouncer tradition was an "organic and logical development of ideas found in the vedic religious culture", while others state that these emerged from the "indigenous non-Aryan population". This scholarly debate is a longstanding one, and is ongoing.
The rituals and charms referred to in the Atharvaveda are concerned with medicine and healing practices.
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)
Though a large number of names for devas occur in the Rigveda, only 33 devas are counted, eleven each of earth, space and heaven. 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. Also prominent is Varuna (often paired with Mitra) and the group of "All-gods", the Vishvadevas.
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Ethics in the Vedas are based on concepts like satya and ?ta.
In the Vedas and later sutras, the meaning of the word satya (?) evolves into an ethical concept about truthfulness and is considered an important virtue. It means being true and consistent with reality in one's thought, speech and action.
Vedic?tá and its Avestan equivalent a?a are both thought by some to derive from Proto-Indo-Iranian*Hr?tás "truth", which in turn may continue from a possible Proto-Indo-European*h2r-tós "properly joined, right, true", from a presumed root *h2er-. The derivative noun ?ta is defined as "fixed or settled order, rule, divine law or truth". As Mahony (1998) notes, however, the term can be translated as "that which has moved in a fitting manner" - although this meaning is not actually cited by authoritative Sanskrit dictionaries it is a regular derivation from the verbal root -, and abstractly as "universal law" or "cosmic order", or simply as "truth". The latter meaning dominates in the Avestan cognate to ?ta, a?a.
Due to the nature of Vedic Sanskrit, the term ?ta can be used to indicate numerous things, either directly or indirectly, and both Indian and European scholars have experienced difficulty in arriving at fitting interpretations for ?ta in all of its various usages in the Vedas, though the underlying sense of "ordered action" remains universally evident.
The Vedic period is held to have ended around 500 BCE. The period between 800 BCE and 200 BCE is the formative period for later Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. According to Michaels, the period between 500 BCE and 200 BCE is a time of "ascetic reformism". 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". Muesse discerns a longer period of change, namely between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, which he calls the "Classical Period", 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 period".
The hymn 10.85 of the Rigveda includes the Vivaha-sukta (above). Its recitation continues to be a part of Hindu wedding rituals.
Some scholars consider the term Brahmanism as synonymous with Hinduism and use it interchangeably. Others consider them different, and that the transition from ancient Brahmanism into schools of Hinduism that emerged later as a form of evolution, one that preserved many of the central ideas and theosophy in the Vedas, and synergistically integrated new ideas. Of the major traditions that emerged from Brahmanism are the six darshanas, particular the Vedanta, Samkhya and Yoga schools of Hinduism.
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."
According to David Knipe, some communities in India have preserved and continue to practice portions of the historical Vedic religion, such as in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh state of India and elsewhere. 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.
According to German Professor Axel Michaels, the Vedic gods declined but did not disappear, and local cults were assimilated into the Vedic-brahmanic pantheon, which changed into the Hindu pantheon. Deities such as Shiva and Vishnu became more prominent and gave rise to Shaivism and Vaishnavism.
Interpretations of Vedic Mantras in Hinduism
The various Hindu schools and traditions give various interpretations of the Vedic hymns.
M?ms? 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. M?ms? 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.
Indra? mitra? varu?amaghnim?huratho divya? sa supar?o gharutm?n,
eka? sad vipr? bahudh? vadantyaghni? yama? m?tari?v?nam?hu?
"They call him Indra, Mitra, Varu?a, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutm?n.
To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, M?tari?van".
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 vísi? yáta? ?babh?va / yádi v? dadhé yádi v? ná / yá? asya ádhyak?a? paramé vyóman / sá? a?gá veda yádi v? 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"
The non-Vedic ?rama?a traditions existed alongside Brahmanism.[note 10][note 11][note 12] These were not direct outgrowths of Vedism, but movements with mutual influences with Brahmanical traditions, reflecting "the cosmology and anthropology of a much older, pre-Aryan upper class of northeastern India". Jainism and Buddhism evolved out of the Shramana tradition.
There are Jaina references to 22 prehistoric tirthankaras. In this view, Jainism peaked at the time of Mahavira (traditionally put in the 6th Century BCE).Buddhism, traditionally put from c. 500 BCE, declined in India over the 5th to 12th centuries in favor of Puranic Hinduism and Islam.
According to the historian and Sanskrit linguist Michael Witzel, some of the rituals of the Kalash people have elements of the historical Vedic religion, but there are also some differences such as the presence of fire next to the altar instead of "in the altar" as in the Vedic religion.
^Scholars such as Jan Gonda have used the term ancient Hinduism, distinguishing it from "recent Hinduism". These terms are chronologically differentiated. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica from the Vedic religion emerged Brahmanism, a religious tradition of ancient India. It states, "Brahmanism emphasized the rites performed by, and the status of, the Brahman, or priestly, class as well as speculation about Brahman (the Absolute reality) as theorized in the Upanishads (speculative philosophical texts that are considered to be part of the Vedas, or scriptures)."
^Stephanie W. Jamison and Michael Witzel, Vedic Hinduism, 1992, "... to call this period Vedic Hinduism is a contradictio in terminis 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".
^Michaels: "They called themselves arya ("Aryans," literally "the hospitable," from the Vedic arya, "homey, the hospitable") but even in the Rgveda, arya denotes a cultural and linguistic boundary and not only a racial one."
^There is no exact dating possible for the beginning of the Vedic period. Witzel mentions a range between 1900 and 1400 BCE. Flood mentions 1500 BCE.
^The Aryan migration theory has been challenged by some researchers, due to a lack of archaeological evidence and signs of cultural continuity, hypothesizing instead a slow process of acculturation or transformation. Nevertheless, linguistic and archaeological data clearly show a cultural change after 1750 BCE, with the linguistic and religious data clearly showing links with Indo-European languages and religion. According to Singh, "The dominant view is that the Indo-Aryans came to the subcontinent as immigrants."
^The Indo-Aryans were pastoralists who migrated into north-western India after the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization,[note 5] bringing with them their language and religion. They were closely related to the Indo-Aryans who founded Mitanni kingdom in northern Syria (c.1500-1300 BCE). Both groups were rooted in the Andronovo-culture in the Bactria-Margiana era, in present northern Afghanistan, and related to the Indo-Iranians, from which they split-off around 1800-1600 BCE. Their roots go back further to the Sintashta culture, with funeral sacrifices which show close parallels to the sacrificial funeral rites of the Rig Veda. The immigrations consisted probably of small groups of people.Jonathan Mark Kenoyer notes that "there is no archaeological or biological evidence for invasions or mass migrations into the Indus Valley between the end of the Harappan phase, about 1900 B.C. and the beginning of the Early Historic period around 600 B.C."
For an overview of the current relevant research, see:
Shereen Ratnagar (2008), "The Aryan homeland debate in India", in Kohl, PL, M Kozelsky and N Ben-Yehuda (Eds) Selective remembrances: archaeology in the construction, commemoration, and consecration of national pasts, pp 349-378
Suraj Bhan (2002), "Aryanization of the Indus Civilization" in Panikkar, KN, Byres, TJ and Patnaik, U (Eds), The Making of History, pp 41-55.
Anthony, David W. (2007), The Horse The Wheel And Language. How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped The Modern World, Princeton University Press
^Some writers and archaeologists have opposed the notion of a migration of Indo-Aryans into India. Edwin Bryant used the term "Indo-Aryan Controversy" for an oversight of the Indo-Aryan Migration theory, and some of its opponents. These ideas are outside the academic mainstream. Mallory and Adams note that two types of models "enjoy significant international currency," namely the Anatolian hypothesis, and a migration out of the Eurasian steppes. According to Upinder Singh, "The original homeland of the Indo-Europeans and Indo-Aryans is the subject of continuing debate among philologists, linguists, historians, archaeologists, and others. The dominant view is that the Indo-Aryams came to the subcontinent as immigrants. Another view, advocated mainly by some Indian scholars, is that they were indigenous to the subcontinent."
An overview of the "Indigenist position" can be obtained from * Bryant, Edwin F.; Patton, Laurie L., eds. (2005), The Indo-Aryan Controversy: Evidence and inference in Indian history, London: Routledge, ISBN0-7007-1463-4
^See Kuz?mina (2007), The Origin of the Indo-Iranians, p.339, for an overview of publications up to 1997 on this subject.
^Up to the late 19th century, the Nuristanis of Afghanistan observed a primitive form of Hinduism until they were forcibly converted to Islam under the rule of Abdur Rahman Khan. However, aspects of the historical Vedic religion survived in other corners of the Indian subcontinent, such as Kerala, where the Nambudiri Brahmins continue the ancient ?rauta rituals. The Kalash people residing in northwest Pakistan also continue to practice a form of ancient Hinduism.
^Cromwell: "Alongside Brahmanism was the non-Aryan Shramanic culture with its roots going back to prehistoric times."
^Y. Masih (2000) In : A Comparative Study of Religions, Motilal Banarsidass Publ : Delhi, ISBN81-208-0815-0 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 [sic] the growth of even classical Hinduism of the present times."
^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"
^Vedic religion, Encyclopedia Britannica, Quote: "It [Vedic religion] takes its name from the collections of sacred texts known as the Vedas. Vedism is the oldest stratum of religious activity in India for which there exist written materials. It was one of the major traditions that shaped Hinduism."
^Jacques Maritain (2005). An Introduction to Philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 6-7 with footnote 1. ISBN978-0-7425-5053-7., Quote: "This [the primitive religion of the Vedas] resulted, after a period of confusion, in the formation of a new system, Brahmanism (or Hinduism), which is essentially a philosophy, a metaphysic, a work of human speculation, [...]; footnote 1: "[...] the neuter, Brahman, as the one impersonal substance."
^Oliver Leaman (2002). Eastern Philosophy: Key Readings. Routledge. pp. 64-65. ISBN978-1-134-68918-7., Quote: "The early Upanishads are primarily metaphysical treatises concerned with identifying the Brahman, the ground of the universe. [...] The essence of early Brahmanism is the search for the Absolute and its natural development is in Vedantin monism which claims that the soul is identical with the Absolute."
^Minahan, James B. (2014). Ethnic Groups of North, East, and Central Asia: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 205. ISBN9781610690188. Living in the high mountain valleys, the Nuristani retained their ancient culture and their religion, a form of ancient Hinduism with many customs and rituals developed locally. Certain deities were revered only by one tribe or community, but one deity was universally worshipped by all Nuristani as the Creator, the Hindu god Yama Raja, called imr'o or imra by the Nuristani tribes.
^Barrington, Nicholas; Kendrick, Joseph T.; Schlagintweit, Reinhard (18 April 2006). A Passage to Nuristan: Exploring the Mysterious Afghan Hinterland. I.B. Tauris. p. 111. ISBN9781845111755. Prominent sites include Hadda, near Jalalabad, but Buddhism never seems to have penetrated the remote valleys of Nuristan, where the people continued to practice an early form of polytheistic Hinduism.
^Weiss, Mitch; Maurer, Kevin (31 December 2012). No Way Out: A Story of Valor in the Mountains of Afghanistan. Berkley Caliber. p. 299. ISBN9780425253403. Up until the late nineteenth century, many Nuristanis practiced a primitive form of Hinduism. It was the last area in Afghanistan to convert to Islam--and the conversion was accomplished by the sword.
^West, Barbara A. (19 May 2010). Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania. Infobase Publishing. p. 357. ISBN9781438119137. The Kalasha are a unique people living in just three valleys near Chitral, Pakistan, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan. Unlike their neighbors in the Hindu Kush Mountains on both the Afghani and Pakistani sides of the border the Kalasha have not converted to Islam. During the mid-20th century a few Kalasha villages in Pakistan were forcibly converted to this dominant religion, but the people fought the conversion and once official pressure was removed the vast majority continued to practice their own religion. Their religion is a form of Hinduism that recognizes many gods and spirits ... given their Indo-Aryan language, ... the religion of the Kalasha is much more closely aligned to the Hinduism of their Indian neighbors that to the religion of Alexander the Great and his armies.
^R.D.Ranade (1926). A Constructive Survey of Upanishadic Philosophy. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. pp. 147-148. Quote: [...] in certain other places [of Rigveda], an approach is being made to the idea of Transmigration. [...] There we definitely know that the whole hymn is address to a departed spirit, and the poet [of the Rigvedic hymn] says that he is going to recall the departed soul in order that it may return again and live."
^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 [Ved?nta] is concerned with the end of the Vedas, both chronologically and teleologically."
^Johannes de Kruijf and Ajaya Sahoo (2014), Indian Transnationalism Online: New Perspectives on Diaspora, ISBN978-1-4724-1913-2, page 105, Quote: "In other words, according to Adi Shankara's argument, the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta stood over and above all other forms of Hinduism and encapsulated them. This then united Hinduism; (...) Another of Adi Shankara's important undertakings which contributed to the unification of Hinduism was his founding of a number of monastic centers."
^Sharma, Chandradhar (1962). "Chronological Summary of History of Indian Philosophy". Indian Philosophy: A Critical Survey. New York: Barnes & Noble. p. vi.
^Svarghese, Alexander P. 2008. India : History, Religion, Vision And Contribution To The World. p. 259-60.
^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."
^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."
^"Buddhism". (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 26 November 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition.
^P. 78 - 83 Freeing the Buddha: Diversity on a Sacred Path--large Scale Concerns By Brian Ruhe
^P. 110 A text book of the history of Therav?da Buddhism by K. T. S. Sarao, University of Delhi. Dept. of Buddhist Studies
^Witzel, Michael (2004), "Kalash Religion (extract from 'The ?gvedic Religious System and its Central Asian and Hindukush Antecedents, in A. Griffiths; J. E. M. Houben (eds.), The Vedas: Texts, Language and Ritual, Groningen: Forsten, pp. 581-636; see section 1.5.2
Anthony, David W. (2007), The Horse The Wheel And Language. How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped The Modern World, Princeton University Press