Vedic religion

Historical Vedic religion

This article discusses the historical religious practices in the Vedic time period; see Hinduism and Indian religions for details of continued religious practices. See Śrauta for the continuing practice of performance of rituals by an oral passing of hymns/chants through generations.

The religion of the Vedic period (also known as Vedism or Vedic Brahmanism or, in a context of Indian antiquity, simply Brahmanism) is the historical predecessor of Hinduism. Its liturgy is reflected in the Mantra portion of the four Vedas, which are compiled in Sanskrit. The religious practices centered on a clergy administering rites that often involved sacrifices. This mode of worship is largely unchanged today within Hinduism; however, only a small fraction of conservative Shrautins continue the tradition of oral recitation of hymns learned solely through the oral tradition.

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 shrauta 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" (shruti 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. However, the Rigvedic hymns clearly speak about composing new hymns by individual authors who were in competition with their colleagues and looked for "payment" by local chieftains.

The mode of worship was worship of the elements like fire and rivers, worship of heroic gods like Indra (quite similar to the Greek religion), chanting of hymns and performance of sacrifices. The priests performed the solemn rituals for the noblemen (Kshsatriya) and some wealthy 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.

Elements of Vedic religion reach back into Proto-Indo-Iranian times. The Vedic period is held to have ended around 500 BC, Vedic religion gradually metamorphosizing into the various schools of Hinduism, which further evolved into Puranic Hinduism. Vedic religion also influenced Buddhism and Jainism.


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

The Ashvamedha (horse sacrifice) has parallels in the 2nd millennium BC Sintashta and Andronovo culture as well as in Rome (October horse) and medieval Ireland. In India it was allegedly continued until the 4th and even the 18th century CE (Jaya Singh at Jaipur). The practice of vegetarianism may already have arisen in late Vedic times. Although in the Rigveda, the cow's description as aghnya (that which should not be killed) may refer to poetry, it is certain to be reflective of the social practice as were other practices like rituals and deity worship. Incipient change to contemporary vegetarianism is seen as early as the late Brahmanas and Upanishads and may have continued under the influence of Jainism and possibly of Buddhism. Buddhism emerged out of a cultural strand distinct from Vedic thought.

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


The Vedic pantheon, similar to its Greek, Slavic or Germanic counterparts, comprises clans of anthropomorphic deities as well as deified natural phenomena, and like the Germanic Vanir and Aesir it knows two classes of gods, Devas and Asuras. The Asuras (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.

Monistic tendencies

In the view of some, the Rigveda, in its youngest books (books 1 and 10) contains hymns for monistic thought that however need to be interpreted in the context of the individual hymn. Often quoted are pada 1.164.46c,

"To what is One, sages give many a title" (trans. Griffith)
and hymns 10.129 and 10.130, dealing with a creator deity, especially verse 10.129.7:
"He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it, / Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not." (trans. Griffith)

in 1.164.46c means "being one". Such concepts received greater emphasis in classical Hinduism, from the time of Adi Shankara at the latest, and they receive emphasis in contemporary Hinduism from pantheistic sects like Arya Samaj.

Post-Vedic religions

Vedic religion was gradually formalized and concluded into Vedanta, which is the primary institution of Hinduism. Vedanta considers itself the 'essence' of the Vedas. The Vedic pantheon was interpreted by a unitary view of the universe with Brahman seen as immanent and transcendent, since the Middle Upanishads also in personal forms of the deity as Ishvara, Bhagavan, or Paramatma. There are also conservative schools which continue portions of the historical Vedic religion largely unchanged until today (see Śrauta, Nambudiri).

During the formative centuries of Vedanta, traditions that opposed Vedanta and which supported the same, emerged. These were the nastika and astika respectively.

Vedic Brahmanism of Iron Age India co-existed and closely interacted with the non-Vedic (nastika) Shramana traditions. These were not direct outgrowths of Vedism, but separate movements influenced by Brahmanical traditions.

  • Jainism, from the 6th century BC
  • Buddhism, from ca. 500 BC; declined in India over the 8th to 12th centuries in favour of Puranic Hinduism.


See also

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