The Aryans, Ecstatic Visions, and the Fire Sacrifice


1.    Origins of Indian religions in two ancient cultural complexes:

a.    Indus valley civilization (c.2500 BCE to 1500 BCE)

b.    Aryan culture (developed during 2nd millenium BCE)

c.    Rigveda first written down (1500-1200 BCE)

2.    The Aryans: arya means “noble” or “honorable”

a.    Indo-European speaking > Vedic Sanskrit > Classical Sanskrit

b.    Nomadic, superior war technology (metalurgy, chariots, horses)

2.    Vedic Society

a.    The Purusa Sukta and the four classes (see Clothey for text)

                                     i.     Brahmans

                                    ii.     Kshatriyas

                                  iii.     Vaisyas

                                  iv.     Sudras

b.    The twice-born castes (upper three) access to the Vedic tradition

c.    Hierarchical organization based partly on purity

3.    Vedic Religion

a.    Rta: Cosmic Order

b.    Devas: Many supernatural beings – some more important than others; some related to natural phenomena, others not.

c.    Agni: pervades world as heat, identified with sacred cow, the sun, dawn, fire hidden in the stomach. Particularly the sacrificial fire.  Transports dead to realm of yama; transports and purifies all offerings to realm of the gods.

d.    Soma: link between human and divine, brings ecstasy and understanding of the divine realms.  Identified with Agni and with the moon, which contains ambrosia of immortality (amrita)

e.    Indra: empowered by soma, destroys obstacles with thunderbolt. Destruction of the snake Vritra

4.    Visionary and Sacrificial Dimensions

a.    Visionary: Rishis – “seers.” And soma.  Seeing beyond ordinary appearances.  Direct hearing (ri) of the ultimate truth and forces of the universe

b.    Sacrificial: Vedic Sacrifice

                                     i.     Acts and worship in the sacrifice have hidden ties with cosmic realities.

                                    ii.     The priest, by manipulating these tokens, can bring about desired effects in the outer world.  Priest knows secret correspondences between symbols in ritual and cosmic powers to which they refer.

5.    The growing centrality of the Fire Sacrifice

a.    At first: Sacrifice as link to gods, ensuring their divine influence over the order of the universe

b.    Gradually: Decreasing emphasis on the gods and increasing emphasis on efficacy of the ritual itself in securing cosmic order, based on the correspondences between the cosmos and the sacrifice



1.    Indra and Agni

2.    Rishi

3.    Rta

4.    Purusha Sukta

5.    The Varnas

6.    Shruti

7.    Soma

8.    Veda

9.    Samhitas