Early Vedic Tradition: Aryan Worldview and Society


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

a.     Indus valley civilization (reaches it peak around 2900 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: A cosmogony -- explanation of how things got started; tell us something about the living nature of the world and the four classes

                                      i.     Emphasis on sacrifice as the original means of creation

                                    ii.     Four Varnas (Aryan ideal of society)

1.    Brahmans

2.    Kshatriyas

3.    Vaisyas

4.    Sudras

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

c.     Hierarchical organization based partly on purity

d.    Complementary organization based on division of labor

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.    The Vedic Texts

a.     Sruti and Smrti: two categories of sacred text

                                      i.     Sruti: Directly revealed

                                    ii.     All Vedic texts are sruti

b.    (Smrti: Divinely inspired)

5.    Four categories of Veda: The first two constitute what we are calling “early veda,” the second are “late veda.”

c.     Samhitas – four of them.

                                      i.     Rigveda: hymns of praise (ric).  1028 hymns, ten divisions or books.  Composed in Sanskrit, early as 1200 BCE.

                                    ii.     Samaveda: collections of songs (samans) based on Rigveda with instruction on recitation

                                   iii.     Yajur Veda (white and black): incantations (yajuses) and verse recited during ceremony, declaring purpose and meaning of each act.

                                  iv.     .Artharvaveda (Artharvans, medical practitioners): hymns and incantation for spells and magic formulas  Ritual function: mantra (verses used in liturgy)

d.    Each Samhita constitutes a branch (shakha) to which all subsequent Vedic texts attach


6.    Brahmanas – Exegetical text focusing on the meaning of the mantras and ritual prescriptions in the Samhitas.  Increasingly speculative