Early Vedas and the Fire Sacrifice


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

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

a.      Nomadic, superior war technology (metallurgy, chariots, horses)

2.     Two theories

a.      The Aryan migration thesis: incursions and dominance

b.     The cultural transformation thesis: Aryan culture as a development of Indus valley culture

3.     Vedic religion: polytheistic;

a.      Visionary dimension -- rishi and soma; unmediated vision of the divine

b.     Sacrificial dimension -- priestly, sacrificial cult centered on fire god Agni;

                                                  i.      Humans and gods partners in maintaining ongoing creative processes of the world

4.     Vedic Texts

a.      Shruti and Smrti: heard and remembered

b.     From oral traditions to text

                                                  i.      System of double-checking – texts learned twice (recitation with sandhi, without sandhi)

c.     Ritual function: mantra (verses used in liturgy) and brahmana (ritual exegesis)

d.     Two uses of the word “veda”:  whole body of revealed texts; earliest layers of vedic literature (samhita).  Veda = cognate of English “wisdom” or “wit”

                                                  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.      Atharvaveda (Atharvans, medical practitioners): hymns and incantations for spells and magic formulas

e.      Branches (sakhas): samhitas to exegesis to speculation

f.       Dating: Rig 1200BCE - Upanishads 600-300 BCE

5.     Vedic Mythology and Theology

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

                                                  i.      Devas: Rg Veda: various hymns of praise, few narrative accounts. Born from Prajapati (Sat B. lord of creatures)

                                                ii.      Asuras (demons, anti-gods): sacrificial offerings to themselves; devas to each other, accept ritual offerings and in return offer help or just stay away

                                              iii.      Cf. Rakshasas: trashy, people-eating demons on earth

b.     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.

c.     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)

d.     Indra: empowered by soma, destroys obstacles with thunderbolt. Destruction of snake Vritra – cosmic chaos, guardian of waters

e.      Triloka:  Netherworld, earth; heaven (Early: Heaven, atmosphere, earth)

6.     Vedic Ritual

a.      Sacrifice and sharing of sacrificial meal with each other and with devas (supernatural beings of many types)

                                                  i.      Sacrifice – homa, yajna.  Not just immolation of animals; any offering into the sacrificial fire, notably milk, ghi, curds, grains, soma, animals.  Offering transported through the fire to devas

b.     Two kinds of ritual: srauta (public rites) and grhya (domestic and life cycle rites)

c.     Soma and soma sacrifice

                                                  i.      Elaborate preparation; mountainside or deserts of Iran; later substitutes. Hallucinogenic, exalted states, visions. Embedded in other rituals: horse sacrifice (asvamedha), consecration of king (rajasuya)

7.     Growing importance of priest and ritual, lessening importance of gods.  Acts and worship of the sacrifice have hidden ties with cosmic realities  the priest, by manipulating these token, can bring about desired effects in the outer world.  Priest knows  secret correspondences between symbols in ritual and cosmic powers to which they refer

a.      Fire = moon, power over the fire gives one power over the moon.  Moon marks off life of patron; priest extends life of patron

b.     Words themselves have an awesome effect on the outer world




1.     Aryan

2.     samhitas (all four)

3.     rishi

4.     agni

5.     devas

6.     asuras

7.     rakshasa

8.     soma

9.     varuna

10.  Indra

11. Shruti

12. Veda