Early Veda: Gods, Priests and the Fire Sacrifice


Early Vedic Religion


1.    Agni Hotra – words of power, cosmic correspondences, divine-human connections

2.    Origins of Hinduism in two ancient cultural complexes:

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

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

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


3.    Two Dimensions of Early Vedic Religion: Sacrificial and Visionary

a.    Visionary dimension – Experiential

                                     i.     Rishis’ use of soma leading to unmediated vision of the divine

b.    Sacrificial dimension – Ritual

                                     i.     priestly, sacrificial cult centered on fire god Agni;

1.    Polytheistic

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


4.    Vedic Texts

a.    Revealed (shruti) in the visionary experiences of the rishis.

                                     i.     Transmitted first via oral traditions then via written traditions

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

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

5.    Cosmology and Cosmogony

a.    Cosmology – Notions of the world and its order

b.    Cosmogony – an account of the emergence or creation of world order

                                     i.     A creation myth answer the question “How did the world and its social and natural order come into being?”

                                    ii.     Purpose not just to fulfill people’s curiosity, to put them in touch with the sacred order or pattern that makes action meaningful

6.    Vedic Cosmology

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

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

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

a.    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.

b.    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)


7.    Vedic Cosmogonies

a.    Churning of the Cosmic Ocean

b.    The Purusa Sukta and the four classes (see Fisher) – found in the earliest Vedic text, the Rigveda

                                     i.     The twice-born castes (upper three) access to the vedic tradition; subjugation of Dravidians into a fourth caste: Priests (Brahamanas), warriors and rulers, agriculturalists and merchants, servants

                                    ii.     An Aryan ideal, a formula of society



1.    Veda

2.    Aryans

3.    Cosmology

4.    Cosmogony

5.    Rigveda

6.    Purusha Sukta

7.    The four castes