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Rig Veda

Hindu texts

The Rig Veda ऋग्वेद (Sanskrit ṛc 'praise' + veda 'knowledge') is the earliest of the four Hindu religious scriptures known as the Vedas. It consists of 1,017 hymns (1,028 including the apocryphal valakhilya hymns 8.49–8.59) composed in Vedic Sanskrit, many of which are intended for various sacrifical rituals. These are contained in 10 books, known as Mandalas. This long collection of short hymns is mostly devoted to the praise of the gods. However, it also contains fragmentary references to historical events, notably the struggle between the early Vedic people (known as Aryans) and their enemies, the Dasa.

The chief gods of the Rig-Veda are Agni, the sacrificial fire, Indra, a heroic god that is praised for having slain his enemy Vrtra, and Soma, the sacred potion, or the plant it is made from. Other prominent gods are Mitra, Varuna and Ushas (the dawn). Also invoked are Savitar, Vishnu, Rudra, Pushan, Brihaspati, Brahmanaspati, Dyaus Pita (the sky), Prithivi (the earth), Surya (the sun), Vac (the word), Vayu (the wind), the Maruts, the Asvins, the Adityas, the Rbhus, the Vishvadevas (the all-gods) as well as various further minor gods, persons, concepts, phenomena and items.

Some of the names of gods and goddesses found in the Rig-Veda are found amongst other Indo-European peoples as well: Dyaus is cognate with Greek Zeus, Latin Jupiter, and Germanic Tyr, while Mitra is cognate with Persian Mithra and Ushas with Greek Eos, Latin Aurora and, less certainly, Varuna with Greek Uranos. Finally, Agni is cognate with Latin ignis "fire".

Table of contents

The Text

Hermann Grassmann has numbered the hymns 1 through to 1028, putting the valakhilya at the end. The more common numbering scheme is by book, hymn and verse (and pada (foot) a, b, c ..., if required). E. g. the first pada is

  • 1.1.1a agním īḷe puróhitaṃ "Agni I laud, the high priest"

and the final pada is

  • 10.191.4d yáthāḥ vaḥ súsahā́sati "for your being in good company"

From the time of its compilation, the text has been handed down in two versions: The Samhitapatha has all Sanskrit rules of Sandhi applied and is the text used for recitation. The Padapatha has each word isolated in its pausa form and is used for memorization. The Padapatha is, as it were, a commentary to the Samhitapatha, but the two seem to be about co-eval. The 'original' text as reconstructed on metrical grounds lies somewhere between the two, but closer to the Samhitapatha ('original' in the sense that it aims to recover the hymns in the form of their composition by the poets (Rishis)).

The Rig-Veda has been translated into English by Ralph T.H. Griffith in 1896. Other (partial) translations by Maurice Bloomfield and William Dwight Whitney.

Linguistic (as well as content-related) evidence suggests that books 2–7 are older than the remaining books. Books 1 and 10 are considered the most recent.

Rigveda manuscript in Devanagari, early 19th century
  • Book 1
191 hymns. Hymn 1.1 is addressed to Agni, arranged so that the name of this god is the first word of the Rig-Veda. The remaining hymns are mainly addressed to Agni and Indra. Hymns 1.154 to 1.156 are addressed to (the later Hindu god) Vishnu.
  • Book 2
43 hymns, mainly to Agni and Indra chiefly attributed to the Rishi gṛtsamda shaunohotra.
  • Book 3
62 hymns, mainly to Agni and Indra. The verse 3.62.10 gained great importance in Hinduism as the Gayatri Mantra.

Most hymns in this book are attributed to vishvāmitra gāthinaḥ

  • Book 4
58 hymns, mainly to Agni and Indra.

Most hymns in this book are attributed to vāmadeva gautama

  • Book 5
87 hymns, mainly to Agni and Indra, the Visvadevas, the Maruts, the twin-deity Mitra-Varuna and the Asvins. Two hymns each are dedicated to Ushas (the dawn) and to Savitar.

Most hymns in this book are attributed to the atri family

  • Book 6
75 hymns, mainly to Agni and Indra.

Most hymns in this book are attributed to the bārhaspatya family of Añgirasas.

  • Book 7
104 hymns, to Agni, Indra, the Visvadevas, the Maruts, Mitra-Varuna, the Asvins, Ushas, Indra-Varuna, Varuna, Vayu (the wind), two each to Sarasvati and Vishnu, and to others.

Most hymns in this book are attributed to vasiṣṭha maitravaurṇi

  • Book 8
103 hymns, mixed gods. Hymns 8.49 to 8.59 are the apocryphal valakhilya, the majority of them are devoted to Indra.

Most hymns in this book are attributed to the kāṇva family

  • Book 9
114 hymns, entirely devoted to Soma Pavamana, the plant of the sacred potion of the Vedic religion.
  • Book 10
191 hymns, to Agni and other gods. In the west, probably the most celebrated hymns are 10.129 and 10.130 dealing with creation, especially 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. (Griffith)
These hymns exhibit a level of philosophical speculation very untypical for the Rig-Veda, which for the most part is occupied with ritualistic invocation.

The Rig-Veda is preserved by two major shakhas ('branches', i. e. schools or recensions), Shakala and Bashakala. Considering its great age, the text is spectacularly well preserved and uncorrupted, so that scientific editions can mostly do without a critical apparatus.

Associated to Shakala is the Aitareya-Brahmana. The Bashakala includes the Khilani and has the Kausitaki-Brahmana associated to it.

Internal Evidence

Its first notable western student, Max Müller considered the Rig-Veda to be the only 'real' Veda; he argued that the others (particularly the Yajur-Veda and Sama-Veda) were little more than elaborations, paraphrases and quotations of its text. For this reason the Rig-Veda Samhita (i.e. the basic text of the Rig-Veda) is of particular historical as well as religious interest. It records a very early stage in the evolution of Hinduism sometimes referred to as the 'Vedic' or Aryan stage of the religion, which is closely tied to the pre-Zoroastrian Persian religion. It is thought that Zoroastrianism and Vedic Hinduism evolved from an earlier common religious culture.

Scholars standardly date the Rig-Veda to the 2nd millennium BC on grounds of its references to late bronze age culture (horse-drawn chariots; mostly bronze, but some iron weapons) and to the assumption that Vedic culture post-dates the Indus Valley Civilisation. It is commonly held to have been completed between 1500 BC and 1200 BC.

Nevertheless the hymns were certainly composed over a long period – several hundred years at least. Some, mostly Indian, writers have used astronomical references in the Rig-Veda to date it to the third and even the 4th millennium BC.

Native Tradition

According to Indian tradition, the Rig-Vedic hymns were collected by Paila under the guidance of Vyasa, who formed the Rig-Veda Samhita as we know it. According to the Shatapatha Brahmana, the number of syllables in the Rigveda is 432,000, equalling the number of muhurtas (1 day = 30 muhurtas) in forty years. This statement stresses the underlying philosophy of the Vedic books that there is a connection (bandhu) between the astronomical, the physiological, and the spiritual.

The authors of the Brahmana literature described and interpreted the Rigvedic ritual. Yaska was an early commentator of the Rig-Veda. In the 14th century, Sayana wrote an exhaustive commentary on it.

More Recent Indian Views

Generally speaking, the Indian perception of the Rig-Veda has moved away from the original ritualistic content to a more symbolic or mystical interpretation. For example, instances of animal sacrifice are not seen as literal slaughtering but as transcendental processes. The Rigvedic view is seen to consider the universe to be infinite in size, dividing knowledge into two categories: lower (related to objects, beset with paradoxes) and higher (related to the perceiving subject, free of paradoxes).

Swami Dayananda, who started the Arya Samaj and Sri Aurobindo have emphasized a spiritual (adhyatimic) interpretation of the book. Subhash Kak has claimed that there is an astronomical code in the organization of the hymns. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, based on alleged astronomical alignments in the Rig-Veda, even went as far as to claim that the Aryans originated on the North Pole.

The Sarasvati river, lauded in the hymns as the greatest river flowing from the mountain to the sea is sometimes equated with the Ghaggar-Hakra river, which went dry perhaps before 2600 BC or certainly before 1900 BC. Others argue that the Sarasvati was originally a river in Afghanistan. These questions are tied to the debate about the Aryan invasion theory vs. the claim that Vedic culture originated in the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Bibliography

External links

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Rig Veda

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