Historical Vedic religion

Map of North India in the late Vedic period. The location of shakhas is labeled in green; the Thar Desert is dark yellow.

The religion of the Vedic period (also known as Vedism, ancient Hinduism, Brahmanism and Vedic Brahmanism[note 1]) was the religion of the Indo-Aryans of northern India.[5] It is a historical predecessor of modern Hinduism, though significantly different from it.[note 2]

The Vedic liturgy is conserved in the mantra portion of the four Vedas,[6] which are compiled in Sanskrit. The religious practices centered on a clergy administering rites.[7] The complex Vedic rituals of Śrauta continue in coastal Andhra.[8]

Scholars consider Vedic religion to have been a composite of the religions of the Indo-Aryans who migrated to the Indian subcontinent and the native Harappan culture of the Indus Valley.[9]


The commonly proposed period of earlier Vedic age is dated back to 2nd millennium BCE.[10] The Vedic religion was the religion of the Indo-Aryans,[11][note 3] and existed in northern India from c. 1750 to 500 BCE.[13][note 4] The Indo-Aryans were a branch of the Indo-European language family, which originated in the Kurgan culture of the Central Asian steppes.[16][note 5] bringing with them their language[22] and religion.[23][24] They were closely related to the Indo-Aryans who founded Mitanni kingdom in northern Syria[25] (ca.1500-1300 BCE). Both groups were rooted in the Andronovo-culture[26] in the Bactria-Margiana era, in present northern Afghanistan,[25] and related to the Indo-Iranians, from which they split-off around 1800-1600 BCE.[27] Their roots go back further to the Sintashta culture, with funeral sacrifices which show close parallels to the sacrificial funeral rites of the Rig Veda.[28]
The immigrations consisted probably of small groups of people.[16] Jonathan Mark Kenoyer notes that "there is no archaeological or biological evidence for invasions or mass migrations into the Indus Valley between the end of the Harappan phase, about 1900 B.C. and the beginning of the Early Historic period around 600 B.C."[29]

For an overview of the current relevant research, see:

The Vedic beliefs and practices of the pre-classical era were closely related to the hypothesised Proto-Indo-European religion,[34][35] and the Indo-Iranian religion.[36] According to Anthony, the Old Indic religion probably emerged among Indo-European immigrants in the contact zone between the Zeravshan River (present-day Uzbekistan) and (present-day) Iran.[37] It was "a syncretic mixture of old Central Asian and new Indo-European elements",[37] which borrowed "distinctive religious beliefs and practices"[38] from the Bactria–Margiana Culture.[38] At least 383 non-Indo-European words were borrowed from this culture, including the god Indra and the ritual drink Soma.[39] According to Anthony,

Many of the qualities of Indo-Iranian god of might/victory, Verethraghna, were transferred to the adopted god Indra, who became the central deity of the developing Old Indic culture. Indra was the subject of 250 hymns, a quarter of the Rig Veda. He was associated more than any other deity with Soma, a stimulant drug (perhaps derived from Ephedra) probably borrowed from the BMAC religion. His rise to prominence was a peculiar trait of the Old Indic speakers.[25]

The oldest inscriptions in Old Indic, the language of the Rig Veda, are found not in northwestern India and Pakistan, but in northern Syria, the location of the Mitanni kingdom.[40] The Mitanni kings took Old Indic throne names, and Old Indic technical terms were used for horse-riding and chariot-driving.[40] The Old Indic term r'ta, meaning "cosmic order and truth", the central concept of the Rig Veda, was also employed in the Mitanni kingdom.[40] Old Indic gods, including Indra, were also known in the Mitanni kingdom.[41][42][43]

The Vedic religion of the later Vedic period co-existed with local religions, such as the Yaksha cults,[5][44][web 1] and was itself the product of "a composite of the Indo-Aryan and Harappan cultures and civilizations".[45] David Gordon White cites three other mainstream scholars who "have emphatically demonstrated" that Vedic religion is partially derived from the Indus Valley Civilizations.[9] The religion of the Indo-Aryans was further developed when they migrated into the Ganges Plain after c. 1100 BCE and became settled farmers,[17][46][47] further syncretising with the native cultures of northern India.[5]

Textual history

Texts dating to the Vedic period, composed in Vedic Sanskrit, are mainly the four Vedic Samhitas, but the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and some of the older Upanishads (Bṛhadāraṇyaka, Chāndogya, Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana) are also placed in this period. The Vedas record the liturgy connected with the rituals and sacrifices performed by the 16 or 17 Śrauta priests and the purohitas. According to traditional views, the hymns of the Rigveda and other Vedic hymns were divinely revealed to the rishis, who were considered to be seers or "hearers" (Śruti means "what is heard") of the Veda, rather than "authors". In addition the Vedas are said to be "apauraṣaya", a Sanskrit word meaning "uncreated by man" and which further reveals their eternal non-changing status.



Main articles: Yajurveda and yajna
A Śrauta yajna being performed in South India.

The mode of worship was worship of the elements like fire and rivers, worship of heroic gods like Indra, chanting of hymns and performance of sacrifices. The priests performed the solemn rituals for the noblemen (Kshatriyas) and wealthy commoners Vaishyas. People prayed for abundance of children, rain, cattle (wealth), long life and an afterlife in the heavenly world of the ancestors. This mode of worship has been preserved even today in Hinduism, which involves recitations from the Vedas by a purohita (priest), for prosperity, wealth and general well-being. However, the primacy of Vedic deities has been seconded to the deities of Puranic literature.

Specific rituals and sacrifices of the Vedic religion include, among others:[48]

The Hindu rites of cremation are seen since the Rigvedic period; while they are attested from early times in the Cemetery H culture, there is a late Rigvedic reference invoking forefathers "both cremated (agnidagdhá-) and uncremated (ánagnidagdha-)".(RV 10.15.14)[51][52]


Main article: Rigvedic deities

Though a large number of devatas are named in the Rig Veda, only 33 devas are counted, eleven each of earth, space and heaven.[53] The Vedic pantheon knows two classes, Devas and Asuras. The Devas (Mitra, Varuna, Aryaman, Bhaga, Amsa, etc.) are deities of cosmic and social order, from the universe and kingdoms down to the individual. The Rigveda is a collection of hymns to various deities, most notably heroic Indra, Agni the sacrificial fire and messenger of the gods, and Soma, the deified sacred drink of the Indo-Iranians.[54] Also prominent is Varuna (often paired with Mitra) and the group of "All-gods", the Vishvadevas.[55]


See also philosophers of Vedic age

Vedic philosophy primarily begins with the later part of the Rigveda, which was compiled before 1100 BCE.[56] Most of the philosophy of the Rigveda is contained in the sections Purusha sukta and Nasadiya sukta.[57]

Major philosophers of this era were Rishis Narayana, Kanva, Rishaba, Vamadeva, and Angiras.[58]

Ethics — satya and rta

See also: Asha

Ethics in the Vedas are based on the concepts of satya and ṛta. Satya is the principle of integration rooted in the Absolute,[59] whereas ṛta is the expression of satya, which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it.[60] Panikkar remarks:

Ṛta is the ultimate foundation of everything; it is "the supreme", although this is not to be understood in a static sense [...] It is the expression of the primordial dynamism that is inherent in everything...."[61]

The term is inherited from the Proto-Indo-Iranian religion, the religion of the Indo-Iranian peoples prior to the earliest Vedic (Indo-Aryan) and Zoroastrian (Iranian) scriptures. Asha (aša) is the Avestan language term (corresponding to Vedic Sanskrit ṛta) for a concept of cardinal importance[62] to Zoroastrian theology and doctrine.

Conformity with ṛta would enable progress whereas its violation would lead to punishment. The term Dharma was already used in Brahmanical thought, where it was conceived as an aspect of ṛta.[63]

The concept of yajñā "sacrifice" is also enunciated in the Purusha Sukta, where reaching the Absolute itself is considered a transcendent sacrifice when viewed from the point of view of the individual.[64]

Post-Vedic religions

The Vedic period is held to have ended around 500 BC. The period after the Vedic religion, between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, is the formative period for Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.[2][3][4][65] According to Michaels, the period between 500 BCE and 200 BCE is a time of "ascetic reformism".[66][note 8] Muesse discerns a longer period of change, namely between 800 BCE and 200 BCE, which he calls the "Classical Period":

...this was a time when traditional religious practices and beliefs were reassessed. The brahmins and the rituals they performed no longer enjoyed the same prestige they had in the Vedic period".[68]

According to Muesse, some of the fundamental concepts of Hinduism, namely karma, reincarnation and "personal enlightenment and transformation", which did not exist in the Vedic religion, developed between 800 BCE and 200 BCE:[4][note 9]

Indian philosophers came to regard the human as an immortal soul encased in a perishable body and bound by action, or karma, to a cycle of endless existences.[70]

The Vedic religion gradually metamorphosed into the various schools of Hinduism, which further evolved into Puranic Hinduism.[71] However aspects of the historical Vedic religion survived in corners of the Indian subcontinent, such as Kerala where the Nambudiri Brahmins continue the ancient Śrauta rituals, which are considered extinct in all other parts.

Post-Vedic Hinduism

Main articles: Hinduism and History of Hinduism

The Hindu samskaras

...go back to a hoary antiquity. The Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Grhyasutras, the Dharmasutras, the Smritis and other treatises describe the rites, ceremonies and customs.[72]

The worshipping rituals developed in such a way that

A formal distinction was maintained between Śrauta rites (rites using the Vedic hymns), which were necessarily performed by priests, and Griha ("domestic") rites, performed by the Aryan householder himself; but both the latter and the former were subject to priestly influence. Some domestic rites became almost indistinguishable from the priestly Śrauta sacrifices; and, even where older ceremonies were retained, they were usually interwoven with elements of the priestly ritual.[73]


Vedic religion was followed by Upanishads which gradually evolved into Vedanta, which is regarded by some as the primary institution of Hinduism. Vedanta considers itself "the purpose or goal [end] of the Vedas."[74] The philosophy of Vedanta (lit. “The end of the Vedas"), transformed the Vedic worldview to monistic one. This led to the development of tantric metaphysics and gave rise to new forms of yoga, such as jnana yoga and bhakti yoga.[75] There are some conservative schools which continue portions of the historical Vedic religion largely unchanged. (see Śrauta, Nambudiri).[76]

Of the continuation of the Vedic tradition in a newer sense, Jeaneane D. Fowler writes the following:

Despite the radically different nature of the Upanishads in relation to the Vedas it has to be remembered that the material of both form the Veda or "knowledge" which is sruti literature. So the Upanishads develop the ideas of the Vedas beyond their ritual formalism and should not be seen as isolated from them. The fact that the Vedas that are more particularly emphasized in the Vedanta: the efficacy of the Vedic ritual is not rejected, it is just that there is a search for the Reality that informs it.[77]


The Vedic gods declined[78] but did not disappear, and local cults were assimilated into the Vedic-brahmanic pantheon, which changed into the Hindu pantheon.[79] Deities arose that were not mentioned or barely mentioned in the Veda, especially Shiva and Vishnu,[78] and gave rise to Shaivism and Vaishnavism.[78]

Interpretations of Vedic Mantras in Hinduism

The various Hindu schools and traditions give various interpretations of the Vedic hymns.

Mīmāṃsā philosophers argue that there was no need to postulate a maker for the world, just as there was no need for an author to compose the Vedas or a god to validate the rituals.[80] Mīmāṃsā argues that the gods named in the Vedas have no existence apart from the mantras that speak their names. To that regard, the power of the mantras is what is seen as the power of gods.[81]

Adi Shankara, an 8th-century CE philosopher who unified and established the main currents of thought in Hinduism,[82] interpreted Vedas as being nondualist or monist.[83] However, the Arya Samaj New religious movement holds the view that the Vedic mantras tend to monotheism.[84] Even the earlier Mandalas of Rig Veda (books 1 and 9) contains hymns which are thought to resemble monotheism.[85] Often quoted isolated pada 1.164.46 of the Rig Veda states (trans. Griffith):

Indraṃ mitraṃ varuṇamaghnimāhuratho divyaḥ sa suparṇo gharutmān,
ekaṃ sad viprā bahudhā vadantyaghniṃ yamaṃ mātariśvānamāhuḥ
"They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutmān.
To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan".

Moreover, the verses of 10.129 and 10.130, deal with the one being (Ékam sát). The verse 10.129.7 further confirms this (trans. Griffith):

iyám vísṛṣṭiḥ yátaḥ ābabhūva / yádi vā dadhé yádi vā ná / yáḥ asya ádhyakṣaḥ paramé vyóman / sáḥ aṅgá veda yádi vā ná véda
"He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not, He who surveys it all from his highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps even he does not"

Sramana tradition

Main articles: Śramaṇa, Jainism, and Buddhism

The non-Vedic śramaṇa traditions existed alongside Brahmanism.[86][87][note 10][note 11][note 12] These were not direct outgrowths of Vedism, but movements with mutual influences with Brahmanical traditions,[86] reflecting "the cosmology and anthropology of a much older, pre-Aryan upper class of northeastern India".[88] Jainism and Buddhism evolved out of the Shramana tradition.[89]

There are Jaina references to 22 prehistoric tirthankaras. In this view, Jainism peaked at the time of Mahavira (traditionally put in the 6th Century BCE).[90][91] Buddhism, traditionally put from c. 500 BCE, declined in India over the 5th to 12th centuries in favor of Puranic Hinduism[92] and Islam.[93][94]

See also

Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Brahmanism.


  1. The term ancient Hinduism is also applied, but not appropriate. In the 19th century the term "Hinduism" was restricted to "living Hinduism", with its emphasis on Bhakti.[1] Under the influence of the Neo-Hinduistic reform movements, which emphasised the Vedic heritage, and the growing awareness of the continuity of certain elements, the term "ancient Hinduism" has been applied by some to the Vedic period.[1] Nevertheless, the period between 800 BCE and 200 BCE sees fundamental changes, which result in "Hinduism".[2][3][4] Other incorrect terms are Brahmanism and Vedic Brahmanism. The Encyclopædia Britannica of 2005 uses all of "Vedism", "Vedic Brahmanism" and "Brahmanism", but reserves "Vedism" for the earliest stage, predating the Brahmana period, and defines "Brahmanism" as "religion of ancient India that evolved out of Vedism. It takes its name both from the predominant position of its priestly class, the Brahmans, and from the increasing speculation about, and importance given to, Brahman, the supreme power."
  2. Stephanie W. Jamison and Michael Witzel, Vedic Hinduism, 1992, "... to call this period Vedic Hinduism is a contradiction in terms since Vedic religion is very different from what we generally call Hindu religion – at least as much as Old Hebrew religion is from medieval and modern Christian religion. However, Vedic religion is treatable as a predecessor of Hinduism".
  3. Michaels: "They called themselves arya ("Aryans," literally "the hospitable," from the Vedic arya, "homey, the hospitable") but even in the Rgveda, arya denotes a cultural and linguistic boundary and not only a racial one."[12]
  4. There is no exact dating possible for the beginning of the Vedic period. Witzel mentions a range between 1900 and 1400 BCE.[14] Flood mentions 1500 BCE.[15]
  5. The Indo-Aryans were pastoralists[17] who migrated into north-western India after the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization,[12][18][19][note 6]
  6. The Aryan migration theory has been challenged by some researchers,[12][20] due to a lack of archaeological evidence and signs of cultural continuity,[12] hypothesizing instead a slow process of acculturation[12] or transformation.[18] Nevertheless, linguistic and archaeological data clearly show a cultural change after 1750 BCE,[12] with the linguistic and religious data clearly showing links with Indo-European languages and religion.[21] According to Singh, "The dominant view is that the Indo-Aryams came to the subcontinent as immigrants."<ref name='FOOTNOTESingh2008186'>Singh 2008, p. 186.
  7. Some writers and archaeologists have opposed the notion of a migration of Indo-Aryans into India.[30][31] Edwin Bryant used the term "Indo-Aryan Controversy" for an oversight of the Indo-Aryan Migration theory, and some of its opponents.[32] These ideas are outside the academic mainstream. Mallory and Adams note that two types of models "enjoy significant international currency," namely the Anatolian hypothesis, and a migration out of the Eurasian steppes.[33] According to Upinder Singh, "The original homeland of the Indo-Europeans and Indo-Aryans is the subject of continuing debate among philologists, linguists, historians, archaeologists and others. The dominant view is that the Indo-Aryams came to the subcontinent as immigrants. Another view, advocated mainly by some Indian scholars, is that they were indigenous to the subcontinent."[20]

    An overview of the "Indigenist position" can be obtained from
    * Bryant, Edwin F.; Patton, Laurie L., eds. (2005), The Indo-Aryan Controversy: Evidence and inference in Indian history, London: Routledge, ISBN 0-7007-1463-4

    See also Indigenous Aryans
  8. According to Michaels, the period between 200 BCE and 1100 CE is the time of "classical Hinduism", since there is "a turning point between the Vedic religion and Hindu religions".[67]
  9. Although the concept of reincarnation originated during the time of the Shramanic reforms and the composition of the Upanishads,[4] according to Georg Feuerstein the Rig-Vedic rishis believed in reincarnation and karma.[69]
  10. Cromwell: "Alongside Brahmanism was the non-Aryan Shramanic culture with its roots going back to prehistoric times."[86]
  11. Y. Masih (2000) In : A Comparative Study of Religions, Motilal Banarsidass Publ : Delhi, ISBN 81-208-0815-0 Page 18. "There is no evidence to show that Jainism and Buddhism ever subscribed to Vedic sacrifices, vedic deities or caste. They are parallel or native religions of India and have contributed to much to the growth of even classical Hinduism of the present times."
  12. P.S. Jaini, (1979), The Jaina Path to Purification, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, p. 169 "Jainas themselves have no memory of a time when they fell within the Vedic fold. Any theory that attempts to link the two traditions, moreover fails to appreciate rather distinctive and very non-Vedic character of Jaina cosmology, soul theory, karmic doctrine and atheism"



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  2. 1 2 Smart 2003.
  3. 1 2 Michaels 2004.
  4. 1 2 3 4 Muesse 2003.
  5. 1 2 3 Samuel 2010.
  6. "The Four Vedas". About dot Com. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  7. Geoffrey Samuel. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge University. p. 113.
  8. Knipe 2015, p. 1-50.
  9. 1 2 White, David Gordon (2003). Kiss of the Yogini. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 28. ISBN 0-226-89483-5.
  10. Pletcher, Kenneth (2010). The History of India. Britannica Educational Publishing. p. 60.
  11. Singh 2008, p. 185.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Michaels 2004, p. 33.
  13. Michaels 2004, p. 32-36.
  14. Witzel 1995, p. 3-4.
  15. Flood 1996, p. 21.
  16. 1 2 Anthony 2007.
  17. 1 2 Witzel 1995.
  18. 1 2 Flood 1996, p. 30-35.
  19. Hiltebeitel 2007, p. 5.
  20. 1 2 Singh 2008, p. 186.
  21. Flood 1996, p. 33.
  22. Samuel 2010, p. 53-56.
  23. Flood 1996, p. 30.
  24. Hiltebeitel 2007, p. 5-7.
  25. 1 2 3 Anthony 2007, p. 454.
  26. Anthony 2007, p. 410-411.
  27. Anthony 2007, p. 408.
  28. Anthony 2007, p. 375, 408-411.
  29. Kenoyer, M., 1998. Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. 174 Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  30. Bryant 2001.
  31. Bryant, Edwin. The Indo-Aryan Controversy. 342
  32. Bryant 2005.
  33. Mallory & Adams 2006, p. 460-461.
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  37. 1 2 Anthony 2007, p. 462.
  38. 1 2 Beckwith 2009, p. 32.
  39. Anthony 2007, p. 454-455.
  40. 1 2 3 Anthony 2007, p. 49.
  41. Anthony 2007, p. 50.
  42. Flood 2008, p. 68.
  43. Melton & Baumann 2010, p. 1412.
  44. Basham 1989, p. 74-75.
  45. White 2006, p. 28.
  46. Samuel 2010, p. 48-51, 61-93.
  47. Hiltebeitel 2007, p. 8-10.
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  56. Oberlies (1998:155) gives an estimate of 1100 BC for the youngest hymns in book 10. Estimates for a terminus post quem of the earliest hymns are more uncertain. Oberlies (p. 158) based on 'cumulative evidence' sets wide range of 1700–1100
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  58. P. 285 Indian sociology through Ghurye, a dictionary By S. Devadas Pillai
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  61. Panikkar 2001:350–351
  62. Duchesne-Guillemin 1963, p. 46.
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  66. Michaels 2004, p. 36.
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  68. Muesse 2011, p. 115.
  69. (Page 169) The Yoga Tradition By Georg Feuerstein
  70. Muesse 2003, p. 14.
  71. Swami Krishnananda, A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India, Divine Life Society. p. 42
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  73. Hopkins, Thomas J., The Hindu Religious Tradition (Belmont: Dickenson Publications, 1971), 15
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  79. Michaels 2004, p. 39.
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