Vedic Theology

Max Mueller (1823-1900)
There have been various interpretations of Vedic theology throughout history. But, one of the most original was suggested by Max Muller (1823-1900), an authority on the Sanskrit language and translator of several ancient scriptures, which helped him compare religions not only theologically but also linguistically. In his Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religions of India (1878), Max Muller considered Vedic religion to preliminarily involve mainly the worship of the Sky God or the Heavenly Father. He writes:

Five thousand years ago, or, it may be earlier, the Aryans, speaking as yet neither Sanskrit, Greek, nor Latin, called him Dyu patar, Heaven-father.

Four thousand years ago, or, it may be earlier, the Aryans who had travelled southward to the rivers of Penjab, called him Dyaush-pita, Heaven-father.

Three thousand years ago, or, it may be earlier, the Aryans on the shores of the Hellespont, called him Ζευς πατηρ [Zeus pater], Heaven-father.

Two thousand years ago, the Aryans of Italy looked up to that bright heaven above, hoc sublime candens, and called it Ju-pitar, Heaven-father.

And a thousand years ago the same Heaven-father and All-father was invoked in the dark forests of Germany by our own peculiar ancestors, the Teutonic Aryans, and his old name of Tiu or Zio was then heard perhaps for the last time.[1]

Muller thought that personification of natural elements turned to deification of these as deities, later on. For instance, He saw that the name Dyaus (Zeus or Jupiter, light-giver, a fitting name for the sky) was later replaced by various gods, who represented some of the principal activities of the sky, such as thunder, rain, storm, evening and morning, night, day, etc.[2] Thus, gradually there originated a pantheon of deities in the Vedas.

James Wheeler classified the more important Vedic deities as follows:

Indra, god of the firmament
Varuna, god of the waters

Agni, god of fire.
Surya, the sun.
Soma, or Chandra, the Moon.

Vayu, the god of wind.
Maruts, the breezes who attended upon Indra.

The God or judge of death, Yama

There are also various personifications to whom hymns are address, such as Earth, Sky, Food, Wine, Months, Seasons, Day, Night, and Dawn.[3] However, Surendranath Dasgupta was of the opinion that the gods of the Vedas were impersonal in nature, as their names Agni (Fire), Vayu (Wind), etc also indicated.[4] He classified the gods as terrestrial, atmospheric, and celestial. Subodh Kapoor divides the Vedic gods into three groups: the gods of earth such as Agni and Soma; the gods of the atmosphere such as Indra and the Maruta; and, the gods of heaven such as Mitra and Varuna.[5] There seems to be a three-tier relationship between nature and the divine: earth-atmosphere-heaven.

However, there seems evidence that the various names considered now popularly as deities were not different gods but names of the One. For instance Rig Veda 1.164.46 states:

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.[6]

The White Yajur Veda Book 32 also points to the oneness of God in the phrase “is That”. Thus, “Agni is That; the Sun is That; Vâyu and Chandramâs are That. The Bright is That; Brahma is That, those Waters, that Prajâpati. All twinklings of the eyelid sprang from Purusha, resplendent One. No one hath comprehended him above, across, or in the midst. There is no counterpart of him whose glory verily is great.” (WYV 32.1-3).[7] The word pratima translated as “counterpart” by Griffith can also be translated as “image”; thus, the verse seems to speak against the idolization of the deity. He is also called the Bright, Bodiless, Woundless, Sinewless, the Pure which evil hath not pierced, far-sighted, wise, encompassing, and self-existent (WYV 40.8). In the Upanishads, however, the Self itself is declared to be the only true reality. The Self as all is declared as having both form and also being formless (Brihadarayanka Upanishad 2.3.1). The “oneness” verses of the Vedas seem to fit well with the later non-dualistic interpretations of reality and as such could have been precursors of the doctrine, if not later interpolations. Yajur Veda 40 indubitably reflects the beginning of non-dualistic tendencies:
5 It moveth; it is motionless. It is far distant; it is near.
It is within This All; and it surrounds This All externally.
6 The man who in his Self beholds all creatures and all things that be, And in all beings sees his Self, thence doubts no longer, ponders not.
7 When, in the man who clearly knows, Self hath become all things that are, what wilderment, what grief is there in him who sees the One alone?
8 He hath attained unto the Bright, Bodiless, Woundless, Sinewless, the Pure which evil hath not pierced. Far-sighted, wise, encompassing, he self-existent hath prescribed aims, as propriety demands, unto the everlasting Years.
9 Deep into shade of blinding gloom fall Asambhûti's [the Uncreated’s] worshippers. They sink to darkness deeper yet who on Sambhûti [the Created] are intent.
10 One fruit, they say, from Sambhava [Possibility], another from Asambhava [Impossibility]. Thus from the sages have we heard who have declared this lore to us.
11 The man who knows Sambhûti [Creation] and Vinâsa [Annihilation] simultaneously, He, by Vinâsa [Annihilation] passing death, gains by Sambhûti [Creation] endless life.
17 The Real's face is hidden by a vessel formed of golden light. The Spirit yonder in the Sun, the Spirit dwelling there am I. OM! Heaven! Brahma![8]

Obviously, to know Creation and Dissolution at the same time means to transcend the phenomenal world of time, birth, death, and history and be eternal. The Veda aims at eternal life; but finds a possibility only in the inherent immortality of the Self.

In Vedic literature, gods and demons seem to be equal in power, though demons became less powerful beings later on. According to Moncure Daniel Conway, demons in Indian literature were previously gods who became demonized later on. He compared this phenomenon with the demonization of deities in Zoroastrianism and suggests a possible political purpose behind the same; possibly, the politics of demonization began in Persia leading to the migration of some of these tribes, whose gods were demonized, into Asia.

The most powerful priesthood carried the day, and they used every ingenuity to degrade the gods of their opponents. Agathodemons were turned into kakodemons. The serpent, worshipped in many lands, might be adopted as the support of sleeping Vishnu in India, might be associated with the rainbow (‘the heavenly serpent’) in Persia, but elsewhere was cursed as the very genius of evil.

The operation of this force in the degradation of deities, is particularly revealed in the Sacred Books of Persia. In that country the great religions of the East would appear to have contended against each other with especial fury, and their struggles were probably instrumental in causing one or more of the early migrations into Western Europe. The great celestial war between Ormuzd and Ahriman—Light and Darkness—corresponded with a violent theological conflict, one result of which is that the word deva, meaning ‘deity’ to Brahmans, means ‘devil’ to Parsees.

The Zoroastrian conversion of deva (deus) into devil does not alone represent the work of this odium theologicum. In the early hymns of India the appellation asuras is given to the gods. Asura means a spirit. But in the process of time asura, like dæmon, came to have a sinister meaning: the gods were called suras, the demons asuras, and these were said to contend together. But in Persia the asuras—demonised in India—retained their divinity, and gave the name ahura to the supreme deity, Ormuzd (Ahura-mazda). On the other hand, as Mr. Muir supposes, Varenya, applied to evil spirits of darkness in the Zendavesta, is cognate with Varuna (Heaven); and the Vedic Indra, king of the gods—the Sun—is named in the Zoroastrian religion as one of the chief councillors of that Prince of Darkness.[9]

Samudra Manthan or The Churning of the Ocean
Max Muller considered Asura to be the “oldest name for the living gods” and connected it with the Zend Ahura.[10] Another theory looks at the Asuras as actually the original inhabitants of India that absorbed the Aryan influx and became the authors of the Rig Veda.[11] The theory of looking asuras as the dark-skinned people vanquished by the devas (“the shining ones”) is being discounted by scholars. Wash Edward Hale notes that Hiranyahasta (a term by which the asuras are described in the Rig Veda) "does not mean "dark-skinned." It means "having golden hands" and occurs once in the RV with asura-as an epithet of Savitr, the sun (RV.1.35.10).”[12] Also, according to C.N. Rao, the Asuras were the first gods of India.

There was a perpetual fight...during the course of which some of the Asuras seems to have called truce and agreed to occupy a subordinate and yet important position in the Aryan fold. Varuna, for instance, is an Asura and yet a god of the Aryans. How this came to pass may be accounted for by the fact that originally he was a powerful rival of Indra and passages can be quoted from the Rigveda to show that for some time they were each contending for the upper hand. But in course of time, Varuna contented himself with remaining in the Aryan fold by accepting sovereignty over the 'Antariksha' and administering the Rita or the Law.... Similarly with the Maruts, originally Asuras, but accepting a subordinate yet important position in teh hierarchy of the Aryan gods. It is remarkable that no Suras are mentioned in the Rigveda, but only Asuras and the word Suras is only a late formation on mistaken etymology. That is why also the Asuras are called the Purvadevatah.[13]

Rao’s view seems to accord with the theory that the Asuras went through a process of demonization, and were not yet demonized in the Rig Veda.

It is interesting to also note that Asura is in the beginning seen in connection with Surya (sun) and Savitar in the Rig Veda. In RV.1.35, both Savitar and Asura are called the golden-handed one, and while Savitar is the one who drives away sicknesses and bids the Sun to come and is the one who spreads the bright sky through darksome region, Asura is the one who drives away Rakshasas and Yatudhanas and is referred to as God who is present and is praised by hymns in the evening. Asura is also referred to as the gentle and kind Leader (RV 1.35.7; 1.35.10). In RV.3.29.14, Agni (Fire) is considered to have been brought to life from the Asura’s body. In RV.3.38.4 and 3.38.8, the Sun is referred to as Asura and Savitar. In 3.53.7, Angirases and Virupas are called Asura’s heroes, the Sons of Heaven. In 3.56.8, Asura’s heroes Savitar, Varuna, and Mitra are considered to rule over the three bright realms of the Sky, the Waters, and the Earth. In 4.53.1, Savitar is called the sapient Asura; also, in 5.49.2. In 5.63.3, Varuna and Mitra, the Lords of earth and heaven cause rain on earth by the power (maya) of Asura. In 5.63.4, Mitra-Varuna hide the Sun with cloud and flood of rain and water drops. In 7.6.1, Asura is called the “high imperial Ruler, the Manly One in whom the folk shall triumph… who is as strong as Indra” and is called “the Fort-destroyer.” In” 8.20.17 and 10.67.2, the Creator Dyaus is referred to as “the Asura”. In 8.42.1, Varuna is referred to as the Asura who the heavens, and measured out the broad earth's wide expanses. It is only in 10.138.3, that we first see Arya mentioned along with Asura. In this verse, Indra is said to have overthrown the forts of Pipru who was a conjuring Asura.

Evidence seems to support the theory of Asura-Ahura homogeneity. Also, it has been discovered that one Mitanni treaty does list the names of some of the Vedic gods like Varuna, Mithra, and Nasatya in an order similar to the Vedas. Excerpts from the 14th century B.C. Hatti-Mitanni treaty give the names of the Vedic deities as follows: Mitrassil Arunassil, Indara Nasattiyanna (KBo I 3 Vo 24).[14] The order of the names looks the same as the order of pairs in Rig Veda 10.125.1 “Varuna and Mitra, Indra and Agni, and the Pair of Asvins”, i.e. the Nasatyas. KBo I 1 Vo 55-56 (of the Hatti-Mitanni treaty) has a slight change in the rendering: Mitrassil Uruwanassil, Indar Nasattiyanna leading to a conjecture that Uruwana, or Ruwana meaning “the one in charge of flowing waters,” is Varuna the creator of the water blocking monster Vritta that Indra is praised for killing.[15]

Asura as a divine class continues to feature in the Sama Veda where Indra is referred to as Asura in SV. However, in, Surya (Sun) is referred to as the slayer of “Dasyus, Asuras, and foes”, hinting possibly to the first demonizing instance of the class. In, Indra is referred to as the one who overthrew the great might of the Asura.

In Yajur Veda, we begin to see the casting off of Asura from the solar realm to the territory of the night. In 1.3.14 Agni is referred to as Rudra, the Asura of the mighty sky. However, by 1.5.1, we begin to see the first conflict between the gods and the Asuras in which the gods win. Agni (previously mentioned as an Asura) is seen as the one who runs away with the wealth that the gods deposited in him. In 1.5.9 we first find the statement that the day belongs to the gods and the night belongs to the Asuras, who entered night with the treasures of the gods. The gods, perceiving that “the night is Agni’s” begin praising Agni thinking he will restore to them their cattle, and Agni does deliver them their cattle from “night to day”. In 1.6.11 it is seen that the gods deceived the Asuras with the help of Agni. In 2.2.6, Agni has become associated with the gods, and the place of the gods is the Agni Vaishvarana, the year. From that place the gods drove away the Asuras. In 2.3.7, the gods are seen as defeated by the Asuras and as, having lost power and strength, made servants. However, Indra tries to pursue but cannot win and so he turns to Prajapati’s stipulated sacrifice by which he receives power and strength. Therefore, it is said that through the sacrifice and Agni, the gods defeated the Asuras. In 2.4.1, we find the first classification of sides. gods, men, and the Pitrs (fathers) on one side; Asuras, Rakshashas (giants), and Pishachas (cannibals) on the other. Thus, appears the first classification of the demonic triad in Vedic history.

In the White Yajur Veda 40.3, the Asuras are considered to inhabit the worlds that are enwrapt with blinding gloom. To them, when life on earth is done, depart the men who kill the Self.

Humans are referred to as mortals in the Vedas (SV.1.5.2). Men are Manu’s race (SV.2.2.8). Manu appointed Agni as the chief priest (RV.1.13.1; 1.14.11; SV.5.1.10). Agni, kindled by mortals is the immortal fire that mediates between the immortal gods and mortal men. Humans are divided into two groups: the law-abiders versus the Dasyus (or Dasas), the riteless, lawless ones (SV.; The Dasyus are said to be on the side with Asuras and foes (SV. After death, the soul departs to a place prepared by Yama, the god of death (RV.10.14.2). There is no talk of reincarnation yet during the Vedic period. Also, Yama is not the god of hell, but the god of the place where the fathers have gone.

The invocations in the Vedas usually call for blessings of rain, cattle, fruitfulness, and for defeat of the evil foes. In RV.1.24.14, we find a prayer to Varuna the Asura to lose the devotee of the bonds of sins. In RV.1.34.11, the Ashvins are invoked at the time of sacrifice to “make long our days of life, and wipe out all our sins: ward off our enemies; be with us evermore.” In 1.129.5, though used as a comparative for Indra, the concept of the Priest as one who drives all the sins of man away is found. In 2.28.9 and 5.85.8, Varuna is seen as the one who drives away all sins. In 7.86.5, there are two kinds of sins from which the devotee prays for deliverance: sins committed by the fathers and sins committed by self. In 10.105.8, the prayer is that Indra would grind off all sins and the observance is that he is not pleased with prayerless sacrifices.

Integral to the Vedic religion is the concept of Sacrifice (for which the Vedic hymns were mainly composed). Sacrifice is the means of obtaining blessings, protection, and ascendance to the realm of the gods. Food was offered to the gods through the sacrificial rite, and the sacrifice destroyed the evil spirits and rakshashas.

Some humans attained the life of spirits (RV.10.15.1). RV.10.15.14 talks of those who were consumed by fire and those not cremated, both of whom are invoked to be granted the world of spirits and their own body; suggesting that both cremation and burial were accepted in the Vedas. Shukla Yajur Veda 30.5 mentions hell as the place where murderers go. Atharva Veda 12.4.36 states that hell is reserved for anyone who doesn’t give a Cow to Brahmans when they ask for it.

[1] Max Muller, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religions of India (London: Longmans, 1901), p.223
[2] Ibid, p.218
[3] Wheeler, The History of India…, pp.9,10
[4] Surendranath Dasgupta, History of Indian Philosophy, Vol.1(Cambridge, 1922) , p.16 at
[5] Subodh Kapoor (Ed.), Encyclopaedia of Vedic Philosophy, Vol. 8 (Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 2002), p.2280
[6] Rig Veda, tr. by Ralph T.H. Griffith, [1896], at
[7] The Texts of the White Yajurveda, tr. Ralph T.H. Griffith, [1899], at
[8] The Texts of the White Yajurveda, tr. Ralph T.H. Griffith, [1899], at Parenthetical suggestions, mine.
[9] Moncure Daniel Conway, Demonology and Devil-lore (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 1879), pp.25,26 []
[10] Max Muller, Lectures…, p.197
[11] Malati Shendge, “Obstacles to Identifying the Origins of India's History and Culture”.
[12] Wash Edward Hale, Asura in Early Vedic Religion (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1986), p.19
[13] Chilukuri Narayana Rao, An Introduction to Dravidian Philology (Asian Educational Services, 1929), pp.37,38. Purvadevatah means “previous or older gods”
[14] Arnaud Fournet, “About the Mittanni-Aryan Gods”, Journal of the Indo-European Studies, Vol.38, No.1&2., 2010.
[15] Ibid


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