Part 18 (1/2)

The hymns of the Rigveda were written for use at sacrifices. The sacrifice consists of food and drink of which the G.o.d who is addressed is invited to come and partake, or which are conveyed to the G.o.ds seated on their heavenly thrones, by means of fire. Soma, the intoxicating juice of the soma plant, is an invariable feature of the banquets in these hymns; the solid part consists of b.u.t.ter, milk, rice or cakes; but animals were also killed, and the horse-sacrifice was a specially important one. The hymn also is an essential part of the rite; the sacrifice would have no virtue without it. It consists of praise and prayer. The deity is extolled for the exploits he has done, for his strength, for his beauty, for his wisdom or his goodness, he is invoked again and again to partake of what has been provided for him, and in return he is asked to send the wors.h.i.+pper food or cows, guidance or protection, or whatever the latter is in want of.

The Vedic G.o.ds.--And who are the G.o.ds who receive this wors.h.i.+p? They are parts of nature or celestial phenomena, more or less personified.

Wors.h.i.+p is directed now to one divine being, now to another; each has a story which is dwelt on and a number of functions belonging to him, for the sake of which he is extolled and sought after; each G.o.d, that is to say, has his myth. In this set of G.o.ds the myths are so clear that we can identify with perfect confidence each of the G.o.ds with that part of Nature from which he arose.

M. Barth cla.s.sifies the Vedic G.o.ds according to the degree in which they have become detached from their natural basis. There are two which are not so detached at all. Agni, who is one of the chief deities of the Rigveda, is fire, and Soma, the deity to whom all the hymns of the ninth book are addressed, is simply the juice of the soma plant, the liquid part of every sacrifice. Agni is not any particular fire, but fire as a cosmic principle, born in heaven, born also daily at the sacrifice by the rubbing together of two pieces of wood, his parents whom he consumes. He is a priest carrying the offerings of men up to the G.o.ds, but he was a priest at the first sacrifice, the primeval heavenly sacrifice, before he had come down to men. He is also the guest and household friend of man, a kindly and familiar being. But he pervades all nature, and all growth and energy are due to him. Soma, also inseparably connected with all sacrifice, who strengthens the G.o.ds and makes them immortal, is likewise a universal principle; he too came at first from heaven, and he too is at work all through the world. There are stories of his first production among the G.o.ds, and of the first effects of his appearance; he is the nourisher of plants, he gives inspiration to the poet and fervour to prayer. Along with Agni he kindled the sun and the stars.

In other G.o.ds there is a nearer approach to a human figure, and the physical side is not so obtrusive. Indra is most frequently invoked of all the G.o.ds, and may be called the national G.o.d of this period.

He is described as a chieftain standing in a chariot drawn by two horses. He waged a great battle, but still wages it constantly, against the monsters of heat and drought, Vrittra, the coverer, and Ahi the dragon, for the deliverance of the cows, the heavenly waters, kept by them in captivity. The contest between the G.o.d and the demon goes on for ever. Indra is also the giver of good things of every kind, he keeps the heavenly bodies in their places, he is the author and preserver of all life, the inspirer of all n.o.ble thoughts and the answerer of pious prayers, the rewarder of all who trust in him, and the forgiver of the penitent. It is good to sacrifice to him and to offer him soma in abundance; for it strengthens him to take up afresh his conflicts and labours as the champion of man. Indra is surrounded by the Maruts, the storm-G.o.ds, who are separately invoked in many hymns. They drive through the sky with splendour and with mighty music, and bring rain to the parched earth. Their father is Rudra, also a G.o.d of storms, the handsomest of all the G.o.ds, and, in spite of his thunderbolts, a helpful and kindly being. Wherever he sees evil done, he hurls his spear to smite the evildoer, but he is also a healer of both physical and moral evils, and the best of all physicians. Of the same order of deities are Vata or Vayu, the wind, and Parjanya, the rain-storm. But the loftiest of all the Vedic G.o.ds is Varuna, the great serene luminous heaven. The hymns addressed to him are comparatively few, but among them are those which rise to the highest moral and religious level. In language recalling that of the psalmists and prophets of the Bible, they exalt Varuna as the creator of the world and of heaven and the stars, as the omniscient defender of the good and avenger of all evil, as just and holy, and yet full of compa.s.sion, so that the conscience-stricken suppliant is encouraged to turn to him.

We here give a few extracts from hymns addressed to some of the G.o.ds we have spoken of. The versions are those of the late Dr. John Muir.

A metrical version can scarcely represent the hymns with the accuracy the scholar would desire, but, on the other hand, a literal translation, such as that of Professor Max Muller in vol. x.x.xii. of the Sacred Books of the East, gives a less true idea of the spirit of the pieces, and is less fitted at least for a work like this.


Thou, Indra, oft of old hast quaffed With keen delight, our Soma draught.

All G.o.ds delicious Soma love; But thou, all other G.o.ds above.

Thy mother knew how well this juice Was fitted for her infant's use, Into a cup she crushed the sap Which thou didst sip upon her lap; Yes, Indra, on thy natal morn, The very hour that thou wast born, Thou didst those jovial tastes display, Which still survive in strength to-day.

And once, thou prince of genial souls, Men say thou drained'st thirty bowls.

To thee the Soma draughts proceed, As streamlets to the lake they feed, Or rivers to the ocean speed.

Our cup is foaming to the brim With Soma pressed to sound of hymn.

Come, drink, thy utmost craving slake, Like thirsty stag in forest lake, Or bull that roams in arid waste, And burns the cooling brook to taste.

Indulge thy taste, and quaff at will; Drink, drink again, profusely swill!


And thou dost view with special grace, The fair complexioned Aryan race, Who own the G.o.ds, their laws obey, And pious homage duly pay.

Thou giv'st us horses, cattle, gold, As thou didst give our sires of old.

Thou sweep'st away the dark-skinned brood, Inhuman, lawless, senseless, rude, Who know not Indra, hate his friends, And spoil the race which he defends.

Chase far away, the robbers, chase, Slay those barbarians black and base.

And save us, Indra, from the spite Of sprites that haunt us in the night, Our rites disturb by contact vile, Our hallowed offerings defile.

Preserve us, friend, dispel our fears, And let us live a hundred years.

And when our earthly course we've run, And gained the region of the Sun, Then let us live in ceaseless glee, Sweet Soma quaffing there with thee.


Great Agni, though thine essence be but one, Thy forms are three; as fire thou blazest here, As lightning flashest in the atmosphere, In heaven thou flamest as the golden sun.

It was in heaven thou hadst thy primal birth, But thence of yore a holy sage benign, Conveyed thee down on human hearths to s.h.i.+ne, And thou abid'st a denizen of earth.

Sprung from the mystic pair by priestly hands, In wedlock joined, forth flashes Agni bright; But--O ye heaven and earth I tell you right-- The unnatural child devours the parent brands.


The mighty lord on high our deeds, as if at hand, espies; The G.o.ds know all men do, though men would fain their acts disguise.

Whoever stands, whoever moves, or steals from place to place, Or hides him in his secret cell,--the G.o.ds his movements trace.