Vedic religion: Danielou passage
Here is a passage from Danielou on Vedic Religion. (Chapter 3)
It is very difficult to believe that the great lore of Indian religion, from yoga to Biuddhism, emerged out of the Vedas. This confusion has gone on so long, it is a tragedy.
Note the similarity of Vedic religion to the concoctions of standard Indo-European mythology, e.g. the Greek corpus.
The Vedic religion, brought by the Aryans from Turkestan and the plains
of Russia, is related to the Persian religion, as well as to the religions of
Greece and northern Europe. The Vedic gods personified the forces of
nature-the Sky (Dyaus), the Sun (Surya), the Moon (Chandra), Fire
(Agni), the Wind (Vayu), and so on-as well as knightly virtues such as
Friendship (Mitra), Honor (Aryamana), Justice (Shakra), and Knowledge
(Vishnu). One of the features of Vedic mythology is that of grouping the
gods in pairs, in particular Mitra and Varuna, and the twin gods, the
Ashvins. There are also groups of divine beings, such as the Maruts (a
troupe of young delinquent and temperamental gods), Adityas (sovereign
principals), and Vasus (universal laws). The male element predominates
in the Vedic pantheon, as in Aryan society, and goddesses are but pale
reflections of their husbands, except Aurora (Ushas) and the Earth
The center of the Vedic cult is the hearth-the altar in the center of
family dwelling-where the fire is fed with offerings. This fire must
never go out. This feature of Vedic religion must be a survivor from a
remote era, in a northern environment, in which fire was captured and
domesticated by an ancient race, the Ribhu, who thus transformed
human life. If the sacred fire went out, it was deemed a bad omen: the
god has left the house. In ancient times, and in a cold environment, the
loss of fire in the hearth could clearly have serious consequences for fam-
ily safety and unity. In most Indo-European languages, the term hearth
has thus remained the symbol of the family home.
The destiny of the dead in the ancient Vedic religion is unclear. We
know that they dwelled in a dark place where they conversed with Yama,
king of the infernal world. We also know that they were buried; the cur-
rent custom of burning the dead is perhaps due to the Indian climate.
Human sacrifice does not appear to have been practiced in the early
period of Vedic religion. However, the concept that life after death must
reflect the world of the living gave rise to the custom of burying-and
later on burning-widows together with their husbands.
The Aryans’ sacred texts are called the Vedas, a word formed from the
root vid, meaning “to know.” Initially they were transmitted orally and
were probably not written down until the Aryans had learned the use of
writing from contact with the earlier populations of India. There are four
Vedas-the Rig, the Yajur, the Sama, and the Atharva. They are collec-
tions of hymns used during rites, addressed to various divinities. The
names of the authors of many of these hymns are known, but the texts
themselves are considered to be of divine inspiration and are deemed to
be a summary of all the knowledge revealed by the gods to human beings.
The first three Vedas are manuals of hymns used by the three main classes
of priests present at the sacrificial rites, the yajfias.
The most ancient of the Vedas is the Rig Veda. The hymns it con-
tains were primarily composed shortly after the arrival of the Aryans in
northwest India, although some of these hymns may have already existed
when the Aryans were still living in central Asia. In any case, they retain
a memory of their northern environment and its long winter nights.
Many of the hymns make allusion to kings, and especially to the Indian
peoples’ fierce resistance to the invaders. The ancient inhabitants of India
are mentioned as dark-skinned demons, living in marvelous cities.
The Yajur Veda is divided into two parts, the white Yajur and the
black Yajur. It was composed after the Rig Veda and contains many pre-
Aryan elements. The Sarna Veda, a collection of chanted hymns, contains
very few that are proper to it, most being chanted versions of the hymns
of the Rig Veda and the Yajur Veda. Musical notation for these hymns
existed from a very early date. Since the hymns are taught by complex
oral methods-making any change in the text or intonation almost
impossible-the tradition of Vedic chant has been preserved down to our
own times without any major alterations or modernization of the lan-
guage. The Atharva Veda is very different from the other three. It deals
mainly with ritual elements borrowed from the indigenous religions, and
is characteristic of the Aryans’ assimilation of ancient Indian culture.
The Atharva Veda is “a heterogeneous collection of the most popular
spells current among the masses, and its most salient teaching is sorcery.
… These features indicate that these songs began with and embody the
ancient beliefs and practices of the peoples whom the Ailas [Aryans] sub-
jugated, so that naturally the spirit which breathes therein is that of a pre-
historic age.”10 Here we find a phenomenon that is characteristic of
Indian history. The texts that in their current version appear to be the lat-
est are often the most ancient from the point of view of their content.
When the Aryans invaded northern India, they encountered a highly
developed urban civilization that astounded them. After centuries of
combat, during which the institutions and beliefs of the ancient popula-
tions of India were held to be diabolical, magical, and evil, the Aryans
gradually absorbed the customs and ideas of the conquered peoples. At a
religious and philosophical level, the Aryans adopted the gods, and more
especially the ideas, cosmology, and metaphysics of the ancient Indians.
The Vedic religion absorbed, incorporated, and preserved the forms and
rites of other cults. Instead of destroying them, it adapted them to its own
needs. It borrowed so much from the Dravidians and other indigenous
populations of India that it is very difficult to unravel the ancient Aryan
elements from the others. 11 The very institution of priesthood, the figure
of the Brahman himself, was not, according to Pargiter, an Aryan insti-
tution.12 The conception of the “priest” was borrowed from the Daityas,
Danavas, and Asuras-various names given to non-Aryans-who had
been represented as having a demonic character. The indigenous influ-
ence also gave rise to the philosophical texts known as the Upanishads
that demonstrate an almost complete fusion of Aryan and pre-Aryan
thought. In the later texts of the Vedas and in the Upanishads, many of
the sages mentioned are ancient prophets or philosophers of the indige-
nous Asuras, “the black men,” earlier represented as demons, to whom
the same status was now given as to the Aryan prophets.
Born from a fusion ofVedism and pre-Aryan religions, Brahmanism
spread rapidly as a formalistic religion centered on increasingly complex
rites. The great sacrifices became a very important part of Indian life, an
expression of which can be found in the texts called Brahmanas. The ash-
vamedha or horse sacrifice-a rite that kings had to perform-developed
into a series of ceremonies employing thousands of priests for months
and swallowing the greater part of state revenues. Sacrifices sometimes
became hecatombs. Priestly power dominated the whole of social life. By
the end of the prehistorical Aryan era, life became an interminable ritual
enterprise and prohibitions of all kinds paralyzed human relations