The early Vedic religion has been designated by the name of henotheism or kathenotheism-a belief in krishnasingle gods, each in turn standing out as the highest. It has also been described as the worship of Nature leading up to Nature’s God. The chief deities of the earlier books owe their origin to the personification of natural phenomena. Abstract deities like Dhatri, the Establisher; Vidhatri, the Ordainer; Visvakarman, the All-Creating, and Prajapati, the Lord of Creatures, Sraddha, Faith; Manyu, Wrath, make their appearance at a later stage. Besides the higher Gods, lauded by priests, we have reference to others whose worship was not countenanced in orthodox circles. Some scholars find in the hymns traces of the cult of the linga and even of Krishna. Siva occurs as an epithet of the god Rudra worshipped by the Vedic priests. The Krishna mentioned in Rig-Vedic hymns can hardly be identified with his epic and Puranic namesake, as the river with which he is associated in the Rig-Veda is not the Jumna but some stream in the Kuru country, as we learn from the Brihaddevata.
Father Dyaus (Zeus, Diespiter), the Shining God of Heaven, and Mother Prithivi, the Earth Goddess, are among the oldest of the Vedic deities, but the hymns scarcely reflect their former greatness. They have been cast into the shade by Varuna, the Encompassing Sky, and Indra, the God of Thunder and Rain. Varuna is the most sublime deity of the early Vedic pantheon. He bears the epithet Asura (Avestan Ahura) and he is the great upholder of physical and moral order, Rita, the idea of which is at least as old as the fourteenth century BC., as we learn from inscriptions mentioning the names of the Mitanni kings. To Varuna people turned for forgiveness of sin just as they did to Vishnu in a later age.
“If we have sinned against the man who loves us, have ever wronged a brother, friend, comrade,The neighbour ever with us, or a stranger, O Varuna, remove from us the trespass.”O Varuna, whatever the offence may be which we as men commit against the heavenly host,When through our want of strength we violate thy laws, punish us not, 0 God, for that iniquity.”
The worship of Varuna, with its consciousness of sin and trust in the divine forgiveness, is undoubtedly one of the first roots of the later doctrine of Bhakti.
If Varuna is the sovereign of the Universe and the guardian of the moral laws, Indra is the puissant God of war, the lightning-wielder, who
“. . . slew the serpent, then discharged the waters,And cleft the caverns of the lofty mountains”,
“. . . made all earthly things unstable, Who humbled and dispersed the Dasa colour, Who, as the player’s stake the winning gambler,The foemen’s fortune gains. . .”
Indra came to occupy the chief place among the Vedic gods, while Varuna receded to the background and became merely the Lord of Waters, a sort of Indian Neptune.
Closely connected with Varuna is Mitra, the friend, the personification of the sun’s beneficent agency, and the two belonged to the class of deities styled Aditya, sons of Aditi, the Goddess of Eternity. Other important deities of the upper realm of light are Surya, the Illuminator; Savitri, the Enlivener : Pushan, the Nourisher, Vishnu Urukrama, the wide -striding Sun ; the Asvins or the Nasatyas, perhaps the Morning and Evening Stars, later the gods of healing, parallel to the Dioscuri; and Ushas, the lovely Goddess of the Dawn.
Between the world of light above and the earth below lies the realm of the air, and the chief deities of this region are, besides Indra, the Maruts (Storm Gods), Vayu and Vata (the Wind Gods), Rudra (the Howling God of Storm and Lightning), and Parjanya (the God of Rain). Of the terrestrial deities, the chief are Agni, Soma and Sarasvati. Agni, or the Fire-God, received special homage because no sacrifice could be performed without offerings to him. The libation of Soma was also regarded as specially sacred. Sarasvati was a river deity who came to be regarded later as the Goddess of Learning. Of the three principal deities of the later mythology, Vishnu and Rudra (Siva) are, as we have seen already, known to the Rig-Veda, and Brahma, though not explicitly mentioned, has his precursors in Vidhatri (the Ordainer), Hiranyagarbha (the Germ of Gold), Prajapati (the Lord of Creatures) and Brahmanaspati (the Lord of Prayer).
An important characteristic of Vedic Mythology is the predominance of the male element. Goddesses like Prithivi, Aditi, Ushas, and Sarasvati occupy a very subordinate position. In this respect the Vedic civilisation presents a contrast to the prehistoric culture of the Indus valley, where the Mother Goddess is co-equal with her male partner.
Another important feature of the Vedic religion is the tendency towards monotheism and even monism. The hymns foreshadow the idea of universal unity, and express the belief that God is One although he bears many names.
“They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna,
And Agni; he is the heavenly bird Garutmat:
To what is One, the poets give many a name,
They call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan.”
The monotheistic conception appears more prominently in the hymns addressed to Hiranyagarbha (the Gold Germ), and to Visvakarman (the All-Creating),
“Who is our Father, our Creator, Maker, Who every place doth know and every creature,
By Whom alone to gods their names were given,
To Him all other creatures go, to ask Him.”
Finally, we have a song of Creation according to which in the beginning
“… neither death nor deathlessness existed;
Of day and night there was yet no distinction.
Alone that One breathed calmly, self-supported,
Other than It was none, nor aught above It.”
Sacrifices occupy a prominent place in the Vedic ritual. These include offerings of milk, grain, ghee, flesh and juice of the Soma plant. The use of material objects as symbols of deities was perhaps not altogether unknown, and one passage apparently makes a reference to an image or symbol of Indra. The symbol of phallic worship is, as we have seen, detected by some in the allusions to the Sisnadevas.
Regarding life after death, the Rig-Vedic hymns have no consistent theory. According to some passages, the dead dwell in the realm of Yama, the beneficent king of the departed. The idea of metempsychosis is, however, not yet developed.