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The Sama Veda

The Sama Veda is one of the four Vedas of Hindu scriptures. The Vedas are believed to be of divine origin, belonging to a class of literature known as sruti, meaning “that which is heard” (Bharati 82). According to Hindu tradition, the Vedas were divinely “heard” by seers known as Rsis, and therefore are not the product of human work or skill (Rai 2). As one of the Vedas, alongside the Rg, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas, the Sama Veda shares this divine status, and therefore a place of honor in the Hindu tradition. Although the Sama Veda is often considered the third Veda after the Rg and Yajur Vedas, in the Bhagavad Gita, one of the great epics of the Hindu tradition, Krsna describes the Sama Veda as the most important of the Vedas (Mitra 9).

While the high status that the Sama Veda has enjoyed in Hinduism is clear, unfortunately its origin is not. Many schools of thought in the history of the Hindu tradition have believed that the Sama Veda is eternal, not as a divine creation, but as co-eternal with the divine (Bharati 82). The Satapatha Brahmana claims that the Sama Veda originates from the sun, which is embodied by the deity Surya (Rai 4). In the Purusa-Sukta, the Sama Veda is said to come from the hairs of the great deity Purusa, the sacrifice of whom is said to have created the entire cosmos in the Hindu tradition (Rai 4), while still other traditions account for the origin of the Sama Veda in different ways, [for more traditions on the origin of the Vedas see Rai 1977]. Some scholars, including Raja Rai, have argued that the hymns of the Vedas were originally passed on as one before being later organized and subdivided into the four Vedas as they exist today (Rai 8). This idea accords well with the tradition of the Visnu Purana, which states that the Vedas were divided from a single source (Rai 6).

Like the Hindu thinkers of the past, modern scholars have developed varying ideas about the origin of the Sama Veda. Some scholars, working backward from the rise of Buddhism in 500 BCE, date the origin of the Vedas to roughly 1000 B.C.E. (Rai 17). Other scholars date the Vedic hymn collections as being composed over a longer period of time between 1400 and 500 B.C.E. (Rai 19). The dating of the origin of the Sama Veda is complicated by the fact that the text is comprised of a number of sections, some of which are earlier than others. Although it is impossible to say exactly when the Sama Veda was first composed, or who first composed it, it is fairly safe to date its oldest portions to the Aryan period, beginning around 1500 B.C.E. (Griffith vii). Interestingly, this inability to pin down the authorship and origin of the Vedas has been used as an argument by Hindus to support the claim that the Vedas are of divine origin (Rai 11).

The Sama Veda is not a monolithic text, but rather is comprised of a number of texts written over a large period of time, dealing with a variety of subjects. The Sama Veda is comprised of a Samhita, or collection of hymns, a Brahmana, which provides exegesis on the hymn collection, and an Upanisad, which is a text of a more philosophical nature (Rai v).

The Samhita of the Sama Veda, the oldest text of the Sama Veda, is a collection of hymns, the vast majority of which are taken from the Rg Veda (Griffith vii). The Sama Veda Samhita is not, however, simply a restatement of the Rg Veda. The hymns of the Sama Veda are altered from the form in which they are found in the Rg Veda in several meaningful ways to facilitate their ritual use (Griffith vii). The Sama Veda hymns are designed to be sung in the context of ritual and are therefore altered from the way that they appear in the Rg Veda in ways that alter the singing of the hymns (Griffith vii). Every nuance involved in the recitation of Sama Veda hymns, in a ritual context, is extremely important to the Hindu tradition, as it is believed that the truths of the Vedas become manifest in the performance of rituals (Howard 11). Also, the extent to which the hymns of the Sama Veda are considered effective, within the context of a ritual, in securing benefits for the one for whom the ritual is performed is believed to depend on the correct chanting of the hymn (Rai 38). The hymns of the Sama Veda also differ from their arrangement in the Rg Veda, as the Rg Veda organizes its hymns according to their attributed author, while the Sama Veda organizes its hymns topically, according to the object of worship (Stevenson 12). While some of these variations on the hymns of the Rg Veda are alterations of the existing Rg Veda, Griffith argues that some variant versions may even preserve an older reading than what is found in the Rg Veda (Griffith vii).

In addition to the Samhita, the Sama Veda also contains a Brahmana, which, according to an analysis of the writing style, was composed some time after the hymn collection (Stevenson 10). This Brahmana is largely concerned with describing the necessary procedures to be done before and during the chanting of the Sama Veda Samhita (Stevenson 10). The Brahmanas of the Sama Veda set the standard for the proper recitation of the Samhita, and claim that only when such standards are followed correctly will the hymns have power (Stevenson 11). Although the correct performance of ritual is central to the Sama Veda Brahmanas, these Brahmanas do cover a diversity of topics, ranging from social customs to ways of countering bad omens (Mitra 17, 18).

The Sama Veda also contains an Upanisad known as the Chandogya Upanisad (Rai 39). This Upanisad also bears a great difference in style compared to the hymn collection, which reveals that it is the product of a later time than the hymn collection (Stevenson 12). The Chandogya Upanisad is part of a larger work known as the Chandogya Brahmana. The Chandogya Brahmana is ten chapters in length, the first two chapters belonging to the genre of Brahmana and the last eight comprising the Chandogya Upanisad (Mitra 37). The Chandogya Upanisad contains an important discussion of the syllable Om, a sacred utterance in the Hindu tradition (Mitra 27). The Upanisad describes Om as the source of being, and as superior to ritual (Mitra 27).

The Chandogya Upanisad also contains several elements that subvert the social hierarchy of its time. In a number of places throughout the text, the importance of the priestly hegemony, the Brahmin class, is downplayed, while the warrior class, the Ksatriyas, are raised to a higher status (Mirta 27). This reversal suggests that true knowledge is not only available to the priestly elite. This subversion of the standard social hierarchy is continued within the seventh chapter of the Chandogya Upanisad. In this section it is argued that knowledge, even Vedic knowledge, is worthless without knowledge of Brahma, the divine essence behind all things (Mitra 35).

This subversive element is further expounded upon in the sixth chapter of the Chandogya Upanisad, which contains the famous story of Uddalaka and Svetaketu. In this story Svetaketu is a young Brahmin, who is excessively proud of his learning (Johnston 199). However the young Brahmin’s learning is proved obsolete, for throughout the story, Uddalaka, Svetaketu’s father, shows a greater depth of knowledge. Uddalaka, through a series of images, proves his greater philosophical depth by instructing his son as to the nature of Brahma, the discrete essence behind all things (Mitra 34). In this story, as in other passages of the Chandogya Upanisad, philosophy triumphs again over book learning, [for more on the story of Uddalaka and Svetaketu, see Johnston 1910]. These texts suggest a movement within Hinduism away from an emphasis on ritual and the socioreligious hierarchy, towards philosophical speculation, making the Chandogya Upanisad of the Sama Veda a key text as far as the development of Hindu thought is concerned, [For more on the Chandogya Upanisad see Mitra 1862].

The way in which the Sama Veda has been used throughout Hindu history is best exemplified through an analysis of the way it is used in the Somayaga ritual, the ritual at which the Sama Veda is primarily designed to be sung (Griffith vii). The term Somayaga refers to a sacrifice in which Soma, a plant with narcotic properties used in Hindu worship, is offered to a deity or deities (Howard 11), [for the use and possible identification of Soma see McDonald 2004]. This ritual is described in detail in the Praudha Brahmana, one of the most prominent sections of the Sama Veda (Mitra 16). The beneficiary of this sacrifice, known as the Yajamana, is responsible for funding the ritual (Stevenson iv). The ritual, which involves the burnt sacrifice of animals as well as Soma libations (Stephenson iv-vi), must be performed exactly as prescribed or, as the Praudha Brahmana argues; it will bring no benefit to the Yajamana. Throughout the Somayaga, six different groups of priests are employed by the Yajamana to assist in the performance of the ritual (Stevenson 9). These groups of priests perform different roles throughout the ritual including the preparation of various elements of the sacrifice and the singing of Vedic hymns (Stevenson 9). The group of priests, known as the Udgatar, is the group responsible for singing verses of the Sama Veda during the Somayaga (Stevenson 9). It is through this group of priests that the Sama Veda plays a crucial role in the Somayaga. The various hymns of the Sama Veda sung throughout this ritual perform the function of consecrating the sacrificial fire as well as the Soma juice that is offered as a libation (Stevenson 6), [For more on the Somayaga see Stevenson n.yr.].

The strong connection that the Sama Veda has to the Somayaga ritual is due to the very nature of the text itself. A brief look at an index of Sama Veda hymns reveals that the vast majority of the Samhita is dedicated to the praise Agni, the Hindu deity that personifies fire (Gonda 140), Soma, and Indra, the Hindu deity personifying storms (McDonald S148), [for more on Agni and his relationship to the Samhitas see Gonda 1979]. The prominence of hymns worshiping Agni and Soma corresponds to the importance of the burnt offering and Soma libation in the Somayaga. In addition to this fact, the various prescriptions governing the practice of the Somayaga are found within the Sama Veda itself, in the Praudha Brahmana (Stevenson 6).

Despite its status as sruti, the role Sama Veda has diminished significantly in contemporary Hinduism. This is partially due to the fact that such extensive sacrifices as the Somayaga, which may take anywhere from a day to over a week to perform (Mitra 16), have become less common, with the Somayaga being only performed a few times since the British colonization of India (Stevenson 11). This diminishing use of the Vedas in contemporary Hinduism is further revealed by a study published in the mid-1970s. In a survey of educated Hindu youth from across all castes, only ten percent had received any formal Vedic instruction (Ashby 52-53). Despite this shift away from Vedic study in contemporary Hinduism, the Sama Veda still holds an important place in history as a pivitol text which has significantly shaped Hindu belief and practice throughout the centuries.



Ashby, Philip (1974) Modern Trends in Hinduism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dayanand, Bharati (2005) Understanding Hinduism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Gonda, J. (1979) “Agni in “Rgveda-Samhita” 9, 66 and 67.” The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 2: 137-152

Griffith, Ralph (1986) Hymns of the Samaveda: Translated with a Popular Commentary. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Private Ltd. in

Howard, Wayne (1986) Veda Recitation in Vsranasi. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Johnston, Charles (1910) “The Dramatic Element in the Upanishads.” The Monist 20 #2 (April): 185-216.

McDonald, Andrew (2004) “A Botanical Perspective on the Identity of Soma (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) Based on Scriptural and Iconographic Records.” Economic Botany 58 (Winter): S147-S150, S51, S152-S173

Mitra, Rajendralala (1862) The Chandogya Upanishad of the Sama Veda: With Extracts from the Commentary of Sankara Acharya. Calcutta: C.B. Lewis, Baptist Mission Press.

Parpola, A (1973). The Literature and Study of the Jaiminīya Sāmaveda. In Retrospect and Prospect. Studia Orientalia XLIII:6. Helsinki.

Rai, Raja (1977) The Vedas: The Scripture of the Hindus. Delhi: Nag Publishers.

Stevenson, John (n.yr.). Translation of the Sanhita of the Sama Veda. London: Oriental Translation Fund.

Wilkins, William Joseph (1975) Modern Hinduism: An Account of the Religion and Life of the Hindus in Northern India. Delhi : B.R. Pub. Corp.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Bhagavat Gita


Chandogya Upanisad



Praudha Brahmana

Rg Veda


Satapatha Brahmana




Tat Tvam Asi




Visnu Purana

Yajur Veda


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic











Article written by Matthew Pawlak (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Prthivi, Usas, and Ratri (Vedic Goddesses)

The Vedic Goddesses: Prthivi, Usas, and Ratri

Worship of natural phenomena has dominated Hindu religious practice since its origin. Many natural phenomena are seen to have feminine properties and it is these properties which led to the centralization of goddess worship (Kinsley 10). Some feminine traits abundant in nature include fecundity, fruitfulness, and fertility present in the earth, mothers and cows (Wangu 29). Another feature common in goddess worship is their ability to uphold rta, cosmic order (Wangu 28; Kinsley 10; Chitgopekar 55).  All these common features of nature are prominent in three of the main goddesses in Vedic literature; Prthivi the earth, Usas the dawn, and Ratri the night (Kinsley 14, 178; Kumar 67).

The origin of worship for the earth is based out of the sacrality of the earth for its fecundity and stability, and due to these attributes, the earth has been worshipped as a goddess throughout the Hindu tradition (Kinsley 178). The earth as a goddess has a basis in the underlying perception that the earth and the cosmos is a living being itself. And it is this “cosmic organism” that is worshipped as the earth goddess, Prthivi (Kinsley 178). The earth as a solid mass and an anthropomorphic goddess is the two ways in which Prthivi is identified. And it is the reverence to the stability and fecundity of the earth that provides the basis of the hymns dedicated to Prthivi (Kinsley 178). Within the Samhitas, Prthivi has three aspects of her being. She is seen as the “universal mother of physical creation” as well as the earth as a physical entity that sustains life (Pintchman 30). The third aspect of Prthivi’s nature describes her as manifest matter itself, just like the waters in the creation narrative that is formed from the cosmogonic process (Pintchman 30). In some myths the creation of the world came from the released energy from Prajapati which became the substance that makes up the earth and provides life for everything on its surface (Kinsley 178). In another myth from the Visnu Purana, the earth, Prthivi was born from the foot of Visnu (Wilkins 16). In other myths Prthivi is said to have germinated from Aditi, which in later Hindu tradition is almost completely identified with Prthivi in the Brahmanas (Kinsley 178). In later texts new names were introduced for the earth goddess such as Bhu or Bhudevi (Sullivan 76). A central and dominant quality of Prthivi is her maternal nature (Pitchman 30). She often hailed as mother and is worshipped for her fertility by providing sustenance to all living things that live on her (Kinsley 9). Because of this, she is often likened to a cow, who provides milk for her calf. It is through the worship of Prthivi and other motherly goddesses that the status of the cow is heightened (Wangu 36). Prthivi is often described as a firm, supportive, benign being whose fertility and abundance helps with the growth and well being of all living things that thrive on her surface (Kinsley 8, 126). She is said to be the source of strength, vigour and she quickens life (Kinsley 11).

Hymns in many texts emphasize Prthivi’s nourishing and creative nature in which she provides seemingly inexhaustible sources of plants and herbs, and especially crops. Prthivi is often called the all-producer based on these associations (Kinsley 9, 126; Wangu 35). Another name given to the earth goddess is rtajna, she who knows rta (Chitgopekar 55). She does not distinguish between poor and wealthy, good and wicked beings, or demons and the gods, who call her broad expanse home (Kinsley 9).  In some hymns she is described as the splendid energy of women, the fragrant mother, the light and luck in men and goddess of emotional and material abundance (Wangu 35, 36; Kinsley 9). Prthivi is one of the few goddesses in the Vedic scriptures that can be considered a goddess in her own right (Kinsley 9; Wangu 35). Even with this high status as her own deity, Prthivi is almost always found in hymns linked with Dyaus, the sky god. For some scholars Prthivi is associated with the sky as well as the earth and not just exclusively the earth, though in later texts and in the Atharva Veda she is more commonly portrayed as an individual (Kinsley 8, 9).  This divine couple, sometimes called Dyavaprthivi (sky-earth), are said to be the creators of the world and the universal parents of the gods (Sullivan 76; Kinsley 8; Wangu 35). They are said to be the preservers of all their creations and are described as energetic beings who encourage virtue (Wilkins 13). Together they are said to have created full, fat, nourishing waters and represent a realm of safety and abundance where rta pervades and happiness prevails (Kinsley 8). This multivalent duality is said to have been born through Soma and they sustain life by generating fertility through their reciprocal roles (Chitgopekar 47; Wilkins 13; Kinsley 25).  It is said in myths that Dyaus fertilizes Prthivi with the rain which represents his seed (Kinsley 8). They are often petitioned to bring happiness, to expiate sin and to protect people from danger and Prthivi is said to provide material well-being and good luck to those she blesses (Kinsley 11). In some myths, Prthivi’s worshippers will perform rites in the form of sacrificial rituals, amulets and prayers in order to appease and propitiate the earth (Kinsley 178; Wangu 35). Sacrifices were believed to replenish and rebuild the energy lost by Prajapati when he created the earth. These sacrifices, with the continuous release of power by Prajapati uphold rta and the balanced cycle (Kinsley 178). Like Prthivi, most other Vedic goddesses have a strong connection with rta and natural phenomena (Wangu 28; Kinsley 10; Chitgopekar 55). One such goddess is Usas, the dawn.

The conception of the dawn dates back to the time of the primitive Aryans (Kumar 67). Both the Hellenic and the Hindu Aryans have philologically corresponding names for the dawn as a goddess; Eos in Greek, Aurora in Roman, and Usas in the Hindu pantheon (Kumar 67; Walker 536). Though even before the Aryan dichotomy, the ideal of the goddess of the dawn, or guardian of daybreak was present (Walker 536). The poetic beauty found in the hymns dedicated to Usas is only matched by that of those dedicated to Eos in the time of Homer (Kumar 67). The hymns in the Rg Veda dedicated to Usas are said to be some of the most beautiful use of poetic language and for the Vedic poets, one of the most beloved objects of celebration (Wilkins 48; Sullivan 236). With over 20 hymns dedicated just to Usas she is the most popular goddess in the Rg Veda (Kinsley 17; Wangu 32; Walker 536). In spite of her popularity in earlier times, Usas is rarely mentioned in later texts (Kinsley 18). Usas, the dawn, is associated with light and is often said to be the mother of the gods (Kinsley 7). As an auspicious deity, Usas is seen as luminous, many-tinted, and delicate (Kinsley 7; Walker 536; Kumar and Ram 66; Wangu 32). She is often seen as a young maiden (Kinsley 7), a skilled dancer decorated with gems (Wangu 32; Wilkins 48), a “gaily attired wife appearing before her husband, a beautiful girl coming from her bath” (Wilkins 48) or likened to a cow (Kinsley 7). Worshippers believe that Usas, like a cow presenting her udder to her calf, will present her bosom to the patron as well as for the benefit of humankind as a whole (Wilkins 48; Kinsley 7).

By bringing light forth for humankind to every place of dwelling Usas is a friend to all mankind (Kinsley 7; Walker 536). Her light uncovers all people and things, with no preference to status or wealth from the night’s darkness (Walker 536; Kinsley 7). She is seen as an ever young maiden being born daily with the coming of the light at each new dawn (Kinsley 7; Wilkins 48). At each dawn she is said, in some hymns, to come forth, bringing the light, in a hundred chariots (Kinsley 7). In other hymns she is said to have a single shining chariot drawn by either cows, ruddy horses, or by the Ashvins, her sons (Wilkins 48; Wangu 32). Usas, in one or many chariots, leads the way for and is urged on by Surya, the sun (Kinsley 7; Sullivan 236). She is praised for awakening all life forms but leaves the deceased to their rest (Kinsley 7, 8; Wangu 32). Usas is associated with the life and the breath of all being that she is the one that impels life (Kinsley 7). As the reoccurring dawn, Usas is a reminder to people of their limited time through the disappearance of generations and the wasting away of lives (Sullivan 236; Wilkins 48; Kinsley 7). It is through this immortal rebirth at the dawn twilight that Usas supports rta, the cosmic order (Kinsley 7; Chitgopekar 55).The dawn sets everything into motion, causes birds to leave their nests, and awakens the sleeping to go and perform their varied duties just like a young housewife (Kinsley 7; Wilkins 48). Usas provides a service to other gods by arousing the people off to perform their daily sacrifices and entices the gods to help kindle the fires for sacrifice by getting them to drink Soma (Kinsley 7; Wilkins 48; Wangu 32).

In some hymns Usas is said to be the “eye of the gods”, who sees everything that people do (Kinsley 7). As the dawn, Usas is said to have been fathered by the sky, Dyaus or the sun, Surya (Chitgopekar 56; Wangu 32; Kumar and Ram 159). In another myth Usas is said to have been fathered by Prajapati. It is in this myth that all living things were said to be created by the shape-changing of Usas who was fleeing her incestuous shape-changing father (Walker 536). This myth and others helps to support her motherly nature. Usas is said to give wealth, strength, and fame and is believed to give her petitioners joy, longevity, sons, horses and cattle (Kinsley 7; Wilkins 52). People will often invoke Usas to punish or drive away one’s enemies, though she is rarely called upon to forgive the transgressions of humans (Kinsley 7). Usas is also asked to dispel the darkness and drive the chaotic forces and evil demons far away (Kinsley 7; Wilkins 48). She is praised for disclosing the hidden treasures by driving away the night, her sister, Ratri (Wilkins 48; Walker 536).

Ratri, the night, is mainly found in the Rg Vedas when she is linked to her sister Usas; though like Usas, Ratri is rarely found in later texts (Kinsley 14; Wangu 66). In these hymns Ratri and Usas are said to be powerful mothers who strengthen the vital powers of individuals. At times they are described as twins whose never ending cyclical appearances support rta through the alternating yet predicable flow of light and dark, and vigour and rest (Kinsley 14). Like her sister Usas, Ratri is sometimes identified as a beautiful maiden though descriptions of her physical appearance are mentioned rarely (Kinsley 14). Ratri is affiliated with darkness and is often called gloomy and barren when compared to Usas (Wangu 33; Kinsley 14).  In some hymns of the Rg Vedas, she is referred to as hostile despite her usual depiction as a benign being (Kinsley 14). Unlike Usas, whose abode is not known, Ratri is said to live in the abode of Yama the god of death in the south (Wangu 33; Kumar and Ram 66). Ratri is admired for the stars she bares as light in the darkness, letting all creatures rest and for giving dew. Though she is seen as the guardian of the night but she is also seen as the very things, both hostile and benign, that thrive in the night (Kinsley 14). People will petition Ratri for protection against the evils of the night such as thieves, wolves and any other creatures that could do them harm. In the Rg Vedas, there are hymns in which Ratri, the night and darkness, is chased away by the god of fire, Agni and Usas (Kinsley 14). Unlike Usas and Prthivi, Ratri is not as well studied.

Bibliography and Related Readings

Bunce, Fredrick (2000) An Encyclopaedia of Hindu Deities, Demigods, Godlings, Demons and Heros with Special Focus on Iconographic Attributes, Vol 1. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.

Chitgopekar, Nilima (2002) Invoking Goddesses: Gender Politics in Indian Religion. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications Pvt. Ltd.

Cush, Denise, Robinson, Cathrine, York, Michael (2008) Encyclopaedia of Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Friedrichs, Kurt (1989) The Encyclopaedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc.

Kapoor, Subodh (2000) The Hindus Encyclopaedia of Hinduism: Vol 5 Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Hinduism. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Kapoor, Subodh (2002) Encyclopaedia of Vedic Philosophy: The Age, Religion, Literature, Pantheon, Philosphy, Traditions, and Teachers of the Vedas, Vol 4. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Kumar, R., Ram, S (2008) Hinduism: Religion and Philosophy. New Delhi: Crescent Publishing Corporation.

Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Stutley, Margaret, Stutley, James (2003) A Dictionary of Hinduism: Its Mythology, Folklore, and Development 1500 BC – AD 1500. London: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Sullivan, Bruce M (1987) Historical Dictionary of Hinduism. London: The Scarecrow Press Inc.

Walker, Benjamin (1983) Hindu World: An Encyclopaedic Survey of Hinduism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Wangu, Madhu Bazaz (2003) Images of Indian Goddesses: Myths, Meanings and Models. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Wilkins, W. J (1975) Hindu Mythology. New Delhi: Rekha Printers Ltd.


Related Research Topics



Bhu / Bhudevi








Related Websites

http://www.sacred-texts.com/etc/omw/omw63.htm (Usas)

http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/av/av07018.htm (Prthivi)

http://www.sacred-texts.com/tantra/sas/sas04.htm (Ratri)


Article written by: Nicole Stevenson (March 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.

Cosmogonies in the Vedic Samhitas

A cosmogony is a theory about how the universe originated; it may take on a mythological form as a creation story, or it may be presented in the form of a philosophical treatise, a divinely inspired revelation, or a scientific theory. The aim of any cosmogonic postulation is to provide an answer to the questions “How did we get here?” and “How did our universe originate?”, and in doing so, help us to lay some groundwork for asking the bigger questions of “Who, or what, am I?” Within the Hindu tradition there is much speculation on these fundamental questions, and many different theories have been put forth from theistic creation by a supreme being to the evolution of order from primordial chaos.

A striking characteristic of the Hindu religion is the wealth of diversity found within the traditions that are subsumed under the umbrella term of “Hinduism”; this characteristic diversity is particularly evident when we consider the many distinct perspectives on cosmogony which are accepted as orthodox. Compared to traditional Judeo-Christian cosmogony, where there is essentially one perspective of the creationary act which is primarily expounded in the first couple chapters of the book of Genesis, the range of perspectives on cosmogony found in the Hindu tradition can appear quite intimidating. Though the expansiveness of the tradition’s cosmogony can seem daunting, and the somewhat obscure nature of the traditions cosmogonic postulations may seem impregnable, distinct streams of thought can be seen running through the traditions which help us delineate the different theoretical systems at play, allowing us to group related cosmogonic traditions together categorically. We are able to categorize the cosmogonies of ancient India into those that view our universe as being begotten from the activity of material principles, those which view our universe as resulting from the activity of abstract principles, and those which view our universe as resulting from the work of a divine agency, or divine principles (Bhattacharyya 2). Material principles can be defined as substances that are clearly observable matter such as water, wind, fire, and earth. Abstract principles are human concepts such as desire, being, non-being, time, and chaos, and creative energy. The divine principles found within the Vedic Samhitas are cosmic beings such as Brahma-Prajapati, Brahman, and Visvakarman. According to Bhattacharyya (2) a process of evolution is evident in Indian ideas of cosmogony, developing from primitive materialistic conceptions, through abstract formulations, and then to cosmogonies which explain our universe as resulting from the actions of a supreme being or divine presence.

Theories that view our nascent reality, including the gods, as emerging from pre-existent matter appear to be the oldest Hindu cosmogonies, though this may seem counter-intuitive to those in the modern occident where the inheritors of the Enlightenment thinking and dogma have a tendency to presuppose that primitive man was hopelessly ensnared in “superstitious” supernaturalism, creating his gods and his myths to answer any difficult question that might arise. According to Bhattacharyya (2) it seemed “perfectly reasonable to the primitive peoples who saw land growing from the accumulations of river-borne silt and desert wastes rendered cultivatable by irrigation, to conclude, for instance, that water was the primary element and the source of all that existed.” The belief that our cosmos developed out of primordial water is very common in the ancient world, and can be found in the cosmogonies of the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and there are even hints of it in the Hebrew Bible, although here the water is subjugated to the presence of the divine YHWH (“And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” American Standard Version). The similarities between this passage and the creation account found in Nasadiya hymn (Griffith) of the Rg Veda are striking. I reproduce this account in full because of its centrality to the early Vedic understandings of cosmogony, and also because it represents a confluence of many different Hindu conceptualizations of the creative act in that it includes elements from the cosmogonic formulations beginning with material principles (water), those beginning with abstract principles (night, chaos, desire, warmth) and those beginning with divine principles (God/ the One. Verse.7). An interesting characteristic of this hymn is that it does not really seem to make truth-claims the same way as we find in say, the first couple chapters of Genesis. Instead the writers seem to be asking questions, and following different lines of inquiry, instead of trying to lay out a calculated and definitive answer to the cosmogonical issue.

HYMN CXXIX. Creation

“1. THEN was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.

What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

2. Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider.

That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.

3. Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.

All that existed then was void and formless: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.

4. Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.

Sages who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.

5. Transversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below it?

There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder

6. Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?

The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?

7. He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it

Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

The gross elements which are credited as the foundational substances of reality came to be called the bhutas, a concept which is found in an embryonic form in the Rg Veda and is developed in the later Vedic literature, including the Upanisads (Lal 7) Aside from primordial water (apah), the other well established bhutas include agni (fire), vayu or vata (wind), dyaus or akasa (sky), and prthivi (earth) (Lal 7). These principles have a dual nature as both material elements and also, later, as deities such as Agni, Vayu and Dyaus. Exegesis of the Rg Veda and critical reflection lead to the hypothesis that these elements were first observed empirically in the environment and recognized as “natural” phenomena, and only later sacralized as personal deities who could be approached by man and propitiated through rituals. This chronology goes against the accepted “wisdom” of many dogmatic materialists who have created a historical myth which perceives humanities intellectual development as an upward evolution from “superstitious supernaturalism” and “blind faith” towards “rationality” and “empirical science.” These individuals imply that belief in the unseen is necessarily a vestigial relic of the primitive mind which is unwilling to grasp the stark reality that there can be no ultimate reality which transcends empirically observed phenomena and lies outside the grasp of man’s rational mind; there can be no realms beyond our perceptual capacities, and no realities unfathomable to the rational mind. The reality is that the intellectual development of the ancient Hindus probably followed a chronology antithetical to their dogma; at the level of the intellectual elite, the Hindus first conceived of creation as resulting from material principles, then abstract principles, and then the divine principles. Closely related to these cosmogonies based on basic material principles is the concept of hiranya-garbha (the Golden Embryo, or World Egg) which, again, ancient Hindu cosmogonies share with other ancient cultures. In most of its many incarnations this concept envisions our embryonic cosmos as existing in the form of an enormous egg which floats on top of a fathomless deep (Bhattacharya 3). With the hatching of this egg, the cosmos spring into life, just as a young chick bursts forth from its shell when the appointed time has come. The idea here is that just as the life of a reptile or a bird lies dormant within its shell, the primordial Life of the cosmos at one time lied dormant within a cosmic World Egg. Again we see the ancient Indian’s conceptualizing the cosmic nativity in terms of things that they had observed empirically in the world around them.

The second stream of thought within ancient Hindu cosmogonies is the idea that the universe emerged from abstract principles, as opposed to merely evolving out of matter or being created by a divine being. The Nasadiya creation hymn I reproduced earlier exhibits the influence of this stream of thought in verse three where “darkness,” “void,” “indiscriminated chaos,” and “Warmth,” are spoken of as primordial principles which played a role in the emergence of the universe as we know it. These formulations are, again, not unique to Hindu thought, but are found throughout many cultures around the world. The primary characteristic that distinguishes the material principles from the abstract ones is that the material cosmogonies are based on observable substances such as water (apah) or fire (agni), whereas the abstract cosmogonies are based on immaterial human concepts such as desire, disorder, being, or non-being. Some particularly important abstract principles for Hindu cosmogony are the ideas of sat, asat, and of tapas. The word sat can be translated as being, the word asat as non-being, and the word tapas, which is literally translated as flame, can in respect to cosmogony be considered to refer to a creative cosmic fire, or spark. According to Miller (51) tapas is what drives the universe forward, causes the primordial elements to blossom into the universe as we know it, then drives the cycle its conclusion only to restart anew. This idea of a cyclical universe may not have been envisioned by the rsis as it is laid out in the Puranas, and scholars debate when the concept of a cyclical reality developed in Hindu thought (Miller 64). In the Rg Veda we read that the universal order, or rta, as well as Truth, were both created through the action of the tapas. Griffith translates the beginning of this creation hymn (Rg Veda XCX. 1) as follows: “FROM Fervour kindled to its height Eternal Law and Truth were born: Thence was the Night produced, and thence the Billowy flood of sea arose.” In this hymn we see the abstract concepts of Night, Eternal Law, Truth, and Fervour (tapas) giving rise to the material concept of the primordial sea. Furthermore, in the Atharva Veda (XI.8) we read that “Both Tapas and action were within the mighty ocean. Tapas arose from action; that did they worship as highest.” (Roth and Whitney)

Keeping with what appears to be a philosophical method of extrapolating cosmogonic theories from observable, empirical phenomena, the rsis envisioned the conception of the cosmos in procreative terms. In this way, the Vedic Samhitas put forth the idea of a fundamental sexual dualism which draws a distinction between a paternal Sky Father named Dyaus and a maternal Earth Mother named Prthivi, The Samhitas claim in several places that it is these two beings that gave birth to the gods as well as men, and that they sustain all created beings (Rg Veda I.159.2; 160.2; 185.1) According to Bhattacharyya (5) the concept of heaven and earth as universal parents eventually developed into the idea of Prakrti who “began to be conceived of as the germinal productive principle- the eternal mother capable of evolving all created things out of herself but never so creating unless united with the eternal spiritual principle, the Purusa.” In a later work entitled the Purusa-sukta, the idea is put forth that our universe was created by a cosmic being who sacrificed his own body to himself, and so from the various parts of his body different parts of our reality were born; the gods Indra and Agni arose from his mouth, the sun emanated from his eyes, etc. We have now started to shift from abstract principles to beings that much more closely resemble conventional divinities. Dyaus and Prthivi can be conceived of as “proper” gods with personalities, or they can be seen as cosmic principles of masculinity and femininity. Just where they fall on the spectrum between these two conceptions appears to remain convoluted in the texts of the early Vedic Samhitas; the same goes for the concepts of Prakrti and the Purusa.

The variety of perspectives on cosmogony within the Samhitas becomes apparent when one realizes that although the heavens and earth are said to have given rise to the gods, in other passages it appears as if the gods were responsible for the creation of the heavens and earth! We see the rsis in the first mandala of the Rg Veda (I.189.1) asking how the heavens and earth first came into being, and how they were created, while maintaining that they still support all things that exist: “WHETHER of these is elder, whether later? How were they born? Who knoweth it, ye sages? These of themselves support all things existing: as on a car the Day and Night roll onward.” (Griffith). Bhattacharyya (19) shows that in another passage (Rg Veda X.81.2-4) this question is repeated, and the answer is given that the sole creator is a being called Visvakarman: “ He who hath eyes on all sides round about him, a mouth on all sides, arms and feet on all sides, He, the Sole God, producing earth and heaven, weldeth them, with his arms as wings, together. What was the tree, what wood in sooth produced it, from which they fashioned out the earth and heaven? Ye thoughtful men inquire within your spirit whereon he stood when he established all things.” (Griffith) Here we see the movement towards the idea of the deva ekah or the one god or being from whom existence found its origin.

Part of the reason that the Samhitas seem to have such a convoluted system of cosmogony, if it can be called a system at all, is because the texts take a henotheistic approach to their worship of the divine and their hymnology. This means that although the system is polytheistic and there is a sense that each god has their own specialized role in the cosmos, when the worshippers approach each deity they elevate it to the supreme position in the pantheon and address the deity as if addressing the Supreme. It can be argued that this is a prefiguring of later developments in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita where all the gods are seen as extensions of the one god, or the one Being. Just some of the Vedic gods who are attributed with a significant role in creation include, Usas, Brahmanaspati, Soma, Varuna, Agni, Brahma-prajapati, and Mitra. The development towards the idea of a single divinity who was primarily responsible for creation finds its expression with the developments of deities like Brahma Prajapati, Visvakarman, and eventually the later development of the idea Brahman, the all pervading eternal presence which is the immutable and all-encompassing Self. According the Bhattacharyya (18) it appears as if the development of the idea of a single Creator responsible for the establishment of the cosmic order was an unfolding process that took place over time, a process which was proceeded by a period in which the “various departments of nature were distributed to different gods, each to preside over his own area.” Each of these gods was deemed to be responsible for some part of the creation, depending on what their exact role was in the preservation of the cosmos, what status they held within the pantheon, and the process by which the deity themselves were allegedly created.

Originally then, the name Visvakarman, or the “great architect of the universe” (Bhattacharya 18), was used to refer to a number of gods who were believed to play some special role in the creation of the universe; this word only later came to refer to a single creative divinity. In this way we find both Surya the sun-god (Rg Veda X.170.4) and Indra (Rg Veda IV.17.4) referred to as Visvakarman in the Vedas. When conceived as a single creator god, Visvakarman is envisioned as all seeing, with eyes, faces, arms and feet protruding from all sides of his body. Furthermore, it is maintained that he is responsible for endowing the gods with their abilites and their names, and also for creating the heavens and the earth (Bhattacharyya 19).

Brahma Prajapati, or Hiranyagarbha, the other Vedic god who is seen as being important for creation, is described in similar terms; he is seen as having arisen from the primordial waters and is responsible for the creation of the world and the preservation of the sky and the earth. It is also maintained that the gods derive their power from him and that they are subject to his will for he is the “god over all the gods” (Bhattacharyya 19). With the later theological, cosmological, and mythological developments of the Upanishads, the Puranas, and the Epics we see a flowering of this concept of the Ineffable One, and also the development of some new conceptions of cosmogony and the relationship between the Supreme Being and its creation. The various modern traditions subsumed under the umbrella term “Hinduism” are still influenced by the ancient cosmogonies which envisioned material, abstract, and divine principles as having each been responsible for the creation of our universe, either working alone or in concert. To this day Hindus the world over, and indeed individuals of all faiths and creeds, continue to ponder the origins, destiny, and meaning of our universe, as well as mankind’s place in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Bhattacharyya, <!– [if supportFields]> SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1<![endif]–><!– [if supportFields]><![endif]–>Narendra Nath (1983) History of Indian Cosmogonical Ideas. New Delhi: Munishiram Manoharlal.

Gombrich, Richard F. (1975) “Ancient Indian Cosmology.” In Ancient Cosmologies. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Kuiper, P.B.J. (1983) Ancient Indian Cosmogony. New Delhi: Viskas Publishing House.

Kumarappa, Bharatan (1986) Realism and Illusionism in Hinduism. New Delhi: Mayur Publications.

Lal, J. K. (1995) Pancamahabhutas, Origin and Myths in Vedic literature, in volume two, Vedic Buddhist and Jain Traditions, of the seven-volume, multi- author collection Prakrti: The Integral Vision. Kapila Vatsayayan (ed.). New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Miller, Jeanine (1985) The Vision of Cosmic Order in the Veda. London: Routledge & Kegan.

Muir, John (1873) Original Sanskrit Texts on the Origin and Progress of the Religion and Institutions of India. London: Williams and Norgate.

Prabhavananda, Swami, & Manchester, Frederick (2002) The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal. New York: Published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.

Ralph T. H. Griffith (1974) The Hymns of the Rgveda. Orient Book Distributors

Vatsayayan (ed.) (1995) Prakrti: The Integral Vision, a seven-volume, multi-author work. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Whitney, William Dwight (2002) Atharvavedasamhita: Sanskrit text, English translation, notes & index of verses according to the translation or W.D. Whitney and Bhasya of Sayanacarya (encluding 20th Kanda). Delhi: Parimal Publications.

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Written by Caleb Ostrom (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.