ORIGINS OF SECRET MANTRA (DAY 3): VEDIC HYMNS TO DIVINE MOTHER NATURE: Oral myths, poems and praises to the Gods of Nature and the importance of the Vedas for understanding Buddhist Secret Mantra origins (by 17th Karmapa).

“United be your purpose, harmonious be your feelings, collected be your mind, in the same way as all the various aspects of the universe exist in togetherness, wholeness.”

एक हमारा उद्देश्य हो, सुसंगत हमारी भावना हो ।

एकत्रित हमारे विचार हो, जैसे सब कुछ इस विश्व में एकता में है ॥

Source: Rig Veda VIII.8.49.4

Introduction/Summary

Here is the write-up of Day 3 of the 17th Karmapa’s teachings on the Origins of Secret Mantra (for full video and oral translation, see here). To briefly summarise,  in the first section of this teaching, the Karmapa spoke about the Vedas in terms of the:

  • Importance of the Vedas for studying Indian history, thought and culture
  • Meaning and purpose of the word Vedas and their content.
  • Three main textual categories of the Vedas
  • The four root text Vedas
  • Their oral transmission and focus on pronunciation
  • The compilers of the Vedas  and the development of the Indian caste system
  • Two of the most well-known compilers – Viśvamitra and Vasiṣṭha

In Part II of the teaching, the Karmapa spoke in details about some of the Gods of the Vedas themselves in terms of three categories, sky, air and earth Gods.

May we all have the merit to for the dawn to melt our hearts and shine illuminate the origins of secret mantra and realise its essence!

Musical inspiration? A Vedic hymn to the goddess of Dawn, Ushas (with Sanskrit and English subtitles):
and Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles :
 

Written, compiled and edited by Adele Tomlin, 30th August 2021.

 

PART I: THE VEDAS

The importance of the Vedas for understanding Indian culture, history and Buddhism
Section of Rig Veda held in British Museum, see https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/rig-veda. This manuscript, written on coarse paper by various scribes, is a Padapātha version representing a word-by-word recitation of the hymns. The accentuation marks in red are used to signal three main accents: udātta, acute; anudātta, unmarked low, and svarita, grave accent.

The 17th Karmapa began by re-iterating the importance of studying and knowing about the Vedas:

“Vajrayana is a sub-set of Buddhism and in order to discuss Buddhism the origin is India. So we need to know a little bit about the history of India and its civilisation. Once we know the origins of the Secret Mantra vajrayana then we know its basis and we can understand the reasons and crucial points for practicing it. However, in our monastic institutions, we aren’t able to discuss all the topics that are taught in ordinary schools, and so this time, I will follow the general way contemporary historians describe things. It might be a little difficult for some of the sangha members to understand. Yet, if we continue to say, ‘oh I don’t know about that’, then that is not OK. Then we have no basis or support. Eventually in our monastic institutions, we need to take a certain degree of interest in history and education and not be left behind in contemporary education. Otherwise, in order to get along with other people, if we don’t understand how things are done, then we won’t be able to progress and get along with other people. There is a reason and purpose to do it this way.”

The Vedic Period

“We can talk about Indian history in terms of four eras. We have to divide it because it is thousands of years old and difficult to understand. That is why it is good to divide it into sections. The second period is the Vedic period, of which there are two parts because it is also very long period of time. When the Vedas first appeared, the culture was being formed by the Aryan peoples. At that time, they did not have a written language or writing. They had their own original language, as I mentioned before, and they moved in stages from central Asia to India. When they arrived in India they developed the Vedic language., which then developed into the Sanskrit language. That is the hypothesis of most scholars. In terms of the language of Sanskrit, when did it arise? It probably first developed in the 6th or 7th century BC. How did they study and learn the Vedas and Vedic literature at that time? It was done by oral transmission and that is how they were transmitted and preserved. At that time, there was no tradition of preserving them in writing.

Thus, if we need to study the Vedic period, the main source is the Rig Veda. There is basically no other historical source. What is described in that are the ways the Aryan people fought battles in the areas of Punjab, after they arrived there. What is the reason they are called Vedas? In Sanskrit it is called ‘Veda’, it has now become widely used, and so most of you have probably heard it. The Rig Veda is the earliest of the Vedas and the source for the other Vedas. The Rig Veda speaks about many topics and has a vast scope. 

As I mentioned before, there are no historical documents around the time of the Rig Veda, so if we want to study Indian history and culture we have the Vedas and the two great epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. They are indispensable documents for all of us.”

Vedas as Divine Knowledge and Wisdom

“Now I would like to speak about Vedic literature in general. As I mentioned before, the word Veda is a Sanskrit word, which has many different meanings. Among all the different meanings though, the main one is ‘knowledge’ or ‘prajna/wisdom’. The Vedas are believed to have originated from the mouths of the ancient sages who were blessed with the power of the Gods.

It is like the Gesar epics in Tibet, among the people who are uneducated and illiterate, there are these bards and while they are leading their lives and caring for livestock, they fall asleep and in their dreams they dream about the events at the time of Gesar. Then, when they wake up they feel a bit unwell and unhealthy. When they recover they unhesitatedly recite the  text of Gesar, as if it is a recording and they can say all the words clearly. Actually, they don’t know how to read nor had any education, yet they recite volumes of texts of Gesar epics from memory. 

The Indians believe that through the power of the Gods the Indian sages were just able to recite the Vedas from their minds. That is their belief. Therefore, the word Veda means to come from the power of the Gods. If we practice the Vedic texts then we will be able to develop unexcelled wisdom and to gain knowledge. That is the history. “

King Gesar of Ling, hero of epic mythology in 12th Century
Three main textual categories of the Vedic Literature
Vedic Literature – Three Types (image from 17th Karmapa’s teaching)

“When we talk about the Vedas, we can get a deeper understanding of them by discussing the Vedic literature, not just the four Vedas but the other compositions and texts that can be included in this category. 

The Vedic literature has three main sections:

1) Mantras/Samhit – these are the root texts of the Vedas.

2) Brahmans. In Tibetan we probably say the texts of Brahmans (tsangpai Zhung).

3) Upanishads. This word had many different meanings such as saying ‘nearby’. I have never seen it translated into Tibetan, so it is better to use the Sanskrit word. 

So, we label the Vedas with same word, however, the actual Vedas, or the root texts, are what we call the Mantras, the first section; the root texts of the Vedas.

The second section and the third section are like commentaries on these root texts. The second one is mainly about rituals and the third is mainly about the Vedic philosophy or tenets (thadrub). 

The Four Vedas
Edition of Rig Veda text

“What are the actual Vedas? It is the first section of literature, which is a collection of Hymns or Praises. Later scholars called them the root Vedic texts, not praises, but root texts. These four Vedas, or four root texts are the earliest texts in the Brahmanical religion of India. Many of you have heard the word Vedas. When I was young, while studying poetry, there was a lot of discussion about common areas of knowledge in the Vedas, and the four Vedic texts. So I heard this term four Vedas before.

So what are the four Vedas? 

  1. The first one is called the Rig Veda . Among the four Vedas, this is the oldest and most important. 
  2. The second is called Yajurveda and even within that, it also has two parts. The Krishna part and the Shukla part. Basically the light and the dark part. 
  3. The third is called the Samaveda, Veda of melody or chants.
  4. The fourth is the Atharvaveda.

Among the four Vedas, the Rig Veda is the earliest of the root Vedic texts. People might think that from the beginning there were four of them and they could not have been separate. However, if we look at the history, the four Vedas did not appear at the same time, there is an order to how they appeared. There is also a difference in terms of their content and meaning too.

Generally, the basic framework or way they are constructed are basically the same. They supplement and augment each other. What is clear in one, is unclear in another. or they fill in the gaps and so on. They are connected in that way. Basically, when you think about the four Vedas they developed over the course of several hundred years and gathered over many generations and compiled into one. It was not a single person who wrote them all at the same time. 

However, when they first appeared, no one talked about there being four Vedas. At the beginning, there was only the Rig Veda. As for the time it appeared, it is estimated to be probably compiled from 1500 to 1000 BC. What is it? Mainly a collection of hymns, melodies, and praises for the gods.”

No written records – the art of sound and memorization
Edition of Rig Veda.

“There around 1000 sections of the songs and 10 000 verses. If we divide the whole textual corpus into books, there are ten books. When the Rig Veda first appeared it was not written down as there was no writing. It was transmitted orally and memorised and that is how it was maintained.

The reason for transmitting them orally is the compilers really wanted to keep the sound and language exactly as it was.  For example, when we recite and memorize texts in Tibetan, we don’t worry about if the sound or pronunciation is correct or not. However, when they recited the Vedas, they took great care over the pronunciation and sound. They had  a strict manner of doing it and a sequence of doing it. 

It wasn’t written down at first, because it was transmitted from one person to the next. At the later Vedic time,  it was compiled. There are some differences after they had been transmitted when they compiled all the variations and only then did they record them in writing. 

There was the great Chinese master, Yi Jing (I mentioned before) who went to India in the 7th Century AD. In his record of that trip, he says ‘the Vedas were all  transmitted orally and had not been written down’. So what this shows is that when he saw the Indian Brahmins, they had memorised the Vedas they were reciting. In the Indian tradition, reciting means memorising. In our tradition, when we say reciting, we don’t mean having memorised it. They were all recited orally from memory.

Those Brahmins  were able to recite 100 000 verses from memory. For example, we have got the Prajnaparamita in 100 000 verses.  It is like being able to recite that from memory in one go.  They had amazing recitation abilities. Not everyone could do that, only the most intelligent and sharpest minds. At that time, the Indians were intent on reciting texts. This need to recite  texts from memory is mentioned in the Vinaya and comes from Indian culture and from their great interest in doing that.

It is very beneficial because there were many invasions from outside, that might destroy a lot of Indian cultural artifacts. However, if you haven’t memorized the texts and they are burnt or lost, then it is a huge loss. However, if people have memorised it, you would have to kill them all, otherwise you would not be able to destroy the teachings.  This is a particular beneficial quality of memorising texts.

For example, by memorising the Vinaya, if you clearly understand the rules and reasons of the Vinaya, then you will know immediately what you have to do in a given situation. otherwise, you have to look it up in a text. Then, you cannot be independent and you have to bring the text with you and check, whether it is permissible for me or not. 

That was a digression, but in brief, the main point among the four Vedas, is that the Rig Veda is the basis for the other four Vedas. It is like a collection of hymns to nature Gods, written by the Ayrans. At that time, the Gods were mainly seen as natural phenomena like the sun, stars, sky and so on, and they created these praising Hymns. In the other Vedas, there are recitations from the Rig Veda, so it is a very important text.

Likewise, if we want to research Indian religion and mythology then the Rig Veda is an indispensable historical source. For this reason, in the 19th Century, a German scholar who is well-versed in philosophy called Deussen [Paul Jakob Deussen (7 January 1845 – 6 July 1919)][i] stated that there is no way to know Indian philosophy without knowing the Rig Veda. I think this really seems true and there are reasons why he said it. The reason is because the Rig Veda is the root of it all, so we absolutely have to know this text. “

Paul Deussen, German Scholar on the Vedas
The Rig Veda, Seven Sages and the development of the caste system

“If the Rig Veda is so important then who is the author, is there someone who created it? Generally, one thing we need to know is when they first appeared, at that time, there were distinctions in caste, anyone could perform sacrifices, cite praises or pray and so on`. Later, the caste system came into being, and only certain people were allowed to do that. Other castes were not allowed to do these things. At that time, anyone could do it, yet there were differences in people, in terms of their education and skills and so on. So among these different types of people, there were people like that and they were the ones who wrote the Rig Veda. If we translate it into English it is the  seven sages, or wise ones. It is said to have been written by seven sages but when researchers analysed it, they say it was probably not written by seven people. When examining the texts, they think it was probably  compiled over the course of seven hundred years.

In particular, in the ancient Indian culture, the people of the same tradition or family would all have the same names. If someone in the family wrote something, then someone in the same family could use that name and write with it. So it is passed down to generations of the same family. When we talk about seven sages they are probably seven people of the same lineage who wrote the Vedas.

These seven people were respected very highly because they were different from ordinary people. Particularly, when the Vedas first appeared, they were said to come from the blessings of the Gods, like our Gesar epics these days, people would be able to recite them from memory. People said they must have direct connection with the Gods and for that reason they were called Rishis, or sages in English. What this shows us is that, at that time, anyone could perform offerings or rituals and so on, unlike in the the later Indian tradition.

However, when doing a very elaborate sacrifice you need someone with the experience, knowledge and skills to do that service. So when they were doing that, they had their own guru, the clerics who advised the Kings, and  another to perform sacrifices for the King. Any King had to have someone with the education and experience to have the status of a royal priest. Likewise, with armies they needed a special person to conduct sacrifices and rituals. When it was a special or elaborate ritual they had to have special people to do it. That is how gradually the Brahman class developed because they had studied these Vedic rituals and sacrifices.

Then, the Brahmins started to say ‘oh we are the highest caste and the others are not as good’ and so on. That’s how the class distinctions began and developed. Likewise, when they were first developing the Vedas, there were no temples, there was no custom of building them. There was no fixed place where you had to perform a sacrifice. There weren’t even statues or figures of the Gods. Similarly, the sages who wrote the Vedas, if we consider the mythology they seem totally superior to other people. Actually, the sages were ordinary people, with families and belongings. At that time, every household had a head of the family, this was usually the father. If not the father, it was the oldest son. They had the responsibility to perform rituals. If they needed to go to war he had to do that, or do the farming and agriculture whatever what was necessary. So they had a lot of work to do.” [ii]

In brief, the caste system slowly developed and before that people did many types of work. For that reason, the caste system developed at that time.  One person had to do many different things before the caste system, so there were no distinctions between higher and lower that developed later.” 

Two of the most well-known Veda compilers – Viśvamitra and Vasiṣṭha

“As I said before, when the Vedas first appeared the compilers were the seven sages who became renowned. Two of  the most well-known are:

1) Vishvamitra [Viśvamitra]  and

2) Vashishta [Rṣi Vasiṣṭha Maitrāvaruṇi] (see slide).

These were the greatest of the seven sages. Their names are probably in Tibetan but I couldn’t find them, so I have used only Sanskrit. They appeared at the same time as each other, and there was a King called Sudās [Sudās Paijavana (Sanskrit: सुदास्) an Indo-Aryan tribal king of the Bharatas, during the main or middle Rigvedic period (c. 14th century BCE)].

This King was very well-known and he respected both these sages. He looked up to them a lot. We have the saying though: ‘in a single land you cannot have two Kings, just like you cannot have two tigers on the same hill. They will fight over the area.’ In the same way, the two sages fell out with each other and there were many disputes. Their descendants also had many disputes and even battles. We don’t need to speak about the details. Later, people would say that the sage Vashishta is in the Brahmin and Vishvamitra was in the Chaitya class, royal class. At that time there was  no distinction between these two classes. But later, during the later Vedic period, after the caste system had developed, then they were explained as being of a different caste. They were seen as being very important. Later, as I speak about other situations, it is possible I will mention these two again.

 King Sudās was a very important historical figure from that period. The reason is because when the Aryans were living in the region of Punjab, they were not a particular Kingdom or tribe or clan with their own leader. At that time,  King Sudās was the most powerful chief of the largest and most powerful of the tribes. Then, in that area of Punjab, there was often a lot of fighting between dark and light-skinned people. The light skinned and blue eyed ones were the Aryans. It is said that the Buddha himself had light skin and blue eyes. So it is said.

The dark-skinned people were the indigenous people who had been present in the area before the Aryans arrived. They were said to be short and had very flat noses. The Aryans would criticise them as having no nose and so on . They called them ‘the noseless people’ or ‘dark-skinned barbarians’. There were many fights between them.

Among the Aryans themselves there were also many fights. King Sudas was so powerful, and there were different tribes like the Aryans who thought they should oppose him and take over. So the King was very skillful and was able to defeat and subdue the disputes in the Aryan people[ii]. He is also said to have preserved the religions and culture of the Aryan people and also protected the two sages, I mentioned before.

For that reason, the Rig Veda text and other important literature were able to remain for thousands of years due to the support and protection of this King, so it is said.”

Battle at the time of King Sudās

PART II: THE GODS OF NATURE

The purpose and relevance of Vedic myths and their worship of the Nature Gods

“As I was describing, the hymns in the Rig Veda are mainly about their worship of nature, sky, earth, clouds and so on, which are considered sacred and as being Gods. They view nature as having a divine character. So there are hymns to nature, and offerings to all the Gods, and the Vedas are a collection of such Hymns. When we say all the Gods, then we have to speak about the myths and the Gods. 

The Vedas speak often of the Gods, and researchers these days, have many opinions about the reasons or functions of them. In general terms, when human civilisation was first developing in this world, the origins of our world and the way we think about things had increased, people believed that all the things in the natural world were alive like human beings. They believed that the powers of the natural world were greater than powers of humans. If we think about the Gods or myths from a human perspective, they are talking about humans’ wish to understand their hopes and fears and the truth of their situation. So the myths are mixed together with the feelings and hopes of ordinary people.

Another perspective is that the myths describe what the environment was like at that time, the climate, the customs, and the situation in society. These are all expressed in myths. Thus, the myths and stories of the Gods are crucial for studying the history and culture. Some people think myths are pointless or meaningless, but that is not true.

They are very important for the study of culture and society. In particular, for the study of religion and philosophy, mythology is indispensable. Mythology is like the original nature or form of the original philosophy. As it developed, it became more complicated. However at the beginning, it shows the level of people’s thinking in a rather simple way, expressed in mythologies in terms of the nature Gods. When we research the Vedas, especially the transmission of the stories in the Vedas, it is very important in the study of the Indian religion and in the origins of India. The Vedic literature also is like the ancient Greek and ancient Roman myths. All those myths are dead. The myths remain, but no one practices them anymore.

However, the Vedic mythology is still alive because people still worship and believe the Vedas. They are living myths not dead myths, which have already become old. There is nothing wrong in saying that. 

If you say you know Indian philosophy without knowing Vedic Philosophy that is rather a bold statement to make. The same goes with Buddhism. It developed in India and the influence of the Vedas can be seen in Buddhism, particularly in the Secret Mantra Vajrayana. For those reasons, it is very important.

When we talk about and do research on the Vedic literature, who are the Gods at the time of the original Vedas? They looked at the sky and its infinite nature and vastness and they must have thought how powerful it is and there must be a God there. Similarly, when thinking of the sun, they recognised it is extremely powerful. Crops can grow and ripen due to it, so basically the sun is indispensable for sentient beings. They thought, ‘it is not `just an object but must be a God’. They were like scientists and asked what does it do? It ripens crops, it gives us warmth, and it definitely has some power greater than humans. That kind of thinking led them to gradually create Gods.

In the Himalayan regions and Tibet, people still have a similar way of thinking. For example, we Tibetans consider most mountains to be gods right? On the top of the mountain is a God and on the slopes are Gods, or an old or special tree, we might say there must be a naga or a God there. Whether there is a God or a Naga there, we cannot see it. Yet, when these are spoken about in the folk stories, we think maybe there is a naga or god, something there. Nowadays,  many people think ‘oh this is just stupid and this is mere blind faith and superstition, that there is no God there” and so on. We think it is just an ignorant belief and meaningless. However, if we think about it from another perspective, when we view the natural environment as being alive and divine, that its power is greater than humans and the ancestors had to rely on the natural environment and had to preserve it, so it very important in those environmental ways. Thus it is an important and good way of thinking in terms of respecting and preserving the natural environment.

The converse is thinking that the natural environment is not important and we can do whatever we want with it. We think it is all for people to consume and use however they want. Yet this has created huge environmental destruction. We consume, use and destroy everything for ourselves. Our environmental problems in this era are something we absolutely have to face up to and look at though, as they are so critical at this point. This shows that this way of thinking about nature is very important and beneficial. “

The three types of Vedic Gods

“Within the Vedas there are many different Gods. if we had to speak about all of them, it would take too long. When dividing the Gods into groups, at first there were no such distinctions between the Gods. However, later in the 5th Century BC, they were divided into three classes or groups. What are these three?

1) Sky Gods [translated in HH’s talk as ‘Gods in Heaven’, the Tibetan word is namkha though which means ‘sky’ or ‘space’].

2) Air Gods

3) Earth Gods

In each of these three groups, there are eleven, so in total there are thirty-three. We talk about the Gods of the thirty-three heavens in our tradition right? This is the origin from where that arose. There are many Gods not associated with these three classes or levels, yet there are many within these three though. I will now give an introduction to some of them.

Sky Gods

1)Dyaus 

2) Varuna

3) Vishnu

4) Ushas

These are all sky-Gods, the first is Dyaus.

Dyaus – Sky God in Vedas

Dyaus the is the sky God, in English we would call him the God of Light. He is a very important God because he is the ancestor of all the Gods. Not only that, the Aryan peoples originated in central Asia and migrated in all directions from there. There are many different Aryan groups and they all worshipped this God. In Greece, they said Zeus, or Jupiter, Thor or Jovis and he had many different names. It was one God though. This Vedic God Dyaus, I looked for an image but could not find one, but I find this one of Zeus. He is the King of the Gods in Ancient Greek mythology. The name is different but the essence of the God is the same.

Image of the Greek God, Zeus (presented in 17th Karmapa’s teaching)

There are many different people who worshipped this God. For that reason scholars, hypothesized this God was worshipped by the Aryans arrived in India before they split off in different directions. So, for the Aryans in India and who went West, and then went South, and later in ancient Greek and Roman mythology he was the main God, That faith gradually decreased as him being the King of the Gods, and  lost his position as the main God and King and they promoted other Gods to that position. Similarly, when we look at the Rig Veda, it says that this God and the Earth goddess united and became the Earth God, Dyaus-Prtvi ? They thought that all Gods came from a single family. So this Ancestor of all the Gods needs to create another one, then he has to have the nature of both sky and earth.

Varuna

Sky-god in Vedas

Some of you will know about the next God, Varuna, because when we do the torma ritual in three parts, or the Gutor Mahakala ritual, we refer to this God, Varuna.

 In Tibetan, we say Varuna is the water-God. Below him is a crocodile. The ancient Indians did not know how to draw crocodiles properly it seems. It is a very long animal, so the neck became very long and then the back part is very short. So we say in Tibetan chudzin, this is a water creature, we might not recognise this as a crocodile. We did not know that the Tibetan chudzin is crocodile, because it was such a long animal. But this drawing is Ok of a crocodile. Varuna has been worshipped since ancient times. Some Gods were worshipped later but some were worshipped when the Aryans arrived in India in ancient times. So they thought that the sky is Varuna and labeled him the sky god.

If you hold the Sky to be all –pervasive and powerful, then they thought it must be a god and so named him Varuna and worshipped him. This God had the most amazing magical powers, as he is space and sky itself. So no matter what area or where you go to, he is there and controls it all, he knows it all whatever you think and so on. The Aryan people thought he was like the judge and law arbiter of karmic, cause and effect. He regulated good conduct and judged it. His role is to take interest in and limit and restrict human experience.

Some contemporary researchers say we talk about the Chakravartin, and think the idea of the Universal Emperor probably came from this God. Later, this God’s qualities were later transferred to another God, Indra. Varuna was demoted to a lower level, so they say.

In the beginning, when they worshipped Varuna, he was very powerful, all-pervading and knows all human thoughts and the essence of God. The Christian Creator God is very similar to this one. If the way Varuna was worshipped continued then it is possible that people in India would have worshipped only one God and it became a monotheistic religion. However, the worship of it declined and people thought he was so powerful and too serious and there is no point or feeling for this God, he is too serious, lofty and no point in this. So people thought they didn’t need him so much and he gradually lost importance.

They started to ignore him and then after that, gradually they said in the Rig Veda that he caused rainfall and it came from the sky, he later became the water god. In Secret Mantra, when we are doing in the three parts, the chag sum torma, one of the Gods is Varuna. There are too many Gods crowding and waiting in line, if I take too long they won’t be happy, and they might get offended (laughs). 

Vishnu

Sky-god in the Vedas, Vishnu, formerly associated with the Sun

The next one is Vishnu, in Tibetan we call him Khyamjug (or ‘entering pervasively’) because he was able to cross the sky in three steps. The sky is huge and Vishnu had great power and could do that in three steps. For that reason, he is called that. At the beginning, he was first  associated with the Sun, he had the power of the Sun. As I said before, they worshipped Nature as Gods, and so he was associated with the power of the sun. Even though he is considered extremely important in the Indian language, in the Vedas, he was not considered so important. However, later in the Puranas (which is a type of text) Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu became the three main and important Gods. 

In brief, Vishnu’s essence and character gradually and slowly changed and became one of the great Gods. Before that, he was a God who was able to cross space in three steps. So what are these three steps (gompa sum)? They are related to the movements of the Sun. It first rises in the East, then comes to its peak at noon, and then sets in the West. So that is the example of taking the first step in the East, the second step at noon and then the third step when setting at the West. That is the metaphor used for the three steps, the sun rising, peaking and setting. However, when he reached the centre of the sky at noon, people believed that the centre of the sky at that place, was where the Gods lived. Our ancestral humans, after they died also lived there in great happiness. So they believed all our ancestors are up with the Gods in the sky having a big party and enjoying themselves.  They believed they would be reborn there.

It is like us thinking we would be reborn in Sukhavati. Their greatest aspiration was to be born in this place. For that reason, Vishnu became more and more important  because every day he went to the centre of the sky where everyone wanted to be reborn. So he is the one they wanted to praise and his status and level became higher and higher. ‘Can we become like the Sun and Vishnu and get to that place’ and sang many praises to do that. Generally, in many ancient cultures, the most important Gods were related to the sky and the sun. This is important to know.”

Ushas

Sky-goddess in the Vedas, Ushas

“The fourth God is finally a goddess, so now I can show you a female one (laughs). So this is Ushas, she is the dawn before the sun rises with all the colourful clouds and so on. People would say when the Sun rises it so beautiful and wonderful and they would identify the beautiful dawn as a goddess.

She is also an ancient goddess, not a later one. How do we know she is an ancient one? She is not only in the Vedas but also in ancient Greek mythology. She is known as Aeus in Greek, and in Latin called Arora. When the Aryans were living in the area of Punjab, every morning the dawn was so beautiful so they identified it with a goddess, and the Vedic poets were unable to bear the total beauty of it and had to write a hymn to that beauty. Describing the dawn in an emotional and living way. Gradually, it became known as this goddess.

The dawn arises and it is like she opens up the sky in the East and removes all the darkness and eliminate all the perils of demons and darkness. In the Vedic literature the Praises of this goddess were the most numerous and most beautiful of the poetry.  At first the authors didn’t have much feeling, but as soon as they saw the dawn they were inspired to write many lines and verses of poetry. 

It is also said that this goddess is like a friend for all human beings and her expression was always like a young maiden, not like an older woman. She was always eternally youthful and always smiling, and her body never had any appearance of aging or deterioration. She was also said to be someone who would calculate the number of years someone could live and decide their life-span.

As I explained before, the most beautiful poetry are the Praises of Varuna, but the hymns with the most beautiful words and imagery are for this goddess. They are incredibly beautiful songs. “

2) Air Gods
Image from the 17th Karmapa’s teaching.

Next we have the ‘in between’ (barnang) Gods, or Air Gods. I will speak about three of the Air Gods:

  1. Indra
  2. Vayu
  3. Rudra

Indra

“If we first speak about Indra. Most of you have heard about him, especially those who have been to India. He is a very important God in the Vedic literature because the God who has the most hymns dedicated to him is Indra. We can see how much the people at that time venerated him. They felt a lot of love for Indra. Likewise, during the Vedic period, he was the most powerful, important and most adored. The people at that time also believed that he protected the people of India. Near India, there were the Persians, so there was the Zoroastrians who also had an interest in the fire Gods. Indra, was actually an evil God in that culture. However, in the Vedas he was considered to be a very important God. In Buddhism, he became the Lord of the Gods,  and the one who maintained the Palace. The King of the Gods of the Heavens of the thirty-three who lived in the divine Palace of Vijaya.

Basically, if we look at all the praises, a quarter are praises for Indra. It is difficult to realise what Indra’s origins are, some say he is a Sky god, some a sky at dawn, we can’t clearly identify which aspect of nature he was associated with. He has qualities of all the three types of Gods.  In general, one thing that is often said, is that there are a lot of very powerful storms and he is a manifestation of wind, rain and strong winds in the air.

Another aspect of him is that he was only worshipped by the Aryans that came to India. Before they arrived in India and came to the area of Punjab, the most important God had been the Sun god. However, in that region, the sun is very hot, but often too hot, so perhaps they thought ‘it is really torturing us and too hot’. So then their object of worship changed to Gods who could bring rain, wind and clouds. It was too hot there so if someone could relieve that heat it was great.

In brief, when talking about Indra, he became the one with the highest status among the Gods. Some Gods appeared later, like Indra who they started worshipping after they came to India. He had the most strength and power. He also liked drinking the alcohol, Soma. He drank a lot of alcohol. The more he drank, the stronger he became and then he could defeat and destroy everyone. He also liked to fight in battles and wars. We wouldn’t think if they were a human that would be a good character right? However, he was so powerful and carried lightning and hooks. He would have a golden chariot surrounded by an army of Gods and together they would fight the King of the Demons.

At the time of the Aryans , they would say the Dravidians/indigenous people are the Nagas and we are the Gods, and then they would have fights. Normally we would think that the Gods and the demi-gods would fight together on the slopes of Mount Meru .However, maybe this idea of Gods and demi-Gods came from Indian history. In any case, this God Indra became more and more important, and then he became the Lord of the Gods, Indra.

In summary, Indra was the God of storms, the protector God, the War God (in Tibetan we say Dralha). Later he came to be his present form.”

Vayu

“Now, I will talk about the second Air God, Vayu. He is also in the ‘torma in three sections’ ritual, and is said to ride on the wind. He is Indra’s Assistant and helper. Indra had a golden chariot and Vayu accompanied him in the chariot and his main job was to cure people’s illnesses and grant them long life.”

Rudra

“Next is Rudra. He is the storm God who brought wind and rain. In the Vedic literature, there are hardly any hymns in praise of Ruda. Later, he became very important and the Lord of the Gods (Maheshvara). We talk about many Gods becoming the Mahesvara, but Rudra is mainly spoken about as the Lord of the Gods. In terms of his qualities or features, he is the one with the power to send diseases but also to cure beings from them. So it was quite complicated, as he was not only the storm God, but also he was considered to be terrifying and that is why he was called Bhairava, the terrifying one. He had the power of love and compassion to cure sickness but he also harmed and was dangerous to humans. In the earlier Vedas there was no such God though.”

Earth Gods

1) Agni

2) Soma

3) Pṛithvī

I will speak about these tomorrow. If I speak too much about them all now,  it may be too much. After introducing all the Gods, I will also talk about the Lord of Death [Yama], then I will start speaking about the later Vedic Period. It might take about two or three days. After that, I will start speaking about the Buddhist period. You might be wondering ‘he says he is going to speak about Secret Mantra, he hasn’t said a single word about it’. The reason I am saying all this, is so I can get into the subject of Secret Mantra. Then you will be able to understand it more when I start to explain that.”

Further Reading

Vivekananda on Paul Deussen

“Deussen, Paul” New International Encyclopedia. 1905.

Rollmann, Hans (1979), Deussen, Nietzsche, and Vedānta, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Jan. – Mar., 1978), pages 125-132.

Sri Aurobindo (1998), The Secret of veda (PDF), Sri Aurobindo Ashram press

Witzel, Michael:

How To Enter The Vedic Mind? Strategies In Translating A Bråhmaṇa Text. – Harvard Oriental Series Opera Minora

(2002) Female Rishis and Philosophers in the Veda? Paper read at a Conf. in Milano, Oct. 18-19, 2002 «Understanding Indian Women: Love, History and Studies». Journal of South Asia Women Studies, Vol. 11 no. 1, 2009.

(1997) The development of the Vedic canon and its schools: The social and political milieu Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts: New Approaches to …, Jan 1, 1997
R. gvedic history: poets, chieftains and polities,
The Indo-Aryans of ancient south Asia: language, …, Jan 1, 1995

.


ENDNOTES

[i] “ Deussen was a German Indologist and professor of philosophy at University of Kiel. Strongly influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer, Deussen was a friend of Friedrich Nietzsche and Swami Vivekananda. In 1911, he founded the Schopenhauer Society (Schopenhauer-Gesellschaft). Professor Deussen was the first editor, in 1912, of the scholarly journal Schopenhauer Yearbook (Schopenhauer-Jahrbuch). Deussen, who Sanskritised his name to “Deva-Sena” as a mark of his admiration for the language.”

[ii]  Interestingly the 17th Karmapa, who is one of the most vocal Tibetan Buddhist leaders for gender equality and empowerment (see here) does not mention the work or role of women in the caste system in this teaching. Of course women also had lots of work in terms of childcare, housework and cleaning and cooking, but they seem to be largely absent from discussions of the caste system. For a feminist analysis of caste by an Indian woman, read Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens by Uma Chakravarti, a feminist and a historian, argues that the systematic and structural oppression of women needs to be acknowledged in order to fully understand caste. A myriad of patriarchal practices within the larger framework of autonomy, kinship, labor, sexuality, access to material resources, and caste as a product of the consistent sustentation of endogamous marriages, have overtime moulded the relationship between gender and caste. The prevalent rhetoric that views caste as a consensual system weaves the socio-political, economic and cultural domains of Indian society into one fabric needs to be discarded, since on the contrary, the rather oppressive ‘caste ideology denies the subjectivity to Dalits by depriving them of dignity and personhood’.

[iii] Prof. Michael Witzel describes a transition through three periods of early India. Classifying the period of composition of the Ṛg Veda as the old Vedic period, Prof. Witzel describes it as a period when there were some 50 small tribes in constant conflict. The major event towards the end of this period was the above-described Battle of Ten Kings.

The third and final period, termed the late Vedic period, was the period of composition of the Brāhmaṇas, Upanishads etc., and was dominated by the larger-scale Kuru-Pañcāla and Kosala-Videha social groupings. There was, however, also an intervening middle period, or mantra period, that is, a period of the mantra language, about which Prof. Witzel writes –

“This “gap” between the Ṛgveda and the other Vedic texts is one of the major dark periods of Indian history … in my opinion, it is this period (together with the slightly earlier formation of the Bharata realm), which is of crucial importance for the development of all later Indian culture and civilization. It is at this moment that the social “raw material” present in Ṛgvedic time was intentionally transformed into what became the core and the pattern first of Vedic and, later on, of Hindu culture … Includes the mantras in verse and prose of the Atharvaveda (PS, ŚS), the Ṛgveda-Khila (RVKh), the Sāmaveda Saṃhitā (mostly taken from the Ṛgveda) and the Yajurveda Saṃhitās. All these texts form a new type of Vedic, largely unstudied and unrecognised as a distinct entity. They contain the oldest Indian prose.”

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