The religious practices of the Vedic era form the precursors to many of the beliefs and practices of modern-day Hinduism. In the Vedas, we can see the roots of modern Hinduism, yet many deities and practices have changed significantly over the centuries. Indeed, the main trinity of Hinduism today, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, do not appear in the Rigveda in the same way or with the same importance that they are ascribed nowadays.
In the early Vedic period, there were two major groups of deities: the devas and the asuras. The devas were celestial beings or gods, worshipped and praised for their excellence. The asuras were another class of celestial beings defined by their opposition to the devas. Over time, the power and importance of the devas surpassed that of the asuras, and the asuras began to be understood as demons.
The devas were not viewed as all-powerful, and humans’ relationship with them was transactional. Through sacrifices and offerings, humans secured the aid of the gods in maintaining peace, order, and health.
The Rigveda enumerates 33 devas, some representing forces of nature and other representing moral values. Some of these are gods still known and worshipped today, some have been changed but are still part of the Hindu pantheon, while others are no longer commonly worshipped. The most important deities of the Rigveda were in fact Indra, Agni, and Soma. Varuna is a fourth god who, though not discussed as extensively as the former three, played an important role in the early days of Vedic mythology.
Indra was one of the most important gods in the religion of the Vedic era. He is the king of the gods, as well as the god of storms and war. Indra is particularly celebrated in the Rig Veda, in which there are more than 250 hymns devoted specifically to him, more than any other deity. He is sometimes paralleled to Zeus in Greek mythology, Odin in Norse mythology, or Wotan in German mythology.
There are many stories devoted in Indra, and throughout the texts he plays a variety of roles. He rules over other deities as the benevolent king of the gods, bringing peace and prosperity. As the king of rain and sthunder, he brings rain to end droughts, yet he is also a great warrior who conquers the asuras.
He is often depicted riding a white elephant, Airavata. There are also many references to Indra and Soma, the elixir of the gods to which he is very partial. There are multiple tales in which he overindulges in Soma and must be restored to his senses from its aftereffects by the goddess Sarasvati or the Ashvins.
Agni’s importance in Vedic religion is second only to Indra’s, though Agni’s function in worship surpassed Indra’s. Agni is the god of fire, and was thus was of central importance in yagnas (fire ceremonies), especially sacrificial ceremonies. He is understood to be a messenger between humans and the gods, bringing the prayers and offerings of ceremonial rites to the gods and the boons and blessings of the gods back to humanity. In this way, he functions as an intermediary force, transforming the offerings of the human terrestrial world to the subtle celestial realm of the gods.
Agni is the protector, especially of the home. He is omnipresent, and thus knows the thoughts of all people and is a witness to all important events. He is said to be able to discern between truth and lies, and this led to practices where people would be made to confess things in the presence of fire as a test of truth, “trial by fire.”
In art, Agni often has two heads, four or seven arms, three legs, and black or deep red skin. He has three or seven tongues, and black hair like leaping flames. He rides either a goat or ram (the most commonly sacrificed animals), or a chariot with seven wheels, drawn by red horses. He is usually carrying a fan (with which he builds up fires), a sacrificial ladle, an axe, and a flaming torch or javelin.
Soma refers to a god, a plant, and a ritual drink, and the distinction between the three is not always made clear in the Rigveda. There are 120 hymns devoted to the praise of soma in the Rigveda, but the most common reference is to the drink and the supernatural powers it bestowed upon those who drank it. Consequently, soma wasn’t often portrayed in any human-like form, though he was occasionally portrayed as a bull or bird.
Soma was considered a bringer of health and wealth. Soma the sacred drink is said to be a yellow-golden color, and thus soma is also often identified with light. The gods drank soma to sustain their immortality, and the drink would likewise bestow the powers of the gods upon any mortal who drank it. In this way, soma could bridge the profane and divine realms, similar to the role agni served.
Soma is especially associated with Indra, so much so that it is rare to see one referenced without the other. Soma the drink inspires and empowers Indra to perform many of his mighty deeds. Yet soma himself is also a god capable of his own feats. He is a great and heroic warrior depicted as the victor in all of his battles, capable of repelling all enemies.
Though Varuna is not praised as much in the Rigveda as Indra, that does not accurately represent his importance in the early Vedic era. The Rigveda places special emphasis on the Agni and Soma ritual, and Indra is thus frequently involved due to his connection with Soma.
However, even though Varuna does not have as many hymns devoted to him in the Rigveda as Indra, Soma, or even Agni, he was a god of great importance whose role changed over the course of the Vedic period. At the early part of the Vedic era, he was the god of universal law and moral order, the supreme, omniscient, and omnipresent ruler who controls the actions of man and the cosmos. He was thus placed at the head of the Vedic pantheon.
Varuna was originally a kind of solar deity. He presided over the night sky, representing the dark aspect of the sun as it makes its journey from west to east during the night before rising again. He was also the King of Heaven and Earth, and his power to oversee all of the moral behavior of humanity was symbolized in depictions in which he was said to have a thousand eyes, often likened to the stars in the night sky. He is otherwise not usually depicted in anthropomorphic form, perhaps as a way of highlighting his supreme transcendence.
Eventually, his role became less significant, and he was replaced by Indra as the head of the vedic pantheon. In later Vedas, Varuna's role as the overseer of human morality gradually diminished, and his jurisdiction was restricted to the celestial waters and the ocean, which is how he is more commonly understood today.
Though we have discussed only 4 gods of significance, there are many others, including gods representing the other four elements, goddesses representing the rivers, and other gods representing aspects of nature and morality. All of these gods would continue to develop and evolve throughout the ages, eventually leading to the millions of gods known in Hinduism today. This vast array of deities shows the infinite manifestations of divinity throughout the cosmos, which any person can realize through their own forms of devotion and spiritual practice.
- The Vedic Experience: An Anthology of Hinduism’s Sacred and Revealed Scriptures, by Raimundo Panikkar