In This Article Rig Veda

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Text Editions
  • Research Resources
  • Transmission and Influence
  • Dating and Composition
  • Poets and Poetry
  • Religion
  • Priests and Ritual
  • Āryan Identity and the Invasion Theory

Hinduism Rig Veda
by
Jarrod L. Whitaker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0173

Introduction

The full title of the text is the R̥gveda Saṃhitā, which means “The Collection (saṃhitā) of Knowledge (veda) of Stanzas or Verses (r̥c-).” In Sanskrit, the “r̥” signifies a vowel, usually pronounced “ri” with a trill of the tongue. The word “r̥c-” is pronounced like English “rich.” Its final “ch” sound becomes hard “g” before “v” of veda, hence Rig Veda or the standard scholarly romanization R̥gveda. The R̥gveda is India’s oldest text and dates between approximately 1500 and 1000 BCE (see Dating and Composition). It was composed orally by generations of poets in the fertile Punjab and its surroundings (modern northwest Pakistan and India). It contains 1028 hymns composed in an archaic form of Sanskrit and dispersed across ten books or maṇḍala-s (cycles). Most of these hymns are dedicated to the various deities of the Vedic period and most were composed for use in rites to honor them. The hymns of the R̥gveda allude to social, religious, economic, and political beliefs and practices, and it is our primary source for understanding life in this period. The hymns were composed and orally transmitted with remarkable accuracy over many centuries to the present. With the realization that Sanskrit was an Indo-European language (related, for example, to Latin, Greek, and German) in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Western scholars worked intensely on translating and interpreting the R̥gveda. While it is arguably the most extensively studied Sanskrit text, its archaic language, obscure ritual references, and richly poetic allusions make it notoriously difficult to understand and translate. It also becomes a sacred text, if not the holiest, for many later Hindu traditions.

General Overviews

Although various sacrificial rituals would have been performed in the early Vedic period (some of which are alluded to in the text), the hymns of the R̥gveda were composed for use predominantly within a sóma rite, which may have been performed on an annual basis. As outlined by Jamison and Brereton 2014 and treated in more detail in Jamison and Witzel 1992 and Gonda 1975, highly skilled poet-priests commonly called kavί-s sang the hymns in rituals, and cooked and offered grain cakes, butter, and meat, especially fat, by placing them in ritual fires. About half of the text’s total hymns are dedicated to three gods: the deified ritual fire Agni; the demiurge-warrior god Indra; and Soma, who is the personified sóma, the central oblation of the ritual. Agni is said to be the gods’ priest and his smoke carries sacrificial offerings aloft to entice divinities like Indra to the ritual ground. During the performance of the sóma rite, participants extract juice from plant stalks by crushing them with stones. The juice is purified through a wool strainer and sometimes mixed with milk. Indra is said to drink this sóma along with human participants, and ritualists assert that it invigorates the drinker. Other gods also receive offerings of sóma in the rite, such as Indra’s warrior band, the Maruts; twin rescuer gods called the Aśvins (Horsemen); a group called the Ādityas, whose principal deities are Varuṇa, Mitra, and Aryaman; the goddess Uṣas (Dawn); a collective called the Viśve Devāḥ (All-Gods); and minor gods like Sūrya (Sun), Vāyu (Wind), Rudra, Viṣṇu, Pūṣan, and Yama. For consideration of these gods, see Jamison 1991, Jamison and Witzel 1992, and Jamison and Brereton 2014. As discussed in Gonda 1975 and Jamison and Brereton 2014, R̥gvedic poets also value wisdom, insight, and poetic inspiration, especially in relation to the creation of new hymns for the gods and in expressing cosmic mysteries, often cryptically. The concept of an ordered social and natural world (r̥tá) is central to R̥gvedic ideology. In this regard, the text contains philosophical or speculative hymns, particularly in its younger layers, on subjects like the universe’s origin, death, sexuality, ritual efficacy, marriage, weaponry, and protection from diseases, poison, and destructive forces. What is more, as Habib and Thakur 2003 indicate, the R̥gveda attests the interests of pastoral peoples, who called themselves ā́rya, meaning either the “hospitable,” “civilized,” or “noble” ones. They prized cattle, horses, and other livestock, and their life involved seasonal migrations to rivers and pasturage. Jamison and Witzel 1992 and Jamison and Brereton 2014 provide accessible surveys of the R̥gveda and its place in ancient Indian history, culture, and religion, while discussing the development of Vedic religious practices and beliefs in general. Jamison 1991, Patton 2004, Proferes 2009, and Witzel 2003 situate the R̥gveda in relation to other Vedic texts and ritual practices.

  • Gonda, Jan, ed. Vedic Literature (Saṃhitās and Brāhmaṇas). Vol. 1 of A History of Indian Literature. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1975.

    E-mail Citation »

    Gonda presents a detailed account of the history, content, structure, and style of the R̥gveda. The writing is dense and is recommended for graduate students and a specialized audience. 265 pp.

  • Habib, Ifran, and Vijay Kumar Thakur. The Vedic Age and the Coming of Iron, c. 1500–700 BC. A People’s History of India Series. New Delhi: Tulika, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    A concise introductory resource on the history, archaeology, politics, economics, and religion of the R̥gveda and post-R̥gvedic texts. An accessible source for undergraduate students and a general audience.

  • Jamison, Stephanie W. “Introduction.” In The Ravenous Hyenas and the Wounded Sun: Myth and Ritual in Ancient India. By Stephanie W. Jamison, 1–41. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

    E-mail Citation »

    While not exclusively on the R̥gveda, Jamison’s introduction clearly outlines the content of Vedic texts, history, mythology, and ritual, while presenting a good explanation of the philological method.

  • Jamison, Stephanie W., and Joel P. Brereton. “Introduction.” In The Rigveda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. 3 vols. By Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, 1–84. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    Jamison and Brereton’s introduction presents a comprehensive survey of the history, formation, and content of the text, especially the problems of translating R̥gvedic poetry and its mythological, ritual, and cultural allusions.

  • Jamison, Stephanie W., and Michael Witzel. “Vedic Hinduism.” In The Study of Hinduism. Edited by Arvind Sharma, 65–113. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    A detailed introduction to Vedic schools, texts, myths, ritual, and religion, with discussion on the dating and composition of the R̥gveda. The article provides detailed bibliographic entries on these subjects as well. A longer version of this paper was published in 1992 and can be downloaded online. 118 pp.

  • Patton, Laurie. “Veda and Upaniṣad.” In The Hindu World. Edited by Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby, 37–51. New York: Routledge, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Patton presents an accessible introduction to Vedic texts, mythology, and ritual.

  • Proferes, Theodore N. “Vedas and Brāhmaṇas.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 2. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, et al., 27–40. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    Proferes presents an excellent and accessible introduction to the history and formation of Vedic texts and their content.

  • Witzel, Michael. “Vedas and Upaniṣads.” In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Edited by Gavin Flood, 68–101. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Witzel’s article clearly explains the content of Vedic texts, including the rituals and mythology, while discussing their history. It also includes a table of Vedic texts and their priestly schools.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down