The Indo-Aryan religion: A short study of proto-Hinduism

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Religions are many, and so are opinions. This article is my own humble attempt to clear some common misconceptions that arise whenever we think of Hinduism.

While it basically discusses the philosophy central to Indo-European religions, I believe both Hindus and non-Hindus will enjoy a read.

Submitted: July 09, 2012

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Submitted: July 09, 2012

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A short study of the early Indo-Aryan religion (proto-Hinduism)

Chapter 1. The concept of polytheism

In today's world, we have many religions. And one such major religion, or better to say, an umbrella of a system of beliefs, is Hinduism. A mysterious religion, most certainly appearing to be polytheistic and idol-worshipping at the surface, yet wholly monotheistic and worshippers of the imageless, the umimaginable, unknowable as some may say, and most certainly incomprehensible concept of God, Brahman. This article is merely an attempt to rediscover a few of the important concepts which govern the very basics of Hinduism.

Hinduism, as we all know, is an ancient religion, dating back to thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. While it is not fully accepted that the residents of Harappa and Moenjodaro, of the Indus Valley Civilization in the western edge of the Indian subcontinent were followers of proto-Hinduism, we can, therefore, safely assume for the moment the Vedas to be the roots of this religion. The authors of the Vedas, the 'Aryans', or 'Indo-Aryans' to be more precise, might have come from outside India, or may actually have been the residents of India. It is still doubtable, although the scholars and researchers seem to have agreed that they were most possibly related to the Europeans, who migrated to India. The Aryan Invasion Theory has thus been modified into Aryan Migration Theory.

But without going into the chaos of discovering the arguable origin of the Aryans, we safely assume that they, whether Indians or Caucasian immigrants that later turned into the residents of north-India, show a striking similar, at least in the matter of religion, with the Germanics, the Norsemen as well as the Greeks. Among the Aryan Gods we find mentioned in the Vedas, we encounter names such as 'Mitra', 'Varuna', 'Indra' etc. and might believe that they worshipped a vast multitude of different deities. In fact, at the very beginning of the Vedic civilizations, they certainly did so. Some of the major Gods mentioned in the Rigveda, the oldest of the Vedas, composed at about 1500 B.C, are:

  • Indra, the ruler of the Gods, thunder-wielder and often associated with the God and principal cause of rain
  • Agni, the second most-mentioned God, the god of fire
  • Mitra, often identified with the Sun, although occasionally considered one of the aspects of the same
  • Surya or Vivasvana, one of the Adityas, the Sun god
  • Ushas, the dawn-goddess
  • Vayu, the wind-god and the personification of winds

The list continues to include 33 deities all total. There is a common misconception among the non-Hindus, even among most of the Hindus themselves, that the number of deities or divinities mentioned in the Rigveda is actually 33 million. But this, possibly, arose because of a confusion with the word 'koti' and 'kauti' in Sanskrit. While it is said that there are 33 'kauti' or 33 kinds of deities, common people seem to understand it as 33v 'koti' or 330 million deities. But most certainly, in later Hinduism, many more divinities arose while some of the original Vedic gods and goddesses were forgotten.

At about 1500-1000 B.C, we see the Aryan tribes settled across the different parts of North India, fighting against each other for supremacy. And because of a multitude of different phenomenona of nature such as rain, wildfire and floods, many of the same were personified into deities. We often see that many of the early tribes worshipped nature. The Norsemen, for example, had a great love for Baldur, the personification of beauty and later associated witht the Sun. The story in which Baldur was killed by Odur, having been tricked by Loki, seem to emerge from the fact that Loki, the symbol of subterannean fire, seem to have less respect at the time of 'day' of the Norsemen. Similarly, for the Egyptians, rains were not considered extremely crucial for agriculture, and they seemed to love Ra, the Sun God, more. In India, the Aryan religion, like its cousins such as Greek religion or other Germanic religions, rain was considered extremely important for agriculture, and thus for the growth of civilization. The periodic arrival of the monsoon rains around the month of June seem to have encouraged the Aryans to personify the rains as Indra-Parjanya, the sustainer of mankind, Indra being the thunder-God and Parjanya a personification of the precious and most valuable rains.

But as we progress through the Vedas, we see that when one deity is being praised, he or she alone is being considered the actual godhead, the supreme ruler of mankind. For example, one moment the Vedic sages call Indra 'the slayer of Vrtra' (Vrtra being an early-Vedic personification of the demon of drought), Agni is referred to similarly in a few chapters subsequently. Often, Indra is being identified with Agni, Varuna, Vayu and Surya, and the moment next, Surya or the SUn is being declared as the sovereign ruler of the universe, who appears to us in many forms, Agni and Indra included. Importantly, the concept of trinity in later Hinduism, distantly similar to the western concept of God in three forms, Father, Son and the Holy Ghost/Spirit, seems to arise in the Vedas in a much more primitive, yet natural form, including the three lights, Agni or fire (the terrestrial light), Vayu/Indra (the atmospheric light) and Surya (the celestial light).

Slowly over the centuries, people began to seek unity among all the concepts. The concept of Brahman or the supreme Godhead became popular with the conclusion of the Vedic age, beginning the age of the Brahmanas. Prajapati, or the ruler of mankind, became the sole God, the ruler over all other Gods. The idea struck the simple-minded people that fire is similar in aspects to the Sun, for example, in that they both repel darkness and cold, provide us warmth and light. These sort of similar properties between them seem to have led the people to arrive at the conclusion that there must be some sort of 'first principle' from which everything else emerged. From a very scientific standpoint, we can say that this often seems valid, as we can see in the case of energy. The very course of moden physics seems to be the attempts to discover a Grand Unified Theory, which would explain the anomalies of the existing concepts of relativity in extremely small space, or of quantum mechanics in the broaded, celestial scale.


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