Soma in Vedic Mythology and Ritual (study)

by Anjana Chakraborty | 2017 | 51,491 words

This thesis is called: A study of the evolution of Soma in vedic mythology and ritual. It represents a thorough discussion on the characteristics of Vedic Gods, Soma and Vedic rituals. As the ritual plays a very important role in Rigveda it is only natural that Soma, the plant, the juice of which is so much used in the ritual is deified as one of ...

Chapter 1(b) - A Discussion on Vedic Gods

Yaska[1] divides the different Deities or forms of the same Deity enumerated in the fifth chapter of the Naighantuka, into the three orders of prithivisthanadevata i.e terrestrial Gods[2], antarikshasthanadevata i.e. atmospheric or intermediate Gods[3] and dyusthana devata i.e. celestial Gods[4]. He further remarks that in the opinion of his predecessors who expounded the Veda (nairuktah) there are only three Deities, Agni on earth, Vayu or Indra in air, Surya in heaven[5]. God Surya protects us from the hindrances of Dyusthana, the atmospherie God Vayu protects us from the hindrances of antarikshasthana and Agni protects us from the obstacle of terrestrial regaion. In the Rigveda we find that all Deities of three regione are not so prominent, but only Surya, Indra or Vayu and Agni are prominent Gods of three ragions because they are representstatives of the Gods of their respective regions. Each of these he continues has various appellations according to differences of function, just as the same person may act in the capacity of Hotri, Adhvaryu, Brahman, Udgatri. Yaska himself does not admit that all the various Gods are only forms or manifestations of the three representative Deities, though he allows that those forming each of the three orders are allied in sphere and functions. The fifth chapter of the Naighantuka on which Yaska comments, contains in its enumeration of Gods a number of minor Deities and deified objects, so that the total far exceeds eleven in each division.

Agni, Apah, Prithivi and Soma belong to the terrestrial region. The Gods belonging to atmospheric region are Indra, Vayu, Rudra, Marut, Parjanya. The Gods of celestial region are Surya, Mitra, Varuna, Dyuh, Pushan, Savita, Aditya, Ashvins, Ushas and Ratri. An earlier or first age of the Gods is also spoken of[6]. The Atharva Veda speaks of ten Gods[7] as having existed before the rest. The Gods too were originally mortal. This expressly stated in the Atharva Veda[8]. Gods were originally not immortal is implied in the Rigveda. For immortality was bestowed on them by Savita[9] or by Agni[10]. They are also said to have obtained it by drinking Soma[11], which is called the prin ciple of immortality[12]. According to a later conception Indra is stated to have conwuered heaven by tapas or austerity[13]. The Gods are said to have attained divine rank by the same means[14] or to have overcome death by continence and austerity. Each God has a number of activities and each name has a reference to one such activity. The different names indicate their greatness.

Yaska speaking of the nature of the Gods, remarks that what is seen of them is not anthropomorphic at all, as in the case of the Sun, the Earth and others.[15] The natural bases of the Vedic Gods have, to begin with, but few specific characteristics, while they share some of the attributes of other phenomena belonging to the same domain. Thus Dawn, Sun and Fire have the common features of being luminous dispelling darkness, appearing in the morning. The absence of distinctiveness dispelling darkness, appearing in the morning. The absence of distinctiveness must be still greater when several Deities have sprung from different aspects of one and the same phenomenon. Hence the character of each Vedic God is made up of only a few essential traits combined with a number of other features common to all the Gods, such as brilliance, power, beneficence and wisdom. Certain great cosmical functions are predicated of nearly every leading Deity individually. The action of supporting or establishing heaven and earth is so generally attributed to them, that in the Atharva Veda, it is even ascribed to a magical bunch of darbha grass. Nearly a dozen Gods are described as having created the two worlds and rather more are said to have produced the Sun, to have placed it in the sky or to have prepared a path for it. Four or five are also spoken of as having spread out the earth, the sky or the two worlds. Several (Surya, Savita, Pushan, Indra, Parjanya and the Adityas) are lords of all that moves and is stationary.

Such common features tend to obscure what is essential, because in hymns of prayer and praise they naturally assume special prominence. Again, Gods belonging to different departments, but having prominent functions in common, are apt to be approximated. Thus Agni, primarily the God of terrestrial fire, dispels the demons of darkness with his light, while Indra, the aerial God of the thunderstorm, slays them with his lightning. Into the conception of the fire-god further enters his aspect as lightning in the atmosphere. The assimilation is increased by such Gods often being invoked in pairs.

The indefiniteness of outline caused by the possession of so many common attributes, coupled with the tendency to wipe out the few distinctive ones by assigning nearly every power to every God, renders identification of one God with another. Such identification is as a matter of fact frequent in the Rigveda.

Thus a poet addressing the fire-god exclaims:

“Thou at thy birth, O Agni, art Varuna;when kindled thou becomes Mitra, in thee, O son of strength, all Gods are centred; thou art Indra to the worshipper”[16].

Reflexions in particular on the nature of Agni, so important a God in the eyes of a priesthood devoted to a fire cult, on his many manifestations as individual fires on earth and on his other aspects as atmospheric fire in lightning and as celestial fire in the Sun, aspects which the Vedic poets are fond of alluding to in riddles, would suggest the idea that various Deities are but different forms of a single divine being. This idea is found in more than one passage of the Rigveda ‘the one being priests speak of in many ways; they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan’. ‘Priests and poets with words make into many the bird (the Sun) that is but one’. Thus it appears that by the end of the Rigvedic period a kind of polytheistic monotheism had been arrived at. We find there even the incioient pantheistic conception of a deity representing not only all the Gods but nature as well. For the Goddess Aditi is identified not only with all the Gods, but with men, all that has been and shall be born, air and heaven[17] and Prajapati is not only the one God above all Gods, but embraces all things.[18]

In the older parts of the Rigveda, individual Gods are often invoked as the highest but this notion is not carried out to its logical conclusion. Even when a God is spoken of as unique (eka) or chief, as is natural enough in laudations, such statements rose their temporarily monotheistic force through the modifications or corlections supplied by the context or even by the same verse. Thus a poet says that ‘Agni alone, like Varuna, is lord of wealth’. It should also be remembered that Gods are constantly invoked in pairs, triads and larger group, even the exalted Varuna being mostly addressed in conjunction with one other God or with several other Gods.

The Rigveda, as well as the Atharva Veda states the Gods to be thirty three in number[19], this total being several times expressed as ‘thrice eleven’[20]. In one passage eleven on earth and eleven in the waters[21]. The Atharva Veda similarly divides the Gods into dwellers in heaven, air and earth, but without specifying any number[22]. The aggregate of thirty three could not always have been regarded as exhaustive, for in a few passages[23] other Gods are mentioned along with the thirty three. They are also spoken of in a more general way as forming three troops[24]. A threefold division is implied when the Gods are connected with heaven, earth and waters[25]. The Brahmanas also give the number of the Gods as thirty three.

A brief discussion of the major Vedic Gods are as followes:


Indra is the leading Deity of the Veda. The largest number of hymns of the Rigveda is exclusively devoted to the glorification of the Indra. The God Indra is more realistic in approach. Indra basically represents the spread of kingship and protection of the subjects. He has been depieted as a here, all his heroic deads have been described by the ecstasy of the Vedic poets.


The fire God Agni is the most important of the terrestrial Gods. Next to Indra come great rituals Deity Agni. His food is ghee and wood, melted butter is his beverage and he is nourished three times a day. He is the mouth by which the Gods eat the sacrificial offerings. His brightness is much dwelt upon, he shines like the Sun, his luster is like the rays of the down and the Sun. He shines even at night and dispels the darkness with his beams. Agni is more closely associated with human life than any other Deity. He is the only God called grihapati, lord of the house. He takes the offerings of men to the Gods and brings the Gods to the ritual. As knowing all the details of ritual he is wise and all knowing and is exclusively called Jatavedas, he who knows all created beings. He is a great benefactor of his worshippers, protecting and delivering them and bestowing on them all kinds of boons, but pre-eminently domestic welfare, offspring and prosperity.


The God Soma is one of the prominent Deities of the Veda. So for the naturalistic and spiritual aspects of the God Soma concerned the spiritual attributes leads to the highest bliss and happiness. Soma is a drink of longevity. The pavamana Soma leads to immortality. Evaluated on the standard of frequency, Soma comes third in order of significance among the Vedic Gods. Soma in creeper from is crushed for procuring its juice for its useful role in the ritual. In the post Vedic literature Soma is a regular name of the Moon. The process by which the celestial Soma gradually coaleaced with the Moon is not difficult to understand. Soma on the one view point is continually thought of as celestial and dazzling, sometimes as dispelling darkness and swelling in the waters and on the other view point is very often called a drop, Indu. Thus Soma in the bowls is described in one passage to appear like the Moon in waters and in another passage Soma has been narrated as the drop (drapsa) which goes to the ocean, looking with the eye of a vulture[26] is generally admitted to allude to the Moon.


In the Rigveda ten complete hymns are dedicated to Surya and is mentioned on many occasions with other Gods. The Gods brought him up, who was concealed in the ocean[27]. Being symbolic of Agni he was located by the Gods in heaven[28]. Surya illuminates the whole world, for men and Gods[29]. He dispels the darkness with his light[30]. Surya measures the days and extends the days of life. He is pleaded to remove diseases[31]. Healing is his special province. He is the soul of the moving world[32]. He supports the sky and is called the pillar of the sky[33].


Varuna, The mid-region God transcends everything, he looks at the earth and makes the soil full of waters, in the mid-region he creates winds and in heaven he creates light. Thus Varuna makes these three worlds full of light, air and water making the world a good inhabitat of the human race. He drives man from the world of darkness to the world of light. He is the symbol of lovliness. The earth which is dry becomes fresh as a well-bathed person. The mountain served with waters appear to be the symbol of meditative life. Thus Varuna symbolizes life, light and meditation.


These twin Deities are the most preminent Gods after Indra, Agni and Soma. They are decribed as the physicians of Gods and men, wonder-workers and saviours of the oppressed from their suffering.


The group of Gods called Adityas is solemnized in six whole hymns and in parts of two others in the Rigveda. No more than half a dozen are anywhere narrated and that only once, Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, Varuna, Daksha, Amsha [34]. In the last books of the Rigveda, the number is once stated to be seven and once eight[36].


Vayu, the wind God is often described as associated with Indra in his exploits while the latter moves in the company of Parjanya. Vayu is as fast as thought. He possesses the power of healing.


Prithivi is considered as a terrestrial God or Prithivisthanadevata which emerges from its name. In the Rigveda only one hymn (Rigveda 5.84) of three verses is found where Prithivi is worshipped. The Goddess Earth is not only our visual Earth, she has also an integral expansion of the whole universe.


Apah is worshipped as the Goddess of the flow of life without which life cannot exist on earth. Waters give us relief from sins; we therefore utter incantations of this Goddess of water. Apah bring virtue foe us and remove vice from us. The Apah keep us alive like our mothers giving milk to their sons and daughters.


Rudra, an atmospheric God occupies a subordinate position in the Rigveda, being celebrated in only three hymns, in part of another and in one conjointly with Soma. He is fierce and destructive. But his blessings are sought for the welfare of human beings as well as the animal world. He is the strongest of the strong and unassailable, unsurpassed in might.


Ushas gives us light. Light of Ushas is the wisdom that people derived from the mother of the dawn (i.e Ushas). She gives us sacrifice, she gives us knowledge and she gives us auspicious wealth. Ushas paves the way to the Sun to move on in his axis, so Ushas is the most useful Goddess for this world. Without her existence people cannot survive.


This group of Deities is prominent in the Rigveda. The Maruts are the helper of cows and rivers for producing crops. They are described as youthful warriors armed with golden spears and decorated with golden helmets and gold ornaments and driving golden chariots. They shed rain; they are supplicated to bring healing remedies.


Savita is the God who stands before the rise of the Sun; it means the God Savita gives strength and vitality to the Sun God for moving freely in the world. Savita is the lovable God for the worshippers who give oblation to him. He is worshipped for knowledge by the Vedic Aryans. He produces consciousness in human being and drives them to the path of truchs. The sages always pray for their coveted wealth and they always try to become free from sin[35].


Mitra is spoken of as an associate of Varuna. He represents prominently the beneficent side of the Sun’s power. He stimulates people to activity, holds fast heaven and earth and watches people ceaselessly.


Pushan is a pastoral God and guardian of cattle. He is friendly with the mankind. He moves onword observing the universe and makes his abode in heaven. He is a guardian of roads, removing dangers out of the way.


The Goddess of night, under the name of Ratri is invoked in only one hymn (Rigveda 10.127). She is the sister of Ushas. At her approach men beasts and birds go to rest. She protects her worshipers from the wolf and the thief, guiding them to safety.


Dyaus is personified as the God of heaven. He is generally coupled with Prithivi in the dual compound dyavaprithivi, the iniversal parents. The boundless and illuminating firmament shining with the bright rays of the Sun by day and with the mellow light of the Moon and stars by night answered to the feelings for the Infinite and it was because of this that the sky was deified.


Only three hymns are attributed to Parjanya. The shedding of rain is his most prominent characteristic. In this activity he is associated with thunder and lightuing. He is in a special degree the producer and nourisher of vegetation.

Footnotes and references:


Nirukta 7.5


Nirukta 7. 14.9.43


Nirukta 10. 1 -11. 50


Nirukta 12. 1-46


Rigveda 10. 158.1


Rigveda10. 72.2-3


Atharva Veda 11.8.10


Atharva Veda 4.11.6; Atharva Veda 11.5.19


Rigveda 4.54.2


Rigveda 6.7.4


Rigveda 9.106.8; Rigveda 9.109.3


Rigveda 10.167.1


Taittiriya Brahmana.


Nirukta 7.4


Rigveda 5. 3.1


Rigveda 1. 89.10


Rigveda 10. 121.8-10


Rigveda 3, 6.9; A.V. 10.7. 13


Rigveda 8. 35.3


Rigveda 1.139.11


Atharva Veda 10.9.12


Rigveda 1. 34.11; Rigveda 1. 45. 2; Rigveda 8. 35. 3; Rigveda 8. 39.9


Rigveda 6. 51.2


Rigveda 7. 35.11; Rigveda 10. 65.9


Rigveda 10.123.8


Rigveda 10.72.7


Rigveda 10.88.11


Rigveda 1.50.5


Rigveda 10.37.4


Rigveda 1.50.11


Rigveda 1.115.1


Rigveda 4.13.5


Rigveda 5.82.6


Rigveda 5.82.6


A.V. 2.5.19

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