Map of northern India in the late Vedic period. The location of Vedic shakhas is labelled in green. Thar desert is in orange

The religion of the Vedic period (1500 BC to 500 BC[1]) (also known as Vedism, Vedic Brahmanism, ancient Hinduism or, in a context of Indian antiquity, simply Brahmanism[2]) is a historical predecessor of modern Hinduism.[3] Its liturgy is reflected in the mantra portion of the four Vedas[4], which are compiled in Sanskrit. The religious practices centered on a clergy administering rites. This mode of worship is largely unchanged today within Hinduism; however, only a small fraction of conservative Śrautins continue the tradition of oral recitation of hymns learned solely through the oral tradition.


Texts dating to the Vedic period, composed in Vedic Sanskrit, are mainly the four Vedic Samhitas, but the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and some of the older Upanishads (Bṛhadāraṇyaka, Chāndogya, Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana) are also placed in this period. The Vedas record the liturgy connected with the rituals and sacrifices performed by the 16 or 17 Śrauta priests and the purohitas. According to traditional views, the hymns of the Rigveda and other Vedic hymns were divinely revealed to the rishis, who were considered to be seers or "hearers" (Śruti means "what is heard") of the Veda, rather than "authors". In addition the Vedas are said to be "apaurashaya", a Sanskrit word meaning "uncreated by man" and which further reveals their eternal non-changing status.

The mode of worship was worship of the elements like fire and rivers, worship of heroic gods like Indra, chanting of hymns and performance of sacrifices. The priests performed the solemn rituals for the noblemen (Kshatriyas) and wealthy Vaishyas. People prayed for abundance of children, rain, cattle (wealth), long life and an afterlife in the heavenly world of the ancestors. This mode of worship has been preserved even today in Hinduism, which involves recitations from the Vedas by a purohita (priest), for prosperity, wealth and general well-being. However, the primacy of Vedic deities has been seconded to the deities of Puranic literature.

The Vedic period is held to have ended around 500 BC, Vedic religion gradually metamorphosizing into the various schools of Hinduism, which further evolved into Puranic Hinduism.[5] However aspects of the historical Vedic religion survived in corners of the Indian subcontinent, such as Kerala where the Nambudiri Brahmins continue the ancient Śrauta rituals, which are considered extinct in all other parts.


A Śrauta yajna being performed.

Specific rituals and sacrifices of the Vedic religion include, among others:[6]

The Ashvamedha (horse sacrifice) has parallels in the 2nd millennium BC Sintashta and Andronovo culture as well as in Rome (the October Horse), medieval Ireland, and beyond in Central and East Asia. Although in the Rigveda, the cow's description as aghnya (that which should not be killed) may refer to poetry,[9] it may be reflective of some of the social practices, as were other practices like rituals and deity worship.[10]

The Hindu rites of cremation are seen since the Rigvedic period; while they are attested from early times in the Cemetery H culture, there is a late Rigvedic reference invoking forefathers "both cremated (agnidagdhá-) and uncremated (ánagnidagdha-)".(RV 10.15.14)[11][12]


Though a large number of devas are named in the Rig Veda only 33 devas are counted, eleven each of earth, space and heaven.[13] The Vedic pantheon knows two classes, Devas and Asuras. The Devas (Mitra, Varuna, Aryaman, Bhaga, Amsa, etc.) are deities of cosmic and social order, from the universe and kingdoms down to the individual. The Rigveda is a collection of hymns to various deities, most notably heroic Indra, Agni the sacrificial fire and messenger of the gods, and Soma, the deified sacred drink of the Indo-Iranians.[14] Also prominent is Varuna (often paired with Mitra) and the group of "All-gods", the Vishvadevas.[15]


Vedic philosophy primarily begins with the later part of Rig Veda, which was compiled before 1100 BCE.[16] Most of philosophy of the Rig Veda is contained in the sections Purusha sukta and Nasadiya Sukta.[17]

The Purusha Sukta gives a description of the spiritual unity of the cosmos. It espouses Panentheism by presenting nature of reality as both immanent and transcendent.[18] From this reality the sukta holds that original creative will (later identified with Brahma, Hiranyagarbha or Prajapati) proceeds, by which this vast universe is projected in space and time.[17] The Purusha Sukta, in the seventh verse, proclaims the organic inseparability of the constituents of society. The Nasadiya sukta is thought to be the earliest account of skepticism in India.[19] It holds the Absolute to be both existence and non-existence[20] and beyond all conception. The Śatarudrīya of Yajurveda shatters the extra-cosmic notion of Absolute (Rudra) and identifies it with both the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the right and the wrong, the positive and the negative, the high and the low, the conceivable and the inconceivable, the mortal and the immortal, existence and non-existence.[21]

Ethics in the Vedas are based on the concepts of Satya and Rta. Satya is the principle of integration rooted in the Absolute.[22] Whereas, Ṛta is the expression of Satya, which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it.[23] Conformity with Ṛta would enable progress whereas its violation would lead to punishment. Concept of Yajna or sacrifice is also enunciated in the Purusha sukta where reaching Absolute itself is considered a transcendent sacrifice when viewed from the point of view of the individual.[18]

Vedic people believed in the transmigration of the soul and the peepul tree and cow were sanctified by the time of the Atharva Veda.[24] Many of the concepts of Indian philosophy espoused later like Dharma, Karma etc. trace their root to the Vedas.[25] While the term ahimsa is not officially mentioned, one passage in the Rig Veda reads, "Do not harm anything."[26] Major Philosophers of this era were Rishis Narayana, Kanva, Rishaba, Vamadeva, and Angiras.[27] (See also philosophers of Vedic age)

Interpretations of Vedic Mantras

Mimamsa philosophers argue that there was no need to postulate a maker for the world, just as there was no need for an author to compose the Vedas or a god to validate the rituals.[28] Mimamsa argues that the gods named in the Vedas have no existence apart from the mantras that speak their names. To that regard, the power of the mantras is what is seen as the power of gods.[29]

Adi Shankara interpreted Vedas as being non-dualistic or monistic.[30] However, Arya Samaj holds the view that the Vedic mantras tend to monotheism.[31] Even the earlier Mandalas of Rig Veda (books 1 and 9) contains hymns which are thought to have a tendency toward monotheism.[32] Often quoted isolated pada 1.164.46 of the Rig Veda states (trans. Griffith):

Indraṃ mitraṃ varuṇamaghnimāhuratho divyaḥ sa suparṇo gharutmān,
ekaṃ sad viprā bahudhā vadantyaghniṃ yamaṃ mātariśvānamāhuḥ
"They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutmān.
To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan".

Moreover, the verses of 10.129 and 10.130, deal with the one being (Ékam sát). The verse 10.129.7 further confirms this (trans. Griffith):

iyám vísṛṣṭiḥ yátaḥ ābabhūva / yádi vā dadhé yádi vā ná / yáḥ asya ádhyakṣaḥ paramé vyóman / sáḥ aṅgá veda yádi vā ná véda
"He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not, He who surveys it all from his highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps even he does not"


The Vedic Samhitas contain references to ascetics, and ascetic practices known as (tapas) are referenced in the Brāhmaṇas (900 BCE and 500 BCE), early commentaries on the Vedas.[33] The Rig Veda, earliest of the Hindu scripture mentions the practice.[34] Robert Schneider and Jeremy Fields write, "Yoga asanas were first prescribed by the ancient Vedic texts thousands of years ago and are said to directly enliven the body's inner intelligence."[35] Certainly breath control and curbing the mind was practiced since the Vedic times.[36] It is believed that yoga was fundamental to Vedic ritual, especially to chanting the sacred hymns[37]

While the actual term "yoga" first occurs in the Katha Upanishad[38] and later in the Shvetasvatara Upanishad,[39] an early reference to meditation is made in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the earliest Upanishad (c. 900 BCE).[40] Yoga is discussed quite frequently in the Upanishads, many of which predate Patanjali's Sutras.[41] A Rig Vedic cosmogonic myth declares an ascetic with "folded legs, soles turned upwards" as per his name.[42]

Post-Vedic religions

Vedic religion was followed by Upanishads which gradually evolved into Vedanta, which is regarded by some as the primary institution of Hinduism. Vedanta considers itself "the purpose or goal [end] of the Vedas."[43] The philosophy of Vedanta (lit. “The end of the Vedas"), transformed the Vedic worldview to monistic one. This led to the development of tantric metaphysics and gave rise to new forms of yoga, such as jnana yoga and bhakti yoga.[44] There are also conservative schools which continue portions of the historical Vedic religion largely unchanged until today (see Śrauta, Nambudiri).[45]

During the formative centuries of Vedanta, traditions that supported it and which opposed the same, emerged. These were the Āstika and nāstika.[46]

Vedic Brahmanism of Iron Age India is believed by some to have co-existed, at least in eastern North India, and closely interacted with the non-Vedic (nastika) Śramana traditions.[48][49][50][51] These were not direct outgrowths of Vedism, but movements with mutual influences with Brahmanical traditions.[48] Following are the religions that evolved out of the Sramana tradition:[52][53]

See also


  2. ^ The Encyclopædia Britannica of 2005 uses all of "Vedism", "Vedic Brahmanism" and "Brahmanism", but reserves "Vedism" for the earliest stage, predating the Brahmana period, and defines "Brahmanism" as "religion of ancient India that evolved out of Vedism. It takes its name both from the predominant position of its priestly class, the Brahmans, and from the increasing speculation about, and importance given to, Brahman, the supreme power."
  3. ^ Stephanie W. Jamison and Michael Witzel in Arvind Sharma, editor, The Study of Hinduism. University of South Carolina Press, 2003, page 65: "... to call this period Vedic Hinduism is a contradiction in terms since Vedic religion is very different from what we generally call Hindu religion - at least as much as Old Hebrew religion is from medieval and modern Christian religion. However, Vedic religion is treatable as a predecessor of Hinduism."
  4. ^ "The Four Vedas". About dot Com. Retrieved 07 Nov 2012. ((cite web)): Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  5. ^ Krishnananda. Swami. A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India, Divine Life Society. p. 42
  6. ^ Prasoon, (Prof.) Shrikant. Indian Scriptures. Pustak Mahal (August 11, 2010). Ch.2, Vedang, Kalp. ISBN 978-81-223-1007-8.
  7. ^ Ralph Thomas Hotchkin Griffith, The Texts of the White Yajurveda. Translated with a Popular Commentary (1899), 1987 reprint: Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, ISBN 81-215-0047-8.
  8. ^ Bloomfield Maurice. Hymns of the Atharva Veda. Kessinger Publishing (June 1, 2004). P. 1-8. ISBN 1419125087.
  9. ^ J. Narten, Acta Orientalia Neerlandica, Leiden 1971, 120-134
  10. ^ Karel Werner, ed., Curzon Press, 1989, page 34. "Rahurkar speaks of them as belonging to two distinct 'cultural strands' ... Wayman also found evidence for two distinct approaches to the spiritual dimension in ancient India and calls them the traditions of 'truth and silence.' He traces them particularly in the older Upanishads, in early Buddhism, and in some later literature."
  11. ^ Dudi, Amar Singh. Ancient India History. Neha Publishers and Distributors (January 10, 2012). Ch. 9. Vedic Religion, Rituals. ISBN 978-93-80318-16-5.
  12. ^ Sabir, N. Heaven Hell OR??. Publisher: Xlibris (October 7, 2010). P. 155. ISBN 1453550119.
  13. ^ Singhal, K. C; Gupta, Roshan. The Ancient History of India, Vedic Period: A New Interpretation. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors. ISBN 8126902868. P. 150.
  14. ^ "Botany of Haoma", from Encyclopædia Iranica. Accessed June 15, 2012
  15. ^ Renou, Louis. L'Inde Classique, vol. 1, p. 328, Librairie d'Ameriqe et d'Orient. Paris 1947, reprinted 1985. ISBN 2-7200-1035-9.
  16. ^ Oberlies (1998:155) gives an estimate of 1100 BC for the youngest hymns in book 10. Estimates for a terminus post quem of the earliest hymns are more uncertain. Oberlies (p. 158) based on 'cumulative evidence' sets wide range of 1700–1100
  17. ^ a b Krishnananda. Swami. A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India, Divine Life Society. p. 18-19.
  18. ^ a b The Purusha Sukta in Daily Invocations by Swami Krishnananda
  19. ^ Patri, Umesh and Prativa Devi. "Progress of Atheism in India: A Historical Perspective". Atheist Centre 1940-1990 Golden Jubilee. Vijayawada, February 1990. Retrieved 2007-04-02.
  20. ^ Nasadiya Sukta translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith.
  21. ^ The significance of Satarudriya in Daily Invocations by Swami Krishnananda
  22. ^ Krishnananda. Swami. A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India, Divine Life Society. p. 21
  23. ^ Holdrege (2004:215). Panikkar (2001:350-351) remarks: "Ṛta is the ultimate foundation of everything; it is "the supreme", although this is not to be understood in a static sense. [...] It is the expression of the primordial dynamism that is inherent in everything...."
  24. ^ Singhal, K. C; Gupta, Roshan. The Ancient History of India, Vedic Period: A New Interpretation. Atlantic Publishers and Distributors. ISBN 8126902868. P. 150-151.
  25. ^ *Day, Terence P. (1982). The Conception of Punishment in Early Indian Literature. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press. P. 42-45. ISBN 0-919812-15-5.
  26. ^ The Hindu history By Akshoy Kumar Mazumdar
  27. ^ P. 285 Indian sociology through Ghurye, a dictionary By S. Devadas Pillai
  28. ^ Neville, Robert. Religious ruth. p. 51.
  29. ^ Coward, Harold. The perfectibility of human nature in eastern and western thought. p. 114.
  30. ^ Sharma, Chandradhar (1962). "Chronological Summary of History of Indian Philosophy". Indian Philosophy: A Critical Survey. New York: Barnes & Noble. p. vi.
  31. ^ Light of Truth by Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Chapter 7
  32. ^ Macdonell, Arthur Anthony. Vedic Mythology. Forgotten Books (May 23, 2012). P. 17. ISBN 1440094365.
  33. ^ Flood, p. 94.
  34. ^ P. 51 The Complete Idiot's Guide to Yoga By Joan Budilovsky, Eve Adamson
  35. ^ P. 170 Total Heart Health By Robert H. Schneider, Jeremy Z. Fields
  36. ^ P. 531 The Yoga Tradition By Georg Feuerstein
  37. ^ P. 538 The Yoga Tradition By Georg Feuerstein
  38. ^ Flood, p. 95.
  39. ^ P. 99 The Wisdom of the Vedas By Jagadish Chandra Chatterji
  40. ^ "...which states that, having become calm and concentrated, one perceives the self (atman), within oneself." Flood, pp. 94-95.
  41. ^ P. 132 A Student's Guide to A2 Religious Studies for the OCR Specification By Michael Wilcockson
  42. ^ P. 164 The Doctrine of the Upaniṣads and the Early Buddhism By Hermann Oldenberg, Shridhar B. Shrotri
  43. ^ Robert E. Hume, Professor Emeritus of History of Religions at the Union Theological Seminary, wrote in Random House's The American College Dictionary (1966): "It [Vedānta] is concerned with the end of the Vedas, both chronologically and teleologically."
  44. ^ "Patanjali’s Yoga Darsana – The Hatha Yoga Tradition," InfoRefuge.
  45. ^ Kelkar, Siddharth. UNESCO’s leg-up for city Veda research. Express India. Retrieved 16 June 2012.
  46. ^ a b * Flood, Gavin (1996), An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 82, 224–49, ISBN 81-7596-028-0
  47. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica s.v. Hindu philosophy: "The great epic Mahabharata represents the attempt of Vedic Brahmanism to adjust itself to the new circumstances reflected in the process of the aryanization (integration of Aryan beliefs, practices, and institutions) of the various non-Aryan communities."
  48. ^ a b S. Cromwell Crawford, review of L. M. Joshi, Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism, Philosophy East and West (1972): "Alongside Brahmanism was the non-Aryan shramanic culture with its roots going back to prehistoric times."
  49. ^ Y. Masih (2000) In : A Comparative Study of Religions, Motilal Banarsidass Publ : Delhi, ISBN 81-208-0815-0 Page 18. "There is no evidence to show that Jainism and Buddhism ever subscribed to vedic sacrifices, vedic deities or caste. They are parallel or native religions of India and have contributed to much to the growth of even classical Hinduism of the present times."
  50. ^ Dr. Kalghatgi, T. G. 1988 In: Study of Jainism, Prakrit Bharti Academy, Jaipur
  51. ^ P.S. Jaini, (1979), The Jaina Path to Purification, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, p. 169 "Jainas themselves have no memory of a time when they fell within the Vedic fold. Any theory that attempts to link the two traditions, moreover fails to appreciate rather distinctive and very non-vedic character of Jaina cosmology, soul theory, karmic doctrine and atheism"
  52. ^ Jain, Arun. 2008. Faith & philosophy of Jainism. p. 210.
  53. ^ Svarghese, Alexander P. 2008. India : History, Religion, Vision And Contribution To The World. p. 259-60.
  54. ^ Helmuth von Glasenapp,Shridhar B. Shrotri. 1999. Jainism: an Indian religion of salvation. P.24. "Thus not only nothing, from the philosophical and the historical point of view, comes in the way of the supposition that Jainism was established by Parsva around 800 BCE, but it is rather confirmed in everything that we know of the spiritual life of that period."
  55. ^ Dundas, Paul. 2002. The Jains. P.17. "Jainism, then, was in origin merely one component of a north Indian ascetic culture that flourished in the Ganges basin from around the eighth or seventh centuries BCE."
  56. ^ "Buddhism". (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 26, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition.