The Rg Veda, Roots of Indian Culture; Part Four

by bria4123 on December 10, 2011

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Priests getting stoned? Celebrations of the warrior Indra kicking butt  on the battlefield? Nomadic herders praying for more cows? You can see why the Rg Veda has been criticized for lacking inspiring ideas.

But the Rg Veda contains unique aesthetics that flowered into one of the world’s most creative civilizations. We saw how numerous and how deep its cultural currents were in the last three posts. In this final post, we’ll see one of the main ways in which they inspired some of the world’s most influential spiritual thought.

We saw that the horse sacrifice was one of the most honored rites in the Rg Veda. It probably gained its prominence after Vedic society settled in India, developed more agriculture and grew into political entities ruled by kings. Indian pageantry has deep roots too!

Sacrifices became the mainstay of Vedic religion, and they were performed on lots of occasions. But from these rituals which supposedly lacked philosophic depth grew some of the most influential ideas in Indian culture. Thinkers who wrote the Upanisads began to reflect on the meanings of the Vedas, and of life in general. They came up with ideas that are fascinating contrasts with the Greek love of proportion and distinct entities.

1. The earliest Upanisad is called the Brhadaranyaka (Aranya meant forest, where many of these discussions took place–in contrast with the Greek agora, which was an open space in the center of every city). It begins by comparing the world to a sacrificial horse. Its writers were thus relating the world to  what was already well established in their religion.

The dawn is the horse’s head, the sun is its eye, the wind is its breath, the year is its body, the earth is its hoof, the seasons are its limbs, the months are its joints, and so on. What gives?

Well, the text begins with a long list of correlations  between the animal and the cosmos. The most exemplary comparison was not between two distinct objects of equal value or magnitude, as it often was in ancient Greece. Instead, it was between an object and the enormous field it exists within. Indians were linking things across broad ranges, rather than mainly to other things.

2. Another early Upanisad, the Chandogya, makes a comparison between the sacrificial fire and the universe. The earth is the fire, the year is the fuel, space is its smoke, and night is the flame.

So components of Vedic rituals were being extended into the whole panorama of life as Greeks were grounding their intellectual landscapes with Homeric heroes and gods that you can visualize.

With this tendency to conceive things in terms of cosmic vastness, it was a short leap to seeing the whole universe as a sacrifice. This huge panoply of plants, animals and human societies is one flow that ultimately dissolves like the offering burned on the altar.

And from there, it was a short step to equating the self with the universe–Atman equals Brahman. The essence of the cosmos is within you. Tat tvam asi (Thou are that). People began to develop ways to meditate on the unity of both. More than 2,000 years of some of the world’s greatest spiritual traditions followed.

Earlier posts are:

The Rg Veda, Roots of Indian Culture; Part One,

The Rg Veda, Roots of Indian Culture; Part Two, and

The Rg Veda, Roots of Indian Culture; Part Three.

And here’s an extension to the Vedas: The Rg Veda, Roots of Indian Culture; Part Five.


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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Samuel Birch Bosertinos February 10, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Jesus gives himself to us sacramentally in the Eucharist, and the imagery of a sacrificial meal imbues the alter with table like qualities.


bria4123 February 11, 2012 at 4:05 pm

Good point, Samuel. And it’s a beautifully Western association of ideas–in human dimensions and centered on a personality we can visualize and relate to. Similar to Homeric images of gods in human terms. Many Vedic and Upanisadic descriptions of the sacrifice zing all over the universe–they link ideas across a vast cosmos more than what Westerners have often been comfortable with. I think this is very cool–two cultures expanding the idea of the sacrifice to a universal truth, but with different aesthetics and associations of ideas. It’s lots of fun to compare cultures–thanks for contributing.


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