Gods in The Vedas and Puranas
History of Indian religion and spirituality has an inner continuity, even though forms and atmosphere have changed from time to time in the course of millennia. The Vedic beginning was so vast and so lofty, so comprehensive in its seed-form that the later developments could be considered to be growing forms necessitated by changing circumstances in terms of varying emphases on intellectuality, emotionality and sensuality as also by the boldness of experimental spirit that wanted to bring larger and larger sections of people, larger and larger gradations of people into the realm of experience of the secrets which were originally reserved only for the initiates.
The outer Vedic religion had behind it an esoteric synthesis of Yoga which had discovered the presence and operation of a number of godheads who were still cosmic expressions of the One Supreme, — ekam sad viprā bahudhā uadanti. The aim of the Vedic Yoga was to unite the human with the Supreme by the aid of the godheads and by purifying and perfecting human faculties so as to raise them up to the qualities and Powers represented by the godheads. Perfectibility of the human being and attainment of immortality by enlarging the domains of human consciousness into the corresponding cosmic domains and even by reaching the transcendental Being through supreme experiences of love, joy, power, peace, knowledge and
ineffable Presence and Being was the special aim of this Yoga. This esoteric Yoga did not look upon godheads as mere powers of Physical Nature, even though their descriptions, which were meant for outer religious rituals, appear to give that impression. The gods were, to the Vedic initiates, psychological and spiritual powers, and their reality as living beings, with whom contacts can be made by means of secret words of invocation as also by means of sacrifice through processes of psychological purification, concentration and progressive self-offering.
It was this esoteric Yoga which was rediscovered by the Upanishads, and although they undertook and accomplished another synthesis of Yoga that of different disciplines of knowledge, — it retained close connection and knowledge of the Vedic gods and goddesses. Agni, Vayu, Indra, Surya and others were understood by the Upanishads as intimately as did the Vedic Rishis, and although they did not use profusion of symbolism, they did continue the system of symbolism, and today when we try to understand the secrets of the Vedas and Upanishads, we find that Vedas can be understood through Upanishads, and Upanishads can be best understood through the Vedas.
It is, however, argued that when we come to the post- Vedic age, and particularly the age of Puranas, the changes are so great and radical that one would be inclined to suggest some kind of discontinuity in the heritage derived from the Vedas. But a deeper study will show that there was no discontinuity or any radical departure from the original Vedic aim or concepts.
There was, no doubt, gradual fading out of the prominent Vedic forms and the substitution of others. There was a transformation of symbol in ritual and ceremony; there was even a development of novel
idea forms, which sprouted from the seed of the original thinking. In the Puranas we find a farther widening and fathoming of psychic and spiritual experience although ,it was less lofty than the Vedic experience. The Vedic gods rapidly lost their deep original significance; they even came to be overshadowed by the great Trinity, Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva; ultimately they faded altogether. A new pantheon appeared, which, in its outward symbolic aspect, expressed a deeper truth and larger range of religious experience, and intense feeling, a vaster idea. The Vedic sacrifice persisted to some extent, but only in broken and lessening fragments. The house of Fire was replaced by the temple; the karmic ritual of sacrifice was transformed into the devotional temple ritual. In the Veda, Vedic gods figured in the mantras conveying the mental shifting images; in the Puranas they yielded to more precise conceptual forms of the two great deities, Vishnu and Shiva, and all their Shaktis and their offshoots.
It has been argued that the Trinity which became so dominant in the Puranas had minor importance in the Vedas. But while it is true that number of hymns addressed to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva were fewer than those addressed to gods like Agni and Indra, it must be emphasised that they were not less significant or important. The functions assigned to them in the Vedas were much larger, more cosmic, even more overriding. And in the Puranas these functions came to be emphasised with overarching prominence.
The Maruts have been declared in the Vedas as children of Rudra, and they are not divinities superior to their fierce and Mighty father. But the number of hymns addressed to Maruts is much larger, and they are more Instantly eminent in connection with other gods; but this is because the functions they fulfilled was of a
constant and immediate importance in the Vedic discipline. On the other hand, Vishnu, Rudra, Brahmanaspati, the Vedic originals of the later Puranic Triad Vishnu-Shiva-Brahma, provided the conditions of the Vedic work and stood themselves behind the more present and active gods, but are less close to it and in appearance less continually concerned with daily movements.
The Puranic understanding of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva has a direct link and dependence on the Vedic understanding of Brahmanaspati, Rudra and Vishnu. The Veda describes Brahmanaspati as the Creator by the Word. Brahmanaspati brings out light and physical cosmos out of the darkness of the inconscient ocean and speeds the forms of conscious beings upward to their supreme goal. It is from this creative aspect of Brahmanaspati that the later conception of Brahma, the Creator seems to have developed.
Both Brahmanaspati and Rudra are closely connected with each other in the Veda. The upward movement of Brahmanaspati needs a special uplifting force, and Rudra supplies this force. Rudra is named in the Veda the Mighty One of heaven. He is described as the One who leads the upward evolution of the Conscious being; his force battles against all evil, smites the sinner and the enemy; intolerant of defect and Stumbling, he is the most fierce among the gods. Agni is On the earth the child of this force of Rudra and Vishwamitra describes Agni in one hymn¹ as the One who becomes the child, Kumara, which is the prototype of the Puranic Skanda. The Maruts are vital forces which make light for themselves by violence, are Rudra's
children. But we also learn that this violent and mighty Rudra who breaks down all defective forms and groupings of new life has also a beginner aspect. He is the supreme healer, although when he is opposed, he destroys; but when he is called on for aid, he heals all wounds and all evils and all sufferings. In his battle, the force that he wields is his gift, and ultimately, bestows final peace and joy. In these aspects of the Vedic god, we have all the primitive material necessary for the evolution of the Puranic Shiva-Rudra, the destroyer and healer, the auspicious and the terrible.
As far as Vishnu is concerned, we find that in the Veda, Vishnu supplies the necessary static elements in the formations of Brahmanaspati's words and for the actions of Rudra’s force. These static elements are represented by Space, the ordered movement of the worlds, the ascending levels, and the highest goals. In one of the hymns², a prayer addressed to Vishnu cries out: "O Vishnu, pace out in thy movement with an utter wideness.” Vishnu is described as having taken three strides and having established all the worlds in the space created by the three strides. The supreme step of Vishnu is his highest seat and is the triple world of bliss and light, paramam padam, which the wise ones see extended in heaven like a shinning eye of vision³. It is this highest seat of Vishnu that is the goal of the Vedic journey. Here again, the Vedic Vishnu is the natural precursor and sufficient origin of the Puranic Narayana, preserver and Lord of Love.
In the Vedas we find only one universal deva of whom Vishnu, Rudra, Brahmanaspati, Agni, Indra, Vayu,
² Ibid, IV, 18.11
Mitra Varuna, are all alike forms and cosmic aspects. Each of them is in himself the holy deva and contains all the other gods. The supreme deva was left in the Riks vague and undefined and sometimes even spoken of in the neuter as That or as the one sole existent. In the Upanishads, we find the full emergence of the idea of this supreme and only deva; but gradually there came about the ritualistic importance of the other gods. And again, under the strain of growing mythology there was progressive precision of the human and personal aspects of these gods; eventually, this led to their degradation and enthronement of the less used and more general names and forms, — Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra, — in the final Puranic formulation of the Hindu pantheon.
The new concepts of the gods and goddesses were stabilised in the Purano-Tantric stage in physical images, and they were made the basis for the internal adoration and for the external worship which replaced sacrifice. In the Vedic hymns, the psychic and spiritual mystic endeavour is clearly perceptible in the esoteric practice; but this disappeared into the less intensely luminous but more wide and rich and complex psycho-spiritual inner life of Puranic and Tantric religion and Yoga. Even then, it must be emphasised that the so- called henotheism of the Vedic ideas was prolonged and heightened in the larger and simpler worship of Vishnu or Shiva as the one universal and highest godhead of whom all others were living forms and powers. The Vedic idea of divinity was popularised in the Puranas to an extraordinary extent; this resulted in the concept of the occasional manifestations of the Divine in humanity which founded the worship of the avataras; ultimately, further developed the idea of the Presence of the Divine in the heart of every creature which can be discovered by the process of Yoga.
The Vedic Yoga gave rise to various systems of Yoga, and all of them led or hoped to lead through many kinds of psycho-physical, inner vital, inner mental, and psycho-spiritual methods to the common aims of all Indian spirituality,-- a greater consciousness and a more or less complete union with the One and Divine or full emergence of the individual soul in the Absolute.
The Vedic idea of the battle between gods and their adversaries, Vritra, Panis, and Dasyus is retained m the Purano-Tantric system, although names are different and the stories and legends of their battles as also their victories are varied and described in great detail. The Vedic message of human life as a field of battle in which every individual is called upon to make a sacrifice for attaining victory and immortality is also retained in the Puranas and Tantras, which provided the people with a basis of generalised psycho-religious experience from which man could rise to the highest absolute status.
The Purano-Tantric stage is the second stage of the development of Indian religion and spirituality. The first stage was that of the Vedic age, which makes possible the preparation for the natural external man for spirituality; the second stage of Puranic and Tantric age takes up the outward life of the human being into a deeper mental and psychical living and brings human beings more directly into contact with the spirit and divinity within him. This stage was followed by the third stage which attempted to render the human being capable of taking up the whole mental, psychical, physical living into a first beginning at least of a generalised spiritual life. While much could be done during that stage, its progression was arrested because
of many factors. But it has done much to prepare greater possibility in the future.
As India has awakened once again, it is the unaccomplished tasks of the third stage that are to ho taken up and fulfilled. In this stage of reawakening, the recovery of the old spiritual knowledge is indispensable and a study of the Vedic and Puranic systems is an important aspect. An intensive programme of research will need to be centred on the way in which the spiritual wealth of the Vedic age and the Puranic age as also of the subsequent third age could be assimilated so as to fulfil the higher aims, not only of Indian religion and spirituality, but of all religion and spirituality as such, the highest aim of which is the spiritualising of life on the earth.