The Vedic Goddess
By Phil Vance
Originally published at Lughnasa 2002
It is accepted by the vast majority of scholars and historians that early Vedic society (that historical period of India between 1500bc and 400ad) worshipped an almost exclusively patriarchal pantheon of Gods.
As a student of Indian legends, history and religion and especially interested in the connection of this Sanskrit speaking culture with similar Gods, legends and rituals throughout the Mediterranean and Northern Europe, I have investigated this claim further.
Loathe as I am to add yet more text to the interminable, unprovable and, (for me), pointless debate as to 'what came first, the Goddess or the God?' I believe that the historical development of Vedic culture up to the halfway mark of the first millennium and its subsequent development into Hinduism as we know it today is a rich and rewarding field and, perhaps, one which sheds some light on European traditions.
Unfortunately I have no space in such a short article to provide a history of the Indo-European or 'Aryan' invasion of Northern and Central India, a short reading list is provided for any reader wishing to know a little more on the subject.
The earliest versions of the religious texts that we have were written in Sanskrit over a period of the first millennium AD having been passed down in a long oral tradition from sage to sage. Based on the style of language that has survived in these verses and to known historical events and personages to whom they allude their origins have been dated from 500bc to as far back as 1500bc for the earliest.
In the earliest hymns of the Vedas and in (possibly) later epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the central and most venerated of the Gods are male e.g. Indra; God of rain, thunder and King of the Gods, Agni; God of fire and religious sacrifice and ritual, Varuna; God of the oceans and of Justice, Yama God of Death and the Underworld, and of course, Vishnu; who is promoted to a much higher importance and even over Lord Indra in later texts as the Supreme Godhead and especially famous in his various incarnations (as Rama and Krishna) where He descends to battle Demons, to restore Justice, spread His spiritual message and to start a new Age(not unlike the role of Buddha or Jesus).
It is intimated by MacKenzie in an excellent (and inexpensive) commentary that this emphasis on patriarchal Gods was in keeping with the warrior, land and cattle acquisition, King and subject of the Aryan invaders of India and successfully supplanted the more Goddess and pastoral/agricultural beliefs of the incumbent Dravidic peoples who they conquered and colonised. As J.A.McCullough suggests, speaking of Celtic and Scandinavian religions;
This suggestion of a religious hierarchy evolving to fit into societal needs seems, (at face value), to fit fashionable views of the development of society and appears to fit into what little we do know of the Celtic and Scandinavian beliefs. What evidence we have seems to support the spread of such Gods and beliefs in the late Bronze/early Iron Age from the East and the South East and from the same racial stock as, much, much earlier, moved South to invade the Indian subcontinent.
The difference here is that the Vedic pantheon appears to have retained its elemental spirit motif, e.g. God of rain, of fire, the Oceans etc and had further responsibilities and attributes grafted on..God of Law, the Maintainer etc. Indeed it is almost certain that some of the Gods and Goddesses in the early epics such as Ganga and Saraswati are local spirits and may have been taken up from the indigenous tribes. Lord Shiva; God of Fertility, of the woods and Lord of all animals and also the Destroyer, can be shown to date back to cave paintings in India around 6500bc.
Unfortunately my knowledge of social anthropology or of comparative religion is limited and whether or not this theory (of the evolution of religion according to the evolution of societal needs and social structures) has its counter arguments and detractors, I know not. At first sight it certainly seems to make sense.
But such an evolution does not have an 'ideal' sticking place. As can be seen in the religious development of India, a resurgence of Hinduism known as the 'Brahminical Revolution' originating out of Madhyadesa occurred in response to the spread and dominance of early Buddhism across India in the 6th century Ad and with it came a revival (?) of the importance of Goddesses.
Figures such as Lakshmi;Goddess of Love and of Prosperity and Fortune and in her incarnation as Radharani, the lover of Krishna and as Sita the wife of Lord Rama, assumed much heightened status in the everyday worship of the populace.
Durga; the War Goddess, Jagadgauri; Earth Mother and Harvest Bride, Gayatri, Sati, Uma and the infamous Kali are all aspects or incarnations of Parvati and each has Her followers.
The River Goddesses Saraswati and Ganga (Mother Ganges) Goddesses both of Sanctity and Religious Ritual, life giving and cleansing rise from early beginnings, possibly as tribal River Spirits/ Fertility Goddesses, to become almost universally venerated throughout all of India.
Other figures such as Sasti; Goddess of Childbearing and Protector of children, or of Indrani, Manasa, Ratri etc, are worshipped throughout modern Hindu belief but on a less daily or on a more local scale.
It would appear that in this 'revolution,' probably against the 'impersonal' or 'voidist' nature of Buddhist belief, Vedic religion acquired a more humanistic face. Along with Goddess worship there was a greater move towards the veneration of Vishnu and in particular in His exploits as Krishna, Saviour of all those who would recognise Him as the Supreme Being and of Shiva (as stated before) a pre-Aryan God of Fertility.
In one such scripture, Lakshmi is described as .
Shiva's consort is no less impressive as Durga; War Goddess, as Kali, She is both Earth Mother and Destroyer, Her followers include the much feared Thugee, outlawed bandits and murderers whose Cult still exists in parts of India today.
Although many of such Goddesses are described as consorts to the important Gods such as Indra, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, such a description should not (as it often is) seen in any way as derogatory. I would not feel personally slighted if I was described as husband to 'X', so why should it be taken as demeaning to be described as wife to 'Z'? It is simply one of the many qualities/attributes/descriptions not necessarily a term of subordination.
Many philosophers in the 2nd millennium have postulated a more complete relationship between celestial partners. Lakshmi has been described as "inseperable" from Vishnu (literally) and thence the tradition of linking the names e.g. Radhe-Krishna, Sita -Rama etc. Even that Lakshmi is a 'Potency'or incarnation of Vishnu.The question of superiority and subordination becomes meaningless as the Supreme Being is held to have both a Female and a Male aspect in perfect balance.
It is likely in this renewal of the prominence of Shiva and Saraswati and Ganga etc that a fusion of the beliefs of the horse-riding, cattle-raiding Aryan invaders occurred over this interim, both accommodating to and assimilating of the earlier pastoral beliefs of the indigenous people resulting over the centuries in Hinduism as we see it today.
However it is widely held by many respected historians and experts in the field of ancient Indian culture that, pre-600AD India was committed to a male pantheon of Gods and that such references there are to Goddesses are largely "poetical constructs" ie not relating to real characters or powers of Nature. That the hymns (sic) devoted to Them are poetical flights of the author. I have come across this viewpoint in works dating back to the 19th century by Max Muller and the 20th century by Ralph Griffith and Donald MacKenzie.This theory appears to have become the accepted viewpoint almost by default (i.e. without any challenge). Perhaps some clues to this accepted premise may be found in one of the earliest of the scriptures, the Rig Veda, circa 1500bc. In this weighty tome, several hymns are dedicated to the Goddess of the Dawn, Ushas..
Book 1:hymn 48
And again hymn92;verse8..
As we can see, the Goddess, contrary perhaps to the assertion of MacKenzie and others that Ushas is merely a poetical creation, has real powers for granting both life and wealth in the form of horses and cattle.
She creates Light and the power also to instil breath and life into all living things and further, to bring all manner of people priests and princes to dwell on spiritual matters and religious sacrifice.
A clue to her origin and also her displacement amongst the pantheon may be heard in hymn 48;verse14..
Elsewhere in the Rig Veda other Goddesses are praised: -
Sinivali is mentioned as the Moon Goddess, Prithivi as the Earth Goddess. In A prayer to Ushas sister, Ratri Goddess of the night, we catch a glimpse of the fears and hopes of these early Indians...
Again in other hymns, ( particularly in Book 10 of the Rig Veda), there is a prayer for banishing Nirriti Goddess of Death and Destruction, another to Indrani and Sapatni as a spell to rid a jealous wife of a rival. A charm to drive away the Demoness Arayi, an ode honouring Aranyani, Woodland Goddess.
Although the hymns of the Vedas were composed by different authors and handed down in oral tradition and were not presented in written form by various scholars until the 1st millennium AD, the feel of some of the verses in book 10 is much older than the rest containing as they do charms spells banishment and prayers to Gods and Goddesses not found in the other nine books. Whether they have their origin from the indigenous Dravidian peoples or from the earliest or current beliefs of the Aryan colonists is difficult if not impossible to say. But, again, perhaps they give an insight into the evolving of beliefs from a time that Goddesses were of more prominence in Aryan religion than they were in that period 1500BC-500AD. Perhaps, also, the later resurgence countering the spread of Buddhism in India was, inadvertently a restoring of the natural balance of things.
If we view other verses within the thousand or more hymns contained in the Rig Veda, we can see other prominent Gods are treated with the same degree of poesy e.g. Lord Agni, God of Fire...
Book 1 ;hymn 27
Or of the Maruts...
Book1; hymn 64
And of Agni again
None of the Gods and Goddesses escape these often tortured but always beautiful flights of description, But Ushas, as with other (perhaps 'younger' Gods) is still appealed to as all the Gods are throughout the Vedas for freedom from enemies, the birth of offspring, wealth and cattle etc. with no reason to assume that She is fictitious.
Another Goddess, Saraswati, spoken of in some of the earliest hymns of Book 1 is primarily a River Goddess worshipped in these hymns as Goddess of Sanctity and Ritual and, later, as Goddess of Learning and the Arts.
Book 3; verse5
Although, as with all texts that are passed down in Sruti i.e. "that which was heard" or oral tradition, it is nigh impossible to disentangle original discourse from later additions,...it is generally accepted that the majority of tales contained within the epic 'The Mahabharata' date to the 2nd millennium bc and that some of the earliest of these (in terms of style and language) relate tales of important Goddesses, strong princesses and determined women.
It would be very wrong to interpret a society 3.5 thousand years older than ours by modern standards of male and female equality/dominance. Pre-Biblical Indian society was strongly hierarchical and caste orientated..every person; father husband, son, daughter, mother, wife, uncle, aunt of every profession ..merchant, priest, labourer, king, subject etc.etc. had a prescribed 'Dharma' or system of rules and obligations under which/by which it is their Duty to fulfil.
We have to try to interpret such a society in its own terms in order to truly understand its events and personages and so as not to miss the point. However although these early texts eulogise the princely male traits of courage, strength etc. and often portray women as devoted wives, physically beautiful but weaker than men there seems no suggestion in the Mahabharata that they are 2nd class citizens. Many, many of the stories in this epic e.g. how the Goddess Ganga manipulated and dominated Her husband, King Shantanu, as She murders in turn Her seven sons.of Savitri following Yama, God of the Underworld, to the borders of His kingdom and using her intelligence and 'smarts' to recover her husband from the arms of Death,..of Ambalika's determination to avenge herself on Bhishma,.Queen Draupadi's haranguing and lecturing the assembly of kings and princes on their responsibilities towards her..and, indeed, of the ceremony of Svayamvara itself, whereby the princess gets to choose her husband from amongst her suitors, describe such legends of strong, powerful and dominant woman. A warrior based society that was very rigid in its hierarchy of classes or castes and very definite in its ideas of what constitutes Right Behaviour, The Aryan colonists of Northern and Central India (circa 1500bc onwards) revered male Gods such as Indra, Agni, Varuna, Vishnu and Shiva as its most important deities. It is equally obvious, however, from the early texts that I have examined here that the Goddess was both important and very real to their ancestors and that this veneration of Her in Her various aspects was never entirely submerged.
In conclusion, whilst it is fair to adjudge, based on these texts and the frequency or number of references to each, that the position of the Gods in Vedic culture assumes greater prominence..the claim that Goddesses such as Ushas, Ratri, Saraswati etc are merely 'poetical constructs' is difficult to accept in that there are simply no real grounds for supposing this.
Suggested Reading List
"Mahabharata" 1981 William Buck, Univ of California Press
The author can also be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org