Soma cult, the popular cult of Ancient India

The gods in the Vedic religion are classified under three spheres namely aerial, celestial and terrestrial. Of the popular gods of the Vedic religion, Indra belonged to the aerial or atmospheric sphere, Varuna to the celestial sphere and Soma to the terrestrial sphere. In the Vedas the word Soma has two meanings, God and plant/juice. After Indra and Agni, Soma has the highest number of hymns addressed to him and the ninth mandala of Rig Veda has about 114 hymns addressed exclusively to Soma. These hymns were composed by rishis most of them who figure as authors in other mandalas as well but a majority of the hymns of Soma were composed by the rishi family of Kashyapas who probably were specialists in the Soma cult. He is also praised in other mandalas.

The Soma cult was one of the oldest cults in the Vedic religion existing even prior to the Indra cult. Soma is described as the father of Indra and other Vedic gods and Indra is described to be an enthusiastic worshipper of Soma. In the Rig Veda Soma sacrifice is described as the oldest and anterior to all sacrifices and the Soma juice as the favourite drink of the gods from ancient times. As a deity Soma was a wise seer, a poet who stimulates thoughts and inspires hymns. He is the lord of plants or the lord of woods (Vanaspathi). Soma is said to be divine, immortal and had the power to confer immortality to gods and men. Being connected with Indra in his conflict with Vrtra, Soma is described as a great fighter, the most heroic of heroes and a slayer of the wicked. He is also called the treasure or the wealth of gods and bestower of all the wealth of heaven and earth.

The Pre-eminence of Soma

In the pantheon of Vedic gods, the sun occupies the most prominent place. The ancient Vedic people greeted this god with hymns of praise and offering of Soma juice. The Vedic people were divided into various clans and each clan had a special name for sun and worshipped him in that name. One clan recited hymns in praise of Varuna, another in praise of Indra and another in praise of Vayu, but the Soma juice remained a common offering for every clan and it created a bond that linked the diverse clans. The word Soma was first used to mean a creeper, then it meant juice of the creeper Soma. As juice is water Soma meant water and then rain and as it is the sun responsible for rain, Soma came to be identified with sun. Later the Vedic people began to worship Soma in place of other solar deities and Soma reigned as the Supreme God.

Soma’s identification with other Gods

According to Hillebrandt at the beginning of the Agnistoma sacrifice Soma is treated as Varuna and a considerable amount of Vedic literary and ritualistic evidence shows that in the mind of the Vedic thinkers Soma and Varuna were quite identical. Dandekar opines that it was a conscious attempt on the part of the later Soma priests to glorify Soma by bringing him into contact with Varuna, the world sovereign. Similarly, effort was made to bring Soma and Pusan together though the Pusan cult was an independent cult promoted by the rishi family of Bharadvajas.

In subsequent time however the Soma creeper could not be procured and people in course of time forget about it and hence in post-Vedic literature one misses the word Soma altogether and, in its place, we find the word Savitri, which was accepted as Soma’s substitute. Soma was also identified with the moon.

Soma and Haoma ceremony

Rig Veda mentions Soma as a plant/oushadhi (a species of Ephedra) which was grown on Mujavat mountains around the Sharyanavat lake and on the Rjika mountains. The juice of this plant was extracted by pressing its shoots. It was then mixed with milk or curds or barley water and offered as libation in fire sacrifice. Just as the Vedic literature describes the Soma sacrifice, the Zend Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrian religion, (an off-shoot of the Vedic religion) describes the Yasna ceremony where the Haoma juice is prepared. As we have seen Soma in Vedic literature has two meaning, god and plant while in Avesta the word Haoma has four connotations- Haoma the prophet, the plant, the hero and probably the person who performed the Haoma sacrifices. How is that the Soma offering unique to the Vedic religion was adopted by the Zoroastrian religion? According to R.N.Dandekar, in the beginning of the Vedic religion Varuna was the supreme God who was latter challenged by Indra. Later there was a compromise between the followers of Varuna cult and Indra cult. But some followers of Varuna who could not accept the supremacy of Indra probably migrated to Iran and the Varuna cult evolved into a new religion later known as Zoroastrianism. In its new avatar Zoroastrianism retained many old rituals of the Vedic religion like worship of fire (Agni), offering of Soma (Haoma) and probably Varuna who had the epithet Asura was now worshipped as Ahura Mazda, the supreme God in Zoroastrian religion.


  1. R.N.Dandekar- Vedic Mythological Tracts, Ajanta Publications, Delhi, 1979
  2. Abinas Chandra Das- RGVedic India, Calcutta, 1927
  3. C.G.Kashikar- Identification of Soma– Research Series No.7, Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth, Pune, 1990
  4. Swami Sankaranand- RGVedic Culture of the Pre-historic India, Vol-II, Ramakrishna Vedanta Math, Calcutta, 1944
  5. V.G.Rahurkar- The Seers of the RGVeda, University of Poona, 1964
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  8. R.C.Majumdar Edited- History and Culture of the Indian People, The Vedic Age, 1951

Atharva Veda, the Veda of the Masses

The Atharva Veda is a collection of 730 hymns divided into twenty chapters. This Veda is associated with mythic fire priests of prehistoric antiquity, Atharvan and Angiras and later Bhrigu resulting in this Veda being named Atharvangirasah and Bhrgvangirasah. As about half of its hymns is attributed to sage Atharvan this Veda is also known by the name Atharva Veda. In the matter of the total number of mantras and suktas compiled in the four samhitas, the Atharva Veda stands next only to Rig Veda. S.N.Dasgupta presumes that a good number of Atharvanic hymns were composed even before the composition of Rigvedic hymns as never probably in the history of India was there any time when people did not take to charms and incantations for curing diseases or repelling calamities and injuring enemies; the main subject of Atharva Veda. However, by the time the Atharva Veda was compiled in its present form some new hymns were incorporated with it, the philosophical character of which does not tally with the outlook of the majority of the hymns.

Authors of the Atharva Veda

Unlike the three Vedas of the Trayi which derive their names from the nature of the composition, Atharva Veda derive the name from their authors, namely Atharvan, Angirasa and Bhrigu.

The name Atharvan occurs about fourteen times in the Rig Veda. He generally appears in the character of an ancient priest. He appears as the first enkindler of fire and also as the founder of the cult of sacrifice. The Atharvans also probably initiated the Soma sacrifice. In the Atharva Veda, the Atharvans are referred to as medicine men.

Sage Angiras is often referred to in the Vedas by the seers as their ancient father. He is closely connected with the production of fire and the inauguration of the fire cult. The word Angiras occurs about ninety times in the Rig Veda and sometimes occurs as an epithet of Agni or of Indra. Angiras was a great and enthusiastic religious reformer. He preached the doctrine of tirtha yatra (journey to sacred places) and upavasa (fasting) as easier substitute for the cumbrous Vedic sacrifices.

The Bhrigus or Bhargavas claim descent from the primeval rishi Bhirgu. The earliest Bhrgu mentioned in the Puranas are Chyavana and Shukra, the latter being the guru of the Asuras. The members of Angiras and Bhrigu families originally formed a single unit and were great philosophers, leaders and religious teachers. The Atharvanic texts represents an attempt of the Brahmanic orthodoxy led by the Angirasas and Bhrigus to enlist the sympathy of the masses whose beliefs and traditions are faithfully recorded in the Atharva Veda. The Bhrigus and Angirasas were jointly responsible for the final redaction of the Mahabharata and supported the Vaishnava religion and used the Mahabharata as a vehicle of instructing the people in the new and simplified forms of the Vedic religion devised by them.

The Rituals of Atharva Veda

While trayi is connected with srauta ceremonies with oblation of Soma, the Atharva Veda is about rites where oblation other than Soma was poured into the fire. The rituals of the Atharva Veda fall broadly under four classes namely-

  • Shantika– rituals performed for mitigating evil and creating an atmosphere of good.

  • Paushtika– rituals performed for the attainment of plenty and prosperity.

  • Adbhuta– rituals performed for warding off evils from unseen agencies and

  • Abhicharika– rituals performed for warding off evils from enemies.

The rituals of the first and second classes are performed with the aid of mantras. The rituals of the third and fourth classes are intended for special use under special circumstances.

Contents of Atharva Veda

With regards to the contents, the Atharva Veda presents a remarkably rich variety of contents from subtle philosophical speculation to refreshing medicinal references. According to S.C.Banerji, the Atharva Veda is an inestimable source of knowledge of the actual popular religion of ancient India. The Atharva Veda has information on astronomy, agriculture, polity and about the habits, customs and culture of the people of that times. It has medicinal charms to cure diseases and possesses a knowledge of anatomy. Hence Sushruta says that Ayurveda (the science of life) is an upanga of the Atharva Veda, while Vagbhatta the elder speaks of Ayurveda as a upaveda of Atharva Veda. This is because both the texts deal with the curing of diseases and attainment of long life; the Atharva Veda by incantations and charms and the Ayurveda by medicines. As Atharva Veda provides a good deal of information on statecraft and kingship it is considered as a base for Dandaniti. According to Lalan Prasad Singh, the Atharva Veda deals with the Tantric cult and covers all the branches of Tantrism. It is a compendium of Vidya Tantra which propagates the philosophy of Brahma Vada and Upavidya Tantra which deals about charms and sorceries. The Atharva Veda also contains much material in the form of worldly wisdom and in the Raghuvamsha, Kalidasa speaks of Vasishta as the receptacle of Atharva (wisdom). Here the wisdom has relation to finding out remedies for misfortune. The Atharva Veda is specially connected with the avoidance of sufferings.

Reluctance to accord Vedic status

Even up to the times of Ramayana or even Kalidasa, Vedatrayi referred to Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and Sama Veda and Atharva Veda was discarded from the group. For a long time, the followers of trayi had scant regard for Atharva Veda and its followers did not recognise the Atharvan text as a Veda. Even among the trayi, gradation was made in orthodox circles and the first place of importance was given to the Rig Veda. But Sayana was of the opinion that in sacrifices it is the Yajur Veda which stands prominent. But in the case of Atharva Veda all agreed that it is inferior to other three Vedas. The reason for meting out such a treatment to the Atharva Veda is that while the other three Vedas contain in them prayers and sacrificial formulae used in sacrifice, the Atharva Veda contains in it hymns which are devoid of all sacrificial utility. Another reason was because Atharva Veda contained matter of the nature to bless and to curse and to cure and cause diseases and hence its character was not wholly holy. Atharva Veda contains mantras to effect good as well as bad to the people and it was not regarded as a purely sacred text. Also, as the name of the seers who composed the Atharva Veda did not figure in the traditional lists of the Vedic seers (anukramanis), it was denied the status enjoyed by the trayi. According to Ksetreshacandra Chattopadhyaya, the reason for non recognition of the Atharva Veda as a Veda was because it was mainly concerned with shanti (removal of troubles) and pusti (aquisition of good things in life) and was the sphere of the Purohita (the domestic priest). Whereas the Rig Veda, Sama Veda and the Yajur Veda dealt with shrauta sacrifices for which the services of the hotr, udgatr and adhvaryu priests were needed. Hence the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda makes mention of the first three Vedas and not the Atharva Veda.

Attains the status of fourth Veda

To make their text a part of the Vedas, the Atharvans resorted to a two-fold strategy. First as in Yajur Veda and Sama Veda, they added hymns from the Rig Veda to their text. For instance, chapters like 14 and 18 of the Atharva Veda contains mantras from the tenth mandala of Rig Veda and chapter 20 contains complete hymns (borrowed from Rig Veda) addressed to Indra and relates to the Soma ritual, which is entirely foreign to the spirit of the Atharva Veda. Secondly, they began to glorify their text as Sarvavidya and tried to prove Atharva Veda superior to all other Vedas both in holiness and comprehensiveness. The Atharvavedis claimed that the Atharva Veda provides fruit in this world and also in the other world whereas the other three Vedas provide fruit only in the other world. Also, they claimed that the followers of trayi will reach the highest heaven whereas the Atharvans and Angirasas go beyond the great world of the Brahma. The Vaitana Sutra, the ritual text of Atharva Veda advises that only a person well versed in Atharva Veda be chosen as Brahman (the supervising priest in Vedic sacrifices) and he is given precedence over the hotr, adhvaryu and udgatr priests. Later under the influence of Atharva texts like Kaushika Sutra, the kings began to appoint priest (a wise Brahmin) as his councillor/adviser and he was an Atharvavedin as they were well versed in the art of charms and incantation and could protect the king and his people from all kinds of evils. These factors finally led Atharva Veda to be accorded the status of fourth Veda. It is true that Atharva Veda has been called the fourth Veda, but Ithihas-Purana which comes next has been mentioned as the fifth Veda and certainly Ithihas-Purana cannot be called a Veda. 

Popularity of Atharva Veda

The sacrificial rites of the Rig Veda were expensive and only the moneyed people could afford to perform them. Also, the Rig Vedic rites could not be expected to cure a man from jaundice, heart disease or fever. The Atharvanic priest brought the sacrificial technique within the reach of the people by simplifying its procedure. They introduced Sava sacrifices which were less elaborate, less expensive and were manageable by single individual and which gave the same fruit as the old Vedic sacrifices. According to Sayana the Atharva Veda was indispensable to kings for warding off their enemies and securing many other advantages and the royal priests had to be well versed in the Atharvanic practices. As these practices were mostly for the alleviation of the troubles of an ordinary householder, the grhya sutras drew largely from them. The Atharvavedis evolved and popularised the worship of the pitrs (manes) and through a special rite known as Vratyastoma, admitted the Vratyas (followers of a non-Vedic cult) into the Vedic fold.

The hold of the Atharvanic charms on the mind of the people was probably very strong since they had occasion to use them in all their daily concerns. Even now when the Rigvedic sacrifices have become extremely rare, the use of Atharvanic charms and of their descendants, the Tantric charms of comparative later times, is very common amongst all classes of Hindus. A very large part of the income of the priestly class is derived from the performance of auspicious rites (svastyayana), purification penance (prayashcitta) and oblations (homa) for curing chronic and serious illness, winning law suit, alleviating sufferings, securing a male issue to the family, cursing an enemy and the like. Amulets are used almost as freely as they were three or four thousand years ago and snake charms and charms for dog bite and others are still in vogue.

Status of Atharva Veda at present

The Atharva Veda existed in nine recensions namely Paippaladah, Staudah, Maudah, Shaunaka, Jaladah, Jajala, Brahmavada, Devadarsha and Caranavaidya. At present Atharva Veda is not widely followed by any section of people in India except in some pockets in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh who are the followers of Shaunaka text while that of Paippalada text has followers in Odisha. Even present-day Brahmins regard the Atharvavedis inferior to themselves and do not dine with them. A report in The Hindu dated 3rd October 2015 mentions that there are just around ten qualified scholars and 100 to 120 learners of Atharva Veda in India and reports about a patashala in Tiruchanur in Andhra Pradesh where only Atharva Veda is taught.


  1. N.J.Shende- The foundation of the Atharvanic religion, Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute, 1948
  2. N.J.Shende- The Authorship of the Mahabharata, Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, vol 24, 1943
  3. S.K.Ramachandra Rao-The Tantra of Sri Chakra, Sharada Prakashana, Bangalore, 1983
  4. Hukam Chand Patyal- Significance of the Atharva Veda, Journal of the Ananthacharya Indological Research Institute, vol – 1, 1998
  5. Surendranath Dasgupta- History of Indian Philosophy, vol- II
  6. V.S.Ghate- Lectures on Rig Veda, 1915
  7. S.C.Banerji- A Companion to Tantra, Abhinav Publications, New Delhi,
  8. N.K.Venkatesam Pantalu- The place of the Atharva Veda in Vedic literature, QJMS, vol-29 (4), 1939
  9. C.L.Prabhakar- Contents and Importance of Atharva Veda, QJMS, vol-75 (4) 1984
  10. Lalan Prasad Singh- Tantra- Its Mystic and Scientific Basis, Concept Publishing Company Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2010
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  13. V.G.Rahurkar- The Seers of the RG Veda, University of Poona, 1964
  14. V.W.Karambelkar- Brahman and Purohita in Atharvanic Texts, The Indian Historical Quarterly, vol 26, 1950
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  16. C. Kunhan Raja- The Vedas, Andhra University, 1957
  17. Ksetreshacandra Chattopadhya – Vedic Religion, Centre of Advanced Study in Philosophy, Banaras Hindu University, 1975


Vyasa the Literary Genius of Ancient India

To Him who is Brahma, but without four faces;

To Him who is Vishnu, but with two hands:

To Him who is Shankara, but without the third eye,

To Vyasa in the form of Vishnu and Vishnu in the form of Vyasa:

To Him, Vasishta’s heir, the Self realised, I bow.’

With these words Hindus pay homage to Vyasa every year on the full moon day of the month of ashada (July) which is celebrated as Guru Poornima or Vyasa poornima. Vyasa is one of our revered gurus in our Guru Parampara, namely Narayana, Brahma, Vasishta, Shakti, Parashara, Vyasa, Shuka, Gaudapada, Govinda Bhagavatpada and Shankaracharya. Vyasa was known as Krishna Dvaipayana as he was dark in complexion and born in an island in river Yamuna. As he performed penance under a Badara tree, he is referred as Badarayana and as he is said to have classified the Vedas, he is known as Veda Vyasa. He is said to have spent his whole life living in an hermitage first at Badari and later on the banks of river Saraswati pursuing spiritual and literary activities.

Progenitor of Pandavas and Kauravas

Vyasa was born to sage Parashara and Satyavati. Later Satyavati married Shantanu the Kuru king of Hastinapura and had two sons, Chitrangada and Vichitravirya. Chitrangada who ascended the throne after the demise of Shantanu lost his life in a battle with the Gandharvas and his place was taken by his brother Vichitravirya. He had married Ambika and Ambalika, but died due to illness before having any heirs. Satyavati then requested Vyasa to impregnate Ambika from whom was born Dhritarashtra and Ambalika from whom was born Pandu.

Composer of Mahabharata

Vyasa is considered as the star of the first magnitude in the literary horizon of Bharatavarsha. Apart from classifying the Vedas, Vyasa is credited with the composition of the epic Mahabharata and the Puranas. He is also said to have written the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavata which some scholars beg to differ. With regards to Mahabharata It is mentioned that Vyasa composed Mahabharata in three years working day and night and the name given to the original epic by Vyasa was ‘Jaya’ or Triumph and it consisted of 8800 verses. He taught this to Vaishampayana, Jaimini, Paila, Sumantu and Shuka and all of these rishis are called as Bharatacharyas or the editors of Bharata by Ashwalayana. On the occasion of the sarpayaga organised by Janamejaya, Vyasa’s pupil Vaishampayana recited the whole story before the assembled sages and warriors in the forest hermitage of Naimisha. Now the text was called Bharata and consisted of 24000 verses. The epic attained the name Mahabharata when Sauti narrated the same to sage Saunaka and it consisted of one lakh verses. According to R.K.Mukerjee, the original work of Vyasa was called Bharata and consisted of 24,000 stanzas. Handed down by the bards, it was later expanded into the Mahabharata by the Bhrigus who incorporated into its various myths and legends, as well as moral and religious materials. Ashvalayana a pupil of Shaunaka is said to be the final redactor of the epic.

Heralded a Renaissance

The Mahabharata is the glorification of a united India brought under the imperial authority of Yudhisthira as a chakravartin with his capital in the holy land, once celebrated for Vedic learning and culture. The popularity of Mahabharata is such that even today the stories of Mahabharata are recited, dramatized and refashioned according to modern cultural needs over a vast section of south and east Asia. According Meera Chakravorty during the age of Mahabharata a galaxy of meritorious personalities, their thoughts and action gave rise to such doctrines, notions and practices which created a renaissance that directly and indirectly influenced people, their lives, literary genres and their consciousness over the years. This was possible only because Vyasa who was a witness to this renaissance was able to document it in the form of Mahabharata.

Composer of the Puranas

The Puranas occupy a unique position in the sacred and secular literature of the Hindus, being regarded as next in importance only to the Vedas. Along with Mahabharatha they are considered as the fifth Veda, the Veda of the masses. According to Vishnu Purana, Vyasa compiled a Purana Samhita with tales, anecdotes, songs and ancient lore that had come down from the ages. The Purana Samhita is divided into four padas namely

  • Prakriya Pada– consisting of 300 sholkas which gives a description of the creation of the universe.

  • Anusanga Pada– consisting of 1600 shlokas it narrates the history of the dynasties of the kings and rishis of the early manavantaras.

  • Upodghata Pada– consisting of 2600 shlokas it records the history of Vaivasvata manvantara with information on ancient Indian tribes and the geneologies of dynasties of kings and rishis.

  • Upasamhara Pada– consisting of 125 shlokas it gives an account of the destruction of the universe or pralaya.

Vyasa taught this Purana Samhita to his disciple Suta Lomaharsana who in turn taught it to six of his disciples. There were four recessions of the Purana Samhita, those of Suta Lomaharsana and three of his disciples; of which three of them is in narrative form and the remaining one in the form of a dialogue and is known as Shamshapayanika Samhita. Probably out of these recessions evolved the present 18 Puranas.

Classification of the Vedas

In ancient times Vedas meant only one collection of all the mantras numbering about twenty-five thousand or more. Later for the purpose of study and preservation, the single collection was divided by Veda Vyasa into four overlapping collection of mantras as Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda and taught one each to his disciples, Paila, Vaishampayana, Jaimini and Sumantu respectively. Though the epic and puranic traditions unanimously and repeatedly declare that the Veda was arranged by Vyasa, the Vedic literature is remarkably silent about him. According to Suryakant Bali on the basis of some internal evidences, which are corroborated by tradition and literary testimony, it has been observed that the Vedas were compiled four times in all and the present shape of the samhita represent the fourth and final compilation. The first compilation was done in the realm of king Shruta of Ayodhya, the second compilation was undertaken at the instance of king Shrutaayu of Videha; the third during the time of king Brahmadatta of Dakshina Panchala and the fourth by Vyasa and his team. At each compilation some mantras might have been discarded and some more mantras might have been included. This was also the view of Pargiter who says that much earlier to Vyasa, two Brahmins, Kandarika (or Pundarika) and Subalaka (or Galava), ministers of Brahmadatta, the king of sourthern Panchala classified the Vedas about 150 years before the Mahabharata War and Vyasa might have added all the hymns that were incorporated later and completed the canon.

Bhagavata Purana

The Bhagavata or Bhagavata Purana is the most popular of all Puranas and it is held in the highest esteem by the Vaishnavas in all parts of India. The Padma Purana devotes a chapter to the worship of this Purana and calls it the most exalted of all the Puranas and the book is actually worshipped in many Hindu homes. According to traditional accounts once Vyasa sat in a lonely place on the banks of the river Saraswati and was pondering over the cause of his inner dissatisfaction of not yet realizing the essential nature of the Self. At that time sage Narada came to him and asked him to write about the greatness of Lord Vishnu and the result was the compilation of Bhagavata Purana by Vyasa. However according to S.N.Dasgupta there is no reference to Bhagavata Purana before the 10th century A.D. and even Ramanuja had not mentioned its name. But by the time of Madhvacharya it had become famous. As the Bhagavata Purana makes references to the Alwars who have probably never been referred to by any writers in north or upper India, Dasgupta feels that the Bhagavata Purana was composed by a southerner.

Compiled the Brahma Sutras

As the Upanishads do not have ready-made consistent system of thought there arose the necessity of systematizing the thought of Upanishads which resulted in the composition of Brahma Sutras, the authorship of which is attributed to Vyasa. The Brahma Sutra itself refers to other schools of Vedanta like Audulomi, Kasakristna, Badari, Jaimini, Karshnajini, Asmarathya and others with its own followers. This shows that Brahma Sutras was not the only systematic work in the Vedanta school though it was probably the last and the best. Shankaracharya in his commentaries on the Brahma Sutras refers to Vyasa as the author of Mahabharata and Badarayana as the author of the Brahma Sutras. Perhaps to him these two personalities were different. According to R.D.Karmarkar even tradition is against the view that one and the same Vyasa was the compiler of both the Gita and the Brahma Sutras. While Veda Vyasa is the compiler of Mahabharata, the author of Vedanta Sutras or Brahma Sutras is Badarayana Vyasa. The Gita looks upon Samkya and Yoga as two important ways leading to the same goal and is permeated through and through with the doctrines of these two systems of philosophy. The Vedanta Sutras on the other hand seem to be using all their energy in refuting the Samkya doctrine and as many as nineteen sutras being clearly reserved for this task. Hence Karmarkar says that the Gita and Vedanta Sutras could not have been written by one and the same person.

A National Integrator

Vyasa was a seer, ascetic and prophet. According to Skanda Purana, Vyasa had married Vatika the daughter of rishi Jabali and Shuka was born to them. His wife’s name is given as Arani by Pargiter. Vyasa was responsible for expounding Krishna Bhagavatism or the new Pancharatra creed in such a manner that it did not became a heresy like Jainism and Buddhism but was on the contrary fully assimilated into the general trend of Upanishad thought. Further Vyasa stressed an eclecticism and spirit of tolerance towards Shaivism and Shaktism that has since became a leading characteristic of popular Hinduism. Vyasa was a national integrator and a universal man too. Not only did he write voluminously about our culture but also instituted the order of sanyasis dedicated to the general welfare and the practice of pilgrimages to the holy places spread out through the whole of our country. At Ramnagar palace in Varanasi there is a shrine dedicated to Vyasa and at the Varadaraja temple in Kanchi we find his sculpture.


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  8. F.E.Pargiter- Ancient Indian Historical Traditions

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  12. Radha Kamal Mukerjee- The Culture and Art of India, Goerge Allen & Unwin Ltd, London.

  13. S.P.L.Narasimhaswami- Aikshvaku Dynasty, Bharatiya Vidya, vol- IV, part II, May 1943

  14. Suryakant Bali- History of Vedic Studies and the Atharva Veda, Historical and Critical Studies of the Atharva Veda, Nag Publishers, Delhi, 1981

Vasishtas, the Pre-eminent Seers of Ancient India

The sage Vasishta has played a very significant role in the cultural history of ancient India. There is indeed hardly any period of the Vedic and the epic ages on which Vasishta and his family have not left the special stamp of their almost inimitable personality. Of the eight rishi progenitors which produced Brahmin families, that of Angirasas, Vasishtas and Bhrgus are important and have great antiquity. Vasishta is the only seer to whom some kind of divinity is attributed in the Rig Veda and is considered one among the saptarishis both in the Rig Veda and the Puranas.

Divine birth

Vasishta is said to be born miraculously along with sage Agastya in a pot from the parentage of Mitra, Varuna and Urvashi. Sadashiva Dange in analysing this mytho-poetic description of the birth of Vasishta says that Vasishta was considered a master of mystic knowledge with inimitable priestly prowess and who could call Indra at will to save his patrons (for instance king Sudasa in his fight against the ten kings). Hence the birth of such an eminent person is depicted as of divine origin without semen and a mortal womb. We have several instances in the epics of these types of divine births. In Ramayana Rama and his brothers are described as born from the payasa which emerged from the sacrificial fire and in Mahabharata Draupadi is described to have born from the sacrificial altar.

Pioneer of Bhakti cult

The seventh mandala of the Rig Veda contains the majority of references to Vasishta and the members of his family. A critical study of the Varuna suktas in the seventh mandala shows that Vasishta must be regarded as the pioneer of the bhakti cult. These hymns are some of the loftiest and the most inspired in the whole of the Rig Veda. The poet approaches Varuna in all surrendering humility and pleads for forgiveness of his sins. The hymns in general are full of pathos and are more devout in tone than any others. They are surcharged with a deep sense of complete self-surrender and a passionate longing for close personal communion with god- the two important characters of true bhakti.

Vasishta’s rivalry with Vishwamitra

The Vasishta family was connected with the kings of Ayodhya from the earliest times and the Vasishtas were their hereditary priests. But some kings of Ayodhya like Satyavrata and Trishanku due to their feud with the Vasishtas appointed Vishwamitras as their royal priests. Also, Vishwamitra who was the purohita of Sudasa, the hero of the famous Dasarajna war mentioned in the Rig Veda was later replaced by Vasishta by Sudasa. The feud between Vasishta and Vishwamitra had its origin in changing the office of the purohita by Sudasa and other kings mentioned above. Though the feud between these two celebrated Vedic families is nowhere directly mentioned in the Rig Veda, it is abundantly testified by indirect references in the Rig Veda and by tradition. Ghurye is of the opinion that the feud between Vasishta and Vishwamitra is symbolic of a struggle between the Brahmin class and the Kshtriya class. But a hard and fast demarcation between Brahmin and Kshtriya was unknown to the early Rig Vedic period.

As a religious peacemaker

A critical study of the Rig Veda shows that in the beginning, the Vedic religion centred around the worship of Asura Varuna and Vasishta was originally a great champion of the Varuna cult and regarded Varuna as the supreme god and Indra as his subordinate. Indra was originally a human hero who led the Vedic tribes in their victorious march towards Sapta Sindhu. In course of time history was transformed into mythology and the human hero Indra became the national war god and Indra cult became popular. This led to the suppression of all religious cults including the Varuna cult by the followers of Indra cult. Some Vedic tribes continued to adhere to the old Varuna cult in spite of the growing popularity of the Indra cult. Instead of either giving up the Varuna religion altogether or dogmatically sticking to it in the face of the prevailing Indra cult, they very wisely tried to bring about an honorable compromise between the two cults. They argued that after victory is won by the war god Indra, Varuna is needed to establish law and order. ‘Indra conquers and Varuna rules’ seems to be their slogan. Such attempts at a religious compromise seem to have been made more particularly by the Vasishtas.

Apart from the seventh mandala of Rig Veda which contain 102 hymns of the Vasishtas, the first and tenth mandala of the Rig Veda also contains nine and twenty-six hymns respectively of this family and one each in the fifth and ninth mandala. Vasishta was an expert in Atharvanic practices and was therefore regarded as being specially qualified to officiate as purohita. In the ritual of the Brahmanas, the office of Brahmana was usually assigned to a Vasishta. A critical study of the role of Vasishta as represented in the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda would establish the remarkably prominent position which that seer and his family occupied in respect of both the religion of the classes and the religion of the masses.


  • Swami Mahadevananda Giri – Vedic Culture

  • Sadashiva Dange- The birth of Vasistaa, QJMS, vol 55, 1964-65

  • V.G.Rahurkar- Seers of Rig Veda, University of Poona, 1964

  • R.N.Dandekar- Exercise in Indology, select writings 3, Ajanta Publications, Delhi, 1981

  • Shrikant Talageri- The Rigveda, A Historical Analysis

Historicity of Prahlada, the virtuous Asura king

Prahlada was the son of Hiranyakashipu, the daitya king who ruled from his capital Hiranyapura identified with Hyrcania situated near the town of Astrabad (now known as Gorgan in Iran). Hiranyakashipu had amassed much wealth and conquered large territories. Probably Hiranya was the title of the family or gotra. Hiranyakashipu was an egoist, materialist, atheist and had forbidden the worship of the Creator and ordered his own worship as the real lord of the world. He is said to have persecuted the Manavas who were living in his kingdom because of their religious views. One day a king Narasimha belonging to Naravyaghra tribe from India stealthily entered his palace and killed Hiranyakashipu. There is also a view that he was killed by a lion and his death led to great rejoicing among the Manavas who interpreted his end as having been accomplished by their own God Hari which means a lion.

That Narasimha went to Hyrcania is confirmed by an inscription found at Tell-el-obeid dated about 4500 B.C. which mentions that king Aannipadda the then ruler of Ur dedicated a temple to goddess Ninharsag. Except for the god being a female the similarity between the names Narasimha and Ninharsag appears striking.

Hiranyakashipu was succeeded by his son Prahlada who was wise, just, fearless and truthful. He showed greater tolerance to his Manava subjects who thrived under his rule and was liked by them. For his virtues he became the first Asura teacher from whom even Brahmana teachers learnt.

Prahlada ruled for a long time and his capital was located in Mulasthana, modern Multan (in Pakistan). In Mahaharata, shanti parva, Bhishma has described Prahlada as one who possessed great learning, unattached to all worldly objects, free from pride, self- restrained, devoted to various vows and steadily engaged in the study of the soul and in acquiring emancipation. Due to his spiritual inclination Prahlada later gave up his kingdom. Prahlada had four sons, Virochana, Kumbha, Nikumbha and Kapila. It was Kapila who conceived the concept of the four ashramas, namely brahmacharya, gruhasta, vanaprasta and sanyasa.

Prahlada in the hands of the Vaishnava exponents became an ideal for laymen to inculcate fearlessness and faith in God. Adherents of Madhva sect believe saint Sri Raghavendra Swamy to be an avatar of Prahlada.


  1. Mohan Singh- The Legend of Prahlada, QJMS, vol 31 (2) 1940 and vol 32 (1), 1941.

  2. Jwala Prasad Singhal- Some Light on Ancient world history from the Puranas, The Indian Historical Quarterly, Vol III, March 1927, No.1

  3. J.P.Mittal – History of Ancient India (700 B.C.-4250 B.C.) Vol- I, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, 2006

  4. Nundo Lal Dey- Rasatala or the Underworld, Calcutta, 1927