The oldest of the Vedas, the four books that make
up the Hindu scriptures, is the Rig-Veda. Along
with the Sama-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, and the
Atharva-Veda, the Rig-Veda sets out the creation
stories, the religious rituals, and the early prayers
of the Hindu religion.
The Vedas were created as part of the Brahmanical
tradition of the ancient Aryans, nomadic people
who settled in the Indus River valley between 3000
B.C. and 2000 B.C. Their religion was based on the use
of fire during sacrifices and the consumption of an
intoxicating drink called soma, made from a plant
that may be related to the mushroom known as “flyagaric.”
The Aryan Brahmanical tradition also placed
a heavy emphasis on social order and served as a precursor
to the later Hindu caste system.
The Rig-Veda contains 1,028 hymns, the earliest
of which were probably composed around 1500 B.C.
The hymns, or mantras, were recited by priests and
preserved through an oral tradition (see ORAL LITERATURE/
TRADITION) for hundreds of years. After 1000
B.C., the Rig-Veda was written down in Sanskrit,
making it the oldest work in the Indian tradition
and one of the oldest works of any kind in the
Indo-European language system. The Sanskrit
word veda means “knowledge.”Thus, the Rig-Veda
concerns knowledge through hymns to the gods.
The central figures of the Rig-Veda are Indra,
the god of thunder and battle; Agni, the god of fire;
Varuna, the god of truth and order; and soma, the
powerful intoxicating plant. Two other gods,
Vishnu and Shiva, although of lesser importance
in the Rig-Veda, later became two of the three most
important gods in the Hindu religion.
More than 200 of the Rig-Veda’s verses are devoted
to Indra.He was the most popular god in the
Indo-Aryan pantheon and a devoted user of the
plant soma.His heroic exploits helped to create the
Indo-Aryan civilization. One of the most famous
sets of hymns tells of his destruction of the serpent
Vrtra, who had encompassed all the universe’s elements,
including Water, the Sun, the Moon, the
heavens, and the earth, within his coils. By destroying
Vrtra, Indra released the elements that allowed
life to flourish.
The importance of Agni in the Rig-Veda lies in
his connection with fire and sacrifice. The early
Indo-Aryan religion was a fire cult, and as the god
of fire, Agni was worthy of many hymns of praise.
Agni served as a messenger between people and
gods. Through the use of fire sacrifice, the Indo-
Aryans were able to communicate with the gods
and ensure their health and protection.
Soma was an essential part of the Indo-Aryan religion.
The plant is mentioned nearly 1,000 times in
the Rig-Veda, and the entire ninth book is devoted
to hymns praising it. The plant’s juice produced an
effect on its users that allowed them to achieve superhuman
tasks. Indra’s use of soma, for example,
allowed him to defeat Vrtra and other monsters
throughout the text. Soma was also praised in the
works of the Zoroastrian religion in Iran around the
same time that the Rig-Veda was written.
Varuna played the god of order and Truth (or
Rta), an extremely important role in the Indo-
Aryan religion. Varuna’s presence regulated the
universe and kept all things from falling into
chaos.He has often been portrayed as a moon god,
though his role is more accurately described as god
of the heavens, as well as of Truth. Though he held
a position of great importance in the early religion,
he was later eclipsed by Vishnu and Shiva in the
The Rig-Veda’s dual role as a sacred scripture
of the early Indo-Aryan fire cults and of the Hindu
religion have given it a place of the utmost importance
in the history of religion and literature.
English Versions of the Rig-Veda
The Rig-Veda: An Anthology. Selected, Translated and
Annotated by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. New
York: Penguin, 1981.
The Hymns of the Rig Veda, 3d ed., complete in two
volumes. Translated by Ralph T. H. Griffith.
Benares, India: E. J. Lazarus and Co., 1920–26.
Works about the Rig-Veda
Gonda, Jan. Vedic Literature (Samhita and Brahmanas).
Wiesbaden: Harassowitz, 1975.
Hillebrandt, Alfred. Vedic Mythology. Translated by
Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass