Varuna - the Elder God
Varuna is one of the elder gods, sovereign of the water. He is the first god of the Hindu pantheon accredited with the creation of the world. He was the first king and law giver. The prime mover of the universe, he was mostly concerned with moral and societal affairs than being a deification of nature.
Dyaus and Prithvi – Sky and Earth
Most classic religions promote the principle of the first parents. These first progenitors usually have a responsibility for the birth of the second generation of gods, who essentially form the pantheons. Ironically, these first gods are then relegated to a forgotten chapter of history. This particular phenomenon is also visible in the Hindu scriptures, with Dyauṣ and Pṛthivī, Father Sky, & Mother Earth.
Dyauṣ is the father, the Sky, who impregnated Pṛthivī, the earth and mother, in the form of rains. He is the father of Indra (future king of the Gods, and lord of rain), Agni (Fire) and Ushas (the Dawn), and is said to have caused the subsequent growth of the flora and fauna on the earth.
Dyauṣ is mentioned in five verses of the Rig Veda in simple invocations. In the RV Hymn 1.89, Dyauṣ is first mentioned by name and given the title of Father Heaven (as opposed to heavenly father which is read differently).
तन नो वातो मयोभु वातु भेषजं तन माता पर्थिवी तत्पिता दयौः तद गरावाणः सोमसुतो मयोभुवस्तदश्विना शर्णुतं धिष्ण्या युवम tan no vāto mayobhu vātu bheṣajaṃ tan mātā pṛthivī tatpitā dyauḥ tad ghrāvāṇaḥ somasuto mayobhuvastadaśvinā śṛṇutaṃ dhiṣṇyā yuvam
Translated as – May Earth our Mother, and our Father Heaven give it to us &, may the Wind waft to us that pleasant medicine.
In additional hymns in the RV (1.90, 1.164, 1.191) Dyauṣ is mentioned again but no further explanation is provided for his role in the world. In all the hymns he is identified as “Heaven, the father”. In RV 4.01 Dyauṣ is identified as the Sire and begetter, and it is said that he showers true blessings.
स तू नो अग्निर नयतु परजानन्न अछा रत्नं देवभक्तं यद अस्य धिया यद विश्वे अम्र्ता अक्र्ण्वन दयौष पिता जनिता सत्यम उक्षन sa tū no aghnir nayatu prajānann achā ratnaṃ devabhaktaṃ yad asya dhiyā yad viśve amṛtā akṛṇvan dyauṣ pitā janitā satyam ukṣan
Translated as – Dyaus, Sire, Begetter, raining down true blessings.
It is also interesting to note that Dyauṣ has not been dedicated any hymns in the RV. He only makes appearences in hymns dedicated to Agni, about water, grass, and the sun and a selection of hymns dedicated to the Visvadevaś, who are a regiment of gods dedicated to mulitple universal functions, including – time, speech, dawn, and winds.
In the earlier Vedic traditions, Pṛthivī is regarded as mother Earth, a bestower of fertility in conjunction with her divine partner Dyauṣ. In that role she became a mother to the second generation of Gods, Indra, Agni, Usha and others. Both Pṛthivī and Dyauṣ together played an important part in the creation mythology, with some even suggesting that they are the being, who is being discussed in the Nisadayà Suktà or the creation hymn.
In the RV Pṛthivī is invoked in hymns dedicated to Heaven and EArth. Surprisingly in these Hymns, Dyauṣ is not mentioned by name. In RV (1.159, 1.160) Dyauṣ and Pritihvi are said to provide for all creatures in the worlds, they are a mighty pair, who never fail and keep everyone safe.
पर दयावा यज्ञैः पर्थिवी रताव्र्धा मही सतुषे विदथेषु परचेतसा देवेभिर्ये देवपुत्रे सुदंससेत्था धिया वार्याणि परभूषतः pra dyāvā yajñaiḥ pṛthivī ṛtāvṛdhā mahī stuṣe vidatheṣu pracetasā devebhirye devaputre sudaṃsasetthā dhiyā vāryāṇi prabhūṣataḥ
In RV (1.185) the divine pair is invoked to protect people from the wrath of all lesser gods and foes. This hymn is dedicated to the majesty of the divine parents. The text from this particular verse says
_Duly I call the two wide seats, the mighty, the general Parents, with the God’s protection. Who, beautiful to look on, make the nectar. Protect us, Heaven and Earth, from fearful danger.\\_
Disappearance of Dyauṣ and Rethinking of Pṛthivī
Despite the importance given to both Dyauṣ and Pṛthivī in the hymns they are invoked in in the RV, the fact that the number of hymns itself is not many, leads us to believe that the later Vedic and post Vedic period paid less import to the pair of the Sky and Earth. As more and more elements in nature were recognised, more and more gods appeared to control those natural phenomenon. In the Puranic texts (which are the post Vedic texts of the Hindu faith) Dyauṣ disappears. Even in the vedas, his most important role (that of the rain giver) is taken over by Indra.
Pṛthivī on the other hand faces a different fate. Her role as the prime parent is diminished as later Puranic texts depict here being formed either by Brahma or having appeared from the feet of Vishnu. In some traditions she is also depicted as another wife of Vishnu, to whom she goes seeking help when she faces the depravations of demons and other evil characters.
From a loving, caring and all-powerful goddess, she is positioned as one who does not care for the people on the earth. In a story from the Vishnu Purana a pious king called Prithu is given dominion over the earth. He is a good king who is just and cares for his people. However despite his and his subject’s labours there is a famine and the earth will not yield it’s bounty.
In anger, the king shoots an arrow through the earth, however Pṛthivī takes the form of a cow and runs away. Prithu gives chase and Pṛthivī takes refuge with Brahma, while admonishing Prithu for attacking a woman. In response Prithu tells her “when the happiness of many is secured by the destruction of one malignant being, the slaughter of that being is an act of virtue.”
Image: Prithu chasing the cow. Pahari painting India, Wikimedia Commons
Overcome at length, the Earth declared that though all produce contained within her were old, and destroyed by her, at the king’s command she would restore them “as developed from her milk.” By granting life to the Earth, Prithu was as her father, and she thence derived the patronymic Pṛthivī.
This story also helps to highlight some of the anachronisms present in Hindu storytelling and lore. In the RV Pṛthivī is named as such. Documentary evidence places the Puranas as being later texts. This story of the development of Pṛthivī leads further credence to the idea that religion develops with the civilization and the environments and situations surrounding them.
Similarities in other religions
The concept of the Father Sky and Mother Earth is something that is found across other Indo-European religions as well. It is possibly a function of migratory patterns of people starting from central Asia and moving to civilisation areas like Mesopotamia, Greece, Mongolia and India. It is believed that these peoples do share a common ancestry at a very early stage of evolution.
In Mesopotamia, the pair of Anu & Ki were the parents of the Annunakki whose most prominent god was Enil, the god of air. In Greece the pair of Oranus and Gaia performed a similar function as the parents of the Titans. The Mongoloid shamanistic religion emphasised the worship of Tengri – The great blue god of the sky. In Egypt, the roles of male and female were reversed – with Nut taking over the role the sky goddess and Geb as the God of the earth. Their children were the Gods of rain and wind.
Beyond the Indo-Asian regions, a similar mythology is also seen in the Maori mythology from New Zealand.
Ranginui is the sky father while Papatuanuku was the earth mother. In the Maori tradition, Ranginui and Papatuanuku clung to each other tightly. Thus the children that were born to them were held between them in complete darkness. The children, in a bid, to escape this darkness, separated their parents by pushing them apart.
Ranginui and Papatuanuku continue to grieve for each other to this day. Ranginui’s tears fall towards Papatuanuku to show how much he loves her. Sometimes Papatuanuku heaves and strains and almost breaks herself apart to reach her beloved partner again but it is to no avail. When mist rises from the forests, these are Papatuanuku’s sighs as the warmth of her body yearns for Ranginui and continues to nurture mankind.
All of Ranginui and Paptuanuku’s children have agreed to this separation of their parents; except one. Tāwhirimatea, the god of storms and winds. He goes out and joins his father in the sky and becomes the controller of winds, and storms.
In the Maori tradition Tāwhirimatea joins his father, and (maybe), peacefully takes over the responsibility of rain and storms.
In the Indo-European traditions, the god of thunder and rain, normally usurps the role of the sky father. In the Greek traditions Cronus catrated Oranus, and deposed him. He was further challenged and defeted by Zeus who took over the role of the king of the gods and wielder of the thunderbolt by defeating and imprisoning the Titans. One tradition in Hinduism, does say that Indra killed Dyauṣ taking Pṛthivī as his wife, before taking over Dyauṣ’ role as king and as lord of rains.
The character of the earth goddess on the other hand is allowed to live on, and has a greater glory in all the traditional faiths. In Hinduism she continues in her function as birth giver and caretaker. She is patient as no other as she bears on her chest the weight of all the living. In Greece she remained an all-pervading deity, oaths sworn in Gaia’s name were binding on gods and humans and were rarely, if ever, broken.
References and Resources
- sacred-texts.com, Sanskrit text of the Rig Veda
- Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, by W.J. Wilkins
- ancientegypt.co.uk, The British Museum
- Encyclopaedia Britannica, articles on Mesopotamia and Mesopotamian religion and gods.
- Bulfinch’s Mythology
- http://www.maicar.com/GML/Uranus.html, Greek Mythology Link
- Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Smith, William; 1873,
- B.G. Biggs, ‘Maori Myths and Traditions’ in A.H. McLintock (editor), Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, 3 Volumes. (Government Printer: Wellington), 1966, II:447-454.
The Vedas and the creation of the world
In the last post in this series I took a look at the Indus valley and its gods. The reasons for the demise of the Indus valley are still debated, but it is widely believed that the migration patterns of the Aryan people bought them down into the green valleys of the Indus and beyond. The Aryans were hunter gatherers and drove herds of animals with them. The greener & warmer pastures of the belt between the Indus and the Ganges, had these people become farmers and planters and settle down in these regions.
Early civilisation and the first Gods
The bronze age of man bought with it a more organised religion than which was practiced in the stone age. The great civilisations of the period, — Ancient Egyptian in Africa, Mesopotamia in Central Asia and the Indus Valley Civilisation in north India — developed the first thought forms of the Godhead, the beginnings of religion. Their beliefs evolved slowly over the centuries and gradually developed into a comprehensive world view shared by the people.
It is widely accepted that civilisation in India began and evolved in the valley of the Indus (Sindhu) river in the period 3300-2600 BCE. These settlements evolved into the Mature Harappan civilisation in the period 2600-1900 BCE. It was located in the northwestern region1 of the Indian subcontinent, consisting of what is now mainly present-day Pakistan and northwest India.Flourishing around the Indus River basin, the civilization extended east into the the upper reaches of the Ganga & Yamuna plains; it extended west to the coast of Balochistan, north to northeastern Afghanistan and south to Daimabad in Maharashtra. The civilization was spread over some 1,260,000 km, making it the largest ancient civilisation of the bronze age period.
The Harappan civilisation was one of the most advanced civilisation amongst its contemporaries. Mostly urbanised, the principle cities of Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Dholavira, Kalibangan and Lothal acted as trade centres for local merchants as well as traders from Mesopotamia and Egypt.
The ancient systems of drainage and roadways that were developed and used in the cities of Harappa were advanced, and more efficient that systems currently employed in India and Pakistan.
Despite this heavy urbanisation, the Harappan civilisation seems to have had a high regard for nature and the environment. This can be derived from the high usage of animals and animal forms in the seals, and pottery excavated from the period. This same regard for nature extended into the religious behaviours of the Harappan people.
Pashupatinath - Lord of the Animals
The Pashupatinath device was seen on multiple seals from the period. This seal shows a horned figure seated in a familiar yogic pose with both feet touching each other. This figure is surrounded by different animals including a rhinoceros, buffalo, tiger, and an elephant. This Proto-Shiva can be identified as a deity who is the lord / leader of animals. A precursor to the later Hindu gods — Rudra or Shiva.
The Mother Goddess The people of the Indus Valley cities, also worshiped a Mother Goddess. The importance accorded to these roles and also to the feminine, can be drawn from the number of figurines excavated. The important uncovered poses include a Dancing Girl, and terracotta figurines of what can be identified as Fertility goddess.
One of the largest female figurines found at Harappa has a (badly broken) fan-shaped pannier headdress with black residue in the cups of the panniers and a forward-projecting face. She is heavily ornamented with an elaborate choker and two other necklaces, each with three strands and many pendants. This elaborate ornamentation of figurines is one reason that female figurines have often been interpreted as deities, most commonly as “Mother Goddesses.”
Residues that may indicate burning of oils or other substances in the panniers have also prompted a cultic interpretation and ritual worship.
Ritual and Ceremony
The recovered seals from the Harappan civilisation provide a possible insight into the ritual and ceremony surrounding daily life in the centres. This particular seal (below) depicts a deity with a horned headdress and bangles (maybe female) on both arms, standing in a pipal tree and looking down on a kneeling worshiper. A giant ram watches.
Several script signs are interspersed with the figures along the top of the seal and a single sign is placed at the base of the tree. This scene may represent a special worship ritual to a deity with seven figures in procession.
The Indus Valley civilisation thus provides us with the seeds for some of the Gods and Goddesses which form a path of the Hindu pantheon.
A key aspect to note is that most early interpretations of the pantheons across multiple civilisations and religions meet a core need of human life – fertility and the progenitors. This representation of the male and female can be seen across bronze age civilisations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and even in later bronze age civilisations like Japan and Korea.
This representation of fertility repeats itself again in future renditions of god and religion as we will see.
Further Reading & References
[^1] [^2] [^3] [^4] [^5]6 Indian Archaeology, A Review.- 1958-1959. Excavations at Alamgirpur. Delhi: Archaeol. Surv. India, pp. 51–52 Leshnik, Lawrence S. (October 1968). “The Harappan “Port” at Lothal: Another View”. <em>American Anthropologist, New Series,</em> <strong>70</strong>(5): 911–922. http://www.harappa.com/indus/33.html http://www.harappa.com/indus/34.html http://www.harappa.com/figurines/15.html Indus Civilization: Clues To an Ancient Puzzle, National Geographic Magazine – June 2000
The history of a religion traces the history of a people. Religion and belief form around the existing conditions in a peoples life.
The word Hindu and the religion know as Hinduism is not new. The faith or belief system is older than even the name given to it by the migrators, traders and even invaders coming from central Europe. The people of the Indus (Sindhu river) Valley Civilisation were called the Sindhoo people (from Sindhustan as early as the time of the Persian invasions if not earlier.It was the Portuguese & other European traders (later conquerors) that used the term Hindoo or Hindoostani to describe the people of the continent. Christian missionaries however identified the people with the religion, giving birth to the term – Hinduism.