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Ayurveda: The Ancient Hindu Science of Health and Medicine

Some time ago, around the fifth century AD, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa Hsien visited the city of Pataliputra. It was here, in this ancient northern Indian city, that he discovered an organized system of medical provisions that eventually became known as Ayurveda (Wujastyk 2). Ayurveda, which literally means “the knowledge of science for longevity” is said to have materialized at the beginning of time when life itself was created. It is therefore thought to have no concrete beginning and will thus continue until the end of creation (Sharma 719). Ayurveda is an all encompassing system of medical practices that includes both preventative and prescriptive measures, advice on exercise, diet, morality as well as specific medical teachings for the professional physician, focusing on aspects of diagnosis and therapy (Wujastyk 3). There are two Ayurvedic classics, the Carakasamhita and Susruta’s Compendium. Both of these texts describe diagnoses, pharmaceuticals, human body and treatment among other things, however, the Carakasamhita is the text in which the roots of Indian medicine originate (Wujastyk 31). These texts, as well as Ayurveda’s other teachings and doctrines, suggest that this could have been the world’s first organized medical system and have thus laid the foundation for the medical procedures that are practiced today.

Ayurveda’s exact roots are difficult to trace as its practices go back to prehistory around the time when people started to become conscious of their health and became aware that they had to take measures to improve and preserve their lives (Sharma 719). While it is hard to set a concrete time when actual Ayurvedic practices came about, by the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, Ayurveda was well developed and the attitude of people towards health practices was advanced (Sharma 719). The ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro were intricately planned to include drainage systems, public wells and waste removal structures indicating their appreciation of proper sanitation (Sharma 720). Excavations of these cities found stag-horn and cuttlefish bone suggesting that vegetables, animals and minerals were used as sources for drugs (Sharma 720).The ash of Stag-horn and the cuttlefish bone were useful in treating cardiac pain, respiratory disorders and diseases of the ear and, interestingly, many of these ancient remedies are still used today (Sharma 720). In addition to the use of certain drugs, Indus peoples placed great emphasis on personal hygiene and cosmetics use including the use of collyrium for preventing and curing eye diseases (Wujastyk 184). With their intricate techniques and insightful knowledge into therapeutics, the Indus Valley Civilization played a vital role in the development of Ayurveda. Today, Ayurveda is a living system of medicine in India. In 1970, the Indian Parliament set up a Central Council for Ayurveda recognizing its integral role in Indian Medicine (Wujastyk 9). This counsel provides accredited colleges, standardized qualifications and professional training in Ayurveda. By 1983, there were approximately 100 accredited Ayurvedic training colleges in India (Wujastyk 9). It is clear that the ancient practice of Ayurveda continues to prevail in the medicinal practices of today. The treatments, practices and therapies of Ayurveda revolve around a central concept: the body. The pancha-bhuta theory asserts living creatures are formed from the five forms of matter: earth, fire, wind, water and akasa and therefore the body is in a perpetual state of flux just as nature is (Kakar, 231). The central process of the body is digestion and is seen as “cooking” and known as “fire in the belly” (Kakar 232). When food enters the belly it is cooked by the digestive fire and turns into the first of several body tissues quickly becoming flesh and eventually reaching the highest bodily essence: semen (Wujastyk 5). Networks of tubes carry the fluids of the body from place to place, and interestingly, blockage of these tubes is vital in Ayurveda’s explanation of insanity (Wujastyk 6).

In keeping the bodily elements in balance, the consumption of environmental matter in the right form, proportion and combination must be taken into consideration (Kakar 231). Therefore, diet is essential to Ayurveda emphasizing that any food used for medicinal purposes should be avoided to maintain physical well being (Kakar 231). A pure, bland diet is recommended, emphasizing Ayurveda’s belief in the mutual relationship between food and the “mind” (Kakar 269). Different foods are believed to have different qualities that each affected the body in a variety of ways. It was believed that sour foods increased promiscuity while red chilies and pepper activated a person’s urge to dominate others; even water at different temperatures had diverse effects (Govindan 23). Certain types of mind prefer certain types of food and therefore, one of the first questions that a physician asked their patient pertained to what foods the individual had consumed (Kakar 269).

The Carakasamhita, or “Caraka’s Compendium,” is the text in which classical Indian medicine really begins and the text that sheds the light on real medical practices (Wujastyk 39). The present-day Carakasamhita, the oldest Samhita of Ayurveda available today, was not the work of a single author but has three distinct authors: Atreya-Agnivesa in the pre-Buddhist period (1000BC), Caraka in the post-Buddhist period (2-3rd century BC) and Drdhabala in the classical period (4-5th century AD) (Sharma 728). The compendium consists of 120 chapters divided into eight parts: Sutra – on pharmacology, food, diet, etc.; Nidana – on causes of eight diseases; Vimana – topics such as taste and nourishment; Sarira – on philosophy, anatomy and embryology; Indriya – on diagnosis and prognosis; Cikitsa – on therapy; Kalpa – on pharmacy and Siddhi – on further general therapy (Wujastyk 41). Included in the Vimana section is a chapter on epidemics. Mosquitoes, rats, earthquakes and bad water are all recognized as possible causes of epidemics highlighting the exceptional thinking of these people in recognizing disease vectors and carriers. In addition, the chapter reflects on the classification of diseased patients into three categories: those who can be cured, those who cannot be cured but can be improved and those who are incurable (Wujastyk 49). The Carakasamhita recommends that physicians do not get involved with patients of the incurable type. Natural urges are highlighted in another chapter of the Carakasamhita. This chapter emphasizes the urges which should be suppressed and those that should not (Wujastyk 53). It was stated that a wise man was not to suppress the urges of urine or feces, sneezing, yawning or the urging of hunger and thirst. However, the urges of fury, pride, envy and excessive passion should be suppressed (Wujastyk 54). The Carakasamhita highlights many vital aspects of Ayurveda and plays an important role in the interpretation of Ayurvedic theory.

Similar to Caraka’s Compendium, Susruta’s Compendium also consists of sections relating to Ayurvedic practices (Larson 108). One section, Nidana, highlights surgery. While Caraka goes into brief descriptions, Susruta goes into great detail about all aspects of surgery (Wujastyk 106). It emphasizes that a good surgeon will be one who has witnessed operations and developed practical experience. He should be clean, keep his nails and hair short and dress in a white garment (Wujastyk 130). Knives, integral parts of surgeon’s equipment, are also discussed and include: types, sizes, proper handling and sharpening techniques (Wujastyk 124). Also included is how a surgeon must be able to diagnose the ailments by either the five senses or interrogation and, after this, how he is to treat the problem through various surgical techniques included in the Compendium (Wujastyk 131).

In addition to surgery, some of the most fundamental components of Ayurveda treatments are the use of drugs. Physicians had to be well acquainted with the identification of drugs as well as their properties and actions (Sharma 722). Drugs were used by external application, internal administration and, as well, the use of natural remedies such as sun-rays, fire, water and air were recognized as having important therapeutic qualities (Sharma 722). Essential components of drugs were plants as they were often a main source of which drugs came from. The osadhi-sukta of the Rg Veda is a document on the knowledge about plants in that age with soma being recognized as the king of herbs (Sharma 724). Some of the plants were cultivated while others grew in the wild (Sharma 724). Sometimes, herbs were combined for medicinal purposes and since a physician was to have complete knowledge of the plants, when administered, desired results were often observed (Sharma 724).

Ayurveda encompasses many different aspects of Indian medicine and is widely regarded as the world’s first organized medical system (Wujastyk 5). Both the Carakasamhita and the Susrutasutra are integral in the interpretation of Ayurvedic theory and provide insight into the forward thinking of the people of this time (Larson 108). They also provided a trustworthy reference for teachings in Ayurveda which furthered the development of the medical system and preservation of both the mind and body (Wujastyk 31). As well, they formed a basis in which many therapies originate today. While the body, drugs, surgeons and classics have all been discussed, Ayurveda includes many more essential components that have not been included here. However, all of Ayurveda’s components are equally important; these are just the ones I have chosen to highlight. With its intricate techniques, exceptional treatments and brilliant procedures, Ayurveda has undoubtedly played an enormous role in ancient medical practices as well as in laying the foundation for the medical practices seen today.

References and Further Recommended Readings

Gaur, Banwari and Santosh Sharma, eds. (2000) Researches in Ayurveda Past and Present. Jaipur: Publication Scheme.

Govindan, S.V. (2003) Fundamental Maxims of Ayurveda. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Kakar, Suhir (1982) Shamans, Mystics and Doctors. New York: Random House.

Kumar, Deepak ed. (2001) Disease and Medicine in India. New Delhi: Tulika Books.

Larson, Gerald “Ayurveda and the Hindu philosophical systems” (1993) Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice. Ed. Thomas P. Kasulis. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Selvester, Joseph (1997) Ayurveda: 5000-Year Old Medical Science for the Next Millenium. Total Health. 19(5), 56.

Sharma, P.V. “Development of Ayurveda from Antiquity to AD 300” (1999) The Dawn of Indian Civilization (up to c. 600 BC). Ed. G.C. Pande. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Wujastyk, Dominik (1998) The Roots Of Ayurveda. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

Related topics for Further Investigation

Fa Hsien
Central Council for Ayurveda
Pancha-bhuta theory

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic ayurvedic_cures/index.shtml

Article written by: Carlie Boras (March 2006) who is solely responsible for content

Related Readings (The Upanisads)

Chakravarti, S. C. (1935) The Philosophy of the Upanisads. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Deussen, Paul (1906)The Philosophy of the Upanishads. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1966.

Hume, R. (trans.) (1921) The Thirteen Principal Upanisads. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keith, A. B. (1925) The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanisads. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nikhilananda, Swami (1949-59) The Upanishads, 4 vols. New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center.

Olivelle, Patrick (1996) Upanisads: A New Translation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Radhakrishnam, S. (1967) The Principal Upanisads. London: Allen & Unwin.

Soma: Mysterious Vedic Plant and Deity

In the realm of Hinduism, Soma can be recognized as, and is considered to be, a god (deva), a magical and hallucinogenic plant, and the juice of that plant. Soma is extraordinary in that it is recognized as one of only a few plants humans have ever deified (see Wasson 3). There are a large variety of other sacred plants (even within India), but none of which have had quite the impact, influence, and controversy that Soma has. Soma is directly related to the RgVeda and plays an important part in understanding the text. This is because 120 of its thousand or so hymns are entirely devoted to the plant-god Soma. I shall separately discuss Soma as a god (deva) first and then Soma as a plant, placing more emphasis on the latter.

The Vedic god Soma, in the Rg Veda, was considered to be the king of plants, and the bestower of immortality (amrita) (Basham 14). Turner and Coulter (2000) describe Soma thus: “The deity Soma is a moon god, a god of the flowing waters, a god of inspiration, ecstasy and inspiration” (Turner & Coulter 438). Soma was originally known as the god of ecstasy, with his nectar, amrita, being the food of the gods (Jansen 67). Soma, as a god, is believed to be the personification of Soma juice. There are a few myths that surround the origins of Soma as a god. One of the most popular indicates that Soma is a form of Indra (lord of the thunderbolt), and that it was Indra who first discovered Soma. Another popular myth claims that the goddess Sarasvati (She who is Full of Juice) found Soma in the Himalayas and then brought Soma to share with the other deities (Turner & Coulter 436). Soma is said to have given Indra, through its highly intoxicating serum, supreme powers that he used against his enemies, which eventually uplifted him to the highest status among Vedic devas. The common lineage account for Soma is that he was the son of either Dharma (deity who embodies righteousness) or Varuna (god of the oceans). Soma is sometimes said to be married to Surya (the sun-god) to whom he holds a strong bond (Ions 77).

Scholars surmise that Soma was a form of a plant that was naturally produced high in the mountains of India that, after extracting and consuming the juices, was thought to be hallucinogenic and empowering, invoking a surrealistic religious experience. Soma was not only contained to India. For instance, Soma appears to be very similar, if not the same, as hoama, which was consumed by the Zoroastrians, in what is modern-day Iran, around the same time Soma was popular in India (approximately 3250 years ago). The Zoroastrians, like the Hindus, also discussed the rituals that used the sacred plant hoama in their sacred scripture known as the Avesta. The Avesta is thought of as the Zoroastrian version of the Hindu RgVeda (Basham 14).

Many possibilities have been put forth in the attempt to identify Soma, some of them being ephedra, rhubarb, chicory, and hashish or cannabis sativa. One of the most accepted theories of Soma is that espoused by R. Gordon Wasson. Wasson proposed that Soma was, in fact, not a plant but a wild mushroom known as Amanita muscaria or the fly-agaric. This was the first time that a mushroom had been identified as Soma. In 1968, Wasson published his book entitled Soma: the Divine Mushroom of Immortality. The main hypotheses of Wasson is explained as: “In a word, my belief is that Soma is the Divine Mushroom of Immortality, and that in the early days of our culture, before we made use of reading and writing, when the RgVeda was being composed, the prestige of this miraculous mushroom ran by word of mouth far and wide throughout Eurasia, well beyond the regions where it grew and was worshipped” (Wasson 9). Using the RgVeda as his primary source, Wasson was able to decipher what he thought to be the identity of Soma. Wasson believed that the other theories for Soma did not reflect the clues hidden in the RgVeda and were therefore not relevant to the identity of Soma. Wasson also believed that the origins of Soma could be traced as far back as the “Sacred Element” in shamanic rites of many northern Siberian tribes (Wasson 10). The fly-agaric, as Wasson attested, is an inebriant in two forms:

1. Taken directly in the form of raw mushroom, juice, or mixed with another substance such as water, milk, curds, or honey.
2. Taken through the urine of a person who has ingested the fly-agaric.

It is only in these two forms that Soma could be ingested or consumed (Wasson 25). Wasson’s argument has gained much popularity because of its reference to historical, scientific, and religious means to solve the mystery of Soma.

In the form of an entheogenic plant or similar substance, Soma was used, primarily, if not always, by Brahmin priests as a state-altering substance that allowed themselves to be intimately connected with the gods during Vedic rituals. This connection was regarded as being the conduct through which one could possibly see a god (deva) in an earthly light through an incarnation made possible by the priests’ consumption of Soma (see Williams 110-111). Soma, therefore, offered sustenance and energy to the devas and ecstasy to the Brahmins. Williams clearly explains the importance of the Brahmin priests and Soma during rituals: “As the Soma experience of seeing and hearing the devas began to be referred to in ancient hymns, the magical formulas of the prayers (mantras) and the science of control of the universe through the Vedic sacrifices placed the priests (Brahmin) at the center of the Vedic worldview” (Williams 271). Through this view, Brahmin priests and Soma were equated as being the center of all Vedic religious experience.

As mentioned above, Soma played an extremely important role in Vedic rituals. Some of the most famous rituals are the consecration of the king (rajasuya), the “drink of power” ritual (vajapeya), and various fire rituals (agnistoma). Soma has also been compared to and equated with many Vedic deities. For example, the Vedic deity Indra (lord of the thunderbolt) was the most popular of the Vedic deities and was known to be the ultimate consumer of large amounts of Soma (Fowler 100). Many poets of the RgVeda compare Soma directly with Surya (sun-god) and his mythological horses, hari. Also, Soma has an intimately close connection with Agni (fire-god) because of the equality that is drawn between its inebriating qualities and the subtlety of flames, respectively (Wasson 39). Both Soma and Agni were the major sacrifices described in the RgVeda; therefore, they were both distinctly connected in their roles regarding communication with the other Vedic deities. Through the close connection and comparison between itself and devas, Soma had a very influential role in developing and sustaining the Vedic tradition.


Basham, A.L. (1989) The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism. Boston: Beacon Press.

Ions, Veronica (1984) Library of the Worlds Myths and Legends: Indian Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books.

O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1976) The Origins of Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

________ (1980) Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stutley, Margaret (1989) Hinduism: The Eternal Law. Northampton, England: Aquarian Press.

Turner, Patricia, and Charles Russell Coulter (2000) Dictionary of Ancient Deities. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wasson, R. Gordon (1968) Soma, The Divine Mushroom of Immortality. Ethno-Mycological Studies 1. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Williams, George M. (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC: CLIO.

Zaehner, R.C. (1966) Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Readings

Kalyanaraman, Srinivasan (2004) Indian Alchemy: Soma in the Veda. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Knipe, David (1991) Hinduism: Experiments in the Sacred. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Patton, Laurie L. (2005) Bringing the Gods to Mind: Mantra and Ritual in Early Indian Sacrifice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sivaraman, Krishna (1989) Hindu Spirituality: Vedas through Vedanta. New York: Crossroad.

Spess, David L. (2004) Soma: The Divine Hallucinogen. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press

Staal, J. F. (2001) “How a psychoactive substance becomes a ritual: the case of Soma.” Social Research, Fall.

Chakraborty, Uma (1997) Indra and Other Vedic Deities: A Euhemeristic Study. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Wasson, R. Gordon. “The Soma of the Rig Veda: What Was It?” Journal of the American Oriental Society 91, no. 2 (1971): 169-91.

Related Research Topics

RgVeda, Vedic rituals, Brahmin priests, mantra, immortality (amrita), Indra, Sarasvati, Dharma, Varuna, Agni, agnistoma, vajapeya, rajasuya, hari, Zoroastrian, hoama, Avesta, Amanita muscaria.
Related Websites
Article written by Jamie Lalonde (Spring 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

Demons in Vedic Literature

In Hinduism, demons are often considered to be anthropomorphic. They can be classed into four basic categories; these are abstract, celestial, atmospheric, and terrestrial demons. Although demons may be classed in these groups the divisions between categories are not clearly delineated. They are often named by their appearance or activity (see Bhattacharyya 35) and it is thought that some groups of demons, such as the Dasas and Dasyus, may have been based on indigenous peoples that were in opposition to the Aryans (Bhattacharyya 44). There are a few demons of divine lineage. While, for the most part, these spirits were considered to be forces of evil there are some terrestrial spirits that were thought to be helpful at harvest, or in battle. Arbudi is an example of one such demon who was thought to assist tribesmen in times of war by causing fear in the enemy (see Bhattacharyya 35). The abstract demons are not often conceived as having a physical form. Rather they are usually thought of in a more impersonal way as hostile powers that fly about in the air. They are intangible substances that cause disease, problems in childbirth, and guilt. One of the primary tasks of sorcery was to deflect these demons (Bhattacharyya 35). The Aratis are abstract demons of illiberality mentioned in the Rg Veda (Bhattacharyya 36). They are always conceived as feminine. Nirriti is another example of an abstract demon thought of as the antithesis of Rta (Bhattacharyya 36). Another group of injurious spirits mentioned in the Rg Veda are the Druhs (Bhattacharyya 36). In the Atharva Veda fever is conceived as being a demon (Bhattacharyya 40). Although not necessarily considered as demons, disembodied spirits also may be considered hostile forces. The most common forms of such spirits are Bhutas, Pretas, and Pisacas. Bhutas are hostile spirits and although modern usage of the word denotes a malevolent spirit of the dead that is most likely not its early meaning (Bhattacharyya 36). The Preta are thought of as souls in waiting and are not necessarily evil or malignant (Bhattacharyya 38). The third group, the Pisacas, are described as being in opposition to the Pitrs in the later Samhitas (Bhattacharyya 39). (A common feature of different classes or groups of demons is that they are typically conceived as being in opposition to another specific class or group of beings. So the Pisacas are enemies of the Pitrs, the Asura enemies of the gods and so on.) The Pisacas are often referred to as kavyad, which means “eaters of raw flesh,” and are thought of as infesting homes and villages. There are many incantations against them (Bhattacharyya 39). Agni is often invoked to restore the sick whose flesh is eaten by the Pisacas (MacDonell 238). Examples of celestial demons are the Asura. They are considered to be the primary adversaries of the gods. They only appear as the enemies of men on rare occasion (MacDonell 226). In the Brahmanas the Asura are associated with darkness, thus the days belong to the gods and the nights to the Asura (Bhattacharyya 46). However, the term asura did not always mean demon. In early hymns in the Rg Veda the word appears to have been translated as lord, denoting a leader who is respected and commands some kind of fighting force. Those beings called asura may also have been believed to wield a kind of magical power called maya (Wash 52). It is not until the Atharva Veda and the Brahmanas that the term comes to mean demon exclusively (Wash 114, 170). The Asura are also described as the offspring of Prajapati and in many of the passages in the Brahamanas are represented as superior to the gods in the arts of civilized life. They are sometimes thought of as being the elder brothers of the gods (Bhattacharyya 47). The gods and the Asura are often fighting with each other and during fights between the two groups the gods are often repeatedly defeated by the Asura due to a lack of leadership (Bhattacharyya 47). However, ultimately the gods win the conflicts (O’Flaherty 58). The Asura are said to be defeated because they do not follow the correct method of sacrifice. The main contest between the gods and Asura is over immortality (Bhattacharyya 48). There is one legend where the gods and Asura collaborate and churn the ocean to produce an elixir of immortality. The gods then trick the Asura out of their share of the elixir (O’Flaherty 61). Counted among the atmospheric demons are the Panis. They are primarily considered to be enemies of Indra, although they are also enemies of Agni, Soma, Brhaspati, and Angirases. They are often mentioned as a group and are known for their cows and great wealth (MacDonell 227). One hymn in the Rg Veda describes how Indra steals the cattle belonging to the Panis (Bhattacharyya 43). Among the individual atmospheric demons mentioned, one of the most important is Vrtra. His name is derived from the root vr meaning “to cover” or “encompass”. Thus he is said to encompass the waters and rivers. He is conceived to be a serpent in form and references are made to his head, jaws, and hissing. He is also described as being without hands or feet. Vrtra is said to have powers over lightning, mist, hail, and thunder. His mother is Danu. His chief adversary is Indra. It is said that Indra was born to slay him. He is believed to have a hidden home where he escaped the waters that Indra released. Some scholars believe that Vrtra is possibly a demon of drought while others propose that he was originally a frost and winter demon (Bhattacharyya 43,44). In the Brahmanas Vrtra is interpreted as the moon and is believed to be swallowed by the sun (representing Indra) at the new moon (MacDonell 231). The Dasas and Dasyu are classed as either atmospheric (MacDonell 228,229) or terrestrial demons (Bhattacharyya 35). Both groups are considered to be enemies of Indra. The Dasas are mentioned in the Samhitas and Brahmanas and their name means “slave” or “servant”(Wash 161,162). Susna is a Dasas mentioned in the Rg Veda. He is described as a horned serpent and is thought to be a demon of drought. He shares some of the characteristics of Vrtra (Bhattacharyya 45). The Dasas are similar to the Dasyu. The Dasyu are described as vowless (avrata), and possessing tricks. They are not to be trusted. The Dasyu are said to seek to scale heaven and are defeated by Indra (Wash 146-150). The Raksasas are terrestrial demons. The term is often used as a generic name for all terrestrial demons. They are the enemies of mankind (Bhattacharyya 41). In the Rg Veda they are always said to be evil and are something to be rid of (Wash 140,144). They have the forms of vultures, dogs, owls, and other birds. As birds they are often thought of as flying around at night (MacDonell 236). They are also capable of taking human form. In human form they molest women, and hurt children (Bhattacharyya 41). They are considered dangerous during pregnancy and childbirth and at weddings. During a wedding little staves are shot in the air with the purpose of injuring Raksasas in the eye. They are believed to be able to enter a person through the mouth and cause disease, madness, and destroy the powers of speech (MacDonell 236). They are dominant in the evening and at night. Raksasas are described as dancing around houses in the evening making loud noises and drinking out of skullcaps. They hate prayer and often attack sacrifices (Bhattacharyya 41). Spells can be found in the Atharva Veda for nullifying the sacrifices of an enemy by using Raksasas to disrupt the sacrifice (MacDonell 237). The Rg Veda mentions people known as raksoyuj (yoker of Raksasas) who are believed to be capable of invoking a Raksasa to injure others (Bhattacharyya 42). When in human form, Raksasas typically have some gross deformity such as being three headed, two mouthed, bear necked, horned, five footed, or four eyed. They can be male or female and are often associated with the colors blue, yellow, or green. They can also have families and kingdoms and are considered to be mortal (MacDonell 236). In two hymns in the Rg Veda the Raksasas are more clearly defined as being either yatus or yatudhanas. Yatus are responsible for creating confusion at sacrifices and yatudhanas are eaters of the flesh of horses and men, and drink cow’s milk. Raksasas are considered to have no power in the east as the rays of the rising sun disperse them. A falling meteor was considered to be the embodiment of a Raksasa. Agni is the god most often invoked to oppose them by burning them (Bhattacharyya 42). The pantheon of demons is indeed varied and interesting. There are many different groups of demons each having unique roles in the world of myth and stories presented in the Vedic literature.


Bhattacharyya, N. N. (2000) Indian Demonology. Delhi: Manohar Publishers. MacDonell, A. (2004) History of Vedic Mythology. New Delhi: Sanjay Prakashan. O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger (1976) The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. Wash, Edward Hale (1986) Asura in Early Vedic Religion. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Indra Agni Soma Demons in the epics Demons in Puranic literature

Rg Veda

Brahmanas Atharva Veda


Prajapati Vrtra Incantations against demons


Wedding rituals Rituals surrounding pregnancy and childbirth Battles between gods and asura Pitrs Maya

Noteworthy Websites Article written by Jerrah Sawatsky (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

Surya: The Vedic Sun-God


Surya has been the object of Indian devotion since the early Vedic times and is considered to be the soul of the universe (Charak 9). Surya travels along the sky in a massive chariot which moves on a single wheel that is attached to the polar star, or the Dhruva (Charak 59). This chariot is pulled by seven green horses which move at an incredible speed (Charak 59). Surya does not travel alone but is accompanied by several other beings throughout his journey (Charak 59). These beings coincide with the zodiac and change from month to month (Charak 59).

Surya: The Vedic Sun god (Bharat Kala Bhavan, BHU, Varanasi)


The origin of the Sun-God Surya is complex. What follows is a brief summary of his mythic origins.

The origin of Surya begins with the creation of the universe through Brahmaa, the creator god (Charak 28). Bhrama begins the creation process by first creating the progenitor Daksa and his wife from the tips of his right and left thumbs respectively (Charak 28). One of the 13 daughters of Daksa and his wife was Aditi, mother of Surya (Charak 28). A succinct version of how Aditi came to be the mother of Surya follows.

Aditi was betrothed to a sage named Kasyapa with whom she gave birth to twelve sons (Charak 31). These sons were known as the twelve Adityas and their names include Indra, Dhata, Tvashta, Bhaga, Varuna, Mitra, Yama, Savita, Vivasvan (the Sun-God), Pusha, Visnu and Ansuman (Charak 31). Kashyapa also had other wives to whom were born many other children including the race of demons and also other species of animals and birds (Charak 31). Conflict arose between the demons and the gods when Bhrama allowed the gods to have a share of what was received from sacrificial offerings or the Yajnas (Charak 31). This did not sit well with the demons and, as a result, a war ensued in which the gods found themselves losing and were forced to give up their place in heaven and their portion of the Yajnas (Charak 31). Seeing her sons tormented this way grieved Aditi greatly and caused her to prostrate herself before the Sun-God, Vivasvan, and beg for his help (Charak 32). After several days of fasting and devotion, the Sun-God was pleased and allowed Aditi to make a request of him (Charak 32). Aditi requested that the Sun-God be born as a son to her and a brother to her children so that he could defeat the powerful demons and restore her children to their rightful place in heaven and also their allotment of the Yajnas (Charak 33). The Sun-God granted Aditi’s request but said that he was far too powerful to be born to her in his fullness and granted her a thousandth part of his essence to be born as a son (Charak 33). So it was that the Sun-God was born to Aditi and Indra then declared war against the demons and it was seen that Martanda (the Sun-God) turned the demons to ashes merely by looking at them (Charak 33). In the end the gods regained their place in heaven and partook of the Yajnas once again (Charak 33).


Surya’s mythology continues to expand in tales of his many exploits. One such myth involving Surya involves the gods and the demons joining forces in order to churn the great ocean to extract Amrita, or the Elixir of Life, from it (Charak 39). The churning of the great ocean proved very difficult indeed and, as a result, produced many cataclysmic events. It also gave rise to many other gods and demons by releasing them from the waters (Charak 41). Finally, after much churning, Dhanvantari came forth with a pitcher of Amrita (Charak 43). This caused a disturbance among the demons who stole the Amrita and took it back to the underworld with them (Charak 43). In order to get it back, Visnu disguised himself as a beautiful maiden, Mohini, and traveled to the underworld where the rest of the gods were petitioning Bali, the demon king, for the return of the Amrita (Charak 43). Bali was attracted to Mohini and requested that she distribute the Amrita amongst the demons (Charak 43). Mohini accepted but proceeded to give the Amrita to the gods only (Charak 43). In the process, Rahu, a powerful demon disguised himself as a god and partook of the Amrita, but before he could swallow, the Sun and the Moon revealed his identity, Visnu changed back to his original form, and lopped off Rahu’s head with his discus (Charak 43). As a result of the Amrita touching his tongue, Rahu’s head became immortal and he was given a planetary status. He is able to torment Surya to this day, blocking out his brilliance in the form of an eclipse (Charak 44).

There are many other myths associated with Surya, for instance, how he became the scriptural and spiritual teacher of Hanuman, the Monkey-God.

The Sun God Surya holding flowers in each of his hands with the seven horses of his chariot below; Pala Period; Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore
The Sun God Surya holding flowers in each of his hands with the seven horses of his chariot below; Pala Period; Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore

Surya in Modern Times

Surya does not receive much attention in this day in age, but did receive a resurgence of devotion during the period known as the classical period if Hindu tradition. We see examples of Surya worship within many temples dedicated to the Sun-God. One such temple is the Chitragupta Temple constructed in the early 11th century (Bradnock 292). This temple features Surya driving his chariot pulled by his seven horses (Bradnock 292). Another example of Surya worship today is found within a modern Orthodox Hindu sect known as the Smartas who worship Surya as one of the five gods who they regard as primary (Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions 1017).

Although Surya is no longer worshipped much today in Hindu culture, today he will yet remain part of Hindu society in the form of statues and other icons, waiting for the day when his name will once again be praised as it once was.


Bradnock, Roberta & Roma (2004) Footprint India. 13th Edition: Footprint Handbooks Ltd.

Charak, Dr. K.S. (1991) Surya the Sun God: 72 Delhi:UMA Publication.

Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions (1999)

Related Readings

Mackenzie, Donald A. and Goble, Warwick (2004) London: The Greshan Publishing Company.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

  • The Celestial Beings of the Hindu Zodiac
  • Bali, the demon king and Surya
  • Hanumana, the Monkey-God and Surya
  • The Twelve Adityas
  • Surya Temples
  • The worship of Surya

Notable Websites


Article written by Kevin Rasmussen (March 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.

Mohenjodaro and Indus Valley Religion

Mohenjodaro or “heap of the dead” is the largest city excavated of the Indus Valley, or Harappa Civilization. The city flourished between 2600 BCE and 1900 BCE, although the first signs of settlement in the area have been dated to the period of 3500 BCE (Kenoyer 4). Excavation at this level is impossible due to the high water table that makes even simple excavations of Mohenjodaro difficult (Kenoyer 4). The city covers around 200 hectares of land and at its height may have had a population of 85 000 people (Habib 37). The site is located in the modern Larkana district of Sindh province in Pakistan. Mohenjodaro was the largest city in the southern portion of the Indus Valley Civilization and important for trade and governance of this area.

The two largest cities of the Indus Civilization, Harappa and Mohenjodaro, have a similar layout and show signs of civil planning. The Great Mound, or Citadel, dominates the west end of Mohenjodaro. The mound rises 40 feet about the plain at present time; it would have been higher at the time Mohenjodaro was inhabited. The mound runs 400 – 500 yards north to south, and 200 – 300 yards east to west (Habib 41). There is a gap between the mound and the lower city. Because of the large size and separation from the rest of the city, it is thought the mound may have been used for a religious or administrative purpose (Wheeler 47). This hypothesis is strengthened by the architecture found on the top of the mound. The mound at Mohenjodaro consists of two distinct features: the Great Bath and the Granary or Meeting hall. The Great Bath is a sunken tank on the top of the mound, the tank measures 12 meters long, 7 meters wide and is sunk 2.4 meters below the depth of the mud bricks that surround it ( The Great Bath is one of the first aspects of Indus Valley life that can be related to modern Hinduism. The Great Bath may also be related to the concept of River worship, much like the worship of the Ganges today. Mohenjodaro is situated between what use to be two separate rivers it was almost an island. This would have made the rivers a very important resource for the city itself, it would have depended on it for most things: trade, transportation and its way of life. It has been suggested that the people of Mohenjodaro were concerned with ritual purification, much like some Hindus of today. This conclusion draws strength from the existence of the Great Bath on the top of the Citadel and a small stone structure that has been excavated at the top of the great staircase leading to the Citadel. It has been suggested this building was a bathroom for ritual cleansing before you entered the Citadel, as there is a well and drainage system in the building (Wheeler 44).

There are a small number of hard facts related to the religion of the Indus Valley Civilization, as their script has not been deciphered, but we do know they were polytheistic. What insights have been gained about their religion come from the thousands of seals that have been found in Indus Valley sites. Mohenjodaro has been a major contributing site for these seals. In 1977, 68% of the seals that had been found had been uncovered in Mohenjodaro itself (Habib 59). The seals show a wide range of subject matter; some have script on them while others have no inscriptions at all. These seals have been found throughout the Indus Valley, yet the script found on the seals shows no regional variation (Habib 60). Although the seals are diverse in subject matter, there does seem to be some dominant themes running through them. Many of the seals show animals. These animals can be divided into three categorizes: mythical, ambiguous, and actual (Goyal 29). The animals even within these categories are varied too. It has been suggested that the animals on the seals represent the zoomorphic forms of deities, much like the gods of Hinduism today. The Hindus’ deities can take animal form when they desire, or at the very least, have an animal that is associated with then (i.e. their mounts) (Habib 54). One interesting fact is that there are no birds depicted on any seals found to date, just on pottery (Goyal 30).

If the seals were to be used to judge what was important in the religion of the Indus people, then the pipal or asvattha tree would have been of great importance. The tree is depicted on a number of seals that have been found (Goyal 29). The depiction of trees is almost as diverse as the depiction of animals. On some seals, the tree is endowed with a human shape, or has a human head in the top foliage (Goyal 29); in some seals, the trees have rails or wall surrounding them, almost like a sanctuary (Goyal 29).

Indus Valley Seals and Imprints (Musee Guimet, Paris)

There are clues that the Indus Valley people may also have worshiped a Mother Goddess. Many terracotta female figures have been found throughout the empire. Most of these figures have been found within what are assumed private homes leading to the assumption that the Goddess may have been the form of divinity worshipped within the home (Goyal 17). Many of these figures are standing figures that are almost nude or depicted as wearing a girdle or band, an elaborate headdress, collar, and necklace (Goyal 17). Feminine figures are also depicted on many of the Indus seals, thus showing the importance of this feminine figure to the Indus Valley Civilization (Goyal 17). Stones that resemble yoni stones of modern Hinduism have also been found (Wheeler 109). Yoni stones are used to represent the female reproductive organ in modern Hinduism, and it is speculated that the stones found at Mohenjodaro may have had the same function, acting as a representation of the female reproductive principle. This interpretation may just be transference from modern Hinduism to the past in the hopes of better understanding the origin of some aspect of Hinduism.

The people of the Indus Valley also appeared to have worshipped a male god. The most important depiction of a speculated modern Hinduism god is seal number 420 in Mackay’s list (Goyal 19). Many other seals have been found depicting the same figure, but not in the same detail as number 420 (Goyal 19). This seal has been interpreted as depicting a proto-Siva type of figure. The deity has three visible faces, and is seated in a yogic position on a throne flanked by two antelope. The deity is wearing a headdress that has horns, the shape being reminiscent of the crescent moon that modern representations of Siva show on his forehead. Animals also surround the deity and Siva is regarded as the Lord of Animals (Goyal 19). The deity is ithyphallic, and what are thought to be linga stones have been found. Linga stones in modern Hinduism are used to represent the erect male phallus or the male reproductive power of the god Siva, but again these stones may be something entirely different from objects of religious worship (Goyal 19). Even today, Siva is worshiped in both a human form and in that of the phallus. The deity sitting in a yoga-like position suggests that yoga may have been a legacy of the very first great culture that occupied India.

All interpretations that are made about the Indus Valley Civilization may one day be proven wrong, if the script of this civilization is ever deciphered. There have been some people who have claimed to have deciphered the script, but none of their systems have gained wide spread acceptance. Since the script shows consistency across the empire, there can be little doubt that it is some kind of language, but until we can decipher and translate it, the great city of Mohenjodaro will remain awash in controversy and speculation.

Reference List and Related Readings

Goyal, S. R (1984) A Religious History of Ancient India (up to c. 1200 A.D.). Meerut: Urvashi Press.

Habib, Irfan (2002) A People’s History of India 2: The Indus Civilization. Delhi: Chaman Enterprises.

Kenoyer, J. M. & Heuston, K. (2005) The Ancient South Asian World. New York, Oxford University Press.

Kenoyer, J. M. (1998) Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. Karachi, Oxford University Press.

Kenoyer, J. M. (2005) Mohenjo-daro: An Ancient Indus Valley Civilization Metropolis.

Possehl, G. L. (2002) The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Walnut Creek, AltaMira Press.

Wheeler, Sir. Mortimer (1968) The Indus Civilization: Supplementary Volume to The Cambridge History of India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Indus Valley Civilization

Indus Valley Seals

Indus Valley Script

Goddess Worship


Nature Worship in Modern Hinduism


Pipal or Asvattha tree

River Worship

Yoni and/or Linga stones

Noteworthy Websites Related to Mohenjodaro

Article written by Shaun Fox (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.