Category Archives: The Vedic Worldview

The Yamuna River

The Yamuna River is a major tributary in northern India which flows though many major Indian provinces into the Ganges. This river has become an important cultural symbol in the Hindu tradition, representing the goddess Yami and the powers attributed to her. The culture that has evolved around this river have become threatened in the past century due to the effects of pollution. Yet, even with the present turmoil surrounding this natural wonder, her importance and relevance in modern culture still survives.

Water is the life blood for the best part of all creatures in existence. This simple, yet vitally important substance has an understandably special place in all cultures, and the Hindu tradition is no different. Bathing, prayer, and death ceremonies are but a few practices from a vast number in which water has a significant role in India. Crops for food and livestock depend upon water as a necessity of life. Understanding the magnitude to which water affects their lives, Hindus who depended on waterways saw water as a gift from the gods. In the Rg Veda, there are several hymns dedicated to celebrating the water’s life-giving qualities. Thus water itself is seen to be of a divine nature, sometimes having gods themselves identified as waterways. The Yamuna River is among seven rivers in India which has the blessedness of the deity Ganga (Hawley and Wulff 137) ascribed to it, who is the goddess of all sacred water. Although the goddess Ganga is the embodiment of all sacred water, and is present in the Yamuna River, the goddess Yami is said also to be the main deity embodied. Yami is the goddess of love, and like the other goddesses of water, is quite often referred to as mother (because of water’s ability to nurture like that of a mother).

Physical traits of the goddess Yami have become affiliated with the Yamuna River. Yami is the twin sister of Yama and is the daughter to the god of the sun, Surya and his wife Samjna. In religious mythology, Samjna’ could not look Surya in the eyes while making love because of his brightness (Hawley and Wulff 137). Samjna became like the shadow, Chhaya, and her children were to be alike. This attribute of Samja’s dark side, Chhaya, is present in Yama, who becomes the god of death, and Yami is claimed to be dark skinned. This theme of dark characteristics of Yami is true of the Yamuna River, water which has a dark color.

Beyond the physical trait, the religiously important ethereal traits of gods are often attributed to the material world. Although Yami’s brother Yama is the god of death, he is considered to be one of the most dharmic entities, becoming also known as the “King of Righteousness” (Haberman 137). Yami, on the other hand, is an allegorical antonym to Yama; being passionate, blindly lustful, and representing all which is love (Haberman 138). These characteristics of Yami are said to be present in the Yamuna River. Performing ritual baths in the river allows for the essence of the goddess and her qualities to be absorbed. Another reason many bathe in the Yamuna is because of the Indian epic the Mahabharata. Yami is closely related to Krsna, who in the epic is an avatar of the great god Visnu. It is said Krsna made love to Yami and a drop of precipitation from his body fell to make wave of bliss (Nelson 239). The act between Krsna and Yami is seen as the perfect union, and the act of love making often draws couples to the Yamuna to help with fertility.

Mythology and traditions pertaining to the Yamuna River are immense and many are still in practice. Some of India’s largest cities lie on the river, including New Delhi and Agra, which have a together have a population approximately fourteen million. Many religious and historical sites (such as the Taj Mahal) are close to the river. Water from the river is taken by people and temples to perform multiple pujas, or acts of worship (Haberman 96). Rituals are common with Yamuna River water which is an integral part of too many people’s daily routine.

Unfortunately the Yamuna River in modern times is not just used for religious practices, bathing, drinking, transportation, etc. Rather it is used to dispose of hazardous material and raw human waste. Slums downstream from main urban settings use this toxic water, creating open sores on the body, which only grow larger with more contact. The Yamuna River it seems is now the unwelcome home of irony. Bathing, in Hinduism, is a way of purifying one’s body, ironically, if done in the Yamuna today, more contamination will be added to the body than was on it before., Three thousand two hundred ninety-six million litres of raw sewage is add to the river daily [see Yamuna Action Plan]. The all loving nature of the goddess Yami is jeopardized by the severally polluted river in which she is now embodied


Haberman, David L. (2005) River of Love in an age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Baartmans, Frans (2000) The Holy Waters: A primordial symbol in Hindu Myths. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Hawley, John S. and Wulff, Donna M. (1996) Devi: goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nelson, Lance E. (1998) Purifying the earthly body of god: religion and ecology in Hindu India. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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Rg Veda


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Written by Cole Schneider (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Cosmogonies in the Vedic Samhitas

A cosmogony is a theory about how the universe originated; it may take on a mythological form as a creation story, or it may be presented in the form of a philosophical treatise, a divinely inspired revelation, or a scientific theory. The aim of any cosmogonic postulation is to provide an answer to the questions “How did we get here?” and “How did our universe originate?”, and in doing so, help us to lay some groundwork for asking the bigger questions of “Who, or what, am I?” Within the Hindu tradition there is much speculation on these fundamental questions, and many different theories have been put forth from theistic creation by a supreme being to the evolution of order from primordial chaos.

A striking characteristic of the Hindu religion is the wealth of diversity found within the traditions that are subsumed under the umbrella term of “Hinduism”; this characteristic diversity is particularly evident when we consider the many distinct perspectives on cosmogony which are accepted as orthodox. Compared to traditional Judeo-Christian cosmogony, where there is essentially one perspective of the creationary act which is primarily expounded in the first couple chapters of the book of Genesis, the range of perspectives on cosmogony found in the Hindu tradition can appear quite intimidating. Though the expansiveness of the tradition’s cosmogony can seem daunting, and the somewhat obscure nature of the traditions cosmogonic postulations may seem impregnable, distinct streams of thought can be seen running through the traditions which help us delineate the different theoretical systems at play, allowing us to group related cosmogonic traditions together categorically. We are able to categorize the cosmogonies of ancient India into those that view our universe as being begotten from the activity of material principles, those which view our universe as resulting from the activity of abstract principles, and those which view our universe as resulting from the work of a divine agency, or divine principles (Bhattacharyya 2). Material principles can be defined as substances that are clearly observable matter such as water, wind, fire, and earth. Abstract principles are human concepts such as desire, being, non-being, time, and chaos, and creative energy. The divine principles found within the Vedic Samhitas are cosmic beings such as Brahma-Prajapati, Brahman, and Visvakarman. According to Bhattacharyya (2) a process of evolution is evident in Indian ideas of cosmogony, developing from primitive materialistic conceptions, through abstract formulations, and then to cosmogonies which explain our universe as resulting from the actions of a supreme being or divine presence.

Theories that view our nascent reality, including the gods, as emerging from pre-existent matter appear to be the oldest Hindu cosmogonies, though this may seem counter-intuitive to those in the modern occident where the inheritors of the Enlightenment thinking and dogma have a tendency to presuppose that primitive man was hopelessly ensnared in “superstitious” supernaturalism, creating his gods and his myths to answer any difficult question that might arise. According to Bhattacharyya (2) it seemed “perfectly reasonable to the primitive peoples who saw land growing from the accumulations of river-borne silt and desert wastes rendered cultivatable by irrigation, to conclude, for instance, that water was the primary element and the source of all that existed.” The belief that our cosmos developed out of primordial water is very common in the ancient world, and can be found in the cosmogonies of the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and there are even hints of it in the Hebrew Bible, although here the water is subjugated to the presence of the divine YHWH (“And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” American Standard Version). The similarities between this passage and the creation account found in Nasadiya hymn (Griffith) of the Rg Veda are striking. I reproduce this account in full because of its centrality to the early Vedic understandings of cosmogony, and also because it represents a confluence of many different Hindu conceptualizations of the creative act in that it includes elements from the cosmogonic formulations beginning with material principles (water), those beginning with abstract principles (night, chaos, desire, warmth) and those beginning with divine principles (God/ the One. Verse.7). An interesting characteristic of this hymn is that it does not really seem to make truth-claims the same way as we find in say, the first couple chapters of Genesis. Instead the writers seem to be asking questions, and following different lines of inquiry, instead of trying to lay out a calculated and definitive answer to the cosmogonical issue.

HYMN CXXIX. Creation

“1. THEN was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.

What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?

2. Death was not then, nor was there aught immortal: no sign was there, the day’s and night’s divider.

That One Thing, breathless, breathed by its own nature: apart from it was nothing whatsoever.

3. Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this All was indiscriminated chaos.

All that existed then was void and formless: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.

4. Thereafter rose Desire in the beginning, Desire, the primal seed and germ of Spirit.

Sages who searched with their heart’s thought discovered the existent’s kinship in the non-existent.

5. Transversely was their severing line extended: what was above it then, and what below it?

There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder

6. Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?

The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?

7. He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it

Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

The gross elements which are credited as the foundational substances of reality came to be called the bhutas, a concept which is found in an embryonic form in the Rg Veda and is developed in the later Vedic literature, including the Upanisads (Lal 7) Aside from primordial water (apah), the other well established bhutas include agni (fire), vayu or vata (wind), dyaus or akasa (sky), and prthivi (earth) (Lal 7). These principles have a dual nature as both material elements and also, later, as deities such as Agni, Vayu and Dyaus. Exegesis of the Rg Veda and critical reflection lead to the hypothesis that these elements were first observed empirically in the environment and recognized as “natural” phenomena, and only later sacralized as personal deities who could be approached by man and propitiated through rituals. This chronology goes against the accepted “wisdom” of many dogmatic materialists who have created a historical myth which perceives humanities intellectual development as an upward evolution from “superstitious supernaturalism” and “blind faith” towards “rationality” and “empirical science.” These individuals imply that belief in the unseen is necessarily a vestigial relic of the primitive mind which is unwilling to grasp the stark reality that there can be no ultimate reality which transcends empirically observed phenomena and lies outside the grasp of man’s rational mind; there can be no realms beyond our perceptual capacities, and no realities unfathomable to the rational mind. The reality is that the intellectual development of the ancient Hindus probably followed a chronology antithetical to their dogma; at the level of the intellectual elite, the Hindus first conceived of creation as resulting from material principles, then abstract principles, and then the divine principles. Closely related to these cosmogonies based on basic material principles is the concept of hiranya-garbha (the Golden Embryo, or World Egg) which, again, ancient Hindu cosmogonies share with other ancient cultures. In most of its many incarnations this concept envisions our embryonic cosmos as existing in the form of an enormous egg which floats on top of a fathomless deep (Bhattacharya 3). With the hatching of this egg, the cosmos spring into life, just as a young chick bursts forth from its shell when the appointed time has come. The idea here is that just as the life of a reptile or a bird lies dormant within its shell, the primordial Life of the cosmos at one time lied dormant within a cosmic World Egg. Again we see the ancient Indian’s conceptualizing the cosmic nativity in terms of things that they had observed empirically in the world around them.

The second stream of thought within ancient Hindu cosmogonies is the idea that the universe emerged from abstract principles, as opposed to merely evolving out of matter or being created by a divine being. The Nasadiya creation hymn I reproduced earlier exhibits the influence of this stream of thought in verse three where “darkness,” “void,” “indiscriminated chaos,” and “Warmth,” are spoken of as primordial principles which played a role in the emergence of the universe as we know it. These formulations are, again, not unique to Hindu thought, but are found throughout many cultures around the world. The primary characteristic that distinguishes the material principles from the abstract ones is that the material cosmogonies are based on observable substances such as water (apah) or fire (agni), whereas the abstract cosmogonies are based on immaterial human concepts such as desire, disorder, being, or non-being. Some particularly important abstract principles for Hindu cosmogony are the ideas of sat, asat, and of tapas. The word sat can be translated as being, the word asat as non-being, and the word tapas, which is literally translated as flame, can in respect to cosmogony be considered to refer to a creative cosmic fire, or spark. According to Miller (51) tapas is what drives the universe forward, causes the primordial elements to blossom into the universe as we know it, then drives the cycle its conclusion only to restart anew. This idea of a cyclical universe may not have been envisioned by the rsis as it is laid out in the Puranas, and scholars debate when the concept of a cyclical reality developed in Hindu thought (Miller 64). In the Rg Veda we read that the universal order, or rta, as well as Truth, were both created through the action of the tapas. Griffith translates the beginning of this creation hymn (Rg Veda XCX. 1) as follows: “FROM Fervour kindled to its height Eternal Law and Truth were born: Thence was the Night produced, and thence the Billowy flood of sea arose.” In this hymn we see the abstract concepts of Night, Eternal Law, Truth, and Fervour (tapas) giving rise to the material concept of the primordial sea. Furthermore, in the Atharva Veda (XI.8) we read that “Both Tapas and action were within the mighty ocean. Tapas arose from action; that did they worship as highest.” (Roth and Whitney)

Keeping with what appears to be a philosophical method of extrapolating cosmogonic theories from observable, empirical phenomena, the rsis envisioned the conception of the cosmos in procreative terms. In this way, the Vedic Samhitas put forth the idea of a fundamental sexual dualism which draws a distinction between a paternal Sky Father named Dyaus and a maternal Earth Mother named Prthivi, The Samhitas claim in several places that it is these two beings that gave birth to the gods as well as men, and that they sustain all created beings (Rg Veda I.159.2; 160.2; 185.1) According to Bhattacharyya (5) the concept of heaven and earth as universal parents eventually developed into the idea of Prakrti who “began to be conceived of as the germinal productive principle- the eternal mother capable of evolving all created things out of herself but never so creating unless united with the eternal spiritual principle, the Purusa.” In a later work entitled the Purusa-sukta, the idea is put forth that our universe was created by a cosmic being who sacrificed his own body to himself, and so from the various parts of his body different parts of our reality were born; the gods Indra and Agni arose from his mouth, the sun emanated from his eyes, etc. We have now started to shift from abstract principles to beings that much more closely resemble conventional divinities. Dyaus and Prthivi can be conceived of as “proper” gods with personalities, or they can be seen as cosmic principles of masculinity and femininity. Just where they fall on the spectrum between these two conceptions appears to remain convoluted in the texts of the early Vedic Samhitas; the same goes for the concepts of Prakrti and the Purusa.

The variety of perspectives on cosmogony within the Samhitas becomes apparent when one realizes that although the heavens and earth are said to have given rise to the gods, in other passages it appears as if the gods were responsible for the creation of the heavens and earth! We see the rsis in the first mandala of the Rg Veda (I.189.1) asking how the heavens and earth first came into being, and how they were created, while maintaining that they still support all things that exist: “WHETHER of these is elder, whether later? How were they born? Who knoweth it, ye sages? These of themselves support all things existing: as on a car the Day and Night roll onward.” (Griffith). Bhattacharyya (19) shows that in another passage (Rg Veda X.81.2-4) this question is repeated, and the answer is given that the sole creator is a being called Visvakarman: “ He who hath eyes on all sides round about him, a mouth on all sides, arms and feet on all sides, He, the Sole God, producing earth and heaven, weldeth them, with his arms as wings, together. What was the tree, what wood in sooth produced it, from which they fashioned out the earth and heaven? Ye thoughtful men inquire within your spirit whereon he stood when he established all things.” (Griffith) Here we see the movement towards the idea of the deva ekah or the one god or being from whom existence found its origin.

Part of the reason that the Samhitas seem to have such a convoluted system of cosmogony, if it can be called a system at all, is because the texts take a henotheistic approach to their worship of the divine and their hymnology. This means that although the system is polytheistic and there is a sense that each god has their own specialized role in the cosmos, when the worshippers approach each deity they elevate it to the supreme position in the pantheon and address the deity as if addressing the Supreme. It can be argued that this is a prefiguring of later developments in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita where all the gods are seen as extensions of the one god, or the one Being. Just some of the Vedic gods who are attributed with a significant role in creation include, Usas, Brahmanaspati, Soma, Varuna, Agni, Brahma-prajapati, and Mitra. The development towards the idea of a single divinity who was primarily responsible for creation finds its expression with the developments of deities like Brahma Prajapati, Visvakarman, and eventually the later development of the idea Brahman, the all pervading eternal presence which is the immutable and all-encompassing Self. According the Bhattacharyya (18) it appears as if the development of the idea of a single Creator responsible for the establishment of the cosmic order was an unfolding process that took place over time, a process which was proceeded by a period in which the “various departments of nature were distributed to different gods, each to preside over his own area.” Each of these gods was deemed to be responsible for some part of the creation, depending on what their exact role was in the preservation of the cosmos, what status they held within the pantheon, and the process by which the deity themselves were allegedly created.

Originally then, the name Visvakarman, or the “great architect of the universe” (Bhattacharya 18), was used to refer to a number of gods who were believed to play some special role in the creation of the universe; this word only later came to refer to a single creative divinity. In this way we find both Surya the sun-god (Rg Veda X.170.4) and Indra (Rg Veda IV.17.4) referred to as Visvakarman in the Vedas. When conceived as a single creator god, Visvakarman is envisioned as all seeing, with eyes, faces, arms and feet protruding from all sides of his body. Furthermore, it is maintained that he is responsible for endowing the gods with their abilites and their names, and also for creating the heavens and the earth (Bhattacharyya 19).

Brahma Prajapati, or Hiranyagarbha, the other Vedic god who is seen as being important for creation, is described in similar terms; he is seen as having arisen from the primordial waters and is responsible for the creation of the world and the preservation of the sky and the earth. It is also maintained that the gods derive their power from him and that they are subject to his will for he is the “god over all the gods” (Bhattacharyya 19). With the later theological, cosmological, and mythological developments of the Upanishads, the Puranas, and the Epics we see a flowering of this concept of the Ineffable One, and also the development of some new conceptions of cosmogony and the relationship between the Supreme Being and its creation. The various modern traditions subsumed under the umbrella term “Hinduism” are still influenced by the ancient cosmogonies which envisioned material, abstract, and divine principles as having each been responsible for the creation of our universe, either working alone or in concert. To this day Hindus the world over, and indeed individuals of all faiths and creeds, continue to ponder the origins, destiny, and meaning of our universe, as well as mankind’s place in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Bhattacharyya, Narendra Nath (1983) History of Indian Cosmogonical Ideas. New Delhi: Munishiram Manoharlal.

Gombrich, Richard F. (1975) “Ancient Indian Cosmology.” In Ancient Cosmologies. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Kuiper, P.B.J. (1983) Ancient Indian Cosmogony. New Delhi: Viskas Publishing House.

Kumarappa, Bharatan (1986) Realism and Illusionism in Hinduism. New Delhi: Mayur Publications.

Lal, J. K. (1995) Pancamahabhutas, Origin and Myths in Vedic literature, in volume two, Vedic Buddhist and Jain Traditions, of the seven-volume, multi- author collection Prakrti: The Integral Vision. Kapila Vatsayayan (ed.). New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Miller, Jeanine (1985) The Vision of Cosmic Order in the Veda. London: Routledge & Kegan.

Muir, John (1873) Original Sanskrit Texts on the Origin and Progress of the Religion and Institutions of India. London: Williams and Norgate.

Prabhavananda, Swami, & Manchester, Frederick (2002) The Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal. New York: Published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.

Ralph T. H. Griffith (1974) The Hymns of the Rgveda. Orient Book Distributors

Vatsayayan (ed.) (1995) Prakrti: The Integral Vision, a seven-volume, multi-author work. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

Whitney, William Dwight (2002) Atharvavedasamhita: Sanskrit text, English translation, notes & index of verses according to the translation or W.D. Whitney and Bhasya of Sayanacarya (encluding 20th Kanda). Delhi: Parimal Publications.

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Written by Caleb Ostrom (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.


Early civilizations from around the world demonstrate that since antiquity there has been a fascination with the relationship between good and evil. This dual nature is apparent in the early Vedic literature contained within the Hindu tradition. The Vedic texts are believed to have been in composition around 5000 BCE; however, some scholars speculate that the texts had been written even earlier (Brown 1965: 23). One of the more prominent sections of the Vedic texts is the Rg Veda; a compilation of praises made to various deities who are to this day, worshipped by the Hindu people. There are many deities that are venerated by those who follow the Hindu tradition; some more eminent than others. The Hindu deities are divided into two opposing branches in the Rg Veda; the Asuras and Devas.

The Asuras are defined as being powerful titans or demons and are considered to be the gods of the primeval world and the predescendants of the Devas (Kuiper 112). In general, the Asuras are associated with the underworld and represent the malevolent nature of the Hindu tradition (Bodewitz 213). In most western religions the idea of the demon is in direct relation to all that is evil in the world, and much folklore is written about them. In Hinduism, despite the Asuras being composed of demons; they also possess the potential to create the truly wondrous, including life itself (Srinivasan 546). This ambivalent character of the Asuras is, on a small scale, a manifestation of the Hindu tradition as a whole.

An influential representative of the Asuras is the mighty demon Vrtra. In the Rg Veda, Vrtra is portrayed as being a three headed serpent, and thus all dragons or worms slain by heroes of Aryan mythology are seen as the embodiments of Vrtra (Wake 375). Vrtra is perceived to dwell above earth in the clouds, and when there is a draught, it is said that the Asuras are in rebellion against the Devas (Wake 375).

In contrast to the Asuras are the Devas. The term Deva stems from the old Indo-European word for Celestial gods (Kuiper 112). Included in the Devas are some of the deities such as Varuna and Indra (Embree 12). Many scholars insist that the Devas are the ‘sons’ of the primordial Asuras, and that there was a split that caused the formation of the two opposing forces. The Devas can be considered the more ‘honourable’ gods in comparison the Asuras who are thought to dwell in the underworld. Although there is a division amongst the Hindu deities, the two sectors overlap considerably. In the tale of the Battle between Indra and Vrtra, the two represent the Devas and the Asuras respectively. However there are many other characters that end up swapping sides mid battle such as Agni, Varuna, and Soma who desert the Asuras in favour of the Devas (Brown 101).

One of the more revered Devas is Indra. The Rg Veda contains approximately 1000 hymns dedicated to him. Indra is the god of storms and lightening and is also considered to be the king of the gods (see Rodrigues 487). When the Hindu people are facing a battle it is often Indra whom they revere. Indra is closely related to the intoxicating drink known as Soma; portrayed as ‘drunk’. Indra is the key representative of the Devas, for it is him who destroys Vrtra and frees the water that was trapped in the clouds.

The Battles that ensue between good and evil are apparent in many if not all of the worldly religions. It is this battle that keeps the forces aligned and produces a harmonic peace that we humans try to maintain. Across the earth there is many versions of the battle that is extremely similar to the one fought between Indra and Vrtra in Hinduism. For instance, the legend of Indra and Vrtra is reproduced in Latin mythology as that of Hercules and Cacus (Wake 376).


Brown, Norman W. (1942) “The Creation Myth of the Rig Veda.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 62, no.2 (June): 85-98.

Brown, Norman W. (1919) “Proselyting the asuras (A Note on the Rig Veda 10.124).” Journal of the American Oriental Society 39: 100-103.

Embree, Ainslie T. The Hindu Tradition: Reading in Oriental Thought. New York: Random House Inc, 1972.

Hopkins, Washburn E. (1916) “Indra as God of Fertility.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 36: 242-268.

Kramrisch, Stella. (1963) “ The Triple Structure of Creation in the Rg Veda.” History of Religions 2, no.2: 256-285.

Kuiper, F.B.J. (1975) “The Basic Concept of the Vedic Religion.” History of Religions 15, no. 2 (November): 107-120.

Srinivasan, Doris M. (1983) “Vedic Rudra-Siva.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 103, no.3 (Jul.-Sep.): 543-556.

Wake, Staniland C. (1873) “The Origin of Serpent-Worship.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 2: 373-390.

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Article written by Kerri Norman (April 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.