The Vedic Goddesses: Prthivi, Usas, and Ratri
Worship of natural phenomena has dominated Hindu religious practice since its origin. Many natural phenomena are seen to have feminine properties and it is these properties which led to the centralization of goddess worship (Kinsley 10). Some feminine traits abundant in nature include fecundity, fruitfulness, and fertility present in the earth, mothers and cows (Wangu 29). Another feature common in goddess worship is their ability to uphold rta, cosmic order (Wangu 28; Kinsley 10; Chitgopekar 55). All these common features of nature are prominent in three of the main goddesses in Vedic literature; Prthivi the earth, Usas the dawn, and Ratri the night (Kinsley 14, 178; Kumar 67).
The origin of worship for the earth is based out of the sacrality of the earth for its fecundity and stability, and due to these attributes, the earth has been worshipped as a goddess throughout the Hindu tradition (Kinsley 178). The earth as a goddess has a basis in the underlying perception that the earth and the cosmos is a living being itself. And it is this “cosmic organism” that is worshipped as the earth goddess, Prthivi (Kinsley 178). The earth as a solid mass and an anthropomorphic goddess is the two ways in which Prthivi is identified. And it is the reverence to the stability and fecundity of the earth that provides the basis of the hymns dedicated to Prthivi (Kinsley 178). Within the Samhitas, Prthivi has three aspects of her being. She is seen as the “universal mother of physical creation” as well as the earth as a physical entity that sustains life (Pintchman 30). The third aspect of Prthivi’s nature describes her as manifest matter itself, just like the waters in the creation narrative that is formed from the cosmogonic process (Pintchman 30). In some myths the creation of the world came from the released energy from Prajapati which became the substance that makes up the earth and provides life for everything on its surface (Kinsley 178). In another myth from the Visnu Purana, the earth, Prthivi was born from the foot of Visnu (Wilkins 16). In other myths Prthivi is said to have germinated from Aditi, which in later Hindu tradition is almost completely identified with Prthivi in the Brahmanas (Kinsley 178). In later texts new names were introduced for the earth goddess such as Bhu or Bhudevi (Sullivan 76). A central and dominant quality of Prthivi is her maternal nature (Pitchman 30). She often hailed as mother and is worshipped for her fertility by providing sustenance to all living things that live on her (Kinsley 9). Because of this, she is often likened to a cow, who provides milk for her calf. It is through the worship of Prthivi and other motherly goddesses that the status of the cow is heightened (Wangu 36). Prthivi is often described as a firm, supportive, benign being whose fertility and abundance helps with the growth and well being of all living things that thrive on her surface (Kinsley 8, 126). She is said to be the source of strength, vigour and she quickens life (Kinsley 11).
Hymns in many texts emphasize Prthivi’s nourishing and creative nature in which she provides seemingly inexhaustible sources of plants and herbs, and especially crops. Prthivi is often called the all-producer based on these associations (Kinsley 9, 126; Wangu 35). Another name given to the earth goddess is rtajna, she who knows rta (Chitgopekar 55). She does not distinguish between poor and wealthy, good and wicked beings, or demons and the gods, who call her broad expanse home (Kinsley 9). In some hymns she is described as the splendid energy of women, the fragrant mother, the light and luck in men and goddess of emotional and material abundance (Wangu 35, 36; Kinsley 9). Prthivi is one of the few goddesses in the Vedic scriptures that can be considered a goddess in her own right (Kinsley 9; Wangu 35). Even with this high status as her own deity, Prthivi is almost always found in hymns linked with Dyaus, the sky god. For some scholars Prthivi is associated with the sky as well as the earth and not just exclusively the earth, though in later texts and in the Atharva Veda she is more commonly portrayed as an individual (Kinsley 8, 9). This divine couple, sometimes called Dyavaprthivi (sky-earth), are said to be the creators of the world and the universal parents of the gods (Sullivan 76; Kinsley 8; Wangu 35). They are said to be the preservers of all their creations and are described as energetic beings who encourage virtue (Wilkins 13). Together they are said to have created full, fat, nourishing waters and represent a realm of safety and abundance where rta pervades and happiness prevails (Kinsley 8). This multivalent duality is said to have been born through Soma and they sustain life by generating fertility through their reciprocal roles (Chitgopekar 47; Wilkins 13; Kinsley 25). It is said in myths that Dyaus fertilizes Prthivi with the rain which represents his seed (Kinsley 8). They are often petitioned to bring happiness, to expiate sin and to protect people from danger and Prthivi is said to provide material well-being and good luck to those she blesses (Kinsley 11). In some myths, Prthivi’s worshippers will perform rites in the form of sacrificial rituals, amulets and prayers in order to appease and propitiate the earth (Kinsley 178; Wangu 35). Sacrifices were believed to replenish and rebuild the energy lost by Prajapati when he created the earth. These sacrifices, with the continuous release of power by Prajapati uphold rta and the balanced cycle (Kinsley 178). Like Prthivi, most other Vedic goddesses have a strong connection with rta and natural phenomena (Wangu 28; Kinsley 10; Chitgopekar 55). One such goddess is Usas, the dawn.
The conception of the dawn dates back to the time of the primitive Aryans (Kumar 67). Both the Hellenic and the Hindu Aryans have philologically corresponding names for the dawn as a goddess; Eos in Greek, Aurora in Roman, and Usas in the Hindu pantheon (Kumar 67; Walker 536). Though even before the Aryan dichotomy, the ideal of the goddess of the dawn, or guardian of daybreak was present (Walker 536). The poetic beauty found in the hymns dedicated to Usas is only matched by that of those dedicated to Eos in the time of Homer (Kumar 67). The hymns in the Rg Veda dedicated to Usas are said to be some of the most beautiful use of poetic language and for the Vedic poets, one of the most beloved objects of celebration (Wilkins 48; Sullivan 236). With over 20 hymns dedicated just to Usas she is the most popular goddess in the Rg Veda (Kinsley 17; Wangu 32; Walker 536). In spite of her popularity in earlier times, Usas is rarely mentioned in later texts (Kinsley 18). Usas, the dawn, is associated with light and is often said to be the mother of the gods (Kinsley 7). As an auspicious deity, Usas is seen as luminous, many-tinted, and delicate (Kinsley 7; Walker 536; Kumar and Ram 66; Wangu 32). She is often seen as a young maiden (Kinsley 7), a skilled dancer decorated with gems (Wangu 32; Wilkins 48), a “gaily attired wife appearing before her husband, a beautiful girl coming from her bath” (Wilkins 48) or likened to a cow (Kinsley 7). Worshippers believe that Usas, like a cow presenting her udder to her calf, will present her bosom to the patron as well as for the benefit of humankind as a whole (Wilkins 48; Kinsley 7).
By bringing light forth for humankind to every place of dwelling Usas is a friend to all mankind (Kinsley 7; Walker 536). Her light uncovers all people and things, with no preference to status or wealth from the night’s darkness (Walker 536; Kinsley 7). She is seen as an ever young maiden being born daily with the coming of the light at each new dawn (Kinsley 7; Wilkins 48). At each dawn she is said, in some hymns, to come forth, bringing the light, in a hundred chariots (Kinsley 7). In other hymns she is said to have a single shining chariot drawn by either cows, ruddy horses, or by the Ashvins, her sons (Wilkins 48; Wangu 32). Usas, in one or many chariots, leads the way for and is urged on by Surya, the sun (Kinsley 7; Sullivan 236). She is praised for awakening all life forms but leaves the deceased to their rest (Kinsley 7, 8; Wangu 32). Usas is associated with the life and the breath of all being that she is the one that impels life (Kinsley 7). As the reoccurring dawn, Usas is a reminder to people of their limited time through the disappearance of generations and the wasting away of lives (Sullivan 236; Wilkins 48; Kinsley 7). It is through this immortal rebirth at the dawn twilight that Usas supports rta, the cosmic order (Kinsley 7; Chitgopekar 55).The dawn sets everything into motion, causes birds to leave their nests, and awakens the sleeping to go and perform their varied duties just like a young housewife (Kinsley 7; Wilkins 48). Usas provides a service to other gods by arousing the people off to perform their daily sacrifices and entices the gods to help kindle the fires for sacrifice by getting them to drink Soma (Kinsley 7; Wilkins 48; Wangu 32).
In some hymns Usas is said to be the “eye of the gods”, who sees everything that people do (Kinsley 7). As the dawn, Usas is said to have been fathered by the sky, Dyaus or the sun, Surya (Chitgopekar 56; Wangu 32; Kumar and Ram 159). In another myth Usas is said to have been fathered by Prajapati. It is in this myth that all living things were said to be created by the shape-changing of Usas who was fleeing her incestuous shape-changing father (Walker 536). This myth and others helps to support her motherly nature. Usas is said to give wealth, strength, and fame and is believed to give her petitioners joy, longevity, sons, horses and cattle (Kinsley 7; Wilkins 52). People will often invoke Usas to punish or drive away one’s enemies, though she is rarely called upon to forgive the transgressions of humans (Kinsley 7). Usas is also asked to dispel the darkness and drive the chaotic forces and evil demons far away (Kinsley 7; Wilkins 48). She is praised for disclosing the hidden treasures by driving away the night, her sister, Ratri (Wilkins 48; Walker 536).
Ratri, the night, is mainly found in the Rg Vedas when she is linked to her sister Usas; though like Usas, Ratri is rarely found in later texts (Kinsley 14; Wangu 66). In these hymns Ratri and Usas are said to be powerful mothers who strengthen the vital powers of individuals. At times they are described as twins whose never ending cyclical appearances support rta through the alternating yet predicable flow of light and dark, and vigour and rest (Kinsley 14). Like her sister Usas, Ratri is sometimes identified as a beautiful maiden though descriptions of her physical appearance are mentioned rarely (Kinsley 14). Ratri is affiliated with darkness and is often called gloomy and barren when compared to Usas (Wangu 33; Kinsley 14). In some hymns of the Rg Vedas, she is referred to as hostile despite her usual depiction as a benign being (Kinsley 14). Unlike Usas, whose abode is not known, Ratri is said to live in the abode of Yama the god of death in the south (Wangu 33; Kumar and Ram 66). Ratri is admired for the stars she bares as light in the darkness, letting all creatures rest and for giving dew. Though she is seen as the guardian of the night but she is also seen as the very things, both hostile and benign, that thrive in the night (Kinsley 14). People will petition Ratri for protection against the evils of the night such as thieves, wolves and any other creatures that could do them harm. In the Rg Vedas, there are hymns in which Ratri, the night and darkness, is chased away by the god of fire, Agni and Usas (Kinsley 14). Unlike Usas and Prthivi, Ratri is not as well studied.
Bibliography and Related Readings
Bunce, Fredrick (2000) An Encyclopaedia of Hindu Deities, Demigods, Godlings, Demons and Heros with Special Focus on Iconographic Attributes, Vol 1. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.
Chitgopekar, Nilima (2002) Invoking Goddesses: Gender Politics in Indian Religion. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications Pvt. Ltd.
Cush, Denise, Robinson, Cathrine, York, Michael (2008) Encyclopaedia of Hinduism. New York: Routledge.
Friedrichs, Kurt (1989) The Encyclopaedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc.
Kapoor, Subodh (2000) The Hindus Encyclopaedia of Hinduism: Vol 5 Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Hinduism. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.
Kapoor, Subodh (2002) Encyclopaedia of Vedic Philosophy: The Age, Religion, Literature, Pantheon, Philosphy, Traditions, and Teachers of the Vedas, Vol 4. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.
Kinsley, David (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Kumar, R., Ram, S (2008) Hinduism: Religion and Philosophy. New Delhi: Crescent Publishing Corporation.
Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Stutley, Margaret, Stutley, James (2003) A Dictionary of Hinduism: Its Mythology, Folklore, and Development 1500 BC – AD 1500. London: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Sullivan, Bruce M (1987) Historical Dictionary of Hinduism. London: The Scarecrow Press Inc.
Walker, Benjamin (1983) Hindu World: An Encyclopaedic Survey of Hinduism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.
Wangu, Madhu Bazaz (2003) Images of Indian Goddesses: Myths, Meanings and Models. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.
Wilkins, W. J (1975) Hindu Mythology. New Delhi: Rekha Printers Ltd.
Related Research Topics
Bhu / Bhudevi
Article written by: Nicole Stevenson (March 2012) who is solely responsible for its content.