Often times, it is believed by many Hindus that the early followers of the Vedic Religion worshiped the same gods that we do, such as Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, etc… However, this is very far from the truth. To get a more accurate view of the Vedic Religion, it is therefore very important to consult the Vedas! In this post, I will analyze the Vedas to show that Shiva and Vishnu were not worshiped as gods in the Vedic Period. Instead, Shiva was a pre-Vedic god, and Vishnu was a post-Vedic god. To do so, I will split this post into two parts. In the first post, Shiva will be analyzed, and in the second part, Vishnu will be analyzed.
The translations of the Rig Veda verses used in this post are by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton. They can be accessed here. The reason why I have used these translations instead of Griffith's translation is that it is in modern English, and therefore easier to understand than Griffith's translation, which is in old English.
Shiva — A Pre-Vedic God
According to the Rig Veda, the oldest Veda, worship of the Shiva Lingam (phallus) was considered improper, and hence the Vedic people were dead against the worship of the Shiva Lingam.
Rig Veda 7.21.5:na yātava indra jūjuvurno na vandanā śaviṣṭha vedyābhiḥ |
sa śardhadaryo viṣuṇasya jantormā śiśnadevā api ghurtaṃ naḥ ||Sorcerers do not incite us, Indra, nor sycophants with their knowing wiles, o most powerful one. He [=Indra?] will vaunt himself over the stranger, over the race contrary (to our ways). Let the phallus-worshipers not penetrate our truth.Rig Veda 10.99.3:sa vājaṃ yātāpaduṣpadā yan svarṣātā pari ṣadatsaniṣyan |
anarvā yacchatadurasya vedo ghnañchiśnadevānabhi varpasā bhūt ||He is the one who drives to the prize, though going with a (horse?) whose “off” foot is lame [?] . At the winning of the sun, intending to win he laid siege to it,when, unassailable, smashing the phallus-worshipers, with his form he prevailed over the property of (the place?) with a hundred doors.
In Rig Veda 7.21.5, the word śiśnadevā is translated as phallus worshipers. It is a sanskrit word that means "phallus worshiper" or "having the generative organ for a god". This verse along with Rig Veda 10.99.3 clearly shows that the Vedic people were against phallus (Shiva Lingam) worship, and that the Vedic people even resorted to violence against the phallus (Shiva Lingam) worshipers. However, another important thing is that since phallus (Shiva Lingam) worship is mentioned in these Rig Veda verses, it was likely in practice prior to the arrival of the Vedic people into India. After the Vedic people arrived into India, they branded it as an improper form of worship. Hence Shiva worship had pre-Vedic origins. That explains why pre-Vedic tribes such as the Rakshasas and other natives worshiped Shiva. Just recall to mind Ravana’s much famed worship of Shiva.
However, one major objection many Hindus who have read Ramayana would raise is that in Seetha’s Swayamvara, the bow that had to be strung belonged to Shiva. Janaka, Seetha’s father, was a king who followed the Vedic Religion, so why would he use a bow from Shiva, the god that the Vedic people were dead against worshiping? Well, my answer to such claims would be to closely look at epic Ramayana. In Bala Kanda, where Seetha’s Swayamvara is described by Valmiki, it is mentioned that Shiva’s bow was used. However, this is Bala Kanda, the same Kanda that many scholars have already suggested is a later interpolation in its entirety to the epic. Furthermore, a few years back, a manuscript was found from 6th Century CE, where the Valmiki Ramayana had all the Kandas in the present version, barring Bala Kanda and Uttara Kanda:
This suggests that Bala Kanda and Uttara Kanda were later additions to the epic, sometime after 6th Century CE. For this reason, the direct narrative of Seetha’s Swayamvara (in Bala Kanda) cannot be taken as the final word on the subject. Luckily for us, in Ayodhya Kanda, describes her Swayamvara to Anusuya. She says:
अयोनिजाम् हि माम् ज्नात्वा न अध्यगग्च्छत् स चिन्तयन् |
सदृशम् च अनुरूपम् च मही पालः पतिम् मम || २-११८-३७"Knowing me to be the one not emerged from a mother's womb, the king after a deep reflection, was unable to find a suitable and worthy husband for me."तस्य बुद्धिर् इयम् जाता चिन्तयानस्य सम्ततम् |
स्वयम् वरम् तनूजायाः करिष्यामि इति धीमतः || २-११८-३८"After reflecting thus deeply, the thought came to him, 'I shall inaugurate a Svayamvara, a process of self-choosing marriage, for my daughter."महा यज्ने तदा तस्य वरुणेन महात्मना |
दत्तम् धनुर् वरम् प्रीत्या तूणी च अक्षय्य सायकौ || २-११८-३९"In ancient days, Janaka received with affection from Varuna the rain-god, an excellent bow with two quivers that should never lack arrows."असंचाल्यम् मनुष्यैः च यत्नेन अपि च गौरवात् |
तन् न शक्ता नमयितुम् स्वप्नेषु अपि नर अधिपाः || २-११८-४०"That bow was so heavy in weight that no man could lift it up nor any of the kings were bale to bend it even in their dreams."तद् धनुः प्राप्य मे पित्रा व्याहृतम् सत्य वादिना |
समवाये नर इन्द्राणाम् पूर्वम् आमन्त्र्य पार्थिवान् || २-११८-४१"My truthful father called all the princes first and informed them in a meeting about the bow to be lifted."इदम् च धनुर् उद्यम्य सज्यम् यः कुरुते नरः |
तस्य मे दुहिता भार्या भविष्यति न संशयः || २-११८-४२"Whoever is able to lift up and string this bow, I will bestow my daughter in marriage on him. There is no doubt about it."
As we can see from Seetha’s speech to Anusuya, the bow used in the Swayamvara was Varuna’s bow, not Shiva’s bow. This should clear the confusion anyone may have. Varuna was a Vedic God, and he gave the bow to Janaka, who then used the bow in the Swayamvara of his daughter.
Another example of an interpolated Shiva is in the Mahabharatha (in Vana Parva), when Arjuna supposedly worships Shiva and then Shiva appears as a hunter in human form and engages in fight with Arjuna. The story continues with Arjuna impressing Shiva with his prowess and then Shiva granting Arjuna the Pashupata Astra… If we read the context of this story closely, it should be obvious that this is an interpolation. When the Pandavas are in exile, Vyasa asks Arjuna to visit Swarga, the abode of Arjuna’s father Indra to obtain his weapons. As I will show in later posts, Swarga was a place North of India, around modern-day Southern Russia. Arjuna proceeds North to reach this Swarga and to meet his father to obtain the important astras. However, upon reaching its entrance he is told that he needs to first worship Shiva. So he goes back worships Shiva, and obtains the Pashupata Astra. After that, one day when he is engaged in thought, Matali, Indra’s charioteer approaches Arjuna and takes Arjuna to Swarga on his chariot. But the difference this time is that the Swarga Arjuna is taken to is described as an extraterrestrial region. Hence, it should be obvious that the decision to send Arjuna back to India when he reached the outskirts of Swarga and ask him to worship Shiva are later interpolations by later poets to show Swarga as an extraterrestrial region as opposed to a region North of India.
In reality, as I mentioned earlier, Swarga was a region North of India. When Pandu wants to follow some Rishis to Swarga, they refuse him giving the following reasons:
"On a certain day of the new moon, the great Rishis of rigid vows assembled together, and desirous of beholding Brahman were on the point of starting on their expedition. Seeing them about to start, Pandu asked those ascetics, saying, 'Ye first of eloquent men, where shall we go?' The Rishis answered, 'There will be a great gathering today, in the abode of Brahman, of celestials, Rishis and Pitris. Desirous of beholding the Self-create we shall go there today.'"Vaisampayana continued, 'Hearing this, Pandu rose up suddenly, desirous of visiting heaven along with the great Rishis. Accompanied by his two wives, when he was on the point of following the Rishis in the northerly direction from the mountain of hundred peaks, those ascetics addressed him saying, 'In our northward march, while gradually ascending the king of mountains, we have seen on its delightful breast many regions inaccessible to ordinary mortals; retreats also of the gods, and Gandharvas and Apsaras, with palatial mansions by hundreds clustering thick around and resounding with the sweet notes of celestial music, the gardens of Kuvera laid out on even and uneven grounds, banks of mighty rivers, and deep caverns. There are many regions also on those heights that are covered with perpetual snow and are utterly destitute of vegetable and animal existence. In some places the downpour of rain is so heavy that they are perfectly inaccessible and incapable of being utilised for habitation. Not to speak of other animals, even winged creatures cannot cross them. The only thing that can go there is air, and the only beings, Siddhas and great Rishis. How shall these princesses ascend those heights of the king of mountains? Unaccustomed to pain, shall they not droop in affliction? Therefore, come not with us, O bull of Bharata's race!'
From this text, it should be evident that Swarga was a region North of even the mountain of hundred peaks (which might be the Himavat or a mountain range even North of it). Swarga was not an extraterrestrial region!
So it is clear that Shiva was a god worshiped by the pre-Vedic society. However, in the post-Vedic period, or to be more precise, in the Puranic period, this pre-Vedic god Shiva was incorporated into mainstream Hinduism through an integration of the Vedic Religion and the Pre-Vedic Religion!
Vishnu a Post-Vedic God
The common perception is that the Puranic Vishnu with all his incarnations as we know him to be, was a Vedic God. The reason for this perception is that it is commonly believed that Rama was an incarnation of Vishnu. However, this is incorrect. According to the Vedas, Vishnu was a very minor Vedic diety, with only 4 independent hymns dedicated to him. He was far less important in the Vedic period, compared to the Puranic period. In the Rig Veda, Vishnu is described as being a friend of Indra:
Rig Veda 1.22.19:viṣṇoḥ karmāṇi paśyata yato vratāni paspaśe |
indrasya yujyaḥ sakhā ||Look ye on Viṣṇu's works, whereby the Friend of Indra, close-allied,
Hath let his holy ways be seen.
As shown in the text above, Vishnu was a friend of Indra. In addition, the Vedic Vishnu was much famed for making his three steps across the entire Earth:
Rig Veda 7.100.3:trir devaḥ pṛthivīm eṣa etāṃ vi cakrame śatarcasam mahitvā |
pra viṣṇur astu tavasas tavīyān tveṣaṃ hy asya sthavirasya nāma ||Three times strode forth this God in all his grandeur over this earth bright with a hundred splendours.
Foremost be Viṣṇu, stronger than the strongest: for glorious is his name who lives for ever.
As can be seen from this text, the Vedic Vishnu took three steps to cover the span of the Earth. Although this seems strikingly similar to how the Vamana Avatara, of the Puranic Vishnu we all know, took three steps to defeat Bali, we cannot make this conclusion, as the vedas do not talk about any of Vishnu’s incarnations, let alone the Vamana Avatara. The most logical conclusion we can deduce from this information is that in the Vedic period, Vishnu was a minor deity, much inferior to the more important ones like Indra, Agni, Vayu, etc… In this Vedic period, Vishnu was known for the three strides he took across the Earth. However, there was no concept of Vishnu’s incarnations back then. However, by the Puranic age, the concept of Vishnu evolved, and he started to emerge as a more prominent god, with many incarnations, such as the Vamana Avatara, Krishna Avatara, Rama Avatara, etc… The Vishnu we worship today is this Puranic Vishnu, not the Vedic Vishnu. In that sense, (Puranic) Vishnu is a post-Vedic god!