The world’s first religion is the Vedic religion, which is part of Hinduism. In other words, the oldest religion of mankind is one aspect of Hinduism.
Vedic texts began to be written around the year 1500 BC, long before the emergence of any of the other religions we know today.
But before the texts, the sacred knowledge was transmitted orally from generation to generation.
So, the Vedic religion is even older than its sacred writings, and all branches of Hinduism that we know today are derived from it.
Vedic texts are still considered sacred by Hindus of the most diverse branches.
Hinduism: one name for many religions
Contrary to what many people think, Hinduism is not a single religion. It is a set of religions, including the Vedic, the oldest of them all.
The misconception is old. Sixteenth-century European travelers and missionaries classified Indians as “Gentiles” – the same as idolater or one who follows a pagan religion.
For these Western men, everything outside of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam was classified as pagan.
Centuries later the word “Hindu” was used to refer to the religion of the Indians. That’s where “Hinduism” comes from.
Theologians Hans Waldenfels and Franz König, authors of the Lexicon of Religions, stress two important aspects of this centuries-old misunderstanding.
The first is that it was not the Indians who created the word Hinduism. The word “Hindu” is Persian and referred to the inhabitants of the country through which the Indus River flows. Therefore, in origin, the term Hindu means Indian.
The second aspect of the misconception is that, after the beginning of the 19th century, the word Hinduism started to be used to refer to the religion of the Indians, as if they followed a single belief.
The truth is that Hinduism is a set of beliefs, some of which are related to each other.
Hinduism is a collectivity of religions that includes Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Xactism, Neo-Hinduism, the Vedic religion, among others.
The Vedic religion, the oldest religion in the world
Also called Vedism, this religion is polytheistic (it has several gods) and was brought to the Indus Valley by the Aryans, a semi-nomadic people probably originating in Central Asia, in the middle of the second millennium BC.
What is known today of these tribes that migrated to India is found in the hymns to the gods, or Vedic texts, written in a primitive form of Sanskrit – called Vedic Sanskrit.
It is thanks to these documents that we were able to determine that Vedism is the oldest religion not only in India, but in the whole world.
To be more precise, the Vedic religion is the oldest that has survived to the present day.
Archaeological discoveries confirm that the first religious ideas date back to the Paleolithic period, which ended in the year 10,000 BC.
Vedic hymns: the oldest religious texts in the world
They are sacred texts to praise the gods. They contain important priestly knowledge regarding sacrifice rituals and reveal some aspects of the Aryan tribes that professed this religion.
These ancient scriptures are divided into four volumes: Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda.
The oldest of these volumes is Rigveda, which is divided into 10 books (maṇḍalas), composed of more than 10,000 hymns (sūktas).
The Rigveda is not only the first book of the Vedic religion, but it is also the oldest known religious text, and it is estimated that it was completed in the year 1000 BC.
The prefix “Rig” means “praise”, which indicates that this collection consists of hymns to praise the gods, and “veda” means “knowledge”.
Samaveda consists of melodies to be used by priests during a ritual.
Yajurveda (also called sacrificial veda) is a series of formulas that guide ritual tasks, also performed by a priest.
Atharvaveda, the last of the four collections, consists of hymns with a magical function and designed to solve everyday problems: diseases, curses, family problems.
According to Mircea Eliade, the Vedic hymns “were written for an audience concerned primarily with earthly things: health, longevity, children, an abundance of cattle, wealth.”
There was also the expectation of entering the heavenly world, the home of the gods, after death.
To achieve that, three obligations were to be fulfilled. The first was to study the sacred texts. The second, offering animal sacrifices to the gods. And the third, raising male children to whom the knowledge related to sacrifice rituals and the whole Vedic religious tradition would be transmitted.
Sacrifice rituals and reciprocity
The raison d’être (reason for being) of the Vedic texts, according to scholar Trevor Ling, is the sacrifice rituals. In these rituals, hymns were of enormous importance.
Ling says it is impossible to know exactly what these early Vedic rituals were like, as there is not enough information about them.
What we do know is that these rituals were performed by a priestly elite (in the service of an aristocracy) and were not open to the public.
The main purpose of the rituals was to obtain gifts from the gods. For this, offerings were made – sacrifices – in order to obtain divine favors.
At the base of this relationship between men and gods in Vedic religion is the idea of reciprocity: giving to the gods to receive a gift, in return.
According to available data, it worked something like this: through the intermediary of the priests, the worshiper went to the altar, where he offered a sacrifice to the sacred fire.
In general, material gifts were requested: children, victory in some battle (since we are talking about a warrior aristocracy), more cattle, and good harvests.
The priests performed all the tasks step by step, to ensure the effectiveness of the ritual.
More than one priest participated in a ritual and the priestly functions were divided. Thus, one was in charge of singing the hymns, while another summoned the god, and a third organized the sacrifice, all at the same time.
Soma, the sacred drink
The drink called soma was an essential component of Vedic rituals. It is said in the Vedic texts that the plant used to make the beverage grows on the peak of the mountains, very close to the sky. Thus, the soma establishes a bridge between the mundane and the sacred.
There is not a single botanical species used over time. But, whatever the type of plant used, the drink has special effects on those who drink it.
It produces ecstasy, vigor, and guarantees longevity. Soma was believed to have broad powers.
We have drunk the soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods. What can hostility do to us now, and what the malice of a mortal, o immortal oneThe Rigveda says.
They also believed that the drink had healing properties, and increased fertility and strength, both physical and spiritual.
Fun fact: not only the soma, but other characteristics of the Vedic religion, such as ritual sacrifices, were used by the novelist Aldous Huxley in the plot of his famous book Brave New World.
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The most important Vedic gods (devas)
There is a generic name, which comes from Sanskrit, for the gods of the Vedic pantheon: devas.
A characteristic of this pantheon is that it is formed predominantly by male gods, and these beings are generally associated with the ideas of height (heaven), creativity, and authority (or supreme power).
Varuna, upholder of law
The sovereign god, or Universal King (samraj), is Varuna. Varuna’s power is so great that there is no god or man above him. He is the creator of the universal order, of all beings and forms.
In Rigveda, Varuna is described as the god who “has spread out the earth, as the butcher does the hide, by way of a carpet for the sun.”
There is another passage in Rigveda that says he is responsible for putting “strength in horses, milk in cows, will-power in hearts, fire in waters, the sun in the heaven, and soma upon the mountain.”
Varuna is known as the upholder of law and order. Whenever someone does something wrong, Varuna is there to restore moral rectitude.
He sees everything and knows everything (omniscient). No sin or crime, whatever it may be, can be practiced without being seen by Varuna’s thousand eyes. A person can ask Varuna for forgiveness through sacrifice rituals.
The Rigveda hymns dedicated to Varuna have an aspect of penance. The worshiper praises Varuna in order to obtain his forgiveness.
Indra, the warrior god
Approximately 250 Rigveda hymns are dedicated to Indra, making him the most popular god in Vedic mythology. Scientist Mircea Eliade describes him as “the hero par excellence”. He was worshiped by young warriors.
Indra is also responsible for fertilizing the soil, which is why he is also called “lord of the fields” or “lord of the land”. He controls the rain and moisture.
According to Rigveda, a giant dragon, called Vrtra, managed to store all the world’s water in a huge cave inside a mountain.
Faced with that giant monster, Indra is overcome with fear and runs as far away from it as possible.
But, after drinking soma, the hero regains his courage and decides to take action.
The battle is difficult, but a lightning bolt from Indra breaks the dragon’s head, killing it. And that was how all the water returned to its proper places, forming the oceans, rivers, and lakes.
Agni, the fire god
According to Vedic mythology, Agni was born in heaven and arrived on Earth in the form of lightning. Perhaps that is why he is a messenger, responsible for the connection between heaven and earth. Without him, no ritual would be possible.
Because he is a god who represents fire, he is usually associated with the Sun. Like fire, Agni is always reborn, and therefore never ages.
Agni is also a priest. He is the perfect model for the priest. In the Rigveda there is a hymn dedicated to this god:
I laud Agni, the chosen priest, god, minister of sacrifice,
The hotar, the most lavish of wealth.
The god Agni was very popular in Vedic times, a period in the history of India when Vedic texts flourished.
This popularity is explained by the belief that he could protect against diseases, curses, and any future misfortunes.
In the same way that he sends sacrifices to the gods, through the sacrificial fire, Agni also leads the dead to heaven, through cremation, or Agni’s fire.