Religion and morality in the Vedas

Devi in the Form of Bhadrakali Adored by the Gods — Met Museum

Its significance in comparative Indo-European perspective

A prominent theme for many religions has been to give a coherent account of good and evil in the world. A perspective that came quite naturally to ancient people was to posit a cosmic struggle between various gods and various demons who were roughly evenly matched in terms of power, giving rise to a world where good and evil forces are continually in conflict with each other, with neither having a final victory.

The Zoroastrian religion would have emerged from such a situation, when Zarathstra elevated one single god, Ahura Mazda, to the supreme position, giving rise to a clean dualism of good and evil. As Professor Michael Witzel explains

“While Zaraθuštra kept Ahura Mazdā as (sole and supreme) deity, the Ahura, all other IIr. deva (Av. daēuua) are relegated to the ranks of demons … A few devas and asuras were retained, apparently after Zaraθuštra, as divine helpers of the Lord… The old state of contest between the deva and asura was amalgamated with the another old opposition, that of between Ṛta … and Druh … Active Truth and Deceit. The Ahura(s) are the champions of Truth, the Daēuuas those of Deceit. The righteous must choose … and will be rewarded in Ahura Mazdā’s heaven.”

In this way, polytheism, or the worship of a pantheon of gods, evolved into monolatry, a situation where many gods are acknowledged to exist, but only one of these gods is considered worthy of worship. The emergence of Judaism from the ancient Canaanite religion is believed to have gone through a similar stage of monolatry too.

However, for those religions which posited a single omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent God, the existence of evil has come to be seen as a particularly intractable problem. Although various theodicies, that is, accounts of how such a God could allow the existence of evil, have been given, none has proved commensurable with the scale and depth of suffering in the world. Thus, as Wikipedia explains

“The Holocaust prompted a reconsideration of theodicy in some Jewish circles. French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who had himself been a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany, declared theodicy to be “blasphemous”, arguing that it is the “source of all immorality”, and demanded that the project of theodicy be ended.”

Proto-Indo-European religion, like the daughter religions, worshipped a pantheon of gods, and the proto-Indo-Europeans also seem to have theorised about the existence of good and evil in the world. This can be speculated from the evidence of the daughter religions. Within Hinduism, elements of monolatry seem to have arisen within the Indian tradition. However, no single god ever seems to have gained enough exclusivity of worship by any substantive section of society. Max Muller has coined the term ‘henotheism’ to describe his understanding of the form of theism practiced in the Vedic religion, a type of monolatry whereby only one god would be worshipped as supreme at each one time, yet many gods could have their turn at being worshipped as the supreme god.

Professor W. Norman Brown has summarized the elements of one Vedic creation myth and reconstructed aspects of the worldview of Vedic society, including their understanding of the presence of good and evil in the world. According to Prof. Brown, once creation had happened –

“The one flaw is that evil was not extinguished … not all the wicked were destroyed. There remained demons (rakṣasas), who lurk in that fell place below the earth by day, but at night emerge to snare men, especially those who by sinning have put bonds on themselves and cannot escape. It is the Vedic man’s constant dread that these foul and pitiless creatures may catch him… Good was triumphant, therefore, but not unrivalled. It was just as well, from the gods’ point of view. If they had completely annihilated evil, man would not have had any incentive to serve them, and then they would have perished for lack of the daily sacrifices. Especially would Indra, this demiurge, have lost his soma, … the source of all his strength.”

Thus for the Vedic society too, there was essentially a kind of dualism, with the forces of good somewhat more powerful in battle, but the forces of evil still strong enough for human beings to be potentially endangered. Interestingly, too, the gods are not unconditionally benevolent towards mankind, but rather mankind is protected partly by our own morally virtuous conduct and partly also by the protection from the gods in return for providing the ritual sacrifices of soma and so on to the gods.

Interesting too is the similarity with the Asatru religion, which involves a similar kind of dualism. As Jörmundur Ingi Hansen, formerly Allsherjargoði of the Ásatrúarfélagið, explains –

“From my perspective, the world is split into two in its nature, divided into constructive forces, the æsir, and the destructive forces which we call jötnar. … Ásatrú or heathenry is basically only to realize this dichotomy and to decide to side with the æsir. The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to be self-consistent, live in harmony with nature, associate with it with respect and to submit to the public order.”

It is particularly important to note the sophisticated development of moral theology in the Vedic religion and its continuing normative status in modern Hinduism. Much recent research on “moralizing high gods” and “broad supernatural punishment” has investigated the presence of these features in large and complex societies across the world. However, the presence of these features in Vedic religion and society appears to have gone unnoticed, although it would be very material to such research.

We may end with a passage from the Rig Veda that illustrates the presence of “moralizing high gods” and “broad supernatural punishment” –

“Indra and Soma, let nothing good happen to the evil-doer who has ever tried to injure me with his hatred.

Whoever has spoken against me when I was acting with a pure heart, O Indra, let him become nothing even as he talks about nothing, like water grasped in one’s fist.

Those who casually seduce the man of pure heart or who wilfully make the good man bad, let Soma deliver them over to the serpent, or let him set them in the lap of Destruction.

Agni, whoever wants to injure the sap of our drink, of our horses, of our cows, of our own bodies, he is our enemy, a thief and a robber; let him fall upon hard times; let him perish with his own body and his offspring.”

[Rig Veda Book 7 Sūkta 104 Verses 7cd-10; Ṛṣi Vasiṣṭha; translation by Prof. Wendy Doniger]

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