Monday, November 14, 2022

The Rig Veda’s Treatment of Polytheism and Monotheism

Hiraṇyagarbha (Cosmic Egg)

Painting by Manaku (1740)

In the Middle Ages, the ideologues and warlords of the Semitic religions branded their own religion as monotheistic and they caricatured all ancient religions as polytheistic. This is the origin of the conflict between polytheism and monotheism—there was no conflict between the two before the rise of the Semitic religious ideology. 

In the Rig Veda, which is probably the oldest religious text of Hinduism, instead of conflict, there is conformity and confluence between polytheism and monotheism. The Hiraṇyagarbha Sukta of the Rig Veda (hymn 10.121) begins with an inquiry about God. In Vedic philosophy, Hiraṇyagarbha, first mentioned in the Rig Veda’s Vishvakarma Sukta (verses 10.82.5 and 6), is the golden womb through which the universe was born.

Here’s a translation of the verse 10.121.1: 

“IN the beginning rose Hiranyagarbha, born Only Lord of all created beings.
     He fixed and holdeth up this earth and heaven. What God shall we adore with our oblation?”

In the question—“What God shall we adore with our oblation?”—the ancient sages are inquiring if they should offer their prayers to the one creator God of the universe, or to the many manifestations of the creator God. They decided that since the one creator God was accessible to the human mind through his many manifestations, the oblations must be offered to many Gods, who were identified as: Indra, Agni, Varuna, Soma, Vishnu, Ashwins, Vayu, Rudra, Mitra, Maruts, Yama, Saraswati, Garutman, Matarisvan, and other Gods. 

The verse 1.164.46 of the Rig Veda states that there was one creator God behind the multiplicity of Gods:

“They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutman.
     To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan.”

The Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda (hymn 10.90) is dedicated to Purusha, the Cosmic Being, who was the creator of everything in the universe. The sages of the Vedic age were drawn to the idea of one creator God. The multiplicity of Gods were the various manifestations of the creator God.

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