Gods of the Rig Veda
The Vedas include basic descriptions and mythology of the various Aryan and pre-Aryan gods, but there are more hymns devoted to Indra than to any other god. Of the 1,028 hymns of the Rig Veda, no fewer than a quarter are dedicated to Indra.
Indra is the god of the thunderbolt, clouds, and rain, the ruler of heaven. Indra is also significant as the conqueror of Vitra, the personification of chaos. Indra slays other demons, but preserves humans and gods. He quenches his thirst with soma. Here is a sampling of the verses to Indra; the first pays homage to his heroism:
1 Now I shall proclaim the heroic feats of Indra, which the holder of the thunderbolt performed first: he slew the serpent, bored after the waters, split open the flanks of the mountains
Several verses that follow extol his might:
3 Desiring manly strength, he chose the Soma: he drank the extract in three brown vessels. Maghavan took his missile, the thunderbolt, slew him, the first-born of serpents.
4 When, Indra, you slew the first-born of serpents and then reduced to naught the wiles of the wily, causing to be born the sun, the heaven and the dawn, since then you have found no enemy at all.
Agni: The God of Fire
Since the Vedas offer varying explanations of the beginnings of reality, many passages address the gods who function actively in this. Agni, the god of fire, is mentioned in over 200 hymns. Agni is also the god of the priests and the priest of the gods. He leads the gods in proper sacrifice and, as the god of fire, brings the burnt sacrifices to the other gods.
7 You we approach every day, O Agni, you who gleam in the darkness, with devotion and bearing homage:
8 –you who are of the sacrifices, guardian of the Order, brightly shining, growing in your own abode.
9 Be accessible unto us, O Agni, as a father unto his son! Accompany us for our well-being.
Gods such as Vishnu and Rudra — later known as Shiva, the god of death and destruction — are also mentioned briefly in the Vedas. But they did not possess the importance they would later have in Hinduism, when they became two of the most popular gods.
Many verses in the Vedas praise the might of Indra, considered the most important deity of the hymns. This is evident in the conflict with the demon Vitra: “With his thunderbolt, his great weapon, Indra slew Vitra, the arch-Vitra, the shoulderless; like a tree-trunk split asunder with an axe, the serpent lay flat on the ground.”
In thinking of Agni, the god of fire, you should bear in mind that “agni” in Sanskrit means “fire.” In the course of the rites, Agni accepts sacrifices and delivers to the gods because he is the messenger from and to the other gods. In art, he is depicted as possessing two or seven hands, two heads, and three legs. He has seven fiery tongues, thus he is also called Saptajithva (having seven tongues). He rides a ram or a chariot pulled by goats, or, rarely, by parrots.
Varuna: The God of the Sky
Varuna is a god of the sky, rain, and the celestial ocean. He is also the god of law and of the underworld. He is more concerned about the moral and social well-being of men. He is identified with Mitra, the god of oath. In the Rig Veda, he is entwined with Indra.
The Atharva Veda portrays Varuna as omniscient, catching liars as he has the stars of the sky for eyes. Varuna is classified as an asura in the Rig Veda. In later years, Varuna becomes the god of oceans and rivers and keeper of the souls of the drowned. Thus, he becomes the god of the dead and can grant immortality. Varuna may be compared with Poseidon in Greek mythology.