Aryan Religion: Gateway to the Vedas

Vedic literature is probably the best sourcebook for an understanding of early Indian philosophy. But as authoritative as the Vedas are, even the best scholars are confused trying to separate the Aryan from the Indian contribution to the religion. After all, the Vedas were composed after the Aryan migration, not before it. Thus, we cannot ascertain what portions of these great scriptures are Aryan and what portions are pre-Aryan.

What can we know about the religion the Aryans brought with them? It seems to have been polytheistic and probably bore more than a little resemblance with the religions of other Indo-Europeans; comparisons have been made between the Aryan gods and those of Greece and Rome. The connection is a natural once, since the Aryans, like the Greeks, personified gods as natural forces and objects, such as the sun, the moon, and the fertility of the soil. A connection, then, between Hinduism and animism is likely.

Due to their nomadic ways, in the early years of their occupation, the Aryans built no temples to their gods; instead, they made animal sacrifices in open places. They also sacrificed dairy products like butter or milk, which was poured out to the gods. Also used in sacrifices was the juice of the soma plant. In ancient texts, this is described as a sacred plant, since it was sent to Earth by the god Indra.

Not only was the juice of the soma plant delicious, it was invigorating to whoever drank it and shared it with the gods. Since the time of the Aryans, people have speculated that the plant might have been a kind of mushroom capable of inducing hallucinations.

No doubt the most elaborate of all these primitive sacrifices was the horse sacrifice. It was believed that this sacrifice helped the ruler atone for past misdeeds and provided religious power to participants. It was also believed that the sacrifice helped rulers expand their territories, which made the idea attractive to Indian rulers.

The sacrifice commenced with releasing a young male horse to roam the countryside for one year. The ruler's attendants followed the horse, and if the horse covered any territory not in the domain of the ruler, that raja laid claim to that territory. When after a year the horse returned, some 600 other living beings — ranging from bees to elephants — were sacrificed to the gods. The sacred horse was strangled, and the rulers' wives participated in fertility rights with the carcass. It was then butchered and devoured by the ruler and his kin. One legend held that if a man performed 100 horse sacrifices, he would be master over all the gods and the universe. This rite belonged not only to the Aryans, but was performed as recently as the eighteenth century by an Indian ruler.

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