So the Rig Veda is a collection of over a thousand finely crafted hymns (mantras) distributed over 10 chapters known as mandalas, written in a very old form of Sanskrit. Each hymn (sukta) praises a deity, the most prominent of whom were Indra, Agni and Soma, gods who we are barely familiar with today. The Indra of the Vedas is very different from the Indra of the Puranas: he is not the one who rides the white skinned Airavata and fears loss of his status as king of the celestial devas. He is a warrior who battles the terrible Vritra and releases waters and who loves the Soma drink offered via the fire in the hearth by the Vedic worshipper.
These mantras were composed pre-1000 BCE, predominantly in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent, and indicate a time when the Vedic idea was making its presence felt away from the Indus-Saraswati river basins towards the Gangetic plains, with Kurukshetra in Haryana as the centre.
The Rig Veda we have today can be called version 2.0. We know this because the hymns have been deliberately organised by someone, who is traditionally identified as Vyasa. We know this because the first and the tenth mandalas have precisely 191 hymns. And linguistic study of the hymns reveals that these two chapters contain hymns that were composed later. This reorganisation was probably done by warriors of the Bharata clans, which is one the historical (not mythological) reason why India came to be known as Bharat.
The hymns were integral to a ritual called yagna. The precise chanting was seen as ‘chariot-making’ and the ritual was a ‘chariot’ that allowed one to connect the realm of humans (adyatman) with the realm of gods (adhidaiva) so that one can release and identify the wisdom-cows hidden in the ignorance-cave.
We find this in the very first verse (richa) of the Rig Veda, which is addressed to the firegod. He is identified as the god and priest of the ritual, placed in the fore, bearer and giver of great wealth, who is praised by ancient and new priests, through whom the gods receive the offerings of the worshipper and who brings the gods to the worshipper, and through whom one obtains great treasures, jewels, wealth and prosperity. He is identified as the one who illuminates the night, as well as the one who brightens the mind with insight. He is the herdsmen of things as they are (rita). The worshipper hopes Agni will be as easily accessible as ‘father to son’ and be a companion for well-being.
The last hymn of the Rig Veda in the tenth Mandala is clearly prescriptive and designed to unite diverse groups of people, suggesting that the Rig Veda version 2.0 was compiled by the Bharatas, also known as Kurus, after a period of tension and disunity as part of a unifying enterprise. Again addressed to the fire-god, it invites various people to assemble together ‘common in utterance, thought, feeling, purpose and oblation’ just as gods come together, keeping their differences aside to claim their portion of a yagna, so that it will go well for everyone.
These two verses reveal the most basic of human needs: in the first, the yearning for prosperity, reciprocity and support from a higher force, and in the last, the yearning for cessation of hostility among friends and extended family. In the first, the higher power is softened through praise, as we do so even today. In the latter, there is a cry for unity, as we do so even today. Both hymns are simple, material and mundane. It reveals that those who composed, collated and chanted these hymns over 3000 years ago were no different from people today. Many Hindus, like Western scholars, would like to make Rig Veda exotic, different, transcendental, beyond reach of regular folk, in the spirit of chauvinism. But this ancient collection of hymns is firmly grounded in human reality.
Beyond the codes, the metaphors, the allegories, the connections (known as ‘bandhu’ in Vedas), mantras of the Rig Veda reveal how the first Hindus engaged with the unknown. The theist will say that the unknown is divinity, a celestial being. The techno geek will see all these references to celestial chariots of gods as proof of flying saucers of aliens. The atheist will say the unknown is the independent heart and minds of fellow humans, friends and foes and strangers. These interpretations reveal very little about the Rig Veda but a lot about what the interpreter wants Hinduism to be.