The Rigveda or Rig Veda (ऋग्वेद) is an ancient Indian collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns (sūktas). It is one of the four sacred canonical Hindu texts (śhruti) known as the Vedas. The Rigveda is the oldest known Vedic Sanskrit text. Its early layers are among the oldest extant texts in any Indo-European language. The sounds and texts of the Rigveda have been orally transmitted since the 2nd millennium BCE. Philological and linguistic evidence indicates that the bulk of the Rigveda Samhita was composed in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent Rigvedic rivers), most likely between c. 1500 and 1000 BCE, although a wider approximation of c. 1900–1200 BCE has also been given. Some of its verses continue to be recited during Hindu prayer and celebration of rites of passage (such as weddings), making it probably the world’s oldest religious text in continued use.
Opinion of Jamison and Brereton
According to Jamison and Brereton, in their 2014 translation of the Rigveda, the dating of this text “has been and is likely to remain a matter of contention and reconsideration”. The dating proposals so far are all inferred from the style and the content within the hymns themselves. Philological estimates tend to date the bulk of the text to the second half of the second millennium BCE.
Being composed in an early Indo-Aryan language, the hymns must post-date the Indo-Iranian separation, dated to roughly 2000 BCE. A reasonable date close to that of the composition of the core of the Rigveda is that of the Mitanni documents of northern Syria and Iraq (c. 1450–1350 BCE), which also mention the Vedic gods such as Varuna, Mitra, and Indra. Other evidence also points to a composition close to 1400 BCE.
Opinion of Michael Witzel
The Rigveda’s core is accepted to date to the late Bronze Age, making it one of the few examples with an unbroken tradition. Its composition is usually dated to roughly between c. 1500 and 1000 BCE.
According to Michael Witzel, the codification of the Rigveda took place at the end of the Rigvedic period between ca. 1200 and 1000 BCE, in the early Kuru kingdom. Asko Parpola argues that the Rigveda was systematized around 1000 BCE, at the time of the Kuru kingdom.
The “family books” (2–7) are associated with various clans and chieftains, containing hymns by members of the same clan in each book; but other clans are also represented in the Rigveda. The family books are associated with specific regions and mention prominent Bharata and Pūru kings.
Tradition associates a rishi (the composer) with each ṛc (verse) of the Rigveda. Most sūktas are attributed to single composers; for each of them, the Rigveda includes a lineage-specific āprī hymn. In all, 10 families of rishis account for more than 95 percent of the ṛcs.
|Mandala 2||Gṛtsamāda||NW, Punjab|
|Mandala 3||Viśvāmitra||Punjab, Sarasvatī|
|Mandala 4||Vāmadeva||NW, Punjab|
|Mandala 5||Atri||NW → Punjab → Yamunā|
|Mandala 6||Bharadvāja||NW, Punjab, Sarasvati; → Gaṅgā|
|Mandala 7||Vasiṣṭha||Punjab, Sarasvati; → Yamunā|
|Mandala 8||Kaṇva and Āṅgirasa||NW, Punjab|
Rigveda collection and organization
The codification of the Rigveda took place late in the Rigvedic or rather in the early post-Rigvedic period at ca. 1200 BCE, by members of the early Kuru tribe, when the center of Vedic culture moved east from Punjab into what is now Uttar Pradesh. The Rigveda was codified by compiling the hymns, including the arrangement of the individual hymns in ten books, coeval with the composition of the younger Veda Samhitas.
According to Witzel, the initial collection took place after the Bharata victory in the Battle of the Ten Kings, under king Sudās, over other Puru kings. This collection was an effort to reconcile various factions in the clans which were united in the Kuru kingdom under a Bharata king. This collection was re-arranged and expanded in the Kuru Kingdom, reflecting the establishment of a new Bharata-Puru lineage and new srauta rituals.
The fixing of the Vedic chant (by enforcing the regular application of sandhi) and of the padapatha (by dissolving Sandhi out of the earlier metrical text), occurred during the later Brahmana period, in roughly the 6th century BCE.
The surviving form of the Rigveda is based on an early Iron Age collection that established the core ‘family books’ (mandalas 2–7, ordered by author, deity, and meter) and a later redaction, coeval with the redaction of the other Vedas, dating several centuries after the hymns were composed. This redaction also included some additions (contradicting the strict ordering scheme) and orthoepic changes to the Vedic Sanskrit such as the regularization of sandhi (termed orthoepische Diaskeuase by Oldenberg, 1888).
The text is organized in ten “books”, or maṇḍalas (“circles”), of varying age and length. The “family books”, mandalas 2–7, are the oldest part of the Rigveda and the shortest books; they are arranged by length (decreasing length of hymns per book) and account for 38% of the text.
The hymns are arranged in collections each dealing with a particular deity: Agni comes first, Indra comes second, and so on. They are attributed and dedicated to a rishi (sage) and his family of students. Within each collection, the hymns are arranged in descending order of the number of stanzas per hymn. If two hymns in the same collection have equal numbers of stanzas then they are arranged so that the number of syllables in the meter is in descending order. The second to seventh mandalas have a uniform format.
The eighth and ninth mandalas, comprising hymns of mixed age, account for 15% and 9%, respectively. The ninth mandala is entirely dedicated to Soma and the Soma ritual. The hymns in the ninth mandala are arranged by both their prosody structure (Chanda) and by their length.
The first and the tenth mandalas are the youngest; they are also the longest books, with 191 suktas each, accounting for 37% of the text. Nevertheless, some of the hymns in mandalas 8, 1, and 10 may still belong to an earlier period and may be as old as the material in the family books. The first mandala has a unique arrangement not found in the other nine mandalas. The first 84 hymns of the tenth mandala have a structure different than the remaining hymns in it.
Hymns and prosody
Each mandala consists of hymns or sūktas (su- + ukta, literally, “well recited, eulogy”) intended for various rituals. The sūktas in turn consist of individual stanzas called ṛc (“praise”, pl. ṛcas), which are further analyzed into units of verse called pada (“foot” or step).
The hymns of the Rigveda are in different poetic meters in Vedic Sanskrit. The meters most used in the ṛcas are the Gayatri (3 verses of 8 syllables), anushtubh (4×8), trishtubh (4×11), and jagati (4×12). The trishtubh meter (40%) and Gayatri meter (25%) dominate in Rigveda.
As with the other Vedas, the redacted text has been handed down in several versions, including the Padapatha, in which each word is isolated in pausa form and is used for just one way of memorization; and the Samhitapatha, which combines words according to the rules of sandhi (the process is described in the Pratisakhya) and is the memorized text used for recitation.
It is unclear when the Rigveda was first written down. The oldest surviving manuscripts have been discovered in Nepal and dated to c. 1040 CE. According to Witzel, the Paippalada Samhita tradition points to written manuscripts c. 800-1000 CE. The Upanishads were likely in the written form earlier, about mid-1st millennium CE (Gupta Empire period). Attempts to write the Vedas may have been made “towards the end of the 1st millennium BCE”. The early attempts may have been unsuccessful given the Smriti rules that forbade the writing down of the Vedas, states Witzel. The oral tradition continued as a means of transmission until modern times.
Several shakhas (from skt. śākhā f. “branch”, i. e. “recension”) of the Rig Veda are known to have existed in the past. Of these, Śākala Śākhā (named after the scholar Śākalya) is the only one to have survived in its entirety. Another śākhā that may have survived is the Bāṣkala, although this is uncertain.
Padapāṭha version of the Rigveda
The surviving padapāṭha version of the Rigveda text is ascribed to Śākalya. The Śākala recension has 1,017 regular hymns, and an appendix of 11 vālakhilya hymns which are now customarily included in the 8th mandala (as 8.49–8.59), for a total of 1028 hymns.
The Bāṣkala recension includes eight of these vālakhilya hymns among its regular hymns, making a total of 1025 regular hymns for this śākhā. In addition, the Bāṣkala recension has its own appendix of 98 hymns, the Khilani.
Edition of Aufrecht
In the 1877 edition of Aufrecht, the 1028 hymns of the Rigveda contain a total of 10,552 ṛcs or 39,831 padas.
The Shatapatha Brahmana gives the number of syllables to be 432,000, while the metrical text of van Nooten and Holland (1994) has a total of 395,563 syllables (or an average of 9.93 syllables per pada); counting the number of syllables is not straightforward because of issues with sandhi and the post-Rigvedic pronunciation of syllables like súvar as svàr.
Three other shakhas are mentioned in Caraṇavyuha, a pariśiṣṭa (supplement) of Yajurveda: Māṇḍukāyana, Aśvalāyana, and Śaṅkhāyana. The Atharvaveda lists two more shakhas. The differences between all these shakhas are very minor, limited to varying order of content and inclusion (or non-inclusion) of a few verses.
The known information about the shakhas
The following information is known about the shakhas other than Śākala and Bāṣkala:
- Māṇḍukāyana: Perhaps the oldest of the Rigvedic shakhas.
- Aśvalāyana: Includes 212 verses, all of which are newer than the other Rigvedic hymns.
- Śaṅkhāyana: Very similar to Aśvalāyana
- Saisiriya: Mentioned in the Rigveda Pratisakhya. Very similar to Śākala, with a few additional verses; might have derived from or merged with it.
|Shaakala||Shaakala Samhita||Aitareya Brahmana||Aitareya Aranyaka||Aitareya Upanishad|
|Baashkala||Kaushitaki Samhita||Kaushitaki Brahmana||Manuscript exists||Kaushitaki Upanishad|
|Shankhayana||Sankhayana Samhita||Shankhayana Brahmana||Shankhyana Aranyaka||Edited as a part of the Aranyaka|
The Rigveda hymns were composed and preserved by oral tradition. They were memorized and verbally transmitted with “unparalleled fidelity” across generations for many centuries.
According to Barbara West, it was probably first written down about the 3rd century BCE. The manuscripts were made from birch bark or palm leaves, which decompose and therefore were routinely copied over the generations to help preserve the text.
There are, for example, 30 manuscripts of Rigveda at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, collected in the 19th century by Georg Bühler, Franz Kielhorn, and others, originating from different parts of India, including Kashmir, Gujarat, the then Rajaputana, Central Provinces, etc.
They were transferred to Deccan College, Pune, in the late 19th century. They are in the Sharada and Devanagari scripts, written on birch bark and paper. The oldest of the Pune collection is dated 1464. The 30 manuscripts of Rigveda preserved at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune were added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2007.
Out of thirty manuscripts, nine contain the Samhita text
Of these thirty manuscripts, nine contain the Samhita text, five have the padapatha in addition. Thirteen contain Sayana’s commentary. At least five manuscripts (MS. no. 1/A1879-80, 1/A1881-82, 331/1883-84, and 5/Viś I) have preserved the complete text of the Rigveda. MS no. 5/1875-76, written on birch bark in bold Sharada, was only in part used by Max Müller for his edition of the Rigveda with Sayana’s commentary.
Müller used 24 manuscripts
Müller used 24 manuscripts then available to him in Europe, while the Pune Edition used over five dozen manuscripts, but the editors of Pune Edition could not procure many manuscripts used by Müller and by the Bombay Edition, as well as from some other sources; hence the total number of extant manuscripts known then must surpass perhaps eighty at least.
These manuscripts in the paper, palm leaves, and birch bark form, either in whole or in portions, have been discovered in the following Indic scripts:
- Devanagari (Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Nepal),
- Grantha (Tamil Nadu),
- Malayalam (Kerala),
- Nandinagari (South India), and
- Sharada (Kashmir).
Altogether the Rigveda consists of:
- Shamita (hymns to the deities, the oldest part of the Rigveda),
- Brahmanas, commentaries on the hymns,
- Aranyakas or “forest books”, and
In western usage, “Rigveda” usually refers to the Rigveda Samhita, while the Brahmanas are referred to as the “Rigveda Brahmanas” (etc.). Technically speaking, however, “the Rigveda” refers to the entire body of texts transmitted along with the Samhita portion. Different bodies of commentary were transmitted in the different shakhas or “schools”.
Only a small portion of these texts has been preserved: The texts of only two out of five shakhas mentioned by the Rigveda Pratishakhya have survived. In the late (15th or 16th century) Shri Guru Charitra even claims the existence of twelve Rigvedic shakhas. The two surviving Rigvedic corpora are those of the Śākala and the Bāṣkala shakhas.
The Rigvedic hymns are dedicated to various deities, chief of whom are Indra, a heroic god praised for having slain his enemy Vrtra; Agni, the sacrificial fire; and Soma, the sacred potion or the plant it is made from. Equally prominent gods are the Adityas or Asura gods Mitra–Varuna and Ushas (the dawn).
Also invoked are:
- Brihaspati or Brahmanaspati,
- Dyaus Pita (the shining sky, Father Heaven),
- Prithivi (the earth,
- Mother Earth),
- Surya (the sun god),
- Vayu or Vata (the wind),
- Apas (the waters),
- Parjanya (the thunder and rain),
- Vac (the word),
- Many rivers (notably the Sapta Sindhu, and the Sarasvati Rivers),
- Vishvadevas (“all-gods”) as well as the “thirty-three gods”.
A total of 10 Mandala comprises different numbers of hymns, which include:
Mandala 1 comprises a total of 191 hymns. Hymn 1.1 is addressed to Agni, and his name is the first word of the Rigveda. The remaining hymns are mainly addressed to Agni and Indra, as well as Varuna, Mitra, the Ashvins, the Maruts, Usas, Surya, Rbhus, Rudra, Vayu, Brhaspati, Visnu, Heaven and Earth, and all the Gods.
This Mandala is dated to have been added to the Rigveda after Mandala 2 through 9 and includes the philosophical Riddle Hymn 1.164, which inspires chapters in later Upanishads such as the Mundaka.
Mandala 2 comprises of total 43 hymns, mainly to Agni and Indra. It is chiefly attributed to the Rishi gṛtsamada śaunahotra.
Mandala 3 comprises 62 hymns, mainly to Agni and Indra, and the Vishvedevas. Verse 3.62.10 has great importance in Hinduism as the Gayatri Mantra. Most hymns in this book are attributed to viśvāmitra gāthinaḥ.
Mandala 4 comprises 58 hymns, mainly to Agni and Indra as well as the Rbhus, Ashvins, Brhaspati, Vayu, Usas, etc. Most hymns in this book are attributed to Vāmadeva Gautama.
Mandala 5 comprises 87 hymns, mainly to Agni and Indra, the Visvedevas (“all the gods’), the Maruts, the twin-deity Mitra-Varuna, and the Asvins. Two hymns each are dedicated to Ushas (the dawn) and to Savitr. Most hymns in this book are attributed to the atri clan.
Mandala 6 comprises 75 hymns, mainly to Agni and Indra, all the gods, Pusan, Ashvin, Usas, etc. Most hymns in this book are attributed to the bārhaspatya family of Angirasas.
Mandala 7 comprises 104 hymns, to Agni, Indra, the Visvadevas, the Maruts, Mitra-Varuna, the Asvins, Ushas, Indra-Varuna, Varuna, Vayu (the wind), two each to Sarasvati (ancient river/goddess of learning) and Vishnu, and to others. Most hymns in this book are attributed to vasiṣṭha maitravaruṇi.
Mandala 8 comprises 103 hymns to various gods. Hymns 8.49 to 8.59 are the apocryphal vālakhilya. Hymns 1–48 and 60–66 are attributed to the kāṇva clan, the rest to other (Angirasa) poets.
Mandala 9 comprises 114 hymns, entirely devoted to Soma Pavamana, the cleansing of the sacred potion of the Vedic religion.
Mandala 10 comprises additional 191 hymns, frequently in later language, addressed to Agni, Indra, and various other deities. It contains the Nadistuti sukta which is in praise of rivers and is important for the reconstruction of the geography of the Vedic civilization and the Purusha sukta which has been important in studies of Vedic sociology.
It also contains the Nasadiya sukta (10.129) which deals with multiple speculations about the creation of the universe, and whether anyone can know the right answer. The marriage hymns (10.85) and the death hymns (10.10–18) still are of great importance in the performance of the corresponding Grhya rituals.
Of the Brahmanas that were handed down in the schools of the Bahvṛcas (i.e. “possessed of many verses”), as the followers of the Rigveda are called, two have come down to us, namely those of the Aitareyins and the Kaushitakins. The Aitareya-brahmana and the Kaushitaki- (or Sankhayana-) brahmana evidently have for their groundwork the same stock of traditional exegetic matter.
They differ, however, considerably as regards both the arrangement of this matter and their stylistic handling of it, with the exception of the numerous legends common to both, in which the discrepancy is comparatively slight. There is also a certain amount of material peculiar to each of them.
The Kaushitaka is, on the whole, far more concise in its style and more systematic in its arrangement features which would lead one to infer that it is probably the more modern work of the two. It consists of 30 chapters (adhyaya); while the Aitareya has 40, divided into eight books (or pentads, pancaka), of five chapters each.
The last 10 adhyayas of the latter work are, however, clearly a later addition though they must have already formed part of it at the time of Pāṇini (c. 5th century BCE), if, as seems probable, one of his grammatical sutras, regulating the formation of the names of Brahmanas, consisting of 30 and 40 adhyayas, refers to these two works. In this last portion occurs the well-known legend (also found in the Shankhayana-sutra, but not in the Kaushitaki-brahmana) of Shunahshepa, whom his father Ajigarta sells and offers to slay, the recital of which formed part of the inauguration of kings.
While the Aitareya deals almost exclusively with the Soma sacrifice, the Kaushitaka, in its first six chapters, treats several kinds of haviryajna, or offerings of rice, milk, ghee, etc., whereupon follows the Soma sacrifice in this way, that chapters 7–10 contain the practical ceremonial and 11–30 the recitations (shastra) of the hotar.
Sayana, in the introduction to his commentary on the work, ascribes the Aitareya to the sage Mahidasa Aitareya (i.e. son of Itara), also mentioned elsewhere as a philosopher; and it seems likely enough that this person arranged the Brahmana and founded the school of the Aitareyins.
Rigveda Aranyakas and Upanishads
Each of these two Brahmanas is supplemented by a “forest book”, or Aranyaka. The Aitareyaranyaka is not a uniform production. It consists of five books (aranyaka), three of which, the first and the last two, are of a liturgical nature, treating the ceremony called mahavrata, or great vow. The last of these books, composed in sutra form, is, however, doubtless of later origin, and is, indeed, ascribed by Hindu authorities either to Shaunaka or to Ashvalayana.
The second and third books, on the other hand, are purely speculative and are also styled the Bahvrca-brahmana-Upanishad. Again, the last four chapters of the second book are usually singled out as the Aitareya Upanishad, ascribed, like its Brahmana (and the first book), to Mahidasa Aitareya; and the third book is also referred to as the Samhita-Upanishad. As regards the Kaushitaki-aranyaka, this work consists of 15 adhyayas, the first two (treating of the mahavrata ceremony) and the 7th and 8th of which correspond to the first, fifth, and third books of the Aitareyaranyaka, respectively, whilst the four adhyayas usually inserted between them constitute the highly interesting Kaushitaki (Brahmana-) Upanishad, of which we possess two different recensions. The remaining portions (9–15) of the Aranyaka treat the vital airs, the internal Agnihotra, etc., ending with the vamsha, or succession of teachers.
Highly stylized poetical Vedic Sanskrit with praise
The text is a highly stylized poetical Vedic Sanskrit with praise addressed to the Vedic gods and chieftains. Most hymns, according to Witzel, were intended to be recited at the annual New Year Soma ritual. The text also includes some nonritual poetry, fragments of mythology, and archaic formulas.
The text introduced prized concepts such as Rta (active realization of truth, cosmic harmony) which inspired the later Hindu concept of Dharma. The Rigvedic verses formulate this Rta as effected by Brahman, a significant and non-self-evident truth. The text also contains hymns of “highly poetical value” – some in dialogue form, along with love stories that likely inspired later Epic and classical poets of Hinduism, states Witzel.
Cherished virtues and ethical statements
According to Nadkarni, several hymns of the Rigveda embed cherished virtues and ethical statements. For example, verses 5.82.7, 6.44.8, 9.113.4, 10.133.6, and 10.190.1 mention truthful speech, truthful action, self-discipline, and righteousness. Hymn 10.117 presents the significance of charity and of generosity between human beings, how helping someone in need is ultimately in the self-interest of the helper, and its importance to an individual and society.
According to Jamison and Brereton, hymns 9.112 and 9.113 poetically state, “what everyone [humans and all living beings] really want is gain or an easy life”, even a water drop has a goal – namely, “simply to seek Indra”. These hymns present the imagery of being in heaven as “freedom, joy and satisfaction”, a theme that appears in the Hindu Upanishads to characterize their teachings of self-realization.
While the older hymns of the Rigveda reflect sacrificial rituals typical of polytheism, its younger parts, specifically mandalas 1 and 10, have been noted as containing monistic or henotheistic speculations.
A widely cited example of such speculations is hymn 1.164.46:
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. — Rigveda 1.164.46, Translated by Ralph Griffith
Max Müller notably introduced the term “henotheism” for the philosophy expressed here, avoiding the connotations of “monotheism” in Judeo-Christian tradition.
Difficult to translate
The Rigveda is considered particularly difficult to translate, owing to its length, poetic nature, the language itself, and the absence of any close contemporary texts for comparison. Staal describes it as the most “obscure, distant, and difficult for moderns to understand”. As a result, he says, it “is often misinterpreted” – with many early translations containing straightforward errors – “or worse: used as a peg on which to hang an idea or a theory.”
Another issue is technical terms such as mandala, conventionally translated as “book”, but more literally rendered as “cycle”. Karen Thomson, the editor of the Metrically Restored Text Online at the University of Texas at Austin, argues, as linguists in the nineteenth century had done (Friedrich Max Müller, Rudolf von Roth, William Dwight Whitney, Theodor Benfey, John Muir, Edward Vernon Arnold), that the apparent obscurity derives from the failure to discard a mass of assumptions about ritual meaning inherited from Vedic tradition.
First published translation
The first published translation of any portion of the Rigveda in any European language was into Latin, by Friedrich August Rosen, working from manuscripts brought back from India by Colebrooke.
In 1849, Max Müller published his six-volume translation into German, the first printed edition and most studied. H. H. Wilson was the first to make a translation of the Rig Veda into English, published from 1850–88. Wilson’s version was based on a commentary of the complete text by Sāyaṇa, a 14th-century Sanskrit scholar, which he also translated.
Translations in several languages
Translations have since been made in several languages, including French and Russian. Karl Friedrich Geldner completed the first scholarly translation in the 1920s, published after his death. Translations of shorter cherrypicked anthologies have also been published, such as those by Wendy Doniger in 1981 and Walter Maurer in 1986, although Jamison and Brereton say they “tend to create a distorted view” of the text.
In 1994, Barend A. van Nooten and Gary B. Holland published the first attempt to restore the entirety of the Rigveda to its poetic form, systematically identifying and correcting sound changes and sandhi combinations that had distorted the original meter and meaning.