Christians and Jews often see the Hebrew Bible as the world’s oldest book of continuously venerated scripture. But the Bible faces serious competition in this regard from India’s “Rigveda.”
The term “Rigveda” — meaning “praise knowledge” — is the branch of sacred lore and scripture focused on praising the old gods of Hinduism. A collection of hymns praising the gods, it somewhat resembles the biblical Psalms. Originally, both were typically sung and chanted in prayer or a ritual setting Also like the Psalms, a prophetically inspired origin is ascribed to the Rigveda. The “rishi,” or inspired composer of a hymn, is believed by many modern Hindus to have been directly inspired by the gods with the exact words of the archaic hymns.
These hymns — some dating to the late second millennium B.C. — were composed over many centuries by many different rishis, some of whom are named in the texts. They were transmitted orally from father to son by the Hindu priestly caste known as Brahmins — broadly similar to the biblical Levites. Brahmin sons learned verbatim from their fathers and were eventually permitted to recite the Rigveda publicly at religious rites and ceremonies.
The Rigveda is divided into 10 books (mandalas), each with around 100 hymns, making 1,028 hymns in all. (There are 150 biblical Psalms.) The hymns include creation narratives, theological speculation, ritual descriptions and poems of praise or invocation, with many passages alluding to the life and beliefs of the ancient Proto-Hindu believers, often called Indo-Aryans. Although many deities are praised or mentioned, most of the hymns praise the king of the gods, Indra, and the fire god Agni.
One Rigveda hymn, 10.129, discusses the enigmatic nature of the creation of the cosmos, concluding that “Only God knows (how creation occurred), or perhaps He does not know.” Another hymn, 10.90, describes the primordial sacrifice of the cosmic god Purusha (meaning “Man,” and cognate with the English term “person”). The ancient gods gather at the moment of creation and sacrifice the god Purusha, using his sacrificed cosmic body to create both cosmos and mankind. The different Hindu castes are derived from Purusha’s head, arms, legs and feet. (Compare Paul’s description of individual Christians as parts of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, and Christ as the “lamb slain from the foundation of the world” in Revelation 13:8.)
Over centuries, the Rigveda spawned numerous commentaries and interpretations, often conflicting. Other Vedas were also added to it. Sacrificial handbooks for priests known as the “Brahmanas” explained the intricacies of Hindu ritual associated with the hymns — much like the biblical Leviticus. Other Hindu sages attempted to allegorize the meaning of the Vedic literature in a collection of books known as the Upanishads. One of the defining disputes between Hindus and Buddhists arose from Buddhist rejection of the inspiration and authority of the Rigveda and other early Hindu scripture.
Visitors to India today can still see the rituals of the Rigveda performed by Brahmin priests in Hindu temples, especially in the sunrise and sunset Agnihotra, or fire sacrifice, where clarified butter (ghee) is poured onto the fire as an offering to the gods. (This is perhaps the rough equivalent of the Hebrew olive-oil offering in the temple.) In this regard, the Rigveda is closer to its roots than are the Psalms, which haven’t been sung in their original temple context for nearly 2,000 years. Seeing and hearing these Vedic rituals is like being able to see Greek or Egyptian sacrifices and hymns still being performed today in their ancient temples.
Like the Bible, the Rigveda has been used and interpreted in many different ways throughout the centuries. Some of the old Vedic gods, like Indra, are no longer widely worshipped in India, or have been shunted to the side by other deities such as Krishna/Vishnu or Shiva. As practical daily scripture among modern Hindus, the Rigveda has been largely superseded by the Bhagavad Gita, but it still retains its aura of sanctity and tradition, especially through intonation by priests at religious ceremonies.3 comments on this story
Today, when Christians and Jews sing the Psalms in worship, they are participating, along with the Brahmin priests of India, in the oldest surviving expression of veneration for the divine, singing hymns that have been used for nearly 3,000 years.
The most accessible abridged translation of the Rigveda is Wendy Doniger's “The Rig Veda” (Penguin, 2005). A new unabridged scholarly translation is by Stephanie W. Jamison and Joel P. Brereton, “The Rigveda” (Oxford, 2014).
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.