Of the three Vedas, Rg, Yajus and Sama, the first is the basic work; the second two contain Rg hymns (mantras) in different arrangements to suit their application to sacrifices.
The hymns of the Rg-veda mostly consist of praises of the different deities Agni, Mitra, Varuna, Indra, and so on.
They describe the mighty noble deeds of the various deities, and pray for their help and favour.
Sacrifices offered to the gods consisted in pouring oblations of clarified butter and other things into the sacrificial fire along with which the hymns in their praise were recited and sung.
These deities were conceived as the realities underlying and governing the different phenomena of nature, such as fire, sun, wind, rain and others, on which life, agriculture and prosperity depended.
Nature, though peopled with different gods, was conceived as subject to some basic law (called Rita) by which the whole world, objects of nature as well as living beings, was regulated.
Its function was not only the preservation of order and regularity in planets and other objects, but also the regulation of justice.
Belief in many gods is called polytheism. The Vedas are, therefore, often said to be polytheistic. But there is a peculiarity in Vedic thought that makes this view doubtful.
Each of many gods, when praised, is extolled by the hymn as the supreme God, the Creator of the universe and the lord of all gods.
Max Miller thinks, therefore, that polytheism is not an appropriate name for such a belief, and he coins a new word ‘henotheism’ to signify this. But whether the Vedic faith is really polytheism or henotheism depends largely on the explanation of this phenomenon.
It is polytheism, if the raising of each god to the supreme position be not the indication of real belief in the supremacy, but only a willful exaggeration, a poetic hyperbole. But if the Vedic poets really believed what they said, henotheism would be a better name.
The latter view is rendered more than probable by the fact that in the Rig-Veda we come across passages where it is explicitly stated that the different gods are only manifestations of one underlying reality.
‘The one reality is called by the wise in different ways: Agni, Yama, Matarisva’ (Ekarh sad vipra Bauddha Vedanta.),’ It was possible, therefore, to look upon each deity as the Supreme.
According to many writers, there is a development noticeable in Vedic thought and they believe that the idea of God gradually developed from polytheism through henotheism, ultimately to monotheism, i.e. belief in one God.
This hypothesis may be true But henotheism is not a mere transition phenomenon; even in its most developed form, Indian monotheism retains the belief that though God is one.
He has various manifestations in the many gods, any one of which may be worshipped as a form of the Supreme Deity. Even today we have in India the divergent cults
Saivism, Vaisnavism and the like flourishing side by side and almost every one of them is at bottom based on a philosophy of one Supreme God, perhaps even one all-inclusive reality.
Indian monotheism in its living forms, from the Vedic age till now, has believed ‘rather in the unity of the gods in God, than the denial of gods for God.’
Hence Indian monotheism has a peculiarity which distinguishes it from the Christian or the Mahomedan. This is a persistent feature of orthodox Indian faith throughout, not a mere passing phase of the Vedic times.
Belief in the unity of all gods which we find in the Rig-Veda is only a part of a greater thought which also we find there in a clear form, namely, the unity of all existence.
In the famous Purusasukta which is even now daily recited by every devout Brahmin, the Vedic seer visualizes, perhaps for the first time in human history, the organic unity of the whole universe. Some stanzas are quoted below:
The Man had a thousand heads, a thousand yes, a thousand feet: he covered the earth on all sides and stretched ten fingers’ length beyond it.
The Man was all that is and all that will be: ruling over immortality, he was all that grows by food.
Such was his greatness; and the Man was greater still: this whole world is a fourth of him; three-fourths of him is immortal in the sky.
For with three-fourths the Man went on high, but a fourth of him remained here, and then spread on all sides, over the living and the lifeless world.
All existence earth, heavens, planets, gods, living and nonliving objects is conceived here as the parts of one great person (Purusa), who pervades the world, but also remains beyond it. In Him all that is, has been and will be, is united.
We have in this hymn the poetic insight not only into the universe as one organic whole, but also into the Supreme Reality which is both immanent and transcendent God pervades the world, yet He is not exhausted thereby; He remains also beyond it.
In terms of Western theology, this conception is pane theism (pan all, en in, theism God), not pantheism; all is not equal to God, but all is in God, who is greater than all.
One flash of the seer’s imagination, in this hymn, reveals a variety of ideas that inspired the Vedic mind: monism, pane theism and organic conception of the world.
In another hymn (commonly known as the Nasadiya-sukta), we are introduced further to the Vedic conception of the Impersonal Absolute.
The reality underlying all existence the primal once from which everything originates cannot be described, it says, either as non-existent or as existent (nasat, nasat).
Here we have perhaps the first flash of a conception of the Indeterminate Absolute, which is the reality underlying all things, but is in itself indescribable.