Vedic period

The writings left from the early nomadic inhabitants of India in the middle of the second millennium BCE, termed the Vedic period, mark the beginnings of what we can track linguistically of early Indian practices. The primary religious practice of this period focused on rather elaborate rituals for fire accompanied by oral recitations of hymns and offerings made into the fire. For instance, the jyotistoma sacrifices, a class of seven different sacrifices involving offerings of a sacred plant, the soma, could last for one day in the case of the agnistoma, or for many days, with as many as 16 priests participating, for the agnistoma. The agnistoma and the jyotistoma are the names of Vedic rituals using fire as the medium for offerings to the Vedic gods. The sacrifices were made to a variety of gods, most notably Indra, the god of thunder and lightning, and Agni, the god of fire, who served to carry human offerings to the gods in heaven via the smoke of the fire. Frequently fire sacrifices followed a model of shorter rituals embedded in longer rituals, requiring offerings of plant foods, milk, and animal sacrifices. These early Vedic practices set the parameters for subsequent religiosity, which tended toward either aligning with the earlier Vedic traditions, as in the case of Brahmanism and what eventually later became lumped under the rubric of Hinduism, or conversely, against Vedic practices, as in the case of Buddhism and Jainism. Early Vedic practices rely on an implicit polytheism and call on various deities to intervene on behalf of human requests.

Certainly, the early Vedic rites invoked a potent psychology for the practitioner, as for instance where the sacrificer wore a black deer skin symbolizing the placenta to effect a ritual rebirth in the Aitareya Brahmana (Haug 1863). However, should we understand the pervasive ritual practice of the Vedic period as a form of meditation? Does meditation require a silence and inwardness that we might suspect to be absent in a ritual space? Is it possible to be outwardly engaged in verbal recitation and making offerings into a blazing flame, invoking the formulas of ritual and at the same time still achieve a state of meditation? Whatever the case—which may ultimately turn upon a semantic understanding; that is, how we go about defining meditation—the hymns of the Rg Veda do offer us images of what looks something like a transformed consciousness akin to the results of what we think of as meditation. We see, for instance, the wild-haired kesin, the meditative figure who is called “the light of stars, seen in the heaven, in all space, girdled with the wind, who goes where the gods have gone,"1—even if we must wait for Buddhism and the Upanisads to extract a notion of meditation divorced from the idea of anthropic deity.

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