Vedic Culture of India
Many of the eastern medicinal treatments still in use today have been drawn from a period of more than 1500 years in central India, known as the Vedic Period. From 1700 B.C. to 1100 B.C., the early Vedic period saw the creation of a crucial text to Eastern philosophy and medicine, including the oldest scriptures associated with Hinduism.
But almost all knowledge gained during the Vedic period was passed on to future generations through oral traditions, not being written down until the post-Vedic period. And India would see a fantastic boom in literature indeed, as the following period, the birth of the Maurya Empire, would later be referred to as the "golden age of classical Sanskrit literature."
Understanding Vedic Religion
It's important to note that early Vedic religion stands in stark contrast to the practices it would later evolve into, namely Vedanta and Yoga. In fact, it's quite likely that the practice of early Vedic rituals would be forbidden even in a religiously free America, let alone not the kinds of activities you'd expect to find housewives and young executives engaged in at lunch. No -- in fact, early Vedic religious practice viewed Deities as a sort of celestial shopkeeper; not all-powerful beings, but beings that would follow the will of humans provided that an adequate transaction took place.
The various gods of early Vedic culture took a variety of "payments" in exchange for certain earthly necessities, namely animal sacrifices. Most rituals were designed to bring an abundance of some possession or religious gift, such as:
These payments were not directly gifted to the various Gods of the Vedic period. In fact, the 16 or 17 priests that took part in each Vedic ritual passed the requests and sacrifices to other gods through a messenger known as Agni (roughly translated as "sacrificial fire"). Animal sacrifice was certainly nothing new, and certain parts of the world has already seen a fair share of human sacrifice. But while other portions of the world were more known for sacrifices of animals like cattle and sheep, Vedic priests were more inclined to practice horse sacrifice, which was known as the Ashvamedha.
Interestingly, horse sacrifice as part of a religious ceremony continued in small sects until as late as the 4th century A.D., and echoed similar practices by the Andronovo culture, and ancient Rome and Ireland. In India, horse sacrifice would be revived under Jai Singh II of Amber in as late as 1716 A.D.
Following the early Vedic period, many of the original tenets of Vedic ritual would be passed on to future eastern cultures and generations, especially the use of mantras as a healing and empowering practice. But the rise of two great religions, Jain and Buddhism, would see the near outlaw of animal sacrifice within Vedic rituals, as both religions were deeply critical of the practice.
The Gods of Vedic Religion
Vedic religion was, of course, polytheistic and thus involved worship of multiple Gods. These deities often appeared in different forms depending on the religious sect providing the sacrifice or chants. Much like the great religions of ancient Greece and Rome, Gods of Vedic religion were ranked in ascending order, with one God reining on high as the literal "king of the Gods." He shared his celestial throne with two other deities, Agni and Soma. Beyond the three Gods of the Vedic pantheon, there were many lesser deities, such as:
Indra "King of the Gods": The King of the Gods, a familiar figure in Hindu mythology, certainly had his hands full. In addition to ruling the heavens and the Earth, Indra also served as the god of war and weather, the guardian of the elements and directions (North, East, South, West), and the eternal combatant of the Gods' bitter enemies, the demonic Asuras. The Rigveda includes around 250 hymns dedicated to Indra.
Agni "Immortal Messenger": While Indra was treated with awe and reverence, Agni was considered far more important to the average Vedic priest. Agni, literally translated as "fire," served as the intermediary between humans and deities. Without Agni, prayers fell on deaf ears and sacrifices went on in vain. Agni echoed the mythical phoenix as he was immortal and forever young, but had to be born anew each day in fire. Agni as he appears in Hinduism is often depicted riding a ram.
Soma "The Drink of Immortality": Not all deities took human form. Like the Vedic goddess Saraswati (which was a river), Soma was thought to be such a powerful consumable that it could be nothing less than a God. Indeed, drinking Soma not only gave the drinker immortality, but in essence created him or her as a God or Goddess, similar to the ancient Greek drink of ambrosia, which was enjoyed by all of the Greek gods.
Soma is now a lost ingredient, but was thought to have grown in Indian mountains like Mount Mujavant. The yellow or tawny plant with a long stalk would be crushed by Vedic priests, filtered through lamb's wool, and combined with ingredients like cow's milk.
Today, the eastern philosophies important to new practices like Yoga are still widely known in Western cultures. Medical, religious, and fitness concepts still echo in modern society as "Ayurvedic practices." An understanding of the Vedic roots and Ayurvedic evolution is crucial to an understanding of eastern medicine and well-being altogether. In America, almost all of the emphasis of health and fitness is placed on diet and exercise. Yet, this is to ignore a very important aspect of overall health and well being.
By understanding the Eastern approach to mental stability and well being you can begin to take steps to implement the techniques into your lifestyle. The various techniques and viewpoints used in Eastern cultures to promote mental well being and stability will be outlined in the following pages and articles.