Iconography of the Vedic Deities

Iconography of the Vedic Deities

Almost all the original High Gods of the Rig Veda have been demoted in modern Hinduism to Loka- pālas — guardian deities of the directions.

Three relatively minor deities of the Rig Veda were elevated to the modern Trinity — Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva.

The Loka-pālas play a major role in Vāstu and are invoked in all ceremonies involving buildings. In All major yajñas they are also invoked and offerings made to them.

THE LOKA-PALAS

Guardian Deities of Space

Indra —Regent of the East

Indra is the king of the gods and was one of the major deities of the Rig Veda. A quarter of the hymns of the Rig Veda are dedicated to him and he is the national god of the Vedic people.

His most lauded activity was the destroying of the demon Vṛtra who had imprisoned the cows in the mountainous cave. Using his famed vajra — diamond thunderbolt.

Vṛtra means the obscurer or the “one who conceals.” The cows represent the streams of light or consciousness.

Indra represents the all-pervading electric energy (vidyut śakti), he is the ruler of the storm but also the cause of fertility.

The devas represent various aspects of our psychology and Indra is the king of all the senses and as such represents the mind. Indra assumes manifold forms and shape-shifts as he will. He has all the exuberance of youth and is addicted to pleasure and intoxicants. He has numerous love-affairs and sends Apsarās to disturb the meditation of sages.

Indra lives in the city of Amarāvati (immortality) with his wife is Śacī — (Divine Grace) and by her has 3 sons: Jayanta (victory) Ṛṣabha (excellence) and Mīḍhuṣa (liberality). Indra has two vehicles – an elephant with four tusks names Airāvata (born-of-the-ocean) and a horse named Uchchaiśravās (loud-neighing).

Symbols

Vajra (thunderbolt) — represents diamond like wisdom which destroys ignorance in the form of the demon-who-conceals.

Other attributes of Indra are - Ankuśa (elephant goad), Pāśa (noose), Dhanuṣ (bow), Khaḍga (sword)

Agṇi — Regent of the South-east

Agṇi was the most important god of the Rig Veda, the mediator between humans and gods and the protector of men and their homes. Esoterically he represents divine illumination.

The science of fire is the key to all knowledge. The discovery of fire led to the creation of laws, rules and discipline — civilization stems from the correct use of fire.

In the Viṣṇu Purāṇa Agṇi is the firstborn son of Brahmā. In the human world Agṇi ’s father was Dharma (eternal-law) and his mother Vasubhārya (Daughter-of-light). His sister is Medhā (intelligence).

He was married to Svāhā (invocation-at-offering) and by her has 3 sons Pāvaka (Purifier), Pāvamāna (purifying) and Śuci (Purity). His second wife is said to be Svadhā — the invocation of the ancestors.

He is shown having 3 faces — representing the 3 Vedic fires Āhavanīya, Dakṣiṇā and Gārhapatya agṇi.

Symbols

His standard is smoke (Dhūma- ketu) and he rides on a ram (Chāga) one of the main sacrificial animals which also represents leadership and aggression.

He carries a:—

Javelin (Tomara) — same symbolism as a spear — mental focus on the goal

Lotus (Abja) — enlightenment and purity

Axe (Paraśu) — severing the bonds of attachment

Torch (ulkā) — kindling of the fire or enthusiasm for the dharma and enlightenment

Fan (vyañjana) — fanning the spark of knowledge

Oblation spoon (sruk) — converting all action into service of the divine.

The Ten Forms of Agṇi

There are ten main forms of fire, five natural forms and five ritual forms.

The five natural forms are:—

1. Agṇi is the earthly or common fire, either visible or potential, that is, hidden in fuel.

2. Indra (or Vāyu), the power of the lightening which dwells in the clouds, is the fire of space, of the intermediary world. It is the source of conflagrations and of the dreaded bush-fires (dāva-agṇi ').

3. Sūrya (the Sun), the fire of the heavenly sphere which illumines the world, is known as the celestial-fire (divya-agṇi).

4. Vaiśvānara (the all-pervader) is the power of digesting, found in all things, all beings. It is the support of life.

5. Vāḍava Agṇi - The fire of destruction, Agṇi 's most fearful form remains hidden under the sea, ever ready to destroy the world.

The five forms of ritual fire are:—

6. Brahmā-agṇi — The fire-of-the- Immensity is said to appear spontaneously during the ritual of sacrifice at the sound of the magic formula (the Arani-manthana Mantra that is uttered while the fire stick is revolving. This is the fire born of the world.

7. Prājāpatya-agṇi — The fire-of-the-lord-of-progeny is handed over to the unmarried student when he is invested with his sacred thread. In this fire he is to perform the daily ritual offering known as Agṇi hotra. He is pledged to preserve this fire, worship it, and feed it with offerings, till the day when, at the approach of old age, he abandons his home to retire into the forest.

8. Gārhapatya-agṇi — The house-holder's fire is brought into the house after the marriage ceremony and is the centre of family rituals. It is to be kept ever alive and all the offerings of the married man should be offered into it.

9. Dakṣiṇā-agṇi — The Ancestors' fire or 'Southern fire' in which offerings are made to Ancestors. The rituals of exorcism (abhicāra yajña) are to be performed in this fire. During the great ritual sacrifices a fire lighted from a 'Southern fire' has to be maintained outside the southern gate of the sacrificial-pavilion (yajña- maṇḍapa). This fire is expected to burn away the obstacles which would otherwise arise to prevent the completion of the ritual.

10. Kravyāda-agṇi — The funeral-fire which is lit on the funeral pyre and into which the body is offered as the final oblation.

Elsewhere the ritual fire is shown under six forms:—

the fire of the householder, gārhapatya-agṇi , the fire of Vedic rituals, āhavanīya-agṇi , the fire of the Ancestors, Dakṣiṇā-agṇi , the fire of the assembly, Sabhya-agṇi , the fire of the Sacrifice (Agṇi hotra), Āvasathya-agṇi , the fire of divine service, Aupāsana-agṇi .

Yama — Regent of the South

Yama (the Binder) is the god of death, the sovereign of the infernal regions. The wrathful one, who judges the dead, whom his messengers drag before his throne. He is the embodiment of righteousness (Dharma) and the king- of-justice (dharma-rāja). He is, however, compassionate.

In the Vedas, Yama is the First Ancestor and the king-of- Ancestors (pitṛi-rāja). He rules over the kingdom of the dead where the Ancestors dwell. He is also the king-of- ghosts (preta-rāja).

The word yama means "binder, restrainer." It is Yama who keeps humankind in check. "He binds, he decides what are the actions of the living beings that bear or do not bear fruit"

Yama is punishment (daṇḍa), the Eternal Law on which the universe rests. He is Death (Mṛtyu) and the End (Antaka), Time (Kāla), the Finisher (Kṛtānta), the Settler (Śamana). As the ruler of the southern direction, Yama is called lord of the south (Dakṣiṇā-pati).

Yama is the son of the resplendent Sun god —Vivasvat (Rig Veda 10.14.5), the embodiment of social morality represented as one of the aspects of the Sun and envisaged as the progenitor of humankind.

Yama's brother is the Lawgiver, Manu, who shares with him the title of progenitor of humankind.

Yama's twin sister is Yamī, who loves him passionately, though he is sometimes said to have resisted physical union with her (ibid. R.V.10.10).

After his death she mourned him so bitterly that the gods created Night (Yāminī) to make her forget. Yamī later appeared on the earth as the river Yamunā.

Yama married ten of the daughters of Ritual-Skill (Dakṣa), who are the powers born of the ritual sacrifice. Some texts state that his two beloved consorts are shroud-of-smoke (Dhūmorṇā) that rises from the funeral pyre and Victory (Vijayā.)

Yama is sometimes shown with another 2 wives, — Golden-Garland (Hema-mālā), Good-Behaviour (Suśīla).

Yama's city is the City-of-Bondage (Samyamini). Manifold-Secret (Citra-gupta) is his scribe. His ministers are Wrath (Caṇḍa) and Terror (Mahācaṇḍa). Yama's charioteer is Sickness (Roga). He is surrounded with demons who are personifications of the different diseases.

But there are also many sages and kings who assemble in his court to pay him homage. Musicians and heavenly dancers charm his visitors. At the door of the judgment hall is a guard called Legality (Vaidhyata).

Yama owns two four-eyed dogs with wide nostrils, who were born to the Fleet-One (Sārama), the bitch who guards the herds of Indra. They watch the path of the dead.

Symbols

Yama is of dark green complexion with glowing red eyes. He dresses in blood red garments. His hair is tied on the top of his head and he wears a glittering crown. In many stories he’s described as a handsome man.

The virtuous and the sinners see Yama in different forms. To the virtuous he appears beautiful and compassionate like Viṣṇu. To the sinner he appears wrathful and terrifying.

He holds a pāśa (noose) and a daṇḍa (staff), and also carries an paraśu (axe), a khaḍga (sword), and a dagger. He rides a black buffalo and sometimes appears himself in the form of a buffalo. The buffalo being the symbol of Tamas —darkness, inertia, ignorance.

Manifold-Secret (Citra-gupta), the Scribe of the Lord of Death

Brahmā having completed his work, meditated upon the Supreme Immensity. Suddenly, while he sat in meditation, a man of divine appearance sprang forth from his body.

This man held in his hand an account book and a pen. He came to be known as Manifold-Secret (Citra-gupta). Dwelling near the king-of-justice (Yama), he was instructed to write down an account of the good and bad deeds of all living beings.

He is the patron deity of all scribes, accountants and others involved in secretarial work.

Nirṛta — Regent of the South-West

The regent of the south-western direction is Misery (Nirṛta). Misery is the son of Vision (Kaśyapa) and Fragrance (Surabhi). He is also one of the eleven Rudras (Padma Purāṇa, Sṛṣṭi khāṇḍa, ch. 40).

He is the lord of elves (nairṛta), ghosts (bhūta), and night-wanderers (Rākṣasa) and also the lord-of- the-directions (Dikpāla).

People worship him to gain victory over their enemies. In Vāstu his direction is the place of the rubbish heap or re-cycling bins as he presides over decay and rot.

A legend says that once there was a virtuous king of the criminal tribe of the Śabara named Yellow- Eye (Piṅgākṣa). One day in the forest he heard people crying for help. He ran and found travellers being looted by a group of savages (dasyu).

He fought them and was killed — being killed in the defence of strangers is equal to a Vedic Yajña and as a reward he attained godhood and was made the regent of a direction.

The nairṛtas are the descendants of Nirṛta and are represented as a kind of elf associated with Kubera.

NIRṚTI

Nirṛti, the Goddess of Misery is a sinister goddess representing suffering, poverty, disease, and death.

As the Embodiment of all sins, she appeared at the time of the churning of the ocean before the goddess of fortune, Lakṣmī. Hence she is the older sister of Lakṣmī known as Alakṣmī.

Her abode is the sacred fig tree, the Pipal, where, every Saturday, Lakṣmī comes to visit her. To her realm belong gambling, prostitution, sleep, poverty, disease, and all the forms of trouble.

She is the wife of Sin (Adharma), the son of Varuṇa. Her sons are Death (Mṛtyu), Fear (Bhaya), and Terror (Mahā-bhaya).

In this world all those who are born with a handicap, in the families of thieves or evildoers, and yet are virtuous and kind are especially protected by Nirṛti.

Varuṇa — Regent of the West

Varuṇa (the Coverer or Binder), the personification of the Mysterious Law of the Gods presides over the relationship of humans with the gods.

He is the ruler of the "other side," of the invisible world. He represents the inner reality of things, higher truth (Ṛita), and order in their transcendent aspects, beyond understanding.

His absolute power is felt during the night and in all that is mysterious, while man-made laws, represented by Mitra, rule the day. Although usually linked with Mitra, Varuṇa is occasionally invoked alone.

He is everywhere, in the universe and around it, pervading all things as the inner law and order of creation. He established and maintains natural and moral laws, expressions of the cosmic order. His laws are unassailable and rest upon him as on a mountain.

As the King, Varuṇa is the Justice-giver, whose duty is to punish the guilty. He catches the evildoers and binds them with his noose.

In the later mythology Varuṇa came to be relegated to the position of a god of death. Indra, the ruler of the sphere of space, took precedence over him, as the ruler of the sky.

In the Mahābhārata (2.9) and all later texts Varuṇa appears as the lord of the waters, the ruler of the sea or the subterranean waters. He is the giver of rain and has been the owner of the soma.

He is the regent of the Western direction. His domain is the Western Ocean. He is rich and happy. He also rules over one of the lunar mansions (nakṣatra).

The name Varuṇa may be derived from the root vr, meaning "to surround, envelop, cover." It refers to all that veils or covers, all that is mysterious, cryptic, hidden.

Varuṇa is also the lord of the causal waters that surround the world. It can also be derived from the root vr, "to restrain," "to check," referring to the god's character as the enforcer.

His city, the most beautiful in the world, is called Starry-Night (Vibhāvarī), or Earthly-City (Vasudhā-nāgara), or Joyful (Sukha).

He has two wives the junior being Prosperity (Riddhi), and the elder wife Vāruṇī, is the goddess of liquor. She is sometimes called Gauri, the Fair One.

His sons are:—Nourisher (Puṣkara), Strength (Bāla) and a daughter Liquor (Surā). Another son, Wrong-Deed (Adharma), married Misfortune (Nirṛti). Her sons are are:—Ill-omens (nairṛta) and demons (rākṣasas), Fear (bhaya), Terror (Mahā-bhaya), and Death (Mṛtyu).

Symbols

Varuṇa appears as handsome and well-dressed. He rides upon the Makara — a mythical sea-monster sometimes associated either with a shark or a crocodile. His right hand shows the Abhayā-mudra — gesture of removing fear. In his left hand he holds a nāga-pāśa — noose made of a serpent.

Vāyu — Regent of the North-West

Vāyu is the Lord-of-Wind. In the Upaniṣads, Vāyu appears as the cosmic life breath, the universal "spirit,” the impeller of life and of the living.

Vāyu is also the substance and the essence of speech (vāc). A few Vedic hymns are addressed to him. The name Vāyu comes from root , "to blow."

Vāyu is the purifier, the first to have drunk the ambrosia, the soma. He is an explorer, the messenger of the gods, the leader of sacrifices.

He is also called the "wanderer" (Vāta), “he without whom one dies" (Marut), "the one by whom one lives" (anila) and the "cleanser" (Pāvana). Vāyu has a destructive aspect (Ugra) as well as a gentle, beneficial form (śānta).

Vāyu is the friend of Agni whom he strengthens and helps.

Symbols

In the Vedas Vāyu is pictured as a strong and powerful white man riding a deer. He carries a bow and arrows and flags. All his attributes are all white.

He is also the father of Hanumān.

Kubera — The Regent of the North

The Regent of the northern direction is Kubera the god of wealth, the chief of the genii, called the mysterious- ones (yakṣā) or the secret-ones (guhyaka), who guard the precious stones and metals stored inside the earth.

Kubera's half-brothers were Roarer (Rāvaṇa), the powerful king of Śrī Laṅkā, Jar's-Ear (Kumbhakarṇa), and Terrific (Vibhīṣaṇa), who became Rāma's ally. Their sister is Sharp-Nails (Sūrpaṇakhā). Rāvaṇa drove Kubera away from his capital in Lanka and took over.

Kubera's wife is Auspicious (Bhadrā) and his sons are Reed- Axle (Nalakubera), who is also called "son of Mayu rāja” (the king of animals resembling men)," and Bejeweled-neck (Maṇi- grīva), who is also called Colourful-Poet (Varṇa-kavi). His daughter is Fish-eyed (Mīnākṣī).

Kubera is shown as a white dwarf with a large belly. He has three legs which represent the three principle desires — putreṣa (desire for offspring) vitteṣa (desire for wealth and power) and lokaiṣa (desire for fame and recognition).

The name of Kubera seems to be of unknown origin, though it has been, suggested that it may be derived from ku-bera, the "ill-shaped one," a word similar to kim-purusa, kupurusa, etc.

An offering is made to him at the end of all ritual sacrifices, though he does not appear to have a separate cult. He is now worshiped mainly in Nepal, but is one of the seven divinities of wealth known all over Asia.

Kubera is the giver of jewels, the protector of travellers. He is associated with Gaṇeśa, the lord of categories. Whatever treasures are in the earth, they all belong to Kubera. Only through his kindness do men obtain precious metals and stones from the entrails of the earth.

The Yakṣas, Guardians of the Earth's Treasures

The Yakṣas, with their king, Kubera, were originally anti-gods (asura), but made friendly overtures to the gods and were accepted in their midst.

The term Yakṣa comes from a Vedic word meaning "marvellous" or "mysterious." The mysterious-ones (Yakṣa) are also the secret-ones (guhyaka). They are often mentioned with the night-wanderers (Rākṣasa), or demons. The Yakṣas are also connected with the serpents (nāga).

With Kubera at their head they seceded from the rākṣasas.

Īśāṇa — Regent of the North-east

The north eastern direction according to Vāstu is the most important of all directs being ruled by Lord Śiva in the form of Īśāṇa — “The Ruler”.

He is the embodiment of all learning and the master of all knowledge. Īśāna is connected with the element air, the sense of touch.

The prāṇa enters into the house from the Īśāna corner and exits via Nirṛti corner. In the Īśāna corner one installs the household deity or at least keeps some sacred object.

Some texts state that he should carry a Lute (vīnā) and a skull (kapāla).