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CHAPTER 10 – Names of Gods: Vedic

CHAPTER 10 – Names of Gods: Vedic

We have seen that the Vedas make large use of concrete images in the presentation of their Gods. They also insist that, in some sense, these Gods are not fully known; that what our heart worships is not the same as what our eyes see and what our ears hear.

There is also another distinctive feature—all Gods have multiple names. And the knowledge of these names, as in the case of the appellations of Agni, is an important knowledge. It is also a holy knowledge.

In all spiritual traditions, there is something analogous to it. The God of the Jews has many names. He is Bore Olam (creator of the world), Kedosh Yisrael (Holy One of Israel), Ho-Malkom (the Omnipresent Place), El-Elion (the Most High One), En Sof (the Infinite One). But according to Jewish mysticism, God has also a secret name which should not even be uttered. Therefore, the Jews simply called it “the Great Name”, or “the Great, Precious Name”, or just “the Name”. This name was considered so secret that it was told only to the initiates and the pious and that too in whispers so that it was not overheard by the laity.1

Islam too admits of God’s Names though it denies His Forms. But the admission receives a certain narrowing at the hands of the more orthodox and faithful. For a Name to be valid, it must be confirmed by the Quran. God is Ash-Shafi, the healer, but not At- Tabib, the physician, for the Quran does not use the latter epithet. Similarly, the Arabic Allah is to be preferred to the Persian Khuda though both may mean the same thing. Naturally, in this kind of approach, there is no place for names like Jupiter, Brahma, or Ivara, for they derive from the languages of the ka=firs (infidels).

Socrates presents this idea in the language of understanding. He proclaims the awe, mystery and unknowability of Gods and their names but also tells us how these are ultimately the names of man’s own intentions and meanings. He says, “Of the Gods we know nothing, either of their natures or of the names by which they call themselves… Let us, then, if you please, in the first place announce to them that we are not enquiring about them; we do not presume that we are able to do so; but we are enquiring about the meaning of men in giving them these names.”2

According to Hindu thought too, the names of Gods are not names of external beings. These are names of the truths of man’s own highest Self. So the knowledge of the epithets of Gods is a form of self-knowledge. Gods and their names embody truths of the deeper Spirit and meditation on them in turn invokes those truths. But those truths are many and, therefore, Gods and their names too are many, though they are all held together in the unity of a spiritual consciousness. In this chapter, we shall make our acquaintance with some of the names of some of the Vedic Gods.


Nature’s mighty phenomena like the earth, the sky, the sun and the stars are not only Gods but each one of them also bears several names. The famous Amarako§Sa gives 36 names for Fire, 27 names for the Sun, 12 names for Sun’s rays, 29 names for Water, 20 names for Wind, 11 names for Night. The list is partial.

The reasons for giving many names for a single object are easy to follow. The modern man is in a hurry to communicate as much as he understands of a thing. So one or two names to indicate it are sufficient for his purpose. But the old sages were in no such haste. They saw in familiar objects like the earth and the sun more than our age does. They saw in them sources and springs of their own lives. They saw that these things were part of one Great Life; that they were meeting-points of great spiritual truths; that they were images, symbols and signs of great and mighty forces; that they revealed what was concealed; that they prefigured a mighty design; that they were kith and kin, friends and lovers. But in order to yield their deeper meanings, they demanded continued fellow- ship. This the old sages gave ungrudgingly and joyfully. This filled their hearts and the fullness of their hearts broke out in songs of praise.

No wonder, these seers had to have several names to signify the inner and larger life of these objects. These men were not reporters, communicators of outer information about indifferent things. They were worshippers and lovers. They were singers of a larger life, of a deeper fellowship, of a beauty, grandeur and bounty beyond the reach of mere senses and imagination.

So they had scores of names for the Earth. To the modern man, the earth means soil, dry land, cultivable land or at best the globe on which we live. But to the ancients, it was very much more than that. Therefore, they had many names to bring out its innerness. They call it the unmoving one, acala; the stable one, sthira; the boundless one, ananta; the seat of all saps and flavours, rasa; the spacious one, urvi; the great one, mahi; the broad and extended one, prthvi or prthivi; the wide one, vipula; the first one, ddya; one holding all treasures, vasumati or vasumdhara or vasudha; one granting rightly and liberally, rju-vani and rju-hasta; the bearer of all beings, jagadvaha; the great nurse, dhatri; one supporting or holding all, dharani; the mother, mata; the all-enduring or the patient one, ksma or ksama or saha or sarvasaha; the crop- yielding or the fertile one, urvara.

Similarly, the Sun too is given many names. He is called the bright one, bhanu, the flaming one, arci, the brilliant one, arka; he is of variegated lustre and shines with light, citrabhanu; he vivifies and animates, savitr or surya; he warms and burns, tapana; he is gracious, majestic, excellent, a great dispenser, bhaga; he removes all darkness, tamopaha; he is the eyes of the world, lokalocana; he brings about all seasons and creates all time, kalakrta; he appears in twelve forms or is the soul of twelve months, dvadasatma; he rides a chariot drawn by seven horses representing either the seven colours of the rainbow or the seven days of the week, saptasvah; like an eagle with majestic wings, he moves through the sky.and is, therefore, called suparna.3 He is the witness of man’s actions and secret intentions, karmasaksi. He is also called agra-bhuj, one who has precedence in the offered oblations.


Similarly, we have many names for Fire. It purifies, pavaka. It is holy, brilliantly white, unsullied, Sucih. It is a living, breathing thing, anala, from a verbal root an, to breathe. It is homed in splendour, krpa-nila.

Fire has flaming locks, sociskesa; it has the wood for its womb, krpitayoni; its path is smoky, krsnavartani; it moves up serpent- inely, agni; it is the fire of digestion, GSayagni; it partakes of our offerings, hutasana or hutabhaksa or hutabhuj or havirbhuj; it carries our offerings to Gods or manes, vahni, havyavahana, kavyavahana; it is the mouth of all Gods and they receive our offerings through it, sarvadeva-mukha; it is the great dissolvent which consumes all, digests all, pacana; it possesses all, knows all, jatavedas; it burns, scorches, roasts, dahana; it goes up in seven tongues, saptajihva. Those tongues are called kali (dark), karali (formidable), mano-java (having the speed of the mind), sulohita (of beautiful red colour), sudhumra (of beautiful or thick smoke), ugrd (impetuous), sphulingini (sparkling or emitting sparks), pradipta (shining).

Fire has been glorified in invoking the manes who have been called agnisvatta, those whose bodies have been tasted (therefore, purified) by the funeral fire.

Many of the names we have given for fire could be derived from its physical attributes and its function in the Vedic ritual of worship; but it has also names which came directly from man’s psychic being and even the physical names were used for their psychic significance. In short, to the Vedic seers, fire was a God and worshipped as such. Therefore, in the very first Siikta of the Regveda, praise is rendered unto Fire, the priest, purohitam, the divine ministrant; devamrtvijam, the summoner; hotaram, the one who holds all treasures; ratnadhdtamam, the radiant one; rajantam, the protector of sacrifices; adhvaranam gopam; the illuminator of truth, rtasya didivim; the sovereign lord of the sacrifices, rajantamadhvaranam.

Fire is all-knowing, all-possessing, and also the lord of all men, visva-pati;4 the beloved of many, puru-priyam.5 He is called wise, kavi;6 young, yuva=, the youngest or the everyouthful, sada- yavistha.7 He is invoked by oblations of butter, ghrtahavana;8 he is lord of the house, grhapati;9 the observer of truth, satyadharman;10 the remover of all pains, amivacatana;11 self-born, tanu=napa=t12 (literally, son of himself); the desire and praise of men, nara=s^ansa;13 beloved, priya;14 sweet-tongued, madhujihva;15 immortal, amr+ta;16 he is also terrible, rudra;17 vast, mahan;18 illimitable, animana;19 resplendent, purus^candra;20 one who moves everywhere freely, pr+thu praga=man;21 he is irreproachable, anavadya;22 intelligent, medhira;23 free from deceit or one who cannot be trifled with, adabhya;24 one who defends pious acts, vratapa;25 he is everywhere, vibhi.26 He is our auspicious friend, Sivah sakha=27 and we are his kinsmen, jamayah.28 He dwells in all men, visvacarsani.29 The Rgveda says that those who have Agni for their protector will have no vanquisher.30


But there are other Gods in Vedic times and Vedic literature like Indra, Pisana, Varuna, where even the semblance of a physical tethering is dropped and the symbols are purely psychic. It does not mean that all physical references are dropped. This is impossible. For one reason, because the physical and the spiritual are not wholly different. For another, because the physical is part of the language and understanding of the mind. So long as we try to understand a thing mentally and express it in language, the physical is necessary. In the Bible, there are such constant references to God’s eyes, ears, feet and hands that one wonders whether one was not dealing with an anthropomorphic being, rather enlarged and glorified but still human.

This is inevitable. One could start either by having a somewhat physical or concrete symbol and then investing it with more psychic qualities; or one could start with a somewhat more abstract symbol and then give it more physical attributes. In either case, this double process of cross-reference and cross-fertilization is necessary. The physical has to be raised up; the divine has to be brought down.

Of these psychic Gods in the Vedic literature, Indra is the most celebrated one. In the Reveda, he is called the ruler of the world, ifana;31 the celebrated, s^rutam;32 mighty, mahan;33 powerful, vr+s+ana;34 invincible, astrtam;35 of unbounded strength, amitauja;36 never to be defeated or always compliant, apratiskuta;37 accomplisher of wonderful deeds, dasma;38 destroyer of the city of the enemies, puram bhinduh;39 he is wise, vipascitam;40 to him belongs wonderful splendour, citra bhanu; ‘ he is lord of all wealth, vasupati;” performer of good works, sukratu;® lord of many blessings, 1§a4na varyanam;“ maker of beautiful forms or doer of good works, suripa krtnu; sustainer of all pious acts, viSvasya karmano dharta; he is wise, kavi;‘’ radiant as the sun, suracaksas; he is master of a hundred powers or insights or counsels or he has performed a hundred sacrifices, satkratu; ® he comes hastening to us, tutujana; he is mighty in battle, vajesu vajina; ‘ a doer of many deeds, vrsa karman; a bestower of riches, cows and light, goda. In one single line of a Sikta (8.81.2), he is called tuvi kumin, powerful in action; tuvi desna, a bestower of many gifts; tuvi magha, lord of great wealth; tuvi matra, very efficacious. He is also tuvi nrmna,™ very valiant; tuvi Sagma, capable of doing much; tuvi prati,® a powerful resistor; tuvi badha, ’ a mighty oppressor of the enemies.


He is the giver of unfailing succour, aksitoti; he is ever- bounteous, satradavan. °

He is much praised or praised by many, purustuta;® much invoked or invoked by many, puru-hiita; ‘ he is praised with zeal, aristuta;” he is praised by devoted men, arigirta;® he is praised in songs, girvahas™ and celebrated in Rk verses, rgmiyam;® he is the true object of praise and he also delights in invocations, girvanas.©

He is everywhere, vibhu;® he is the master, prabhu.® His works are always right and honest, rju-kratu.”

As in the Bible, he is also given ears and eyes. He is young, yuva;” he listens attentively or he hears all things, @Srut-karna;” he has one thousand eyes, sahasraksa;” he has handsome cheeks or a handsome chin, susipra.”

“Ibid., 1.3.4 ‘Tbid., 1.4.9 ST bid., 1.30.10 “Tbid., 1.9.9 Ibid., 1.63.4 Tbid., 8.1.22

Tbid., 1.5.6 STbid., 1.4.2 Tbid., 1.186.3 “Ibid., 1.5.2 “Tbid., 4.22.6 “Thid., 1.30.5 ‘“Thid., 1.4.1 Thid., 6.44.2 Tbid., 1.9.9 “Tbid., 1.11.4 Tbid., 1.30.9 Tbid., 1.5.7 “Ibid. ‘Tbid., 1.32.6 STbid., 1.9.5 “Tbid., 1.16.1 bid, 1.5.9 Tbid., 1.9.5 “Thid., 1.4.9 Tbid., 1.7.6 Tbid., 1.81.7 “Tbid., 1.3.6 Tbid., 1.57.4

Though he is given a human form yet he is apprehended only by understanding, dhiyesita, and appreciated only by the wise, viprajuta.”

Like Agni, Indra too has three stations. The Vedic seers say: we invoke Indra whether he comes from this earthly region, parthivat, or from the’ heaven above, divah, or from the vast firmament, rajasah.”°


We shall now take up a few other important features of the Vedic Gods. Each God has a thousand names, sahasra-naman, to use an expression of the Atharvaveda. Indra is puru-naman,”° bearer of many names. These he also shares with other Gods. Each God has multiple functions and multiple forms, puru-ripa,” whether he is Rudra or Agni, or Indra. These forms are spiritual and mutually shared. Mitra and Varuna are both sapient, kavi;” they are occupiers of spacious dwellings or are the refuge of the multitude, uru-ksaya.” Indra, Soma and Visnu are wide-striding or much praised, urugdya.® Indra and Agni move in a wide course extending over a wide space, uru-jrayas. ‘ Varuna, Pisana, Soma, Adityas are widely praised, uru-Sansa. Indra, Varuna and Mitra are of powerful nature, ruvijata. ’ Varuna and Mitra are of pure vigour, putadaksa.™ Indra and Varuna are high-spirited, tuvi- §usma;® Indra, Agni and Maruts are very glorious, tuvidyumna Agni, Varuna, Indra are all wise, medhira. ’ Indra, Agni and Soma are fond of invocation, girvanas. Both Indra and Agni are thousand-eyed, sahasraksa; ° both are young, yuva.”°

“Tbid., 1.11.4 Tbid., 1.2.9

™Ibid., 1.10.9 Thid., 162.9

“Ibid., 1.23.3 Thid., 10.29.4; 9.62.13; 2.1.3

“ibid. 1.9.3 Ibid., 8.6.27; 5.6.8

MYpid., 1.355 . SIbid., 1.24.11; 1.138.3; 8.48.4; 2.27.9 Tbid., 1.6.10 “Ibid.,. 1131-7} 1.2.9

Tbid., 8.93.17 “Wbid:, 1:27

™bid., 2.33.9; 5.8.5; 6.47.18 STbid., 6.68.2

Each God is supreme in turn. Indra is the eldest, jyestha. ! Tvastar is the earliest born, agriyam.” Even Agni, who is man’s messenger to the Gods, is the supreme God in his turn. He is called the first one, prathama, and the chiefest Angiras, avgirastamah,” chief of those who bear the name of Angiras like Surya, Prana, Atma, Agni. He is called pre-eminent over the winds, prathamo- ma=taris^van.™

As a result, praises and hymns that are given to one also belong to the others. “Whatever excellent praises are given to other divinities also belong to Indra, the bearer of the thunderbolt.”°

Similarly, in another Siikta addressed to Agni, the Rishi says: “Whatever we offer in repeated and plentiful oblation to any other deity is assuredly offered to thee.”

§STbid., 1.9.6; 3.16.3; 5.87.7 T bid., 1.13.10

Tbid., 1.31.2; 1.25.20; 6.42.3 Ibid. 1-31,2 8Tbid., 1.5.7; 1.45.2; 9.64.14 “bid: 1.31.3 Tid. 1.23.3; 1.79.12 hid. L7.7

Tbid., 1.11.4; 1.12.6 Tbid:, 1.26.6

Ibid., 1.100.4

  1. This most secret Name was rendered by four letters YHWH. But as a result of this secrecy, no one knows how it was pronounced. Its present rendering ‘Jehovah’ appeared for the first time as late as 1516 in Christian texts and is regarded as simply incorrect by competent authorities. When religious men referred to this most secret Name, they used substitutes and even the substitutes were substituted. For example, they said Adoshem in the place of Adonai and Elokhim in the place of Elohim. 

  2. Cratylus, p. 401. 

  3. For the same reason, the Sun God is represented with a falcon’s head in the Egyptian pantheon. 

  4. Rgveda, 1.12.2 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Ibid., 1.12.6 

  7. Ibid., 1.26.2 

  8. Ibid., 1.12.5 

  9. Ibid., 1.12.6 

  10. Ibid., 1.12.7 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Ibid., 1.13.2 

  13. Ibid., 1.13.3 

  14. Ibid., 1.26.7 

  15. Ibid., 1.13.3 

  16. Ibid., 1.26.9 

  17. Ibid., 1.27.10 

  18. Ibid, 1:27.11 

  19. Ibid. 

  20. Ibid. 

  21. Ibid, 1.27.2 

  22. Ibid., 1.31.9 

  23. Ibid., 1.31.2 

  24. Ibid., 1.31.10 

  25. Ibid. 

  26. Ibid., 1.9.5 

  27. Ibid., 1.31.1 

  28. Ibid., 1.31.10 

  29. Ibid,. 1.27.9 

  30. Ibid., 1.27.8 

  31. Ibid., 1.5.10 

  32. Ibid., 1.6.6 

  33. Ibid., 1.63.1 

  34. “Ibid., 1.16.1 

  35. Ibid., 1.4.4 

  36. Ibid., 1.11.4 

  37. Ibid., 1.7.6 

  38. Ibid., 1.4.6 

  39. Ibid., 1.11.4. 

  40. Ibid, 1.4.4.