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A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 1

Henotheism is therefore an appearance


ref 2] R.V.X. 168. 3, 4.

It was the forces of nature and her manifestations, on earth here, the atmosphere around and above us, or in the Heaven beyond the vault of the sky that excited the devotion and imagination of the Vedic poets. Thus with the exception of a few abstract gods of whom we shall presently speak and some dual divinities, the gods may be roughly classified as the terrestrial, atmospheric, and celestial.

Polytheism, Henotheism and Monotheism.

The plurality of the Vedic gods may lead a superficial enquirer to think the faith of the Vedic people polytheistic. But an intelligent reader will find here neither polytheism nor monotheism but a simple primitive stage of belief to which both of these may be said to owe their origin. The gods here do not preserve their proper places as in a polytheistic faith, but each one of them shrinks into insignificance or shines as supreme according as it is the object of adoration or not. The Vedic poets were the children of nature. Every natural phenomenon excited their wonder, admiration or veneration. The poet is struck with wonder that "the rough red cow gives soft white milk." The appearance or the setting of the sun sends a thrill into the minds of the Vedic sage and with wonder-gazing eyes he exclaims:

"Undropped beneath, not fastened firm, how comes it That downward turned he falls

not downward? The guide of his ascending path,--who saw it?"

[Footnote Ref 1] R.V. IV. 13. 5.

The sages wonder how "the sparkling waters of all rivers flow into one ocean without ever filling it." The minds of the Vedic


[Footnote 1: _The Rigveda_, by Kaegi, p. 35.]

[Footnote 2: _Ibid_, p. 38.]


people as we find in the hymns were highly impressionable and fresh. At this stage the time was not ripe enough for them to accord a consistent and well-defined existence to the multitude of gods nor to universalize them in a monotheistic creed. They hypostatized unconsciously any force of nature that overawed them or filled them with gratefulness and joy by its beneficent or aesthetic character, and adored it. The deity which moved the devotion or admiration of their mind was the most supreme for the time. This peculiar trait of the Vedic hymns Max Muller has called Henotheism or Kathenotheism: "a belief in single gods, each in turn standing out as the highest. And since the gods are thought of as specially ruling in their own spheres, the singers, in their special concerns and desires, call most of all on that god to whom they ascribe the most power in the matter,--to whose department if I may say so, their wish belongs. This god alone is present to the mind of the suppliant; with him for the time being is associated everything that can be said of a divine being;--he is the highest, the only god, before whom all others disappear, there being in this, however, no offence or depreciation of any other god [Footnote ref 1]." "Against this theory it has been urged," as Macdonell rightly says in his _Vedic Mythology_ [Footnote ref 2], "that Vedic deities are not represented as 'independent of all the rest,' since no religion brings its gods into more frequent and varied juxtaposition and combination, and that even the mightiest gods of the Veda are made dependent on others. Thus Varu@na and Surya are subordinate to Indra (I. 101), Varu@na and the As'vins submit to the power of Vi@s@nu (I. 156)....Even when a god is spoken of as unique or chief (_eka_), as is natural enough in laudations, such statements lose their temporarily monotheistic force, through the modifications or corrections supplied by the context or even by the same verse [Footnote Ref 3]. "Henotheism is therefore an appearance," says Macdonell, "rather than a reality, an appearance produced by the indefiniteness due to undeveloped anthropomorphism, by the lack of any Vedic god occupying the position of a Zeus as the constant head of the pantheon, by the natural tendency of the priest or singer in extolling a particular god to exaggerate his greatness and to ignore other gods, and by the

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