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In the Bala Kanda of the Ramayana, the sage Vishwamitra tells Rama and Lakshmana the famous story of the descent of the Ganga river to Earth. As described in this chapter of the Bala Kanda, Rama's ancestor Sagara once conducted an Ashwamedha Yagna (horse ritual), and Indra, fearing that the yagna would make Sagara too powerful, stole the sacrificial horse so that Sagara couldn't complete the ritual. So Sagara sent his sons to look for the horse, and they scoured the earth trying to find it. As described in the next chapter, Sagara's sons finally found the horse near the ashram of Kapila, a great sage and incarnation of Vishnu. They accused Kapila of stealing the horse, and he was so enraged that he burned them all to ashes. It was the quest to scatter the ashes of Sagara's sons in a holy body of water that motivated Sagara's descendant Bhagiratha to bring the river Ganga from Devaloka to Earth.

But my question is about how the sage Kapila is referred to in the passage. For instance, here is what Brahma says when he tells the gods that Kapila is going to burn Sagara's sons to ashes:

To whom this Mother Earth belongs in all her entirety, he is that prescient Vāsudeva, and she is also the consort of that Maadhava, and that Vishnu eternally props up Mother Earth. Hence, that reverential Vishnu donning the semblance of Sage Kapila will burn down the sons of emperor Sagara to ashes in a fire of fury.

And here is the description of Kapila when he is seen by the sons of Sagara:

But all those great-souled and great-mighty ones with terrible dash have seen the Infinite Vāsudeva in the form of sage Kapila there in the northeast, and oh, descendant of Raghu, they have also seen the ritual-horse moving nearby that sage Kapila, thus all of the sons of Sagara obtained a matchless delight.

I'm interested in the fact that Vishnu is referred to by the name "Vāsudeva". Now when people today refer to Vishnu as Vāsudeva, they mostly do it because it's a name of Vishnu's incarnation Krishna, since his father was named Vasudeva. Yet this is a passage in the Ramayana, which was composed long before Krishna was even born, and it's talking about events that happened long before Rama was even born! This could be because Brahma and Vishwamitra already foresaw Vishnu being born as Vasudeva's son in the future, or it could be that the name "Vāsudeva" is being used literally, to mean "Lord of the Vasus"; the Vasus are a group of 8 Vedic gods associated with various slements of nature.

In any case, my question is, is the Ramayana the earliest Hindu scripture which refers to Vishnu as Vāsudeva, or are there even earlier scriptures? Is he called Vāsudeva in the Vedas?

  • An earlier than sagara episode is the Daksha Yagna episode in which Vishnu is referred to as vasudeva by Shiva. – user1195 Feb 9 '15 at 16:53
  • Narada told Dhruva " Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya" mantra to meditate on Vishnu. – The Destroyer Dec 29 '15 at 11:14
  • @AnilKumar Yeah, but I'm not looking for the chronologically earliest reference, I'm looking for the oldest scripture that mentions him. – Keshav Srinivasan Dec 29 '15 at 11:41
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    @Surya Yeah, this question was written in the site's early days, before I learned about the role of Vasudeva in Pancharatra and the like. – Keshav Srinivasan Jan 16 '16 at 12:17
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    Vishnu Purana clearly defines Vasudeva as the omniscient god with countless auspicious attributes. – subash rajaa Sep 23 '17 at 7:10
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The name Vasudeva appears in Vedic times it self and it refers to Lord Vishnu/Narayana.

The famous hymn known as Vishnu Gayatri appearing in the Taittiriya Narayana Upanishad (Which is part of Taittiriya Aranyaka) states:

"Om nArAyaNAya vidmahe, vAsudevAya dhImahi, tanno viShNuH pracodayAt".

"We endeavour to Narayana, we meditate on Vasudeva and let Vishnu bestow wisdom on us"

This Vedic statement evidently reveals the identity of all the three deities.

In the post vedic period, the agamas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the vaishnava puranas have used these names repeatedly to denote the same one reality of the upanishads.

The term Vasudeva (derived from the root verb "vas" meaning to reside) is interpreted by the Vishnupurana as one who abides everywhere and who is also the source of everything emphasizing the all pervasive character of reality as stated in the Taittriya Narayana Upanishad. The suffix "deva" added to "vasu" implies that he shines forth untouched by any defects though he abides in everything. It also signifies he enjoys himself with creation of universe which is a sport to him and the celestial beings always sing his glory.

Thus all the terms Vishnu, Vasudeva, Narayana bear the same import and denote the same one ultimate reality.

Also, naturally, Lord Vasudeva being the Supreme being, is Lord of not only the 8 vasus but also, all Adityas, Vasus, Rudras etc...But, the other way is not correct, i.e. just because he is head of Vasus he is called Vasudeva.

The name 'Vasudeva' brings out the meaning that all are 'in Him' ('Sarvam vasathi- Vasudeva") and not just the 8 Vasus

For more details please read the book "Vaishnavism: Its philosophy, theology and religious discipline" by Dr. SMS Chari

Also, naturally, Lord Vasudeva being the Supreme being, is Lord of not only the 8 vasus but also, all Adityas, Vasus, Rudras etc...But, the other way i.e. just because he is head of Vasus, hence he is called Vasudeva may not be correct.

The name 'Vasudeva' brings out the meaning that all are 'in Him' ('Sarvam vasathi- Vasudeva") and not just the 8 Vasus

Also, in the Vasudeva Upanishad (which talks about the application of Urdhva pundra) the name Lord Vasudeva appears.

The name Lord Vasudeva appears in Mudgala and other upanishads also (i don't have the list)

  • First of all, Vyasa compiled the Vedas into four books at the end of the Dwapara Yuga. And the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads are commentaries on Vyasa's Samhitas, and thus would presumably have been added on to the Vedas in the beginning of the Kali Yuga at the earliest. So any reference to Vasudeva in the Mahanarayana Upanishad would be far newer than the reference I found in the Ramayana, which was composed in the Treta Yuga. – Keshav Srinivasan Oct 29 '14 at 8:20
  • So do you know of any reference to Vasudeva that's older than the Taittirya Aranyaka? The Mahabharata and the Puranas are all younger than the Ramayana. – Keshav Srinivasan Oct 29 '14 at 8:24
  • I am, sorry, i don't have an answer to that. My understanding that Brahmanas and Samhitas form the Purva or Karma Khada of the Vedas. Brahmanas relate to holy performances while `Samhitas' to holy dictates. Aranyakas (Ritual interpretations) and Upanishads (Metaphysical Dialogues) the Uttara or Brahma Khanda of the Vedas. So, i think, they are part of the Vedas...Sorry, in case it doesn't answer your question. – user808 Oct 29 '14 at 9:39
  • You see, the thing is that the term "Veda" has two uses. One use is the body of mantras which were heard from the gods by sages called Dhrishtas. These mantras were compiled by Vyasa into a set of books we call the Samhitas. Now after the Samhitas were compiled by Vyasa, supplementary texts were added, in particular Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads. So the term Vedas is often used to refer to Samhitas along with those supplementary texts. – Keshav Srinivasan Oct 29 '14 at 14:39
  • So if you want to find the ages of things, Samhitas are the oldest, Brahmanas are younger, Aranyakas are even younger, and Upanishads are the youngest. So most Upanishads (other than Isha, Brihadaranyaka, and Chandogya) are far younger than the Ramayana. So to find a reference to Vasudeva older than the Ramayana, you have to look at only Samhitas and Brahmanas. I can give you links to them if you want. – Keshav Srinivasan Oct 29 '14 at 14:43

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