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Edit: This question is not a duplicate as it is asking about the specific verses mentioned and not a generic question about Vedic Vasihnavism. Please know the difference.


I was watching a Christian apologist video (also related) and they were saying that in Vedas, which are ancient, the religion was polytheistic and not monotheistic and Lord Vishnu was a minor god, not the supreme monotheistic God as modern Vaishnavites practice. Their claim is that Hindus took monotheistic doctrine from Jew and Old Testament around 400 to 500 BCE, and superimposed it with minor Vedic God Vishnu hence creating Vaishnavite systems like Pancharatra etc.

And in their support they cite Vedic verses where Vishnu is subservient to Indra and is seemingly a minor God.

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Now my question is:

  1. Is it true that Vishnu is a minor God in the Vedas, who later became a major God? If no how do you explain the verses mentioned above and how do you establish the supremacy of Vishnu in the Vedas?

  2. Is it possible to show that, if not Vedic, the origin of Vaishnavism was Indic, that Vaishnavite texts, proclaiming supremacy of Vishnu existed in India long before the advent of Jews? Maybe by the dating of Pancaratra, Vishnu Purana or Mahabharata?


Note: This question is not opinion based as I'm asking verses and internal scriptural evidence of Vaishnavism and also this question is very important for Hindus.


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  • @KeshavSrinivasan need your help Aug 23 at 10:01
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  • @Rickross thank you for the link. But I wanted resolution for the above mentioned verses and chronology of Vaishnavism which is not discussed in the other question. Aug 23 at 10:48
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    I have actually attempted to explain it literally - that vishnu here is vamana avatara. Its not my intention to brush it aside as arthaAda. I talked of arthavAda in the context of vedas not being considered literally true by all astikas.
    – user23407
    Aug 25 at 19:06
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    Thank you. I will write if I get the time.
    – user23407
    Aug 25 at 19:15
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+100

I have access to a Ramakrishna mission Bengali translation of Rig Veda Book 1. I have given my free translation of Rig Veda 1.22.16-21. These mantras treat Vishnu as Vaishnavas do. The idea that Vishnu is the preserver of the universe is there in the Rig Veda.

Protect us Devas in this place where Vishnu has trodden in seven regions of the earth.

Rig Veda 1.22.16

Vishnu has specially travelled the whole world. He had planted His foot three times. The whole world is included in the dust of Vishnu’s footsteps.

Rig Veda 1.22.17

Vishnu had trodden the earth three steps [1], He is the protector of all without being hurt by anyone and hence the protector of all dharmas.

Rig Veda 1.22.18

[1] Vishnu as Vamana Avatara had taken three steps.

Sayana’s interpretation: (O Ritviks!) Reflect on Vishu’s karma which ensures success of austerities. That same Vishnu is Indra’s friend.

Jamieson and Griffith’s interpretation: Reflect on Vishnu’s karma from which Vishnu observes everything….That Vishnu is Indra’s friend.

Rig Veda 1.22.19

The wise observe the holy place or footsteps of Vishnu the way an all-knowing eye observes from the earth.[2]

Rig Veda 1.22.20

[2] The above is a Vishnu mantra uttered at the start of a puja.

The wise who are specially gifted with poetic power enkindle or lighten up the best footstep of Vishnu.

Rig Veda 1.22.21

I don't have the Bengalis translations of the other verses. So I will do my best.

The other 4 Rig Veda verses 2.22.1, 6.17.11, 8.15.8-9 and 8.66.10 are hymns to Indra. These are arthavad or eulogy and should not be taken literally. The hymns are meant to glorify Indra and show his greatness. As part of that the hymn says that Vishnu Himself is a dear friend of Indra and even cooks for him. This suggests that Vishnu is acknowledged to be great since otherwise the praise loses its meaning. Nobody would care if a loser is a friend of Indra.

The Aiteriya Brahmana verse 1.30 acknowledges that Vishnu is possessed of the greatest power and changes darkness to light. Then it says that Vishnu is the doorkeeper of the gods. Now we must remember that these gods are jivas who through extraordinary merits have becomes holders of high posts. So Vishnu of highest power cannot be subordinate to the gods. The only sane explanation is that the gods have to worship Vishnu in order to gain liberation. It is in that sense that Vishnu is the gatekeeper.

Is Vaishnava monotheism copied from the Jewish Bible around 400-500 bce?

The answer will depend on when the Jews became monotheistic and also if there was any connection between the Jews and the Hindus around 400-500 bce.

So let us first check when the Jews became monotheistic.

When did Jews adopt the doctrine of monontheism?

At Kuntillet 'Arjud, a place in southern Israel, we find inscriptions dated to around the ninth to eighth centuries BCE. One of these inscriptions, which were published in the 1970s, speaks of the 'Yahweh of Samaria', the very type of designation Eichrodt tells us we would not find among Israelites. He claims that the designations of Yahweh as the God of Dan or Beersheba were denounced by Hebrew prophets (e.g., in Amos 8:14) precisely because they were Canaanite imports. But that alone tells us that such localized descriptions were found among Israelites. To say that this was an import even though almost every other major concept can be found among Israel's neighbors is the height of arbitrariness.

The finds at Kuntillet'Arjud also effectively defeat another of Eichrodt's pronouncements: "Yahweh never had a consort; and thus any idea that he needed to be complemented - a fate which befell all the other major Semitic deities - was rejected. In fact, at Kuntillet'Arjud we find inscriptions that are plausibly translated as " To [Y]ahweh (of) Teiman, and to his Asherah." [1] Inscriptions dated to the eighth century BCE, and with similar references to Asherah as Yahweh's consort, were published earlier by William G. Dever at another site named Khirbet-el-Qom.[2]

[1] William G. Dever, Did God have a Wife? Archeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), p 162 [2] Willaim G. Dever, Did God have a Wife? Archeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel, p 132

The End of Biblical Studies, Biblical Theology: The Pathology of Bibliolatry, Hector Avalos, p 255.

'The Hebrew Goddess' by Raphael Patai also discusses Jewish polytheism. There is evidence that Jews were polytheistic in the eighth century. However, by the time the c 600 ce text the Book of Exodus was written there is no doubt that Judaism was moving towards monotheism.

You shall have no other gods before me ... you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.

Exodus 20:1,5

Of course the very fact that in the Book of Exodus Yahweh has to threaten his followers of dire consequence if they worship other god suggest that polytheism was considered a threat even in 600 BCE. The exact date when Judaism became completely monotheistic is not known.

What do we know about the situation in India in the 600-300 BCE?

There are 3 ancient sources which tell us about about India and Indians in this period.

The first one is 'The Histories' by Herodotus. He mentions about Indian mercenaries fighting for the Persians against the Greeks but does not say anything about their religion.

Alexander's invasion of India around 330 BCE resulted in some books describing India. They do not mention seeing any Jews in India.

The third one is by the Greek Ambassador of the court of Selucus, Megasthenes, in the Maurya court. He talks about a God named Heracles which some scholars think is Krishna. The fragments of his book that survive is silent on Jews in India.

From these three sources one can say with some reliability that Hindus had contact with Greeks and with Persians in the 600-400 BCE. Greeks were polytheists while Persians as Zoroastrians were monotheists. We simply do not find any recorded source that mentions any contact between Hindus and Jews in that period.

There seems to be greater possibility that Vaishnavism derived its monotheism from the Persians than from the Jews. In reality Vaishnava monotheism seems a product of India. This is clear from what Megasthenes wrote. Krishna (Heracles) was an important deity even around 300 bce. Mahabharata which is dated between 400 BCE to 400 CE clearly supports the idea that Krishna was an important deity even earlier. Mahabharata does not mention Jews anywhere in the text. Moreover Lord Krishna is mentioned in the Chandogya Upanishad.

Ghora Angirasa expounded this well known doctrine to Devaki's son Krishna and said , 'Such a knower should at the time of death repeat this triad - "Thou art the imperishable, Thou art the unchangeable, Thou art the subtle essence of Prana." (on hearing the above) Krishna became thirstless. There are two Rk stanzas in regard to this.

Chandogya Upanishad 3.17.6

Chandogya Upanishad was composed around 900 BCE according to western scholars. The fact that such an old text mentions Sri Krishna suggests that Krishna was a very important deity even in 900 BCE when Judaism was most likely polytheist. So one could argue that early Vaishnavism predates monotheistic Judaism by a large margin.

The claim made by Christian apologists is an extraordinary one. As we have shown that when Judaism became monotheist is uncertain and that there is no evidence that there was any contact between Hindus and Jews in that time. In fact Hindus had much greater contact with Persians and Greeks. Thus the Christian apologists would need to give extraordinary proof of their extraordinary claim for anyone to believe them.

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  • verses 2.22.1, 6.17.11, 8.15.8-9 and 8.66.10 are hymns to Indra, if these are arthavaad then what is the metaphor. If Vishnu is great and is used for cooking and dancing for Indra, it only places Indra above Vishnu. There's also name Upendra. The problem is you can't say someone did it, because these are Vedas and Apaurusheya and no one did it. So I think there's some deeper esoteric meaning here. Also you have translation can you please give free translation of the above verses as well. Aug 24 at 4:53
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    So when the mantras are on Indra they are arthavad but when they are on Vishnu they are literal?
    – Rickross
    Aug 24 at 6:32
  • @MrGreenGold,I don't have the Bengali translations of Books 2-10 of Rig Veda. I only have book 1 translations. This is the reason why I only wrote about Book 1 initially. You may well be right that there might be some deeper esoteric meaning. Unfortunately today no one knows about such a meaning. I would wtite some more on it in my next comment. Aug 24 at 12:35
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    No ancient commentary exists on Rig Veda. The oldest is only 600 years old and is interpreted from the Purva Mimamsa point of view. This absence of authoritative commentaries has given many western commentators a field day in interpreting the Rig Veda. This has also allowed Christian and Islamic people to mis-interpret the Rig Veda as they want. They will not find mis-interpreting the Upanishads or the Itihasas so easy. Aug 24 at 12:44
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    @PradipGangopadhyay excellent 👏👏 Aug 27 at 5:48
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Summary : The Vedas DO NOT declare Vishnu as a minor deity. He occupies very much the same lofty position as he always has. The verses are not accurately represented, but despite that is to be understood as reference to Lord Trivikrama, Indra’s younger brother, showing brotherly affection for him. There’s no labour involved.


Detailed Obviously, just like the Puranas, the Vedas too declare Brahman in a similar fashion, the very one for whom all scriptures are supposed to be dedicated. We shall restrict the discussion to only Shri Hari. As per the question there are some ‘apparently’ contradictory verses about him, which we shall sort below.

The Supremacy of Shri Hari in the Rigveda

It is incorrect to say that Vedas do not proclaim Shri Hari as Brahman. One answer already gives the Shadvaishnava verses which show Vishnu’s high position. In addition I’d like to state one more (taken from here):

यः पू॒र्व्याय॑ वे॒धसे॒ नवी॑यसे सु॒मज्जा॑नये॒ विष्ण॑वे॒ ददा॑शति । यो जा॒तम॑स्य मह॒तो महि॒ ब्रव॒त्सेदु॒ श्रवो॑भि॒र्युज्यं॑ चिद॒भ्य॑सत् ॥

Vishnu is the most ancient of all, yet also the most recent. Nothing and no one creates Vishnu, yet Vishnu creates everyone and everything.
-Rigveda 1.156.2

Against the above translation, Sayanacharya’s explanation presents a slightly different and more convincing view. Some words are explained by him:

  1. ‘पूर्व्याय’ पूर्वकालीनाय नित्यायेत्यर्थः - pūrvāya means ancient and must be understood as nitya (eternal).
    2. ‘वेधसे’ विविधजगत्कर्त्रे - Vedhas means the creator of many jagats (worlds).
    3. ‘नवीयसे’ नित्यनूतनाय अत्यन्तरमणीयायेत्यर्थः - navīyas means one forever knew, to be understood as extremely pleasing to look at.
    4.‘जातं’ जन्म उत्पत्तिं हिरण्यगर्भादिरूपं जन्म - jata means birth in the from of Hiranyagarbha.

In fact, for the very next verse (1.156.3) Sayanacharya explains :

विष्णोरेव स्वर्गापवर्गसाधनाय इष्ट्याद्यात्मना द्रव्यदेवतात्मना वा परिणामम् - Only Vishnu is the facilitator of svarga and moksha, he is the atman of the Yajna and the devata of the Dakshina or (and) the result as well.

Thus we can see that the supremacy of Narayana is upheld by the Rigveda samhita.


Solving the ‘Apparent’ Contradiction

This will be done in two parts. First present a more accurate explanation for the verses quoted in the question, as per Sayanacharya. Second the reason for contradiction.

A. Sayanacharya’s explanation for the verses

From the below it will be seen that while giving a fairly accurate translation, how the verses in the question have been misrepresented in their titular summary.

  1. Rigveda 2.22.1:
    The translation in the verse quoted says Indra drank (the poured out) Soma with Vishnu, yet the title wrongly says he pressed Soma for Indra. As per Sayana too there’s no pressing (labour) by Vishnu. He simply says:

तं सोमं विष्णुना सह अपिबत् - he drank that Soma with Vishnu.

  1. Rigveda 6.17.11:
    In the very same translation quoted, the verse talks about a certain ‘he’ who has cooked buffaloes. That same ‘he’ together with Pushan and Vishnu poured 3 vessels of Soma for Indra. Thus this ‘he’ cannot be Vishnu who cooks. If one sees the previous verses, it’s amply clear that this ‘he’ is Tvashta (explained by Sayanacharya as devatas architect). Although little confusing, Sayana too says, ‘may he cook’ in singular form (पचेत्) and hence can’t refer to all 3 but only Tvashta. There’s no cooking of beef by Vishnu. Vishnu pusha Tvashta only pour the soma. Though little out of order, he says these 3 fill 3 vessels of Soma:

सोमैः पात्राणि पूरयन्त इत्यर्थः - they fill the 3 vessels with Soma.

  1. Rigveda 8.15.9 of the devatas praising Indra is correct, even as per Sayana Bhashya

  2. Rigveda 8.66.10 quoted above doesn’t match with Sayana’s 8.66.10 of the Rigveda. Hence not commenting. But let’s assume it’s true (it’ll be sorted below).

Thus we can see some claims made are not accurate, not even matching with the same translation given against it.

B. Explaining the ‘apparent’ contradiction

Though the claims have been proven inaccurate, the question still remains, why is Vishnu (declared supreme in the Rigveda) drinking Soma alongside Indra and why is he pouring him? Does the same person, whom the same Rigveda declares as eternal, do this?

The answer is, ‘Vishnu’ has a dual meaning - Narayana as well as Trivikrama. The person who’s pouring the soma is to be understood as Vishnu in the form of Trivikrama, the son of Aditi and Kashyapa and Indra’s younger brother, and not in the form of the eternal God. Proof of this is from the Rigveda itself. Please see the Shadvaishnava verse 1.22.17 and Sayana’s explanation:

इ॒दं विष्णु॒र्वि च॑क्रमे त्रे॒धा नि द॑धे प॒दम् । समू॑ळ्हमस्य पांसु॒रे॥

Sayana says- विष्णुः त्रिविक्रमावतारधारी ... जगद् ... विशेषेण क्रमणं कृतवान्। तदा त्रिभिः प्रकारैः स्वकीयं पादं प्रक्षिप्तवान्। सेयमृक् यास्केनैवं व्याख्याता - विष्णुर्विशतेर्वा ... यदिदं किंच विक्रमते विष्णुस्त्रिधा निधत्ते पदं...।

Vishnu in the form of Trivikrama transgressed the world. Then he cast his legs in three different ways. This Rik has been explained by Yaska - Vishnu the one who pervades or the one who transgresses (pervades) the world, while placing his feet in 3 ways.

We can see that Vamana is also called Vishnu not merely because of being Narayana, but because he became so huge that he pervaded bhu bhuvah svah. In this case, it doesn’t mean Narayana who pervades all creation and hence called Vishnu. The word ‘Vishnu’ carries a dual meaning.

These words of the Veda and the relation between Indra and Vamana can be further explained from the Harivamsa. In the Govardhana episode similar to the ‘apparently’ confusing Vedic verses, Indra too first acknowledges Narayana as of higher position than him, but is quick to go back to Upendra. For example:

[praising as higher] Krishna, all the creations of this world are in your body. This is as per the direction of brahma. You are among the gods , like gold in minerals. Even the self manifested brahma, with his knowledge and position, is unable to understand you, like a lame man who is unable to catch up with a fast runner.
Vishnu Parva verses 19.23-24

[Back to Upendra] People on the earth will worship mahendra (me) and upendra (you) with flags and sacrifices.
-Vishnu Parva verse 19.58

The above (first declare as supreme then younger brother) is because, though Indra knows who Vishnu is, yet he considers him as a younger brother (Harivamsa 2.19.37) and expects the same the same respect a younger sibling will give the older. This can be seen from Indra’s words when Krishna wants to take the Parijata from him, an event subsequent to Govardhana (where Indra himself acknowledges Narayana as higher than himself). You can find it here.

Therefore even the explanation for the Vedic verses is the same simple one. A younger brother Vishnu Trivikrama is respectfully praising the older and both are drinking Soma together with brotherly affection, even one pouring some of it for the other.


Conclusion

To answer your following question:

Is it true that Vishnu is a minor God in the Vedas, who later became a major God? If no how do you explain the verses mentioned above and how do you establish the supremacy of Vishnu in the Vedas?

The Vedas mostly extol the residents of svarga and Vishnu as Trivikrama (being Indra’s younger brother) is included among them. However besides being included as Trivikrama, he is also supreme and eternal in the same Veda. How can someone described as eternal, be only a minor deity?

The verses as stated are grossly misrepresented in the question. After deriving a more accurate meaning, they can be explained as the brotherly respect and affection shown by Vishnu playing the role of Trivikrama, Indra’s younger brother.


Extra Note: It is pertinent to note that the Vedic samhitas extol the residents of svarga, more than Brahman since through the Karmakanda (yajna) portion they get their nourishment. Hence in almost all places, the names belong mostly to the Adityas (Vishnu included), Vasus like Agni, Vishvedevas, Ribhus and such heavenly residents. Hence the Vishnu included in these lists is Trivikrama Vamana. If the supreme gods were to be shown as serving Indra, why are Rudra and Hiranyagarbha not included with these devatas? Because they did not incarnate among the Adityas. Vishnu incarnated and hence Vamana is included among the 12 Adityas. Where he’s spoken of as Brahman, he’s Brahman and not these devatas.

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