From Agni to Om:

Evolution of Godhood in Hinduism


GOD, derided as a delusion by some, is perhaps the highest concept evolved by human beings. The focus of this paper is on exploring the gradual development of Indian thought towards defining a “Creator” God (Prajapati - the One Lord of All) in the Rig Veda, followed by eventual emergence of the concept of an all-inclusive Godhood symbolized by the word OM during the Upanishadic period.


OM is the imperishable word.
OM is the Universe, and this is the exposition of OM
The past, the present and the future,
all that was, all that is, all that will be, is OM.
Likewise all else that may exist
beyond the bounds of Time, that too is OM.

- (Mandukya Upanishad – Translation, Aurobindo, 1994, p. 319)

OM is a well-known word these days. Its resonating chant can be heard at the beginning of Yoga sessions the world over. This Sanskrit word, with its cosmic vibrations, owes its origin to Vedic Indians identified as Hindus now.

And yet the word OM finds no mention in the Rig Veda, considered as the most sacred scripture of Hinduism. Rig (c. 2000-1100 BC) is the first of the four Vedas. This is how Chandogya Upanishad (Translation, Aurobindo, 1994, p. 349) chronicles the sequential progression of Indian thought towards OM:

Earth is the essence of all elements (bhootanam) and the waters are the essence of earth; herbs are the essence of waters; and man is the essence of herbs. Speech (vacha) is the essence of Man, Rig-Veda the essence of Speech; Sama the essence of Rik, Of Sama OM is the essence.

Almost a thousand years were to lapse between composition of first of the Rig Vedic hymns and emergence of the word “OM” in the Vedic lexicon via chanting of Yajur/Sama Veda mantras. And yet another few hundred years passed before OM could reach its full exposition during the Upanishadic times. It is a fascinating journey of thought accomplished by the Vedic seers of yore, and great Rishis who composed the Vedic hymns and wrote the Upanishads. Some of these hymns remain unsurpassed for the depth of their insight and beauty of their expression. They predate almost all of the contemporary religions and can be viewed as a common heritage of all mankind.

In the beginning was Agni – Rig Veda

Rig Veda is a collection (samhita) of 1028 suktas (hymns of praise) arranged in 10 sections, called books/mandalas. Each sukta contains an average of 10 rcas / mantras. Considered the oldest surviving book in an Indo-European language, it is perhaps the most important document available to mankind for tracing development of early human knowledge. Rooted in direct experience of a “keenly perceptual and deeply reflective” people, blessed with a language of precision and beauty (Sanskrit), the Rig Veda contains seeds of almost the entire modern social and natural sciences. To that extent, it could be termed as a seminal book of knowledge for the whole mankind.

In addition to devotional (stuti) mantras, the Rig chronicles experience, thoughts and struggles of early Vedic Indians over a period of almost 1000 years in 2nd millennium of the B.C. era. A large number of poets and sages belonging to different Rishi clans (kuls) seem to have contributed to this collection over many generations. The Angiras (an ancient kul of vedic rishis) have the maximum number of rcas to their credit – 3,619, almost a 3rd of the total. A large number of their hymns were addressed to Agni, Sanskrit word for “fire”.

Well, fire was the “in” thing during those early days of civilized human existence with its newly discovered usage in extraction of metals and forging of metallic weapons and implements. Horse drawn “chariots” seem ubiquitous in the Rig. It was the Age of Copper and Bronze and Iron was just on the horizon. The “fire” assumed status of an important deity among the Rig Vedic people.

The very first verse of the Rig Veda starts with the famous words of “Agnim-ile Purohitam ...tvam Hotram ....” as a tribute to Agni. Here are a few typical hymns addressed to Agni in the Rig Veda (Translation, Griffith, 1896):

I pray to Agni, the household priest (Purohotam) who is god of the sacrifice (yagya), the Hotram who chants and invokes other gods (devas) and brings treasures ........ I laud Agni … Whatever blessings, Agni, thou will grant unto thy worshipper,That, Angiras, is thy truth (Rv 1.1.1 & 6).

To thee, Most youthful Deva! To thee, O Agni,from near and far the people bring their tribute (Rv 5.1.1 from Atrey clan mandala).

Thou, first inventor of this prayer, O Agni, worker of marvels, has become our herald (Rv 6.1.1 from mandala attributed to BArhaspatya family of Angiras).

Victorious Agni, grant me wealth with wisdom,
Wealth with brave sons, famous and independent,
which not a foe who deals in magic conquers
(Rv 7.1.5 from mandala attributed to Vasishtha Maitravaruni).

So here are the Rig Vedic people, vigorous and strong, trying to establish themselves in a hostile environment. They adore Agni but have disdain for their “magic-loving” foes. The sacred Agni is seen not only as as an important deity by itself as a giver of bounties, but is used also to invoke other powerful deities like Indra, Varuna, Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, Adityas, Ashvins, Pusan, Brhaspati, Visnu and Savitar.

From Many Deities (Devatas) to One God

A large number of Rig Veda hymns (suktas) are addressed to various deities either to praise their heroic deeds (e.g. Indra) or ask for bounties like dhan, dhanya, good health and long life from deities representing natural forces. Almost 20 % of them are dedicated to Indra, apparently a deified Aryan hero, for having slain their enemy Vrtra and vanquishing other formidable foes. Another 15 % are addressed to Agni (the Sacred Fire) as a generous Giver of bounties.

It is human nature that when survival needs of food and shelter have been met, man’s aspirations turn to higher impulses. Settling in the fertile Saptasindhu area of North-West India, they achieved that stage. This comes in clear focus with the Gayatari Mantra addressed to the Sun-god Savitur (Rv., 3.62.10) in the mandala 3 of Rig Veda:

Just as Savitur lights the three worlds
(Bhur: Bhava: Swah: - Earth, Air and Sky),
May He enlighten my intellect,
so that the brightest of thoughts flow through my mind.

Gayatari is perhaps the oldest hymn that has maintained continuity to the present day. It is chanted regularly by countless followers of the vedic tradition as a part of their daily ritual and by many others during yoga meditation. The mantra is considered very powerful due to sublimity of its content and cosmic vibrations of its sound. This mantra apparently inspired generations of Vedic poets and seers during the 2nd millennium of B.C. era to think brighter and seek higher. What is behind all these functional deities! The pointer to some Eternal entity (aksharam) behind all of these is contained in the “Tvamekam” hymn of the same period (Rv. 3.55).

An important milestone in this search for the “One behind Many”, is marked by the rca “ekam sad’ vipra bahudha vedanti” (Rv. 1.164.46) - “Reality is One, learned call it by different names”. Mandala 1 is chronologically much later than mandala 3 of the Gaytari but earlier than mandala 10. That there is One behind all the “functional” deities of the Rig Veda was the first step. Then comes the final realization, after perhaps 500-600 years of the Gayatari, via a hymn of mandala 10 (Rv. 10.121.2 & 10):

Ya Atmda Balda (He who gives Life & Succor),
Yasya Vishwa Upasate (the One whom the whole world worships),
Prashisham Yasya Deva (to Whom all the deities pay their respects)
Yasya Chaya Amritam (Whose very shadow grants immortality),
Yasya Mrityu (The One who commands Death),
Kasmai Devay Havisha Vidhem (Who is That whom all devas i.e. deities too offer oblation)..……
Prajapate na tva detaananyo … (That One is none other than PRAJAPATI)

Both hymns of mandala 3 i.e. Gayatari/Tvamekam, as also the Prajapati (mandala 10), are attributed to Rishis of Vishvamitra kul. While Gaytari is from the oldest core of Rig Veda (books 2-7), book/mandala 10 is composed of later additions after many centuries. The language difference between the two speaks for itself.

Prajapati as envisaged above represented that single entity, the One (Creator) God, that was still being sought by people of different faiths in other parts of the world. They ultimately did find their “God”, with the help of their Prophets hearing voices/messages of the Almighty God through angels. Vedic realization of the Creator, however, came through the wisdom and tapas of Rishis and Vedic seers, blessed with divine grace and an unquenchable quest for enquiry into “Who” (KA:). The Prajapati hymn, quoted above is appropriately titled as KA: by its composer.

OM - From “One God” to “There is only God”

The first reference to the word “OM” in the vedic lexicon appears in the Taititreya Samhita (ascribed to sage Yajnavalka) of the Yajur Veda as pointed out by Swami Chinamayananda in his commentary on Kathopanishad (Chinmayananda, 1963, p. 92). The Yajur reference to Om (Yv. 2.13, 40.15,17) was soon followed by the Sama Veda with its practice of chanting OM at the beginning of all vedic hymns. This is how Chhandogya Upanishad describes the umbilical relationship between OM and Sama:

Worship ye OM, the eternal syllable; OM is Udgitha, the chant of Samveda; For with OM they begin the chant of Sama (Translation, Aurobindo, 1994, p. 349)

Sama defines the seven swaras (musical notes) and sets mantras of Rig Veda to melodies sung by Udgatar priests during a variety of Brahmanic rituals. Apparently the syllable OM was adopted by these priests as a prefix to mantras to improve musical quality of their recitations. But once used in such chanting, the appeal of its cosmic vibrations and resonating quality of its sound was unstoppable. OM has now become the most used syllable for chanting by itself as “AUM” or as a prefix to all the vedic hymns and many a Hindu/Budhist prayers.

In the meanwhile, Prajapati too was undergoing metamorphosis of its own. The name Ishwara, signifying owner/master aspect of the Creator was to replace the term Prajapati in most popular Hindu prayers in later centuries. This Ishwara was conceived not only as All-Powerful (Sarvashktiman) but also as Omnicient/Omni-present (Sarvantaryami & Sarvavyapak). The latter aspect found it’s elucidation in the idea of an all-pervading “Brahman” as indicated in the following verses of Atharva Veda (Refer End Note 1):

Brahma Hota, Brahma Yagya
Divine Supreme is the Priest, He too is the Sacrifice
Brahmana Svararovo Mita
Divine Pots have been set by the Divine Supreme
Adhvaryu Brahmana Jat Brahmana Adhvaryu
Priest is born of the Divine Supreme
Anta Hitam Havi Brahmana
And Sacrificial Offering is put within the Divine Supreme
(Av. XIX.42.1)

Brahma Srutvo Ghrivati
Divine Supreme is the ladle full of Purified Butter
Brahmana Vedi Udvidatam
By Divine Supreme is the altar raised
Brahma Yagysya Tatvecha
Divine Supreme is the substance of the Sacrifice
Shritivajoye He’ Nishkrit’e
As also the priests that offer oblations
Shamitaye Swah:
Hail the Purified One (Av. XIX.42.2)

This then is the genesis of the concept of an All-Pervading Reality – a non-dualisitic Brahaman. Under this emerging paradigm, developed further in most of the Upanishads and reiterated in the Bhagvad Gita many centuries later, there is no Ishwara distinct from Creation. OM, used in place of the usual Upanishadic term of Brahaman, thus becomes not just the subtle but also the material cause of Creation. Vedic seers searching for “Who” during the 2nd millennium of the BC era now find their answer to “Where”.

The geography and environments perhaps shape peoples’ vision of the Supreme. The prophets of the deserts saw their God somewhat distant and remote like a mirage. The vedic seers looking through sacred flames of the Agni visualized their OM shining in every particle of the universe. The Hindus, sitting around the sacred fire and singing songs of praise for that “One Lord of All”, now see Agni not as a goal but as a means of creating a devotional environment to reach Him.

But there was OM before the Beginning!

There is a very interesting hymn on Creation in the 10th book/mandala of Rig Veda known as Nasadiya Sukta (Rv. 10.129). It is summarized below:

Then there was neither Non-Existent, Nor Existent
There was no realm of Air nor Sky beyond it
What covered it and Where? And what gave shelter?
Neither Death nor Immortality; No sign of Day or Night Divider
That One thing, Breathless, breathed by its own Nature;
Apart from it there was nothing whatsoever
There was darkness and All was indiscriminate chaos
Thereafter rose Desire, Desire the primal seed and germ of Spirit
Sages discovered the Existent’s kinship with the Non-existent
Then there were begetters, there were mighty forces
Free action here, and energy up yonder
Who knows whence came this creation!
The “Devas” are later than this world’s production
He, the first origin of this Creation;
May be He knows or maybe He knows Not!

Sounds like an echo of the Big Bang of Creation billions of years ago. May be it was the humming sound of OM that, smitten by Cosmic Desire, rose gradually to a crescendo and triggered it All!

OM Poornamada Poornamidam, Poornat’ Poornam Udachayat’e
Poornasaya Poornamadaya’, Poornmeva Vishahyat’e

(Isavasya Upanishad)

That (OM) is Infinite This (Universe) too is Infinite,
From that Infinite (OM) has emerged this Infinite (Universe)
Take away Infinite from the Infinite, what is left is still the Infinite
Om Shant’i, Shant’i, Shant’ih:


1. Aurobindo, Sri (1994), The Upanishads, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
2. Chinmayananda, Swami (1963), Discourses on Kathopanishad, Mumbai: Central Chinmaya Mission Trust (Sandeepany Sadhanalay).
3. Griffith, Ralph T.H. (1896), The Hymns of the Rigveda (2nd edition), Kotagiri, Nilgiri: (Text available on the Internet).
4. Kashyap, R.L. and Sadagopan, S (2005), Rigveda Samhita, Bangalore: Sri Aurobindo Kapali Sastry Institute of Vedic Culture*.
5. Talageri, Shrikant G. (2000), The Rigveda: A Historical Analysis, New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan**.
6. Witzel, Michael (2002), Indus Civilization and Vedic Society: An Open Page write-up published in THE HINDU, Online Edition of January 29, 2002***

End Notes

1. Atharvaveda hymns taken from “Arya Samaj” translations.
2. *This Devnagari text used for authentication of “Sanskrit” quotes of Rigveda mantras.
3. ** Talageri’s book/AnukramaNIs used for names of the Rishis for verses from Rigveda as also for internal chronology of different mandalas.
4. ***Witzel’s write-up used as a general guideline for timeline of the Vedic Period.


More by :  Harish Midha

Top | Hinduism

Views: 3426      Comments: 5

Comment Harish ji,

Thank you for this well researched article. It is an interesting scholarly exercise to trace the origin and history of a word or an idea. Earlier Vedic writing was mainly inspired poetry about their life in Nature. Then the search for the four ''W''s, like ''What, Where, Who, and When'' began and it is still continuing in our human mind. Sri Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj based their whole self-inquiry on ''Who am I?'' To understand oneself and one''s existence in Existence is primal human search. Please see my recent poem, ''Existing'' to be posted on this site soon. Like the symbolic word AUM, the origin of the word ''Yoga'' is also interesting. I do not know how far back it goes in the Vedic-Upanishadic literature.

With kind regards and appreciation,


Vinod D Deshmukh
31-Jan-2015 10:27 AM

Comment Namaskar, according to Vedic Scholar and Acharya, Dr. David Frawley, in his book Mantra and Primal Sound, Eem is the Pranavic mantra of the Rig Veda. Dr. Frawley also states that Eem is the Beej mantra of the Rig Veda Indra Shakra Devanam ( not the Indra of the later Purranas). Dr. Frawley also mentions that Eem was the Pranavic word of the Vedas, which was later replaced by Om. He states Eem is Rig Vedic Indra and Om is Shiva, in the later writings like the Purranas.

12-Aug-2014 09:08 AM

Comment Thanks "rdashby" for your comment of March 3, 2014. Well informed and so very insightful indeed!


16-Apr-2014 07:58 AM

Comment This scholarly essay is about Hinduism's search for God and the progressively acquired achievement of finding God in Om. The question as to why the Infinite Om, being all-sufficient, creates is neatly bypassed by identifying Om with the creation. By definition,' the universe' is not infinite. However, this too is neatly identified with the pronounceable finitude of the Infinite 'Om'. Om thus is comprehensible, just as God is in all religion, while being ‘infinite’. The upshot is that the infinite is resolved within the finite name, and God, Om even, is vastly phased out of infinite existence into the comprehension of man. The Hindu in comprehension of the divine Om in utterance is thus on an equal plane to Om. It next follows that whatever the HIndu considers holy is holy. But Hinduism is not unique, this is the same story for all religion. The formula being, once you identify God by name, the rest is up to you as appointee of the Divine.

12-Mar-2014 09:38 AM

Comment Well researched!
An interesting alternate approach to exploring God & Godhood, refreshingly different from so called revelations by Prophets & Angels.

Veena M
11-Mar-2014 08:55 AM

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