YASKA (probably the oldest commentator on the Vedas) gives the following classification of the Vedic gods. “There are three deities, according to the expounders of the Vedas: Agni, whose place is on the earth; Vāyu or Indra, whose place is in the air; and Surya, whose place is in the sky. These deities receive severally many appellations in consequence of their greatness, or of the diversity of their functions.”In the Rig-Veda itself this number is increased to thirty-three, of whom eleven are said to be in heaven, eleven on earth, and eleven in mid-air. “Agni, the wise god, lends an ear to his worshippers. God with the ruddy steeds, who lovest praise, bring hither those three-and- thirty.” This is the number usually mentioned, though it is by no means easy to decide which are the thirty-three intended, as the lists found in various places vary considerably; whilst in another verse it is said that “three hundred, three thousand, thirty-and-nine gods have worshipped Agni.”
These deities, though spoken of as immortal, are not said to be self-existent beings; in fact their parentage in most cases is given; but the various accounts of their origin do not agree with each other. Agni and Savitri are said to have conferred immortality upon the other gods; whilst it is also taught that Indra obtained this boon by sacrifice. An interesting account is given in the Satapatha Brāhmana * of the means by which the gods obtained immortality, and superiority over the asuras or demons. All of them, gods and demons alike, were mortal, all were equal in power, all were sons of Prajāpati the Creator. Wishing to be immortal, the gods offered sacrifices liberally, and practised the severest penance; but not until Prajāpati had taught them to offer a particular sacrifice could they become immortal. They followed his advice, and succeeded. Wishing to become greater than the asuras, they became truthful. Previously they and the asuras spoke truthfully or falsely, as they thought fit; but gradually, whilst they ceased from lying, the asuras became increasingly false; the result was that the gods after protracted struggles gained the victory. Originally the gods were all equal in power, all alike good. But three of them desired to be superior to the rest, viz. Agni, Indra, and Surya. They continued to offer sacrifices for this purpose until it was accomplished. Originally there was not in Agni the same flame as there is now. He desired, “May this flame be in me,” and, offering a sacrifice for the attainment of this blessing, obtained it. In a similar manner Indra increased his energy, and Surya his brightness. These three deities form what is commonly described as the Vedic Triad. In later times other three took their place, though an attempt is made to show them to be the same.
It will be noticed that each of the gods is in turn regarded by the worshipper as superior to all the others. In the Vedas this superlative language is constantly employed, and identical epithets are indiscriminately given to various deities. Professor Max-Müller says, “When these individual gods are invoked, they are not conceived as limited by the power of others, as superior or inferior in rank. Each god, to the mind of the supplicants, is as good as all the gods. He is felt at the time as a real divinity, as supreme and absolute, in spite of the limitations which, to our mind, a plurality of gods must entail on every single god. All the rest disappear for a moment from the vision of the poet, and he only who is to fulfil their desires, stands in full light before the eyes of the worshippers. . . . It would be easy to find, in the numerous hymns of the Rig-Veda, passages in which almost every single god is represented as supreme and absolute.”
The will of these gods is sovereign; no mortal can thwart their designs. They exercise authority over all creatures. In their hands is the life of mortals. They know the thoughts and intentions of men, and whilst they reward the worshipper, they punish those who neglect them.
When the Puranic deities are described it will be noticed that the representations of the deities of that age are far more clearly defined than those of earlier times. Though the Vedic gods are spoken of as possessing human forms and acting as human beings, there is considerable vagueness in the outline. But as time goes on this is lost. The objects of worship are no longer indistinct and shadowy, but are so minutely described that their portraits could be easily painted. And as their physical features are no longer left to the imagination, so their mental and moral characters are fully delineated. They are of like passions with those who depict them, only possessing vastly greater powers.
Professor Williams says “that the deified forces addressed in the Vedic hymns were probably not represented by images or idols in the Vedic period, though doubtless the early worshippers clothed their gods with human forms in their own imaginations.” Professor Müller5 speaks more positively: “The religion of the Veda knows of no idols. The worship of idols in India is a secondary formation, a later degradation of the more primitive worship of ideal gods.” The guarded language of Professor Williams seems to be better suited to the facts, as far as they are known, for Dr. Bollensen6 speaks quite as strongly on the other side. He writes, “From the common appellation of the gods as divo naras, ‘men of the sky,’ or simply naras, ‘men,’ and from the epithet nripesas, ‘having the form of men,’ we may conclude that the Indians did not merely in imagination assign human forms to their gods, but also represented them in a sensible manner. Thus a painted image of Rudra (Rig-Veda, ii. 33, 9) is described with strong limbs, many-formed, awful, brown, he is painted with shining colours.’” “Still clearer appears the reference to representations in the form of an image. ‘I now pray to the gods of these (Maruts).’ Here it seems that the Maruts are distinguished from their gods, i.e. their images.’” “There is in the oldest language a word, ‘Sandris,’ which properly denotes ‘an image of the gods.”