most important deity in the Rig Veda, after Indra and Agni. The soma
sacrifice is the main feature of the ritual of the Rig Veda, and this is reflected
by the fact that all but 6 of the 120 hymns to Soma have been collected in one
book (mandala IX) whereas the hymns to the other gods are scattered
throughout the other nine books of the Rig Veda. The word soma refers to the
plant, to the juice extracted from the plant, and to the deification of both of
these. As the plant and/or the juice are always present in the poet’s mind,
Soma is much less anthropomorphised than, for example, Indra. No one
knows what the soma plant was, various substitutes for it having been used
from late Vedic times to the present, but in 1968 an amateur mycologist, R G
Wasson, in his book Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, put forward the
theory that soma was a mushroom, Amanita muscaria. Whatever the soma
plant was, it produced an intoxicating drink that was, however, distinguished
from sura, wine. The most important application of its intoxicating power in
the Rig Veda is to fortify Indra, the pre-eminent soma-drinker, for his battles
against Vritra and other demons.
    In the hymns to the Surya (Sun), as in those to Dawn, Night,
Thunderstorm, and the other gods of nature, the poets’ attention is always on
the visible phenomenon itself. The Sun is invoked in descriptions of its light
and movement and by aIlusions to its mythology. Through these descriptions,
the poets not only recapitulate its manifest power; they also communicate its
meaning for human life and behaviour. In a hymn, the Sun appears in the
poet’s imagination as the eye of the gods, which watches over human affairs,
and as the visible sign of the presence of the gods.
    The hymns to Ushas (Dawn) are among the most attractive in the Rig
Veda for their elegant, and even sensuous, evocation of the beauty of the
dawn. Here Dawn is a lovely woman, driving her chariot across the skies to
usher in the new day, and a young girl, stripping away her garment to reveal
her naked radiance. But these hymns show more than the poets’ sensitivity to
nature and appreciation of its beauty. The poets also turn to Dawn for their
prosperity and they see in her progress the reassertion of the divine order. Her
praises mark the beginning of the sacrificial day and accompany the priests’
hope for the success of their worship. Other prominent female divinities were
Aditi (the goddess of eternity), Aranyani (goddess of the forest), Nirrti
(goddess of decay and death), and      the like.