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STRANGERS IN A FAMILIAR LAND

The role of the Gandharvas in Vedic literature


By Arjan Sterken

Abstract

The exact nature of the Gandharvas has so far been a subject of debate among scholars of Indology.
This article tries to provide some clarity in the wide material present in Vedic literature, thereby
referring to those discussions or providing new points of view. In this article, Vedic literature
encompasses especially the Vedas, the Brāhmaṇas, and the Upaniṣads. This article will look at the
myth of the theft of the Soma, with its two variations: the Gandharvas stealing the Soma, but losing it
together with Vāc to the Devas; and the Devas stealing the Soma from the Gandharvas, who are then
known as guardians of the Soma, and who are therefore excluded from the sacrifice. The ritual
implications of this myth are analysed. Then the role and characteristics of the Gandharvas will be
described, especially with regards to the number their group comprises; whether they are enemies
or allies; where they reside; their bond with the Apsarases, and their connection to love and fertility;
their physical and social appearance; which association is more appropriate: that with ritual
orthodoxy (the Brahmins) or with heterodoxy (the Saṁnyāsin); and their connection to the Soma. At
the end, this article will suggest that the Gandharvas could be identified with a non-Āryan tribe, the
Gāndhāris, who were increasingly incorporated into the Vedic ritual and mythological complex,
providing different roles as they went along.

Keywords: Gandharva, Veda, Hinduism, Brāhmaṇa, Upaniṣad, Soma, ritual, Gāndhāri, Āryan, non-
Āryan, Brahmin, mythology

The Gandharvas are mythological creatures present in the pan-Indian mythology, and also play a role
outside India. They are often known as beautiful half-man, half-bird spirits (which is also the
characteristic appearance of the Kiṃnāras, whom are however regarded as ugly), who have divine
knowledge and guard the Soma. They haunt the air, forests, and mountains, and cast illusions on
innocent bystanders. They have their own cities, but most of the time dwell in Indra’s heaven,
Svarga, where they play musical instruments skilfully. The Apsarases, beautiful nymphs that arose
during the churning of the ocean (see Viṣṇu Purāṇa chapter 9 or book 8 of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa),
became their wives, and dance on their divine music. The mortal enemies of the Gandharvas are the
Nāgas, snakes or snake-people (Ions 1967, p. 117). They can be found on many reliefs at temples.
This description, while not being incorrect, is rather brief and incomplete. Unfortunately, this
is also the case with other descriptions of the Gandharvas in Vedic literature (for example as
collected by Hillebrandt (1927), Macdonell (1963), Wilkins (1882), and Keith (1925), among others).
In this article1 a closer look will be cast upon the Gandharvas in Vedic literature. First, this article
discusses the history of the research done on the Gandharvas. After a brief methodological

1
This article has not been possible without the help of a number of persons and institutions. First of all, the
Radboud Honours Academy gave me the possibility to facilitate this research. I would like to thank prof. dr.
Gert-Jan van der Heiden and dr. Gian Ackermans for their guidance of the disciplinary track of this programme.
I would also like to thank dr. Emmie te Nijenhuis and dr. Narinder Mohkamsing, who provided me with material
to respectively start my research and to fine-tune it. I would like to thank Marco Hoving for pointing out the
sale at the library of Codarts in Rotterdam, which has provided me with interesting literature. I thank Daphne
Broeks for checking on spelling and unclear passages for the full article, and Stijn Krooshof and Maaike
Petrusma for checking different parts. But my biggest gratitude goes towards prof. dr. Paul van der Velde. His
guidance as my personal mentor in my programme has helped me to give the definite direction for this article,
and to temper my ambitions to a reasonable level. He is my main entrance into the wide world of the Asiatic
religions, and our professional relation has turned into a friendship for which I am grateful to this day.

1
description, this article shall describe the central myth of the Gandharvas in the Vedic period, the
theft of the Soma, the drink of immortality. Then this article turns to the description, characteristics,
and presence of the Gandharvas in the Vedas, Brāhmaṇas, and Upaniṣads. The focus will lie on
several aspects: their numbers and population; whether they are seen as enemies or friends from the
viewpoint of the Devas; where they reside; their bond with the Apsarases, marriage, and love; their
physical and social appearance; whether they are more properly associated with ritual orthodoxy
(the Brahmins) or heterodoxy (the Saṁnyāsin); and their connection with the Soma. At the end of the
article evidence will be shown for the following hypothesis: the Gandharvas are a mythological
reflection and incorporation of a non-Āryan tribe.

1. The debate around the Gandharvas

Who or what the Gandharvas are behind their literary depiction in most verses has been debated for
over a century. Keith (1927) summarises the positions from around his time:

‘What the original nature of the Rigvedic Gandharva was, cannot, as has been said, be
precisely elucidated: to Kuhn he is a cloud spirit2, to Wallis the rising sun3, to Bergaigne
Soma4, to Hopkins a genius of the moon5, and to Roth the rainbow6. To a different idea
belongs the view taken by Mannhardt, E. H. Meyer, and von Schroeder, which sees in him a
wind spirit developed out of the conception of the spirits of the dead as riding in the wind
and passing therefore into wind spirits7. Hillebrandt thinks that the real meaning of the name
Gandharva is giant, and that the name is applied to different potencies, now and then to
wind spirits, in other cases to the sun8 *…+’ (p. 181)

Dumézil (1929) connects, just as Meyer and also Kuhn (1852), the Gandharvas to the Centaurs or
Kéntauros based on their etymology. In Dumézil’s case, it is a creature connected with spring rites
which ensures fertility (Littleton 1982, p. 47). This identification has often been rejected (Wayman
1997, p. 2), but new ones have come into the place. For the centaur, it has been connected to the
Kiṃnāra, and the Gandharva with Kāmadeva, the god of love (p. 11). Barnett (1928) also practices a
comparative method, connecting the Gandharvas with the Avestic Gandarəwa and the Glaucus-myth.
The Gandharvas seem to take over the demonic role of the Gandarəwa. The Gandarəwa fights the
hero Keresāpala, who is equated with Indra, and Indra fights the Gandharvas in book 8 of the Ṛg
Veda (Wayman 1997, p. 12). The problem with interpretations based on etymology is the indecisive
nature of etymological links. Words that look alike might not be connected at all, and other
connections are often based on sparse evidence, which makes them an unstable foundation for
comparison.
Allen and Woodland compare the Gandharvas to Hermes, trying like Dumézil (Scott 1982, p.
47) to bring it back to a Proto-Indo-European creature (Allen and Woodland 2013, p. 1). Often seen
as a nature spirit, they are also connected to natural phenomena. Gonda puts forward the option of
fertility spirits (1960, p. 101). Hillebrandt (1927) connects them with the nakṣatra’s or 27 lunar
mansions9, but this interpretation is thrown aside by Wayman (1997, p. 22-26). Other examples are
the rising sun and rainbow mentioned above. Monier-Williams adds the role of drivers of the horses

2
Herabkunft des feuers und des göttertranks (1886), p. 153.
3
The cosmology of the ṛigveda. An essay (1887), p. 34, 36.
4
La religion v ig-v (1878), p. 64-67.
5
The religions of india (1895), p. 157.
6
Introduction to the nirukta and the literature related to it (1919), p. 142.
7
Respectively Wald- und feldkulte (1831), p. 201; Indogermanishe mythen (1883), p. 219 ff., and; Griechische
götter und heroen (1887), p. 71.
8
Vedische mythologie (1927), p. 373-388
9
He is referring to KYV 1 7.7:3 and ŚB 5 1.4:8, but neglects SYV 9:7.

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of the sun (1899, p. 346). Oberlies (2005) sees in the Gandharvas creatures that escort things from
the outside, and thereby dangerous, into the human world. They do this with a couple of things
(Soma, horse, bride) by placing them in a ‘quarantine’ for three days10, according to Kuiper (Oberlies
p. 97-98)11.
There has also been research on the Buddhist interpretation of the Gandharvas (Gandhabba
in Pāḷi). Wijesekera states that in the Pāḷi canon the Gandharva is connected to rebirth. If an embryo
is to come into existence, a man should mate with a woman who already had her period (so she is
fertile), and a Gandhabba should be present (as presented in Wayman 1997, p. 3-5). Heesterman,
Keith, and Wayman try to connect the Gandharvas to the theory of rebirth or transmigration of later
Hinduism and Buddhism, even tracing it back to specific Vedic sources (as presented in Wayman
1997, p. 5-6). Haas (2004) tries to do the same, tracing rebirth and the Gandharva’s role therein back
to the Ṛg Veda12. Connected with rebirth is the connection of the word ‘Gandharva’ with ‘garbha’ or
womb (as pointed out by Hillebrandt 1927, p. 374; and Wayman 1997, p. 48 and 50). This speculative
endeavour is not followed in this article, for the doctrine of rebirth stems from a period after the one
that the literature treated stems from. In this period people were more concerned with the world
behind the sun, the world of the Fathers, which shall be seen back sparsely in this article. Rebirth,
however, is a doctrine which might have appeared in the late Vedic period, and is present in the
Upaniṣads. For now, it seems that the Gandharvas are not clearly connected to rebirth in the
Upaniṣads. How interesting this path may be, it has to be reserved for later research.

1.2 Method

I regard none of these interpretations as necessarily wrong. However, due to the problematic and
contradictory nature of the source material on the Gandharvas, which is noted by Keith (1927) and
Oberlies (2005), a multitude of interpretations is possible. This article wishes to add to the
interpretations by providing a systematic analysis of the characteristics and role of the Gandharvas in
Vedic literature. I will do this in a process of coding inductively, which means looking at individual
Vedic verses, noting common themes, and connecting those. This ended up as a collection of broad
codes, which housed a number of more specific codes under them. However, since the essence of
this research is rather interpretive, links were also created due to association. This makes the process
of coding not as strict as required for a quantitative research, which makes sense, since this article is
not a product from a quantitative research. Furthermore, sometimes the verses under the same code
were used selectively, for only key elements appeared in certain verses while missing in others to
prove a point. Contradictions of a statement were, however, never neglected.
Vedic literature encompasses a wide collection of writings connected to the five Vedas: the
Ṛg Veda, the Sāma Veda, the Atharva Veda, the Kṛṣṇa (black) Yajur Veda, and the Śukla (white) Yajur
Veda. The hymns of these were collected in the Saṃhitā’s, which was according to Staal (2008)
inspired by the padapāṭha (word-for-word) analysis of Śākalya (p. 77). The metrical hymns (mantra’s)
were collected in circles (maṇḍala’s) or books, which then belonged to a certain Saṃhitā. The Ṛg
Veda has the Ṛg Veda Saṃhitā, the Atharva Veda the Atharva Veda Saṃhitā, and the Sāma Veda the
Sāma Veda Saṃhitā. For the Yajur Veda, things are slightly more complicated. The White school of
northern India, which has the verses (ṛk) separated from the explanation (brāhmaṇa), only has the
Vājasaneyī Saṃhitā, while the Black school of southern India, which keeps mantra and brāhmaṇa
together, has three different subschools, each with a different Saṃhitā: respectively the Taittīriya,

10
KYV 6 1.6:5 mentions the Soma being away for three days.
11
Wayman (1997) adds to this by naming that in ancient India, the uterus was seen as the middle of the female
body, and the Gandharva was associated with the womb (‘garbha’) (p. 26-27). This ‘quarantine’ also reminds
one of Victor Turner’s model of ritual, in which the ‘liminal phase’ incorporates the new active members of a
society in an initiation ritual, in the same way the Gandharvas do here (1977, p. 94-95).
12
However, Jamison (2008, p. 394-395) is very critical of her endeavour.

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Kāṭhaka, and Maitrāyani Saṃhitā13. Next to the Saṃhitā’s, one can discern four other genres:
Brāhmaṇa, Āraṇyaka, Upaniṣad, and Sūtra. This article is not meant to give a conclusive description
of these genres, so a short and therefore simplified characterisation will suffice. The Brāhmaṇas are
prose sections (p. 82), which are therefore likely to contain full myths that are not present in the
Vedic mantras, due to the fragmented nature of the latter. The Āraṇyakas are ‘forest’ or ‘wilderness’
texts, dealing with dangerous rituals, which therefore should be taught and performed away from
the village. The Upaniṣads, meaning ‘identification’14, contain more speculative esoteric ideas. The
Sūtras are texts which deal with a variety of subjects, which could best be described as science,
ethics, and the arts.
In this article, the role of the Gandharvas will be studied using the Vedas, Brāhmaṇas, and
Upaniṣads. The four (or five) Vedas as mentioned above will be used: The Ṛg Veda (abbreviated as
ṚV)15, the Sāma Veda (SV)16, the Atharva Veda (AV)17, the Kṛṣṇa Yajur Veda (KYV)18, and the Śukla
Yajur Veda (SYV)19. For the Brāhmaṇas and Upaniṣads, the usage of texts is dependent on their
accessibility in terms of translation, and whether the Gandharvas are mentioned in it. This has been
the criteria for neglecting other Vedic sources. For the Brāhmaṇas, this article uses the Aitareya (AB)
and Kauśītaki (KB) Brāhmaṇas20 (connected with the Ṛg Veda), the Pañcaviṃśa (PB)21 and Jaiminīya
(JB)22 Brāhmaṇas (connected with the Sāma Veda), and the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (ŚB)23 (connected
with the Śukla Yajur Veda). For the Upaniṣads, this article uses the Mudgala (MU)24 and Nāda Bindu
(NBU)25 Upaniṣads (connected with the Ṛg Veda), the Maitrāyaṇī (MyaniU)26 and Chāndogya (ChU)27
Upaniṣads (connected with the Sāma Veda), the Gopāla Tāpanīya (GTU)28 and Sītā (SU)29 Upaniṣads
(connected with the Atharva Veda), the Kaṭha (KU)30, Mahā Nārāyaṇa (MNU)31, Taittirīya (TU)32, Tejo
Bindu (TBU)33, and Maitri (MaitU)34 Upaniṣads (connected with the Kṛṣṇa Yajur Veda), and finally the
Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BAU)35 (connected with the Śukla Yajur Veda).
One might wonder about the rather illogical inclusion of the Upaniṣadic literature. Staal
notes that the term appears after the Vedic period and denoted a separate group of scriptures (2008,
p. 159). But after all, they are connected to the Vedas, and therefore this article includes them. Also,
some of the Upaniṣads seem to have appeared during the Vedic period. Staal dates the end of the
Vedic period around 450 BCE (p. 3), and prominent scholars date the main Upaniṣads between 1200
and 500 BCE (Sharma 1985, p. 17-18). Still, there seems to be a different philosophical outset

13
Feller (2004, p. 2) also metions the Kapiṣṭhala Kaṭha Saṃhitā, which is not mentioned by Staal (2008).
14
According to H. Bodewitz, as passed on to me by Paul van der Velde (personal communication). In popular
etymology, it is often translated as ‘sitting down near (the teacher)’.
15
As translated by Griffith (1889).
16
As translated by Griffith (1895a).
17
As translated by Griffith (1895b-1896) and Whitney (1905).
18
As translated by Keith (1914).
19
As translated by Griffith (1899).
20
As translated by Keith (1920).
21
As translated by Caland (1931).
22
As translated by Oertel (1896).
23
As translated by Eggeling (1882-1900).
24
As translated by Krishna Warrier.
25
As translated by Narayanasvami Aiyar (1914).
26
As translated by Krishna Warrier.
27
As translated by Hume (1921) and Swami Swahananda (2010).
28
As translated by Swami B.V. Tripurari (2003).
29
As translated by Krishna Warrier.
30
As translated by Hume (1921) and Panoli (2006).
31
As translated by Swami Vimalananda (1957).
32
As translated by Hume (1921) and Swami Gambhirananda (1998).
33
As translated by Narayanasvami Aiyar (1914).
34
As translated by Hume (1921).
35
As translated by Hume (1921) and Swami Madhavananda (1997).

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(defined as ‘Vedānta’, the end of the Vedas) which makes them different in nature from the Vedas
and Brāhmaṇas. Some of the Upaniṣads are even closer to a Purāṇic (GTU) or Bhaktic (SU) nature.
However, their inclusion might prove to be fruitful in casting a new light upon the Gandharvas from
another class of literature.

2. Theft of the Soma

The theft of the Soma is one of the central Vedic myths in which the Gandharvas play a role. Because
of that, it might clarify many other aspects of this article if this myth is discussed first. This part is not
yet a full account on the link of the Gandharvas with the Soma, to which this article shall return at
the end. Also, the myth is recorded in many different versions, and only in a few do the Gandharvas
play a role. Feller (2004, p. 159-206) gives a brilliant account and analysis of all these different
versions. There are two myths discernible that feature the Gandharvas, both of which appear in the
Brāhmaṇas. The first myth of the theft of the Soma goes like this36: the Soma is in the sky, and the
Devas are on earth. They long for the Soma, and create two illusions: Suparṇī (Vāc (the goddess of
speech) or the heavens) and Kadrū (the earth). Their story is told in ŚB 3 6.2:2-8: they hold a spying
contest, the winner being the one that can look furthest, and who wins domination over the other.
Kadrū wins, and orders Suparṇī to fetch the Soma. Suparṇī sends Gayatrī forth to fetch it. Back to 3
2.4: Gayatrī has indeed fetched the Soma, but it is stolen by the Gandharva Viśvāvasu, KYV 6 1.6:5
stating that it was stolen for three nights. The Devas send Vāc this time to fetch the Soma and return
with it. At this point some different versions arise. AB 5 1:27 states that Vāc plans with the Devas to
take the Soma from the Gandharvas and then return to them. ŚB 3 2.4 states that the Gandharvas,
being fond of women, let her, but chase her when she leaves: they want Vāc to be with them. Thus
they demand to have Vāc, as a trade for the Soma. KYV 6 1.6:5-6 states that Vāc takes on the form of
a deer, and escapes from both groups. AB 1 5:27 states that Vāc is sold for the Soma as a naked
woman. ŚB 3 9.3:20-22 and KB 12:3 is a variation on this whole mytheme (a term by Lévi-Strauss
(1955), meaning a small narrative unit, which build up a bigger myth): the Devas go with their wives;
the Gandharvas turn their attention to these wives; and the Devas carry off the Soma to a ‘place free
from danger and injury’. Back to 3 2.4: the Devas propose that both groups try to lure Vāc, and she
will belong to the group she goes to. The Gandharvas try to lure her while reciting the Vedas, but the
Devas create the lute (Vīṇā) and sing. Vāc is appealed by this and returns to the Devas.
In the myth as described above, the Gandharvas are not seen as guardians of the Soma. A
second myth, which is partly a variation on the one above, gives them this role37, and lets them fail at
it. Darmesteter gives them here a demonic role (that is to say, a role that is opposed to the Devas),
for they guard it so well that they will not give any Soma to the Devas, who feel the need to steal it
(in Wayman 1997, p. 13). Again, the Devas long for the Soma, which is in the sky while they are on
earth. As in ŚB 3 6.2:2-8, Suparṇī sends Gayatrī to fetch the Soma, after losing to Kadrū. KYV 6 1.6:1-4
states Gayatrī is not just a bird, but also the metre, which became the most important one, because
she succeeded in fetching the Soma and bringing it down. Kṛśānu tries to stop her by shooting at her
in ŚB 1 7.1:1, but fails except for a feather. The Soma was kept in two cups as stated in ŚB 3 6.2:9-11.
Interestingly, KYV 7 5:25 (and copied in ŚB 10 6.4:1) also mentions two cups, which are surrounding a
horse. The Gandharvas, having to do both with horses and the Soma, make this an interesting
connection, to which this article shall return later. ŚB 3 6.2:14 and KB 12:3 state that the Gandharvas
are excluded from their share of the sacrifice, which they were previously guaranteed as they enjoy
receiving it regularly in AV 4 34:3, or enjoy it together with the Apsarases as stated in PB 19 3:2. ŚB 3
6.2:17-20 and 4 4.2:7 makes clear that the Gandharvas receive an offering of ghī (clarified butter) at

36
Presented in ŚB 3 2.4:1-6. It also appears in KYV 6 1.6:5-6 and 6 1.11:5, which makes sense when considering
that in KYV the verses (ṛk) are not separated from the explanation (brāhmaṇa), as explained under ‘method’.
Other appearances are ŚB 3 9.3:18-22; AB 1 5:27; and KB 12:3.
37
Presented in ŚB 3 6.2. Also partly reminisced in 1 7.1:1; 3.3:11; 4 4.2:7; and PB 19 3:2. The Gandharvas are
seen as guardians of the Soma in ŚB 3 6.2:9 and 17; 3 9.3:18; 4 4.2:7; and KB 12:3.

5
the third pressing of the Soma, and they get satiated from the Soma when it is passed over the
dhiṣṇya-hearths (sacrificial hearths), but they do not receive it directly. Verse 19 and 3 3.3:11
mention the Gandharvas receiving a wage for the Soma, a sore payment for the Soma they lost. This
connects the Gandharvas to the salesmen of the Soma, an interesting link that will be explored later
on in this article.

We have seen two myths. In the first myth, the Gandharvas steal the Soma, which is traded for Vāc,
who afterwards returns (sorrowfully, according ŚB 3 2.4:6) to the Devas. In the second myth, the
Gandharvas are the guardians of the Soma, but it is stolen by the Devas. In both cases, the
Gandharvas lose access to the Soma. This myth is filled with instructions and references to the
purchase of the Soma and the rituals surrounding it, a theme that will be explored in the rest of this
article.

3. The Gandharvas

3.1 One or many?

Nowadays the Gandharvas are perceived as being a group. This group has varying numbers:
according to KYV 1 7.7:3, SYV 9:7, and ŚB 5 1.4:8, there are 27 Gandharvas that saddle up a horse38;
in AV 19 16:6 a hundred of Gandharvas and Apsarases are mentioned; and in 11 5:2 there are ‘thirty
and three, three hundred, and six thousand’ Gandharvas, making their number 6,333. Their numbers
are not static, which indicates that their numbers have grown. It has even been stated that the
Gandharva was first conceived to be a singular being, and only gradually developed in a separate
class of beings (Macdonell 1963, p. 136; Keith p. 179). This point is proven when we look at the
speculated age of the different Vedas. The ṚV is the oldest, and has only three verses in which the
Gandharvas appear as plural, and seventeen in which he is singular (also noted by Macdonell 1963, p.
136 and Hillebrandt 1927, p. 374). The majority of the verses of both Yajur Vedas also note him as
singular, while the much later AV (Staal 2008, p. 75-76) sees the Gandharvas as a group. However,
one problem arises. It is not always clear whether a singular definitely means that there really is only
one Gandharva. A singular can also denote an appellative, meaning that it normally is the name of a
species, but now used for a single member of that species. In the ṚV, we find Gandharva used as a
personal name (and therefore not as an appellative) four times39, and in the rest of the Vedic
literature four times at most40. Gandharva can thus have been a name for a single being, but it is not
very probable. Already in the ṚV we find the singular term connected to Viśvāvasu41, the term
Gandharva thus denoting a title or, indeed, stating the membership to a certain species. Viśvāvasu is
not the only Gandharva that does not remain anonymous in Vedic literature, nor is his role limited to
the ṚV 42. Kṛśānu also makes an appearance together with another group of Gandharvas in ŚB 3
3.3:1143, together with Svāna, Bhrāga, Aṅghāri, Bambhāri, Hasta, and Suhasta. 11 2.3:9 also lets them
appear as a group, consisting of Yavamān, Uddālavān, and Antarvān, at least according to the
padapāṭha-analysis of Sāyana (Staal 2008, p. 77). Mahīdhara gives five names: Yamavat, Sūrpa,

38
Wayman (1997) tries to explain this number by referring to the ‘triṇava’ (three times nine), and to the Paṅkti-
meter and Śākvara chant, that have 27 syllables, and are seen as atmospheric. In that way they are connected
to this number of 27 Gandharvas, for the Gandharvas are often seen as creatures inhabiting the sky (p. 26).
39
In 8 1:11; 9 83:4; 9 86:36; and 10 10:4.
40
In AV 2 2:1; 14 2:34 (but in both cases cancelled later on in the hymn); 18 1:4 (but this one is the same as ṚV
10 10:4); and KYV 1 7.7:1 (this verse is copied in 4 1.1:7; SYV 9:3; 11:7; 30:1; ŚB 5 1.1:16; 6 3.1:19).
41
10 139:4-5. Viśvāvasu is also present in 10 85:21-22, but not explicitly called a Gandharva. In 10 139:6 we find
an appellative use of Gandharva, which probably denotes Viśvāvasu.
42
Viśvāvasu is also found in AV 2 2:4; 14 2:35; KYV 1 1.11:9; 1 2.9:1; 6 1.6:5; 6 1.11:5; SYV 2:3; ŚB 1 3.4:2; and 3
2.4:2.
43
He also makes an appearance as the ‘footless archer’ in ŚB 1 7.1:1, and in ṚV 9 77:2. However, in both cases
it is not clear if he was already considered a Gandharva, or only became one later on.

6
Uddālavat, Kṛśi, and Dhānāntarvat. Eggeling thinks the padapātha-analysis of Mahīdhara to be very
improbable, especially the last name, which is shown by the accent on the first syllable to consist of
two words: Dhāna and Antarvat (1900, p. 30). In that case, we have six names, but there are still
others. Ūrṇāyu is the Gandharva swinging among the Apsarases in PB 12 11:10. The Gandharva
Sudhanvan of the line of Aṅgiras (the ṛṣi that is responsible for most of the AV, together with
Atharvan) possesses a girl in BAU 3 3:1 and 4:1, and the Gandharva Kabandha (son of Atharvan) does
the same in 7:1. The Gandharva Vena is the knower of the Supreme Soul (Paramātman) in MNU 1:14-
15. But the most surprising case of the identification with the Gandharvas is Agni44 essentially
appearing in two different verses, but the Gandharvas are associated in all but the first verse
mentioned in the footnote with a myriad of things (and all those verses being a (partial) duplicate of
each other). An identification of the Gandharva with Soma is also made in the ṚV 45, but their role as
guardian of the Soma is more discernible, a topic which will be dealt with later on in this article.
Gandharvas also make their appearance in anonymous groups46. They might also appear as a group
together with their wives, the Apsarases47. As a group, the Gandharvas can be associated with the
gods or Devas and surrounding groups of the normal order48, or with so-called demonic groups49. It
appears that an anonymous group of Gandharvas is more often sided with humans or Devas than
with maleficent creatures, which lays more emphasis on the divine side of the Gandharvas than on
their demonic or evil side. To this topic we will return later. Lastly, Gandharvas can also be connected
with certain part of a bigger whole50. For example, this can be a sacrificial altar, such as in KYV 5 7:15
and SYV 14:37 for the horse sacrifice (aśvamedha), or as one of the symbolic victims for the ‘human’
sacrifice of fire sacrifice (puruṣamedha) in ŚB 13 6.3:1 34.
Whether the Gandharva used to be a single being or is a group that grew in number is still
debatable. However, there are cases in which a human being is transformed into a Gandharva. The
most famous case is that of Purūravas, recounted in ŚB 11 5.1. Purūravas is the human lover of the
Apsaras Urvaśī. The Gandharvas become jealous, for the Apsarases are their spouses normally. Thus
they devise a plan to get her back: they steal her two lambs (which she calls ‘sons’), probably at
night. Purūravas jumps up to go after them, but a flash of lightning, devised by the Gandharvas,
reveals his naked figure to Urvaśī. One of the conditions for Urvaśī to be with Purūravas is that she
never should see him naked. Having done so, she vanishes. ‘Wailing with sorrow’ he goes out to find
her, and eventually does. She first rejects him, but when Purūravas states he will seek death when he
cannot be with her, Urvaśī pulls back: he may sleep with her on the last day of that year, and at that
time she will also have given birth to his son. On that very day Urvaśī tells him that the Gandharvas
will grant him a boon the next day. Purūravas wishes to remain Urvaśī’s lover; Urvaśī tells him to ask
the Gandharvas to become one of them. The next day he asks this, and the Gandharvas let him
perform two rituals, of which the last is twice corrected, for it is deemed too esoteric, a theme to
which this article shall return later. Performing those, he became a Gandharva, and can be Urvaśī’s
lover forever.
The Upaniṣads also give methods with which one can become a Gandharva. NBU:13 states
that one who focuses on the fourth mantra of that text and then dies becomes a Gandharva. BAU 4
4:4 states that a soul, denouncing ignorance and its body, can take on a more beautiful form, ‘like

44
KYV 1 5.10:3; 3 4.7:1; SYV 18:38; and ŚB 9 4.1:7.
45
Directly in ṚV 9 86:36. Indirectly in ṚV 10 10:4 (and copied in AV 18 1:4), both times as ‘Gandharva of/in the
floods’, which, according to Macdonnell (1963, p. 137) is synonymous with Soma.
46
In ṚV 3 38:6; 9 113:3; AV 3 24:6; 4 34:3; 4 37:8-9; 7 109:5; 8 6:19; KYV 1 7.7:5; 6 1.6:5-6; SYV 9:7; ŚB 3 2.4:2-5,
22; 3 6.2:9, 14, 17; 3 9.3:18-22; 4 4.2:7; 5 1.4:8; 9 2.3:7; 11 5.1:2, 4, 12, 13, 17; AB 1 5:27-28; and KB 12:3.
47
In ṚV 10 136:6; AV 4 37:2, 12; 8 10:27; 9 7:10; 12 1:23; 14 2:9; 19 36:6; 19 54:4; ŚB 9 4.2:2, 4; 11 5.3:7; PB 19
3:2; JB 1 55:10-11; KB 2:9; and MNU 42:2.
48
In AV 8 8:15; 10 9:9; 10 10:13; 11 7:27, 11 5:2; 11 9:24; 13 1:23; KYV 5 5:16; 7 5:25; SYV 12:99; ŚB 10 6.4:1; JB
1 41:1; 3 5:1; AB 3 3:31; BAU 4 4:4; ChU 21:1; GTU 2:46, 93, 95; and SU 10.
49
In ṚV 10 136:6; AV 8 7:23; 11 9:16; 12 1:50; KB 2:9; MaitU 1:4; MyaniU 1; and GTU 2:40.
50
In AV 9 7:10; KYV 5 7:15 (same as SYV 14:37); SYV 30:8; ŚB 10 5.2:20; 11 2.3:9; 13 6.3:1 34; MU 3; BAU 4 3:33;
KU 2 3:5; TU 2 8:1-4; MaitU 1:4; and MyaniU 1.

7
that either of the forefathers, or of the Gandharvas, or of the Devas, or of Prajāpati, or of Brahmā, or
of other beings’. SU:10 states that the Devī (goddess) Sītā can assume the forms of ‘Devas, sages,
men and Gandharvas; of demons, fiends, spirits, ghosts, goblins, [and more creatures]; and of the
elements, sense-organs, mind and the vital breaths’. The Gandharvas live by those vital breaths
mentioned in the list, as do all creatures, according to JB 1 41:1. The Śaṅkara commentary on the TU
mentions that a human becoming a Gandharva is called a ‘manuṣya-Gandharva’ (human Gandharva),
while the ‘divya-Gandharva’ (divine Gandharva) is one from birth (according to Wayman 1997, p. 30-
31). One can also be possessed by a Gandharva. Five passages51 tell us about women being possessed
by Gandharvas, and through this medium the Gandharvas reveal secrets and ritual instructions.
In Purāṇic literature (Viṣṇu Purāṇa), the Gandharvas are either sons of Brahmā or his
grandsons, in that case being born from the union between Kaśyapa and Ariṣṭa. The Padma Purāṇa
calls them the children of Vāc (Wilkins 1882, p. 484). The Vedas mention a different origin for the
singular being Gandharva, which is connected to water. ṚV 9 86:36 the ‘Gandharva of the floods’ is
born from the ‘Sisters Seven’. Those seven sisters might be the seven rivers (sapta sindhu), whose
identities are still unclear. One of those rivers might be Sarasvatī, of whom Vāc is an earlier form, and
in that case this verse is consistent with the Padma Purāṇa. In KYV 4 6.2:8 and SYV 17:32, the
Gandharva is the second child to be born from the water, the first being Viśvakarmān, the third the
unidentified ‘begetter of plants’, which might also be a Gandharva, since they dig up the Soma-plant
in SYV 12:99. In ṚV 10 177:2 a bird has ‘speech’ (as Vāc) in his mind, which the Gandharva in the
womb pronounces. This verse gives another connection to Vāc as the mother of the Gandharva, but
no conclusive proof to whether she was perceived to be his mother in Vedic times. ŚB 9 4.1:2
mentions Prajāpati, the lord of the world and identified as a group of creator deities, as the origin of
the Gandharvas and Apsarases, coming forth from his dismembered limbs. Not only do they come
forth of him, Prajāpati also encloses them again, being the lord of the world. In the same way, the
‘residue of the sacrifice’ is seen as the origin of the Devas, forefathers, men, Gandharvas, and
Apsarases in AV 11 7:27.

Thus far, it is still debatable if the Gandharvas originated as a single being. Note that birth as a
singular being still does not mean that it does not belong to the wider species Gandharva, of which
that individual is a member (although this might be contradicted by the fact that most species arise
at the same moment, for example the Apsarases at the churning of the ocean). But when we look at
their connection the Avestic Gandarəwa, a single being, their plural origin becomes doubtful. They
might also be singular in their origin as a Deva of a non-Indo-European group, a theme to which we
later will return. Whatever their origin may be, they are definitely considered to be a group later on,
appearing as an anonymous collective or with distinguishable members. One can also become a
Gandharva (the so-called human Gandarva), which might give incentive that Gandharva is not merely
a species, but also a title (in the same way that a skilful musician can earn the title ‘Gandharva’).
Lastly, his or their birth can be connected to water, Vāc, or perhaps Prajāpati or ‘the residue of the
sacrifice’.

3.2 Friend or foe?

When asking the question whether the Gandharvas are friends or enemies, we imply that the
Gandharvas are somehow ‘strangers’. They are certainly a different class of beings, distinct from
humans and Devas (though there seem to be ‘human’ and ‘divine’ Gandharvas, as stated before).
And it is not apparent that they are automatically sided with the humans. It is not even clear if they
are sided with the ‘right’ order, the order represented by the Devas. On the one hand, they do
appear in 3 38:6 (as noted by Keith 1925, p. 179; and Macdonnell 1963, p. 136) as a plural associated
with the sages, which sides them with the correct religious order. However, Hillebrandt states that
according to Meyer, the Gandharvas make no appearance in the family books (2 up to 7) of the ṚV,

51
AB 5 5:29; KB 2:9; BAU 3 3:1; 3 4:1; and 3 7:1.

8
which suggests that they are not closely associated with human groups. In book 8 they make two
appearances, both as enemies of Indra (1927, p. 380). Indra mocks ‘Gandharva the unconquered one’
in 1:11, and he pierces the Gandharva in 66:5. This hostility might come from the role of the
Gandharvas as Soma-guardians. In KB 12:3 the Gandharvas are said to guard the Soma that belongs
to Indra. The waters of the sacrifice (i.e. Soma) flow to the Gandharva Viśvāvasu in ṚV 10 139:4,
which is chased by Indra. ŚB 3 9.3:18 mentions the flowing of the Soma into the waters when the
head of the sacrifice is struck off. ṚV 9 113:1 mentions Indra drinking the Soma to store vigour in his
heart, with which he performs heroic deeds. Hillebrandt explains verse 3 of that hymn (‘in the Soma
laid the juice’) as that the Gandharvas deposit their semen in the Soma, as to grant it their strength
(p. 383)52. This then flows to Indra. While it implies that the Gandharvas made the flow of Soma to
Indra possible, this might not always have been the case. Perhaps the Soma was not always made
available by the Gandharvas, which provided the Devas with the reason to take it away from the
Gandharvas, as we have seen in the myth of the theft of the Soma. Indra’s enmity is also found
outside ṚV. AV 4 37 is a hymn against the maleficent influence of Gandharvas and Apsarases. Verse 8
and 9 repeat the wish that Indra’s respectively hundred iron and golden arrows should pierce the
Gandharvas.
They are not just enemies of Indra, but are also portrayed as being hostile in general.
Interestingly, only AV tells of chasing this maleficent being away53. 4 37 is, as stated before, a hymn
against Gandharvas and Apsarases that wishes to drive them away or harm them in other ways. It
seems that the Apsarases in that hymn cause one to lose attention, and the Gandharvas neglect to
bring a sacrificial gift. In 8 5:13 the hymn invested on an amulet also protects against death caused by
men, Gandharvas, and Apsarases. 8 6:19 drives the Gandharvas away, because they cause the death
of infants. Only in KYV 3 4.7:11 are the Gandharvas connected with death again, caused by their
arrows. But there is also a vague hint in ṚV 10 10, which Macdonnell and Keith interpret as that the
Gandharva and Apsaras are the parents of Yama, the god of the dead, and Yamī (respectively 1963, p.
137; and 1925, p. 179). In AV 12 1:50 and MaitU 1:4 they are grouped with other maleficent
creatures, a topic that was covered above, this time asked to the Earth to keep them far away. 19
36:6 tries to do the same, but then using ‘Hundred-Hair’. KYV 1 2.9:1 asks for protection, among
other things, against the Gandharva Viśvāvasu, so that he does not hurt the ‘lord of the world’. 3
4.8:4 states that Gandharvas and Apsarases madden people. This closely resembles possession,
which was treated already above.
The Gandharvas seem to be armed. ṚV 10 123:7 (and coincidently SM 9 2.13:2 mimics this
hymn) states that he has a many-coloured weapon. It seems to be that this weapon is a bow, for in
other places, the Gandharvas use arrows or are defined as archers54. Kṛśānu is only defined in
Taittirīya Āraṇyaka I 9:3 (Macdonell 1963, p. 137) and ŚB 3 3.3:11 as a Gandharva, and before that he
is identified as an archer55. He thus might be a human Gandharva, only later on in his career
becoming a divine Gandharva. In ŚB 1 7.1:1, Kṛśānu (as the ‘footless archer’) shoots at Soma or
Gāyatrī, the bird that comes to steal the Soma. One of the feathers falls off and becomes a betel
(parṇa or butea frondosa) leaf, a substitute for the Soma when it apparently disappeared (according
to Feller 2004, p. 165, and which can also be found in KB 2:2).

52
This might be connected with what Wasson has identified as a second form of Soma: as urinated by someone
that has consumed it previously (as stated in Staal 2001, p. 760). Since semen and urine leave the body in the
same place, those two phenomena might be connected. Hillebrandt states that it provides the Soma with the
‘male strenght’ of the Gandharvas, and Staal states that the psycho-active properties are not lost, while it has
been purified from certain toxic effects by the liver. Interestingly, ṚV 1 22:14 characterises the Soma at the
place of the Gandharva as ‘rich in fatness’, which might look fat because of the added semen (although semen
does not contain fat). Another fatty substance it might be connected with is ghī (butter).
53
In 4 37:2, 11-12; 8 6:19; 12 1:50; and 14 2:36.
54
In ṚV 9 83:4; KYV 3 4.7:11; and ŚB 1 7.1:1.
55
In ṚV 1 112:21; 1 155:2; 4 27:3; 9 77:2; and 10 64:8.

9
The Gandharvas are also seen as allies, especially in four passages56. The Gandharva protects
the place of the forefather’s in ṚV 9 83:4. In AV 8 8:15, the Gandharvas are one of the troops sent out
to strike the opposing army, among Apsarases, Devas, Nāgas, forefathers, and holy men. 20 128:3
states that the wise Gandharva will speak a ‘pleasant upward pointing word’ to calm down the bold
son of a good man. The Gandharva Viśvāvasu protects the sacrifiers from attacks in KYV 1 1.11:9. This
role as guardian is an apparent one, for it appears more often in other contexts57. Obviously they
guard their own abode as in ṚV 9 83:4 and AB 1 4:22, but also the ‘generations of the Devas’ in that
same Ṛg Vedic hymn. They protect the holy order of things in KYV 3 4.7, SYV 18:38-43, and ŚB 9 4.1:7-
12. The Gandharvas, with a long list of other groups, guard those that make sacrifices in AV 10 9:9.
The divine Gandharva averts the displeasure of the Devas towards the devotees in AV 2 2:2.
Especially Viśvāvasu is connected with protecting the sacrifiers, doing so in KYV 1 1.11:9, SYV 2:3, and
ŚB 1 3.4:2. And only in the Brāhmaṇas do we find them as guardians of the Soma58. In this role they
are connected to the myth of the theft. Viśvāvasu is identified as the thief of the Soma in KYV 6 1.6:5,
6 1.11:5, and ŚB 3 2.4:2. They also steal two lambs of Urvaśī in ŚB 11 5.1:2-3.
The Gandharvas contribute to their shady nature by being connected with the wilderness. A
sage with long hair (keśi) threads on the path of forest animals, Apsarases, and Gandharvas, meaning
the wilderness, in ṚV 10 136:6. AV 11 9:24 states that Gandharvas and Apsarares, among other
creatures, inhabit the wilderness. GTU 2:40 locates these forests to Gopala Pūrī, a paradisiacal city at
Mount Meru, where people attain direct liberation. Lastly, the Gandharvas are also connected with
illusions and concealment. In AV 4 37:11 they are stated as looking like youthful dogs and monkeys
completely covered in hair, and to attract women they obviously change their appearance by ‘putting
on a lovely look’. In the same manner Sītā can take the form of all kinds of creatures, including
Gandharvas, as stated in SU 10. ŚB 9 4.1:2 and 4 state that the godly pairs take on the form of
Gandharvas and Apsarases, as one does when one goes to one’s mate for sexual union. It becomes
apparent that they can cast illusions to conceal themselves by mist or to become invisible in AV 8
8:15 and 11 9:16 and 24. In Upaniṣadic literature, the Gandharvas play a role with regard to the
illusionary nature of the world we perceive. KU 2.3:5 is a rather allegoric verse, that states that ‘as
seen in water, so in the world of the Gandharvas’. It is not exactly clear what this verse means, but it
could refer to or strengthen the Advaita-Vedāntic point of view, which states that ontological dualism
is an illusion, that Brahman and Ātman are not separate substances, and thus that the truth is
perceivable in everyday reality. TBU 6:73-75 seems to come to the same conclusion: ‘If anything is
other than myself, then it is as unreal as the mirage in an oasis’, and ‘the universe exists always in the
true Gandharva city (merely unreal).’ Again, the truth can be found in all of reality. MyaniU 1 is
different in nature, naming the Gandharvas as one of the many beings that shall disappear over time.
This could be reduced to that everyday reality is not as fulfilling as the Brahman, thus portraying a
kind of Viśiṣṭādvaita-Vedāntic point of view, which was to develop centuries later around 1000 CE
(Barthley 2011, p. 169).

Whether the Gandharvas are good or evil cannot be definitely answered. However, it seems beyond
doubt that they are capable of causing trouble. They might be the armed guards of the Soma, but
they are tricked by the Devas and lose it, which means that they probably are an autonomous group
besides the Devas. Indra also seems hostile towards them. Sometimes they are cast in a good light,
especially when connected with sages or protecting sacrifiers, but on the main they are more often
driven away (especially in the AV) than called upon for help. Their illusory nature and connection
with the wilderness contributes to their ambiguity. It seems clear that the Gandharvas do not belong

56
In ṚV 9 83:4; AV 8 8:15; 20 128:3; and KYV 1 1.11:9.
57
In ṚV 9 83:4 (one of the elements of this verse is repeated in AB 1 4:22); AV 10 9:9; KYV 1 1.11:9, as we have
already seen; 3 4.7 (the whole hymn); SYV 2:3 (which is partially copied in ŚB 1 3.4:2); SYV 18:38-43, which is a
partial copy of KYV 3 4.7; ŚB 3 6.2:9, 14, and 17; 3 9.3:18; 4 4.2:7; 9 4.1:7-12, which is an explanation and
elaboration on KYV 3 4.7; and KB 12:3.
58
In ŚB 3 6.2:9, 14, and 17; 3 9.3:18; 4 4.2:7; and KB 12:3.

10
to the in-group (Ārya), but rather to the out-group (Dasyu) (Witzel 2012, p. 41), which is also stated
in SYV 30:8 and ŚB 13 6.2.1:34 (where the Gandharvas and Apsarases are equated in the
puruṣamedha with the Vrātya or ‘roving outcasts’).

3.3 Heaven or earth?

We have seen above that the Gandharvas and Apsarases are found in the wilderness, according to
GTU 2:40 the forests surrounding Gopala Pūrī. They also abide in Kāla together with the rest of the
world, according to AV 19 54:4. However, the Gandharvas are far more often associated by other
researchers with the sky, and Apsarases with the water (Macdonell 1963, p. 136), or the Gandharvas
are both connected to water and the air (Keith 1925, p. 179; Hillebrandt 1927, p. 375; and Gonda
1960, p. 101). However, it is far more complicated than that. There are many verses that point
toward the habitat of the Gandharvas59. The two main habitats are the water60 or heaven/the sky61.
The link with water is made in two ways: via Soma and via the Apsarases. ‘Gandharva in/of the
floods’ in ṚV 9 86:36 and 10 10:4 (copied in AV 18 1:4) is identified by Macdonnell (1963, p. 137) as
Soma. Soma is also in other places identified with water, for example the water ‘rich with fatness,
there in the Gandharva’s steadfast place’ in ṚV 1 22:14, and in 10 139:4 as ‘waters from sacrifice’.
The Gandharva also finds Soma as ‘the immortal waters’ near the river in 10 123:4. The Gandharvas
as guardians of the Soma watch this juice run into the water in ŚB 3 9.3:18. KB 12:3 mentions the
Gandharvas as guarding the Soma of Indra in the water. Lastly, a vague clue connecting the
Gandharvas with water comes from KU 2.3:5, which states that what one sees in the water can also
be seen in the world of the Gandharvas.
It has often been pointed out that the Gandharvas are connected with the sky, and the
Apsarases with the water. Macdonell (1963, p. 134) states their role as water-nymphs, as does
HIllebrandt (1927, p. 375). It seems that ‘the dame of waters’ in ṚV 10 10:4 and AV 18 1:4 is the
Apsaras. AV 2 2:3 mentions that the Apsarases have their home in the sea, and that the Gandharva
dwells among them. However, neither the Gandharvas nor Apsarases are confined to the water. The
AV and KYV locates them both in trees. The Apsarases are located in aśvatthas (fiscus religiosa or
sacred fig) and nyagrodhas (fiscus indica or banyan) (Madconnell 1963, p. 134) in AV 4 37:4, to which
KYV 3 4.8:4 adds uḍumbaras (fiscus racemosa or cluster figs) and plakṣa (fiscus infectoria or pīpal
figs). Interestingly, the Gandharva Purūravas is according to Krick identified with the churning stick
for the Soma (in Hayakawa 2014, p. 76), which is made from wood from the aśvattha-tree (again
according to Krick, in Hayakawa 2014, p. 120). The Gandharvas and Apsarases are both living in the
woods, creepers, and tall trees, together with a host of other beings in AV 11 9:24. They are
protectors of trees in 14 2:9, and asked to bestow their good will and auspiciousness upon the
passing newly-wed couple.
The more traditional association of the Gandharvas is with the sky or heaven, as in AV 2 2:1.
It is the place where Indra pierces the Gandharva in ṚV 8 66:5. The Gandharva stands on a high point
in heaven and provides light to everything in 9 85:12. He does the same in heaven in 10 123:7 (and
thus also in the identical verse of SM 9 2.13:2), shining light as to produce the visibility of the forms
of all things. In 10 177:2 the Gandharva in the womb is ‘heavenly-bright’. This reminds us of the sun,
an identification that is also occasionally made. AV 2 2:2 names the divine Gandharva as ‘like the sun
in brightness’. KYV 3 4.7:2, SYV 18:39, and ŚB 9 4.1:8 identify the Gandharva and Apsarases with
many things, and also the sun, with the Apsarases being the rays. In the same manner, the
Gandharva in the next verses is identified with the moon, and this moon has sun-like rays. The

59
In ṚV 1 22:14; 8 66:5; 9 83:4; 9 85:12; 10 123:4 and 7; 10 136:6; 10 139:4-5; AV 2 2; 11 7:27; 11 9:24; 12 1:50;
14 2:9 and 34-36; 18 1:4;KYV 3 4.8:4; KB 12:3; BAU 3 4:1; 4 3:33; KU 2.3:5; TBU 6:73-75; and GTU 2:38-40.
60
In ṚV 1 22:14; 9 86:36; 10 10:4; 10 123:4; AV 2 2:3; 10 10:13; 18 1:4; ŚB 3 9.3:18 and 22; KB 12:3; and KU
2.3:5.
61
In ṚV 8 66:5; 9 85:12; 10 123:7 (which is copied in SM 9 2.13:2); 10 139:5; AV 2 2:1; 11 7:27; and PB 12 11:10.

11
popular verse from KYV 1 7.7:1, which is copied in many instances62, is explained in ŚB 6 3.1:19: ‘may
the heavenly, thought-cleansing Gandharva cleanse our thought!’ is explained as that the divine
Gandharva is the sun which is purifying the thoughts or sacrificial food. There are also some direct
associations of the Gandharva with the sun-god Savitṛ and even the lord of speech, Bṛhaspati, in
those hymns, for their functions are very alike: purifying the sacrifice and mind, and making the
sacrificial utterances appealing (Wayman 1997, p. 19). Wayman also identifies the ability to purify
the mind as an aspect of the sun-god (p. 32), a topic this article returns to later.
ṚV 10 139:4 gives a rather vague hint, that Indra looks around the sun when the Soma flows
to the Gandharva Viśvāvasu. This does not identify this Gandharva as being the sun or being alike it,
but places him somewhere around the sun. Verse 5 of that hymn places him in the mid-realm
(antarikṣa, the sky). The mid-realm instigates that there are at least two realms more, one above it
(earth) and one below it (heaven) (Hayakawa 2014, p. 43). In AV 14 2:34 the Apsarases are said to
feast in the place between the sacrifice and the sun, and the Gandharva is asked in the next verse to
go join them. In verse 36 it is said that he is banished to the remotest region, which is away from
earth. It seems that the sun is in the realm on the far end (Hayakawa p. 46), and that perhaps the
stars are behind it, together with the timeless world of the forefathers, who dwell beyond the sun.
The connection with the stars or the zodiac is therefore also easily made, which is noted by
Macdonnell, Keith, and Hillebrandt as being Rohiṇī and the 27 nakṣatras or lunar mansions
(respectively 1963, p. 136; 1925, p. 179; and 1927, p. 385-86). Rohiṇī is known in the western world
as Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus. It could also be meant as a lunar
mansion. The claim that the Gandharvas are connected to Rohiṇī is supported by AV 13 1:23, but this
hymn merely states that the Kaśyapas and Gandharvas lead the speckled mare (horse) upwards
towards the seat of Rohita, which is Rohiṇī. The Gandharvas do not seem to have a clear connection
to this lunar mansion, but are connected to Rohiṇī as a red Soma cow (Monier-Williams 1899, p.
890), for a cow is used in the ritual trade of the Soma, a subject this article will return to later. When
we look at KYV 3 4.7:3, SYV 18:40, and ŚB 9 4.1:9, we do not find the Gandharva being identified as
the 27 nakṣatras, but the Apsarases. Wayman (1997) notes that the names of the nakṣatras are
feminine, which means that they cannot be identified with the Gandharvas, who bear masculine
names for they are seen as male beings. The Apsarases, however, carry feminine names, for they are
seen as female creatures (p. 22). Moreover in their connection to the nakṣatras, the Apsarases get
the adjective ‘starry’. The Gandharvas thus are not connected to Rohiṇī, nor to the other nakṣatras.
Those authors call upon KYV 1 7.7:3, SYV 9:7, and ŚB 5 1.4:8, which mention a group of 27
Gandharvas, the same number as the nakṣatras. Wayman, however, claims that at the time of those
hymns, a system of 28 nakṣatras was in use, which also denies the connection of the Gandharvas
with the nakṣatras (p. 22-26). The identification of the nakṣatras is far more apparent with the
Apsarases than with the Gandharvas.
The Gandharva is connected in those hymns with the moon, but Hillebrandt’s conclusion that
they are moon-giants (1927, p. 377) is too hasty. However, the connection with Soma and the moon
is interesting, a topic to which this article will return later. Hillebrandt also connects the Gandharvas
with lightning (p. 385), which might again be too hasty: AV 2 2:4 and KYV 3 4.7:10 identify the
Apsarases with lightning. The Gandharva of ṚV 10 123:8 is only like a lightning or spark when he
moves towards the ocean. The Gandharva is not identical with it. KYV 3 4.7:9 identifies him with a
rain- or thundercloud (Parjanya), but not with thunder par excellence, which is reserved for the
Apsarases protruding from him. There is an interesting connection to the rainbow, noted, among
many others, by Macdonnell (1963, p. 136). MNU 1:14-15 names Vena, a Gandharva that we have
seen before. This Vena is also present in ṚV 10 123, where it is not directly clear if he is a
Gandharva63, but is at least in Upaniṣadic literature defined in that manner. According to verse one

62
In KYV 4 1.1:7; SYV 9:3; 11:7; 30:1; ŚB 5 1.1:16; and 6 3.1:19. Its popularity might stem from it being an
adaption on the Gayatrī hymn (ṚV 3 62:10).
63
The word ‘Gandharva’ appears in this hymn, but it remains hard to tell whether that designation belongs to
Vena, or is directed to another being altogether.

12
this Vena is born in light, and is nourished in the place ‘where the waters and the sunlight mingle’.
The breaking of light in water causes rainbows, and this connects Vena (perhaps as a Gandharva) to
the rainbow. However, this still does not identify him as such, as is sometimes argued.
Only in the Upaniṣads do the Gandharvas really seem to get their own realm or world. TBU
6:73-75 names the Gandharva city, which is connected by several authors with a mirage or fata
morgana (Macdonnell 1963, p. 136, and Keith 1925, p. 179). BAU 3 6:1 also mentions the world of
the Gandharvas, which is located between the lower sky and the higher sun. 4 3:33 speaks of the
Gandharva-world, stating that multiplying the bliss of the forefather’s world a hundred times (which
is a hundred times the bliss of the human world) grants the bliss of the Gandharva-world. If you
multiply that by a hundred, you get the bliss of the Devas. TU 2 8:1-4 parallels this verse in an
interesting way. Instead of the bliss of the forefather’s world, these verses state that multiplying the
human bliss a hundred times gives the bliss of the human Gandharva (which in BAU 4 3:33 was the
bliss of the forefather’s world), and this multiplied a hundred times grants the bliss of the divine
Gandharva (which in BAU 4 3:33 was the bliss of the Devas). Those two verses look alike, but give a
different order with regard to the factor of bliss. This is schematically presented in fig. 1.

BAU 4 3:33 TU 2 8:1-4


Bliss of men Bliss of men
Bliss of the forefather’s world Bliss of human Gandharva, and follower
of the Veda who is free from desire
Bliss of Gandharva ‘s world Bliss of divine Gandharva, and follower
of the Veda who is free from desire
Bliss of karma Devas (who became so by Bliss of the forefather’s world, and
merit) follower of the Veda who is free from
desire
Bliss of Devas by birth, and follower of Bliss of Devas by birth, and follower of
the Veda who is free from desire the Veda who is free from desire
Bliss of Prajāpati-world, and follower of Bliss of karma Devas (who became so,
the Veda who is free from desire this time, by Vedic rites), and follower of
the Veda who is free from desire
Bliss of Brahmā-world, and follower of Bliss of Devas, and follower of the Veda
the Veda who is free from desire who is free from desire
Bliss of Indra, and follower of the Veda
who is free from desire
Bliss of Bṛhaspati64, and follower of the
Veda who is free from desire
Bliss of Virat65, and follower of the Veda
who is free from desire
Bliss of Hiraṇyagarbha66, and follower of
the Veda who is free from desire
Fig. 1: bliss of the different worlds

Interestingly, only the bliss of the Devas by birth meets at the same place in both editions, while the
hierarchy of the different kind of Devas differs: in BAU 4 3:33 it is karma Deva followed by Deva by
birth, while in TU 2 8:1-4 it is Devas by birth, karma Devas, and then normal Devas, which is followed
by a hierarchy of other Devas. However, it is not the goal of the article to give an analysis of
Upaniṣadic philosophy, so here this diversion ends.

64
The guru of the Devas, who makes the most sacrifices to them.
65
Also called Viśvarūpa (universal form), the form that Kṛṣṇa shows to Arjuna in Bhagavad Gītā 11:9-13.
66
The golden egg of ṚV 10 121:1, associated with the creation of the universe.

13
Perhaps it is only in later literature that the Gandharvas are granted a fixed home, for they
might just roam about. ŚB 13 6.2.1:34 and SYV 30:8 equates the Gandharvas and Apsarases in the
puruṣamedha with the Vrātya or ‘roving outcasts’, meaning not only that they are seen as outsiders,
but also as outsiders that roam about. We have already seen that the Gandharvas are connected
with the wilderness, but they are also connected with paths or going forth. Thus the Gandharvas with
their hair blown by the wind do so in ṚV 3 38:6. This verse and 10 80:6 are connected with the holy
order of things, for the latter calls upon the gāndharvic path of ‘law and order’ (ṛta), meaning the
path belonging to the Gandharvas. It seems to be a ritual path, because on it we find Agni’s pasture,
which is covered in holy oil. The path on which one meets forest animals, Apsarases, and Gandharvas
in 10 136:6 is the same path which the sages walk. PB 12 11:10 finally names the story that the
Aṅgirases won the path to heaven, but not the path to the Devas. Kalyāṇa of that clan went out to
study, and on his path met the Gandharva Ūrṇāyu, who is swinging among the Apsarases. Whenever
Ūrṇāyu directs the words ‘this one’ to one of the Apsarases, she would desire him. Ūrṇāyu teaches
Kalyāṇa that with this chant, one can attain the path to the Devas. However, he should not brag
about this knowledge.
In ṚV 3 38:6 we saw that the hair of the Gandharvas is blown by the wind. In other hymns the
Gandharvas are connected with the roaming of the wind. In AV 2 2:4 we find the adjective ‘cloudy’
connected with the Apsarases, while in 8 6:19 Piṅga is said to chase the Gandharvas in the same
manner that wind chases the cloud, which makes Piṅga the wind, and the Gandharvas the cloud. KYV
3 4.7:6, SYV 18:41, and ŚB 9 4.1:10 identify the Gandharvas with the wind, and the Apsarases with
the water. The Gandharva is followed in the rush of wind in KYV 3 5.6:11. However, the wind is also
seen as separate from the Gandharvas. KYV 1 7.7:3, SYV 9:7, and ŚB 5 1.4:8 recall that either the wind
(vāyu), thought, or the 27 Gandharvas first yoked the horse, and BAU 3 3:2 states that the Gandharva
Sudhanvan praises the air.

The dwelling place of the Gandharvas is still unclear. Most traditionally it is in the sky, where the
Gandharva can also be connected to the sun or light. Identification with other celestial phenomena,
like the nakṣatras or the moon, seem to be insufficient. The identification with the moon appears in a
cluster of hymns that are alike67, and that identify the Gandharva and Apsarases with many things
that make the Gandharva a kind of All-Being. Water as the dwelling place is of two kinds: as the
original dwelling place of the Apsarases, who also find their origin there (at the churning of the
ocean); and as the link with Soma or Amṛta. Gandharvas and Apsarases also dwell in certain trees,
mostly of the species ficus carica (edible figs). In Upaniṣadic literature they get a world which is set
aside for them, and before that they are also known to wander, especially on paths which sages also
thread on.

3.4 Love is in the air

The Gandharvas are connected to the Apsarases, and we often find them alongside each other in
Vedic literature68. The Apsarases are seen as the wives of the Gandharvas, as stated in AV 2 2:5; 4
37:7 and 12; 14 2:34-35; and ŚB 9 4.1:2. The sweetly-smiling Apsaras supports her lover the
Gandharva in the sublimest heaven in ṚV 10 123:5. Their bond seems to be of mutual desire, and to
this mythological model the gāndharva marriage (a marriage belonging to the Gandharva) is formed,
which is a marriage in love with consent from both partners, without approval or even knowledge of

67
KYV 3 4.7; SYV 18:38-43; and ŚB 9 4.1:7-12.
68
In ṚV 10 10:4; 10 136:6; AV 2 2:3-5; 4 37:2, 7, and 12; 8 10:27; 9 7:10; 11 7:27; 11 9:16 and 24; 12 1:23 and
50; 14 2:9 and 34-35; 18 1:4; 19 36:6; 19 54:4; KYV 3 4.7:1-6 and 8-11 (with its parallels in SYV 18:38-43 and ŚB
9 4.1:7-12); 5 7.15; SYV 30:8; ŚB 9 4.1:2 and 4; 10 5.2:20; 11 5.1; 11 5.3:7; 13 6.2.1:34; PB 12 11:10; 19 3:2; JB 1
41:1; 1 55:10-11; 3 5:1; AB 3 3:31; KB 2:2; MU 3; and MNU 42:2. They both also appear in KYV 5 5.16 and GTU
2:46, 93, and 95, but it is implied there that they are species separated from each other, that belong to their
own order.

14
the family necessary (Shendge 1977, p. 108). Most of the times the Apsarases seem to be subjugated
to the Gandharvas69, but at one point one of them rebels (the story of Urvaśī, the Apsaras that takes
on a human lover named Purūravas in ŚB 11 5.2). As in the gāndharva marriage, their bond is
voluntary, so it seems to be a voluntary choice when the Apsarases subjugate themselves to the
Gandharvas (except in PB 12 11:10, where Ūrṇāyu seems to use a spell to make the Apsarases desire
him), and she has the choice to leave his side to pursue another lover, so that the Gandharvas feel
the need to get her back. The Gandharvas and Apsarases are not only connected as lovers, but also in
other groupings. AV 9 7:10 gives homage to the normal bull and cow, in which the Gandharvas are
associated with the legs, and the Apsarases with parts of the feet (but not the hoofs, because they
are associated with Aditi). And in KYV 5 7.15, which describes the parts of the horse sacrifice, the
Gandharvas are associated with the penis, and the Apsarases with the testicles.
In the same way do the Gandharvas have other lovers. They had the daughter of Sūryā (the
female form of the sun, according to Oberlies 2006, p. 97) as their bride for a while, as stated in ṚV
10 85:40-41 and AV 12 2:3-4. These verses state that first Soma had her as bride, then the
Gandharva, thirdly was Agni her spouse, and finally a human male. The Gandharva is in this regard a
rival of the human male (Wayman 1997, p. 40) In another way are Gandharvas and Apsarases
connected with marriage, for they bestow good luck upon a newly-wed couple from their trees in AV
14 2:9.
The female form Gandharvī is also sometimes called the wife of the Gandharvas, or as
another name of the Apsarases. Her appearance is very rare in Vedic literature, for she only appears
in two verses70, which are even identical. She is called there the ‘lady of the flood’, which reminds us
of the ‘dame of waters’, an epithet for the Apsaras. She can also be found in GTU 2:12-13, 28, and
118, in which she is identified with Rādhā, the favourite gopī (cow-herdress) of Kṛṣṇa. In GTU she
asks questions, which are answered and after that she is dismissed. This might make Rādhā an
Apsaras, which is not entirely impossible. Bhaktic rasa-poetry speaks of her great beauty, and
because of her closeness to Kṛṣṇa she is drawn in a heavenly sphere, which could associate her with
an Apsaras (Van der Velde 2007). However, Rādhā is a character whose appearance is rather late in
Hinduism, after 1000 CE. Whatever it may be, Gandharvī is far more marginal in Vedic literature than
the Gandharvas are.
The Gandharvas are sometimes connected to love or lust. They have an amorous relation
with the Apsarases in ṚV 10 10:4 and AV 18 1:4. The Gandharva Ūrṇāyu can make any Apsaras desire
him by the words ‘this one’ in PB 12 11:10. Their amorous nature comes to the fore in ṚV 85:22 and
AV 8 6:19, and they are identified as ‘love’ in the all-identifier hymn KYV 3 4.7 (verse 12). The
Gandharva Viśvāvasu is asked in ṚV 10 85:21-22 to seek another human female, as to leave the bride
of the husband alone. Interestingly, Gandharvī also is identified with having an amorous nature in ṚV
10 11:2 and AV 18 1:19. In the Brāhmaṇas, the Gandharvas’ love for women gets them into trouble,
because they lose the Soma due to it71, especially due to Vāc or the wives of the Devas. This points to
a really interesting matter. Those that are versed in Indian mythology understand the Gandharvas as
celestial musicians, whose music accompanies the dance of the Apsarases. However, as we have
seen, in this myth of the theft of the Soma, it is not the Gandharvas that are connected to music, but
the Devas. To freshen up the memory: the Devas want Soma, but the Gandharvas have stolen it.
They want to trade it back for Vāc, which the Gandharvas accept. But the Devas are greedy: having
the Soma, they also want Vāc back. They hold a contest, in which Vāc may choose to whom she
wants to go. The Gandharvas recite Vedic hymns, and the Devas sing or create the lute and make
music. Vāc, often sorrowfully, returns to the Devas. That the Gandharvas are connected to music
seems to be a later invention. In the same way that Vāc, by once belonging to the Gandharvas, makes
them the constitutors of speech (which is a possible interpretation of ṚV 10 177:2), Sarasvatī (a later

69
AV 2 2:4; 4 37:7 and 12; KYV 3 4.7:1-6 and 8-11 (with its parallels in SYV 18:38-43 and ŚB 9 4.1:7-12); and PB
12 11:10.
70
In ṚV 10 11:2 and AV 18 1:19.
71
In ŚB 3 2.4:3; 3 9.3:20 and 22; AB 1 5:27; and KB 12:3. There is also one reference to this in KYV 6 1.6:5.

15
form of Vāc) makes the Gandharvas skilful in music as stated by Swāmī Prajñānānanda (according to
Wayman 1990, p. 245). As this is all interpretations of a later era, the Gandharvas were not musicians
proper in Vedic times. The real musicians, next to the Devas72, are the Apsarases in AV 4 37:4, where
they play the lute and cymbals. They might not be musicians proper, but the Gandharvas appear to
be singers in Vedic literature. In ṚV 1 22:14 they sing sacred songs, and 9 86:36 states they are skilled
in sacred songs, one of which is sung by the Gandharva Viśvāvasu in 10 139:5. JB 1 55:10-11 states
that the Ṛc, or Ṛg Vedic priest, asks the Gandharvas and Apsarases to sing upon him, which makes
him firm. This points to the function of the Sāman priest, a role to which this article shall return
later73. Lastly, and more general, GTU 2:40 states that Gandharvas and a host of other creatures sing
and dance in Gopāla Pūrī. Is the Apsaras seen as the dancer in later Hinduism, the Gandharva seems
to take that role in Vedic literature, as in AV 4 37:7.
The ‘amorous Gandharvas’ might cause the death of infants (as in AV 8 6:19), but they are
also said to rule, together with the Apsarases, over the fertility of men in PB 19 3:2. They themselves
are also fertile, because in ṚV 10 10 we find them to be the parents of Yama and Yamī (according to
Keith 1925, p. 179; and Macdonnell 1963, p. 137). Monier-Williams states that Yama and Yamī are
the first two human beings, which makes the Gandharvas the origin of the human race (1899, p.
346). Wayman states in this regard that the Apsarases are also known with the epithet ‘live-giving’
(āyuva) (1997, p. 49). Again, Wayman (leaning on the work of Pillai) states that the Gandharvas also
bother the mating behaviour of people. A newly-wed couple remain abstinent for three nights, in
which the Gandharva staff (before known as daṇḍa) is placed between them. It is said to symbolise
the Gandharva Viśvāvasu (Gonda 1960, p. 45), who is also a contester on the bride. He must be
appeased, for he is the protector of the virginity of women. Hymns in his name are uttered (like AV
14 2:35 and KYV 1 1.11:9) and at the fourth night the staff is removed. After that, the groom touches
the vagina of his bride and states: ‘you are the mouth of the Gandharva Viśvāvasu’ (Wayman 1997, p.
39-40). In another sense are the Gandharvas connected with fertility, by being mentioned in a hymn
about the harvest, AV 3 24. The Gandharvas receive three sheaves of this, perhaps as a sacrifice to
appease them, while the ‘lady of the house’ receives four.

We have seen that the Gandharvas are married with the Apsarases (sometimes perhaps called
Gandharvī) after the model of the gāndharva marriage (or, even more likely, their marriage instituted
this type of marriage). They have an amorous nature, which grants them other lovers, but also gets
them into trouble, like losing the Soma. Their connection with music seems to be elaborated in Epic
literature (see for example Hopkins 1915), as they are only scarcely known as singers in Vedic
literature. They are also connected with human fertility, while the Gandharva Viśvāvasu can be an
obstruction to it.

3.5 What do they look like?

That the Gandharvas are radiant as the sun, as we have seen before, does not mean that their
appearance is too radiant to look upon. AV 4 37:11 is most telling of their look behind the blinding

72
In KYV 6 1.6:6 and ŚB 3 2.4:6.
73
The Gandharvas have their own type of music (gāndharva music), which is derived from the Sāma Veda and
is free from improvisation according to Tarlekar (as stated by Wayman 1997, p. 2). Staal identifies the Sāma
Veda already as music, hypothesising that it takes the Ṛg Vedic verses and puts them unto non-Aryan melodies
(2008, p. 108; and 2004, p. 274). This might be historically correct (not saying that it is, but the possibility
exists), but it is not according to Indian theory. In the Indian Śabda (sound) theory, there are two kinds of
sound: āhata (‘struck’, meaning it is heard) and anāhata (‘unstruck’, unmanifested sound) (Kak 2002, p. 60).
Music is heard or āhata, while Vedic hymns are anāhata or an Ideal kind of sound. In this sense, Sāma Vedic
hymns cannot be music, for they are already anāhata. Gāndharva music is therefore not a direct recitation of
Vedic hymns, but probably uses the consecrated melodic character of it. While this is theoretically the case, it is
very probable that most Indians still see the hymns of the SV as music, disregarding (or, more likely, not aware
of) the theoretical speculation on this subject.

16
light. They apparently look like young monkeys and dogs, completely covered with hair, which is long
enough to blow in the wind, as becomes apparent in ṚV 3 38:6. The rest of AV 4 37:11 states that
they put on a lovely look to pursue the ladies they love so much. One Gandharva wears a beautiful
robe according to ṚV 10 123:7 (and consequently SM 9 2.13:2). It is a beautiful form that others also
take on from time to time. Sītā does so in SU 10, but does not exclude the form of other creatures.
Also pairs of Devas do so in ŚB 9 4.1:2 and 4, taking on the forms of Gandharvas and Apsarases as
one does when one goes to one’s mate. BAU 4 4:4 states that a human soul which is freed can take
on a more beautiful form, which can be that of the forefathers, Gandharvas, Devas, Prajāpati,
Brahmā, or other beings. It is interesting to see that this order (excluding the rather random ‘other
beings’) is the same as which is mentioned in BAU 4 3:33, which mentions the multiplications of bliss.
We could thus perhaps say that the form of the forefathers is more beautiful than that of humans,
that of the Gandharvas more beautiful than that of the forefathers, that of the Devas more beautiful
than Gandharvas, that of Prajāpati more beautiful than the other Devas, and that of Brahmā the
most beautiful of all. Lastly, GTU 2:95 states that a Deva takes on the form of the Gandharva (or, as in
ŚB 10 5.2:20, form itself) to be helpful for the Gandharvas.
The smell of the ajaśṛṅgī (odina wodier or goat’s horn tree) is said to drive away Gandharvas
and Apsarases in AV 4 37:2. Interestingly, the scent of Gandharvas (and consequently Apsarases) is
described in Vedic literature. They have the same pleasant fragrance as Virāj (also known as
Viśvarūpa, the universal form) in AV 8 10:27. This scent is apparently the same as the pleasant scent
of the earth in 12 1:23. This scent seems to be important, for the godly pairs take over both form and
fragrance of the Gandharvas and Apsarases in ŚB 9 4.1:4. But when we look at ŚB 10 5.2:20 and MU
3, the Gandharvas are more concerned with a beautiful form (rūpa), while the Apsarases are more
concerned with a pleasant scent (gandha). When looking at both words used, one might think that
‘gandha’ (scent) and Gandharva are etymologically connected. This link has been suggested by Keith
(1925, p. 180)74, but seems premature when we see above that the Apsarases are more connected
with ‘gandha’ than the Gandharvas.
Instead of outward appearance, they also have a social appearance in that they are granted
epithets. The Gandharva is called the ‘unconquered one’ in ṚV 8 1:11. AV 2 2 is really bounteous with
the epithets, calling the Gandharva ‘lord of this world’, ‘sky-reaching’, and the only Deva to be
worshipped in verses 1 and 2. PB 1 3:10 gives him the epithet ‘whose words go in all directions’. The
Gandharva Viśvāvasu is specifically qualified in AV 14 2:35 with his eye and fiery anger.

Concluding, the Gandharvas appear to have a radiant appearance, which could be a concealment
from their youthful appearance of hairy dogs and monkeys, which they obscure to pursue ladies.
Because of this illustrious nature they are often described as beautiful, a form which is wilfully taken
over by other classes of beings. They are concerned with form, while the Apsarases concern
themselves with scent. Several epithets speak of their grandness.

3.6 Brahmin or Saṁ ā ?

It is an interesting question whether the Gandharvas belong to the religious order of the Brahmins,
or step outside of it. We have already seen that the sage with long locks, a Saṁnyāsin or ascetic,
threads in the wilderness, on a path which is also visited by wild beasts, Gandharvas, and Apsarases,
according to ṚV 10 136:6. SYV 30:8 and ŚB 13 6.2.1:34 name that a Vrātya is offered for the sake of
the Gandharvas and Apsarases. The Vrātya is, as seen above, an outcast who roams about, but is also
a mendicant (who then becomes an outcast by his own consent) (Monier-Williams 1899, p. 1043),
thus connecting it again to the Saṁnyāsin. However, the association with Brahmins or sacrifiers
seems more apparent. In ṚV 10 177:2 the sages that sit at the altar (or Brahmins) watch either the
bird that bears Vāc (as speech) in his mind, or the Gandharva that pronounced speech (or: began to

74
However, Keith justly remarks that this interpretation is part of folk etymology, just as the example
(Upaniṣad) in footnote 15.

17
talk, perhaps even in the wider sense that the Gandharva constituted speech in general). The
Gandharvas correct rituals or give advice on how or when to perform them. In ŚB 11 2.3:7 the Ṛṣis (or
seers that ‘composed’ or obtained the Vedas) are corrected by the Gandharvas when they offer too
much or too little in their sacrifice towards Agni. In KB 2:9 a maiden, who is possessed by a
Gandharva and conveys his knowledge, decrees the Agnihotra (small fire sacrifice) to be performed
only after sunset, not before sunrise and after sunset as before. AB 5 5:29 states that the possessed
maiden institutes the Agnihotra to be held every alternate day, an alternation on KB 2:9.
However, this is not the end of the story. The Gandharvas are also connected with esoteric
(secret or hidden) knowledge, which is the domain of the Saṁnyāsins (although also sought after by
the Brahmins). Sometimes they share this knowledge75, but in one very striking example they do not.
We have already encountered the myth of Urvaśī and Purūravas, recounted in ŚB 11 5.1. In this myth,
the Gandharvas present two rituals which Purūravas should perform to become one of them.
However, both times they state these rituals are of a too esoteric nature in verses 14-16, and finally
give him a substitute. Purūravas will become a human Gandharva, but is still not allowed to perform
those rituals. This is striking, for the Gandharvas are not afraid to spread other secrets in other
places, even about rituals (as in the correction of the ritual from the Ṛṣis of ŚB 11 2.3:7 mentioned
just now). Sometimes there is a wish from humans for the Gandharvas to spread their knowledge, as
in AV 2 1:2 and SYV 32:9, where the Gandharvas know eternity and the hope is expressed that they
will share this knowledge. ṚV 10 139:5 states that the Gandharva Viśvāvasu sings a song, from which
is hoped that it gives proper insight and inspires thought and helps praises. The Gandharva Ūrṇāyu
teaches the way of heaven to the student Kalyāṇa in PB 12 11:10. Upaniṣadic literature makes the
Gandharvas knowers of Brahman. The Gandharva Kabandha tells a group of Vedic students about
Brahman in BAU 3 7:1, and the Gandharva Vena does the same to his students in MNU 1:14-15. CU
21:1 states that the Gandharvas, Forefathers, and Nāgas are Nidhana, which can be interpreted as
one of the downward cycles of breathing or a Sāma Vedic song.
In a way, we could say that all the appearances of the Gandharvas, or for that matter all
Vedic hyms, are connected to ritual, since the Vedic hymns accompany the rituals. But in certain
areas we find them in more explicit ritual instructions or explanations why rituals have the form they
have76. We already see this in the KYV, but especially the ŚB and AB77. Most interestingly, a fair
amount of those instructions pertain to Soma78. Many of those instructions are connected to the
myth of the theft of the Soma. Because the Gandharva Viśvāvasu stole the Soma for three nights, the
Soma is stored for three days after purchase, as ordered by KYV 6 1.6:5. There are also ritual
instructions for the purchase. ŚB 3 3.3:11 gives a formula that should be uttered when purchasing
the Soma: ‘'Oh Svāna, Bhrāga, Aṅghāri, Bambhāri, Hasta, Suhasta, Kṛśānu! These are your wages for
Soma: keep them! May they not fail you!'. These names belong to Gandharvas, and the remainder of

75
In ṚV 10 139:5; AV 2 1:2 (which is identical to SYV 32:9); PB 12 11:10; BAU 3 7:1; and MNU 1:14-15.
76
This is not to prove that myth precedes ritual. A ritual legitimation in myth can, obviously, have arisen later
than the ritual itself. Staal argues that the Vedic Śrauta (‘official’ or ‘formal’) ritual complex consists of groups
with different origins, which means that especially this ritual complex did not arise out of myth (2004, p. 275).
It might have been that, in this instance, Soma (as a psycho-active substance) is the origin of the myth and the
ritual, and became an even more ultimate concern when it disappeared (2001, p. 772-773). However, Falk
(1989) remarks that the Soma/Haoma (Haoma is the Avestic equivalent, although the relation with Soma is
heavily discussed) is a plant that was postulated upon already existing mythologies of psycho-active plants (p.
77-78).
77
All hymns pertaining to ritual instructions are KYV 3 4.8:4; 6 1.6:5 and 6; 6 1.11:5; ŚB 1 3.4:2 (the ritual
instruction of this verse is original, the hymn uttered comes from SYV 2:3); 1 7.1:1; 3 2.4:22; 3 3.3:11; 3 6.2:9
and 14; 3 9.3:22; 4 4.2:7; 5 1.1:16 (which is copied, and sometimes provided with other instructions, in KYV 1
7.7:1; SYV 9:3; 11:7; 30:1; ŚB 5 1.1:16; and 6 3.1:19); 9 4.1:2 and 4; 10 5.2:20; 11 2.3:9 (verse 7 gives the
mythological cause for this instruction for dealing with excess or deficiency in the sacrifice); 11 5.1:13-17; 11
5.3:7; AB 1 4:22; 1 5:27-28; 3 3:31; 5 5:29; and KB 2:2 and 9.
78
In KYV 6 1.6:5; 6 1.11:5; ŚB 1 7.1:1; 3 2.4:22; 3 3.3:11; 3 6.2:9 and 14; 3 9.3:22; 4 4.2:7; 5 1.1:16 (see footnote
57); AB 1 5:27; and KB 2:2.

18
the verse mentions that these names also belong to the dhiṣṇya-hearths. The Gandharvas are
identified with these hearths and the accompanying fire-sacrifiers in 3 6.2:9. 3 2.4:10-22 states that
as when Vāc returns when called by the Devas, so the cow that is used to buy the Soma is called
back. This is supported by Staal, who mentions that the salesman of the Soma ritually refuses to sell
his highly sought-after goods, after which he is likewise ritually punished (2001, p. 756-57). AB 5 1:27
mentions the cow as the trade-off for the Soma, which is a symbolical representation of Vāc (Vāc can
also appear as a cow (Ions 1976, p. 20)). Because Vāc is the goddess of speech, the Brahmins that
sold her must speak inaudibly when the cow is traded for the Soma. KYV 6 1.11:5 mentions a verse to
be spoken as to prevent the Soma from being stolen during the sacrifice, and according to ŚB 3
6.2:14 it must be guarded, for else it will be stolen. Because the Gandharvas let the Soma be stolen
from them, they (and correspondingly, the ones that get the Soma stolen) are excluded from it in the
same verse and 4 4.2:7. Thus they are delighted when they are granted water from the offering ladle,
as in 11 5.3:7 and KB 2:2. A parṇa or betel branch, which is a substitute for the Soma, is used to drive
away the calves from the cows, because ŚB 1 7.1:1 states that the Gandharva Kṛśānu (as the ‘footless
archer’) shoots at the bird Gayatrī, who carries off the Soma, and thereby or the Soma or Gayatrī
loses a feather, which became a betel tree when it fell on earth. A branch from this tree is then used
to drive away calves as to call back the nature of the Soma to its substitute. This description that
Soma might have feathers corresponds with KYV 3 4.7:4, SYV 18:42, and ŚB 9 4.1:11, which state that
the Gandharva is the ‘winged sacrifice’. Soma and the Gandharva are identified with each other in
this way, when Soma (which is used, among other usages, as a sacrificial product) has feathers.
There are some other ritual instructions associated with the Gandharvas. KYV 3 4.8:4 states
that one should offer coal for one who is mad, since the Gandharvas and Apsarases are the ones that
make someone mad. ŚB 1 3.4:2 mentions laying a stick on the west side of the fire, while reciting a
part of SYV 2:3, which makes the Gandharva Viśvāvasu protect the sacrifiers. In ŚB 9 4.1:2 the
sacrifice encloses the sacrifice, just as Prajāpati encloses the Gandharva and Apsaras as a chariot that
went forth of him when he was dismembered. 11 2.3:9 tells what to do when a sacrifice has been too
excessive or defective, with verse 7 giving the mythological story behind it (see above). Also, the
Gandharvas are connected to the litany of the Vaiśvadeva, a household fire ritual, whose litany
belong to the five ‘folks’ according to AB 3 3:31: Devas, men, Gandharvas and Apsarases, Nāgas, and
Forefathers. The Gandharvas are also connected to purification in two verses79. In ṚV 10 10:4 (and
subsequently in AV 18 1:4) they lose their purity by talking ‘impurely’, while they are a cleanser of
thought and intention in the popular phrase of KYV 1 7.7:1. ŚB 5 1.1:16 states that this popular verse
should be recited until the day before the Soma feast, and 6 3.1:19 states that the Gandharva stands
for the sun, and the thoughts are the sacrificial food, thus making the meaning: ‘may the sun cleanse
the sacrificial food!’.
Sometimes the Gandharvas are associated with certain parts of a sacrifice, as in KYV 5 7:15,
ŚB 10 6.4:1, and BAU 1 1:2 with the horse sacrifice (or, in another way, going to the horse sacrifice in
BAU 3 3:2), or in ŚB 13 6.2.1:34, in which the Gandharvas and Apsarases are identified as the roaming
outcasts, which are symbolically represented in the puruṣamedha or ‘human’ (fire) sacrifice. We also
see them in other sacrifices80. Some of these we have already seen, like their role of guardian of the
sacrifiers in KYV 1 1.11:9, SYV 2:3, and ŚB 1 3.4:2, or in the story of Purūravas and Urvaśī in ŚB 11 5.1.
Verses 13 up to and including 16 mention rituals that are too esoteric for a human to perform, and
verse 17 names a ritual by which Purūravas becomes a Gandharva. They sometimes receive
sacrifices. In AV 3 24:6 they receive three sheaves, while the lady of the house receives four. In 7
109:5 a gambler sacrifices to the Deva of the dice (whose name is not specified in the hymn), while
Gandharvas enjoy from this sacrifice in the form of a banquet. The Apsarases also enjoy this banquet

79
In ṚV 10 10:4 (which is copied in AV 18 1:4) and KYV 1 7.7:1 (which is copied in KYV 4 1.1:7; SYV 9:3; 11:7; and
30:1. It is also copied and provided with commentary in ŚB 5 1.1:16 and 6 3.1:19).
80
All hymns concerning sacrifices are ṚV 10 177:2; AV 3 24:6; 4 37:8-9; 7 109:5; KYV 1 1.11:9; 3 4.8:4; 3 5.6:11;
5 7:15 (which is roughly the same as ŚB 10 6.4:1 and BAU 1 1:2); 6 1.11:5; SYV 2:3 (which is extended with
commentary in ŚB 1 3.4:2); ŚB 3 3.3:11; 3 6.2:17; 3 9.3:18 and 22; 4 4.2:7; 9 4.1:4; 11 5.1:13-17; and PB 19 3:2.

19
according to the rest of the hymn, and this banquet is held in the space between the sun and the
sacrifier. They both receive the sacrifice in ŚB 9 4.1:4 and PB 19 3:2, and in this last verse they receive
it in the form of Soma, while in ŚB 3 6.2:17 and 4 4.2:7 they are excluded from the Soma. This is
because they are guardians of the Soma and let it get stolen in 3 9.3: 18 and 22, while in KYV 6 1.11:5
and ŚB 3 6.2:14 the priests must prevent the sacrifice from being stolen by the Gandharva Viśvāvasu.
Hillebrandt (1927, p. 384) states that the dhiṣṇya-hearths are named after the Gandharvas, and ŚB 3
6.2:9 identifies those names to both the hearths and the priests attending them. This gives a direct
identification of the Gandharvas with the Brahmins, and it might also be the case that the
Gandharvas as guardians of the Soma are a model for (or modelled after) those priests guarding the
Soma. However, some verses go against this interpretation as the Gandharvas being insiders in the
cult of the Brahmins. The Gandharvas get assigned the price in the ritual purchase of the Soma in ŚB
3 3.3:11, which makes them outsiders of the ritual cult, as Staal states: Brahmins do not know where
to find it, but buy it from other peoples inhabiting the mountains (2004, p. 248). When the
Gandharvas receive a price for selling the Soma, they are identified with those peoples, and
therefore do not belong to the inner core of the ritual (but are provided a ritual role (Staal 2001, p.
756-57)). Lastly, in AV 4 37:8-9 they are condemned for not bringing a sacrificial gift.
The Gandharvas are sometimes connected to the mind or thoughts. We have already seen
the popular Gayatrī-like hymn of KYV 1 7.7:181 in this regards, in which the Gandharva is asked to
purify the thoughts of the worshippers. ṚV 10 139:5 the wish is uttered that the Gandharva Viśvāvasu
purifies thought and helps in worship. In ŚB 9 4.1:12, KYV 3 4.7:5, and SYV 18:43, we find the
identification of the Gandharva with the mind, while the Apsarases are identified with verses of the
ṚV and SV. In MNU 42:2 the Gandharvas and Apsarases are said to possess intelligence, which came
in useful to be able to explain secrets and correct rituals as stated above. Worship is also a recurring
theme82. As just above, they can inspire worship, but receive a fair deal of it themselves. Especially
Viśvāvasu is an object of worship in ṚV 10 85:21 and 22, AV 14 2:35, and KYV 1 1.11:9. At other times
the worship is directed at anonymous Gandharvas as in AV 2 2:1 and 2, 14 2:34 and 35, and PB 1
3:10. Both the Gandharva and Apsarases also receive worship in KYV 3 4.7:1-6 and 8-12, and all its
copies (see footnote 62). The Brahmachāri or religious student worships the 6,333 Gandharvas in AV
11 5:2, and in the rest of the hymn other heavenly beings befall this fate. In Upaniṣadic literature we
catch the Gandharvas themselves in the act of worshipping. The Gandharva Sudhanvan praises the
air in BAU 3 3:2. The Gandharvas worship the eighth deity in the forests of Mathura according to GTU
2:46, while the Apsarases worship the ninth, and those who worship the twelfth deity, who was at
that moment on earth, ‘surpass death and attain liberation’ according to verse 47.

There are some connections of the Gandharvas with Saṁnyāsins, for they hold esoteric knowledge
and have knowledge of Brahman. They are also associated with the mind. However, the link with the
Brahmins is much clearer, for they are once identified as the fire-priests in ŚB 3 6.2:9. We find them
in ritual instructions (even correcting them as in ŚB 11 2.3:7) and even as becoming part of a
mythological explanation of the ritual of the purchase of the Soma. In this way, they might even fall
outside the Brahmins, as salesman of the Soma. But one thing is definitely clear: they are connected
to the Soma, a topic to which we finally shall turn.

3.7 Soma

It is rather impossible not to speak of Soma when one speaks about the Vedic religion. Therefore, it is
hardly surprising to find the Gandharvas mingling in the Soma-business. We have already come upon
the theme of the Soma countless times. A recapitulation will make things clearer, and will be
accompanied by new material. There are many verses in which both the Soma and the Gandharvas

81
Copied in KYV 4 1.1:7; SYV 9:3; 11:7; and 30:1, and provided with commentary in ŚB 5 1.1:16 and 6 3.1:19.
82
In ṚV 10 85:21 and 22; 10 139:5; AV 2 2:1 and 2; 11 5:2; 14 2:34 and 35; KYV 1 1.11:9; 3 4.7:1-6 and 8-12
(which is repeated in 3 4.8:4; SYV 18:38-43; and ŚB 9 4.1:7-12); PB 1 3:10; BAU 3 3:2; and GTU 2:46.

20
play a role83. The Gandharvas are present in the myth of the theft of the Soma, which has two
variations. In the first variation, they steal the Soma from the Devas, who trade it for Vāc. Then Vāc
returns to the Devas, which leaves the Gandharvas empty-handed. In the other variation, the
Gandharvas are known as the guardians of the Soma, which is then stolen by the Devas. The Devas
then exclude them from receiving Soma at the sacrifice. Both myths play a role in ritual. We find
Kuiper (in Oberlies 2005, p. 97-98) stating that the Gandharvas place things in quarantine for three
days as to make them pure. KYV 6 1.6:5 endorses this, for the Soma must be kept three days after
purchase, because the Gandharva Viśvāvasu stole it, to be gone for three days. The Brahmins that
watch the Soma after the purchase might be reflected mythologically by the Gandharvas as Soma-
guardians, as supported by KYV 6 1.11:5 and ŚB 3 6.2:14. And when it is stolen from them, they are
punished for it. And this can also be found in rite and myth. Hillebrandt (1927, p. 384) states that the
dhiṣṇya-hearths are named after the Gandharvas, and ŚB 3 6.2:9 states that both those hearths and
the fire-priests attending them have Gandharvic names, as stated before. Verse 24 explains that
those priests have double names, of which one is referring to the Gandharvas. Verse 19 states that
the Gandharvas do not beget of the Soma, because it was stolen from them. But at the third pressing
of it84 they beget some of the ghī (clarified butter). Verse 20 names that they get some benefits from
the Soma when it is passed over the hearths, while they still do not get it directly. Hillebrandt
mentions that the Acchāvāka-priests befall the same fate (p. 384-85): they cannot drink the Soma
themselves, but some is poured in their mouths for them. The same practice is described for the
Gandharvas in verse 20 and in 4 4.2:7, which binds those two together. It might be that those
Acchāvāka-priests were in charge of the dhiṣṇya-hearths, which makes the connection to the
Gandharvas doubly justified: they share their names and are treated equally in the ritual.
Other things that we have already seen is the connection of the Gandharvas with the Soma.
Macdonnell states that the phrase ‘Gandharva of/in the floods’ is synonymous with Soma (1963, p.
137), a phrase we find in ṚV 9 86:36 and 10 10:4 (and the last verse is copied in AV 18 1:4). KYV 3
4.7:4, SYV 18:42, and ŚB 9 4.1:11 identify the Gandharva as the ‘winged sacrifice’, which is also an
identification with Soma. For in ŚB 1 7.1:1 we find that the Gandharva Kṛśānu (as the ‘footless
archer’) shoots at the bird Gayatrī, who carries off the Soma. She or the Soma then loses a feather,
which identifies the Gandharva as the ‘winged sacrifice’ with Soma. When that feather fell on earth,
it became a betel tree, which is a substitute for the Soma (Feller 2004, p. 165; and found in KB 2:2).
We have already seen that the Gandharvas are connected to water in two ways: by their spouses the
Apsarases, and through Soma. Soma is sometimes equated with water. We just saw the ‘Gandharva
of/in the floods’ as Soma, and also in some other verses85, suggesting it as a water with special
powers and a sacrificial utility. The Gandharvas laying their semen inside the Soma in ṚV 9 113:3 (per
interpretation of Hillebrandt 1927, p. 383) suggests that the Soma is also a fluid. In ŚB 11 5.3:7 and
KB 2:2 we find that a ladle sprinkling water of respectively pouring it towards east and north gratifies
the Gandharvas and Apsarases, and this water might also be a substitute for Soma. In 3 9.3:22 the
Adhvaryu-priests walk with their wives to the water to fetch the Soma symbolically. In verses 19 up
to and including 21 we find the Devas stealing the Soma from the Gandharvas in the same way: the
Gandharvas get distracted by the wives of the gods, and do not mind the Soma, which is then taken
by the Devas ‘to a place free of danger and injury’. The Adhvaryu-priest does the same by walking to
the water, and thus taking the water which is identified with the Soma. We also find another ritual

83
In ṚV 1 22:14; 9 86:36; 9 113:3; 10 85:40 and 41 (copied in AV 14 2:3 and 4); 10 123:4; 10 139:4 and 6; AV 4
34:3; 10 10:13; KYV 3 4.7:4 (copied in SYV 18:42 and ŚB 9 4.1:11); 6 1.6:5; 6 1.11:5; SYV 12:99; ŚB 1 7.1:1; 3
2.4:2, 3, 4, and 22; 3 3.3:11; 3 6.2:9, 14, and 17; 3 9.3:18 up to and including 22; 4 4.2:7; PB 19 3:2; AB 1 5:27;
and KB 12:3.
84
Staal (2001) states that the word ‘Soma’ comes from the root su-, which means ‘to press’ (p. 750). The plant
can be pressed several times, and each time the Soma-juice has different qualities (p. 752). Staal mentions
Wasson, who brought forth the option that one of the pressings was actually the digested Soma-juice which
was peed out (p. 760), a theory that is generally rejected (p. 761).
85
In ṚV 1 22:14; 10 123:4; 10 139:4; ŚB 3 9.3:18; and KB 12:3.

21
identification of water with Soma in KB 12:3. The sacrifier utters a hymn in the Virāj-metre, which
connects this Virāj, which is also food, with water. Then they utter a hymn in the Gayatrī-metre,
which is connected to the Soma-pressing in the morning, and in that manner identifies the water
with the morning pressing of the Soma.
A rather vague link between Soma and the Gandharvas can be found in AV 12 1:23. This
verse states that the scent from the earth is a scent which is shared by herbs, plants, the water,
Gandharvas, and Apsarases, and with this scent they sweeten the worshipper of Pṛthivī (deified
earth-goddess, according to Wayman 1997, p. 35). Since the Soma is identified as a plant in AV 4 4:1
and SYV 12:99, and the processed plant becomes juice or water (Staal 2001, p. 752) which identifies
it also with the water, and also shares the scent of the earth with the Gandharvas (and Apsarases),
another connection between the Gandharvas and the Soma is made, albeit indirectly. When we look
at the cluster of hymns of KYV 3 4.7, SYV 18:38-43, and ŚB9 4.1:7-12 in a different light, we find some
other answers. We now find the Apsarases identified with plants respectively in verses 1, 38, and 7,
and even as the water (which, as we have seen, can be interpreted as the Soma in many places)
respectively in verses 6, 41, and 10. Also, respectively in verses 4, 42, and 11, the Apsarases are the
offering gifts. This points towards the Apsarases as the Soma. Interestingly, in the verses in which the
Apsarases are identified with the plants, we find the Gandharva identified with Agni. Agni is not only
the Deva of fire, but is also the sacrificial fire, that brings the sacrifices to the Devas (Staal, p. 750).
The Gandharvas are thus both identified with the ‘winged sacrifice’ which is the Soma in those
hymns, but also as the means which transports the sacrifice to the Devas, upon which their partners,
the Apsarases, can be sacrificed, might they take the role of the Soma. Lastly, the Soma is also said to
reside in the moon many times (one example can be found in ŚB 1 7.1:1), which makes Hillebrandt
consider the Gandharvas to be moon-giants (1927, p. 377). However, there is only scarce support
found for Hillebrandt’s wild claim that the Gandharvas are connected with the moon. The best clue is
the hymns described just above, which is a cluster that connects the Gandharvas with a myriad of
things, and is therefore not a strong argument. More in general, the Soma is often linked to the
moon, and this therefore connects the Gandharvas with the moon. But it remains that the
Gandharvas are not explicitly stated to be moon-giants.
In ṚV 10 85:40-41 and AV 12 2:3-4 we find that Soma, Agni, and the Gandharva are separated
from each other. The daughter of Sūryā has been their bride, but at different intervals: first she
belongs to Soma, then to the Gandharva, and then to Agni, and finally ends up with the human male.
However, those three entities are sometimes identified with each other, and when following
Oberlies’ (2006) line of argumentation, one could say that they are parts of a purification process, as
to make the female pure. She exemplifies power when paired with Soma, the Gandharva as the
salesman ‘quarantines’ (p. 98) the female associated with the Soma, thus making her safe, and brings
her to Agni, who purifies her, ready for her marriage with the human male. Agni bestows riches upon
him. In AV 14 2:9, the Gandharvas and Apsarases are asked to bestow fortune op the newly-wed
couples that pass their trees, while the Gandharva is banished in verse 36, along with the wish for the
couple to be happy with ‘abundant riches’. Sometimes, there is also fortune bestowed upon the
Gandharvas, as in PB 1 55:10-11, where the Gandharvas and Apsarases sing upon a Ṛc (Ṛg Vedic
priest), who then gives them their fortune. Complimenting this, the epithet of the Gandharva
Viśvāvasu is ‘possessing all wealth’ in KYV 1 1.11:9, and the Gandharva possesses wealth when he is
identified as a Parjanya (rain- or thundercloud) in 3 4.7:9. In another way are the Gandharvas
connected with wealth: they are praised in AV 2 2, a hymn that give its user success in gambling.
They are also mentioned in another such hymn, 7 109:5, in which they enjoy the sacrifice the
gambler makes for success. The Apsarases also enjoy the sacrifice in verses 2 and 3, and are said to
be fond of the dice in AV 2 2:5.
There are many verses which deal with instructions around the Soma-ritual, and this article
has shown many of them. Most deal with the myth of the theft of the Soma. Broadly speaking, we
can discern three concerns: (1) ritual instructions that deal with the exclusion of the Gandharvas and
the priests of the dhiṣṇya-hearths; (2) the (preventing of) the theft of the Soma; and (3) the sale of
the Soma. Those topics have been covered extensively, so this section shall focus in greater detail

22
upon the role of Vāc in the sale of the Soma. The Devas trade Vāc for the Soma, and in the ritual the
Soma is bought for a cow. As Vāc returns to the Devas, so the cow returns to the priests in ŚB 3
2.4:22, and they are identified with each other in verse 10, and AB 1 5:27 states that a young cow is
used in the ritual to imitate Vāc. The Gandharvas and Kālis seem to sell a cow for the Soma in AV 10
10:13. In ṚV 10 139:6 we find a cryptic parable of the Soma-trade. The treasure-seeker who rows
with Amṛta (another name for Soma) opens the door of the cow-pen according to this verse. The
treasure-seeker, because of his connection to Soma, might be the salesman of it, and the treasure he
seeks is the Soma. He throws open the door to the cow-pen, because he is entitled to a cow, but due
to the ritual nature of the sale of the Soma, the cow first comes back to the priests. Because this
would mean no profit for the salesman in real life, he comes to get the cow at a later moment, as
presented in this hymn86. The link of Vāc (who can take the form of a cow) with the Gandharvas
seems to be already made in ṚV 10 177:2, where a flying bird has speech (or Vāc) in its mind, which is
first pronounced by the Gandharva in the womb (‘whose words go in all directions’ according to PB 1
3:10). Furthermore, the Gandharvas are associated with the legs of the cow in AV 9 7:10, and the
Apsarases with the feet.
The Gandharvas are not only connected with cows, but also with other animals, as seen in ṚV
10 136:6, where they tread on the same path as the forest animals. KYV 5 5.16 (and copied in SYV
24:37) states that the deer (perhaps as Vāc, who turned into a deer in KYV 6 1.6:5), peacock, and
hawk belong to the Gandharvas. The Gandharvas are also often connected to horses. Kaśyapa the Ṛṣi
and the Gandharvas lead a mare to heaven in AV 13 1:23. The Gandharvas steal a horse in ṚV 9
113:3, and are also known to ride one. The Gandharva steers the horse which is given by Yama,
dressed by Trita, and mounted by Indra in ṚV 1 163:2 (and copied in KYV 4 6.7:2, and SYV 29:13).
However, KYV 1 7.7:5 (and copied in SYV 9:3) state that the 27 Gandharvas are the first to yoke the
horse. They put speed into this horse, and ŚB 5 1.4:8 explains that they do this by yoking the horse
with wind or thought, ‘for there is nothing swifter than the wind, and nothing swifter than thought’.
In KYV 7 5:25 (and copied in ŚB 10 6.4:1 and BAU 1 1:2) we find that the sacrificial horse appears as
Vājin (swift/wind-like, or strong/heroic) to the Gandharvas. The semen of this horse is equated with
Soma, and the sacrificial horse is surrounded by two cups, just like the Soma in ŚB 3 6.2 verses 9, 10,
and 11. The sacrificial horse in this aśvamedha or horse sacrifice thus seems to be equated to the
Soma, or at least be partly identified with it.

This paragraph has shown what already came to the fore in other parts of this article. The
Gandharvas are a part of the myth of the theft of the Soma, which is also used as a ritual legitimation
for certain practices (although it remains hard to say that they are the origins of those practices, too).
This becomes most apparent in the position of the Acchāvāka-priest, who does not receive the
sacrifice immediately like the Gandharvas, and in the ritual trade of the Soma with the cow
representing Vāc. There might also be an identification of Soma with the Gandharvas, plants, water,
the Apsarases, or horses. And on a sidenote, the Gandharvas are also connected with wealth and
gambling.

4. Strangers in a familiar land: the Gandharvas as a non-Ā tribe

Hillebrandt (1927, p. 380-82) wonders about the birthplace of the Gandharvas. Not their strict
mythological birth, meaning their birth from the Seven Sisters (‘sapta sindhu’, seven rivers) in ṚV 9
86:36, or Vāc in numerous sources, or Prajāpati in ŚB 9 4.1:2, but rather how they ended up in Vedic
mythology. He notes that they do not appear in the family books of the ṚV (book 2 up to and

86
Another interpretation is possible: it is a kind of re-enactment of another myth, in which Indra slays Vala (a
cave) and frees cows. The raiding of cattle seems to be a popular Indo-European myth, also found in ancient
Greece (Hermes stealing the cattle from Apollo’s cavern).

23
including 7)87 and twice as enemies of Indra in book 8, and thus he doubts that they originate from
within the Vedic cult. Their rituals are also different: they have no success appealing Vāc with their
Vedic hymns in KYV 6 1.6:6 and ŚB 3 2.4:5 and 6; they have critique upon the rituals of the Ṛṣis in 11
2.3:7; and in 11 5.1:13, 15, and 16 they state that their rituals are too esoteric for men to be
performed. He speculates that they might originate from the other tribes surrounding the Brahmin-
cult, which is why they were incorporated, but in a hostile way.
Hillebrandt does not work out this thesis, but there is a lot to say about it. This article shall
continue with this endeavour. Hillebrandt does mention the Gandharvas to be connected to the
Vrātya (p. 380) or ‘roving outcasts’, as we have seen in SYV 30:8 and ŚB 13 6.2.1:34. As with many
more things in the study of Vedic literature, it has been long argued what the nature of the Vrātyas
is. They seem to be either Āryan or non-Āryan tribes living on the fringes of the Vedic society. If they
were Āryan, they did not practice the Vedic cult, and some of them were incorporated by means of
the Vrātya-stomas (Banerjea 1963, p. 88). These Vrātyas are sometimes equated with the ones that
are possessed by the Gandharvas (as in AB 5 5:29; KB 2:9; BAU 3 3:1; 3 4:1; and 3 7:1), which means
that they dwell in ecstatic experiences: a Saṁnyāsin (p. 134). It is also stated that they are the same
as the Keśis dwelling on the path on which Gandharvas, Apsarases, and wild forest animals tread in
ṚV 10 136:6. Bergaigne points out that the divine Gandharva as a singular served as a god to the
other Gandharvas (in Banerjea p. 135), and Hillebrandt in the same line thinks the singular
Gandharva to be the god of a non-Āryan people (p. 380), perhaps supported by AV 2 2:1, which
states that the divine Gandharva is the only one to be worshipped among the tribes. Shendge states
that this Gandharva is a sun god (we have seen the identification of the Gandharva with the sun or
light already above) of the Gāndhāris, a people living alongside the Indus (1977, p. 106), near
Peshawar in present-day Pakistan (p. 111). Their kingdom might have been the Gandhāra-kingdom. It
might seem probable going by the similarities in name, but Gonda notes that the designated name
for an area that is derived from the name of a people uses the plural of that people’s name (1966, p.
89): the name of the kingdom in that case would have been Gāndhārayas. However, this is not a
definitive rule, so the Gandhāra-kingdom is still a good contender. Their priest or priests also became
known as Gandharva (p. 106), and obviously both names (Gandharva and Gāndhāri) sound alike
(which, of course, is no definite proof). The Gandharva eats the avakā-plant (blyxa octandra) in AV 4
37:8-10, which grows in marches (Whitney 1905, p. 213; and Shendga 1977, p. 108). And since the
Gāndhāris lived in a valley near a river, it might be obvious that they fed on a plant which came from
the marshes. Those people used to side with the Asuras88, the enemies of the Devas, but later on
joined the cult of the Brahmins, or the side of the Devas (p. 100). This point strengthens the
correctness of their physical location: the Asuras are said to be the ‘victorious gods’ of the Avestic
religion, just as the Devas are of the Vedic religion. Buddhist literature states that the Gandharvas
once fought on the side of the Asuras, and later on turned to the side of the Devas. The Gandharva
being connected with the Gandarəwa of the Avestic religion (Barnett 1928, p. 713) makes the
connection of the Gandharva with the Gāndhāris more probable, since the Avestic religion and the
Gāndhāris are not that far apart in geographical location. Even more: since both the Avestic and
Vedic religion know the concept of respectively Haoma and Soma89, and the Gandharvas came from
an area that has two traditions that know this substance, they are the perfect distributors of this.
Hillebrandt already suggests the Gandharva to be the salesman of the Soma (1927, p. 380).
Shendge states that the Soma grows wild and is spread by the holy bird or by the Gandharvas (1977,
p. 111). In the commentary of Munidatta on the Caryāgīti-poetry as stated by Kvaerne, we find the
word ‘gandharvasattva’ (‘reality/essence of the Gandharvas’), which carries the meaning ‘buyer’ (in

87
He notes that they actually appear once, as the Gandharvas whose hairs blow in the wind. However, their
appearance is still very marginal.
88
They are often named ‘demons’, but they have the same status as the Devas, except that the Devas will
alway be victorious over them in the end.
89
Both substances seem to be the same, although there is no concensus. For a discussion on this, see Staal
2001, especially p. 763 for the different interpretation of Soma and Haoma.

24
Van der Velde 2013, p. 136). This word expresses the link of the Gandharvas with the trade, and their
essence as having to do with trade. And they sold Soma ritually, as we have seen above. The
Brahmins do not know where to find it, but the tribes of the mountains do (Staal 2004, p. 248). And
perhaps these were the Gāndhāris, who were a non-Āryan tribe that became ritually incorporated as
the salesmen in the Vedic Soma-ritual. And in this incorporation, they became known as the
Gandharvas. Most interestingly they might not have only sold the Soma, but also the avakā-plant (on
which the Gandharva fed in AV 4 37:8-10), since this plant is sometimes used in rituals (Gonda 1985,
p. 37, 61, 65, and 171). The Brahmins possibly did not know where to find the Soma-plant or what it
looked like when it still was in the ground, but the Gandharvas (and therefore probably the
Gāndhāris) did. AV 8 7:23 name the Gandharva as a knower of plants, and SYV 12:99 states that the
Gandharvas dig the Soma-plant from the earth. So the Gāndhāris collected the Soma-plant, a plant
whose identity is still not known today90, and brought it to the Brahmins in the village, after which a
ritual trade ensues (Staal 2001, p. 756-57) which looks like the myth connected with it: the Gāndhāris
lose both the Soma and the cow, as the Gandharvas lose both the Soma and Vāc. In this way it is not
profitable for the Gāndhāris, so later on they still got the cow, as might be shown in ṚV 10 139:6: the
treasure-seeker (the treasure here is the Soma) opens the cow-pen, probably to get the cow as a
trade-off for the Soma. It is hard to tell whether this ritual sale of the Soma was practiced before or
after 1000 BCE, after which the Brahmins settled elsewhere. The ritual could just as well have been
performed both before and after 1000 BCE. Either way, when the Brahmins settled elsewhere, the
Soma was too far away to gain or it disappeared entirely, after which ritualization increased (p. 772).
For these newer rituals substitutes were used, but it is uncertain whether those substitutes merely
were symbolic, or also had a psychosomatic effect.
In this way, we have seen a movement of the Gāndhāris as the Gandharvas. First they were
outside the Vedic ritual, and as salesmen of the Soma they are incorporated as outsiders. However,
in the following step they are incorporated as priests. Staal describes one of the ritual grounds, the
Sadas, as a dangerous place, where the Brahmins crawl for safety (2004, p. 265). They do this
because two different groups are present: reciters of the hymns of the ṚV, and singers of the same
hymns, as they are manipulated in the SV. The ṚV-priests are from the Āryan tribes that had moved
from the north-west into the Indus-valley and beyond (p. 273; and 2008, p. 41-48). The SV-priests,
however, were possibly non-Āryans, many names reminding of the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological
Complex (often abbreviated as BMAC) or Oxus civilisation (2001, p. 274 and 288). They brought in the
non-Āryan melodies of the SV. Staal shows how the adaptations of the hymns of the ṚV in the SV
show that the melodies of the SV were already existent: the hymns of the ṚV did not fit the melodies,
and therefore words were scrapped, lengthened, or changed, and embellishments called ‘stobha’
were added (2008, p. 107-108). The araṇya-geya-gāna hymns (hymns ‘to be sung in the forest’) of the
SV were regarded to be especially dangerous (which is why they could not be sung in the village), and
carry non-Āryan names, sometimes reflecting BMAC-names. Staal regards their incorporation in the
Vedic tradition as an incorporation of the other indigenous tribes (p. 116-117). The SV-priests
possibly brought adaptations in the ritual ground, most prominently the dhiṣṇya-hearths (2001, p.
276), which also brought a difference in ritual orientation of direction with it (2004, p. 272-73). Also,
the priests of the SV carry the name Acchāvāka according to JB 2 4:190. We have seen that the
Gandharvas get the same ritual treatment as those Acchāvāka-priests: at the third pressing of the
Soma they get some ghī, and the Soma they do not receive directly: for the Gandharvas it is poured
upon the dhiṣṇya-hearths (which carry their names according to ŚB 3 3.3:11 and 3 6.2:9), and for the
Acchāvāka-priests it is poured in their mouths (and they carry the names of the Gandharvas
according to 3 6.2:9). Although those ‘new’ Gandharva-priests seem to have been mistrusted and
denigrated (Staal 2004, p. 275), they were also the ones that could watch the Soma in ŚB 3 6.2:14,
which they sold before. And whether it was really stolen or not, the myth of the theft of the Soma by
the Devas could be used to punish those new priests, or at least keep them in a position of
dependence: they could not handle the Soma themselves, but were dependent for it on the Āryan

90
Again, for a discussion on this, see Staal 2001, especially p. 758-771.

25
priests. And in this way we have seen the incorporation of a non-Āryan tribe, the Gāndhāris, into the
Vedic cult, in several steps: first as the outsiders that provide the Soma, and later as some kind of
subordinate members, who however were priests nonetheless.
However, this sounds too good to be true. And there are indeed some points that bring
doubt upon this model. This is of course a reconstruction of the past from scant sources, which is
always a source of doubt. This general critique is always possible, and therefore loses its power to
disprove this model or convince one of its fallacy. There are three more serious allegations, which
follow now. First of all, Staal notes that the names that the priests of the Gāndhāris brought with
them had characteristics of the reconstructed language of the Oxus civilisation (2004, p. 274). These
civilisations seem not to have been the same, and it seems rather illogical that they had mutual
contact: 1) there were no rivers to connect the two; and 2) they were separated by a range of
mountains. This really obstructs contact, and those natural borders are known to also be borders of
languages. So: if the names those SV-priests brought in were BMAC-names, they probably did not
originate from the Gāndhāri-tribe. But still, since BMAC is a reconstruction, this repel rests on shaky
grounds.
The next allegation might be more serious. We have seen the connection of the Gandharvas
with the horse, which already starts in the ṚV. However, archaeology seems to mark the horse as an
animal introduced by the Āryan tribes that trekked into the Indus valley. Harappan tribes had a car
with solid wheels carried forth by cattle, called ‘śakaṭa’. The Āryans had the ‘ratha’, with two spoked
wheels, driven by horses, and much faster than the śakaṭa (Staal 2008, p. 33-34). Those carts seem to
originate from the Sintashta-Arkaim culture, near the source of the Ural river, between 2100 and
1800 BCE. It is far more logical that those fast carts, the potential of which can only be fully utilized
when drawn by fast animals like horses, were introduced by the Āryans (p. 39-40)91. Those ideas
probably did not originate from the Gāndhāris, because India has no natural population of horses:
the climate and environment do not allow horses to grow very old, let alone sustain as a species in
the wild. Thus, the Gāndhāris had no historic material circumstances to develop a ratha-cart with its
fast potential. This makes the connection of the Gāndhāris with the Gandharvas more problematic,
since the Gandharvas and horses do seem to be connected. However, if we locate the Gāndhāri-tribe
near present-day Peshawar, an area that seems to have a more favourable climate for horses
(relatively hot and dry; India has a hostile climate for horses, for it is hot and moist, which are far
from optimal conditions for a horse), this argument can be resolved. If the Gāndhāris dwelled around
modern-day Peshawar, they could have horses, which makes their identification with the Gandharvas
more probable. And when we consider the fast ratha-carts drawn by horses, and horses appear for
the Gandharvas as Vājin (swift and/or strong), this link becomes even more apparent.
A last problem is the identification of the Gandharvas as Vrātyas, or roaming outcasts, as
seen in SYV 30:8 and ŚB 13 6.2.1:34. While the Gāndhāris are outcasts in that they do not belong to
the in-group, the ‘roaming about’ is rather problematic. As far as is known, the Gāndhāris were
assigned a fixed place (Shendge 1977, p. 111). This problem can be solved, when considering that the
Gāndhāris might have been a nomadic tribe that roamed about in a certain area near Peshawar. ṚV
1 126:7 mentions them as shepherds or keepers of sheep, and they might have roamed about in a
certain area to provide their stock with enough fresh vegetation. Perhaps the future will bring more
insight into these problems.

5. Closing remarks and future study

This article tried to show a more extensive identity for the Gandharvas in Vedic literature,
problematizing previous writings on them. Summaries on this project can be found at the end of each
paragraph. This article has shown the following things: the number of Gandharvas; whether they

91
Staal does not claim that the Aryans brought those carts all the way over the mountains, but rather kept their
imagery alive in the oral tradition, which made it possible to reconstruct them wherever they settled for a
while (p. 35-36).

26
were friends or enemies; where they reside; their connection with the Apsarases; their appearance;
and their connection to the ritual cult and Soma, among many other things on the side. At the end,
this article has connected the Gandharvas with a non-Āryan origin, the Gāndhāri-tribe.
However, this project is not finished by far. For starters, this article has not dived into Purāṇic
or Epic literature, which is a wide field to uncover next (Hopkins (1915) is a good starting point for
this). But not even the research in Vedic literature has been complete. The author of this article has
made use of translated material that was readily available. This means that not all Brāhmaṇas have
been covered, and even the genres of Āraṇyakas, Sūtras, and Śāstras have not been explored at all.
The use of original texts has been minimal, which could also contribute to different interpretations.
Adding to this, this research has mainly focused on textual analysis. Unfortunately there are no
alternatives for the Vedic period, since pictorial sources only arise during the Buddhist era, at which
time the Vedic period is over (Staal 2008, p. 38). There should also be looked at those pictorial
sources from later periods, but also in other sources, like poetry or an oral tradition that is still alive
today, which can reveal new insights into this problem. And in this, one should not be restricted to
Hindu sources. Talking in separate confessions is a Western concept, and religion in India is far more
diffuse than that. Mythologies are not separated, and one can better speak of a pan-Indian
mythology. Buddhist, Jain, Tantric, Avestic, or every other source available should also be studied,
which will enrich the image of the Gandharvas for our understanding. Just as the Gandharvas were
seen as mythological strangers by a migrating group that gained the upper hand in the area, we (as
scholars) are strangers in the strange land of the past. This does not make our efforts useless, only
difficult. Thus it is only fitting for a creature with a nature and origin so obscure as the Gandharvas to
need much scholarly effort. This article has hoped to bring a clarifying contribution to this field. And,
to put it bluntly: there is still much to do, and still a lot to discover.

27
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