The Religion of the Druids


Stonehenge brings to mind ancient rites and priest-astronomers peering into the sky. It also speaks to the mystery that made people drag huge stones over large distance and assemble them on the Salisbury Plain. Although the monument is supposed to predate the arrival of the Celts in England, it is now associated in the popular imagination with the Druids.

My wife and I were in London in December 2012 and the media were pushing the Maya “Doomsday” story that the world was to end that month. The date for the end had been announced as 12th December and some took the symmetry further to pick the time of 12 minutes and 12 seconds past noon. We decided that would be a great time to visit Stonehenge.

It was snowing but otherwise a beautiful morning as we caught our bus to the monument. By the time we reached the Salisbury Plain, the snow had stopped and we had a great visit of the grounds. This is also the first time we saw Druids who were robed and ritually circumambulating the site. We were struck that they were going anti-clockwise whereas in the ancient mystery traditions one goes clockwise, in harmony with the motion of the sun and the stars as one looks south. In any event, the dread time passed uneventfully, and we were glad that we had something to brag about.

Druids were priests, teachers, and judges of the ancient Celts. The Celtic word Druwid is normally understood as “Knowing the Oak Tree” which has the Sanskrit parallel Druvid द्रुविद्, “One with Knowledge of the Tree [of Life]”). The root “dru” in both the languages also means “immersion” and so the word could very well have meant “those immersed in knowledge”.

It is not just the name; there are other deep connections between the Celts and India. Some scholars believe that the Hindu Brahmin in the East and the Celtic Druid in the West both derive from the ancient Indo-European priesthood.

For the ancient Celts, Danu was the Mother Goddess, and she is the daughter of Dakṣa Prajāpati in the Vedas. Danu is still remembered in the names of several great rivers of Europe such as Danuvius (Danube), and ro-Dhanu, “Great Danu” (Rhone). The well-known scholar Peter Berresford Ellis informs us: “Celtic cosmology is a parallel to Vedic cosmology. Ancient Celtic astrologers used a similar system based on twenty-seven lunar mansions, called nakshatras in Vedic Sanskrit. Like the Hindu Soma, King Ailill of Connacht, Ireland, had a circular palace constructed with twenty-seven windows through which he could gaze on his twenty-seven ‘star wives.’”

The connections between the Celts and the Indians could be through common descent and cultural diffusion or a mixture of the two. The diffusion could be through Uttara Kuru, the land between Caspian and Aral Seas, where we know Vedic kingdoms existed.

The Vedic book Aitareya Brāhmaṇa (8.14) says Uttara Kuru held Vedic consecration for their kings. Ptolemy (100 CE) spells Uttara Kuru as Ottorokorrhas and describes it as beyond the mountains in Central Asia. The Mahābhārata speaks of the social customs of the Uttara Kurus and the Rāmāyaṇa (Crit. Ed. 42.57) shows knowledge of the region where it says that beyond it is the land of unending night.

The Gundestrup cauldron

Found in Denmark a hundred years ago, this silver bowl has been dated to around the middle of the 2nd century BCE. The sides are decorated with various scenes of war and sacrifice: figures wrestling beasts, a goddess flanked by elephants, a meditating figure wearing stag’s antlers, which are seen as Celtic deities. That the iconography must have an Indic element is suggested by the elephant (totally out of context in Europe) with the goddess and the yogic figure.

According to the art historian Timothy Taylor, “A shared pictorial and technical tradition stretched from India to Thrace, where the cauldron was made, and thence to Denmark. Yogic rituals, for example, can be inferred from the poses of an antler-bearing man on the cauldron and of an ox-headed figure on a seal impress from the Indian city of Mohenjo-Daro…Three other Indian links: ritual baths of goddesses with elephants (the Indian goddess is Lakṣmī); wheel gods (the Indian is Viṣṇu); the goddesses with braided hair and paired birds (the Indian is Hariti).”

Others see the horned figure, which looks strikingly like the Paśupati-Śiva seal from the Sindhu-Sarasvatī area, as the Celtic god Cernunnos. But these could also be different names for the same deity.

Caesar and the Druids

The most extensive account of the Druids is by Julius Caesar in Commentāriī dē Bellō Gallicō (Commentaries on the Gallic War, ~55 BCE).

Caesar informs that the elite amongst the Gauls belonged to one of two classes: Knights, who soldiered and exercised temporal power, and the Druids, who were in charge of sacrifices. The Druids were teachers and judges with the power to ostracize from religious rites those who disobeyed. They studied verse, natural philosophy, astronomy, and the lore of the gods, some spending as much as twenty years in training. Their principal doctrine was that of the immortality of the gods and transmigration of souls.

The Druids were suppressed in Gaul by the Romans under Tiberius. In Ireland they lost their priestly functions after the coming of Christianity but survived as the intellectual class in non-religious roles. Druidry is being revived in modern times and that’s how I saw Druids at Stonehenge.

As for the religion of the Druids, Caesar says:

“They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and have many images of him, and regard him as the inventor of all arts, they consider him the guide of their journeys and marches, and believe him to have great influence over the acquisition of gain and mercantile transactions. Next to him they worship Apollo, and Mars, and Jupiter, and Minerva; respecting these deities they have for the most part the same belief as other nations: that Apollo averts diseases, that Minerva imparts the invention of manufactures, that Jupiter possesses the sovereignty of the heavenly powers; that Mars presides over wars.” [Gallic War 6.17]

Mercury, the principal god of the Druids, was the Roman god of commerce and gain. Since he was not the principal divinity in Rome (where Jupiter was the king of the gods), his exalted status amongst the Celts becomes an interesting question.

Mercury and Vishnu

The Slavs also did not have Mercury as the principal divinity, and neither did the Balts, so we cannot see either of them as the source of the Celtic tradition. The other deities of the Druids mentioned by Caesar are not dissimilar to the Roman ones: Apollo (seen by the Greek chroniclers as being the same as Krishna), Mars (Skt. Skanda), Jupiter (Skt. Bṛhaspati), and Minerva as a composite goddess (Durgā-like Athena and Sarasvatī-like goddess of music and wisdom). It is quite possible the names mentioned by Caesar were not the names used by the Druids themselves, because, like the Greeks, the Romans sought commonalities in the divinities across different cultures.

Jaimini Gṛhyasūtra informs us that Mercury (Budh) is Vishnu, who was established as the Great God many centuries prior to the emergence of the Celts in Europe. According to some scholars, the Celts also used the name Budh for the planet Mercury; others theorize the name was Lugh or Lugus. The latter names might be a play on Raghu, the dynasty of Rama, the avatara of Vishnu. Perhaps the source of this commonality was the sea trade between India and Europe.

If Cernunnos was like Śiva and what Caesar called Mercury was Viṣṇu, the parallels between the Celtic and Vedic worlds are only reinforced.

Goddess Brigid

Brigid is the Celtic patroness of poetry, arts and crafts, medicine, livestock, sacred ponds, and the arrival of spring. She is the same as Uṣá, the Vedic goddess of the dawn and beginnings, one of whose epithets is Bṛhatī (बृहती) “high”, and the British goddess Brigantia, whose root is Bṛhant, बृहन्त, “great”. Clearly, she subsumes some characteristics of Sarasvatī सरस्वती.



सुभाष काक. Author, scientist.

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