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Chapter 08. Advent of the Aryans and the Age of the Rig Veda (Old NCERT History Ancient India)

8. Advent of the Aryans and the Age of the Rig Veda

Original Home and Identity

It is difficult to say that all the earliest Aryans belonged to 6ne race, but their culture was more or less of the same type. They were distinguished by their common language. They spoke the Indo-European languages which are current in changed forms all over Europe, Iran and the greater part of the Indian subcontinent. Originally the Aryans seem to have lived somewhere in the steppes stretching from southern Russia to Central Asia. Certain names of animals such as goats, dogs, horses, etc and names of certain plants such as pine, maple, etc., are similar to one another in all the Indo European languages. These common words indicate the fauna and flora of Eurhsia. They show that the Aryans were acquainted with rivers and forest. Curiously enough, common words for mountains exist only in a few Aryan languages although the Aryans crossed many hills. Their earliest life seems to have been mainly pastoral, agriculture being a secondary occupation. Their society was male-dominated. Although the Aryans used several animals, the horse played the most significant role in their life. The domesticated horse appears in the sixth millennium B.C. in the Black Sea and the Ural mountain area, Nearly 60,000 horse bones appear in the Ural area around 3000 B.C. Its swiftness enabled them and some allied people to make successful inroads on West Asia from about 2000 B.C. onwards.
On their way to India the Aryans first appeared in Central Asia and Iran, where the Indo-Iranians lived for a long time. We know about the Aryans; in India from the Rig Veda. The term Arya occurs 36 times in this text and generally indicates a cultural community. The Rig Veda is the earliest text of the Indo-European languages. It is a collection of prayers offered to Agni, Indra, Mitra, Varuna and other gods by various families of poets or sages. It consists of ten mandalas or books of which Books II to VII form its earliest portions. Books I and X seem, to have been the latest additions. The Rig Veda has many things in common with the Avesta, which is the oldest text in the Iranian language. The two texts use the same names for several gods and even for social classes.
But the earliest specimen of the Indo-European language is found in an inscription of about 2200 B.C. from Iraq. Later such specimens occur in Hittite inscriptions in Anatolia (Turkey) from the nineteenth to the seventeenth centuries B.C. Aryan names appear in Kassite inscriptions of about 1600 B.C. from Iraq and in Mitanni inscriptions of the fourteenth century B C, from Syria. But so far no such inscriptions have been found in India.
A little earlier than 1500 B.C the Aryans appeared in India. We do not find clear and definite archaeological traces of their advent. Possibly they used socketed axes, bronze dirks and swords, which have been discovered in north-western India. Archaeological evidences of the horse and horse sacrifice have been found in southern Tajikistan in Central Asia and in the neighbouring Swat valley in Pakistan. The earliest Aryans lived in the geographical area covered by eastern Afghanistan, North-West Frontier Province, Punjab and fringes of western Uttar Pradesh. Some rivers of Afghanistan such as the river Kubha and the river Indus and its five branches, are mentioned in the Rig Veda. The Sindhu, identical with the Indus, is the river par excellence of the Aryans and it is repeatedly mentioned. Another river, Saraswati, is called naditama or the best of the rivers in the Rig Veda. It is identified with the Ghaggar-Hakra channel in Haryana and Rajasthan. But its Rig Vedic description shows it to be the Avestan river Harakhwati or the present Helmand river in south Afghanistan from where the name Saraswati was transferred to India. The whole region in which the Aryans first settled in Indian subcontinent is called the Land of the Seven Rivers.
The Aryans migrated to India in several waves. The earliest wave is represented by the Rig Vedic people, who appeared in the subcontinent in about 1500 B.C. They came into conflict with the indigenous inhabit ants called the dasas, dasyus, etc Since the dasas are also mentioned in the ancient Iranian literature, they, seem to have been a branch of the early Aryans. The Rig Veda mentions the defeat of Sambara by a chief called Divodasa, who belonged to the Bharata clan. In this case the term dasa appears in the name Divodasa. Possibly the dasyus in the Rig Veda represent the original inhabitants of the country and an Aryan chief who overpowered them was called Trasadasyu. The Aryan chief was soft towards the dasas, but strongly hostile to the dasyus. The term dasyuhdtya, slaughter of the dasyus, is repeatedly mentioned in the Rig Veda, The dasyus possibly worshipped the phallus and did not keep cattle for dairy products.

Tribal Conflicts

We know little about the weapons of the adversaries of the Aryan people, although we hear of many defeats inflicted by Indra on the enemies of the Aiyjans. In the Rig Veda Indra is called Purandara which means that he was the breaker of forts. But we cannot identify the forts held by the pre Aryans some of them may have been situated in Afghanistan. The Aryans succeeded everywhere because they possessed chariots driven by horses and introduced them for the first time into West Asia and India. The Aryan soldiers were probably equipped also with coats of mail (uarman) and better arms..
The Aryans were engaged in two types of conflicts—first, they fought with tide pre-Aryans, and. secondly they fought amongst themselves. Intra-tribal conflicts rocked the Aryan communities for a long time. According to tradition, the Aryans were divided into five tribes called panchjana there might have been other tribes also. The Aryans fought amongst themselves and sometimes enlisted the support of the non-Aryan peoples for the purpose. The Bharatas and the Tritsu were the ruling Aryan clans and they were supported by priest Vasishtha. The country Bharatavargha was eventually named after the tribe Bharata which appears first in the Rig Veda. The Bharata ruling clan was opposed by a host of ten chiefs, five of whom were heads of Aryan tribes and tire remaining five of non-Aryan people. The battle that was fought between the Bharatas on the one hand and the host of ten chiefs on the other is known as the Battle of Ten Kings. This battle was fought on the river Parushni identical with the river Ravi and it gave victory to Sudas and established the supremacy of the Bharatas. Of the defeated tribes, the most important was that of the Purus. Subsequently the Bharatas joined hands with the Purus and formed a new ruling tribe called the Kurus. The Kurus combined with the Panchalas and they together established their rule in the upper Gangetic basin where they played an important part in later Vedic times.

Material life

We can form some idea of the material life of the Rig Vedic Aryans. They owed their success in India to their use of horses, chariots and also possibly some better arms made of bronze of which we have very little archaeological evidence. Probably they also introduced the spoked wheel which first appeared in the Cacaseas area, in 2300 B.C. When they settled in the western part of the subcontinent, they possibly used copper supplied by the Khetri mines in Rajasthan. The Rig Vedic people possessed better knowledge of agriculture. Ploughshare is mentioned in the earliest part of the Rig Veda though some consider it an interpolation. Possibly this ploughshare was made of wood. They were acquainted with sowing, harvesting and threshing and knew about the different seasons. Agriculture was also well known to the pre-Aryans who lived in the area associated with the Vedic people. But agriculture was perhaps used mainly to produce fodder.
In spite of all this there are so many references to the cow and the bull in the Rig Veda that the Rig Vedic Aryans can be called predominantly a pastoral people. Most of their wars were fought for the sake of cows. The terms for war in the Rig Veda is gavishthi or search for cows. The cow seems to have been the most important form of wealth. Whenever we hear of gifts made to priests they usually consist of cows and women slaves and never of land. The Rig Vedic people may have occasionally occupied pieces of land for grazing; cultivation and settlement, but land did not form a well-established type of private property.
The Rig Veda mentions such artisans as the carpenter, the chariot maker, the weaver, the leather worker the potter, etc. This indicates that they practised all these crafts. The term ayas used for copper or bronze shows that metal-working was known. But we have no clear evidence of the existence of regular trade. The Aryans or the Vedic people were acquainted more with land routes because the word samudra mentioned in the Rig Veda mainly denotes a collection of water. At any rate the Aryans did not live in cities; possibly they lived in some kind of fortified mild settlements which still await to be identified satisfactorily by the archaeologists. They were also familiar with caves in the mountains.
Recently a site called Bhagwanpura has been excavated in Haryana and three sites in Punjab and in all these cases Painted Grey Ware has been found along with late Harappan pottery. The date assigned to the Bhagwanpura finds ranges from 1600 B.C to 1000 B.C. which is also roughly the period of the Rig Veda. The geographical area of these four sites also coincides with that of a good portion of the area represented by the Rig Veda. Although Painted Grey Ware has been found at all these sites, iron objects and cereals are absent. We may, therefore, think of. a pre-iron phase of the PGW which coincided with the Rig Vedic phase. It is interesting to note that at Bhagwanpura a thirteen roomed mud house has been discovered. Its dating is not confirmed. This might indicate either a house for a large extended family or for a tribal chief. Cattle bones have been found in good quantify in all these sites and in Bhagwanpura horse bones have also been found.

Tribal Polity

The administrative machinery of the Aryans in the Rig Vedic period worked with the tribal chief in the centre, because of his successful leadership in war. He was called rajan. It seems that in the Rig Vedic period the king’s post had become hereditary. However, the rajan was a kind of chief and he did not exercise unlimited power, for he had to reckon with the tribal organizations. We have traces of election of the king by the tribal assembly called the samiti. The king was called the protector of his tribe. He protected its cattle, fought its wars and offered prayers to gods on its behalf.
Several tribal or the clan-based assemblies such as the sabha, samiti, vidatha, gaha are mentioned in the Rig Veda. They exercised deliberative, military and religious functions. Even, women attended the sabha and vidatha in Rig Vedic times. But the two most important; assemblies were the sabha and the samiti. These two were so important that the chiefs or the kings showed eagerness to win their support.
In the day-to-day administration, the king was assisted by a few functionaries. The most, important functionary seems to have been the purohit. The two priests who played a major part in the time of Rig Veda are Vasishtha and Vishvarnitra. Vasishtha was conservative and Vishvarnitra was liberal. Vishvarnitra composed the gayatri mantra to widen the Aryan world. The priests inspired the tribal chiefs to action and lauded their (exploits in return for handsome rewards in cows and women slaves. The next important functionary seems to be the senani, who used spears, axes, swords, etc. We do not come across any officer concerned with the collection of taxes. Probably the chiefs received from the people voluntary offerings called ball Presents and spoils of war were perhaps distributed in some Vedic assemblies. The Rig Veda does not mention any officer for administering justice. But it was not an ideal society. There were cases of theft and burglary and especially we hear of the theft of cows. Spies were employed to keep an eye on such unsocial activities.
The titles of the officials do not indicate their administration of territory. However, some officers seem to have been attached to territories. They enjoyed positions of authority in the pasture grounds and settled villages. The officer who enjoyed authority over a large land or pasture ground is called vrajapati. He led heads of the families called kulapas, or the heads of the fighting hordes called gramanis, to battle. In the beginning, the gramani was Just the head of a small tribal fighting unit. But when the Unit settled, the gramani became the head of the village and in course of time he became identical with the vrajapati.
The king did not maintain any regular or standing army, but in times of war he mustered a militia whose military functions were performed by different tribal groups called vrata, gana, grama, sardha. By and large it was a tribal system of government in which the military element was strong. There was no civil system or territorial administration because people were in a stage of perpetual expansion, migrating from one area to another.

Tribe and Family

Kinship was the basis of social structure and a man was identified by the clan to which he belonged, as can be seen in the names of several Rig Vedic kings. People gave their primary loyalty to the tribe, which was called Jana. In one of the early verses the combined strength of the warriors of two tribes is given as 21. This indicates that the total number of members in a tribe may not have exceeded 100. The term Jana occurs at about 275 places in the Rig Veda and the term janapada or territory is not used even once. The people were attached to the tribe, since the territory or the kingdom was not yet established.
Another important term which stands for the tribe in the Rig Veda is vis; it is mentioned 170 times in that text. Probably the vis was divided into grama or smaller tribal units meant for fighting. When the gramas clashed with one another it caused samgrama or war. The most numerous varna of vhishya arose out of the vis or the mass of the tribal people.
The term for family (kula) is mentioned rarely in the Rig Veda. It comprised not only mother, father, sons, slaves, etc., but many more people also. It seems that family in early Vedic phase was indicated by the term griha, which frequently occurs in this text. In the earliest Indo-European languages one word is used for nephew, grandson, cousin, etc. This would mean that differentiation in family relationships leading to the setting up of separate households had not proceeded far and the family was a very large joint unit. It was obviously a patriarchal family headed by the father as was the case in the Roman society. It seems that several generations of the family lived under the same roof. Because it was a patriarchal society, the birth of a son was desired again and again and especially people prayed to the gods for brave sons to fight the wars. In the Rig Veda no desire is expressed for daughters, though the desire for children and cattle is a recurrent theme in the hymns.
Women could attend assemblies. They could offer sacrifices, along with their husbands. We have an instance of five women who composed hymns although the later texts mention 20 such women. Obviously the hymns were composed orally and nothing written belongs to that period.
The institution of marriage was established, although symbols of primitive practices survived. We hear of a proposal made by Yami, the twin-sister of Yama, for establishing love relations, but the offer is resisted by Yama. We have some indications of polyandry. For instance, the Maruts are stated to have enjoyed Rodasi and the two Asvin brothers are represented as living With Suiya, the daughter of the sun god. But such instances are not too marly. Possibly they indicate matri-lineal traces and we have a few examples of sons being named after their mother, as in the case of Mamateya. We also notice the practice of levirate and widow remarriage in the Rig Veda. There are no examples of child-marriage and the marriageable age in the Rig Veda seems to have been 16 to 17.

Social Divisions

The Rig Veda shows some consciousness of the physical appearance of people in north-western India in about 1500-1000 B.C. Varna was the term used for colour and it seems that the Aryan language speakers were, fair and the indigenous inhabitants dark in complexion. Colour may have provided the identity mark for social orders but its importance has been exaggerated by those western-writers who believe in racial distinctions. The factor which contributed most to the creation of social divisions was the conquest of the indigenous inhabitants by the Aryans. The dasas and the dasyus, who were, conquered by the Aryans, were treated as slaves and shudras, The Rig Veda mentions arya varna and dasa varna. The tribal chiefs and the priests acquired a larger share of the booty and they naturally grew at the cost of their kinsmen, which created social inequalities in the tribe. Gradually the tribal society was divided into three groups — warriors, priests and the people — on the same pattern as in Iran. The fourth division called the shudras appeared towards the end of the Rig Vedic period, because it is mentioned for the first time in the tenth Book of the Rig Veda, which is the latest addition.
We repeatedly hear of slaves who were given as gifts to the priests. They were mainly women slaves employed for domestic purposes. It is clear that in Rig Vedic times slaves were not used directly in agriculture or other producing activities.
In the age of the Rig Veda differentiation based on occupations had started. But this division was, not very sharp. We hear of a family in which a member says: I am a poet, my father is a physician and my mother is; a grinder. Earning livelihood through different means we live together. We hear of gifts of cattle, chariots, horses, slaves, etc. Unequal distribution of the spoils of war created social inequalities and this helped the rise of princes and priests at the cost of the common, tribal people. But since economy was mainly pastoral and not food-producing, the scope for collecting regular tributes from the people was Very limited. We do not find gifts of land and even those of cereals are rare. We find domestic slaves, but not the wage earners. Tribal elements in society were stronger and social divisions based on collection of taxes or accumulation of landed property was absent. The society was still tribal and largely egalitarian.

Rig Vedic Gods

Every people discover its religion in its surroundings. The Aryans found it difficult to explain the advent of rains, the appearance of the sun and the moon and the existence of the rivers, mountains, etc. So they personified these natural forces and looked upon them as living beings to which they gave human or animal attributes. We have a large number of such divinities in die Rig Veda, which is full of hymns composed in their honour by the poets of various families. The most important divinity In the Rig Veda is Indra, who is called Purandara or breaker of forts. Indra played the role of a warlord, leading the Aryan soldiers to victory against 4he demons. Two hundred and fifty hymns are devoted to him. He is considered to be the rain god and thought to be responsible for causing rainfall. The second position is held-by Agni (fire god) to whom 200 hymns are devoted. Fire played a significant part in the life of primitive people because of its use in burning forests, cooking, etc. The cult of fire occupied a central place not only in India but also in Iran. In Vedic times Agni acted as a kind of intermediary between the gods on the one hand and the people on the other. The oblations offered to Agni were supposed to be carried in the forms of smoke to the sky and thus transmitted to the gods. The third important position is occupied by Varuna who personified water. Varuna was supposed to uphold the natural order and whatever happened in the world was thought to be the reflection of his desires. Soma was considered to be the god of plants and an intoxicating drink is named after him. The Rig Veda has a large number of hymns, which explain the methods for preparation of this drink from plants that have not been satisfactorily identified so far. The Maruts personify the storm. This we have a large number of gods, who represent the different forces of nature in one farm or another, but are also assigned human activities.
We also find some female divinities such as Aditi and Ushas who represented the appearance of the dawn. But they were not prominent in the time of the Rig Veda; in the patriarchal set-up of the period the male gods were far more important than the female.
The dominant mode of worshipping the gods was through the recitation of prayers and offering of sacrifices. Prayers played an important part in Rig Vedic times. Both collective and individual prayers were made.
Originally every tribe or clan was the votary of a special god. It seems that prayers were offered to gods in chorus by the members of a whole tribe. This also happened in the case of sacrifices. Agni and Indra were invited to partake of sacrifices made by the whole tribe (jana). Offerings of vegetables, barely, etc. were made to gods. But in Rig Vedic times the process was not accompanied by any ritual or sacrificial formulae. At this stage the magical power of the word was not considered so important as it came to be in later Vedic Times. Why did people worship gods in the time of the Rig Veda? They did not worship gods for their spiritual uplift or for ending the miseries of existence. They asked mainly for praja(children), pashu (cattle), food, wealth, health, etc,.


1. Explain the meaning of the following terms and concepts: mandala, dasa, dasyu, parichajana, Jana, gavisthi, rajan, sabha, samiti, gramini, vis, patriarchal.
2. Try to find out the various usages of the term ‘Aryan’. What is Its meaning when It is used to denote the groups of people who migrated to India around 1500 B.C.?
3. Give an account of the material life of the Rig Vedic people. Is it correct to call them an agricultural people? Discuss.
4. Describe the political system in the age of the Rig Veda. Describe its tribal character.
5. What gods did the Rig Vedic people worship and why? Describe their mode of worship.
6. Describe the social organization and family system of the Rig Vedic people.
7. Why are the people discussed in this chapter called the Rig Vedic people?

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