Chapter 8 Advent of the Aryans and The Age of the Rig Veda


Arrival of the Indo-Aryans

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 distin-guished 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 lan-guages although the Aryans crossed many hills. Their earliest life seems to have been mainly pastoral, agriculture being a secondary occupa-tion. 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 vari-ous 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 lan-guage. 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 inscrip-tions 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 ear-liest Aryans lived in the geographical area covered by eastern Afghani-stan, 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 Ary-ans 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 Ar-yans 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 came to the subcontinent in about 1500 BC. They came into conflict with the indigenous inhabitants called dasas, dasyus, etc. As the dasas are also mentioned in 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 of the Bharata clan. In this case, the term dasa appears in the name Divodasa. In all probability, the dasyus in the Rig Veda represent the original inhabitants of India, and an Aryan chief who overpowered them was called Trasadasyu. The Aryan chief was soft towards the dasas, but very hostile to the dasyus. The term dasyuhatya, slaughter of the dasyus, is repeatedly used in the Rig Veda. The dasyus possibly worshipped the phallus and did not husband cattle for dairy products.

Tribal Conflicts

We know little about the weapons of the adversaries of the Indo-Aryan people, although we hear of many defeats inflicted by Indra on the enemies of the Aryans. In the Rig Veda, Indra is called Purandara which means that he destroyed dwelling units. We cannot, however, identify these units held by the pre-Aryans, some of which may have been situated in north Afghanistan. The Indo-Aryans succeeded everywhere because they had chariots drawn by horses, and introduced them for the first time into West Asia and India. The Aryan soldiers were probably also equipped with coats of mail (varman) and better arms.

The Indo-Aryans were engaged in two types of conflicts. First, they fought with the 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 panchajana, but there might have been other tribes too. 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 Bharatavarsha was eventually named after the tribe Bharata, which is first mentioned 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 the remaining five of the non-Aryan people. The battle that the Bharatas fought with the host of ten chiefs is known as the Battle of Ten Kings. It was fought on the river Parushni, coterminous 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 role in later Vedic times.

Cattle Rearing and Agriculture

We can form some idea of the material life of the Rig Vedic Aryans. They owed their success to the use of horses, chariots, and also possibly some better arms made of bronze of which we have very little archaeological evidence. In all probability, they also introduced the spoked wheel which made its debut in the Caucasus area in 2300 BC. 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 had a superior knowledge of agriculture. The ploughshare is mentioned in the earliest part of the Rig Veda, though some consider it to be an interpolation, and was possibly 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 was perhaps used primarily to produce fodder.

However, there are so many references to the cow and the bull in the Rig Veda that the Rig Vedic people can be called a predominantly pastoral people. Most of their wars were fought over cows. The terms for war in the Rig Veda is gavishthi or search for cows, and 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, chariot-maker, weaver, leather worker, and potter. This indicates that they practised all these crafts. The term ayas, used for copper or bronze, shows that metalworking was known. We do not, however, have clear evidence of the existence of regular trade. The Aryans or the Vedic people principally used the land routes because the word samudra mentioned in the Rig Veda primarily indicates a stretch of water. Similarly, the term pur mentioned in that text means either a dwelling unit or a cluster of such units, not a city or a fort. Sometimes such a unit is credited with a thousand doors, but the term sahasra is used as an exaggeration in many places in the Rig Veda. Therefore, the Aryans did not live in cities, and possibly lived in some kind of fortified mud settlements which still await satisfactory identification by archaeologists. They were also familiar with caves in the mountains.

Recently a site called Bhagwanpura in Haryana and three other sites in Punjab have yielded Painted Grey Ware along with ‘late Harappan’ pottery. The date assigned to the Bhagwanpura finds ranges from 1600 to 1000 BC which also roughly corresponds to the period of the Rig Veda. The geographical area of these four sites also coincides with that of a substantial 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 missing. We may, therefore, think of a pre-iron phase of the PGW which coincided with the Rig Vedic phase. An interesting find at Bhagwanpura is a thirteen-roomed mud house whose dating has not been confirmed. This might indicate either a house for a large extended family or of a tribal chief. Cattle bones are found in substantial numbers at all these sites, and horse bones at Bhagwanpura.

Tribal Chiefdom

The administrative machinery of the Aryans in the Rig Vedic period functioned with the tribal chief, for his successful leadership in war, at the centre. 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 did not exercise unlimited power, having to reckon with the tribal organizations. We have traces of the 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 the gods on its behalf.

Several tribal or kin-based assemblies such as the sabha, samiti, vidatha, and gana are mentioned in the Rig Veda. They exercised deliberative, military, and religious functions. Even women attended the sabha and vidatha in Rig Vedic times. The sabha and the samiti mattered a great deal in early Vedic times, so much so that the chiefs or the kings showed an eagerness to win their support.

In the day-to-day administration, the king was assisted by a few functionaries. The most important of these seems to have been the purohita. The two priests who played a major role in Rig Vedic times were Vasishtha and Vishvamitra. Vasishtha was a conservative and Vishvamitra a liberal. Vishvamitra composed the gayatri mantra to widen the Aryan world. Whoever recited the gayatri was admitted to the Aryan fold. Eventually, however, this mantra was made the monopoly of the three higher varnas, and priests did not permit women and shudras to recite it. The Vedic priests inspired the tribal chiefs into action and lauded their exploits in return for handsome rewards in cows and women slaves. Next in rank to the king was the senani or the head of the army. He used spears, axes, swords, etc. We do not learn of any officer concerned with the collection of taxes. In all probability, the people made voluntary offerings called bali to the rajan. Presents and the spoils of war were perhaps distributed in some Vedic assemblies, as is done in kin-based communities. The Rig Veda does not mention any officer for administration of justice. It was not, however, an ideal society but one in which there were cases of theft and burglary, and people stole cows. Spies were employed to keep an eye on such antisocial activities.

The titles of the officials do not indicate territorial administration. However, some officers appear 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 stretch of land or pasture ground was called vrajapati. He led to battle the heads of the families called kulapas, or heads of the fighting hordes called gramanis. Initially the gramani was just the head of a small tribal kin-based fighting unit called grama, but when the unit settled, the gramani became the head of the village, and in course of time his position became the same as that of the vrajapati.

The king did not maintain any standing army, but in times of war he mustered a militia whose military functions were performed by various 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 the throes of perpetual expansion and migrated from one area to another.

Tribe and Family

Kinship was the basis of the 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. The people’s primary loyalty was 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 twenty-one. 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 as neither control over territory nor the kingdom was yet established.

Another important term which stands for tribe in the Rig Veda is vis, which is mentioned 170 times in that text. Probably the vis was divided into gramas or smaller tribal units organized to fight. When the gramas clashed with one another, it resulted in samgrama or war. The most numerous varna of the vaishyas arose out of the vis or the mass of the tribal people. The term for family (kula) is rarely mentioned in the Rig Veda. It comprised not only mother, father, sons, slaves, etc., but many other people too. It seems that family in the early Vedic phase was denoted by the term griha, which frequently occurs in this text. In the earliest Indo-European languages, a single word is used to denote nephew, grandson, cousin, etc. This would imply that differentiation in family relationships leading to the setting up of separate households had not thus far occurred, and the family was a very large joint unit. It was obviously a patriarchal family headed by the father, as was the case in Roman society. It seems that several generations of the family lived under the same roof. As it was a patriarchal society, the birth of a son was repeatedly desired, and 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 and offer sacrifices along with their husbands. We have an instance of five women who composed hymns, although the later texts mention twenty such women. Evidently the hymns were composed orally, and nothing written relates 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, to establish 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 Surya, the daughter of the sun god, but such instances are infrequent. Possibly they indicate matrilineal 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 Differentiation

The Rig Veda displays some consciousness of the physical appearance of people in north-western India in about 1500–1000 BC. Varna was the term used for colour, and it seems that the Indo-Aryan language speakers were fair and the indigenous inhabitants dark in complexion. Colour may have provided the identifier for social orders, but its importance has been exaggerated by writers with an excessive belief in racial distinctions. The factor that contributed most to the creation of social divisions was the conquest of the indigenous inhabitants by the Indo-Aryans. The dasas and the dasyus, who were conquered by the Aryans, were treated as slaves and shudras. The Rig Veda mentions the arya varna and dasa varna. The tribal chiefs and the priests acquired a larger share of the booty and naturally became wealthy at the cost of their kinsmen, thereby creating social inequalities in the tribe. Gradually the tribal society was divided into three occupational groups, warriors, priests, and the common people on the same pattern as in Iran. The fourth division called the shudras appeared towards the end of the Rig Vedic period. The term shudra is mentioned for the first time in the Rig Veda in its tenth book, which is the latest addition.

We repeatedly hear of slaves who were given as gifts to the priests. These were primarily women employed for domestic purposes. It is clear that in Rig Vedic times slaves were not used directly in agriculture or other productive activities.

In the age of the Rig Veda, differentiation based on occupations had begun, but this was 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 a 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 aided the rise of princes and priests at the cost of the common tribal people. However, as the 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 gifts of cereals are rare. We find domestic slaves but not wage-earners. The tribal elements in society were stronger and social divisions based on the collection of taxes or accumulation of landed property did not exist, and thus the society was still tribal and egalitarian.

Rig Vedic Gods

Every people discover their religion in their surroundings. The Aryans found it difficult to explain the coming of the rains, the appearance of the sun and the moon, and the existence of the rivers, mountains, and the like. They, therefore, personified these natural forces and looked upon them as living beings to whom they attributed human or animal attributes. We have a large number of such divinities in the Rig Veda, which is replete with hymns composed in their honour by the poets of sundry families. The most important divinity in the Rig Veda is Indra, who is called Purandara or destroyer of dwelling units. Indra played the role of a warlord, leading the Aryan soldiers to victory against the demons, and has 250 hymns 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, and the like. 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 form 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. In the Rig Veda many hymns explain the methods of preparing this drink from plants that have not so far been satisfactorily identified. The Maruts personify the storm. Many hymns are devoted to the river Sarasvati, who was considered an important goddess. Thus we have many deities who represent the different forces of nature in one form or another but are also assigned human activities.

There are some women divinities too, such as Aditi, and Usha who represented the appearance of the dawn, but they were not prominent at the time of the Rig Veda. However, given the patriarchal society 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 performance of sacrifices. Prayers played an important part in Rig Vedic times, both collective and individual. Originally every tribe or clan was the votary of a special god. It seems that prayers were offered to the gods in chorus by the members of an entire tribe. This also happened in the case of sacrifices: Agni and Indra were invited to partake of sacrifices made by the tribe (jana) as a whole. Offerings of vegetables, barley, etc., were made to gods, but in Rig Vedic times this was not accompanied by any ritual or sacrificial formulae. At this stage the magical power of the word was not considered as important as it became in later Vedic times. Why did people worship gods during the Rig Vedic period? They did not do so for their spiritual uplift or for ending the miseries of existence. They principally asked for praja (children), pashu (cattle), food, wealth, health, and the like.




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