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Vedic Values


THE HARAPPANS, winkled out of oblivion by the archaeologist’s trowel and scrutinised by scholars from every conceivable discipline, have lately been attracting funds and advancing on all fronts, just like their ‘empire’. The Aryans, on the other hand, they of that rich Sanskrit literary heritage whence all knowledge of India’s ancient past was traditionally derived, are in retreat. Badly discredited by over-zealous championship in the nineteenth century and then by Teutonic adoption in the 1930s, the mighty Aryans have fallen from academic favour. Questions tantamount to heresy amongst an earlier generation of historians are now routinely raised as to who the arya were, where they came from, and even whether they were really a distinct people.

‘It is doubtful whether the term arya was ever used in an ethnic sense,’ writes Romila Thapar, doyenne of ancient India’s historians.1 What she calls the ‘Aryan problem’, or ‘myth’, is now to be regarded as ‘perhaps the biggest red herring that was dragged across the path of India’s historians’.2 The authenticity of all those Sanskrit literary compositions remains undisputed. So does their seminal importance in India’s social, cultural and religious development. But whether those who composed them were anything more than a proud minority self-consciously endeavouring to retain their mainly linguistic identity amongst a diverse, industrious, and probably indifferent local population is questionable.

For Hindus, of course, the traditions of Sanskrit literature are still sacrosanct. Vedic prayers are still said; televised serialisations of the Sanskrit epics can bring the entire Indian nation to a hushed standstill. The compositions of the ancient arya are not just history; they are the nearest thing to revelation. The arya themselves, though, are not revered and never have been. In no sense are they seen as a divinely ‘chosen people’. Individual priests, heroes, sages and deities are cherished but their ethnic affinity is neither emphasised nor invariable. This is unsurprising since in Sanskrit the word arya is usually adjectival. Certain people or classes once used it to distinguish themselves from others; it was clearly a good thing to be. But like many words, its meaning changed over the centuries and the original is now hard to pin down. In English it is variously rendered as ‘pure’, ‘respectable’, ‘moral’, ‘noble’ or ‘wealthy’. By the time it had travelled to south India and thence on to what is now Indonesia it had simply become a respectful term of address, like ‘Sahib’ or ‘Mister’.

‘Aryans’, on the other hand, as the generic title of a distinct race of people to which this arya adjective exclusively applied, nowhere feature in Sanskrit literature. They only appeared when Europeans got to work on Sanskrit. And it was not the literature which so inspired Europe’s scholars, but the language itself.

That some words in Sanskrit bore a strange similarity to their Greek and Latin equivalents had long been noted. Then in 1785 Sir William Jones, an English polymath and truly ‘one of the most enlightened sons of men’ (as an admiring Dr Johnson described him), began studying Sanskrit. A year later he announced his preliminary verdict on the language. It was ‘of a wonderful structure’, he declared, ‘more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin…’,

… yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than can possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all without believing them to have sprungfrom some common source, which perhaps no longer exists.3

This being the case, most north Indian languages, which derive from Sanskrit, were related to most of Europe’s, which derive from Latin. Jones rightly added that the Germanic and Celtic languages also probably belonged to this linguistic family, and likewise ancient Persian (Avestan). But, personally more enamoured of Sanskrit’s literature than its language, he did not pursue the search for that ‘common source’. This was left to others who recognised in Jones’s insights not only a specific challenge – to discover the ‘common source’ and chart its distribution – but also the means by which to do so. For Jones had shown that the study of language, or philology, could serve the historian much as does archaeology. Given a reasonable mound of literature, the philologist could delve in the syntax and sift through the syllables so as to record the changing forms of words and grammar. Identifying shared roots, typical word forms, new structures and extraneous influences, he could establish rules about how the language had developed and spread, and so formulate, as it were, a sequence of strata whereby tentative dates could be assigned to any particular text purely on the basis of its language.

Using and developing this new discipline, scholars at first called the elusive ‘common source’ language (and the family of languages which derived from it) ‘Indo-Germanic’ or ‘Indo-European’. This changed to ‘Indo-Aryan’, or simply ‘Aryan’, after it was realised that the ancient Persians had indeed used their arya word in an ethnic sense; they called themselves the ‘Ariana’ (whence derives the modern ‘Iran’). Numerous writers continued to warn against the assumption that a shared language necessarily meant a shared ethnicity. Yet the idea of a single race sowing the seeds of civilisation from Bengal to Donegal proved intensely exciting, and ultimately irresistible. To Friedrich Max Muller, the distinguished German Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford in the mid-nineteenth century, it seemed that the Aryans had a ‘mission to link all parts of the world together by chains of civilisation, commerce and religion’. They were ‘the rulers of history’.4 Muller, too, warned against drawing any simplistic conclusions about race, but already Aryan descent was popularly seen as the mark, if not yet of a master race, at least of ethnic distinction. Gratified by the discovery of their proud historical pedigree, India’s aspiring nationalists embraced the Aryans as readily as did Europe’s cultural supremacists.

Given the vast spread of the Indo-Aryan languages, an Aryan homeland was soon being sought somewhere in the middle of the Eurasian landmass. Most scholars favoured the steppes of southern Russia and the Ukraine, or the shores of the Caspian. Nomadic pastoralists, the Aryans needed plenty of room. Thence, in a series of sweeping migrations spread over many centuries, they supposedly took their language, plus their gods, their horses and their herds, to Iran and Syria, Anatolia and Greece, eastern Europe and northern India.

India’s Aryans were therefore originally immigrants, and to judge by their exploits as recorded in the Vedas, highly combative ones. Aided and encouraged by deities like the fire-breathing Agni and the thunderbolt-throwing Indra, the Aryan conquistadors were seen as having hurtled down the passes from Afghanistan to career across the plains of the Panjab. Dealing death and destruction from fleets of horse-drawn chariots, they subdued the indigenous peoples and appropriated their herds. As dasa or dasyu, these indigenes or aborigines were characterised as dark, flat-nosed, uncouth, incomprehensible and generally inferior. The Aryans, on the other hand, were finer-featured, fairer, taller, favoured above others in the excellence of their gods, their horses and their ritual magic, and altogether a very superior people.

Nineteenth-century British colonialists, reflecting on this new and unexpected Aryan dimension to India’s history, could draw great comfort. All that was fine and ‘classical’ in ancient India’s history could now be credited to this influx of manly heroes from the west. The Aryans, spreading their superior culture right down the valley of the Ganga and then deep into the peninsula, had conferred on India an unprecedented cultural integrity and an enviably high degree of civilisation. In time, however, the purity of the Aryan race had become hopelessly diluted; manliness, creativity and drive had succumbed to the enervating effects of an intolerable climate and an insidious social system. Hence no serious resistance had been offered either to the thrust of Islam or to the advent of the colonial powers. India had slumped into seemingly irredeemable decadence and degeneracy. Then, in the nick of time, out of the west came the British. No less fair, no less manly and no less confident of their superiority, they were the neo-Aryans, galvanising a naturally lax people into endeavour and industry, showering them with the incomparable benefits of a superior civilisation and a humane religion, and ushering in a new and golden age. Or so some liked to think.

This illusion was rudely shattered in the 1930s. Just when Indian demands for self-government were obliging the British to reconsider their colonial mission, the Aryan thesis became both discredited by Nazi propaganda in Europe and challenged by the archaeological reports coming from Mohenjo-daro and elsewhere in India. Initially, with the chronology even vaguer than now, it was not clear that the Harappans pre-dated the Aryan ‘invasions’. Indeed, there are still some scholars who insist that it was the Aryans who preceded the Harappans and, despite ample testimony to the contrary, that the Harappan civilisation was therefore an Aryan achievement. This means pushing the first Aryan ‘invasions’ back to the fourth or fifth millennium BC, which does not square with that philological stratification, and crediting to cattle-rustling tribesmen a mastery of urban refinement for which there is absolutely no evidence in their copious literature.

Despite the more general belief that the Harappan civilisation came first, the Aryan ‘myth’ was not immediately dumped, even by Harappanists. Thus another theory, championed by Sir Mortimer Wheeler – ‘Mr Indus Valley’ himself – was that, if the Aryans could not possibly have created the Harappan cities, they might have been responsible for destroying them. This, of course, assumed that the Harappan cities had succumbed to conquest. Wheeler cited evidence at both Harappa and Mohenjo-daro of ‘massacres’. Skeletons of men, women and children, some incomplete, one or two with cranial damage, had been found scattered in the streets, presumably struck down where they still lay. There were other suggestions of a hasty evacuation. And in the Vedas Wheeler found numerous references to cities, or rather ‘pur meaning a “rampart”, “fort”, or “stronghold”’. Moreover Indra, the bellicose and bloodthirsty Mars of the Aryan pantheon, was specifically referred to as ‘the destroyer of forts’, or purandara, he who ‘rends forts as age consumes a garment’. Why, asked Wheeler, would he be so described if there had not been forts to rend? And what were these forts if not the Harappan ‘citadels’? Thus the Late Harappans could now be numbered amongst those dark and wretched dasa over whom the Aryans habitually lorded it; and the mystery of what fate had overtaken their cities was solved. ‘On circumstantial evidence, Indra stands accused,’ declared Wheeler in 1947.5

Indra stood accused throughout the 1950s, but in 1964 the case against him collapsed. The American George F. Dales took a long, hard look at all those skeletons, and could find only two that might have been massacred where they lay. Most of the others appeared to have been casually interred centuries later, when the ground had risen well above street level. ‘There is no destruction level covering the latest period of the city [Mohenjo-daro], no sign of extensive burning, no bodies of warriors clad in armour and surrounded by the weapons of war, [and] the citadel, the only fortified part of the city, yielded no evidence of a final defence.’6 There was also no proof that pur meant either a city or a fort. Current placenames like Kanpur, Nagpur and so on preserve the word in exactly that sense, but in the Rig Veda, the earliest of Sanskrit compositions, it seems to have implied little more than a well-fenced village or settlement. Nor is it clear that Aryan chariots and catapults could have made much impression on Harappan walls thirteen metres thick, according to the archaeologists, and every bit as high.

The possibility of some contact between Aryans and Harappans can never, of course, be totally dismissed. As the dates for the Late Harappan phase have been slowly pushed forward to around 1700 BC, the gap, if there is one, between Harappan and Aryan has closed to perhaps a couple of centuries. Across such a timespan, some web of collective memory could well have spread. At Harappa and elsewhere in the Panjab, where the Aryans initially settled, there is some largely ceramic evidence of comparatively sophisticated post-Harappan cultures. They could represent a revival of Harappan skills under some kind of Aryan patronage or stimulus.

In the Vedas there is even mention of ‘Hariyupiya’ as a placename. It could be the Harappan site itself, although most scholars take its context to indicate a river, probably west of the Indus. Finally, there is the intriguing possibility that the word ‘Meluhha’, the name by which the Sumerians apparently designated their Harappan trading partners, eventually resurfaced in Sanskrit as mleccha. The latter was a term of contempt used by the arya to disparage those whom they regarded as non-arya. It thus meant much the same as dasa and dasyu, words which unfortunately predate its appearance. Philologists, however, insist that mleccha cannot possibly be Sanskrit in origin. The reflexive consonants clearly show the word to have been borrowed from some local tongue. Perhaps it was just an onomatopoeic word derived from the uncouth gobbledygook in which, to arya ears, the dasa spoke. But if it was derived from the term by which the dasa peoples described themselves, then coincidence can scarcely deny that the mleccha people must have been the Harappans, or rather the ‘Meluhhans’.


Other examples of loanwords in the Sanskrit of the Vedas can be equally revealing. The word for ‘plough’, for instance, is said to be non-Sanskritic. If the arya, when they arrived in India, did not have a word for a plough – and so had to borrow someone else’s – it is safe to assume that they did not have a plough. The Harappans, however, did. It therefore follows that the arya probably learned about ploughs and their use from the indigenous successors of the Harappans. These may have been the despised dasa of the Vedic texts, although there are now grounds to suppose that the dasa were in fact survivors of an earlier wave of the Indo-European diaspora and were not therefore indigenous. It has also been suggested that arya–dasa contact may have taken place in Afghanistan before the arya reached India.

Similar conclusions may be drawn about the arya’s words for ‘furrow’ and for ‘threshing floor’. They too appear to be non-Sanskritic. Obviously the Aryans were not engaged in arable farming in any big way. Nor, evidently, were they interested in architecture. Whereas it is no surprise that they had to borrow a word for ‘peacock’, a bird then not much known outside India, or that they had to invent one for ‘elephant’ (they called it the ‘beast with a hand’, i.e. a trunk), it is more revealing that they had also to borrow a word for ‘mortar’. Archaeology supports the obvious inference; no buildings have yet been found which can certainly be ascribed to the Vedic arya.

For ‘writing’, ‘record’, ‘scribe’, or ‘letter’ the arya of the Vedas had no words at all, not even borrowed ones. It is therefore almost certain that they brought no knowledge of writing into India with them and that, by the time they arrived, the literacy skills of the Harappans had been forgotten, at least in areas where the arya first settled. When and how later scripts emerged is unknown. The first mention of writing occurs in oral compositions dating from after 500 BC. Inscriptions do not appear until two hundred years later, but they use two comparatively sophisticated scripts which suggest several centuries of prior familiarity. One of these scripts may owe something to the ideograms of the Harappan seals; the other looks to have been derived from the Aramaic script of western Asia.

Illiterate and ignorant of many basic agrarian skills, the arya yet knew all, and more, about livestock. While the Harappans used ox-transport and may have found totemic roles for bulls and many other animals, they do not seem to have had a passion for dairy farming or horse-racing; in fact the horse was probably unknown to them, India’s lack of native bloodstock being then, as ever after, the Achilles heel of its ambitious empire-builders. The arya, though, were veritable cowboys. As well as advertising their prowess in the rustling of cattle and the driving of two-horse chariots, they spattered their verses with metaphors about affectionate cows and flery steeds. In the Rig Veda storm clouds invariably ‘gallop’ across the heavens; their thunder is as the neigh of a stallion. Rivers rush from the hills like cattle stampeding towards pasture; and when the Beas river is joined by a tributary, ‘one the other licks, like the mother-cow her calf ‘. Cattle were also currency, value being expressed in so many cows; and go, the Sanskrit root for ‘cow’, also features in the word used to indicate warfare, evidence that strife originally resulted from competition not for land and territory but for cows and wealth.

The arya were therefore originally pastoralists and, assuming a migration into India, plus the herdsman’s need to be forever seeking new pastures, they must have been semi-nomadic. We may infer that, like pastoralists the world over, they lived an itinerant outdoor life. Much exposed to the elements, they may have been inclined to discover divine powers in the forces of nature and to assume a ready communion with these powers. The names of their gods predate arrival in India, many (e.g. Indra, Agni, Varuna) being almost synonymous with their counterparts in Persian, Greek and Latin mythology; but their attributes and achievements relate to the Indian environment. It would seem, also, that the basic unit of human society was initially the small nomadic group rather than the settlement. The word grama, although it soon came to mean a village, was originally indicative of a troupe of wagons and their perhaps three or four related families, plus livestock.

During the monsoon months, when pasture became plentiful and transhumance difficult, the arya must have formed their first temporary settlements. No doubt they then also planted their grain crop which, watered by the rains and fertilised by the manure from their cattle pens, would have been harvested during the winter months. The grain was probably barley. Rice, although apparently cultivated by the Harappans, does not feature in the earliest of the Vedas. Nor is the word used to designate it Sanskritic. It, too, was probably acquired from one of India’s aboriginal peoples. Later, however, after the arya had adopted a settled life, rice receives its first mention, and later still, following their colonisation of the middle Ganga in the early centuries of the first millennium BC, the cultivation of irrigated padi would become crucial to their pattern of settlement.

That they initially settled in the Panjab and astride what is now the Indo–Pakistan frontier is clear from references in the Rig Veda to the Sapta-sindhu, ‘the Land of the Seven Rivers’. Each of these rivers has been identified, and most were tributaries of the Indus. They are mentioned frequently, and must therefore have been familiar to the arya (although the most important, the Saraswati, has since dried up). On the other hand, there is only one mention of the mighty Ganga, and that in what is thought to be the latest of Rig Vedic compositions. Subsequent works, like the Brahmanas and Upanisads (c900–600 BC), confirm a shift in geographical focus to the east and specifically to the Doab, the crescent of land between the Jamuna and the Ganga (immediately east of Delhi). As the setting for the Mahabharata, the Doab became arya-varta, ‘the land of the arya’. If one accepts c950 BC as the probable date of the Bharata war, this migration, or colonisation, may therefore have occurred c1100–1000 BC. It would be followed by a further move into the valley of the Ganga itself before the arya, much changed in the interim, began founding states, building cities and rediscovering the trail of civilisation which the Harappans had trodden two thousand years earlier.

As to when the arya made their initial debut in India there remains grave doubt. Nearly two hundred years ago Mountstuart Elphinstone, one of the most outstanding scholar-administrators in the employ of the English East India Company, headed the first British mission into Afghanistan. He failed to reach Kabul, but from Peshawar in what was then Afghan territory Elphinstone got a look at the Khyber Pass and formed some idea of the harsh lands whence the Aryans supposedly came. Years later, having declined the governor-generalship to concentrate on his studies, he produced a magisterial History of India. In it he devoted much attention to Sanskrit tradition, and recalling that dramatic contrast between the arid Afghan hills and the smiling gardens of Peshawar, he for the first time threw serious doubt on the central Asian provenance of the Aryans.

Neither in the code of Manu [the survivor of the flood, who was later credited with compiling a standard compendium of Hindu law] nor, I believe, in the Vedas, nor in any other book that is certainly older than the code, is there any allusion to a prior residence, or to a knowledge of more than the name of any country out of India. Even mythology goes no farther than the Himalaya chain, in which is fixed the habitation of the gods.7

To Elphinstone it was quite incredible that the Aryans could have made the transition from mountain desert to monsoonal paradise and yet failed to record it. He also noted that, throughout the ages, civilisation had more commonly spread from east to west than vice versa. Perhaps, therefore, the Aryans had originated in India.

Although this idea currently derives no credibility from its aggressive repetition in Hindu nationalist publications, and although it is flatly denied by the arya’s familiarity with horses (typically central Asian) and their ignorance of elephants (typically Indian), it is certainly curious that the Vedas say nothing of life in central Asia, nor of an epic journey thence through the mountains, nor of arriving in the deliciously different environment of the subcontinent. The usual explanation is that, by the time the Vedas were composed, this migration was so remote that all memory of it had faded; and on this basis a tentative chronology is proposed. Allowing, then, first for a major time-lapse (say two hundred years) between the Late Harappan phase and the Aryan arrival in India, and then for a plausible memory gap (say another two hundred years) between arrival and the composition of the earliest Vedas, it looks as if the arya must have entered India some time between 1500 BC and 1300 BC. Most authorities now suppose several waves of migration rather than a single mass movement. These waves probably consisted of different tribes and, on linguistic evidence, may have been spread over centuries. So possibly the entire period was one of Aryan incursion.

As to whether all or any of these incursions constituted invasions rather than migrations it is impossible to say. We may, though, speculate. Considered in the light of later incursions into north-west India by Alexander the Great and a host of other intruders, including those afire with the spirit of Islam, the Aryan coming has traditionally been seen as a full-scale invasion. The indigenous people ‘naturally resisted the newcomers, and a fierce and protracted struggle ensued’. In a standard textbook on ancient India, R.C. Majumdar goes on to identify the indigenous resistance as coming from ‘Dravidians’, the assumption being that the indigenous dasa spoke a Dravidian, as opposed to a Sanskritic, language.

It was not merely a struggle between two nationalities. The Dravidians had to fight for their very existence … But all in vain … The Dravidians put up a brave fight, and laid down their lives in hundreds and thousands on various battlefields, but ultimately had to succumb to the attacks of the invaders. The Aryans destroyed their castles and cities, burnt their houses, and reduced a large number of them to slaves.8

Recent theories of multiple migrations have somewhat softened this picture. Perhaps some of the Aryan clans were invited into India as allies, mercenaries or traders; the indigenous dasa may not have been ‘Dravidians’ but earlier Indo-Aryan arrivals; there is nothing to suggest that they ever constructed ‘castles and cities’; and the archaeological evidence, being almost entirely ceramic, gives no hint of the sudden change one would expect from the conquest and suppression of an entire ‘nationality’.

There is, though, another explanation. Seen in the context not of later invasions in the north-west, but of later extensions of arya influence to the rest of India, a rather different and more intriguing picture emerges. Arguably this process of ‘Aryanisation’ by whicharya culture spread to non-arya peoples continued throughout the subcontinent’s history, indeed is still going on to this day. In little-frequented enclaves of central and north-eastern India tribal communities of adivasi, or aboriginal, people may even now be found in various transitional stages of Aryanisation (or ‘Sanskritisation’). A similar process is said to have been observable amongst distant peoples, like the Fijians, who were affected by the Indian diaspora of colonial times. In both cases, Aryan ideas and influence were initially carried by work-seekers and traders, not warmongers. More significantly, exactly the same process probably accounted for the gradual Aryanisation of peninsular India plus much of south-east Asia.

An Aryanised society may be defined as one in which primacy is accorded to a particular language (Sanskrit), to an authoritative priesthood (brahmans) and to a hierarchical social structure (caste). To establish these three ‘pillars’ of Aryanisation in, say, Kerala or Java no sizeable relocation of people would have been necessary. As will be seen, the process appears simply to have been one of gradual acculturation requiring neither mass migration nor enforced concurrence. A small admixture of fortune-seekers, traders or teachers who happened to be in possession of a superior technology and of a persuasive ideology could and did, if prepared to compromise with existing custom, create a convincing and lasting veneer of Aryanisation without apparently antagonising anyone.

Admittedly, indeed on their own admission, the arya cattle-rustlers of the Rig Veda did antagonise the dasa. But they also compromised with them, adopting dasa technology,dasa cults and dasa vocabulary, and inducting dasa clans and leaders into their society. Despite the importance attached to the purity of Sanskrit, there is even a hint of dasa-arya bilingualism. With the horse and the chariot by way of a dazzling new technology, and with the subtleties of ritual sacrifice as a mesmerising ideology, the aryamay have secured recognition of their superiority by a process no more deliberate and menacing than social attraction and cultural osmosis; thus the Aryan invasion and conquest of India could be as much a ‘myth’ and a ‘red herring’ as the existence of an Aryan race.

It should, however, be emphasised that in the second millennium BC the familiar traits of Aryanisation, those three pillars of language, priesthood and social hierarchy, were only just beginning to emerge. All are evident in the earliest Vedas, but they are undeveloped. They only assume definition and primacy in the context of contact between the arya and the various indigenous peoples. Quite possibly the latter contributed to, or participated in, the formulation of these ‘pillars’. Arya culture may itself have been a hybrid, and ‘Aryanisation’ may therefore be a misnomer.


Such speculation is justifiable because of the unsatisfactory nature of Vedic literature as historical source material. The Rig Veda, earliest (perhaps c1100 BC) of the Vedic compositions, comprises ten mandala or ‘cycles’ of ritual hymns and liturgical directives. Although generally considered the most informative of the Vedic texts, its clues as to the lifestyle, organisation and aspirations of the arya are ‘submerged under a stupendous mass of dry and stereotyped hymnology dating back to the Indo-Iranian era [i.e. before the Aryans reached India], and held as a close preserve by a number of priestly families whose sole object in cherishing those hymns was to utilise them in their sacrificial cult’. Dr B.K. Ghosh of Calcutta University then goes on to cite an example from Mandala I. He calls it ‘the worst in the Rig Veda’; even its brahman composer seems to have had a premonition of failure. Yet in terms of content it is not untypical.

No bad hymns am I offering by exerting my intellect
In praise of Bhavya ruling on the Indus
Who assigned to me a thousand sacrifices,
That incomparable king desirous of fame.
A hundred gold pieces from the fame-seeking king,
Together with a hundred horses as a present have I received,
I, Kakshivant, obtained also a hundred cows from my master
Who exalted thereby his fame immortal up to heaven.

‘This dismal hymn,’ writes Dr Ghosh, ‘ends with two verses notable only for their extreme obscenity.’9 In translation the obscurity is more evident than the obscenity but, by substituting sexual terms for words like ‘bliss’ and ‘creation’, it is just possible to grasp the nub of his objection.

O resplendent lord, with brilliant radiance may you be delighted.
May your own bliss be consummated. Your delightful creation,
The holder of your bliss, is as exhilarating as the bliss itself.
For you, the vigour, equally envigorating is the bliss,
O mighty, giver of a thousand pleasures.

Later Vedic collections (Samaveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda ) reiterate and supplement such verses from the Rig Veda, but they rarely illuminate them. As for the Brahmanas and Upanisads, the latter explore the mystical and metaphysical meaning of the Vedas and are important for the development of Indian philosophy, but they contain little historical information, while the former, ‘an arid desert of puerile speculation on ritual ceremonies’, again fail to measure up to Dr Ghosh’s exacting standards. Elsewhere he calls them ‘filthy’, ‘repulsive’, ‘of interest only to students of abnormal psychology’ and ‘of sickening prolixity’.

There are also, though, especially in the Rig Veda, some hymns of dazzling lyricism. Most often cited are those dedicated to the delectable Ushas, the goddess of dawn who reveals herself each morning, upright and naked, her body ‘bright from bathing’; or those to Ratri, the spirit of the night, who from the stars that are her eyes keeps watch when men, like birds to roost, go home to rest. Even in excessively literal translations, these pearls of descriptive verse from poetry’s remotest past suggest that there was more to thearya than the earthy obsessions of the stockman and the swagger of the charioteering oppressor. The prerequisites of civilisation – economic surplus, social and functional specialisation, political authority, urbanisation – were still lacking, but already the people of the Vedas had acquired a linguistic mastery of their environment and were beginning to deploy that same remarkable language to explore its logic.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the conduct and elaboration of those sacrificial rites with which the Vedas are directly concerned. If Vedic translations tend to be literal it is because of the obscurity of the allusions and the language. Both were probably just as obscure to those who first committed these hymns to writing in a number of different recensions, none of which is older than c500 BC. In other words, for at least five hundred years the ten thousand verses of the Rig Veda were learned by heart and handed down by word of mouth. This, however, does not mean that they underwent significant change. Quite the contrary. As the recited accompaniment to the performance of sacrifices, their actual wording, even their intonation and their pronunciation, had to be perfect for the sacrifice to be effective. Conversely, a mangled syllable or an improvised coda could be fatal. Like the magician who forgets the magic formula, the supplicant could then find the sacrifice redounding to his disadvantage and condemning him to the very disaster he was trying to avert.

Such, at least, was the theory inculcated by those who made it their responsibility to shoulder this burden of memorised knowledge and so to serve as intermediaries in the communion of men and gods. Probably even they no longer used the elaborate constructions of Vedic Sanskrit in their everyday speech, and were therefore unsure of the meaning of some of their hymns. Obfuscation was, after all, in their interest; like specialists the world over, they found that the jargon and ritual deemed essential to their arcane science were also well calculated to impress the layman. Originally these intermediaries may have been no more than tribal bards, seers (risis) and shamans, and were not necessarily of arya descent. They became more influential possibly as a result of their pastoralist patrons adopting a more settled way of life, which involved grappling with new techniques of cultivation and discovering their vulnerability to the depredations of climate and pestilence. More elaborate sacrifices were needed, and so was a more specialised band of sacrificiants. Thus eventually, and perhaps with popular encouragement, the bards and shamans of old developed into a hereditary class of priests or brahmana (brahmans).

Handling the gods could be even more demanding of arya prowess than handling their enemies. Sacrifices and the elaborate rituals which accompanied them were mandatory and reciprocal. The gods depended on them for their strength; and the arya depended on the strength of their gods. Without effective intervention by their gods, their leaders would fall, their cattle would die, their enemies would triumph and their crops would fail. It was not just a question of propitiating remote but powerful super-naturals. Gods and men were equally engaged in the ticklish business of maintaining a cosmic equilibrium. Each had a legitimate and vital interest in the other’s affairs. A close liaison between the two was essential.

In the Rig Veda brahmans, like the unctuous Kakshivant quoted above, extol the prowess and generosity of their patrons as well as the power and might of their deities. Initially it would seem that it was these patrons, the rajanya or clan leaders, who comprised the elite of arya society, not the brahmans. This situation may have reflected the leadership’s role in warfare and in directing the seasonal migrations. But with the switch to a more settled and secure way of life, the rajanya’s role was diminished. Increasingly the clan leader looked to the brahman rather than the battlefield for the legitimation of his authority. The risks and the expenditure inherent in combat were replaced by the risks and expenditure inherent in sacrifice. Both could reveal the extent of divine favour enjoyed by the raja and so reinforce his right to rule. The great sacrificial gatherings became exhibitions of conspicuous consumption in which the munificent raja, besides indulging his kinsmen with orgies induced by soma, a hallucinogenic drink, was expected to donate herds of cattle and of horses, buckets of gold and bevies of slave-girls by way of compelling divine favour and rewarding brahmanical support. The gambling with dice so often referred to in Sanskrit literature formed part of the ritual (as well as of the fun) and symbolised the element of risk implicit in the sacrifice itself, as well as affording a further opportunity for divine favour to reveal itself.

Although the arya occasionally practised human sacrifice, the sacrificial offerings mentioned in the Vedas are predominantly of cattle, representing wealth, and of horses, symbolic of power and virility. Both were also associated with fertility. In the aswamedha, or horse sacrifice, a somewhat problematic injunction about the sexual coupling of the sacrificial stallion with the raja’s bride was meant to symbolise the endowment of his lineage with exceptional strength. The horse, in other words, represented the power of the chief, and would continue to do so in later aswamedha. But these later aswamedha reveal an important transition in the nature of arya authority. As will be seen, their intention became less that of boosting a chief’s leadership credentials in respect of his clansmen and more that of legitimising kingship and territorial sovereignty, notions that were both novel and progressive in a semi-nomadic, clan-based society.

Thus in the later aswamedha, the horse seems to have been excused romantic duties. Instead it was first set free to roam at will for a year while a band of retainers followed its progress and laid claim in the putative king’s name to all territory through which it chanced to pass. Only after this peregrination, and after the successful prosecution of the conflicts to which it inevitably gave rise, was the horse actually sacrificed.

A particularly elaborate version of such an aswamedha is commemorated in the heart of Varanasi (Benares), otherwise the City of Lord Shiva and the holiest place of pilgrimage in northern India. Legend has it that Shiva, while temporarily dispossessed of his beloved city, hit on the idea of regaining it by imposing on its incumbent king a quite impossible ritual challenge, namely the performance of ten simultaneous horse-sacrifices. The chances of all ten passing off without mishap could be safely discounted and thus the king, disgraced in the eyes of both gods and men, would be obliged to relinquish the city. So Lord Shiva reasoned and, just to make sure, he also arranged for Lord Brahma, a stickler for the niceties of ceremonial performance, to referee the challenge. Shiva failed, however, to take account of King Divodasa’s quite exceptional piety and punctiliousness. All ten aswamedha were faultlessly performed. The king thereby gained untold merit and favour; Brahma was so impressed that he decided to stay on in the city; and Shiva slunk away to fume and fret and dream up ever more ambitious schemes to recover his capital. Thus to this day, when approaching the celebrated river-front at Varanasi, pilgrims and tourists alike get their first glimpse of the Ganga and of the steep ghats (terracing) which front it from ‘Dashashwamedh’ ghat, the place of ‘the ten horse-sacrifices’. And the merit of this extraordinary feat, it is said, continues to attend all who here bathe in the sacred river.

This story, though obviously of much later provenance (Shiva was not one of the Vedic gods), well illustrates the importance attached to ritual exactitude. In the Vedas this preoccupation with the precise performance of sacrificial rites extended to minutiae like the orientation of the sacrificial altar and the surgical dissection of the sacrificial victim. Both had scientific repercussions: the positioning of the altar stimulated the study of astronomy and geometry, while dissection encouraged familiarity with anatomy. Similarly that obsession with the ‘word perfect’ recitation of the liturgy would inspire the codification of language and the study of phonetics and versification for which ancient India is justly famed. To anxieties about the impeccable conduct and the sacred siting of such rituals may also be ascribed early notions about the purity, or polluting effect, of those present. Participants had first to undergo purificatory rites which were more rigorous for those who might, because of their dubious descent or profession, prejudice the occasion. A scheme of graded ritual status thereby arose which, as will be seen, contributed to that hierarchical stratification of society known as caste. Thus to the Vedic rituals may be traced the genesis of some of the most distinctive traits of ancient Indian society, culture and science.


All this, however, scarcely adds up to a convincing picture of the Vedic world, let alone to any kind of understanding of the historical processes at work within it. Somehow this primitive, or pre-modern, society of tribal herdsmen gradually learned about arable farming, assimilated or repulsed neighbours, discovered new resources, developed better technologies, adopted a settled life, organised itself into functional groups, opened trade links, endorsed frontiers, built cities, and eventually subscribed to the organised structures of authority which we associate with statehood. It all took perhaps a thousand years (1500–500BC), but as to the processes involved and the determining factors, let alone the critical events, the sources are silent. They provide a few cryptic clues but no ready answers; and the historian has first to ask the right questions.

The better to identify these questions, scholars have turned to other disciplines, and particularly to comparative anthropology and the study of pre-modern societies that are less remote from our own experience. Thus tribal structures in Polynesia and South America have provided clues about how kin-based societies may become socially stratified and about how notions of land as property may emerge. From the customs of pastoralist peoples in Africa conclusions have been drawn about the importance of cattle-offerings and gifts as a prestige-generating activity. And from native American customs much has been learned about the economic role of sacrifice. Thus the great Vedic sacrifices have been likened to the potlatch, in which the indigenous inhabitants of north-west America indulged in an extravaganza of consumption designed to burn off any surplus and at the same time enhance the status of the leading kin groups. Indeed the central action of the Mahabharata has been likened to one massive potlatch.

All these examples draw on tribal, or lineage, societies united by a shared ethnicity. If the Vedic arya are to be regarded as united principally by language rather than ethnicity, a comparison might also be made with the pre-modern society of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. The Vedic jana is often translated as the Gaelic ‘clan’ since, like the Highland clan, each jana acknowledged descent from a single ancestor. Thus, just as all MacDonalds claim descent from a Donald of Isla who was a distant descendant of the Irish king ‘Conn of the Hundred Battles’, so the Bharatas, the most prominent of the Rig Vedic jana, claimed descent from Bharata, a distant descendant of Pururavas, grandson of Manu. The jana, like the clan, was further divided into smaller descent groups, or septs, which might break away from the parent clan and adopt the name of their own common ancestor as a patronymic. Real or mythical, these ancestral figures were not, however, necessarily of the same race. Some of the Highland clans were of Norse (Viking) origin and others of Pictish or Irish origin; similarly some of the Vedic jana, like the Yadavas, are thought to have been of dasa origin. Hence too the clearly -dasa names of Su-dasa, a Bharata chief who scored a notable victory over ten rival ‘kings’, and Divo-dasaof the ten horse-sacrifices at Varanasi. All, though, whatever their ethnic origin, and whether Indians or Scots, shared a language (Gaelic/Sanskrit), a social system in which precedence was dictated by birth, and a way of life in which both wealth and prestige were computed in cattle.

In Scotland as in India, the rustling of other clans’ herds constituted both pastime and ritual, with success being an indicator of leadership credentials as well as of divine favour. As with the Vedic rajanya, each Highland chief had his bard whose business it was, like Kakshivant, to extol the might and generosity of his chiefly patron and to harness the forces of magic. His, too, was the job of memorising the clan’s genealogy and recording its achievements in verses that might be easily handed down by word of mouth. In Vedic society the bard was originally the chief’s charioteer. His function was not necessarily hereditary nor exclusively reserved to a particular social group. The author of the Mandala IX of the Rig Veda frankly avows humble origins which would have been anathema in a later caste-ridden society.

A bard am I, my father a leech,
And my mother a grinder of corn,
Diverse in means, but all wishing wealth,
Alike for cattle we strive.

In north-west Scotland as in north-west India, cattle were currency; but land was a common resource, not subject to individual rights of ownership and enjoyed in common by the whole clan and its herds. In Scotland this situation changed only under the pressure of a growing population and after the discovery of the land’s greater potential under a different farming regime – namely wool production. Previously, annual migrations to traditional areas of seasonal pasturage had rendered notions of territory and of frontiers fluid and often meaningless. Allegiance focused not on a geographical region nor on a political institution but exclusively on the descent group of the clan chief. This too changed under the new regime, and the chiefs had to find a new role. Perhaps similar pressures confronted the Vedic jana, and similar adaptations to a new farming regime – namely crop-growing – demanded of the rajanya a more possessive attitude to territory and property.

Such comparisons can, of course, be misleading. Technologies and markets not available to the arya in the second millennium BC had ensured a ready demand for Highland beef in the second millennium AD. Hence burning off the year’s surplus in an orgy of sacrifice, gift-exchange and gargantuan consumption was not a Scottish tradition. Conversely, climatic and geographical factors which made livestock farming the only surplus-creating occupation available to upland agriculturalists in Scotland made it a less suitable occupation in the tropical flood-plains of northern India. Although pastoralism would continue in areas like the west bank of the Jamuna and along the skirts of the Himalayas, the environment of the Ganga plain invited more intensive farming and a more sedentary lifestyle. Reference to other pre-modern societies merely helps to clarify the norms which may have characterised Vedic society, and perhaps to render it more intelligible than does that ‘stupendous mass’ of Vedic hymns.

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