VEDIC CULTURE:- The vedic age has carried several different labels: ‘iron age India’, ‘the second urbanization’, and ‘Gangetic culture’; each can be justified, though the designation ‘vedic culture’ points to the main trajectory of historical development.

It is now widely accepted that the subcontinent began to be infiltrated well before  the  middle  of  the  first  millennium  bce  by  people  speaking  an  Indo- European language, later to be called Sanskrit and closely associated with the ancient language of people of the Iranian plateau, as evidenced from the ancient Zoroastrian text Avesta. Historical linguists find this a plausible chronological basis  for  the  later  developments  of  languages  like  Marathi, which  possess  a strong element of ancient Dravidian linguistic features, and also for Panini’s grammar (written around 400 bce), which may have been intended to stand- ardize Sanskrit usage against strong tendencies to incorporate other and older languages of the subcontinent. (Indeed, some scholars find evidence of Dravid- ian linguistic influences in the language of the Rigveda itself.) Such conjectures clearly do not refute the older hypothesis that Indo-Aryans destroyed the Indus cities  in  a  series  of  invasions, much  as  the  later Turkic  Muslims  conquered northern India, but that notion is now dismissed on other grounds.

The notion that the ancient Indian cities of the Indus were overwhelmed and  destroyed  by  Aryan  invaders  has  lost  credibility,  notwithstanding  the apparent simultaneity of urban decline and migrations into the subcontinent by  people  from  around  the  Caspian  Sea  who  called  themselves Arya. Their hymns do not speak of finding cities, but of a more primitive society. Even the later Sanskrit compositions are similarly unmoved by whatever urban legacy remained. In effect, therefore, the high, urban culture spread over the north- west of the subcontinent for a millennium disappeared as mysteriously as (but far more rapidly than) it seems to have been imposed over the scattered stone- and bronze-using farmers in their village communities. If we assume that the Indus cities were a genuinely autochthonous development, and not implants from the urban cultures of western Asia, then that urban impulse was, if not entirely lost, submerged by the prevailing life of the farming and pastoral com- munities found throughout the vast subcontinent by 1000 bce.


The 1028 hymns preserved as the Rigveda were composed between about 1500 and 1200 bce by a horse-using, and possibly iron-using, people, but it is the language particularly that sets ‘Aryans’ apart from other peoples, not race, as long  assumed. The  hymns  were  preserved  in  oral  tradition  by  means  of  a poetic canon devised by Aryan priests to praise their gods during the ritual of sacrifice. In one of the earliest, the hymnist offers a paean to the god Agni:

I extol Agni, the household priest, the divine minister of the sacrifice, the chief priest, the bestower of blessings.1

Another hymn, ‘The Hymn of Creation’, may be one of the earliest recorded expressions of doubt about the nature of knowledge and the process  of  creation:

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning; with no distinguishing signs, all this was water. The life-force that was covered in emptiness … arose through the power of heat.

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence was this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then really knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen – perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows – or perhaps he does not know.2

Here, without the monotheistic certainty, is the formless void of the opening   of the book of Genesis. The vedic hymns praise a variety of gods to whom sacrifices were offered. Chief among these was Indra, a warrior god whose thunderbolt and whose troops of charioteers dazzled and defeated many a non-Aryan chief, called dasa (which later became a pejorative term). Others who were praised were: Surya and Savitir, chariot-driving sun gods, and another minor sun deity called Vishnu; Agni (cognate with the Latin ignis),     at once keeper of the sacred flame of the mystical sacrifice and the practical agency for destroying the forests that harboured enemies of the Aryan hordes and opening new ground for cultivation; and Varuna, a king among gods and utterly unlike the boisterous Indra, who was also a brawler and easily manipu- lated by adroit ritual. Varuna  was an ethical and judging god, unswayed by   the blandishments of sacrifices and not confused by the drug or drink soma that other gods imbibed.

At the core of the Aryan religion was the sacrificial act performed punctili- ously by expert brahman priests. A hymn attached to the Rigveda, though composed in later vedic times, the ‘The Hymn of the Primeval Man’ (Puru- shasukta), asserts the centrality of the sacrifice. All of creation resulted from the sacrifice by the gods of the ‘Lord of Beings’, Prajapati, or the first man (purusha). All things and creatures having been made, men were created by a dismemberment of Prajapati (who nevertheless appears to have survived his sacrifice):

When the gods made a sacrifice with the Man [Prajapati] as their victim, Spring was the melted butter, Summer the fuel and Autumn the oblation …  The brahman was his [Prajapati’s] mouth, of his arms were made the warrior [rajanya or kshatriya]; his thighs became the vaishya [free farmer and merchant], of his feet the shudra [servant] was born.3

This stunning image of ritual power reflected the great prestige and privilege enjoyed by priests as ritual principals. But all was not poker-faced austerity and ritual sacrifice, at least not for the gods, seers and rulers depicted in these hymns. Sex, sport, gambling and drinking also figured, and even charitable works. The Asvins, twin horsegods (or horse guards), cured a female seer, Ghosa, of a skin disease that had long rendered her unmarriageable, and went on to provide the son she and her husband could not produce on their own, owing to the advanced age and impotence of the latter. They rescued ship- wrecked sailors and provided a woman warrior with an iron leg when she lost her own in battle. (With compassion surprising in an ancient warrior litera- ture, the Rigvedas deal with handicap sympathetically; for example, blindness does not seem to disqualify a woman from marriage, but is a reason for both

father and husband to behave with special forbearance.4 More serious was a lack of wealth and talent, but even that could be remedied.5)

Leave a Comment