The Context of Vedic India
by Porter Wiseman
The world of Vedic India is known largely through its religious texts; the Vedas, which gave the period its name. The Vedas recorded not only the religion of the Vedic people, but also details of their lives that give us a look at their culture and world view. Written down by the Aryan people between 1500 and 800 BCE these texts, composed and transmitted orally from as early as 6000 BCE, consist of hymns, spells, myths and rituals.
The Aryan people spoke an archaic form of Sanskrit, a language of the Indo-European language group and a close cousin to Greek and Latin. It is believed that these three languages, along with many others, shared a common ancestor, as did the people who spoke them. These nomadic horsemen (whose origins are still uncertain but may have come from Russia or Central Asia) swept across the ancient world, making appearances in Mesopotamia and Persia before journeying through the Khyber pass and into the Indus river valley.
(below: An early Indian painting, showing several aspects of Vedic culture)
Before the arrival of the Aryans, an urban culture had thrived in the Indus river valley. It was already in decline, partially due to desertification, when it was conquered by the cattle-herding Aryans, who brought with them horses, chariots, and iron weapons. In addition they also brought a patriarchal society based around the sacrificial worship of the sky god.
Over the course of the Vedic period, a transition was made from a cow-based herding economy to an agrarian one. Still, in early Vedic India, cows were the basis of the entire economy. A man's wealth was measured in the number of cows he owned and the word for war was gavisti, 'searching for cows.' ("India") The agrarian economy was based more on the growth of wheat (rice in more southern areas) an activity that was dependent upon the monsoons and the rivers that crisscross the Indian subcontinent. The importance of both cows and rivers has survived even in modern Hinduism, a testament to their importance to the Aryans, the ancestors of modern Indian culture.
The social structure of Vedic India had a number of important features. The government early on was largely by the rule of chieftains, but as time went on these chiefs became kings, and their territories, kingdoms. The word for chieftain was raja, and though the Vedas tell us little of the political situation, it can be inferred that the early government was a clan based system, which eventually became a true government, with taxes and a bureaucracy. (Ibid.)
These small kingdoms were widely separated and had little contact with one another, although they shared many cultural principles. Likewise, there was little contact with the world beyond India. Later such contact would blossom as would contact within India, eventually resulting in the great Indian empires.
There was an intimate connection between the priests and the chieftains. The priests performed the ceremonies that confirmed the rule of the raja, and granted the ruler status and closeness to the gods. The raja supported the priests and gave them wealth, influence and the stability necessary to support an elaborate religious hierarchy.
The priests and rulers were members of distinct classes. Along with two others, this comprised the basis of the caste system, another part of Vedic India that has survived to modern day. The Sanskrit word for caste is varna, meaning 'color,' and the division of the castes may have had something to do with keeping the Aryan people separate from the conquered natives. This theory is supported by the fact that the names of the upper three castes are of Indo-Aryan origin, while the name of the fourth caste is of non-Aryan origin.
Whatever the reasons for the caste system may be, the system pervaded the society of Vedic India. There were four major castes: the Brahmins, or priestly caste; the Ksatriyas, or warrior/noble caste; the Vaishyas, the farmer and tradesman caste, and the Shudras, a caste containing servants and menial workers. It was believed that these castes arose from the dismembered body of the god Purusa.
The religion of Vedic India was sacrifice based, taking as its example the primordial sacrifice of the god Purusa. Because of the importance of sacrifice, the gods Soma and Agni were among the most important in the Vedic pantheon. Agni was the god of the sacrificial fire, and Soma the god of the sacred drink and the moon.
'I invoke Agni, in his role of official of this cult, god of sacrifice, officiant, oblator who confers treasures beyond measure. Agni is worthy to be invoked by the ancient prophets, just as by the present ones; may he escort the gods here.' (Comte p. 26) Thus it is written in the Rg Veda, the most important of the four Vedas. Most offerings were burnt, and so Agni attained utmost importance, for without him, the all important sacrifices could not be performed. He was the agent of communication between heaven and earth and the 'mouth of the gods', who consumed their share of the offering through him. He was the god of all fire as well, including the fire of life and inspiration.
Soma was a moon god, the bringer of the cool of night and measurer of the rhythm of time. Soma, however, was also a drink, distilled from a plant of heavenly origin, possibly a mushroom. It was a beverage of the gods that brought immortality. The soma sacrifice was among the most important, for the consumption of soma was believed to bring one closer to the gods and the universe. Just as Agni, as the sacrificial fire, was an emissary between gods and men, so was Soma, for his drink brought intimate communion with the divine.
There were many other important gods in the Vedic pantheon. One of them was Varuna, an ocean god who bares strong resemblance to Poseidon. Originally, he was not the god of the sea but rather the god of the night sky, and all the stars were his eyes. It was said that when two people spoke, Varuna was the third party present. He was one of the two sovereign gods (the other being Mitra) and he was the master of magic and the binding force that held the world together. Varuna was the cosmic judge and the overseer of rta, the rhythm that pervaded the universe.
Rta was a concept crucial to the Vedic religion, and even today the echoes of this idea resonate through Hinduism. Rta was similar to the concept of ma'at in Egyptian cosmology: it was the basic pervading rhythm of existence, the law of nature, the way things were supposed to be. It was both moral and natural law. Because of rta the sun rose in the morning and the rivers did not flow backwards. Rta was also the ancestor of the doctrine of karma, and as such it provided the moral law of the cosmos. It was a cause and effect law that stated that good came back to its doer as good and bad as bad.
'India is king, the most important of the gods. This is the teaching. his strength and energy are without measure for he is endowed with vigor and his radiance is infinite.' (Comte p. 110) These are the words of the Mahabharata, the great Indian epic and the longest epic in the world. He was a storm god and a warrior, and also the inspiration of artists and the provider of wealth. He slayed the dragon Vtra, who represented universal disorder, the opposite of rta. He is also said to have led the conquest of the Indian subcontinent by the Aryans. In many ways he bore a resemblance to his counterparts in other parts of the Indo-Aryan world; like the Greek storm god, Zeus, he was king of the gods and had a fondness for mortal women. An exuberant and virile god, he exemplified the Aryan outlook on life.
All of this was to change, however. In the later part of the Vedic era, a collection of works known as the Upanishads were composed. Considered the last of the works known as Vedic, these works were written by the rsis, or seers, who also passed the other Vedas on to mankind. The Upanishads hypothesized the existence of a Universal Consciousness or Oversoul that they called Brahman. They stressed the fleetingness of this life, and first described the nature of the soul, called the atman. The atman was part of Brahman, a part that could be rejoined with the Oversoul when the individual possessing it attained enlightenment. Otherwise it would be trapped in the cycle of reincarnation. The concept of the reincarnation cycle was another idea first developed in the Upanishads. The Vedic gods paled in comparison to the depth of the Upanishadic world view.
The Upanishads brought great attention as well to the vast scale of time. This idea was developed further in later texts, and in the end, an image of vastness rivaling the scale of modern science emerged. This view of time was cyclic. Each cycle was divided into four yugas, or ages, each of increasing length and decreasing virtue (we live in the last, thekali yuga). The entire cycle of yugas was known as a mahayuga and totaled 4,320,000 years. After each mahayuga, another would begin, until one thousand had passed, a total that was equal to one day in the life of Brahma, the creator god. A day in the life of Brahma was known as a kalpa, which was also described as the length of time it would take for a single bird, rubbing its beak once against a great mountain per day, to wear that mountain to sand. But Brahma, like everything except Brahman, is mortal, and after one hundred of his years (311,040,000,000,000 human years) he dies, and the universe is completely dissolved. Then, after another hundred Brahma years, the universe, and Brahma, were reformed, and it all began again. On a scale that large, it is no wonder that beginning reincarnated for eternity was such a horrifying thought! (Kinsley p.139-140)
It was against this backdrop that further Indian civilization was to develop. Both the golden age of Asoka's rule, Buddhism, and modern Indian culture are all rooted in the Vedic age. It was at this time that the essential 'great ideas' were formed, though it would take many more centuries for them to come to their full glory.
Kinsley, David R. The Sword and the Flute. University of California Press, Los Angeles, CA. 1975
Comte, Fernand. Mythology. W&R Chambers Ltd, New York, NY. 1991
Hiltebeitel, Alf. "Hinduism." The Religious Traditions of Asia: Religion, History and Culture Selections from the Encyclopedia of Religion. eds. Mircea Eliade and Joseph M. Kitagawa et al. McMillian Publishing Company. New York, NY. 1989.
"India." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Britannica Advanced Publishing. 1995.