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Amit Shankar Saha

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Ancient Indian History: The Most Mysterious Period
By Amit Shankar Saha   
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Last edited: Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Posted: Saturday, January 26, 2008

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The article appears at Sulekha.com

The Birth of Myths and Commonness Across Civilizations

The Rig Veda, consisting of 1028 hymns (mantras) in 10 books (mandalas), is unique in the sense where grammar, prosody, and versification are a part of an ancient sacred literature. It is so because the early part of its existence was in oral tradition of “shruti”, what is heard (as opposed to “smriti” which means what is remembered). The hymns are said to be revealed through rishis, like Gautama, Bharadvaja, Vishvamitra, Janmadagni, Vasishtha, Kashyapa, Atri, and they passed them on orally. But all the hymns of the Rig Veda do not belong to a single time period. They show a gradual development over a long span of time, from the earliest days of nature-myths to the historical incidents around the time of their compilation.

The seven oldest gods to whom the Rig Vedic hymns are addressed are Dyaus, Varuna, Mitra, Agni, Soma, Yama, and Vayu. All these gods are different aspects/elements of nature in their mythological personifications. Zenaide A. Ragozin defines myth simply as a phenomenon of nature presented not as a result of a law, but as the act of divine or at least superhuman persons, good or evil. Ancient human beings gave a name to every natural phenomenon/element that astonished them to indicate it. In course of time that name became the name of the god of that phenomenon. Dyaus was the word for the sky, the firmament, which ultimately became the name of the sky-god. Later the Heaven-Earth combination gave birth to Dyaus-Prithvi conjugation. The earth was seen as infinite, eternal so Prithvi became “Aditi” (boundless). The earth gives birth to all things and hence Aditi became symbolic of mother. Thereby Dyaus with Aditi, the mother, became symbolic of the father. This is how mythology grows through a complex process.

Ancient people also noticed that Dyaus, the sky entire sky, has two aspects – the serene sky, Varuna, and the stormy sky, Rudra. The general characteristic of the sky was serene and only sometimes unusually the sky becomes stormy. Thaus what is usual became Right, Truth – the “Rita”. Rita became the laws of Varuna, now personified as the god of righteousness. In course of time Varuna became the king of gods. Rudra, the dark, stormy sky, which often brings destruction, became personified as the god of destruction. Again the sere sky is associated with light – the sky and the light are like friends or “Mitra”. Mitra became the god of light. Similarly, other old gods of the Rig Veda were personified – Agni (Fire), Soma (Plants), Yama (Death), Vayu (Wind). Once this mythological background was created a number of lesser Vedic gods came into being like Indra (Rain), Pusan (Nourishment), Vishnu (Creation), etc.

As ancient people started settling down they found that the two elements of nature that crucial for cultivation were the rain and the sun. The rain-god Indra gained in prominence and soon replaced Varuna as the king of the gods. Often rain was accompanied by storms, now called Maruts. Maruts became the followers of Indra. The sun was seen rising from the horizon where the sky and earth seemed to meet. This promulgated the myth of the sun-god Vivasvat born of Dyaus-Aditi. Later the sun-god began to be identified in its two aspects – Tvastar-Savitar. Savitar stood for the beneficent sun and Tvastar its opposite. Still later Tvastar started to represent the stern, baleful, threatening aspects of heaven in general. Savitar in due course of time became very important and the Gayatri Mantra of the Rig Veda is addressed to him. But there was further multiplication of the sun-god because the sun as an object was already represented by the common noun “surya” and addressed in the feminine gender. So, when “Savitar” and “Surya” began to be used interchangeably overlooking the gender disparity, it produced two gods out of one and a complicated situation. Gradually with the advent of creation myths the lesser gods Vishnu, Rudra (once identified with the non-Aryan Shiva-Pashupati) and Brahmanaspati (originally Priest, Lord of Prayer) gained importance as the supreme trident of Vedic gods. It is interesting to note that Vedic religion in its most ancient form was not idolatrous – there was no image worship.

A few observations will show that the Vedic nature myths were not exclusive to an isolated group of population but spanned across the Mediterranean coast to the Indian subcontinent if not further. The Vedic Dyaus or Dyaushpitar (Heaven, the Father) has Greek equivalent Zeus or Zeus-Pater, Latin Dies-Piter, subsequently modified to Jupiter. The Christian “Deus” is “God” and the modern Dios, Dieu have Aryan root “divus” or “divine”. The Vedic Parjanya has equivalence with Perkunas or Perkons of Slavo-Lithuanian. The story of the Great Flood of Shatapatha Brahmanas has its versions in the Chaldean Deluge Tablet (Manu=Hasisadra), and Genesis (Manu=Noah). The Vedic Matsya-avatar can be equated with Ea-Han (Oannes), the fish-god of Chaldea. The mythical Mount Meru, the abode of the Vedic gods, is also referred to as Sumeru which has echoes in the name Sumeria of Mesopotamia. The gods of the Mitanni civilization also corresponds to Vedic gods – Mitrasil (Mitra), Arunasil (Varuna), Indar (Indra).

The Zoroastrian Avesta has Manthras just like the Mantras of Vedas. Also the Vedic Soma and Mitra have Parsee equivalence of Haoma and Mithra. It is noteworthy that Asura in the oldest Rig Vedic hymns means beneficent being and it is an epithet of the older Vedic gods – Asura-Dyaus, Asura-Varuna just like Ahura-Mazda of Avesta. But later as Indra became the king of gods and triumphed over the older gods, the word Asura became corrupted to mean an evil being. Deva started to imply for good powers (contrarily Daevas in Avesta imply servants of the Evil One). The Vedic Dasyu also can be compared to Avestan Dahyu. Originally Dasyu simply meant people, but as the Vedic people began to call themselves Arya, Dasyu began to be used for non-Aryans. Later it got transformed to Dasa (slave/servant). The Vedic people called themselves “Arya” which meant originally “the people who plough” (from root “ar” which means “plough” as in arable). But subsequently it took the meaning of “noble birth”. That is why even the Persian King Darius I states in his inscription: “I am an Arya, the son of an Arya.”

The Aryans domesticated cows, which were unsuitable for leading a nomadic life. The Vedic word for cow is “Go”. The derivative Sanskrit word “gotra” literally means “the enclosure which protects a herd” and gradually came to denote a family and a tribe. From this root comes the word Gopa to mean herdsmen and later chieftain or king. In Greek and Hebrew tradition too kings are often referred to as shepherd or pastor. What the birth of myths and their commonness across civilizations show is that origin of all religions is basically the same and so are human beings all over the world. Perhaps we have an important lesson to learn from our ancient ancestors whom we often dismiss as uncouth or sometimes do not even remember.

Diversity in Vedic India and Internal Evidence from the Rig Veda

The Aryans were not the only people in Vedic India. Even in the ancient times India was a multicultural as well as a multilingual land. The Aryans encountered the Dravidians to the south of their settlement. The Dravidians are often identified with the Harappans of Indus Valley. As the Aryans interacted with the Harappans they adopted their Mother Goddess and Pashupati into their mythology as Parvati/Aditi and Shiva/Rudra respectively.

To the east the Aryans encountered the Kolarians who are often identified with groups like Santhals, Mundas, Kandhs, Gondhs, etc. The Kolarians are often referred to as the Nagas because they worshipped Snake-god or King of Snakes, Shesh as a part of their Shamanism cult. The Aryans contemptuously called them “Shishna-devas”, literally “whose god is Shishna or Shesh-Nag”. Serpent worship is common to all early settlements surrounded by dense, moist vegetation and can be found from Egypt onwards to the Indian subcontinent. The Akkadian supreme god “Ea” was worshipped at his holiest shrine at Eridhu in the form of a serpent. Dravidians also had a snake race whose founder was King Vasuki. But serpent worship was un-Aryan originally. That is why there are very few ancient temples dedicated to serpent worship in the north of India and the priests of such temples are never Brahmans. In the east though, Manasa, the serpent goddess, is widely worshipped. The Aryans were influenced by the snake-people and slowly but surely, in course of time, they devised their own snake god called Ariaka and incorporated Vasuki and Shesh-Nag in their pantheon.

Moreover, in the Atharva Veda, the last of the four Vedas, worship takes the form of conjuring and Shamanism rather than prayer. It represents the religion of the various non-Aryan native people of Vedic India. That is why the contents of the Atharva Veda are often thought to be pre-historic. That the Aryans ultimately assimilated non-Aryan cults in their sacred texts shows their flexibility and accommodating nature.

There were also other non-Aryan people encountered by the Aryans. They were the Dahae, a tribe nearly akin to those located in the Kirghiz-Turkman Steppe. There were the Panis, variously identified with the Phoenicians (the sea-faring traders of Canaan), and with the Parniums (a sort of Iranian Bedouin traders). Rig Veda (X, 108) mentions how Indra sends Sarama to the Panis, the avaricious traders, who had stolen their milk kine. Sarama’s able scouting helped Indra and Brahmanaspati to recover the cows from them. Another kind of people encountered by the Aryans in India was the Paravatas or the mountain people of the Himalayas. The Rig Veda has it that Divodasa, the leader of the Tritsu Aryan clan, helped by Indra, defeats the mountain tribe ruled by Shambara in a long continuous battle.

Zenaide A. Ragozin writes: “It is a thousand pities that the Rig Veda does not contain history in the direct narrative or epic form, but only in that indirect and fragmentary form which is known as “internal evidence”. The reason is that the book represents, not a simple and primitive stage of culture, but [. . .] an advanced and complex one, which had developed some essential social institutions, such as royalty, aristocracy, and priesthood, in clean-cut, strongly set frames, on the background of an already long and eventful past. The consequence is the hymns which we may designate as in a specially direct sense “historical” ones, are full of allusions to occurrences which everyone is supposed to know about, of names familiar to all. And where the occurrences and names do belong exclusively to the world of Myth, that also was too well and too generally understood to require explanation” (303).

Some of the most spirited hymns in the Rig Vedic collection are those of the bards Vasishtha and Vishvamitra in Books 3 and 7 which provides historical insights. At that time there were five major Rig Vedic clans – Tritsu, Yadu, Turvasu, Puru (of Dravidian stock), and Anu (of Kolarian stock). Vasishtha was given the distinction and appointed the priest of the Tritsu royal family. In resentment Vishvamitra went over to their enemies, the Bharatas, a non-Aryan clan, and thoroughly Aryanized them. In course of time the Bharatas, the Purus, and some other clans joined together to form a confederacy of ten kings under the leadership of Puru-Kutsa. The confederacy challenged the Tritsu king Sudas (son of Divodasa) and there ensued “the War of the Ten Kings” (Dasarajnya). The Tritsu clan, who considered themselves the purest of the Brahmanic Aryans, found allies in the Prithu (the Parthians) and the Parsu (the Persians), two chief Iranian clans who had migrated to the foothills of the Himalayas.

The Tritsu were also helped by the Vishanin (the followers of the then lesser Vedic god Vishnu) and the Shiva (probably the Tugra, a Dravidian clan named “Sons of the Serpent” by the Aryans, and under the religious designation of the god Shiva). This was the first time when there was a close alliance among Brahmanism, Vaishnavism, and Shaivism, which later gained in prominence as the three god-heads of Hindu religion. The battle ground was in the middle of Sapta-Sindhu region. (The Vedic word “sindhu” mean river; Sapta-Sindhu stand for seven rivers – Indus, Jhelum, Chenub, Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, and Sarasvati; in Avesta it corresponds to Hapta-Hendu).

The confederates, under Puru-Kutsa, had planned to surprise the Tritsu whose settlement had advanced as far as the Sarasvati, while they themselves were drawn up in battle array on the northern side of Purushni (Ravi). The two sides were separated by two intervening rivers – the Vipash (Beas) and the Shutudri (Sutlej). Tritsu king Sudas took the initiative and crossed the Vipash and the Sutudri (with Indra’s help) and surprised the enemy. In a terrible skirmish six thousand warriors fell and ultimately Sudas won. The survivors had to pay him heavy tribute. The Tritsu victory in the north-west was complete. Later they concentrated on eastward expansion across the Yamuna.

In course of time we see the rise of Trasadasyu, the son of Puru-Kutsi (daughter of Puru-Kutsa). He became a firm friend and ally of the Arya. As a very powerful sovereign, he was the first to bear the highest royal title “king of kings” (Samraj). Later came Kuru, the great-grandson of Puru-Kutsa. He was so great that the entire Puru people were thenceforth named Kuru after him. The Puru/Kuru and many other clans existed dynastically and can be found in The Mahabharata. The name Tritsu though disappears, but the land they came to occupy, the Ganga-Yamuna basin, became the stronghold of Brahmanism – the Brahmavarta. The entire land between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas and between the eastern and the western coasts became known as Aryavarta.

Points of Contention

Modern archaeologists, historians, and scholars are of a consensus that there was no Aryan invasion that overran the Harappan civilization. Even though Book VI of the Rig Veda mentions a battle between Abhyavartin, the son of Chayamana of Puru clan, and Turuvasa of Turuvasa clan, who led the Vrichivats, at a place called Hariyupia, identified as Harappa, there is no archaeological evidence of any battle taking place at the Harappa site. The battle may have taken place outside the city proper as was the Vedic custom but it could not have been anything more than the usual Vedic clan warfare. There is no biological discontinuity or marked cultural change at Harappa to indicate otherwise. The scholars are in agreement that prolonged contact between the Aryans and other cultures has led to many changes in their religion, language, and customs.

A point of acrimony has been the dating of the Vedas. The Rig Veda mentions Sarasvati as a mighty river. Landsat imagery has shown that Saraswati once flowed through the Hakra/Ghaggar river bed and dried up around 2000 BC. According to radiocarbon dates, Kalibangan and Banawali, two settlements on the banks of Sarasvati, also came to an end around 2000 BC. So the historical instances in the Rig Veda definitely predate the drying of Saraswati. On the other hand The Mahabharata shows the centre of Vedic life has shifted from the Sapta-Sindhu region to the Gangetic plains despite there being continuity between the Vedic clans and the dynasties of The Mahabharata. The epic also mentions the Matsya-avatar as an incarnation of Brahma, and not Vishnu as per the Puranas, to indicate the dominance of Brahmanic traditions over the still-to-gain-prominence but fast-emerging Vishnu cult. The Mahabharata war has been variously dated by scholars over a wide range from 3100 BC to 1100 BC. Perhaps some day the decipherment of the Harappan inscription will give new insights to overcome the discrepancies.

References:

The Story of the Nations: Vedic India by Zenaide A. Ragozin, London: T. Fisher-Unwin, 1895.

The Indo-Aryan Controversy, Edwin F. Bryant and Laurie L. Patton (Eds.), London: Routledge, 2005. 

 

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