Sunday, 30 March 2014

India from 1800-500BC: Part One

“Indra, bring wealth that gives delight, the victor's ever-conquering wealth,
Most excellent, to be our aid;
By means of which we may repel our foes in battle hand to hand,
By thee assisted with the car.
Aided by thee, the thunder-armed, Indra, may we lift up the bolt,
And conquer all our foes in fight.
With thee, O India, for ally with missile-darting heroes, may
We conquer our embattled foes.
Mighty is Indra, yea supreme; greatness be his, the Thunderer:
Wide as the heaven extends his power”
Rigveda 1. 8

Page from the Atharvaveda
The Indus Valley Civilization went into a decline and gradually disappeared around 1800BC. The reasons for this are unclear as there are no sources or clear indications from archaeology but climate change has been put forward as a possible cause, in this case operating by affecting the water supply. The cities of the Indus were complex entities and if their agricultural surpluses were damaged the fragile social order may have gradually developed into simpler more durable forms that were better able to survive as small village communities. These communities would leave little traces to the spade of the archaeologist.

The next phase of Indian history shows a different face. Here there are texts but they are difficult to use as explicit history as they were only committed to writing a millennium or two after their composition. The tribes that occupied northern India left their sacred hymns and ritual texts. The holy nature of these verses and the oral tradition meant that they were not put to writing even after writing had been long established but they are good sources nonetheless. Linguistic analysis has shown that they preserve very ancient forms of the Sanskrit language; forms that are datable using linguistic analysis to at least the mid-2nd millennia BC. Whatever the language of the Indus Valley Civilization may have been, it is unquestionable that these hymns are composed in Sanskrit, an Indo-European language. It is not necessary to postulate an invasion per se, or even a population shift, but a cultural diffusion of language and social norms between the Iranian Plateau/Central Asia and northern India is very likely. These ancient hymns are known as the Vedas.

There are four groups of them: The Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda. The Rigveda is the oldest, but the others are by any standards extremely ancient. They tell of the ritual practices and world views of the priests of these tribes. Social organisation involved a king (raja) who ruled with the assistance of warriors and priests. Conflicts were not uncommon with other tribes and tribal divisions and social groupings were by no means fixed. The warriors had horses and chariots and fought with iron weapons. There was a pantheon of gods, with Indra as one of the chief gods. Other gods were very significant as well: Soma (god of water/the sacred drink of the priests), Agni (god of fire/messenger), Varuna (heaven), Yama (god of justice/death). While other gods may have been integral to the Vedic society, these are the ones that are often mentioned in the hymns of sacrifice, which are the main sources for the period. The Vedic Period is generally referred to as being between 1500-500BC although these dates are porous. Also, the people mentioned in the Vedas also include the peoples of what is currently Afghanistan so the mountains separating the regions do not appear to have hindered communication. However, the Vedas do not appear to have referred explicitly to any areas in the southern regions of India.

Lord of the clans, giver of bliss, fiend-slayer, mighty o'er the foe,
May Indra, Soma-drinker, go before us, Bull, who brings us peace.
Indra, subdue our enemies, lay low the men who fight with us:
Down into nether darkness send the man who shows us enmity:
Strike down the fiend, strike down the foes, break thou asunder Vritra's jaws.
O Indra, Vritra-slayer, quell the wrath of the assailing foe.
Turn thou the foeman's thought away, his dart who fain would conquer us:
Grant us thy great protection; keep his deadly weapon far away.
Atharvaveda, Hymn 21

Grey Painted Ware: A pottery type typical of the period
It should be noted that the term Vedic is sometimes used in conjunction with mathematics and medicine. The Vedas do not explicitly deal with either of these subjects directly and these names are generally the result of later writers projecting their ideas back to the time of the Vedas. While Indian mathematics made demonstrable leaps forward in the period of the Mahajanapadas and into the Mauryan era these ideas should not be assumed to have been present in the Vedas.

Tribal groupings are difficult to discern as some of the peoples named in the Vedas may not actually be the names of people groups but merely descriptive titles given to “types” of peoples. A good example of this phenomena is in Wales. The word “Welsh” was not originally the name of a people group but was merely the Saxon word for “foreigner” or “stranger”. The Angles and Saxons used these terms to distinguish themselves from the other peoples of the land. In the same manner, tribe names in the Vedas may simply be convenient blanket descriptions of other tribes or peoples without necessarily referring to a specific tribe.

A votive offering of a model chariot from the Oxus river c.500BC
Similar chariots were used in India around this period.
The early composers of the Vedas may have been semi-nomadic but from 1000 BC onwards there is increasing complexity in the tribes. Some of the hymns in the seventh book of the Rigveda mention a battle called the Battle of the Ten Kings, fought between the Purus and the Trtsu or Bharata peoples. The hymns are the only recollection of the battle but the description implies that the tribes were forming large confederations, that they had significant fortresses (presumably implying that they were mainly settled at that point) and that the lesser tribes and kingdoms were being amalgamated into larger entitities.

Fools, in their folly fain to waste her waters, they parted inexhaustible Parusni.
Lord of the Earth, he with his might repressed them: still lay the herd and the affrighted herdsman.
As to their goal they sped to their destruetion: they sought Parusni, the swift returned not.
Indra abandoned, to Sudas the manly, the swiftly flying foes, unmanly babblers.
They went like kine unherded from the pasture, each clinging to a friend as chance directed.
They who drive spotted steeds, sent down by P?sni, gave ear, the Warriors and the harnessed horses.
The King who scattered one-and-twenty people of both Vaikarna tribes through lust of glory-
As the skilled priest clips grass within the chamber, so hath the Hero Indra, wrought their downfall.
Thou, thunder-armed, o’erwhelmedst in the waters famed ancient Kavasa and then the Druhyu.
Others here claiming friendship to their friendship, devoted unto thee, in thee were joyful.
Indra at once with conquering might demolished all their strong places and their seven castles.
The goods of Anu's son he gave to Trtsu. May we in sacrifice conquer scorned Puru.
Rigveda 7. 18

Translations of the Rigveda from the online translations of Ralph T.H. Griffith.

End of Part One. Click here for Part Two of this post.

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