The Rig-Veda forms the great literary memorial of the early Aryan settlements in the Punjab.
Continuing How the Indian Caste System Began,
our selection from Brief History of the Indian People by William W. Hunter published in 1880. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. The selection is presented in five easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in How the Indian Caste System Began.
Time: around 1200 BC
The ancient religions of Europe and India had a common origin. They were to some extent made up of the sacred stories or myths which our joint ancestors had learned while dwelling together in Asia. Several of the Vedic gods were also the gods of Greece and Rome; and to this day the Divinity is adored by names derived from the same old Aryan word (deva, the Shining One), by Brahmans in Calcutta, by the Protestant clergy of England, and by Roman Catholic priests in Peru.
The Vedic hymns exhibit the Indian branch of the Aryans on their march to the southeast, and in their new homes. The earliest songs disclose the race still to the north of the Khaibar pass, in Kabul; the later ones bring them as far as the Ganges. Their victorious advance eastward through the intermediate tract can be traced in the Vedic writings almost step by step. The steady supply of water among the five rivers of the Punjab led the Aryans to settle down from their old state of wandering half-pastoral tribes into regular communities of husbandmen. The Vedic poets praised the rivers which enabled them to make this great change — perhaps the most important step in the progress of a race. “May the Indus,” they sang, “the far-famed giver of wealth, hear us; [fertilizing our] broad fields with water.” The Himalayas, through whose southwestern passes they had reached India, and at whose southern base they long dwelt, made a lasting impression on their memory. The Vedic singer praised “Him whose greatness the snowy ranges, and the sea, and the aerial river declare.” The Aryan race in India never forgot its northern home. There dwelt its gods and holy singers; and there eloquence descended from heaven among men; while high amid the Himalayan mountains lay the paradise of deities and heroes, where the kind and the brave forever repose.
The Rig-Veda forms the great literary memorial of the early Aryan settlements in the Punjab. The age of this venerable hymnal is unknown. Orthodox Hindus believe, without evidence, that it existed “from before all time,” or at least from 3001 years B.C. European scholars have inferred from astronomical data that its composition was going on about 1400 B.C. But the evidence might have been calculated backward, and inserted later in the Veda. We only know that the Vedic religion had been at work long before the rise of Buddhism in the sixth century B.C. The Rig-Veda is a very old collection of 1017 short poems, chiefly addressed to the gods, and containing 10,580 verses. Its hymns show us the Aryans on the banks of the Indus, divided into various tribes, sometimes at war with each other, sometimes united against the “black-skinned” aborigines. Caste, in its later sense, is unknown. Each father of a family is the priest of his own household. The chieftain acts as father and priest to the tribe; but at the greater festivals he chooses some one specially learned in holy offerings to conduct the sacrifice in the name of the people. The king himself seems to have been elected; and his title of Vis-pat, literally “Lord of the Settlers,” survives in the old Persian Vis-paiti, and as the Lithuanian Wiez-patis in east-central Europe at this day. Women enjoyed a high position; and some of the most beautiful hymns were composed by ladies and queens. Marriage was held sacred. Husband and wife were both “rulers of the house” (dampati); and drew near to the gods together in prayer. The burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral pile was unknown; and the verses in the Veda which the Brahmans afterwards distorted into a sanction for the practice, have the very opposite meaning. “Rise, woman,” says the Vedic text to the mourner; “come to the world of life. Come to us, Thou hast fulfilled thy duties as a wife to thy husband.”
The Aryan tribes in the Veda have blacksmiths, coppersmiths, and goldsmiths among them, besides carpenters, barbers, and other artisans. They fight from chariots, and freely use the horse, although not yet the elephant, in war. They have settled down as husbandmen, till their fields with the plough, and live in villages or towns. But they also cling to their old wandering life, with their herds and “cattle-pens.” Cattle, indeed, still form their chief wealth — the coin in which payment of fines is made — reminding us of the Latin word for money, pecunia, from pecus, a herd. One of the Vedic words for war literally means “a desire for cows.” Unlike the modern Hindus, the Aryans of the Veda ate beef; used a fermented liquor or beer, made from the soma plant; and offered the same strong meat and drink to their gods. Thus the stout Aryans spread eastward through Northern India, pushed on from behind by later arrivals of their own stock, and driving before them, or reducing to bondage, the earlier “black-skinned” races. They marched in whole communities from one river valley to another; each house-father a warrior, husbandman, and priest; with his wife, and his little ones, and his cattle.
These free-hearted tribes had a great trust in themselves and their gods. Like other conquering races, they believed that both themselves and their deities were altogether superior to the people of the land, and to their poor, rude objects of worship. Indeed, this noble self-confidence is a great aid to the success of a nation. Their divinities — devas, literally “the shining ones,” from the Sanscrit root div, “to shine” — were the great powers of nature. They adored the Father-heaven, — Dyaush-pitar in Sanscrit, the Dies piter or Jupiter of Rome, the Zeus of Greece; and the Encompassing Sky — Varuna in Sanscrit, Uranus in Latin, Ouranos in Greek. Indra, or the Aqueous Vapor, that brings the precious rain on which plenty or famine still depends each autumn, received the largest number of hymns. By degrees, as the settlers realized more and more keenly the importance of the periodical rains to their new life as husbandmen, he became the chief of the Vedic gods. “The gods do not reach unto thee, O Indra, nor men; thou overcomest all creatures in strength.” Agni, the God of Fire (Latin ignis), ranks perhaps next to Indra in the number of hymns addressed to him. He is “the Youngest of the Gods,” “the Lord and Giver of Wealth.” The Maruts are the Storm Gods, “who make the rock to tremble, who tear in pieces the forest.” Ushas, “the High-born Dawn” (Greek Eos), “shines upon us like a young wife, rousing every living being to go forth to his work.” The Asvins, the “Horsemen” or fleet outriders of the dawn, are the first rays of sunrise, “Lords of Lustre.” The Solar Orb himself (Surya), the Wind (Vayu), the Sunshine or Friendly Day (Mitra), the intoxicating fermented juice of the Sacrificial Plant (Soma), and many other deities are invoked in the Veda — in all, about thirty-three gods, “who are eleven in heaven, eleven on earth, and eleven dwelling in glory in mid-air.”
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history