India in 1500 BC

Beginning of Vedic Age, Rig Veda

India in 1700 BC <<                                                         >> India in 1400 BC 

Geography of Rig Vedic India

 "Three religions now stand in the world which have come down to us from time prehistoric Hinduism,  Zoroastrianism and Judaism. They have all received tremendous shocks and all of them prove by their survival their internal strength. But while Judaism failed to absorb Christianity and was driven out of its place of birth by its all-conquering daughter, and a handful of Parsees is all that remains to tell the tale of their grand religion, sect after sect arose in India and seemed to shake the religion of the Vedas to its very foundations, but like the waters of the seashore in a tremendous earthquake it receded only for a while, only to return in an all-absorbing flood, a thousand times more vigorous, and when the tumult of the rush was over, these sects were all sucked in, absorbed, and assimilated into the immense body of the mother faith."

That's what Swami Vivekananda had read out in the Parliament of Religions in Chicago on 19th September, 1893. What he has mentioned as the 'religion of the Vedas', started taking shape around 1500 BC in present day Punjab in India and Pakistan.

Aryan Migration

The once prosperous Indus Valley Civilization was on decline since 1700 BC. The native Indians, the original inhabitants of Indus Valley were leaving their ancestral homes in Indus Valley and spreading across India in search of better place to live. It was during this period that a group of Indo-Iranians, better known as the Indo-Aryans, started drifting eastwards from their home in northern Iran towards Indian subcontinent. The separation of the Indo-Aryans from the Indo-Iranians had started since 2000 BC. By 1700 BC the first group of Indo-Aryans would have already reached the present day Swat in Pakistan. Remnants of these earliest Aryans can be seen in the innumerable graves dating back to 1600 BC. The unique signature of these Aryans, unlike their peers and contamporaries, were horses and chariots. Remains of horses have been recovered at least in one grave from this region, establishing the fact that horses were indeed very important to them - otherwise why would they respectfully and lovingly lay the horses into graves along with their own people? This also perhaps can be seen as the earliest foot print of the Aryans in Indian subcontinent. Gradually they entered into Punjab, perhaps entered into some sort of confrontations with the native people - might be the residents or immigrants of the declining Indus Valley - and by 1500 BC they were well settled in Punjab and adjoining areas in the north western part of Indian subcontinent.

Contrary to a popular belief, quite acceptable among historians from Pakistan, that the Aryans entered into India as invaders and destroyed the Indus Valley Civilization, in reality, the Aryans arrived in quite lesser numbers as compared to that of the existing natives. During the early period of Aryan migration and settlement in Indian subcontinent since 1700 BC the Aryans not only entered into confrontations with the natives, mostly Dravidians or the people of Indus Valley and also some non-Dravidian people across northern India, but also indulged into constant warfares among themselves. But there is no historical or archaeological evidence of any massacre or massive destruction of the Indus valley Civilization by the incoming Aryans. It's not that the Aryans were always the rulers and the native people poor and exploited subjects. Even though there were instances of non-Aryan kings, kingdoms and influencial people, but it's indeed true that the native people had lower economic and social status than the more powerful Aryans.

The Aryans brought with them a language and culture, which owes its origin to the ancient Indo-European and Indo-Iranian people, to which they belonged in the remote and recent past. No doubt their language and culture was very powerful and eventually over the next few hundreds of years most of north India adopted their language and culture, which itself absorbed bits and pieces from the existing languages and cultures of the pre-Aryan native people of India. Even today there are traces of the older languages in the modern family of Indo-Aryan languages like Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati etc spoken across India. It's around 1500 BC that the Aryans started giving shape to the world's earliest book in any language - that's the Rig Veda.

Rig Veda and the Indo-European Language

Considering the fact that the Rig Veda is the earliest known book written by anyone in any language in the hirstory of mankind it's quite fascinating to see the maturity of the literal and philosphical aspects of it. No one expects a child to speak a sophisticated language when she first learns to speak. More she sees the world more she learns and gradually matures her language. But from the sophistication of Rig Veda it's very hard to believe that it was the first form of book of the Aryans. It's very likely that the Rig Veda, as we see it now, might have been the manifestation of literary efforts over a long period of time. No doubt the Aryans were a much enlightened race with a very high degree of self realization and maturity, which manifests abundantly in Rig Veda, but still it's not possible that all the realization happened to a single composer at a particular moment. Keeping aside the theological and religious aspect, Rig Veda is a wonderful compilation of lyrical hymns, full of poetic ornamentations like alliteration, rhythm, rhyme and allegory. It is full of surprise and astonishment that the composers felt as they tried to understand the world around them. They were stuck with awe at the natural forces that control us, control the world and universe. They were filled with excitement when they tried to explain what's there behind each and every force of nature. It's not that they had answers for all the questions that came to their mind but still they did find explanations for some of their queries. They did realize that the nature with its all engulfing force and enegry can create and also destroy at the same time. Very naturally they developed a reverence for the natural forces. Rig Veda is all about their reverential praises for these natural forces. The reverence very logically manifested into a form of worship.

Worshipping nature and natural forces is not uncommon in most civilizations. From that point of view there's perhaps nothing unique with the Aryans. But what's indeed unique is the humble and fascinating way the reverence, realization, knowledge and feelings are expressed in language. The entire realization process took several centuries to come to a concrete form. In Swami Vivekananda's words it is "the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times. Just as the law of gravitation existed before its discovery, and would exist if all humanity forgot it, so is it with the laws that govern the spiritual world. The moral, ethical, and spiritual relations between soul and soul and between individual spirits and the Father of all spirits, were there before their discovery, and would remain even if we forgot them." It's equally fascinating to know that not only in India, the people belonging to the Aryan race made similar discoveries at other places also where ever they went. The Iranians, after separating out from the Indo-Aryans since 2000 BC settled in Iran and by 1100 BC composed the Gathas, the earliest Avesta literature of Zorastrianism in Avestan (early Persian) language. The language and the content of Gathas have striking similarities with Rig Vedas. Most likely the realizations and knowledge depicted in Rig Veda and early Avesta started taking shape during the period when the Aryans and the Iranians were still together.

In fact the language of the Aryans, Vedic Sanskrit, had many commonalities with Avestan and other languages spoken by the Indo-European people. These commonalities are visible even today. For example bhraatr, meaning brother in Sanskrit, is brother in English; pitr is father, maatr is mother. Similarities between Vedic Sanskrit and Avestan is much more prominent - hotr, meaning priest in Sanskrit, was zotar in Avestan, mitr was a God in both, deva was daeva, asura (demon) was ahura, soma (worship with fire) was haoma, asva (horse) was aspa, bhraatr (brother) was bratar, sapta (seven) was hapta and most importantly Sindhu the river was Hindu - the name that eventually became associated with the people living beyond Sindhu.

Around the World

Around 1500 BC when the Aryans were settling down in India the Kassites were establishing a strong kingdom in southern Mesopotamia in present day Iraq. They had attacked Babylonia in 1600s during the rule of Hammurabi's son but could not conquer Babylon. Later after the fall of Babylon to the Hittites (present day Turkey) in 1532 the Kassites gained control over the northern parts of Babylonia. By 1475 they had conquered parts of southern Babylonia. The city of Babylon lost it's supremacy for some time during the Kassite rule for the next 500 years and the city of Ashur became a very important center for learning and religion in the kingdom of Assyria (Syria). The other contemporary kingdoms in middle east were Elam (Iran), Egypt and Mittani (western Syria) - the Hurrian speaking vassal of Hittite Kingdom. The Kassites established good trade relations with all the existing kingdoms - Hittite, Egypt, Assyria and Elam.

The rulers of Mittani were also Indo-Aryans, who had migrated into western Syria in 1600s - the same time they had migrated into India from their ancestral Indo-Iranian home in northern Iran. The west bound Aryans reached Assyria and gained good control over the native Hurrians. Eventually they became the rulers of Mittani. There's an evidence that after signing a treaty with the Hittites in 1380 BC the ruler of Mittani, after swearing by a series of Hurrian gods, also swears by the Gods Mitrašil, Uruvanaššil, Indara, and Našatianna, which can be identified as the Vedic gods Mitra, Varua, Indra, and Nāsatya. 

Contents of Rig Veda

'Rig' comes from the Sanskrit root 'Rik', meaning praise and Veda comes from the root 'Vid' meaning knowledge or to see or vision. It's quite metaphorical to associate knowledge with vision. But it's quite logical too. The root 'vid' is also related to words meaning 'vision' in many modern day languages of the Indo-European family. So Rig Ved means the "Knowledge of Praise". Though it's written with the intention to praise the natural forces, still it provides some information about the history and times of the people of India at that time. It speaks about several Kings and tribal confederations across north India. Some of the tribes mentioned in Rig Veda are Kuru, Puru, Gandhari, Chedi, Kikata and Parsu. Kikata is perhaps Magadhi and Parsu Persian. The association of Parsu with Persians is based on an Assyrian inscription dated 844 BC referring the Persians as Parsu and also an inscription of the great Achaemenid Emperor of Persia Darius I referring to Parsa as the origin of Persians. Gandhari and Kikata were referred to as despised people, perhaps because of the fact that they might have been non Aryans - either native people or Indo-Iranians who had moved to India before the Rig Vedic Aryans. Out of these tribes mentioned in Rig Veda Chedi, Magadha and Gandhar eventually became prominent confederations or Janapada, meaning foothold of people, and finally Maha Janapadas by 700 BC. Kuru and Puru tribes and the respective confederations or kingdoms were quite prominent in the early Vedic Period till 1000 BC. 

From the geographical description, mention of the rivers like Yavavati (Ravi ??), Sutudri (Shatadru or Sutlej), Vipas, Vitasta, Sindhu and Sarasvati, it's almost certain that the land of Rig Vedas was Punjab. 

From the various descriptions it can be said that the life of the Aryans during 1500 BC was nomadic in nature. The Aryans were involved in constant confrontations with the natives and also among themselves. Horses and Chariots, the signature of the Indo-Iranians and Indo-Aryans, were important and differentiating factors for Aryans. The priests used to conduct Yajnas, sacrificial ceremonies around fire, for the welfare and betterment of the Kings. The hymns of Rig Vedas, praising the various Gods or natural forces or elements, used to be part of these ceremonies. Animals were sacrificed as a part of the ceremony. It's quite interesting to note that the Aryans were not vegetarians. They used to eat animal meat, specially beef, after being sacrificed. The spread of vegetarianism in India might be linked with the spread of Buddhism and Jainism some 1000 years later.

The Rig Veda starts with this, in praise of the Agni, Lord of Fire. This is the first hymn of the earliest known book of mankind:



aghnimīḷe purohitaṃ yajñasya devaṃ ṛtvījam |
hotāraṃ ratnadhātamam ||  1 001 01

I Laud Agni, the chosen Priest, God, minister of sacrifice,
The hotar, lavishest of wealth.

aghniḥ pūrvebhirṛṣibhirīḍyo nūtanairuta |
sa devāneha vakṣati ||   01 001 02

Worthy is Agni to be praised by living as by ancient seers.
He shall bring hitherward the Gods.

aghninā rayimaśnavat poṣameva dive-dive | 
yaśasaṃ vīravattamam ||   01 001 03

Through Agni man obtaineth wealth, yea, plenty waxing day by day,
Most rich in heroes, glorious.

aghne yaṃ yajñamadhvaraṃ viśvataḥ paribhūrasi | 
sa iddeveṣu ghachati ||  01 001 04

Agni, the perfect sacrifice which thou encompassest about
Verily goeth to the Gods.

aghnirhotā kavikratuḥ satyaścitraśravastamaḥ | 
devo devebhirā ghamat ||   01 001 05

May Agni, sapient-minded Priest, truthful, most gloriously great,
The God, come hither with the Gods.

The hymn 6.27 of Rig Veda speaks about a battle at a place called Hariyupiya between the Vrcivans and Abhyavartin Cayamana, aided by Lord Indra. The battle was fought on the banks of Yavyavati (Ravi ??) river.

vadhīdindro varaśikhasya śeṣo.abhyāvartine cāyamānāya śikṣan | 
vṛcīvato yad dhariyūpīyāyāṃ han pūrve ardhe bhiyasāparo dart ||  6 027 05

In aid of Abhyavartin Cayamana, Indra destroyed the seed of Varasikha.
At Hariyupiya he smote the vanguard of the Vrcivans, and the rear fled frighted.

triṃśacchataṃ varmiṇa indra sākaṃ yavyāvatyāṃ puruhūta śravasyā | 
vṛcīvantaḥ śarave patyamānāḥ pātrā bhindānanyarthānyāyan ||  6 027 06

Three thousand, mailed, in quest of fame, together, on the Yavyavati, O much-sought Indra,
Vrcivan's sons, falling before the arrow, like bursting vessels went to their destruction.

Many  people associate Hariyupiya with Harappa, implicating that this hymn speaks of a confrontation between the people of declining Indus Valley Civilization and the incoming Aryans. From the mention of three thousand Vrcivans, perhaps a non-Aryan tribe, gathered on the banks of Ravi some rough idea about the number of people in a tribe can be made. There is also a mention of a 'Battle of Ten Kings', often associated with the battle of Mahabharata which might have taken place sometime in 14th century BC. These were the period of lot of chaos as the incoming Aryans were settling down gradually in a new home and coming in contact with new people, new cultures and languages. The battle described in Mahabharata, perhaps in a much exaggerated manner, might not be totally fictitious.

The hymn 3.62.10 is the source of the popular Gayatri Mantra, which is in praise of the creator of the universe, referred to as Savitr.


tat saviturvareṇyaṃ bhargho devasya dhīmahi | 
dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt ||   3 062 10

Ram Mohan Roy had interpreted it as "We meditate on the worshipable power and glory of Him who has created the earth, the nether world and the heavens (i.e. the universe), and who directs our understanding". This hymn clearly shows the ever inquisitive mind of the Aryans. Even at such early stages of human civilization they were perplexed with the complexities about the creation of universe. Irrespective of the religion and creed it's indeed a very noble thought and gesture to show obeisance, without any compulsion, to a Creator who has created this wonderful world of ours.

The penultimate hymn of Rig Veda speaks about the Creation of heaven, earth, day and night.

ṛtaṃ ca satyaṃ cābhīddhāt tapaso.adhyajāyata |
tatorātryajāyata tataḥ samudro arṇavaḥ || 10 190 01

FROM Fervour kindled to its height Eternal Law and Truth were born:
Thence was the Night produced, and thence the billowy flood of sea arose.

samudrādarṇavādadhi saṃvatsaro ajāyata |
ahorātrāṇividadhad viśvasya miṣato vaśī || 10 190 02

From that same billowy flood of sea the Year was afterwards produced,
Ordainer of the days nights, Lord over all who close the eye.

sūryācandramasau dhātā yathāpūrvamakalpayat |
divaṃ capṛthivīṃ cāntarikṣamatho svaḥ || 10 190 03

Dhātar, the great Creator, then formed in due order Sun and Moon.
He formed in order Heaven and Earth, the regions of the air, and light.

But very interestingly in the same Rig Veda there is also another hymn (10.129) called the 'Song of Creation',  which deals with skepticism the knowledge about the creation of universe:

Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation?
The Gods are later than this world's production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?
He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,
Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it, or perhaps he knows not.

In reference to the above hymn Amartya Sen has remarked in 'Argumentative Indian' that ever since the early days of civilization Indians have been by and large always argumentative. They never blindly accepted anything without any reason. They never attached unnecessarily unreasonable theological or religious importance to things of reasoning and logic. Creation of universe has been claimed to be an achievement of the supreme God in almost all religions. But very interestingly even in a book of praise for Gods the Aryans didn't make such a claim without any skepticism. That's perhaps one of the earliest instances of an all inclusive forum where various thoughts and ideas, irrespective of their contradictions and divergence, are given equal space. That's perhaps the beginning of the 3500 years of Indian tradition of absorbing and assimilating all the people and languages and cultures who have come to India across the world through the ages. 

There is a reference to twelve months and 360 days of a year in another hymn. There's also reference to dance and gambling as forms of entertainment.

The last hymn of Rig Veda is really very unique. It speaks of unity among people. Though written some 3500 years back but still the message is so relevant even in today's world for every nation and people irrespective of their caste and creed and social status. There's nothing extra ordinary in this hymn of unity. But what attracts me most is the simplicity with which such an important and neccessary aspect of humity and mankind has been expressed. It's nice to know that people have been thinking of such issues since so long. It's one of the favorite Vedic hymns of Tagore. He had set it to a wonderful tune.

saṃ-samid yuvase vṛṣannaghne viśvānyarya ā | 
iḷas padesamidhyase sa no vasūnyā bhara ||  10.191.1

THOU, mighty Agni, gatherest up all that is precious for thy friend.
Bring us all treasures as thou art enkindled in libation's place

saṃ ghachadhvaṃ saṃ vadadhvaṃ saṃ vo manāṃsi jānatām | 
devā bhāghaṃ yathā pūrve saṃjānānā upāsate ||  10.191.2

Assemble, speak together: let your minds be all of one accord,
As ancient Gods unanimous sit down to their appointed share.

samāno mantraḥ samitiḥ samānī samānaṃ manaḥ saha cittameṣām | 
samānaṃ mantramabhi maṇtraye vaḥ samānena vohaviṣā juhomi || 10.191.3

The place is common, common the assembly, common the mind, so be their thought united.
A common purpose do I lay before you, and worship with your general oblation.

samānī va ākūtiḥ samānā hṛdayāni vaḥ | 
samānamastu vomano yathā vaḥ susahāsati ||  10.191.4

One and the same be your resolve, and be your minds of one accord.
United be the thoughts of all that all may happily agree.

It would be a great injustice to the finesse of Rig veda to associate it only with scriptures. Considering it just as a religious book like Bible or Qoran we would rip it off its literary value. It should be seen as a piece of literature too. It's no ordinary literature - it's the first available literature of the entire mankind. It's the manifestation of the realization, feelings and understanding of the people of an ancient age. It's a creative composition, which when attributed to humanity rather than divinity, has much more value than just assuming that those were God's word.

Another fascinating thing about the Rig Veda is the tradition of preserving the entire literature for over a millennium just by oral transmission across generations. The earliest script, Brahmi, was available in India only by 500 BC, more than a millennium after the Rig Veda came into existence. The book might have be first written even a millennium later, sometime during the Gupta period. Just think about the indigenous techniques that the Aryans would have perfected in order to preserve the literature for more than 2000 years.

One of the available manuscripts of Rig Veda is included in UNESCO's Memory of the World list as one of the four entries from India.

Along with Rig Veda, the other three Vedas - Yajur (about sacrificial worship), Sama (about songs for worship) and Atharva (about prayers) started taking shape respectively in the subsequent centuries. Rig Vedic period was still within Bronze Age, which continued in India till 1100 BC, when Iron Age started.

Other Rig Vedic Topics

Reference & Useful links
  1. Ancient India by Ramesh Chandra Majumdar
  2. The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia edited by George Erdosy
  3. Wikipedia
  4. 'Discovery of India' by Jawaharlal Nehru
  5. 'Argumentative Indian' by Amartya Sen
  6. Paper on Hinduism by Swami Vivekananda
  7. Rig Veda (in Devanagari)
  8. Rig Veda: English translation by Ralph T H Griffith
  9. Vedic Reader by Arthur Anthony Macdonell
  10. Rig Veda - The Rise of Aryan Power by Brij B Nigam
  11. Aryans in the Rig Veda by F B J Kuiper
  12. Complete Works of Vivekananda
  13. Dictionary of Ancient Deities