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A Brief History of India: Vedas

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 29 January 2011

The Vedas literally mean the supreme knowledge. The early Vedas were passed down from generation to generation by oral tradition. It was much later that a script was developed (such as the seventh century BC Brahmi script).

The earliest Veda we know of is the Rigveda. Though it is attributed around 2000-1500 BC, its quite possible that it was composed much earlier. The Vedas is not one book but a collection of texts written over a period of time. It has several authors called rishis (sages) who dwelt in the forests and composed these texts for the common man. They provided him with his philosophy and acted mainly as a blueprint for conducting his life.

The Vedas are categorised as follows:

  • Samahitas : contain hymns, chants, prayers, etc
  • Brahmanas: prose texts containing the meaning of the samahitas
  • Aranyakas and Upanishads: partly connected to the Brahmanas and partly separate works embodying the philosophical meditations of the sages

The samahitas are further classified as:

  • Rigveda: a collection of hymns
  • Atharveda: a collection of spells and charms
  • Samaveda: a collection of songs taken from the Rigveda
  • Yajurveda: contains sacrificial formulae

Also present separately was the Parishta (an appendix of the Samahitas).

Then there is another form of work called the Vedanga. The Vedangas are differentiated into six subjects: Shiksha (pronunciation), Chhandas (meter), Vyakrana (grammar), Nirukta (glossary), Jyotisha (astronomy), and Kalpa (regarding ceremonies).

Then there is another form of literature called the Sutras which consisted of a series of concise formulae. There were also the Upavedas: Ayurveda (medicine), Dhanurveda (military science), and Gandharveda (classical art).

Ramayana and Mahabharata

In Depth

The epic Ramayana was composed by the sage Valmiki, hundreds or possibly thousands of years prior to the Mahabharata. Dates vary for the Ramayana. Some say it occurred in the seventh or eighth century BC, while some have ascribed it to the fourth century BC. But this is very much in contention. On the shaky basis of astronomical data, some Indologists on maintain that the Ramayana actually took place 9000 years ago.

The Mahabharata was composed by the sage Vyasa, but there is a great deal of debate over its dating. The dates given are very different according to different sources: 1400-1000 BC for the Puranic literature, tenth century BC for the Basham, 836 BC - B B Lal, 3130-3102 BC - Aryabhata, and 2449 BC - Varahamira.

The Upanishads were initially called Vedanta, but later Vedanta came to be known as an interpretation of the Upanishads. Lots of sub-schools of thought sprang from Vedanta, such as Advaita (dualism), Dvaita (monism), Vishishtadvaita, Dvaitadvaita, and Shuddhadvaita.

Vedas manuscript
A section of a manuscript showing the Vedas

Amongst the latter texts were Panini's classical Sanskrit (a book on grammar) composed after 500 BC, and the Puranas, composed after the first millennium AD. Puranas such as the Vishnu Purana, Bhagwat Purana, and Vayu Purana also give us a great deal of insight into the Vedic period.

Varna system

Aryan society practiced what came to be known as the Varna system. It was mainly a division of professions which eventually created the caste system in India.

The basic classification in Vedic society were the brahmanas or the imbibers of the holy scriptures and its teachers, the kshatriyas or the warrior class that defended the region and its people, the vaishyas or the trader class, and the shudras or the labourer class.

Initially all Aryans were considered 'Dvija' or twice born and non-Aryans were 'Advija'. Later, the first three Aryan classes of society came to be 'dvija', the second birth being after a holy thread initiation ceremony called 'upanayana'. For non-Aryans to be included in the Aryan fold, they had to undergo an ceremony called 'Vratayastoma yagna'.

As per a Rigvedic hymn, the Brahmana was the mouth of God, the rajanyas or kshatriyas were his arms, the vaishya formed his thighs, while the shudras were his feet.

It is believed that the people who had been enslaved by the Aryans were later added to the shudra fold. They were mostly non-believers of the Vedas, known as the dasas, mlechas (barbarians), and the panis (cattle stealers). Later they came to form an untouchable class, a more impure class called chandalas.

Earlier there were instances when the shudras could attain higher status, even that of brahmana. The sage Valmiki was one such example. Then there is an example of Sage Vishwamitra, a kshatriya who became a Brahman. But later the caste system became extremely rigid and some shudras were reduced to the lowest echelons of Aryan society. Ages later they came to be known as the dalits.

It should be noted that the Aryan religion can be called the Vedic religion, but it is not Hinduism as we know it today. Hinduism as such is a western name given to what were actually diverse philosophies that included the Vedic religion (in which the Vedas were considered supreme), Shaivism (in which Shiva is the supreme god), Bhagwatism (in which Vishnu is the supreme god), Advaitism (monism), Dvaitism (dualism), Tantra (the esoteric worship of Shakti and Shiva), Nastika / Charvaka / Samkhya / Mimansa (atheist philosophies), plus Ajivika, Jatilaka, and so on. [1] [2]

Early Aryan society was not very dogmatic. All philosophies coexisted and were debated.

The word 'Hinduism' is derived from the word 'Hindu' which was used to describe the people living beyond the River 'Indu' or 'Sindhu' (the Indus). The people from the far west of India (Persia and beyond) referred to the people of 'Indu' as 'hindu'.

Jainism and Buddhism

In the last millennium BC offshoots from the Vedic line of thinking emerged. These mainly involved Jainism, which was started by Vardhamana Mahavira, and Buddhism, which was started by Gautama Buddha.

These offshoots negated the hegemony of the Vedas and the Brahmanas of Vedic Brahmanism and adopted newer customs and rituals. Both stressed non-violence, purity of thought, control over desires, meditation, and the shunning of the Varna (caste) system. These ideas gained popularity, mainly amongst the non-Brahmana community, and were also patronised by several kings.

[1] Astika simply means a belief in the Vedas while Nastika means non-belief. But belief in the Vedas was later considered to be synonymous with a belief in god.

[2] Shaivism and Bhagwatism gained popularity due to their non-adherence to many of the principles of Vedic Brahanism and their belief in social equality.

Later a divide appeared in Jainism, with the appearance of sects such as that of Digambara (formed by the followers of Bhadrabahu using the original teachings of Mahavira, the monks renounced all materialistic things including garments), and Shvetambara (formed by the followers of Sthulabhadra, the monks were dressed in white and even wore a mask to cover their mouths).

Similarly after the death of Gautama, Buddhism segregated into Hinayana (those who believed in the original teachings of Buddha and did not venerate Buddha as God), Mahayana (propogated by Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasubandhu, etc, who worshipped Buddha as God and believed in the Bodhisatvas, vis--vis the incarnations of Buddha who had not attained Buddhahood), and Vajrayana (which added tantric/esoteric beliefs to Buddhism). [4]

But eventually they were reconciled with the concepts of Hinduism and even adopted several Hindu gods. Though Mahavira remained sceptical about the concept of God, his later followers came to accept Mahavira as a god's incarnation along with twenty-three of his predecessor tirthanaras (prophets). [5]

Buddhism spread to all corners of the world. While Hinayana found followers in China, Japan, Afghanistan, central Asia, etc, Mahayana spread through Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. Vajrayana came to be followed in Bengal and Bihar in India, plus Tibet, Mongolia, and further.

[3] The term 'Jain' is derived from the word 'Jina' which means a conqueror of one's passions.

[4] Jainism spread through the east mainly via Bihar, Bengal, and Orissa, westwards via Gujrat, and Rajasthan, and southwards through Karnataka.

[5] Only two of these tirthankaras, Mahavira and Parshwa (born two or three centuries earlier) have a historical basis, while the rest are considered to be mythological.


Main Sources

Majumdar, R C - Ancient India, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Ltd, 1987

Prasad, L - Studies in Indian History, Cosmos Bookhive, Gurgaon, 2000

Thapar, Romila - Penguin History of India, Volume 1, Penguin Books, London, 1990



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.