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A Brief History of India: Vedas
by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 29 January 2011
The Vedas literally mean 'supreme knowledge'.
The early Vedas were passed down from generation to generation
by means of oral tradition. It was only much later that a script was
developed (such as the seventh century BC Brahmi script).
The earliest Veda we know of is the
Rigveda. Although it is attributed to a date of creation of
around 2000-1500 BC, its quite possible that it was composed much
earlier. The Vedas is not one book but a collection of texts
which were recorded over a period of time. It has several authors,
known as rishis (sages) who dwelt in the forests and who
composed these texts for the common man. They provided people with
their common philosophy and acted mainly as a blueprint for conducting
The Vedas are categorised as follows:
Samahitas: these contain hymns, chants,
Brahmanas: prose texts containing the
meaning of the samahitas
Aranyakas and Upanishads:
partially connected to the Brahmanas and partially separate
works which embody the philosophical meditations of the sages
The samahitas are further classified as:
Rigveda: a collection of hymns
Atharveda: a collection of spells and
Samaveda: a collection of songs taken
from the Rigveda
Yajurveda: containing sacrificial
Also present separately was the Parishta (an
appendix for the Samahitas).
Then there is another form of work which is known
as the Vedanga. The Vedangas are differentiated into
six subjects: Shiksha (covering pronunciation), Chhandas
(meter), Vyakrana (grammar), Nirukta (glossary),
Jyotisha (astronomy), and Kalpa (regarding ceremonies).
On top of that there is another form of literature
which is known as the Sutras which consisted of a series of
concise formulae. There were also the Upavedas: Ayurveda
(medicine), Dhanurveda (military science), and Gandharveda
The epic Ramayana was composed by the sage,
Valmiki, hundreds of years prior to the Mahabharata. Dates
vary for the Ramayana. Some say it was composed in the seventh
or eighth centuries BC based on remembered events, while some have
given it a fourth century BC date of composition. No full agreement
exists on a preferred date. What's more, on the shaky basis of
astronomical data, some Indologists maintain that the Ramayana
was actually composed nine thousand 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, the tenth century
BC for the Basham (or 836 BC by B B Lal), 3130-3102 BC for
the Aryabhata, and 2449 BC for the Varahamira.
The Upanishads were initially referred to as
the Vedanta, but later Vedanta came to be known as an
interpretation of the Upanishads. A good many sub-schools of
thought sprang up from the Vedanta, such as Advaita
(dualism), Dvaita (monism), Vishishtadvaita,
Dvaitadvaita, and Shuddhadvaita.
A section of a manuscript showing the Vedas, written down
over the course of several centuries after being composed and
maintained through oral tradition
The Kurukshetra from the Mahabharata
Amongst the latter texts were Panini's classical Sanskrit (a book
on grammar) composed at some point after 500 BC, and the
Puranas, which was composed after the beginning of 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.
Indo-Aryan society practiced what came to be known
as the Varna system. This was mainly a division of professions which
eventually created the caste system in India.
The basic classification in Vedic society involved
the brahmanas or imbibers of the holy scriptures and its
teachers, the kshatriyas or warrior class which defended the
region and its people, the vaishyas or trader class, and the
shudras or labourer class.
Initially all Indo-Aryans were considered as being dvija or
twice born, and non-Indo-Aryans were advija. Later, the first
three Indo-Aryan classes of society all came to be dvija, with
the second 'birth' coming after a holy thread initiation ceremony called
the upanayana. For non-Indo-Aryans to be included into the
Indo-Aryan fold, they had to undergo an ceremony called the
As dictated in 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 Indo-Aryans were later added to the shudra fold. They
were mostly non-followers (or believers) of the Vedas, known
as the dasas, mlechas (barbarians), and panis
(cattle stealers). Later they came to form an untouchable class, a
more impure class called chandalas.
Earlier there were instances in which 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 Indo-Aryan society. Ages later
they came to be known as the dalits.
A scene from the Ramayana
It should be noted that Indo-Aryan religion can be
referred to as 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.  
Early Indo-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
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.
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
 Shaivism and Bhagwatism
gained popularity due to their non-adherence to many of the
principles of Vedic Brahanism and their belief in social
Another scene from the Ramayana
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
Similarly, following the death of Gautama, Buddhism
segregated into Hinayana (those who believed in the original teachings
of Buddha and did not venerate Buddha as a god), Mahayana (propagated
by Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasubandhu and others who worshipped Buddha as
a god and who believed in the Bodhisatvas, vis-à-vis the incarnations
of Buddha who had not attained Buddhahood), and Vajrayana (which added
tantric/esoteric beliefs to Buddhism). 
But eventually they were reconciled with the concepts
of Hinduism and even adopted several Hindu gods. Although 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). 
Buddhism spread to all corners of the world. While
Hinayana found followers in China, Japan, Afghanistan, and Central
Asia, 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 afield.
 The term 'Jain' is derived
from the word 'Jina' which means a conqueror of one's passions.
 Jainism spread through the
east mainly via Bihar, Bengal, and Orissa, heading westwards via Gujrat,
and Rajasthan, and southwards through Karnataka.
 Only two of these
tirthankaras, Mahavira and Parshwa (born two or three centuries
earlier) have any historical basis, while the rest are considered
to be mythological.
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