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A Short History of India
By Gordon Kerr
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2017 Gordon Kerr
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The Indus Valley Civilisation
India has been inhabited since at least the Middle Pleistocene era, between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago, and tools have been discovered, possibly dating back some two million years, made by proto-humans in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent. It was home to some of the oldest settlements in South Asia and a number of its earliest civilisations. During the Neolithic period – beginning around 10200 BC and ending between 4500 and 2000 BC – there was extensive settlement on the subcontinent following the end of the last Ice Age. Semi-permanent settlements showing the earliest traces of human life have been uncovered in the Bhimbetka rock shelters in the modern region of Madhya Pradesh. These date back to 7000 BC and herald the beginning of the South Asian Stone Age.
Prior to the discovery of early settlements at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa in the 1920s, it had been thought that the Vedic Indo-Aryans had created the earliest culture on the subcontinent and the third of the major civilisations – after Egypt and Mesopotamia – of early humankind. The twentieth century discovery, however, proved that the Indus Valley Civilisation preceded the Aryans.
As is the case today, India was subject to flooding and it is likely to have been a flood that wiped out the first of the subcontinent's great civilisations. A series of floods of unknown origin are believed to have destroyed the work of agriculturalists who had been successfully growing cereals along the Indus. The key to their success was the management of the river's fluctuations, the seasonal rise of the river providing irrigation for their fields. They produced a surplus that had begun to stimulate trade and enabled a small-scale craft industry to prosper. Eventually, the settlements that had appeared developed into cities that vie with the contemporaneous societies of the Nile and the Euphrates for the title of 'the cradle of civilisation'. This civilisation was washed away sometime after 2000 BC by the waters and mud of the Indus. Indeed, it was forgotten until the twentieth century when Indian and British archaeologists discovered it while working at the ruins in Mohenjo-daro in Sind and Harappa in Punjab, Pakistan. They named it the 'Indus Valley Civilisation'. When it was later realised that this society stretched beyond the confines of the valley of the Indus, it was named the Harappan civilisation.
Much evidence of this people was brought to light, including tools, jewellery and artefacts that shed some light on their lives. It was learned that they traded by sea with Sumer in southern Mesopotamia. They also seem to have been able to write. Clay and stone tablets revealed symbols that were indicative of some kind of writing system that evolved into what is known as Indus Script. Sadly, however, the four hundred or so characters that were found have proved impossible to decipher. In fact, we know little of this society.
Harappa settlements have been found as far away from the Indus Valley as the Iranian frontier in Baluchistan and in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In India, sites have been uncovered in Gujarat, Rajasthan, the Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. Prevailing opinion does not hold that the Harappan culture was a uniform one with a central authority but its people's craft skills and their mastery of agriculture lingered on after the floods. Their skill at spinning and weaving cotton spread throughout the subcontinent until, by around 500 BC, it was practised everywhere. The Harappans may even have been the first people to use wheeled transport, although this achievement has been claimed on behalf of numerous others.
There are no grand structures at the Indus Valley sites, but supplying cities as big as Mohenjo-daro – which had around 30-50,000 inhabitants – would have taken a great deal of organisation and a sophisticated infrastructure. The largest structures at several of the sites appear to have been granaries in which surplus grain was stored. Trade was essential for survival and the further development of the culture. Bronze, tin and precious stones must have been imported as they cannot be found locally and it is clear that the peoples of Mesopotamia obtained commodities from the Harappans, including copper, gold, ivory and textiles. Harappan seals have been found in Sumerian sites, indicating documentation that might have accompanied shipped goods. The seals depict figures and symbols from this early civilisation. Tree deities have been recognised and a figure – sometimes known as Pashupati – seated in a cross-legged position that has been identified as bearing a resemblance to the Hindu god Shiva. It is sometimes called 'Proto-Shiva'. This figure has three heads, an erect phallus and is surrounded by animals.
The Harappans' demise left a void because, unlike other civilisations that went into decline, it was not replaced by another society. It simply vanished beneath the silt deposited by floods, leaving archaeologists with many questions but few answers.
During the second millennium BC, the semi-nomadic people that described itself in its literature as the Arya arrived in the northwestern plains, after sweeping through the mountain passes of Afghanistan. The Aryans left us the rich and important Sanskrit literary legacy, but there are questions as to whether they were, in fact, a distinct people. The Sanskrit epics are, of course, of vital importance to Hindus but, despite this, the Arya are a people that are not really revered. In fact, the term 'Aryan' appears nowhere in the literature and only emerged when Europeans began to study Sanskrit and its literature in the late eighteenth century.
In 1786, Sir William Jones (1746-1794), judge, philologist and founder of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, discovered links between Sanskrit and Greek, Latin, German and the Celtic languages. This important discovery led to the philological study of what became known as the Indo-European family of languages. People began to believe that a shared ethnicity existed, that perhaps a single race had engendered all civilisation.
From a homeland somewhere on the steppes of southern Russia and Ukraine, the Aryans had spread to Iran, Syria, Greece, eastern Europe and northern India. Their highly warlike activities are recorded in the ancient Sanskrit texts, the Vedas. British nineteenth-century colonials estimated that the Aryan race had spread throughout India and all that had been good in the subcontinent's culture and history could be ascribed to their influence. However, through time, Aryan purity had become diluted by the invidious nature of the climate and the pressures of India's social system. The arrival of the British had saved India from itself, they reckoned, bringing a superior civilisation and religion that would once again make India great. This was all somewhat disrupted in the 1930s by Nazi propaganda concerning the Aryan race.
Once it was thought that there was a gap of about 500 years, from the eighteenth to the thirteenth century BC, between the end of the Indus Valley Civilisation and the arrival of the Aryans. However, it is now believed that the interval between the two societies is not as clear-cut as that. Indeed, the Harappan way of life seems to have continued in some regions of South Asia right up to the Early Vedic period (c. 1500 BC) and there are traces – such as the keeping of horses – of early Indo-Aryan migrations into South Asia during the Late Harappan phase. This does not imply, however, that the early Indo-Aryans were direct ancestors of the later Rigvedic people. It seems that they were absorbed into the Indus civilisation and were probably responsible for the continuation of some elements of the Harappan civilisation such as the worship of animals and trees.
The first evidence of these people emerges from upper Mesopotamia and Anatolia where, around 1380 BC, a treaty was agreed between a king of the Mitanni who were based in northern Syria and southeast Anatolia and the Hittite ruler Suppiluliuma I (r. c. 1344-1322 BC). The treaty invoked Vedic gods. Sanskrit words have also been found in a horse-training manual excavated at the Hittite capital, Hattusa near the modern city of Bogazkale. However, this fact does not establish a direct connection between the Mitanni kingdom and the Vedic Aryans. It is more likely that at the same time as the Aryans were migrating from Central Asia to India – between about 2000 and 1400 BC – they were simultaneously migrating to West Asia.
The Vedic Aryans
The body of texts known as the Vedas is composed in Vedic Sanskrit and represents the oldest Sanskrit literature and the oldest Hindu scriptures. They are considered by Hindus to be apauruseya, which means that they were not composed by man but – to orthodox Indian theologians, at any rate – they are revelations experienced by ancient sages during periods of intense meditation. However, the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, ascribes the authorship of the Vedas to the Hindu deity, Brahma.
There are four Vedas – the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda. They were written between c. 1500 BC and 500 to 400 BC and were transmitted orally during the Vedic period and probably until around 1000 AD. The Rigveda is the earliest and largest of these texts. It contains a collection of 1,028 Vedic Sanskrit hymns dedicated to Rigvedic deities and 10,600 verses, in 10 books. Composed by priests and poets, the age of the Rigveda is still a matter for debate. Some say it was compiled over a period of at least 500 years – between around 1400 BC and 900 BC – while others say it was written between 1450 BC and 1350 BC or even between 1700 BC and 1100 BC. Rigveda translates as the 'Veda of Adoration' and it mostly contains verses in praise of deities, especially Agni (god of fire) and Indra (leader of the gods).
The Yajurveda is made up of archaic prose mantras along with some verses taken from the Rigveda. The mantras were each made to accompany an action in a sacrifice. The Samaveda is the Veda of chants, the Sanskrit word 'saman' meaning a metrical hymn or song of praise. It consists of 1,549 stanzas that derive entirely from the Rigveda. It was designed to serve as a songbook for the priests who took part in religious ceremonies. Atharvaveda translates as the 'Veda of the wise and the old'. Although compiled later than the Rigveda, the Atharvaveda seems to deal with a culture older than that of the Rigveda. It consists of 6,000 verses that make up 731 poems and a small prose section. About a seventh of its words derive from the Rigveda. The poems deal with the curative properties of herbs and waters as well as diseases and deities that cause them. It also discusses herbs and magic amulets that drive out disease. There are poems on the subject of sin and atonement, political and philosophical matters and a beautiful hymn to the goddess Prithvi, Mother Earth.
These texts reflect the development of Indo-Aryan culture from the time of their first migration into the northwest to their settlement of land in the Ganges valley and the creation of their first kingdoms. They are thought to give a reasonably reliable depiction of the life and history of the Vedic period, the Rigveda, in particular, proving a good source for information about the daily life of the Vedic Aryans. They were warlike, semi-nomadic pastoralists who engaged in cattle raids amongst themselves and against their enemies, known in the Rigveda and Arthashastra, a Sanskrit work on military strategy, as Dasa. They lived – when not on the move – in tribal settlements made up of several villages headed by a tribal chief. There were warriors known as kshatriya and priests known as brahma. Ordinary freemen were known as vish. Their success in battle against the indigenous population has been ascribed to the two-wheeled chariot they used but their conquest of the Indian plains was none the less a gradual one, slowed by the resistance of their opponents or perhaps by environmental conditions. Meanwhile, battles raged between the Vedic Aryan tribes. A battle is recorded near the River Hariyupiya close to the Afghan border and a couple of hymns in the Rigveda describe a 'Battle of Ten Kings', won by King Sudasa, leader of the Bharata tribe. Helped by Indra, he overcame enemies who tried to defeat him by destroying embankments that prevented flooding. Overall, plunder and pillage were common.
The Vedic Aryans extended their territorial possessions from the mountain passes of the northwest to the western area of the Ganga-Yamuna Doab, 'Ganga' being another name for the Ganges and the Yamuna being its second-largest tributary. For a period, the Saraswati River in the Punjab appears to have been the Vedic base and it was in such river-filled lands that they exchanged their nomadic lifestyle for a settled one, based on agriculture. Their battles were now fought over access to water or better land. With the jungles still being inaccessible at the time, the texts refer to 'the great struggle for water and sun' but the people now began to clear the forests and introduce irrigation schemes.
However, it would take the arrival of iron to control the forests effectively. It is mentioned in the Rigveda, in texts dating back to 1100 BC, and archaeologists agree that this was the date when the metal was first used in northwestern India. There is, as yet, little evidence of its actual use in clearing the forests, but it was certainly used by the Aryans in the manufacture of weapons. In the thousand years before the birth of Christ – the Late Vedic period – Aryan society developed, trade increased and crafts such as carpentry, potting and blacksmithing became established. Small principalities emerged and philosophical thought flourished. A class structure also emerged. We have already noted the separation into the societal segments of priests and soldiers. As the Aryans developed into farmers, they employed the local indigenous people to work for them. Varna – meaning colour – was what distinguished the locals from the Aryans and this soon began to mean 'caste', and was applied to the Aryans themselves. A late Rigveda hymn deals with these distinctions. It is of huge importance in the future stratification of Hindu society:
'When gods prepared the sacrifice with Purusha as their offering
Its oil was spring, the holy gift was autumn, summer was the wood
When they divided Purusha how many portions did they make?
What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?
The Brahman was his mouth, of both arms was the Rajanya [Kshatriya] made?
His thighs became the Vaishiya, from his feet the Shudra was produced.'
Thus was the place of the Brahmin priests secured at the pinnacle of society but the caste system would only take on its current importance at a much later date.
Even in the Early Vedic age, there were kings, some of whom were hereditary. They are to be found in Early Vedic texts but they were not allowed to act without consulting all the male members of the tribe or a council of eminent men. In fact, there were also tribes that were governed solely by such a council, without a king, an early example of a type of democracy, as has been noted by later historians. In the Late Vedic period, however, the king usually emerged not through a vote by tribespeople as before, but as a result of a power struggle amongst the nobles of the tribe.
The Late Vedic culture was rural and lacked any kind of planning or even fortifications. People generally lived in small settlements whose houses were of mud and wattle construction and there were no bricks. Blacksmiths and potters were at work by this time. Vessels have been found at various sites of the kind still in use today. Status and wealth were signified by cattle that provided milk, acted as beasts of burden and pulled the plough.
The 106,000 verses of the great epic, the Mahabharata, are traditionally said to have been written by the revered sage Vyasa who also features in the story as the grandfather of the two warring families. It provides information about the development of the Hindu religion between 400 BC and 200 BC and is viewed by Hindus as both a text about dharma (in Hinduism the rights, laws, conduct and correct way of living) and a history. It is a mélange of mythological and instructive material with, at its centre, the story of a power struggle between two groups of cousins – the Kauravas (sons of Dhritarashtra, a descendant of the mythical King Kuru) and the Pandavas who were the sons of Pandu, the great warrior king of Hastinapur.
Excerpted from A Short History of India by Gordon Kerr. Copyright © 2017 Gordon Kerr. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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