«The Vedic Age, 1500-500 B.C. We ended the last lecture with the decline of the great cities of the Indus Valley and shift of populations east. ...»
The Vedic Age, 1500-500 B.C.
We ended the last lecture with the decline of the great cities of the Indus Valley and shift of
populations east. Harappa culture not characterized by strongly militaristic ethic. There was,
thus, no powerful military organization to confront the Indo-European language-speaking peoples
who journeyed through the passes of the mountains of Afghanistan in the mid-second millenium.
They were not turned back by the indigenous populations.
The Indo-European language-speaking peoples were from the same general group of people who entered what is now Iran and Greece, among other areas. Usually called Aryans, they were linguistically also part, then, of the Indo-European linguistic group which settled in northern Europe. In South Asia they settled first on the plains of the northwest.
The Aryans are best known today for their religious verses, the Vedas. This period of their cultural and political domination, the Vedic Age, is named after this sacred literature. Of the four Vedas--or collections of hymns--the Rig Veda is considered the oldest. Vedic literature was preserved for hundreds of years by oral tradition before it was written in Sanskrit, the language of the Aryans.
As I mentioned last week, the gods of the Aryans were not like the animals figures of the Harappans, but transcedent sky gods who actively helped them fight against their enemies.
These included both indigenous peoples and earlier immigrants to the area. The Vedic hymns were the verses recited, for the most part, at sacrifices to Aryan gods, which they called devas.
The devas represented and controlled the forces of nature, they were divine power. However, the powers which attracted the attention of the Aryans, when they came to South Asia, were the cosmic in nature--the sky, the sun, the order of nature itself. Their two most important sky gods were Varuna and Indra. Varuna was the guardian of the cosmic order, he created the world and ruled it by the standard of rita--the proper course of things. Rita provided a structure for the other celestial powers. Indra was the thunder god, famous for sucessful warfare and special champion of the Aryan warrior. He was a figure of paramount prestige and popularity, a model of what a warrior should be. These two gods were two sides of a divine rule--the active side (Indra) and the passive side (Varuna). They representated active intervention to over come obstacles and bestow bounty on men, and the eternal universal order. Varuna was to recede in importance, as the Aryans fought to secure a foothold in the northwest plains. The warrior Indra became the greatest of the devas.
At the sacrifices where Rig Veda hymns were recited, the devas were invited to come and sit around the sacrificial fire, to receive the hospitality of the Aryans who sacrificed animals in their honor. The priests of the Aryans attempted to incur the goodwill of the devas by singing them songs of praise. The composition of these hymns became confined to a small number of poetpriests who were considered inspired.
Because the Vedas were sacred and essential to the well-being of the Aryans, their priests developed special techniques to aid them in remembering the words to the hymns accurately and in teaching them to younger generations of priests. Most of what we know about the Aryans comes from the these hymns, though archeological excavations increasingly contribute information on Aryan settlements and the settlements of the other groups in north Indian society.
The Indo-Aryans were not originally agriculturalists. They were pastoral nomads, involved in cattle-rearing, cattle herding, breeding and capturing. A cattle raid was a common form of agression, a form of warfare. The Indo-Aryans were skilled in bronze metallurgy and weaponry and went to battle in highly effective two-wheeled chariots. Their clan structure--a patriarchal tribal structure--was an effective form for mobilization for combat.
The main themes of the lecture today are the great social and political transformations which took place in north India between 1500 and 500, B.C. These centuries correspond to the early and the late Vedic Age. During this period the Aryans moved out of the northwestern plains and into the Punjab and the Western Gangetic Valley. From the Western Gangetic Valley, about the year 1000, they shifted to the Middle and Eastern Gangetic Valley. Their society changed from tribal organization to caste organization and their polity changed from tribes ruled by elected chiefs to little kingdoms ruled for the most part by semi-divine kings--and then to larger monarchical states. Romila Thapar, an Indian historian who has written extensively on this period, calls the transition from "lineage to state." During this time the Aryans shifted their livelihood from nomad pastoralism to a combination of pastoralism and farming by 1000, and then, in the next five hundred years to agriculture and trade. This last transition is known as India's second urbanization. You remember that the Indus Valley civilization was the first urbanization. During this one thousand year period, as you might expect, Aryan culture became influenced by the cultures of the peoples whom they met in north India and we find, at the end of the period, the beginning of what we can recognize today as classical Indian culture.
Before going further, necessary to say a few words about clan organization, a segmented form of social organization. People in the same clan share a common social and political identity and believe that they have a common, founding ancestor, the person they originally descended from.
The Aryans were organized in descent groups which were patrilineages, lines of kin traced through male ancestors. Sets of patrilineages formed clans. Clans are exogomous, members of a clan cannot marry someone from the same clan. Daughters, circles on the chart which I have distributed, must marry out of the clan. In clan-based societies whom you are related to is a major political issue. Marriages are political events and the common way in which political alliances are formed Groups of clans among the Aryans formed entities usually called tribes. It has been common in the history of the world that tribal societies develop into more complex, state forms of organization. When this happens, clans play a considerably lesser role, often disappearing all together. Modern states, for example, are not formally organized around principles of kinship.
What is special with South Asian societies is that clans did not disappear, but became part of the organization of the occupational groups called castes. It is this special development that I hope to explain today.
In early Vedic society a tribe was called jana. The clans in a tribe were called vish. The leader of a lineage in a clan was a chief called a raja. You probably recognize the word raja, which came to mean king in Indian society.
The lineage chief, a raja of a clan, had the responsibility of organizing protection of his people and their cattle. This involved organizing the protection of the clan's herding areas.
The Aryans extended their settlements slowly in the early Vedic age. They fought the local peoples and they fought each other. They also had to protect themselves from later groups of Indo-Europeans who came after them and tried to seize their lands.
When a raja was successful in battle, he distributed the booty (the material rewards of battle) collected in ritual ceremonies where Aryan priests officiated. The priests claimed that their rituals gave success to the warrior activities. The heroic and chiefly ideal of generosity was important in the political culture of the Aryans and rajas attempted to manifest their superior geneosity by distributing cattle, horses, gold, chariots and female slaves to their followers.
The Aryans gradually entered into agricultural production, adopting agriculture along with their herding; however, clearing land for agriculture was difficult, because of the dense jungle and because they had not discovered iron. Copper and bronze implements were not effective. As they came into contact with the agriculturalists of the northwest plains and Punjab, Vedic Sanskrit began to incorporate features of indigenous languages-- elements of Proto-Dravidian (today the language group of south India) and Austro-Asiatic.
Fairly quickly Aryans began to call the people they encountered in north India dasus and dasyus and refered to them as dark-skinned. The society of the northwest and Punjab gradually became, to a certain degree, ethnically mixed. However, from the early period the Aryans recognized and accepted social heterogeneity, the existence of social differences, and they showed a tendency to institutionalize their conceptions of difference, conceptualizing groups into categories in a single hierarchical system. The first major conception of difference was distinguishing between the Arya varna and the dasa-varna. The word varna means color and probably refered to the difference in skin color between the fairer Aryans and the others. Other categories were, for example between their gods, the devas, and the dangerous powers, the asuras. Those who spoke Indo-Aryan/Indo-European were called Arya and all others were called mleccha. Mleccha as a category took on connotations of barbarian and suggested social impurity.
The Aryas eventually came to be divided, as we shall see, into brahmins (priests), kshatriyas (rulers and warriors) and vaisyas (wealthy agricultualists and merchants). They eventually adopted the term varna to describe their own groupings and called these three varnas the dvija, which means those initiated into Vedic ritual or the twice-born. The dvija became a category in which stood in contrast to a much lower status group which came to be called sudras, the impure peasants and artisans who worked for the vaisyas. The four varnas emerged fully in the late Vedic Age, though to what extent the varnas themselves developed the occupational categories of castes, groups within varnas, is not clear. Here we will trace the emergence of the four varnas.
We will see that, probably because of the nature of Aryan political adaptation to their new environment in South Asia, the clans of their tribal organization, did not dissolve in the development of a strong state administration. By the time a stronger state developed after 500 b.c., varna social organization had become widely institutionalized in north India. And the varnas themselves were made up into smaller descent groups in castes (known as jatis). Clans did not disappear, but became one aspect of the complex caste structure which developed in north India within the general categories of varna It was in the Punjab, in particular, that the Aryans made the transition to settled agriculture.
They cultivated the semi-arid lands of this region with river irrigation. The Aryans grew barley, rice and wheat in rotation. As they gradually shifted to settled agriculture they came to value land in a new way, it gained in value. Cattle had been the most important form of wealth to the pastoral nomads, but land came to be prized as a form of wealth and its control of its use was managed through in clan organization.
With the switch to agriculture, however, social organization became more stratified and clansmen became unequal in status. During the time of the composition of the Rig Veda, clans had begun to be divided into vish (ordinary clansmen) and rajanya, ruling families of warriors.
The rajas or lineage chiefs began to come for the most part from these families. Clan lands, however, were held in common by both groups, vish and rajanya. As I mentioned, there was no private ownership, but clan controlled rights of usage among their members.
The bifurcation in clan status increased, with status differences between lines descending from an older and and younger son, with higher status given to those who demonstrated leadership qualities--the ability to lead cattle, raids, to protect the clan, to establish new settlements, and to control alliances with other clans. The rajanya families were characterized as chariot-riders and warriors, while the vish were sedentary folk, producers of pastoral and agricultural items. They were the lesser status, junior lineages in clans and as such they had the obligation to give some of their product to the rajanyas and to priests and bards. They were to give the oblations--sacrificial items--which the priests offered at ritual ceremonies which the rajanya organized. The priests, which came to be known as brahmins, legitimized the superior status and authority of the rajanya at these rituals. (Brahmin is often also spelled Brahman.) They invest the chiefs with attributes of the dieties.
In the early Vedic period the clansmen placed a high value on common eating and the vish and the rajanya ate together. Later more distance developed.
With the increasing significance of agriculture and the growth of trade, power came to be based on greater control over the jana, the tribe, and its territory. The territory came to be named after a dominant rajanya lineage. The rajanyas, themselves, came to be divided into those lineages which were allowed to provide rajas and those who were not allowed to. Rajas, coming from the special lineages of ruling status, came to be known as kshatriyas, from the word for power, kshatra. Kshatriyas led in the settlement of new territories.
As the jana developed the desire to increase production in agriculture, the vish incorporated a new group into their agricultural organization, those who had fallen outside the lineage system, low-status Aryans, and the non-Aryan dasas. These people came eventually to be known as sudras. This lower status group came to include indigenous people with artisan skills. The historian Kulke have a theory to explain the emergence of the varna system: they argue that the pastoral, warrior culture Aryans did not have artisanal skills--only carpenters to mend chariots are mentioned in the early hymns. However, the newly agricultural people needed the skills which the indigenous people, heirs of the craft traditions of the Harappan culture, could provide.
Kulke argues that the Aryans did not want to relinquish their dominance, which was based on their military skills and relatively tight-knit social organization. They did not want to share their dominance with the dasus and dasyus and they kept them out by accepting them only as a lowstatus social category--as sudras. The latter were part of a society dominated by Aryans, but prevented from access to social and political power.