Tuesday, April 28, 2020

1700-900 BCE : Liberal views in Vedic India

Vedas and liberal Indian views

Vedic texts shows a people who were very liberal in their outlooks and also extremely open to new ideas, thoughts and gods. I would like in this post to celebrate this plurality of views and acceptance of various cultures, gods, religions etc. To start with they were open to multiplicity of world views or theistic paths each leading to same goal. This in no way means it was devoid of contentious issues around equality and patriarchal leanings that is in conflict with today's liberal world view.

The oft quoted Poem of the Primeval Man, Purusha Sukta (RV-Rig Veda,  10.90)  which many thinkers believe laid down the seeds of the class system in India, is one such controversial one. Right wing thinkers in India though believe it puts down roots of varna and not "jati" or caste, which they often attribute to latter British rules. (NB: I prefer not to comment on it since its difficult to prove one way or the other; suffice to say I find the right wing view less palatable; I do believe though that Mandalas 1 and 10 were added later to RV)

Focus for me is to provide few examples of plurality of thoughts in Vedas rather than establishing that everything written in Veda is gospel and is beyond criticism.

RV 1.164

They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and he is heavenly noble-winged Garutman.
To what is One, sages give many a title - they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan. 

Note : Garutman is a celestial bird, sometimes conflated with Sun or even Garuda (appearing in post Vedic texts as celestial bird, possibly the vehicle of Vishnu). This is the only vedic verse that I've seen where "she" is put at an equal footing with major gods.

More importantly the vedas themselves famously were curious about existence of God. India had  the only stone age civilization that had atheist / agnostic views about a supreme power and was open to asking the deep questions of existence and even doubting if "God", if she existed, was indeed omniscient. (Some might say they even had prescience of a big bang at the start of creation  ;)!)

RV 10.129 (Famously known as the nasadiya sukta, Hymn of creation)

Then was not non-existent nor existent: there was no realm of air, no sky beyond it.
What covered in, and where? and what gave shelter? Was water there, unfathomed depth of water?
Darkness there was: at first concealed in darkness this, All, was indiscriminated chaos.
All that existed then was void and form less: by the great power of Warmth was born that Unit.

There were begetters, there were mighty forces, free action here and energy up yonder
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.
As we move down to Aranyaks, especially Upanishads, it becomes all the more clearer - where every one is in every one else and all are linked to the same universal truth. Upanishad, which many (me included) believe is the "throbbing heart" of Hinduism, pictures a universe where all religions, race etc live in harmony with feeling of oneness and mutual respect for each other's "Paths", including agnosticism or atheism.

But even at the Samhita level (the earliest of compositions) Indian thought was pluralistic in nature and made leeway for respecting counter cultures, thoughts and ideas of (or even lack of) god. 

Saturday, April 25, 2020

1700-900 BCE: Vedas are composed (Samhitas)

1700-1500 BCE: 
Rig Veda composed. Oldest known Sanskrit text. 1028 poems structured around 10 mandalas (2-9 probably predating 1 and 10) 

1200-900 BCE: The Aryans compose 3 other vedas – Yajurveda (further sub divided into Shukla- white- and Krishna - Black), Samaveda, Atharvaveda

The Indians settled around the 5 rivers of Punjab "hears" the Rig Veda. Vedas (Sankrit for Knowledge) are first of a set of epics that are seen by men of wisdom (Rishis who are manthra drashta, Rishi is from root Dris, meaning to see) - these are Apaurusheya (not of men). Idea being that the rishis got Vedas directly from a non human source (e.g. God). 

The Vedas constitute "Shruti" set of early Indian literature - Shruti is “that which has been heard” and is canonical, consisting of revelation and unquestionable truth, and is considered eternal having been "seen" by gifted priests directly from god. 

Simplistically, the 4 Vedas contain hymns, methodology of ritual, mode of singing hymns, charms for everyday purpose etc

Rig Veda : consists of hymns of praise to the various Vedic gods (Indra, Agni, Soma, Varuna ) primarily, but also some ritual detailing (eg. horse sacrifice)

Sample hymn to Agni (Lord of Fire, core to any sacrifice to accept oblations from humans ) ; Surprisingly in the below hymn, Agni is called "guard of law eternal" which is typically associated with god Varuna

Whatever blessing, Agni, thou wilt grant unto thy worshipper,

That, Angiras, is indeed thy truth.
To thee, dispeller of the night, O Agni, day by day with prayer
Bringing thee reverence, we come
Ruler of sacrifices, guard of Law eternal, radiant One,
Increasing in thine own abode.
Be to us easy of approach, even as a father to his son:
Agni, be with us for our wealth.

Yajur veda : consists of methodologies for rituals and sacrifices, which mantra to sing for which Yajna (ritualistic sacrifice) ; Krishna Yajur Veda (older of the two) is a mix of prose and poems. Shukla Yajurveda, like all other vedas are fully metrical (composed in poetic metrics). These include practical aspects of preparing for yajna (sacrifice) like preparing ground for fire, kindling of fire, layers of bricks for altar, placing of fire in fire pan etc. 

Mantra for the Soma Sacrifice (Metric, in poem)

May I the waters wet (thee) for life,
For length of days, for glory.
O plant, protect him.
Axe, hurt him not.
Obedient to the gods I shear these.
With success may I reach further days.
Let the waters, the mothers, purify us,
With ghee let those that purify our ghee purify us,
Let them bear from us all pollution,
Forth from these waters do I come bright, in purity.
Thou art the body of Soma, guard my body.

Sacrificial ritual sample from Krishna Yajur Veda in Prose form

He who desires food should offer a brown (beast) to Soma; food is connected with Soma; verily he has recourse to Soma with his own share; he bestows food on him; verily he becomes an eater of food. It is brown; that is the colour of food; (verily it serves) for prosperity.

He who is seized by evil should offer (a beast) with a spot on the forehead and horns bent forward to Indra, the overcomer of enemies ; the enemy is the evil; verily he has recourse to Indra, the overcomer of enemies with his own share, and he drives away from him the enemy, the evil. 

Sama veda : methodology of singing the hymns contained primarily in Rig Veda with very little that is not in RV. 

Atharva veda : consisting primarily of hymns & charms for every day life (winning lover, removing disease, long life, charms against evil etc). 

Sample : Charm to win love of a woman
1. As the creeper embraces the tree on all sides, thus do thou embrace me, so that thou, woman, shalt love me, so that thou shalt not be averse to me!

2. As the eagle when he flies forth presses his wings against the earth, thus do I fasten down thy mind, so that thou, woman, shalt love me, so that thou shalt not be averse to me.
3. As the sun day by day goes about this heaven and earth, thus do I go about thy mind, so that thou, woman, shalt love me, so that thou shalt not be: averse to me.

Special note on horse

The vedic people had huge centrality for horses - on one side it was their main animal of movement. They moved about since the horse eats grass from roots (unlike say cow) and hence need vast expanses. On other side, it was also sacrificial beast. Very detailed instructions on how to sacrifice, how to build sacrificial altars, how to put agni in the altar, how to offer oblations etc are part of vedas.

The horse sacrifice was important and probably the largest, most well attended ritual among the people mandating details on how it needs to be conducted (RV, 1.162)

The robe they spread upon the Horse to clothe him, the upper covering and the golden trappings,
The halters which restrain the Steed, the heel-ropes,-all these, as grateful to the Gods, they offer.

The four-and-thirty ribs of the. Swift Charger, kin to the Gods, the slayer's hatchet pierces.
Cut ye with skill, so that the parts be flawless, and piece by piece declaring them dissect them.

They who observing that the Horse is ready call out and say, the smell is good; remove it;
And, craving meat, await the distribution, -may their approving help promote labour.

May this Steed bring us all-sustaining riches, wealth in good kine,good horses, manly offspring.
Freedom from sin may Aditi vouchsafe us: the Steed with our oblations gain us lordship!

Friday, April 24, 2020

2000-1500 BCE : Indo-european assimilation in India and start of the Vedic era

2000-1500 BCE

Even as the Indian subcontinent witnesses a rapidly growing and then equally rapidly declining civilization around the Indus river, a group of pastoralists from the Central Asian steppe region (probably in today's Kazakh, Uzbekistan etc) begin their epic westward migration to Northern Europe, upto Ireland. Further on, some of them (classified now as Indo-Iranians) comes down the Steppe mountains, across Hindu Kush ranges into north western India bringing with them Indo European family of languages to Indian sub continent. 

Indian subcontinent forms one of the eastern most boundary of Indo European languages brought by these people. 

It is clear there was some cultural and spatial intermixing between the sophisticated IVC peoples and these mountain dwelling nomads from up north who we can call Aryans (A word they call themselves in their initial body of literature starting with the Vedas) or  Vedic people (since they are known for some of the highest quality literature of those times, albeit oral, named Vedas which forms the bedrock of Hinduism, for want of a better word though current Hinduism has only little to do with Vedic religion of these people) 

These new comers are unlikely to be same people as those who populated the Indus valley civilisation - IVC had a structured city life, agriculture of a  very high order etc, while the new comers were nomadic, horse born pastoralists.  Proto vedic people knew of Horses - something integral to their livelihood and movements in the hills, something clearly not prevalent in IVC. Since no Indian bloodline of horses exist, these were likely brought in from the central Asian plains which formed their former homes. IVC people also probably imported some horses given their extent of trading, however, none of their seals ever show horses these were likely not central to IVC people as they were for the vedic people.  

Their mythology compares favorably with structure of myths across all Indo-European cultures and includes
1. Myths around agriculture / water for lands
2. Myths around cattle raiding (Cattle being a key aspect of pastoralist lifestyle)
3. Dragon slaying myths (e.g. Indra kills dragons, like many other gods of Indo European stable)

However, it is worth noting that  most scholars discount the Aryan Invasion theory (that the steppe pastoralists invaded NW India decimating IVC and all local natives) as racist bunkum. All evidence currently points to a gradual assimilation of the new immigrants with locals to form a rich cultural heritage that is the bedrock of most of the Indian culture and religion that we know today. Fact that it was an assimilation is proven by the fact that many of the tools, pottery and material artifacts of the IVC period was widely used by the Aryans in India post their inter mixing. On the other hand, the counter narrative pushed by Indian right wing that vedas/ Aryan culture were all wholly created by people who were natives in Indian lands have also been found unworthy of discussion. 

1700-1500 BCE

The proto-vedic people of northwestern India, after assimilating and inter mixing with local people, namely the IVC people and other natives already living in India - Dravidians - Ancient Ancestral South Indians aka AASI, moves further south and east to settle in the lush green plains of today's Punjab in northern India (land of 5 rivers)

Here in the bountiful banks of these rivers, they settle down and creates the first major literary epic of India - Rig Veda in an Indo European language Sanskrit - one of the oldest languages known to humans along with Egyptian, Sumerian etc. 

However, Sanskrit clearly assimilated with existing languages in India. Sanskrit, even the earliest in Rig Veda, has retroflex consonants (tta, Na, da etc) which are absent in Indo European languages but exist in pre Aryan Indian languages like Dravidian especially Tamil, the world's oldest language which is still spoken. This clearly shows a deep assimilation of the Aryans with pre-Aryans like Dravidians. 

However, there are many similarities even today across Indo-European languages. 
Example, pashu in Sanskrit has same root as pecus (Latin), impecunious (English, out of cow or out of money, since in olden days cattle was wealth)
Pada (Sanskrist) for feet, pedis (Latin),

Deva (Sanskrit), deus (Lating), divine (English) 

Thursday, April 23, 2020

1900-1700 BCE: The end of Indus valley civilization

2000-1700 BCE 

The great civilisation build one of the largest agrarian societies of those times. It also meant they depended heavily on waters of Indus and other rivers like Saraswati. They were also dependent on the two major rains - monsoons - to rain fed their cultivation. Due to a set of multiple probable reasons, the mighty civilization started declining around the year 2000 BCE.

The unraveling of the urban structure disintegrated the civilization though the population survived - broken down into smaller villages/settlements which were much less sophisticated. Driven away from the centre of the IVC areas due to likely famine and diminishing food surpluses, these post Urban inhabitants would go down as the unwritten footnote of a once thriving urban centre. Standardization across hundreds of miles was replaced by regional variations across the settlements.

While the IVC was declining, a new set of people from central Asia begins slowly settling in at its borders, with time moving inwards and inter mixing with late IVC people to begin the germination of a new population that will play an integral role in the Indian subcontinent - across culture, language, religion. These steppe pastoralists not only interacts with remaining set of IVC people, but also moves further east and south into India and meets the native peoples of the land. 

4000-1900 BCE: Indus valley civilisation (IVC) - the beginning of a new era

6000-7000 BCE: Agriculturalists from Zagros region of today’s Iran (eastern extent of the then Mesopotamian civilization) likely mixes with South Asian Hunter Gatherers in North Western India. They start and grow agricultural practices and further domestication of wild animals. 

We know what they grew. What did they speak ? Probably one of the languages could have been proto-Elamite family of languages including proto- Acadian (These languages has some linkages to present day Dravidian languages of India especially Tamil). 

Elamite was Zagros urban civilization originating around 2500 BC. Indus valley civilisation would latter export Sesame to Mesopotamia / Zagros – Acadian (proto Elamite language) and Dravidian language have same word for Sesame, Ellu.

4000-3000 BCE

They push further ahead on agriculture and trade with Mesopotamia. The surpluses thus generated helps lay the foundation for one of the greatest, most well structured and sophisticated societies of its time by around 4000 BC - the Indus Valley civilization (IVC)  -thus named after the river Indus around which many of its settlements are found. The alluvial, fertile soil of Indus valley helps create huge agri surpluses, leading to establishment of major urban centres like Harappa (Indus upstream) and Mohenjo Daro (lower Indus) by 2900-3000 BC. 

 Similar to other neolithic civilization (Egyptian around river Nile, Mesopotamian around Tigris-Euphrates) originated and grew around a semi arid region - which meant no iron tools were needed to cut dense trees to build their cities while at the same time the river helped in irrigation and fertilizing the plains. 

3000-1900 BCE

Indus valley civilisation peaks around 2900-1900 BC. They establish trade routes with Egypt and Mesopotamian region (the region between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in current Iraq). They had well established, well planned urban centres, underground draining systems, houses with wells and bathrooms. They grew wheat and barley, had dogs, cats, sheep/goat, fowls as pets. 

At its peak, IVC was home to 4-5 Million people - by far the largest civilization of its time (more than sum of Egypt and Mesopotamia) and in size comparable to one-third of today's India. This would easily be more than one-forth of the total global population which was around 15-25 Mn at this time. They had time for art and sculpture. Had complex writing that is still undecipherable. 

7000 BCE: Start of proto-agriculture in India

7000 BCE: 

Around 7000 BCE - 8000 BCE, first agriculture in Indian subcontinent starts likely in Baluchistan, in current Pakistan. Enterprising proto-farmers start cultivating Barley as main crop. This crop is supported by Wheat & Cotton. They also have some domestication of goats and sheep. 

Meanwhile, towards their south-east in the alluvial gangetic plains (in UP, India) there is indeed rice harvesting on an ongoing basis - well fed by the river Ganga. However, it is wild rice with no proof of a structured cultivation. This meant no rice-based society emerges - rice cultivation is much more complex than wheat and would need a more sophisticated society to run it. The subcontinent still populated largely by South Asian Hunter gatherers and hence a high level social intervention for rice cultivation still lacking. 

Monday, April 20, 2020

35,000 years ago : Indian staged dispersal (ISD) and emergence of India as centre

~35,000 years ago: With the decline and eventual rapid disappearance of Neanderthals, modern humans takes control of the entire sub-continent, in line with similar changes sweeping Europe and rest of Asia. 

ISD (Indian staged dispersal) which has been happening over many decades since the OOA migration reached Indian north - western shores, meant that the modern humans (who were part of OOA Group) is now well dispersed across the Indian sub continent. Unlike in Europe, or even Americas, the new migrants did not discover an uninhabited land that they could quickly populate and settle in. They met and likely had tiffs / fights over access to land and resources with existing inhabitants (pre-Homo Sapiens) of Indian subcontinent. Hence it took ~25-30,000 years for dispersal and replacement of native homo species by OOA migrants. Finally around 35,000 years ago the area is fully populated only by modern humans. Other homo species goes extinct without much of fossil evidence. Ancestry of this first Indians is predominant even today among current population of Indian subcontinent (50-65 percent)

Lethal weaponry originates – much improved from previous Homos. Fertile lands of India forms one of the largest centres in the universe with largest agglomeration of modern humans.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

70,000 years ago : Out of Africa Migration

70,000 years ago: Out of Africa (OOA) migration starts. First homos (most likely homo sapiens) from Africa journeys to Asia and Arabian peninsula. Over the next thousands of years this first sapiens populated the whole of non Africa world bringing to bear a new horizon in our special planet - a new wave of erect walking, tool using, hairless, intelligent species. 16,000 years ago finally they populates Americas. 

First Indians as we know today, are part of these OOA migrants, passing through Arabian peninsula before reaching India and then moving on to China and as far away as Australia. Approximately 50-60,000 years ago they would have populated Indian peninsula. They likely met, around the shores, many homo species but likely no homo sapiens. These homo species were using stone tools well before the Africans reached Indian shores - but likely these Hominins were less intelligent and less sophisticated. They probably made love to each other creating the first diversity in Indian subcontinent.

There is of-course a debate around whether the modern humans OOA migration into India happened much earlier (pre-Toba volcanic eruption). There is increasing evidence of the same in recent works.