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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 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: contains sacrificial formulae
Also present separately was the Parishta (an appendix of
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
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.
A section of a manuscript showing the Vedas
The Kurukshetra from the Mahabharata
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.
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
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.
A scene from the Ramayana
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.  
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.
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
 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
 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 mouths).
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-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. 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
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,
 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, westwards via Gujrat,
and Rajasthan, and southwards through Karnataka.
 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.
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