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A Brief History of India: Aryans

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 29 January 2011. Updated 16 August 2019

The term 'Aryan' or 'Arya' appears to be the oldest one known for Indo-Europeans.

They probably knew themselves as Arya plus a plural suffix, possibly '-na', producing Aryana. Apart from being preserved in the eponymous province of Aria in Central Asia, this was also retained in many Indo-European names such as Iran (Aryan). The word 'arya' meant the 'civilised' or 'respectable' according to general scholarly opinion, probably adopted as a response to neighbouring groups of foragers before any thoughts of outward migration had spread Indo-Europeans across two continents.

That branch of Indo-Europeans who became involved in affairs in India became known as Indo-Aryans, or Vedics thanks to their surviving writings, the Vedas.

In fact the term Indo-Aryan is considered to be language-specific rather than race specific. This page, rather than being a straightforward documentation of the generally-accepted arrival and progression of Indo-Aryans from the north-west, instead takes a look at competing ideas and ideologies within India which have produced an array of incompatible viewpoints about the Indo-Aryans.

Indo-Aryan origins

Some Indologists - and the prevailing international view of events - state that the Indo-Aryans (or Vedics) arrived in India at some point around 1500-1000 BC.

However a section of Indologists maintain Vedic existence almost as far back as 10,000 BC, although this assumption is based more on astronomical calculations than archaeological evidence. Some have theorised their findings on the basis of the Aitreya Brahmana text in Rigveda, and on the use of the positioning of the stellar constellations which are mentioned in the text.

Further conflicting theories are offered by several Orientalists regarding the rise of the Indo-Aryans. The prevailing 'Aryan Invasion' theory generally states that Indo-Aryans faced resistance in the form of the already-established non-Vedic groups in India, who were also known as Dravidas, Dasas, Dasyus, Panis, Mlechas, and so on, whom they eventually either subjugated or forced southwards.

A softer version of this theory has Indo-Aryans arriving more gradually and less violently - not so much an invasion (which was never fully meant in in the use of 'invasion' in the theory's title), more of a progression by these cattle-herding nomads.

There are various theories about where Indo-Aryans came from. They are claimed as hailing from the Caucasus mountains and the southern regions of Russia (put forward by Morgan and generally accepted as the mainstream view thanks to archaeology and linguistic analysis), Eastern Europe (as per McDonnell) or, most remarkably, the Arctic (put forward by B G Tilak). According to some, Indo-Aryans came from the north of Persia.

Some have pinpointed a region which was known as Aryanem or Aryana Vaejah as being the homeland of Indo-Aryans (more likely to have been a region on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea - see 'rulers' links). From there they were said to have divided and migrated to greener pastures. Some went to Persia, some towards Europe, some towards Bactria and some proceeded via the Hindu Kush mountains towards India.

Vedas manuscript
A section of a manuscript showing the Vedas which date back at least three thousand years, although surviving written forms are more recent

Their first stop in India was along the River Indus (Sindhu) and its tributaries such as the Drishadvati and the mythical Saraswati (Aryan concentration was said to be mainly along the River Saraswati but due to the constant shifting of the Indus, this river is no longer in existence). It is believed that the River Saraswati drying up is what forced the further migration of Indo-Aryans, southwards towards the Gangetic plains and from there towards eastern, central and western India.

There are of course other theories which conflict with this particular one.

Some believe that Indo-Aryans existed in India for thousands of years before the traditionally accepted date. Whether Indo-Aryans invaded (the Aryan Invasion theory) or migrated (the Aryan Migration theory) is also in contention. According to the Out of India theory, the Sapta Sindhu (Indus) region was in fact the original homeland of Indo-Aryans from where they migrated outwards in various directions, towards the Hindu Kush mountains, and further to Central Asia, some to Persia, from where they branched out to the Near East, and some further into India itself after the drying up of the Saraswati. Another branch proceeded towards Europe

Similarities are drawn between the Indo-Aryan tribes and the people of Europe on a linguistic basis. There are a lot of similarities between the Sanskrit language spoken by the Indo-Aryans and the basis of most modern European languages.

This was first proposed by Fillipo Sasseti and later by Sir William Jones in the Asiatic Society meeting in Calcutta in 1786. Sanskrit has words such as 'pitra' (father) and 'matri' (mother) which are similar to the Latin words 'pater' and 'mater', and the German word 'vater' and 'mutter'. Also alluding to their foreign origins was the description of the Vedic Indo-Aryans as light-skinned people (in their texts) in comparison to the non-Vedic people (dasas = other people, anis = cattle lifters, mlechas = barbarians), whom they mention as dark-skinned.

The Out of India theory states that Sanskrit is in fact the mother of all the Indo-European languages.

Indo-Aryans were divided into different tribes. Each tribe had a king. Wars between Indo-Aryan tribes were also quite common. There is an example in one King Sudas of the Tritsu tribe who fought off a confederacy of ten tribes. Wars were also fought to extract tribute. In war they used weapons which could include swords, spears, axes, bow and arrows, etc. They also used horses and chariots in war, a development of their early nomadic carts which made them a formidable force.

Indo-Aryan contribution

Indo-Aryans were warlike tribes which are credited with making several introductions into India such as the chariot (something which some believe Indo-Aryans created in India at a later date - a viewpoint which is completely unsustainable in view of archaeological findings and other records), the domesticated horse, and the major tenets of modern Hinduism.

Indo-Aryans as nomads

Indo-Aryans eventually gave up their nomadic lifestyle and settled down. They lived in wooden and bamboo dwellings. An early king, Prithu (probably of the Bharata tribe), was said to have cleared the forests to enable his tribe to settle down in that region.

Ganges Delta
The Ganges Plain saw the rise of the first northern Indian kingdoms from around the sixteenth century BC onwards

Indo-Aryan family customs

The Indo-Aryan family system was patriarchal, and yet women were not confined to a purely secondary role. Some women even rose to the stature of rishi, including Visvavara, Apala, Gargi, Maitreyi, and Ghosha. Polygamy was not uncommon, especially for people of higher social status. The life of a man was divided into brahmacharya (the first twenty-five years of his life, during which he is expected to remain with his teacher, work for him, and learn from him), grahasta (householder, between the ages of 25-50), vanaprastha (between the ages of 50-75, during which he is expected to live in the forests, retiring from his materialistic life and concentrating on philosophical meditation), and sanyas (where he lives alone as a hermit from the age of seventy-five until the end of his life).

Indo-Aryan rituals

In the later Vedic period certain yagnas or fire rituals came into existence, like the 'Rajasuya yagna' which was performed following the coronation of a king, and the 'Ashvamedha yagna', or horse sacrifice, which was performed to declare a king to be an emperor. [1]

Indo-Aryan dress

They wore two-piece clothing made of wool, animal skins or, later on, linen or cotton. They combed their hair and also wore headdresses. Many adorned themselves with jewellery, ornaments, beads, and trinkets.

Indo-Aryan entertainment

They enjoyed music, dance, and games such as dice (called dyoot), marbles, or balls. They also indulged in sports involving horses or bullocks, chariot races, bull fights, cock fights, archery, wrestling, and duels with weapons. They consumed alcoholic drinks including sura (a form of brandy made of corn and barley), and soma (a juice extracted from the soma plant, found mainly in and about modern Afghanistan). They even venerated soma as a deity. They believed in the basic concepts of karma, but were not fatalistic in their approach. They believed in living life to the full (an outlook which no doubt was born of the Indo-European philosophy of 'to be', a practical philosophy which gave them great strength both internally and in their external dealings).

Indo-Aryan occupation and trade

Agriculture was the main occupation of Indo-Aryans (besides trade, and cattle-herding). Indo-Aryans practiced the barter system and the cow was a principal standard of valuation and exchange.

Their diet consisted of rice, flour products, barley, beans and sesamun (a genus of annual or perennial herbs with edible seeds). They ate vegetables, fruits, and meat and consumed milk and milk products.

Indo-Aryan language

Indo-Aryans spoke languages which included Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, and others. Their scripts (which developed later) included Brahmi and Kharoshti.

Indo-Aryan administration

[1] Horse sacrifice had a strong tradition with the Indo-Europeans of Central Asia.

Governmental matters were discussed by an administrative body called the samiti in an assembly called the sabha. Amongst the royal officials were the purohita (the high priest), the senani (army general), the amatya (chief minister), and the gramani (head of the village). Then there were the doot (envoys), and spas (spies). Later, several other departmental posts came in existence including the samagrahitri (treasurer), the rathakara (chariot-maker), the suta (charioteer), kshattri (chamberlain), bhagadugha (tax collector) and, interestingly, even a superintendent of the dice (akshanapa).

Types of governance either involved the rajya-monarchies/kingdoms (where the king was the supreme head who ruled with the help of a council of ministers), or the gana sanghas-oligarchies (where a clan or a confederacy formed a council which concerned itself with administration). [2]

Indo-Aryan laws

Cattle lifting and robbery were principal crimes in Indo-Aryan society, whereby the guilty were tied to the stake.

Indo-Aryan gods

Indo-Aryans worshipped everything in nature which held power and had a definite effect on them, such as fire, wind, earth, lightening, and water. Amongst their early gods were Mitras, Dyaus, Nasatya, Indra (the god of rain and light), Marut (the god of lightening and thunderstorms), Parajanya (the god of rain, although earlier Indra was believed to be the sole god of rain), and Varuna (the god of the oceans and upholder of the moral code). Dyaus was said to be similar to his Greek counterpart, Zeus, but Indo-Aryans never had a king of gods as such, until after the Puranas when Indra held that position. The Vedas also mention Agni (the god of fire and food), Soma (the alcoholic drink), Usha (dawn), Surya (the sun), Aswins (twilight), Vayu (the wind), Prithvi (the earth), Brihaspati (prayer, although later Brihaspati is portrayed as the teacher of the gods), Chandra (the moon), and more.

There is also mention of Rudra (the vault of heaven, referenced as rudraprashna namak vibhaaga), today believed to be similar to Shiva (the destroyer) and Vishnu (the creator). Vishnu is mentioned ninety-three times in the Vedas, but more as Indra's friend and aide who assists him in his most arduous battles. Later Shiva and Vishnu were to acquire leading roles amongst the pantheon of gods while Indra and Varuna were sidelined.

The rishis (sages) prayed before 'Agni', the fire god, for purity of thought. They performed their rituals (chanted hymns) before a central fireplace called 'Agni kunda' or 'Havana kunda'. Temples for the gods were a later phenomenon.

[2] These gana sanghas were ruled either by a confederacy of clans (the Koliyas and the Mallas) or by a single clan (the Vrijis and the Shakyas). This form of governance appeared mostly in mountainous areas. Their ruling clans were Kshatriyas (warrior class). But some Brahman texts have denounced them as worse than shudras (the peasant class) for not adhering to the traditions of the Vedas. What is interesting is that these clans produced some great individuals who provided a different school of thought from that of the Vedic Brahmanism, such as the Vriji clan which produced Mahavira, who gave rise to Jainism, while the Shakya clan produced Gautama Buddha who started Buddhism.

There is also mention of a tusked god who was associated with Ganesha (the elephant-headed god of learning - he was interpolated in later epics like the Mahabharata as the one who actually wrote down the epic while its composer, Vyas, breathlessly recited it to Ganesha. However, it was in the Purana stage that Ganesha emerged as a primary god). Yama was similarly associated (he was mentioned in the Vedas as the first mortal to ascend to heaven and was duly made the god of the departed). Later on, gods such as Brahma (the creator) were added. The mother goddess also came to be reviled in various forms such as the Goddess Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva, who was also manifested in the shakti form as Durga, or Kali.

Then there was Goddess Laxmi (the goddess of wealth), consort of Lord Vishnu, Godess Saraswati (the river goddess and also the goddess of learning), consort of Lord Brahma - some also describe her as his daughter. After the Puranas, in the first century AD, mortal gods such as Rama and Krishna, who were heroic characters from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata respectively, came to be worshipped as the incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Even the cow came to be venerated as a mother goddess.

Interestingly, some of these gods, Indra, Varuna, and others, have found mention in the Avesta, the scriptures of the Zoroastrians - fire worshippers of early Iran. The Ahuras (the asuras of the Vedas) from the Avesta are considered to be the forces of good, while the Devas (the gods of the Vedas) are referred to as the forces of evil in the Avesta, which is an exact antithesis of the Vedas. [3]

A level of interchange has been found to exist between the letters 'h' and 's' in the Avesta and the Vedas. For example, in the Avesta, hepta hindu is the sapta sindhu of the Vedas, homa in the Avesta is the soma of the Vedas, daha is the dasas, and so on. The Aryas of the Vedas are referred to as the Arias in the Avesta. Evidence has even been found in a fourteenth century BC treaty between the Indo-European Hittites and the Indo-Aryan Mitanni who dominated northern Mesopotamia, where both kingdoms refer to gods such as Mitra (mentioned as Mitrasil), Indra (Indara), Nasatya (Nasatiana), and Varuna (Uruvanas) as their witnesses.

Even the non-Indo-European Kassites of Babylon mention gods such as Suria (Surya - the sun god in the Vedas), and Marutas (Marut - the thunder god in the Vedas). This all lends weight to the classification of both Zoroastrians and Indo-Aryans as peoples with a common ancestor. Little wonder then that, in later years when Zoroastrians faced persecution in Persia from radical Islamists, they sought refuge in India and are today one of the country's most integral groups of citizens, popularly known as the Parsi community (adulterated from the word 'Pharsi' or Persian - see external links for more detail).

[3] Varuna in the Avesta is called Ahura Mazda, their supreme god. The Avesta is assumed to be a first millennium BC treatise.


Main Sources

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



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.