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A Brief History of India: Aryans

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 29 January 2011. Updated 29 January 2017

The term 'Aryan' is a Western take of the word 'Arya', which simply means 'noble one'.

This group of people can also be called Vedics, or the people who believe in the Vedas, their holy scriptures. In fact the term Indo-Aryan is considered to be language specific rather than race specific.


Some Indologists believe that the Aryans (Vedics) came to 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 text, Aitreya Brahmana of the Rigveda, and on the use of the positioning of the stellar constellations mentioned in the text.

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

There are various theories about where the Aryans came from. They are claimed as hailing from the Caucasus mountains and the southern regions of Russia (put forward by Morgan), Eastern Europe (as per McDonnell) or, most remarkably, the Arctic (put forward by B G Tilak). According to some, the Aryans came from the north of Persia. Some have pinpointed a region which was known as Aryanem Vaejah as being the homeland of the Aryans. 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.

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 the 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 the Aryans existed in India for thousands of years before the traditionally accepted date. Whether the 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 the 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 Middle East, and some further into India itself after the drying up of the Saraswati. Another branch proceeded towards Europe.

Vedas manuscript
A section of a manuscript showing the Vedas

In Depth

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 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.

The Aryans were divided into different tribes. Each tribe had a king. Wars between 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 including swords, spears, axes, bows and arrows, etc. They also used horses and chariots in war.

Aryan contribution

The Aryans were warlike tribes and are credited with making several introductions into India such as the chariot (something many believe the Aryans created in India at a later date), the domesticated horse, the major tenets of modern Hinduism, etc.

Aryans as nomads

The 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 forest lands enabling his tribe to settle down in that region.

Aryan family customs

The Aryan family system was patriarchal, yet women had no 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 25 years of his life, during which he has to stay with his teacher, work for him, and learn from him), grahasta (householder, between the ages of 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 75 until the end of his life).

Aryan rituals

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

Aryan dress

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

Aryan entertainment

They enjoyed music, dance and games such as dice (called dyoot), marbles, or balls. They also indulged in sports involving horses, bullocks, chariot races, bull fights, cock fights, archery, wrestling, and duels with weapons. They consumed alcoholic drinks including sura (a 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.

Aryan occupation and trade

Agriculture was the main occupation of the Aryans (besides trade, etc). The 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.

Aryan language

The Aryans spoke languages including Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, etc. Their scripts (which developed later) were Brahmi, Kharoshti, etc.

Aryan administration

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

Government 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 that concerned itself with administration). [2]

Aryan laws

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

Aryan gods

The Aryans worshipped everything in nature that held power and had a definite effect on them, like 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 the 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 been 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 the lead 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). These gana singhas were 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 like 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, etc, have found mention in the Avesta, the scriptures of the Zorastrians - fire worshippers of early Iran. The Ahuras (the asuras of the Vedas) of the Avesta are considered the forces of good, while the Devas (the gods of the Vedas) are called 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 Hittites and the Mitanni who dominated the Syrian region of Mesopotamia, where both tribes 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). So in all probability, it can be deduced that both the Zoroastrians and the Aryans had common ancestors. Little wonder that in later years when Zoroastrians faced persecution in Persia from the radical Islamists, they sought refuge in India and are today one of the country's most integral group of citizens, popularly known as the Parsi community (adulterated from the word 'Pharsi' or Persian).

[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.