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A Brief History of India: Vedas

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 29 January 2011

The Vedas literally mean 'supreme knowledge'. The early Vedas were passed down from generation to generation by means of oral tradition. It was only much later that a script was developed (such as the seventh century BC Brahmi script).

The earliest Veda we know of is the Rigveda. Although it is attributed to a date of creation of around 2000-1500 BC, its quite possible that it was composed much earlier. The Vedas is not one book but a collection of texts which were recorded over a period of time. It has several authors, known as rishis (sages) who dwelt in the forests and who composed these texts for the common man. They provided people with their common philosophy and acted mainly as a blueprint for conducting one's life.

The Vedas are categorised as follows:

  • Samahitas: these contain hymns, chants, prayers, etc
  • Brahmanas: prose texts containing the meaning of the samahitas
  • Aranyakas and Upanishads: partially connected to the Brahmanas and partially separate works which embody the philosophical meditations of the sages

The samahitas are further classified as:

  • Rigveda: a collection of hymns
  • Atharveda: a collection of spells and charms
  • Samaveda: a collection of songs taken from the Rigveda
  • Yajurveda: containing sacrificial formulae

Also present separately was the Parishta (an appendix for the Samahitas).

Then there is another form of work which is known as the Vedanga. The Vedangas are differentiated into six subjects: Shiksha (covering pronunciation), Chhandas (meter), Vyakrana (grammar), Nirukta (glossary), Jyotisha (astronomy), and Kalpa (regarding ceremonies).

On top of that there is another form of literature which is known as the Sutras which consisted of a series of concise formulae. There were also the Upavedas: Ayurveda (medicine), Dhanurveda (military science), and Gandharveda (classical art).

Ramayana and Mahabharata

The epic Ramayana was composed by the sage, Valmiki, hundreds of years prior to the Mahabharata. Dates vary for the Ramayana. Some say it was composed in the seventh or eighth centuries BC based on remembered events, while some have given it a fourth century BC date of composition. No full agreement exists on a preferred date. What's more, on the shaky basis of astronomical data, some Indologists maintain that the Ramayana was actually composed nine thousand 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, the tenth century BC for the Basham (or 836 BC by B B Lal), 3130-3102 BC for the Aryabhata, and 2449 BC for the Varahamira.

The Upanishads were initially referred to as the Vedanta, but later Vedanta came to be known as an interpretation of the Upanishads. A good many sub-schools of thought sprang up from the Vedanta, such as Advaita (dualism), Dvaita (monism), Vishishtadvaita, Dvaitadvaita, and Shuddhadvaita.

Vedas manuscript
A section of a manuscript showing the Vedas, written down over the course of several centuries after being composed and maintained through oral tradition

Amongst the latter texts were Panini's classical Sanskrit (a book on grammar) composed at some point after 500 BC, and the Puranas, which was composed after the beginning of 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.

Varna system

Indo-Aryan society practiced what came to be known as the Varna system. This was mainly a division of professions which eventually created the caste system in India.

The basic classification in Vedic society involved the brahmanas or imbibers of the holy scriptures and its teachers, the kshatriyas or warrior class which defended the region and its people, the vaishyas or trader class, and the shudras or labourer class.

Initially all Indo-Aryans were considered as being dvija or twice born, and non-Indo-Aryans were advija. Later, the first three Indo-Aryan classes of society all came to be dvija, with the second 'birth' coming after a holy thread initiation ceremony called the upanayana. For non-Indo-Aryans to be included into the Indo-Aryan fold, they had to undergo an ceremony called the Vratayastoma yagna.

As dictated in 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 Indo-Aryans were later added to the shudra fold. They were mostly non-followers (or believers) of the Vedas, known as the dasas, mlechas (barbarians), and panis (cattle stealers). Later they came to form an untouchable class, a more impure class called chandalas.

Earlier there were instances in which 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 Indo-Aryan society. Ages later they came to be known as the dalits.

It should be noted that Indo-Aryan religion can be referred to as 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 which 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. [1] [2]

Early Indo-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.

These offshoots 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 kings.

[1] 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 God.

[2] Shaivism and Bhagwatism gained popularity due to their non-adherence to many of the principles of Vedic Brahanism and their belief in social equality.

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).

Similarly, following the death of Gautama, Buddhism segregated into Hinayana (those who believed in the original teachings of Buddha and did not venerate Buddha as a god), Mahayana (propagated by Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasubandhu and others who worshipped Buddha as a god and who 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). [4]

But eventually they were reconciled with the concepts of Hinduism and even adopted several Hindu gods. Although 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 (prophets). [5]

Buddhism spread to all corners of the world. While Hinayana found followers in China, Japan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, Mahayana spread through Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. Vajrayana came to be followed in Bengal and Bihar in India, plus Tibet, Mongolia, and further afield.

[3] The term 'Jain' is derived from the word 'Jina' which means a conqueror of one's passions.

[4] Jainism spread through the east mainly via Bihar, Bengal, and Orissa, heading westwards via Gujrat, and Rajasthan, and southwards through Karnataka.

[5] Only two of these tirthankaras, Mahavira and Parshwa (born two or three centuries earlier) have any historical basis, while the rest are considered to be mythological.


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.