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THE earliest documents which throw light upon the history of India are the hymns of the Rig-Veda. In the text which has come down to us this samhita or ‘collection’ consists of 1017 hymns divided into ten books of unequal size. The motive of those to whom the collection is due must apparently have been the desire to preserve the body of religious tradition current among the priests; and, early as was the redaction, there are clear signs that already part of the material had ceased to be fully understood by those who made use of it in their worship. The artificial character of the arrangement is clearly indicated by the fact that the first and tenth books have precisely the same number of hymns, 191 each. The collection seems however to have been some time in the making. The nucleus is formed by books II-VII, each of which is attributed to a different priestly family. To this were prefixed the groups of hymns by other families which form the second part (51-191) of book I; and still later were added the first part of book I and book VIII attributed to the family of Kanva. Book IX was then formed by taking out from the collections of hymns which made up the first eight books the hymns addressed to Soma Pavamana, “the clearly flowing Soma”; and to these nine books was added a tenth, containing, besides hymns of the same hieratic stamp as those of the older books, a certain number of a different type, cosmogonic and philosophical poems, spells and incantations, verses intended for the rites of wedding and burial and other miscellaneous matters. The tenth book also displays, both in metrical form and linguistic details, signs of more recent origin than the bulk of the collection; and the author of one set of hymns (X, 20-26) has emphasized his dependence on earlier tradition by prefixing to his own group the opening words of the first hymn of the first book.

There is abundant proof that, before the collections were finally united into the form in which the Rig-Veda has come down to us, minor additions were made; and, as it is perfectly possible that in book X old material was incorporated as well as newer work, efforts have been made to penetrate beyond the comparatively rough distinction between the first nine and the tenth books, and to assign the hymns to five different periods, representing stages in the history of Vedic India, and marked by variations in religious belief and social customs. But so far these efforts can scarcely be regarded as successful. The certain criteria of age supplied by the language, the metres, or the subject-matter of the Rig-Veda are not sufficient to justify so elaborate a chronological arrangement of its hymns. The results produced by the most elaborate and systematic attempts to apply the methods of the higher criticism to the Rig-Veda have hitherto failed to meet with general acceptance. 

The mass of the collection is very considerable, approximating to the same amount of material as that contained in the Iliad and Odyssey, but the light thrown by the hymns on social and political conditions in India is disappointingly meager. By far the greater part of the Rig-Veda consists of invocations of the many gods of the Vedic pantheon, and scarcely more than forty hymns are found which are not directly addressed to these deities or some object to which divine character is, for the time at least, attributed. These hymns contain much miscellaneous information regarding Vedic life and thought; and other notices may be derived from the main body of the collection, though deductions from allusions are always difficult and open to suspicion. Some names of tribes, places, and princes, as well as of singers, are known to us through their mention in the danastutis or “praises of liberality” which are appended to hymns, mainly in the first and tenth books, and in which the poet praises his patron for his generosity towards him. But the danastutis are unquestionably late, and it is significant that some of the most striking occur in a small collection of eleven hymns, called the Vala­khilyas, which are included in the Samhita of the Rig-Veda, but which tradition recognizes as forming no true part of that collection.

From these materials conclusions can be drawn only with much caution. It is easy to frame and support by plausible evidence various hypotheses, to which the only effective objection is that other hypotheses are equally legitimate, and that the facts are too imperfect to allow of conclusions being drawn. It is, however, certain that the Rig-Veda offers no assistance in determining the mode in which the Vedic Indians entered India. The geographical area recognized in the Samhita is large, but it is, so far as we learn, occupied by tribes which collectively are called Aryan, and which wage war with dark-skinned enemies known as Dasas. If, as may be the case, the Aryan invaders of India entered by the western passes of the Hindu Kush and proceeded thence through the Punjab to the east, still that advance is not reflected in the Rig-Veda, the bulk at least of which seems to have been composed rather in the country round the Sarasvati river, south of the modern Ambalal. Only thus, it seems, can we explain the fact of the prominence in the hymns of the strife of the elements, the stress laid on the phenomena of thunder and lightning and the bursting forth of the rain from the clouds: the Punjab proper has now, and probably had also in antiquity, but little share in these things; for there in the rainy season gentle showers alone fall. Nor in its vast plain do we find the mountains which form so large a part of the poetic imagining of the Vedic Indian. On the other hand, it is perhaps to the Punjab with its glorious phenomena of dawn, that we must look for the origin of the hymns to Ushas, the goddess Dawn, while the concept of the laws of Varuna, the highest moral and cosmic ideal attained by the poets, may more easily have been achieved amid the regularity of the seasonal phenomena of the country of the five rivers.

Of the names in the Rig-Veda those of the rivers alone permit of easy and certain identification. The Aryan occupation of Afghanistan is proved by the mention of the Kubha (Kabul), the Suvastu (Swat) with its “fair dwellings”, the Krumu (Kurram) and Gomati (Gumal). But far more important were the settlements on the Sindhu (Indus), the river par excellence from which India has derived its name. The Indus was the natural outlet to the sea for the Aryan tribes, but in the period of the Rig-Veda there is no clear sign that they had yet reached the ocean. No passage even renders it probable that sea navigation was known. Fishing is all but ignored, a fact natural enough to people used to the rivers of the Punjab and East Kabulistan, which are poor in fish. The word samudra, which in later times undoubtedly means “ocean”, occurs not rarely; but where the application is terrestrial, there seems no strong reason to believe that it means more than the stream of the Indus in its lower course, after it has received the waters of the Punjab and has become so broad that a boat in the middle cannot be discerned from the bank. Even nowadays the natives call the river the sea of Sind.

The five streams which give the Punjab its name and which after uniting flow into the Indus are all mentioned in the Rig-Veda: the Vitasta is the modern Jhelum, the Asikni the Chenab, the Parushni, later called Iravati, “the refreshing”, the modern Ravi, the Vipaç the Beas, and the çutudri the Sutlej. But of these only the Parushni plays a considerable part in the history of the time, for it was on this river that the famous battle of the ten kings, the most important contest of Vedic times, was fought. Far more important was the Sarasvati, which we can with little hesitation identify with the modern Sarsuti or Saraswati, a river midway between the Sutlej and the Jumnal. It is possible that in the period of the Rig-Veda that river was of greater importance than it was in the following period when it was known to bury itself in the sands, and that its waters may have flowed to the Indus; but, however that may be, it is mentioned in one passage together with the Drishad­vati, probably the Chautang, which with it in later times formed the boundaries of the sacred land known as Brahmavarta. With these two streams is mentioned the Apaya, probably a river near Thanesar. In this region too may be placed the lake Caryanavant, and the place Pastyavant, near the modern Patiala.

Further east the Aryans had reached the Jumna, which is thrice named, and the Ganges, which is once directly mentioned, once alluded to in the territorial title of a prince.

To the north we find that the Himavant or Himalaya mountains were well known to the Rig-Veda, and one peak, that of Majavant, is referred to as the source of the Soma, the intoxicating drink which formed the most important offering in the religious practice of the time. The name is lost in modern times, but probably the peak was one of those on the south-west of the valley of Kashmir. On the south, on the other hand, the Vindhya hills are unknown, and no mention is made of the Narbada river, so that it may fairly be inferred that the Aryan tribes had not yet begun their advance towards the south.

With the conclusions as to the home of the Aryan tribes extracted from geographical names the other available evidence well accords. The tiger, a native of the swampy jungles of Bengal, is not mentioned in the Rig-Veda, which gives the place of honor among wild beasts to the lion, then doubtless common in the vast deserts to the east of the lower Sutlej and the Indus and even now to be found in the wooded country to the south of Gujarat. Rice, whose natural habitat is the south-east in the regular monsoon area and which is well known in the latter Samhitas, is never mentioned in the Rig-Veda. The elephant, whose home is now in the lowland jungle at the foot of the Himalaya from the longitude of Cawnpore eastwards, appears in the Rig-Veda as the wild beast with a hand (hastin), while in the later texts it is commonly known as hastin only, a sign that the novelty of the animal had worn away. The mountains from which the Soma was brought appear, too, to have been nearer in this period than at a later date when the real plant seems to have been more and more difficult to obtain, and when substitutes of various kinds were permitted.

When we pass to the notices of tribes in the Rig-Veda, we leave comparative certainty for confusion and hypothesis. The one great historical event which reveals itself in the fragmentary allusions of the Samhita is the contest known as the battle of the ten kings. The most probable version of that conflict is that it was a contest between the Bharatas, settled in the country later known as Brahmavarta, and the tribes of the north-west. The Bharata king was Sudas, of the Tritsu family, and his domestic priest who celebrates, according to the tradition, the victory in three hymns was Vasishtha. This sage had superseded in that high office his predecessor Viçvamitra, under whose guidance the Bharatas appear to have fought successfully against enemies on the Vipac and Cutudri; and in revenge, as it seems, Vicvamitra had led against the Bharatas ten allied tribes, only to meet with destruction in the waters of the Parushni. Of the ten tribes five are of little note, the Alinas, perhaps from the north­east of Kafiristan, the Pakthas, whose name recalls the Afghan Pakhthun, the Bhalanases, possibly connected with the Bolan Pass, the Civas from near the Indus, and the Vishanins. Better known in the Rig-Veda are the other five, the Anus who dwelt on Parushni and whose priests were perhaps the famous family of the Bhrigus, the Druhyus who were closely associated with them, the Turvacas and Yadus, two allied tribes, and the Purus, dwellers on either side of the Sarasvati, and therefore probably close neighbours of the Bharatas. These tribes are probably the five tribes which are referred to on several occasions in the Rig-Veda and which seem to have formed a loose alliance. Sudas ‘s victory at the Parushni, in which the Anu and Druhyu kings fell, does not appear to have resulted in any attempt at conquest of the territory of the allied tribes. He seems at once to have been compelled to return to the east of his kingdom to meet the attacks of a king Bheda, under whom three tribes, the Ajas, Cigrus, and Yakshus, were united, and to have defeated his new assailants with great slaughter on the Jumna. It is probable enough that the attack on the eastern boundaries of the territory of the Bharatas was not unconnected with the onslaught of the five tribes and their still more northern and western allies; but the curious names of the Ajas, “goats”, and the Cigrus, “horse-radishes”, may be a sign that the tribes which bore them were totemistic non-Aryans.

Not less famous was the father or grandfather of Sudas, Divodasa, “the servant of heaven”, Atithigva, “the slayer of kine for guests”: There are records of his conflicts with the Turvaca, Yadu, and Puru tribes; but his greatest foe was the Dasa, Cambara, with whom he waged constant war. He had to contend also with the Panis, the Paravatas, and Brisaya. He seems to have been the patron of the priestly family of the Bharadvajas, the authors of the sixth book of the Rig-Veda; and there is little doubt that his kingdom covered much the same area as that of Sudas, since he warred, on the one hand, against the tribes of the Punjab, and, on the other, against the Paravatas who are located in the period of the Brahmanas on the Jumna. The Dasas and the Panis were probably aboriginal foes, whom, like every Aryan prince, he had to fight.

Though defeated in the battle with Sudas, the Purus were clearly a great and powerful people. Their home was round the Sarasvati, and there is no need to interpret that name as referring to the Indus rather than to the eastern Sarasvati. On the Indus they would have been removed somewhat widely from the Bharatas, their chief rivals, two of whose princes, Devacravas and Devavata, are expressly recorded in one hymn to have dwelt on the Sarasvati, Apaya, and Drishadvati. The importance of the tribe is reflected in the fact that we possess an unusually large number of the names of its members. The earliest prince recorded seems to have been Durgaha, who was succeeded by Girikshit, neither of these being more than names. The son of Girikshit, Purukutsa, was the contemporary of Sudas, and one hymn tells in obscure phrases of the distress to which his wife was reduced by some misfortune, from which she was relieved by the birth of a son, Trasadasyu. It is not unlikely that the misfortune was the death of Purukutsa in the battle of the ten kings. The new ruler, as his name indicates, was a terror to the Dasyus or aborigines, and seems not to have distinguished himself in war with Aryan enemies. We hear of a descendant Trikshi, and, apparently still later in the line, of another descendant Kurucravana, son of Mitratithi and father of Upamacravas, whose death is deplored in a hymn of the tenth book. The name is of importance and significance, for it suggests that already in the later Rigvedic period the Purus had become closely united with their former rivals, the Bharatas, both tribes being merged in the Kurus, whose name, famous in the later Samhitas and the Brahmanas as the chief bearers of the culture of the Vedic period, is not directly mentioned in the Rig-Veda, though it was clearly not unknown. Other princes of the Puru line were Tryaruna, and Trivrishan or Tridhdtu; and later evidence enables us with fair certainty to connect with the Purus the princely name Ikshvaku, which occurs but once in a doubtful context in the Rig-Veda.

Connected with the Kurus were the Krivis, whose name seems to be but a variant from the same root, and who appear to have been settled near the Indus and the Chenab. Possibly we may see the allied tribes of Kurus and Krivis in the two Vaikarna tribes, twenty-one of whose clans shared the defeat of the five tribes by Silas. If so, like the Purus the Bharatas must have in course of time become mingled with the Kurus and have merged their identity with them.

Allied or closely connected with the Bharatas was the tribe of the Srinjayas, whom we must probably locate in the neighborhood of the Bharatas. One of their princes, Daivavdta, won a great victory over the Turvacas with their allies, the Vrichivants, of whom we know nothing more. Other princes of the line were Sahadeva, his son Somaka, and Prastoka, and Vitahavya. They were, like the Bharatas under Divoasa, closely connected with the Bhdradvaja family of priests.

No other Aryan tribe plays a great figure in the Rigveda. The Chedis, who in later times dwelt in Bundelkhand to the north of the Vindhya, and their king Kacu are mentioned but once in a late danastuti: the queen of the Ucinaras, later a petty tribe to the north of the Kuru country, is also once alluded to. The generosity of Rinamchaya, king of the Rucamas, an unknown people, has preserved his name from extinction. One interpretation adds to the enemies of Sudas the tribe of the Matsyas (“fishes”), who in later times occupied the lands now known as Alwar, Jaipur, and Bharatpur. A raid of the Turvacas and Yadus and a conflict on the Sarayu with Arna and Chitraratha testify to the activity of these clans, which otherwise are best known through their opposition to Divodasa and Sudas, and which must probably have been settled in the south of the Punjab. The family of the Kanvas seems to have been connected as priests with the Yadus. Connected with the Turvacas was the Vrichivant Varacikha, who was defeated by Abhyavartin Chayamana, who himself was perhaps a Srinjaya prince. More shadowy still are Nahus, Tugrya, and Vetasu in whom some have seen tribes : Nahus is probably rather a general term for neighbor, and the Tugryas and the Vetasus are families rather than tribes.

The Dasas or Dasyus

More important by far, it may be believed, than the intertribal warfare of the peoples who called themselves Aryan were their contests with the aborigines, the Dasas or Dasyus as they are repeatedly called. The same terms are applied indifferently to the human enemies of the Aryans and to the fiends, and no criterion exists by which references to real foes can be distinguished in every case from allusions to demoniacal powers. The root meaning of both words is most probably merely “foe”; but in the Rig-Veda it has been specialized to refer, at least as a rule, to such human foes as were of the aboriginal race. Individual Dasas were Ilibica, Dhuni and Chumuri, Pipru, Varchin, and Cambara, though the last at least has been transformed by the imagination of the singers into demoniac proportions. The only peoples named which can plausibly be deemed to have been Dasas are the Cimyus, who are mentioned among the foes of Sudas in the battle of the ten kings, and who are elsewhere classed with Dasyus, the Kikatas with their leader Pramaganda, and perhaps the Ajas, Yakshus, and Cigrus. The main distinction between the Aryan and the Aryan varna, “colour”, and the black colour is unquestionably one of the main sources of the Indian caste system. The overthrow of the black skin is one of the most important exploits of the Vedic Indian. Second only to the color distinction was the hatred of men who did not recognize the Aryan gods: the Dasas are constantly reproached for their disbelief, their failure to sacrifice, and their impiety. Nor is there much doubt that they are the phallus worshippers who twice are referred to with disapproval in the Rig-Veda, for phallus worship was probably of prehistoric age in India and by the time of the Mahabharata it had won its way into the orthodox Hindu cult. We learn, disappointingly enough, little of the characteristics of the Dasas, but two epithets applied in one passage to the Dasyus are of importance. The first is mridhravachah which has been interpreted to refer to the nature of the aborigines’ speech; but which, as it elsewhere is applied to Aryan foes like the Purus, probably means no more than “of hostile speech”. The other epithet, anasah, is more important: it doubtless means “noseless”, and is a clear indication that the aborigines to which it is applied were of the Dravidian type as we know it at the present day. With this accords the fact that the Brahui speech still remains as an isolated remnant in Baluchistan of the Dravidian family of tongued. But though the main notices of the Rig-Veda are those of conflict against the Dasas and the crossing of rivers to win new lands from them, it is clear that the Aryans made no attempt at wholesale extermination of the people. Many of the aborigines doubtless took refuge before the Aryan attacks in the mountains to the north or to the south of the lands occupied by the invaders, while others were enslaved. This was so normal in the case of women that, in the literature of the next period, the term Dasi regularly denotes a female slave; but male slaves are often alluded to in the Rig-Veda, sometimes in large numbers, and wealth was already in part made up of ownership of slaves. The metaphorical use is seen in the name of one of the greatest of Vedic kings, Divodasa, “the servant of heaven”. In the Purushasukta, or “Hymn of Purusha”, which belongs to the latest stratum of the Rig-Veda, and which in mystic terms describes the creation of the four castes from a primeval giant, occurs for the first time the term Cudra, which includes the slaves as a fourth class in the Aryan state. Probably enough this word, which has no obvious explanation, was originally the name of some prominent Dasa tribe conquered by the Aryans.

Of the stage of civilization attained by the aborigines we learn little or nothing. They had, it is certain, large herds of cattle, and they could when attacked take refuge in fortifications called in the Rig-Veda by the name pur, which later denotes “town”, but which may well have then meant no more than an earthwork strengthened by a palisade or possibly occasionally by stone. Stockades of this kind are often made by primitive peoples, and are so easily constructed that we can understand the repeated references in the Rig-Veda to the large numbers of such fortifications which were captured and destroyed by the Aryan hosts. Some Dasas, it seems, were able to establish friendly relations with the Aryans, for a singer celebrates the generosity of Balbutha, apparently a Dasa; nor is it impossible, as we have seen, that the five tribes of the Punjab were not above accepting the cooperation of aboriginal tribes in their great attack on Sudas. We must therefore recognize that in the age of the Rig-Veda there was going on a steady process of amalgamation of the invaders and the aborigines, whether through the influence of intermarriage with slaves or through friendly and peaceful relations with powerful Dasa tribes.

Like the Dasas and Dasyus in their appearance both as terrestrial and as celestial foes are the Panis. The word seems beyond doubt to be connected with the root seen in the Greek pernemi, and the sense in which it was used by the poets must have been something like “niggard”. The demons are niggards because they withhold from the Aryan the water of the clouds: the aborigines are niggards because they refuse the gods their due, perhaps also because they do not surrender their wealth to the Aryan without a struggle. The term may also be applied to any foe as an opprobrious epithet, and there is no passage in the Samhita which will not yield an adequate meaning with one or other of these uses. But it has been deemed by one high authority to reveal to us a closer connection of India and Iran than has yet suggested itself: in the Dasas Hillebrandt sees the Dahae, in the Panis the Parisians, and he locates the struggles of Divodasa against them in Arachosia. Support for this view he finds in the record of Divodasa’s conflicts with Brisaya and the Paravatas, with whose names he compares that of the Satrap Barsentes and the people Paruetae of Gedrosia or Aria. Similarly he suggests that the Srinjaya people, who were connected like Divodasa with the Bharadaja family, should be located in Iran, and he finds in the Sarasvati, which formed the scene of Divodasa’s exploits, not the Indian stream but the Iranian Harahvaiti. Thus the sixth book of the Rig-Veda would carry us far west from the scenes of the third and seventh which must definitely be located in India. But the hypothesis rests on too weak a foundation to be accepted as even plausible.

India and Iran

Other references to connections with Iran have been seen in two names found in the Rig-Veda. Abhyavartin Chayamana, whose victory over Varacikha has already been recorded, bears the epithet Parthava, and the temptation to see in him a Parthian is naturally strong. But the Rig-Veda knows a Prithi and later texts a Prithu, an ancient and probably mythical king, and thus we have in the Vedic speech itself an explanation of Parthava which does not carry us to Iran. Still less convincing is the attempt to find in the word Parcu in three passages of the Rig-Veda a reference to Persians: Parcu occurs indeed with Tirindira as a man's name, but the two are princes of the Yadus, and not a single personality, “Tiridates the Persian”. Whatever the causes which severed Iran and India, in the earliest period, at least as recorded in the Rig-Veda, the relations of the two peoples seem not to have been those of direct contact.

As little do the Rigvedic Indians appear to have been in contact with the Semitic peoples of Babylon. The term Bekanata which occurs along with Pani in one passage has been thought to be a reference to some Babylonian word: though the Indian Bikaner is much more plausible as its origin. Bribu, mentioned once as a most generous giver and apparently also as a Pani, has been connected by Weber with Babylon, but without ground: more specious is the attempt to see a Babylonian origin for the word mana found in one passage only of the Rig-Veda where it is accompanied by the epithet “golden”. The Greek mina, presumably borrowed from the Phoenicians, is a plausible parallel; but the passage can be explained without recourse to this theory. A Semitic origin has been claimed for the word paracu, “axe”, but this too is far from certain. There is nothing in the Rigvedic mythology or religion which demands derivation from a non-Aryan source, though it has been urged that the small group of the Adityas, whose physical characteristics are very faint and whose abstract nature is marked, is derived from a Semitic civilization. In the succeeding period the Nakshatras or lunar mansions may more probably be ascribed to a Semitic source; but in the Rigveda the Nakshatras are practically unknown, appearing as such only in, the latest portions. It is therefore impossible to assume that the great Semitic civilizations had any real contact with India in the Rigvedic age.

Scanty as is our information regarding the Vedic tribes, yet we can see clearly that the social and political organization rested upon the patriarchal family, if we may use that term to denote that relationship was counted through the father. The Aryan marriage of this period was usually monogamic, though polygamy was not unknown probably mainly among the princely class; and in the household the husband was master, the wife mistress but dependent on and obedient to the master. The standard of female morality appears to have been fairly high, that of men as usual was less exigent. Polyandry is not shown by a single passage to have existed, and is not to be expected in a society so strongly dominated by the male as was the Vedic. Of limitations on marriage we learn practically nothing from the Rig-Veda, except that the wedlock of brother and sister and of father and daughter was not permitted. Child marriage, so usual in later times, was evidently unknown; and much freedom of choice seems to have existed. Women lived under the protection of their fathers during the life of the latter, and then they fell if still unmarried under the care of their brothers. Both dowries and bride-prices are recorded: the ill-favored son-in-law might have to purchase his bride by large gifts, while other maidens could obtain husbands only through the generosity of their brothers in dowering them. A girl without a protector ran grave risk of being reduced to immorality to maintain herself, and even in cases where no such excuse existed we learn of cases of moral laxity. But the high value placed on marriage is shown in the long and striking hymn which accompanied the ceremonial, the essence of which was the mutual taking of each other in wedlock by the bride and bridegroom, and the conveyance of the bride from the house of her father to that of her husband. In this hymn the wedlock of Soma, here identified with the moon, and Surya, the daughter of the sun, is made the prototype and exemplar of marriage in general. Moreover, the Vedic marriage was indissoluble by human action, nor in the early period does it seem to have been contemplated that remarriage should take place hi the case of a widow. To this there was the exception, which appears clearly in the burial ritual of the Rig-Veda, that the brother-in-law of the dead man should marry the widow, probably only in cases where the dead had left no son and it was therefore imperative that steps should be taken to secure him offspring; for the Rig-Veda recognizes to the full the keen desire of the Vedic Indian for a child to perform his funeral rites.

The relation of child and parent was clearly as a rule one of close affection; for a father is regarded as the type of all that is good and kind. There are traces, however, that parental rights were large and vague: if the chastisement of a gambler by his father may be deemed to be legitimate exercise of parental control, this cannot be said of the cruel act of his father in blinding Rijracva at which the Rig-Veda hints. The father probably controlled in some measure at least both son and daughter as regards marriage; and the right of the father to adopt is clearly recognized by the Rig-Veda, though a hymn ascribed to the family of Vasishtha disapproves of the practice. The son after marriage must often have lived in the house and under the control of his father, of whom his wife was expected to stand in awe. But, on the other hand, as the father advanced in years it cannot have been possible for him to maintain a control which he was physically incapable of exercising; and so we find the bride enjoined to be mistress over her step-parents, doubtless in the case when her husband, grown to manhood, had taken over the management of the household from his father's failing hands.

The head of the family appears also to have been the owner of the property of the family; but on this point we are reduced in the main to conjecture. It is certain that the Rig-Veda recognizes to the full individual ownership of movable things, cattle, horses, gold, ornaments, weapons, slaves, and so forth. It seems also certain that land was already owned by individuals or families: the term kshetra, “field”, is unmistakably employed in this sense, and in one hymn a maiden, Apala, places her father's cultivated field on the same level with his hair as a personal possession. Reference is also made to the measuring of fields, and to khilya, which appear to have been strips of land between the cultivated plots, probably used by the owners of the plots in common. The Rig-Veda has no conclusive evidence that the sons were supposed to have any share whatever in the land of the family, and the presumption is that it was vested in the father alone, as long as he was head of the family and exercised his full powers as head. We are left also to conjecture as to whether the various plots were held in perpetuity by the head of the family and his descendants, or whether there were periodic redistributions, and as to the conditions on which, if there were several sons, they could obtain the new allotments necessary to support themselves and their families. But there can hardly have been much difficulty hi obtaining fresh land; for it is clear that population was scanty and spread over wide areas, and wealth doubtless consisted in the main in flocks and herds.

There is no hint in the Rig-Veda of the size to which a family might grow and yet keep together. It is clear that there might be three generations under the same roof, and a family might thus be of considerable dimensions. But life can hardly have been long—so much stress is laid on longevity as a great boon that it must have been rare—and, even if we decline to accept the view that exposure of aged parents was normal, there must have been a tendency for the family to break up as soon as the parent died, especially if, as is probable, there was no such land hunger as to compel the sons to stay together. The sons would, however, naturally enough stay in the vicinity of one another for mutual support and assistance. The little knot of houses of the several branches of the family would together form the nucleus of the second stage in Rigvedic society, the grama, “village”, though some have derived its name originally from the sense “horde” as describing the armed force of the tribe which in war fought in the natural divisions of family and family. Next in order above the grama in the orthodox theory was the vic or “canton”, while a group of cantons made up the jana, “people”. This scheme can be supported by apparent analogies not only from Greece, Italy, Germany, and Russia, but also from the Iranian state with the graduated hierarchy of family or households, vis, zantu, and dahyul. But for Vedic India the fourfold gradation cannot successfully be maintained. It is not merely that the various terms are used with distressing vagueness—so that for example the Bharatas can be called at one time a jana and at another a grama—but that the evidence for the relationship of subordination between the grama and the vic is totally wanting. Moreover the Iranian evidence tells against the theory that the vic is removed by the grama from the family in the narrower sense: the more legitimate interpretation is to see in the Iranian division a step further than that of the Rig-Veda and to set the jana as parallel to the zantu, acknowledging that in the time of the Rig-Veda the political organization of the people had not extended to the creation of aggregates of janas, unless such an aggregate is presented to us in the twenty-one janas of the two Vaikarnas who are mentioned in one passage of the Samhita. The vic will thus take its place beside the Iranian vis as a clan as opposed to family in the narrower sense, and be a real parallel to the Latin gens, and the Greek genos. It is possible that the grama is originally the gens in its military aspect, but even that is not certain, for the word may originally have referred to locality. Nor can we say with any certainty for the period of the Rig-Veda whether the grama contained the whole of a vic, or part of a vic, or parts of several vicas. But amid much that is conjectural it is clear that the vic was not a normal unit for purposes of government, for the term vicpati, “lord of a vic”, has not in any passage the technical Sense of “lord of a canton”. On the other hand, the grama as a unit is recognized by the use of the term gramani, “leader of a village”, an officer who appears in the Rig-Veda, and who was probably invested with both military and civil functions, though we have no details of his duties or powers.

While the sense “clan” is comparatively rare, the word vic not unfrequently in the plural denotes “subjects”: so we hear of the vicas of Trinaskanda, a king elsewhere unknown, and of the vicas of the Tritsus, the royal family of which Sudas was a member. In the former case the sense “clans” is obviously inappropriate, while in the latter the rendering “clans” which was long adopted has resulted in the confusion of the relations of the Bharatas and the Tritsus, the Tritsus being regarded as a people opposed to the Bharatas, instead of taking their place as the rulers of the Bharatas. The subjects as a whole made up the Jana, a term which in Vedic use denotes either the individual man or the collective manhood of the tribe as a political unit. Above that unit no political organization can be shown to have existed. The confederacy of the five tribes by whom Sudas was attacked was evidently more than a mere passing episode, but clearly it did not involve any system of political subordination, from which a great kingdom could emerge. There was however beyond that a feeling of kinship among all the tribes who called themselves Aryan, stimulated no doubt into distinct expression by their presence in the midst of the dark aboriginal population.

The question now presents itself as to the extent to which in the period of the Rig-Veda the caste system had been developed. The existence of the caste system in any form in the age of the Rig-Veda has been denied by high authority, though it has been asserted of late with increasing insistence. In one sense, indeed, its presence in the Rig-Veda cannot be disputed. In the Purushasukta the four castes of the later texts, Brahmana (priest), Rajanya (prince or more broadly warrior), Vaicya (commoner), and Cudra are mentioned. But this hymn is admittedly late and can prove nothing for the state of affairs prevailing when the bulk of the Rig-Veda was composed. On the other hand, as we have seen, the distinction between the Aryan colour (varna) and that of the aborigines is essential and forms a basis of caste. The question is thus narrowed down to the consideration of the arguments for and against the view that in the Aryans themselves caste divisions were appearing. On the one hand, it is argued that in the period of Vasishtha and Vicvamitra, when the great poetry of the Rig-Veda was being produced, neither the priestly class nor the warrior class was hereditary. The warriors of the community were the agricultural and industrial classes, and the priesthood was not yet hereditary. It has been held that the Brahman priest was not necessarily the member of an hereditary class at all, that the term could be applied as well to any person who was distinguished by genius or virtue, or who for some reason was deemed specially receptive of the divine inspiration. The growth of the caste system is traced on this hypothesis to the complication of life ensuing on the further penetration of the Aryans from the Punjab towards the east. The petty tribes found it necessary, in order to defeat the solid forces of the aborigines, to mass themselves into centralized kingdoms. The petty tribal princes thus lost their full royal rank, but found employment and profit instead in becoming a standing armed force, ready to resist sudden incursion or to crush the attempts at rebellion of the defeated aborigines. On the other hand, the industrial and agricultural population, relying on the protection of the warrior class, abandoned the use of arms. Together with the growth in the size of the kingdom and the increasing complexity of civilization, the simple ritual of an earlier period, when the king himself could sacrifice for his people, grew to an extent which rendered this impracticable, while at the same time an ever increasing importance came to be attached to the faithful and exact performance of the rites and the preservation of the traditional formulae. The result of this process was, it is suggested, the growth of a priesthood, of a warrior class, and of a third class, the Vaicya, sharply distinguished from one another and strictly hereditary. But the comparatively late date of this development is shown by the fact that in later times the inhabitants of the North-West, the home of the Rig-Veda, were regarded as semi-barbarians by those of the Middle Country, in which the Brahmanical civilization had developed itself, on the ground that they did not follow the strict caste system.

Origins of the Caste System

While there is much of truth in this view, it must be admitted that it exaggerates the freedom of the Rig-Veda from caste. As we have seen, the probabilities are that the main, though not the earliest, part of the Samhita had its origin not in the Punjab proper but in the sacred country of later Brahmanism, the land known in the Samhitas of the succeeding period as Brahmavarta. Moreover, there is no actual proof in the Rig-Veda that the priesthood was not then a closed hereditary class. The term Brahmana, “son of a Brahma”, seems, on the contrary, to show that the priesthood was normally hereditary, and there is no instance which can be quoted of any person who is said to be other than a priest appearing to exercise priestly functions. We are told that there is a case of a king exercising the functions of domestic priest and sacrificing himself for his people, but the alleged case, that of Devapi, rests only on an assertion of a commentator on the hymn, in which Devapi appears, that he was originally a king. Even, however, if this were the case, it must be remembered that even after the complete establishment of the caste system, it was still the privilege of kings to exercise some priestly functions, such as that of the study of the nature of the absolute, a practice ascribed to them in the Upanishads. The arguments regarding the warrior class rest on a misunderstanding. Even in the latest Vedic period we have no ground to suppose that there was a special class which reserved its energies for war alone, and that the industrial population and the agriculturists allowed the fate of their tribe to be decided by contest between warrior bands, but the Rig-Veda certainly knows of a ruling class, the Kshatriya, and the Vedic kingship was normally hereditary, so that we may well believe that even then there existed, though perhaps only in embryo, a class of nobles, who are aptly named in the term of the Purushasukta, Rajanyas, as being “men of kingly family”. There are traces, moreover, of the division of the tribe into the holy power (brahman), the kingly power (kshatra), and the commonalty (vic), and, while it is true that the caste system is only in process of development in the Rig-Veda, it seems impossible to deny that much of the groundwork upon which the later elaborate structure was based was already in existence.

So far, our sources of knowledge, if imperfect, have given us material sufficient to sketch the main outlines of Vedic society. Unhappily, when we turn to consider more closely the details of the political organization proper, the evidence becomes painfully scanty and inadequate. The tribes of the Rig-Veda were certainly under kingly rule: there is no passage in the Rig-Veda which suggests any other form of government, while the king under the style Rajan is a frequent figure. This is only what might be expected in a community which was not merely patriarchal—a fact whence the king drew his occasional style of vicpati, '”Head of the vic”—but also engaged in constant warfare against both Aryan and aboriginal foes. Moreover, the kingship was normally hereditary: even in the scanty notices of the Rig-Veda we can trace lines of succession such as that of Vadhryacva, Divodasa, Pijavana, and Sudas, or Durgaha, Girikshit, Purukutsa, and Trasadasyu; or Mitratithi, Kurucravana, and Upamagravas. In some cases it has been argued that election by the cantons was possible; but this interpretation rests only on the improbable view that vicah denotes not “subjects” but “cantons”; and the idea has no support in later literature. The activity of the sovereign on which most stress is laid is his duty of protecting his subjects; and even the Rig-Veda, despite its sacerdotal character, allows us to catch some glimpses of the warlike deeds of such men as Divodasa, Sudas, and Trasadasyu. Of the king's functions in peace the Rig-Veda is silent, beyond showing that he was expected to maintain a large body of priests to perform the sacrifices for him and his people. From his subjects he was marked out by his glittering apparel, his palace, and his retinue, which doubtless included the princes of the royal house as well as mere retainers. To maintain his state he had the tribute paid by conquered tribes and the gifts of his people, which, once proffered freely, had doubtless become fixed payments, which the king could exact, if denied. Doubtless, too, when lands were conquered from the aborigines or from other Aryan tribes, large booty in land and slaves and cattle would be meted out to the king; but the Rig-Veda contains no hint that he was considered as owner of the land of the people. Nor in that Samhita is there any trace that the king has developed from the priest: if that was the case in India the distinction lies far beyond the period of the Rig-Veda.

Of the entourage of the king and his servants we learn almost nothing. The senani, “leader of the army”, who appears in a few hymns, may have been a general appointed by the king to lead an expedition of too little importance to require his own intervention. The gramani probably led in war a minor portion of the host and was identical with the vrajapati mentioned elsewhere. Far more important, in the estimation at least of the composers of the hymns, was the purohita or domestic priest, whose position represented the height of a priest’s ambition. Nor, after allowing for priestly partiality and exaggeration, can we deny the importance of the Purohita amongst a people who followed the guiding in religious matters of an hereditary priesthood. The Vedic Purohita was the forerunner of the Brahman statesmen who from time to time in India have shown conspicuous ability in the management of affairs; and there is no reason to doubt that a Vicvamitra or a Vasishtha was a most important element of the government of the early Vedic realm. It is clear, too, from the hymns which are attributed to the families of these sages, that the Purohita accompanied the king to battle, and seconded his efforts for victory by his prayers and spells. In return for his faithful service the rewards of the Purohita were doubtless large: the danastutis of the Rig-Veda tell of the generous gifts of patrons to the poets, and we may safely assume that the largest donations were those of kings to the Purohitas. It is significant of the social arrangements of the time that the gifts enumerated are all gifts of personal property; land was evidently not then a normal form of gift, though we may conjecture that, even at this early period, the king might confer on a priest or other servant the right to receive some portion of the gifts in kind which were clearly no inconsiderable part of the royal revenues.

The power of the king cannot have been in normal circumstances arbitrary or probably very great. There stood beside him as the mode of expression of the will of the people the assembly, which is denoted by the terms samiti and sabha in the Samhita. It has been proposed by Ludwig to see in these two terms, the designations of two different forms of assembly: the one would be the assembly of the whole people, while the other would be an analogue of the Homeric council of elders, a select body to which the great men of the tribe, the Maghavans, alone would go to take counsel with the king. Zimmer, on the other hand, sees in the samiti the popular assembly of the tribe, in the sabha the assembly of the village. But neither view appears to be acceptable. There is no distinction in the texts which would justify us in contrasting sabha and samiti in either of the ways suggested: rather it seems the samiti is the assembly of the people for the business of the tribe, the sabha particularly the place of assembly, which served besides as a centre of social gatherings. The king's presence in the samiti is clearly referred to; and there seems no reason to doubt that on great occasions the whole of the men of the tribe gathered there to deliberate, or at least to decide, on the courses laid before them by the great men of the tribe. But we are reduced to analogy with the Homeric assembly for any conception of the action of the assembly; for, perhaps owing to the nature of the sources, nothing is known of its part in Vedic life. If indeed the king was ever elected by the cantons, the election took place in the samiti; but the theory that the king was ever elected has, as has been already said, nothing to support it.

In accordance with the apparently undeveloped condition of political organization, we learn little of the administration of justice. That the king exercised criminal and civil jurisdiction, assisted by assessors, is a conclusion which must rest for its plausibility on analogy and on the later practice in India; for no passage in the Rig-Veda definitely alludes to the sovereign as acting in either capacity. It is therefore at least probable that his functions as judge were still confined within narrow limits. One word in the Rig-Veda shows that the system of wergeld was in full force, a man being given the epithet catadaya, which denotes that the price of his blood was a hundred cows. In one hymn the Pani, whose niggardliness made him the chief object of dislike to the greedy Vedic poets, is declared to be a man only in so far as he has a wergeld, here called vairadeya, “that which is to be paid in respect of enmity”. The crime, however, of which most is recorded in the Rig-Veda is that of theft, including burglary, house­breaking, and highway robbery, crimes which clearly must have been of frequent occurrence. The punishment of the thief seems to have rested with the person wronged: there are clear allusions to binding the thief in stocks, presumably with a view to induce his relatives to pay back to the aggrieved man the loss he has sustained. In one passage of the Rig-Veda there is a probable reference to the employment of trained men to recover stolen cattle, just as the Khojis of the Punjab down to modern times were expert at this difficult employment. Of death as a punishment for theft, as in later times and in other primitive societies, curiously enough nothing appears in the Rig-Veda.

There is hardly any mention of other forms of crime in the Rig-Veda. It appears clear that marriage of brother and sister was regarded as incest, and apparently marriage of father and daughter was placed in the same category of wrongful actions, as it certainly was in the later Samhitas, where the union of Prajapati, one aspect of the supreme god, with his daughter is at once punished by the other gods. Prostitution was certainly not unknown, but in other respects morality seems to have been fairly high: there is no sufficient ground for attributing to the peoples whose actions are reflected in the Rig-Veda either the exposure of the aged or the putting away of female children.

Our knowledge of civil law is as scanty as that of criminal law. As we have seen, land seems not to have been an article of commerce. Movable property could change hands by gift or by sale, the latter taking the form of barter. The Rig-Veda records that in the opinion of one poet not ten cows was adequate price for an image of Indra to be used doubtless as a fetish. The haggling of the market is once clearly referred to. The standard of value seems to have been the cow, and no coin appears to have been known, though the origin of currency may be seen in the frequent references to nishkas as gifts : the nishka most probably was an ornament in the shape of a necklace of gold or silver: at a later date the name was transferred to a gold coin. Property doubtless passed by inheritance and could be acquired originally by a man's own efforts in creation or discovery, while the dowry and the price of the bride played a considerable part in early Vedic economy, as is seen by the stress laid upon both in the Samhita. Of forms of contract the only one of which we know anything was the loan. The Vedic Indian was an inveterate gambler, and for that among other causes he seems always to have been ready to incur debt. The rate of interest is unknown, a reference to payments of an eighth or a sixteenth may be referred either to interest or installments of principal. At any rate, the debtor might as a result be reduced to slavery, as we learn from an interesting hymn where an unsuccessful dicer recites the fatal fascination for him of the dice and his consequent ruin and enslavement with its results for his family. Of civil procedure we know only so much as may be inferred from a single word, madhyamaci, which may denote one who intervenes between two parties as an arbitrator, though it has also been referred to the king as surrounded by his retainers in his camp.

In war the Vedic host was led by the king; and doubtless at this time all the men of the tribe took part in it, encouraged by the priests, who with prayer and incantation sought to secure victory for those whom they supported. The king and the nobles, the Kshatriyas, fought from chariots of simple construction, the warrior standing on the left hand of the charioteer on whose skill he so largely depended. The common people fought on foot, doubtless with little attempt at ordered fighting, if we may judge from analogy and from the confused battles described in the later epics. The chief weapon in honor was the bow which was drawn to the ear and not as in Greece to the breast; but lances, spears, swords, axes, and slingstones seem to have been employed. The warrior, when completely equipped, wore coat of mail and helmet, and a hand or arm guard to save his arm from the friction of the bow­string. The arrow had a reed shaft, and the tip was either of horn or of metal: poisoned arrows were sometimes used. Though horse riding was probably not unknown for other purposes, no mention is made of this use of the horse in war. Naturally enough the banks of rivers seem to have been frequently the spots chosen for the conflict, as in the case of the famous battle of the ten kings.

All the evidence points to the absence of city life among the tribes. The village probably consisted of a certain number of houses built near each other for purposes of mutual defence, perhaps surrounded by a hedge or other protection against wild beasts or enemies. The pur, which is often referred to and which in later days denotes a “town”, was, as we have seen, probably no more than a mere earthwork fortification which may in some cases at least have been part of the village. In certain passages these puras are called autumnal, and by far the most probable explanation of this epithet is that it refers to the flooding of the plains by the rising of the rivers in the autumn, when the cultivators and herdsmen had to take refuge within the earthworks which at other times served as defenses against human foes. Of the construction of the Vedic house we learn little, but the bamboo seems to have been largely used for the beams which borrowed their name from it. In the midst of each house burned the domestic fire, which served the Indian both for practical and sacrificial uses.

Like the aborigines, the Vedic Indians were primarily pastoral: the stress laid by the poets on the possession of cows is almost pathetic. The name of the sacrificial fee, dakshina, is explained as referring originally to a cow placed on the right hand of the singer for his reward. The singers delight to compare their songs to Indra with the lowing of cows to their calves. At night and in the heat of the day the cows seem to have been kept in the fold, while for the rest of the day they were allowed to wander at will, being thrice milked. Bulls and oxen on the other hand regularly served for ploughing and drawing carts, a purpose for which horses were not much used. Second to cattle came horses, which the Indian required both for bearing his chariot into the battle and for the horse-race, one of his favorite sports. Other domesticated animals were sheep, goats, asses, and dogs, the last being used for hunting, for guarding and tracking cattle, and for keeping watch at night. On the other hand, the cat had not been domesticated.

Agriculture was already an important part of the Vedic economy. The practice of ploughing was certainly Indo-Iranian as the same root (krish) occurs in the same sense in the two tongues. But it is clear that even in the Rig-Veda the use of the plough was increasing in frequency. We learn of the use of bulls to draw the plough, of the sowing of seed in the furrows thus made, of the cutting of the corn with the sickle, the laying of it in bundles on the threshing floor, and the threshing and final sifting by winnowing. Moreover, the use of irrigation seems to be recognized in the mention of channels into which water is led. On the other hand, the nature of the grain grown is uncertain: it is called yava, which in the later Samhitas is barley, but it is quite uncertain whether this definite sense can be assigned to the word in the Rigvedic period. 

Hunting seems still to have played a considerable part in the life of the day. The hunter used both bow and arrow and snares and traps. There are clear references to the capture of lions in snares, the taking of antelopes in pits, and the hunting of the boar with dogs. Birds were captured in nets stretched out on pegs. Possibly the use of tame elephants to capture other elephants was known, but this is very uncertain, for there is no clear proof that the elephant had yet been tamed at this early date. Buffaloes seem to have been shot by arrows, and occasionally a lion might be surrounded by hunters and shot to death.

There is some evidence that already in this period specialization in industry had begun. The worker in wood has clearly the place of honor, needed as he was to produce the chariots for war and the race, and the carts for agricultural purposes. He was carpenter, joiner, wheelwright in one; and the fashioning of chariots is a frequent source of metaphor, the poet comparing his own skill to that of the wheelwright. Next in importance was the worker in metal who smelted ore in the furnace, using the wing of a bird in the place of a bellows to fan the flame. Kettles and other domestic utensils were made of metal. It is, however, still uncertain what that metal which is called ayas was. Copper, bronze, and iron alike may have been meant, and we cannot be certain that the term has the same sense throughout. Of other workers the tanner's art is indeed to not rarely; and to women are ascribed sewing, the plaiting of mats from grass or reeds, and, much more frequently, the weaving of cloth. It is of importance to note that there is no sign that those who carried on these functions were in any way regarded as inferior members of the community, as was the case in later times. This fact is probably to be explained by the growing number of the servile population which must have steadily increased with the conquest of the tribes, though we cannot conjecture the motives which ascribed to inferiors tasks which in the Rigvedic time were apparently honorable and distinguished. Presumably even at this time the slave population must have been utilized in assisting their masters in their various tasks, agricultural, industrial, and pastoral; but the Rig-Veda unquestionably presents us with a society which is not dependent on such labor, and in which the ordinary tasks of life are carried out by the free men of the tribe. This is one of the facts which show the comparative simplicity of the age of the Rig-Veda as compared with the next period of Indian history.

Fishing is not directly mentioned; and the Vedic Indian seems to have been very little of a navigator. The use of boats, probably dug-outs, for crossing rivers, was known, but the simplicity of their construction is adequately shown by the fact that the paddle alone was used for their propulsion. There is no mention of rudder or anchor, mast or sails, a fact which incidentally negatives the theory that the Vedic Indians took any part in ocean shipping.

Of the domestic life of the time we have a few details. The dress usually worn consisted either of three or of two garments. These were generally woven from the wool of sheep, though skins were also employed. Luxury manifested itself in the wearing of variegated garments or clothing adorned with gold. Ornaments in the shape of necklets, earrings, anklets, and bracelets were worn by both sexes and were usually made of gold. The hair was carefully combed and oiled. Women wore it plaited, while in some cases men wore it in coils: it was a characteristic of the Vasishthas to have it coiled on the right. Shaving was not unknown, but beards were normally worn, and on festive occasions men bore garlands.

As was natural with a pastoral people, milk formed a considerable part of the ordinary food, being taken in its natural state or mixed with grain. Ghee or clarified butter was also much used. Grain was either parched or ground into flour, and mixed with milk or butter, and made into cakes. As throughout the history of India, vegetables and fruits formed a considerable portion of the dietary. But the Vedic Indians were a nation of meat-eaters, nor need we believe that they merely ate meat on occasions of sacrifice. Rather, as in the Homeric age, the slaughter of oxen was always in some degree a sacrificial act, and one specially appropriate for the entertainment of guests, as the second name of the heroic Divodasa Atithigva, “the slayer of oxen for guests”, and as the practice of slaying oxen at the wedding festival abundantly show. The ox, the sheep, and the goat were the normal food eaten by men and offered to their gods: horse-flesh was probably eaten only at the horse-sacrifice, and not so much as ordinary food as with a view to gain the strength and swiftness of the steed. There is no inconsistency between this eating of flesh and the growing sanctity of the cow, which bears already in the Rig-Veda the epithet aghnya, “not to be killed”. If this interpretation of the term is correct, it is merely a proof of the high value attached to that useful animal, the source of the milk which meant so much both for secular and sacred use to the Vedic Indian. The flesh eaten was either cooked in pots of metal or earthenware or roasted on spits.

In addition to milk, the Indians had at least two intoxicating drinks. The first was the Soma, which however, by the time of the Rig-Veda, appears almost exclusively as a sacrificial drink. It stands, however, to reason that the extraordinary preeminence which it acquired for religious purposes can hardly have been attained except through its original popular character; and it is difficult to resist the impression that the Soma was at first a popular drink in the home whence the Vedic Indians entered India, and that in India itself they found no plant which precisely coincided with that whence the Soma had first been produced, and so were compelled to resort to substitutes or to use the original plant after it had been brought from a great distance and had thus lost its original flavor. The popular drink was evidently the sura, which seems to have been distilled from grain. It was clearly extremely intoxicating, and the priests regarded it with disapproval: in one hymn mention is made of men made arrogant by the sura reviling the gods, while another couples it with anger and dicing as the cause of sin.

Of the amusements of the Indian first place must clearly be given to the chariot race, a natural form of sport among a horse-loving and chivalrous people. The second belongs to dicing, which forms the occasion of a lament, already referred to. Unhappily, the details of the play are nowhere described, and the scattered allusions cannot be reduced to a whole without much conjecture; but, in one form at least, the aim of the gambler was to throw a number which should be a multiple of fours. Dancing was also practiced, and the dancing of maidens is several times mentioned; it seems that men also on occasion danced in the open air, as a metaphor alludes to the dust of the dancing feet of men. Music too had advanced beyond the primitive stage; and already the three types of instrument, percussion, string, and wind, were represented by the drum, used, among other purposes, to terrify the foe in battle, the lute, and the flute, the last-named instrument being said to be heard in the abode of Yama, where the holy dead dwell. The hymns themselves prove that singing was highly esteemed.

The comparative simplicity of the life of the Vedic Indian stands in striking contrast to the elaboration of the religious side of life by the priests. The Rig-Veda does not present us with any naive outpouring of the primitive religious consciousness, but with a state of belief which must have been the product of much priestly effort, and the outcome of wholesale syncretism. Nothing else can explain the comparative magnitude of the Vedic pantheon, which considerably exceeds that of the Homeric poems. In the main, the religion revealed to us is in essence simple. The objects of the devotion of the priests were the great phenomena of nature, conceived as alive, and usually represented in anthropomorphic shape, though not rarely theriomorphism is referred to. The chief gods include Dyaus, the sky, who is usually coupled with Prithivi, the earth, and whose anthropomorphism is faint, being in the main confined to the conception of him as father. Varuna, the sky-god par excellence, has superseded Dyaus as a popular figure, and has acquired moreover a moral elevation, which places him far above the other gods. Varuna is the subject of the most exalted hymns of the Rig-Veda; but it seems clear that in this period his claim to divine preeminence was being successfully challenged by the much less ethical Indra, the god of the thunder-storm which causes the rain to pour, when the rainy season long hoped for comes to relieve the parched earth. Varuna bears the epithet Asura, which serves to show his parallelism with Ahura Mazda, the highest of Iranian gods; nor can there be any reason to doubt that in the Indo-Iranian period he acquired his moral elevation and preeminence. But in India it seems that his star paled before that of Indra, whose importance grew with the advance of the Aryan tribes to the regions where the rain was confined in the main to the rainy months and the terrors of the storm supplanted in the popular imagination the majestic splendor of the sky. With Varuna seems to have been bound up in the first instance the conception of rita as first cosmic and then moral order, and with his lessening glory these conceptions fade from Indian thought. The importance of the sun is shown by the fact that no less than five high gods seem to be solar—Sarya and Savitri, who represent the quickening power of the luminary, Mitra, whose fame in Iran is but palely reflected in India, where he is conjoined with Yampa and eclipsed by Varuna’s glories, Mishap, the representative of the power of the sun in its effect on the growth of herds and vegetation, and Vishnu, the personification of the swift moving sun and a god destined to become one of the two great gods of India. Shiva, his great rival in later days, appears in the name of Rudra, seemingly in essence at this time a storm-god, with a dark side to his character presaging his terrible aspect in later days. Other gods are the Ashvins, apparently the morning and evening stars, who are clearly parallel to the Dioscuri, the Maruts, storm-gods and attendants on Rudra, Vayu and Vata, the wind-gods, Parjanya, the god of rain, the Waters, and the Rivers. Ushas the Dawn, deserves separate mention, since she has evoked some of the most beautiful of Vedic poetry; but her figure seems to belong to the earliest period of Vedic hymnology, when the Indians were still in the Punjab; and after the Rig-Veda she vanishes swiftly from the living gods of the pantheon.

Next to Indra in importance rank Agni, “the fire”, and the Soma. To the priest indeed there can be little doubt that these gods were of even greater importance than Indra, but the latter was seemingly more of a national god, and more nearly alive in the hearts of the people. Agni has three forms, the sun in the heaven, the lightning, and the terrestrial fire; and his descent, from his highest form is variously pictured. He seems in his growth to have vanquished older gods, like Trita and Apam Napat, “the child of the waters”, who were forms of the lightning, and Matarishvan, a form of celestial fire. The Soma must have owed its original divine rank to its wonderful intoxicating power; but priestly speculation by the end of the Rigvedic period had succeeded in identifying the Soma and the moon, a tour de force which can indeed be rendered less unnatural by recognizing the potent effect of the moon in the popular imagination on vegetation, but which is none the less remarkable in the success in which it finally imposed itself on the religious conscience. The Soma hymns are among the most mystical of the Rig-Veda; and one of the legends, that of the bringing of the Soma from heaven by the eagle, appears to be a reflection of the fall of rain to earth as a result of the lightning which rends the cloud just when the rain begins to fall.


The creation of what may be called abstract deities is not far advanced in the Rig-Veda, such deities as Craddha, “faith”, and Manyu, “wrath”, being confined to a few hymns of the tenth book. On the other hand, the specialization of epithets in some cases results in the production of what is practically a new figure: thus Prajapati, an epithet of such gods as Savitri and Soma, as “lord of creatures” approaches the position of a creator. The Adityas and their mother Aditi, who may be derived from them, present scarcely any physical features and, as we have seen, have therefore by Oldenberg been assigned to a Semitic source; but this hypothesis has not yet been rendered probable in a mythology which else seems so little touched by external influence. Personifications like Ratri, “the night”, are mainly poetic rather than religious.

A characteristic of the Vedic theology is the tendency to group gods in pairs, especially Mitra and Varuna, a practice due in all probability to the natural union of heaven and earth as a pair. Of larger groups there are the Maruts, the Adityas, and the Vasus. The last are associated vaguely with Indra or Agni, and have practically no individual character. Finally, priestly speculation has created the class of the Vishve devas, “the All-gods”, who first include all the gods, and, in the second place, are regarded as a special group invoked with others, like the Adityas and the Vasus.

Little part is played by minor deities in the Vedic theology. The predominance of the male element is marked: the goddesses are pale reflections of their husbands by whose names, with a feminine affix added, they are called: the only one who has a real character is Ushas, and more faintly Prithivi, “the earth”, and of rivers the sacred Sarasvati. The Ribhus are aerial elfs, the Apsarasas water nymphs, and the Gandharvas, their play­mates, are aerial sprites. The simpler and more primitive side of nature worship is seen in the invocation of the plants, of the mountains, and of the trees of the forest; but real as these beliefs may have been to the common people, they are not the true subjects of the priests’ devotion. When speculation turned to deal with these matters, it found an utterance such as is seen in a striking hymn to the goddess of the forest, which exhibits much more poetical than religious feeling.

While the great gods might be conceived at times in animal form, for example Indra or Dyaus as a bull, or the sun as a swift horse, actual direct worship of animals is hardly found in the Rig-Veda. The drought demon which prevents the rain from falling is conceived as a snake whom Indra crushes, and we hear of the snake of the abyss; but, in striking contrast with later India, no direct worship of the snake attributable to its deadliness occurs. Of totemism, in the sense of the belief in an animal ancestor and the treatment of that animal as sacred and divine, the Rig-Veda shows not a trace. On the other hand, fetishism is seen in the allusion already quoted to the use of an image of Indra against one's enemies. Analogous to this is the sentiment which deifies the pressing-stones which expressed the Soma, the drum and the weapons of the warrior and the sacrificial post. The chief opponents of the gods are the Asuras, a vague group who bear a name which is the epithet of Varuna and must originally have had a good meaning, but which may have been degraded by being associated with the conception of divine cunning applied for evil ends. On a lower plane are the Rakshasas, demons conceived as in animal as well as human shape, who seek to destroy the sacrifice and the sacrificers alike, but whose precise nature cannot be definitely ascertained.

To the gods the Indian stood in an attitude of dependence, but of hope. The gods are willing to grant boons if they are worshipped; and the overwhelming mass of the evidence shows that the ordinary Vedic sacrifice was an offering made to win the divine favor, though thank-offerings may well have been known. Inextricably bound up with this conception of the divine relation is that other which regards the gods as subject to control by the worshipper if he but know the correct means, a motive clearly seen in the selection of the horse as a sacrifice whereby the swift steed, the sun, may regain strength and favor his worshippers. The higher and more mystic view of the sacrifice as a sacrament is not found except in the quite rudimentary form of the common meal of the priests on the sacrificial victim: there is no proof that in thus consuming the victim the priests deemed themselves to be consuming their god, though doubtless they regarded the meal as bringing them into special relation with the god who shared it with them and so in some measure acquired the same nature as themselves. But if the view of sacrifice was less mystic, in some aspects at least, than in the case of the Mediterranean peoples, Vedic civilization at this stage was spared the horror of human sacrifice, which can be found in the Samhita only by implausible conjecture.

Sacrifices : Philosophy

The sacrifices offered included offerings of milk, grain, and ghee, as well as offerings of flesh and of the Soma. It is impossible to adapt the later sacrificial theory, as it appears in the next period, to the Rigvedic texts, and it is clear that at this time the sacrifice was less elaborate than it became; but there is abundant proof that already the Soma sacrifice in particular had been elaborated, and that the labor had been divided among several priests, the chief being the Hotri who recited the hymns and in earlier times composed them, the Adhvaryu who performed the manual actions to the accompaniment of muttered prayers and deprecations of evil, the Udgatri who sung the Saman chants, and several assistants, the number seven being found quite frequently in the Rig-Veda. Naturally these elaborate sacrifices could not be undertaken by any save the rich men of the tribe and especially the king; and we must therefore picture to ourselves the priests as maintained by the rich men, the Maghavans, “bountiful ones”, of the Rig-Veda, their number and rewards rising with the social scale of their patron, until the height of the priest’s ambition was attained, the position of Purohita to the king. Beside all this elaborate ritual there was of course the daily worship of the ordinary Aryan, which he no doubt in this period, as later, conducted himself; but the Rig-Veda is an aristocratic collection and contains little of popular religion beyond a few incantations in the tenth book, which carry us into the homely region of spells against rivals and to repel diseases and noxious animals. But these are not really parts of the main body of the Samhita.

The late tenth book also gives us the beginnings of the philosophy of India. The multiplicity of gods is questioned and the unity of the universe is asserted, while attempts are made to represent the process of creation as the evolution of being from not being, first in the shape of the waters and then in the shape of heat. Other hymns more simply consider the process as that of a creation by Vishvakarman, “the all-maker”, or Hiranya­garbha, “the golden germ”, apparently an aspect of the sun. In yet another case the sacrificial theory is applied, and in the Purushasata, the earliest authority for caste divisions, the world is fashioned from the sacrifice of a primeval giant whose name Purusha, “man”, reappears in later philosophy as the technical term for spirit. These speculations are of interest, not for their intrinsic merit, but for the persistence with which the same conceptions dominate the religious and philosophical systems of India.

There is little in the Rig-Veda that bears on the life after death. The dead were either cremated or buried, and, if cremated, the ashes were regularly buried. This suggests that burial was the older method which was altered under the pressure of migration and perhaps the Indian climate. The Rig-Veda is innocent of widow burning, though it clearly has the conception which gave rise to that practice, the view that life in the next world is a reflex of this life, and though in the next period we have clear references to the fact that the burning of widows was not unknown. The direct authority for the custom, which later days sought to find in the Rig-Veda, owes its existence to a daring forgery of quite modern date. The exact fate of the dead is somewhat obscure: they are conceived, at one time, as dwelling in peace and converse with the gods of the world of Yama, the first of the dead and king of the dead. In other passages, the gods and the fathers are deemed to dwell in different places; while a third conception declares that the soul departs to the waters or the plants. Beyond this last idea there is nothing in the Rigvedic literature to suggest that the idea of metempsychosis had presented itself to the Indian mind: the fate of the evil after death is obscure : possibly unbelievers were consigned to an underground darkness; but so scanty is the evidence that Roth held that the Vedic poet believed in their annihilation. But this vagueness is characteristic of the comparative indifference of the Rig-Veda to morals: the gods are indeed extolled as true, though perhaps rather as a means of securing that they shall keep faith with their votary than as an assertion of ascertained truth. Except in the case of Yampa, the omniscient, whose spies watch men and who knows the every thought of man, the characteristics of the gods are might and strength rather than moral goodness, or even wisdom.

In its metrical form the Rig-Veda shows traces of the distinction between the recitative of the Hotri and the song of the Udgatri: thus besides hymns in simple metres, rhythmical series of eight syllables, three or four times repeated, or eleven or twelve syllables four times repeated, are found strophic effects made up of various combinations of series of eight and twelve syllables, these being intended for Saman singing. The verse technique has risen beyond the state of the mere counting of syllables which it shared as regards the use of eight and eleven syllable lines with the Iranian versification; but the process of fixing the quantity of each syllable, which appears fully completed in the metres of classical Sanskrit verse, is only in a rudimentary state, the last four or five syllables tending to assume in the case of the eight and twelve syllable lines an iambic, in the case of the eleven syllable lines a trochaic cadence. The poetry of the collection is of very uneven merit: Varuna and Ushas evoke hymns which now and then are nearly perfect in poetic conception and expression; but much of the work is mechanical and stilted, being overladen with the technicalities of the ritual: this condemnation applies most heavily to the ninth book, which, consisting as it does of hymns addressed to the Soma in the process of its purification for use, is arid and prosaic to a degree. In style, practically all the hymns are simple enough, and their obscurity, which is considerable, is due to our ignorance of the Vedic age, which renders unintelligible references and allusions clear enough to the authors. But there is unquestionably much mysticism in the later hymns and still more of that confusion of thought and tendency to take refuge in enigmas, which is a marked feature of all Indian speculation.

The language is of the highest interest, as it reveals to us an Indo-European speech with a singular clarity of structure and wealth of inflection, even if we admit that the first discoverers of its importance from the point of view of comparative philology exaggerated in some degree these characteristics. Historically it rendered comparative philology the first great impetus, and it must for all time be one of the most important subjects of study. But it is clearly, as preserved in the hymns, a good deal more than a spoken tongue. It is a hieratic language which doubtless diverged considerably in its wealth of variant forms from the speech of the ordinary man of the tribe. Moreover it shows clear signs of influence by metrical necessities which induce here and there a disregard of the rules normally strictly observed of concord of noun and attribute. It must be remembered that it was in a peculiar position: in the first place, it was the product of an hereditary priesthood, working on a traditional basis: the very first hymn of the Samhita alludes to the songs of old and new poets: in the second place, the language of all classes was being affected by the influence of contact with the aboriginal tongues. The existence of slaves, male and especially female, must have tended constantly to affect the Aryan speech, and the effect must have been very considerable, if, as seems true, the whole series of lingual letters of the Vedic speech was the result of aboriginal influence. Many of the vast number of words with no known Aryan cognates must be assigned to the same influence. Thus in the period of the Rig-Veda there was growing up an ever increasing divergence between the speech of the learned and that of the people. As a result the language of literature remains the language of the priesthood and the nobility: it is modified gradually, and finally, at an early date, fixed for good as regards form and construction by the action of the grammarians: on the other hand, the speech of the commoner, in consequence of the constant contact with the aborigines and the growing admixture of blood, develops into Pali and the Prakrits and finally into the modern vernaculars of India. What we do not know is how far at any given moment in the Vedic period the gulf of separation had extended. Nor do we know whether at this epoch there were distinct dialects of the Vedic speech: efforts to find traces of dialects in the Rig-Veda have so far ended in no secure result.

It is natural, at the conclusion of this survey of the more important aspects of the Vedic civilization, to consider what date can be assigned to the main portion of the Rig-Veda or to the civilization which it records. One fact of interest has been adduced from the records of treaties between the Hittites and the Kings of Mitani of about 1400 BC. In them occur names which a certain amount of faith may induce us to accept as denoting India, the two Ashvins under the name Nasatya, one of their epithets—of unknown meaning—in the Rig-Veda, Mitra, and Varuna. It is right to add that these identifications must not be regarded as certain, though they may be correct. It has been argued by Jacobi that these names must be derived from a tribe practicing the religion revealed to us in the Rig-Veda, that the presence of this tribe at this date is due to a movement on their part from India, and that we have a definite date assigned at which the culture of the Rig-Veda existed. Unhappily the argument cannot be regarded as conclusive. It is considered by E. Meyers and by Oldenberg that the gods are proto-Iranian gods, affording a proof of what has always seemed on other grounds most probable, that the Indian and Iranian period was preceded by one in which the Indo-Iranians still undivided enjoyed a common civilization. This is supported by the fact that the Avesta, which is doubtless a good deal later than the date in question, still recognizes a great god to whom Varuna's epithet Asura is applied, that it knows a Verethrajan who bears the chief epithet of Indra as Vritrahan, “slayer of Vritra”, that it has a demon, Naonhaithya, who may well be a pale reflex of the Nasatyas, and that the Avestan Mithra is the Vedic Mitra. It is also possible that the gods represent a period before the separation of Indians and Iranians, though this would be less likely if it is true that the names of the Mitani princes include true Iranian names. But, in any case, it is to be feared that we attain no result of value for Vedic chronology.

Another and, at first sight, more promising attempt has been made to fix a date from internal evidence. It has been argued by Jacobi on the strength of two hymns in the Rig-Veda that the year then began with the summer solstice, and that at that solstice the sun was in conjunction with the lunar mansion Phalguni. Now the later astronomy shows that the lunar mansions were, in the sixth century AD, arranged so as to begin for purposes of reckoning with that called Ashvini, because at the vernal equinox at that date the sun was in conjunction with the star Piscium. Given this datum, the precession of the equinoxes allows us to calculate that the beginning of the year with the summer solstice in Phalguni took place about 4000 BC. This argument must be considered further in connection with the dating of the next period of Indian history; but, for the dating of the Rig-Veda, it is certain that no help can be obtained from it. It rests upon two wholly improbable assumptions, first, that the hymns really assert that the year began at the summer solstice, and, second, that the sun was then brought into any connection at all with the Nakshatras, for which there is no evidence whatever. The Nakshatras are, as their name indicates and as all the evidence of the later Samhitas shows, lunar mansions pure and simple.

In the absence of any trustworthy external evidence, we are forced to rely on what is after all the best criterion, the development of the civilization and literature of the period. Max Muller on the basis of this evidence divided the Vedic period into four, that of the Sutra literature, 600-200 BC, the Brahmanas, 800- 600 BC, the Mantra period, including the later portions of the Rig-Veda, 1000-800 BC, and the Chhandas, covering the older and more primitive Vedic hymns, 1200-1000 BC. The exact demarcation did not claim, save as regards the latest period, any special exactitude, and was indeed somewhat arbitrary. But the fact remains that definitely later than the Rig-Veda we find the other Samhitas, of which an account is given below, and the prose Brahmana texts, which contain comments on and explanations of the Samhitas, whose existence they presuppose. It is impossible to deny that this mass of work must have taken time to produce, especially when we realize that what has survived is probably a small fraction as compared with what has been lost. Now in the Brahmanas we find only the most rudimentary elements of the characteristic features of all Indian literature after Buddhism, the belief in metempsychosis, pessimism, and the search for deliverance. The distance between the Brahmana texts with their insistence on the ritual, and their matter-of-fact and indeed sordid view of the rewards of action in this world, and the later doctrine of the uselessness of all mundane effort, is bridged by the Aranyakas and the Upanishads which recognize transmigration, if not pessimism, which definitely strive to examine the real meaning of being, and are no longer content with the explanation of sacrifices and idle legends. It is unreasonable to deny that these texts must antedate the rise of Buddhism, which, in part at least, is a legitimate development of the doctrines of the Upanishads. Now the death of Buddha falls in all probability somewhere within the second decade of the fifth century before Christ: the older Upanishads can therefore be dated as on the whole not later than 550 BC. From that basis we must reckon backwards, taking such periods as seem reasonable; and, in the absence of any means of estimating these periods, we cannot have more than a conjectural chronology. But it is not likely that the Bramana period began later than 800 BC, and the oldest hymns of the Rig-Veda, such as those to Ushas, may have been composed as early as 1200 BC. To carry the date further back is impossible on the evidence at present available, and a lower date would be necessary if we are to accept the view that the Avesta is really a product of the sixth century BC, as has been argued on grounds of some though not decisive weight; for the coincidence in language between the Avesta and the Rig-Veda is so striking as to indicate that the two languages cannot have been long separated before they arrived at their present condition.

The argument from literature and religion is supported also by the argument from civilization. The second period, that of the Samhitas, shows the development of the primitive Vedic community into something more nearly akin to the Hinduism which, as we learn from the Greek records, existed at the time of the invasion of Alexander and the immediately succeeding years. But we are still a long way from the full development of the system as shown to us in the Arthashastra, that remarkable record of Indian polity which is described in Chapter XIX. The language also of the Vedic literature is definitely anterior, though not necessarily much anterior, to the classical speech as prescribed in the epoch-making work of Panini: even the Sutras, which are undoubtedly later than the Brahmanas, show a freedom which is hardly conceivable after the period of the full influence of Panini; and Panini is dated with much plausibility not later than 300 BC.