The Rig Veda – A historical perspective

Most Indians, particularly Hindus, grow up learning that the Rig Veda is an ancient scripture that forms the foundation of the Hindu religion. Now, this is not entirely true.

The Rig Veda is a collection of over a 1000 hymns that praise Vedic Gods or invoke them as we would today through prayer. The primary Vedic Gods are Indra, Agni, Varuna, Asvins, Surya, Yama, etc. They were powerful Gods of that time, especially Indra, who is not only revered but feared as well. In Rig Veda 6.031.02, Suhotra Bhadravaja states:

Through fear of thee, O Indra, all the regions of earth, though naught may move them, shake and tremble.
All that is firm is frightened at thy coming, -the earth, the heaven, the mountain, and the forest.

But even the all powerful Indra is reduced to caricature in later times. Post Vedic mythology is full of tales where Indra is always at the feet of Vishnu seeking help and protection from his enemies, the Asuras. The fate of the other Vedic Gods is best left untold. With the Gods abandoned, so were the hymns that were sung in their praise or to invoke their goodwill.

Did nothing survive from the Rig Veda then and why does it continue to be an exalted book of scripture even today?

The ethos did.

The manner in which a puja (religious ritual) is performed in Hindu homes and temples is an astonishing continuum over several thousands of years. The Gods may have changed, but the manner in which they are propitiated has remained the same. Infact, the details of how to perform a puja or sacrifice form the basis of yet another Veda – the Yajur Veda, which probably is the first Standard Operating Procedure manual produced by mankind. The fire-cult and soma-cult owe their origins to pre-Vedic times and the former continues to be the centre-piece of every Hindu religious ceremony.

The Rig Veda hymns were composed by a family of seers, or Rishis (plural) as they were referred to in later times. The members of these families spread several generations and so did their compositions. (Refer to Composers of the Rig Veda for details).  Many of these families established their own schools of religious and social practices which have over time gotten interwoven in the fabric of Hindu and Indian society. In that sense, the Rishis and their schools did form the bedrock of Hindu religion and much of Indian society, but not so much the literal content of the Rig Veda as is widely believed.

If you expect to find spiritual content in the Rig Veda, surprisingly, you will be a tad disappointed. That came much later in time, and peaked in the form of the Upanishads. The Upanishads emerged from a major churning during the Vedic ages, both through significant evolution and in large part even rejection of the Vedic principles.

So who were the Vedic people anyway? Let us start with the composers of the hymns. As mentioned above, they were families of seers, perhaps ten in number. The hymns were not composed at any one given point in time or during one decade, generation or century, but over several hundreds of years. Descendants within the family, preserved traditions and cultivated practices common to them all. However, they also chiseled away at their specific nuances, which with time amplified into major differences and were often causes of battles amongst them or was amongst their ruling patrons. The legendary differences and conflict between Rishi Visvamitra and Rishi Vasistha is but one example.

These seers were extremely powerful and rulers of the day were constantly counseled by them. Thus the seers of the Rig Veda were able to fashion the code of conduct and living of those times as well as shape history itself. These families are collectively referred to as Brahmins.

Contrary to the clichéd image that we have today of Brahmins as pious and meek, the members of these families were anything but docile. The major families such as the Bharadvajas and Brghus often interchanged roles between rulers and seers/priests/rishis. Several rulers forsake their janapadhas (kingdoms) and chose to become seers, while many seers ended up as rulers through adoption or surrogacy (practice of Niyoga). Those familiar with Indian mythology will recall Durvasa and Parashurama. Both distinguished members of the Atri and Brghu family respectively.

This leads to an interesting pointer – there were no clear demarcation between the ruling and priestly classes. Infact the (abhorrent) practice of the varna system (four fold stratification on Hindu society) is non-existent in the Rig Veda. Yes, there is constant mention of the word Dasa, but not Sudra or Vaisya. The context and purpose of the term Dasa is hotly debated amongst academia, and there is sufficient ground to suggest it did not mean Sudra as we understand today. Also the term Sudra and Vaisya are each mentioned just once in the entire Rig Veda and that too in Book 10, a book composed much later in time.

Now, back to the seer families – they were known to go to great lengths to protect their “wealth”, here wealth was measured in terms of the number of cows that one owned. Verse after verse extols their mighty Gods to protect their wealth from their foes. That is not all, they were also known to want more of the wealth and on occasion may have usurped wealth that belonged to their foes.

Their foes were tribes outside of their common ancestry – such as the Dasas and Panis. Their foes were also rival tribes with common ancestry. The rival tribes were named after those who ruled at that time and these rulers patronized one of these seer families.

The Rig Veda repeatedly mentions five tribes that somehow can be construed as the protagonists of the book. Known as the descendants of Nahusa, the tribes are named after the sons of his son Yayati. They are: Yadu, Turvasa, Anu, Druhyu and Puru.

At various points in time, the 10 seer families were patronized by rulers belonging to the Puru tribe. Over time powerful descendants of Puru formed their own dynasties and spread over much of Northern India. First there were the Bharatas (from the legendary Bharata, hence Bharatvarsh, i.e. India), who then splintered into Kurus and Panchalas, the Kurus splinters leading all the way to the Kauravas and Pandavas of the Mahabharat. In any case, regardless of the dynasties, they patronized one of the 10 priestly families.

The Rig Veda then, is a book by the 10 families, for the 10 families and contains accounts of these 10 families and their interactions with those that they came in contact with. And by association, it is the book of the Bharatas, the Kurus and the Panchalas.

It is NOT a book of the religious and social practices or the history of all of the people and tribes that undoubtedly co-habited the lands between the Indus river to the West, the Ganges river in the East, the Narmada river and Vindhya mountains in the South, the grand Himalayas in the North and the once grand river Saraswati that was the center of the Rig Vedic people.

As one reads the Rig Veda, it becomes apparent that it is primarily a book of hymns and prayers, written or better still composed by the seer families. But interspersed amongst these hymns are nuggets that tell us about their lives and times.

A careful reader will realize that the Rig Veda is about these people and the tribes that they were a part of. Their likes and dislikes. Their customs and traditions and their preference to those who agreed with them and their abhorrence to those that did not. Their battles and wars for wealth, water, survival and power.

To exalt the book as divine and then deride it would be patently unfair – it has been done in some quarters. It is an account of the trials and tribulations of a people just like you and me. A people who inhabited the land that is India in the days that the Saraswati was a mighty river and then just as the river was forgotten as it dried in the sands of a desert, they too were in the sands of time.


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