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 dislike for 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.

17 Responses to The Rig Veda – A historical perspective

  1. massigusoni says:

    Hello. I appreciate your interest and efforts; and I can sense your writing to have a substancial and personal attachment to the subject matter of The Vedas.

    I am presently reading the Rig Veda. I did a search on the names of the Vedic Deities, and so discoveed your blog.

    Like yourself I am no Vedic shcolar, neither a historian of any credentials; but, I love the writings. Not being a ‘profesional’ accademic in the material tends toward a fresh perspective; and your’s seems a geniune work from the heart.
    I have some personal theories as well on historical issues; and, I think history has been somewhat manipulated by the conquering recorders of it. I think the idea of civilization, or mankind originating in the Tigris-Eupharaties region may be a gross error.

    The Wetern Historical opinions that build upon that premise; and, which are largely influenced by Abrahamic Mythology are also I think erronious.

    Concerning the Vedic Deities there has been much speculated I suppose; but, be it imagination or insight, the reading opens up some imteresting vistas. The least we see is nature revereed and respected, and there is through that perspective always the potential for the “Gods” to come alive to us, in some part of our understading. I think it good.

    I would encourage you to continue your research and studies. All The Very Best!

  2. yatin2710 says:

    Thank you for your feedback and encouragement. There is definitely a need to revisit ancient history and reinterpret in light of new evidence, especially studies on human migration and genetics. Its a long journey I have set out on, hope to complete it in this lifetime!!!!

    Please do share any insights or findings you have come across.

    Regards,

    Yatin Dhareshwar

    • Massi Gusoni says:

      Hello; and, Namaste:

      There are many interesting fascets to the field of your interests. I suppose that to try to keep an overview is difficult, with all the intruiging details available that attract the attention.

      The antiquity of the Vedic civilization is undeniable. How far back into the remote eons it reflects is one of the challenges, I believe, that is worth some investigation. Considering that the Vedic Hymns were passed by articulation, and from memory, for such a long time before being recorded; then, the antiquity that they reflect, may be staggering in it’s implications.

      One very interesting point, I estimate, is the merging of the Shramana concepts with those of the Vedic; which, produced what we call today Sanatana Dharma.

      No doubt, the concept of Brahman and Atman, and the Yoga of union of the two, are originally form the Shramana Traditions. Strikingly, later progressions of the Sharmana initiated the idea of Anatman. What a strange ‘quirk’ of destiny in progress this initiative represents. There is so much intruiging material for researching this; how, a tradition that introduced such a profound transition into Vedic thinking, would be the very one to later dispute it’s own discovereies, so to speak.

      The “Progression” of the foremost ideas in Indian philosophies and pactices; ( I see the phenomena as a “Progression”, rather than the idea of an “Evolution”, in the nuinces of it’s panorama.) is extremely, of high interest value.

      In later times we see the emergence of the Arya and Brahma Samaj; and now, even contemporary proponents endeavoring to embrace the entirety of Hindu Philosophy.
      Yet from the “birds eye” overview of the whole, the obvious transitions can not be denied.

      I think the most interesting aspect of this research, is noting these transitions; and seeking to doscover why, when, and how, they took place. In doing this we will likely always have some notion that there may have been some “seed” knowledge at the outset: which, may heve been deluted or lost; and, which may well be profoundly worth discovering.

      In very tragedy, the many so called “New World Orders”, ( I believe that there have been many down through the ages.) have always set out to completely destroy all existing knowledge that had preceeded them. We find in later times the Abrahamic initiatives of Judaism, Christindom, and Islam, to be the very worst of offenders.

      Without a doubt, what may be salvaged from the traditions of India, are most likely the closest to “Truth”; and, deserve our attention and study.

      Now, as regards some more recent discoveries that challenge contemporay historical notions, I find this really interesting.

      “Standing on the hill at dawn, overseeing a team of 40 Kurdish diggers, the German-born archeologist waves a hand over his discovery here, a revolution in the story of human origins. Schmidt has uncovered a vast and beautiful temple complex, a structure so ancient that it may be the very first thing human beings ever built. The site isn’t just old, it redefines old: the temple was built 11,500 years ago—a staggering 7,000 years before the Great Pyramid, and more than 6,000 years before Stonehenge first took shape. The ruins are so early that they predate villages, pottery, domesticated animals, and even agriculture—the first embers of civilization. In fact, Schmidt thinks the temple itself, built after the end of the last Ice Age by hunter-gatherers, became that ember—the spark that launched mankind toward farming, urban life, and all that followed.” –

      http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/02/18/history-in-the-remaking.html

      “For the old Kurdish shepherd, it was just another burning hot day in the rolling plains of eastern Turkey. Following his flock over the arid hillsides, he passed the single mulberry tree, which the locals regarded as ‘sacred’. The bells on his sheep tinkled in the stillness. Then he spotted something. Crouching down, he brushed away the dust, and exposed a strange, large, oblong stone.

      The man looked left and right: there were similar stone rectangles, peeping from the sands. Calling his dog to heel, the shepherd resolved to inform someone of his finds when he got back to the village. Maybe the stones were important.

      They certainly were important. The solitary Kurdish man, on that summer’s day in 1994, had made the greatest archaeological discovery in 50 years. Others would say he’d made the greatest archaeological discovery ever: a site that has revolutionised the way we look at human history, the origin of religion – and perhaps even the truth behind the Garden of Eden”

      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1157784/Do-mysterious-stones-mark-site-Garden-Eden.html#ixzz1w6LGSGh4

      “German archeologist Klaus Schmidt, from the German Archaeological Institute, who has been working as the head archeologist at Göbekli Tepe, a temple site located in southeastern Turkey close to the boarder to Syria. Klaus have been excavating there since 1994 and he joins us to talk about the excavation work, and to give us his impressions and theories about the site and the people who built it and worshiped at this ancient temple site. The temple is believed to have been erected in the 10th millennium BC (about 11,500 years ago). It is believed to be the oldest human-made place of worship, it’s even been called the Garden of Eden. Only about 3-5% of the site has been excavated so far, which has unveiled several stone circle rooms, only one of which has been dug down to the floor.”

      I’ll conclude this somewhat lengthy comment. For more lengthy communications that may reflect mutual interests, feel free to use my e-mail if you like. Otherwise a comment at Timu Tele wordpress.com will also get my attention, eventually. ( massigusoni@gmail.com )

      I hope you see to continue your studies and discoveries; they, are certainly more valuable and interesting than the mirky current events of our days. All The Very Best; and, Namaste.

      • Massi Gusoni says:

        Hello Yatin; and, Namaste:

        As for your request, I would also add this article; that , I just discovered, and immediately thought of your blog, and so I will share it now.

        “Myanmar fossil find turns human history on its head – our earliest ancestors came from Asia, not Africa”

        Tooth from Myanmar is similar to tooth from Libya from 37 million years ago.

        Pre-human ancestors migrated between continents.

        Asia, not Africa, is the birthplace of our anthropoid ancestors.

        Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2154753/Myanmar-fossil-turns-human-history-head–earliest-ancestors-came-Asia-Africa.html#ixzz1wxgLPLym

        Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2154753/Myanmar-fossil-turns-human-history-head–earliest-ancestors-came-Asia-Africa.html#ixzz1wxgBuyYk

        This article presupposes the evolutionary theory. It is in fact just a “theory”; and, the lack of any distinct prototype transitional species does lean hard against it’s validity. Nevertheless, I found the suggestion that human life had some origin in the region described very interesting.

        I have always felt intuitively that the areas of fertile lands enclosed by the Sareswati, Indus, and Ganges Rivers was a much likelier origin for “civilization” than the purported Tigris and Euphrates areas claimed by those adhering to the Abrahamic mythologies.

        The Tigress and Euphrates area was likely the origin of the Abrahamic ancestry; but, recognizing their proclivity toward deception, I find it likely that the truth of the matter was altered by their recording; to displace the Indus, and introduce their original habitat in place of it.

      • yatin2710 says:

        There is absolutely no doubt that modern humans originated from Africa – infact from a tiny band that migrated out of Africa around 70,000 years or so. You may want to check Dr. Alice Roberts’s “The Incredible Human Journey” – produced by BBC. You may have already seen it though.

        The unanswered questions are regarding modern civilizations. I have no doubt that at some time the Arya tribes of the Rig Veda did enter India and were in constant conflicts with those who had settled much earlier. When did they arrive? Where did they come from? Did they bring some form of the Vedic culture with them or did that evolve after they came to India? Did they enter India in multiple waves of migrations as well? What conclusive age can we assign to the Vedic civilization?

        I am making painstaking progress in answering some of these questions.

        Also, i doubt there was just once place where civilization emerged and then spread. I guess the question is where did it start earliest…

        Thanks for your interest and pls. do keep sending relevant information and your ideas as well.

        Regards,

        Yatin

  3. Krishna Varanasi says:

    Yatin,

    I am very impressed by your effort to understand the Vedas. But I find that the findings are contemporary. It would be nice if it is understood as it is in the very shoes of the seers of the Vedas.

    Interestingly if you see the Sankalpa mantra, Dviteeya parardhe, svetha varaha kalpe, vyvasvatha manvantare, kaliyuge, pradhamapaade, jambhudweepe, Bharata varshe, Bharatha kande, meru parvatha dhigbage, srisailasya vayuvya pradese, …..etc contains the address of the sadhak who prays. It holds the key to from where the Aryas came. Also I found interesting similarities between Vedas and Gathas of the Parsi community. Both have hymns exactly that match in grammer to that of the Mithras.

    My point is that the Aryas definitely came from the regions now considered to be deserts of the central asia. as these lands turned into deserts, the Aryas migrated towards the east .That’s evident from the sankalpa mantra as it changes with the geography. Had it been rigid, then we could say that the Aryas were natives of India but as this changes , definitely there was a migration.

    • kaml says:

      Please.

      Because of depth of time, climate changes also occur.
      While this may trigger migration , that is not a sufficient condition to assume OUT of India origin.!!!

  4. Pingback: Vedic governance - Page 2

  5. rangarao says:

    It is to glorify European Nations that baseless Aryan theory was thrusted on Indians by scholars ? Like MAKALLY, MAXMULLER ETC.The evidence from Dwarka findings, Kambhat regions show our civilisation was more than 32000years, we followed Sanathana Dharma which fits according to the time and place. Free to practice nor practice , idolatry or dhyana, yagnas all thses are changing and depends upon the interest of the peple.However that society should be guarded, and the human civilization to continue four pillars of society, Brahma (intellectualworks) khstriya (armed forces for internal and external security,), vysya(merchandise, distribution, banking ie commerce and finance) subha (PRODUCERS, MANUFACTURERS, ARTISTS, SCIENTISTS ETC)

    • Uma says:

      To add to RangaRao’s pillars of society, there are also several psychological trait theories which, in the western studies, also corroborate, for example, the DISC profiling for human inter-personal and communication styles. D – Dominance is akin to Kshatriya, I – Initiation, to Vaniga or Vyasa, S – Support, to Subha or Sudhra and C – Consenciousness, to Brahma.

      So, none of it is portrayed as better than the other and the hierarchy is non existent. Just as the recently proposed Theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) by Dr. Howard Gardner, meaning that the capabilities or knowledge are intelligences present in each one of us in varying levels. That does not make one person more ‘intelligent’ than the other in overall terms.

      But somehow, the world over, hierarchy seems to have come into play, leading to unequal caste system or race based Eugenics.

  6. Pingback: The Rig Veda – A historical perspective | 'Shubhakara' V. Mahadeva Sarma

  7. I have enjoyed going through above conversations which, while enlightening are also of much interest for me. I only wonder how I missed it for so long. I will only question how Yatin would argue that there is no mention of Varnas in Rigvida as the Purush Sookt of Mandal ten of Rigveda evidently ascribes its origin to the Pratham Purush!
    If you think that Mandal 10 is a later addition, you should indeed draw a specific history divide between mandal ten and other nine mandalas.
    I also wish that you had some renowned Indian Vedic authorities to support your view point as well. Does it not, at present,sound like an insider’s outcry for an outside adjustments?

  8. Prathi Rao says:

    Hi. Came across this blog by chance and your posts make for very interesting & informative reading. Thanks for sharing. The comments are also very informative.

  9. Raman Sehgal says:

    Dont agree with the Aryan Origin being outside of India. For detailed analysis of this debate google Srikant Talagiri and read his interview at http://www.newsgram.com/indo-european-history-result-of-interaction-of-purus-with-western-anus-druhyus-3-of-5-rigvedic-tribes-talageri/ – all 3 parts (also read others pov).

    One can also watch his talk on youtube.

  10. Paramu says:

    Interesting article. I have attempted to interpret one of the Rig Vedic hymns (10.86) as an historical event. Am thinking of looking at some of the other hymns now.

    https://thoughtchariot.wordpress.com/

    Your comments are welcome

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