The Ancient Age

As the mind's eye travels backwards across the wide plains of Northern

India, attempting to re-people it with the men of olden time,

historical insight fails us at about the seventh century B.C. From

that date to our own time the written Word steps in to pin protean

legend down to inalterable form.

And yet before this seventh century there is no lack of evidence. The

Word is still there, though, at the ti
e, it lived only in the mouths

of the people or of the priesthood. Even if we go so far back as B.C.

2000, the voices of men who have lived and died are still to be heard

in the earlier hymns of the Rig-Veda.

And before that?

Who knows? The imaginative eye, looking out over the vast sea of young

green wheat which in many parts of the Punjab floods unbroken to the

very foot of the hills, may gain from it an idea of the wide ocean

whose tide undoubtedly once broke on the shores of the Himalayas.

The same eye may follow in fancy the gradual subsidence of that sea,

the gradual deposit of sand, and loam brought by the great rivers from

the high lands of Central Asia. It may rebuild the primeval huts of

the first inhabitants of the new continent--those first invaders of

the swampy haunts of crocodile and strange lizard-like beasts--but it

has positively no data on which to work. The first record of a human

word is to be found in the earliest hymn of the Aryan settlers when

they streamed down into the Punjab. When?

Even that is beyond proof. The consensus of opinion amongst learned

men, however, gives the Vedic period--that is to say, the period

during which the hymns of the Rig-Veda were composed--as approximately

the years between B.C. 2000 and B.C. 1400.

But these same hymns tell us incidentally of a time before that. It is

not only that these Aryan invaders were themselves in a state of

civilisation which necessarily implies long centuries of culture, of

separation from barbarian man; but besides this, they found a people

in India civilised enough to have towns and disciplined troops, to

have weapons and banners; women whose ornaments were of gold, poisoned

arrows whose heads were of some metal that was probably iron.

All this, and much more, is to be gathered in the Rig-Veda concerning

the Dasyas or aboriginal inhabitants of India. Naturally enough, as

inevitable foes, they are everywhere mentioned with abhorrence, and we

are left with the impression of a "tawny race who utter fearful


Who, then, were these people?

Are we to treat the monotonous singing voice which even now echoes out

over the length and breadth of India, as in the sunsetting some

Brahman recites the ancient hymns--are we to treat this as the first

trace of Ancient India? Or, as we sit listening, are we to watch the

distant horizon, so purple against the gold of the sky, and wonder if

it is only our own unseeing eyes which prevent our tracing the low

curve that may mark the site of a town, ancient when the Aryans swept

it into nothingness?

"The fiction which resembles truth," said the Persian poet Nizami in

the year 1250, "is better than the truth which is dissevered from the

imagination"; so let us bring something of the latter quality into our


Certain it is that for long centuries the reddish or tawny Dasyas

managed to resist the white-skinned Aryas, so that even as late as the

period of that great epic, the Mahabharata--that is, some thousand

years later than the earliest voice which speaks in the Vedic

hymns--the struggle was still going on. At least in those days the

Aryan Pandavas of whom we read in that poem appear to have

dispossessed an aboriginal dynasty from the throne of Magadha. This

dynasty belonged to the mysterious Naga or Serpent race, which finally

blocks the way in so many avenues of Indian research. They are not

merely legendary; they cross the path of reality now and again, as

when Alexander's invasion of India found some satrapies still held by


It is impossible, therefore, to avoid wondering whether the Aryans

really found the rich plains of India a howling wilderness peopled by

savages close in culture to the brutes, or whether, in parts of the

vast continent at least, they found themselves pitted against another

invading race, a Scythic race hailing from the north-east as the Aryan

hails from north-west?

There is evidence even in the voice of the Rig-Veda for this. To begin

with, there is the evidence of colour--colour which was hereafter to

take form as caste. We have mention not of two, but of three divergent

complexions. First, the "white-complexioned friends of Indra," who are

palpably the Aryans; next, "the enemy who is flayed of his black

skin"; and lastly, "those reddish in appearance, who utter fearful


It seems, to say the least of it, unlikely that a single aboriginal

race should be described in two such curiously different ways.

As for the fearful yells, that is palpably but another way of

asserting that the utterers spoke a language which was not understood

of the invaders. "Du'ye think th' Almighty would be understandin'

siccan gibberish," said the old Scotch lady when, during the

Napoleonic war, she was reminded that maybe many a French mother was

praying as fervently for victory as she was herself. The same spirit

breathes in many a Vedic hymn in which the Dasyas are spoken of as

barely human. "They are not men." "They do not perform sacrifices."

"They do not believe in anything." These are the plaints which precede

the ever-recurring prayer--"Oh! Destroyer of foes! Kill them!" And

worse even than this comes the great cause of conflict--"Their rites

are different."

So the story is told. These Dasyas, "born to be cut in twain," have

yet the audacity to have different dogma, conflicting canons of the

law. Even in those early days religion was the great unfailing cause

of strife.

These same hymns of the Rig-Veda, however, give us but scant

information of the foes who are called generally Dasyas, or "robbers."

But here again divergence creeps in. It is impossible to class "the

wealthy barbarian," the "neglecters of sacrifices," who, "decorated

with gold and jewels," were "spreading over the circuit of the earth,"

whose "iron cities" were to be destroyed, who were to be "slain

whether weeping or laughing, whether hand to hand or on horseback,

whether arrayed in hosts or aided by missile-hurling heroes"--it is

impossible, surely, to class these enemies with the mere robber brutes

of whom it is written that they "were slain, and the kine made


Were then these tawny-hued foes, with the mention of whom

wealth is invariably associated, in reality the ancestors of the

treasure-holding Takshaks or Nagas, that strange Snake race of which

we read in the Mahabharata, and of which we hear again during the

invasion of Alexander?

At least there is nothing to prevent us dreaming that this is so; and

while we listen to the voice of some Brahman chanting at sunset-time

the oldest hymns in the world, there is nothing to hinder us from

trying to imagine how strangely these must have fallen on the ears of

the "neglecters of sacrifices, the dwellers in cities, rich in gold

and beautiful women," of whom we catch a passing glimpse as the

stately Sanskrit rhythm rolls on.

The sun sets, the voice ceases, and the far-away past is no nearer and

no further from us than the present.