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
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
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.