The Vedic Times
B.C. 2000 TO B.C. 1400
Before entering on its history it is necessary to grasp the size of
the great continent with which we have to deal. Roughly speaking,
India has fourteen and a half times the area of the British Isles. Of
most of this country we have next to no history at all, and in the
time which is now under consideration we have to deal only with the
Punjab, the "Land of the Five Ri
ers," the area of which about equals
that of Great Britain. That such lack of information should exist is
not wonderful, since, for all we know, this upper portion of India may
then have been on the shores of a still-receding sea; indeed, colour
is given to this suggestion by the remembrance that the five rivers of
the Punjab plain to this day act as huge drain-pipes which deprive the
intervening country of surface moisture. Naturally, this fact, in the
days when all India, save for its few isolated ranges of central
mountains, must have been one vast swamp, was an immense boon to
The geographical area, therefore, with which we have to treat in the
Vedic period is very limited. It is a mere patch on the present
continent of India, bounded on the north by the snowy Himalayas, on
the south by the Indus (and probably by the sea), on the west by the
Suleiman Mountains, while on the east lay the unknown, and possibly
marsh, land of the Ganges and Jumna Rivers.
Curiously enough, although we speak of this very tract nowadays as the
"Land of the Five Rivers," in Vedic times the rivers were counted as
seven. That is to say, the Indus was called the mother of the six--not
five--streams which, as now, joined its vast volume. In those days
this juncture was most probably in comparatively close proximity to
the sea. Of these six rivers only five remain: the Jhelum, the Chenab,
the Ravi, the Beas, the Sutlej. The bed of the sixth river, the "most
sacred, the most impetuous of streams," which was worshipped as a
direct manifestation of Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning, is
still to be traced near Thaneswar, where a pool of water remains to
show where the displeased Goddess plunged into the earth and dispersed
herself amongst the desert sands.
The stream never reappears; but its probable course is yet to be
traced by the colonies of Saraswata Brahmans, who still preserve, more
rigidly than other Brahmans, the archaic rituals of the Vedas. The
reason for this purity of rite being, it is affirmed, the grace-giving
quality of Mother Saraswati's water which, with curious quaint cries,
is drawn in every village from the extraordinarily deep wells (many of
which plunge over 400 feet into the desert sand), at whose bottom the
lost river still flows.
Into this Land of the Seven Rivers, then, came--somewhere about two
thousand years before Christ--wanderers who describe themselves as of
a white complexion. That they had straight, well-bridged noses is also
certain. To this day, as Mr Risley the great ethnologist puts it, "a
man's social status in India varies in inverse ratio to the width of
his nose"; that is to say, the nasal index, as it is called, is a safe
guide to the amount of Aryan, as distinguished from aboriginal blood
in his veins. One constant epithet given to the great cloud-god
Indra--to whom, with the great fire-god Agni, the vast majority of the
hymns in the Rig-Veda are addressed--is "handsome-chinned." But the
Sanskrit word sipra, thus translated "chin," also means "nose"; and
there can be no doubt that as the "handsome-nosed" one, Indra would be
a more appropriate god for a people in whom, that feature was
sufficiently marked to have impressed itself, as it has done, on
Whence the Aryans came is a matter still under dispute. That they
were a comparatively civilised people is certain. The hymns of the
Rig-Veda, which were undoubtedly composed during the six hundred years
following on the Aryans' first appearance in the Punjab, prove this,
as they prove many another point concerning these the first white
invaders of India. How the idea ever passed current that they were a
pastoral people is a mystery, since from the very first we read in
these hymns of oxen, of the cultivation of corn, of ploughing, and
sowing, and reaping.
"Oh! Lord of the Field!" reads one invocation. "We will cultivate this
field with thee! May the plants be sweet to us; may the rains be full
of sweetness; may the Lord of the Field be gracious to us! Let the
oxen work merrily; let the man work merrily; let the plough move
merrily! Fasten the traces merrily; ply the goad merrily.... Oh!
Fortunate Furrow! speed on thy way, bestow on us an abundant crop--sow
the seed on this field which has been prepared. Let the corn grow with
our hymns, let the scythes fall on the ripe grain. Prepare troughs for
the drinking of animals. Fasten the leathern string, and take out
water from this deep and goodly well which never dries up. Refresh the
horses, take up the corn stacked in the field, and make a cart to
convey it easily."
Practically Indian agriculture has gone no further than this in close
on four thousand years.
It is true that a hymn to the God of Shepherds finds occasional place
in the Rig-Veda, but in these there is an archaic ring, which seems to
point to the Aryan wanderings before India was reached. One of them
begins thus: "Oh! Pushan, the Path-finder, help us to finish our
From purely religious hymns, naturally, one has no right to expect a
full crop of information concerning the political and social life of
the times in which they were composed, yet the light which the
Rig-Veda throws upon these dark ages is luckily surprising; luckily,
because we have absolutely no other source of knowledge.
From it we learn something of commerce, even to the extent of the laws
regulating sale and usury. We learn also of ships and shipwrecks, of
men who, "taking a boat, took her out to sea, and lived in the boat
floating on the water, being happy in it rocking gracefully on the
waves"; from which we may infer that our early Aryan brothers did not
suffer from sea-sickness. There is also a phrase in fairly constant
use, "the sea-born sun," which would lead us to suppose that these
writers of hymns had often seen sunrise over an Eastern ocean.
Many kinds of grain were cultivated, but the chief ones seem to
have been wheat and barley. Rice is not mentioned. Animals of all
sorts were sacrificed, and their flesh eaten; and as we read of
slaughter-houses set apart for the killing of cows, we may infer that
the Aryan ancestors of India were not strict vegetarians.
But all mention of food, even sacrificial food, in the Rig-Veda fades
into insignificance before its perfectly damnable iteration concerning
a fermented drink called "Soma." Scarcely a hymn finds finish without
some mention of it, and pages on pages are full of panegyrics of the
"exhilarating juice," the "adorable libation," "the bright effused dew
of the Soma, fit drink for gods." And apparently for men also, since
we read that the "purifying Soma, like the sea rolling its waves, has
poured out on men songs, and hymns, and thoughts." An apotheosis of
It appears to have been the fermented juice of some asclepiad plant
which was mixed with milk. The plant had to be gathered on moonshiny
nights, and many ceremonials accompanied its tituration, and the
expressing of its sap.
In later years, of course, the Soma ritual expanded into something
very elaborate, and no less than sixteen priests were required for its
proper fulfilment; but in the beginning, it is evident that each
householder prepared the drink, and offered some of it, and of his
food also, to Indra the cloud-god first, then to Agni the fire-god,
and so by degrees (increasing with the years) to a host of smaller
gods--the Winds, the Dawn, Day, Night, the Sun, the Earth.
For these ancient Aryans had not far to look for godhead. They found
it simply, naturally, in themselves, and in all things about them, as
the secret verse which to this day is held in sacred keeping by the
twice-born amply shows. For there can be small doubt that the closest
rendering to the original meaning runs thus:--
"Let us meditate on the Over-soul which is in all souls, which
animates all, which illumines all understandings."
Mankind makes but small advance with the years in metaphysics, and it
needed a Schopenhauer to reinvent the Over-soul--after how many
generations? Who can say?
Only this we know, that a few centuries after Christ, a Chinese
pilgrim to India committed himself to the assertion that "Soma is a
very nasty drink!"
There is no trace in these Vedic hymns of the many deplorable beliefs,
traditions and customs, which in later years have debased the
religious and social life of India.
The Aryans worshipped "bright gods," and seem to have been themselves
a bright and happy people. We hear nothing of temples or idols, of
caste or enforced widowhood. Indeed, the fact that the language
contains distinct, concrete, and not opprobrious terms for "the son of
a woman who has taken a second husband," and for "a man who has
married a widow," proves that such words were needed in the common
tongues of the people. Neither is there any trace of, nor the faintest
shred of authority for, either suttee or child-marriage.
So the ancient Aryan rises to the mind's eye as a big, stalwart,
high-nosed, fair-skinned man, with a smile and a liking for
exhilarating liquor, who, after long wanderings with his herds over
the plains of Central Asia--where, reading the stars at night, he sang
as he watched his flocks to Pushan the Path-finder--looked down one
day from the heights of the Himalayas over a fair expanse of new-born
land by the ripples of a receding sea, and found that it was good.
So for many a long year he lived, fighting, ploughing, and
praying--with copious libations--to Indra, the God of Battles, and to
Agni, the humble, homely God of Fire, who yet was the invoker of all
Gods mysteriously connected with the Sun, the Moon, the Stars, the
And one of the prayers to the god who "comprehended all things," who
"traversed the vast ethereal space, measuring days and nights and
contemplating all that have birth," ran thus:--
"Take me to the immortal and imperishable abode where light dwells
We have not gone much further. The cry which rises in the Rig-Veda is
the cry of to-day:--
"From earth is the breath and the blood; but whence is the soul? What
or Who is that One who is ever alone; who forms the six spheres; who
holds the unborn in His Hand?"
Yet the religious feeling of these primitive Aryans was not all tinged
by doubt, by sadness; some of their hymns to the Dawn breathe the
spirit of deep joy which is in those who recognise, however dimly,
that the One of whom they question is no other than the Questioner.
So let us conclude this chapter with a few verses collated from these
"Many-tinted Dawn! Th' immortal daughter of Heaven!
Young, white robed, come with thy purple steeds;
Follow the path of the dawnings the world has been given,
Follow the path of the dawn that the world still needs.
"Darkly shining Dusk, thy sister, has sought her abiding,
Fear not to trouble her dreams; daughters, ye twain of the Sun,
Dusk and dawn bringing birth! O Sisters! your path is unending;
Dead are the first who have watched; when shall our waking be
"Bright, luminous Dawn; rose-red, radiant, rejoicing!
Shew the traveller his road; the cattle their pastures new;
Rouse the beasts of the Earth to their truthful myriad voicing,
Leader of rightful days! softening the soil with dew.
"Wide-expanded Dawn! Open the gates of the morning;
Waken the singing birds! Guide thou the truthful light
To uttermost shade of the shadow, for--see you! the dawning
Is born, white-shining, out of the gloom of the night."
Surely there is something in these phrases, taken truthfully from the
original and strung together consecutively so as to give the spirit
which animates the whole, that makes us of these later times feel
closely akin to those who sang thus in the Dawn of Days.