Aryan Contribution to Indian Civilization

  December 25, 2023   Read time 10 min
Aryan Contribution to Indian Civilization
Ideas and techniques from the Indus spread throughout Sind and the Punjab, and down the west coast of Gujarat. The process took centuries and the picture revealed by archaeology (some sites are now submerged by the sea) is too confused for a consistent pattern to emerge.
Where its infl uence did not reach – the Ganges valley, the other great silt-rich area where large populations could live, and the south-east – different cultural processes were at work, but they have left nothing so spectacular behind them. Some of India’s culture must derive from other sources; there are traces elsewhere of Chinese infl uence. But it is hard to be positive. Rice, for example, began to be grown in India in the Ganges valley; we simply do not know where it came from, but one possibility is China or South-East Asia, on whose coasts it was grown from about 3000 BC . Two thousand years later, this crucial item in Indian diet was used over most of the north. Nor do we know why the fi rst Indian civilizations began to decline, though their passing can be roughly dated. The devastating fl oods of the Indus or uncontrollable alterations of its course may have wrecked the delicate balance of the agriculture on its banks. The forests may have been destroyed by tree-felling to provide fuel for the brick-kilns on which Harappan building depended. But perhaps there were also other agencies at work. Skeletons, possibly those of men killed where they fell, were found in the streets of Mohenjo-Daro. Harappan civilization seems to end in the Indus valley about 1750 BCand this coincides strikingly with the irruption into Indian history of one of its great creative forces, invading ‘Aryans’, though scholars do not favour the idea that invaders destroyed the Indian valley cities. Perhaps the newcomers entered a land already devastated by over-exploitation and natural disorders.
Strictly speaking, ‘Aryan’ is a linguistic term, like ‘Indo-European’. None the less, it has customarily and conveniently been used to identify one group of those peoples whose movements make up so much of the dynamic of ancient history in other parts of the Old World after 2000 BC . At about the time when other Indo-Europeans were fl owing into Iran, somewhere about 1750 BC , a great infl ux began to enter India from the Hindu Kush. This was the beginning of centuries during which waves of these migrants washed deeper and deeper into the Indus valley and the Punjab and eventually reached the upper Ganges. They did not obliterate the native peoples, though the Indus valley civilization crumbled. No doubt much violence marked their coming, for the Aryans were warriors and nomads, armed with bronze weapons, bringing horses and chariots, but they settled and there are plenty of signs that the native populations lived on with them, keeping their own beliefs and practices alive. There is much archaeological evidence of the fusion of Harappan with later ways. However qualified, this was an early example of the assimilation of cultures which was always to characterize Indian society and was eventually to underlie classical Hinduism’s remarkable digestive power.
It seems clear that the Aryans brought to India no culture so advanced as that of the Harappans. It is a little like the story of the coming of IndoEuropeans in the Aegean. Writing, for example, disappears and does not emerge again until the middle of the fi rst millennium BC ; cities, too, have to be reinvented and when they are again to be found they lack the elaboration and order of their Indus valley predecessors. Instead, the Aryans appear slowly to have given up their pastoral habits and settled into agricultural life, spreading east and south from their original settlement areas in a sprawl of villages. This took centuries. Not until the coming of iron was it complete and the Ganges valley colonized; iron implements made cultivation easier. Meanwhile, together with this physical opening up of the northern plains, the invaders had made two decisive contributions to Indian history, in its religious and in its social institutions.
The Aryans laid the foundations of the religion which has been the heart of Indian civilization. This centred on sacrifi cial concepts; through sacrifi ce the process of creation which the gods achieved at the beginning of time was to be endlessly repeated. Agni, the god of fi re, was very important, because it was through his sacrifi cial fl ames that men could reach the gods. Great importance and standing was given to the brahmans, the priests who presided over these ceremonies. There was a pantheon of gods of whom two of the most important were Varuna, god of the heavens, controller of natural order and the embodiment of justice, and Indra, the warrior god who, year after year, slew a dragon and thus released again the heavenly waters which came with the breaking of the monsoon. We learn about them from the Rig Veda, a collection of more than a thousand hymns performed during sacrifi ce, collected for the fi rst time in about 1000 BCbut certainly accumulated over centuries. It is one of our most important sources for the history not only of Indian religion but also of Aryan society.
The Rig Veda seems to refl ect an Aryan culture as it has been shaped by settlement in India and not as it had existed at earlier times or in its original form. It is, like Homer, the eventual written form of a body of oral tradition, but quite different in being much less diffi cult to use as a historical source, since its status is much more certain. Its sanctity made its memorization in exact form essential, and though the Rig Veda was not to be written down until after AD 1300 , it was then almost certainly largely uncorrupted from its original form. Together with later Vedic hymns and prose works, it is our best source for Aryan India, whose archaeology is cramped for a long time because building materials less durable than the brick of the Indus valley cities were used in its towns and temples.
There is a suggestion again of the world of Homer in the world revealed by the Rig Veda, which is one of Bronze Age barbarians. Some archaeologists now believe they can identify in the hymns references to the destruction of the Harappan cities. Iron is not mentioned and appears only to have come to India after 1000 BC(there is argument about how late and from what source). The setting of the hymns is a land which stretches from the western banks of the Indus to the Ganges, inhabited by Aryan peoples and dark-skinned native inhabitants. These formed societies whose fundamental units were families and tribes. What these left behind, though, was less enduring than the pattern of Aryan social organization which gradually emerged, to which the Portuguese later gave the name we use, ‘caste’.
About the early history of this vast and complicated subject and its implications it is impossible to speak with assurance. Once the rules of caste were written down, they appeared as a hard and solid structure, incapable of variation. Yet this did not happen until caste had been in existence for hundreds of years, during which it was still fl exible and evolving. Its root appears to be a recognition of the fundamental class divisions of a settled agricultural society, a warrior-aristocracy ( kshatriyas), priestly brahmans and the ordinary peasant-farmers ( vaishyas). These are the earliest divisions of Aryan society which can be observed and seem not to have been exclusive; movement between them was possible. The only unleapable barrier in early times seems to have been that between non-Aryans and Aryans; one of the words used to denote the aboriginal inhabitants of India by Aryans was dasa, which came eventually to denote ‘slave’. To the occupational categories was soon added a fourth category for non-Aryans. Clearly it rested on a wish to preserve racial integrity. These were the shudras , or ‘unclean’, who might not study or hear the Vedic hymns.
This structure has been elaborated almost ever since. Further divisions and sub-divisions appeared as society became more complex and movements within the original threefold structure took place. In this the brahmans, the highest class, played a crucial role. Landowners and merchants came to be distinguished from farmers; the fi rst were called vaishyas, and shudras became cultivators. Marriage and eating taboos were codifi ed. This process gradually led to the appearance of the caste system as we know it. A vast number of castes and sub-castes slowly inserted themselves into the system. Their obligations and demands eventually became a primary regulator of Indian society, perhaps the only signifi cant one in many Indians’ lives. By modern times there were thousands of jatis – local castes with members restricted to marrying within them, eating only food cooked by fellow members, and obeying their regulations. Usually, too, a caste limited those who belonged to it to the practice of one craft or profession. For this reason (as well as because of the traditional ties of tribe, family and locality and the distribution of wealth) the structure of power in Indian society right down to the present day has had much more to it than formal political institutions and central authority.
In early times Aryan tribal society threw up kings, who emerged, no doubt, because of military skill. Gradually, some of them acquired some thing like divine sanction, though this must always have depended on a nice balance of relations with the brahman caste. But this was not the only political pattern. Not all Aryans accepted this evolution. By about 600 BC , when some of the detail of early Indian political history at last begins to be dimly discernible through a mass of legend and myth, two sorts of political communities can be discerned, one non-monarchical, tending to survive in the hilly north, and one monarchical, established in the Ganges valley. This reflected centuries of steady pressure by the Aryans towards the east and south, during which peaceful settlement and intermarriage seem to have played as big a part as conquest. Gradually, during this era, the centre of gravity of Aryan India had shifted from the Punjab to the Ganges valley as Aryan culture was adopted by the peoples already there.
As we emerge from the twilight zone of the Vedic kingdoms, it is clear that they established something like a cultural unity in northern India. The Ganges valley was by the seventh century BCthe great centre of Indian population. It may be that the cultivation of rice made this possible. A second age of Indian cities began there, the fi rst of them market-places and centres of manufacture, to judge by the way they brought together specialized craftsmen. The great plains, together with the development of armies on a larger and better-equipped scale (we hear of the use of elephants), favoured the consolidation of larger political units. At the end of the seventh century BC , northern India was organized in sixteen kingdoms, though how this happened and how they were related to one another is still hard to disentangle from their mythology. None the less, the existence of coinage and the beginnings of writing make it likely that they had governments of growing solidity and regularity.

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