India is a vast country divided into different regions by rivers, mountains, deserts and forests. The richness of the soil of India attracted many invaders. In the Indo-Gangetic plain, the richness of the soil facilitated the establishment of big empires in this region. Great philosophical ideas were born in this region. The vedas were compiled here. Sanskrit literature and religions such as Buddhism, Jainism were started and flourished here. Taxila, Nalanda, Saranath and other seats of learning were established in this region.
The Himalayas saved India from invasions from the north. The northern passes are covered with snow for most of the year. The northwestern ranges of the Himalayas called the Sulaiman and Hidukush Mountains are not very high. There existed a number of passes, which enabled many foreigners to come to India.
Before explaining the Vedic evolution in India, the present generation and I must thank and have gratitude towards many scholars who had done researches and excavations. It is their hard work and effort, which enable us to know about our heritage and ancestors.
Rishis of India revealed the Vedas and they passed on the Vedas, generation after generation through oral rendition, until sage Veda Vyasa, codified and compiled the Vedas. I worship and thank the Rishis and their lineage who made the Vedas accessible to us. Without their devoted and dedicated work, we would have never known the truth.
India being a vast country, excavation had to be done very widely. After the partition of India in 1947, its size was reduced by one third, but still it is large and very fast developing country, in spite of natural disasters, erosion, corruption and its alarming population.
India has always been a land of religion and rich culture. No land on earth has such a long cultural continuity as India; the Hindus in their daily worship recite the Vedic hymns, which were composed over 3000 years ago. India has enjoyed civilization for over 4000 years, and every period of her history has left something to the present day.
The earliest settlers in India were divided into two classes as Palaeolithic and Neolithic, meaning the old stone and new stone.
Palaeolithic men were known as Quartzite men. Cuddapah district in Andra Pradesh was the center of Palaeolithic culture. They were strong men with dark skin, woolly hair and flat nose. They ate roots, nuts, fruits and flesh of wild animals. It is suggested that Palaeolithic men belonged to the Negrito race. Their worship culture is not known.
Neolithic men occupied the whole of India, except the portion below Kaveri. The Neolithic remains were mainly found from Tirunelveli and Salem districts of Tamil Nadu. Their food consisted of fruits, vegetables, fish, milk and milk products. Even though, initially they used barks and skins of animals for covering their bodies, later they used cotton and wool. Neolithic people worshipped ancestral spirits. Stone worship was very common. There were also human and animal sacrifices. Some of their practices are even followed in modern age like use of beads, amulets, sacred threads, shells, stones etc. for curing diseases and keeping away the evil spirits. The belief of omens was traced from their period. It is very difficult to fix the exact date of the different ages. However, it may be stated that the Palaeolithic age lasted from 35000 BC to 10000 BC and the Neolithic age lasted from 10000 BC to 5000 BC.
The Indus valley civilization
Sir John Marshal named Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro cultures as Indus valley civilization, because both the sites were within the area covered by the Indus River and its tributaries. It was the largest civilization. It included Afganisthan, Pakisthan and large parts of India. Mohenjo-Daro was discovered in Larkana district, near Karachi in Pakisthan. Harappa was situated in west Punjab near Lahore, Pakisthan. In India Harappa culture was discovered in Rupar in Ambala district, Rangpur and Lothal in Saurashtra, Kalibangan and Dholavira. Their diet was barley, wheat, milk and milk products, fish, mutton etc. They covered themselves with cotton and woolen clothes and were expert in dying. Their ornaments were necklaces, finger rings, nose studs, anklets etc.
Indus valley people were very religious people. They worshipped Lord Shiva and Mother Goddess. The Mohenjo-Daro people worshipped Goddess whose emblem was tiger. Mother Goddess models have been found all over western Asia, without break from the Indus River to the Nile River. They worshipped a male deity under a pipal tree. They also worshipped pipal and acacia trees. They regarded these trees as celestial plants and inhabited by divine spirits. Indus valley people believed that the pipal tree was the tree of creation and knowledge, and believed that it imparts highest knowledge to those who donned its branches on their heads. They worshipped Lord Shiva extensively, they also worshipped Shiva Linga and Yoni symbols. They practiced Yoga. They had faith in amulets and charms, and this shows that they were afraid of demons.
Some theory says that the Indus valley people were pre-Aryan and its people, language and scripts were Dravidian, namely Tamil. Some scholars say that their language was Sanskrit. Excavations show that the Indus valley civilization flourished around 2500 BC. The decline of the Indus valley civilization happened because of natural disasters, floods, climate change, drought and severe cold climates. Most of the rivers were also dried up. One theory says that the Aryans invaded the Indus valley people.
The origin of the Aryans is of great controversy. Researchers and scholars have been arguing from time to time but still there does not exist an unanimity of opinion. Their argument is whether the Aryans were the invaders or the origins of India. I would like to present both the theories as it is.
Aryans are Invaders
The most important theory says that, the Aryans originally lived in central Asia. According to Prof. Max Muller, a German Sanskrit scholar, the ancestors of Indians, Germans, Persians, Romans and Greeks might have lived together originally. He further said that the Aryans of Europe migrated by a route, south of the Caspian through Asia Minor to Greece and Italy. One of their groups came to India through the North West passage. His study was mainly based on linguistics. He found that some words used by the Aryans in India are similar to the words used in English, Latin and Persian. Some words in Vedas are similar to Zend-Avesta. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was of the opinion that the original home of the Aryans was the Arctic region. German scholars have proposed Germany as the origin of Aryans. Swami Dyanand Saraswati says that the origin of Aryans is Tibet. Like this, each scholar based on their own research work believes different places as the origin of Aryans, but they all maintain the idea that the Aryans were invaders.
Origin of Aryans is India
The opponents are of a strong view that, the origin of Aryans is India. They say that the invasion is a story created by the British to spread Christianity in India. There is no concrete evidence to prove the invasion. Opponents say that the British were interested in knowing the underlying truths about the Hindu religion, which is entirely different and opposite to their own religion and beliefs. They employed Prof. Max Muller, a Professor of Oxford University to find the truth about the basic culture, tradition and religion. Opponents say that the British wanted to project an idea that, the British invaded India just like the Aryans, and India was a no man land. Rig Veda is the most ancient text, full of wisdom and knowledge. The British wanted to target the Rig Veda, because if Rig Veda is defeated, then the Hindu religion which is based on the Vedas can be defeated.
However, there is no enough evidence to prove that the origin of Aryans is India, because it is very difficult to maintain the evidences for thousands and thousands of years. Nalanda University was the most ancient and advanced University, its library had many records and evidences, but it was destroyed long ago. The Muslims ruled India for over 800 years and the British ruled for over 200 years. During that period, many records were either looted or destroyed. Natural disasters also ruined many proofs. The opponents say that the Vedic culture is exclusively followed by the Indians, so, the origin of Aryans is India.
Despite the argument about the origin of the Aryans, the fact is that the Aryans revealed the Vedas, and it is on the soil of India that the Vedas were revealed. The atmosphere of India, the soil, its divine rivers, forests and the mighty Himalayas, all together has a power to squeeze the best out of man and make him realize the inherent divinity in him.
Veda in Sanskrit means knowledge. Vedic literature is very sacred. The Aryans wanted to realize the aspect of the whole creation. They meditated to realize the truth about creation and they realized the divinity inherent in each one. They gathered quality knowledge and revealed it to others as Vedas. The Aryans who revealed the Vedas were called the Rishis. They devoted their entire life for the Vedas and passed on the Vedas to the future generation by oral rendition. The Vedas were revealed in Sanskrit language. Vedas are anaadi(without beginning). They existed in all times even before the Rishis discovered it, but it came to the knowledge of the common person only after the Rishis discovered it. The Vedas are the cosmic vibrations in space. The Rishis are aware of all the vibrations that resulted in the creation of the world. Cosmic vibrations are audible to the Rishis in their high state of dhyana, and they decoded these to the world as Veda mantras. At the highest state of concentration, these vibrations are felt by the Rishis and this left an impact in the mind of the Rishis, which enabled them to convert it as Veda mantras. Yoga sastra says that if the outer space(macrocosm) and the space which exists in the mind(microcosm) are unified, then all the suspended sound in space will become audible. The sound vibrations are capable of creation, preservation and destruction. Veda mantras also have the capacity of the three aspects of vibration.
Different Rishis wrote the Vedic hymns at different times. Nearly 400 Rishis, including 30 women were involved in revealing the Rig Veda. Vedas are very vast and only a portion of the Vedas is available to us. Most part of the Vedas are revealed on the banks of the river Saraswati, which is now dried up.
The Rig Vedic Aryans worshipped the nature as God, like the sun, moon, agni, vayu etc. They believed that these Gods are the different aspects of that one Supreme power. Rid Veda is full of mantras to worship these Gods. They believed in form worship and believed that gods are like human beings. In Rig Vedic period, the society was highly organized and women were respected by the society and by the family. Marriage protected women and there were many women scholars. India was very prosperous both culturally and materialistically during that period. Both men and women wore gold ornaments and they wore garments embroidered with gold. The Aryans built cottages with wood, for their living. They considered good sons as great wealth.
The Rig Vedic Aryans, to make people understand the forces of nature, they created fictitious stories. It was in this manner that mythology developed around the natural phenomena and super natural personalities. They were men and women of vigor and activity, and they viewed life with hope and ambition.
The most famous Rig Vedic king was King Bharata, after whom India was known as ‘Bharat’. They settled in the territory between the River Saraswati and River Yamuna. All the Aryan kings had a Rishi as their Guru. The Aryans ruled their kingdom under the strict guidance of their guru. The Kuru-Panchalas were the most prominent Aryan kingdom. This was the land of king Parikshit and king Janamejaya. The kingdom of Kasi, Videha and Kosala were also the seat of Vedic culture. During this period, they often conducted philosophical conferences in the kingdom. The Rishis, the King, and the scholars including women participated in it. Women like Gargi and Maitreye were intellectually advanced women of Vedic period. They conducted fiery debate among the participants, based on Upanishad concepts and rich gifts were offered to the winners. This is how they spread the Vedas and made it popular. This also paved way for many kings to become Rishis. A person with philosophical knowledge was highly respected. People meditated sitting on kusha grass. There were wandering teachers called Charakas. When a Charaka arrived, men and women sit around him to gain knowledge. The children were send with a guru to the guru’s house to gain knowledge. The children were sent to study at the age of twelve. If the girl child prefers, they should also be sent with the guru. It is the responsibility of the guru to maintain discipline and impart knowledge to the students. The children stayed with the guru in his house, until their education is complete. Students were taught arts, science, philosophy, mantras and almost everything from the Vedas, so that when they face the outside world, they can compete and excel others. After the completion of education, they return to their home and they were advised by the guru to get married and have good progeny, so that they can take on the Vedas to the next generation. After the completion of the household duties, when the students became old, they move to the forest leaving the family, to practice meditation, which they have learnt during their student life. Thus, each of the Aryans attained liberation, leaving a generation and the Vedas behind. The progeny and the students of the Rishis devoted themselves to the task of preserving and propagating the sacred text of the Vedas in different parts of the country. The generations that preserved and propagated the Vedas are called the Kula and Gothra. Sacrifice(Yagna) was their main religious practice, but they devoted the time mainly to know the truth.
The Epic age
The Vedic age slowly led way to the epic age. The greatest epic of the Aryans were Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Epic age came between the Vedic period and the Buddhist period. During the Epic age, Vedic rituals were given importance and philosophy comparatively took a back stage. The caste system became prominent. Astronomy made a great progress in that period. Vedic rituals were conducted depending on the planetary position. They worshipped Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Sanskrit was the spoken language. The rulers were noble in the beginning of the epic age and ruled their kingdom consulting the guru and the people.
Buddha and Buddhism
In the later epic age, with the Vedic rituals becoming popular, the priesthood dominated the society. The caste system became very prominent. This disturbed the young prince Buddha. He opposed the rituals and priesthood. Buddha left his luxurious life and went in search of truth. He meditated and after his enlightenment, he spread his teachings.
His teachings were similar to Vedanta but did not emphasis on the concepts of the universal soul, God or rebirth. He believed that everything is based on cause and effect. Life is shaped by the mind. He said that suffering follows an evil thought and joy follows a positive thought. Many people followed Buddhism and still now, it is one of the main religions.
Resurgence of Advaita Philosophy
In 788 AD Adi Shankara was born in Kaladi, Kerala. At the age of 16, he mastered all the Vedas under the guru Govinda Bhagavadpada. At that period, nearly 72 sects of religion were prevalent in India. Some of them are the Charvakas, Kapalikas, Shaktas, Buddhas, Jainas, Madhyamikas, Shaivas, Vaishnavas etc. All the sects were very powerful and each sect had philosophical contradiction with the other. Advaita Vedanta was left behind these sects. It was Adi Shankara who brought the Advaita Vedanta back to light. He travelled to nook and corner of India and held debates and arguments over the facts of Advaita Philosophy and made people realize about this profound philosophy. He spread this philosophy all over India. Apart from that, he established four math, to spread the teachings of Advaita Vedanta. They were
Sarada math in Dwaraka. It practices Sama Veda
Govardhan math in Puri. It practices Rig Veda
Jyotir math in Badarikashrama. It practices Atharva Veda
Shringeri math in Shringeri . It practices Yajur Veda
Without the literary works of Adi Shankara, we will not be able to understand the Vedas. He has written commentaries for ten Upanishads, Brahma sutras and Bhagavad Gita, he has also written many hymns and text based on Advaita philosophy. His contribution to the Advaita philosophy is beyond comparison. His Vedic commentaries and teachings are even today reaching the common man through the math that he has established during his life time. He merged with consciousness in 820 AD.
In this modern technological world, atleast one verse of the Veda is recited everyday in most of the Hindu household, all over the world. A day will not begin without chanting the Veda in the religious centers and temples all over India. Vedic legacy will continue forever… Vedas are immortal.
Mahajan, V .D., History of India: From beginning to 1526 AD, New Delhi, S.Chand & company Ltd, 1977
Basham, A.L.,(Edited), A cultural History of India, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2008
Pujyasri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, The Vedas, Mumbai, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 2011