Aryan Worldview and Society



1.     Most of the history of Indian civilization reflects the emergence and intermingling of two ancient cultural complexes:

a.     Indus valley civilization (c.2500 BCE to 1500 BCE)

b.     Aryan culture (developed during 2nd millenium BCE)

c.     What is the relationship between these two cultures?

Who were the Aryans, where did they come from?


2.     Where did they come from?  Two theories

a.     The Aryan Migration Thesis: incursions from the Northwest and dominance

b.     The Cultural Transformation thesis: Aryan culture as a development of Indus valley culture

c.     Contemporary political and religious controversy over these theories

                                      i.     Hindu nationalism and the issue of who speaks for and about Hinduism (including Hindu history)

3.     The Aryans: arya means “noble” or “honorable”

a.     Indo-European speaking > Vedic Sanskrit > Classical Sanskrit

                                      i.     Indo-European language.  Seems to have originated in Western and Central Asia and spread in all directions from there.
[Map: Indo-European Languages]

                                    ii.     Modern languages of Northern India descended from Sanksrit

b.     Descended of tribal people living in southern part of Russian Steppes, by the Caspian Sea.

c.     Moved into India mainly through Afghanistan and Pakistan, via Khyber Pass).

                                      i.     Trajectory from about 1500 BCE to 500 BCE:
From Panjab region, South along Indus to contemporary Gujarat; Southeast along Gangetic Plain to Bay of Bengal.
[See Map: Aryan Migrations into India]

d.     Initially relatively sedentary who herded cattle, goats, sheep.

                                      i.     Cattle were the chief form of wealth (meat, milk, heavy labor). 

                                    ii.     Domesticated horses

                                   iii.     Limited agriculture, lived semi-permanent dwellings

2.     Superior war technology (metalurgy, chariots, use of horses in warfare)

We see inside the Vedic worldview through the texts themselves.  Unlike with the Indus Valley Civilization, the evidence for which does not include texts.


3.     The Vedic Texts

a.     Shruti and Smrti: heard and remembered, directly revealed, divinely inspired

                                      i.     From oral traditions to text. 

b.     Rigveda (earliest) written down around 1200 BCE

                                      i.     System of double-checking – texts learned twice (recitation with sandhi, without sandhi)

                                    ii.     Ritual function: Mantras (verses used in liturgy) and brahmana (ritual exegesis)

c.     Veda:  Two uses of the word “Veda”:  whole body of revealed texts; earliest layers of vedic literature (samhitas).  Veda = cognate of English “wisdom” or “wit”

                                      i.     Samhitas (“collections”): Four groups of texts considered foundational:

1.     Rigveda: hymns of praise (ric).  1028 hymns, ten divisions or books.  Composed in Sanskrit, early as 1200 BCE

2.     Samaveda: collections of songs (samans) based on Rigveda with instruction on recitation

3.     Yajur Veda (white and black): incantations (yajuses) and verse recited during ceremony, declaring purpose and meaning of each act.

4.     Atharvaveda (Atharvans, medical practitioners): hymns and incantation for spells and magic formulas

                                    ii.     Each samhita becomes a branche (shakhas): samhitas to exegesis to speculation


How was Aryan society organized?


4.     The Ideal of Vedic Society – The Varnas (castes)

a.     Pre-Vedic: George Dumezil’s theory of the three-part social ideal of proto Indo-European society

                                      i.     Priests - magic, jurisprudence

                                    ii.     Ruler and warriors – military

                                   iii.     Farmers - agriculture

b.     Vedic: The Indo-Aryan ideal for society from the Rigveda as found in the Purusha Sukta:

                                      i.     Brahmans – from the mouth.  Priestly

                                    ii.     Kshatriyas – from the arms

                                   iii.     Vaishyas – from the thighs or midsection

                                   iv.     Shudras – from the feet

c.     The twice-born castes: upper three.  Only they have full access to the Vedic tradition

d.     Hierarchical organization based partly on purity – from head (mouth) to foot