Early Societies in South Asia

Paleolithic people lived on the Indian subcontinent more than 200,000 years before the present age. A Neolithic society grew in the Indus River valley as early as 8000 B.C.E. There is some argument that this society developed under influence from Mesopotamia. As with other river civilizations, early Indian society was distinctly agricultural, and dependent upon the three famous rivers of India, the Indus, the Brahmaputra, and the Ganges, for survival. They relied on waters from the rivers for irrigation of their crops. The earliest complex society to develop on the sub-continent was the Harappan society in the valley of the Indus River.

Harappan Society: The name "Harappan" derives from Harappa, one of the two major cities in the Indus River valley. The people of the area were known as Dravidians, and multiplied rapidly as agricultural yields increased; and Neolithic villages soon became large cities. Sadly, little is known about early Dravidian Society for two reasons:

The earliest physical remains are buried under silt deposits of the river below the water table. Archaeologists have been unable to excavate them.

Scholars have been unable to decipher the Harappan language. They had a phonetic system of writing comprised of roughly four hundred symbols. Although numerous artifacts have been discovered with inscriptions, it has not yet been deciphered. Our understanding of their society must therefore be based on artifacts.

Harappan society was dependent upon the Indus River, similar to the dependence of the Egyptians upon the Nile. Like the Nile, the Indus River flooded, and by so doing, deposited rich topsoil which it had carried downstream; however its flooding was often arbitrary and capricious, whereas the Nile’s floods were reasonably predictable. After the floods, the Harappan people planted wheat and barley in September which was harvested the following spring. They also kept cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry to supplement their diet. The Harappan society was the first to domesticate flocks of chickens. They also cultivated cotton as early as 5000 B.C.E. and by 2000 B.C.E. had an extensive cotton textile industry, including the ability to produce dyed cloth.

Harappan society was larger than that of Mesopotamia. It occupied an area comprising all of modern day Pakistan and much of Northern India. It supported two large cities: Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, (each with populations close to 35,000 people) together with a large number of smaller agricultural communities.

Unfortunately, no evidence has been deciphered of their political system, so there is no way of knowing if they had kings or any similar central authority. The two major cities did have city walls, a citadel, and a large granary. This last element suggests that taxes were collected and redistributed in the form of grain. Both cities had marketplaces, temples, public buildings, and extensive residential areas. All were organized around broad streets that were organized on a carefully planned grid, the first evidence of city planning. Mohenjo-daro had a large pool, which may well have been used for religious purposes. The pool also had what appear to be private dressing rooms for bathers.

Standards of weight, measure, architectural style and even brick sizes were consistent throughout the entire land, even though it covered an area of over 930 miles. It has been suggested that the standard was set by the two major cities which were rich and powerful. This standardization would not have been possible, however, were it not for the fact that the Indus River was very navigable, and lent itself to trade, travel, and communication between various communities.

Aside from agriculture, trade was important to the Dravidians. Pottery, tools, and decorative items were traded throughout the region, and in Persia, from whence they received gold, copper, silver, led, and gem stones. From 2300 to 1750 B.C.E. they traded with the people of Mesopotamia, trading copper, ivory and pearls for wool, leather, and olive oil. Although some land trade routes were probably utilized, it is likely that most trade was made by ships that followed the coastline of the Arabian Sea.

Harappan society in time generated considerable wealth, and that wealth led to social distinction, as it had in other areas. They built no pyramids or palaces; however rich and poor people lived in very different styles of dwellings. Most people lived in one room barracks-like structures, but there were individual homes with over a dozen rooms and two or three stories. Many larger houses had private wells and brick ovens for cooking. Almost all dwellings had showers and toilets that drained into a central sewage system, one of the most sophisticated of such systems in the ancient world. This system, together with carefully planned streets indicated a tremendous investment of the society into resources available for the entire community.

Little is known about Dravidian religion, although evidence suggests that like other early religions, it placed heavy emphasis on fertility. Apparently they recognized a mother goddess and a fertility god, who was horned (possibly a bull, and conceivably borrowed from the Mesopotamians, who worshipped Baal.) They apparently also believed that trees and animals were sacred. There is some argument among scholars that Harappan gods were the forerunners of the gods of the Hindu pantheon.

Harappan society entered a period of decline about 1900 B.C.E. There is evidence of deforestation as woodlands were cleared to create more arable land to feed a growing population. This deforestation in turn led to reduced rainfall and erosion of the topsoil, as a result of which the area soon became a desert. To this day, it requires considerable irrigation to be farmed. There is further evidence of some natural catastrophes, possibly earthquakes, which further weakened the society. It is important to note that there is no evidence of military conflict, so the decline of the society was not the result of conquest. Also, the decline did not happen overnight, or even in a single lifetime. It most likely occurred over a period of five hundred years. By 1500 B.C.E., the society had collapsed. Still, its influence remained with the people who survived them, including their deities and their cultivation practices.

Indo-European Migrations to the sub-continent: With the decline of Harappan society, (but NOT because of it) groups of Indo-European peoples migrated southward into India through the Hindu-Kush as early as1500 B.C.E. They were nomadic shepherds who called themselves Aryan, meaning "noble people." Over several centuries, they gradually migrated into the Indian sub-continent. While it is possible that they came into conflict with the Dravidians, they did not conquer them, and their occupation of the area was not a conquest, nor did they destroy Harappan society. Over the next several hundred years, Aryans and Dravidians intermarried, and a hybrid social and cultural mixture formed which became the foundation of modern Indian society.

The Aryans were primarily shepherds of cattle, sheep and goats, but did practice a small amount of agriculture. They also maintained horses, which were highly prized. Horses were often harnessed to carts and wagons for transportation of goods and people; but were also used in chariots to devastating effect when fighting people who did not possess them. The primary measure of wealth was cattle which were used for both dairy products and beef. Prices were often designated in terms of cattle, and wealthy people owed their fortunes to large herds of cattle.

Horses did not breed well in India; in fact they still do not. The Aryans were forced to replenish their supply of horses from abroad at considerable expense. As a result, the possession of a horse was a sign of distinction. Although cows are considered sacred by present day Hindus, the early Aryans had no such notion, and ate them with abandon.

Aryan Religion: The early Aryans had no system of writing, but carefully preserved a large number of poems, songs, religious and literary works by memorizing them and transmitting them orally from one generation to another. They were preserved in a sacred language known as Sanskrit. For everyday secular communication, they used a dialect known as Prakit. Prakit evolved into modern day Hindi, Bengali, and Urdu, among other languages of the region. The earliest collection of sacred works was known as the Vedas, which honored the various Aryan gods. The most important collection was the Rig Veda, which contained 1,028 hymns to the Aryan gods. It was compiled by priests between 1400 and 900 B.C.E. and finally committed to writing about 600 B.C.E.

"Veda" in Aryan meant "wisdom" or "knowledge." The Vedas offers considerable evidence of life during the early days of Aryan India. It has become such an important source of historical evidence that scholars normally refer to Indian history from 1500 to 500 B.C.E. as the Vedic Age. It tells of a time of conflict with other people in the area, who are called dasas, meaning "enemies," or "subject people." The Aryan god of war was Indra, who destroyed dams and forts, ate cloth garments, and devastated citadels. This description provides telltale evidence of some conflict between the Aryans and Dravidians. It is entirely possible that the Aryans, in attacking the Dravidians, destroyed their irrigation systems. However, it is important once again to note that the Dravidians were not conquered by the Aryans, and that the two groups often maintained peaceful relations. In fact, the Aryans adapted Harappan agricultural practices when they first settled down into villages. In addition to fighting with the Dravidians, the Aryans also fought among themselves. They had no central government, but rather had hundreds of chiefdoms organized around herding communities and agricultural villages. The chief of each group was known as the raja, who ruled together with a council comprised of village elders. Aryan warriors often raided cattle herds of other villages, which was an egregious offense and often led to fighting. Also, rajahs often attempted to extend their authority over neighboring communities by conquering them.

The term "raja" is an excellent example of the interrelation of Indo-European languages. It is closely related to the Latin word rex, meaning "King." It is from the Latin that we derive our words, "royal," and "regal."

Aryans spread into the Ganges River valley about 1000 B.C.E. About that time, they developed the use of iron tools and weapons. They used iron axes to clear forests for agriculture; and as their agricultural practices flourished, their population grew immensely.

As their populations grew, their political structure evolved also. The local chiefdoms became kingdoms ruled by kings in permanent cities. These kings depended on the services of professional administrators to handle the day to day tasks of governance. Still, they did not establish large states. Only in the 4th century B.C.E. did any Aryan state equal the size of Harappan society.

Origins of the Caste System: As their society developed, the Aryans developed a well defined social structure based on occupation and one’s role in society. These distinctions provided the stability that political structure provided in other areas. One entered a social class by birth, and typically remained in that class all his life. These social distinctions formed the foundation for the Caste system.

The word "caste" is from the Portuguese, casta, meaning a social class of hereditary, unchanging status. The term was first employed by Portuguese sailors who visited India as early as 1500, and who noticed these social distinctions. The term has been used ever since to describe social distinctions.

It is entirely likely that social distinction arose as a result of skin color. The Aryans referred to themselves as "wheat colored," whereas the Dravidians who preceded them were of a darker complexion. Later, as the two groups intermarried, distinction by color disappeared, but the social distinction remained. Major social classes were referred to as varna, a Sanskrit word meaning "color."

By 1000 B.C.E., Aryan society recognized four varnas: The Brahmins, (Priests); kshatriyas, (warriors and aristocrats); vaishas, (farmers, artisans and merchants); and shudras, (landless peasants and serfs.) Later, a fifth class was added, the "untouchables," to apply to those who performed dirty or unpleasant tasks, such as handling the dead, or butchering animals. They were considered to be so polluted from their work that their very touch was defiling. Over time, as the society grew more complex, a large group of sub-castes, known as jati emerged. By the nineteenth century, thousands of jati had formed. Brahmins alone had over 1800 jati, and even the untouchables had different jati, which allowed some to look down upon others even in this lowest group.

Elaborate rules of protocol dictated conduct and forms of address between members of different castes. Members of the same jati typically ate together, and married within the group. If one violated any of the rules of society, he could be shunned by his own group, and thereby become an outcaste, a most unfortunate individual with no place in society.

There was some degree of social mobility between castes, but it was not entirely flexible. If one prospered, he might move up the scale; but if he fell on hard times, he could easily descend to the lower echelons. Were social mobility not allowed, it is entirely possible that revolt would have occurred and the system would have collapsed. In actuality, it provided stability to the culture for thousands of years.

Development of Patriarchal Society: As was the case in many ancient societies, Aryan civilization was strongly male oriented. It was a patrilineal society in which kinship was traced through the male line. Priests, warriors and tribal chiefs were all men. Only men could own property or preside over family rituals honoring departed ancestors. Only males received a formal education, including learning the Vedas. A woman’s responsibility was to maintain the household and raise the children. Only if there were no male heirs could she inherit property. An early Aryan work, known as the Lawbook of Manu reinforced the idea of male supremacy. (Manu was believed by the Aryans to be the founder of the Universe.)

Among the customs of Aryan society demonstrating a woman’s dependence upon her husband was the practice of suttee, in which a widow voluntarily threw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre to join him in death. The practice was never widespread; however it was often encouraged among the widows of socially prominent men, as this demonstrated true devotion to the lesser populace.

Religion in the Vedic Age: The fusion of Aryan and Dravidian religious ideas gave birth to Hinduism, one of the world’s oldest religions, and practiced by millions of people; although it is largely confined to India or people of Indian descent.

The chief deity of the Aryans had been Indra, the god of war who wielded thunderbolts and led them into battle. They also believed in the god Varuna, who ruled from the sky, oversaw the behavior of mortal men, and preserved order in the cosmos. Varuna and his helpers punished those who did evil with disease and death, and dispatched serious evil ones to a hell-like place known as the House of Clay. The virtuous entered a heavenly state known as the World of the Fathers.

During the early Vedic age, the Aryans placed substantial reliance on sacrifice of animals to their gods. It was believed that during sacrifice, the gods visited earth, and joined worshipers in eating and drinking. Since the presence of the gods was deemed beneficial, sacrifice became almost non-stop. A proper household would have the Brahmins offer sacrifices not less than five times per day; a process that was expensive and time consuming.

In time, the practice grew old and the people disenchanted. A number of people began retreating to the woodlands to live as hermits and contemplate the relationship between people, the world, and the gods. A number of them were inspired by Dravidian practice. The Dravidians had worshiped spirits associated with fertility and the generation of new life. They had also believed that human souls took on a new physical form after death, either as another human, or even as a plant or animal.

The combination of Dravidian and Aryan religious ideas culminated in the Upanishads, (literally, "sitting in front of," as a student sits in front of a master to receive instruction,) a group of religious works that appeared over a period of time. The Upanishads taught that individual humans were in fact part of a greater universal soul known as the Brahman. The Brahman was unchanging and universal, whereas human existence was in a constant state of flux. The individual soul lived in a cycle of reincarnation, in which he would die and be reborn as another person, animal, or plant. This reincarnation was known as karma. This cycle was not completely desirable, as it involved a continuation of the suffering and death all humans encountered. The ultimate goal was to break the cycle and enter into a permanent union with Brahman, sort of a "heavenly state."

A Upanishad writing explains the process thusly: "Now as a man is like this or like that, according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be: a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts will become bad. He becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds." Thus, a man who led a virtuous life could expect to be reborn into a higher caste and closer to Brahman; a bad man would descend to a lower class, perhaps even a low form of animal or even an insect. One could move up or down the cycle, dependent upon one’s conduct during his present life.

The ultimate goal was to obtain a state of moksha, a deep, dreamless sleep, in which one was freed from reincarnation. This was difficult to obtain, as it involved separation from the physical world and identifying only with the universal soul, Brahman. One could obtain the goal by asceticism and meditation. One should live a simple life and deny himself all pleasure, which would purge one of the desires of the body. This could be accomplished by practicing yoga, a form of intense meditation. By concentrating on the nature of Brahman and their relationship to it, they would eventually break the cycle of reincarnation, and enter into a state of bliss with Brahman.

The teachings of the Upanishads either purposely or inadvertently justified the caste system, as one in a higher caste was believed to have lived a virtuous life in his previous existence, and vice versa. They spoke against gluttony, vice, materialism and failure to consider one’s relationship with Brahman; and also encouraged personal integrity. A healthy respect for all living things, animal and human, was also encouraged. Even though animals represented souls who had suffered from their past life, they should not be caused additional suffering; therefore a vegetarian diet became the norm for all who practiced the religion.