The Foundations of Indian Religion
Indus Valley Civilization & the Aryan Invasion
Indus Valley CivilizationThe Indus Valley Tradition began as early as 6000 BCE when inhabitants of the region began to develop a distinct cultural style. In about 2600 BCE city-states begin to emerge with common, standardized, and shared elements, such as writing, pottery styles, bricks, and stone weights. There was internal trade throughout the civilization, consisting of beads, lumber, pottery, and cotton, transported by bullock carts and boat, as well as far-flung trade with surrounding cultures to the east and west. Certain Mesopotamian sites, such as the ancient city of Ur, have yielded materials of Harappan origin. By 1900 BCE there appear signs of distinct regional developments. Local languages and writing began to develop and long-distance trade diminished. However, a broader-based, more fluid cultural tradition emerged, stretching from the Indus to the flood plains of the Ganga in North India. ... Apart from the major cities such as Mohenjodaro and Harappa, which at their peak may have each had over 40,000 inhabitants, the people lived in small towns and villages. (IH, 9-10)
Simple terracotta images of men, women, and animals have been unearthed. A particularly well crafted image is of a man who sports a beard and a disc forehead ornament, as well as a decorated cloak draped over his left shoulder. His eyes seem half shut, as if in meditation. The royal demeanor and garb of this figure have led archeologists to dub it the “Priest-King,” although whether such functionaries as “priests” or “kings” even existed in the Indus Valley Civilization, and what their roles might have been, is unknown. ... The seals and molded tablets sometimes depict narrative scenes. For instance, one tablet shows a figure with a foot pressing down upon the head of a water buffalo, which it is simultaneously spearing. A figure with a horned headdress seated in an atypical posture of the sort we associate with yogic practice, with the soles of the feet pressed together, rather than simply cross-legged, looks on. The obverse image on that tablet shows a female figure throttling two tigers. An elephant stands below. Such images suggest continuities with myths and beliefs in modern Hinduism. For instance, various Hindu deities (such as Skanda and Durga) are associated with the slaying of a buffalo demon, and modern representations of Hindu deities are still portrayed accompanied by animals such as tigers and elephants. Certain Indus Valley seals portray female figures entwined in or fused with trees and plants, which resonates with the association Hindus still draw between women, goddesses, fertility, and vegetation.
The figure in the unusual seated posture mentioned above is particularly intriguing. There are several seals depicting such a figure, some with different details than others. In one seal the figure appears to have a horned headdress and three faces. He is seated in what is neither a simple cross-legged posture (the half-lotus or tailor posture, with one ankle over the other), nor the more contrived full-lotus posture (cross-legged with feet resting on opposite thighs with the soles pointing upwards), but in a much more athletic and challenging seated stance that we currently associate with yogic posture practice. He wears a number of bracelets on his arms. The figure appears to possess an erect penis. Animals — including a water-buffalo or bull, rhinoceros, elephant, and tiger — are also depicted around the figure, which has come to be referred to as the “ithyphallic proto-Siva.” This is because the seal contains many characteristics similar to those associated with the Hindu god Siva, and have led some to suggest that this is an early depiction of that deity. Siva is regarded as the yogi par excellence, and is often worshipped in the form of an erect phallus (linga). His animal mount is the bull, and he is also called Pasupati (Lord of Animals). Despite such compelling connections, the evidence that these seals actually depict an early form of Siva is inconclusive.
However, these may merely have been grinding or tethering stones. We shall have to await the accumulation of much more data before we can comfortably assert knowledge about the nature of Indus Valley religion. (IH, 12-13)
c. 1500 BCE
From about 1500 BCE, a pastoral, cattle-herding people known as the Aryans (Noble Ones), appeared on the Indian subcontinent. The prevailing view among scholars is that they originated from the area of central Asia near the Caucasus Mountains and migrated westward into Europe and eastward into the Indian subcontinent. However, there is also a view held by a minority of scholars that the Aryans originated in or close to the Indus Valley. This Cultural Diffusion Hypothesis derives from a number of uncertainties inherent in the Indo-European (i.e. Aryan) Migration Thesis. It is also bolstered by orthodox Hindu political ideologies. In this regard it suspects the Aryan Migration Thesis of being based on a white-supremacist ideology and a colonialist paradigm. These theses will continue to be hotly debated until new evidence, particularly from archeological excavations, provides a compelling answer. (IH, 14-5)
Vedic ReligionThe Aryan heritage produces an indelible imprint on the character of Hinduism, and is particularly evident in Vedic religious literature, beliefs, and practices. ... The most highly regarded literary works of the Aryans are hymns in praise (rg) of various deities. Many of these hymns were chanted during a New Year festival centered on a ritual to prepare, offer, and imbibe a sacred beverage, Soma. The oldest collection (samhita) is the Rg Veda Samhita, which consists of over 1000 hymns arranged in ten books known as mandalas. ... The exact dates of its composition are still debated; some proponents postulate dates as early as 5000 BCE or even earlier, whereas very conservative scholarly estimates suggest that the Rg Veda Samhita reached its final form by about 300 BCE. A prevailing number of estimates suggest a date of about 1000 BCE. ...
Of the various deities to whom hymns are addressed in the Rg Veda Samhita, Agni (Fire) and Indra (God of Storms and Lightning) each receive about 200 hymns, suggesting their high status among the gods of the Aryan pantheon. There are hymns to Surya (the Sun), Dyaus-pitr (God of the Heavens), Vayu (the Wind), and Varuna (God of the Waters), and even to Soma (a sacred plant and the intoxicating drink prepared from it). The pantheon of Vedic deities is mostly populated by male gods, but there are a few hymns to such goddesses as Usas (the Dawn), Ratri (the Night), and Prthivi (the Earth). Scholars conjecture that the prevalence of male deities, some of whom, like Indra, have warrior natures, reveals a patriarchal social structure among the Aryans. Others suggest that because goddesses form a sizeable part of current Hindu worship, quite in contrast to their representation in the Samhitas and other early Vedic literature, these feminine deities may have figured significantly in non-Aryan worship traditions, which progressively influenced the dominating Aryan culture. (IH, 26-29)
Fire or agni was given great importance in the vedic sacrificial religion. As the power who brings the gods to the sacrifice, he is the intermediary between them and human beings. This hymn, the very first in the Rg Veda samhita [c. 9th century BCE], is a straightforward invocation, summoning Agni to his duties as “minister of the sacrifice”. (Indian Religions, 42)
Lord of the Heavens/God of War
More vedic hymns are addressed to Indra than to any other god. He is the lord of the heavens, leader of the gods of the storm, and victor over the enemies of the Aryan people. Those who perform the vedic sacrifice offer the soma [a psychoactive beverage] to him in the hope that he will act generously in return. (Indian Religions, 47)
c. 1000-700 BCE
An examination of ... [the] Vedic Samhitas reveals a progressive development in Vedic ritual art, with greater specialization on the part of priests (e.g., udgatr, adhvaryu) entrusted with particular duties in the performance of rites. Geographical references suggest a movement from the regions around the Indus to the Ganga river basin, leading to postulations that the Aryans migrated from the northwest of the Indian peninsula to the east and south. These movements resulted in interactions with the local cultures whose religious beliefs and styles were partially assimilated into the compositions of the Samhitas and the rituals that accompanied them. (IH, 28)
Aryan society was originally divided into 3 social groups:
ksatriya (clan/tribal leaders)
vaisya (everyone else)
the integration of the indigenous peoples, a fourth caste was added:
sudra (“a person in suffering/mourning/pain”)