Sources of Indian History - Literary Sources: Religious Texts: Vedic Literature

India is a land of great geographical diversity. In the last episode we saw how these geographical features have influenced the historical process in various regions of our country. 'The pace and extent of development of mankind in each of theme regions had been greatly effected by its physiography and as such the history of India resolves itself into separate histories of its regions.

Sources of Indian History : Religious Texts - Vedic Literature

Namaskar and welcome to your window to the History of India. But before taking you any further, let us begin by asking a simple question, What is History?

Simply stated, History is the story of man in time. However, when one begins to analyse the statement, one finds that the study of history is as complex as the definition given above seems to be simple. In fact, History would seem to be one of the most difficult disciplines of study. One reason why History is an extremely complex discipline is the dual nature of the subject. In one sense, whatever has happened in the past would constitute the substance of History.

But, on the other, History is past. And here is the difficulty; it is not necessary that the two should match. To take an example, say, a historian after going through all the material available also whatever historians write about that for a study of an emperor Chandra comes to the conclusion that he was a great, generous, powerful and a magnanimous emperor.

On the other hand, however, and in reality, Chandra may not have possessed any of these characteristics. He may actually have been the ruler of a small kingdom - mean and cruel in character.

Thus for written History to correspond closely to the real past, which is also History, it is necessary for the historian to select and study very carefully the sources of History which are available to him. In the study of History, one must remember that the historian has to depend largely on the sources that have come down from a past he has not been witness to. Very often, the sources available to him are only selective and fragmentary - those which have survived the ravages of man and nature; and it is also not impossible that the sources he is looking at are distorted and fraudulent. And it is for him to study and s emanate the authentic
from what is false.

The sources of History can be divided in three categories. First is 'remembered' history, that is, what has come down to us from the past in the shape of manuscripts and literary works, and what in recent years has assumed great importance, 'oral history'. Thus this category of sources ''ranges from the personal recollections claimed by the elders to the living traditions of a civilization, as embodied in its scriptures, its classics, and its inherited historiography. It may be described as the collective memory of a community or nation or other entity - what it, or its rulers and leaders, poets, and sages, choose to remember as significant, both as reality and symbol.''

In the second category we have the sources which have been 'recovered'. This would include the study of archaeological remains, coins and other artifacts which have been discovered and the deciphering of forgotten scripts and languages.

The third category of sources are ones which are ‘invented’. Thus a powerful ruler may employ court historians who may paint a picture of the man and his times, which is, by and large, false and which may totally mislead the latter day historian. It is, therefore, necessary for him to dissect this material carefully and try to corroborate it from other sources.

Religion manifested itself in almost all the activities of the early men, and therefore, it is not surprising that the earliest literature available to us is in the form of earliest literature available to us is in the form of religious texts. These texts, when studied carefully, yield enormous historical information and can be thus regarded as one of the sources of history.

In Indian context, the earliest body of religious compilations is the large corpus of Vedic literature.

Literally Veda means knowledge and the Vedas are the oldest surviving literature in the world. There are four principal Vedas –

• the Rig Veda,
• the Sama Veda,
• the Yajur Veda and
• the Atharva Veda.

Of these, the most important is the Rig Veda. It is not only the oldest of them, but also the most important source for portraying the life and struggles of the people of the time. In spite of great theories advanced by some scholars about the antiquity of this text – one going as far back as 6000 BC, it is generally accepted the hymns of the Rig Veda were by and large composed between 1500 and 1000 BC. These hymns, or suttas, are 1028 in number (1017 according to some scholars) and grouped into ten books (mandalas) of unequal size. The core of the entire work lies in Books II-XII which are known as the 'Family Books' having been composed by such. There is much in these texts which is complex and incomprehensible but much that is families of sages and known as sheer beauty bordering on the sublime.

Sama Veda grew out of the Rig Veda and is a compilation of hymns in the nature of musical compositions.

The Yajur Veda is basically a ritualistic text consisting of mantras - or incantations - meant for sacrificial of mantras – or incantations - meant for sacrificial occasions. One also sometimes hears of the Black Veda. This signifies the four recessions of the text of which two are known as the White Yajur Veda. Without entering into the controversy over the two, it may only be stated they Vedic scholars are divided in opinion as to which of the two is of an earlier origin.

The Atharva Veda is not only a later text than the other three, it is also different in nature. It is composed of mantras dealing with ailments and their cure including through charms. Divided into twenty mandalas, the Atharva Veda does not attain the heights of the Rig Veda.

The four Vedas form the main body of Vedic literature and though there have been later interpolations in the texts, these have been relatively minor ones. There is, in fact, no word in the Vedic texts denoting the act of writing, and it must be considered a remarkable feat of writing, and it must be considered a remarkable feat of human ingenuity that all these texts were passed down orally through generations without any distortion till they were committed to writing centuries later. For this, the Brahmins evolved rules of learning the Vedas through memory which were so strict as to discourage any change or innovation. In fact, even today, when the entire text is available in books, there are pundits who can recite large bodies of these texts without a single flaw so that even if a large number of them are present and reciting, there is not one discordant note. This has been indeed a remarkable achievement and testifies to the element of continuity in Indian culture.

The Vedas were accompanied by a large corpus of ancillary literature. Among these are the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upnishads.

Brahmanas constitute a sort of commentary on the Vedas. The sole object of their authors seems to Vedas. The sole object of their authors seems to speculate on and mystify, but hardly to explain minute details of Brahminical sacrifices. This may be the reason why the Brahmanas have never been as popular as the original Vedic texts. Among the Brahmanas, the more important ones are the Aitareya Brahman, which is associated with the Rig Veda; the Satpatha Brahman, associated with the Sama, and the Gopatha Brahmana, associated with the Atharva Veda.

The word Aranayak means a forest, and indeed, these texts are marked by speculative thought and deep meditation on philosophical estrous. The more important Aranyakas are the Aitereya, the Taittereya and the Maitrayani.

The Aranyakas are almost a stepping stone to the Upanishads, the pinnacle of Vedic thought. According to the famous Vedic scholar, Winternitz, “it is often difficult to draw the line between the Aranyakas and the Upanishads.”

Composed largely Upanishads sometimes ridicule the rigidity of the Vedas and the between 300-500 BC, the
108 in number – question rituals propagated by them. The Upanishads, in fact, provoke the spirit of inquiry urging the human mind to get to the essence of things. This spirit of inquiry is enshrined in the famous invocation in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

Asato ma sadgamaya
Tamaso ma Jyotirgamaya
Mrityor ma Amritgamaya

“Lead me from the unreal to the real!
Lead me from darkness to light!
Lead me from death to immortality!''

Ever since the west discovered the Upanishads in the nineteenth century, they have caught the fascination of enlightened minds the world over. Famous German philosopher Schopenhauer once said, “In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life - it will be the solace of my death.”

Even while considering such encomiums on the Vedas and Vedic thought, one must remember that these are historical texts: but philosophical and literary. However, if one were to reconstruct the tiles and lives of the people of the period, these are the main texts which serve as sources. And even though we may not derive exact dates and personalities from them, we can get a glimpse of the geographical extent together with the gradual process of expansion of the people and their social life, political organization and their economy.

A1l these, we will see subsequently. Here it is only important to consider these as sources – however insufficient and unsatisfactory - for the history of ancient India. Good Bye.

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