Skip to main content

Vedic Aryan India


VEDIC ARYAN INDIA The Saṃhitās—"collections" of hymns (sūkta) or, more comprehensively, ritual formulas (mantra)—constitute the oldest surviving literature of South Asia. They form the earliest category of texts belonging to the four divisions of the Veda (sacred knowledge), composed in the Sanskrit language. The Saṃhitās are the sources discussed in this article. (See the article "Brāhmaṇas" for a discussion of later Vedic texts, the Brāhmaṇas [in a broader sense comprising the Āranyakas and Upanishads], the subsequent category of Sūtras [Shrauta, Grihya, and Dharma Sūtras], and other auxiliary texts.)

The Saṃhitās and Brāhmaṇas came to be considered eternal, transcendental wisdom (shruti; literally, "hearing"), supernaturally "heard" or "seen" by ancient sages (rishi), the ultimate authority in Hinduism. Though each Veda thus comprises other texts besides (one or more) Saṃhitās, their plain names are often used to designate the respective Saṃhitās: Rig Veda = Rig Veda Saṃhitā. The fourfold division of the Veda results from the engagement of four groups of priests in the elaborate shrauta rites ("based on the shruti"), which first took their codified shape in Yajur Veda.

Rig Veda—"knowledge of praise stanzas"—was the domain of the hotar priest and his assistants, who praised deities by reciting specific stanzas of the Rig Veda. Its 1,028 hymns total 10,417 stanzas. Most hymns were probably composed in the thirteenth century b.c. and the whole corpus collected by about 1100 b.c. The final redaction took place around 700 b.c., whereafter the text was handed down with extraordinary fidelity. Preserving extant poems by oral repetition replaced a living tradition of composing new poems.

The Rig Veda is divided into ten books. The oldest are the nuclear "family books" (II–VII), each ascribed to a family of poets descended from a particular sage: II, Grit-samada; III, Vishvāmitra; IV, Vāmadeva; V, Atri; VI, Bharadvāja; and VII, Vasishtha. Almost equally old is Book VIII, with hymns of the Kanva (1–66) and Angiras (67–103) families, and its supplement, the Kanva hymns (1–50) of Book I, though the rest of Book I is more recent. Book IX was created by extracting all the hymns addressed to God Soma from Books I through VIII. Book X is the most recent addition.

Sāma Veda—"knowledge of the melodies"—is the domain of the udgātar and other chanter priests. The Saṃhitā, preserved in two versions (Kauthuma and Jaiminīya), consists of text books (ārcika) with stanzas mostly taken from the Rig Veda, and of extensive song books (gāna) with melodies (sāman) set to the (variously altered) texts.

Yajur Veda—"knowledge of the muttered formulas," largely in prose—belonged to priests performing practical operations. The earlier Saṃhitās of "Black Yajur Veda" (Maitrāyanīya, Katha, Kapishthala-Katha, and Taittirīya) include prose passages explaining the origin and symbolism of the shrauta ritual. In contrast, the younger "White Yajur Veda" separates its (Vājasaneyi) Saṃhitā from the ritual explanations in prose, which are collected in the most extensive of the existing Brāhmana texts, the Shatapatha-Brāhmana.

Atharva Veda—"knowledge of the atharvan priest"—contains charms for healing, love affairs, sorcery, and domestic (grihya) and royal rites. The next oldest collection after the Rig Veda, the Atharva Veda (and the latest hymns of the Rig Veda, which anticipate it) differs from the Rig Veda in language and content, and probably reflects the traditions of both earlier arrived Aryan immigrants and the indigenous population of India. It was initially excluded from the solemn ritual, but later became the Veda of the Brahman priest, whose main duty was to control that everything was done correctly and to "heal" eventual mistakes.

Background of the Vedic Aryans in South Asia and Beyond

The ancestry of the Vedic Aryans is understood today better than before. At the same time, it has become a heatedly debated and politicized issue. Opinions widely differing from the traditional "immigration hypothesis" are expressed especially by Hindu fundamentalists. These opponents maintain that the birthplace of the Aryan (and even other Indo-European) languages is India, and that Vedic Sanskrit was spoken in the Indus Valley, or Harappan, Civilization (2600–1900 b.c.). The forgotten Indus script is difficult to decipher in the absence of any translations, but its analysis leads to the conclusion that the language was Proto-Dravidian. This is supported by the presence of Dravidian loanwords in the Rig Veda and later Vedic texts and the survival of one Dravidian language (Brahui) in the Indus Valley. Most important, however, is the absence of the horse, both from excavated animal bones antedating 2000 b.c. in South Asia and from the otherwise rich gallery of animals in Harappan art. By contrast, the horse is frequently mentioned in the Rig Veda and was culturally important.

The Vedic language is archaic Sanskrit, or Old Indo-Aryan, the oldest phase of Aryan languages spoken in (ancient) India. Ārya (hospitable, noble) is the ethnic self-appellation of the authors of the Rig Veda, shared by the speakers of Avestan and Old Persian, the two varieties of Old Iranian (or "Irano-Aryan"), the oldest phase of Aryan languages spoken in (ancient) Iran. The original location of the Proto-Aryan or Proto-Indo-Iranian parent language is indicated by the many Proto-Aryan loanwords in the Finno-Ugrian protolanguage, which dispersed from central Russia. The Rig Vedic hymns imply a long poetic tradition with refined style and metrics. They share numerous phrases with Zarathushtra's Old Iranian poems. Some poetic formulas go back even to Proto-Indo-European. The phrase shrávas. ..ákshitam (imperishable fame) has an exact etymological counterpart in ancient Greek, in the Homeric phrase kléos áphthiton.

Several terms related to wheeled vehicles reconstructable to the Indo-European protolanguage indicate that its speakers knew ox-drawn carts and wagons, which were invented around 3500 b.c. This gives a firm starting point for identifying the chain of archaeological cultures through which the various Indo-European languages eventually reached their historical seats. On this basis, Proto-Aryan was spoken in the Sintashta-Arkaim culture (c. 2200–1800 b.c.) in southern Russia between the Volga and Ural rivers. The earliest known horse-drawn chariots are from aristocratic graves of this culture.

The Indo-Aryan branch seems to have broken off with the Andronovo culture (c. 1800–1300 b.c.) that spread to Siberia and Central Asia. In Central Asia, Indo-Aryan speakers apparently took over the rule in the Bactria and Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) in the first quarter of the second millennium. A similar BMAC-related takeover of power happened in Syria, where the Mitanni kingdom, famed for its horse-drawn chariots, had rulers with Indo-Aryan names (c. 1500–1300 b.c.).

Entrance of the Vedic Aryans to South Asia

Ceramics with BMAC origin came to the Swat Valley of north Pakistan around 1600 and again around 1300 b.c. These two waves of immigration most probably brought the poetic tradition of the Rig Veda to South Asia. These dates agree with the fact that the Rig Veda mentions bronze (ayas) but not iron. Iron came to South Asia around the eleventh century b.c. and is mentioned in the Atharva Veda.

River names occurring in the Rig Veda connect its oldest parts with the northwest and the Punjab. The "seven streams" are repeatedly mentioned; in X, 75 all the major rivers of the Indus system are enumerated. Eastern rivers (Yamuna and Ganga) are mentioned only a few times. In later Vedic literature the geographical horizon widens eastward and southward. Several river names seem to have had their referents in Afghanistan. Thus Rasā, corresponding to Avestan Ranhā, probably denotes the Amu Darya and may have a Proto-Aryan background in the Volga River, called Rhā in Greek sources. Sarasvati mostly denotes the North Indian Ghaggar-Hakra, but in VI, 61 Sarasvati evidently refers to the Argandāb River in the Afghan province of Kandahar, called Harahvaiti in Avestan and Harahuvati in Old Persian. This was the birthplace of King Divodāsa.

The Vedic Aryans did not come to an empty country when they entered South Asia. The Harappan population is estimated to have been around 1 million. The walled Indus cities collapsed around 1900 b.c., and the Aryan war god Indra and his protégé, King Divodāsa, have long been blamed for this: according to the Rig Veda, they vanquished "black-skinned" enemies called Dāsa, Dasyu, and Pani, and destroyed their numerous strongholds.

However, chronological reasons alone make it difficult to accept this popular hypothesis, as King Divodāsa probably did not come to the Indus Valley before 1300 b.c. Moreover, the Dāsa forts are described as having circular and often multiple, concentric walls, while the Indus cities had a square layout. In the 1970s, a "temple fort" with three round concentric walls was discovered at the BMAC site Dashly-3 in Afghanistan. The battles against the Dāsas may therefore have taken place west of the Indus Valley.

Later Iranian and Greek sources place a tribe called Dasa or Daha and its subtribe Parna in Afghanistan and southern Turkmenistan, the very area of the BMAC. Two East Iranian languages have preserved the word daha (from earlier dasa) in the meaning "man, hero, human being," which is often the basis of ethnic names. A wave of Early Proto-Iranian–speaking immigrants from the northern steppes may have preceded the Vedic Indo-Aryans in Central Asia (taking over the BMAC) and in South Asia. This earliest Aryan wave could be connected with the Late and Post-Harappan cultures in the Indus Valley ("Jhukar" in Sind, "Cemetery H of Harappa" in the Punjab), the Ganges-Yamuna Doab (the "Copper Hoards"), and with the early non-Vedic but Aryan languages of eastern India (Māgadhī). Their religion may have initiated Shākta Tantrism.

The Rig Veda mentions by name some thirty Aryan tribes and clans, major ones being the "five peoples." Four of these, paired as Yadu and Turvasha, and Anu and Druhyu, seem to represent the first wave of Rig Vedic immigrants (c. 1600 b.c.). The fifth tribe, Pūru, together with its ally or subtribe Bharata—which has given India its later native name, Bhārat(a)—appears have arrived later (c. 1300 b.c.), overpowering the earlier tribes. This immigration from Afghanistan over the Hindu Kush Mountains to the western side of the Indus was led by the Pūru king Purukutsa and the Bharata king Divodāsa.

Divodāsa's son or grandson Sudās defeated the Pūru king and his many allies in the celebrated "battle of ten kings" (Rig Veda VII, 18) on the Ravi River in the Punjab. Sudās became the supreme ruler in the eastern-most realm of the Rig Vedic period, the area around Delhi later called Kurukshetra. The Pūrus stayed between the Jhelum and Ravi rivers, where Alexander conquered King Pōros ("descendant of Pūru").

Vedic History after the Rig Veda

Iron and a new luxury ceramic called painted gray ware appeared in the Punjab and Haryana around 1100 b.c. and remained cultural characteristics of this area until about 400 b.c. Iron probably came with Old Iranian–speaking horse riders from Central Asia. It is possible that the Kuru kings, who now assumed power in Kurukshetra, the center of Vedic civilization immediately after the Rig Veda, belonged to this wave of immigrants: they share the name "Kuru" with the founder of the Persian Empire, Cyrus.

Economy and Society

Cattle breeding was the basis of Vedic economy. The cow was the most important domestic animal as the provider of meat and milk products; others included the horse, donkey, mule, camel, goat, and sheep, as well as dog and cat, and in the Yajur Veda, also elephant. Agriculture (with plow) was practiced mainly by the indigenous sedentary population. The main crop was barley; rice is mentioned from the Atharva Veda onward.

Early Vedic Aryans were much on the move and continually at strife with each other, cattle rustling being a favorite pastime. Horse-drawn chariots with two spoked wheels served for fighting, hunting (wild boars and antelopes), and racing. Rivers were crossed with boats and floats. The word grāma, which later means "village," denotes in the Rig Veda "a group of wandering pastoralists and their camp," also "a warring band." People lived in their ox-drawn wagons, placed in a circle to provide a corral for the cattle at night. Actual buildings—called "house" (griha) or "hall" (shālā)—were lightly constructed with wooden beams and matted walls and roofs. Brick was not used for residential buildings, only for fire altars and hearths. Towns appear around 800 b.c. with the painted gray ware and start being referred to in Brāhmaṇa texts.

Goods traded by barter included salt, metals and metal objects (weapons, tools and vessels), grain, wool, thread and garments, goatskins and plants (soma, herbs). Cattle was the main means of payment. Kings rewarded poets with gifts of cattle, horses, and golden ornaments.

Some specialized craftsmen are mentioned in the Rig Veda, including carpenters, smiths, merchants, and fishermen. Post–Rig Vedic texts speak of potters (kulāla) with potter's wheels, but they were considered non-Aryan and wheel-thrown dishes "demonic": ritual vessels were handmade by Aryans.

Vedic society consisted of extended families headed by patriarchal "masters of the house" (grihapati), clans (vish) headed by chieftains (vishpati), and tribes ruled by kings (rājan or kshatriya), war leaders like the war god Indra, and peacetime rulers like God Varuṇa, who guarded social rules and punished offenders. By the Brāhmaṇa period, the administration was much more developed, with numerous dignitaries.

The Rig Veda distinguishes between the Ārya varṇa and the Dāsa varṇa, apparently a difference in skin color. In the late hymn X, 90, however, varṇa (color) denotes the four social classes—brāhmaṇa (priests), rājanya (nobility), vaishya (commoners), and shūdra (serfs)—as originating from the mouth, arms, loins, and feet of the primeval man (purusha), whom the gods sacrificed in the beginning, creating the world out of his body. This seems to reflect the surfacing of earlier local developments. The priestly claim for superiority and monopolization of the sacrificial ritual probably started from the royal high priests (purohita) important in the Atharva Veda.

Religious Ideas and Forms of Worship

Contrasting with the systematic and detailed descriptions of rituals in the Brāhmaṇas and Sūtras, the Rig Veda repeats over and over a few central myths and cultic acts but leaves many others quite obscure, as poetics favored veiled and indirect references. The hymns mainly praise gods, invite them to a sacrificial meal, and pray to them for long life, sons, cattle, victory in battle, or fame. Verbal art and liturgy was most important in the uniconic worship of gods. The truthfully spoken word had magic power, brahman: by means of his poems, God Brihaspati (in later Hinduism, the chaplain of the gods and the planet Jupiter), helping Indra, opened the cave of the demon Vala who had imprisoned the cows of the Dawn.

The Rig Vedic worship or sacrifice (yajña), which was modeled on human hospitality, was a very important ceremony for the Aryans, as their ethnic name indicates; it was guarded by God Aryaman, "hospitality" personified. After the sacrificer and the priests (who represented particular deities) had become purified and initiated, the sacrificial fire was kindled. Gods were invited to come and seat themselves on the grass strewn near the fire. Agni, the god of fire, conveyed the offerings to them, or functioned as their mouth and priest. Agni is one of the principal Vedic deities, worshiped in every house as its master. Offerings consisted of cakes and of portions of slaughtered animals put into fire, while other parts were eaten by the priests.

The most important offering substance was soma, the deified sacrificial drink, pressed out of the stems of a plant previously soaked in hot water. The juice was purified with a woolen filter, and during this act lauded with Samur Vedic songs. The botanical identity of soma is controversial. Most likely, it was ephedra, still used as haoma by Zoroastrians, the followers of Zarathushtra. Ephedra contains ephedrine, a drug that enhances physical performance. Soma is the drink of the warrior. Poets, too, are inspired and kept awake by soma.

More than a quarter of the Rig Vedic hymns are addressed to Indra, the god of war and the principal drinker of soma. Indra's greatest feat is the killing of Dragon Vritra (Obstruction) who had imprisoned the waters. Maruts, the storm winds, assisted Indra. Indra also helps in finding cattle captured by the enemy and in breaking enemy forts. He is said to have created the sun, the heaven, and the dawns.

Indra, however, is not the only king of the gods. (He has this function also in Hinduism and other Indian religions.) Mitra (personified "treaty of friendship") and Varuṇa (personified "oath" or "true speech," upholder of cosmic order—rita, later dharma—and punisher of sinners) are worshiped as a dual deity of kingship. Mitra is associated with day (in Iran, Mithra was the sun god and the god of victory) and Varuṇa with night (conceived of as a heavenly ocean; in later Hinduism, Varuṇa is the god of ocean and the waters. As a dual divinity they represent the bright and the dark side of the single sun god, Savitar. Along with Aryaman, Bhaga (share [of booty], good fortune), and some other gods, they form a class of "abstract" deities called Ādityas, "sons of [Goddess] Aditi," possibly created by Proto-Indo-Aryans under the inspiration of the Assyrian religion, where similar deities are worshiped as aspects of the chief god Assur. Likewise, the "Holy Immortals" were aspects of Zarathushtra's Ahura Mazda "Lord Wisdom"—the Old Iranian counterpart of Varuṇa as the principal Asura.

As the title of Varuṇa, asura means "Lord," but in other Vedic contexts and in later Hinduism it means "Demon," an enemy of the "Gods," usually called deva in the Veda. Zarathushtra rejected most of the earlier Indo-Aryan gods, so daēva means "demon" in Avestan. There are traces of some rivalry between the cult of Indra (worshiped with soma) and the cult of the twin gods called Ashvin or Nāsatya (worshiped with gharma, an offering of heated milk, or with surā, a beer made from milk and honey). The Ashvins drive their flying horse chariot around heaven with their beautiful sister-wife, Ushas, the goddess of Dawn. They function as healers and saviors of gods and men, like their Greek counterparts, the horseman twins. The Dioskouroi, however, were also guardians of the dual kings of Sparta, so Mitra-and-Varuṇa may be partial doubles of the Ashvins, the original chariot gods. The horse sacrifice (ashvamedha) belonged to royal rites (in the Rig Veda as in the later epics and after). Mitra-and-Varuṇa, Indra, and the Nāsatyas were all invoked as oath deities by the Mitanni king in a treaty with the Hittite king in 1380 b.c.

The main gods of later Hinduism appear with a lower profile as early as the Rig Veda. Rudra (Shiva) is feared for his arrows, while Vishnu assists Indra and crosses the universe with his three strides.

The late books I and X of the Rig Veda differ considerably, in language as well as in content, from the rest of the collection but anticipate the Atharva Veda and Brahmanism. Philosophical speculation starts with the mighty hymn of creation (sat and asat, X, 129). Sorcery spells contain archaic Indo-European traditions, likewise the hymns associated with domestic rituals, which remain the most enduring part of the Veda in India today. Harappan heritage is preserved in Vedic calendrical astronomy, attested for the first time in the marriage hymn (X, 85). The Rig Veda speaks of both burial and cremation as current modes of disposing of the dead, but cremation became the standard method. The funeral hymns (X, 10–19) are related to Yama, "the twin (with his sister Yamî)," the first man and first mortal, and the king of the dead, who has an Old Iranian counterpart in the Avestan Yima, the first king and first mortal. Yama seems to be an earlier double of Manu (man), the ancestor of the Vedic Aryans; both descend from the solar god Viva-svat. Several cultural and cultic layers can thus be traced in the Veda.

Asko Parpola

See alsoAshvamedha ; Brāhmaṇas ; Harappa ; Hinduism (Dharma) ; Indus Valley Civilization ; Zoroastrianism


Erdosy, George, ed. The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia:Language, Material Culture, and Ethnicity. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1995.

Gonda, Jan. Vedic Literature (Samhitās and Brāhmanas). Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1975.

Macdonell, A. A. Vedic Mythology. Strasbourg: Karl J. Trübner, 1897.

Macdonell, A. A., and A. B. Keith. Vedic Index of Names andSubjects, vols. I–II. London: John Murray, 1912.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, trans. The Rigveda: An Anthology. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1981.

Parpola, Asko. Deciphering the Indus Script. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

——. "Pre-Proto-Iranians of Afghanistan as Introducers of Shâkta Tantrism: On the Scythian/Saka Affinity of the Dāsas, Nuristanis and Magadhans." In Iranica Antiqua 37 (2002): 233–324.

Staal, Frits, ed. Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, vols. I–II. Berkeley, Calif.: Asian Humanities Press, 1983.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Vedic Aryan India." Encyclopedia of India. . 17 Sep. 2018 <>.

"Vedic Aryan India." Encyclopedia of India. . (September 17, 2018).

"Vedic Aryan India." Encyclopedia of India. . Retrieved September 17, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.