Hindu – Is it a religion? Is it a faith? Or is it a culture? Who are the Hindus? Where did they come from? These are the questions that have vexed experts for generations. When Achaemenid Emperor Darius annexed the Indus Valley around 512 BCE, the Harappan civilisation was already history and the second urbanisation in the Gangetic plain was in its infancy. The Vedic religion was undergoing a transformation. Darius called the people of the Indus Valley, “Sindhus” or people of Sindhu River. This was pronounced “Hindus” in Persian. The Ionian Greek soldiers who accompanied the emperor integrated well with the local population and in Greek “Hindus” became “Indos” and thus the name India was born.
The earliest evidence of “Bhagavata cult” goes back to the days of Mahajanapadas with Vasudeva (Krishna) and Sankarshana (Balarama) making their appearance in archaeological residues of Vidisha. A brick structure suggestive of a temple has been excavated in the archaeological site dating to second century BCE. Within the temple there is an oval structure of an older construction, as yet undated. An estimate of 8th century BCE has been put forward by some historians.
By this time, most of the Vedic gods were forgotten and some of the minor gods of the Vedas – Rudra, Vishnu and Brahma became prominent. The primary deities of Rigveda – Indra, Varuna, Mithra and Agni were not given the same importance as during the Vedic times. River Saraswathi, which is so prominent in the Vedas – ‘mighty Sarasvati flowing from the mountains to the sea’ – becomes more of a mythological entity and a goddess of learning. Drying up of the mighty Saraswathi during the late third millennium BCE into minor seasonal streams of Gaggar and Hakra might have something to do with it.
Experts like Asko Parpola (Asko Parpola) and others have suggested that the Vedic Aryans came from the Pontic-Caspian steppes. There is archaeological evidence of horse drawn carriages and fire altars in the Sintashta culture of the steppes. The experts have by and large used the philological evidence to support their theory of Indo-aryan migration into the Northwest India and then to the Gangetic plains. However, Chromosomal studies have shown a low concentration of genetic mix from the steppes in the Harappan and post-Harappan people. In fact there appears
to be a limited northward movement of the Harappan people (Sahoo et al).
The cities of the Harappan civilisation started to decline towards the beginning of the second millennium BCE and had given way to village based communities living on farming. Drying up of Sarasvati, Drishadvati and Beas with the westward translocation of the Sutlej caused the desertification of Rajashtan, southern parts of Punjab and Haryana as well as Cholistan (in Pakistan). The rate of desiccation accelerated when the monsoon moved eastwards during the late third and beginning of second millennium BCE. There seems to be a gradual movement of the people away from the Sarasvati valley during this period. Major movement was towards the east into the Ganga-Yamuna doab, north towards Swat valley and beyond and south towards Kutch, over a period of thousand years.
The Harappan civilisation seems to have fragmented into Gandharan grave culture (north), Cemetery H, OCP culture (South), Painted Grey Ware (PGW) (East) and Northern Polished Black ware (NBP)(East) cultures. The population migrated mostly eastwards towards the rivers, Ganga and Yamuna and northwards along the river Indus. The second urbanisation started around 8th century BCE with cities such as Ujjaini, Kausambi, Rajgriha, and Varanasi sprouting up in the Ganga-Yamuna doab, and leading to the establishment of the sixteen Mahajanapadas by 6th century BCE. Expansion of the mighty Mauryan empire under Chandragupta and Kautilya, saw the growth of Hinduism as we now of it today.
While the Hebrew were busy writing the Old Testament in Babylon as prisoners of Nebuchadnezzar in early sixth century BCE, the Vedic corpus including all the four major Vedas and the Bramhanas and Aranyakas were finished articles. There has been an on going debate about dating of the Vedas. Experts agree that Rigveda is essentially a Bronze Age document. The scholars consider that it was probably composed over a period of 600 years starting from around 1500 BCE. They also agree that the text was composed around the present day Punjab and Haryana belt. However it is difficult to see how the massive and technically demanding Vedic corpus could have been composed during 1500 BCE to 900 BCE in a land with hardly any civilisation of note. By that period most of the population had migrated further east into the Gangetic plains. The Rig-Veda has river Sarasvati flowing from the mountains to the sea – it had dried up into small seasonal streams of Gaggar and Hakra by 1900 BCE. Most of the large cities of the Harappan civilisation had either been abandoned or significantly reduced in size to small hamlets. I would place Rigveda to around the late third millennium BCE to the middle of second. Earliest mention of Iron as Shayma Ayas (black metal) occurs in Atharvana Veda. Evidence of Iron smelting in the Gangetic plains goes back to around 1800 BCE (Tewari et al). The inference would be that Atharvana Veda was probably composed around or after that period. It is entirely probable that Rigveda was composed during the late third millennium BCE, the latter three Vedas and the other Vedic texts from around the middle of second millennium BCE to the middle of first millennium BCE.
The texts of Bramhanas and Aranyakas talk about ‘priests’ and ‘gurukuls’ for the first time. The name ‘Aranyaka’ suggests that they might have been composed in forests. Archaeological evidence shows that there was general anarchy among the urban settlements during the beginning of second millennium BCE. The fine art and seals of the Harappan urban centres disappear during this period. In all probability, the literate deserted the anarchical cities and moved into forests and villages. There is a definite change in the structure and content of these texts from the four Vedas.
Manusmriti has been dated from between 1200 BCE to 200 BCE. The final version that we now have probably saw the light of day during the period of Buddha. It is the first time the four ‘varnas’ – Bramhana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra – are described along with the rules. With Emperor Chandragupta’s minister, Kautilya (Chanakya) coming out in support of the Manusmriti, the state of Varna became the law of the land. Kautilya’s Arthashastra is dated around 5th century BCE. The Varnas or castes were prescribed by Manusmriti, and became established during the Mahajanapadas. Buddhism and Jainism grew out of frustration and as a reaction to the perceived inequality and injustice of the rigid Varna system. Buddhism however did not take root until the conversion of Emperor Ashoka who was instrumental in spreading the word of Gautama Buddha across the Magadhan Empire and abroad in third century BCE.
It was the eminent sages such as Ramanujacharya, Adi Shankara and Madhvacharya who rejuvenated the Hinduism and stopped from extinction. In summary, the Vedic religion of third millennium BCE transformed into the religion of Hindus over a period of thousand years. There was a significant transmigration between Harappan civilisation and the cultures of the Pontic-Caspian steppes of southern Russia (Yamnaya culture and Sintashta cultures) during the second millennium BCE. This had a profound influence on the Vedic culture and its transformation into the present day Hinduism.
- A prehistory of Indian Y Chromosomes: Evaluating demic diffusing Scenarios. Sanghamitra Sahoo et al, PNAS, Jan 2006;vol 103. 9=843-848.
- Origins of Iron working in India: New evidence from the central Ganga plains and eastern Vindhyas. Archaeology on Line. Rakesh Tewari, Director, U.P. State Archaeological Department, Roshan-ud-daula Kothi,
Kaisarbagh, Lucknow 226 001 (U.P.) India
- The Roots of Hinduism: The Early Aryans and Indus Valley Civilisation. Asko Parpola, Oxford University Press, 2015
- The Hindus : An alternative history. Wendy Doniger, Oxford University Press, 2010.