VEDA IS A POWERFUL WORD. It is derived from the early Sanskrit word vid, which V means “to know,” as in the sense of knowing the truth. Veda thus means knowledge of truth. More specifically, it refers to a higher, infallible truth, available to only a gifted few, who transmit this knowledge for the benefit of all.
In ancient times the Brahmin priests were the custodians of Veda; it was their responsibility to preserve that sacred knowledge and to use it for the well-being of the entire community. To a large degree, this was accomplished through the performance of religious ritual. Over time these ritual celebrations grew to include long chants, which came to be known as the Vedas, religious compositions that expressed the essential truths of Veda. The Vedas, composed more than 3,000 years ago, are the earliest recorded expressions of the Indian tradition. They were, nonetheless, the product of a culture that was far older still.
The earliest evidence of urban civilization in India appeared approximately 5,000 years ago and even that grew out of still older roots. Of course, history knows little of what was going on in those early days. Our historical knowledge of that emerging tradition starts with the Vedas, and it is thus with the Vedas that our study properly begins. But before we get to that, it would be valuable to travel back in time and take a somewhat closer look at the background out of which the Vedas took form and that influenced them in many important ways. Most fundamental of all is the physical character of the Indian subcontinent—the stage, so to speak, on which the great drama would take place. And that is where we shall begin.
The huge subcontinent of India appears on the map to hang gracefully from the southern flank of Eurasia. Its generally triangular shape extends for a thousand miles into the Indian Ocean, dividing that sea into the Arabian Sea on the west and the Bay of Bengal to the east. Just off the southern tip of India, and almost connected to it by a land bridge, is the beautiful teardrop-shaped island of Sri Lanka. Called Ceylon for centuries, Sri Lanka has always been intimately connected geographically and culturally with India.
Approximately one-half the size of the United States, the Indian subcontinent is effectively isolated by geography from the rest of the Eurasian continent. In the south, India confronts the sea; in the north, it is divided from what lay beyond by the greatest system of mountains on Earth. The vast Himalayas and their associated ranges stretch out across the entire northern frontier from west to east. On a map the northern mountains have the appearance of a great curtain gracefully draped across the entire reach of the Indian subcontinent. The mountains and the sea have defined India geographically and have, to a degree, isolated it from the rest of the world.
India has not always been a part of the Eurasian continent. Many millions of years ago all of the present-day continents were joined into one great landmass. At that time India was an integral part of what would become both Africa and Antarctica. The ceaseless movement of the plates that form the earth’s crust eventually broke loose the land we know as India, just as today the great rift system of East Africa is evidence that the slow process of plate movement is again separating another piece of that continent from the mainland.
Over millions of years, the Indian plate moved in a generally northward direction, eventually colliding with the southern side of Asia. There were no great mountains then, but as the Indian plate pressed relentlessly against the Asian plate, the upper layers at the interface began to slowly fold and crumple into nascent mountain ridges, while the lower part of the Indian plate (many geologists believe) tunneled under the Asian plate, and the land began to rise.*
In time, the high plateau of Tibet took form. The leading edge of what had once been a low coastal plain was eventually thrust almost 30,000 feet into the sky. Over the ages, the forces of erosion have sculpted this geology into the magnificent chain of mountains we know as the Himalayas, which literally means “abode of snow.”
Where there are great mountains there are great rivers. Many rivers flow out of the northern mountains. Eventually they merge into two great river systems. In the west is the Indus system, from which India derives its name. Several rivers gather in the northwest to form the Indus, which then flows to the south emptying into the Arabian Sea near the modern city of Karachi. In modern times the Indus flows entirely within the nation of Pakistan.
The other great river system is the Ganges, “Ganga” as the people of India call it. The Ganges gathers several major tributaries and flows in a generally eastward direction across the north of India, finally meeting the sea not far from the modern city of Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta). For more than 1,500 miles, this great river winds its way through the fertile plain of North India. It is in the enormous Ganges plain that much of the history and most of the people of India are to be found. The Ganges, “Mother Ganga,” is a sacred river in the Hindu tradition. Along its banks are to be found many hallowed sites in the history of Hinduism, including the holy city of Varanasi.
The great Ganges basin is known to geographers as the North Indian Plain. South of it the land rises somewhat, becoming a hilly plateau that extends for a thousand miles, all the way to the southern tip of India. This plateau, which encompasses almost all of southern India, is called the Deccan. It rises gently in elevation from east to west extending almost all the way to the west coast, near which the Deccan abruptly erupts into a long line of low coastal mountains known as the Western Ghats.
India is, for the most part, a tropical country. It knows great heat. In the south the environment is lushly tropical and hot, but in the mountainous north a totally different environment is to be found. In fact, just about every kind of climate is to be found somewhere in India, but tropical heat is definitely the most common environment. From June to October the wet monsoon winds from the south bring almost constant rainfall to much of India. But during the rest of the year dry winds from the north are the rule.
After merging with Eurasia, India became an integral part of its geology. For many millions of years this varied and beautiful subcontinent evolved in a perfect state of nature. Every conceivable kind of flora and fauna flourished there—every kind but one; and in the course of time that one too would come to India and establish itself there.
No one knows when the first of our human ancestors entered India. Over the ages there must have been many waves of migrations. Eventually, a more or less stable human population took form. Aboriginal Indian culture was undoubtedly made up of many discrete groupings with different customs and distinctly different languages. One large language family, though, known as Dravidian, became widely distributed in the subcontinent, and hence it is often used as a label for the entire aboriginal Indian culture.
With the exception of one region, practically nothing is known about the life and history of these people. The aboriginal Indians were a preliterate people; there is no historical record to turn to. We can surmise that they lived out their lives in small, widely dispersed communities living close to the earth. Apparently they practiced a simple form of agriculture, undoubtedly supplemented by hunting and gathering. About their religious beliefs, their art, and their philosophy of life, we can only make guesses. We can be sure, though, that some of their religious beliefs and practices have left a permanent influence on Indian culture.
The one exception referred to above was indeed impressive. In the northwestern part of the subcontinent, in the Indus and associated river valleys, social evolution did not languish at the level of the small farming community. Here, urban life germinated. Genuine cities took form. Beginning in the 1920s, archaeologists have been uncovering numerous urban sites, not only in the vicinity of the Indus and its tributaries, but also along the banks of the Sarasvati River, east of the Indus. The Sarasvati, now almost entirely dried up, was a great river in ancient times and is mentioned prominently in the Vedas. Although not technically accurate, it is customary to lump all of these sites together, referring to the whole as Harappan Civilization, or Indus Valley Civilization. Harappa is the name modern scholars have assigned to one of the principal urban excavation sites.
What is most exciting to the historian about those Indus Valley cities is the time when they came into being; they were am...