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The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India

The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India


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Published by: ABID H on Sep 05, 2008
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THE word arya in Sanskrit, and from that language in most Indian
tongues, means 'free-born', or 'of noble character', or a member of the
three higher castes. The word, like so many others, changed its meaning
through the centuries. Though used in later days as the equivalent of the
formal term of respect 'Sir', it designated some special tribe or tribes as an
ethnic group at the earliest stage. Most histories of India begin with these
ancient Aryans. Some writers still maintain that the Indus people must have

been Aryans, from the prejudice that every peak of Indian cultural achievement
must have been Aryan. The hideous racial implication given to
'Aryan' by the late Nazi regime and its official philosophy has increased
the confusion. There is, naturally, some doubt as to whether there were
really any Aryans at all, and if so what sort of people they may have been.

The outstanding Aryan feature, the one characteristic that justifies the
name for a large group of people, is a common family of languages. These
important languages spread right across the Eurasian continent. Sanskrit,
Latin, Greek were the classical Aryan languages. From Latin developed
the Romance language group (Italian, Spanish, French, Rumanian, etc.) in
southern Europe. In addition, the Teutonic (German, English, Swedish,
etc.), the Slavic (Russian, Polish, etc.) are also sub-groups of the Aryan
linguistic group. This is proved by comparison of words for many different
objects as against the same terms in non-Aryan languages. Finnish,
Hungarian, and Basque in Europe do not belong to the Aryan languages.
Hebrew and Arabic, though they may be derived from ancient cultures
going back to Sumeria, are Semitic languages, not Aryan. A third
considerable non-Aryan set is the Sino-Mongolian, which covers Chinese,
Japanese, Tibetan, Mongolian, and many others; this group is culturally and
historically most important, though not for India as such. The Indo Aryan languages
are descended from Sanskrit. The earlier tongues thus derived were Pali,
called also Magadhi from being spoken in Magadha, and various others
generically called Prakrits. From them came the modern Hindi, Panjabi,
Bengali, Maiithi, etc. However, there is a considerable and culturally
important group of non-Aryan tongues in India of which the Dravidian
languages include Tamil, Telugu, Kanarese, Malaya lam, and Tulu;
besides these there are the numerous but small tribal idioms which tell us a
great deal about the primitive stages of Indian speech. They were sometimes
grouped together as 'Austric', but the term is now recognised as
meaningless, in view of the differences between Mundari, Oraon, Toda,
etc. The main question is: Does the community of language or a common
origin for the group of languages justify the conclusion that there was an
Aryan race or an Aryan people?

It is difficult to believe that blond Scandinavians and dark Bengalis
belong to the same race, however loosely defined the term 'race' may be.
Some excellent European linguists therefore concluded about a century ago
that it was as ridiculous to speak of an Aryan race as of a 'brachycephalic
grammar. Aryan was to be taken as a linguistic term, with no reference to
ethnic unity. For all that, there actually were people in antiquity who called
themselves Aryans and were called Aryans by others. The Achaemenid
emperor Darius I (died 486 B.C.) speaks of himself as 'an Achaemenid
(Hakhamanisiya), Persian (Parsa), son of a Persian, an Aryan of Aryan
descent' in his inscriptions. Therefore the Aryans were once an historic
assemblage of human beings including both the Achaemenid clan and the

Persian tribe. The oldest Indian documents, the sacred Vedas, speak of the
Aryans as the people who venerated the gods worshipped in those Vedas.
By going back step by step from dated inscriptions and records, it is
possible to arrange all Indian written material, including the Vedas, in
some sort of chronological order. The later books refer to or copy the
earlier. Archaisms of language prove priority in time. In this way, the
Rigveda turns out to be the very first, followed by the Yajurveda (in two
branches, the White and the Black), the Sama-veda, and much later by the
Atharva-veda which concentrates more upon witchcraft. A reasonable
guess is that the greater part of the Rigveda was prepared, or at least refers
to events that took place, about 1500-1200 B.C., in the Panjab. However,
the Aryans of the Vedas, just like other Aryans outside India, fought each
other as regularly as they battled with non-Aryans and pre-Aryans. So it
is reasonable to conclude that only some of the people who spoke Aryan
tongues called themselves Aryans. There were Aryan contingents (by that
name) in the army of Xerxes, son of Darius, and it is known that the
Medes who preceded the Persians formerly bore the name 'Aryans',
Iran is derived from aryanam, '(the country) of the Aryans'. Though
Greeks, Persians, and the Indians of the Panjab spoke Aryan languages,
Alexander's contemporary historians used 'Aryan' to refer only to special
tribes bearing that name, settled on the right bank of the Indus at the

The rivers of the Punjab, and the upper reaches of the Yamuna and the Ganges.

What kind of people were the original speakers of the primitive Aryan
language? As pointed out before, primitive languages have separate terms
for every kind of bird, beast, fowl, and plant rather than generic

words like 'tree', 'animal', 'fish', etc. Philologists have compared the common
root words for 'tree', for example, in many Aryan languages, omitting
the strictly local words. The original Aryan tree then seems to have been
the birch, which grows in northern Europe and along the Himalayas, but
not in warmer climates. The fish was apparently the salmon. This type of
analysis can be extended. The general distribution of plants (apart from
cultivated and widely travelled varieties), wild animals, birds, and fish
over the earth's surface is fairly well fixed and known. Some allowance has
to be made for domestic varieties that human beings might have carried
from one place to another. For example, tea came in historical times from
China along with the word for tea. We cannot conclude that tea was an
Aryan word or drink, or that Chinese is an Aryan language, or that China
was the Aryan homeland. Eliminating such ambiguities, the conclusion is
that the original Aryans were familiar with and probably originated in the
northern regions of Eurasia.

However, linguistic analysis is of limited range and value. The Aryan
kinship terminology is startlingly uniform. Father, mother, brother,
father-in-law, widow, etc., are named by very similar words in the
languages mentioned. We might conclude that the original social organisation
was the same and that the people were really one. At the same time,
though there is a common Aryan word for 'foot', there is none for 'hand'.
The word 'daughter' can, through Sanskrit, be given the meaning 'she
who milks'; and the same word for daughter is widespread in the Aryan
languages. This led some European scholars to construct a charming
picture of Aryan domestic life. Unfortunately, there is no common word
for 'milk'. There are common words for 'cow' and 'horse' in the older
Aryan languages, so that we know the animals that formed the main-
stay of their economy; but the method cannot be carried too far
without ridiculous conclusions. It is to be used only when nothing else

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