In this article we will discuss about the origin and social organization of the Aryans.
Origin of the Aryans:
The question of the original home of this people has been debated upon for the past hundred years. This subject is a complicated one and owing to the lack of evidence with regard to chronology, has given rise to the widest possible divergence of opinion among philologists, antiquarians and anthropologists. Affinity in language, mythology, or religion, resemblances of racial types, supposed or real, have all been exploited to form bases for theories as to the original location of the Vedic Aryans, along with their supposed Kinsmen, the ancestors of the European nations.
At one time Central Asia was supposed to be the original home of the Aryan stock and this opinion was favoured by a large number of scholars. First propounded by J.G. Rhode (in 1820), the theory of Central Asian home received countenance from Pott, Lassen, and Grimm and received strong support from Max Muller in 1859.
Divergences of opinion however soon arose and Adolph Pictet in his ‘Origines Indo-Europeennes’ tried to place them in the region of the Caspian. He was followed by Justi, the author of the ‘Primeval Indo-Germanic Period’ and he in his turn was also strongly, supported by Schleicher. Later on, some tried to prove Southern Russia as the original home in view of the supposed analogy between Sanskrit and Lithuanian.
Other Scholars, pre-eminently Latham (1854), came to the conclusion that the original home should be looked for in Europe and he was supported by Fick, Benfey and Geiger. Pietrement placed it in Siberia while Cuno attempted to locate it in the North- European plain (1871).
The controversy is not ended yet, and “it still divides scholars into hostile camps, holding diverse views as to the original home of the Aryans” one holding the Asiatic hypothesis, while the other party preferring an original home somewhere in Europe. From the point of view of philological investigations, the view of Dr. Schrader appears to be free from any party bias. In his work on the Indo- European races, he has submitted several points for consideration.
These, along with the solution they call for, may be summarised as follows “the evidence of linguistic paleontology is far from decisive”. The primitive Aryan race was pastoral and semi-nomadic and consequently extended over a vast area. The grade of civilization agreed clearly with that disclosed by the oldest lake dwellings of Switzerland and consequently it seemed to have existed in Europe at an early epoch.
The philological evidence thus does not enable us to draw any sharp line of division between the Asiatic and European branches of the Aryan people. A comparative study of the vocabularies and religion convinces us of the close similarity between the diverse branches. The original cradle of the race was in the cold icy regions of the north, since words for ice and snow are common to all Aryan languages.
The above is a summary of the views of scholars who carried on their investigations mainly with the help of philological evidence. This latter was once a favourite weapon with the anthropologists. Of late, however a great change has come. Anthropologists, now-a- days do not attach any importance to the supposed permanence of the relation between race and language.
Cuno among philologists demolished the assumption that ‘Aryan blood was co-extensive with Aryan speech.’ Some of his successors attributed the origin of various languages to a process of evolution and in 1880 they were followed by Delbruck who denied the existence of any uniform primitive Aryan speech.
In the bands of the anthropologists, the controversy took a different turn. Some of the greatest among them like Broca and Topinard repeatedly raised their voices against the confidence often put in philological evidence. They have tried to prove the insignificant ethnological value of philological considerations and following them we have a large number of scholars who deny altogether the existence of a primitive Aryan people.
This view now-a-days is gaining ground everywhere, and eminent men like Keane have come to regard the term ‘Aryan’ as a mere linguistic expression “entirely forced into the domain of ethnology by philologists,” though some anthropologists still believe in the past existence of communities, who living in the Hindu Kusb and Carpathian, evolved the Aryan mother tongue and had a certain amount of uniformity in their physical characteristic. They believe moreover in the absorption of this race in a hundred other races even in pre-historic times. Hence, in their opinion the use of the word ‘Aryan’ must be regarded as a misnomer.
The Aryan question is far from being settled. For our purpose, it may not be of so much importance, as it is in the domain of Anthropology or of Pre-historic culture. We may still give the name ‘Aryans’ to the Vedic Indians, since that was the term they used in designating themselves. As to the original home of these people, something may be said here regarding the evidence of the Vedas.
The hymns give us absolutely no clue as to the original home of the composers but they show a south-easterly expansion of the race from the region of the hills of the western Punjab, to the plains eastward. Moreover, they betray a familiarity with the regions of the western Punjab and the region of the Kabul valley as we shall see later on. All these seem to point to the fact that these regions formed the home of the Aryans during the period that some of the hymns were composed.
Formerly they must have lived somewhere in the region to the north of the Hindukush along with the fore-fathers of the Iranians, with whom they had much in common, in religion, language and custom and from whom they separated after a bitter struggle, which had its origin probably in religious disputes. Apart from this, we cannot say anything about the home of the Vedic Indians in their pre-Iranian days and an investigation of that subject must be left to antiquarians and anthropologists.
Social Organization of the Aryans:
In the earlier period the tribe (Jana) was the highest political union among the Aryans and was probably an agglomeration of several settlements or Visas and included a fairly large number of villages. The exact relation, social and economic, subsisting between the Jana and the Vis is yet to be found out.
As yet it is almost impossible “to state in what exact relation the grama in Vedic times stood to the Vis whether it was a mere local division, or whether it was “a unit of blood relationship.”
The question is still further complicated by the existence of an older social division—e.g., that of the gotra, which liter on became the basic principle in the formation of exogamous groups. By the period of the composition of the Buhmanas, the Jana and the Gotra became the real dements of division of the community, while the Vis practically disappeared.
Caste System of the Vedas:
Whatever might have been the original state of things the social fabric was wholly modified by the rise of the caste system, the germs of which can be unmistakably traced in the hymns of the Rigveda, though we have very little of an exposition of the theory of the division of castes in that book. The only explanation of the theory of caste is found in Rig. X. 90. e.g. the Purusa sukta, where the Rsi Narayana, describes a system which seems to have already existed in his time.
Beyond this we have no history—no tradition— about the origin of caste, excepting a late Brahminical tradition in the Visnu Purana and in the Harivamsa, which ascribes the division into castes, to Saunaka, the descendant of Grtsamada, the traditional revealer of the second Mandala of the Rigveda.
Brehmaoa and Kiatriya:
The majority of European scholars regard the Purusa sukta as a later interpolation. They seem to entertain the view that the Rigveda knew very little of caste divisions and they try to explain its rise as being due to the eastern migration of the Vedic Aryans and the consequent rise of complexities in social life.
But when we proceed historically we find unmistakable evidences to the contrary, and a careful study of the hymns convinces us that social divisions existed even during the period in which the oldest parts of the Rigveda were composed.
Thus in some of the hymns, which are admitted to belong to the oldest portions of the Rigveda, we find in more than one place, the mention of a threefold or fourfold division of the community e.g. Brahma, Ksatra, and Vis (R.V., VIII. 35. 16-18 and I. 113. 6).
Not to speak of this mere reference to a social division we have separate mention of the three classes. Thus the word Brahmana meaning a member of the priestly or the sacerdotal order occurs in more than one place. Similarly we have evidences which clearly point to the separate existence of the fighting class.
Their formation into a separate section of the community is proved by the repeated mention of the words ksatra (R.V. I. 24. 11; 136-1-3; IV. 17.1; V. 62. 6;), ksatriya (R.V. IV. –12 3-; IV. 42. 1; V.69. 1; VII. 64. 2; VIII. 25.8), rajanya, and such other terms. The mass of the common agricultural people seem to have formed a separate division and was known by the term Vis or as we have it later on, the Vaisyas. While the servile classes, whether descended from degraded Aryans or from conquered enemies, formed a body to which the name Sudra was given in the Rigveda.
The Vedic evidence goes further than this, and a study of hymns admittedly belonging to the older portion convinces us that even in those days, we had, instead of a casteless society, a complicated social organisation with a highly developed priesthood.
And further we meet with evidences which conclusively prove not only the existence of the three above mentioned classes, but clearly point to a tendency of subdivision even among these various groups.
To take the priesthood first- even in the days of the oldest hymns of the Rigveda we find evidence of the development of the sacrificial art, requiring the use and presence of no less than six different priests. Thus, in the Rigveda 1.162 (the Asvamedha hymn) we find mention of the Hota, Adhyaryu, Avayaj, Agnimindha, Gravagrabha and Samstar. Of these, two indeed go to the Iranian Period e.g. the Hota (Zd. Zota) and the Adhyaryu (Rathwi).
In another old Rik we find mention of Somina Brahmana and of the Adhyaryu (R.V., VII. 103). In another place we find mention of the Gayatrinah, Arkinah and Brahmana (i.e. the udgatr priests). All these point to an early separation in the body of the priestly class itself and the formation of separate priestly orders. In course of time the priestly offices multiplied and became hereditary and each family became the repository of certain formulas or hymns and gradually the priests formed a definite caste by themselves as is proved by the evidence of the Brahmanas and the Upanisads.
Among the ksatriyas, who asserted their predominance over the common people and became the ruling and fighting caste, the tribe remained the basis of division. In the case of the mass of the people originally known as the Visah, and later on identified with the Vaisyas e.g., agriculturists and traders—they were delegated to a lower social position. They too show a tendency to subdivide. In course of time the hereditary following of occupations became the cause of the rise of sub-sections among them and these became distinguished by the importance of their occupation.
The Vaisyas though they became subordinate to the other two castes (anyasya valikrt—anyasyadya—etc.) were even then regarded as vitally important to the community, and this would appear from the following passage of the Aitareya Brahmana (1. 9)- “They say the gods should be provided with Vaisyas (Visas). For if the gods are provided with them men will subsequently obtain them also. If all Vaisyas are in readiness then the sacrifice is prepared.”
With the ever-increasing influence of the caste theory, certain gods too came to be regarded as Vaisyas and according to the Vajasaneyi theory of creation, Ganesa, the Vasus, the Rudras the Adityas, the Visvedevah, and the Maruts, were regarded as belonging to this caste.
So much for the early history of the caste system. Its earliest elaboration is, in the Purusa-Sukta, where apparently the composer Narayana seems to describe a state of affairs already existing. As time went on this theory of caste became general and was accepted on all hands and we find it obtaining a place in almost all the Samhitas. It is elaborated in the Atharva Veda, and it occurs in the Purusavidhan Brahmana.
Henceforth references to the four divisions are common. In the Atharva Veda we find reference to the four division of Rajanya, Vaisya, Sudra, and Arya (Paippalada III. 5. 7). The Vajasaneyi Samhita too speaks of the divisions into Brahmana Vaisya and Sudra (Vaj. San. XXI. II). In one place we find the four enumerated as Priest, Warrior, Sudra and Arya (XXVI. 2) though elsewhere Arya is contrasted with Dasa.
In other places we have accounts of the creation of Arya, Rajanya and Sudra. Many such theories originated and we find them in the Samhitas and Brahmanas. Thus in the Satap Br. we find an account of the creation of the castes with the formulae Bhuh Bhubah and Svah—The Taitt Br. gives a similar story of the origin of the three castes.
Side by side arose theories which aimed at the definition of the respective duties of the caste. We find, moreover, peculiar formulae of invocation of the members of the various castes with their special duties, rights and special occupations. These we find fully elaborated in the Dharmasutras. Caste thus brought on a change in socio-economic life. It divided society on the basis of division of duties.
As we proceed onwards its influence is more and more felt, though the castes were not as yet socially exclusive endogamous groups. Hypergamy continued to exist and the status of the father determined that of the son. Gradually, however, the mutual exclusiveness of castes increased, and towards the close of the Hindu period mixed marriages ceased altogether.
The influence of heredity on the selection of occupation however worked strongly upon the social structure and tended towards the formation of sub- castes and guilds.
The principle of division of labour continued to introduce more subdivisions among the mass of the agriculturist and working population. Thus with the advancement of the knowledge of certain crafts, the men engaged in these were separated from the mass of the population.
Of these crafts people, the rathakara, the sata, and the taksan, were the first to stand apart from the mass of the people. In the Rigveda (X97. 23) we have a reference to a class of people who are called upasta (adhah-say—Savana—com). The meaning of this word as well of the word is not clear.
The Atharva Vedic evidence however shows that the upa-stis included the rathakara, the taksan, and the suta, in addition to the gramani (A.V. III. 5-6 and 7). The upa-stis have been taken to be “royal dependents” by some scholars, but Macdonell and Keith pointing out the difficulty in finding out the real meaning sum up by saying that “it is therefore reasonable to assume that they were the clients proper of the king, not servile, but attached in a special relation to him, as opposed to the ordinary population” (Ved. Ind. 1. 96).
As we pass on to discuss the distribution of the people, we find that the village was the smallest social and political unit and the social life of those days was based on it.