Today, at a time in my life, when I look back, I remember…..
Cautious study of the Ṛigveda reveals that central motive of the priests was to compose the hymns to reform the already existing religion with a view to wage war to slay Vṛitra, who’s other name is also Ahi. It also can be surmised that the Vedic god Indra was being upgraded from its previous minor position, during the religious reform movement. Similarly many minor or local gods like Agni, Usha, Aświns, etc. were being upgraded through the religious reform process from their minor or regional positions with simultaneously degrading the established god or gods. In this way it follows the same process for every new religion evolved from the background of already an established religion. The Ṛigveda is not a myth or fiction, although mythical elements are no doubt incorporated here, which occurs in every religious literature. While reading the Ṛigveda one needs to be careful to acknowledge that there are lots of changes in meaning through time; however, we need to be careful to understand its meaning in the context of the historical period of remote past. Mention can be made for the Vedic word áyas, which has been used in the Ṛigveda in “púra áyasīr ní” (II/20/8)[i] translated generally as ‘forts of iron,’[ii] “vájra āyasó” (VIII/96/3) as ‘metal thunderbolt’ or ‘iron bolt’ and in “ayasmáyas tám v ádāma víprāḥ” (V/30/15) as ‘metal caldron.’ In these cases only the thunderbolt or bolt which is the weapon of Indra can be conceived as made by metal; bronze can be the most acceptable item here. Even the caldron can be made of bronze. However, forts or cities cannot be made by bronze. If we consider that anything processed by fire to improve the quality was called áyas, it’s meaning will be clear. Then it can be explained that why the city or fort built by burnt bricks is mentioned in the Ṛigveda as “púra áyasīr ní.” As there is no mention of brick or burnt brick in the Ṛigveda, it has misled many writers to conclude that the Vedic people were not familiar with bricks, especially the burnt bricks. Similarly the term áyas is used to mean for copper or bronze in many cases, although there is no mention of copper or bronze in the Ṛigveda. The time of the composition of the Ṛigveda can be considered to be the beginning of the second century BC, when iron was unknown to the people of the Indus-Saraswati Valley. In similar manner it can be explained that many other words or terms used in the Ṛigveda, most of which are used metaphorically, their meaning today can only be guessed.
In respect of composing the hymns of the Ṛigveda there was certainly a motivation and urge by the Vedic priests to build a new authority and leadership in the society under certain social conditions. After establishing the new authority and after the victory in the Vedic war the Ṛigveda became the tool for the newly emerged Brahmin and upper classes for preserving and eternalizing the social leadership in later Hindu society. After its success and later in historical Indian society in the new perspectives the meaning of many words and sentences might have been changed with time or even might have been changed deliberately to serve the purpose of the religious class. It can be done for obscuring or making imperceptible the material and worldly concept of the Ṛigveda and shrouding it with myth and mystery to the later generations.
Thus there prevails mystery and obscurity associated with Indra and Vṛitra in the Ṛigveda. The greatest feat of Indra is the destroying or slaying of Vṛitra, mentioned many times there. Following hymns can be quoted in relation to the slaying of Vṛitra:
“When, Indra, thou hadst smitten, with thy thunderbolt, the cheek of the wide-extended Vṛitra, who, having obstructed the waters, reposed in the region above the firmament, thy fame spread afar, thy prowess was renowned.” (I/ 52/ 6)
‘Flow thou who didst help Indra to slay the Vṛitra, who obstructed the great waters.” (IX/ 61/ 22)
In the Ṛigveda Vṛitra is sometimes called Ahi. Ahi means serpent. Following references in relation to Vṛitra and Ahi is noteworthy:
“5. With his vast destroying thunderbolt, Indra struck the darkling mutilated Vṛitra. As the trunks of trees are felled by the axe, so lies Ahi, prostrate on the earth.
“6. The arrogant Vṛitra, as if unequalled, defied Indra, the mighty hero, the destroyer of many, the scatterer of foes; – he has not escaped the contact of the fate of (Indra’s) enemies. The foe of Indra has crushed the (banks of the) rivers.
“7. Having neither hand nor foot, he defied Indra, who struck him, with the thunderbolt, upon his mountain-like shoulder, like one emasculated who pretends to virility: then Vṛitra, mutilated of many members, slept.
“8. The waters, that delight the minds (of men), flow over him, recumbent on this earth; as a river (bursts through) its broken (banks). Ahi has been prostrated beneath the feet of the waters, which Vṛitra, by his might, had obstructed.” (I/ 32)
Above mentioned hymns explain that Vṛitra stopped river water and Indra slew him. There are more hymns representing impoundment of waters by Vṛitra are as follows:
“The darkness obstructed the current of the waters; the cloud was within the belly of Vṛitra: but Indra precipitated all the waters which the obstructor had concealed, in succession, down to the hollows (of the earth).” (I/ 54/10)
When Indra slew Vṛitra or Ahi, the water was released and flowed to the downstream, which is allegorically mentioned in the Ṛigveda, as:
“Then (the waters) rushed forth to proclaim the might of Indra, shouting loudly, and crushing (his foes), when fierce he cut Vṛitra to pieces by his strength – (Vṛitra who) obstructed the waters, and was encompassed by darkness.” (X/113/6)
“As elders (send forth their young), so the gods have sent thee (against Vṛitra): thence thou becamest, Indra who art the abode of truth, the sovereign of the world: thou hast slain the slumbering Ahi for (the release of) the water, and hast marked out (the channels of) the all delighting rivers.” (IV/19/2)
“7. Indra has filled the youthful rivers, the parents of plenty, the corroders (of their banks), like armies destructive (of their foes): he has inundated the dry lands, and (satisfied) the thirsty travellers: he has milked the barren cows whom the Asuras had become the lord of.
“8. Having slain Vṛitra, he has liberated many mornings and years (that had been) swallowed up by darkness, and has set the rivers free: Indra has released the imprisoned rivers, encompassed (by the cloud), to flow upon the earth.” (IV/19)
We see the flow of seven rivers with the slaying of Vṛitra by Indra in the following hymns:
“When the single resplendent Vṛitra returned the blow (which had been inflicted), Indra, by thy thunderbolt, thou becamest (furious), like a horse’s tail. Thou hast rescued the kine; thou hast won, hero, the Soma juice; thou hast let loose the seven rivers to flow.” (I/32/12)
“Through that friendship, Soma, which has united thee with thy (friend) Indra, he has made the waters flow for man; he has slain Ahi; he has sent forth the seven rivers, and has opened the shut-up sources (of the streams). (IV/28/1)
We suppose that the number seven that has been mentioned many times in the Ṛigveda should not be taken literally. And the fact is that from the Ṛigveda also it is clear that the number of rivers was not confined to seven only in the region, rather it was much more. So, the number seven might be a sacred or symbolic number or term to the composers of the Ṛigveda to signify many or innumerable. In that case, in order to mean many or countless rivers many times seven rivers may have been mentioned in the Ṛigveda.
There are many hymns in the Ṛigveda that describe the event that Vṛitra or Ahi was slain or killed by Indra and water or river water flowed which was obstructed by it. Now the Ṛigveda can be considered as a religious literature composed by the priests to reform the existing religion of the Indus Civilization to destroy the dams in the name of Vedic god Indra in a context of crisis created by the failure of dam based irrigation system. We consider that the rulers of the Indus Civilization at its beginning created dams with sluicegates across the rivers to establish an artificial irrigation system for cultivation. After long time, the dams caused silt formation and the irrigation system was nonoperational and caused for the drying of rivers, change of river courses, aridity, water logging, salinity, etc. After long sufferings to certain population due to this, people were mobilized against dams. And since dams with sluicegates were sanctified by the popular religion which was permitted by the authority of the Indus civilization, a religious reform became essential in order to mobilize the people against them. On the other hand, Indus civilization was relatively a non-coercive civilization. So the peace loving people were not ready to wage war against the authority of the civilization and thereby destroy dams even at the extreme crisis. So, in order to create support for adopting violent method or war to destroy dams a religious reform was also necessary. In such scenario, the priests of the suffered areas organized people by creating a psychology in favor of war by bringing up Indra through a religious reform.
Without reforming the existing religion and enhancing and elevating the minor god Indra, promoting to a prominently war god, it was not possible to counter the gods of dams and motivate the dissatisfied people to fight against the powerful enemy and destroy the dams. We assume that this happened at the end of the Harappan Phase and as soon as the dams were destroyed the dam-based irrigation system collapsed and eventually the civilization could no longer continue.
[i] All the Sanskrit texts in English from the hymns of the Ṛigveda have been used from: Ṛgveda Samhitā in 13 Volumes by Svami Satya Prakash Sarasvati and Satyakam Vidyalankar, Veda Pratishthana, New Delhi, published from 1977 to 1987.
[ii] All translations of the Rigvedic terms with transliteration signs have been used from: The Hymns of the Ṛgveda, Translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith and Ṛig-veda Sanhitá, translated by H.H. Wilson.