Decline of Indus Civilization and Vedic Upheaval (Chapter-5)

Shamsuzzoha Manik
Articles & Essays, History
Decline of Indus Civilization and Vedic Upheaval (Chapter-5)

[ Publishers note: The series Article written by Shamsuzzoha Manik and Shamsul Alam Chanchal ]

Nature of relationship between Indus Civilization and Ṛigveda

To relate the Ṛigveda with the Harappan civilization we need to answer some basic questions, out of which horse is a common issue. The presence of horse in the Indus-Saraswati Civilization is a much debated issue. Scholars are not in a common platform on the horse issue. Most scholars mention that horse bones were scarce in the Harappan level and argue that horse bones were available at the late phase towards the beginning of second millennium BC. There is no depiction of horse in the Indus seals or other arts. Some archaeologists mention some terracotta figurines are to be horses, which are not in concordance with others. Richard H. Meadow and Ajita Patel’s observation is very important in this regard. They say: “… we believe that we should expect to find the true horse in the subcontinent by the very end of the third or the beginning of the second millennium BC, although so far the firm bone evidence still is not there, in our opinion, in spite of Bökönyi’s careful and methodical attempt to document it in his paper.”[i] On the other hand, there are many references of horses in the Ṛigveda. Horse drawn chariot is the vehicle of Indra in many hymns. In the Ṛigveda there are references of two types of horses, one is slow moving and the other is fast moving. Bhagwan Singh correctly mentions slow moving aśva as ass which was common in the Indus-Saraswati region, whereas first moving aśva was the true horse.[ii] He writes: “The Ṛgveda suggests that at an early stage either the distinction between an ass and a horse was so thin that the word aśva was applied to both horse and ass, or they knew only the ass as attested by Aśvins, deified ‘horsemen’, whose vehicle was ass-driven (I.116.2; Aiterareya Brāhmana iv.9; KB xviii.1). In one verse even Indra is said to be riding an ass-driven car. … … … In fact, it is the aśva denoting ‘ass’ rather than ‘horse’ which has its widespread cognates in Indo-European languages. It is evident that the earliest domesticated animal known to the so-called Proto-Indo-Europeans as aśva was not horse but ‘ass’, which is exactly the Prakritic form of  aśva and appears to have gone from the land of Prakrits to the Indo-European field.”

To our view horse was uncommon in the Harappan period and had been newly introduced in the region and also during the Vedic war at the beginning of second millennium BC. In the Vedic reform movements and during the protracted war new groups of peoples from distant places might have involved with the Vedic ally and so many new traits were introduced during the war. Probably some tribes or groups of people joined the war from the western frontiers of the civilization who introduced horse in the region in a limited scale at the end of the Harappan phase. Since horse is a very fast moving riding animal and its use in warfare gave the Vedic soldiers unprecedented speed and force, it has been made largely associated with the war-god Indra in the Ṛigveda. So, sometimes Indra’s horse is mentioned as swift or fast moving (II/11/7, III/35/2, etc.) or swift as the wind or moving with the speed of wind (I/175/4, etc.).

Some writers claim that there are some astronomical connotations in the Ṛigveda that presents its composition at about 5000 years before present. Without going into details we can mention that most of the hymns of the Ṛigveda were composed during a civil war with a view to reform the existing religion at its declining period. But the rebel priests carried forward many old hymns practiced in the society and also incorporated the prevailing myths and legends of the existing system into their new system of religious structure. Thus, it carries many prevailing cultural ethos in the society, which naturally carries past heritages. The same answer is for the incorporation of narratives of the flowing Saraswati River in the Ṛigveda. It either already stopped flowing or was about to dry up during the Vedic movement at the end of the Harappan period when the new hymns were being composed. But some old hymns may have been incorporated in order to preserve the past legacy. Thus we find the qualitative narratives of the river Saraswati (I/3/10, I/142/9, VII/95/2).

One question can be raised that there is no signs of destruction or conflagration at the Harappan settlements as a result of Vedic war that occurred in the Indus-Saraswati Valley at the end of Harappan period. This fact does not rule out the event of war that happened in the Indus-Saraswati Valley.

We should keep in mind that the central stimulus of Vedic reform and war was actually aimed to destroy the dams which caused sufferings to the people. When necessary, battles were fought mainly with a view to destroy dams and sluicegates. Particularly, when sluicegates were destroyed, the main purpose of the Vedic movement was achieved. It was much easier to destroy sluicegates on rivers by surprise attacks. Since doors of the sluicegates should be made of wood, it was easier to break them into pieces and then put them into fire. From Ṛigveda also we find this narration in metaphorical terms: “as if, burning (with flame) (I/130/8), “rending the rocks” (IV/1/14), etc. The effect of the destruction of sluicegates can easily be imagined. With the destruction of sluicegates the dams across rivers would also be washed away by the rush of the freed water. Especially, when flash floods occurred, there should be no traces of man-made obstacles that once stood on the way of river course. It freed the river-flow and at the same time destroyed the irrigation system that was based on controlling rivers with the help of dams and sluicegates. In fact, the Vedic forces should not have fought the enemy frontally much to take over cities or towns. The destruction of river control system was easier to undertake, which was their main target also. That was done.

By freeing rivers, the Vedic forces might have desired to go back to natural way of food production. But the civilization and population that developed and expanded depending on a very complex and highly artificial form of irrigation system could no longer survive when the system was finished. Despite the fact of the failure of the river control system in some or even many areas, it seems that everywhere the system did not fail or collapse. So, still there were a considerable number of populations in the civilization. But once the Vedic forces were able to destroy dam based irrigation system in the entire region of the civilization, the scenario changed totally. And as a part of their religious obligation the Vedic forces should not have allowed to exist even a single trace of the sluicegates in the entire region.

It is evident that in this war ultimately none came out as victorious as with the destruction of artificial means of food production the civilization could no longer feed its still remaining population. Sooner or later victors and defeated all had to face the same fate. Starvation, disease and death. It was a holocaust that fell upon the civilization. Sooner or later, most of the surviving population had to move out of the region of the civilization in all possible directions for food and shelter. People migrated over a vast region on earth. But no where we can find re-introduction of the same kind of irrigation system that should have been the very foundation of Indus civilization. After experiencing the utter failure of a system man does not want to go back there. So, before the advent of modern civilization, when so much technological advancements have been made, man nowhere and never ventured to chain rivers with sluicegates and dams for producing surplus food as the founders and organizers of Indus civilization once did.

However, in respect of possible destruction of cities or settlements we may assume that since all belonged to the same community of people, actual destruction was mostly avoided by the Vedic people. As it has been stated that dam was the main issue of strife, battles might have happened outside the cities and towns, and close to the dams. Additionally, in such a relatively peaceful society even a minor battle made a feeling to the people in a bigger sense and even minor destruction of a settlement may portray a huge destruction of cities and forts to the common people, which are depicted in the Ṛigveda. Furthermore, references to destruction of many numbers of cities and forts may be exaggerated to encourage the Vedic people in the war.

Finally, in order to understand the nature of relationship between the Indus Civilization and the Ṛigveda it should be stated that the Ṛigveda reflects only a part of the Indus Civilization, as the pivotal issue was the reformation of existing religion with a view to destroy dams. So, if we fail to understand the Ṛigveda as the product of a religious reform movement, we will fail to understand its inner meaning and, as a result, we will also fail to relate it to the Indus civilization properly.



[i] Richard H. Meadow and Ajita Patel, “Comment on ‘Horse Remains from Surkotada,” in, ed, Thomas R. Trautmann, The Aryan Debate, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, p. 249.

[ii] Bhagwan Singh, The Vedic Harappans, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi, 1995, pp. 57-64.

Shamsuzzoha Manik. He is a Bangladeshi translator, writer, editor, and publisher who was arrested on February 15, 2016 after a religious extremist group warned of violent protests over one of his books. The police shut down Manik’s stall at the...

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