Decline of Indus Civilization and Vedic Upheaval (Final Chapter)

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

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

Impact of Vedic victory as well as fall of Indus Civilization in South Asia

We strongly believe that such a civilization which is so powerful in its culture, language and material aspects must have influenced other societies and communities wherever the people of this civilization came into contact due to migration. This is very much evident for the Harappan Civilization for both material and ideological spheres, when it was highly developed in engineering, state administration, literature and philosophy, as evidenced from the Harappan archaeology combined with the narratives in the Ṛigveda. In later republics of early historic India the Harappan civilization must have continued its trace which demonstrates the level of superiority in state administration and governance done in a democratic way under the consent of people. Recent researches are showing that the linear measurements and system of weights of the Harappan Civilization continued in the later early historic Indian society. Present archaeological study suggests that the numbers of Late Harappan settlements were not reduced everywhere in the Indus-Saraswati region. There were increasing numbers of settlements in the upper reaches of the Saraswati and Drishadvati Valley at this period. This indicates the migration of people from other region there. At the end of the Vedic war the Vedic faction won and migrated mostly to the east of the Indus-Saraswati Valley, especially in the fertile Ganges plain. It can be inferred that a large portion of the population travelled to the west to distant and less hospitable lands most of whom were defeated or were not associated with the Vedic faction in the war. We assume that the spread of the Indo-European language over a vast region of South Asia, Iran, central Asia[1] and all over Europe is the result of mass migration of the Vedic speaking people or the Āryas from the Indus-Saraswati Valley during and after the decline of Indus Civilization.

It is true that the civilization was already collapsing due to the failure of river control system. But, in this context, we may have to deduce also an unpalatable conclusion that by accelerating the death of an already dying civilization caused by the failure of the river control system the Vedic (religious) victory in Indus civilization paved the way for the rise of reaction throughout South Asia by making religion almost the omnipotent factor in all spheres of life. Whatever might be the intention of the religious leaders of the Vedic movement their actions were directed against the very foundation of a vast and glorious civilization. It must have a far reaching effect on the psyche of the people.

It was mentioned earlier that the religion should have negligible or minor role in the Harappan society or state. But it is possible that during the last phase of the Harappan civilization the ruling class was forced to give more and more importance to religion in order to control and pacify the discontented people in the face of increasing failure of the river control system. Michael Jansen mentions that the Great Bath was not conceived as part of the original structural concept of the Mohenjo-daro citadel and built around 2300 BC,[2] which we suppose to be a part of the existing religion permitted by the state.

But a time should have come when religion could no longer contain the discontent and anger of a large section of the people. By any means they wanted to get rid of the river control system. In order to give their demand a voice a group of discontented priests seemingly supported by a minor section of the ruling class came to dethrone the gods those represented the obstacles of rivers. Thus these gods have been turned into demons or evil forces through a religious reform made by the Vedic priests. This led to a civil war.

Thus the failure of river control system and the resultant social conflicts brought the destruction of the only ancient civilization on earth, which was essentially peaceful and predominantly non-religious. Out of its ruins the suppressed forces of militarism and religion came out to play the dominant role in rebuilding civilizations in later historical times in India and far away places. The destruction of Indus civilization not only released the forces of religion and militarism but also released many other forces or elements that remained suppressed during the glorious times of the civilization.

It can be conjectured that the role of the Vedic priests in building the people’s psychology for war and destruction of river control system uplifted their position. However, despite attaining the highest position among the four castes in the society, following the previous tradition, the later priest caste or Brahmins maintained their distance from active participation in warfare and refrained from directly holding the state power. The state power was handed over to the warrior caste or Kṣatriyas who used to rule the state with the support and advice of the Brahmins.

From the Avesta also we can visualize the rise of the military and religious or priest class in the society. But in the Avestan society the position of the military class was superior to the priest class as can be witnessed in later Iran.

However, the entire population of the civilization does not seem to be divided between the Vedic and Avestan faiths as can be known from later historical records. Despite the fact that the Indo-European or the Vedic speaking peoples’ migration took place over a vast region extended up to Europe, we do not see considerable presence of Vedic or Avestan religion in any other country beyond Indian subcontinent and Iran.

Even in India more than a millennium after the collapse of Indus civilization we see republics that were neither Vedic nor Avestan. The material constituents of the civilization waned away and interrupted, but the practices, norms, beliefs, etc. continued differently in the ideological or cultural form. In ancient India council can be identified as the most important political institution for the republican states. It is interesting to note that the republican state of the Śākyas had a governing council that seems to have consisted of 500 members, which has a surprising similarity with the number of the members of council at Athens.[3]

We consider the republics evolved during the time of the Buddha as the remnants of the republican and democratic heritage of Indus civilization. But with the rise and strengthening and expansion of religion and militarism these republics were replaced gradually by hereditary kingship and autocracy. With the fall of Indus civilization the magnificent and benevolent urbanism with its predominantly non-religious and democratic institutions was gone. Instead rural India ridden with caste divisions basing on the concept of unalterable purity and impurity of humans and extreme form of inequality gradually emerged to dominate over the life of the people of the subcontinent for millennia.

In later historical times centering the Gangetic plains or northern India we witness the rise and spread of this new social order based on caste division under the leadership of the Brahmins, the successors of the Vedic priests. By declaring unfaltering allegiance to the supremacy and infallibility or purity of the Vedas, the sacred books, the Brahmins made all the changes to their traditional Vedic religion. In fact, this is a peaceful change of the Vedic religion to a new religion. Now this religion is known to us as Hinduism or Hindu religion. Sometimes it is called Brahminism also.

We can assume that during the time of decline and also after the destruction of Indus civilization a massive migration and resettlement of the Indus population was taking place in the Gangetic region as it was nearer and more habitable than many other places. During the resettlement process major social reorganizations also should have taken place as a result of interaction mostly with local tribal communities in this region. The social reorganization might have taken a time of a millennium and a half. History is still almost obscure about what was going on in the Gangetic plains during this time. However, since the middle of the first millennium BC when history of India begins to unfold the mysteries before our eyes, we can see the rise of Brahminism or Hinduism as a major social phenomenon. How and why such a religion along with a social order based on caste division could have developed should be a subject of interesting and useful study. But that is out of our scope here. However, as regards Hinduism we can say that like iconography many other elements that remained suppressed or kept under strict control by the authority in Indus civilization made their way to find prominent position in later Hinduism. By any judgment, the spirit of Hinduism does not seem to be in consistence with the spirit of Indus civilization. So, with the rise of Hinduism much of the spirit of Indus civilization died.

However, the spirit of Indus civilization did not die totally and abruptly. In many ways it survived or influenced society. For example, we have discussed about the presence of republics which existed from the sixth century BC to the fourth century AD in various parts of India. Not only that, we consider the Buddha as a bearer of the legacy of Indus civilization, of course, in a somewhat different form. The Buddhist religious saṁgha of bhikkhus was modeled from the republican assemblies or political saṁghas which should have existed earlier in the political system of Indus Civilization. The concept of ahiṁsā or non-violence that is central to Buddhism like another once popular Indian religion Jainism should be rooted in Indus civilization.

Since Buddhism is atheistic, its rise in the middle of the first millennium BC is very significant. It is evident that atheism or nonbelieving in the existence of gods had a strong footing in the society from long before. Otherwise, religion like Buddhism could not have gained such a wide support among the people in later historical times. We also come to know about the existence of different philosophical schools in ancient India which were atheistic in nature e.g., Sāṃkhya philosophy and Cārvāka or Lokāyata philosophy. Especially, the followers of Cārvāka School were strongly opposed to any kind of religion or faith in the existence of soul or supernatural elements. It can be assumed that these philosophies had a very strong foundation and popularity in Indus civilization in its flourishing time.

To be concise, the divide during the civil war does not seem to be confined to the Vedic and Avestan factions only. There were also other factions or forces in the Indus society. But from the dominance of the followers of the Ṛigveda in the historical Indian subcontinent it is evident that the victorious Vedic forces gained the upper hand here. They could destroy the dam-based irrigation system that led to the final destruction of a brilliant civilization. Their victory became the victory of a particular religion and religious force, which should have far-reaching effect in the subcontinent.

With the death of Indus Civilization by a religious upheaval the South Asia seems to have made some kind of backward march. Despite having gone through many changes over centuries and millennia the life of the general people of the subcontinent is still being dictated largely by the rules of religion or blind faith instead of reasoning or critical thinking. This should be considered as the impact of the Vedic victory as well.

Ref. and Endnotes:

[1] B.B. Lal in his book mentions the presence of Vedic people in Turkey and Iran other than India. See: B.B. Lal, How Deep Are the Roots of Indian Civilization?: Archaeology Answers, Aryan Books International, New Delhi, 2009, pp.129-135.

[2] Michael Jansen, “Mohenjo-Daro, Indus Valley Civilization: Water Supply and Water Use in One of the Largest Bronze Age Cities of the Third Millennium BC,” in, eds, Terje Tvedt and Terje Oestigaard, A History of Water, A, Series III, Vol. 1: Water and Urbanism, I.B. Tauris, 2014, pp. 60-63. (Available from internet)

[3] G.P. Singh, Republics, Kingdoms, Towns and Cities in Ancient India, D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd., New Delhi, 2003, p. 23.

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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