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The Vedic Period

From the Vedas, the oldest known Hindu scriptures, scholars have learned about the existence of the Vedic period in ancient Indian history that followed the Indus River Valley civilization. Sal explains more about this early society.

Video transcript

- [Sal] First civilization that we have evidence of around modern-day India and Pakistan is the Indus Valley Civilization, and it's right around the Indus River in modern-day Pakistan and northwest India. In other videos we talk about how it really comes into being in the Third Millennium BCE, and as we enter into the Second Millennium BCE it starts to decline. We don't know exactly why it declined. Might have been climate change, drying up of a river. Might have been a natural disaster. It might have been an influence of other peoples. We're gonna talk about in this video is the next significant period in the history of South Asia, and it involves the migration or the introduction of another group of people, we believe another group of people, and that's the Indo-Aryans. Write this down. Indo-Aryans, sometimes referred to as just the Aryans, who we believe began to migrate into modern-day Pakistan and northwest India at right about the same time that the Indus Valley Civilization was declining. Some historians actually believe maybe Indus Valley Civilization declined because of them. Maybe it was some type of an invasion. Although that theory is not as widely held anymore. Some folks believe that the Indus Valley Civilization and this Indo-Aryan migration somehow merged. But this period that we're talking about, with the migration of these Indo-Aryans, this is called the Vedic Period, or the Vedic Period. It's called the Vedic Period because we learn about it from a collection of literary works that we get from that time, most famously the Vedas. Veda comes from Sanskrit, and Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas. Vedas, in Sanskrit, means: knowledge. And they're the foundation of, one, what we know about the Vedic Period, but they're also the foundation of modern Indian culture and religion. The primary pieces of the Vedas are the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda.. The Rigveda in particular is considered the oldest of the Vedas. It's believed that it was composed around the early part of that Vedic Period, between maybe 1500 BCE and around 1200 BCE. We're talking between 3,000 and 3500 years ago, while these three Vedas we believe were composed later. Now, these Indo-Aryans, it's believed, were essentially pastoralists; they were cattle herders, perhaps nomadic. But as they began to settle not just the Indus River Valley, they actually began to settle the entire Gangetic Plain, which would include this area, which would be northeast India as well as countries like Bangladesh. The Indus and the Ganges are two of the most significant rivers in India. But as they started to settle the Gangetic Plain they also became more traditional farmers. In this green here, I've highlighted when they became more farmers, and started to have more settled kingdoms, or we believe started to have more settled kingdoms. Other significant Hindu epics, we believe the events of the them happened around that late Vedic Period. The events of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Now, the Vedas and these epic poems were originally orally transmitted. But then, later, either in the late Vedic Period or after the Vedic Period was when they were actually written down. Just so you have some context here, Sanskrit is considered one of the oldest Indo-European languages we have. I'll talk more about Indo-European languages in a little bit. Because it turns out that Sanskrit is related to European languages like Greek and Latin and even Germanic languages. Sanskrit's one of the oldest, alongside Mycenaean Greek and the Hittite Language. Those were all contemporary civilizations of around this period right over here, in the Second Millennium BCE. Just so have you context, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, his life was in one of these Vedic kingdoms in the northeast of India. Now, as I mentioned, the Vedas laid the foundation for much of what we consider to be modern-day India. In fact, the first documented reference to the Indus River we have from the Vedas. The Indus Valley Civilization, we haven't been able to decipher their writing. They didn't write down the word Indus. It was in the Vedas that we have the word sindhu, and sindhu was later changed or mispronounced or pronounced differently into other words that we now associate with India. Words like Hindu, Indus, and India, they all derived from Sindhu, which was the River referred to in the Vedas, and then changed into Hindu, Indus, and things like India. Now, also in the Vedas is the first time that we have reference to a stratified social structure, and we see that with the varnas that are referred to. You could view these as social roles or classes. At the top you have the brahmins: the priests, the scholars, and the teachers. Then the next you have the kings and the warriors referred to as the kshatriyas. Then the vaishyas, who are the farmers, the merchants, the artisans. Then the shudras: the laborers. Now, some historians and Vedic scholars believe that these reference to the varnas were added after the Vedic Period to things like the Rigveda; and some believe that these weren't traditional casts, as it's sometimes perceived today, but just a reference to different social strata, that it wasn't necessarily inherited. We are not actually sure about that. But just to give you a feel of what was in the Rigveda. I encourage you to go look at the actual primary text, and there's a lot out there to read. It includes prayers; it includes praise of the gods; it includes rituals; but it also has a lot of interesting philosophy. And, for example, this is from the Rigveda. This is a hymn referred to as Nasadiya Sukta, and it's in the 10th book, the 129th hymn. I find it really interesting because it shows a fairly mature philosophical attitude. This is actually the origin hymn, and this is just a part of it. We're talking about the origin of the universe. "Who really knows? "Who will here proclaim it? "Whence was it produced? "Whence is this creation? "Gods came afterward, with the creation of this universe. "Who then knows whence it has arisen? "Whether God's will created it, or whether He was mute. "Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not. "Only He who is the overseer in highest heaven knows. "Only He knows, or perhaps He does not know." I just find it interesting because it takes a very philosophical view towards this very fundamental question of the origin of the actual universe. So the Vedic Period, very important period in India. It really lays the foundation for what we consider to be modern Hinduism, modern-day India. It starts as really a Bronze-Age civilization, but as we get into the later Vedic Period, we see them smelting iron, and creating iron tools, and things like that. And, as we'll see in the next video, the language of the Vedas, the Sanskrit, when Western scholars started to discover it, it opened up their minds as to what were the roots of many of the peoples who settle not just north India but also Europe.