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Literary sources on the history of Ancient India

Vedic sources


The period of the end of the second — first third of the first millennium BC is usually called Vedic, since the main sources for its study are the oldest monuments of religious literature in India — the Vedas. The word “veda” itself, related to the Russian “to know”, means sacred knowledge. The concept of “Vedas” usually includes four main collections-samhitas

  • The Rig Veda,
  • Yajurveda,
  • Samaveda,
  • Atharvaveda;
  • as well as the so-called Late Vedic writings adjacent to them.

The samhits contain hymns, chants, sacrificial formulas, and incantations. The earliest of these is the Rigveda (“Veda of Hymns”). Judging by the geographical names mentioned in it, the Rig Veda was created by Aryan tribes already in the territory of Northwestern India and, possibly, Afghanistan. There are almost no references to the more eastern and southern regions in the Rig Veda — the Vindhya Mountains are not mentioned at all, and the Ganges and Yamuna rivers are rarely mentioned, and only in the most recent hymns. Based on the conclusions of comparative linguistics (in particular, from comparisons of Vedic monuments with the Avesta and Aryan vocabulary in texts from Near Asia), as well as from archaeological materials, the appearance of the Aryans in India can not be attributed to a time earlier than the middle of the second millennium BC. At the same time, the place of the Vedas in the history of Indian culture is such that their final design can not be attributed to the time later than the first third of the I thousand BC. e. Apparently, the main part of the hymns of the Rig Veda should be dated to the end of the II thousand BC. e. and the compilation of a single collection should be attributed to the turn of the II-I thousand BC. e. The creation of other samhitas was obviously somewhat later, which does not exclude the deep antiquity of the materials included in them — individual motifs or even entire texts.

The Rig Veda

The Rig Veda contains 1028 hymns of various sizes (from 1 to 58 verses), the total number of verses is 10642. By ancient editors, it was divided into 10 cycles-mandalas. Mandalas from the second to the seventh tradition are attributed to individual rishis (sages, founders of priestly families, such as Vishwamitra, Atri, Bharadwaja, Vasishtha, etc.). This tradition finds support in the hymns themselves, in the text of which the names of these rishis are sometimes played with combinations of sounds. The “Family mandalas” are generally considered to be the oldest part of the Rig Veda. The IX mandala contains only hymns addressed to God (as well as the sacred drink).) Soma. They are arranged according to formal features-depending on the size of the poem and in descending order of the number of verses in the hymns. This mandala probably represents a relatively late collection of hymns, although the Soma hymns themselves may be quite ancient. The principles of allocation of I, VIII, and X mandalas are unclear. The X Mandala is the latest part of the Rig Veda in terms of language and content, and is a motley conglomerate of texts added to the already completed collection.


The Samaveda is devoid of independent meaning in its content, since only 75 of its” chants ” (saman) They are not a repetition of the hymns of the Rig Veda. Yajurveda (“Veda of Sacrificial Formulas») It is preserved in five editions, of which four (Kathaka, Kapishthala-Katha, Taittiriya and Maitrayani) are called Black Yajurveda, and the fifth — Vajasaneya-samhita — White. The White Yajurveda consists of two thousand “formulas” (yajus), largely borrowed from the Rig Veda and Atharvaveda, and arranged according to the order of their recitation during the performance of the ritual. The Black Yajurveda, in addition to its poetic formulas, contains prose explanations of the ritual, and in this respect is close to the late Vedic literature of the Brahman.


From the point of view of content, along with the Rigveda, the Atharvaveda is the most interesting. It has been preserved in two editions —

  • Shaunakia . The Shaunakiya (or Vulgate) consists of 20 books (kanda), including 731 spells with a total volume of about 6 thousand verses. Approximately 1/6 of its text is not poetry, but rhythmized prose (book XV in its entirety, most of the XVI and some others). About 1/7 of the Atharvaveda coincides with the Rig Veda, and mainly hymns from the X, as well as I and VIII mandalas (hymns-incantations that stand alone in the Rig Veda itself) are borrowed. In the I-XII books of the Atharvaveda, the texts are combined on a formal basis (according to the number of verses), and in the XIII-XVIII books — thematically (in the XIV — wedding, in the XVIII-funeral, etc.). Ancient commentaries often ignored the XX or XIX and XX books, which may not have belonged to the original collection. Of the 143 spells of the XX book, 128 are borrowed from the Rig Veda.
  • Paippalada-the second edition of the Atharvaveda (also called Kashmiri) often differs significantly from the Vulgate; it consists of 6500 verses, and about 1/8 of it is completely original.

Differences between the Rig Veda and the Atharvaveda

Most of the texts of the Rig Veda and Atharvaveda are associated with the performance of certain sacrificial rituals. However, some of the hymns and incantations, although used in ritual actions, were not composed for this purpose. They are very diverse in content. The hymns of the Rig Veda are usually addressed to a particular deity and contain his praise, as well as a request (the latter is not always expressed directly, but sometimes implied in the epithets that are bestowed on the deity). There are also cosmogonic hymns, hymns-spells and incantations, hymns-riddles.

The Atharvaveda consists mainly of incantations, but there are also common hymns that are similar or coincide with the Rig Veda. These are plots against evil spirits and diseases, prayers for a long life, the acquisition of children, power or wealth. The Atharvaveda religion reveals a number of features that allow us to speak of a relatively late design of the monument (the veneration of abstract deities, such as Scambha-Support, Kala-Time, etc.). References to rice and tiger skin indicate that by the time of the creation of the Atharvaveda, the Aryans had already significantly advanced to the south and east of the Punjab.

However, the main difference between the Rig Veda and the Atharvaveda is not in the field of chronology. They cover two different aspects of the Vedic religion. The Rig Veda is a monument to high priestly poetry associated with great sacrifices (srauta), in particular with the libation of soma. It is assumed that it was based on texts read during the celebration of the beginning of a new calendar cycle — the New Year. Atharvaveda is more focused not on large public sacrifices, but on a domestic, informal ritual (grihya), it contains texts created not only in the priestly (Brahmin) environment. Perhaps it was this more “popular” character of the Atharvaveda that for a long time prevented its inclusion in the “trinity of sacred knowledge”, the “three Vedas” (trai). If non-Aryan elements are revealed even in the language and mythology of the Rig Veda, then an analysis of the Atharvaveda from this point of view promises even more fruitful results.

Vedic language

An important historical source is the Vedic language itself, since the study of it helps to establish the territory of the original settlement of the Aryans and the possible path of their advance to India. The vocabulary of the Vedas, epithets, requests to the gods and praises of gifts contained in the hymns, the general nature of the Vedic religion allow us to get an idea of the economy, social and political system of the tribes that created them. At the same time, however, it is necessary to take into account the well-known tradition of descriptions and the resulting archaization of relations. Several hymns in the Rig Veda contain historical stories, such as the glorious battle of the Bharata leader, King Sudasa, with the Kuru tribes and their allies.

Of course, the Vedas are the primary source for the history of religion, mythology, and the culture of the Indo-Aryans in general. Since every event of everyday life in ancient times was accompanied by special magical rites and the recitation of appropriate spells, the Atharvaveda contains extensive material about the life, customs and beliefs of the Indians.

The hymns of the Rig Veda are poetic texts created in a special, sacred language during epiphanies associated, obviously, with ecstatic practice. They evoke a series of pictures connected not so much by logical as by associative connections. Their texts are full of metaphors, symbols, and hints of something well-known to performers and listeners. Vedic studies have long been one of the special and detailed branches of Indology, but the interpretation of the samhita still presents many complex problems. When analyzing the Vedas, researchers proceed from both comparative material (and, above all, the closest-the Avesta), and from medieval commentaries, the most significant of which is written by Sayana in the XIV century.

Late Vedic literature

The Late Vedic literature includes the monuments of the so — called “brahmanic prose” – the brahmanas, aranyakas, and Upanishads.

The Brahmans as a whole are somewhat later than the Samhit and can be conditionally dated to the first third of the I millennium BC. They were created in Northern India in the territory between the Sutlej and the upper course of the Ganges. The earliest Upanishads, beginning with the Brihadaranyaka and the Chandogya, also date from about the sixth century BCE, although works of this genre continued to be composed many centuries later.

The Brahmans

The Brahmanas are mainly devoted to interpreting the symbolism of the sacrificial ritual and explaining the connection between the ritual action and the text of the sacrificial formulas (mantras). In the brahmanas, the idea of the animateness of all things, of the universal interconnectedness, prevails, so that a magical effect on the Cosmos is possible through special ceremonies and sacred words uttered at the sacrifice. The knowledge of their innermost essence is the prerogative of the brahmin priests, who thus acquire power over the world, over people and the gods. The compilers of these Late Vedic texts focus on identifying phenomena and concepts at various levels: the abstract and the concrete, the natural and the social, the divine and the human. The basis of such comparisons can serve as —

  • the magic of numbers (for example, the coincidence of the number of parts or syllables in words denoting different objects),
  • the proximity of the sound of words (the so — called “folk etymology”, which usually has nothing to do with the actual origin of the vocabulary),
  • myth (sometimes genuine, but more often-invented specifically for this case).

The Brahmanas also contain retellings of ancient legendary and mythological traditions, partially revealing the deaf hints of the Vedic hymns: for example, about the World Flood, about King Pururavasa and the heavenly virgin (apsara) Urvashi, about how his father intended to sacrifice Shunakhshepu, and many others. In the religion of the late Vedic period, there is a further development of those features that are already noticeable in the Atharvaveda. In particular, the deified general concepts (such as Speech and Faith) and mainly the Creator — Prajapati, identified with the cosmic principle — Brahman, are brought to the fore. The latter also acts as a specific mythological character-the god Brahma.

Aranyakas and Upanishads

The aranyakas (“forest books”) are similar to the Brahmanas, but they contain even more speculative reasoning. The end of this genre of Vedic literature is the Upanishads, often referred to in the Indian tradition as Vedanta, i.e. “the end of the Veda”. The appearance of the Upanishads is associated with the practice of teaching esoteric doctrines in the abodes of forest hermits. At the same time, there is no doubt that these texts continue the tradition of speculative interpretation of the ritual in brahmanic prose.

The significance of Vedic literature

The works that are part of the late Vedic literature were formed in the circles of the brahmin priests, and often in the quotations from the samhits themselves they reveal belonging to one or another “school” of ritual. According to the traditional classification of Vedic texts,

  • The two brahmanas, Aitareya and Kaushitaka, are attached to the Rigveda, together with the aranyakas and Upanishads that complement them.
  • Several brahmanas belong to the Samaveda (Panchavimsha, Jaiminia, etc.). The most extensive brahmanas ( in English translation, which amounted to five volumes) belong to the White Yajurveda. This is the Shatapatha-brahmana (“Brahmana of the hundred Paths”), preserved in two editions, Kanva and Madhyandina. The final chapters are composed by the oldest of the Upanishads, the Brihadaranyaka.
  • Only the Gopatha-brahmana is attributed to the Atharvaveda, the text is very late and has little to do with the samhita.

The Late Vedic literature is interesting mainly from the point of view of religion and culture, since, on the one hand, it allows us to study the features of the archaic worldview on a huge material, and on the other hand, it contains the foundations of the most important religious and philosophical concepts of ancient India. The information of the Late Vedic texts about the economy, social and political structure of India is fragmentary and in most cases extremely concise. Due to the fact that her works are devoted to ritual or speculative constructions, they cannot sufficiently fully and evenly reflect all aspects of the life of society.

The colossal volume of the vocabulary of Vedic texts allows us to present in general terms various aspects of material culture and everyday life. The most important social and political institutions are reflected in a peculiar system of concepts. Finally, the purpose of these monuments is particularly important. Solving the problem of the reasons for their appearance, their social significance should contribute to understanding the essence of the era that gave rise to them.

Mahabharata and Ramayana

Along with the late Vedic literature, the sources for this period are the works referred to in the Indian tradition as itihasa (“past”) and purana (“ancient”). The Mahabharata and Ramayana belonging to this genre are usually called epic poems, although both their form and content have certain differences from the epics of other peoples.

Composition of poems and variations

The Mahabharata consists of about 100 thousand couplets-slokas (in the critical edition there are slightly less — about 78 thousand) and is divided into 18 books of different volumes. Sometimes the poem Harivamsha (“The Lineage of Hari”, i.e. Vishnu) it is considered as the extensive nineteenth of her books. The main plot of the Mahabharata is the deprivation of power of the descendants of the Pandu king (Pandavas) by their cousins from the Kuru family — the Kauravas and the return of the kingdom after a bloody fratricidal battle on the Kuru field (Kurukshetra). However, no more than half of the text is devoted to the presentation of the main plot itself. The Mahabharata is replete with insert episodes of both narrative and didactic verse. Often these episodes are quite independent works, inserted into the poem through various “frame” structures. Some of them contain myths, ancient legends and legends. The didactic parts are philosophical treatises in verse (for example, the famous Bhagavad Gita) or instructions.

The Ramayana is almost four times shorter than the Mahabharata and is a more complete work, containing fewer digressions, inserted episodes, and didactics. Its text is almost entirely devoted to the presentation of the main plot — the abduction of Sita, the wife of Prince Rama, by the demon Ravana and her subsequent return. The Ramayana is traditionally considered the” first poem ” (kavya), and, indeed, its style is often close to classical Indian poetry.

The Mahabharata has been preserved in hundreds of manuscripts (mostly of the late Middle Ages-XV-XVIII centuries), which convey dozens of versions of the poem, significantly differing from each other in volume, content, sequence of presentation and reading options. It is customary to distinguish two main groups of versions —

  • north (which, in turn, is divided into north-west and central) and
  • south, represented by manuscripts in Malayalam, Telugu and Grantha.

There are also numerous versions of the Ramayana, divided into three groups, of which only two — Bengali and West Indian — can be defined geographically. As for any monument of oral creativity, it is fundamentally impossible to establish the “original”, “author’s” or “original” text for the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The records go back to different storytellers, and the performance was a creative process in which variations of the presentation are inevitable (variations, however, according to certain rules and with the help of more or less stable,” formulaic ” turns).


In this regard, it is impossible to determine the date of compilation of each poem, but it is legitimate to speak only about the broad chronological limits of its design and recording. References to individual episodes of poems or their names are found in the monuments of Indian literature from about the middle of the first millennium BC. The oldest list of books of the Mahabharata dates back to the beginning of AD. It has already been written down, but not yet in the form in which it has come down to us. Some details (for example, the mention of the Huns) indicate that the text available to us could have been recorded no earlier than the middle of the first millennium AD. Since the Gupta era, numerous images of the heroes and subjects of the epic have appeared. In general, the time of the design of both poems is conditionally determined within the boundaries of the middle of the I millennium BC — the middle of the I millennium AD. The relative chronology of the poems is unclear. It is generally believed that the main plot of the Ramayana may have been somewhat older, but its final formalization occurred later than the Mahabharata.

Separate books of the Mahabharata and Ramayana should be dated at different times. Of the seven books of the Ramayana, for example, the first and last are considered the most recent. Individual episodes within the books represent independent works that existed long before the creation of the poem as a whole, and some subjects of myths and legends can go back to the deepest antiquity, and not only Aryan (or Indo-European), but also local (pre-Aryan).

The main content of the poems and the late stratifications

The Mahabharata and Ramayana are layered not only in terms of” pure ” chronology. In content and form, they are a conglomerate of various elements: archaic myths and military legends, legends and parables, treatises and fables, extensive lists of the names of gods, peoples, cities, genealogies, places of pilgrimage, etc. They not only belong to different times and different peoples of India, but were created in different social environments. Initially, heroic-epic poetry was associated with the military aristocracy — the kshatriyas, it developed in parallel with the priestly, Vedic literature. However, the extant codices undoubtedly reflect the later, Brahmanic version of the epic.

As in any epic work, the reflection of reality in the Mahabharata and Ramayana is very complex, and it should always be taken into account that history in them is closely intertwined with myth. The core of the epic narrative probably dates back to the turn of the II-I millennium BC. The Mahabharata tales often reflect a social and political situation very close to that which can be reconstructed from Vedic sources. In the Vedic literature, some of the characters of the epic are also mentioned, which may have had historical or semi-historical prototypes (Janamejaya, Pariksit). However, the material culture of both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana (flourishing cities, magnificent palaces) should be attributed to the end of the first millennium BC-the beginning of AD. The Mahabharata is replete with anachronisms (for example, references to Rome, Antioch and the” city of the Greeks ” — Alexandria, allegedly conquered by the Pandavas, should refer to the first centuries AD). In the field of spiritual culture, the same mixture of different strata occurs, and if on the political map of the Mahabharata the tribes of the” heroic age ” of the Kurus and Panchalas are adjacent to the Greeks and Huns, then in its religious picture the cults of the Vedic gods get along with the Hindu triad, Skanda and Durga.

In historiography, the problem of the historicity of the main plot of the Mahabharata, the battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas on Kurukshetra, occupies an unjustifiably large place. Since there are references in Vedic literature to epic heroes and the field of the Kurus, but there is no record of a great battle on this field, it can be assumed that in any case it had neither the scale nor the significance attached to it by the epic. Epic poems are important primarily as a collection of monuments of ancient oral literature (and different tribes and peoples of India), as a reproduction of mainly Kshatriya military legends that illuminate Indian society, state, culture and religion differently than Vedic (Brahman) sources.


In many respects, the so-called Puranas are similar to the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The Indian tradition itself recognizes this similarity, sometimes classifying epic poems (primarily the Mahabharata) as Puranas. The Puranas are also extensive works that have included very diverse material and have become the sacred books of Hinduism. There are usually eighteen major puranas (of which the most important are Vishnu, Vayu, Matsya, Bhagavata, Agni) and several dozen minor ones (upapuran). Some puranas are Vishnu, others are Shaivite. Their registration took place mainly in the first thousand years. but some parts of the puranas may go beyond this chronological framework and relate to both the last centuries BC and the first half of the second millennium AD. According to the Indian tradition itself, the core of the puranas are

  • cosmogony,
  • theogony, and
  • genealogies of kings.

Much of the Puranic mythology is of non-Aryan origin.

Of particular interest are the numerous references to tribal names and genealogies of rulers whose origins are traced back to epic heroes or mythological characters. These ancient traditions contain information about the tribes and peoples of the “heroic age”, which roughly coincides with the Vedic period. However, Puranic genealogies cannot be considered as a reliable source. Too often they were distorted by court panegyrists in favor of their royal patrons from local dynasties of a much later time.

These are in general terms the literary sources on the history of India of the second millennium BC and the good centuries AD.

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