The History and Culture of the Indian People: The Vedic Age
To say Indian history is complicated would be a little bit of an understatement. For one, there’s very little written evidence in the Greek or Roman way of records of battles and dynasties. Since India is one of the oldest civilizations around, there is not much reliable archaeological evidence either. And multiple invaders have left religious and social divides that leave everyone arguing against each other to wrestle control of the narrative. Just like everything in India, history is heavily politicized.
The various interpretations of history are well classified here. I’ll summarize:
  1. Indigenous: Ancient Indian texts like the Vedas, which capture timeless truths discerned by sages, but have different interpretations, as manifested by the twelve different schools of Hindu philosophy. Advocates that spirituality is the core of Indian civilization.
  2. Colonialist: Viewed Indian history through a Christian lens. Hinduism is barbaric and founded on absurd practices. The goal was to establish and prove race and religious superiority.
  3. Indian Marxist: The mainstream academic view in India today. Seen as Islamic apologetics, “anti-national” (aka anti-Hindu).
  4. Hindutva: Becoming increasingly popular, this a counter to the Indian Marxist view. It is accused of glorifying the past, while also painting minorities in Indian (Muslims and Christians) as villainous.
As you can see, it’s a big mess. Narratives are in direct opposition to each other. Can there be some kind of reconciliation? I’m a history nerd, so I’m going to be reading a bunch of books from different authors on the spectrum to find out. I have no horse in this race, I can (hope to) be objective.
  1. I’m not a history expert. You should verify things for yourself. If I’ve written something that is unbacked by evidence, or has been proven false, let me know.
  2. I won’t be writing about battles/wars/dynasties so if that’s your thing, you won’t find it here.
  3. It’ll be more about social relations, political and economic institutions, culture, language, and religion. The stuff that is still controversial today.
Written as a “F-YOU” to the colonial British a few years after independence, the “History and Culture of the Indian People” volumes would be a good place to start. They are the result of a collaboration between historians from different schools of thought. They may be slightly outdated, but still retain a lot of value.
The History and Culture of the Indian People: The Vedic Age
The series has eleven volumes in total and took 26 years to complete. The first was published in 1951. Overall, the book is very balanced and offers both positive and negatives of Indian culture.
The foreword and introduction set up the study of Indian history aptly:
“India’s political subjection and lack of material power have relegate her to a position of marked inferiority in the eyes of the world… It has not been easy to bring a detached scientific spirit to bear on the study of the history of India. This spirit, which distinguishes European writers of the history of Egypt or other countries in Western Asia, is lamentable absent when they deal with India.”
Indian writers, on the other hand:
“Seek to find in ancient India a replica of the most advanced political institutions of the West. From isolated phrases of doubtful import, they conjure up a picture of full-fledged modern democracy and even of a parliamentary form of government.”
“To many the most glaring imperfections and even the most degrading features of modern Indian social life are sanctified by antiquity. They have a tendency to judge everything before them, not by its present form and effect, but by a reference to what they conceive to be its original character, and the part it is supposed to have played in a building up and ideal society in the past.”
From the start, we see how difficult it is to study Indian history.
Boundaries and nationalism:
“The Indian horizon was a large but limited one, and the common natural boundaries gradually led to a sense of a common motherland. The vision of a fundamental unity always loomed large and colored the political ideals of the country. This ideal of political unity was rarely realized in actual practice but, as a political theory, it can be traced throughout the long course of Indian history. The cultural unity was, however, more manifest, being inspired by a common language, literature, and religious and social ideals.”
It’s clear that India was not a nation-state in the Westphalian sense, but that’s because nation-states are a European form of political organization.
Foreign invaders:
“In the numerous recorded instances of the foreign invasions from the West, the Indians have almost always been defeated by the new-comers. This can hardly be regarded as a pure accident. Nor can it be explained aways by a lack of unity among the defenders, for the invaders did not always possess a numerical superiority over their opponents.
The true explanation seems to lie in India’s ignorance of the outside world. The rise of political powers or new political combinations, the evolution of military tactics, and the invention of new military weapons or fresh equipment, even in Central or Western Asia, hardly ever interested India.”
Seems like not much has changed:
“It is also partly due to the fact that Indian rulers had no occasion or temptation to carry on campaigns outside India. They lived and fought in their own little world, vast enough for their personal ambitions and enterprises, and cared little for what was happening in the outside world.”
The book then goes on to detail life in pre-historic India and then the Indus Valley civilization (3300–2200 BC). But I’m going to skip those parts because it subscribes to Aryan Invasion Theory, or at least a strong form of Aryan migration theory, both of which have little to no evidence backing them today.
Using textual evidence from the Vedas, it talks about life in ancient India, breaking down periods according to when the closest Vedic text was written. This is where the authors derive their conclusions from.
The Rigvedic Age (approx. 1500–1100 BC)
The Rigveda was the first Samhita, the oldest layer of text in the Vedas. TheSamhitas are mantras, prayers, and hymns.
The Caste system:
“The caste system in the Rigvedic age existed, but it shows clearly that professions were not yet determined by birth.”
Life and Death:
“Cremation and burial were both in vogue, as we have both burial and cremation hymns. But the character of the respective hymns leaves scarcely any doubt that burial was the earlier custom.”
“Belief in a life after death is also revealed in certain verses, but there is no suggestion as yet of belief in hell or rebirth.”
Political and Legal Institutions:
Kingship was hereditary, but there are occasions where the common people selected a worthy monarch from the royal family or nobility through their own choice.
“Two assemblies called sabha and samiti formed an essential feature of the government. The sabha was a gathering of the elect, i.e of Brahmanas (Brahmins) and the rich patrons, convened for administrative purposes. The samiti was a comprehensive conference including not only all the common people (visah) but also Brahmanas and rich patrons.”
“Although the functions and powers of sabha and samiti cannot be exactly defined, numerous passages clearly indicates that both these Assemblies exercised considerable authority and must have acted as healthy checks on the power of the king.”
“The land was probably owned by individuals and families, and the proprietorship was invested in the father, as head of the family.”
Marriage and the status of women:
“There seems to have been considerable freedom on the part of young persons concerned in the selection of a wife or husband, as they generally married at a mature age. There is no clear evidence that the consent of the parent or brother was essential.”
“X.85.46 [of the Rigveda] describes the newly married wife as taking up a most respected position as the mistress of her new household, wielding authority over the husband’s father, brother, and unmarried sisters. This is probably the case of the eldest son’s wife, when the old father has retired from active life.”
“There is very little evidence of the prevalence of the custom of Sati or widow-burning in the Rigveda, thought we may detect a semblance of the custom in X.18.18… The only safe conclusion would be that the practice, even if known, was not widely prevalent.”
“There is clear evidence that the remarriage of widows was permitted in certain circumstances.”
“Women had to be under the protection of some [male] guardian, though they enjoyed much freedom. They did not always remain indoors, but moved about freely; they publicly attended feasts and dances, and there are references to fair ladies flocking to festive gatherings.”
Food and Drink
“Meat also formed a part of the dietary. The flesh of the ox, the sheep, and the goat was normally eaten, after being roasted on spits or cooked in earthenware or metal pots. Probably meat was eaten, as a rule, only on occasions of sacrifice, though such occasions were by no means rare, the domestic and the grand sacrifices being the order of the day.”
“The cow receives the epithet aghnyā (not to be killed) in the Rigveda, and is otherwise a very valued possession. It is difficult to reconcile this with the eating of beef, but we may get some explanation if we remember the following: (1) it was the flesh of the ox that was eaten (2) the flesh of the cow was (if at all) eaten at sacrifices only, and it is well known that one sacrifices one’s dearest possessions to please the gods (3) only Vaśās (barren cows) were sacrificed.”
Trade and Economy
There’s a scene in the movie Arrival, where Dr. Banks, the main character, uses the Sanskrit word “gavishti” to test the calibre of a competing linguist:

The movie mistranslates gavishti as war, and it’s meaning as a “desire for more cows.” Straight from the book:
“Similarly one of the words for “fight” was gavishti (a search for cows) because “the cow had come to be regarded as a unit of value and came to used as a sort of currency even during the Rigvedic age.”
The movie (unwittingly I’m sure) reinforces the “holy cow” stereotype that Westerners have of Indians.“Those brown people, they like cows so much, they would even go to war for them.” But actually, cows were currency. It makes sense that ancient Indians would fight over them just like we fight over money today.
Age of the Later Samhitas (approx. 1100–800 BC)
The later Samhitas were written after the Rigveda.
Political and Legal Institutions:
“The tenure of land was owned by a family, rather an individual.”
“Communal property in the sense of “ownership by a community” or “communal cultivation” is however, unknown.”
Marriage and the status of women:
“The Maitrayani Samhita (IV.7.4) tell us that women did not attend the sabha, which is but expected as women did not take part in political activity.”
“There are evidences that marriage did not normally take place before puberty.”
“The verses from the Atharvaveda indicate the prevalence of polyandry.”
“Gradually, [the wife] lost this important position [equal share in the husband’s social and religious life], as the priest was more and more employed to offer oblation in certain ceremonies instead of the wife.”
“It appears clearly, that the woman, who held a high position in the age of the Rigveda, had fallen on evil days in this age.”
Trade and Economy
“The incidence of taxation, however, did not fall equitably upon all classes of people.”
“But it appears that on the whole, the main burden of taxation fell on the “people”, who pursued peaceful occupations, such as agriculture, cattle-keeping, the arts, crafts, industries, and trade.”
The Caste system
“The most glaring evil of the caste-system, namely the doctrine of… untouchability… had not yet reared it’s ugly head.”
Food and drink
“It appears that the eating of cows gradually came into disfavour.”
Age of the Upanishads (approx. 800–300 BC)
The Upanishads are the fourth and final layer of the Vedas. “Upa-ni-sad” literally means “to sit down near some one”, referring to the pupil sitting down near his teacher during instruction.
They are the materialization of Vedic rituals and ceremonies into a coherent philosophy and spirituality. To this day, they are considered the most important text in Hinduism, and have shared philosophical concepts in Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism. A lot of has been written on how the Upanishads contain fundamental concepts in Western philosophy, from Plato to Kant to Schopenhauer.
(There are two other texts after the Samhitas and before the Upanishads, the Aranyakas and Brahmanas. But they are mostly a commentary on rituals and sacrifices, and don’t constitute reasonable historical evidence.)
This age has a distinct advantage, in that we have written evidence in the form ofSutras, short aphorisms/rules that guide life in a particular aspect. The most famous, of course, is the Kama Sutra.
Political and Legal Institutions:
“The King is master of all, with the exception of the Brāhmanas. The Brāhmanas were also exempt from all taxes. The Purohita (the main priest, exercised high power and privileges.”
“The King had to act in religious and many other matters according to the advice of the Purohita.”
Marriage and the status of women:
Inter-marriage of castes was allowed, but the lower-caste wife could not co-habit with the husband, unlike a wife of the same caste. This led to the association of lower-caste wives with higher-caste wives, and “brought down the general level of womanly culture and led to a deterioration in their social status.”
“Older texts evidently imply that the bride if of mature age. The modern [sutras] lay down the rule that the bride should be nagnika (naked), i.e one who had not yet had her monthly period or one whose breasts are not yet developed.”
“The birth of a daughter was not welcome.”
“At the same time the general principle is already enumerated in the later texts that “males are the masters of women” and a woman “never fit for independence.”
The Caste system
“The period of the Sutras witnessed the gradual hardening of the caste system in general and the deterioration of the Vaisyas (merchants) and Sudras in particular.”
“Whereas for example, a Sudra would receive capital punishment with confiscation of his property for theft or homicide, a Brahmana would only be blinded.”
“The legal rate of interest is roughly fifteen per cent per annum; but the influence of caste is noticeable even in this matter, and different rate of interest are payable by different castes. Neither a Brahmana, nor a Kshatriya may become a usurer. The lending business was a sort of monopoly of the Vaisyas.”
“It has to be recognized, however, that the caste-system even in this period had not become as wooden and exclusive as it now. Inter-dining and inter-marriage were not prohibited.”
Food and drink
“Vegetable food (saka) is mentioned as a substitute for flesh-food (mamsa). But people in this age were by no means vegetarians.”
Habits and Customs
“Hospitality not only continues to be recognized a binding social obligation, but is raised to the status of a religious duty.”
“The ancient Indians did not cultivate cleanliness as a mere habit. They had developed a passion for it.”
Closing thoughts
It’s interesting how you can trace many aspects of Indian culture, positive and negative, back to 4000 years ago. Some cases, such as taxation falling on the “professional class”, an insular political elite and foreign policy, hospitality to guests, and the position of women and lower-castes, seem to have historical precedent going back to ancient times. In others, such as cleanliness and hygiene, attitudes toward meat-eating, and the structure of property ownership seem to have changed drastically.
Let’s see what the later volumes in this series have to say about how Indian culture evolved from this foundation to now.