Vedic Performances

By 1500, BCE, a second wave of civilization had washed across the Indus Valley region.  Branching from the Caucasian nomads who began spreading in all directions from the Russian Steppes by the second millennium, BCE, the Indo-Aryans settled in the Indus Valley, and pressed eastward, into the Hindu Kush Mountains and towards the Gangetic Plain.

The story used to be that the Aryan people entered South Asia suddenly and dramatically, crashing over the cities in chariots, cutting down the Dravidian people of Harappa and Mahenjo-daro with axes, and, in a lightning-like invasion, smashing everything and destroying the prospering but peaceful Indus civilization for good.

What combined in this historical narrative is the mystery of the Indus Valley civilization’s disappearance, the discovery of martial implements, such as hafted axes, left by Aryans in the higher strata of Indus excavations, and elements of the Aryans’ own lore that characterized their progress across the region as a battle against dark forces.

Nowadays, this story, mostly developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has been greatly revised.  For whatever reasons—though environmental change is probably a large factor—the Indus Valley network of cities seems to have mostly collapsed by the time the Aryan nomads became a major presence the area.  Nor does it appear that there was anything particularly swift about the Aryan migration.  Even the very bellicose language of the literature the Aryans composed seems to have been more metaphor than journalism.

Over the course of a few centuries, the Aryan migrants spread through the Indus Valley, settling on top of the remains of Harappa and assimilating with what people remained there.  Though the Aryan settlement did not follow a military suppression of the region, it did change the region substantially and irrevocably.  The Aryan people brought with them from the West a new language, new social structure, new religion, new economy, and new ways of understanding the world.

Rather than construct large, interdependent cities, as their predecessors in the area had done, the Aryan immigrants remained nomadic, depending on herding, rather than agriculture.  From their first centuries on the Subcontinent, they left little in the way of structures and artifacts.  What little we know of the Aryans has been gleaned from the insinuations of their own story of themselves, passed down to us in the Vedas, the first literature of South Asia.

Indo-European Language Diffusion

Fig. 1: The diffusion of Indo-European Languages between 2500, BCE, and 1500, BCE.

The language of the Vedas was Sanskrit.  Derived from an Indo-European source, Sanskrit was completely unrelated to the language that had dominated the Indus Valley before the Aryan presence.  Instead, Sanskrit had kinship with languages that moved and morphed along the diverging trails that the Caucasian nomads followed north, west, south, and—into South Asia—east.  Philologists of the colonial period, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Sir William Jones and Max Müller, identified cognate vocabulary and grammatical structure among languages so removed from each other as German and Hindi, as the consequence of the closer relationship of Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit (Fig. 1).


Consider this evidence for a common language at the root of Sanskrit, Classical Greek, and Latin:

The Sanskrit root dyu means “heavenly” or “divine” and pitr means “father”.  Jupiter, the Latin name of the chief of the gods, can be broken up into the sounds ju and piter (a cognate of the Latin word pater, meaning “father”).  The chief of the Greek pantheon is Zeus (zu-s), and the Greek word for father is patêr.

The Vedas

The four Vedas are the Rg, the Sama, the Yajur, and the Atharva.  Each is a collection of poetic recitations—hymns, if you like—that brought mythic lore and symbolic reasoning into the ever-going cycle of day-to-day religious observance.

The oldest of the collection is the Rg Veda, probably already in a process of composition as the Aryans began to settle in the Indus Valley in 1500, BCE, but continuing to develop for the next several centuries.  The Rg Veda is composed of more than one thousand poems, each dedicated to one or another of an extensive pantheon whose collective character evolves over the course of the collection.  Central to the early Rg Veda hymns is Indra, a lightning-wielding storm god who drinks to excess, flies into grand fits of violence, and battles endlessly with dark, demonic forces.  This divine expression of the nomadic character of the proto-Aryan culture that made its way into southern Europe and Scandinavia gives way to other, more sedate, more esoteric divinities in the later hymns, including Varuna, Rudra, Agni, and Soma.

Agni and Soma are interesting for their identification with elements of the natural world.  Bearing as a name the word for “fire”, Agni sat in the center of the sacrificial space to provide the interface between the mortal and immortal worlds.  The Rg Veda characterizes Soma as a substance that, when he imbibed it, contributed to Indra’s violent drunkenness and even to an altered, mystic consciousness.  Some kind of substance going by the name Soma seems to have played a part in Vedic ritual, and speculations have identified it as everything from alcohol to mushrooms.

In one respect, the Vedas are not the first literature of South Asia.  They may not have been “literature” at all.  At least, the books that comprise the four Vedas were not written down.  The Vedas were sacred texts that were transmitted from one generation to the next by way of families of brahman priests who memorized them to use in the performance of the Vedic rituals that governed religious life. Which is to say, the Vedas were performed.  Like Homeric Greek, which was also performed, the poetry of the Rg Veda was based on rhythms created by long and short syllables.  Teams of brahmans would chant selected hymns while performing the prescribed actions of sacrifices and other ceremonies.

Because they were a functional element of the ritual activity that had to be performed with precision and without variation for the good of the community and the world, the text of the Vedas descended through centuries with very little alteration.

Many of the Rg Veda hymns were composed in a dialogue form, presenting two characters in ritualized dialogue with each other, so that, when performed in ritual chant, a type of antiphone may have taken place between two priests over the sacrificial fire.

Pururavas and Urvashi

Rg Veda 10.95

(Translated by Ralph T. H. Griffith, 1896)

1. Ho there, my consort! Stay, thou fierce-souled lady, and let us reason for a while together.

Such thoughts as these of ours, while yet unspoken in days gone by have never brought us comfort.

2. What am I now to do with this thy saying? I have gone from thee like the first of Mornings.

Purūravas, return thou to thy dwelling: I, like the wind, am difficult to capture.

3. Like a shaft sent for glory from the quiver, or swift-steed winning cattle winning hundreds.

The lightning seemed to flash, as cowards planned it. The minstrels bleated like a lamb in trouble.

4. Giving her husband’s father life and riches, from the near dwelling, when her lover craved her,

She sought the home wherein she found her pleasure, accepting day and night her lord’s embraces.

5. Thrice in the day didst thou embrace thy consort, though coldly she received thy fond caresses.

To thy desires, Purūravas, I yielded: so wast thou king, O hero, of my body.

6. The maids Sujirni, Sreni, Sumne-api, Charanyu, Granthini, and Hradecaksus,—

These like red kine have hastened forth, the bright ones, and like milch-cows have lowed in emulation.

7. While he was born the Dames sate down together, the Rivers with free kindness gave him nurture;

And then, Purūravas, the Gods increased thee for mighty battle, to destroy the Dasyus.

8. When I, a mortal, wooed to mine embraces these heavenly nymphs who laid aside their raiment,

Like a scared snake they fled from me in terror, like chariot horses when the car has touched them.

9. When, loving these Immortal Ones, the mortal hath converse with the nymphs as they allow him.

Like swans they show the beauty of their bodies, like horses in their play they bite and nibble.

10. She who flashed brilliant as the falling lightning brought me delicious presents from the waters.

Now from the flood be born a strong young hero May Uruvasi prolong her life for ever

11. Thy birth hath made me drink from earthly milch-kine: this power, Purūravas, hast thou vouchsafed me.

I knew, and, warned thee, on that day. Thou wouldst not hear me. What sayest thou, when naught avails thee?

12. When will the son be born and seek his father? Mourner-like, will he weep when first he knows him?

Who shall divide the accordant wife and husband, while fire is shining with thy consort’s parents?

13. I will console him when his tears are falling: he shall not weep and cry for care that blesses.

That which is thine, between us, will I send thee. Go home again, thou fool; thou hast not won me.

14. Thy lover shall flee forth this day for ever, to seek, without return, the farthest distance.

Then let his bed be in Destruction’s bosom, and there let fierce rapacious wolves devour him.

15. Nay, do not die, Purūravas, nor vanish: let not the evil-omened wolves devour thee.

With women there can be no lasting friendship: hearts of hyenas are the hearts of women.

16. When amid men in altered shape I sojourned, and through four autumns spent the nights among them,

I tasted once a day a drop of butter; and even now with that am I am contented.

17. I, her best love, call Urvasi to meet me, her who fills air and measures out the region.

Let the gift brought by piety approach thee. Turn thou to me again: my heart is troubled.

18. Thus speak these Gods to thee, O son of Iḷā: As death hath verily got thee for his subject,

Thy sons shall serve the Gods with their oblation, and thou, moreover, shalt rejoice in Svarga.

One such ritual dialogue occurs in hymn 10.95 between Pururavas, the prototypical mortal man, and Urvashi, a divine woman.  The hymn tells us that Pururavas and Urvashi were in some kind of relationship—perhaps a marriage relationship.  Urvashi lived, at one time, with Pururavas.  And something about Urvashi’s presence in Pururavas’s house contributed to not only to his reputation and power, but to his father’s, as well.  But the relationship has somehow failed.  Urvashi, it seems, has gone away, and Pururavas laments her absence.

The hymn has been interpreted in a number of ways, including the passé reading in which says that the hymn is the aftermath of the moment in which Pururavas brok the taboo of seeing Urvashi naked.

Briefly, we might read this hymn symbolically, anthropologically, and aesthetically.

In a symbolic reading, we would identify Pururavas and Urvashi as metaphors for the implements of a ceremony.  While they are apart, nothing much is accomplished.  Neither has much purpose alone.  Only their union in the completion of the Vedic rite is productive.

The anthropological reading might see in this hymn the ritual confirmation of a taboo.  The sacred text here could codify, for instance, proscriptions against the mixing of social classes.  Certainly, Aryan society was stratified.  We can find the roots of India’s so-called caste system in Aryan hierarchies.  Anthropologically, we might also find here a struggle between matriarchal and patriarchal order.  Aryan communities were firmly patriarchal, but their movement would have brought them to mix with indigenous communities that might have privileged matrilineal authority.

More interesting, however, might be an aesthetic reading of the hymn.  Artistically, Rg Veda 10.95 is a ballad.  Its performance in the rite would have brought its poetic meter into relief against the background of its ritual context, and it presents it audience with characters made present by their first-person voices.

In addition to the two voices that speak to each other in this hymn, we find dramatic tension.  We are presented with two characters whose differing interests keep them apart.

They long for each other.  Her presence has made him powerful, kingly, among his peers, and brought him a distinctly sensual pleasure.  Her disappearance torments him.  He does not know why she would leave.  Her only response is the cry that “Women have the hearts of hyenas!”

In the context of the hymn, Urvashi’s final line—a line in her voice, but composed, certainly, by men—is not simply a misogynistic trope, but a complaint against divinity.  Everything, the hymn complains, especially all that’s good, gets ruined, and not naturally but by divine design.  Urvashi willfully, if inexplicably, disrupts the couple’s bliss, in character with all the untrustworthy divine powers that conspire to make people happy in order to make them miserable.

Pururavas and Urvashi play out the impossible relationship between mortality and divinity that is at the root of Tragedy.  Their relationship is inherently unstable.  Pururavas’s lament is the realization that happiness is fleeting and that all hopes are, ultimately, doomed.

Hymn 10.95 is, then theatrically dramatic, in both form and content.  The beginning of theatre is the transformation of the body.  We find this first step in Harappa.  The next step is the stylization of human expression and interaction.  We find this theatrical move in the Vedas.


We also find in this earliest of South Asian literature the roots of one of the most persistent themes of Indian poetry.  Hymn 10.95 is particularly critical of Urvashi’s character.  She is, according to the voice of the hymn, fickle, cruel, and deceitful.  Nevertheless, even in the end, Pururavas is calling for her to come back.  In fact, it is clear that Pururavas’s desire for Urvashi is particularly ardent because she is gone.

This hymn expresses the especially excruciating experience of vipralambha, the desire for the absent.  Through the rest of India’s ages, poets focus on this special kind of torment.  Kalidasa’s play Shakuntala makes much of the long sections of the play in which his lover protagonists, Duhshanta and Shakuntala, are apart.  In the devotional religion that follows the composition of the epic-like Puranasvipralambha becomes the best way of expressing the devotee’s relationship with God.

Kabir, one of the greatest of the devotional poets, wrote the following lines in the fifteenth century, CE:

Kabir says this: When the Guest is being searched for,
it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest
that does all the work.
Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.

(Robert Bly, Kabir: Ecstatic Poems [Boston: Beacon Press, 2004], 9.)

Further Reading

Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, The Rig Veda. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Stanley Wolpert, A New History of India. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.