Hindu fire ritual
The Hindu religion is thought to have originated with the Aryans. The Aryans were originally nature worshipers who revered a number of gods and believed that their gods represented forces of nature. Most of the important deities were male, including a celestial father and a king of gods who lit up the sun, exhaled the wind and knew the pathway of the birds. There is some evidence of tree worship. Some early Aryan structures appear to have been built around trees.

Brahmins, a priestly class sort of like the Druids, were the only people who could perform religious ceremonies based initially on knowledge that was passed down orally over the centuries. Their ability to memorize was quite extraordinary because the rituals they presided over were quite involved and complex. The hymns and knowledge associated with these rituals has survived intact since 1000 B.C.

Aryans that settled in the Punjab and wrote hymns to natural deities of which 1028 were recorded in the Verdic verses. The Brahmanas were written between 800 and 600 B.C. to explain the hymns and speculate about their meaning.

Among the differences between the early Aryan religion and Hinduism are: 1) Aryan religion had no icons and no personal relationships with a single supreme deity whereas Hinduism does; 2) Aryan offering were made for something in return while Hindus make offering as a sign of worship; 3) The Aryan gods rode chariots while Hindu ones ride mounted on their animals; and 4) nearly all the early Aryan gods were male while Hindus have male and female gods as well as ones with cobra heads and ones that are worshiped with phallic symbols. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Early Religious Practices in India

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “An ancient form of religious practice was the worship of spirits believed to dwell in trees, rivers, and rocks. Many Indians still hold such beliefs. One form these beliefs took is the worship of yakshas and yakshis, male and female deities associated with the fertility of the earth. Serpent kings called nagarajas and their consorts, naginis, as well as makaras, fabulous crocodilelike creatures, are all associated with the cult of life-giving waters. These early deities were incorporated into the major Indian religions as minor gods. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Only fragmentary information can be pieced together about the religion of the Indus Valley civilization. Horned animals, trees, many female figurines (probably mother goddesses), and phallic sculptures suggest that the people practiced some kind of fertility worship. Depictions of figures in yogic postures suggest that meditation was used. These images relate to those of later Indian religions, and some may be prototypes of later Indian deities. <*>

“Some time after the collapse of the Indus civilization, Aryans migrated down to the subcontinent from Central Asian steppes, bringing with them beliefs in gods, predominantly male, who personified forces and nature and were worshipped in elaborate sacrifices performed by Brahmins, the priestly class. The Aryans composed religious texts beginning with the Rig Veda, Soma Veda, and Athar Veda (ca. 1500–1200 B.C.), which contained hymns to the gods and descriptions of the customs, behavior, and traditions of Aryan life. The Upanishads, composed later (700–500 B.C.), contain profound philosophical speculations about the “One who lies behind.” This “One,” called Brahman, is eternal, formless, all encompassing, and the origin and essence of all things.” <*>

Aryan Sacrifices

Sati, Hindu widow burning
The Aryans conducted elaborate sacrifices and incorporated fire and an inebriating drink called soma ("Drink of Strength") into them. The sacrifices were often so complex and expensive only the upper classes could afford them. In royal sacrifices the king was sprinkled with soma and a horse was set free for year and then captured and sacrificed in the name of the queen to insure good health for the royal family.

In the early days cattle were sometimes sacrificed. The Vedas describe funerals in which a cow was slaughtered while mantras were chanted and the body of the animal was used to cover the human body on the funeral pyre, limb by limb, in a clear effort to create a double of the human body and direct negative energy into it. In most cases however it seems that milk, ghee and vegetable substance were offered up at ritual ceremonies rather than cows or any other animals.

Sacrifices were festive events meant to be enjoyed and bring fertility and prosperity. They were not intended to help people in the afterlife. Aryan religion was concerned mostly with the here and now not the hereafter. Some elements of the sacrifice though were identified with parts of the cosmos and the sacrifice was regarded as a re-enactment of creation.

Sometimes human sacrifices were held. The victims were usually criminals provided to the king or volunteers who hoped to gain quick trip to a better world. Animal sacrifices are largely a thing of the past. The ritual lives on the offerings of rice balls and marigold pedals left at temples.

See Ancient Cow Eating, Sacred Cows Under Hindusim, Relgion

Mixing of Indus, Aryan and Dravidian Beliefs

20120501-519px-Civilta ValleIndoMappa.png
Indus Valley Civilization
Hinduism and Hindu culture is believed to have originated from a intermixing of Aryan and Dravidian beliefs. It is believed that one reason there are so many gods and different customs in Hinduism is that is how the Aryan and Dravidian beliefs accommodated one another.

The source of Dravidian culture, is believed to be the ancient Indus Civilization, which flourished around 2000 B.C. in what is now Pakistan. Members of this civilization worshiped an earth goddess, similar to the Hindu goddess Shakti, and revered yogi-like male figures that surrounded themselves with animals and were worshiped with phallic symbols, suggesting Shiva. As is true in Hinduism today certain animals, such as bulls, and certain plants such as pipal trees, were held sacred.

Scores of stone phallic, vulva and bull figures have been found in Indus ruins and some archaeologists and historians present them as evidence this culture may have been the precursor to Hinduism because the bull was mount of the Hindu god Shiva and the phallic symbols' resembled the lingams (phallic emblems) used to worship Shiva.

One three sided Indus seal that was unearthed depicts a squatting god surrounded by animals which, some scholars say, may have been a forerunner of Shiva. Some of the most beautifully carved images on seals are of cattle, which suggests a link to cattle worship. Some tokens show humans bowing before a pipal tree shading figures that may be deities. Pipal trees symbolize fertility and protection in Hinduism.

The Mother Goddess did not become a major part of Hinduism until relatively late. It is believed that she existed on the fringe in the early years of Hinduism and became incorporated when the time was right. The Shiva-like practices were absorbed at a much earlier time.

Transition From the Aryan Religion to Hinduism

Indus swastika seal
As Aryans spread throughout India, they absorbed legends and beliefs of the people they conquered, including ideas about karma, reincarnation and strict laws that grew into the caste system. The Brahmanas or Priestlies , written between 1000 and 800 B.C., gave more and more power to Brahma priests at the expense of the old Vedic Gods. The Upanishads , written between 800 and 600 B.C., addressed reincarnation and karma and the unity of the soul with the cosmos.

About the same time the idea of reincarnation gained importance the status of religious ascetics was elevated. Ascetics were perceived as people who sought religious holiness by tapping into the forces of the universe and aimed to escape the endless series of deaths and rebirth of reincarnation to attain moksha (Hindu nirvana). This idea made religious life accessible to everybody not just the Brahmins.

At the same time this was occurring there was a movement against the power of the Brahmas, the grip of the caste system and the emphasis on sacrifices. Buddhism and Jainism grew out of this movement. Beginning in the 3rd century B.C. Hinduism went into decline and was largely replaced by Buddhism in India. Hinduism itself went through dramatic changes, namely the rise of Shiva and Vishnu and the transformation of their identity and the incorporation of ideas like Tantrism

Aryans and the Vedas

The Aryans did not have a script, but they developed a rich tradition. They composed the hymns of the four vedas, the great philosophic poems that are at the heart of Hindu thought. As the Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore expressed it, "The hymns are a poetic testament of a people's collective reaction to the wonder and awe of existence....A people of vigorous and unsophisticated imagination awakened at the very dawn of civilisation to a sense of inexhaustible mystery that is implicit in life." [Source: Glorious India <>]

Chaturvedas: A remarkable feature of the Vedic civilazation is their literature at that times. They had composed beautiful poems since the earliest times. Through their literature we get the knowledge of their social life and philosophy. The "Rigveda" is the first composition of the time. The "Rigveda" consists of verses composed in praise of the different forces in Mother Nature looked upon as deities. The other three vedas are "Yajurveda", "Samaveda" and "Atharvaveda". The " Yajurveda" provides information about sacrifices in prose. The "Samaveda" provides guidance on the singing of Rigvedic verses with the set rhythms and tunes. The Samaveda is believed to be the foundation of Indian Cultural Songs and Music. The "Atharvaveda" consists of philosophy and lists solution to day-to-day problems, anxieties and difficulties. It also includes information on Medicines and Herbs. [Source: Glorious India <>]

Brahmanas: After the Vedas, the second-most important literature of Aryans is the Brahmanas. They were composed to illustrate the use of Vedas in sacrificial rituals. Each Veda has independent Brahmanas.

Upanishads: The term "Upanishad" indicates knowledge acquired by sitting close to the teacher. This consists of discussions on several problems such as creation of the universe, the nature of God, the origin of mankind, etc.

The period of the composition of "Rigveda" and the subsequent literature upto the "Upanishads" is approximately 1000 years. This period is divided into two parts - The Vedic (from 1500 B.C. to 1000 B.C.) and the Later Vedic (from 1000 B.C. to 600 B.C.).

Vedas as Historical Guides on the Aryans

Little is known about Indian society during the Vedic period because of inadequate archaeological evidence. It is believed that India was now inhabited by peoples of two distinct cultures: an indigenous group (often called Dravidians), and the Aryans who were of the same stock as the nomads who inhabited the heart of the Eurasian continent. The Aryans were wandering herdsmen without the settled lifestyle, permanent architecture, and systematic urban planning observed in the Indus civilization. They invaded India, imposing their social and philosophical ideas and introducing a pattern of life that was to persist for centuries. During this time period two groups of religious scriptures came into existence - the Vedas and the Upanishads - which had a profound effect on the development of Indian culture, thought, and religion. [Source: Glorious India <>]

Although archaeology has not yielded proof of the identity of the Aryans, the evolution and spread of their culture across the Indo-Gangetic Plain is generally undisputed. Modern knowledge of the early stages of this process rests on a body of sacred texts: the four Vedas (collections of hymns, prayers, and liturgy), the Brahmanas and the Upanishads (commentaries on Vedic rituals and philosophical treatises), and the Puranas (traditional mythic-historical works). The sanctity accorded to these texts and the manner of their preservation over several millennia--by an unbroken oral tradition--make them part of the living Hindu tradition. [Source: Library of Congress *]

These sacred texts offer guidance in piecing together Aryan beliefs and activities. The Aryans were a pantheistic people, following their tribal chieftain or raja, engaging in wars with each other or with other alien ethnic groups, and slowly becoming settled agriculturalists with consolidated territories and differentiated occupations. Their skills in using horse-drawn chariots and their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics gave them a military and technological advantage that led others to accept their social customs and religious beliefs (see Science and Technology). By around 1,000 B.C., Aryan culture had spread over most of India north of the Vindhya Range and in the process assimilated much from other cultures that preceded it (see The Roots of Indian Religion). *

Aryans, Dravidians and Caste

Reciting Brahman
The origin of the caste system is unknown but it may have evolved from differences between the conquering Aryans and subject Dravidians—which happened to be different in color. Aryans were relatively light skinned while Dravidians were darker. Varna, the Hindu word for caste, means "color."

The caste system is believed to have been introduced in its preliminary form around 1500 B.C. as a way for light-skinned Aryan invaders to keep the indigenous Dravidian people in their place. Higher castes are usually associated with whiter skin and purer Aryan descent because, it has been argued, the first light-skinned Aryan conquerors gave the conquered dark-skin Dravidians dirtier, lower status tasks. Not all scholars agree with is assessment. “Color” could be a reference to something other than skin color.

The Vedas describe Aryan society divided into the four major castes: the Brahmins (priestly caste); Kshatriyas (warrior caste), the Vaisyas (farmer caste); and Sudras (laborers). Early in Aryan history the Brahmins gained political and religious superiority over the Kshatriyas. The caste system described in the Rig-Veda may have grown out of the enslavement of people from the Indus Valley by the Aryans. The Vedas refer to conquered “Dasas” or “Dasyi” (names meaning “slaves” and probably referring to the early Dravidian-speaking Indus people).

A settled lifestyle for the Aryans brought in its wake more complex forms of government and social patterns. This period saw the evolution of the caste system, and the emergence of kingdoms and republics. The Aryans were divided into tribes which had settled in different regions of northwestern India. Tribal chiefmanship gradually became hereditary, though the chief usually operated with the help of advice from either a committee or the entire tribe. With work specialisation, the internal division of the Aryan society developed along caste lines. Their social framework was composed mainly of the following groups : the Brahmana (priests), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (agriculturists) and Shudra (workers). It was, in the beginning, a division of occupations; as such it was open and flexible. Much later, caste status and the corresponding occupation came to depend on birth, and change from one caste or occupation to another became far more difficult. [Source: Glorious India <>]

DNA studies of Indians have found that highest caste members have more genetic similarities with Europeans while lower caste members have more genetic similarities with Asians. This is consistent with the historical record of the Aryan invasions and links between the Aryans and members of higher castes. Some have suggested that caste may have originally been a Dravidian concept rather than an Aryan one. One argument for this is the lack of a caste system in other areas conquered by the Aryans such as Greece.

Aryan Culture

20120501-Brahmin ikshitar.JPG
Brahmin ikshitar
The Aryans brought with them a new language, a new pantheon of anthropomorphic gods, a patrilineal and patriarchal family system, and a new social order, built on the religious and philosophical rationales of varnashramadharma . Although precise translation into English is difficult, the concept varnashramadharma , the bedrock of Indian traditional social organization, is built on three fundamental notions: varna (originally, "color," but later taken to mean social class), ashrama (stages of life such as youth, family life, detachment from the material world, and renunciation), and dharma (duty, righteousness, or sacred cosmic law). The underlying belief is that present happiness and future salvation are contingent upon one's ethical or moral conduct; therefore, both society and individuals are expected to pursue a diverse but righteous path deemed appropriate for everyone based on one's birth, age, and station in life (see Caste and Class). The original three-tiered society--Brahman (priest), Kshatriya (warrior), and Vaishya (commoner)--eventually expanded into four in order to absorb the subjugated people--Shudra (servant)--or even five, when the outcaste peoples are considered (see Varna , Caste, and Other Divisions). [Source: Library of Congress *]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “No art or architecture from this period survives, perhaps because it was made with ephemeral materials such as wood and sun-dried brick. However, important philosophical and religious ideas were formulated during this time. The Aryans (meaning “the noble ones” in Sanskrit) began to migrate from Central Asia to the subcontinent about 1500 B.C. They spoke an ancient form of Sanskrit, which became the language of all the great Indic religions. Sanskrit is an Indo-European language related to ancient Greek, Latin, and the modern languages of Europe, including English. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“With superior weapons and horse-drawn chariots, the Aryans overpowered the indigenous peoples. Their great heritage was literary: the Vedas, hymns to their gods composed before 1000 B.C., contain a rich and complex body of religious and philosophical ideas; the Upanishads (ca. 800–450 B.C.) include philosophical musings about the nature of the divine and of the human soul. Handed down orally for centuries, these beliefs were adopted as the foundation of Hinduism at the beginning of the first millennium. <>

Aryan Society and Life

The basic unit of Aryan society was the extended and patriarchal family. A cluster of related families constituted a village, while several villages formed a tribal unit. Child marriage, as practiced in later eras, was uncommon, but the partners' involvement in the selection of a mate and dowry and bride-price were customary. The birth of a son was welcome because he could later tend the herds, bring honor in battle, offer sacrifices to the gods, and inherit property and pass on the family name. Monogamy was widely accepted although polygamy was not unknown, and even polyandry is mentioned in later writings. Ritual suicide of widows was expected at a husband's death, and this might have been the beginning of the practice known as sati in later centuries, when the widow actually burnt herself on her husband's funeral pyre. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Permanent settlements and agriculture led to trade and other occupational differentiation. As lands along the Ganga (or Ganges) were cleared, the river became a trade route, the numerous settlements on its banks acting as markets. Trade was restricted initially to local areas, and barter was an essential component of trade, cattle being the unit of value in large-scale transactions, which further limited the geographical reach of the trader. Custom was law, and kings and chief priests were the arbiters, perhaps advised by certain elders of the community. An Aryan raja, or king, was primarily a military leader, who took a share from the booty after successful cattle raids or battles. Although the rajas had managed to assert their authority, they scrupulously avoided conflicts with priests as a group, whose knowledge and austere religious life surpassed others in the community, and the rajas compromised their own interests with those of the priests.*

The Aryans tended sheep, goats, cows, and horses. They measured their wealth in herds of cattle. Over time, the Aryans settled into villages. Each village or group of villages was led by a headman and council. The Aryans are believed to have brought with them the horse, developed the Sanskrit language and made significant inroads in to the religion of the times. All three factors were to play a fundamental role in the shaping of Indian culture. Cavalry warfare facilitated the rapid spread of Aryan culture across North India, and allowed the emergence of large empires. Sanskrit is the basis and the unifying factor of the vast majority of Indian languages. [Source: Glorious India <>]

Life in Aryan India

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ancient Sanskrit inscriptions
Prior to the Mauryan Empire (321 to 185 B.C.) there was no organized Aryan government with a class of bureaucrats that acted as administrators. Instead there were numerous ruling chieftains ( rajan ), who were like warlords. They ruled with the support of armies and militias. They were counseled by purohitas , shaman-like figures believed to possess magical powers. When large kingdoms emerged the purohitas served as the equivalent of archbishops and prime ministers for the rulers, performing ritual sacrifices and giving political counsel. Commoners showed respect by kissing the feet of their sovereigns.

The Aryans were nomadic and depending on their cows and other livestock for food. Cows were a sign of wealth The Aryans loved music, dance and poetry, They gave South Asia the Rig Vega and three other books of hymn as well as epic poems like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Their work were passed down orally rather than written down. This is especially remarkable when one considers that the Mahabharata was the largest single poem ever written.

The development of iron technology around 500 B.C. led to widespread clearing of land and changes from pastorialism to agriculture and an increase in urbanization. By this time there was also a powerful merchant class and towns were using silver and copper coins. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, emerged from a ruling family in an Aryan kingdom around 600 B.C.

Magistrates in ancient India used 18 different kinds of torture including beating the soles of the feet, hanging people upside down, and burning the finger joints. For severe crimes all 18 punishments were meted out in a single day. For lesser offenses they were dished out one a day for 18 days. Prisoners of war in ancient times were not used as slaves but deported to a different part of the kingdom. Suspected criminals were forced to chew and spit out rice grains. Grains stuck in the teeth were seen as signs of guilt.

Cannibalism in Ancient India

The were reports of cannibalism in ancient China, India and Egypt associated with exotic dishes enjoyed by the aristocracy and people surviving during famines.

Early Brahminic scriptures describe how humans were sacrificed in the name of the death goddess Kali: "having placed the victim before the goddess, the worshiper should adore her offering flowers, sandal paste, and bark, frequently repeating the mantra appropriate for sacrifice. Then, facing the north and placing the victim to face east, he should look backward and repeat this mantra : "...I shall slaughter thee today, and slaughter as a sacrifice is nor murder"....The sword, having thus been consecrated, should be taken up while repeating the mantra : "Am hum phat," and the excellent victim slaughtered with it."

After the Aryans

Northern India was divided into a vast number or feudal states that probably evolved from tribal groups. The Maagadha kingdom, formed in Bihar in 542 BC, became the dominant power and was later ruled by the Maurya dynasty, founded by Chandragupta 321 BC, that united most of Northern India in a centralized bureaucratic state. [Source: World Almanac]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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