The Indus Civilization, also known as the Harappan Civilization, flourished in the Indus River valley around 2500-1900 BCE. Like other early agricultural societies, such as Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Indus Civilization benefited from the fertile lands made possible by large-scale irrigation. However, our understanding of its early development is limited due to the inaccessibility of the earliest remains buried below the water table.
The Indus Civilization reached its zenith during the high point of around 2500-2000 BCE. The society was characterized by well-established cities, with Harappa and Mohenjo-daro being the most prominent. These cities, home to around 40,000 inhabitants each, served as economic and political centers within their respective regions. While the Indus political system still needs to be better understood, there is no evidence of a centralized imperial authority.
Indus society displayed advanced features, including sophisticated urban planning and a complex social structure. The people of the Indus Valley cultivated crops such as wheat, barley, and cotton, and they domesticated animals like cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens. This agricultural surplus supported the growth of cities and specialized labor.
The Indus Civilization had a system of writing, which used hundreds of symbols, but it still needs to be completed. This script, found on clay seals and copper tablets, has posed a challenge for scholars trying to unravel the details of Indu’s life. Therefore, our knowledge relies heavily on studying material remains uncovered by archaeologists since the 1920s.
During the second millennium BCE, Indo-Aryan migrations occurred in the Indian subcontinent as the Indus Civilization declined. These migrations were carried out by nomadic and pastoral Indo-European peoples who settled in the Indus Valley and beyond. The Indo-Aryans gradually established small herding and agricultural communities throughout northern India. These migrations were not an invasion or organized military campaign but a gradual process spanning several centuries.
The Indo-Aryans relied on a pastoral economy and prized horses and cattle. Horses were valuable and were imported from Central Asia since they did not breed well in the South Asian tropical environment. Cattle became the primary measure of wealth, and the Indo-Aryans consumed dairy products and beef. However, cattle became sacred many centuries later.
Although they did not have a writing system, the early Indo-Aryans did create poems and songs. The Vedas, which are collections of hymns, songs, prayers, and rites honoring the Indo-Aryan gods, were created from the oral transmission of these writings. The Rig Veda, written between 1400 and 900 BCE, is the oldest and most significant Veda.
From the Punjab region, the migrations of the Indo-Aryans migrated east and south. By 1000 BCE, they had made their home between the Ganges River and the Himalayan foothills. In the Ganges valley, they developed agricultural settlements, learnt to forge iron implements, and cleared forests. In order to support growing populations, rice production became widespread in this area. In the Ganges River valley, the first tiny settlements started to appear around 750 BCE. By 500 BCE, Indo-Aryan clans had finally spread as far south as the northern Deccan.
Additionally, the Indo-Aryans created a social structure that served as the basis for the caste system. Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and aristocrats), Vaishyas (farmers, artisans, and merchants), and Shudras (landless peasants and serfs) were the four primary varnas. Later, the untouchables were introduced, executing actions deemed to be polluting. With thousands of subcastes, known as jatis, the caste system evolved, mostly based on occupation.
The readings then introduce the Upanishads, a works that developed during the later Vedic age. The Upanishads presented philosophical and spiritual ideas, teaching that individual human beings are part of a universal soul called Brahman. The ultimate goal was to escape the cycle of birth and rebirth and attain permanent union with Brahman, a state known as “moksha.” The Upanishads also discussed doctrines such as samsara (the cycle of rebirth) and karma (the concept that actions have consequences in future incarnations).
The blending of Indo-Aryan and Dravidian values is highlighted, and the Upanishads are presented as a response to the spiritual and intellectual challenges of understanding the nature of reality beyond the material world. The text also mentions how some interpretations suggest that these doctrines may have been used to justify social inequalities imposed by the caste system. Still, the sages who presented these doctrines were genuinely grappling with spiritual and intellectual questions.
Overall, the author aims to provide insights into the religious beliefs and practices of the Vedic Age and how they influenced the development of Hinduism.