History Lesson #3: A Third River Civilization

Hello again!

Remember when I asked the question in the last lesson about how many river civilizations there were? We have already discussed two birthplaces of early civilizations, Egypt and Mesopotamia, and today I’m going to take you to modern-day India and show you a third birthplace of civilizations – the Indus River Valley.

A brief note on source material

I don’t have access to Chapter 3 of Traditions and Encounters for some reason, so I’ll be bringing in a range of other online sources to help me out. I’ll cite them when they come up. Let’s go!

Welcome to the Indus Valley!

Question: why do you think that it is so important for historians to obtain written records in order to fully understand a civilization?

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A map of the IVC, found here

As we have spoken about before, rivers are very important to ancient civilizations. Whether it’s the Mesopotamians mastering the two rivers that cradled them or the Egyptians planting their crops in the aftermath of the Nile River’s annual flood, rivers provided stable water sources for crops, and learning how to use these rivers for their advantage became an important task for these early civilizations. The same principle applies to the Indus Valley civilization, IVC for short.

The Indus Valley civilization is interesting primarily because they had a written language, but that language is a problematic one. Nobody has been able to decipher it, and as such most knowledge of the IVC is incomplete. We spoke last lesson on how important writing is and how certain alphabets are easier to use than others, but the IVC didn’t get the memo at all, even though there is evidence that the IVC traded with Sumer and other civilizations that had decipherable writing systems. Weird, right?

Because of this lack of a (comprehensible) written record, it is more difficult to understand who these people were, what mattered to them, what their laws were, and how exactly their civilization came to an end. Here’s what we do know. Information in this section comes from here.

A photo of the site of Mohenjo-Daro, found here

First, the IVC had two major cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Quality of life in these cities was most alike in quality to Sumer and ended up being better than later Mesopotamian civilizations. The houses had wells, bathrooms, and an advanced drainage system. Mohenjo-Daro lay along the lower Indus, while Harappa was further upstream.

The Indus Valley is a richly fertile floodplain not entirely unlike the path  of much of the River Nile. People began farming and settling down here by around 4000 BCE. By 3000 BCE cities like Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro began to take shape as more and more people decided to congregate in the same places. Since we haven’t deciphered their script yet, not much is directly known about their civilization. A lot of speculation is needed in the case of the IVC, which people are more than willing to supply in some cases.

Standardized weights and measures, photo found here

Another thing that the IVC is known for is their system of highly accurate weights and measures. Even though there is no writing that we can read about them, we know that they were also standardized and used throughout the civilization as far as they reached. This information came from here.

Continuing with the first source, it is very unclear as to how the two cities interacted and what the relationship was between them. Nothing has been uncovered that would tell us anything conclusive.

No matter how awesome a civilization is, good things always come to an end. Such was the case with the IVC. Writing stopped, weights began to disappear, and cities began to die. Some believe that this happened due to the Saraswati River drying up or a major flood. In any case, something was disrupted and the civilization began to decline.

Around 1500 BCE, a lot of nomads driving cattle found their way into the Indus Valley from over the Hindu Kush range. When I say “a lot”, I mean “enough herders for historians to wonder if they were an invading force that wiped out the IVC for a very long time”. These possibly framed herders were the Aryans, which are not to be confused with Adolf Hitler’s ideal race. Indeed, if you type Aryans into a search engine, odds are that the top hits will be about the Nazis.

These herding folks eventually settled down and put down roots. I mean that literally. They hopped on the farming bandwagon, renounced their nomadic ways, and never looked back.

They brought two important things with them, language and religion.

Aryan Language and Its Legacy

Question: why do you think that migrations leave an impact on languages?

(The sources of the information found in this section are here, here, and here.)

Oddly enough, the Aryan peoples didn’t leave an expansive written record. Their main literary accomplishment is found in the Vedas, which we will discuss soon. Their main achievement as a culture was the linguistic mark they made on the areas they inhabited. The Aryans are believed to have lived in present day Iran and then split off from their homeland, crossing the Hindu Kush mountain range, and finding themselves in the Indus River Valley. Their language would influence several other languages in the future, now known as the Indo-Aryan languages. Perhaps most the most notable of the bunch is Sanskrit, which is in essence Old Indo-Aryan. The language evolved and as time passed, languages like Hindi, Punjabi, and Gujarati came into being. As we’ve found before, they didn’t leave much of a written record aside from the sacred Vedas, which contain some of the oldest Sanskrit writing. Let’s take a closer look at the Vedas and the Aryans’ religion.

A page from the Vedas, image found here

The Vedas and Aryan Religion

Question: why do you think texts are so important when it comes to establishing a religion?

(Information used in this section is found here, here, and here)

The Aryans had a set of religious texts called the Vedas, which combined hymns, mythology, written prayers, and other things into a series of written records sacred to those who engage in the Vedic religion. They are often considered difficult to read because of literary devices we as modern readers might find odd and challenging. That’s something to remember when studying history that we haven’t touched on yet – what might seem odd, difficult, or morally wrong to us as modern students of history would be perfectly commonplace to the peoples we study as they lived in that time and knew their culture and circumstances better than we do. Perceptions of morality and what is acceptable change over time, and it is not our responsibility to judge the past using our own modern cultural bias. There will always be bias in some form in the study of history, but we should do our best to minimize our own judgments as we study. Because the Vedas are challenging, some might want to shy away from studying them. But because this is a written record, it gives us insight into what the Aryans believed, how they saw the world, and how their culture worked.

The four Vedas put early Hinduism into words. These texts are heavily biased towards the Brahmans, or the priestly class, mostly because the priests controlled who got to see and use them. Parts of the Vedas are dedicated to mythology and present gods that embody certain forces of nature. Practitioners of this faith believed that these gods help the world run the way it’s supposed to, and performing prescribed rituals would ensure their help.

Another interesting thing about the Vedas is that they provide for a rigid caste system where everyone knows their place and social mobility is very difficult. There are Brahmans, priests, then Kshatriyas, warrior rulers, Vaishyas, or commoners, and Shudras, servants. This system is backed up by their mythology, which says that these classes came forth from body parts of a sacrificed god named Purusha.

This caste system was also largely patriarchal and patrilineal, and women had very little authority. Some believe that these very rigid gender roles helped the caste system remain in place.

Finally, the Aryan values mixed with those of the more “original” inhabitants, the Dravidians. These peoples came to the Indian subcontinent before the Aryans did, and they had their own set of beliefs. After a time, their beliefs began to blend in places. It is believed that there are so many gods in Hinduism because of how the Aryan and Dravidian belief systems mixed. We’ll learn more about faiths mixing with one another more when we reach our section on early Christianity. This example is interesting because if it is true, this mix still impacts people today.

Next time, we’ll head over to the final river civilization we’ll cover. I can’t tell you what it is, we’ll just have to see when we get there...