Indo-European Civilizations

The Indo-Aryan Migration and the Vedic Period

Different theories explain the Vedic Period, c. 1200 BCE, when Indo-Aryan people on the Indian subcontinent migrated to the Ganges Plain.

Learning Objectives

Describe the defining characteristics of the Vedic Period and the cultural consequenes of the Indo-Aryan Migration

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Indo- Aryans  were part of an expansion into the Indus Valley and Ganges Plain from 1800-1500 BCE. This is explained through Indo-Aryan Migration and Kurgan theories.
  • The Indo-Aryans continued to settle the Ganges Plain, bringing their distinct religious beliefs and practices.
  • The Vedic Period (c. 1750-500 BCE) is named for the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in  Hinduism, which were composed during this period. The period can be divided into the Early Vedic (1750-1000 BCE) and Later Vedic (1000-500 BCE) periods.

Key Terms

  • Ganges Plain: A large, fertile plain encompassing most of northern and eastern India, where the Indo-Aryans migrated.
  • Rig-Veda: A sacred Indo-Aryan collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns. It is counted among the four canonical sacred texts of Hinduism, known as the Vedas.
  • the Vedas: The oldest scriptures of Hinduism composed in Vedic Sanskrit, and originating in ancient India during the Vedic Period (c. 1750-500 BCE).

Scholars debate the origin of Indo-Aryan peoples in northern India. Many have rejected the claim of Indo-Aryan origin outside of India entirely, claiming the Indo-Aryan people and languages originated in India. Other origin hypotheses include an Indo-Aryan Migration in the period 1800-1500 BCE, and a fusion of the nomadic people known as Kurgans. Most history of this period is derived from the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in Hinduism, which help chart the timeline of an era from 1750-500 BCE, known as the Vedic Period.

The Indo-Aryan Migration (1800-1500 BCE)

Foreigners from the north are believed to have migrated to India and settled in the Indus Valley and Ganges Plain from 1800-1500 BCE. The most prominent of these groups spoke Indo-European languages and were called Aryans, or “noble people” in the Sanskrit language. These Indo-Aryans were a branch of the Indo-Iranians, who originated in present-day northern Afghanistan. By 1500 BCE, the Indo-Aryans had created small herding and agricultural communities across northern India.

These migrations took place over several centuries and likely did not involve an invasion, as hypothesized by British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler in the mid-1940s. Wheeler, who was Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1944 to 1948, suggested that a nomadic, Indo-European tribe, called the Aryans, suddenly overwhelmed and conquered the Indus River Valley. He based his conclusions on the remains of unburied corpses found in the top levels of the archaeological site of Mohenjo-daro, one of the great cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, whom he said were victims of war. Yet shortly after Wheeler proposed his theory, other scholars dismissed it by explaining that the skeletons were not those of victims of invasion massacres, but rather the remains of hasty burials. Wheeler himself eventually admitted that the theory could not be proven.

The Kurgan Hypothesis

The Kurgan Hypothesis is the most widely accepted scenario of Indo-European origins. It postulates that people of a so-called Kurgan Culture, a grouping of the Yamna or Pit Grave culture and its predecessors, of the Pontic Steppe were the speakers of the Proto- Indo-European language. According to this theory, these nomadic pastoralists expanded throughout the Pontic-Caspian steppe and into Eastern Europe by early 3000 BCE. The Kurgan people may have been mobile because of their domestication of horses and later use of the chariot.

The Vedic Period (c. 1750-500 BCE)

The Vedic Period refers to the time in history from approximately 1750-500 BCE, during which Indo-Aryans settled into northern India, bringing with them specific religious traditions. Most history of this period is derived from the Vedas, the oldest scriptures in the Hindu religion, which were composed by the Aryans in Sanskrit.

Vedic Civilization is believed to have been centered in the northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent and spread around 1200 to the Ganges Plain, a 255-million hectare area (630 million acres) of flat, fertile land named after the Ganges River and covering most of what is now northern and eastern India, eastern parts of Pakistan, and most of Bangladesh. Many scholars believe Vedic Civilization was a composite of the Indo-Aryan and Harappan, or Indus Valley, cultures.

The map shows the location of the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra rivers.

The Ganges Plain (Indo-Gangetic Plain): The Ganges Plain is supported by the Indus and Ganges river systems. The Indo-Aryans settled various parts of the plain during their migration and the Vedic Period.

Early Vedic Period (c. 1750-1000 BCE)

The Indo-Aryans in the Early Vedic Period, approximately 1750-1000 BCE, relied heavily on a pastoral, semi-nomadic economy with limited agriculture. They raised sheep, goats, and cattle, which became symbols of wealth.

The Indo-Aryans also preserved collections of religious and literary works by memorizing and reciting them, and handing them down from one generation to the next in their sacred language, Sanskrit. The Rigveda, which was likely composed during this time, contains several mythological and poetical accounts of the origins of the world, hymns praising the gods, and ancient prayers for life and prosperity.

Organized into tribes, the Vedic Aryans regularly clashed over land and resources. The Rigveda describes the most notable of these conflicts, the Battle of the Ten Kings, between the Bharatas tribe and a confederation of ten competing tribes on the banks of what is now the Ravi River in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan. Led by their king, Sudas, the Bharatas claimed victory and merged with the defeated Purus tribe to form the Kuru, a Vedic tribal union in northern India.

Later Vedic Period (c. 1000-500 BCE)

After the 12th century BCE, Vedic society transitioned from semi-nomadic to settled agriculture. From approximately 1000-500 BCE, the development of iron axes and ploughs enabled the Indo-Aryans to settle the thick forests on the western Ganges Plain.

This agricultural expansion led to an increase in trade and competition for resources, and many of the old tribes coalesced to form larger political units. The Indo-Aryans cultivated wheat, rice and barley and implemented new crafts, such as carpentry, leather work, tanning, pottery, jewelry crafting, textile dying, and wine making.


Ceramic goblet from Navdatoli, Malwa, c. 1300 BCE: As the Indo-Aryans developed an agricultural society during the Later Vedic Period (c. 1000-500), they further developed crafts, such as pottery.

Economic exchanges were conducted through gift giving, particularly between kings and priests, and barter using cattle as a unit of currency. While gold, silver, bronze, copper, tin, and lead are mentioned in some hymns as trade items, there is no indication of the use of coins.

The invasion of Darius I (a Persian ruler of the vast Achaemenid Empire that stretched into the Indus Valley) in the early 6th century BCE marked the beginning of outside influence in Vedic society. This continued into what became the Indo-Greek Kingdom, which covered various parts of South Asia and was centered mainly in modern Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Caste System

A caste system developed among Indo-Aryans of the Vedic Period, splitting society into four major groups.

Learning Objectives

Explain the history of the caste system

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The institution of the  caste  system, influenced by stories of the gods in the  Rig- Veda  epic, assumed and reinforced the idea that lifestyles, occupations, ritual statuses, and social statuses were inherited.
  • Aryan  society was patriarchal in the Vedic Period, with men in positions of authority and power handed down only through the male line.
  • There were four classes in the caste system: Brahmins (priests and scholars), Kshatriyas (kings, governors, and warriors), Vaishyas (cattle herders, agriculturists,  artisans, and merchants), and Shudras (laborers and service providers). A fifth group, Untouchables, was excluded from the caste system and historically performed the undesirable work.
  • The caste system may have been more fluid in Aryan India than it is in modern-day India.

Key Terms

  • jatis: The term used to denote the thousands of clans, tribes, religions, communities and sub-communities in India.
  • varnas: The four broad ranks of the caste system in the Indo-Aryan culture, which included Brahmins (priests and scholars), Kshatriyas (kings, governors and warriors), Vaishyas (cattle herders, agriculturists, artisans, and merchants), and Shudras (laborers and service providers).

Caste systems through which social status was inherited developed independently in ancient societies all over the world, including the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The caste system in ancient India was used to establish separate classes of inhabitants based upon their social positions and employment functions in the community. These roles and their importance, including the levels of power and significance based on patriarchy, were influenced by stories of the gods in the Rig-Veda epic.


The caste system in India may have several origins, possibly starting with the well-defined social orders of the Indo-Aryans in the Vedic Period, c. 1750-500 BCE. The Vedas were ancient scriptures, written in the Sanskrit language, which contained hymns, philosophies, and rituals handed down to the priests of the Vedic religion. One of these four sacred canonical texts, the Rig-Veda, described the origins of the world and points to the gods for the origin of the caste system.

The castes were a form of social stratification in Aryan India characterized by the hereditary transmission of lifestyle, occupation, ritual status, and social status. These social distinctions may have been more fluid in ancient Aryan civilizations than in modern India, where castes still exist but sociologists are observing inter-caste marriages and interactions becoming more fluid and less rigid.


The Rig-Veda: A page of the Rig-Veda, one of the four sacred Veda texts, which described the origins of the world and the stories of the gods. The Rig-Veda influenced the development of the patriarchal society and the caste systems in Aryan India.


The classes, known as  varnas, enforced divisions in the populations that still affect this area of the world today. By around 1000 BCE, the Indo-Aryans developed four main caste distinctions: Brahamin, consisting of priests, scholars, and teachers; Kshatriyas, the kings, governors, and warriors; Vaishyas, comprising agriculturists, artisans, and merchants; and Sudras, the service providers and artisans who were originally non-Aryans but were admitted to Vedic society.

Each varna was divided into  jatis, or sub-castes, which identified the individual’s occupation and imposed marriage restrictions. Marriage was only possible between members of the same jati or two that were very close. Both varnas and jatis determined a person’s purity level. Members of higher varnas or jatis had higher purity levels, and if contaminated by members of lower social groups, even by touch, they would have to undergo extensive cleansing rites.

Development of Patriarchy

Society during the Vedic Period (c.1750-500 BCE) was patriarchal and patrilineal, meaning to trace ancestral heritage through the male line. Marriage and childbearing were especially important to maintain male lineage. The institution of marriage was important, and different types of marriages—monogamy, polygyny and polyandry are mentioned in the Rig Veda. All priests, warriors, and tribal chiefs were men, and descent was always through the male line.

In other parts of society, women had no public authority; they only were able to influence affairs within their own homes. Women were to remain subject to the guidance of males in their lives, beginning with their father, then husband, and lastly their sons. Male gods were considered more important than female gods. These distinct gender roles may have contributed to the social stratification of the caste system.

Enduring Influence

The caste system that influenced the social structure of Aryan India has been maintained to some degree into modern-day India. The caste system survived for over two millennia, becoming one of the basic features of traditional Hindu society. Although the Constitution of India, the supreme law document of the Republic of India, formally abolished the caste system in 1950, some people maintain prejudices against members of lower social classes.

The photograph shows Gandhi speaking from a train. A crowd of men is gathered around and below him.

Gandhi at Madras, 1933: Mahatma Gandhi visits Madras, now Chennai, during a tour of India in 1933. As leader of the Indian independence movement, Gandhi frequently spoke out against discrimination created by the caste system.


Vedic Sanskrit evolved to Classical Sanskrit, which has influenced modern Indian languages and is used in religious rites.

Learning Objectives

Explain the importance of Sanskrit

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Sanskrit is originated as Vedic Sanskrit as early as 1700-1200 BCE, and was orally preserved as a part of the Vedic chanting tradition.
  • The scholar  Panini  standardized Vedic Sanskrit into Classical Sanskrit when he defined the grammar, around 500 BCE.
  • Vedic Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of  Hinduism.
  • Knowledge of Sanskrit became a marker of high social class during and after the Vedic Period.

Key Terms

  • Hinduism: The dominant religion of the modern Indian subcontinent, which makes use of Sanskrit in its texts and practices.
  • Panini: The scholar who standardized the grammar of Vedic Sanskrit to create Classical Sanskrit.

Sanskrit is the primary sacred language of Hinduism, and has been used as a philosophical language in the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Sanskrit is a standardized dialect of Old Indo- Aryan, originating as Vedic Sanskrit as early as 170001200 BCE.

One of the oldest Indo-European languages for which substantial documentation exists, Sanskrit is believed to have been the general language of the greater Indian Subcontinent in ancient times. It is still used today in Hindu religious rituals, Buddhist hymns and chants, and Jain texts.


Sanskrit traces its linguistic ancestry to Proto-Indo-Iranian and ultimately to Proto-Indo-European languages, meaning that it can be traced historically back to the people who spoke Indo-Iranian, also called the Aryan languages, as well as the Indo-European languages, a family of several hundred related languages and dialects. Today, an estimated 46% of humans speak some form of Indo-European language. The most widely-spoken Indo-European languages are English, Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian, each with over 100 million speakers.


Sanskrit manuscript on palm-leaf, in Bihar or Nepal, 11th century: Sanskrit evolved from Proto-Indo-European languages and was used to write the Vedas, the Hindu religious texts compiled between 1500-500 BCE.

Vedic Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scripts, compiled c. 1500-500 BCE. The Vedas contain hymns, incantations called Samhitas, and theological and philosophical guidance for priests of the Vedic religion. Believed to be direct revelations to seers among the early Aryan people of India, the four chief collections are the Rig Veda, Sam Veda, Yajur Vedia, and Atharva Veda. (Depending on the source consulted, these are spelled, for example, either Rig Veda or Rigveda.)

Vedic Sanskrit was orally preserved as a part of the Vedic chanting tradition, predating alphabetic writing in India by several centuries. Modern linguists consider the metrical hymns of the Rigveda Samhita, the most ancient layer of text in the Vedas, to have been composed by many authors over several centuries of oral tradition.

Sanskrit Literature

Sanskrit Literature began with the spoken or sung literature of the Vedas from c. 1500 BCE, and continued with the oral tradition of the Sanskrit Epics of Iron Age India, the period after the Bronze Age began, around 1200 BCE. At approximately 1000 BCE, Vedic Sanskrit began the transition from a first language to a second language of religion and learning.

Around 500 BCE, the ancient scholar Panini standardized the grammar of Vedic Sanskrit, including 3,959 rules of syntax, semantics, and morphology (the study of words and how they are formed and relate to each other). Panini’s Astadhyayi is the most important of the surviving texts of Vyakarana, the linguistic analysis of Sanskrit, consisting of eight chapters laying out his rules and their sources. Through this standardization, Panini helped create what is now known as Classical Sanskrit.

The stamp includes an image of Panini seated on the ground, writing at a low desk.

A 2004 Indian stamp honoring Panini, the great Sanskrit grammarian: The scholar Panini standardized the grammar of Vedic Sanskrit to create Classical Sanskrit. With this standardization, Sanskrit became a language of religion and learning.

The classical period of Sanskrit literature dates to the Gupta period and the successive pre-Islamic middle kingdoms of India, spanning approximately the 3rd to 8th centuries CE. Hindu Puranas, a genre of Indian literature that includes myths and legends, fall into the period of Classical Sanskrit.

Drama as a distinct genre of Sanskrit literature emerged in the final centuries BCE, influenced partly by Vedic mythology. Famous Sanskrit dramatists include Shudraka, Bhasa, Asvaghosa, and Kalidasa; their numerous plays are still available, although little is known about the authors themselves. Kalidasa’s play, Abhijnanasakuntalam, is generally regarded as a masterpiece and was among the first Sanskrit works to be translated into English, as well as numerous other languages.

Works of Sanskrit literature, such as the Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali, which are still consulted by practitioners of yoga today, and the Upanishads, a series of sacred Hindu treatises, were translated into Arabic and Persian. Sanskrit fairy tales and fables were characterized by ethical reflections and proverbial philosophy, with a particular style making its way into Persian and Arabic literature and exerting influence over such famed tales as One Thousand and One Nights, better known in English as Arabian Nights.

Poetry was also a key feature of this period of the language. Kalidasa was the foremost Classical Sanskrit poet, with a simple but beautiful style, while later poetry shifted toward more intricate techniques including stanzas that read the same backwards and forwards, words that could be split to produce different meanings, and sophisticated metaphors.


Sanskrit is vital to Indian culture because of its extensive use in religious literature, primarily in Hinduism, and because most modern Indian languages have been directly derived from, or strongly influenced by, Sanskrit.

Knowledge of Sanskrit was a marker of social class and educational attainment in ancient India, and it was taught mainly to members of the higher castes (social groups based on birth and employment status). In the medieval era, Sanskrit continued to be spoken and written, particularly by Brahmins (the name for Hindu priests of the highest caste) for scholarly communication.

Today, Sanskrit is still used on the Indian Subcontinent. More than 3,000 Sanskrit works have been composed since India became independent in 1947, while more than 90 weekly, biweekly, and quarterly publications are published in Sanskrit. Sudharma, a daily newspaper written in Sanskrit, has been published in India since 1970. Sanskrit is used extensively in the Carnatic and Hindustani branches of classical music, and it continues to be used during worship in Hindu temples as well as in Buddhist and Jain religious practices.

Sanskrit is a major feature of the academic linguistic field of Indo-European studies, which focuses on both extinct and current Indo-European languages, and can be studied in major universities around the world.

The Vedas

The Vedas are the oldest texts of the Hindu religion and contain hymns, myths and rituals that still resonate in India today.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Vedas, meaning “knowledge,” are the oldest texts of Hinduism.
  • They are derived from the ancient Indo- Aryan culture of the Indian Subcontinent and began as an oral tradition that was passed down through generations before finally being written in Vedic Sanskrit between 1500 and 500 BCE (Before Common Era).
  • The Vedas are structured in four different collections containing hymns, poems, prayers, and religious instruction.
  • The Indian caste system is based on a fable from the Vedas about the sacrifice of the deity Purusha.

Key Terms

  • Caste System: An ancient social structure based upon one of the fables in the Vedas, castes persist in modern India.
  • Rig Veda: The oldest and most important of the four Vedas.
  • Vedas: The oldest scriptures of Hinduism, originally passed down orally but then written in Vedic Sanskrit between 1500 and 500 BCE.
  • Hinduism: A major world religion that began on the Indian Subcontinent.

The Indo-Aryan Vedas remain the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, which is considered one of the oldest religions in the world. Vedic ritualism, a composite of ancient Indo-Aryan and Harappan culture, contributed to the deities and traditions of Hinduism over time. The Vedas are split into four major texts and contain hymns, mythological accounts, poems, prayers, and formulas considered sacred to the Vedic religion.

Structure of the Vedas

Vedas, meaning “knowledge,” were written in Vedic Sanskrit between 1500 and 500 BCE in the northwestern region the Indian Subcontinent. The Vedas were transmitted orally during the course of numerous subsequent generations before finally being archived in written form. Not much is known about the authors of the Vedas, as the focus is placed on the ideas found in Vedic tradition rather than those who originated the ideas. The oldest of the texts is the Rig Veda, and while it is not possible to establish precise dates for each of the ancient texts, it is believed the collection was completed by the end of the 2nd millennium BCE (Before Common Era).

There are four Indo-Aryan Vedas: the Rig Veda contains hymns about their mythology; the Sama Veda consists mainly of hymns about religious rituals; the Yajur Veda contains instructions for religious rituals; and the Atharva Veda consists of spells against enemies, sorcerers, and diseases. (Depending on the source consulted, these are spelled, for example, either Rig Veda or Rigveda.)


Rigveda Manuscript: A manuscript copy of the Rigveda, the oldest and most important of the four Vedas of the Vedic religion, from the early 19th century.

The Rig Veda is the largest and considered the most important of the collection, containing 1,028 hymns divided into 10 books called mandalas. The verses of the Sam Veda are taken almost completely from the Rig Veda, but arranged differently so they may be chanted. The Yajur Veda is divided into the White and Black halves and contains prose commentaries on how religious and sacrifices should be performed. The Atharva Veda includes charms and magic incantations written in the style of folklore.

Each Veda was further divided in two sections: the Brahmanas, instructions for religious rituals, and the Samhitas, mantras or hymns in praise of various deities. Modern linguists consider the metrical hymns of the Rigveda Samhita, the most ancient layer of text in the Vedas, to have been composed by many authors over several centuries of oral tradition.

Although the focus of the Vedas is on the message rather than the messengers, such as Buddha or Jesus Christ in their respective religions, the Vedic religion still held gods in high regard.

Vedic Religion

The Aryan pantheon of gods is described in great detail in the Rig Veda. However, the religious practices and deities are not uniformly consistent in these sacred texts, probably because the Aryans themselves were not a homogenous group. While spreading through the Indian Subcontinent, it is probable that their initial religious beliefs and practices were shaped by the absorption of local religious traditions.

According to the hymns of the Rig Veda, the most important deities were Agni, the god of Fire, intermediary between the gods and humans; Indra, the god of Heavens and War, protector of the Aryans against their enemies; Surya, the Sun god; Vayu, the god of Wind; and Prthivi, the goddess of Earth


Agni, God of Fire: Agni, the Indian God of Fire from the ancient Vedic religion, shown riding a ram.

Vedas and Castes

The Caste System, or groups based on birth or employment status, has been part of the social fabric of the Indian Subcontinent since ancient times. The castes are thought to have derived from a hymn found in the Vedas to the deity Purusha, who is believed to have been sacrificed by the other gods. Afterward Purusha’s mind became the Moon, his eyes became the Sun, his head the Sky, and his feet the Earth.

The passage describing the classes of people derived from the sacrifice of Purusha is the first indication of a caste system. The Brahmins, or priests, came from Purusha’s mouth; the Kshatriyas, or warrior rulers, came from Purusha’s arms; the Vaishyas, or commoners such as landowners and merchants, came from Purusha’s thighs; and the Shudras, or laborers and servants, came from Purusha’s feet.

Today the castes still exist in the form of varna, or class system, based on the original four castes described in the Vedas. A fifth group known as Dalits, historically excluded from the varna system, are ostracized and called
untouchables. The caste system as it exists today is thought to be a product of developments following the collapse of British colonial rule in India. The system is frowned upon by many people in Indian society and was a focus of social justice campaigns during the 20th century by prominent progressive activists such as B. R. Ambedkar, an architect of the Indian Constitution, and Mahatma Gandhi, the revered leader of the nonviolent Indian independence movement.


Gandhi at Madras, 1933: Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi visits Madras, now Chennai, on a tour of India in 1933. During his appearances Gandhi frequently spoke out against the discrimination of the Indian caste system.