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The Aryans in the Indus Valley: Texts, Castes & Beliefs

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  • 0:02 A New People
  • 1:14 The Caste System
  • 3:28 Aryan Texts & Religion
  • 5:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the Aryans of the Indus Valley. We will learn about their arrival in the valley, their social customs, their major texts, and their religious beliefs.

A New People

As 1500 BCE approached, the old Indus Valley Civilization was almost gone. It had been declining for quite some time, perhaps because of a flood or a drought or an earthquake. No one really knows what happened, but the time was ripe for a new people to take over the Indus Valley and, in fact, there was a group already poised to do just that. They were called the Aryans.

The Aryans probably came from central Asia. They had been steadily crossing the Khyber Pass in the Hindu Kush Mountains for many years and settling in the Indus Valley, mixing with the local population. Although they had been nomadic herders and warriors for a long time, they were ready to settle down to farming and they appreciated the relatively steady food and water supply they found in the valley.

By 1000 BCE, the Aryans were fully in charge of the region and had expanded their control over a wide area. Although the Aryans didn't build cities or create great works of art, they left two legacies that greatly influence life in India even today: the caste system and the Hindu religion.

The Caste System

The Aryans developed a hierarchical society that sorted people into social groups called varnas or castes. A person entered the varna of his or her family at birth and stayed there for life, marrying only within the varna, practicing only the professions open to the varna, and maintaining the level of ritual purity required by the varna.

There were four primary varnas:

1. The Brahmans - As the highest varna, the Brahmans had the roles of priests, philosophers, and scholars. They followed strict rules for perfect ritual purity and spent much of their lives studying and teaching religion.

2. The Kshatriyas - This was the ruling and warrior varna, made up of kings, generals, soldiers, and their families. The whole society counted on them for guidance and protection, and they were expected to learn religion from the Brahmans and maintain high standards of ritual purity.

3. The Vaishyas - This was a practical varna composed of craftspeople, traders, merchants, and farmers. They had the important jobs of growing food and keeping the society's economy running smoothly.

4. The Shudras - Unlike the other three varnas, the Shudras were not Aryan by blood. Therefore, they were the servants and laborers for the Brahmans, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas.

As time went on, one more class of people developed to complete the caste system. This class was the lowest of the low, made up of people who had violated the rules of the varnas and become ritually unclean, along with their families. Untouchables or Harijans were the outcasts of society. They were regulated to the lowest jobs, things that no one else wanted to do, like picking up dead bodies, leather work, and sanitation. They were not allowed to interact with the members of the four varnas and, tragically, they could not even practice their religion.

Aryan Texts and Religion

Religion was central to Aryan culture. In fact, Aryan religious practices merged with the customs of people already living in the valley to form the basis for Hinduism, which remains one of India's primary religions to the modern day.

The Aryans, taught and guided by the Brahmans, worshiped numerous gods, including gods of fire, sun, wind, storms, sky, night, war, law, earth, and plants. They offered sacrifices to these gods, practiced elaborate rituals, and were careful to remain as ritually pure as possible, according to the level required by their varnas.

The Aryan religion was based primarily on ancient texts called the Vedas, which recorded and described religious practices, beliefs, and philosophies. The word 'Veda' means vision, wisdom, and knowledge, and the Aryans believed that the Vedas were direct messages from the gods made accessible in human language. There are four Vedas, all of which are written in the Sanskrit language:

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