Inhabitants of Ancient India

Ancient India was inhabited by various groups of people of which the Asuras (Daityas, Danavas), Dasa/Dasyu, Dravidians, Gandharvas, Manavas (Devas), Nagas, Nisadhas, Panis, Vanaras, Vratyas and Yakshas (Rakshasas) were conspicuous. All of them were human beings and most of them claim descent from mythical Rishis. The Asuras, Manavas (Devas) and Nagas were descendants from Rishi Marichi, while the Vanaras, Yakshas (Rakshasas) were descendants from Rishi Pulastya.

In ancient India numerous dialects of three distinct families of speech were spoken; namely Sanskrit, Dravidian and Munda languages. While Sanskrit was spoken in north India, Dravidian in south India and Munda in Chota Nagpur plateau and adjoining hills and jungles. Sanskrit language first gave birth to literature followed by the Dravidian language thousand years later while the Munda dialects never gave birth to a literature. Hence the only source of information about ancient India can be gleaned only from the Sanskrit literature. A brief account of the various communities who lived in ancient India is documented below.

Asuras– The Danavas born to Kasyapa of his wife Danu and the Daityas born to Kasyapa of another wife Diti were called as Asuras by the Manavas. Vrtra, Hiranyakashipu, Prahlada, Bali, Virocana, Namuci and Puloma were some of the renowned Asuras. In the earliest hymns of the Rigveda the term Asura is used to denote the Supreme Spirit and applied to Indra, Agni and Varuna. Later it acquired an entirely opposite meaning and came to signify a demon or enemy of the Devas (Manavas). The Asuras enjoyed a monarchical form of government. The Asuras had originally a king and the Devas had none and this was the reason for the Devas to be defeated in every battle field. The Asuras seems to have possessed their own institution of priesthood and the Bhrgus acted as the priests of the Asuras. The Asuras are described as great maritime people and knew the science of engineering, sculpture and architecture. The Asura Maya is supposed to be their greatest exponent on the art of building. According to Malati Shendge, it was from the Asuras that the Devas borrowed the basic idea of fire worship and modified it into an elaborate sacrificial system. The fundamental difference between the rites of the Asuras and the Devas seems to centre on the not throwing and throwing anything in the fire. The Devas used to throw meat and other items into the fire. The conflict between the Asuras and Manavas (Devas) centred round fortresses, cows, gold and glory which together constituted Svarga i.e. suvarga, a good state or class. The Asuras were Puritans and teetotallers (who abstained from drinking Sura). The enmity between the Devas and the Asuras according to N.K.Venkatesam Pantulu was due to their different outlooks in life. The Asuras aimed at material pleasure and power while the Devas aimed at spiritual perfection through Vedic karmas.

Dasa/Dasyu– The word Arya, Dasa and Dasyu refer not to race but to cult. Arya meant a worshiper of Indra and Agni and Dasa or Dasyu meant those who were opposed to Indra-Agni cult (yajna). There was no cultural difference between them. The Dasas and Dasyus are called akarman (rite-less), not offering sacrifices and worshiper of phallus (Linga) as Gods. They offered buffaloes and goats in honour of their gods. The Dasas were probably sailors and fishermen who participated in the overseas trade of highly priced luxurious and other goods and also in fish trade. They were wealthy and owned property and lived in castles and cities. Some of the Dasa/Dasyu spoke Dravidian or Munda dialects. The Rigveda bears testimony to the fact that the civilization of the Dasyus was far advanced than that of the Manavas. Shambara the king of Dasyus was the ruler of 100 cities. Other important Dasyu kings were Dhuni, Cumuri, Pipru and Varcas. Among the important Dasyu tribes were the Shimyus, the Kikatas, the Shigrus and the Yakshus. It is assumed that they were Dravidians. According to P. T. Srinivasa Iyengar the Dasyu were the originators of the Saindhava culture now called the Indus Valley Civilization and the practice of Yoga was a Dasyu institution which persisted during the Vedic period and again rose to prominence in the Agama period.

Dravidians– In ancient times the whole of south India was known by the name Tamilaka as all languages used in south India was given the name Tamil. Gradually the word Tamil changed to Dami Damid Dramid Dravid and finally to Dravida. Sanskrit works including the Puranas claim the Pandyas, Karnatas, Cholas and Keralas to be descendant of Dushyanta, the adopted son of Turvasu who was appointed by Yayati to rule over south-east India. Manu says that the Dravidians were once been Kshatriyas who became sudras from the extinction of sacred rites and the absence of Brahmanas. But If the Dravidian languages be of a stock altogether distinct from Sanskrit, it follows at least as a prime facie inference that the races which originally spoke these two classes of languages must also have been distinct from one another in their descent and could not have belonged to the same branch of human race. Scholars also speak of the foreign origin of the Dravidians who is said to have entered India from the Mediterranean region through Persian Gulf and Baluchistan. Rejecting the foreign origin of Dravidians P. T. Srinivasa Iyengar says that first of all India was a fertile country and must have supported a teeming population in ancient times. It could not have been a vacuum waiting to be populated by foreigners. Neolithic culture began in India about 20,000 years ago and was widespread in all Indian river valleys. The wide occurrence of Neolithic tools in several district of south India proves that the country was fairly populated in that age. All old Tamil works speaks nothing of cold regions, vine or fig growing Chaldean regions. Animals like elephant, tiger, birds like peacock mentioned in these texts are not indigenous to any country outside India. We know adventurous Tamils founded trading settlements in Java and Burma. In a similar way some gallant sailors founded settlements in Mediterranean and Arabian seas. P. T. Srinivasa Iyengar believes that the Dravidian culture went beyond the countries of India possibly by sea and settled in ancient Assyria as the Sumerian culture. Hence, we find similar facial features between the present-day Tamils and ancient Sumerians. The Dravidians were highly civilized, raised various kinds of crops, had expertise in industrial arts, traded with foreign countries and lived in cities under kings. They were rich, possessed horses, cows, owned palaces, castles and jewels. They had a highly developed languages of their own and worshiped Shiva.

Gandharvas– According to Vishnu Purana the Gandharvas were the sons of Brahma. In another place in the same Purana it mentions that the Gandharvas were the offspring of Kasyapa and Arishta. It is said that they defeated the Nagas and usurped their kingdom. The cities of the Gandharvas who were inhabiting the Himalaya region around the Uttara Kuru are referred to as magnificent. The Aitareya Brahmana mentions Nagnajit a king of Gandhara among the Vedic teachers who propaged the Soma-cult. The drink Soma was originally brought by Varuna probably from the land of Gandharvas. In mythology the Gandharvapsaras belong to the world of Devas as their musicians. The Gandharvas obtained the status of the divine musicians having made the gift of Soma to the Devas. In Ramayana the limits of the country of the Gandharvas (Gandharvas Visaya) is described as the country on both sides of the Indus and which is protected by the Gandharvas who are armed and are well versed in the use of arms. They were subdued by Bharata’s sons, Taksha and Pushkala who ruled over Takshasila and Pushkalavati, twin cities founded after the destruction of Gandharvanagara. Ramayana points to the region in Afghanistan and also in Punjab as the abode of Gandharvas. It is mentioned in the Puranas that a certain Gandhara was born in the family of Druhyu one of the sons of Yayati and the kingdom of Gandhara was named after him.

Manavas– According to the Mahabharata the descendants of Manu are called Manavas. They were the descendants from sage Kasyapa and Adithi. The Manavas were followers of the Vedic cult wherein lighting of the sacred fire accompanied by recitation of hymns and drinking of Soma juice was an important rite. The lighting of sacred fire shows that it probably developed in a very cold place in the Himalayan region where the Soma plant was also grown. The Vedic cult was represented by the rishi clans who came to seek their fortunes in small numbers more or less as missionary of the cult of Indra, Varuna and other gods of nature and settled in peace under the protection of the Manava rulers who readily appreciated their great merit as sorcerers and employed them to secure the assistance of their gods against their human and non-human enemies by offering sacrifices and recitation of hymns in the Chandas dialect called Devabhasha. As the Vedic cult could be followed by the privileged class like the kings, priests and nobles it was also called the Arya cult. All-important dynasties which ruled in ancient India belonged to the Manava tribe.

Nagas– According to the Nilamata Purana, the place Kashmir was originally a lake where the Nagas lived with their king Nila. The tribe was called Nagas as they had serpent as their emblem (Lancchana). The Nagas were devotees of Lord Shiva and supported both the Devas (Manavas) and Asuras depending upon their relations with them. Sesha and Vasuki Nagas were the allies of Vishnu (Devas). Some of the Naga girls married the Manavas; Purukutsa son of Mandhata married Narmada a Naga girl and Kusa son of Sri Rama married a Naga princess Kumudvati. The hero of Mahabharata, Arjuna had married Ulupi. There were many Naga rishis who were seers of Vedic mantras like Arbudkadraveya Naga (R.V. 10/94), Jatakaruatrwata (R.V. 10/76) and Sarprajni (R.V. 10/183). Kanakasabhai Pillai opines that the Nagas ruled over the whole of India down to the 6th century B.C. including Ceylon which was called Nagadvipa. In Buddhist tradition Naga means ‘noble in character’ and inscriptions shows that as late as the 11th century A.D. it was an honour for kings to claim Naga descent. The Nagas were known for their excellent beauty and culture. During historic times the Nagas ruled at Mathura, Padmavati and as minor kings in central India and issued coins.

Nisadas– The Nisadas are referred to for the first time in the later Samhitas and the Brahmanas. According to epics and Puranic traditions Nisadas are said to have sprung from the primeval king Prthu, son of Vena. The tribe seems to have derived its name from Nisadha who is described in the Puranas to have been the son of Athithi, grandson of Kusha and father of Nala. The Smritis explain Nishaadas as the offspring of a Brahmana father and a sudra mother. The Raudra sacrifices celebrated by the Nishada chiefs were officiated by the Arya priests. During the Ramayana period Guha was the chieftain of the Nisadas and his capital city was Shringi Berapura. According to the Mahabharatha, the capital of the Nisadas was Giriprastha and the Purana locate them in the upper and lower region of the Vindhya mountains. In the Mahabharatha war the Nisadas allied themselves with the Pandavas.

Panis– Another important group living in ancient India were the Panis who probably were a Dravidian language speaking trading tribe. They were businessmen, very wealthy and carried on commerce on land and sea far and wide. They did not worship Indra nor did they give any offerings in his honour. If the Panis lent money to the Devas, they (Panis) earned their favour otherwise they earned they wrath and were condemned as niggardly or miserly Asuras. Bribu a Pani chief is praised for his generosity and gifts to rishis. This shows that a compromise was affected between such of the Panis who remained in the country. The Panis left Punjab and settled on the Coromandel and Malabar coast as the latter suppled them with materials for ship buildings. The Panis were master craftsmen who built boats and vessels through which they visited the coasts of Persian Gulf, Baluchistan, Arabia and coastal ports of the Red Sea. The Panis were closely associated with the Asuras. As the moneyed class is generally physically weak, the Panis lost to the Manavas in the power struggle and being vanquished were assigned the status of Dasas (servants). The Panis knew the art of composition and writing and were called grathins.

Vanaras– The word Vanar originally meant ‘the dweller of the Vana (forest)’. The Jaina Ramayana calls the Vanaras as Vanaradhwajas or people having a monkey flag as they had monkey as their totem or emblem. Valmiki refers to three type of people during the Ramayana period, namely Manavas, Vanaras and Rakshasas; who were all highly civilised. The political, religious and social organisations of the Vanaras were of the same pattern as those of the Manavas. The Vanaras led a simple life and were strict vegetarians. A purely vegetarian diet is an indication of their spiritual progress and advanced culture. The Vanaras believed in the principle ‘Live and to Let Live’ and did not involve in conquest of territories belonging to other people. They fought only in self-defence. The Vanaras were akin to the Rakshasas, both being descendants of Pulastya. In Ramayana for this reason perhaps Ravana and Sugriva are spoken of as brothers or at least as of the same family. They had Kishkindha as the seat of their kingdom. They were closely allied to the Shabaras. Some of the famous Vanaras were Hanuman, Sugriva, Vali and Nala.

Vratyas– According to A.P.Karmakar the cult of Vratyas was the earliest institutions of Dravidians pervading through the whole of India before the arrival of the Arya cult. References from Mahabharata and Brahmananda Purana clearly establish the fact that the population of Punjab, the Andhakas, the Vrsnis, the Cholas, the Mahisikas and other tribes were designated as Vratyas. The Atharva Veda describes the Eka Vratya as the Supreme of the Universe, an ascetic, practicing Yoga, drinking Sura and his various manifestation were Bhava, Sarva, Ugra, Pasupati, Rudra and Mahadeva. The Vratyas were a nomadic tribe who never studied the Vedas or performed sacrifices, nor ploughed the land nor traded. Their language resembled Prakrit and Sutras mention Arhant and Yaudhas among the Vratyas corresponding respectively to Brahmanas and Kshatriyas. The population of Magadha were regarded as Vratyas and Magadha was recognized as the chief centre of Vratya culture. A Vratya was admitted to the Brahmanical fold after performing a rite called Vratyastoma. According to P. T. Srinivasa Iyengar Vratyas were wandering ascetic similar to the sadhus of today and were probably Dasyu sanyasis. The Shiva Yogis mentioned in the Chola inscription dated 2nd century A.D. were the direct spiritual descendants of these Vratyas who worshiped Shiva.

Yaksas/Rakshasas– The designation Yaksa was originally synonymous with Deva or Devata and even Buddha is occasionally spoken as a Yaksa. The Yaksas were non-Vedic benevolent deities of wealth and fertility. The Yaksas along with Gandharvas, Pishacas and Kinnaras are called upadevas. According to Agni Purana the Yaksas were born from Muni, the granddaughter of Kashyapa. Mahabharata Adi parva says that Yaksas were the progeny of sage Pulastya’s son Vishravas. Kubera was their king and his brother was Ravana, the famous ruler of Lanka. So long as the Yaksas helped the Manavas (Devas) against the Asuras they were called the Yaksas or Rakshak (protector). But when the empire of the Asuras fell and the Yaksas became the rivals of the Manavas, they were called Rakshasas. The Yaksas/Rakshasas were a civilized people with cities and forts, palaces and parks, dancing halls and theatres, stables and chariot houses. They used to offer their morning prayers and their priests were skilled in rites and rituals and knew the Vedas and their six angas. The Rakshasas were performers of elaborate yagas and were attached to the ancient Shiva cult. They had the knowledge of asthras (spiritual weapons). The Yaksas/Rakshasas were good businessmen and were very rich and inhabited the region extending from Janasthana, which may be placed somewhere in the delta of the river Godavari to Lanka or Ceylon. Some of the important Rakshasas were Illval, Vatapi, Maya, Shumbar, Kubera and Ravana. In Indian tradition the Rakshasas were known as Brahmarakshasas as they used to disturb the ceremonies and sacrifices of the Manavas. The conflict between the Manavas and the Rakshasas have been wrongly termed as the conflict between Aryans and Dravidians. If north India favoured Manavas as their rulers, south India favoured Rakshasas as their rulers. The people took sides with their rulers and hence it is not a conflict between north and south Indians.


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