As the mind's eye travels backwards across the wide plains of Northern India, attempting to re-people it with the men of olden time, historical insight fails us at about the seventh century B.C. From that date to our own time the written Word steps in to pin protean legend down to inalterable form.
And yet before this seventh century there is no lack of evidence. The Word is still there, though, at the time, it lived only in the mouths of the people or of the priesthood. Even if we go so far back as B.C. 2000, the voices of men who have lived and died are still to be heard in the earlier hymns of the Rig-Veda.
And before that?
Who knows? The imaginative eye, looking out over the vast sea of young green wheat which in many parts of the Punjâb floods unbroken to the very foot of the hills, may gain from it an idea of the wide ocean whose tide undoubtedly once broke on the shores of the Himalayas.
The same eye may follow in fancy the gradual subsidence of that sea, the gradual deposit of sand, and loam brought by the great rivers from the high lands of Central Asia. It may rebuild the primeval huts of the first inhabitants of the new continent--those first invaders of the swampy haunts of crocodile and strange lizard-like beasts--but it has positively no data on which to work. The first record of a human word is to be found in the earliest hymn of the Aryan settlers when they streamed down into the Punjâb. When?
Even that is beyond proof. The consensus of opinion amongst learned men, however, gives the Vedic period--that is to say, the period during which the hymns of the Rig-Veda were composed--as approximately the years between B.C. 2000 and B.C. 1400.
But these same hymns tell us incidentally of a time before that. It is not only that these Aryan invaders were themselves in a state of civilisation which necessarily implies long centuries of culture, of separation from barbarian man; but besides this, they found a people in India civilised enough to have towns and disciplined troops, to have weapons and banners; women whose ornaments were of gold, poisoned arrows whose heads were of some metal that was probably iron.
All this, and much more, is to be gathered in the Rig-Veda concerning the Dâsyas or aboriginal inhabitants of India. Naturally enough, as inevitable foes, they are everywhere mentioned with abhorrence, and we are left with the impression of a "tawny race who utter fearful yells."
Who, then, were these people?
Are we to treat the monotonous singing voice which even now echoes out over the length and breadth of India, as in the sunsetting some Brahman recites the ancient hymns--are we to treat this as the first trace of Ancient India? Or, as we sit listening, are we to watch the distant horizon, so purple against the gold of the sky, and wonder if it is only our own unseeing eyes which prevent our tracing the low curve that may mark the site of a town, ancient when the Aryans swept it into nothingness?
"The fiction which resembles truth," said the Persian poet Nizâmi in the year 1250, "is better than the truth which is dissevered from the imagination"; so let us bring something of the latter quality into our answer.
Certain it is that for long centuries the reddish or tawny Dâsyas managed to resist the white-skinned Aryas, so that even as late as the period of that great epic, the Mâhâbhârata--that is, some thousand years later than the earliest voice which speaks in the Vedic hymns--the struggle was still going on. At least in those days the Aryan Pandâvas of whom we read in that poem appear to have dispossessed an aboriginal dynasty from the throne of Magadha. This dynasty belonged to the mysterious Nâga or Serpent race, which finally blocks the way in so many avenues of Indian research. They are not merely legendary; they cross the path of reality now and again, as when Alexander's invasion of India found some satrapies still held by Serpent-kings.
It is impossible, therefore, to avoid wondering whether the Aryans really found the rich plains of India a howling wilderness peopled by savages close in culture to the brutes, or whether, in parts of the vast continent at least, they found themselves pitted against another invading race, a Scythic race hailing from the north-east as the Aryan hails from north-west?
There is evidence even in the voice of the Rig-Veda for this. To begin with, there is the evidence of colour--colour which was hereafter to take form as caste. We have mention not of two, but of three divergent complexions. First, the "white-complexioned friends of Indra," who are palpably the Aryans; next, "the enemy who is flayed of his black skin"; and lastly, "those reddish in appearance, who utter fearful yells."
It seems, to say the least of it, unlikely that a single aboriginal race should be described in two such curiously different ways.
As for the fearful yells, that is palpably but another way of asserting that the utterers spoke a language which was not understood of the invaders. "Du'ye think th' Almighty would be understandin' siccan gibberish," said the old Scotch lady when, during the Napoleonic war, she was reminded that maybe many a French mother was praying as fervently for victory as she was herself. The same spirit breathes in many a Vedic hymn in which the Dâsyas are spoken of as barely human. "They are not men." "They do not perform sacrifices." "They do not believe in anything." These are the plaints which precede the ever-recurring prayer--"Oh! Destroyer of foes! Kill them!" And worse even than this comes the great cause of conflict--"Their rites are different."
So the story is told. These Dâsyas, "born to be cut in twain," have yet the audacity to have different dogma, conflicting canons of the law. Even in those early days religion was the great unfailing cause of strife.
These same hymns of the Rig-Veda, however, give us but scant information of the foes who are called generally Dâsyas, or "robbers." But here again divergence creeps in. It is impossible to class "the wealthy barbarian," the "neglecters of sacrifices," who, "decorated with gold and jewels," were "spreading over the circuit of the earth," whose "iron cities" were to be destroyed, who were to be "slain whether weeping or laughing, whether hand to hand or on horseback, whether arrayed in hosts or aided by missile-hurling heroes"--it is impossible, surely, to class these enemies with the mere robber brutes of whom it is written that they "were slain, and the kine made manifest."
Were then these tawny-hued foes, with the mention of whom wealth is invariably associated, in reality the ancestors of the treasure-holding Takshaks or Nâgas, that strange Snake race of which we read in the Mâhâbhârata, and of which we hear again during the invasion of Alexander?
At least there is nothing to prevent us dreaming that this is so; and while we listen to the voice of some Brahman chanting at sunset-time the oldest hymns in the world, there is nothing to hinder us from trying to imagine how strangely these must have fallen on the ears of the "neglecters of sacrifices, the dwellers in cities, rich in gold and beautiful women," of whom we catch a passing glimpse as the stately Sanskrit rhythm rolls on.
The sun sets, the voice ceases, and the far-away past is no nearer and no further from us than the present.