Were they the world’s first cattle-rustlers and cowboys? The historian Wendy Doniger thinks they were.
I am currently reading her “The Hindus : An Alternative History” by Wendy Doniger, Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago. It’s a fascinating 690 page tome that purports to cover the history of India from 50 million BCE to the current.
There is much we don’t know, though. Consider the Aryans, the people who came after the Indus Valley Civilization. Wendy calls them the “Vedic people” to avoid the Nazi/ racial connotations that the word “Aryan” has acquired over the years. Here are the various theories she says historians have about the Aryans/ Vedic people:
1. They invaded India from Central Asia;
2. They peacefully migrated from Central Asia;
3. They were always resident in Punjab, and actually migrated outwards to Iran, Anatolia, Greece, Italy and ancient Britain.
4. The Vedic people lived in the Indus Valley.
You can see they have managed to cover all possibilities – clearly Wendy and other historians really don’t know much about who the Aryans/ Vedic people were and where they came from. That is understandable – we are, after all, talking about around 1700 BCE. But what I find puzzling is that Doniger then confdently goes on to assert that the Aryans/ Vedic people (whoever they were) were in fact cattle thieves.
She says in Page 111 :
As nomadic tribes, the Vedic people sought fresh pastureland for their cattle and horses. As pastoralists and, later, agriculturists, herders and farmers, they lived in rural communities. Like most of the Indo-Europeans, the Vedic people were cattle herders and cattle rustlers who went about stealing other people’s cows and pretending to be taking them back. One story goes that the Panis, tribal people who were the enemies of the Vedic people, had stolen cows from certain Vedic sages and hidden them in mountain caves. The gods sent the bitch Sarama to follow the trail of the cows; she found the hiding place, bandied words with the Panis, resisted their attempts first to threaten her and then to bribe her, and brought home the cows (10.108).
The Vedic people, in this habit (as well as their fondness for gambling), resembled the cowboys of the nineteenth century American West, riding over other people’s land and stealing their cattle.
Now, all I can see from the above story is that the Aryans/ Vedic people were cattle herders and that sometimes other people stole their cattle. Clearly, you’d think, this story cannot be the basis for Wendy’s cattle-stealer theory, even though she mystifyingly includes it here. But apparently it is.
When I searched online on what other historians think about the cattle-stealing myth, I found that the whole story is really a symbolic one, as a lot of things in the Vedas are.
This post has a detailed explanation of the various symbolisms involved – for instance, one explanation is that the PaNis are the demons of darkness, stealing the rays of light and hiding them away at night, and SaramA, the Dawn, recovering them in the morning, as a matter of daily routine. In his essay “The Legend of the Lost Cows in the Rg Veda” Dr. Gopalan R. Shastri explains that in the Vedas, the Sanskrit word go means both “cow” and “light” and the “finding and recovery of the lost cows means the finding of Surya, the finding or conquest of the Swar Loka, the abode of Surya”.
The American philosopher and historian John Fiske writes in the Atlantic Monthly (Vol 48) that “the struggle is not for a herd of perishable cattle, but for dominion of the universe”. He says “these celestial cattle, with their resplendent coats of purple and gold, are the clouds lit up by the solar rays; and the demon who hides them in the cavernous rock is the fiend of darkness..”
I am baffled as to why Wendy, who holds a doctorate in Sanskrit, first chooses to take the literal meaning when she must surely understand the symbolism involved, and second, why she does not even mention the alternate interpretation of the text that many historians believe.
Instead, she goes on to talk about the “scornful attitude of these Ancient Indian cowboys… towards the “barbarians” (Dasyus or Dasis) whose lands they rode over (adding insult to injury by calling them cattle thieves).” From there, she goes on to compare the Aryans’ treatment of the Dasyus to the American cowboys’ treatment of the Navajos, and more in the same vein.
I find it exceedingly hard to believe that the sages who wrote the Rig Veda could be cattle thieves. But they certainly were cattle herders, and they had horses. So I am now stuck with this mental picture of a priest in white robes galloping across the vast plains of Punjab on a horse, white robe flying in one direction in the wind, tufted hair flying in another.
The priest is from Sanjay’s Flickr stream. The photoshopping is mine.