[INDOLOGY] INDOLOGY Digest, Vol 45, Issue 13

Koenraad Elst koenraadelst at hotmail.com
Fri Oct 14 18:37:11 UTC 2016

Dear listfolk,

Hearty thanks for the EJVS paper on the Battle of the Ten Kings, indeed the major historical event in the RV.


Unfortuately, those who know the hymns concerned readily see a few wrong assumptions, clearly necessitated by the prior assumption of the Aryan Invasion, or at least of the relatedness of this event with the Invasion (for these two are really separate, e.g. the Boer War was not a war against the indigenous people but a war between two different colonizers). The primary text does not say that Sudas went West to East, on the contrary, in two separate sentences and in two different ways, it is said that Sudas had to ward off an attack from the West. Anyway, I reproduce the relevant passage from a paper of mine on Vasishtha, in the process f being published:

4. The Battle of the Ten Kings

The single most important historical event mentioned in the Ṛg-Veda is the Battle of the Ten Kings. It is the topic of hymns RV 7:18/33/83, and a number of allusions elsewhere, both by  Vasiṣṭha and by other seers. It is a battle between the Āryas (meaning the Pauravas, the seer’s own tribe) and the Dāsa coalition of ten clans, led by Kavi and Bheda.

4.1. History of the battle

The coalition comes from the west, from the basin of the Asiknī river, the present-day Chenab, to attack Sudās on the riverside of the Paruṣṇī, the present-day Ravi (7:18:8-9), both in Pakistani Panjab. The word “attack” does not really imply that the coalition was the aggressor, though the Vedic people saw it that way. It may just as well have been a tactical counteroffensive within a war in which Sudās himself was the main aggressor. Our knowledge of this conflict is just too sketchy and moreover based on a partisan source.

The tactical moves mainly pertain to the military use of the river: it seems that, when the coalition surrounded Sudās’s army, the latter escaped by fording the river (“Indra made the river shallow and easy for Sudās to traverse”, RV 7:18:5, “fordable Paruṣṇī”, RV 7:18:8), that the coalition fell into disarray while trying to cross the river, that some soldiers drowned while others were overtaken in hot pursuit. Their leader Kavaṣa drowns, along with Druhyu (RV 7:18:12). Kavi “dies” (RV 7:18:8), Bheda first escapes but later gets killed (RV 7:18:18-19), and one Devata is also killed (RV 7:18:20). Both the legitimate enemy and Sudās’s tribesmen siding with the enemy were defeated: “Ye smote and slew his Dāsa and his Ārya enemies and helped Sudās with favour, Indra-Varuṇa.” (RV 7:83:1)

At any rate, the outcome of the battle is a clear victory, for the enemies are killed, dispersed or thrown back to the west, to the Asiknī basin: “Agni chased these Dasyus in the east and turned the godless westward” (RV 7:6:3). They leave their possessions behind and (part of) their land is occupied to become part of the Paurava domain.

4.2. Who were the enemies?

The Vedic text gives quite a bit of detail about the enemy coalition. The ethnic identity of the enemies, often treated as a mystery (if not filled in as “obviously the black aboriginals”), is in fact crystal-clear.

Sudās, the Tṛtsu, defeats the Pauravas’ northwestern neighbor among the five tribes, the Ānavas: “The goods of Anu’s son he gave to Tṛtsu.” (RV 7:18:13) In the next verse, the Ānavas are mentioned again, together with what remained of the Druhyu tribe, as having been “put to sleep”. The enemies include Kavi and Kavaṣa, the enemy tribes Pṛśu, Pṛthu, Paktha, Bhalana (RV 7:18:7) are collectively known as Dāsa, some of them as Paṇi (lambasted already in 7:6:3), and their priests as Dasyu. Practically all the names of enemy tribes or enemy leaders are Iranian or pertain to tribes known from Greco-Roman sources as Iranian: Kavi, the name of the Iranian dynasty still featuring in Zarathuštra’s Gāthās (e.g. Gāthā 51:16, Insler 1975:107); Kavaśa/Kaoša; Dāsa/Dahae; Dasyu/Danghyu; Paṇi/Parnoi; Ānava/Anaoi; Parśu/Persoi; Pṛthu/Parthoi; Paktha/Paštu; Bhalāna/Baluc/Bolān.

A few are not, at least at first sight, and it is after all a heterogeneous coalition. But names like Bheda, while not conspicuously Iranian, are not recognizably Dravidian or Munda either, and none of these names is.

On the same pattern, we later get the theological contrast between Asura and Ahura. The first seers including Vasiṣṭha still use the word in a positive sense, as “lord” or “powerful one”: one of his hymns for Agni starts out as “praise of the Asura” (RV 7:6:1), and he calls Agni again “the Asura” (RV 7:30:3), while Indra provides asurya, “lordliness”, “manliness” (RV 7:21:7). Yet, he also calls Agni the “Asura-slayer” (RV 7:13.1): this could be neutral, meaning “even mightier than the mighty ones”, but it could also signal the shift from positive to negative.

In the later hymns and in Hindu literature ever since, Asura has served as the usual term for “agent of evil”, “demon”, but still with a dignified status and an unmistakable dexterity, in distinction from the lowly Rākṣasās. In Buddhism too, Asuras are associated with powerful quasi-human emotions, especially jealousy of the gods, but do not inhabit one of the hells where the Hungry Ghosts and other lowly creatures dwell (Krishna 2014:60-61). Conversely, in the Iranian tradition they retain their divine status and it is the Deva/Daēvas who got demonized.

Note also that unlike the term Asura, the term Dāsa had already acquired a negative connotation before the battle. It had been used for Śambara, a proverbial enemy slain by the Vedic king Divodāsa (RV 6:26:5 and 6:47:21, also mentioned as his defeated foe in 6:43:1 and 9:61:2). Yet, originally the term did have a neutral or positive meaning, as is clear enough from its use in the names Divodāsa  and Sudās.

Though this is clear enough, Iranologists generally keep labouring under the notion that early Avestan history is a mystery. By contrast, Parsi scholars candidly link the Battle of the Ten Kings (and the subsequent Vārṣāgira Battle, sung esp. in RV 1:100) to early Avestan history (Hodiwala 1913:12-16). Others create a confused picture, theorizing e.g. that the Vedic tribe consisted of Aryan invaders penetrating India eastwards, and that the Dāsas were either aboriginals or earlier invaders resisting the western newcomers.

Thus, Dāsas and Dasyus were “people and cultures either indigenous to South Asia or already in South Asia – from wherever or whenever they may have come – when the carriers of Rgvedic culture and religion moved into and through the northwest of the subcontinent” (Jamison & Brereton 2014:56). The thrust of Sudās’s Vedic Aryans was towards: “the region to the east (…), the Gaṅgā-Yamunā Doab to which the Bharatas advanced (…) In this country of the Dāsas and Asuras”. (Pradhan 2014:188)

Yet, nothing in the text supports this idea that the Vedic people came from the west and the Dāsas from the east, or that the Dāsas mentioned lived across the Yamuna, or that the Vedic people were intruders while the Dāsas were the established population, or that the Aryans even outside the context of this battle were on the move from west to east. On the contrary, twice and in two different ways, the source text says it is the Dāsas and Dasyus who came from the west. It says that they have come to the “east” for a fight and that these “godless ones” are turned back “westward” (7:6:3); and it has them come from the westerly Asiknī/Chenab river valley to challenge and fight Sudās on the shores of the easterly Paruṣṇī/Ravi. That doesn’t mean they were intruders into India, though: it is a big country, and it is most unlikely that any of the warring parties identified with India as a whole (as opposed to their own slice of it) as “their” country.

Even Pradhan, who hurries to toe the orthodox line, breaks ranks with his Western mentors by accepting as simply obvious the Iranian identity of the Ten Kings, e.g.: “their Indo-Iranian past gave the Dāsas the institution of sacrifice” (Pradhan 2014:124), “their Aryan antecedents become clear from the Avestā and the Greek historians’ notices of the Dahae and the Parnoi” (Pradhan 2014:132). He silently passes over the improbable implication that this would put the Iranians where he had earlier located the Ten Kings, viz. east of the Yamuna, a rather unorthodox hypothesis.

So everything, including a western-neighbourly location, points to the Iranians. Nothing is there to deny it, nothing points to anyone else.

4.3. The enemies’ religion

The heroes of this hymn, the Tṛtsus, are Āryas and supported by Indra. The enemy camp as a whole is deemed anindra, “without Indra” (7:18:16), in a verse that seems to furnish the first instance of this term. Later books use this as a standard allegation of the enemies: “Indra-less destructive spirit” (RV 4:23.7), “how can those without Indra and without hymns harm me?” (RV 5:2:3), “enemies without Indra”, truth-haters (RV 1:133:1), “my enemies without Indra” (RV 10:48:7), “Indra-less libation-drinkers” (RV 10:27:6) According to Geldner (2003/3:166), the latter is a “reminiscence of 7:18:16”. Either the same enemy people was involved or, perhaps, this had ultimately become a set phrase in referring to enemies.

Included in the enemy camp are the Dasyus, described as “faithless, rudely-speaking Paṇis/niggards, without belief, sacrifice or worship” (RV 7:6:3). Other seers call them “without sacrifice” (RV 1:33:4, 8:70:11), “without oath” (RV 1:51:8, 1:175:3, 6:14:3, 9:41:2), “riteless” (RV 10:22:8), “godless” (adeva, RV 8:70:11), “faithless” (RV 1.33.9, 2:22:10), “prayerless” (RV 4:16:9), “following different rites” (RV 8:70:11, 10:22:8). All these are properties pertaining to religion.

Dasyus are the Dāsas’ priests and the special target of Vasiṣṭha’s ire. In fact, opposition to the Dasyus is a general Vedic trait: “Dasyus never figure as rich or powerful enemies. They are depicted as sly enemies who incite others into acts of boldness (6:24:8) (…) The Dasyus are clearly regarded with uncompromising hostility, while the hostility towards the Dāsas is relatively mild” (Talageri 2000:253).

Whereas commoners go to the movies to watch famous actors and actresses, intellectuals (the kind who come out of the movie theatre commenting: “I liked the book better”) go there to make their point of view on the scenarist’s plot and the director’s elaboration of it. Whereas commoners speak of World War 2 in terms of “German” aggression, “British” fortitude and “Russian” sacrifices, intellectuals see a three-way contest between the competing ideologies animating the Axis, the Soviet Union and the Atlantic countries. So, Sudās’s court priest is less interested in the warriors who do the actual fighting, and more in the ideologues who have turned the battle in a competition between different pantheons and different ways of pleasing them.

The Iranian religion fits the bill. The Vedic seers saw a very similar religious practice and a very similar worldview, of people whom they understood in spite of a different accent, and therefore were extra sensitive to the points where the Athravans had “deviated” from the Vedic standard. Consider: the Mazdeans are “without fire-sacrifice”: they don’t throw things into the sacred fire, because they hold it even more sacred than the Vedic sacrificial priests, who still use it as a channel towards the gods. An Avestan yasna is not a Vedic yajña.

They don’t worship the Devas, whom they have demonized: Daēva means “devil”. Conversely, the Vedic Aryans originally worshipped but ultimately demonized the Asuras (Hale 1986). Among the gods, Indra in particular was identified with the principle of Evil. Nevertheless, the substantivated epithet Verethraghna (“Vṛtra-slayer”) was separated from him and remained popular.

We may speculate that in an earlier confrontation, Indra did not give them victory, so they demonized him, turning him into the “angry spirit”, Angra Mainyu. Vedic Manyu (addressee of RV 10:83-84) was a name of Indra in his aspect of fury and passion. Aṅgra seems to be a pun on the Aṅgiras, the clan of his priests. Alternatively, the far northwest of the Subcontinent has no clear monsoon, a time opened with a thunderstorm signified by Indra. During their migrations as sketched in the Purāṇas, the Ānavas are said to have moved from the Western Gaṅgā basin, which has a monsoon, to Kashmir and West-Panjab, where the memory of a monsoon must have faded, so Indra became less relevant and easily identified with the people from monsoon territory.

Another element that may have played a role here, is Vasiṣṭha’s stated opposition to magic: “Let the heroes (…) prevail against all godless arts of magic” (RV 7:1:10), “Against the sorcerers hurl your bolt” (RV 7:104:25). Human experience teaches the perfect compatibility of this “skeptical” position with the fact that his own sacrificial rituals deemed to result in battlefield victories (just like the “miraculous” medallions worn by Catholics resulting in impossible cures) equally amount to magic. At any rate, this cursed sorcery was identified with the Asuras, who are often depicted in stories as more resourceful than the Devas. Magic is at the centre of the Atharva Veda, named after the Iranian priestly class, the Athravans, and held in lower esteem than the Veda-trayī, the other three Vedas. In this case, it is not yet clear what was cause and what was effect: magic (from Magoi, the Greek name of the Iranian priests) was associated with the Iranians, and both the one and the other were mistrusted.

Finally, on the Vedic side, it is possible that Varuṇa’s identity with the enemies’ god Ahura Mazdā had something to do with his decline and gradual disappearance from the Vedic horizon: “One notices the decline of Varuṇa in Book X, which has no hymn for him (…) If he is seen in his glory in some of the Family Books, Book X registers his decline and subordination to Indra.” (Pradhan 2014:153-154) At any rate, he did decline, both in power and in moral stature: “Varuṇa, who is now second to Indra unlike in VI, VII and IV, is reduced to singing his praises (…) Varuṇa of Books X and I acquires semi-demoniacal features which he did not have in the Family Books (…) the former guardian of immortality is now associated with the world of the dead (…) unlike in the early Ṛgveda, the [Yaju] Saṁhitās treated Varuṇa with dread” (Pradhan 2014:156). Likewise, the Varuṇa-related concept of ṛta, “righteousness”, “world order”, “normative succession of phases in a cycle”, “truth”, dwindles and is more or less replaced by dharma, “righteousness”, “social and seasonal correctness”.

This is only a partial and gradual demonization of Varuṇa the Asura, nothing like the radical demonization of Indra the Daēva. But that is commensurate with the fleeting Paurava war psychology as against the deep grudge the Ānavas bore after their defeat.

4.4. Who the enemies were not

None of the names or nicknames associated with the Ten Kings, their tribes or their religion is attested in Dravidian, Munda, Burushaski, Nahali, Tibetan or any other nearby language. Most of them, by contrast, are completely transparent as Iranian names. Similarly, their stated religious identification points to the Mazdean tradition. Yet, quite a few translators and students of the Vedas insist that they are the “black aboriginals”.

The first reason is that those targeted by Vasiṣṭha are mṛdhravāc (RV 7:6:3), “babblers defective in speech” (Wilson), “rudely-speaking” (Griffith), “wrongly speaking” (“misredend”, Geldner), or “of disdainful words” (Jamison and Brereton). This is not normally said of people speaking a foreign language, but of people who are comprehensible yet don’t use the accent or the sociolinguistic register we are used to. Still it is popularly thought that this refers to foreigners, the way the European settlers in America considered the Amerindians alien.

The second reason is the frequent use of the word “black” as referring to the enemies, notably Vasiṣṭha’s enemies: the asikni viśa, “the black tribe” (7:5:3). But the use of “black” is not as pregnant with sinister racist implications as if often made out. Hock (1999) shows that this is but an application of a universal symbolism relating whiteness or lightness to what is good or friendly, and darkness or blackness to what is threatening, inimical or evil. In the writer’s country, Belgium, collaborators with the German occupier during World War II were called Blacks (“zwarten”), resistance fighters Whites (“witten”). Colour symbolism in India has many applications unrelated to race, e.g. the “white” and the “black” Yajur-Veda are merely the well-ordered and transparent c.q. the miscellaneous and labyrinthine parts.

Moreover, in Vasiṣṭha’s case we are probably dealing with a pun, a double-entendre: asikni means “black”, but it is also the name of a river, Asiknī, “the black river”, which happens to be the river whence the Ten Kings come to do battle. This is a normal type of hydronym, e.g. the Thames in England and the Demer in Belgium mean “dark (river)” as well, both names being cognates of Sanskrit tamas, “darkness”; just as rivers may have colour names referring to their lighter aspect, e.g. the Chinese Huanghe, “Yellow River”.

In this case, the unimaginative interpretation of this pun as indicating a black skin colour in the enemy, has been unusually consequential. The British-colonial as well as the Nazi-German narrative was that the presumed “White Aryan conquest of India from the Black Aboriginals” illustrates the colonial and racialist view: that superior races should rule over the inferior races and that master races should preserve their purity. All this could have been avoided if the Vedic words for “black” (asikni, kṛṣṇa) had been interpreted properly. There was no racial difference between Dāsas and Āryas, and Iranians are not black.


Thus far. In a lighter vein, I have also argued elsewhere that the Battle of the Ten Kings was the first Indo-Pak war:


Kind regards,

Koenraad Elst

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