The account in the Ṛg Veda and the legacy for modern India
The seventh maṇḍala of the Ṛg Veda was largely composed by the Rṣi Vasiṣṭha Maitrāvaruṇi, well-known from later literature too, especially for the mutual antagonism between him and Viśvamitra. It commemorates some events leading to the hegemony of the Bharata people in India. In particular, sūktas (hymns) 18, 33 and 83 of Ṛg Veda Book 7 provide elements of a historical account of the ‘daśarājña’, that is, the Battle of the Ten Kings, which seems to have been a pivotal event in early Indian history. Professor Michael Witzel has undertaken detailed research into the historical importance of the Rig Veda, the events of Vedic India and the ongoing relevance of the Vedic tradition for modern India (see here, here and here), and I will draw heavily on that research in this article.
Although it seems to be slightly unclear exactly who the ten kings were who took part in the battle, it is clear that the battle was between the Tṛtsu-Bharatas on one side and the Pūrus and their allies on the other side. The Tṛtsu-Bharatas were originally one part of the Pūrus but later split off to form an independent grouping. The spiritual head of the Tṛtsu-Bharatas was Vasiṣṭha and that of the Pūrus was Viśvamitra. Based on R.V. 7.33.3, Prof. Witzel describes Vaśiṣṭha as “an immigrant from across the Sindhu” and speculates that –
“other tribes began to unite against [the Bharatas], either due to the intrigues of the ousted Viśvāmitra, or simply because of intratribal resentment. This led to the famous battle of the ten ‘kings’ which, however, is not mentioned by book 3, as Viśvāmitra (its author) had by then been replaced by Vasiṣṭha as the purohita of Sudās. There is even the possibility that it was Viśvåmitra who — in an act of revenge — forged the alliance against his former chief. Whatever the reason, however, the alliance failed and the Pūrus were completely ousted (7.8.4 etc.) along with Viśvāmitra (= Bhgu, 7.18.6) … The crucial point is the alleged change of sides by the Pūrus who were formerly allies of the Bharatas, as well as by a Bhṛgu, who was probably Viśvāmitra, a Bhṛgu pupil.”
In this historic Vedic battle, the alliance of Bharatas under the Tṛtsu (Bharata) king Sudas were victorious in battle against their opponents, the Purus and their allies. This leads to an era of dominance by the victors, the Bharatas, who subsequently also came to be known as Kurus or Kauravas.
They went to their end; it was a bad end;
They arrived at the Paruṣṇī [modern Rāvi river] and they went down injured;
Sudāsa, Indra, annihilated the enemies, the unmanly among men, as they rushed on.
[Ṛg Veda 7.18.9 of Ṛṣi Vasiṣṭha; my own translation]
Indra instantly [and] powerfully tore apart all their forts and seven cities
He divided the foreign loot amongst the Tṛtsus;
May we vanquish the Pūru adversary in the contest (vidatha)
[Ṛg Veda 7.18.13 of Ṛṣi Vasiṣṭha; my own translation]
These Tṛtsus supported by Indra flowed down like waters released
The enemy, exhibiting very little knowledge, abandoned all possessions to Sudās
[Ṛg Veda 7.18.15 of Ṛṣi Vasiṣṭha; my own translation]
This historical event was later also drawn on and adapted to create the core story of the Mahābhārata, with, however, significant and somewhat perplexing differences. As Prof. Witzel explains –
“In the RV this [daśarājña battle] is fought between the Bharata chieftain Sudās on the one side, and the Pūru chief with his nine ‘royal’ allies on the other. It took place on the Paruṣṇī in central Panjab. The Mahābhārata battle, however, is fought between the Kaurava (of Bharata descent) and the Pāṇḍava, both of the new Kuru tribe, near the Sarasvatī in Kurukṣetra (modern Haryana).”
Prof. Witzel describes a transition through three periods of early India. Classifying the period of composition of the Ṛg Veda as the old Vedic period, Prof. Witzel describes it as a period when there were some 50 small tribes in constant conflict. The major event towards the end of this period was the above-described Battle of Ten Kings.
The third and final period, termed the late Vedic period, was the period of composition of the Brāhmaṇas, Upanishads etc., and was dominated by the larger-scale Kuru-Pañcāla and Kosala-Videha social groupings. There was, however, also an intervening middle period, or mantra period, that is, a period of the mantra language, about which Prof. Witzel writes –
“This “gap” between the Ṛgveda and the other Vedic texts is one of the major dark periods of Indian history … in my opinion, it is this period (together with the slightly earlier formation of the Bharata realm), which is of crucial importance for the development of all later Indian culture and civilization. It is at this moment that the social “raw material” present in Ṛgvedic time was intentionally transformed into what became the core and the pattern first of Vedic and, later on, of Hindu culture … Includes the mantras in verse and prose of the Atharvaveda (PS, ŚS), the Ṛgveda-Khila (RVKh), the Sāmaveda Saṃhitā (mostly taken from the Ṛgveda) and the Yajurveda Saṃhitās. All these texts form a new type of Vedic, largely unstudied and unrecognised as a distinct entity. They contain the oldest Indian prose.”
Subsequently, under such visionary leaders as Parikṣit and Janamejaya, fondly remembered in the Mahabharata and other later literature, a new phase of Indian civilisation began, in which the Kurus, together with their close allies, the Pañcālas, were able to establish a stable Kuru state including many other tribes as a single people.
This involved the compilation of the Ṛg Veda text in the form we now have it by bringing together the religious literature of various stakeholders and social groups into a single collection, arranged according to the interests of the new society, yet remembering the provenance of the hymns amongst the various earlier social groups. As Prof. Witzel explains –
“In order to carry out many of the religious and social reforms mentioned so far and as to achieve the general purpose of overlordship in northern India, the Kuru kings initiated also a collection of the major poetic and ritual texts … Many if not most of the traditionally remembered old hymns were included in the “national” collection of hymns, the Ṛgveda, though the hymns of the Bharata and the Pūru clearly dominate the collection.”
Indeed, Prof. Witzel describes the Puruṣa Sūkta (R.V. 10.90) as the “first constitution of India” and goes on to explain –
[Aside from possibly the Harappan civilization] “… we are, I believe, entitled to call the Kuru realm the first state in India … the developments which brought about the Kuru realm were lasting and not transient ones as those under the Ṛgvedic Pūru or Bharata. In effect, many of the changes in religion and society then carried out shape Indian society even today.”
If the Puruṣa Sūkta is indeed a first constitution, then certainly any proper understanding of constitutional rule in India should begin with a study of this text and its legacy in subsequent history and practice. We may end with the final two verses from the final sūkta of the final book of the Ṛg Veda, 10.191, which Prof. Witzel describes as “The Hymn to Unity” –
Your intentions aligned; your hearts aligned;
May your minds be aligned so that you can well endure.
[Ṛg Veda Book 10, Sūkta 191, verses 3–4 of Ṛsi Saṃvanana Ᾱṅgirasa; my own translation]