Family and society in the Vedic period

The Poet Valmiki, teaching Ramayana to Kusa and Lava – Wikimedia Commons

On the occasion of Guru Pūrṇimā, our thoughts may turn to the venerable lineages of successive teachers and students in India (गुरु-शिष्य-परम्परा).  As we will see, the need to record and preserve genealogical details of family and pedagogical lineages was already recognized in India in the earliest times.  Indeed, this is very likely a continuation of the concerns of proto-Indo-European people.  For many ancient peoples, family would perhaps be the main source of personal identity, and the basis of all religious life.

Vedic texts provide indirect information about the family and society of their period.  In the Rig Veda, the names of the authors provide firm information about their family identity, linking them with their ancestors, at least in the patrilineal line.  In the older Upaniṣads, many scenes of family and intellectual life are vividly depicted.  Teachings conveyed in these texts may be embedded in conversations between husband and wife, between father and son, between teacher and student, or in debates between prominent thinkers.  In an earlier article, I discussed the institution of marriage in the Rig Veda.  In this article, I will briefly review some further facts about family and society in Vedic times.

Some scholars have suggested that, across the world, invention of patronymic surnames, and perhaps even the very institution of family itself, were creations of the state, whether at an early date, as in the case of China, or later, as in the case of Europe.  However, in the case of early Vedic society, the existence of strong family lineages and family identity, seemingly outside of state confines, seems to be in evidence.

The authors of the Rig Vedic verses effectively have surnames, which are patronymics, which are recorded as part of their names, alongside the verses that each author composed.  These patronymic surnames reference either the father or an important patrilineal ancestor.  This seems to have been a time when the Vedic tradition was handed down within families, and thus the lineage is also an academic lineage of teachers and students.  Although such patronymic surnames are quite common across many cultures in the whole world, it is nevertheless perhaps surprising to find such a robust use of this system at such an early date, and not fully explained within current paradigms about the relation of the modern state to the institution of family.

Another interesting case is a lineage of transmission through one of the female authors of the Rig Veda, Ghoṣā Kākṣīvatī.  Her father, Kakṣīvant Dairghatamasa, and his father, Dīrghatamas Aucathya, are also Rig Vedic authors.  All three thus have patronymic surnames, taken from their respective fathers.  However, Ghoṣā Kākṣīvat’s son, also an author, and perhaps her student, takes on his surname from her name, thus a matronymic, and in this way he is known as Suhastya Ghauṣeya.

The term ‘gotra’ in the Rig Veda has the meaning of cow-pen.  The cow and the cow-pen were of great significance to the Vedic people, and were treasured and venerated as the wealth and prosperity of society.  In the Rig Veda we read about how the people are eager for success and divine help in getting cattle, seemingly through cattle-raids.

Lord of cows, break open to us the cow-pens.  Let strength and gain come to us, together with cows.You live in heaven, mighty one.  Maghavan [Indra], give good cows to us.

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 3 Sūkta 30 verse 21 of Ṛṣi Viśvāmitra Gāthina; my own translation]

The cattle raid is found in other literature, such as the Mahābhārata, where we read about how  the Trigarta king Suśarmā and his Kaurava ally Duryodhana hatch a plot to join together to invade Virāṭa’s kingdom and steal his precious cattle.  I plan to discuss this episode in a future article.  Indeed, the treasuring up and veneration of cattle, as well as the cattle-raid on hostile groups, seems to be a theme across the Indo-European tradition.  Thus another interesting comparison is the Ulster Cycle of Ireland, which contains various tána, or stories of cattle raids, most famously the Táin Bó Cúailnge, that is, the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

By the time of the early Upaniṣads, the term ‘gotra’ has come to mean ‘family lineage’,  and thus we can imagine that the institution of the family may have emerged as an institution centred on the cow-pen, its continual maintenance and improvement, its protection and defence, and the shared use of the benefits provided by the cows, such as milk, cow dung etc.

Specifically, the ‘gotra’, as a marker of family lineage, seems to have become a way of fixing one’s identity in the wider social context, and specifically, in the context of knowledge transmission, by the time of the Upaniṣads.  In these times, would-be students are going around and about in search of teachers, as is illustrated in the following passage –

Then Bhujyu Lāhyāyani asked him, “Yājñavalkya, we roamed the Madra [Sialkot] region as wandering students.  We went to the houses of Patañcala Kāpya … we asked him “Who are you?”  He said “I am Sudhanvā Āṅgirasa … “”

[Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Adhyāya 3 Brāhmaṇa 3 Section 1 (part); my own translation]

[Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Adhyāya 3 Brāhmaṇa 3 Section 1 (part); my own translation]

Although elements of this are unclear, we can see that, here, an opening question is asked by the prospective student, about the identity of the teacher, who in turn identifies himself through his name and patronymic, seemingly to the satisfaction of the student.  In another scenario which is an interesting variation on the theme of family identity, we see a would-be student, Satyakāma, identify and approach a prospective teacher, who asks him a question about his identity –

He [Satyakāma] went up to Hāridrumata Gautama and said “I come to you to stay with you as a student.”

[The teacher] said “Sir, what gotra are you?”

[Satyakāma] said “Sir, I don’t know what gotra I am.  I asked my mother and she replied, “I had you when I was young, a maid who went with many different people.  I don’t know what gotra you are.  I am named Jabālā.  You are named Satyakāma.”  So, Sir, I am Satyakāma Jābāla.”

[Chāndogya Upaniṣad Prapāṭhaka 4 Khaṇḍa 4 Sections 3, 4; my own translation]

Here, the teacher asks the young man about his identity to determine whether or not to accept him as a student.  Satyakāma doesn’t know who his father is, so provides a matronymic surname in response to the request for his gotra, his family lineage.  The teacher decides to accept him on the as a student on the strength of this answer.

At the same time, the parent still has a role to play in the Upaniṣadic period as teacher –

“Bhṛgu Vāruṇi went up to his father Varuṇa, “Sir, teach me about Brahman.”

[Taittirīya Upaniṣad Bhṛgu Vallī First Anuvāka (part); my own translation]

Lineage lists over generations [vaṃśaḥ] are also listed out extensively in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, although it is not entirely clear to me whether these are patrilineal family lineages or teacher-student lineages or a mix of both.  The famous Yājñavalkya, who was the student of Uddālaka Āruṇi, is traced successively back through a chain of seemingly real and mythological ancestors, including Vāk [speech], Āditya, the sun, and all the way back to self-born Brahma.  Other well-known Indian mythological lineages are the candravaṃśa or lunar dynasty and the sūryavaṁśa or solar dynasty.

Indeed, despite the many vicissitudes of history, world civilizations have mostly taken care of preserving lineage lists, at least for the elite groups of society, such as Egyptian king lists and other royal genealogies.  In Christianity and Judaism, too, the genealogies of the descendants of Adam and Eve, of Abraham and of Jesus are considered important.

In any case, this brief review has highlighted the importance of mechanisms for knowledge transmission across generations, from parents to children and from teachers to students, whereby cultures and civilizations perpetuate themselves.  Further, it has been suggested that some generalisations about the relation of state to society and institutions of family and knowledge transmission made on the basis of other cultures may not be applicable to Vedic family and society, although this point has not been fully elaborated.  I hope to go into more detail on this in a future article.

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