A modest suggestion: why Brahmins became advisers

In the Buddha’s day, the Brahmins were the learned, sagely class who performed rituals and advised kings. The khattiyas ruled, part of which was waging warfare. One of the drivers of the Brahmanical tradition is the tension between violence and peace.

The old gods of the Brahmins weren’t so conflicted. They were mighty, flashing warriors who vanquished all before them.

What changed?

The ultimate source, it seems, of power for the proto-indo-europeans (“Aryans”) was the horse. They figured out how to tame it, ride it as one being (“gandharva”) and hitch horses to a chariot (the twin Asvins), and with that they proceeded as magnificent and glorious as the sun in the sky. They crushed all before them, west through Europe, south into Iran, and then into India. Nowhere in the whole world was any force so mighty, or any army able to stand against them.

Well, until they saw this.

The site of the first great Indian Vedic civilization, and the defining war was Hastinapura: the citadel of the elephants. We know that, a thousand years later, the greatest military force in the world served under Alexander, and they flat out refused to proceed against the Indian armies with elephants. What if that was playing out again what had happened to the Aryans?

If I were riding a horse into battle and came against a phalanx of war elephants, it might suddenly occur to me that peaceful negotiations were a good idea. Perhaps this whole “smash enemies under your feet” thing is overrated and we should learn to unite the tribes and all get along? After all, by relinquishing the mere physical power of war, it becomes possible to get others to do your fighting for you, while you stay in your comfortable home, musing on divinity and the true nature of oneness while your wives prepare dinner.

Just a humble thought!


A not unexpected attitude if one discounts kamma —> rebirth as taught in the Nikāyas.

I don’t know.

It seems to me that when people accumulate wealth and attain a particular lifestyle with it, that they don’t want to lose the lifestyle. Poaching cattle from another tribe (and protecting your own cattle from being poached) versus smashing wealthy cities and killing most all the occupants is quite a change.

There are textual and archaeological indications that the Indus Valley Civilization was connected to the area often referred to as the Levant by sea (through the Red Sea). Egypt had the chariot by roughly 1600 BCE. There are fragments from the works of Manetho, thought to be based on reliable native sources, that an IVC colony was established in Ethiopia about 1600 B.C., and quite possibly that colony included a priestly class. The historian Diodorus of Sicily (1st c CE) wrote that Egyptian religion came from priests out of Ethiopia or Upper Nubia.

I have seen a hymn in the archaic layer of the Rgveda that invokes protections (if I recall from Aditi) for preparations into a trip by water to visit an ally and cement mutually beneficial relations. It mentions admiration for this ally’s chariot. That would be a very large search to rediscover it, so sorry.

And there are the well known Mitanni inscriptions and things, roughly 1400 BCE, that mention the Asvins, Mitra-Varuna and even Indra in some treaty.

Okay, but the middle chapters of the Rig Veda were compiled by separate tribes, so this would likely have been talking about another Aryan mob. And the outer chapters were composed in Hastinapura.

Lol, I feel you!

I do think that there are probably very good reasons why such an obvious and simple hypothesis should fail!

I’ll have a stab.

It’s not clear that having elephants is a decisive military advantage against horses, and there were many successful invaders on horseback (see, eg, Doniger, Winged Stallions and Wicked Mares (2021), 1, 219).

Another explanation might be that the Indian Subcontinent is not suited for raising a sufficient amount or quality of horses (Doniger 2021, 8ff). IIRC the same is true of China, which is why horses were imported from pastoral groups in the west (who also were often a military threat).

Lastly, my understanding is that the Brahmins (or the different priestly groups that later become Brahmins) were always a priestly/intellectual class playing a legitimating role vis-a-vis the Kshatriyas—they didn’t change into some priestly strata from being some sort of military elite, they were always a priestly elite. Though it does seem true that the tone of their ideology changed from the early vedic period onwards, probably reflecting the fact that the Aryans had settled and integrated with the indigenous population.


Strangely, I just watched Alexander the other day. The warrior elephant scene shifted to plenty of red, just like the picture you posted. Almost psychedelic.

I think it’s accepted now that the people we used to call “aryans” migrated into the northwest region over some length of time and didn’t invade. I think it is fairly well supported (by Doniger in particular) that some continuity of IVC culture remained in place after its peak, and I think it is emerging that mostly the “aryans” were men who married Indian women who would have been the inheritors of late Harappan society.

I have seen a few things on the DNA studies. If I recall, 35% of northern Indians carry the genetic marker of roughly what could be called people of the Russian steppes. And the marker is localized. I think the spots on map that showed distribution by density were mostly in what used to be Gandhara, in the broadest sense of the word.

But, I don’t really know. It’s just stuff that I have come across.

I’ve always taken arya to mean noble. Most of the rsi of the Rgveda, which is the spiritual poetry of the aryans, belong to families of poet diviners. A lot of the hymns are requests for things like cattle, sons, wealth for the person or people they were carrying out the ritual for.

There’s one head of a family of rsi whom the scholars figure was Persian. There’s one who was dumped by a king for another. Another was adopted, by a king I think, and then became a rsi in whatever family line was associated with that king. I think both those kings were Bharata. There’s one rsi who was attacked by slaves and escaped by floating down the river. And maybe there’s one who was killed by another for political reasons.

There are a couple of famous battles mentioned in the Rgveda, but I don’t think it recounts anything like an invasion. I have seen hymns that mention Indra led “them” to their land, and how they’re determined to keep it and protect it. Who “they” are from among the tribes, I can’t place without going back and digging around. And that would be a lot of work.

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Oh, okay. You’re making all good points.

All the same, there’s no denying that the Vedas are chock-a-block full of war imagery.

Yes. It’s what turned me off them at first. But then I found interesting things and eventually came to not mind Indra with his sparking mace smiting things.

I’m in the middle of reading Calasso’s Ardor, which is just incredible. I feel like I have to put it down every paragraph, there’s just too much to digest.

He has an empathetic approach to scholarship, not aiming to be reductive but to find the life in it. It’s not a matter of “believing” in Vedism, but of finding a meaning in people who were very different than us.

What I’m trying to say is that there is a compulsion to sacrifice now as much as in Vedic India, which after all was six centuries before Christ, but in a way which isn’t seen any more. When you read about world war one, for example, it’s all in terms of sacrifice. There are monuments to the sacrifice involved in war all around us, but we do not know that we are living in a sacrificial society.

“We do not know that we are living in a sacrificial society”. This is just astonishingly insightful. And the specific function of the Vedas, the very meaning of the word, is to know the sacrifice. And that is what they have to teach us.

The most shallow, ridiculous form of scholarship of the ancient world is to look at it, judge it by modern standards, and declare that it doesn’t make the cut. It’s sophomoric, but it dominates so much reading of ancient texts. It’s like saying a stone tablet sucks because you can’t scroll it like an iPad. A stone tablet has different virtues: it lasts for thousands of years.

Calasso is one of the few people who really sinks in, takes the time to connect, to not dismiss or marginalize, but to listen and to imagine.


I remember studying Jonathan Spence in my Chinese history classes. He was the same type of scholar.

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Wow, sounds like an amazing person. :pray:

Thanks for the recommendation! I myself am in the middle of The Dawn of Everything and am having to put it down every page or two as the writing is just that bad! :rofl:

Do tell! I haven’t read it, but when generalist books talk about India they all-too-often end up like this, as Durba Chattaraj says in her excellent (and sympathetic) review:

Somehow, then, to support the idea that societies can be at once formally-hierarchical as well as have “practical governance nonetheless take place along egalitarian lines,” we find ourselves in a Buddhist sangha. At this point this section begins to feel a bit like a history word salad loosely united by things – purity, bath, caste, Buddhism, sangha – that might be considered to be “Indian.” It is unclear what connects what to what, or the type of meaning that is being created here, and how.

You know, we should have a book thread, where people dish on non-fiction readings, especially as they affect our beloved ancient India.

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This is a speculative opinion and I may have misunderstood how fundamental a reason is sought for but it may have to do with just natural aptitude for memory and organization of information. From later sources like Mahabharata we see that a character like Dronācharya was the teacher to everyone and taught them, for the most part, a lot about the art of warfare. He participated in the war personally only when he was in an untenable position of not being able to decline. My point is, if a king has one or a team of few people who have grasped and mastered the technical, logistical, and strategic aspects of warfare, would anyone risk putting them on the frontline in battles? Being good at diplomacy is probably a natural extension of flair for strategic thinking and planning. Drona - Wikipedia

This format apparently lasted for centuries because we see the same flavor in the duo of King Akbar and his clever witty advisor Birbal, who eventually did die in a battle. Birbal - Wikipedia

Ajahn Sona here. I’ve been immersed lately in this area of history, namely the Persian/Greek invasions of India. A thought on elephants: “Persians used war elephant at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. The battle raged between king Alexander the Great of Macedon and king Darius III of Persia Achaemenid_Empire. The Persians had 15 Indian-trained war elephants, which were placed at the centre of the Persian line, and they made such an impression on the Macedonian troops that Alexander felt the need to sacrifice to the God of Fear the night before the battle. Despite this the Persians lost the battle, relinquishing the Achaemenid empire to Alexander.” Wikipedia article.
So it seems that elephants were familiar to the Persians, sourcing them possibly from Africa through Egypt and also from India.


Thanks for the extra context.

In response to ‘learn to unite and get along’: The minute one permits an ideaology/superficial difference to get between seeing our shared humanity: such a one becomes a potential hazard onto themselves and the others who unite in peace despite differences.