Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Original Cowboys?

If there is a discussion on inventions and discoveries with Indians of my generation or earlier, chances are you will be met with a "But we Indians already knew about it" or "this is mentioned in our Vedas/Ramayan/Mahabharat".

We had our vimanas (aeroplanes) long before the western world even figured out the Pythagoras theorem. Ravana, the King of (ancient) Lanka, had his private jet, in which he would visit his holiday and hunting destinations in India. He even used it as a getaway vehicle when he abducted Sita. Other Indian deities had their custom designed planes as well. Vishnu had Garuda (yes, this is where the Indonesian airline derives it name from) and Indra had Airavata (actually an elephant, who on occassion could fly as well).

And then we had Brahmastra - the original WMD/nuclear weapon. The Brahmastra never missed its mark and had to be used with very specific intent against an individual enemy or army, as the target would face complete annihilation. In the wrong hands, it could cause the end of the world, total destruction and extinction of all life.

So, did ancient Indians actually invent planes and nuclear weapons (no matter the technical differences with modern day equivalents)? Well, that is another article...

But what I can tell you with certainty is that India had its version of cowboys long before they propped up in the lands of America or were made famous by Louis L'Amour.

The early Rig Vedic Arya tribes were predominantly pastoral. They did have the concept of wealth and their currencies were cattle and horses. The importance of cattle to these people can be gauged from just one hymn, 28, of Mandala VI of the Rig Veda.

Verse 1 says:
THE Kine (cattle) have come and brought good fortune: let them rest in the cow-pen and be happy near us.
Here let them stay prolific, many-coloured, and yield through many morns their milk for Indra.

The fortunes of these people have a direct co-relation of their possession of cattle. The cattle were sheltered in separate cow-pens and it was important that were cared for - "happy near us". Their breeding in prolific numbers would have mattered as well, given that the cattle were the "wealth" of these people. Verse 6 enforces this thought further, "Prosper my house, ye with auspicious voices. Your power is glorified in our assemblies".

Tending well to their cattle is paramount, as suggested by verse 7:
Crop goodly pasturage and be prolific drink pure sweet water at good drinking places.
Never be thief or sinful man your matter, and may the dart of Rudra still avoid you.

The caretakers, made an effort to provide proper water, and guarded them from thieves and other that could cause them harm.

In Verse 3, it is clear that cattle rearing is their occupation. "The master of the kine (cattle) lives many a year with these (the cows), whereby he pours his gifts (milk and ghee) and serves the Gods (during a sacrifice)".

In the same verse,  their concern over protecting their wealth is conveyed. The Gods are propitiated that "These (the cows) are ne'er lost, no robber ever injures them: no evil-minded foe attempts to harass them". And then again, in verse 4, "These Cows, the cattle of the pious worshipper, roam over widespread pasture where no danger is".

Evidence of their dietary habits and dependence of cattle based food products can be found in verse 6, "O Cows, ye fatten e'en the worn and wasted, and make the unlovely beautiful to look on". Good beauty tip there for the ladies, any takers?

The corollary to owning wealth, is its protection, amassing, even hoarding. So there were battles and there were battles. With non-Arya tribes such as the Panis and within the Arya clans.

Hand-to-hand battles amongst small groups and fierce battles fought with spears and arrows with hundreds of men on either side. With the winner takes all of the "booty" and "spoil".

Verse 4 of Hymn 25, Mandala VI, provides us evidence of such hand to hand combat:
With strength of limb the hero slays the hero, when bright in arms they range them for the combat.
When two opposing hosts contend in battle for seed and offspring, waters, kine, or corn-lands.

Evidences of armed battles are too many to recount here, suffice to say they did occur in plenty. They obviously did not sling guns around their waist, but they did carry their own mean weapons - the spears, shafts and arrows.

So, these cowboys from ancient times, may not have donned on cowboy hats and boots, but sure as hell, they were there all those thousands of years ago. In a quirky way, parts of the Rig Veda do make interesting reading as would passages from a Louis L'Amour novel (needs a lot of imagination, but one could get there).

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