Advancements from the Ancient Vedic Culture – Part 3

Education in the Vedic sense means to establish and enliven the spiritual consciousness. It does not mean only learning a technology or a craft, or way to exist.

Advancements from the Ancient Vedic Culture – Part 3

Part 1 – Advancements from the Ancient Vedic Culture – Part 1

Part 2 – Advancements from the Ancient Vedic Culture – Part 2


Now let us take a look at India’s ancient maritime history, which is referenced as far back as the early Vedic texts. The fact is that the ancient Vedic texts, such as the Rig VedaShatapatha Brahmana, and others refer to the undertaking of naval expeditions and travel to distant places by sea-routes that were well-known at the time. For example, the Rig Veda (1.25.7) talks of how Varuna has full knowledge of all the sea routes that were followed by ships. Then (2.48.3) we find wherein merchants would also send out ships for foreign trade.  (S. R. Rao, Shipping in Ancient India, in India’s Contribution to World Thought and Culture, Published by Vivekananda Kendra Prakashan, Chennai, 1970, p. 83.)

Another verse (1.56.2) speaks of merchants going everywhere and frequently to every part of the sea. Another verse (7.88.3-4) relates that there was a voyage by Vasistha and Varuna in a ship skillfully fitted for the trip. Then there is a verse (1.116.3) that tells of an expedition on which Tugra, the Rishi king, sent his son Bhujya against some of his enemies in the distant islands. However, Bhujya becomes ship wrecked by a storm, with all of his followers on the ocean, “Where there is no support, or rest for the foot or hand.” From this he is rescued by the twin Ashvins in their hundred oared galley. Similarly, the Atharva Veda mentions boats which are spacious, well constructed and comfortable.

Actually, ships have been mentioned in numerous verses through the Vedic literature, such as in the VedasBrahmanasRamayanaMahabharataPuranas, and so on. For example, in the Ayodhya Kaand of Valmiki’s Ramayana, you can find the description of such big ships that could hold hundreds of warriors: “Hundreds of oarsmen inspire five hundred ships carrying hundreds of ready warriors.” The conclusion is that ships have been in use since the Vedic age.

Ancient Indians traveled to various parts of the world not only for purposes of trade, but to also propagate their culture. This is how the Vedic influence spread around the world. For example, Kaundinya crossed the ocean and reached south-east Asia. From there, evidence shows that rock inscriptions in the Sun Temple at Jawayuko in the Yukatan province of Mexico mentions the arrival of the great sailor Vusulin in Shaka Samvat 854, or the year 932. In the excavations in Lothal in Gujarat, it seems that trade with countries like Egypt was carried out from that port around 2540 BCE. Then from 2350 BCE, small boats docked here, which necessitated the construction of the harbor for big ships, which was followed by the city that was built around it. (Suresh Soni, Indias Glorious Scientific Tradition, Ocean Books Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 2010, p. 68.)


Evidence shows that ancient India had sea trade with other countries from thousands of years ago. The earliest portrayal of an Indian ship is found on an Indus Valley seal from about 3000 BCE. The ship is shown being elevated at both bow and stern, with a cabin in the center. It is likely to have been a simple river boat since it is lacking a mast. Another drawing found at Mohendjodaro on a potsherd shows a boat with a single mast and two men sitting at the far end away from the mast. Another painting of the landing of Vijaya Simha in Ceylon (543 BCE) with many ships is found amongst the Ajanta caves.

That India had a vast maritime trade, even with Greece, is shown by the coins of the Trojans (98-117 CE) and Hadrians (117-138 CE) found on the eastern coast of India, near Pondicherry. This is evidence that Greek traders had to have visited and traded in the port cities of that area.

Kamlesh Kapur explains more about this in Portraits of a Nation: History of India: Recent archeological excavations at Pattanam in Ernakulum district of Kerala by the Kerala council for Historical Research (KCHR) indicate that there was thriving naval trade around 500 BCE. According to the Director of KCHR, the artifacts recovered from the excavation site suggest that Pattanam, with a hinterland port and a multicultural settlement, may have had links with the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the South China Sea rims since the Early Historic Period of South India. KCHR has been getting charcoal samples examined through C-14 and other modern methods to determine the age of these relics. These artifacts were from the Iron Age layer. The archeologists also recovered some parts of a wooden canoe and bollards (stakes used to secure canoes and boats) from a waterlogged area at the site.

The radiocarbon dating from Pattanam will aid in understanding the Iron Age chronology of Kerala. So far, testing done by C-14 method to determine the ages of the charcoal samples from the lowermost sand deposits in the trenches at Pattanam suggests that their calibrated dates range from 1300 BCE to 200 BCE and 2500 BCE to 100 CE. Thus there is strong evidence that Kerala had sea trade with several countries in Western Asia and Eastern Europe from the second millennia BCE onwards. (Kamlesh Kapur, Portraits of a Nation: History of India, Sterling Publishers, Private Limited, 2010, pp. 414-15.) Further evidence has been shown, such as that presented at a 1994 conference on seafaring in Delhi where papers had been presented that shows how Indian cotton was exported to South and Central America back in 2500 BCE. Another report suggested Indian cotton reached Mexico as far back as 4000 BCE, back to the Rig Vedic period. According to Sean McGrail, a marine archeologist at Oxford University, seagoing ships called clinkers’ that were thought to be of Viking origin, were known in India a good deal earlier. Thus, India’s maritime trade actually flourished many years ago, along with many other of its advancements that are hardly recognized or accounted for today. (Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Navaratna S. Rajaram, Hidden Horizons, Unearthing 10,000 Years of Indian Culture, Swaminarayan Aksharpith, Ahmedabad, India, 2006, p. 79.)


In summary, education in the Vedic sense means to establish and enliven the spiritual consciousness. It does not mean only learning a technology or a craft, or way to exist. It means to raise the total quality of the individual by raising the mentality, intelligence and consciousness. This adds to the well-being of the whole society. The ultimate means to accomplish this is to raise the person and society to understand and then attain spiritual consciousness. This is the inner experience of Vedic knowledge and the path of spiritual awakening. Then comes the next stage of direct spiritual perception. This is really the goal of life. It is not religious life, such as in following a dogma, but it is spiritual, the natural way of personal development to perceive the higher reality. It is not merely to live to work, and work to pave the way for one’s existence. But it is a matter of enlivening the individual and society by recognizing one’s real identity and how to live and relate according to that spiritual identity.  For the most part, India’s early educational system was village based. It was the local rishis and Brahmanas who would teach the local students or seekers who were eligible. The place of education was called the gurukula, or place of the guru. The rishis who imparted knowledge utilized methods whereby the knowledge could be transmitted and remembered by the students who were qualified. The rishi teachers were like the father of the students, affectionate but effective, and of high moral and spiritual standards. By the respect the students had for him, he maintained authority. Yet, he would be sincere, honest, and true to both his work and to the students. However, he also followed the same serious disciplines that molded his own character and honor that the students would show him. 

The first basis of the school was to mold young pupils into capable individuals who would be well aware of the principles of Vedic Dharma, the foundation for being honorable and respectable people. It was to build the character of the student, along with the physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual potentials. As the student would study under the direction of the guru or teacher, he would also realize all of this knowledge through his own contemplation and insight. This is what enabled the knowledge to travel from one generation to the next. But this is also what enabled the student to acquire his own perfection and freedom, up to final liberation.

The Dharmic principles of education meant that everyone would act in harmony and peace with everything else, not only animate but inanimate things as well. In this way, the student imbibes a set a values, both cultivated and realized, that sustains the creation, sustains himself, and threatens no one. Plus, he can easily maintain himself, and live in harmony with the world,  and reach the ultimate purpose of human existence at the same time. Such a degree of sophisticated education was hardly found anywhere else.

So the main topic was Atmavidya, or knowledge of the self, after which all other topics could be easily mastered. After this came knowledge that included science, arts and crafts, music, math such as geometry and algebra, along with astronomy or Jyotish, logic, history, poetry, grammar, and knowledge of the Vedic texts.  Additional topics of education are further described by Kamlesh Kapur: There were Gurukulas, Mathas and Ghatikkas offering educational facilities to the common people. In these schools and institutes, a variety of subjects were taught: languages, Sanskrit literature, grammar, mathematics, sciences, architecture, astronomy, political science, and administration were some of the subjects taught. Many schools trained soldiers in wielding weapons and training horses and elephants. Various occupational guilds were responsible for providing vocational training on an apprenticeship basis. Many craftsmen, artisans, architects, masons, sculptors, painters, stone cutters, carpenters, weavers, ship builders, scribes, and smiths were trained by their guilds. For their times, Southern Indian societies were well-organized and their economies were prosperous and well regulated. (Kamlesh Kapur, Portraits of a Nation: History of Ancient India, Sterling Publishers, Private Limited, 2010, pp. 627-8.) Techniques for passing the knowledge to the students included teaching and lecturing,  recitation, dialogue, and then self-study. It was not only the schools or gurukulas that were the basis of education. Temples, however, also were known as cultural and educational centers for secular as well as spiritual knowledge. Donations to the temples were not only for the continued worship, but was for cultural preservation and education and care for the students, such as food and lodging. In the temples, students often would study only certain branches or one branch of the Vedic knowledge. Which branch or how many branches of the Vedas that were taught also depended on which area of the country the student lived. That is why names such as Dvivedi (for mastering two branches of the Vedas) or Trivedi (mastering three branches of the Vedas) would be given.


 One of the important aspects of India’s early educational system was its universities, which included the system of gurukulas and mathas. The most distinguished establishments included Takshashila, Nalanda, Vikramshila, Navadvipa, Kashi, Kanchi, Vallabhi, Gunasheela, Jagaddal, Mithila, Odantapura, and Ratnagiri. 

Nalanda University, for example, was one of the prime educational facilities of the time, which flourished for almost 800 years. It was maintained by the revenue from seven villages granted by the king for that purpose. You can still see some of the remnants of its structures today in the present state of Bihar.

Nalanda University is said to have had as many as 10,000 students and about 1500 teachers. The Nalanda Vihara was established by Emperor Ashok, who also built a Sangharan for Buddhist nuns. It only became known as a university after the 3rd century CE. Some scholars feel that by 410 CE it became the center of Brahminical learning rather than Buddhist. By the time the Chinese traveler Huen Tsang arrived, it had become an important place for learning. It was known to teach Vedanta, Sankhya, Jyotish, Ayurveda, yoga, nyaya, various philosophies, along with physical education. It was known to have as many as 1510 teachers at that time. By the 7th century it had about 7,000 students, and 200 villages attached to the university. (R. N. Sharma & R. K. Sharma, History of Education in India, Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, 2004, p. 56.) Kamlesh Kapur describes it more fully: Nalanda University had a campus one mile in length and a half mile in width. There was a huge library called Dharma Gunj (mountain of knowledge). It had three wingsBbearing the names Ratna-Sagara, Ratna-Nidhi and Ratna-Ranjana. One of these was nine stories high. Nalanda was graced by the presence of India’s most brilliant philosophersBHindu and Buddhist. Some of them were Nagarjuna, Aryadeva, Dharmapala, Silabhadra, Santarakshita, Kamalaseela, Bhaviveka, Dignaga, Dharmakirty, etc. The works they left behind are mostly available through Tibetan and Chinese translations. Xuanzang (Hiuen-Tsang) was a student at Nalanda. He subsequently became a teacher at this ancient university (Mahavihara). In his writings, he has given a vivid account of the life at this great center of learning in the 7th century CE. Students from the foreign lands such as Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Sumatra, Java, and Sri Lanka came here for higher learning. . . This was a residential university. The original manuscripts perished when the Muslim invaders under Bakhtiar Khilji set fire to Nalanda and beheaded the monks in 1037 CE. (Kamlesh Kapur, Portraits of a Nation: History of India, Sterling Publishers, Private Limited, 2010, p. 398.)  It is said that the library, with its thousands of manuscripts of knowledge, burnt for weeks.


The earliest form of military science is outlined in the standard Vedic text called the Dhanurveda. However, this has been lost. Nonetheless, much of this knowledge can still be found in such books as the MahabharataAgni Purana, and so on, that describe military techniques. This was based firstly on the several arrays of military forces for defensive measures and for attacks on the enemy. These were for arranging the army in Uras or center-based, Kakshas or flanks, Pakshas or wings, Praligraha or reserves, Koti or vanguards, Madhya or back centered, and Prishtha or back line behind the Madhya but in front of the reserves.

The use and training of weapons was a most important part of the military, which during those days comprised the use of bow and arrows while riding horses. Archery also included the shooting of not just a single arrow but included the shooting of several arrows at once. Besides the bow and arrow, several other weapons where also implemented. These included thrown missiles called Yantramuktas; those hurled by hand, Hastamuktas; weapons to be held like javelins, tridents, or swords, maces, etc., called Muktamuktas; and then natural weapons like fists, fingers, feet, and so on.

However, there were also weapons based on some explosive projectiles, called a vajra or thunderbolt. Some suspect this to relate to explosives like gunpowder. The Vedic Aryans were well aware of the ingredients of gunpowder, such as sulphur, charcoal, saltpeter, which had been described in some of their medical treatises, and all of which were easily acquired locally. In fact, Greek writers describe the fire-arms used by the Hindus. In a letter to Aristotle, Alexander describes the terrific flashes of flame which showered on his army in India. In this regard, there were weapons called Shatagnis, a machine which shoots out pieces of iron to kill numbers of men at once. It appears that rockets and cannons were an early Indian invention before they became popular in other areas.


India is also known for its distinguished and fierce forms of martial arts, which is one of the earliest developments that have been in existence for thousands of years. In fact, many of the forms of martial arts that have come out of the orient were first influenced by the techniques from India. Some of the styles of martial arts from India traveled to the orient, to places like Tibet, then China, and later to Japan, along with Buddhism when it first arrived in those areas.

The martial arts in India were called shastravidya and dhanurvidyaVidyameans knowledge, and shastra based on astra in this case means weapon, and dhanur relates to the bow (dhanushya) for archery. The Dhanurveda was an upaveda for the knowledge of military fighting or weaponry.

What also developed was the knowledge of Marma points, or pressure points that could be used in martial arts as well. These were explained in such texts as the Sushruta Samhita, a medical treatise by the sage Shushruta in the 4thcentury, which identified 107 such points over the human body, of which 64 could be lethal when struck properly with the fist or a weapon.

In the 8th century, there was the Kuvalaymala by Udyotanasuri that was taught at various educational institutions for non-warrior students to learn the art of using swords and shields, daggers, knives, sticks, lances, and so on. 

Indian wrestling dates to the earliest of times and was found in many parts of India, and still influences numerous aspects of martial arts today. Of course, today much of the serious training and preservation of combat methods are practiced and taught in special ashramas of Kerala. But in the early days, such training of various styles could be found in a wide variety of places. In fact, the interesting thing is that there is not just one location where such martial techniques were developed, but various methods and styles originated in different locations throughout ancient India.

For example, what is called Kalaripaayattu is a well known system of martial arts in India, but mostly of Kerala origin. The name is based on where it is taught, which is the kalari or training hall. This technique uses much footwork, with kicks and unarmed combat, but also with various weapons, such as sticks, canes, swords and shields, knives, spears, etc. The origins for this technique can be traced back to at least the 4th century CE. However, tradition says that it began as far back as the time of Lord Parashurama thousands of years ago. He was also known as the great axe wielder and to have taught forms of martial arts.


 Based on military maneuvers, the game of Chess also came from India. Dr. Will Durant, famous author on civilization, wrote in Our Oriental Heritage: It is true that even across the Himalayan barrier India has sent to us such questionable gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and above all, our numerals and our decimal system.  

Yes, chess also was an invention that came from India. This is known to have appeared during the Gupta empire, where its early form in the 6th century was known as chaturanga, which translates as four divisions of the military; namely infantry, cavalry, elephantry, and chariotry, represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, bishop, and rook. In this way, the game was a battle simulation game. However, there are descriptions in the Bhagavata Purana and Mahabharata of a game that was played that showed a strong resemblance to chess. In Persia, around 600 CE, the name chaturanga and the rules were developed further, and players started saying Shah (which means King in Persian) when they were attacking the opponent’s king piece. And then Shah meant that the King was finished, such as when now saying Check mate! These phrases persisted as the game moved from one region to another. By 1100-1200 CE, the game became known in central Europe, and was well established across all of Europe by 1400 CE with the rules of the game which we use today. Russia’s great interest in chess is more recent, dating from the Communist revolution of 1917.  Dr. Stanley Wolpert, professor of history at UCLA, also recognizes, as he writes in the publication India, that it is thanks to India for the game of chess. Dr. A. L. Basham, professor of history and author of The Wonder That was India,  also summarizes in the same way: As well as her special gifts to Asia, India has conferred many practical blessings on the world at large; notably rice, cotton, the sugar cane, many spices, the domestic fowl, the game of chess, and  most  important  of  all, the  decimal  system  of  numeral  notation. (Niranjan Shah, The Game of Chess Originated in India, in India Tribune, December 5, 2009.)


Besides all of the scientific, mathematical, architectural, agricultural, and medical developments that came out of the Vedic culture of ancient India, it also provided the greatest and deepest level of philosophical thought and spiritual processes that the world had yet to see. In fact, most of the world’s religions either adapted or were influenced by the spiritual understandings that came out of the Vedic culture. It was and has continued to be one of the main spiritual forces and deepest and most profound traditions in the world. It has never been spread by force, fear, intimidation, or war, but only through the grace of the attraction to its spiritual upliftment that it offers everyone. It has never been a dogma or belief system inflicted on anyone, but presents a more tolerant, open and accepting process with a wide latitude of philosophical outlooks within it that allow anyone to participate and be a part of it. 

This can only be the outcome of a great civilization, a deep understanding of human nature, a profound view of the internal quest of all of humanity that drives them to understand more about themselves, where they came from, and where we are going. It is this insight and realizations of the great rishis and spiritual authorities of ancient India, Bharatvarsha, that lead to the teachings of the true nature of the soul, of God, reincarnation or rebirth, karma, Dharma, and the yogic practices that provided everyone with the means to have the same spiritual experiences and insights, and freedom for God-realization. It was not that it was attainable for a mere few, but it was the teachings with which everyone could take advantage of and make progress from whatever was their situation or level of consciousness. The fact remains even today that when we look around, few are those religions that have anywhere near a similar outlook of equality and fairness and allowance for everyone to participate.

The Vedic culture has provided humanity with the largest amount of deep spiritual information of any culture today, and remains a tradition that is still practiced in this day and age. Though many other cultures have ceased to exist, only leaving us with their architecture and pyramids and museum-pieces, the Vedic culture continues to live by the knowledge it has presented, and numerous temples where these traditions are still alive in which we can still see, witness and participate in them. The greatness and sophistication of the Vedic tradition has been noted by numerous writers, scholars and deep thinkers from the time of its discovery in the West. Many examples could be given, which can include such people as Philip Rawson, in The Art of Southeast Asia: AThe culture of India has been one of the world’s most powerful civilizing forces. Countries of the Far East, including China, Korea, Japan, Tibet and Mongolia owe much of what is best in their own cultures to the inspiration of ideas imported from India. The West, too, has its own debts… No conquest or invasion, no forced conversion imposed. (Philip Rawson, The Art of Southeast Asia, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1990, p. 7.)


 In reviewing this information, we can see how much of the world’s deeper spiritual understanding and philosophy, its first developments in medicine, writing, language, mathematics, and other areas which helped to sophisticate the civilizations around the globe, came from India. We can summarize the importance of India’s contribution to the world with the words of Dr. Will Durant, in which he states in Case for India: Let us remember further that India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit, the mother of Europe’s languages; that she was the mother of philosophy; mother of mathematics; mother through Buddha of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother through the village community of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.Professor Jabez T. Sunderland also writes in India Under Bondage: Ethnological, linguistic and other forms of historical research make it clear that the democratic and republican institutions of Europe and America, actually send their roots to Asia and especially to India. India is the natural home of liberty, of democratic government and of self-government. Where did our colonial town-meeting system come from? Our historians trace it to England, and beyond that to Germany. But they cannot stop with Germany. To find they are obliged to go to Asia and especially to the village republics of India. Thus, India proves to be, in a sense, the Mother of Republican America. (Niranjan Shah, India is Mother of Self-government and Democracy, India Tribune, November 7, 2009.)   In this way, we all have much that we owe to India, and should recognize the many contributions that came from its ancient Vedic culture that we may at present take for granted or have forgotten. Without these early developments, we can only imagine how backward the world would stand in its progress today, both spiritually and technologically, and how much more difficult life would be. But furthermore, we can also realize how much more progress we can make by bringing back the mindset, the attitude and realizations that would move the world forward to greater heights if we again brought back the standards as found in India’s ancient Vedic traditions.

About Author: Stephen Knapp

Stephen Knapp(Sri Nandanandana Dasa) grew up in a Christian family, during which time he seriously studied the Bible to understand its teachings. In his late teenage years, however, he began to search through other religions and philosophies from around the world and started to find the answers for which he was looking. He also studied a variety of occult sciences, ancient mythology, mysticism, yoga, and the spiritual teachings of the East. He continued his study of Vedic knowledge and spiritual practice under the guidance of a spiritual master, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

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