The Concept of Pakistan in the Vedas

Many northwestern tribes were are at war with Vedic kingdoms from the rest of India, similar to Pakistan's position in today's time.

The Concept of Pakistan in the Vedas


The three most famous sculptures from Mohenjo Daro, on the Sindhu/Indus river, seem ill-chosen to represent the Pakistani publicity campaign “5000 years of Pakistan”. The “king-priest” apparently is an officiant of a stellar cult, and at any rate of a cult other than Islam, so according to the Pakistani state ideology, raison d’être for Pakistan’s very existence, he was a leading figure in a false religion belonging to Jahiliyya, the “age of ignorance”. Like the seated yogi surrounded by animals, “Śiva Paśupati”, he must be burning in hell now. As for the “dancing girl”, stark naked and in a defying pose, in today’s Pakistan she would be stoned to death right away.

And yet, that Pakistani slogan does make sense. Bear with me, as I will take the reader through a convoluted array of scriptural and historical data, and you will see why this conclusion is anything but far-fetched. Indeed, it is inevitable.



The Northwest has always had a negative connotation in the Vedic tradition. Thus, R. Siddhantashastree (1978: History of the Pre-Kali-Yuga India, Delhi: Inter-India Publications, p.11) writes:

“The valley of the five tributaries of the Indus had always been held as an unholy region because of its occupation by a non-Aryan tribe antagonistic to the civilized Aryans until the time of Sambarana, (…) the king of Hastinapura belonging to the Lunar dynasty. He was the first Aryan to settle in the valley after driving away the aboriginal non-Aryans to a considerable distance.”

The latter sentence suggests a concession to the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) by positing an antagonism between “Aryans” and “aboriginals”, contrary to the Puranic narrative revaluated by the same author, which has the Aryans come from inner India to this peripheral zone and then n to Central Asia. This simply exemplifies the confusion regarding Aryan origins. Then again, perhaps it is the reader who is misled by this received wisdom while the author has a different scenario in mind: the Aryans as natives of a part of India, who came as conquerors to subdue the natives of other parts of India, notably the Northwest.

As Shrikant Talageri (The Rigveda, an Historical Analysis, and The Rigveda and the Avesta, the Final Analysis, Delhi: Aditya Prakashan 2000 c.q. 2008) has argued, the ancient Hindu suspicion towards the Northwest is a strong argument against the AIT. Knowing the Hindu veneration for origins, they should have treated the region of their provenance far more positively. Anyway, we note that Siddhantashastree situates this anti-Northwest attitude already in the pre-Vedic age, in the very beginning of Aryan history.

Battle of the Ten Kings

By the time the Vedic seers start composing their hymns, though, the Northwest is already populated by cognate tribes speaking an Indo-European dialect: first the Druhyu tribe, still remembered in the Rg-Veda as a defeated enemy of the Vedic Pūru tribe, but largely already emigrated to Afghanistan and beyond; then the Anu tribe, the direct enemy confronted by the Vedic people themselves at the time the hymns were being composed. Though speaking related dialects, then probably still mutually understandable, they come into the Vedic horizon as enemies, as harbingers of evil. They add to the region’s negative aura.

Both the successive enemies, from the Druhyu and the Anu tribe, attack the Vedic Pūru tribe from the Northwest. A confederacy led by the Anu tribe comes to confront the Vedic king Sudās in the Battle of the Ten Kings, the foremost historical event in the Ṛg-Veda (7:18-33-83). Unexpectedly, they suffer complete defeat and relocate to Afghanistan. In the names of the tribes and kings, we recognize Iranian (and not Dravidian) names, and in their religion, we recognize the main traits of Mazdeism. The enemies are said to be “without Indra” and “without the Devas”, who were indeed demonized in Mazdeism; and “without fire-sacrifice”, because in Mazdeism, fire is so sacred that one shouldn’t pollute it by throwing things into it. It seems that then already, near the beginning of Vedic history, Mazdeism had its distinctive features.

This is all the more remarkable because this was even before Zarathuštra., the supposed reformer who brought these traits into being. Some three generations later, another battle confirms the division of power and territory. In that more even battle, Ṛjāśva, descendant of Vṛṣagira (hence the “Vārṣāgira battle”), and Sahadeva, descendent of Sudās, face the Iranian king who is remembered in history through the mentions and praise he receives in his court priest Zarathuštra’s own hymns: Kavi Vištāspa. Both parties are mentioned in the Veda 1:100, 1:122) and the Avestā.

The proverbial demons, the Asuras (comprehensively discussed in Hale, Wash Edward: Asura in Early Vedic Religion, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1986, and in Krishna, Nanditha: The Book of Demons, Penguin, Delhi 2014 (2007)), originally indicate the class of gods preferentially worshipped by the Anu tribe, but also by the first Vedic seers. Varuṇa, god of the night sky with its orderly succession of constellations, hence god of the world order (ṛta/aša, seen in Persian names like Artaxerxes) is an Asura, a “lord” or “mighty one”. The Iranians, who often replaced /s/ with /h/, called him Ahura Mazda, “Lord Wisdom”. After the Iranians had demonized the Devas/Daēvas, the Indians started to demonize the Asuras, and Varuṇa gradually fell into disuse, even if by no means as steeply demonized as Indra by the Mazdeans. At any rate, Vedism and Mazdeism conceived of one another as antagonistic, much as Hinduism and Islam do today.

In theological respect, the Iranian religion Mazdeism has often been considered monotheistic, and in popular publications, this account still persists. This was not entirely correct (SkjaervØ, Prods Oktor: “Zarathustra: a Revolutionary Monotheist?”, p. 317-350, in Pongratz-Leisten, Beate: Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake IN 2011), it remained a polytheism, and Zarathuštra with his hyperfocus on one god was strictly speaking a “henotheist”, and hardly representative for the common religion. But it was sufficiently close. The Persians became the saviours of the Israelites with their budding monotheism, their preferred god Varuṇa was the moralist in the Indo-Iranian pantheon (as is apparent from RV 7:86), a bit like the Christian god, and the idea of exalting a single god so much above the others shows a would-be monotheist urge. All this allows for the conclusion that Islamic monotheism is but a radicalization of Zarathuštra’s henotheism. His religion, and possibly his personal religious dissent, was at any rate sufficiently different from the Vedic religion to be thematized as a factor in the long-drawn-out conflict described in the Ṛg-Veda.

So, Pakistan, which has a Persianized form of Hindi as national language, can really be said to be the heir of the proto-Iranian tribes living in that same territory in the Vedic age, or at least to fulfil the same antagonistic role in the Hindu worldview.

Other considerations

The epics give even more flesh to this hostile attitude. In the epics, the troublesome characters typically come from the Northwest. The Rāmāyaṇa intrigue is caused by Kaikeyī, a co-wife of Rāma’s father coming from the northwestern Kaikeya tribe. Gāndhārī, mother of the enemy Kauravas, and her brother Śakuni, deceiver at dice and evil spirit behind the disrobing of Draupadī, come from Gandhāra in Afghanistan. Mādrī, who triggers the death of king Paṇḍu, cause of the whole war, belongs to the Iranian Madra tribe (apparently related to the Medes).

The first, to my knowledge, to become aware of this dislike’s relevance to the Aryan Homeland issue, was Shrikant Talageri. The negative aura of the Northwest was so consistent and unadulterated that this could not possibly be the venerated land of their ancestors. To the above and other considerations, he has added a fact he remembers from his own Saraswat Brahmin community. When it was time for religious fasting, rice was not eaten, but wheat products were. They did not consider wheat, which in the Vedic age came from the Northwest, as real food, and treated it on a par with foreign foods like potatoes. (Talageri 2008:102-106) The wheat-growing Northwest was a foreign country, as Pakistan now is to India.

For another consideration: a negative designation in Sanskrit is Mleccha, “barbarian”. The word is generally taken to come from Meluhha, the Mesopotamian name for Sindh, now in Pakistan. So, long before Pakistan existed, proto-Pakistanis were already called “barbarians” by orthodox Hindus.  

Another Vedic fact, peripheral but symbolically significant, is this. An enemy of the Pauravas is called the Guṅgu tribe (RV 10:48:8). But Guṅgu in Vedic means the firstly-appearing moon, the crescent. And what country has the crescent in its flag?

Territorial claims

The ancient Ānavas lived in West Panjab where they confronted the Vedic king Sudās in the Battle of the Ten Kings, the first Indo-Pak war. (Then already, such wars typically ended in Pakistani defeat.) But where did they come from? Aha, as per Puranic tradition, they immigrated from Kashmir, after taking Panjab from their Druhyucousins. Kashmir was known in the Mazdean Videvdād as the Airiiānām Vaējo, the “seed of the Iranians”, their intermediary Homeland. It was the place of their ethnogenesis after having migrated westwards from Prayāga as part of Yayāti’s branch of the Lunar Dynasty; much like in 1947, the Mohajirs migrated from the Ganga-Yamuna plain to Pakistan.

This proves, as proofs go in irredentism, that Kashmir belongs with Pakistan. So, if all else fails, Pakistan can justify its separate existence, its hostility to India and its territorial demands by invoking Vedic testimony.

A breakthrough slogan

The Pakistani government ought to highlight this long-standing Hindu hostility to the Northwest. It would prove that the negative attitude to the territories now constituting Afghanistan and Pakistan dates back to the Vedic or even pre-Vedic age. If that implies shedding the AIT, so much the better.

Moreover, all this would validate its slogan for attracting tourists to Mohenjo-Daro: “Five thousand years of Pakistan!”

(This paper was rejected by another Indian journal on the sole ground that defending the Pakistani claim on Kashmir is considered treason, and officialdom should not be deemed capable of understanding that this is only done tongue-in-cheek.)

About Author: Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) distinguished himself early on as eager to learn and to dissent. After a few hippie years, he studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. As an independent researcher, he earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism and the secular state, the roots of Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. He also published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question. Regarding religion, he combines human sympathy with substantive skepticism.

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