Vedic Period

Vedic Period

This article deals with ‘Vedic Period’ . This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here.

Introduction

  • Decline of Harappan cities was followed by another great civilisation and culture known as Vedic culture.
  • Vedic culture was the culture of the speakers of Indo-Aryan language, Sanskrit, who would have entered  India from the north-west India.
  • Their initial settlements were in the valleys of the north-west and the plains of the Punjab. Later, they moved into Indo-Gangetic plains.
  • As they were mainly a cattle keeping people, they were mainly in search of pastures.
  • The period of Vedic Culture between 1500 B.C and 600 B.C may be divided into
    1. Early Vedic Period or Rig Vedic Period (1500 B.C -1000 B.C)
    2. Later Vedic Period (1000B.C – 600 B.C)

Debate around original home of Aryans

The original home of the Aryans is a debatable question and different scholars have different view regarding this

  1. European Theory : Supported  by scholars like Sir William Jones , this theory was based on the similarity of all Indo-Aryan languages like Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, German etc. It states that Continent of Europe was the homeland of Aryans.
  2. Central Asian Theory : Supported by scholars like Max Muller , it argues that Central Asia was the original homeland of Aryans based on the similarities in ‘Avesta’ (Iranian text) and the ‘Vedas’.
  3. Artic Region Theory : Main proponent of this theory was Bal Gangadhar Tilak . According to this theory,  the Aryans came from the Arctic region based on the astronomical calculations.
  4. Indian Theory : This theory was supported by Dr. Sampurnanand and A.C. Das. They argued that Aryans were indigenous to the subcontinent. They argue that there are definite literary evidences in the Vedas that the Aryans regarded the Sapta Sindhu as their original home. Along with that, the sacrificial rituals of the Vedic Aryans having similarity with Harappan practices point towards their  Indian origin.

The most accepted view is that Aryans came to India from Central Asia from what is known as Andronovo culture . This is corroborated by similarities in the language of Rigveda and  Avesta ( oldest Iranian texts) along with other features like Cremation , Fire Cult etc. Apart from that, Genetic Marker called  M17 , found in 40% of Central Asian Steppe people is found in Speakers of Indo Aryan Language .

Also, there wasn’t any Aryan invasion but  there was a series of Indo-Aryan Immigrations and they came to the sub-continent as immigrants.

Sources of Vedic Period

There are two type of sources i.e. Archaeological and Literary Sources.

1 . Archaeological Sources

  • Early Vedic culture is correlated with some  Chalcolithic cultures of India especially Ochre Coloured Pottery Ware cultures.
  • On the other hand, Later Vedic culture is correlated with the Painted Grey Ware Culture of the Iron Age in North India.
  • But in contrast to Harappan Civilization, when the urban sites and farming cultures were present in a limited area, there was agricultural  expansion in many parts of India accompanied with growth of craft production and population.

2 . Literary Evidences

2.1 Vedas

Vedas (Vid = to know, Vidya) are one of the earliest known texts composed in India. The language of the Vedas is  Vedic Sanskrit. There are four Vedas i.e.  Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. The Vedic texts were memorized and orally transmitted by Brahmins from generation to generation. They were written down in the later period, after the introduction of writing.  The earliest known written manuscripts of the Vedas date to the 10-11th century CE.

a . Rig Veda

  • It is world’s oldest surviving poetry with extraordinary beauty & philosophical depth .
  • Total number of hymns are 1028 , arranged in 10 Books or Mandalas. These hymns personify forces of nature and try to control and appease them .
  • Books of Rig Veda are as follows
Books 2-7  – They are the oldest books & known as Family Books .
These books are dated between 1500 and 1000 BCE and represent the Earlier Vedic Age.
Their composition is attributed to families of seer poets – Gritasamada, Vishvamitra , Vamadeva, Atri, Bhardwaj & Vasishtha  .
Books 1,8,9,10 These books seems to be of younger age i.e. 1000 BCE onwards.

b . Sama Veda

  • There are total of 1810 hymns .
  • Most of the hymns are borrowed from Rig Veda & arranged according to needs of musical notations .
  • These hymns were used for singing in connection with sacrifices .

c . Yajur Veda

  • Yajur Veda consists partly of hymns & partly of prose sentence (yajus) . Most of hymns of Yajur Veda are taken from Rig Veda.
  • Yajur Veda deals with performance of rituals .

d . Atharva Veda

  • Atharva Veda is the latest Veda among four.
  • It consists of 781 hymns which are divided into 20 books.
  • It contains hymns ,  spells and charms which reflect the  popular beliefs  .
  • Great importance of Atharva Veda lies in the fact that it is the invaluable source of knowledge of the real popular belief as yet uninfluenced by the priestly religion 

Note : Tradition of Vedic chanting is included in the UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

2.2 Brahmanas

  • Each Veda has Brahmanas which are prose explanation of the Samhita portions in terms  of sacrificial rituals & their outcomes. They reflect the spirit of an age in which all intellectual activity was concentrated on the sacrifice  .
  • Among most important Brahmanas are
Rig Veda Aitareya  Brahmana
Sama Veda Jaiminiya Brahmana
Yajur Veda Taittiriya Brahmana 
Atharva Veda Gopatha Brahmana

2.3 Aranyakas

  • Aranyakas are also known as ‘Forest Books.’ 
  • They were probably composed for the old men who had retired into forest & were unable to perform elaborate sacrifices requiring many articles . For them meditation became of superior merit .
  • These books interpret sacrificial rituals in a symbolic & philosophical way.

2.4 Upanishads

  • There are total of 108 Upanishads but 14 are considered principle .
  • Upanishads literally means to sit near someone &  is understood as referring to pupils sitting near  their teachers . Knowledge that was to be imparted  was not ordinary knowledge . It was all encompassing the key to liberation from cycle of birth, death & rebirth , something that could be taught to select deserving pupils .
  • In Upanishads , Indian society started to question the traditional Vedic religious order. The materialistic aspect of religion was discarded and Vedic religion was raised to realm of philosophical doctrine involving around the new concept of Atman (the indestructible soul) and  ‘Brahman’.
  • Note : Satyameva Jayate is taken from Mundaka Upanishad.

2.5 Vedangas

  • Vedangas are also known as the  limbs of the Vedas.
  • They include work such as
Srauta Sutras Deal with major rituals such as Ashvamedha and  Rajasuya .
Grihya Sutras Which lay down the norms for domestic rituals including rites of passage .
Dharma Sutras that lay down social norms .
Sulba Sutras laying down principle of geometry that were used for constructing the sacrificial altar .
  • These texts were also composed over a very long period of time, between c. 800 BCE to c. 200 BCE.

3 . Zend Avesta

  • Earliest part of Zend Avesta is attributed to 1400 BCE .
  • Zend Avesta deals with fire worship, horse sacrifice, cult of soma (or haoma in Avestan language) and there is similarity in name of gods and social classes with Vedas.

Horse Centeredness in Vedic Culture

  • Horse is indispensable trait of Aryan culture .
  • In Vedic & Avestan Texts , personal names are horse centred . Various Iranian chiefs in Avesta & various Iranian tribes mentioned by Herodotus were named after Horse .
  • In Rig Veda, name ASVA comes in various forms 215 times . No other animal was named so frequently. Even Cow (Go) word occurs 176 times.
  • Rig Veda has prayers to god to grant King with ‘Swift Horses’ and ‘Strong Sons’.
  • Various sacrifices and ceremonies involved Horse. Eg : Ashvamedha & Rajasuya (chariot race) Yajnas.

Arguments to prove that Harappan & Rig Vedic people werent’ same

  • Mode of living was different
    • Harappan civilization was an urban civilisation.
    • Rig Vedic people were pastoral and rural in nature.
  • Archaeological evidences show that
    • Harappan phase ended in 1900 BCE .
    • Aryans arrived in India around 1500 BCE .
  • Rig Vedic people were only aware of barley but Harappans were aware of wheat , sesamum, peas etc.
  • Vedic Chiefs were horse centred but Harappans weren’t aware of this animal.
  • Writing of both Civilisations was different. Rig Vedic people spoke Vedic Sanskrit whereas Harappan Script has not been deciphered yet.
  • Harappans practiced earth burials whereas Vedic people cremated the dead ones.

Culture reflected through Rig Veda Samhita

  • Historians divide Rig Vedic Corpus into two parts 
    • Early Vedic Texts : Family Books of Rig Vedic Samhita .
    • Later Vedic Texts : Books 1,8,9 & 10 of Rig Vedic Samhita  + Samhita of Sama, Yajur & Atharva Veda + Brahmanas, Aranyakas & Upanishads .
  • Cultural stages reflected in two broad strata of early & later Vedic texts have come to be known as early & later Vedic cultures .

Part 1 : Early Rig Vedic Culture (1500 – 1000 B.C.)

During the Early Vedic period, the Aryans were mostly confined to the Indus region. They lived in the area of eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan, Punjab and fringes of Western Uttar Pradesh. Rig Veda mentions some of the rivers of Afghanistan like river Kubha along with Indus and it’s tributaries. It also mentions Saraswati which has been identified as Ghaggar-Hakra channel in Haryana and Rajasthan , but it’s Rig Vedic description shows it to be Avestan river Harakhvati or present day Helmand in Afghanistan.

Vedic Period

The political, social and cultural life of the Rig Vedic people can be traced from the hymns of the Rig Veda.

Political Organization

  • Rig Veda is pervaded with aura of wars .
  • Kinship was the basis of the social structure of Rig Vedic society. People were identified with specific clans and the clans formed the tribe or jana. People’s primary loyalty was to the tribe. About 30 tribes/Janas  have been mentioned in the Rig Veda . Purus & Bharatas were two dominant tribes. They initially seem to be allies but at some point fell apart .
  • Rig Vedas speak about not only the Aryans, but also about the non-Aryan people, whom the Aryans referred to as Dasas or Dasyus . Dasyus were dark native people who had different cultural practices. When the Rig Vedic people moved into India they came into conflict with these people .  
  • Prayers to Indra to defeat not only Dasa but also Arya enemies indicate there were conflicts between Aryans too .
  • Aryans are associated with introducing Age of Chariot , spoked wheel and were equipped with better weapons and horses. This gave them edge over original inhabitants.
  • Word Rajan occurs many times . Since full fledged monarchical state hadn’t emerged , it is best translated as chieftain  . His main task was to protect his people & lead them to victory in war.
  • Reference to Chieftain as Gopa /Gopati i.e. Lord of Cattles indicate protecting and increasing herd was his major role .
  • Royal priest accompanied Rajan to Battle , recited prayers & supervised performance of rituals.
  • Rig Veda mentions Sabha & Samitis . Such assemblies might have played important role in redistribution of resources . Apart from that, it acted as check on Rajan and Rajan couldn’t do anything without the approval of these bodies.
Sabha Seems to be smaller & more elite gathering
Samitis Larger assembly presided by Rajan

Social Life

Absence of strict social hierarchy (Caste)

  • In family books, ‘Varna’ word occurs but it means ‘Colour’ . Word Brahmana & Kshatriya is frequently used in family books but word Varna in context of fourfold divided society is never used . Word Vaishya & Shudra is altogether absent .  (Purushasukta Hymn of Book 10 of Rig Veda was the first to speak about 4 fold division)
  • Absence of strict social hierarchy & existence of social mobility is suggested in book 3 by hymn –   ‘O Indra , fond of Soma , would you make me the protector of people or would you make me a king , would you make me a sage who drink soma , would you impart me endless wealth?’ 

Position of Women

  • 19th century socio-religious reformers & 20th century  nationalist historians  represented Vedic age as golden age for women . They pointed out that 
    1. Vedic people worshipped goddesses .
    2. Rig Veda contains hymns composed by women .
    1. Presence of women sages .
    2. Women took part in rituals along with their husbands .
    3. Women took part in chariot races .
    4. Women attended Sabha & various social gatherings .
    1. Rig Veda attaches importance to institution of marriage . Rituals indicate post puberty marriage & there are references of women choosing their husbands . Women could remarry if his husband disappeared  .
    1. Polyandry was present as Maruts are represented as living with Rodasi and two Asvin brothers lived with daughter of sun god .
  • But other scholars challenge it on following account
    1. Great part of discussion is about elite women ignoring less privileged ones.
    1. Although Rig Veda mentions goddesses but none of them is as important as major gods.
    2. Social implication of worship of female deities is complex . It shows ability of society to visualise divinity in women form but it doesn’t automatically mean that real women enjoyed power or privilege .
    3. Proportion of hymns attributed to women are minuscule 12-15  out of over 1000 .
    4. Women participated in Vedic rituals & sacrifices but as wives on behalf of his husband  .
    5. Vedic society was patrilineal &’patriarchal – women enjoyed little control over material resources .
    6. Rig Vedic prayers are for son & not daughter & absence of sons is deplored .

Nature of Household

  • Household was called  Dam which was under joint control of  husband and wife, called  dampati (dual).
  • Both sons and daughters seem to have been welcome in the dam.

Joint Family

  • There is single word to denote nephew, grandson , cousin etc. This imply that differentiation in family relationships leading to the setting up separate households had not occurred and family was a large joint unit.

Food

  • Wheat and barley, milk and its products like curd and ghee, vegetables and fruits were the chief articles of food.
  • However, the eating of cow’s meat was prohibited since it was a sacred animal and  was considered aghnya (not to be killed).
  • Drink known as SOMA consisted of the juice of Soma plant, mixed with milk, sour milk or yava (cereal) was their favourite . SURA seems to be intoxicating drink made by fermenting grain.

Leisure time

  • There are references to singing , dancing & musical instruments eg vina , vana &’drums. Dramas , Chariot racing & gambling with dice  were  source of entertainment .

Economic Condition

Pastoralism

  • Prayers in Rigveda suggest that Early Vedic Economy was predominantly , if not exclusively , Pastoral in nature. It is corroborated by the references to cattle as wealth  and typical kind of animosity shown towards urbanity as Indra known as Purandara (breaker of Forts / Cities) .

Agriculture

  • Pastoralism was no doubt important but Agriculture cant be altogether ignored .
  • Archaeological evidence points to the development of agriculture among the Rig Vedic people.
  • The ploughshare is mentioned in the Rig Vedas. There are hymns in Rig Veda referring to levelling of fields for cultivation, desire for fertile fields  & producing rich harvests . There are prayers to Indra to  grant or enrich fields . Indra is also referred to as protector of crops and winner of fertile lands .
  • They cultivated barley (yava).

Craft Production

  • Rig Veda mentions artisans such as carpenters, chariot-makers, weavers and leather-workers.
  • Weaving of clothes of cotton and wool is also mentioned.
  • Copper metallurgy was one of the important developments of this period.
  • Word Ayas occur in many contexts like Indira’s thunderbolt of Ayas , Agni compared to edge of Ayas etc.  . But it is not clear which metal these objects were made of . Some scholars  interpreted Ayas as Iron artefacts which is not true as Early Rig Vedic Age was chalcolithic in nature .  Ayas could have meant copper, bronze or may be general term for metals .

No notion of private property

  • Notion of private property ownership didn’t exist . Clan as whole enjoyed rights over major resources like land & herds .

Trading

  • Although trading activities were limited but traders referred to as ‘Panis’ were present during the Early Vedic period. 
  • Coinage system was not developed and most of the trade was carried in Barter.

Transportation

  • Bullock carts, horses and horse-drawn chariots were used for transport.
  • There are references to the sea (samudra) and boats (nau) indicating riverine transportation as well.

No formal taxation system

  • There was no regular revenue system although Rig Veda mentions the voluntary gifts (bali) received by Rajan from the members of clan . 
  • War booty was major source of wealth .

Religion

  • Rig Vedic Aryans worshiped the natural forces like earth, fire, wind, rain and thunder i.e. Rig Veda reflects Naturalistic Polytheism. They personified these natural forces into many gods and worshipped them. The important Rig Vedic gods were Indra (thunder) ,Agni (Fire),  Prithvi (Earth),  Vayu (Wind) and Varuna (Rain) .
  • Religion followed by the Early Rig Vedic people was ‘sacrificial’ in nature. Animal sacrifice is way to kill older animals with no economic utility and lessen the burden on their owner.
  • Indra was the most important and most frequently invoked god in Rig Veda . 250 Rig Vedic hymns are attributed to him. He was vigorous & strong , great warrior . His weapon was thunderbolt (Vajra)  & he led Aryas to victory in Battles . He loved to drink Soma . The most important  myth associated with him was his win over serpent demon Vritra who was hiding water. Indra finally killed him with his Thunderbolt & released the water. According to (historian) DD Kosambi, these stories originated from the clashes between Aryan Tribes whose chief was envisaged as Indra and Non-Vedic original settlers and breaking of agricultural dams built by these settlers.
  • Next in importance was Agni who was regarded as an intermediary between the gods and people.
  • Varuna who personified water was supposed to be the upholder of the natural order.
  • There were female gods like Aditi and Ushas as well.
  • There were no temples and no idol worship during the early Vedic period.

Part 2 : Later Vedic Period (1000 – 600 BC)

  • The Later Vedic culture is dated to the period between 1000 BCE and 700–600 BCE.  The Satapatha Brahmana refers to the expansion of Aryans to the eastern Gangetic plains
  • The Painted Grey Ware Culture of  the Iron Age is associated with the Later Vedic culture.
  • The Aryan speakers expanded till Ganga-Yamuna doab in the Later Vedic period.
  • The Bharatas and Purus, the two major tribes, combined and thus formed the Kuru people.  Soon the Kurus occupied Delhi and the upper reaches of the doab, the area called Kurukshetra or the land of the Kurus. Gradually they coalesced with a people called the Panchalas who occupied the central part of the doab. The authority of the Kuru–Panchalas people spread over Delhi ,and the upper and central parts of the doab. They set up their capital at Hastinapur situated in Meerut district. The history of the Kuru tribe is important for the battle of Bharata, which is the principal theme of the great epic called the Mahabharata. This war is supposed to have been fought around 950 BC between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. Since both of them belonged to the Kuru clan, as a result of war virtually the whole of the Kuru clan was wiped out.
Later Vedic Period

Political Organization

Larger Kingdoms

  • Later Vedic people led a settled life leading to formation of territorial units.
  • Larger kingdoms were formed during the later Vedic period. Many Jana or tribes were amalgamated to form Janapadas.
  • The wars were no longer fought for cows, but for territories.

Hereditary Kings

  • Hereditary Kingship was emerging & Shatapatha Brahmanas refer to kingdom of 10 generations
  • In absence of firmly established principles of heredity & primogeniture, rituals became  important for  ruler to assert his authority. Ceremonial sacrifices like Rajasuya (consecration ceremony), Ashvamedha (horse sacrifice) and Vajpeya (chariot race) were performed on lavish scale and were thought to give  Super-Human status to chiefs , legitimising their rules.

Taxes

  • Taxes were not yet formally collected although Bali  was possibly acquiring an obligatory character.
  • The king received voluntary or compulsory contribution called Bali from the people .

Bureaucracy

  • Although well developed bureaucracy was still absent but number of officials increased than Early Vedic Culture.  Some of the officials include
    1. Purohita : Chief Priest
    2. Charioteer or Suta : Companion of Raja in his exploits & who narrate tales of valour on a number of occasions.
    3. Senani : Leader of the Army
    4. Sangrahitr : Associated with gathering resources.
  • At the lower level, the administration was possibly run by village chief called Gramini.
  • Even in later Vedic times the king did not have a standing army. Tribal units were mustered in times of war .

Reduced powers of Sabha and Samiti

  • Sabha & Samiti continued to exist but with increase in power of king , power of these assemblies decreased.
  • Membership was also reduced to chiefs and rich nobles, and women were no longer permitted to sit in the Sabha .

Social Conditions

Varna Hierarchy

  • Purushasukta Hymn in Book 10 of Rig Veda for the first time refers to 4 social groups – Brahmana , Rajanya (or Kshatriya) , Vaishya & Shudra  .  Varnas are described as being created at same time as that of earth , sky , sun & moon indicated this was considered a part of natural & eternal order of world .
  • The two higher classes – Brahmana and Kshatriya enjoyed privileges that were denied to the Vaisya and Sudra.
  • The concept of dvija (twice-born) developed and the upanayana (sacred thread) was limited to the upper sections of the society. This ceremony marked the initiation for education. The fourth varna was denied this privilege and the Gayatri mantra could not be recited by the Sudras. Women were also denied upanayana and Gayatri mantra
  • Although there is no indication of practice of untouchability but in later Vedic texts groups like Chandalas were looked upon with contempt by elites . In Chandogaya  Upanishad ,  they are described as victims to be offered in symbolic Purushamedha (human sacrifices) & dedicated to deity Vayu (wind) suggesting they lived in open air .

Position of woman

  • Position of woman started to deteriorate compared to the Early Vedic Period corroborated by following facts
    1. Women lost their political rights of attending assemblies.
    2. Child marriages became common.
    3. According to Aitreya Brahmana, a daughter has been described as a source of misery.
    4. Polygyny became frequent.
    5. Society became strictly patrilineal and patriarchal .
    1. Atharva Veda contains charms for changing a female foetus into a male one .
  • But at some places, Women were  praised & exalted in  in later Vedic texts . For instance
    • Shatapatha Brahmana states that  wife is half the other half of her husband & completed him .
    • A few women like Gargi & Maitreyi  participated in the philosophical debate with Upanishadic Sages .
    • Vishpala was a women warrior who lost a leg in battle  but such references were far apart & minuscule .

Nature of Household

  • Household was called  Griha which was under the control of husband called Grihapati.
  •  Griha had three components: a patni,  cattle  and sons.

Food

  • Apupa was the cake mixed with ghee .
  • Milk products were consumed.
  • Meat was eaten on special occasion like honouring guests .
  • There are references of intoxicants like Sura .
  • Soma plant become difficult to obtain . Hence, substitutes were allowed .

Economic Conditions

Use of Iron

  • Earliest references to iron  found are  during Later Vedic Period
    • Term Krishna Ayas in Yajur Veda & Atharva Veda  refers to Iron.
    • Taittariya Samhita   mentions ploughs driven by 6 or even 12 oxen (made of iron) .
  • Iron was used extensively in this period and this enabled the people to clear forests and to bring more land under cultivation.  Iron is believed to have played an important role in the conversion of the forests of the Ganga Valley into agricultural lands.

Agriculture

  • Agriculture became the chief occupation as iron helped to clear the forests.
  • Improved types of implements were used for cultivation.
  • Satapatha Brahmana mentions rituals related to ploughing.  The god Balarama is depicted with a plough, which suggests the importance of cultivation.
  • Besides barley , rice and wheat were grown.

Property rights

  • Land was owned and occupied by extended families .

Craft Production

  • Arts and crafts proliferated during the Later Vedic age and craft specialization took deep roots.
  • Metal work like iron and copper became important.  Weaving was undertaken by women. Leatherwork, pottery and carpentry were well known.
  • Bow makers, rope makers, arrow makers, hide dressers, stone breakers, physicians, goldsmiths and astrologers are some of the specialized professional groups mentioned in the texts.

Trading

  • Vaisyas  carried on trade and commerce. They organized themselves into guilds known as ganas.
  • No evidence of coins has been found and therefore barter must have been the medium of exchange. The introduction of coins took place after about 600 BCE.

Religion

  • Gods of the Early Vedic period like Indra and Agni lost their importance. Prajapati (the creator), Vishnu (the protector) and Rudra (the destroyer) became prominent during the Later Vedic period.
  • Sacrifices  became  very elaborate. The importance of prayers declined and that of sacrifices increased.  It was believed that sacrifices could solve many problems.  The correct performance of sacrifices was stressed. Stress was laid on paying dakshina to the Brahmins performing the sacrifices.
  • The rise of Buddhism and Jainism and upanishadic philosophy within hinduism was the direct result of reaction to these elaborate sacrifices. Upanishads stress the importance of realising the atman or inner self and heterodox faiths such as Buddhism and Jainism  emphasized on correct human behaviour and discipline.