Friday, June 8, 2012

Vedic Age of Ancient India

Vedic Society

The Harappan civilization was followed by Vedic or Rig-Vedic culture which was completely opposed to it. The Vedic culture was founded by the Aryans. They were immigrants and arrived in India between 2000 and 1500 BC. The origin of the Aryans is still an unsettled affair. The coming of the Aryans to India was a great event in Indian history. The Aryans were considered to be one of the world's most civilized communities. They were far ahead of other races of their time. The original homeland of Aryans has remained a subject of long and protracted controversy. Regarding the original home of the Aryans the historians have held divergent views.

Origin and Settlement of the Aryans

Central Asian theory

There are various schools of thought regarding the original home of the Aryans. The most important theory which held the field for a long time was that the Aryans originally lived in Central Asia. This theory was propounded by Prof Max Muller a German scholar of comparative languages. He stated that the ancestors of the Indians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Germans and the Celts must have lived together originally. The 'Pitri' and 'Matri' in Sanskrit are essentially the same as the Persian 'Pidar' and 'Madar', the Latin 'Pater' and 'Mater' and the English 'Father' and 'Mother'.
These are not trade terms but words of everyday use in families which could not have been adopted unless at some distant time, the ancestors of these people had lived at one common place. Max Muller concluded that the Aryans who today occupy European countries migrated by a route south of the Caspian through Asia minor to Greece and Italy and one of their groups came to India through the northwest passages.

Arctic Theory

Central Asian theory has been seriously challenged by Sri Bal Gangadhar Tilak in his book 'Arctic Home in the Vedas'. He opined that the original home of the Aryans was a place of extreme cold. The Vedas refer to days and nights lasting for 6 months which are found in Arctic region.

Sapt-Sindhu Theory

According to the eminent historians A C Das, K M Munshi the Aryans originally belonged to the Sapt-Sindhu or Punjab. This point of view was put forward by A C Das in his book Rig Vedic India. He says that all the plants, rivers, crops and animals mentioned in Rig-Veda and other ancient books were found in ancient Punjab. The geographical conditions in Rig-Veda points out to this region. But this theory is not convincing. If the Aryans had been indigenous inhabitants of the Sapt Sindhu area there would have been no need for them to desert such a fertile area and go to other parts. Aryans were unaware of animals such as elephant and lion which were found mainly in India. This proves that Aryans were foreigners

Tibetan Theory

According to Swami Dayanand Saraswati and Pargiter the original home of the Aryans was Tibet. This view has been expounded by them in the Satyarth Prakash and Ancient Indian Historical Traditions respectively. According to them Aryans worshipped the sun and fire as it was extremely cold in Tibet. All the trees and animals mentioned in the Rig Veda were found in Tibet. South-East European Theory. The theory generally accepted these days is that the original home of the Aryan was in south-east Europe. According to Macdonell the common trees like the oak, the birch and the willow and the common animals like the horse and the cow with which the ancestors of the Aryans were familiar could in those days be found only in southern Europe. This theory is also disputed by some western scholars

The Concept of Arya or Aryan

The Indo-Europeans are called Aryans although the term Arya is found mainly in the eastern Indo-European languages. This term may indicate the culture shared by the Avesta and the Rig Veda. The two terms Indo-Iranian and Indo Aryan is frequently used. The term Indo-Iranian is used to signify the undifferentiated language which was spoken by the Aryans comprising the Indians and Iranians before their separation. The term Indo-Aryan means the speech and its speakers who existed in India sometimes are termed as Proto-Indian to denote the same. The term Arya occurs in both the Rig Veda and Avesta. Since Afghanistan was occupied by the Indo Aryans and the Iranian Aryans for some time, a part of this country came to be known as Araiya or Haraiva. In the sixth century BC King Darius I of Persia called himself an Aryan. In the Rig Veda the term Arya connotes a cultural community. Speakers of both the Indo Aryan and the Indo Iranian languages are called Aryans. The Avesta mentions the country of the Aryans where Zoroastrianism began. This might indicate the 'Aria' or 'Ariana' mentioned by classical writers. It covered a large area including Afghanistan and a part of Persia. It also included parts of Bactria and Sogdia to its north. Megasthenes speaks of Arianois as one of the three people inhabiting the countries adjacent to India.

In the Rig Veda the worshippers of Indra were called arya. When this text speaks of the struggle between the Aryans on the one hand and the dasas and the dasyus on the other it does not consider the former to be indigenous and the latter to be foreigners. The struggle takes place between two cultures one observing the vrata and the other violating it. At that stage there is no perception of India as a country or a nation and therefore the notion of indigenous and foreigner do not arise. On the basis of skin colour some hymns of the Rig Veda depict Aryans to be of a separate community. Their enemies are described as black skinned.
The Aryans are called Manusi Praja who worshipped Agni Vaisvanara and who sometimes set fire to the houses of black skinned people. It is also stated that the Aryan God Soma killed black people. But Bailey argues that all the references to the term Arya in the Rig Veda cannot be taken in the sense of race or caste. The term Arya means master or a person of noble birth in the Avesta and this meaning suit several references in the Rig Veda. Therefore those leaders of the Vedic tribes who are lauded in the Rig Veda under the appellation of Arya were either prosperous or high born. In cattle rearing society they owed their prosperity to cattle wealth which could be better accumulated and preserved by the horse backed aristocracy.In the later Vedic and post Vedic times the term arya came to cover people of the three higher varnas who were also called dvija.The Sudras were never placed in the rank of the Aryans. The Aryans were considered to be free.The Sudras on the other hand were not free.

Vedic Literature

Early Vedic Literature

The word Veda is derived from the word 'vid'which means knowledge or wisdom. Vedas are the greatest gift by the Aryans to the Indian culture and civilization. Besides religion these Vedas throw light on the social and economic life of the Vedic and Later Vedic period. The term Vedic literature includes the four Vedas, the Brahmanas attached to each Samhita, the Aranyakas, the Upanishads

Four Vedas

Rig Veda:
Collection of lyrics in praise of different gods
recited by the priest called Hotri.
It contains 1028 suktas divided into 10 mandalas.
Sama Veda:
All of its verses except 75 being taken from RIgVeda.
It was1549 or 1810 shlokas
which were sung on the holy occasion of Yajnas by the Udgatri priests.
Yajur Veda:
Deals with the procedure for the performance of sacrifices.
It has 40 chapters and about 2000 mantras.
It contains ritual as well as hymns recited by Adharvayu.
Atharva Veda:
It has 20 mandals, 731 richas and 5889 Mantras.
It is known as Non Aryan work.
It is a collection of songs, spells and incantations
for the cure of disease, the restoration of harmony and exorcism of evil spirits etc.

They are ritual texts. The sole object of the authors was to speculate on and mystify minute details of Brahmanical sacrifices. There are separate Brahmanas for each Vedas.
They are the concluding portion of the Brahmanas. The literary meanings of Aranyaka is forest. They were written by sages in the forests. They deal with mysticism and symbolism.

Upanishads are usually called Vedanta. The later philosophers found in them the ultimate aim of the Veda. The Upanishads are 108 in number and have been written by different sages between the period from 1000-500 BC.
Vedas and their Brahmanas
Rig Veda - Aitereya and Kaushitaki Brahmana
Sama Veda- Tandya and Jaiminiya Brahmana
Yajur Veda - Taitteriya and Satpatha Brahmana
Atharva Veda - Gopatha Brahmana


Later Vedic Literature

The later Vedic literature includes the Vedangas, Sutras, Upavedas, Puranas, Dharamshastras and the Epics. This literature is also known as Smriti written by ordinary sages.

These are commentaries on the Vedas,
they are six in number and deal with
religious practices (kalpa), pronunciation (siksha),
grammar (vyakarana), etymology (nirukta), meter(chhanda)
and astronomy ( jyotisha).

The term sutra means thread. The first among the sutra literature is Srauta Sutra.
It deals with Vedic sacrifices.
Sulva Sutra prescribes various kinds of measurements for the construction of sacrificial altars.
The Dharma Sutra deals with social duties.
The Sutras have been divided into four parts
Srauta Sutra
Kalpa Sutra
Griha Sutra
Sulva Sutra

The Dharamshastras are treatise on dharma, civil and religious law.
They are the main source of knowledge regarding Brahmanical institutions.
These shastras reveal the working of the caste system in a rigid form.
They throw light on the Hindu law, marriage, divorce, loans and partnerships various kinds of crimes and punishments and judicial procedure.
The Dharamshastras mention the four Ashrams
for the twice-born- Brahmacharya, Garhasthya, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa.

The Puranas are in Sanskrit. Puranas literally mean ancient stories.
There are 18 Puranas in number.
They give valuable information about the political history of ancient India.
The most important Puranas are
Vishnu Purana, Vayu Purana, Matsya Purana, Brahma Purana and Bhavishya Purana.
Puranas are not completely trustworthy as they are at time exaggerated.

Epic age is supposed to have been synchronous with period between the post Rig Vedic and the period of Budhha. The two epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are excellent examples of Indian literature in verse. They throw light on the social and political life of the people of those times. Ramayana was composed by Maharishi Valmiki and consists of 24,000 slokas. The Mahabharata is India's biggest epic. It contains more than 1 lakh verses. The Bhagwadgita is also a part of the Mahabharata.

Life in the Rig Vedic Period

Rig Veda reveals that the Aryans possessed a large territory. The war of ten kings described in Rig Veda refers to many tribes and kingdoms of Rig Vedic India. The most important of them were the Bharatas. They were settled in the territory between the Saraswati and the Yamuna. Divodasa and Sudas were two important Bharata ruler. From the evidence of Rig Vedic texts it appears that monarchy was the prevalent form of government, although the concept of republics was also known. As a rule kingship was hereditary and monarchy was a system of government. But there are instances when the king owed his position to the choice of the people. The protection of the people was the primary duty of the king. Other duties of the king were to establish peace in his region to lead the army in battles, to dispense justice and to appoint priests to perform sacrifices and other sacred rites. In lieu of all these duties he received voluntary offerings from his subjects for administrative purposes. These were known as Bali. These offerings were made in kind and were both compulsory and voluntary.
The main income was derived from the booties collected in war. The king appointed various ministers for running the administration efficiently. The foremost among them was the Purohita. He was the guide, philopsher and friend of the king. Purohita was the domestic priest of the king. Vasishtha and Vishwamitra were two famous purohitas of the Rig Vedic times. The supreme commander of the armed forces was called Senani. In peacetimes the Senani discharged civil duties. The king appointed spies and dutas also. Spies gave him all the information about the people and the kingdom while dutas acted as ambassadors between the different states. The king's entourage also included the Senani and the Gramani who looked after the army and served as the village headman respectively. A very striking feature of the Rig Vedic polity was the institution of two political units known as the Samiti and the Sabha. The sabha is mentioned in many passages of the Rig-Veda as body of the elders. It was attended by persons of noble truth - Brahmanas and rich patrons.

It was as important as the samiti. The sabha acted as the national judicature. Various passages of Rig Veda refer to Samiti but they do not define its exact character and function. The Samiti was an ordinary assembly of the tribe and its members were called Visha. The king attended the Samiti. The most important work of the Samiti was to elect the king. Justice was based on Dharma. The king was the fountain head of justice. Main crimes of the age were theft, burglary, robbery, cheating etc. Cattle lifting was the commonest of all. Monetary compensation was given to the relatives of the man killed. To prove their innocence the criminals were subjected to fire and water ordeals. Aryans were skilled warriors. Main weapons of war were bow and arrow. Other weapons included swords, spears, axes and lances. Most of the wars were fought from bullock driven chariot. Horse riding was known. Cavalary as a military unit had not been formed. Local government played a more important part in the Rig Vedic days. The lowest unit of administration was the family or kul and its chief was known as Grihapati or Kulapati. A group pf families or kuls constituted a village which in the Rig Vedic days were called Grama. The village officer was called Gramini. The village head Gramini led the villagers in time of war and attended the meetings of the Sabha and Samiti. Several villages together formed a vis or clan and its chief was called Vispati. He was also a military leader and used to lead his clan in times of war under the guidance and instructions of the Rajan of the tribe. The tribe was known as the Jana and the head of the Jana was the Rajan who was constantly assisted by the Senani and the Purohita.

Economic Life

The Rig Vedic economy was essentially agricultural economy. They introduced use of plough drawn by oxen and bulls. The ploughed land was called Urvara or Kshetra. The main source of irrigation was rain. The land was also irrigated by wells and small canals. Two crops were raised a year. Animal rearing was the second important occupation of the Aryans. There are references of herdsmen. Cows and bullocks constituted the chief form of wealth. Cow was considered a sacred animal and was called Aghnya (not to be killed). Animals was used to carry goods and agriculture. They reared sheep, goat, bulls, cow and dogs.
The carpenters were an important class in Rig Vedic society. Other important crafts of the Aryans were barbers, tailors, leather-workers, smiths, gold smiths; potters etc. They also introduced the Painted Grey Ware in north India. Trade and commerce also flourished in those days. Most of the trade in Rig Vedic days was in the hands of Panis. Trade was carried both by land and sea. Majority of the trade was carried on with the help of the barter system and cow was a standard unit of exchange. Later on coins of gold and silver called nishka, shatamana, rajata and raupya were used as currencies.

Religious Life

Aryans lead a simple religious life. They continued to follow the faith and rituals which were prevalent among them before they arrived in India. They worshipped forces of nature. The number and importance of the goddesses was less as compared to the gods. The deities worshipped by the Rig Vedic Aryans were fairly numerous and they have been grouped under three heads
Terrestrial Gods - Prithvi, Agni and Soma
Celestial Gods - Dyaus, Varuna, Surya
Atmospheric Gods - Indra, Vayu, Parjanya

To please these Gods Rig Vedic Aryans offered prayers and sacrifices. Milk, grain and ghee were offered in Yajnas. In these yajnas animal sacrifices were performed. Each sacrifice was performed by a Hotri priest who used to chant the Vedic hymns. The Aryans did not build temples to worship their gods; nor did they prepare idols of these gods. The Rig Vedic people believed in life after death.

Later Vedic Civilization

The main sources of information about this civilization are the Vedic texts which were compiled after the age of the Rig Veda. These were the Sam Veda Samhita, the Yajur Veda Samhita, Atharva Veda Samhita, Brahmanas and Upanishads. All these later Vedic texts were compiled in the upper Gangetic basin in 1000-500 BC. These texts show that the Aryans during the later Vedic period shifted from the North-West to the region of the Ganges and Yamuna. The whole of North India to Central India upto the river Narmada along with some regions south of the river comprised of Aryan influence. Archaeologists have excavated a site Hastinapur which belongs to this period between 1000 and 700 BC. The only available remains found are shreds of painted grey pottery, a few copper implements and traces of houses made of unbaked bricks.

Political life

Kingship was a normal feature of the society. There are few references to elected kings otherwise most of the times the office was hereditary. There are references in the Atharva Veda regarding the election of the king by the people. The Brahmanas and the later Samhitas state that the king had divine origins. The kings started adopting various titles like Adhiraj, Rajadhiraj, Samrat, Ekarat, Virat and Savarat. The king was the head of the state and was above law but he was not a despotic ruler. He was dependent upon his ministers who were referred to as Ratnins. They performed Rajasuya and Asvamedha Yajnas to show the extent of their powers. The Rajsuya Yajna was performed at the time of the coronation of the king. It conferred supreme power on him. The most important Yajna was Ashvamedha Yajna. It meant unquestioned control over an area in which the royal horse ran uninterrupted. After the completion of this Yajna the king assumed the title of Chakravartin. It enhanced the power, prestige and prosperity of king. The king performed various duties such as administration, justice, extention of his territory, welfare of his subjects; fighting battles.

In lieu of his duties he received Bali, Sulk and Bhag as taxes. These taxes were roughly 1/6th of the income of his subjects. With the increase in power and income of the king the number of ministers also increased. The ministers were called Ratnins or the receiver of jewels offered by the king at the time of the ceremony. With the increase in royal power the sabha and samiti lost importance. They came under the influence of chiefs and rich nobles. With the expansion of the territories ordinary people could not travel long distance to attend the meetings. They could not remove the king from the power. Women were no longer permitted to sit in the sabhas.King was the fountain head of judiciary. Criminals were given more severe punishments as compared to the Vedic period. Capital punishments became prevalent. King appointed various ministers to dispense justice.Theft, robbery, adultery, abduction, killing of man, treachery and drinking intoxicating liquor were offences punishable with death.

Social Life

In the later Vedic period joint family system was prevalent. The families were patriarchial. Father was the head of the family and was very powerful. He could even disinherit his son. People worshipped their male ancestors. Another chief feature of the later Vedic period was the vanashram system. During this period life span of 100 years of a man was divided into four equal parts of 25 years each and different duties were assigned to him in different parts of life. These ashrams were-


In the later Vedic period position of women declined. They were given a lower position in the society. They were considered inferior and subordinate to men. Women could not participate in the political assemblies. They no longer accompanied their husbands in religious yajnas. Marriage was considered a sacred bond. Woman was the mistress of the house and enjoyed respectable position in the household. Polygamy also prevailed. Education was provided independently by teachers in the ashrams maintained by them. The rich people and king gave large donations to the learned teachers. The main aim of education was to shape their character and prepare them for the future. Besides religion and philosophy other important subjects of study were arithmetic, logic, astrology, grammar, medicine and language. The art of writing had become known to the Aryans. Women were free to get education. There were women scholars also. Dress was similar to the early Vedic period. They wore cotton, woollen and silken clothes. Shoes were also used by the people. Both men and women wore ornaments. Aryans started wearing silver ornaments. The principal means of entertainment of this culture were music, dancing, dicing, hunting and chariot racing. The Aryans had built up cities during this period. Indraprastha, Hastinapur, Koshambi and Benaras had grown up as principal cities. They still led a moral and virtuous life.

Caste System

During the later Vedic period the caste system became very rigid. It was difficult to change one's caste but it was not absolutely impossible. The society had been divided into four main caste divisions- Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Brahmans emerged as the most important class. They performed the sacrifices and rituals for their clients. Kshatriyas came next and they were to fight wars, third position was occupied by Vaishyas and they carried trade and Shudras were considered the lowest among the four castes. They were to serve the other three castes. The first three castes called Dvija -twice born but Shudras were deprived of it. According to Satapatha Brahmana, Kshatriyas and Brahmans could marry women from the Vaishyas and Shudras but the Vaishyas and Shudras could not marry Brahmana and Kshatriya girls.

Economic Life

The Aryans in the later Vedic period had progressed and prospered economically. Agriculture was the chief means of livelihood of the later Vedic people. The Aryans had come to know about iron but very few agricultural tools made of iron have been found. Heavy ploughs were made from it. Vedic texts refer that 24 oxen were used to drag heavy and large ploughs. During this time rice and wheat became their chief crops. Other agricultural products were barley, cotton and various pulses. In Vedic texts rice is also called as Vrihi. Cattle rearing was second important occupation of the Aryans. They domesticated camel, cow, ox, elephant, sheep, horse, goat, donkey and dog. The number of animals represented the wealth of the people.

During this period cow-worship increased and slaughter of cow was prohibited. Various arts and craft developed during this period. Weaving was done by women only but on a wide scale. The people were acquainted with four types of pottery -black and red ware, black slipped ware, painted grey ware and red ware. Other occupations of the Aryans were the goldsmith, leatherwork, the carpenter, blacksmith etc. Both internal and foreign trade had progressed. The Vedic texts refer to sea and sea voyages. This shows that now sea-borne trade was carried on by the Aryans. Money lending was a flourishing business. The references to the word Sreshthin indicates that there were rich traders and probably they were organized into guilds. The Aryans did not use coins but specific weights of gold were used for purposes of a gold currency- Satamana, Nishka, Kosambhi, Hastinapur, Kashi and Videha were regarded as renowned trade centres. Bullock carts were used to carry goods on land. For foreign trade boats and ships were used.

Religious life

Significant changes took place in religion and philosophy during this period. Many of the old gods lost their importance and new so called gods and goddesses rose in popularity. Rudra or Shiva, Vishnu or Narayan and Brahma or Prajapati became the most respected names in Godliness. Prajapati the creator or Brahma occupied the supreme position in the religion. Durga, Kali and Parvati were also worshipped. The Aryans started worshipping certain objects as symbols of divinity. Idol worship also began in this period. Rituals became more complex. Emphasis was laid on 40 samskaras. Sacrifices became more important and now they were being performed by priests only. This was done to maintain the supremacy of the Brahmanas and the Kshatriyas in the society. No ceremony was considered complete in the absence of a purohita. Therefore they got a special status in the society. The chief priests who were engaged in performing sacrifices were -Horti the invoker, Adhvaryu-the executor, Udgatri-the singer. The chief priest received voluntary offerings from the people called Bali.

New beliefs were born among the Aryans who started believing in the attainment of Nirvana through Gyan or the knowledge. The Upanishads criticized the rituals and laid stress on the value of right belief and knowledge. The conception of the material world as Maya or illusion also gained currency during this later Vedic age. Thus the tenets of Hinduism - Moksha, Karma and Maya were enunciated by the seers of the later Vedic period.

Things to Remember

  • It is believed that before the coming of the Aryans in India the greater part of northern and north-western India was inhabited by a group of people known as Dravidians
  • The Dravidians could not meet challenge and hence gradually moved southwards. The horse played a very important role in the lives of the Aryans.
  • There is no trace of totemism and animal worship.
  • Rig Veda is collection of 1017 hymns supplemented by 11 others called Valakhilyas. Purusukta theory developed in the later Vedic period.
  • The first three Vedas - Rig, Sam and Yajur Veda are collectively known as Trayi.
  • The word Arya comes from the root word meaning to cultivate and Aryans as a whole were agriculturists who considered agriculture a noble profession or occupation.
  • In the later Vedic period the purohita or priest was described as the rashtragopa or the protector of the realm of the raja.
  • The king in later Vedic age performed Rajsuya sacrifice which was supposed to confer supreme power on him. The king also performed Vajpeya or the chariot race. The ritual lasted for 17 days and it was supposed to elevate him from the position of Raja to that of Samrat.
  • Indra and Varuna lost their previous importance and prajapati attained the supreme position in later Vedic age.
  • Pushan became the God of Sudras.
  • Rudra and Vishnu became more important than before.

1 comment:

  1. Your dismissal of Aryan's could not be inhabitants of Sapta Saindhava is ill foundeed. Because it is well established now that Sarasvati dried up and there was a long drought period. And that forced Vedic inhabitanta to move toward teh Gangetc plains. It is also recorded in Rifveda taht 15 tribes wee=re pushed out during Mandhata Wars and the Dasranjana and subsequent wars. Also commonality between the form f Chandas, the pr fixes and suffixes in name forms etc between the Avestan and teh Riigveda occurs in the later portions of Rigveda. So these people must have separated in India an dnot prior to Rigveda, in which case the commonality would have been in oldest portions of Rigveda and Avesta.