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Vedic Civilization

Vedic Civilization is the most important civilization of ancient India. There are many speculations about its origin in the subcontinent. The Vedic culture is also unique in the sense that unlike anywhere else, it continues to influence modern life. In a way, the culture never declined and modern India is continuation of the same.

For convenience, Vedic Age is divided into two major sections 

Rig Vedic (Early Vedic) Period1500 BC to 1000 BC
Later Vedic Period1000 BC to 500 BC

1. Theories of Origin of Vedic Civilization

1.1 Aryan Migration Theories

Many theories propose migration of Aryans from different parts of world to Indian subcontinent i.e. from Central Siberia (Max Muller), Tibet (Swami Dayanand Saraswati in Satyartha Prakash), Indigenous people of North West India(A C Das), Arctic region (Bal Gangadhar Tilak in The Arctic Home in the Vedas)

1.2 Migration from Central Siberia

The theory of Max Mueller is most accepted theory (Aryan migration from Central Siberia) for origin of Vedic civilization. According to this theory, Aryans were linguistic group of people who spoke Indo-European languages, from which later emerged Sanskrit, Italic, English etc. It is suggested that they came in several batches, spanning several centuries.

The advocates of this theory has drawn the chronology of arrival of Aryans to India.

1] Steppes region (2nd millennium BC)
2] Iran (1900 BC – 1500 BC)
3] North West India (1500 BC onwards)

Evidence of this theory include 
A) The holy book of Iran, Zend Avesta mentions about arrival of Aryans to North West India. 
B) Evidences of horses, spoked wheel, fire cult and cremation between 1900 BC and 1500 BC from Iran. 
C) Max Muller concluded that ancestors of the Indians, Greeks, Romans, English must have been same, based on the commonality of languages. For example :

SanskritEnglishLatin
MatruMotherMater
PitriFatherPater

2. Geographical Extent

Spread of Vedic Civilization

2.1 Rigvedic Age

According to Rigveda, Vedic Aryans occupied Sapta Sindhwa region after arriving in India. Land of 7 rivers which include Indus, Zelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, Sutlej and Saraswati. This region corresponds to Punjab and Haryana region of today.

River Saraswati is mentioned 72 times in Rigveda, river Yamuna is mentioned twice while Ganga only once. From this, it has been concluded that early Vedic people had not reached Ganga river from eastern side.

Rigvedic people were also aware of Himalayas because they used to procure Soma plant from Marjauntaa of Himalayas.

2.2 Later Vedic Period

During later Vedic period, Vedic culture spread in east and reached upto central Bihar. According to Shatapatha Bramhana, prince Videga Madhav had cleared forest with the help of fire up to river Gandak, flowing in Bihar.

There is reference to five-fold geographical divisions. It is also found that later Vedic period was aware of modern Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and Southern mountains identified with Vindhyas.

3. Structure of Society in Vedic Period

3.1 Rigvedic Society

It was a tribal, nomadic society. There was no conception of smaller family units. Whole kula was one family. Thus, kinship (blood relations) were given more importance.

We also observe the evolution of Varna system in Rig Vedic society. Stratification system evolved gradually during early Vedic age. Colour of skin was main consideration for the social stratification.  The society was divided into 2 categories i.e. aryans as white and dasyu and dasas as non-white (indigenous people).

Dasyus were indigenous people, and dasas were early Aryan groups, who had lost their colours and customs due to intermarriage with indigenous groups.

Over a period of time, Aryans were divided into 3 varnas. Bramhanas as men of learning, Kshatriyas as ruling class and Vaisyas as producing class. There was also a high social mobility as evident from a Vedic hymn which states:

I am a bard (poet), my father is a leech and my mother grinds corn. We belong to different varnas but we live together as a family.

During the last phase of early Vedic age, 4 fold division of society emerged in the form of Bramhan, Ksatriya, Vaisya & Sudra. Only one reference to this 4 fold division is found in Purushasukta hymn of Rigveda in 10th Mandala.

Position of woman was quite high. Women had access to education and female sages like Gargi, Appala, Ghosha, Lopmudra, Vishwavara etc. are mentioned in Vedic books.

There was a system of oral education in Gurukulas where both male and female would go to access education. Women would participate in Sabha and Samiti.
Birth of women was not desirable. However, once born, she was treated with honour.

Child marriage was absent. There was a concept of post-puberty marriage. Marriage was important institution. The tradition of sati was absent. Widow remarriage allowed.

The society was in general patriarchal (male as head of family), patrilineal (male son would inherit property)  and patrilocal (girl would move to husband’s residence after marriage) in nature.

However, the overall society was egalitarian and flexible. Slavery was present and the number of female slaves was more than that of male slaves.

3.2 Later Vedic Society

In contrast to early Vedic, the later Vedic was a settled society. The kinship was important even now. Family was an important unit of society. The power of head of the family called Kulapati increased. He was able to inflict corporal punishment on family members. 

Varna system got crystallized. The four fold system became more rigid. Caste mobility was not appreciated at all.

The Upanayana ceremony was conducted before starting education. However, Sudras were not allowed this ceremony, nor did they had access to education. Sudras were also not allowed the recitation of Gayatri mantra.

Gotra system appeared in marriage, under which, one cannot marry within same gotra (lineage).

The position of women declined to high extend.  Access to education was not allowed. They could not participate in Sabha and Samiti. Birth of girl child was considered a curse. Widow remarriage was still allowed. Child marriage and sati system was not prevalent. The slavery continued dominated by female slaves.

Ashrama system also emerged in the later Vedic age. Chandogya Upanishad contains reference to 3 ashramas. Bramhacarya, Grihastha and Vanaprastha. The reference to 4 ashramas including Sanyas ashram is mentioned in Jabala Upanishad.

Ashrama (Stage of Life)Person’s Age
Bramhacari Ashrama (Student Life)5 years – 25 years
Grihastha Ashrama (Family Life)25 years – 50 years
Vanaprasthra Ashrama (Retired Life)25 years – 75 years
Sanyas Ashrama (Renounced Life)75 years – 100 years

4. Politico Administrative Life during Vedic Period

4.1 Rigvedic Period

The political system was in nascent stage of development. The concept of state was absent and the people were living a nomadic life. King was not so powerful and was more as a head of the clan than having a high substantial power. Law of primogeniture (the first-born son will inherit kingdom after father) did not exist.

Democratic elements were significantly present in the polity as evident from various committees, units of administration and other bureaucratic elements.

CommitteePurpose
SabhaAssembly of Bramhanas and elders
SamitiAssembly of commoners
VidhatFor distribution of war booty
GanaThe highest assembly
ParishadFor ceremonial affairs
Unit of AdministrationNomenclatureHead of Administration
Family (lowest unit),KulaKulapati.
VillageGramGramini.
Collection of villagesVisViswati
Highest unitJanaJaneshya.
BureaucratFunction
SenaniCommander of Army
GraminiRepresentative of village
PurohitAdvisor to king.

Taxation system was not much developed, as indicated by mention of ‘Bali’ in Rigveda as a voluntary offering to the king.

Wars and battles were quiet common in this period. There is a reference in Rigveda of battle of 10 kings fought on river Ravi. In this battle, king Sudas of Bharata tribe defeated the alliance of 10 kings.

4.2 Later Vedic Period

In later Vedic period, polity got significantly developed. The position of King became highly powerful, as evident from the high sounding titles like EkratVirat etc. King Parikshit is referred as Ardhadev (half god) in Atharvaved indicating that semi-divine monarchy had developed. The law of primogeniture also arrived in this period. Thus, elder son would inherit the kingdom.

Sacrifices like Asvamedha, Vajapeya and Rajasuya would increase the authority of king.

SacrificePurpose
Asvamedha YajnaTo extend realm of sovereignty and territorial control of the King.
Rajasuya YajnaCoronation ceremony of King
Vajapeya YajnaTo enhance the strength of King

Democratic elements were still present, but the representativeness and the participatory approach declined. Women were no longer allowed to participate in Sabha and Samiti. Role of democratic institutions like Sabha, Samiti, Vidhat also decreased.

Elaborate bureaucratic structure developed with around 16 officials like Balisadhak (Collector of Bali), Rakshin (Police Inspector), Aksava (King’s companion in the game of chess) etc. Bali was a regular tax and not a voluntary offering unlike before. Official Bhagadugha was responsible to collect bhaga (king’s share in agriculture produce). Official Sangrahitra was the controller of treasurey.

The concept of state emerged, with state assuming title rashtra‘.  Earlier units continued but the Jana would transit into ‘Janapada‘ with Rashtra above Janapada.  Wars and battles continued to be frequent even now but their nature and purpose was different. It changed from cattle fighting to being instigated by desire for territorial expansion.

5. Economic Life of Vedic Period

5.1 Early Vedic Period (Rigvedic Period)

Economy was pastoral in character. The importance was attached to Cows (domestication) and Horse (warfare). They were aware of agriculture but it was not mainstay. Economy was subsistence in character. We find the mention of food gains like yava (barley), vrihi (rice), godumi (wheat).

Art and culture were practiced like Goldsmith, Silversmith, Coppersmith etc. The Rathakara (Chariot Maker) played an important role in RigVedic economy.
Trade and Commerce still operated on small scale and the monetization of economy had not taken place.

The concept of private property had not emerged. The economic status was decided by the number of cows a family possessed. Rituals and sacrifices played important role in economy. Women also participated in economic activities. Some professions like spinning and weaving were practiced by women. Taxation system had not developed, bali was only a voluntary offering.

5.2 Economic Life of Later Vedic Period

Pastoral practice continued but the agriculture become the mainstay. The rich plains of Indo-Gangetic valley were utilized for this purpose. The knowledge of seasons also helped in agriculture. A whole chapter of Shatapada Bramhana has been devoted to the ploughing rituals. Barley was main crop while rice and wheat were also cultivated.

Secondary economic activities also developed on a large scale. The introduction of iron was highly significant for emergence of new crafts. Iron was used to make tools and weapons.

The monetization of economy was still absent. The gold and silver ornaments were used for trading. (nishka  – gold ornaments, satamanas – silver ornaments) The concept of land as a property emerged, though the importance of cows as a property did not decline. There was overall growth in trade and commerce.

Taxation system became more organized. Bali became regular tax, to be collected by Balisadhak. Bhaga, the share of agricultural produce, to be collected by Bhagadugga. Further, bhoga was the fruits and flowers offering to king and shulka was the tax on the secondary economic activities.

Role of sacrifices and rituals in economy increased. Women continued to play the role in economy.

6. Religious life during Vedic Period

6.1 Rigvedic Age

In Early Vedic Period, we find the personification of forces of nature. The inability to understand the scientific reasons behind natural events, these were given names of gods and goddesses. Even in these, we find the domination of male gods e.g. Indra was the god of rain, Agni – god of fire, Varuna – god of water etc.

We also find the prevalance of polytheism i.e. belief in many gods and kathenotheism i.e. different gods were given supreme position on particular occasions.

Rituals and sacrifices were performed on large number of occasions but for material gain and prosperity. This indicates the materialistic outlook of RigVedic religion.

The philosophical dimension of religion was at nascent stage. The concept of salvation, soul and transmigration was largely absent. Role of priestly class was limited as Brahmins was be one of 16 categories of priests. The householder formed 17th category of priestly class and most of the sacrifices were performed by householder himself without need for priestly mediation.

6.2 Later Vedic Religion

Personification of forces of nature would continued but the position of deities like Indra, Agni, Varuna were be taken by Visnu, Rudra, Prajapati. (Vishnu, Mahesh, Bramha). The Dominance of male gods, polytheism, kathenotheism continued. Rituals and sacrifices became more extensive and elaborate. Like Vajapeya, Asvamedha, Rajasuya, Govishthi (cow sacrifice).

Role of priestly class become significant because of complexity of rituals and sacrifices. The gifts made to priests were in form of cows and not land. Bramhanas, which was one of 16 priestly classes, became dominant. Philosophical dimension of religion developed. Concept of heaven and hell, theory of karma, concept of soul and transmigration become important. Superstitious belief in religion had arisen with goblins and manis (beads) significantly used.

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