The Vedic Civilization lasted from 1500 BCE to 600 BCE. This is one major civilization after Indus Valley Civilization. For IAS Exam, Vedic Civilization is one of the most important topics in Ancient History, Students should be well prepared with the factual and conceptual part of the topic for IAS Prelims and mains. Vedic Civilization is also a part of IAS Mains GS paper 1 syllabus.
- Early Vedic Period (1500-1000 BC), also known as Rig Vedic Period.
- Later Vedic Period (1000- 600 BC).
Early Vedic Period (1500-1000 BC)
The Vedic Period (or Vedic Age) (c. 1500 – c. 500 B.C.E.) is the period in the history of India during which the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism, were being composed. Based on literary evidence, scholars place the Vedic period in the second and first millennia B.C.E. continuing up to the sixth century B.C.E. The associated culture, sometimes referred to as Vedic civilization, was centered in the northern and northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent.
The grama (wagon train), vis and jana were political units of the early Vedic Aryans. A vish was a subdivision of a jana or "krishti," and a grama was a smaller unit than the other two. The leader of a grama was called gramani and that of a vish was called vishpati.
The rashtra (polity) was governed by a rajan (chieftain, 'king'). The king is often referred to as gopa (protector) and occasionally as samrat (supreme ruler). He governed the people with their consent and approval. He was elected from a restricted class of 'royals' (rajanya). There were various types of meetings such as the vidhata or "Sabha." Gana was the non-monarchial assembly that is a parallel one to the monarchial assemblies of that period headed by Jyestha the same was referred in Buddhist text named Jettaka.The Sabha, situated outside of settlement, was restricted to the Vratyas, bands of roving Brahmins and Kshatriyas in search of cattle, with a common woman (pumscali) while the vidatha was the potlatch-like ritual distribution of bounty.
The main duty of the king was to protect the tribe. He was aided by several functionaries, including the purohita (chaplain) and the senani (army chief; sena: army). The former not only gave advice to the ruler but also was his chariot driver and practiced spells and charms for success in war. Soldiers on foot (pattis) and on chariots (rathins), armed with bow and arrow, were common. The king employed spaś (spies) and dutas (messengers). He collected taxes (originally ceremonial gifts, bali), from the people which he had to redistribute.
Social and Economic Condition
The concept of varna (class) and the rules of marriage were rigid as is evident from Vedic verses The status of the Brahmins and Kshatriyas was higher than that of the Vaishyas and Shudras. The Brahmins were specialized in creating poetry, preserving the sacred texts, and carrying out various types of rituals. Functioning as intellectual leadership, they also restricted social mobility between the varnas, as in the fields of science, war, literature, religion and the environment. The proper enunciation of verses in ritual was considered essential for prosperity and success in war and harvests. Kshatriyas amassed wealth (cattle), and many commissioned the performance of sacrifices. Kshatriyas helped in administering the polity, maintained the structure of society and the economy of a tribe, and helped in maintaining law and order.
In the Early Vedic Period all the three upper classes Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas were considered as—relatively—equal Arya, but in the Later Vedic Age the Brahmins and Kshatriyas became upper class. The Vaishyas were pastoralists and farmers; the Shudras were the lower class; they included artisans and were meant to serve the upper three classes. As the caste system became deep-rooted there were many restrictions and rules which were to be followed.
Cattle were held in high esteem and frequently appear in Rigvedic hymns; goddesses were often compared to cows, and gods to bulls. Agriculture grew more prominent with time as the community gradually began to settle down in post-Rigvedic times. The economy was based on bartering with cattle and other valuables such as salt or metals.
Families were patrilineal, and people prayed for the abundance of sons. The Society was strictly organized in a system of four varna (classes, to be distinguished from caste, jati).
Position of Women:
In the early Vedic age women enjoyed an honored place in the society. The wife was the mistress of the household and authority over the slaves. In all religious ceremonies she participated with her husband. Prada system was not prevalent in the society. Sati system was also not prevalent in the Vedic society.
The education of girls was not neglected. The Rig-Veda mentions the names of some learned ladies like Viswavara, Apala and Ghosa who composed mantras and attained the rank of Rishis. The girls were married after attaining puberty. The practice of ‘Swayamvara’ was also prevalent in the society. Monogamy was the general Practice.
Polygamy was, of course, practiced and it was confined only to Rings and chiefs. Remarriage of widows was permitted. The women were not independent persons in the eye of the law. They had to remain under the protecting care of their male relations.
Rishis, composers of the hymns of the Rig Veda, were considered to be divine. The main deities were Indra, Agni (the sacrificial fire), and Soma. People also worshipped Mitra-Varuna, Surya (Sun), Vayu (wind), Usha (dawn), Prithvi (Earth) and Aditi (the mother of gods). Yoga and Vedanta became the basic elements of the religion.
Later Vedic Period (1000- 600 BC)
The later Vedic Period commenced with the emergence of agriculture as the principal economic activity. Along with that, a declining trend was experienced as far as the importance of cattle rearing was concerned. Land and its protection started gaining significance and as a result, several large kingdoms arose.
- Kingdoms like Mahajanapadas were formed by amalgamating smaller kingdoms.
- King’s power increased and various sacrifices were performed by him to enhance his position.
- Sacrifices were Rajasuya (consecration ceremony), Vajapeya (chariot race) and Ashwamedha (horse sacrifice).
- The Sabhas and Samitis diminished in importance.
- The Varna system of social distinction became more distinct. This became less based on occupation and more hereditary.
- The four divisions of society in decreasing social ranking were: Brahmanas (priests), Kshatriyas (rulers), Vaishyas (agriculturists, traders and artisans), and Shudras (servers of the upper three classes).
- Women were not permitted to attend public assemblies like Sabhas and Samitis. Their position in society diminished.
- Child marriages became common.
- Sub-castes based on occupation also emerged. Gotras were institutionalised.
- Agriculture was the chief occupation.
- Industrial work like metalwork, pottery and carpentry work also was there.
- There was foreign trade with far off regions like Babylon and Sumeria.
Position of Women:
The women lost their high position which they had in the Rig Vedic Age. They were deprived of their right to the Upanayana ceremony and all their sacraments, excluding marriage, were performed without recitation of Vedic mantras. Polygamy prevailed in the society. Many of the religious ceremonies, formerly practiced by the wife, were now performed by the priests. She was not allowed to attend the political assemblies. Birth of a daughter became undesirable—for she was regarded as a source of misery. The custom of child marriage and dowry crept in. The women lost their honored position in the society.
- Prajapati (creator) and Vishnu (preserver) became important gods.
- Indra and Agni lost their significance.
- Importance of prayers diminished and rituals and sacrifices became more elaborate.
- The priestly class became very powerful and they dictated the rules of the rites and rituals. Because of this orthodoxy, Buddhism and Jainism emerged towards the end of this period.