The Vedic Period Society, Religion, Polity and Economic life.

society, political system, religion, and economy of the vedic period

After the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilisation in 1900 BCE, a group of Indo-Aryan people migrated into north-western India and started to live in the northern Indus Valley. The period (1500 BC – 500 BC) is called Vedic period as ‘Vedas’ – the oldest scriptures of Hinduism were composed during this time. The Rig Veda is the only source of knowledge of this period. The Vedic period can be classified into Early Vedic/Rig Vedic Period (1500BC – 1000BC) and Later Vedic Period (1000 BC – 500 BC).

society, political system, religion, and economy of the vedic period

Early Vedic Period or Rig Vedic Period:

The Rig Veda is the only source of knowledge of this period. From the names of rivers, mountains, and oceans mentioned in Rig Veda, we have an idea about the geographical area in which Early Vedic People lived. Names of 40 rivers were mentioned in Rig Veda. The early Vedic people (the Aryans) first appeared in the subcontinent which was called “Sapta Sindhu” i.e. the region of seven rivers comprises Sindhu and its five tributaries – Vitasta, Asikani, Vipas, Parushni & Satudri, and Saraswati.

Political System:

Rig Vedic people were organized into tribes rather than Kingdoms. The Kula (family) was the basis of both social and political life of that period. It was the smallest unit of the political system. Above the Kula, there were Village or Grama, Clan or Vis, Jana, and the Country or Rashtra. The Grama was made by a group of Kulas, the Vis was made by a group of Grama and so on.

  • Gramini & Vispati were the heads of Village and Vis respectively.
  • The Rashtra was ruled by a King or Rajan. The purohits or domestic priests were Rajan’s friend, philosopher, and guide. They were the first ranking officials of the ministry of the King. Other important royal officials were ‘Senani(army chief) and ‘Gramani(head of a village).
  • The autonomy of Rajan was restricted by the tribal councils called ”Sabha” & ”Samiti”.
  • In the Rig Veda, two popular assemblies ‘Sabha’ and ‘Samiti’ were given great importance. The Samiti, mainly dealt with policy decisions and political business included common people. Where the Sabha was less political in character mostly included elders and nobles.
  • The Rajan had a primary court which was attended by courtiers (sabhasad) and the Gramanis (the chief of Grama). The main responsibility of Rajan was to protect the tribe.
  • During this period cow was not to be killed. According to the Rig Veda, those people who kill or injure cow got the death penalty or driven out from the kingdom.
  • The King didn’t possess a standing army.

Rig Vedic Society:

Based on the relationship, the Rig Vedic society was essentially tribal and liberal. People owed their primary loyalty to their tribe. The unit of the society was family and the birth of a son was desired.

  • There was no evidence of caste system. The words ‘Brahmana’ and ‘Kshatriya’ occurred in various books but they were not associated with the term ‘Varna’. The words ‘Vaishya’ and ‘Shudra’ were absent.
  • Rig Vedic people were primarily agricultural and pastoral, who quantify their wealth in terms of cows.
  • Marriage was an important ritual and there were different types of marriages mentioned in the Rig Veda. Women could choose their husbands and could remarry if their husbands died or disappeared.
  • Child marriage was not in vogue.
  • Right to property existed in respect of movable things like cattle, horses, goats etc. and also in respect of immovable properties like house and lands.
  • Early Vedic people consumed milk and its products (butter, ghee, curd), vegetables, fruits, and grains.
  • Meat eating was mentioned but the cow was labeled as ‘Aghanya‘ i.e. not to be killed.
  • Soma and sura were popular drinks.
  • People loved entertainments included music, dance, chariot racing, and gambling or dicing.

Religion:

The Gods worshipped during this period were generally the personified powers of Nature. There were nearly 33 Gods mentioned in Rig Veda.

  • Indra (destroyer of the fort), Agni (fire God) & Varuna (God of water) were the most popular Gods. Rudra (the God of animals), Dyaus (the oldest God and the father of the world), Yama (the God of death) were some other Gods during that period.
  • Rig Vedic people believed that fire was sacred as it was the intermediary between man and God.
  • Rig Vedic religion primarily consisted of the worship of Gods with a simple ceremony called ‘Yajna‘ or ‘Sacrifice‘.

Economy:

The economic life of the Rig Vedic people was sustained by a combination of agriculture, cattle rearing, trade, and commerce. The Rig Veda attached great importance to agriculture.

  • In the early Vedic period the Aryans were depending mainly on a pastoral economy, their main occupation was cattle-breeding. The domesticated cow, horse, sheep, goat, dog etc. Wild animals like lion, elephant were known to them. They were not familiar with the tiger.
  • Among the other occupations, carpentry, pottery making, metal working, leather working were famous.
  • The cow was the most important part of the wealth. Most wars were fought for cows.
  • Money and markets were known to the Rig Vedic people but they were not used extensively. Cows or gold ornaments of fixed value were the media of exchange.
  • Coins were not known.

 

Later Vedic Period:

After the 12th century BCE, the Vedic society transformed from semi-nomadic life to settled agriculture. The centre of the Vedic culture shifted from Saraswati to the Ganges. During this period the Aryan settlements covered the whole of Northern India. The Rig Vedic people had remained out of reach from the Gangetic plans because of thick forest cover. After 1000 BCE, the use of iron axes and ploughs became widespread and the jungles could be cleared with ease. This enabled the Vedic Aryans to settle at the western Gangetic plains.

Political System:

In this period, the tribes had merged into small kingdoms, which had a capital and administrative system. Thus large Kingdoms and stately cities made their appearance.

  • New civil functionaries came into existence due to economic changes, e.g. the Bhagadudha (tax collector), the Suta/Sarathi (the royal charioteer), the Khasttri (Chamberlain), the Akshavapa (Courier).
  • The military officials of the Rig Vedic time, the Senani & the Gramani continued to function.
  • The provincial system of government was started.
  • During the later Vedic age popular assemblies lost much of their importance and royal power increased. The King became more powerful with the formation of kingdoms. Sabha & Samiti continued to hold ground but their character changed.
  • Women were not permitted to attend the assemblies.
  • In this period Judiciary system had grown a lot. The King played an important role in administering criminal laws. Theft, burglary, robbery, cattle lifting, the murder of a Brahman, homicide (killing human), and drinking sura were regarded as serious crimes and they were strongly dealt with by the administration.

Later Vedic Period Society:

  • During the later Vedic period, the simple ceremony for worshipping God called ‘Yajna‘ became more elaborate and complicated, leading to the rise of learned men known as Brahmanas.
  • As time passed by the Aryans expanded to the east and south. A group of people known as Kshatriyas emerged to conquer territories and administer them. The remaining Aryans formed a separate class called ‘Vaishyas‘ derived from ‘Vis’. Those who did not belong to Aryans formed a separate class called ‘Shudras‘.
  • The Ashrama system belonged to the later Vedic period. This system was for regulating the life of male members of the higher castes. The system consisted of four stages: (a) Brahmacharya – A child leads a celibate life as a student at the home of his teacher. (b) Grihastha – After doing masters in Vedas or part of them, a person returns to his parental house and getting married. Thus he becomes a householder. (c) Vanaprastha – After his Grihastha life when a person has seen his grandchildren, he leaves home for the forest to become a hermit. (d) Sanyas – This is the last stage of a human life. By meditation and penance, one frees his soul from material things, leaves hermitage and becomes a homeless wanderer. This last stage is the one when a person abandons truth and falsehood, pleasure and pain, the Vedas, this world in search for the God.
  • The position of women in the later Vedic period was respectable. They took part in sacrifices along with their husbands. There were no examples of child marriage & the marriageable age for girls was 16 to 17 years.

Religion:

The early simple ceremonial sacrifices became more elaborate and complex. There were two varities of sacrifices, Laghuyajnas or simple/private sacrifices and Mahayajnas or grand/royal sacrifices.

  • The early Vedic Gods Indra & Varuna became less important whereas Prajapati (creator of the Universe, later known as Brahma), Vishnu (Patron God of Aryans), and Rudra (God of animals or Lord Shiva) became important.
  • Pushana, who protected the cows in the early Vedic period became the God of shudras.
  • During the end of the Vedic period, there was evidence of rising strong reaction against the rituals, sects, and priestly domination.

Economy:

The economic condition of Aryans in later Vedic age significantly changed due to the caste system. There are references about money lenders, chariot makers, dyers, weavers, barbers, goldsmiths, ironsmiths, washermen, bow makers, carpenters, musicians etc. The art of writing probably developed in this period.

  • Agriculture was the main occupation of the people. Maximum lands were brought under cultivation. Advanced land ploughing, manuring, and sowing with better quality seeds were known to them.
  • Rice, barley, wheat, maize, beans, and oilseeds were cultivated.
  • Trade and commerce had increased significantly. Both inland and overseas trades were developed. People became familiar with the sea navigation.
  • Regular coinage was not started but some trade coins were in circulation like ‘Nishka‘, ‘Satamana‘, and ‘Krishnala‘. The unit value of goods was a gold coin named ‘Nishka’.
  • There was a class of merchants called ‘Pani’ who controlled the trade.

 

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