The Vedic Age (1500 BC – 600 BC)



The Vedic Texts

What is Veda? The word Veda is derived from the root vid which means ‘to know’. The word Veda means the sacred knowledge contained in the texts known as Vedic text.

Two categories of texts are included in the corpus of the Vedic literature. These are Mantra and Brahmana.

  • The Mantra category forms the core of the Vedic texts and has four separate collections. These are the Rigveda, the Samaveda, the Yajurveda, and the Atharvaveda.
  • The Brahmanas (not to be confused with Brahaminical class) are prose texts containing the explanations of the mantras as well as the sacrificial rituals.

The four Vedas together with their Brahmanas are also known as shruti or ‘hearing’, that which was directly heard by the sages.

The Aranyakas (literally forest treatises) and the Upanishads (sitting down beside) are mainly appendices to the Brahmanas. These are also known as the Vedanta (end of the Veda) and contain philosophical discussions.


  • The Rigveda is a collection of 1,028 hymns divided into 10 mandalas. They are the earliest compositions and hence depict the life of the early Vedic people in India.
  • The Samaveda is a collection of verses mostly taken from the Rigveda but arranged in a poetic form to facilitate singing.
  • The Yajurveda is found in two recensions, Black and White, and are full of rituals to be performed publicly or individually.
  • The Atharvaveda is a collection of magic spells and charms to ward off the evil spirits and diseases.

Stages / Period

Careful studies have shown that the Vedic texts reflect two stages of development in terms of literature as well as social and cultural evolution.

The Rigveda which is the oldest Vedic text reflects one stage of social and cultural development whereas the other three Vedas reflect another stage.

The first stage is known as the Rigvedic period or Early Vedic period and the later stage is known as the Later Vedic period.

The age of the Early Vedic period corresponds with the date of the composition of the Rigvedic hymns. This date has been fixed between 1500 BC and 1000 BC. The later Vedic period is placed between 1000 BC and 600 BC.

Recently, the Rigveda has been included by the UNESCO in the list of literature signifying World Human Heritage.


Migration Of The Aryans

The authors of the Vedic hymns were the Aryans. But who were the Aryans? In the 19th century, Aryans were considered a race. Now it is thought of as a linguistic group of people who spoke Indo-European language from which later emerged Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek etc. This is reflected from the words in these languages which are similar in sound and meaning. Thus,

  • the Sanskrit words matri and pitri are similar to the Latin mater and pater.
  • Inar of the Hittite (Turkey) language is similar to Indra of the Vedas.
  • Suryyas and Maruttash of the Kassite (Mesopotamia) inscriptions are equivalent of the Vedic Surya and Marut.

Originally the Aryans seem to have lived somewhere in the Steppes stretching from southern Russia to Central Asia. Then a group out of them migrated to northwest India and came to be called Indo-Aryans or just Aryans.

The archaeological evidence of migrations comes from what is known as Andronovo Culture situated in southern Siberia. This Culture flourished in the second millennium BC. From here people moved to north of Hindukush (the area known as Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex) and from here they entered India.


During the period between 1900 BC and 1500 BC we get, in these regions, evidence of horses, spoked wheels, fire cult and cremation which formed important parts of Aryan life in India. Apart from these, the artefacts and ceramics also suggest movement of people from Central Asian region to South Asian region.

However it may be noted that some scholars still argue that the Aryans were the indigenous people of India and that they did not come from outside. The new people came in several batches spanning several hundred years. All this while interaction between the indigenous inhabitants and the newcomers continued. One of the important results of this process of interaction was that the Vedic form of the Aryan language became predominant in the entire Northwestern India. The texts composed in this language, as mentioned above, are popularly known as the Vedic Texts.


Geographical Horizon Of The Vedic Aryans

The early Vedic Aryans lived in the area known as sapta-sindhu meaning area of seven rivers. This area largely covers the northwestern part of South Asia up to river Yamuna. The seven rivers included Sindhu, Vitasta (Jhelum), Asikni (Chenab), Parushni (Ravi), Vipash (Beas), Shutudri (Sutlej) and the Sarasvati.

In this area the Rigvedic people lived, fought battles, grazed their herds of cattle and other domesticated animals. Gradually moving eastward, they came to occupy eastern U.P. (Kosala) and north Bihar (Videha) during the Later Vedic period. Here they came into contact with the people who spoke languages different from their own and were living in this area for long.


Early Vedic Economy

The early Vedic Aryans were pastoralists. Cattle rearing was their main occupation. They reared cattle, sheep, goats, and horses for purposes of milk, meat and hides.

We arrive at this conclusion after analysing the literary evidence in the Rigveda.

  • A large number of words are derived from the word gau meaning cow.
  • A wealthy person was known as gomat and the daughter called duhitri which means one who milks the cow.
  • The word gaveshana literally means search for cows, but it also means battle since many battles were fought over cattle.
  • The cows were thought of as providers of everything.
  • Prayers are offered for increase in the number of cattle.

All the above and many more references show that cattle breeding was the most important economic activity of the Rigvedic Aryans.

However, this is not to suggest that the early Vedic people had no knowledge of agriculture. The evidence for agriculture in comparison with pastoral activities in the early portions is meagre and mostly late insertions. A few references show that they had knowledge of agriculture and practised it to supplement their food requirements. They produced yava (modern jau or barley), which was rather a generic word for cereals.


Apart from cattle-rearing and small-scale cultivation, people were engaged in many other economic activities. Hunting, carpentry, tanning, weaving, chariot-making, metal smeltry etc. were some such activities. The products of these activities were exchanged through barter. However, cows were the most favoured medium of exchange.

The priests received cows, horses and gold ornaments as fees for performing sacrifices.


Later Vedic Economy

During later Vedic phase, agriculture became the mainstay of the Vedic people.

  • Many rituals were introduced to initiate the process of agriculture. It also speaks of ploughing with yokes of six and eight oxen.
  • The buffalo had been domesticated for the agricultural purposes. This animal was extremely useful in ploughing the swampy land.
  • The god Indra acquires a new epithet ‘Lord of the Plough’ in this period.
  • The number and varieties of plant food increased.
    • Apart from barley, people now cultivated wheat, rice, pulses, lentils, millet, sugarcane etc.
  • With the beginning of food production agricultural produce began to be offered in the rituals.
    • The items of dana and dakshina included cooked rice.
    • Tila, from which the first widely used vegetable food-oil was derived increasingly, came to be used in rituals.

The main factor in the expansion of the Aryan culture during the later Vedic period was the beginning of the use of iron around 1000 BC. The Rigvedic people knew of a metal called ayas which was either copper or bronze. In the later Vedic literature ayas was qualified with shyama or krishna meaning black to denote iron. Archaeology has shown that iron began to be used around 1000 BC which is also the period of later Vedic literature.

The northern and eastern parts of India to which the Aryans later migrated receive more rainfall than the north-western part of India. As a result this region is covered with thick rain forests which could not be cleared by copper or stone tools used by Rigvedic people. The use of iron tools now helped people clear the dense rain forests particularly the huge stumps left after burning, in a more effective manner. Large tracts of forestland could be converted into cultivable pieces in relatively lesser time. The iron plough could turn the soil from deeper portions making it more fertile. This process seems to have begun during the later part of the Rigvedic period but the effect of iron tools and implements become evident only towards the end of the Later Vedic period.

There has been a continuous increase in the population during the later Vedic period due to the expansion of the economy based on agriculture. The increasing number and size of Painted Grey Ware (PGW) settlements in the doab area shows this.

With the passage of time the Vedic people also acquired better knowledge of seasons, manuring and irrigation. All these developments resulted in the substantial enlargement of certain settlements such as Hastinapur and Kaushambi towards the end of the Later Vedic period. These settlements slowly began to acquire characteristics of towns. Such rudimentary towns inhabited mainly by the chiefs, princes, priests and artisans were supported by the peasants who could spare for them some part of their produce voluntarily or involuntarily.


Early Vedic Society

The family was the basic unit of the Rigvedic society. It was patriarchal in nature. Monogamy was the usual norm of marriage but the chiefs at times practised polygamy. Marriages took place after attaining maturity. After marriage the wife went to her husband’s house. The family was part of a larger grouping called vis or clan. One or more than one clans made jana or tribe. The jana was the largest social unit. All the members of a clan were related to each other by blood relation. The membership of a tribe was based on birth and not on residence in a certain area. Thus the members of the Bharata tribe were known as the Bharatas. It did not imply any territory.

The Rigvedic society was a simple and largely an egalitarian society. There was no caste division. Occupation was not based on birth. Members of a family could adopt different occupations.

However certain differences did exist during the period. Varna or colour was the basis of initial differentiation between the Vedic and non-Vedic people. The Vedic people were fair whereas the non-Vedic indigenous people were dark in complexion and spoke a different language. Thus the Rigveda mentions arya varna and dasa varna. Here dasa has been used in the sense of a group different from the Rigvedic people. Later, dasa came to mean a slave.

Besides, certain practices during this period, such as concentration of larger share of the war booty in the hands of the chiefs and priests resulted in the creation of some inequalities within a tribe during the later part of this Vedic phase.

The warriors, priests and the ordinary people were the three sections of the Rigvedic tribe. The sudra category came into existence only towards the end of the Rigvedic period. This means that the division of society in the early Vedic period was not sharp. This is indicated by the following verse in the Rigveda: “I am a poet, my father is a physician and my mother grinds grain upon the stone. Striving for wealth, with varied plans, we follow our desires like cattle.”

The women in society enjoyed respectable position. She was married at a proper age and could choose a husband of her own choice. She could take part in the proceedings of the tribal assemblies called sabha and samiti.


Later Vedic Society

The family remains the basic unit of the Vedic society. However, its composition underwent a change.

  • The later Vedic family became large enough to be called a joint-family with three or four generations living together. The rows of hearths discovered at Atranjikhera and at Ahichchhtra (both in western Uttar Pradesh) show that these were meant for communal feeding or for cooking the food of large families.
  • The institution of gotra developed in this period. This means that people having common gotra descended from a common ancestor and no marriage between the members of the same gotra could take place.
  • Monogamous marriages were preferred even though polygamy was frequent.
  • Some restrictions on women appeared during this period.
    • In a text women have been counted as a vice along with dice and wine.
    • In another text a daughter has been said to be the source of all sorrows.
    • Women had to stay with her husband at his place after marriage.
    • The participation of women in public meetings was restricted.

However, the most important change was the rise and growth of social differentiation in the form of varna system.

  • The four varnas in which society came to be divided were the brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras.
  • The growing number of sacrifices and rituals during the period made the brahmanas very powerful. They conducted various rituals including those related to different stages of agricultural operations. This made them all the more important.
  • The kshatriyas, next in the social hierarchy, were the rulers. They along with brahmanas controlled all aspects of life.
  • The vaishyas, the most numerous varna were engaged in agriculture as well as in trade and artisanal activities. The brahmanas and the kshatriyas were dependent on the tributes (gifts and taxes) paid to them by the vaishyas.
  • The shudras, the fourth varna were at the bottom of the social hierarchy. They were ordained to be in the service of the three upper varnas. They were not entitled to the ritual of upanayana samskara (investiture with sacred thread necessary to acquire education). The other three varnas were entitled to such a ceremony and hence they were known as dvijas. This can be construed as the beginning of the imposition of disabilities on the shudras as well as the beginning of the concept of ritual pollution.

Another important institution that began to take shape was ashrama or different stages of life.

  • Brahmacharya (student life),
  • grihastha (householder), and
  • vanaprastha (hermitage) stages are mentioned in the texts.
  • Later, sanyasa, the fourth stage also came to be added.
  • Together with varna, it came to be known as varna-ashrama dharma.


Early Vedic Religion

The prayers to propitiate gods for physical protection and for material gains were the main concerns of the Rigvedic people.

  • The Rigvedic gods were generally personifications of different aspects of natural forces such as rains, storm, sun etc.
  • The attributes of these gods also reflect the tribal and patriarchal nature of the society as we do not find many goddesses mentioned in the text.
  • Indra, Agni, Varuna, Mitra, Dyaus, Pushana, Yama, Soma, etc. are all male gods.
  • In comparison, we have only a few goddesses such as Ushas, Sarasvati, Prithvi, etc which occupy secondary positions in the pantheon.

The functions of different gods reflect their needs in the society. Thus,

  • since the Rigvedic people were engaged in wars with each other they worshipped Indra as a god. He is the most frequently mentioned god in the Rigveda. He carried the thunderbolt and was also respected as a weather god who brought rains.
  • Maruts the god of storm aided Indra in the wars in the way tribesmen aided their leader in the tribal wars.
  • Agni, the fire god was the god of the home and was considered an intermediary between gods and men.
  • Soma was associated with plants and herbs. Soma was also a plant from which an intoxicating juice was extracted. This juice was drunk at sacrifices.
  • Varuna, another important deity, was the keeper of the cosmic order known as rita. This rita was an important aspect of tribal set-up.
  • Pushan was the god of the roads, herdsmen and cattle. In the life of the pastoral nomads, this god must have been very important.
  • Other gods were similarly associated with other aspects of nature and life.

All these gods were invoked and propitiated at yajnas or sacrifices. These sacrifices were organized by the chiefs of the tribes and performed by priests. Gods thus invoked in the sacrifices supposedly rewarded the sacrificers with success in wars, progeny, increase in cattle and long life. It also brought large number of gifts in the form of dana and dakshina to the priests.

It is important here to note that during the entire Vedic phase people did not construct temples nor did they worship any statue. These features of Indian religion developed much later.


Later Vedic Religion

In the later Vedic period, agriculture had become an important activity of the people. Changes in the material life naturally resulted in a change in their attitude towards gods and goddesses too. Continuous interactions with the local non-Aryan population also contributed to these changes. Thus, Vishnu and Rudra which were smaller deities in the Rigveda became extremely important. However, we do not have any reference to different incarnations or avataras of Vishnu, we are so familiar with, in any of the Later Vedic texts.

Another important feature was the increase in the frequency and number of the yajna which generally ended with the sacrifices of a large number of animals. This was probably the result of the growing importance of a class of brahmanas and their efforts to maintain their supremacy in the changing society. These yajnas brought to them a large amount of wealth in form of dana and dakshina. Some of the important yajnas were – ashvamedha, vajapeya, rajasuya etc. You must have heard about these yajnas in the stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. In these yajnas which continued for many days, a large part of gifts went to the brahmanas.

The purpose of these yajnas was twofold –

  • firstly, it established the authority of the chiefs over the people, and
  • secondly, it reinforced the territorial aspect of the polity since people from all over the kingdom were invited to these sacrifices.

It is interesting to note that people began to oppose these sacrifices during the later Vedic period itself. A large number of cattle and other animals which were sacrificed at the end of each yajna must have hampered the growth of economy. Therefore, a path of good conduct and self-sacrifice was recommended for happiness and welfare in the last sections of the Vedas, called the Upnishads.

The Upnishads contain two basic principles of Indian philosophy viz., karma and the transmigration of soul, i.e., rebirth based on past deeds. According to these texts real happiness lies in getting moksha i.e. freedom from this cycle of birth and re-birth.


Early Vedic Polity

The chief social unit of the Aryans was known as jana. The chief of this unit was the political leader called rajan.

The main function of the chief was to protect the jana and cattle from the enemies.

  • He was helped in his task by the tribal assemblies called sabha, samiti, vidatha, gana and parishad.
  • Out of these sabha and samiti were the most important assemblies. All aspects of life were discussed in these assemblies. These may include wars, distribution of the spoils of wars, judicial and religious activities etc. Thus these assemblies in a way limited the powers of the chiefs.
  • Interestingly, women were also allowed to participate in the deliberations of the sabha and samiti.

The post of the chief was not hereditary. The tribe generally elected him.

Though the succession in one family was known but that was not based on the rule of primogeniture (i.e., the eldest son acquiring the position). The purohita assisted and advised the chief on various matters.

Other than the purohita, there were a limited number of other officials who assisted the chief in the day-to-day tribal affairs. Senani, kulapa, gramani, etc. are some of the functionaries which find mention in the Rigveda.

The sena or army was not a permanent fighting group and consisted of able-bodied tribesmen who were mobilized at the time of the wars. Takshan, the carpenter and rathakara, the chariot maker were responsible for making chariots.

There is no official mentioned as a collector of taxes. The people offered to the chief what is called bali. It was just a voluntary contribution made by the ordinary tribesmen on special occasions.

All this shows that the early Vedic polity was an uncomplicated system based on the support and active participation of all the tribesmen. This situation, however, changed during the later Vedic phase.


Later Vedic Polity

The changes in the material and social life during the later Vedic period led to changes in the political sphere as well.

The nature of chiefships changed in this period. The territorial idea gained ground. The people started to lose their control over the chief and the popular assemblies gradually disappeared.

The chiefships had become hereditary. The idea of the divine nature of kingship gets a mention in the literature of this period. The brahmanas helped the chiefs in this process. The elaborate coronation rituals such as vajapeya and rajasuya established the chief authority. As the chiefs became more powerful, the authority of the popular assemblies started waning. The officers were appointed to help the chief in administration and they acquired the functions of the popular assemblies as main advisors.

A rudimentary army too emerged as an important element of the political structure during this period. All these lived on the taxes called bali, the shulka, and the bhaga offered by the people.

The chiefs of this period belonged to the kshatriya varna and they in league with the brahmanas tried to establish complete control over the people in the name of dharma.

However, all these elements do not show that a janapada or territorial state with all its attributes such as a standing army and bureaucracy had emerged in the later Vedic period but the process has started and soon after the Vedic period in the sixth century BC we notice the rise of sixteen mahajanpadas in the northern India.



Bibliography : NIOS – Ancient India

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