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Vedic Aryans

The Harappans lived in cities and had a well organized trade and craft activities. They also had a script which we have been so far not able to decipher. However around 1900 BC these cities began to decline. A number of rural settlements appeared afterwards. These rural settlements show continuity of certain Harappan elements. Around the same time we find archaeological evidence of the arrival of new people known as Aryans or Indo-Aryans on the outskirts of the Harappan region. The age they owned is know in history as the age of Vedic Aryans or the Rigvedic period. In other words, we know more about the Aryan culture that effectively “re founded” Indian civilization around 1500 B.C.E. Yet unlike Indus civilization, it was not urban and left neither city ruins nor substantial artifacts beyond tools, weapons, and pottery. Virtually our only source of knowledge about ancient Aryan life is the words of the Vedas, the Aryan sacred texts—hence we know the culture as “Vedic.” 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 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. The early Vedic Aryans were pastoralists. Cattle rearing were their main occupation. They reared cattle, sheep, goats, and horses for purposes of milk, meat and hides. We arrive at this conclusion after analyzing the literary evidence in the Rigveda. A large number of words are derived from the word go 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 were 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 meager and mostly late insertions. A few references show that they had knowledge of agriculture and practiced 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. 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 practiced 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. 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. The religious ideas of the Vedic people are reflected in the hymns of the Rigveda. They venerated the natural forces around them (like wind, water, rain, thunder, fire etc.)  Which they could not control, and invested nature with divinity conceived in human forms, which were mostly masculine. Very few female dieties were venerated. The religion thus reflected the patriarchal society and was that of primitive animism. Indra was the god of strength, who was invoked to destroy the enemies. He was the god of thunder and was the rainmaker who was asked periodically to release the water. He could not be vanquished. Thus thunder and rain (natural phenomena) were related with strength, which was personified in a masculine form, represented in the god Indra. The concept of a tribal chief, who was a war-lord, is also found represented in the character of Indra. Agni, next in importance to Indra, was the god of fire. He was considered to be an intermediary between heaven and earth i.e., between gods and men. He dominated the domestic hearth and marriages were solemnized in his presence. Yama was the god of death and had an important place in the Early Vedic religious belief. There were many other gods e.g. Surya, Soma (also a drink), Savitri, Rudra etc., and hosts of celestial beings like Gandharvas, Apsaras, Maruts to whom prayers and hymns were addressed in the Rigveda.


In nutshell the early Vedic society was tribal and basically egalitarian. Clan and kinship relations formed the basis of the society and family was the basic social unit. Social divisions based on occupations had started but there was no caste division and their economy was mainly pastoral and cow was the most important form of wealth. Agriculture had secondary importance in the life of the Early Vedic people. The Early Vedic people personified the natural forces, e.g. wind, water, rain, etc. and worshipped them as god. They worshipped god not through any abstract philosophical concept but for material gains. There was growing importance of sacrifices or yajnas in the Vedic religion. In other worlds the period of this age laid the basis for the intellectual development of human beings. So this culture is yet to be understood in its true sense in order to seek a reasonable knowledge about this society.

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