Follow Us On:
Later Vedic Era
The Aryans initially lived in the region drained by seven rivers Septa Sindhu roughly covering the modern states of Punjab, and Harayana. Subsequently, they also occupied the region drained by Ganga, Yamuna, Sarayu, Ghaghra, and Gandaka roughly covering the modern states of eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar. The Aryans, who were mainly cattle herders, became agriculturists later and assisted by the knowledge of iron technology they were able to establish larger settlements in the Ganga- Yamuna doab region. This is shown by the PGW archaeology and the contents of the Later Vedic literature. This change precipitated a series of changes in the other spheres of life. From an egalitarian, tribal socio-political set up during the Early Vedic period it was transformed into varna divided territorially based set up by the end of the Vedic period. The position of the tribal chiefs became hereditary and the emerging officials usurped the role of the popular assemblies. The growing number of yajnas shows the importance of the king as well as of the Brahmanas. Similarly, the gods who were important earlier lost their significance and gave way to new deities. All these changes ultimately resulted in the rise of janapadas and mahajanapadas i.e. bigger territorial states in the sixth century BC. The character of this aforementioned reality was intrinsic to a period after the early Vedic era, known as the Late Vedic era. The late Vedic period is also called the Brahmanic Age because it was dominated by the priestly religion of the Brahman class, as evidenced in commentaries called the Brahmanas (ca. 1000–800 or 600 B.C.E.). It is also sometimes called the Epic Age because it provided the setting for India’s two classical epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Both works were composed much later, probably between 400 B.C.E. and 200 C.E., but contain older material and refer to older events.
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 the chiefship 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 chiefship had become hereditary. The idea of the divine nature of kingship gets a mention in the literature of this period. The Brahmans 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 Brahmans tried to establish complete control over the people in the name of dharma. In the later Vedic period agriculture had become an important activity of the people. Changes in 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 Rig-Veda became extremely important. However, we do not have any reference to different incarnations or avatars 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 Brahmans 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 Brahmans. 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. You will find it interesting to know 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 the 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 the 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. 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 the 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.
The Brahmanic Age left some material remains. Urban culture remained undeveloped, although mud-brick towns appeared as new lands were cleared for cultivation. Established kingdoms with fixed capitals now existed. Trade grew, especially along the Ganges, although there is no evidence of a coinage system. Later texts mention specialized artisans, including goldsmiths, basket makers, weavers, potters, and entertainers. Writing had been reintroduced to India around 700 B.C.E., perhaps from Mesopotamia along with traded goods.
Vedic India’s main identifiable contributions to later history were religious. The Vedas reflect the broad development of Vedic Brahmanic religion in the millennium after the coming of the first Aryans. They tell us primarily about the public cult and domestic rituals of the Aryan upper classes. Among the rest of the population, non-Aryan practices and ideas likely continued to flourish. Non-Aryan elements are visible occasionally even in the Vedic texts themselves, especially later ones. The Upanishads (after ca. 800 B.C.E.) thus refer to fertility and female deities, ritual pollution and ablutions, and the transmigration of the soul after death. The central Vedic cult—controlled by priests serving a military aristocracy—remained dominant until the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. By that time other, perhaps older, religious forms were asserting themselves among the populace. The increasing ritual formalism of Brahmanic religion provoked challenges both in popular practice and in religious thought which culminated in Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu traditions of piety and practice. The earliest Indo-Aryans seem to have worshiped numerous gods, most of whom embodied or were associated with powers of nature. The Rig-Vedic hymns are addressed to anthropomorphic deities linked to natural phenomena such as the sky, the clouds, and the sun. These gods are comparable to those of ancient Greece (see Chapter 3) and are distantly related to them through the Indo-European heritage the Greeks and Aryans shared. The name of the Aryan father god Dyaus, for example, is linguistically related to the Greek Zeus. In Vedic India, however, unlike Greece, the father-god had become less important than his children, especially Indra, the god of war and the storm, who led his heavenly warriors across the sky to slay dragons or other enemies with his thunderbolt. This is how the people of the Late Vedic era shared their sense of practical knowledge about the world and life. This whole account is, in fact, a short historical and archeological introductory survey of the great civilization of the Subcontinent, which had contributed to almost all the sphere of human lives.