The Early Vedic Period
The advent of the Aryans holds the most significant place in the history of India. The Vedic period, named primarily based on the four Vedas namely Rigveda, Samveda, Atharva Veda and the Yajurveda. These are not only the scriptures but also manifest the social, political, and economic setup of the era after the Aryans entered the soil of Bharatvarsha.
The early Vedic period or the Rigvedic period is the most important of all which unfolds almost all the pages of the socio-economic structure. The earliest description of Aryans are known to have appeared in the Kassite inscription of Iraq and Mitanni inscriptions of the 14th century BC from Syria.
From these sources, we can say that the Aryans might have migrated to India through the valleys of the northwest mountains, passing the Hindukush range, and spread initially in the Indo-Gangetic planes. They were nomads and hunted for their living.
They settled and occupied a large portion of north India by the 6th century BC. The land occupied by them was referred to as Aryavarta meaning “the abode of the Aryas”. The language of the Aryans is known to be Sanskrit, in which the four Vedas, Upvedas, and several other scriptures are written.
The word Arya means noble. The language Sanskrit is an Indo-European language with a proper set of grammar and diction.
The Vedic period is divided into:
- The Early Vedic Period (1500 BCE – 1000 BCE)
- The Later Vedic Period (1000 BCE – 600 BCE)
The Early Vedic Period in Indian history mostly depicts the social, political, and cultural activities of the Aryans. The Aryans are said to be settled in the Land of Seven Rivers (Saptsindhu). These seven rivers consist of Indus (Sindhu), Beas (Vipash), Jhelum (Vitasta), Ravi (Parushni), Chenab(Asikni), Satlaj(Shutudri), and Saraswati. At present we can locate these rivers in Punjab of modern India (Sindhu being part of Punjab in Pakistan).
The Vedas are the prime source of information about the social, economic, and cultural ethos of the Early Vedic Period. Vedas are said to be the words of the god which were orally handed to the generations of the Hindu clan. The Vedas, probably authored between 1800 BCE and 600 BCE are divided mostly into three sects.
These three sects are:
1. The Samhitas or Mantras: The Samhitas or Mantras are the collections of prayers, hymns, charms, and sacrificial omens which used to be performed by the Brahmanas for a prosperous life. Some rituals mentioned in these Samhitas are performed after the death of a person for the supreme attainment of the soul. From these literary articles, it can be concluded that the people of the Early Vedic Age believed in the concepts of the afterlife, rebirth, and attainment.
2. The Brahmanas: This is supposed to be a primitive theology and philosophy of life led by the people of the time. The ideal way of worship, the married life, and the hermit life is found in the hymns of the Brahmanas. The socio-political structure of society can be manifested in this piece of literature.
3. The Aranyakas and Upnishads: Aranya means forest in Sanskrit. The hymns and prayers in the Aranyakas are supposed to be composed in the forest by the hermit brahmins. These Aranyakas and Upanishads are mostly part of the Brahmanas but partly exist as separate works. The hymns and prayers contained in these are meant for the meditation of the ascetics.
Apart from the aforesaid, there are four Samhitas that different from one another:
1. The Rigveda Samhita: The Rigveda Samhita is a collection of hymns consisting of ten mandalas with 1028 Suktas or Stutis. These Stutis are meant for the worship of Indra, Surya, Agni, Yama, Varun, and Ashwini.
2. Samveda Samhita: There are 1549 Stutis meant for singing and reciting, taken from Rig Veda.
3. Yajurved Samhita: The sacrificial practices are mentioned in the 40 mandalas of the Yajurveda Samhita. The two forms of Yajurveda namely the Sukla Yajurveda and Krishna Yajurveda give provide the genesis and the philosophy of the rituals mentioned in the Samhita. Sacrifice was an integral part of the Vedic.
4. Atharva Veda Samhita: Atharva Veda is a collection of songs and spells. The cult magic, enslavement mantras, and hypnotism are written as the 731 Stutis of its twenty mandals. Atharva Veda is considered to be of a lower degree than the other three Vedas mentioned.
There is a belief that these Vedas and the hymns were Apaurusheya (revealed to the ascetic sages and not composed) and Ritya ( something which exists till eternity). The sages by whom these hymns are passed on to the generation next are known as the Mandrastra, in these scriptures.
There are Vedangas to help the learners to understand the pronunciation, metre, rituals, grammar, and explanation of the words. The Vedangas also simplify astronomy and the calculation of the days, months, and years. Vedangas are also known as sutras which means formula.
Apart from being a religious entity and a work of devotion, the Rigveda provides us a vivid detail of the social life, political and economic structure, and the religious belief of the people of the era. It gives us a clear picture of the development of the different sects of the society, the cast system, and the various rituals followed by the Hindu clan in the Northern regions of the country, the family structure, and the culture of our country as a whole.
The following are the distinct points and terms to remember about the political organization or the political life during the early Vedic period:
- The unit of the society was the family, families and blood relations formed a clan. There were several such clans that again formed a tribe that was superior to the political unit. Rigveda mentions these administrative units as Grama, Vis, and Jana.
- Grama was a collection of several families headed by Gramini. Gramini had to take the charge of the security and well-being of the grama. He leads soldiers during the war. He held meetings that are termed Sabha or Samiti. A military leader was known as a Visapati, who was appointed by the Vis or a group of revered villagers.
- The tribe was known as Jana. Jana was headed by Gopa. There are examples of various Janas named Bharatas, Matsyas, Kriwis, Tristus, etc. the most important tribes as per the scriptures and Vedas are the Purus, Trigvasas, Yadus and Drahyus.
- Several Janas formed Janpad meaning kingdom.
- The supreme of the Jana was known as Rajan, the head of the Janpad.
- The normal form of government, therefore, was Monarchy, the kingship being hereditary. There are references to the democratic form of government as well, where the chief was elected by assembled people.
- The king was believed to be god sent and he had to protect his tribe’s life and property. He was responsible for law and order and justice. He had to maintain the religious rituals performed by the priests, who were too given an allowance by the king for their living.
- The king collected tax in kind known as Bali from his subjects for the services he rendered.
- The priest who helped the king in the court was known as the Purohit.
- The military general was known as Senani.
- The army of infantry was known as Patti.
- Sardha, Vrata, and Gana were the units of soldiers.
- The weapons were made of irons. Axes, spears, and swords were the main weapon.
- The Rig Veda mentions two popular assemblies namely the sabha and the Samiti. The king had to take into consideration these two bodies which were the group of the revered people of the society, mostly the elderly. Sabha was presided over by a Sabhapati.
- Sabha was a place for criminal cases. The punishment was given to the criminals.
- Samiti was a common gathering which dealt with political proceedings. It was headed by Pati. It used to elect the king.
- Society was patriarchal, the father was the head of the family and was known as Grihapati. Aryans are believed to have a joint family setup.
- Society believed in Monogamy. Women enjoyed respectable positions outside the family.
- Women participated in all religious ceremonies along with men.
- They read the Vedas and other holy scriptures. There are instances of learned ladies who attained the rank of sages and ascetics.
- Sati system and purdah system have no mention during this period.
- Girls had the right to choose their grooms. The practice of Swamwara was prevalent in society.
- The women however were seen as having responsibilities and the male family members had to care for and protect them. Women were not seen as an independent entities in law. The widows were allowed to marry.
- Women could be members of sabha and Samiti. They could participate in the functioning of the political system.
Education during the Early Vedic Period
- Education of both boys and girls was given equal and much importance.
- The instruction method was oral and the pupils had to memorize the lessons.
- Gurukuls were the place outside the residential areas, where education was imparted by the learned sages.
- The focus of education was the holistic development of mind and body.
- The disciple went through the thread ceremony. Mostly boys were sent for a gurukul. The girls were mostly educated at home with the help of tutors.
- The disciples in the gurukul were taught art, philosophy, sciences, animal husbandry, handicraft, ethics, warfare, and metal art to make weapons in time of need.
- The caste system had not germinated during the early Vedic period.
- The occupation of the people did not determine their caste. Anyone could take up any occupation.
- The caste system had not spread to be rigid or hereditary.
- People lived in the villages.
- The houses of common people were made up of wood and bamboo. The floors were made of clay. A fortified place known as Pura is also mentioned in the Rig Veda which served as a refuge for the village people during the war.
- The village chief was known as Gramini. He was responsible for civil and military affairs.
- Vrajapati was the officer who led the head of the families in the battles.
- Agriculture is mentioned as the prime occupation and the main source of income of the early Vedic period people.
- Cattle breeding was also a means of living.
- Cows were taken as the symbol of prosperity.
- Aryans had domesticated horses, dogs, goats, sheep, buffalo, and donkeys apart from ox and cows.
- Oxen were made to plough the fields known as kshetra.
- The people used manure and irrigated their fields through canals.
- Barley, wheat, cotton, and oil seeds were the main products.
- Rice or paddy cultivation was lesser known till that period.
- Aryans also took weaving as a source of income.
- Dying and the work of embroidery were also known to the people.
- Carpenters, blacksmiths, and goldsmiths are mentioned too as other occupations.
- There were physicians who cured diseases.
- People traded their products to distant lands of western Asia.
- Barter was the system for trade.
- Pieces of gold known as Mishka.
- A group of people known as Pani regulated trade and commerce.
- Aryans mostly worshipped nature in its varied manifestations such as the sun, moon, sky, thunder, wind, and air. According to Rigveda thirty-three deities were worshipped by the Aryans.
- There were terrestrial gods such as Agni, Prithvi, Brihaspati, etc.
- Indra, the rain god, is mentioned as the chief of all gods, and a large number of the hymn in the Rigveda is devoted to him. Indra is also mentioned as the destroyer of forts or Purandara.
- Maruta was the god of storms whereas Varuna was the god of truth.
- Vishnu was seen as the god of the three worlds.
- Female deities such as Savitri, Saraswati, and prajna were also worshipped.
- Oblation and prayer along with chanting of the Rigveda hymns were the simple mode of worship followed by the Aryans.
- Yagna or sacrifices were made to appease the deities offering milk, ghee, grains, wine, fruits, etc. into the fire. Horses, bulls, buffalos, and rams were also sacrificed at times.
- There is no mention of temples or shrines or image worship.
- Aryans believed in reincarnation and rebirth.
- Apart from all these characteristics of religious beliefs, Rigveda mentions the idea that god is one.
These all religious practices and beliefs later formed the foundation of the Hindu religion. Those significant systems such as polical, social life, economic life, religous, catse, education etc. make the early vedic age distinct and major topic of the researchers.