The cities of the Harappan Culture had declined by 1500 B.C. Consequently, their economic and administrative system had slowly declined. Around this period, the speakers of Indo-Aryan language, Sanskrit, entered north-west India from the Indo-Iranian region. Initially they would have come in small numbers through the passes in the northwestern mountains.
Their initial settlements were in the valleys of the north-west and the plains of the Punjab. Later, they moved into Indo-Gangetic plains. As they were mainly cattle keeping people, they were mainly in search of pastures. By the 6th century B.C, they occupied the whole of North India, which was referred to as Aryavarta. This period between 1500 B.C and 600 B.C may be divided into the Early Vedic Period or Rig Vedic Period (1500 B.C -1000 B.C) and the Later Vedic Period (1000B.C – 600 B.C).
Original Home of the Aryans
The original home of the Aryans is a debatable question and there are several views. Different scholars have identified different regions as the original home of the Aryans. They include the Arctic region, Germany, Central Asia and southern Russia. Bala Gangadhara Tilak argues that the Aryans came from the Arctic region on astronomical calculations.
However, the theory of southern Russia appears to be more probable and widely accepted by historians. From there, the Aryans moved to different parts of Asia and Europe. They entered India in about 1500 B.C. and came to be known as Indo-Aryans. They spoke the Indo-Aryan language, Sanskrit.
The word ‘Veda’ is derived from the root ‘vid’, which means to know. In other words, the term ‘Veda’ signifies ‘superior knowledge’. The Vedic literature consists of the four Vedas – Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. The Rig Veda is the earliest of the four Vedas and it consists of 1028 hymns. The hymns were sung in praise of various gods. The Yajur Veda consists of various details of rules to be observed at the time of sacrifice. The Sama Veda is set to tune for the purpose of chanting during sacrifice. It is called the book of chants and the origins of Indian music are traced in it. The Atharva Veda contains details of rituals. Besides the Vedas, there are other sacred works like the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, the Aranyakas and the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Brahmanas are the treatises relating to prayer and sacrificial ceremony.
The Upanishads are philosophical texts dealing with topics like the soul, the absolute, the origin of the world and the mysteries of nature. The Aranyakas are called forest books and they deal with mysticism, rites, rituals and sacrifices. The author of Ramayana was Valmiki and that of Mahabharata was Veda Vyas. Rig Vedic Age or Early Vedic Period (1500 – 1000 B.C.) During the Rig Vedic period, the Aryans were mostly confined to the Indus region. The Rig Veda refers to Saptasindhu or the land of seven rivers. This includes the five rivers of Punjab, namely Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej along with the Indus and Saraswathi. The political, social and cultural life of the Rig Vedic people can be traced from the hymns of the Rig Veda.
The basic unit of political organization was Kula or family. Several families joined together on the basis of their kinship to form a village or grama. The leader of grama was known as gramani. A group of villages constituted a larger unit called visu. It was headed by vidyapati. The highest political unit was called Jana or tribe. There were several tribal kingdoms during the Rig Vedic period such as Bharatas, Matsyas, Yadus and Purus. The head of the kingdom was called as rajan or king. The Rig Vedic polity was normally monarchical and the succession was hereditary. The king was assisted by purohita or priest and senani or commander of the army in his administration. There were two popular bodies called the Sabha and Samiti. The former seems to have been a council of elders and the latter, a general assembly of the entire people.
The Rig Vedic society was patriarchal. The basic unit of society was family or graham. The head of the family was known as grahapathi. Monogamy was generally practiced while polygamy was prevalent among the royal and noble families. The wife took care of the household and participated in all the major ceremonies. Women were given equal opportunities as men for their spiritual and intellectual development. There were women poets like Apala, Viswavara, Ghosa and Lopamudra during the Rig Vedic period. Women could even attend the popular assemblies. There was no child marriage and the practice of sati was absent. Both men and women wore upper and lower garments made of cotton and wool. A variety of ornaments were used by both men and women. Wheat and barley, milk and its products like curd and ghee, vegetables and fruits were the chief articles of food. The eating of cow’s meat was prohibited since it was a sacred animal. Chariot racing, horse racing, dicing, music and dance were the favourite pastimes. The social divisions were not rigid during the Rig Vedic period as it was in the later Vedic period.
The Rig Vedic Aryans were pastoral people and their main occupation was cattle rearing. Their wealth was estimated in terms of their cattle. When they permanently settled in North India, they began to practice agriculture. With the knowledge and use of iron they were able to clean forests and bring more lands under cultivation. Carpentry was another important profession and the availability of wood from the forests cleared made the profession profitable. Carpenters produced chariots and ploughs. Workers in metal made a variety of articles with copper, bronze and iron. Spinning was another important occupation and cotton and woolen fabrics were made. Goldsmiths were active in making ornaments. The potters made various kinds of vessels for domestic use. Trade was another important economic activity and rivers served as important means of transport. Trade was conducted on the barter system. In the later times, gold coins called nishka were used as media of exchange in large transactions.
The Rig Vedic Aryans worshiped the natural forces like earth, fire, wind, rain and thunder. They personified these natural forces into many gods and worshipped them. The important Rig Vedic gods were Prithvi (Earth), Agni (Fire), Vayu (Wind), Varuna (Rain) and Indra (Thunder). Indra was the most popular among them during the early Vedic period. Next in importance to Indra was Agni who was regarded as an intermediary between the gods and people. Varuna was supposed to be the upholder of the natural order. There were also female gods like Aditi and Ushas. There were no temples and no idol worship during the early Vedic period. Prayers were offered to the gods in the expectation of rewards. Ghee, milk and grain were given as offerings. Elaborate rituals were followed during the worship.
Later Vedic Period (1000 – 600 B.C.)
The Aryans further moved towards the east in the Later Vedic Period. The Satapatha Brahmana refers to the expansion of Aryans to the eastern Gangetic plains. Several tribal groups and kingdoms are mentioned in the later Vedic literature. One important development during this period is the growth of large kingdoms. Kuru and Panchala kingdoms flourished in the beginning. Parikshit and Janamejaya were the famous rulers of Kuru kingdom. Pravahana Jaivali was a popular king of the Panchalas. He was a patron of learning. After the fall of Kuru’s and Panchalas, other kingdoms like Kosala, Kasi and Videha came into prominence. The famous ruler of Kasi was Ajatasatru. Janaka was the king of Videha with its capital at Mithila. His court was adorned by scholar Yajnavalkya. Magadha, Anga and Vanga seem to be the easternmost tribal kingdoms. The later Vedic texts also refer to the three divisions of India – Aryavarta (northern India), Madhyadesa (central India) and Dasharatha (southern India).
Larger kingdoms were formed during the later Vedic period. Many jana or tribes were amalgamated to form Jana padas or rashtras in the later Vedic period. Hence the royal power had increased along with the increase in the size of the kingdom. The king performed various rituals and sacrifices to strengthen his position. They include Rajasuya (consecration ceremony), Ashvamedha (horse sacrifice) and Vajpeya (chariot race). The kings also assumed titles like Rajavisvajanan, Ahilabhuvanapathi, (lord of all earth), Ekrat and Samrat (sole ruler). In the later Vedic period, a large number of new officials were involved in the administration in addition to the existing purohita, senani and gramani. They include the treasury officer, tax collector and royal messenger. At the lower levels, the administration was carried on by the village assemblies. The importance of the Samiti and the Sabha had diminished during the later Vedic period.
Iron was used extensively in this period and this enabled the people to clear forests and to bring more land under cultivation. Agriculture became the chief occupation. Improved types of implements were used for cultivation. Besides barley, rice and wheat were grown. Knowledge of manure was another improvement. Industrial activity became more varied and there was greater specialization. Metal work, leather work, carpentry and pottery made great progress. In addition to internal trade, foreign trade became extensive. The Later Vedic people were familiar with the sea and they traded with countries like Babylon. A class of hereditary merchants (vaniya) came into existence. Vaisyas also carried on trade and commerce. They organized themselves into guilds known as ganas. Besides nishka of the Rig Vedic period, gold and silver coins like satamana and krishnala were used as media of exchange.
The four divisions of society (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras) or the Varna system was thoroughly established during the Later Vedic period. The two higher classes – Brahmana, and Kshatriya enjoyed privileges that were denied to the Vaisya and Shudra. A Brahmin occupied a higher position than a Kshatriya but sometimes Kshatriyas claimed a higher status over the Brahmins. Many sub-castes on the basis of their occupation appeared in this period.
In the family, the power of the father increased during the Later Vedic period. There was no improvement in the status of women. They were still considered inferior and subordinate to men. Women also lost their political rights of attending assemblies. Child marriages had become common. According to Athreya Brahmana a daughter has been described as a source of misery. However, the women in the royal household enjoyed certain privileges.
Gods of the Early Vedic period like Indra and Agni lost their importance. Prajapati (the creator), Vishnu (the protector) and Rudra (the destroyer) became prominent during the Later Vedic period. Sacrifices were still important and the rituals connected with them became more elaborate. The importance of prayers declined and that of sacrifices increased. Priesthood became a profession and a hereditary one. The formulae for sacrifices were invented and elaborated by the priestly class. Therefore, towards the end of this period there was a strong reaction against priestly domination and against sacrifices and rituals. The rise of Buddhism and Jainism was the direct result of these elaborate sacrifices. Also, the authors of the Upanishads, which is the essence of Hindu philosophy, turned away from the useless rituals and insisted on true knowledge (jnana) for peace and salvation.
- Module-1 Ancient India by NIOS
- India’s Ancient Past by RS Sharma
- Class-11 Tamil Nadu State Board History Book