The period known as the Vedic Age took place from 1500 BC to 600 BC and represents a significant civilization in ancient India that emerged following the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization by 1400 BC. It derives its name from the composition of the Vedas during this era, which also serves as the primary source of information about this time. The Vedic Age began with the arrival of the Aryans, also known as Indo-Aryans.
Indo-Aryan Migration and Early/Later Vedic Period:
Indo-Aryan Migration to Vedic Civilization
- The Indo-Aryan migration to India and their subsequent contribution to the Vedic Civilization is a fascinating topic in ancient history. Here are some key points to know about this era:
- The Aryans were semi-nomadic pastoral people who migrated to India from their original homeland, which is still a matter of debate among historians.
- Some scholars believe that the Aryans came from the area around the Caspian Sea in Central Asia, while others suggest they originated from the Russian Steppes or even the Arctic region.
- The Vedic Age began with the Aryan occupation of the Indo-Gangetic Plains, where they established settlements and developed their unique civilization.
- The word “Arya” means noble, reflecting the high regard in which the Aryans held themselves.
- The Aryans spoke Sanskrit, an Indo-European language that became the language of Hinduism and the foundation of classical Indian literature.
- Compared to the urbanized Indus Valley people, the Aryans led a rural, semi-nomadic life, herding cattle and engaging in agriculture.
- The Khyber Pass is believed to be the primary route through which the Aryans entered India.
The Aryans played a significant role in shaping the Vedic Civilization, introducing new cultural, religious, and social practices that would define ancient Indian society for centuries to come.
Vedic Civilization – Early Vedic Period (EVP) and Later Vedic Period (LVP)
Early Vedic Period or Rig Vedic Period (1500 BC – 1000 BC)
During the Early Vedic Period, the Aryans inhabited the region known as “Sapta Sindhu” (Land of the Seven Rivers), which was home to seven rivers, including the Sindhu (Indus), Vipash (Beas), Vitasta (Jhelum), Parushni (Ravi), Asikni (Chenab), Shutudri (Satluj) and Saraswati. This period is also known as the Rig Vedic Period.
The political structure during this period was characterized by a monarchical form of government, with a king known as Rajan. The social unit of the time was the Jana, which was the largest social unit in Rig Vedic times, consisting of patriarchal families. The social grouping followed the order of kula (family) – grama – visu – jana. Tribal assemblies were called Sabhas and Samitis. Examples of tribal kingdoms during this period include the Bharatas, Matsyas, Yadus, and Purus.
Social Structure of the Vedic Civilization:
Women held respectable positions in society. They were allowed to participate in tribal assemblies, Sabhas and Samitis. Some women were even poets like Apala, Lopamudra, Viswavara, and Ghosa.
Importance of Cattle:
Cattle, particularly cows, had significant importance in Vedic society. They were regarded as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
Monogamy was the norm in Vedic society, but royalty and noble families practiced polygamy. There was no practice of child marriage.
Social distinctions existed in the Vedic society, but they were not rigid or hereditary. Social grouping was based on family (kula), village (grama), clan (visu), and tribe (Jana).
Economic Structure of Vedic Civilization
The Vedic civilization had a diverse economic structure with various means of livelihood. Here are some notable features:
Pastoralism and Agriculture:
The early Vedic people were primarily pastoral and cattle-rearing people, while the later Vedic people began to settle and practice agriculture. They reared cows, horses, sheep, and goats.
Rivers played a crucial role in transportation. The Vedic people used boats made of animal skin to cross rivers. Later, they used wooden boats, and the larger rivers were navigable for trading purposes.
Cotton and wool were spun and woven into fabrics. The people of Vedic civilization were skilled in making pottery, jewelry, and metal crafts.
Trade and Commerce:
Initially, the trade was conducted through the barter system, where goods were exchanged for goods. Later on, the use of coins called ‘Nishka’ was introduced. This facilitated trade and commerce.
Horse-drawn chariots were used for warfare and transportation purposes. They were driven by skilled charioteers and were considered a symbol of status and power.
Religion in Vedic Civilization:
- Worship was centered around natural forces, such as earth, fire, wind, rain, and thunder.
- These forces were personified into deities, with Indra (thunder) being the most important.
- Other significant deities included Prithvi (earth), Agni (fire), Varuna (rain), and Vayu (wind).
- Female deities were also present, including Ushas and Aditi.
- There were no temples or idol worship in this period.
Later Vedic Period (1000 BC – 600 BC)
The Later Vedic Period followed the Early Vedic Period, during which the Aryans continued to develop their culture and society. This period is also known as the Vedic Age.
During the Later Vedic Period, the political structure became more complex, with the emergence of the Janapadas, which were territorial kingdoms. The concept of the monarchy remained, but the power of the king was limited by a council of ministers and an assembly of nobles.
The social structure also evolved, with the emergence of new social classes such as the Vaishyas (merchants) and the Shudras (servants). The caste system also began to take shape during this period. Additionally, new religious practices emerged, including the worship of deities such as Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi.
- Formation of larger kingdoms like Mahajanapadas by merging smaller ones
- Increasing power of the king who performed various sacrifices to enhance his position
- Examples of such sacrifices include Rajasuya (consecration ceremony), Vajapeya (chariot race), and Ashwamedha (horse sacrifice)
- The decreasing importance of the Sabhas and Samitis.
Social Structure during Later Vedic Period:
- The Varna system became more distinct, with social divisions becoming more hereditary than occupation-based.
- Society was divided into four varnas, with Brahmanas (priests) at the top, followed by Kshatriyas (rulers), Vaishyas (agriculturists, traders, and artisans), and Shudras (servers of the upper three classes).
- Women’s position in society diminished, and they were not allowed to attend public assemblies like Sabhas and Samitis.
- Child marriages became common during this period.
- Sub-castes based on occupation also emerged, and Gotras (clans) were institutionalized.
- Agriculture remained the primary occupation during this period.
- Industrial activities such as metalworking, pottery, and carpentry were also present.
- Foreign trade with distant regions such as Babylon and Sumeria was established.
- Pre Vedic Period and its Importance
Religion during Later Vedic Period:
- Prajapati (creator) and Vishnu (preserver) gained prominence.
- Deities like Indra and Agni declined in importance.
- Rituals and sacrifices became more elaborate while the significance of prayers decreased.
- The priestly class became powerful and dictated the rules of rites and rituals.
- This orthodox trend led to the emergence of Buddhism and Jainism towards the end of this period.
Overview of Vedic Texts
The Vedic civilization is known for its rich heritage of literature and texts. The word ‘Veda’ originated from the root ‘vid’ which means spiritual knowledge, subject of knowledge, or means of acquiring knowledge. These texts were written in Sanskrit and are considered to be some of the oldest and most valuable religious texts in the world.
The four Vedas
The four Vedas are Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva. Rig Veda is the oldest of all Vedic texts and contains 1028 hymns, classified into 10 mandalas. Yajur Veda deals with the ways to perform rituals, while Sama Veda deals with music, which is said to have originated from it. Atharva Veda contains spells and magical formulas.
Other Vedic Texts
Apart from the four Vedas, there are other Vedic texts that provide valuable insights into the Vedic culture and traditions. The Brahmanas explain the meaning of sacrifices, while the Upanishads, also known as Vedantas, are the source of Indian philosophy and consist of 108 texts. The Aranyakas are books of instructions.
Great Indian Epics
The Mahabharata and Ramayana were also composed during this period.
The Vedas are ancient religious texts composed in Vedic Sanskrit and originated in India. They are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism and form the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature. The Vedas have been passed down through verbal transmission from generation to generation and are known as Shruti. The Vedic literature comprises four Vedas: Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda. The Samhita is the mantra text of each Veda.
There are two main categories of Vedic literature: Shruti and Smriti.
Shruti literature comprises the sacred texts of the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads. The term ‘Shruti’ means ‘to hear,’ and these texts are considered canonical, consisting of revelation and eternal truth that has been passed down through generations.
Smriti literature, on the other hand, comprises the post-Vedic Classical Sanskrit literature, which is supplementary and subject to change over time. It includes Vedanga, Shad darsana, Puranas, Itihasa, Upveda, Tantras, Agamas, and Upangas.
The Vedic literature can be further classified into several categories, including the four Vedas (Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva) and their Samhitas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. It is important to understand the difference between the Vedas and Upanishads, which is discussed in more detail in the linked article.
Vedic Literature – Brahmanas:
- Explanation of Vedas’ hymns
- Sanskrit texts classified in each Veda
- Includes myths and legends to guide Brahmins in Vedic rituals
- Expounds scientific knowledge of the Vedic Period (e.g., astronomy, geometry)
- Some Brahmanas contain mystical and philosophical material (Aranyakas and Upanishads)
- Each Veda has one or more Brahmanas associated with a particular Vedic school
- Less than 20 Brahmanas currently exist due to loss or destruction
- Controversial dating of final codification, likely recorded after centuries of oral transmission
- The oldest Brahmana dates back to around 900 BCE, while the youngest is around 700 BCE.
Vedic Literature – Aranyakas
Aranyakas are known as “Forest Books” and interpret sacrificial rituals in a symbolic and philosophical way.
Vedic Literature – Upanishads
The Upanishads consist of 108 texts, with 13 major ones. They explain the concepts of “Atman” and “Brahman,” and offer philosophical ideas on sacrifice, body, and the universe.
Importance of Vedic Literature for Civil Service Exam
Vedic Literature is a crucial topic for the Civil Service Exam. UPSC 2023 candidates are recommended to study other History topics as well, as several questions are asked from this section for both IAS Prelims and Mains.
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