A few centuries after the decline of the Harappan civilisation, a new culture flourished in the same region and gradually spread across the Ganga-Yamuna plains. This culture came to be known as the Aryan culture. There were significant differences between this culture and the culture that preceded it. The Aryans settled on the banks of rivers Indus (Sindhu) and Saraswati (which is now nonexistent). They composed many hymns in honour of the gods and goddesses they worshipped. These were compiled in four Vedas –
- Rig Veda
- Sama Veda
- Yajur Veda
- Atharva Veda
Division of Vedic Culture
Scholars divide the vedic period into the earlier and later Vedic period. The earlier is represented by the Rig Veda while the latter by all other Vedic literature including the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads. Two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the Puranas, though compiled much later, also throw light on the life and society of an earlier period. For this period archaeological evidence has also been found in some areas of Uttar Pradesh.
Society and Culture
Though Aryan society was patriarchal, women were treated with dignity and honour. The family was the smallest social unit; several families (kula) made a village (grama) and several villages formed a vis. A number of villages formed a tribe or jana which was ruled by a chief called rajan. His chief function was to protect the tribe from external attack and maintain law and order. He was assisted by the members of two councils called sabha and samiti.
The Purohita performed religious functions while the senani looked after military activities. There was no concept of the state or kingdom at this stage. Although the post of Rajan had become hereditary, he could be removed from power if found weak and inefficient or cruel.
Towards the later Vedic period, society was divided into four varnas –
The teachers were called Brahmans, the ruling class was called Kshatriyas, farmers, merchants and bankers were called Vaishyas while the artisans, craftsmen, labourers were called Shudras. Moving from one occupation to another became difficult.
Simultaneously, the Brahmans also occupied a dominant position in the society. Another important social institution of the time was the system of chaturashrama or the division of life span into four distinct stages i.e. brahmacharya (period of celibacy, education and disciplined life in guru’s ashram), grihastha (a period of family life), vanaprastha (a stage of gradual detachment and sanyasa (a life dedicated to spiritual pursuit away from worldly life). However it should be noted that these stages were not applicable to women or to the people of lower varnas.
Status of women:
Women were respected by the society, enjoyed freedom, had access to education and were often free to choose their partners through swayamvara. Purdah and sati were not prevalent.
The ultimate aim of life was to attain moksha or salvation through the pursuit of dharma, artha and kama. Karma or performance of duty without any expectation or return was preached in the Bhagavad Gita.
- The early Vedic people worshipped forces of nature and personified them as gods and goddesses. Indra, Agni, Varuna, Marut were some of their gods while Usha: Aditi, Prithvi were some of their goddesses.
- Some of the solar Gods and goddesses referred to in the Rig Veda are Surya, Savitri and Pushau. Yajna (sacrifice) was performed along with chanting of Vedic hymns.
- People poured ghee (clarified butter) and other ingredients into the fire to invoke the blessings of gods.
- Agni or fire was looked upon as an intermediary between gods and humans.
- The vedic people prayed individually as well as collectively for the welfare of the jana.
Change in religious practices:
There was a change in religious practices during the later Vedic period.
- The prominent Gods of the early Vedic period like Indra, Agni and Varuna lost their prominence and popularity. Their place was taken by a new trinity of Gods where Brahma enjoyed the supreme position, while Vishnu became the preserver and Shiva completed the trinity.
- The religion became extremely ritualistic. Sanskrit mantras, which were the monopoly of Brahmins, became an essential part of all religious functions. This made the Brahmins very powerful and the Yajnas expensive. Participation in them was restricted to the upper three classes.
- The kings performed Ashvamedha, Rajasuya and Vajapeya sacrifies to establish their position.
Survival of Vedic Culture
- It is very interesting to know that some elements of the culture of the Vedic Age have survived over a period 3,000 years and continues to be a part of Indian culture even today.
- By the end of the latter Vedic age, changes started occuring in the society. For the first time, people started discussing certain beliefs such as creation of the universe, life after death and essence of life. These were questions which were dealt with in great detail in the Upanishads.
Material life and economy
- The Aryans were primarily pastoral and agricultural people.
- They domesticated animals like cows, horses, sheeps, goats and dogs.
- They ate simple food consisting of cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables, milk and various milk products.
- They drank a beverage called Soma.
- Games of chess, chariot racing etc. were their modes of entertainment.
- In the early period there was no money transaction or taxes.
- Bali or voluntary donation was prevalent.
- Cows were the measure of wealth.
- As the time passed, extensive use of iron brought great changes in their material life. Iron axes enabled them to clear forests leading to the expansion of agriculture throughout the Gangetic plains.
- Iron tools resulted in varied crafts and technology.
- Use of iron weapons and horses enabled them to fight wars and defend themselves better against enemies.
- Increasing number of crafts, availability of surplus food and growth of population led to specialisation of skills and urbanisation.
Growth of towns and cities
- Towns and cities grew and territorial states emerged.
- High quality earthenware called ‘Painted Grey Ware’ and ‘Northern Black Polished Ware’ has been found in many areas. Coins came into circulation.
- Trade was carried on, both overland and through waterways, enhancing material prosperity.
- By sixth century BC, there were some sixteen large territorial states in North India and upper Deccan known as Mahajanapadas.