Social Environment In Vedic Period

INDIA, as is well known, derives its name from the Sindhu (Indus), and the earliest civilisation of this country of which we have any definite trace had its cradle in the valley of the same river. We have seen in the last chapter that excavations at several places in the lower part of the valley have laid bare the ruins of well built cities, and seals surprisingly similar to those discovered at Eshnunna, Kish and Ur in Mesopotamia, and assigned by archaeologists to the third millennium BC., have been found. The identity of the originators of this early Indus culture is uncertain. They appear to have professed a religion that was iconic and laid emphasis on the worship of the Mother-Goddess and a male deity who seems to have been the prototype of Siva. The phallic cult was prevalent, but fire-pits were conspicuous by their absence.

Far different is the picture of another civilisation which had its principal home higher up the Indus valley. The people who evolved this culture called themselves Aryas or Aryans. Their earliest literature makes no reference to life in stately cities comparable to those whose remains have been unearthed at Harappa God mitraand Mohenjo-Daro. Their religion was normally aniconic, and in their pantheon the female element was subordinated to the male, and the place of honour was given to deities like Indra, Varuna, Mitra, the Nasatyas, Surya, Agni (Fire) and other supernal beings who seem to have been quite unknown to the originators of the “Indus” culture as described in the last chapter. Unfortunately, the early literature of the Aryas-called the Veda-cannot be dated even approximately, and it is impossible to say with absolute precision in what chronological relation the civilisation portrayed in the Veda stood to the “Indus” culture of the third millennium BC. Max Muller hesitatingly placed the beginning of the Vedic literature in the latter half of the second millennium BC. Tilak and Jacobi, on the other hand, tried to push the date much farther back on astronomical grounds. But, as pointed out by several Indologists, astronomical calculations prove nothing unless the texts in question admit of unambiguous interpretation. Tilak himself points out how unsafe it is to act upon calculations based on loose statements in literature regarding the position of the heavenly bodies.

In the chaotic state of early Aryan chronology, it is a welcome relief to turn to Asia Minor and other countries in Western Asia and find in certain tablets of the fourteenth century BC., discovered at Boghaz Keui and other places, references to kings who bore Aryan names and invoked the gods Indra, Mitra, Varuna and the Nasatyas to witness and safeguard treaties. It is certain that the tablets belong to a period in the evolution of the Aryan religion when Indra, Varuna, and the other gods associated with them, still retained their early Vedic pre-eminence and had not yet been thrown into the shade by the Brahmanic Prajapati or the epic and Puranic Trimurti. 

Political Organisation of the Rig-Vedic Aryans: The basis of the political and social organisation of the Rig-Vedic people was the patriarchal family. The successive higher units were styled grama, vis and jana, and in some rare passages we even hear of aggregates of janas. The precise relationship between the grama, the vis and the jana is nowhere distinctly stated. That the grama was normally a smaller unit than either the vis or the jana appears probable from the fact that the gramani, the leader of the grama (horde or village), who is usually a Vaisya, is clearly inferior to the lord of the vis (vispati) or the protector (gopa) of the jana, who is often the king himself.

It is more difficult to say in what relationship the vis stood to the jana. In some Vedic passages there is a clear contrast between the two, and Iranian analogies seem to suggest that the vis is a sub-division of a jana, if the latter may be taken as a parallel to the Iranian Zantu.

Social Life: It has already been stated that the foundation of the political and social structure in the Rig- Vedic age was the family. The members of a family lived in the same house. Houses in this age were presumably built of wood or reed. In every house there was a fireplace (agnisala), besides a sitting-room and apartments for the ladies. The master of the house was called grihapati or dampati. He was usually kind and affectionate, but occasional acts of cruelty are recorded. Thus we have the story of a father who blinded his son for his extravagance.

The favourite amusements of the more virile classes were racing, hunting and the war-dance. Themesopotamia dancer chariot-race was extremely popular and formed an important element of the sacrifice celebrated in later times as the Vajapeya. No less popular was hunting. The animals hunted were the lion, the elephant, the wild boar, the buffalo, and deer. Birds also were hunted. Another favorite pastime was dicing, which frequently entailed considerable loss to the gamester. Among other amusements, mention may be made of boxing, dancing and music. Women in particular loved to display their skill in dancing and singing to the accompaniment of lutes and cymbals. Lute-players played an important part in the development of the epic in later ages.

Economic Life: The Rig-Vedic Aryans were mostly scattered in villages. The word nagara (city) does not occur in the hymns. We find indeed mention of purs which were occasionally of considerable size and were sometimes made of stone (asmamayi) or of iron (ayasi). Some were furnished with a hundred walls (satabhuji). But the purs were in all probability rather ramparts or forts than cities, and served as places of refuge, particularly in autumn, as is suggested by the epithet Saradi applied to them in some passages. It is significant that, unlike the later texts, the Rig-Veda makes no clear mention of individual cities like Asandivat or Kampila.

Regarding the organisation of the village we have a few details. There was an official styled the Gramani who looked after the affairs of the village, both civil and military. We have also reference to a functionary called Vrajapati who may have been identical with the Gramani, and who led to battle the various Kulapas or heads of families.

Arts and Sciences: The art of poetry was in full bloom as is evidenced by the splendid collection of lyrics known as the Rik-Samhita which consists of hymns in praise of different gods. The number of hymns is 1,017. These are grouped into books termed ashtakas or mandalas containing eight and ten hymns respectively, which were recited by priests styled hotris or reciters. The old hymns are chiefly to be found in the so-called Family Books (II-VII), each of which is ascribed by tradition to a particular family of seers (rishis). Their names are Gritsamada, Visvamitra, Vamadeva, Atri, Bharadvaja and Vasishtha. Book VIII is ascribed to the Kanvas and Angirases. Book IX is dedicated to Soma. The latest parts of the collection are to be found in Books I and X, which, however, contain some old hymns as well.

Fine specimens of lyric poetry are to be found among the Rig-Vedic hymns, notably in those addressed to the Goddess of the Dawn.

Religion: The early Vedic religion has been designated by the name of henotheism or kathenotheism-a belief in krishnasingle gods, each in turn standing out as the highest. It has also been described as the worship of Nature leading up to Nature’s God. The chief deities of the earlier books owe their origin to the personification of natural phenomena. Abstract deities like Dhatri, the Establisher; Vidhatri, the Ordainer; Visvakarman, the All-Creating, and Prajapati, the Lord of Creatures, Sraddha, Faith; Manyu, Wrath, make their appearance at a later stage. Besides the higher Gods, lauded by priests, we have reference to others whose worship was not countenanced in orthodox circles. Some scholars find in the hymns traces of the cult of the linga and even of Krishna. Siva occurs as an epithet of the god Rudra worshipped by the Vedic priests. The Krishna mentioned in Rig-Vedic hymns can hardly be identified with his epic and Puranic namesake, as the river with which he is associated in the Rig-Veda is not the Jumna but some stream in the Kuru country, as we learn from the Brihaddevata.

Father Dyaus (Zeus, Diespiter), the Shining God of Heaven, and Mother Prithivi, the Earth Goddess, are among the oldest of the Vedic deities, but the hymns scarcely reflect their former greatness. They have been cast into the shade by Varuna, the Encompassing Sky, and Indra, the God of Thunder and Rain. Varuna is the most sublime deity of the early Vedic pantheon. He bears the epithet Asura (Avestan Ahura) and he is the great upholder of physical and moral order, Rita, the idea of which is at least as old as the fourteenth century BC., as we learn from inscriptions mentioning the names of the Mitanni kings. To Varuna people turned for forgiveness of sin just as they did to Vishnu in a later age.

"If we have sinned against the man who loves us, 

have ever wronged a brother, friend, comrade,The neighbour ever with us, or a stranger, 

O Varuna, remove from us the trespass.

O Varuna, whatever the offence may be which we as men commit against the heavenly host, 

When through our want of strength we violate thy laws, punish us not, 

O God, for that iniquity."

The worship of Varuna, with its consciousness of sin and trust in the divine forgiveness, is undoubtedly one of the first roots of the later doctrine of Bhakti.

Conclusion: The roughly 1,000 years between 1500-500 b.c.e. is called the Vedic, or Aryan, age. The beginning of the Vedic age corresponded with the end of the Indus civilization (c. 2500-1500 b.c.e.), although it is not clear what precise role the Aryans played in the final fall of the Indus civilization. The two peoples belonged to different racial groups, and the Indus urban culture was more advanced than the mainly pastoral society of the Indo-European Aryans. The 1,000 years after 1500 is divided into the Early and Late Vedic age, each spanning about 500 years, because of significant differences between the cultures of the two halves. The earlier period marked the conquest and settlement of northern India by Indo-Europeans who crossed into the subcontinent across the Hindu Kush passes into the Indus River valley, across the Thar Desert and down the Ganges River valley. The latter half saw the development of a more sophisticated sedentary culture. The name Vedic refers to the Vedas, sacred texts of the Aryans, which is a principal source of information of that era.