Vedic Age Essay

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 IndoEuropean 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.

The Rig-Veda

There are no significant archaeological remains from the first five centuries of the Vedic, or Aryan, era. Therefore, scholars must rely on the hymns and prayers of the Aryans, called the Vedas, or Books of Knowledge, for information about the earliest centuries. The most important work of the Aryans is the Rig-Veda, consisting of 1,017 hymns and songs addressed to various gods. Initially memorized by a class of priests, they were collected and written down c. 600 b.c.e. after a written script, called Sanskrit (related to other Indo-European languages such as Greek and Latin), was invented. The Rig-Veda is the oldest surviving Indo-European literature.

Some hymns of the Rig-Veda refer to a god named Indra who demolished forts that could have been the walled Indus cities. They refer to themselves as Aryans, which means “high born” or “noble,” while the nonAryan enemies are called the dasas or dasyus, which means “dark” and also came to mean “slave.” Aryan social organization was patrilineal. Upon marriage women became members of their husbands’ joint families. Sons were prized over daughters because they performed the family sacrifices, and only sons could inherit from their parents. Related Aryan families belonged to a clan, and associated clans formed a tribe, ruled by a raja, or king. Many Aryan tribes took part in the conquest and settlement of northern India. The most powerful one was called Bharata, which is the Sanskrit name of present-day republic of India. The battles between the ancient kings, many of them related to one another, are related in a long epic poem titled the Mahabaharata (Great Bharat).

Social Class Distinctions

Aryan society was stratified, based on function, and after the conquest, also on skin color. It is called caste, or class in English, and varna in Sanskrit, which means “covering,” referring to the color of the skin that covers one’s body. The top castes were the Brahman, who was priests and teachers, and the Kshatriya, or rulers and warriors. They were followed by the Vaisya, who was landowners and artisans. The secular hymns in the Rig-Veda mention many occupations that include carpenters, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, tanners, weavers, spinners, farmers, and herders as members of the Vaisya caste. All three were of Aryan origin and called “twice born,” the second birth referring to religious initiation or rebirth, which qualified the males to participate in religious rituals. The fourth caste was called Sudra, who were servants and manual laborers, probably many of them were originally the pre-Aryan dasas. Thus the invaders were able to integrate the conquered indigenous people and assign them a position in society. The division of people into castes was sanctioned in Vedic literature. Vedic literature describes the Aryan culture as one dominated by warrior heroes, men who fought hard and enjoyed feasting and strong drinks, and gambling.

Religion And Gods

The Rig-Veda was the most sacred text of the Aryan religions. It was supplemented by three other ancient collections of poems, spells, and incantations, called the Sama-, Yagur-, and Arthava-Vedas. Other ritual works were added later. They were the Brahmanas, which elaborated on the ancient hymns and described the necessary steps for priests in performing the rituals and sacrifices. The Upanishads, philosophical essays written during the last centuries of the Vedic era, 108 of which survive, followed the Brahmanas. The above works are the core religious literature of Hinduism.

The early Aryans worshipped a pantheon of nature gods, offering them sacrifices in return for granting their requests. There were many sacrifices that ranged from the daily domestic sacrifices performed by the head of the family, to great sacrifices ordered by kings that were presided over by many Brahman priests with many animal sacrifices. The most powerful early gods were Indra, the warrior god, who wielded the thunderbolt, killed dasas and destroyed their forts, and also brought rain. Varuna was the god of universal order and punished sinners by afflicting them with diseases. Agni was the god of fire and protector of the home and hearth. Soma was both the god of immortality and a hallucinogenic drink made from a hemp-type plant and drunk on the same day at religious ceremonies. There were many other gods and demigods in charge of various functions.

Sanskrit

Writing began around 1000 b.c.e., although nothing has survived from the earliest period. It was called Sanskrit. The Vedic literature continued to be memorized by Brahman priests and was not written down until around 600 b.c.e. By that time some of the vocabulary had already become archaic. Classical Sanskrit used by scholars and government officials in the Late Vedic age was less complex grammatically than the Sanskrit of the Vedas.

Less important writing was done in vernacular tongues, called Prakrits, meaning, “unrefined,” as opposed to the “perfected” or “refined” form of writing called Sanskrit. Modern languages in northern India are descended from Sanskrit and are related, whereas languages of southern India belong to the indigenous Dravidians and are unrelated to Indo-European languages. The year 1000 b.c.e. also marked the transition from the Early to the Late Vedic age.

There are still few archaeological sources for the Late Vedic age, so scholars must principally rely on sacred texts: the later Vedas, the Brahmanas, and Upanishads. Other written sources include the epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana) and Puranas, which include legends that seem to refer to this period. By the Late Vedic age the Aryan tribes had spread across north India and almost forgotten their earlier home in the northwest and Punjab. Territorial kingdoms had replaced the tribal state and old kinship relationships were being replaced by geographic alignments. Late Vedic society was more advanced economically compared with that of the Early Vedic.

Most people had settled down and become farmers. Many different kinds of trades and crafts were mentioned, indicating a more advanced material culture. They include jewelers, goldsmiths, basket makers, dyers, and potters. The rich had servants; there were also references to professional acrobats, musicians, fortune-tellers, and dancers who entertained the townspeople. While most people lived in villages, texts from the period mention towns; some of those names persist to the present.

New Religious Trends

Two religious trends emerged. One had Brahman religious leaders challenging the power of the kings. Another was dissatisfaction with established religious rituals because they no longer satisfied the popular longings nor answered the questions of people whose lives had become more prosperous but felt insecure as a result of the changes. New religious ideas emerged. One was the doctrine of karma (karma means “deed” or “action”), which held that that one’s position in this life is the result of actions in previous lives and that one’s actions in this life will influence future lives.

This doctrine of the transmigration of the soul gave ethical content to human conduct and also justified inequities in life. Since the doctrine included all living things, it inspired kindness to animals, which resulted in vegetarianism. Some sought an answer in asceticism and joined bands of holy men debating religious questions and seeking answers. Out of the intellectual quest came the writing of the Upanishads and the emergence of two new religions, Buddhism and Jainism. The end of the Vedic age also ended the shadowy early historic age in Indian civilization.

References:

  1. Basu, Praphullachandra. Indo-Aryan Society, Being a Study of the Economic and Political Conditions of India as Depicted in the Rig Veda. London: King and Son, 1925;
  2. Dutt, Romesh Chander. A History of Civilization in Ancient India Based on Sanskrit Literature. Rev. ed. Vol. 1, B.C. 2000 to 320. New Delhi, India: Cosmo Publications, 2000;
  3. Ghurye, G. S. Vedic India. Bombay, India: Popular Prakashan, 1979;
  4. J. Rapson, ed. The Cambridge History of India, Vol. 1, Ancient India. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1922;
  5. Majumdar, R. C. An Advanced History of India. London: Macmillan, 1958.

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