History of India - Vedic Civilization

By 1750 BC the urban phase of the Harappan Civilisation had declined. And it was on the relics of the Harappan monuments that the foundation of an entirely new civilization, better known as the Vedic Civilisation, was laid by Aryans, a vast community of people from outside who passed into India just when the glory of Harappa was on the wane.

Aryans arrived not in one but in many phases, which started in BC 1500 BC 1600 and continued till BC 1000. During this period Aryans settled in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent. After Aryans settled in the region, they composed a series of religious hymns, which were later on compiled into the earliest of the four sacred Vedas, called the Rigveda. Apart from its great spiritual significance as the holiest scripture of Hinduism, the text forms main source of knowledge of Aryans.

The word 'Aryan' does not denote name of any race or tribe. As German scholar Max Muller (1823-1900) has opined, the term 'Aryan', in scientific language, is utterly inapplicable to race. It means language and nothing but language. In 1786, Sir William Jones on phonetics and linguistic basis showed a definite relation between the Vedic Sanskrit and some of the principal Asian and European languages. On this basis it has been surmised that the people who spoke the common language and shared the common home, dispersed or emigrated to various parts of the world, including India.

Early Vedic Period (BC 1500 - BC 1000)


Origin of the Aryans

Opinions differ regarding the original homeland of the Aryans. The most accepted view is that the region between Poland to the Central Asia might have been the homes of Aryans. They were said to be semi-nomadic people, who started moving from their original homeland towards the west, sough and east. The branch, which went to Europe, was the ancestor of the Greeks, Romans, Celts and Teutons. Another branch went to Anatolia. The great empire of the Hittites evolved from the mixture of these immigrants with the original people. The branch, which remained, was the ancestors of the Slavonic people. The group, which moved south, came to conflict with the west Asian civilisation. In course of their journey towards the east or south a group of Aryans had settled in Iran. They crossed the Hindukush and entered Indian through Afghanistan and captured the greater part of the northern India. They came to be known as Indo-Aryans to distinguish them from the others who spoke a language different from those who settled in western Asia and Europe.

The Indo-Aryans entered Punjab and Northwestern parts of India. They moved towards south0east and eastwards into Ganges Valley. The Aryans were pastoral Nomads. The region which the Aryans occupied was known as Sapta Sindhu. Moving further eastwards they settled along the Ganga-Yamuna doab. In due course of time the whole of northern India was under the control of the Aryans were divided into many tribes. A few among them are Anus, Druhyus, Yadus, Turvasas and Purus. They settled on either side of the river Saraswati. They were involved in fighting among themselves. besides these tribal warfare, the Aryans were engaged in struggles with the dark-skinned people Dasyus. The Dasyus were the Dravidians who occupied the regions of the Harappan Civilisation. The superiority of the Aryans resulted in the Dravidian submission and retirement to the south.

A number of scholars, both archaeologists and historians, have suggested that the Aryans, or the people who composed the Rigveda, were responsible for the destruction of Harappan Civilisation. This view was based on both literary and archaeological evidence. However, the archaeological evidence of an invasion has been found to be particularly weak, and at present this theory rests solely on literary evidence, which includes description of the Vedic god Indra as a destroyer of forts (Pyrabdara) and less clear indications of the possible destruction of embankments which might have disrupted the irrigation network necessary for the Harappan economy.

While the Vedic people need not have necessarily destroyed the Harappan urban centers, there is no denying that, at least in material terms, the contrast between the Harappans and the Vedic people was striking. To start with, as noted earlier, Rigvedic society appears to have been primarily pastoral. While animal-rearing was certainly known to the Harappans, their economy as a whole was much more complex with an agricultural base capable of supporting large non-agricultural urban populations and substantial evidence for long distance trade and craft specialization. The Vedic people, on the other hand, had a limited familiarity with agriculture and do not seem to have participated in long0distance exchanges. The evidence for craft specialization within Vedic society is also, likewise limited.

Political Organization

Family served as the basis of both social and political organizations. Families together formed the grama or villages Villages together formed the janas. The community was patriarchal and each tribe was under the chief whose position was hereditary. The rastra was ruled by king which was normally hereditary. The king led the tribe in battle and protected the people. The purobita was one of the important functionaries. He was the sole associate of the king - his friend, philosopher and guide. The gramani the head of the village. The main duty of the king was the protection of his subjects, property, defense and maintenance of peace. The king was not an autocrat and, was controlled by two popular assemblies, Sabha and Samiti. These assemblies brought forth the people's view on various issues The Sabha also discharged legal duties like providing justice. Individual ownership of property was recognized. The land was a property owned by family. The property passed on in a hereditary manner from father to son.

Economic Condition

The Aryans who were semi-nomadic people also domesticated animals which helped them in the activities of agriculture and other pastoral and hunting acts. Animal rearing was the major economic activity. However, towards the end of Rigvedic period agriculture formed the major share of the economy. Canals to provide irrigation was a significant feature of this occupation. Coins were unknown and trade was through the barter system. Craft was not a popular profession. The lack of good roads might have hampered trade, but river navigation was existing. Specialization in areas such as carpentry, smithy, weaving, poetry, etc., had been taking place.

Religion

The religion of the Vedic Aryans was a form of nature worship. Natural phenomena were conceived as the expression of some spiritual beings manifestations of various gods. For the different appearances of the sky different deities were imagined. However, Indra, the king of Vedic gods also known as the 'god of war' and 'god of thunder', was the most prominent among the Vedic gods and as many as 250 Rigveda hymns are devoted to him, Agni, Soma, Varuna, Surya, Vayu, Mitra, Dyus, etc., were other popular deities of the Rigvedic period.

Classification of Vedic Gods

Type

Name of Gods

Prithvisthan (Terrestrial)

Prithvi, Agni, Soma, Brihaspati and River Gods

Antarikshathan (Aerial)

Indra, Vishnu, Aditya, Rudra, Vayuvata, Parajanya, Apah, etc.

Dyusthan (Celestial)

Varuna, Mitra, Pushan, Ushas, Asvins, etc.

Literature in the Vedic Period


The Vedas : The four Vedas were the sources of reconstructing the Vedic period. Among these, the oldest is the Rigveda while the others in the order of their composition are Samveda, Yajurveda and Atharvaveda. The Samveda contains the verses from the Rigveda. The hymns in it were relevant to the soma sacrifice. The Yajurveda also consists of hymns from the Rigveda, of which more than half are in prose to facilitate the performance of sacrifices. It depicts the social and religious condition of this period. The Atharvaveda contains philosophic speculations, popular cults and superstitions.

The Brabmanas : They are prose of the sacrificial ceremonies. These are explanatory treatises of Vedas which lay emphasis on ritualism. They mark the transition from Vedic to classical Sanskrit. It also marks the period which marks the advance of the Aryans from the Panchla country to Videha (North Bihar)

The Vedangas and the Upavedas : These are said to the supplementary sections of the Vedic literature. These give us idea bout Jyotish (astronomy), Ayurveda (medicine), Dhanurveda (war), Gandharvaveda (music), etc.

The Vedanta : It is the philosophy taught in most of the Upanishads.

The Upanishads : These texts contain the main idea that constitutes the intellectual aspect of the Hindu philosophy. They do not lay emphasis on rites, ceremonies and austerities. The Upanishads are dated between BC 800 and BC 500. The Upanishads are more than 100 in number. The Brahadaranyaka Upanishad, Chandogva Upanishad, Aitreya Upanishad are a few important ones. The Upanishad reflect the richness and universality of the Indian culture. They are said to be the thinking power of the Brahmanas and Kshatriyas.

Later Vedic Period (BC 1000 - BC 600)


The later Vedic period is said to have begun after the composition of the Atharvaveda, Yajurveda and Samveda. This period indicated changes in political, social, economic and religious conditions of the life of the Aryans. These changes were different from those in the early Vedic period during the composition of the Rigveda.

Political Condition

The Rigvedic Aryans were divided into several tribes. There was frequent internal strife among them. The weaker tribes were absorbed into the stronger ones and thus the kingdoms and larger areas of residence emerged. The political influence of the Aryans extended towards the east and south. The Aryans now established a powerful kingdom in the Deccan, to the north of the river Godavari. The mode of succession continued to hereditary. The expansion of the territory also resulted in the increased domination of the king assisted by a hierarchy of nobility. These nobles were assigned official duties. Thus an administrative machinery developed. The king now had a council of advisers which included the king's relatives, his courtiers, heads of various department, The purohita (the priest), senani (the commander), the suta (the charioteer), etc., were the individuals which assisted in the king's activities. The role of the popular assemblies was important. A notable feature of this period was the extinction of the Samiti. The Sabha transformed from being a popular village assembly, continued as a court or judicial assembly.

Social Condition

The need to perform the ceremonial yajnas required the services of highly trained priests who were skilled in religious matters, This group came to assume the title of the Brahmanas. They occupied a high status and were respected and honored by the King. The constant inter-tribe fighting for establishing supremacy and struggle with teh original inhabitants gave brith for the need of persons skilled in warfare. Thus arose the new class of the Kshatriyas. Remaining people in the Aryan society were called Vaisyas. The group who were not Aryans were called Sudras. This separation in the society was on the basis of the profession they pursued. Gradually the Aryans were dived into the four varnas, succession to these coruse of time became hereditary. The caste system became rigid. Education was confined to the upper classes. An Aryan's life was divided into stages which began with Upanayana, which was the inception of the pupil to education. After a period of 12 years study of the Vedas, Brahmanas, Upanishads, Ithibasa, Puranas, Grammar, Ethics, etc. the individual could chose one of the four ashramas i.e. Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Sanyasa, Vanaprastha.

Religious Condition

Religion and Philosophy in the later Vedic period became more confirmed with elaborate sacrifices. The doctrines of Karma, Maya, Soul, Mukti were established. Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara became the important gods who were worshipped.

Literature in the Later Vedic Period


The Epics
They are the Ramayana and Mahabharata. They introduce us to a period of transformation in the social and religious institutions of the Vedic age. The Ramayana written by Valmiki is poetic legend based on mythology. It portrays the ideal man-god Rama and the ideal women Sita. The sacrifices made by the characters for the preservation of truth appealed to the people. This was edited by the Brahmanas in course of time to convert it into a book of devotion. The Mahabharata, which consists of 18 purvas (sections), contains about 1,00,000 verses. This is an encyclopedia of history, morals and religion.

Puranas
These are legends connected with epics and law books. There are 18 main Purnas and are mostly recognized in North India. The Visbnu Purnana treats five subjects namely primary creations, secondary creations, genealogies of gods and pattiarch reigns of various manus and history of ancient dynasties. The Vayupurana is one of the oldest Puranas. It was edited during the age of Guptas when there was a great revival of the Sanskrit language. The other Puranas include Matsya and Brahmanda which give us account of kings up to the imperial Gupta dynasty with other contemporaries.

Laws of Manu
Also known as Manyu Dbaramshasta in Sanskrit, it comprises of 2,684 couplets arranged in twelve chapters. It is the earliest of law books. The laws of Manu from the foundation of the court of law in India under the name of Hindu Law. The book makes a distinction between varnas and jatis. The varnas were in the order of the occupations pursued by the people. This was given as below,

  • the learned; literate and priestly order
  • the fighting or the governing class
  • the trading and agricultural group
  • the common folk, labourers

Rivers And Their Vedic Names


Modern Name

Vedic Name

Indus

Sindhu

Ghaggar-Hakra

Saraswati

Sutlej

Shatudri

Beas

Vipasha

Jhelum

Vitasta

Ravi

Parushni

Chenab

Ashikni

Kabul

Kubha

Kurram

Krumu

Gomal

Gomati

Gandak

Sadanitra

Swat

Suvastu

Chautang

Drishavati