Vedic Period: Society, Polity and Economy

One of the reasons for the decline of Indus-Valley Civilisation was that there was an external invasion by certain tribes. Though it is not a proved reason, it is one of many reasons. But it is generally true that any civilisation which has acquired its peak will definitely gonna see its darks ages. It is the simple rule for any society. Same happened with Indus-Valley Civilisation. And this gave space for the coming of the Vedic Period (1500-500 BCE), which was the period when it is assumed that compilation of Vedas is done.

Four Vedas
Four Vedas

We divide Vedic Period into two parts,

  1. Before 1000 BCE or Before Iron Revolution: Rigvedic Period
  2. After Iron Revolution: Later Vedic of Post Rigvedic Period

It is the simplest division one can have for the Vedic Period. And here we will have a look at the society, economy and polity of the Vedic Period.

Vedic Period

Society: From Simple to Complex

The entire region where the Vedic people first inhabited in Indian Subcontinent was the Land of Seven Rivers aka Sapt-Sindhu. The Rigveda mentioned the name of Indus (Sindhu) and its five tributaries Jhelum (Vitasta), Chenab (Asikini or Chandrabhaga), Ravi (Paurushani), Beas (Vipasa) and Satluj (Sutudri). It also mentions the name of river Sarasvati (Harakhwati).

Rigvedic Society

The Rigvedic people were having an egalitarian society. The society was simple and Rigvedic people lived in a tribal clan based society. The important tribes were Bharat, Kuru, Puru and Panchala etc. Though there was not a big struggle between them. But there are pieces of evidence of clash on different issues like the colour. It was a struggle between Black community (Dasa and Dasyus) and White community (Aryans).

Though the term Arya appeared approximately 32 times in the Rigvedic period. But every historian has their own interpretation of this term. Some are of the opinion that these people came from Central Asia and settled in Indian Subcontinent. Some are of the view that they were invading tribes came with horses and their own lifestyle. More or less some also believe that they were the linguistic group.

I am not a historian but I read many books. And from my own observation of ancient scriptures, I can say that Arya term used to describe the Noble person in the ancient ages. Because in some ancient scriptures like Mahabharata and Ramayana, the great ladies call their husbands as Arya. 😉 So, there are many perspectives regarding this one term Arya. So, one should not confuse oneself because of this term rather should look at the important aspects of the society.

Social Division

The society was divided according to the Varna. And here ‘Varna’ is a Sanskrit word which means ‘colour’. It is observed that Rigvedic Society was divided on the basis of Varna i.e. colour. The Aryans were the people of white race and Dasas and Dasyus were the people of black race. Rigveda mentions Arya Varna and Dasa Varna.

Gradually the Rigvedic society got divided into three groups- Kshatriyas (Warriors), Brahmins (Priests) and common people (Traders or Vaishyas). The fourth division called the Shudras appeared towards the end of the Rigvedic period.

Condition of Women in the Rigvedic Society

In the Rigvedic Period, women were having important status, though society was patriarchal. Rigvedic texts mention the name of many legendary women like Lopamudra, Gargi, Maitreyi, Ghosha, Yami etc. Women had following rights,

Vedic Period: Rigvedic Legendary Ladies
Vedic Period: Rigvedic Legendary Ladies
  1. Right to attend the political assembly.
  2. Upanayana Sanskara or Right to education.
  3. Right to select groom (Swayamvara).
  4. Right to attend religious discussions.
  5. Weaving was the monopoly of women.

In a whole Rigvedic tribal society was an egalitarian society and there was no division of society on the basis of occupation. This was evident in the instance mentioned in the IX Mandal of the Rigveda (consisting X Mandal),

I am a poet, my father is a physician and my mother is a grinder. Earning livelihood through different mens we live together…

But after 1000 BCE or Iron Revolution the Vedic Period took a change from the Rigvedic Period to Later Vedic Period. And because of it, the society changed accordingly. So, let’s have a look on Later Vedic Society i.e. somewhat Complex Society.

Later Vedic Society

As we have studied that Rigvedic Society was egalitarian and tribe based. But after 1000 BCE or Iron Revolution situation changed and Society became a complex society.

Birth of Varna System

In Later Vedic Period gradually the division based on the Varna system became visible. But here Varna based division meant that duty based division of society. Different Varnas assigned different duties. Example,

  1. Brahmana: To preach the society.
  2. Kshatriya: To protect.
  3. Vaishyas: Trade and commerce.
  4. Shudras: To serve.

For the first time as a Varna System, this division is mentioned in ‘Purushsukta’ of X Mandal of Rigveda. We consider this X Mandal of Rigveda as a part of Later Vedic Period.

Because of the discovery of the Iron, Iron ploughshare came into existence. We found a mention about the Iron ploughshare in the IV Mandal of Rigveda. So, the beginning of agricultural economy in the Later Vedic Period created two classes in the society. These classes were landlords and labourers. And this presented the requirement of the division of society in the Later Vedic Period.

Note

It is very true that the Victorious race never gives equal status to the Defeated race. And It had been observed that the Aryans were the victorious race and Dasa was the defeated one. Another example is,

  • Britishers from 1757 (Battle of Plassey) kept Indians as their slaves. 
  • Napoleon after his many expeditions in Europe and World kept all the territories under his authority.

It seems in the same way the Victorious Aryans kept Defeated Race as Shudras or Labour class.

Ashrama System

Importance of Ashrama System
Importance of Ashrama System

It was the most important feature of the Later Vedic Period. Later Vedic Period saw the beginning of developing an economy which also created tension in the society. The disillusioned or dissatisfied section of society followed the path of escapism or Sanyasa. In this background, Brahmanism under Ashrama System gave the proposal of both the objectives in one life i.e. Kama and Rama. It divided the life into 4 phases,

  1. Brahmacharya (Education)
  2. Grihastha (Family Life)
  3. Vanaprastha
  4. Sanyasa

Initial three Ashramas were mentioned in the Chhandogya Upanishad. While all the four Ashramas were mentioned in Jabla Upanishad of 6th Century BCE.

Gotra System

Many of Indian families now also believe in this system without having an understanding of the origin of this system. 🙁 The Gotra System was the main cause for the downfall of the women’s position in the Later Vedic Society and consecutive societies.

Gotra System: Vedic Period v/s Present Day
Gotra System: Vedic Period v/s Present Day

‘Gotra’ word literally means ‘Cow-Pen’, a place where cattle of particular clan lives.It is mentioned in the Atharvaveda. But with the beginning of agricultural economy after the Iron Revolution, rulers started the territorial expansion. And in this scenario marriage alliance became the medium to improve political status of a family. Therefore under Gotra System, social relations strengthened the political status of the clan.

Note

The marriage alliances for the political gain started from the Later Vedic Period. But one can see many instances of this in our present society too. Examples,

  • Bimbisara, Haryanka Dynasty King did marriage with the Koshala Princess, Lichchhavi Princess and Princess of Madra Clan. These marriage alliances gave him territorial expansion as well as political stability.
  • Chandragupta-I, Gupta Dynasty King married with Kumaradevi.
  • Akbar married with Harakha Bai.
  • Present day marriage alliance between two political families.

So the Gotra System turned women as an object to increase the power of the family. In this situation, it became necessary to weaken the status of the women, to exploit women.

Therefore from the Later Vedic Period women were denied the right of Upanayana ceremony i.e. the right to education.

Rise in the status of Head of the Family

An important feature of the Later Vedic Society was the rise in the status of Gahapati i.e. the head of the family. Because the tribal structure was losing its ground and families were owning the control on immovable property i.e. land.

This was the overall societal condition of the Vedic Period. In the coming posts, we will discuss and understand the economic, political and religious condition of the Vedic people.

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