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The Vedic Age – Ancient India (HISTORY OF INDIA)

The Vedic Age – Ancient India (HISTORY OF INDIA)

The Vedic Age - Ancient India (HISTORY OF INDIA)


There is good archaeological evidence to show that in the centuries following 200 B.C., north-west India was invaded by some tribes from the West. They were called Aryans who ultimately occupied the greater part of northern India. It is believed that initially the Aryans lived together in a common place. Subsequently, because of several reasons, the Aryans in groups moved in different directions. A sizeable number migrated to India. This branch of Aryans who migrated and settled in India are called ‘Indo-Aryans’.


Of the many theories that have been put forward by scholars and historians regarding the original home of the Aryans, the Central Asian theory of Max Mueller is acceptea most widely. Max Mueller has identified Central Asia as the original home of the Aryans. He has based his view on the study of the world’s languages. The significant evidence is that there are fundamental similarities among some ancient languages such as Latin, Greek and Sanskrit and the resemblances continue in the languages derived from them. For instance, ‘Pitri’, Sanskrit for ‘Father’, and ‘Paser’. Latin for Father sound similar, and so does ‘Matri’ and Mater’ for Mother. Max Mueller therefore concluded that the ancestors of the Indians, the Greeks, the Romans, the English and some other peoples must have originally resided at a common place.

The Austro-Hungarian theory, propounded by Dr. Giles and Prof. Macdonell, considers the banks of the Danube river (south-east Europe) to have been the original home of the Aryans.

Putting forward the Sapta-Sindhu theory, many Indian historians including Dr. Sampurnanand and Avinash Chandra Dass point out that modern Punjab and Sindh region (or Sapta-Sindhu) was where the Aryans originated. The view is based on study of geographical features mentioned in the hymns of the Rigveda.

From the description of certain natural phenomena, such as long evenings, days and nights of six months’ duration, etc. in the Rigveda, Lokmanya Tilak came to the conclusion that the original home of the Aryans was in the regions near the North Pole. He reached this view after the close study of several ancient books, such as the Rigveda and the Zend Avesta.

Swami Dayananda wrote in the Satyartha Prakash that the original home of the Aryans was Tibet. As their population grew they could not continue to stay in Tibet and thus migrated towards India. His view is supported by F.E. Pargiter.


According to generally accepted views, about 2000 B.C. the great steppeland from Poland to Central Asia was inhabited by semi-nomadic barbarians, who were tall, comparatively fair, and mostly long-headed. They had tamed the horse to pull light chariots with spoked wheeis. They were mainly pastoral, but practised a little agriculture. They had adopted some Mesopotamian innovations, notably the shaft-hole axe. In the early part of the second millenium, whether from pressure of population, desiccation of pasture lands, or from both causes, these people were on the move. They migrated in bands westwards, southwards and eastwards, conquering local populations.

They brought with them their patrilinear family system, their worship of sky-gods, and their horses and chariots. Their original language gradually adapted itself to the tongues of the conquered peoples. Some invaded Europe to become the ancestors of the Greeks, Latins. Celts and Teutons. Others moved southwards to the Caucasus and the Iranian tableland. The marauding tribesmen also gradually came to India. These invaders of India called themselves Aryas, a word generally anglicised into ‘Aryans’. The name was also used by the ancient Persians, and survives in the word ‘Iran’.

The Aryans spoke the Indo-European languages, which are current in changed forms all over Europe, Iran and the greater part of the Indian subcontinent. Certain names of animals such as goats, dogs, horses, etc., and names of certain plants such as pine, maple, etc., are similar to one another in all the Indo-European languages. The Aryans did not lead a settled life, so they could not leave behind any solid material remains.

Making their way to India the Aryans first appeared in Iran, where the Indo-Iranians lived for a long time. We learn about the Aryans in India from the Rigveda, which is the earliest specimen of the Indo-European languages, and has much in common with the ‘Avesta’, the oldest text in the Iranian language.


In order to determine the date of the arrival of the Aryans in India we must first look for the age of the Rigveda. There is much difference of opinion in this regard. Some lay down the year 1000 B.C. as the earliest limit for the Rigvedic hymns, while others consider them to have originated between 3000 and 2500 B.C. The most decisive evidence in calculating the age of Rigveda is the fact that Jainism and Buddhism presuppose its existence. Keeping this in mind we may conclude that the Aryans appeared in north-western India not later than 1500 B.C

The early Vedic period is roughly dated from 1500 to 1000 B.C. The later Vedic period extends from 1000600 B.C.


Most of the hymns of the Rigveda were probably composed in the country around the river Sarasvati, now lost in the sands of Rajasthan. The Aryan occupation of Afghanistan and the Punjab is proved by the mention in the Rigveda of the rivers Jaxartes, Kabul, Swat, Kurram. Gumal, Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. The Himalayas were well known, but the Vindhyas were unknown. Thus we can safely conclude that the Aryan settlements were confined to eastern Afghanistan, modern Pakistan, Punjab and parts of modern Uttar Pradesh. The major part of this area was known as the land of Sapta Sindhu (the Indus and its five tributaries and the Sarasvati.)

When the hymns were written the focus of Aryan culture was the region between the Yamuna and the Sutlej (the region was referred to as Brahmavarta), and along the upper course of the river Sarasvati. To the east the Aryans had not expanded for beyond the Yamuna, and the Ganga is mentioned only in a late hymn. Narmada finds no mention.


At this time the Aryans had not wholly subjugated the indigenous inhabitants. Though many hymns refer to battles between one Aryan tribe and another, the main conflict was between the Aryans and the indigenous dasas and dasyus. The dasas are described as dark and ill-favoured, bull-lipped, snub-nosed, worshippers of the phallus, and of hostile speech. They were rich in cattle, and dwelt in fortified places called ‘pur’, of which the Aryan war-god Indra had destroyed hundreds.

Since the dasas are also mentioned in the ancient Iranian literature, they also seem to have been a branch of the early Aryans. The Rigveda mention the defeat of Sambara by a chief called Divodasa, who belonged to the Bharata clan. In this case the term ‘dasa’ appears in the name of Divodasa. Possibly the dasyus were the original inhabitants of the country, and an Aryan chief who overpowered them was called trasadasyu. The Aryan chief was soft towards the dasas, but strongly hostile to the dasyus. The term dasyuhatya, slaughter of the dasyus. is repeatedly mentioned in the Rigveda. The dasyus possibly worshipped the phallus and did not keep cattle for dairy products.

Other enemies of the Aryans were the panis. Panis were wealthy people who refused to patronise the Vedic priests, and who stole the cattle of the Aryans. They were not so strongly hated as the dasyus, and their settlements were left unmolested. Probably, the panis were Semitic traders.

Though many of the vanquished dasas must have been enslaved, some seem to have come to terms with the conquerors, and one dasa chief is mentioned as following Aryan ways and patronising the brahmins. The Rigvedic language, even in the earliest stratum. was appreciably affected by non-Aryan influences.

The military technique of the early Aryans was much advanced. The Aryans succeeded everywhere because they possessed chariots driven by horses. They introduced the horse and chariot into west Asia and India. The Aryan soldiers were probably equipped also with coats of mail (varman) and better arms.

The Aryan priestly schools had raised the tribal sacrifice to a fine art, and their poetry was elaborate and formalised. But they had not developed a city civilisation. The complete absence of any words connected with writing in the Rigveda, despite its size and the many contexts in which such words might be expected to occur, is almost certain proof that the Aryans were illiterate. They were a people of warlike stockbreeders, organised in tribes rather than in kingdoms


The tribes were ruled by chiefs who bore the title rajan. The rajan was not an absolute monarch. for the government of the tribe was in part the responsibility of the tribal councils like sabha, samiti, gana and vidatha. Even women attended the sabha and the vidatha. The rajan’s post was generally hereditary but we have mention of election of the king by the tribal assembly (samiti). He protected his tribe and its cattle: fought its wars; and offered prayers to gods on its behalf.

The king was assisted by a few functionaries of which purohita was the most important. The purohila by his sacrifices ensured the prosperity of the tribe in peace and its victory in war. Often he appears as a tribal medicine-man, performing magical ceremonies and muttering spells for victory both before and during battle The next important functionary seems to be the senani (General) who was responsible under the king for minor campaigns and cattle raids against neighbouring tribes. There was no regular or standing army; in times of war the king mustered a militia whose military functions were performed by different tribal groups like vrata, gana, grama, sardha.

The Aryans looked on the king primarily as a leader in war, responsible for the defence of the tribe. He was in no sense divine at this early period, and had no religious functions, except to order sacrifices for the good of the tribe and to support the priests who performed them. The priest-king of some other early cultures had no counterpart here. There was no regular revenue system and the king was maintained by the voluntary tribute (bali) of his subjects and the booty won in battle. There is no reference to the judicial functions of the king. There were cases of theft and burglary, especially theft of cows. Spies were employed to check them.

The officer who enjoyed authority over the pasture ground was called vrajapati. He led the heads of the families (kulapas), or the heads of the fighting hordes (gramanis), to battle. In the beginning, the gramani was just the head of a small tribal fighting unit, but when the unit settled, the gramani became the head of the village, and later became identified with the vrajapati.

Several chieftains are mentioned in the Rigveda by name, but only one king is recorded as performing any deed of historical importance. This is Sudas, king of the Bharatas, the tribe that dwelled on the upper reaches of the river Sarasvati. Three hymns or poems of the Rigveda describe the great ‘Battle of the Ten Kings’ at which Sudas defeated a coalition of ten tribes-five Aryan tribes and five non-Aryan tribes-of Punjab and the NorthWest, on the banks of the river Parushni, the modern Ravi. The most powerful of these ten tribes was that of the Purus, who dwelt on the lower Sarasvati and were the Bharatas’ western neighbours: their king, Purukutsa, was apparently killed in the battle. In the succeeding age we hear no more of either Bharatas or Purus, but a new tribe. that of the Kurus, controlled the old land of the Bharatas and northern Ganga-Yamuna doab.


When the Aryans entered India there was already a class division in their tribal structure. Even in the earliest hymns we read of kshatra (the nobility), and the vis (the ordinary tribesmen). and the records of several other early Indo-European peoples suggest that tribal aristocracy was a feature of Indo-European society even before the tribes migrated from their original home. As they settled among the darker aboriginals, the Aryans seem to have laid greater stress than before on purity of blood, and class divisions hardened. to exclude those dasas who had found a place on the fringe of Aryan society, and those Aryans who had intermarried with the dasas and adopted their ways. Both these groups were low on the social scale. The term varna was used for colour, the Aryans being fair, the dasyus dark.

The priests, whose sacrificial lore became more and more complicated, gradually arrogated higher privileges to themselves. Together with the chiefs, they acquired a larger share of the booty, thus growing at the expense of the common people. Social inequalities thus grew. The dasas conquered by the Aryans were treated as slaves or shudras. Gradually the tribal society got divided into three groups-warriors, priests and commoners. Later the fourth-shudra-was added towards the end of the Rigvedic period. This four-fold division was given religious sanction as evident from the Purushsukta hymn which many scholars contend, however, to be a later interpolation. In this hymn, the four classes are said to have emanated from the dismembered primeval man who was sacrificed by the gods at the beginning of the world – brahmin from the mouth, kshatriya from the arms, vaisya from the thighs, and shudra from the feet.

Family was the basic unit of society. A group of related families formed a grama, a term which later regularly meant ‘village’, but which in the Rigveda usually refers to a group of kinsfolk rather than to a settlement. The family was staunchly patrilinear and patriarchal. The wife, though she enjoyed a respectable position, was definitely subordinate to her husband. In the Rigveda, no desire is expressed for daughters, though the desire for children and cattle appears repeatedly. We have an instance of five women who composed hymns. Marriage was usually monogamous and indissoluble, for there is no reference to divorce. But there are certain indications of polyandry, levirate and widow-marriage. There are no examples of child-marriage, and the marriageable age in the Rigveda seems to have been 16 to 17.

Divisions based on occupations had started, but this division was not very sharp. Gifts of cattle, chariots, horses, slaves, etc. were given, but there were no gifts of land and even those of cereals were rare. Kinship was the basis of social structure. People’s primary loyalty was to the tribe (jana). The term for family (kula) rarely occurs in the Rigveda. It included not only mother, father, sons, slaves, etc. but many more people also. Probably, the term for family was griha. Differentiation in family relationships leading to the setting up of separate households had not proceeded far.

Unequal distribution of the spoils of war created social inequalities, and this helped the rise of princes and priests at the cost of the common people.

The Aryans were a wild, turbulent people and had few of the taboos prevalent in later India. They were much addicted to inebriating drinks, of which they had at least two, soma and sura. Soma was drunk at sacrifices and its use was sanctified by religion. Sura was purely secular and more potent, and was disapproved by the priestly poets. The Aryans loved music, and played the flute, lute and harp, to the accompaniment of cymbal and drums; they used a heptatonic scale. There are references to singing and dancing, and to dancing girls. People also delighted in gambling. They enjoyed chariot races. Their dress consisted of two garments covering the upper and lower parts of the body. Both men and women wore ornaments.


Though they had not developed a city civilisation, and did not build in stone or brick, the Aryans were technically well-equipped. Their bronze-smiths were highly skilled, and produced tools and weapons much superior to those of the Harappa culture. Bronze-smiths, carpenters and chariot-makers are frequently mentioned in the Rigveda with much respect. At the time of the composition of the Rigveda, the process of smelting iron was hardly known outside Anatolia, where the Hittite kings tried to keep it a secret. Only at the very end of the second millenium B.C. did the use of iron begin to spread widely over the civilised world, and it is very unlikely that it reached India before this time.

As might be expected of a people without cities, the Aryans followed a mixed economy-pastoral and agricultural-in which cattle played a predominant part. Indeed, most of their battles were fought in search of cows-gavisthi. Cattle were in fact a sort of currency, and values were reckoned in heads of cattle, but they were not held sacred at this time. Both oxen and cows were slaughtered for food. The horse was almost as important as the cow. Though there are references to riding, the horse is more frequently described as the motive power of the chariot-a light chariot with two spoked wheels, drawn by two horses yoked abreast, and carrying two warriors.

Among other domestic animals the Aryans knew the goat and the sheep, which provided wool, their chief textile. The elephant is only mentioned in late hymns, and was rarely, if ever, domesticated. A divine bitch, Sarama, plays an important part in a legend, but the dog did not mean as much to the people of the Rigveda as it did to a kindred Aryan pastoral people, the ancient Iranians, who made it a sacred animal.

Agriculture, though important, seems to have been looked on as rather plebeian. Only one word is used for corn-yava, which later meant barley but at this period may have implied all species of cultivated gram. There are references to ploughing, reaping and irrigation, and to different seasons.

In Mesopotamia the silver shekel, though unstamped, served as a means of exchange, but the Aryans relied for their unit of value and means of barter on the cow. The nishka, a term later used for a gold coin, is also mentioned as a sort of currency, but at this time it was probably a gold ornament of some kind. There is no mention of a regular class of merchants or moneylenders, though indebtedness is sometimes referred to.


The art of poetry was in full bloom as is evidenced by the splendid collection of lyrics known as the RikSamhita which consists of hymns in praise of different gods. The total number of hymns is 1028. These are grouped into ten books termed ashtakas or mandalas containing hymns of eight and ten verses respectively, which were recited by priest-styled hotris or reciters.

There are altogether 10,600 verses. The old hymns are chiefly to be found in the Family Books (II-VII), each of which is ascribed to a particular family of seers (rishis)– Gritsamada, Visvamitra, Vamadeva, Atri, Bharadvaj and Vashistha. 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.


The Aryans personified the natural forces and looked upon them as living beings. The most important divinity was Indra who played the role of a warlord, leading the Aryan soldiers to victory against the demons–250 hymns are devoted to him. He was regarded as the rain-god. The second position was held by Agni (fire god) to whom 200 hymns are devoted. The oblations offered to Agni were supposed to be carried in the form of smoke to the sky, and thus transmitted to the gods. Varuna personified water and was supposed to uphold the natural order. Soma was considered to be the god of plants. The Maruts personified the storm. We also find some female divinities, though not very important, such as Aditi, and Ushas who represented the appearance of the dawn.

Gods were mainly worshipped through the recitation of prayers and offering of sacrifices. Every tribe or clan had a special god to worship. Vegetables, cereals, etc. were offered in sacrifices, but without any ritual or sacrificial formulae. No particular words were assigned any magical power. Worship of gods was not meant for spiritual uplift or moksha, but for praja (children), pashu (cattle), food, wealth, health, etc., i.e. for material prosperity.

The early Vedic religion is also known as henotheism or kathenotheism-a belief in single gods, each in turn standing out as the highest. It has also been described as the worship of Nature. Another important feature was the tendency towards monotheism and even monism. The use of material objects as symbols of deities was perhaps not altogether unknown. Regarding life after death, the Rigvedic hymns have no consistent theory.


In the later Vedic period (1000-600 B.C.), the Aryans spread out from their early settlements (in Afghanistan and Punjab) to the Ganga-Yamuna doab. Towards the east the Aryans penetrated into Kosala, Kashi, Videha, Magadha, Anga, etc. The Kurus and Panchalas were the leading Aryan tribes. References to the Andhras and the Pulindas prove the emerging Aryan contact with the south. In the beginning they cleared the land by burning; later with the use of iron tools which became common by 1000-800 B.C.

Archaeologists have excavated parts of a few sites of this period, such as Hastinapur, Ahicchatra, and Kausambi. The town of Hastinapur was almost completely destroyed by flood at the end of its existence, and little remains but sherds of painted grey pottery, a few copper implements, and traces of houses of unbaked bricks. Kausambi has produced similar pottery, a little iron, and remains of a well-made city wall faced with burnt brick.

While the Aryans had by now expanded far into India their old home in Punjab and North-west was practically forgotten. Later Vedic literature mentions it rarely, and then usually with disparagement and contempt, as an impure land where the Vedic sacrifices were not performed. It may have been once more invaded by Indo-Iranian tribes who did not follow the orthodox rites.


The king’s power increased; he now ruled over kingdoms rather than over nomadic tribes. Tribal character was not wholly lost, but the kings established permanent capitals and a rudimentary administrative system. The old tribal assemblies (of the Rigvedic times) were still extant, but their power was waning rapidly, and by the end of this period the king’s autocracy was limited only by the power of the brahmins, tradition and public opinion. At places the old tribal organisations adapted themselves to the changed conditions, and ganas, or tribal republics, like those of the Sakyas and the Licchavis, survived for many centuries in outlying districts. However, political divisions based on kinship were giving place to those based on geography.

If the popular assemblies had lost power, another element in the state was rising in influence the ratnins or ‘jewel bearers’, the relatives, courtiers and palace officals of the king. These elements became so important that at the king’s consecration, special sacrifices were performed to ensure their loyalty. The list of ratnins includes the purohita, senani, chamberlain, royal charioteer, samgrahitri (the treasurer), bhagadugha (revenuecollector), etc. Royal pretensions were supported by grand royal sacrifices like Rajasuya, Vajapeya, Asvamedha, etc.

The judicial machinery had crystalised. Death penalty was still absent. The king now lived on taxes, not voluntary tributes. A standing army was still absent, and according to one ritual for success in war, the king had to eat along with his people (vis) from the same plate.


The four-fold division of society became clear. The power of the brahmanas increased so much that they sometimes came into conflict with the rajanyas for supremacy. But when the two upper orders faced the lower order, they would make up their differences. However, the vaishyas, alongwith the brahmanas and rajanyas (or kshatriyas), were entitled to upanayana or investiture with the sacred thread. The shudras were deprived of this ceremony. Certain sections of artisans such as rathakaras (chariot-makers) enjoyed a high status and were allowed upanayana.

In the family, father’s power increased, and he could even disinherit his son. In princely families, the rule of primogeniture was being consolidated. Women’s status deteriorated. The institution of gotra appeared; people began to practise gotra exogamy. Of the four Ashramas or four stages of life, only three (brahmachari, grihastha and vanaprastha) are mentioned.


By now the – Aryans had nearly all the equipments of a civilisation of the ancient type. Whereas the Rigveda speaks only of gold and copper or bronze. the later Vedic texts also mention tin, lead, silver and iron. The elephant was tamed, though little used in war. The Aryans now cultivated a large range of crops, including rice. and they understood something of irrigation and manuring.

Specialised trades and crafts had appeared. In place of the few craftsmen in the Rigveda many are now referred to, including jewellers, goldsmiths, metalworkers, basket-makers, rope-makers, weavers, dyers, carpenters and potters. Various types of domestic servants are mentioned, and a rudimentary entertainment industry existed, with professional acrobats, fortune-tellers, fluteplayers and dancers, while there are also references to usurers and merchants.

Still there is no mention of coined money or writing. After a break of many centuries Indian merchandise was again finding its way to Mesopotamia.


The la’s Vedic people used four types of potteryblack-and-red ware, black-slipped ware, painted grey ware and red ware. The last type of pottery was most popular with them, and has been found almost all over western U.P. However, the most distinctive pottery of the period is known as Painted Grey Ware, which comprised bowls and dishes, used either for rituals or for eating by the upper classes.


The corpus of later Vedic literature comprises the later three ledas (Sama, Yajur and Atharva), the Brahmanas, the Aranya’as and the Upanishads–all written during 1000-600 B.C. (The word Veda is derived from the word Vid, i.e. to know; thus, Veda means knowledge or wisdom). Together with the Rigveda the whole corpus of Vedic literature is termed as shruti, i.e. ‘not written by man but revealed to certain seers by God.

However, the Aryan literature also includes the four Upavedas and six Vedangas, together termed as the smriti literature, i.e., not divine in nature but written by ordinary mortals.

Vedic literature can be divided into four groups.

() There are Samhitas or collection of hymns, prayers, sacrificial formulae, etc. The Rigveda Samhita is the oldest and the most important. The Samaveda Samhita consists of 1,549 hymns of which all but 75 are found in the Rigveda Samhita. Its hymns were used for singing at sacrifices. The Yajurveda Samhita consists partly of hymns and partly of prose, containing sacrificial formulae. It is divided into ‘white’ Yajurveda and ‘black’ Yajurveda. The Atharvaveda Samhita (the latest of the Vedas) is a book of magical formulae and its hymns deal mainly with charms and spells to control demons and spirits. It is divided into 20 books and contains about 731 hymns.

(ii) The Brahmanas are notes in prose and they explain the origin and meaning of the various hymns of the Samhitas. The Aitareva and Kaushitaki Brahmanas are assigned to the Rigveda: Tandya and Jaiminiya Brahmanas to the Samaveda: Jaittireya and Satapatha Brahmanas to the Yajurveda: and Gopatha Brahmana to the Atharvaveda. The Brahmanas also contain cosmogonic myths, old legends and gathas or verses celebrating the exploits of kings famed in priestly tradition.

(iii) Next come the Aranyakas or forest texts, books of instruction to be given in the forest or writings meant for wood-dwelling hermits, which are found as appendices to the Brahmanas. These treatises resemble the Brahmanas in language, style and even context, but they are concerned more with the allegorical significance of rites, and the mystic meaning of the Samhitas.

(iv) Lastly, we have the Upanishads, ‘secret or esoteric doctrines’. The name is derived by some from the root upa-ni-sad which means “to sit down near some one” and is applied to doctrines that may be imparted to a son or a trusted pupil ‘seated near the teacher’. The Upanishads are either imbedded in the Aranyakas or form their supplements. They are also found as independent works. They contain deep speculations of a philosophical character which “revolve around the two conceptions of Brahman and Atman”. The Upanishads marked a reaction against sacrifical religion and are highly philosophical, dealing with the ultimate truth and reality, knowledge of which would emancipate a man. Important Upanishads are Mundaka, Jaittireya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Katha.

Besides, there are other ancient literary works which relate to the later Vedic period. Firstly, there are six Vedangas (limbs of the Vedas)(i) Siksha (Pronunciation), (ii) Kalpa (Ritual), (iii) Vyakarana (Grammar), (iv) Nirukta (Etymology), (v) Chhandas (Metre), and (iv) Jyotisha (Astronomy). They are composed in the form of Sutras– short rules for memorising. Secondly, there are four Upavedas-(i) Ayurveda, (ii) Dhanurveda, (iii) Gandharvaveda, and (iv) Shilpaveda.

The study of Aryan literature will remain incomplete without mentioning the six prominent schools of Hindu Philosophy: (i) Kapila’s Sankhya, (ii) Patanjali’s Yoga (iii) Gautama’s Nyaya, (iv) Kanada’s Vaishesika, (v) Jaimini’s Purva Mimamsa, and (vi) Vyasa’s Uttara Mimamsa.

Though the two epics-the Mahabharata and the Ramayana-were compiled later, they reflect the state of affairs of the later Vedic period. The Mahabharata, attributed to Vyasa, is older than the Ramayana and describes the period from the tenth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. Originally, it contained 8800 verses and was called Java Samhita. Later, the number of verses was raised to 24,000 and the book became known as Bharata. Today, the book is called Mahabharata, having one lakh verses-also called Satasahsri Samhita. The Ramayana, attributed to Valmiki, originally had 6,000 verses but later the number of verses was raised to 12,000 and finally to 24,000. Its composition started in the fifth century B.C. and passed through five stages; the fifth stage ended in the twelfth century A.D. It may be remarked that while the Ramayana depicts conflicts between Aryans and non-Aryans, the Mahabharata IS concerned with conflicts between Aryans themselves.

The Dharmashastras deal with religious duties and civil law. The principal Dharmashastras are attributed to Manu, Vishnu, Yajnavalkya and Narada. They were probably composed in the early Christian centuries. They prescribe rigidity in the caste system and, apart from the four traditional varnas, refer to the ‘mixed castes. They give us a clear idea of the four ashramas (stages of life) through which every ‘twice-born’ was expected to pass. They also clearly indicate the declining position of women. The Yajnavalka-smriti is more advanced and unconventional in doctrines than the others; it allows widows to inherit property.


In the later Vedic period, important changes took place in religious life. Rituals and formulae became prominent in the cult of sacrifice. Prajapati, the creator, became supreme among gods. Some of the minor gods (e.g., Vishnu and Rudra) of the Rigvedic period became important in the later Vedic period. Signs of idolatry also appeared. Some of the social orders came to have their own deities, e.g., Pushan, responsible for well-being of the cattle, became the god of the shudras. Though prayers still formed part of worship, they no longer were valued for placating the gods. Sacrifices became far more important and involved killing of animals as well. Words began to assume magical power at the sacrifices.

However, towards the end of the period began a strong reaction against priestly domination, against sacrificial cults and rituals, with the composition of the Upanishads which valued right belief and knowledge more than anything else.


The architectural development of the Vedic Aryans can be traced in references to large mansions with a thousand columns and doors in the Rigvedic period. There are also references to structures with hundred walls and castles made of stone. The mention of images of Indra is interpreted as the first serious beginnings of sculpture in India by some scholars.

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