Later Vedic Period- Political, Social, Economic Religious and Cultural life

Later Vedic Period

The period that followed Rig Vedic Age is known as Later Vedic Age.  This age witnessed the composition of three later Veda Samhitas namely, the Samveda Samhita, the Yajurveda Samhita, the Atharvaveda Samhita as well as Brahmanas and the Upanishads of all the four Vedas and later on the two great epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.  All these later Vedic texts were compiled in the Upper Gangetic basin in 1000—600 B.C. During the period represented by Later Samhitas the Aryans covered the whole of Northern India, from the Himalayas to the Vindhyas.

The spread of Aryans over the whole of India completed before 400 B.C. Of the new kingdoms in the east, the most important were Kurus, Panchalas, Kasis, Kosalas and Videhas.

Gradually the Aryans moved towards South India. It is believed that their southern movement began during the period of Brahmana literature, about 1000 B.C. and went on steadily till they reached the southernmost extremity of the Peninsula in or sometime before fourth century B.C.

The great grammarian Katya Yana who flourished in the fourth century B.C had knowledge about the countries of south such as Pandya, Chola and Kerala. But the Aryan colonization in the South was not as complete as in the north. With the progress of the Aryans in Northern India, their centre of civilization was shifted towards east. The territory between Saraswati and Ganga was the seat of Aryan civilization.

Political life

With the progress of Aryan settlements in the eastern and southern part of India, the small tribal states of Rig Vedic period replaced by powerful states. Many famous tribes of Rig Vedic period like Bharatas, Parus, Tritsus and Turvasas passed into oblivion and new tribes like the Kurus and Panchalas rose into prominence. The land of the Yamuna and Ganga in the east which became the new home of the Aryans rose into prominence.

With the emergence of big kingdoms in the Later Vedic Age the struggle for supremacy among different states was of frequent occurrence. The ideal of Sarbabhauma or universal empire loomed large in the political horizon of ancient India. The sacrifices like Rajasuya and Asvamedha were performed to signify the imperial sway of monarchs over the rivals. These rituals impressed the people with the increasing power and prestige of the king. The Rig Vedic title of “Rajan” was replaced by the impressive titles like Samrat, Ekrat, Virat, Bhoja etc. These titles marked the growth of imperialism and feudal ideas.

There were two theories regarding the origin of kingship. The Aitareya Brahmana explained the rational theory of election by common consent of origin of kingship. Side by side the Taittiniya Brahman explained the divine origin of kingship. It explained how Indra, “though occupying a low rank among the gods, was created their king by Prajapati.”

The king had absolute power. He became the master of all subjects. He realized taxes like “bali”, “sulka” and “bhaga”. The Satapatha Brahmana described the king to be infallible and immune from all punishment. The sabha of the Rig Vedic Period died. The king sought the aid and support of the Samiti on matters like war, peace and fiscal policies. There are references to the Samiti sometimes electing or re-electing a king.

The authority of the government in the later Vedic period was perhaps more democratic in the sense that the authority of the leaders of Aryan tribes was recognized by the king. However in spite of the existence of the popular assemblies the powers of the king went on increasing due to the growth of large territorial states and the evolution of an official hierarchy.

The growth of the royal power was largely reflected in the enlarged outrage of the king. In the work of administration the king was assisted by a group of officers who were known as Ratnins (Jewels). They included the Bhagadugha (collector of taxes), the Suta (charioteer), the Akshavapa (superintendent of gambling), the kshattri (chamberlain), the Govikartana (king’s companion in the chase), the Palogala (courtier) the Takshan (Carpenter), the Rathakara (Chariot marker) in addition to the ecclesiastical and military officials like the Purohita (chaplain) the senani (general), and the Gramani (leader of host or of the village).

In the Later Vedic Period Gramani was both a civil and military officer Gramani was the medium through which the royal power was exercised in the village. According to Frasna Upanishada Adhikrita was the village officer and was lowest in the rank. The king administered justice. Occasionally he delegated his judicial power to Adhyakshas. In the villages, Gramyavadin (Village judge) and Sabha (court) decided the cases. Punishments for crimes were severe.

The father was the head of the property of the family. In case of inheritance of property the law of primogeniture was applied. By this rule the eldest son would inherit the property of the deceased father. Neither the women nor the sudras had any right to property.

Social life

Most important change was the evolution of caste system. Various sub castes evolved in addition to the traditional four-castes. The Brahmanas and Kshatriyas emerged as the two leading castes out of the general mass of population, known as vaisyas. The vaisyas were superior to the sudras but their position was steadily deteriorating. The Aitaraya Brahmana clearly indicates the absolute dependence of vaisyas on the two higher classes. The Sudras were held in great contempt.

The Brahmanas of the later Vedic age were the intellectual and priestly class. The Brahmanas retained a high standard of excellence and knew the details of the rituals. The kshatriyas were the fighting class in the society. War, conquest, administration of the kingdom was the principal duties of this class. By their superior learning some kshatriyas raised themselves to the status of a Brahmana. They composed hymns and performed sacrifices and also challenged the supremacy of Brahmanas.

Two Kshatriya kings Janak and Viswamitra attained the status of Rishi. For a long time the kshatriyas resisted the supremacy of the Brahmanas and claimed that the priest was only a follower of the king. Vaisyas were engaged in trade, industry and agriculture, and animal husbandry. They are debarred from the privileges which were enjoyed by the Brahmanas and kshatriyas. However the richer people among the vaisyas known as Sresthin were highly honored in the royal court.

The condition of the Sudras was very miserable. They had to serve the other three castes. They were untouchables. They had no right to approach the sacred fire, i.e., perform sacrifice, or to read the sacred texts. They were further denied the rite of burning the dead body. The structure of the caste system became hereditary.

The women lost their high position which they had in the Rig Vedic Age. They were deprived of their right to the Upanayana ceremony and all their sacraments, excluding marriage, were performed without recitation of Vedic mantras. Polygamy prevailed in the society. Many of the religious ceremonies, formerly practiced by the wife, were now performed by the priests. She was not allowed to attend the political assemblies. Birth of a daughter became undesirable—for she was regarded as a source of misery. The custom of child marriage and dowry crept in. The women lost their honored position in the society.

Economic Condition

Like political and social conditions, the economic condition of the Aryans of the later Vedic period also underwent significant changes. Due to the emergence of caste system various occupations also appeared.

The Aryans of the later Vedic period lived in the villages. In the villages small peasant owners of land were replaced by big landlords who secured possession of entire villages. Agriculture was the principal occupation of the people. Improved method of tilling the land by deep ploughing, manuring and sowing with better seeds were known to the Aryans. More lands were brought under cultivation.

The cultivator yielded two harvests a year. Varieties of crops like rice, barley, wheat, maize and oil seeds were raised. But the cultivator was not free from trouble. Dangers of insects and damage of crops through hail-storm very badly affected the land of kurus and compelled many people to migrate.

With the growth of civilization, the volume of trade and commerce had increased by leaps and bounds. Both inland and overseas trades were developed. Inland trade was carried on with the Kiratas inhabiting the mountains. They exchanged the herbs for clothes, nattresses and skins. The people became familiar with the navigation of the seas. Regular coinage was not started.

The coins which were in circulation were “Nishka”, “Satamana” and “Krishnala”. The unit value of goods was a gold bar called “nishka” weighing three hundred and twenty ratis, which was also the weight of a satamana. A ‘Krishnala’ weighed one rati, i.e. 1.8 grams. There was a class of merchants called ‘Pani’ who controlled the trade. References to “ganas” or corporations and the “sreshthins” clearly speak of the formation of guilds or corporations for facilitating trade and commerce. Usuary and money lending was also practiced in this period.

The emergence of caste system brought varieties of means of livelihood. There are references about money lenders, chariot makers, dyers, weavers, barbers, goldsmiths, iron smiths, washer men, bow makers, carpenters, musicians etc. The art of writing probably developed in this period. The use of silver was increased and ornaments were made out of it.

Religious and cultural life

During the later Vedic period the religious spirit underwent a great change. Religion was overshadowed with rites and rituals. New gods and goddesses emerged during this period.

The Rig Vedic gods, Varun, Indra, Agni, Surya, Usha etc. lost their charm. The people worshipped them with less zeal. New gods like Siva, Rupa, Vishnu, Brahma etc. appeared in the religious firmament of the Later Vedic Period. The grandeur of the Rigvedic gods passed into oblivion, though we find in Atharvaveda the omniscience of Varuna or the beneficence of the Earth goddess.

Certain less important duties of the Rigvedic Period now became popular with the Common People. One of them was Rudra who already bore the epithet of Siva. Very soon Rudra came to be worshipped as ‘Mahadeva’ (great god) and the lord of animate beings (Pasupati).

Vishnu, the preserver rose into Prominence during this period. He occupied the place of Varuna, as the most sublime among the celestials. To attain his “Paramapada” (highest step) became the goal of the rishis. The worship of vasudeva was also started. He was regarded as Krishna Vasudev, the incarnation of Vishnu. Semi divinities like Apsara, Nagas, Gandharbas, Vidyadharas etc. also came into being. This age also witnessed the beginning of the worship of Durga and Ganesh.

During this period the rites and ceremonies of Vedic religion were elaborated and became complex. In the Rig Vedic age Yanjas were a simple affair which every householder could do. But in the later Vedic age sacrifice became an important thing in worship. Now the priestly class devoted their energy to find out the hidden and mystic meaning of the rites and ceremonies.

People had a firm belief that gods must submit to the sacrifice if properly performed. Vedic hymns were regarded as charms to be used in sacrifice. The belief that gods were satisfied by Yanjas led to a rise in the number, variety of sacrifices which were prescribed for every householder. In fact every Aryan performed a number of sacrifices under the supervision of the Brahmana priest.

The Later Vedic Period prescribed a code of righteous conduct. The Brahmins had spread the belief that, “man is born with certain rinas or debts” which he must repay in his life. He has to repay the debts to his gods, to the rishis, to the munis, to men, to the ancestors and to the lower creatures. And he redeem himself from these debts, if he worships the gods and performs Yajnas study Vedas, performs funeral ceremonies and Sraddha, etc. One should perform all these duties with selflessness. The first requisite of a good life were prayers and good works. One should restrain himself from the sins like theft, adultery, and murder.

The Later Vedic age witnessed the emergence of a new intellectual thought. The people thought deeply about the problems of creation, life and death and arrived at the conclusion that there is one ‘Brahma’ (one Unchanging Principle) beyond the universe—the creator and controller of the whole order.

It is the universal soul or the Absolute “that dwelleth in everything that guideth all beings within, the Inward guide, Immortal.” After the death of a person his soul passes into another body and again into another and this process continues till it can be liberated from all its imperfections and merged in the Universal Soul. This is the doctrine of transmigration of souls.

The Aryans had also faith in the doctrine of Karma. It lays down that all actions, good or bad, reap their proper fruits. Souls have to be born again and again and bear the fruits of the actions (Karma) of their previous lives. There is also doctrine of ‘Moksha’. It is a state of birth-lessness and deathlessness at a point when a soul is liberated from the cycle of births and deaths and mingled into the universal soul.” It was essential for a man to attain moksha. All these are embodied in the Upanishad which were composed in the Later Vedic Period.

The later Vedic Aryans developed the concept of ascetic ideal of life as the rites and ceremonies were not the only means of attaining success in this world or bliss in heaven. So there developed the ideas of Tapas and Brahmacharya (celibacy) leading to the same or even more important results. Tapa means meditation, accompanying by physical tortures.

An ascetic person renounced the worldly life and retired to the solitude and exercised all the ascetic practices with the belief that they would not only obtain heaven, but also develop, “mystic, extra-ordinary and superhuman faculties.” This asceticism was widely practiced in the Epic age.

The Aryans of Vedic age had reached the highest stage of civilization. This age had excelled in every walks of life. All the valuable things in man’s life—philosophy, religion, science and code of conduct were all developed in the Vedic age. In fact Aryans served as the torch-bearers of Indian civilization throughout the ages.

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