Later Vedic Society & Civilization
Introduction: The life of the people of the Later Vedic Society was not as simple as that of the preceding Rig Vedic Society. Several large Kingdoms grew during this period, and they kept fighting with each other. Caste System was slowly gaining its momentum. The position of women was degrading and evil practices such as dowry came into practice. Besides Agriculture, people started to opt for several new occupations to make their living.
Caste System during Later Vedic Period
The Later Vedic Society and Civilization witnessed far-reaching changes in the sphere of caste system. The traditional four classes such as Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra, still existed during this period. However, various sub-castes sprang up in addition to the traditional four castes.
Brahmins and Kshatriyas: The Brahmins and the Kshatriyas (warrior class) now enjoyed the highest privileges in the Later Vedic Society. The status and power of the Kshatriyas greatly increased due to constant war with the non-Aryans. They became masters of land and leaders of the Later Vedic society. The Kshatriya kings claimed divine sanction behind them.
The Brahmins understood the significance of the transformation. In order to assert the supremacy of their own class and divine origin, they introduced the rites of Upanayana or initiation of sacred thread for the Brahmins. They could claim a divine origin by flaunting the sacred thread. They also claimed to be twice born (Dwija). The net result was that the Brahminas and the Kshatriyas jointly governed the Later Vedic Society. The Brahmins assumed highest privileges.
Vaishyas: The Arya-Vaishyas who were engaged in agriculture and trade were looked as inferior class during the period of Later Vedic Society. They lost their earlier status in the society. From time to time the Vaishyas organized themselves into guilds to protect their eroding rights and status.
Sudras: The Sudras were looked with contempt. A Sudra had no right what-so-ever in society. He was a thing, a chattel of the upper classes. A Brahmin could kill a Sudra at will. He had no right to enjoy property ownership. He was considered impure.
Even a carpenter was considered an untouchable during religious sacrifices. Sudras were shooed out from holy places like sacrificial altar.
Though mantras were chanted for welfare of the Sudras and though many of them became indispensable, as a whole the Sudras were a deprived class.
Sudras were not sold or purchased in the society. In the backward economy of the Later Vedic Age there was little scope of employing surplus labour of the Sudras sold as slaves. This only prevented the total slavery of the Sudras and their sale and purchase.
Semi-rigid Caste system: The caste system in the Later Vedic Civilization was not absolutely rigid. It was midway between the laxity of the Rig Vedic Age and the rigidity of the Age of the Sutras.
There are stray examples to prove that change of caste was not absolutely impossible. Professions were not strictly hereditary. But there is a marked tendency to maintain the purity of descent. Hereditary caste was well now the rule. The term “Varna” was now used in the sense of caste not in the sense of colour in this age.
The concept of untouchability was germinating in the Later Vedic Society. There were castes like Bratyas and Nishadas. Those Aryans who still lived a nomadic life and were engaged in pasturing were regarded as fallen or Bratya, because they did not have a settled village life and they did not regularly perform the Yajna. The Nishadas were non-Aryan hunter class who shooted birds and animals that destroyed corn fields. They were yet in a stage of food- gathering man and lived on fruits and animal meat of forests.
Position of Women during Later Vedic Age
As regards the condition of women in the Later Vedic Age, we find that the high position occupied by them in the Age of the Rigveda was no longer prevalent in this age. They lost their right of Upanayana and the right to perform religious rites and the right to join in political affairs.
Though we hear the names of Gargi and Maitreyi whose scholarship was recognized by the society as whole women lost their earlier status.
The marriage rules became discriminating towards the bride. The women lost their earlier freedom and equality which they enjoyed in domestic life. Polygamy became more general. Polyandry also appeared in a restricted way. People wanted to have a male child. Birth of a female child was unwelcome. Dowry system became popular.
Women during the Later Vedic Period were looked as inferior in status. Women were treated as objects for fulfillment of passion and not as partners of men. In the Later Vedic Civilization, they lost political and economic rights and were deprived from inheritance to properties.
Education became more general among the higher classes. The ideal of four Ashramas became more regularized than in the Rig Vedic Age. Students had to learn the knowledge of philosophy, Vedas, scriptures, ethics etc. in the house of the Gurus (teachers). The upper classes particularly observed the cult of four Ashramas.
Food and Dress
As regards food, rice became the staple food of the Later Vedic Aryans. The practice of eating meat declined. Killing of cow was looked with disfavor. Drinking of Sura or wine was still favored. Wool and silk was increasingly used for dress in addition to cotton.
Village Life of Later Vedic Aryans
The Later Vedic Aryans lived in the village like their ancestors in the Rig Vedic Age. But city life became more general in this age. In the villages small peasant owners of land generally cultivated the land. But sometimes they were replaced by big landlords owning entire villages.
Land was generally owned by families. The head of the family managed the land on behalf of the family. Agriculture was still the principal occupation of the people. Improved methods of tilling the land by deep ploughing, manuring and sowing with better seeds was known to the Later Vedic Aryans. Deep ploughing by heavy iron plough drawn by bullocks was in vogue. Rice, wheat and barley were chief crops. Wheat was also cultivated. Cotton growing was a profitable occupation.
Cattle still continued to be the chief source of wealth. Bull was regarded as useful for ploughing. Cow supplied milk and was looked with venerations. Besides goat, sheep, horse were domesticated. Buffalo was domesticated and harnessed to plough in the Age. In spite of deep ploughing and intensive cultivation there was not enough surplus food. Villages were just self-sufficient in food.
Trade and Commerce
With the progress of civilization the volume of trade and commerce increased in the Later Vedic Age. Inland and maritime trade both developed in this Age. The people became familiar with the navigation of the seas.
The Atharva Veda refers to both the Eastern and the Western Seas. Perhaps trading contact with Mesopotamia was established. The Vaishyas were hereditarily engaged in trade and the rich merchants were known as shresthins. Trade in textile, leather, leather goods, and dress materials were profitable. Internal trade spread over land and river routes from Punjab to Bihar and Nepal. Sravasti, Mathura, Taxila were trading centers.
The merchants used to form guilds. The unit of value of goods was a gold bar called nishka. But nishka was not ordinarily used. Satamana was a gold coin equal to 100 krishnala. The merchants used this coin as unit of exchange. Usury and money-lending also developed in the Later Vedic Society Period.
Occupation of Later Vedic Aryans
In the Later Vedic Society, the Aryans used the metals like lead, tin etc. apart from gold and iron. The knowledge of writing probably developed in this period. Specialization in industry developed. With the growing complexities of the society, various new occupations like that of door-keeper, butcher, ferry-man, bow-maker etc. attracted the people. Carpentry was yet a lucrative profession.