The Vedic Society
The Society of Vedic age can be divided into two ages:
- Early or Rig-Vedic age and
- The Later Vedic age.
There is a great deal of difference between the social system of the early Vedic age and that of the later one. We have discussed about the Rig Vedic and Later Vedic society below:
1. The Rig-Vedic Society ( Early Vedic Society)
Kingdom: In the Rig Vedic age, geographically large kingdoms did not grow up, as they did in the later Vedic age society. In the Vedic age, the geographical boundaries of the kingdoms were extremely limited. The Aryans were then busy constantly in establishing their settlement in India.
Family: In the Rig-Vedic age, family was the lowest stratum of the state system. A family was composed of grandfather, parents and other relatives. Blood connection determined family line. The head of the family (Kulapati) used to control his family.
The lowest division of Aryan society was family (Kula). Joint family system was one of the features of Aryan society. It was patriarchal. The oldest male member was the bead of the family. The women had to depend on men in all matters. The Aryans desired male child. Wars and ceremonials had the need of male persons. The latter prayed to God for birth of male child. Nevertheless, female child was not altogether neglected.
Tribe: If some families were associated through blood relations, they formed a tribe. These tribes of Vedic Society had various names, such as, Yadu, Anu, Puru, Bharat, Turbhasa, etc.
Each tribe of Vedic Society was under the rule of a chief. Among the Aryans inter-tribal conflicts were frequent. Hence the man who showed greatest skill and courage in the war was regarded as the chief of the tribe to which he belonged. In the Rig-Vedic literature, the war of the ‘ten kings’ has been described and each of the ten kings was no other person than the tribal chiefs provided with special powers.
During the Rig Vedic period, the tribal identity of a man was all that counted. His allegiance was shown to the tribal organization, not to the state. It is in the later Vedic age that we find first the reference to the term ‘state.’ In course of time the tribal chiefs began to enjoy royal powers and position.
Origin of Monarchy: The Vedic literature contains a description about the origin of monarchy. It is the gods that made kings. They selected kings for prosecution of war against the ‘Asuras’. Men also came to believe that the kings were endowed with some divine qualities. This attribution of divinity to kings made them more powerful during the Vedic Age.
Hereditary Kingship: They were entitled to hereditary kingship. Thus the tribal chiefs of the Vedic age were converted into ‘kings’. It is of course true that hereditary monarchy had co-existed with the elected monarchy in the Vedic age Society. Coronation of the king distinguished him from the commoners. It declared that the king was invested with divine rights. The priest arranged for coronation. Thus the king and the royal priest enjoyed distinct position and status in society.
Administration and Justice: Providing for defense against foreign invasions, security of life and property of the subjects and maintenance of law and order – all these constituted the king’s primary obligation. The king tried cases of appeal of his subjects with the help of the priests. The guilty was punished. In the Rig Vedic age, theft of cow and forcible occupation of land and other immovable’s were of frequent occurrence. The king had to redress these wrongs.
In the Rig Vedic age, the subjects usually did not pay any regular taxes to the king. They paid the same willfully. The king did not enjoy ownership of land.
The kingdom was divided into several units for its proper governance. Several families constituted a tribe. Several tribes composed a village. The `Bisha’ or ‘Jana’ consisted of several villages. Several `bishas’ or `janas’ constituted a state. High officials were appointed to assist the king in his administration. The head of the family was called ‘Kulapati’.
The priest was unofficially very close to the king. In respect of religious matters and sacrificial rites, the priest was all in all. This apart, the priest usually tendered political and diplomatic advice to the king, and he, if need be, used to accompany the king to the field of war.
Defence: The official called ‘Senani’ discharged his duty to organize the army and conduct war. The ‘gramani’ used to undertake the civil and military obligations. The envoys and spies kept the king informed of the movement of the enemies. In the Rig-Vedic society, there were infantry men and soldiers carried by chariots. Weapons used in the war were arrows, spears, swords, axes etc. There was another weapon called, ‘Rathemushala’. Lethal weapons through this machine were thrown against the enemy from running chariots.
In the Rigveda, there is reference to numerous tribal assemblies, such as Sabha, Samiti. The ‘Sabha’ consisted of wise men that were very close to the king. Perhaps, the people joined the `Samiti.’ The king could not override the decisions of Sabha and Samiti.
Status of Women in Early Vedic Period: In the Vedic society, women were treated with great respect. They co operated with men in domestic and social works. They were ideal wives. But they were not allowed to have more husbands than one. They were chief mistresses in household matters. No such practice as the ‘Purdah’ was prevalent among the Vedic women.
They received proper education. In the Rig-Vedic age such women as Biswabara, Ghosa, Apala, and Mamata etc. earned proficiency in different branches of Scripture or Shastra. Some of them became famous as composers of Vedic hymns.
Besides literary pursuit, the women learnt the art of warfare, brandishing of sword etc. Child marriage and widow marriage were not in vogue. Nor was the sati burning practiced. But there was the practice of marrying brother’s childless widow. Standard of women’s moral character was high.
Rig Veda Caste System: At the early phase of their coming to India, the Aryans remained divided socially into three classes, such as:
- warriors of landed aristocrats,
- priests and
In the early Vedic period, there was no such system as caste or colour (Varna) discriminations in society. No profession was hereditary, and exogamy was not prohibited. No moral or religious restrictions were imposed on dietary system. The three divisions merely facilitated social and economic organization. But class discrimination grew up as a result of constant wars and contacts between the Aryans and the non-Aryans. To it was added color distinction. The Aryans were always conscious of their fair completion and height. The non-Aryans were dark complexioned and, of short height. So caste discrimination was made first in society on the basis of colour. First reference to color discrimination is found in ‘Purusha Sukta’ which is contained in the tenth group of the Rigveda.
After this, society was divided into four classes on the basis of occupation such as :
- Men engaged in learning, teaching and performing sacrificial rites, were called ‘Brahamanas.’
- Those, engaged in warfare’s were called ‘Kshatriyas’.
- People who adopted agriculture, cattie-rearing trade and business as their calling were known as ‘Vaishyas’.
- Lastly, the men who served the above three were known as “Sudras.”
But it should be remembered that in the early period of the Vedic age, the Aryan society was divided into ‘Dvija’ (twice-born) and ‘Advija’ (those who were not twice-born). The term `Dvija’ applied to those who earned right to wear sacred thread, and ‘Advija’ was applied to those who ‘were denied this right. During the closing years of the Rig-Vedic period, four social classes arose, and in the later Vedic period, the rigors of caste system intensified.
Chatur Ashrama (Four Stages of Life): “Chatur-ashrama” or Four Stages of life is one of the prominent features of Aryan society.It was confined to first three classes of Society.
Brahmacharya: The first stage of life was called “Brahmacharya-ashrama.” During this period, every male person had to stay in the residence of his preceptor (Guru) and continue study under the latter’s guidance. The pupil had to share equally the weal and .woe of the preceptor’s family.
Grihastha: After completion of his study at the preceptor’s house, the pupil returned home and led the life of a family man (Grihastha-ashrama). The main duty of a family man was to get married and to discharge the domestic obligation by looking after his wife and children.
Vanaprastha: The third stage of life is “Vanaprastha-ashram”. It was the practice to adopt “Vanaprastha ashram” at a mature age. During this time, the person concerned got relieved of the domestic obligations, erected hut in the forest and lived a life of detachment.
Sanyas: The last stage of life is called `Sannyas’. During this period, the person concerned had to live the life of a hermit.
Dress, Food and Society of Aryans: In the Aryan society, close attention was paid to dress and ornaments. In the Vedic Culture, three types of cover were in vogue – a loose outer garment for the upper portion of the body (uttariya), garment for lower portion (nibi) and the main garment above the nibi (Paridhan). Garments were made of cotton, hide and wool.
Milk, ghee, fruits of various kinds, barley and wheat constituted the chief items of food of the Aryans. During ceremonial occasions, beast meat was taken. During sacrificial rites, the Aryans used strong intoxicant called `Somarasa’ or `Sura’. Hunting, fishing, riding, charioteering, singing and dancing were the chief festivals of joy and amusement. Although the caste system had its beginning in the Rig Vedic period, no rigorous restrictions were imposed on such social matters as marriage, dining and occupation.
2. The Later Vedic Age
Large kingdoms: In the later Vedic age society, the expansion of Aryan settlements resulted in the growth of big kingdoms. The latter struggled with one another for political supremacy. The ideal of imperial sovereignty became popular. The powerful kings of the Later Vedic age assumed such titles as Ekrat, Samrat etc. to show the extent of their power. The paramount rulers performed horse sacrifices and accorded formal importance to their power. The horse sacrifices are referred to in the ‘Satapathy Brahmana’.
Divine rights of kings: The growth of royal power led to the theory of the divine right of kings being strongly publicized. It was said that Brahma, the lord of the subjects (Prajapati) and Indra, the king of gods (Devaraja) had created kingship. Brahmins declared that through coronation, the king had come to possess divine powers. In the later Vedic age, the Brahmins or the priests were, next to the kings, possessors of divine powers. The kings and the priests claimed divine powers and thus regarded themselves as distinguished from common men. In this age, the kingship was hereditary. Of course, cases of elective monarchy were still in vogue in some places. Instances of such elective monarchy are referred to in the Aitareya Brahmins.
Officials and administration: With the growth of royal powers, references to newly appointed high officials of the state are found. Purohita, Senani and Gramani of the early Vedic age society were regarded as important officials in the later Vedic age also. Legally, the king’s powers were absolute; nevertheless, it was his duty to establish even justice and to provide measures for protection of his subjects. During coronation, the king was the king was committed to protecting the Brahamanas and the cows (regarded as property) and to doing works of public utility. In the later Vedic Society, the powers of the `Samiti’ had greatly decreased. Expansion of the territory explained the decrease, but there was a comparative increase of the powers of the ‘Sabha’. The king deemed it was to seek advice of the ‘Sabha’ for conduct of his rule. Otherwise, the `Sabha’ could have put him into trouble. But the Sabha was not as good a democratic institution as `Samiti’. In this age, the Sabha was composed of royal ministers and high officials of the kingdom. In the age of later Vedic society, there was the beginning of royal despotism, and imperialism ensured it.
Ethical consciousness: An idea of ethical consciousness of society in the later Vedic age can be formed from the Vedic literature. Homicide, theft of property and cow (also regarded as property), drinking intoxicating liquors, sedition, were treated as condemnable, and, therefore, punishable offences. Women were not entitled to inheritance. The king ruled according to the prevalent customs of the land.
The Aryans were as good the villagers in the later Vedic age as they were in Rig Vedic Society. But the kings, their courtiers, and the rich landed classes were townsmen and lived in palaces. In this age, references to cities are found.
Status of Women in Later Vedic Period: The status of women became lower in Later Vedic Society than it had been before. They were denied of the right to inheritance. Nor, could they enjoy political rights. Of course, the door of education was kept open to them. Among the women of the Later Vedic age, the names of Gargi and Maitreyi deserve mention.
Grihya Sutra and Dharma Sutra: Social bonds were strengthened. Regulations and restrictions were prescribed according to the principles of Grihya Sutra and Dharmasutra. In the Grihya Sutra, instructions as regards the domestic and temporal life of the Hindus are fully described. It contains categorical reference to each stage a man has to pass through and the obligation he has to discharge, from his cradle to death.
It is in this age, that the origin of Hindu community can be traced to the contents of Grihya Sutra. The Dharma Sutra, on the other hands, contains a full description of the social customs and usages of the Hindus. It can be contended that the Dharma Sutra had been composed in different ages; nevertheless it showed a strong tendency to construct social life on the basis of a definite ideal. It was in this age that there was the development of a general civil and criminal law and of the social customs and practices.
Later Vedic Caste System: The most noticeable feature of the social life of the later Vedic age society is the development of caste system and the consequent intensification of its rigorousness. Even during the Rig Vedic society, the caste system and society was divided into four classes – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras. In the later Vedic period, class discrimination became rigid and rooted to birth. Society became clearly and identifiably divided into four classes.
- The Brahmins were engaged in the pursuit of Vedic literature, scriptures, worship and rituals.
- The Kshatriyas undertook to discharge political and military obligation and their professions was as much hereditary as that of the Brahmins.
- The commoners in the Aryan society were known as Vaishyas with agriculture, trade and business being their profession.
- The condition of the Sudras was miserable. They constituted the lowest class of society.
Thus, the new Aryan society was organized in a definite way. It was combined to four castes. The outsiders were countless people deprived of social rights and treated as ‘untouchables.’
Conversion: Of course, it is true that though the society was divided-into four castes, there was no bar to the non-Aryans being accepted by the Aryan Society. In the Bratya-stoma hymn of the Samaveda, definite regulations for accepting the non-Aryans within the fold of Aryan society have been incorporated. There are many instances which show that many non-Aryans had embraced Aryanism and come to be known as ‘Bratya-Kshatriya‘. And inter caste marriage though not appreciated and encouraged, was not rare in the age.
Literature: Both common and religious instructions were in practice during the later Vedic age society. Apart from the Vedas, and the Upanishads, grammar, logic and law had a fair cultivation. Science of medicine and astronomy made some progress in this age.
Last updated: 10.04.2015