The hymns of the Rigveda the later Samhitas, give us pictures of different stages of social progress. The absence of proper landmarks, as well as the difficulty in differentiating the srata stands in the way of separating, these various phases of social evolution.
In spite of this however two distinct phases of economic life can be distinguished e.g.:
1. During the earlier of these two stages the nomadic instinct predominated. The tribes were more or less in a migratory condition; villages and settlements moved from place to place. In such a state of life cattle-rearing remained the chief occupation of people though agriculture during the period of temporary settlement was not altogether neglected.
Constant wars, either with the aborigines for self-existence, or internecine feuds continued. Victory in battle not only ensured life and existence, but brought in the wealth of the conquered and consequently added to the prosperity of the community.
2. This state of existence was gradually supplanted by a more settled condition of life. Agriculture became the chief feature of social life. Everybody took to agriculture excepting perhaps the warrior or the priest, who accompanied the conquering host. Villages were established in the midst of the fertile conquered country—the conquered being pushed back either to the bills, or allowed to live a life of servility on conditions of submission, service or tribute.
Land was plentiful. The conquering tribes were hardy and vigorous. They were as yet not imbued with any high notions of personal dignity. Labour was not distasteful to them. In such a state of affairs, their progress was rapid. The whole fertile plain of Northern India was appropriated and colonized. Villages were established all over the country.
Each village contained a number of families, each family contained a number of able bodied either had joint interests in the field, or worked under the authority of the head of the family i.e., the Grhapati—the lord of the house.
The Grhapati, whether the eldest male member of the agnatic group or simply the father of the children, was the master of the house, who exercised control over the family superintended their working in the fields, and performed also the sacrificial duties of the home.
The Vedic House:
Each one of such families possessed its own separate, dwelling. The Vedic house variously designated as Ksiti—Dama, Pastya, or Harmya, was so constructed as to suit the needs of a people whose main occupations were agriculture and cattle rearing. Generally it was a walled-up enclosure containing not only apartments for the family, but room for the sheep and cattle, so valuable to the Vedic householder.
We get a good description of the Vedic house from the Atharva Veda (see A. V.III. 12; A. V. IX. 3) which gives us not only description of the house, but tells us of the contents of the house. In the Grhya-sutras we find direction laid down as to the choice of the ground on which the house was to be constructed.
In the Rigveda, Atharva Veda and the Kausika Sutra we find innumerable prayers offered to “the God of the house” or to the “Queen of the house” for the safety of the house and the prosperity of the family dwelling therein.
From the description in the Atharva-veda IX. 3 which concerns itself mainly with the consecration of a newly, constructed house, it appears that the house of the Vedic Aryans stood in the midst of a walled up enclosure. It was constructed mainly of bamboo and wood.
Perpendicular posts or vertical pillars (Upamit) were set up on the ground and there were cross-beams (Parimit). Bolts and ropes were used for fastening the poles. The roof was formed with bamboo poles and was thatched with straw or with mats of reeds.
The Atharva Veda (IX. 9) describes the house as grass-covered and straw-clad. The extensive use of wood, bamboo and straw, is further proved by innumerable prayers which we find in the Atharva Veda against the ravages of fire which readily consumed these materials, and thus put the family in a state of destitution and helplessness.
In this connection the material used by Indo-Europeans in constructing their houses is worthy of comparison. According to Schrader the early Indo-European houses were built of wood, basket-work and loam and not of atone. (see Schrader. Pre. Hist. Ant. P. 342).
The house generally contained several apartments. One reserved for the sacred fire (Agnisala). Some were reserved for the women of the house (Patninam Sadanam) or for other members of the family. In addition to these, there was a big store-room or Sala full of clear corn (Puti Dhanya) and sheds for sheep and cattle.
In the Atharva Veda (III. 12) the owner of the house speaks of his sheep, goats and cattle. The house itself is described as a spacious store full of clean corn. Rooms were furnished with Sikyas for hanging vessels and contained the necessary furniture e.g. wooden chairs, bedstead, the pestle and mortar, the winnowing basket, spoon, ladle, fork, wooden tubs, and earthen pots etc.
In every house, guests were welcomed and attended to. The Atharva Veda (IX. 6) mentions an Avasatha in this connection, but it is difficult to determine whether it was a big apartment set apart for that purpose. This was the Vedic house of simpler construction used by poorer householders. Most probably richer people and princes lived in more comfortable dwellings made of stone or other materials.
They seem to have employed doorkeepers and a large number of attendants (A. V. IX. 6). In the Rigveda we find mention of forts of stone and houses of three materials (R. V. VI. 46. 9)and in another place we find mention of a house with 1000 pillars (R. V. V. 626). But from this we cannot form any opinion as yet. The use of brick came into vogue during the time of the later Samhitas. Brick—both burnt and unburnt were used for constructing fire- altars or pillars (see Yajurveda XIV; Taitt. Sam.; and Satap Br.).
The Vedic householder regarded his house as his strong-hold and was intensely attached to it. The house was supposed to have its own presiding Deity and his favour was constantly sought. The householder’s devotedness to his dear home is amply expressed in a hymn of the Artharva Veda (see A.V VII, 60) in which a parting traveller bids adieu to the houses of his village, in terms which amply express his warm attachment to his own house and the comforts dwelling therein.
Household Furniture and Implements:
As to house-hold implements, utensils and furniture, we get some interesting details from the Atharva Veda (A. V. IX. 3 and A. V. IX. 6). Of implements, there we find mention (apart from those used in sacrificial purposes) of the pestle and mortar made of stone, the winnowing basket, the spoon, the ladle, the fork, the stirring prong, cooking pots and jars (Drona-kalasa), vessels (Patrani) made of metal, wooden tubs, and various other things made of khadira or udumvara wood.
Of other furniture, we have the Asandi which according to the Atharva Veda and the Brahmanas was a rocking chair, made of wood and cordage, the Prostna or lying bench for women, the bedstead, the pillow (Upabarhana, coverlets) (Upastarana Upavasana) cushions and mats made either of grass or of kusa, antilope’s skin and such other articles. In the Kausitaki Up, we find mention of the Paryanka and later on of the Prenkha. (see Kathaka XXXIV. 5, Panch. Br. V.5.7 Dola)
From the above two hymns, in addition to scattered, references elsewhere, we get some interesting details about the food and drink of those days.
In connection with the food of Vedic Aryans the following may be mentioned:
1. The milk (Payas) of the cow, goat, and buffalo was used. From it various preparations were made. Fresh milk (Payas) and mixed milk (Payasya), are separately mentioned, as also butter (Navanita), creamy butter (Phanta), Ghrta, and curd (Dadhi). Goat’s milk is mentioned in the Taitt. Sam.
2. Various preparations of rice, barley and wheat and other food grains and cereals were used. Thus, barley, rice, or wheat were either parched or boiled in water or soaked in butter. Of fried grains we find mention of Saktu, Parivapa, Laja. Wheat, barley or rice were often crushed powdered or boiled and made into various kinds of bread or cakes along with milk and other ingredients. Of such we have the Pista, Purodasa, Apupa, Pakti.
Rice was often boiled in milk and this kind (Ksiraudana) of food was highly valued Brahmaudana was offered in the sacrifices (A.V. IV, 35. 7, XI. 1. 1). Taitt. Sa. III. 4.8.7). Other varieties of mess were used and we have mention of Dhadyaudana, Mudgudana, Tilaudana, Udaudana, Ghrtaudana, Mamsaudana.
The Aryans seem to have been fond of meat-eating. The flesh of sacrificed animals e.g. of the cow, the buffalo, the sheep, goat, and occasionally of the horse, was taken by all classes of people. In addition to these, the flesh of hunted animals and of various birds was taken.
The taking of beef or the flesh of the buffalo or the hors gradually came into disfavour. Meat boiled with rice (Mamsaudana) was highly prized. The question of beef-eating has been discussed separately, in connection with the cow. Moreover, various kinds of fruits and vegetables and honey were also largely used.
We hear very little of fish-eating in the early Samhitas, though in later periods fish-eating was not condemned. Far from that, fish was regularly prescribed food and was offered to guest and the manes.
The Vedic Householder’s Condition:
From a study of the Vedic literature it would thus appear that the average Vedic householders lived a life of self-sufficiency. With the exception of the princely warriors or the sacrificing priests— high in the favour of the former, the mass of Vedic householders, depended mainly on their own exertions. Every man had his farm and cottage. He worked his own fields; the agricultural products supplied the requirements of the family, and his chief wealth consisted of his cattle.
Life was Simple:
There was very little of luxury, as well as of scarcity. A man’s wants were few and his own exertion placed him above want. But this state of affairs did not last long. Conquest brought in wealth. Luxury invaded society, gambling, or wants of thrift reduced families to poverty, and much of this wealth passed into other hands. Capitalism came to be introduced. Usury came to be the occupation of the rich.
The merchant made large profits; the normal distribution of wealth was checked. Money came to be accumulated in the hands of the few. The land-less and homeless poor, had to live either by begging or had to take menial service. Craftsmen protected their own interests by formic unions. As to the growing complexity of social condition, we find indications throughout the whole of the later Vedic literature.
In this connection the following points are to be noted:
1. Growth of capitalism—proved by the existence of debts and usury and the growth of banking.
2. Growth of a landed aristocracy,
3. Growth of social inequalities.
Development of a Landed Aristocrat:
In the earlier stage of simple agricultural life every householder owned his plot of land, tilled it, lived a life of simplicity, and practically supplied his own needs. In those days there was hardly anything like a landed aristocracy. The king of the tribe could of course claim his Vali or tribute (see R.V. X. 173), but there is practically no evidence of inter-mediatory landlords.
Gradually, however, a class of landed aristocracy arose and this may be attributed to:
1. The custom of granting villages to faithful servants by the ruling princes, a practice common to all ages and countries. Of this we have no direct evidence, but we may presume that such gifts were common, since princes thought of strengthening their own position by creating a band of faithful adherents.
2. The grant of villages to sacrificing priests or Srotriyas. We have no early Vedic evidence, but later we find one instance of a gift of a village by Janasruti to Raikka, when the latter agreed to teach him the Deity he worshipped (Chan. IV. 2. 4.).
Such gifts were indeed common, and out of such gifts arose the class of rich Brahmin landlords— the Mahasalas or Maha-srotriyas first mentioned in the Chandogya Up., who were so common in the early Buddhist Sutras, where they are described as enjoying the revenue of villages.
3. The acquisition of superior rights by men of merit over equals. As to these people we have no evidence either in the Rigveda or the Atharva Veda. But when we come to the Taittiriya Samhita or the Maitrayani Samhita, we find in connection with special sacrifices, the various rites for raining mastery over villages.
We have directions for the propitiation of Indra or the “All gods” which enabled men desiring villages (Grama-kamas) to become owners of villages—i.e. Gramyas or Gramins. The chief interest of the evidence of these passages lies in the fact that these village-lords attained that position by acquiring preeminence over equals (Sajatas and Samanas).
Domestic Labour and Household Economy:
As the Grhapati looked after agriculture and the farm, many of the household duties were entrusted to the women of the house. The Grha-patni (or the Grhapati’s wife) was an ‘alter ego’ of the husband and assisted him in the management of the affairs of the family.
The evidence of the marriage-ceremonial shows, that assistance in household affairs was considered part of the wife’s duties. She took part along with her husband in ceremonials and sacrifices. The Atharva Veda (XI 1.3) shows how they joined in offering sacrifices and how she had often to take care of the household fire.
In matters of domestic economy, the wife had supreme voice. In the marriage-hymns she has been described as the Samrajni in her father-in-law’s household. Philological evidence shows that in more ancient times it was the mother (Mata) who distributed the food, while the daughter (Duhita) engaged in milking kine. Similar duties were entrusted to the other ladies of the household. Weaving or plating was once entrusted to women.
This is proved by an old simile which represents day and night as two women engaged in weaving and which has been already referred to. Again, the marriage hymn (A. V, XIV. 1.48) which speaks of goddesses wearing garments (see A. V, XIV. 2. 51) refers to the soft touch of the garments woven by the bride. Cooking was left to women, as is proved by many passages of the A.V, and by the evidence of the Taittiriya Samhita (V. I. 7).
That the wife bad to partake of the husband’s burdens and household-duties, seems to be suggested by some of the passages in a marriage-hymn of the Atharva Veda. For instance, we read- “Blest be the gold to thee, blessed the water, blessed the yoke’s opening and blessed the pillar.” (XIX. I – RV, X.85)
Here, the yoke’s opening stands symbolical of agricultural operations, while the blessed pillar refers to the wife’s participation in the work of the threshing floor. Husking, winnowing and many other similar duties were entrusted to women, though towards the close of the Vedic period slave girls and slaves were employed (see A V, XII. 3. 13). The tending of the cattle, while at home, was part of the house wife’s duties as would appear from a passage of the marriage hymn, in which Vrhaspati is asked to make her gentle to the cattle.
All these marriage hymns end with prayers for the long life of the married couple, and we have prayers not only for prosperity, devotion to the husband, but also for children, so that these when grown up might assist their parents. The labour of women thus played a prominent part in domestic economy. Consequently, in the Vasor-dhara hymn, we meet with the prayer that women might become industry.
As to social divisions, we find, in addition to the princes, the existence of a rich upper class from an early period. The Rigveda mentions Mahi kulas figuratively, and the Maghavan (givers of beauty R, V. I, 31, 12: II 6. 4. V. 39.1; Ii 6. 4. V. 39.4; VI. 27. 8) who were distinguished by their liberality.
They were probably the representatives of the richer classes and are repeatedly praised. The wealth of the princes who, stood on a higher level, can be measured from the innumerable stories of gifts of gold, kine, horses and ornaments which they bestowed upon the priests.
The Danastutis in the Rigveda (R. V. VIII) speak of the munificence of these princes. Thus, one sacrifice praises Asanga (VIII. 1), another Medhatithi praises Vibhinda, who gave him 48,000 pieces probably of gold. A third praises Kurunga’s gift of 100 (VIII.4), another praises the munificence of Kasa, the son of Cedi, who gave his priest “a hundred heads of buffalo and ten thousand kine.” There is another which mentions the gifts of a prince, which included 10,000 kine and three hundred horses.
Another hymn records the receipt from Prthusravas, 60,000 pieces, ten thousand kine and 2000 camels, another records the bestowal of “kine bedecked with ornaments of sparkling gold”; another records the gift of 50 slave girls (VIII, 19), while yet another, records the gift of 100 asses, 100 slaves and sheep. Many other hymns speak of large money- gifts in standards not specified therein.
As in the case of the princes, the wealth and liberality of the rich Maghavan is clearly apparent. The munificence of the rich Maghavan may be appreciated from constant praise bestowed on the people who made gifts of horses, cattle, clothes, and gold to their priests (R. V. X. 107). They are praised in glowing terms, and they came to occupy a high social position.
In one place, munificence is described as making a man the chief in his village (X. 107) and highly honoured by the community. We are told that “the liberal die not—neither are they ruined, they suffer neither harm nor trouble—the light of Heaven, the universe about us, all this doth sacrificial guerdon (gift) give him.” The Taittiriya Samhita goes further and says that “wealth the true basis of excellence.”
On the other hand, the evils of unequal distribution were very keenly felt. The misery of the homeless and starving poor is described in some passages of the Rigveda. Some hymns (see X. 117) of that book tell us of the hungry poor, who go to others for food. The whole of the 117th hymn of the tenth Mandala, dedicated to ‘hunger’ and attributed to ‘Bhiksu,’ repeatedly inculcates upon the rich the duty of feeding the poor.
Society expected the rich to contribute to the alleviation of distress and the miserly conduct of the niggardly rich was denounced. “The man who does not offer to the gods, nor give alms to the poor,” we are told, “is a miser who feeds upon sin only.”
The same hymn (X, 117.9) dwells upon the inequality of human fortune and of liberality (capacity to give alms to the poor.) The similes there are really suggestive. We are told that as the two hands of a man are not equal, as two cows born of the same mother differ in their milk-bearing capacity, as the strength even of twin brothers is not equal, even so men are not equal in their fortune or their liberality.
The preceding verses tell us how the unequal distribution of wealth came to play a predominant part in the evolution of society, how the rich came to be adored by men of lesser social position or wealth, and how the poor sank lower in the social scale.
As we proceed onwards, we find a multiplication of hymns directed against poverty. Wealth came to be a criterion of social position; social inequalities grew more and more, and the old simple state of existence passed away.