In this article we will discuss about:- 1. Political Organisation during the Early Vedic Period 2. Social Conditions during the Early Vedic Period 3. Economic Conditions 4. Religious Conditions.
Political Organisation during the Early Vedic Period:
During the Rig-Vedic period the Aryans lived in small villages. The basis of their political and social organisation was the family or Kula. The family was headed by the eldest male member who kept all the members of the family under perfect discipline.
A number of families formed a grama headed by the gramina, while a number of gramas or villages formed the Visya. The Visya was headed by a Visyapati. A number of Visyas collectively formed jana which was ruled by a king called Rajana. However, the precise relationship between the various units viz grama, visya and jana has not been clearly stated anywhere.
During the Rig-Vedic period, there were a number of tribal principalities and there are numerous references of one king subduing another. There is a reference in Rig-Veda which says, that king Kasu made a gift often kings to a Rishi.
Similarly, we come across the expression Samrat and Visvasya Vhubanasyaraja (universal monarch) which proves that there were number of principalities, and king could become a universal monarch only by subduing various principalities.
The kingship was usually hereditary but there are references which suggest that the people could select a king from the members of a royal family also. The king exercised vast powers and occupied an important position.
However, the king could not exercise these powers according to his whims and there were many limitations on his authority. The king had to use his power in such a manner as to retain the confidence of the people. Thus the public opinion was an important check on the authority of the king.
In addition to this there were certain other limiting factors also. The Purohit, who was the Chief Adviser and spiritual guru, of the king served as a serious check on the authority of the king. Similarly, there was a Council of Ministers, which though appointed by the king, advised him on various matters of the State.
According to A.L. Basham, another factor which restricted the popular authority of the monarch was his responsibility towards the Tribunal Council, the Sabha and the Samiti. At the time of his coronation ceremony the king had to undertake an oath of working in the interest of the people. If the king went against the oath the people could elect another person as their king.
Though no list of the duties performed by the king is available, it can easily be said that the king was expected to perform enormous duties in keeping with the ideals of kingship. The king was expected to be a mitra (friend) in kindness, Varuna in virtue and Indra in valour.
He was expected to look after the material as well as spiritual development of the people and protect them against foreign aggression. The king was also responsible for the administration of justice and to punish the criminals. The king was also the Commander-in- Chief and led armies against the enemies.
In return for all the services the people paid him voluntary taxes. The concept of taxation has been described in the Rig-Veda as follows: “As the sun takes away the water from the seas and returns it in the form of rains, so the king should have taxes from the people and spend them for their benefit and welfare.” But as the taxation was not a stable source of income the king also resorted to plunder and pillage.
The king was assisted by a number of officials. The most prominent amongst them being Purohit, Senani and Gramina. The office of the Purohit was one of great respect and prestige. Usually this office was hereditary.
The Purohit was the Chief Adviser and temporal guru (spiritual teacher) of the king. He accompanied the king in wars and prayed to God for his safety and victory. Some of the prominent Purohita referred in the Rig-Veda are Vishwamitra and Vasishta.
According to A B. Keath Prohita “was the forerunner of the Brahman statesmen who from time to time have shown there is no reasons to doubt that a Visvamitra or a Vasistha was of conspicuous ability in the management of affairs and a most important element of the government of the early Vedic realm.”
The Senani and the Gramina were the other two officials. Their position was also equally influential. The Senani was the military Commander while the Gramina was the village officer. The importance of these two officials is evident from the fact that the king had to take oath in the presence of all these officials.
In addition to these three officials the king had certain other officials like, Mahishi (Chief queen), Suta (Record-keeper of the king), Bhagadudha (Chief Revenue Collector), Akshavapa (Chief Accountant), Kaata (Lord of the Imperial Household), Sangrahita (the Exchequer), Govikruta (Chief of forests) and Palagala. Thus we and that during the early Vedic period the seeds of regular system of administration were sown.
Though the king enjoyed extensive powers, he could not use these arbitrarily. His power was restricted by the two popular assemblies called Sabha and Samiti. Though nothing definite can be said about these two assemblies, it is generally believed that they were the popular institutions.
According to Ludwig, the Samiti was the Assembly of the whole people, while the Sabha was a house of elders. On the other hand Zimmer is of the opinion that Samiti was an Assembly of the whole tribe and the Sabha was an Assembly of the village.
According to Prof. K. P. Jayaswal, “The Samiti was the national Assembly of the whole people, while the Sabha was probably a standing and statutory body of selected men.”
In the Vedic literature the Sabha and the Samiti are described as two daughters of Prajapatey. The Sabha had a very limited membership. According to certain scholars it consisted of elected members who represented different sections of the people.
Certain passages in Rig-Veda also associate the Sabha with the men of wealth, opulence and goodly form. The Sabha met in an Assembly Hall and transacted both political and non-political business. Though the discussions were free and frank, the members spoke with great deal of restraint.
The Sabha also enjoyed certain judicial functions and acted as the National Judiciary. It continued to be a very strong Institution till 500 B. C when its power declined.
The Samiti was the national Assembly of the whole people According to Prof. Ludwig, “The Samiti was a more comprehensive conference including not only all the common people but also Brahmans and rich patrons.” The king was also expected to be present in the meetings of Samiti.
If he absented himself from its meetings he was greatly suspected. The Samiti also transacted both political and non-political business. The main duties of the Samiti were the election of the king and the protection of the country. This body continued to exist till 600 B. C. as is justified by the Atharaveda and Chhandogya Upanishad.
Mode of Warfare:
The Aryans were brave fighter and developed a high code of warfare. The regular armies were not maintained but every able bodied person had to render military service in times of need. The army at that time mainly consisted of infantry, cavalary and chariots.
The elephants were probably not used’ in war. The army was headed by a Commander-in-Chief appointed by the king for small expeditions.’ However, the major expeditions were led by the king himself. The soldiers used coats of nail, metal helmets, shields etc. for protection.
Their offensive weapons were bows and arrows, swords and spears, axes, slings, etc. The arrows were made of reeds with tips of horn or metal. They were also sometimes poisoned.
While the king and the noble fought from the chariot, the common people fought on foot. There was a very little attempt at ordered or organised fighting. Banners were used during the war. The war music was provided by trumpets and drums.
Whenever the people went on war they usually evoked blessings of their gods. The people of Rig-Veda period had high ideal of heroism and chivalry. They never attacked the enemy without giving him a challenge.
The unarmed and sleeping persons were also not attacked. Arms were also not used against women,’ children and old people. A person who ran away from the battle-field was greatly despised and was treated as coward.
Law and Legal Institutions:
The people of the early Vedic period had developed good ideas of law. This is borne out by the existence of common legal terms in different languages. The king exercised criminal and civil jurisdiction and was assisted in his work by elders. We do not possess any definite information regarding the code of laws observed by the people.
Most probably the customs and the traditions were taken as the laws of the land. The justice was given in accordance to these laws, which even the “king could not violate. The punishments were very severe and their main purpose was to satisfy the person wronged.
Some of the crimes most frequently referred in the Rig-Veda include theft, burglary, house breaking and high-way robbery. Another crime which has been quite frequently mentioned in the Rig-Veda is Cattle-lifting at night. There seems to be no trace of death penalty for theft. Ordeal by fire and water were also practiced in certain cases.
Our knowledge of civil law is also very limited. The property could change hands by gifts or barter. Rina or loan was the only form of contract known to the people during the Rig-Veda period. A debtor who failed to repay his loans had to serve a period of servitude to the creditor.
The right to adopt was also recognised. The system of arbitration was also probably known to the people. The system of taking oaths in matter of doubt was also in existence.
Social Conditions during the Early Vedic Period:
The Social structure during the Rig Vedic period was patriarchal in character. The head of the family was the oldest male member who enjoyed absolute control over his children. The relation between child and the parent was one of close affection and the father was regarded as the type of all those good and kind.
Sometimes the father also acted cruelly. There is a story in the Rig-Veda which testifies that father blinded his son for his extravagance. The joint family system existed in which often the relations of the wife also joined.
The property of the family was owned by the head of the family. Individual ownership of movable property like cattle, horses and gold however, existed. Usually the property passed from father to son and the daughters were not given any share.
But if the daughter happened to be the only issue she could claim the property. The members of the family lived in houses made of wood and reed. Each house consisted of a fire place (agnishala), drawing room and a ladies parlor.
Position of Women:
During the Vedic period women enjoyed a position of esteem and were treated as equal with men in every walk to life. No religious rites and rituals could be performed without the wife. The Rig-Veda relates us a story of grihapati who left his wife because of her impertinence and went away for practicing penance but the God explained to him that he could not perform the penance without his wife.
The women were given education like men and often took part in the philosophical debates. Some of the women scholars of the Rig-Veda period included Visvavara, Ghosha, Apala etc. These women not only composed hymns but were also well versed in scared text. Women also learnt music and dancing.
Girls were married at a ripe age and enjoyed considerable freedom regarding the choice of their husbands. The marriages were performed with the approval of the parents though it was not absolutely essential to obtain their consent.
Dowry and bride-price were also practiced. There are references in Vedic literature when a bride- price was given by a son in-law who was not very desirable. Similarly dowry was given when the girl had some physical defect.
The Vedic marriage was a sacred tie and was performed in the same manner as it is performed today. The aim of the marriage was to increase the progeny. The sons were preferred though daughters were not deplored.
Monogamy was the usual rule in the Rig Vedic society. Polygamy also existed amongst the kings and the chiefs. The system of Polyandry did not exist, because of the prevalence of the principle of male superiority.
The widow re-marriage was not encouraged, although there are references to show where a issueless widow was married to her husband’s brother. The evils like Sati system, purdah and early marriage did not exist.
The woman from the time of her birth to the time of her death lived under the protection of the males. Until their marriage they were under the care of the father. After their marriage, they were under the care of the husband and during the old age as widow they were under the care of their sons.
This should not give us the impression that the women were confined to the four walls of the house and could not move freely. They attended public fairs and dances and there are sufficient references in the Rig-Veda pointing to the fair ladies flocking to festive gatherings.
The people during the Rig-Vedic period took rice, barely, bean, vegetables, fruits, animal flesh, milk and milk products. The people used to make bread, cake and parridge. Butter, ghee and curd were the most favorite staple food of the people.
Meat was also taken on certain occasions. The flesh of the ox, sheep and goat was also taken. The slaying of cow was looked upon with disfavor. As regards the drinks, soma, a juice of a plant was the most popular drink. Another popular drink was the Sura, a brandy of grains. The people also took honey.
Dress and Ornaments:
The Aryan people paid sufficient attention of their dresses and decorations. Their clothes were made of cotton, wool and skin of the animals. Usually their dress consisted of two garments viz., vasas or lower garments and adhivasa or the upper garments.
We also get references about another dress known as drapi or a sort of cloak. The garments were embroided with gold. Both men and women used almost identical garments. Both men and women used ornaments .The ornaments were generally made of gold.
The precious stones were also in vogue. Certain ornaments, like ear-rings, necklaces, bracelets anklets were worn by both men and women. The practice of filing and combing the hairs was also in vogue. The men folk kept beards and moustaches. There are also references regarding the shaving by men. Most probably the word ‘kshura’ used in the Rig-Veda stands for razor.
It cannot be said for certain whether educational institutions existed in the Vedic period. The education was mainly imparted orally. First of all, the teacher recited the Mantras from Veda which were then repeated by the students.
The instructions were given entirely in oral. The aim of the education was to sharpen the intellect of the person and to develop his character. The education was mainly religious in character and was often imparted by the father to his sons.
It cannot be said for certain whether the art of writing was known to the people. Some scholars have expressed the view that the art of writing was unknown to people of ancient India. However, If we accept this view then we shall have to presume that the vast Vedic literature was composed and preserved by oral transmission alone. But it is a stupendous feat of memory which appears to be miraculous.
On the other hand if we believe that these voluminous texts were committed in those old days to writing, we are faced with the problem of writing materials, of which we definitely know nothing. The whole thing is shrouded in mystery which cannot be solved until more definite facts come to light.
Whether the caste system existed in the Vedic age also, cannot be said for certain. Certain scholars hold that the caste system based on heredity was unknown in the early Vedic period. The other scholars have tried to assert on the testimony of mantra in the Rig-Veda that hereditary caste existed in the society.
However, it can certainly be said that the Aryans made a distinction with the non-Aryans and Aborigines and despised them.
The scholars who have asserted the existence of the caste system during the early Vedic period refer to a mantra in tenth Mandala of Rig-Veda which says, “Brahmanas sprang from the head of Brahama, Kshatriyas from his arms, the Vaishyas from his, thighs and the Sudras from his feet”.
This translations of the mantra has been challenged by certain scholars and they would like to translate it thus, “Brahmanas are the head of mankind, the Kshatriyas are made his arms. Vaishyas are of his thighs and the Sudras are made of his feet.”
It may be noted that the mantra simply refers to the division of the society on the principle of hereditary caste. The Brahmanas who were the men for learning are described as head, the Kshatriyas who were concerned with the use of physical force are described as arms and the Vaishyas had to go from place to place for the purpose of trade and commerce are described as thighs of human society.
Finally the Sudras who were illiterate and unfit for higher duties are represented as the feet of human society. These scholars refer to another hymn in the Rig-Veda to prove that the caste system did not exist during this period.
This hymn says, “I am a poet, my father is a physician, my mother grinds corn on stone. Being engaged in different occupations, we seek wealth and happiness, as crows seek food in different pastures. May thy bounties flow for our happiness, O God.”
Therefore, scholars like Dr. R.C. Dutt have asserted that in the entire range of Vedas we have not even a single passage to show that the community was divided into hereditary caste. Similarly, Dr. V.A. Smith says, “I do not find any indication of the caste in the Rig Vedic times. Mankind simply and roughly classified under four heads according to occupations, the mere honorable symbolic origin.”
On the basis of the above discussion, we can draw the conclusion that during the Rig Vedic period though different classes and professions existed but they were not hereditary. A person with requisite qualification and merit could perform the duties attached to the higher castes, even if he belonged to the lower categories.
Games and Amusements:
Chariot racing was the chief source of amusement for the people in the early Vedic period. Their other means of amusement were horse racing and dicing. The people were also deeply interested in music—both vocal and instrumental—and they took great delight and dwelling on the joys of life.
Among the musical instruments which have been discovered are drum, flute, lute and veena. They were also interested in dancing and Rig Veda quite often makes a mention of dancing by maidens. Probably men also danced,
Economic Conditions during the Early Vedic Period:
The people of the Rig Vedic period were essentially rural and lived in villages. The Rig Vedic society was self-sufficient and provided all the necessities of life without any dependence on other countries.
The people of Rig Vedic age knew about cultivation of land, and the agriculture was their main stay. They usually ploughed the fields with the help of a pair of the oxen bound to the yoke. They knew about tilling of the soil, cutting of furrows, sowing the seeds, and cutting of corn with the help of sickle. The chief crops cultivated by the people were Barley and wheat.
Most probably they did not cultivate rice which was discovered at a later date. The people used manure to increase the vitality of land. They also knew about irrigation and whenever necessary watered their land by artificial canals. Usually they grew two crops a year. In addition to cultivating the fields the people left certain fields or pastures for the animals to graze.
As the Aryans were mainly pastoral people they naturally attached great importance to keeping of cows and bullocks. The cows were milked thrice a day and were allowed to roam freely in the pastures. The cow-dung was used to make fuel cakes.
Sometimes the cow was also given in charity. The other animals which were domesticated by the people included buffalo, goat and sheep they also domesticated horse, camel and elephant.
Trade and Industry:
The Vedic hymns clearly indicate that trade and commerce was known to the people of the early Vedic period. This trade was not only confined to the country alone but was also carried on with other countries. Barter system of exchange was in vogue. Cow was also regarded as a unit of value during this period. Most probably the people also knew about currency, and the coin used by them was known as Nishka.
Some scholars, are however, of the opinion that Nishka was not a coin but an ornament, most probably a necklace. But Rig-Veda contains certain references of gifts being made in horses and Nishkas. This suggests that Nishka must have been a unit of value.
However, nothing definite can be said about the coins because no coin has been discovered so far. The chief items of commerce were cloth and goods made of leather. The goods were carried from one place to another through chariots, horses and bullock-carts.
Probably the inland rivers were also used for the purpose of trading. The trade with foreign countries like Babylon and countries of West Asia was carried on by sea.
In addition to agriculture and industry, carpentry, blacksmith, goldsmith and weaving were other professions of the people. These professions were not only the monopoly of the men but the ladies also contributed their labour into them. Generally women were engaged in weaving, dyeing and embroidery.
The carpenter made chariots, wagons, boats, ploughs and domestic utensils and furniture. The metal workers made implements and utensils of copper and bronze. The ornaments were made by the goldsmith.
Amongst the other professions the Rig-Veda makes a mention of professions like Medicine, Dancing and Barbers. The physicians were greatly respected in their skill. They treated the patients with the help of herbs and plants and practiced some sort of surgery also. Often they also used magic and spells to drive away evil spirits.
Religious Conditions during the Early Vedic Period:
The Rig Vedic religion was very simple and the people worshipped various forces and phenomena of nature. Thus they worshipped Sky, Surya, Indra, Varuna, Prithvi etc. The people conceived these gods in human forms and bestowed them with human qualities.
The various gods worshipped by the people during the Rig Vedic period can be classified into three categories:
(1) Gods of the Sky or Heavens such as Dyaus (sky), Varuna (sky-god proper). Usha (dawn). Asvins (morning and evening stars) and Surya, Mitra, Savitri, Pushan and Vishnu (all forms of the Sun);
(2) Gods of the Atmosphere such as Indra (thunder), Rudra (storm), Maruts (storm-god), Vayu (wind) and Parjanya (rain) and
(3) Gods of the Earth such as Prithvi (earth;, Agni (fire)and Soma (the plant of that name).
The temples, images, altars and hereditary priestly classes were conspicuously absent during this period. During this period every householder acted himself as a priest. He kindered the sacred fire and recited the hymns.
With a view to please the various gods the people offered prayers in the form of hymns and sacrifices. The common items which were offered to the gods included milk, grain, ghee, flesh and soma. These offerings were made with a view to win divine favour or to gain control over gods or nature.
In addition to the offerings people made sacrifices. These sacrifices were both simple and complex. The common householder generally performed a simple sacrifice while the kings and nobles made costly sacrifices.
The people of Rig Vedic period believed in the theory of Karma and attainment of salvation. The people believed in life after death. Though the people worshipped various gods they did not consider any one god as Supreme. In fact they believed that all the gods were one and the same, and only the sages have described them differently.