In later Vedic times, the Rig Vedic tribal assemblies lost importance, and royal power increased at their cost.
The vidatha completely disappeared; the sabha and samiti continued to hold their ground but their character changed.
They were now controlled by chiefs and rich nobles, and women were no longer permitted to sit in the sabha which was now dominated by warriors and brahmanas.
The formation of larger kingdoms increased the power of the chief or king. Tribal authority tended to become territorial. The dominant tribes gave their names to territories which might be inhabited by tribes other than their own. Initially each area was named after the tribe that first settled there.
First Panchala was the name of a people, and then it became the name of a region. The term rashtra, which indicates territory, first arose during this period. The concept of controlling people also appeared. It was indicated by the use of the term rajya, which meant sovereign power. Traces of the election of the king appear in later Vedic texts. The individual considered to have the best in physical and other attributes was elected raja. A tribal who pioneered settlements, showed skill in farming, and fought bravely was elected the chief of his tribe. This may have been the case with the raja.
He received voluntary presents called bali from his ordinary kinsmen or the common people called the vis. Gradually these voluntary presents assumed the form of tributes that were forcibly collected. The ruler, however, sought to perpetuate the right to receive presents and enjoy other privileges pertaining to his office by making it hereditary in his family, the post generally going to the eldest son.
However, this succession was not always smooth. The Mahabharata tells us that Duryodhana, the younger cousin of Yudhishthira, usurped power. Battling for territory, the families of the Pandavas and Kauravas virtually destroyed themselves. The Bharata battle shows that kingship knows no kinship.
The king’s influence was strengthened by rituals. He performed the rajasuya sacrifice, which was supposed to confer supreme power on him. He performed the ashvamedha, which meant unquestioned control over an area in which the royal horse ran uninterrupted. He also performed the vajapeya or the chariot race, in which the royal chariot drawn by a horse was made to win the race against his kinsmen. All these rituals impressed the people by demonstrating the power and prestige of the king.
During this period collection of taxes and tributes seems to have become common. These were probably deposited with an officer called sangrihitri who worked as the king’s companion. The epics tell us that at the time of a grand sacrifice, large-scale distributions were made by the princes, and all sections of the people were sumptuously fed.
In the discharge of his duties the king was assisted by the priest, the commander, the chief queen, and a few other high functionaries. At the lower level, the administration was possibly run by village assemblies, which may have been controlled by the chiefs of the dominant clans. These assemblies also tried local cases. However, even in later Vedic times the king did not have a standing army. Tribal units were mustered in times of war and, according to one ritual, for success in war, the king had to eat along with his people from the same plate.
Aryanization promoted social differentiation. In the later Vedic texts the term arya encapsulates brahmana, Kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra. Thus it was the Vedic Aryans who introduced the Varna system. The later Vedic society came to be divided into four varnas called the brahmana, rajanya or Kshatriya, vaishya, and shudra. The growing cult of sacrifices enormously added to the power of the brahmanas. Initially the brahmanas were only one of the sixteen classes of priests, but they gradually overshadowed the other priestly groups and emerged as the most important class.
The rise of the brahmanas is a peculiar development that did not occur in Aryan societies outside India. It appears that non-Aryan elements had some role to play in the formation of the brahmana Varna. They conducted rituals and sacrifices for their clients and for themselves, and also officiated at the festivals associated with agricultural operations.
They prayed for the success of their patron in war, and, in return, the king pledged not to do anything to harm them. Sometimes the brahmanas came into conflict with the rajanyas, who represented the order of the warrior nobles, for positions of supremacy. However, whenever the two upper orders had to deal with the lower orders, they put aside their differences. From the end of the later Vedic period onwards, it began to be emphasized that the two upper orders should cooperate to rule over the rest of society.
The vaishyas constituted the common people, and they were assigned producing functions such as agriculture, cattle-breeding, and the like; some of them also worked as artisans. Towards the end of the Vedic period they began to engage in trade. The vaishyas appear to have been the only tribute payers in later Vedic times, and the brahmanas and kshatriyas are represented as living on the tributes collected from the vaishyas.
The process of subjugating the mass of the tribesmen to the position of tribute payers was long and protracted. Several rituals wtre prescribed for making the refractory elements (vis or vaishya) submissive to the prince (raja) and to his close kinsmen called the rajanyas. This was achieved with the assistance of the priests who also fattened themselves at the cost of the people or the vaishyas.
All the three higher varnas shared one common feature: they were entitled to upanayana or investiture with the sacred thread according to the Vedic mantras. Upanayana heralded the beginning of education in the Vedas. The fourth Varna was deprived of the sacred thread ceremony and the recitation of the gayatri mantra.
The gayatri was a Vedic mantra that could not be recited by a shudra, thereby depriving him of Vedic education. Similarly, women were also denied both the gayatri and upanayana. Thus, the imposition of disabilities on the shudras and women began towards the end of the Vedic period.
The prince, who represented the rajanya order, sought to assert his authority over all the three other varnas. The Aitareya Brahmana, a text of the later Vedic period, represents the brahmana as a seeker of livelihood and an acceptor of gifts from the prince but also removable by him. A vaishya is called tribute-paying, meant to be beaten and oppressed at will. The worst position is reserved for the shudra. He is called the servant of another, to be made to work at will by another, and to be beaten at will.
Generally, the later Vedic texts draw a line of demarcation between the three higher orders, on the one hand, and the shudras, on the other. Nevertheless, several public rituals associated with the coronation of the king in which the shudras participated, were presumably survivors of the original Aryan community.
Certain sections of artisans, such as the rathakara or chariot maker, enjoyed a high status and were entitled to the sacred thread ceremony. Thus, in later Vedic times, Varna distinctions had not advanced very far.
The family shows the increasing power of the father, who could even disinherit his son. In princely families, the right of primogeniture was getting stronger. Male ancestors came to be worshipped. Women were generally given a lower position. Although some women theologians took part in philosophical discussions and some queens participated in coronation rituals, ordinarily women were thought to be inferior and subordinate to men.
The institution ofgotra appeared in later Vedic times. Literally, it means the cow pen or the place where cattle belonging to the entire clan are kept, but in course of time it signified descent from a common ancestor. People began to practise gotra exogamy. No marriage could take place between persons belonging to the same gotra or having the same lineage.
Ashramas or the four stages of life were not well established in Vedic times. The post-Vedic texts speak of four ashramas: that of brahmachari or student, grihastha or householder, vanaprastha or hermit, and sannyasin or ascetic who completely renounced the worldly life. Only the first three are clearly defined in the later Vedic texts; the last or the fourth stage was not well established, though ascetic life was not unknown. Even in post-Vedic times, only the stage of the householder was commonly practised by all the varnas.