We notice a significant transition from Rig-Veda or early Vedic society to that of later Vedic age.
Chronologically, this transition is assigned to the period corresponding to 1000 BC to 600 BC. Both Vedic literature and archaeological sources provide sufficient material to reconstruct the history and culture of the people of the post-Vedic period.
The literary evidences relate primarily to the territories of the upper and middle Ganga basin and somewhat peripherally to other region too.
The archaeological spade found the existence of agricultural communities in the same geographical region; roughly corresponding to the same time span.
Their culture is called Painted Grey Ware (PGW) culture and nearly 700 sites of this culture are found along the upper Ganga basin. These sites extend from the dry beds of river Ghaggar in Bahawalpur in Pakistan and northern Rajasthan, to the watershed of the Indus and the Ganges and the Ganga-Yamuna doab.
The evidence of Sravasti site indicates that the eastern limit of the area of the PGW culture is restricted to the northern plains of the Ganges. It is also suggested that the Banas culture of southern Rajasthan reached the Ganges valley at around 800 BC and consequently black and red pottery users were said to belong to this period.
While literary texts speak of the eastward shift of the Vedic Aryans, the archaeological excavations do not corroborate that view. Though there is discrepancy between the archaeological and literary sources in this period, they are in agreement regarding the use of iron by these people of PGW culture of the Gangetic basin. This can be confirmed by the Carbon 14 test conducted on the artefacts found in that region.
The word Ayas referred to in the Rig-Veda is translated as ‘iron’. We come across the term ‘Syama Ayas’ in the Yajurveda and ‘Krishna Ayas’ in the Brahmanas. Megalithic burials of southern India also reveal that they too were familiar with iron and its use. It is a prevalent view is that iron technology was indigenous rather than the consequence of foreign contacts.
A debate is going on among historians regarding the impact of iron technology on the material cultural base of the post-Vedic society. Two views prevail. One group holds the opinion that the iron technology was not an important factor, the other holds that the iron-socketed axes, iron tipped ploughshares, and nobs helped to clear the forests of the Gangetic ‘doab’ and improved the efficiency of the agricultural implements.
The second view is questioned on the ground that the technology of smelting iron was at its primitive stage then. It is further pointed that the iron ore mines of Bihar were not fully exploited in this phase and was not very agrarian. Further, the artefacts that became known are only offensive weapons like iron-tipped arrowheads and spearheads and not agricultural implements like sickles, hoes and axes.
It is now generally believed that iron technology did not influence the material cultural base till the second half of the first millennium BC as a ploughshare came into use only during this period. Further, the literary evidence of the Mahabharata refers to the mechanism of Khandavadaham to clear the forests by burning them rather than by iron implements.
In this phase, there was definite growth of agricultural operations as vast areas of fertile alluvial lands of the Ganga-Yamuna doab and the middle Ganga valley were available. No doubt, the later Vedic texts recognize pastoralism as an important occupation.
We conclude that the mixed farming that included cultivation and herding continued to be the main occupation of the people. The people produced rice, wheat, and barley. Rice is referred to as Vrihi, Tandula and Sali in later Vedic texts, and excavated sites of PGW and Banas cultures yielded charred grains.
Sathapatha Brahmana mentions agricultural operations like ploughing, sowing, reaping and threshing. Hesterman points out that in the major sacrificial rituals such as Rajasuya, the offerings of dairy products were less, compared to agricultural products. There is also a view that the economic pattern varied from region to region. From indirect evidences, it is suggested that the region around Mathura continued to be substantially pastoral for many centuries, while the middle Ganga plain shows limited evidence of pastoralism. This deduction was made based on specific reference to the amounts of grain and cattle in their offerings at the sacrificial ritual.
A significant feature of this age was the emerging importance of land as an important commodity. Initially, the Vis or the clan owned the land collectively. In course of time, land became the property of a family. Consequently, cultivation of land became a family activity with the assistance sometimes of domestic servants and slaves. The reference to eight, twelve and twenty-four oxen yoked to the plough makes us speculate that the land holding varied in size leading to the emergence of hierarchy of landed families.
The plough, an important agricultural implement was endowed with divinity and venerated as Sita by them. Besides the plough, the cow also became a sacred object as Gomata. We notice prayer to gods to protect the cow. We also come across reference to various occupations that were needed by the people. Sukla Yajurveda refers to a variety of occupations of this time. Weaving appears to have been in an advanced stage.
We come across four types of pottery:
(i) Black and red ware,
(ii) Black striped ware,
(iii) Painted grey ware, and
(iv) Red ware.
Coins like Satamana, Suvarna, Pedo and Krishnala besides Nishka are referred in the Vedic texts of this period. We may postulate a hypothesis that surplus products produced by them enabled them to carry on trade both internally and externally, and coins might have been used as exchange medium in trade transactions. Trade facilitated the growth of towns and cities as we have literary references to Hastinapura and Kausambi.
A significant change also took place in the polity during this period. First, instead of tribal identity, territorial identity began to take shape. The word Jampada in the sense of a settled tribe became frequent along with the words ‘rashtra’ and ‘desa’. The words ‘Rashtra’ and ‘Desa’ are not used in the sense of a ‘state’ as we understand, with fixed territorial boundaries.
We have reference to Pancaladesa, where the Pancalas lived. Thus, instead of tribal identity, we now notice territorial identity and Rajan the warrior chieftain of the early Vedic phase becomes the protector of the territory where his tribesman lived a settled life. Further, Rajanya of the Vedic times becomes Kshatriya, whose literal meaning is die one who holds power over dominions. This Kshatriya began to receive presentations from ‘Vis’ for protecting the people.
Bali and Bhaga, which were voluntary in the earlier period, became compulsory by this time. This shows that the Kshatriya was feared, respected and honoured. The status of the Kshatriya was not based on birth but on the act of legitimization by the ceremonial sacrifices like Rajasuya, Asvamedha and Vajapeya. Thus, during this phase, the Khsatriya lineage gained superior status and territory became the physical indication of the ruler’s power.
In this phase, the nature of conflict underwent a change. Conflicts arose for the acquisition and expansion of new territories, as territory became a physical manifestation of the greatness of the ruler. In these complies, iron weapons and light-wheeled chariots drawn by horses played a crucial role in gaining victories.
The epic Mahabharata is nothing but intra-clan warfare between the tribes of Kauravas and Pandavas. The epic Ramayana also indirectly reflects the wish of Kaikeyi that her son Bharata should be the ruler of entire Bharatavarsha ruled by the Ikshvaku lineage.
Another important feature to be recorded during this phase is the ascendancy of the priest in his capacity to legitimize the power of the Kshatriya ruler. We also notice the feature of redistribution of wealth through the concept of Dam or Dakshim to the priests who performed the necessary consecratory rituals, and in course of time, the priests became the gods of earth demanding obedience from the other sections of the society.
The Rig-Veda society became a society of hierarchically arranged social groups as the status of ‘Vis’ or ‘Jana’ declined and the priests and the Kshatriyas claimed a superior status in the social ladder. The Pumshasukta of Rigveda narrates the origin of the four Varnas for the first time. In course of time, unequal status was assigned to these Varnas. The concept of superior and inferior, pure and impure, distant and nearness took shape and led to the division based on inequality.
The Varna-based social order had the following features:
(i) Status fixed by birth
(ii) A hierarchy-based social order in descending fashion, and
(iii) Rules of endogamy and ritual purity.
Though later this Varna model was referred to in the Vedic literature, it appears to be only a theoretical framework but not practiced rigorously. We do not come across the concept of untouchability in this phase. Owing to the fusion of Vedic and non-Vedic customs and traditions, the composite society based on composite culture began to take shape.
The institution of Gotra, Gotra exogamy and abhorrence of Sagotra marriages began in this phase. Gotra literally means cow pen and as cows became sacred objects and worshipped during this period and the owners of the cow pens became the ancestors of a group, they were identified as belonging to one Gotra.
Patriarchal family was the basis of this society. Grihapati was the head of the family. Land-based household economy became the order of the day, thereby the position of the householder became predominant, and industrial arts provided the necessary wealth to the householders. These individual householders performed sacrifices to gain merit or Punya by giving Dana or Dakshina to the priestly group.
This practice of Dana or Dakshina is said to be a redistribution of wealth accumulated by the householder. Though some women philosopher-scholars like Gargi and Maitreyi were known, in general the women occupied a secondary position without any role in decision-making. Women were allowed an equal place with husband in the practice of religious rituals and were called Griharagni but their activity was limited to the four walls of the house.
The institution of ‘Caturasramas’ – Brahmachatya, Grihasta, Vanaprasta and Sanyasa appeared – to have been in vouge among Vedic people. However, we are not sure whether these caturasrmas were applicable to all social groups in their strict sense of observance or not. The post-Vedic texts record the existence of Vedic and non-Vedic traditions.
While the Sama and Yajurveda and the Brahmanas record Vedic tradition, Atharvanaveda records the non-Vedic as well as folk traditions. This could be, due to the fusion of Vedic and non-Vedic cultures, traditions and way of life. In this phase, religious beliefs centred on long-drawn out sacrifices, personal as opposed to State or royal sacrifices are recorded in the Vedic tradition.
The rulers appear to have performed Aswamedha, Rajas Suya and Vajapeya sacrifices to exhibit their prowess and prestige and for the welfare of their people. The sacrifices became complex requiring specialists to perform them to be endowed with mystical power. During this period, Indra and Agni, the two powerful early Vedic deities lost their prominence and the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Maheswara began to dominate and thus nature worship gave way to divine ordained deities. Worship of the Trinity and sacrifice-centred worship was referred to in Sama and Yajur Vedas.
The hymns of Atharvanaveda refer to domestic and household problems faced by the individual Grihastas in their day-to-day life and included prayers for the cure of diseases, for improved health, more cattle and fields, and charms to produce harmony and love, and blissful conjugal life.
The Upanishads, a genre of the Vedic tradition which are assignable to this period record a change that took place in the philosophical foundational process of this phase and revolve around the questions of the process of creation and destruction. The contribution to science, in particular to astronomy and mathematics appears to be significant.
By the 6th century BC, we find a transition to lineage-based territorial chieftainship; from Janapada to Mahajanapada, from pastoralism to settled forming, from nature worship to Trinity worship, from sacrifice centred ritual to Janana-centred ritual. It may be rightly observed that the Vedic tradition gave rise to many later ideas, dealing with questions concerning the origin, nature in purpose of the world.
The Vedic texts drew upon a variety of sources; including pre-Vedic and non-Vedic, ones, to reveal different world views based on material, divine, ritualistic and abstract principles. Even non-Vedic systems like Buddhism and Jainism and atheistic philosophies drew inspiration from the Vedic tradition. For example, the theistic school of Indian philosophy, the Purvamimamsa that has certain features in common with Buddhism and Jainism claims Vedic origin and it is committed to the Vedas.
Purvamimamsa subordinates divine beings to human beings and propagates that by performing rituals the divine beings can be produced for the sake of human welfare. The ritualism is replaced by an ethical code of conduct by Buddhists and Janis to attain Nirvana or release from rebirth after death.
We thus witness the society of India being dynamic and not static, taking cognizance of changes in material and spiritual outlook of the Vedic and non-Vedic people. The most obvious and visible development was the emergence of Varma-based social order. Varna etymologically signifies colour.
However, in the historical context it refers to a specific connotation of ‘social order’ based on ritual purity and hierarchy. The origin of Varna is attributed to divinity as Purushasukta of the Rig-Veda and Aitreya Brahmana refer to the birth of the system, but the Purushasukta is now established to be a later interpolation, although the time of the interpolation is itself a debate among historians.
This system comes into vogue from the time of the post-Vedic age, wherein we find references to the four Varnas: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras. From them functions of individual Varnas and their hierarchy in social order took shape and got entrenched. Dipankar Gupta is of the view: “the Varnasystem came into being only after the Aryans settled in vast Indo-Gangetic plains.
In the historical’context of time and space, we notice a transition from Varna to Jati and reality is that there are thousands of Jatis and not just four Varnas”. There is a view that Varna framework is only theoretical and not practised in the societal milieu. In the colonial period, Varna and Jati were identified with the Portugese word ‘caste’ and Indian society is characterized as a caste-based society.
Romila Thapar is of the view that there is no unanimity regarding the precise social role of Varna and Jati. A protracted debate is going on among scholars of history, sociology and anthropology regarding the origin, definition and the nature of caste as an institution in the transition of Indian society. Our present goal is to create a casteless society where discrimination based on birth is absent.