As the time passed, the Rig-Veda civilisation began to change. The Aryans were expanding in different directions.
They came into contact with the non-Aryan people. Their own number began to increase.
The conquered non-Aryans also came to live together with the Aryan people in the same society. With the growth of territory, powers of the kings also increased.
They tried to conquer far and wide. By the close of the later Vedic age the Aryan power had extended over the whole of the Gangetic Valley in the north and had crossed the Vindhyas to reach the south. Such changes affected the character of the early Vedic civilisation. The society, the state and the religion of the later Vedic age thus appear very much different from what in the Rig-Veda age.
Later Vedic Society:
The greatest change which the later Vedic period saw in the Aryan society was the rise of the rigid caste system. It destroyed the values of human equality of the earlier days and created distinction between man and man.
It was natural that there should be different kinds of works in any society at any time. Generally, the people were required to perform four sets of duties. Some were bound to perform worships, prayers and religious rites. The second group of men had to learn arts of warfare to fight battles against the enemies or the invaders.
The third set of people were called upon to cultivate lands, carry on trade and commerce and to produce necessary goods for the need of the society. The fourth group of people had to perform various social-service works from sweeping or cleaning to other works of personal needs. Any man could do any such work according to his own free choice or ability.
In course of time, these four main works led to the rise of four main castes. Those who performed religious duties formed the priestly caste known as the Brahmana. Those who fought battles formed the warrior class called the Kshatriya. Those who looked to agriculture, trade or other productive works came to be known as the Vaisya. And finally, those who performed social and menial services to the society formed the lowest caste and were called the Sudra.
The supreme tragedy of this division of labour was that the castes became hereditary. The son of a Kshatriya, even if learned, could not be a Brahmana. The son of a Sudra, even if brave, could not be a Kshatriya. Secondly, the Brahmana and the Kshatriya regarded themselves as higher classes, and made a monopoly of social privileges. They looked down upon the other classes. Inter-marriage among the castes stopped.
Two more evils followed. First, some castes broke into several subcastes. For example, among the Vaisya caste, several divisions rose up according to hereditary professions. Cultivators, merchants, smiths, carpenters, and artisans formed distinct castes. The Sudras were also divided into many sections. Secondly, the Sudras, because of their menial works, came to be regarded as impure. The upper castes needed their services in most matters, but denied them many social privileges. The non-Aryan tribes who were taken into society became the members of the Sudra caste. That also was a reason for considering the Sudras as inferior.
The caste system became more and more rigid. The evils of inequality became more painful to the lower castes. A time therefore came when Buddhism and Jainism appeared as strong movements against such evils.
Position of Women:
During the later Vedic age, the women also lost their earlier status. Polygamy or marrying several wives by man became a social vice. The higher castes practiced this system because of their wealth. Child marriage also appeared. Dowry system was practiced. Women gradually lost their right to property. Of course, the women still enjoyed their equal position with men in religious matters. They still received education and could show their talent. Celebrated women like Gargi and Maitreyi showed their merit in the spheres of highest learning. On the whole, the Later Vedic Society became the forerunner of the social systems of the future Hindu India.
Later Vedic Political Organisation:
As the Aryan expansion continued, the size of the states became larger and larger. With this, the power of the king grew more and more. The administration of the kingdom also became more elaborate. The kings of the later Vedic period ruled their subjects almost as absolute masters. They could set aside the advice of the Brahmins or Priests. They established their rights to take tributes from the people. Their power to punish (Danda) became unlimited.
Powerful kings adopted pompous titles. The most powerful ones wanted to be the sole ruler or the Ekarat or Samrat and, lord of the earth or Sarvabhauma. To establish their greatness they performed ceremonies like the Rajasuya and the Ashvamedha.
The kings came from the race of the warriors or the Kshatriya. His officers were many. Sachiva or minister, Samgrahitri or treasurer, Suta or charioteer, and Bhagadugha or tax collector were among his noted officers, besides the Purohita and Senani of the earlier days. With the growth of the king’s power, the power of the ‘Sakha’ and ‘Samiti’ of the earlier days began to decline.
In spite of the growth of royal power, however, the later Vedic kings were not autocrats. They paid respect to superiors and seers. They took oath to protect people as well as the laws of the land. They upheld the traditional virtues and standards of morality. They restrained themselves in fear of sins and of the curses of the Brahmanas.
Later Vedic Religion:
During the later Vedic period, much of the simplicity of the Rig-Veda religion was lost. The hold of the priestly class became more absolute. The priests developed complicated modes of worship. Sacrifices became more common. The rites and rituals became more difficult. Superstitions entered in the name of religion. Fear of evil spirits and witches came in. Philosophical and theological speculations became more complex.
In spite of such developments, the later Vedic sages laid greater emphasis on the faith in the Supreme Being, the Absolute. The concept of the Param Brahma or the Paramatma dominated the man’s mind. The supreme gods like Vishnu or Siva were paid greater devotion.
The later Vedic period produced many religious doctrines to influence the Indian thought forever. The doctrine of Karma or results according to deeds, Maya or illusion, Mukti or the supreme release, Janmantara or the transmigration of souls etc. made deep impact on the Aryan mind. The individual soul or Jiva came from the universal soul or Brahman and could go back to that origin. This was possible through the most correct ways of life and thought. Tat Tvam Asi or That Thou Art- it was the identification of the individual Atman with the universal Atman.
The Supreme goal of life was the Moksha or the liberation when the individual soul was absorbed in the universal soul. Thus, on one side, there developed deep spiritual ideas in the later Vedic age which had no parallel elsewhere in the world. On the other side, deep-rooted superstitions began to dominate the mind of the common man making religious practices mostly meaningless. Amid such developments future Hinduism was beginning to take its shape.
In the later Vedic age, the economic activities of the Aryans grew greatly. The population began to increase and so also the number of Aryan settlements. New kinds of works and efforts appeared side by side. New means of livelihood were discovered and developed.
The Aryans became more concerned with the progress of agriculture. In the fertile soil of the Gangetic valley they cultivated many types of crops. They improved the modes of cultivation. For example, for using heavy ploughs in fields, they even engaged as many as 24 bullocks in each plough. The Aryans learnt more and more about the use of different metals. They made different types of weapons, ornaments, agricultural implements, various tools for work and other equipment’s.
Trade and Commerce:
With the expansion of Aryan settlements and the rise of bigger kingdoms, roads and communication systems began to develop. As a result, the volume of trade and commerce increased. It is known from the Atharva Veda that there were different types of roads in those days. There were ordinary paths for walking, wider roads for bullock carts, and better roads for swift-running chariots.
The traders and merchants carried their goods to distant places for better communication facilities. Side by side, travel by boats in rivers became more common. Trade relation between distant places on the river banks developed rapidly. Both by land and water routes, the merchants carried on their economic activities. It was during this time that the Aryan traders ventured into the seas for external trade. This was a notable feature of the later Vedic age.
It was during the later Vedic age that the Aryans improved the art of weaving to a remarkable extent. Various types of costly and attractive dresses and clothes were made to meet the new social demands. As the people became richer, there were greater demands for gold ornaments. Goldsmiths of that time were more advanced in their profession than in earlier times. They made ornaments in new designs and in good many number. The art of pottery also developed. The blacksmiths, too, enlarged the scope of their work to meet new demands.
During the later Vedic age, plenty of fertile lands were available all over the Indo-Gangetic plains. Being very hardworking, the Aryan cultivators produced enough of crops to meet the need of the society. On the whole, the later Vedic Aryans lived an economically prosperous life.