In this article we will discuss about the political, social, economic and religious conditions during the later Vedic period.
Political Organisation during Later Vedic Period:
The kingdom in the later Vedic period became much larger than in the early Vedic period. Ashvamedha (horse sacrifices) were performed and the ideal of setting up empires gained popularity with the kings. It may be noted that no real conquest was really made and tribes like Kuru, Panchalas, Kosalas and Videhas were never amalgamated into a single tribe.
Monarchy continued to be the prevailing system of government in the later Vedic period. The post of the king became hereditary. In the case of Srinjayas we hear that the monarchy lasted for 10 generations. In the later Vedic texts a number of theories regarding the origin of State and kingship have been offered.
For example, in the Aitareya Brahmana we are told that there was a war between the gods and demons. In this war the gods suffered several reverses.
Ultimately they analyse the situation and reached the conclusion that their defeat was due to a lack of common king. Therefore, they decided to make Soma their king and ultimately scored a victory over the demons. This story clearly shows that the kingship was evolved out of political necessity and the king was elected.
Similarly in Satapatha Brahmana we get a reference, which points out that before the State was created people were living in the State of nature. During the state of nature might was right and the life was insecure. With a view to get rid of these uncertain conditions people elected a king who promised them security of life and property in return for a tribute.
These references in the later Vedic literature clearly indicate that the scientific spirits of enquiry into the political and social institutions had come into existence.
During the later Vedic period kingship came to be attached with element of divinity. In Atharva Veda king Parikshat has been described as god amongst men. Similarly in the Aitareya Brahmana the victories of the king had been attributed to the favour of Lord indra.
The Samiritis and Puranas have also definitely claimed divinity for the king. For example. Manu clearly declares that the king is great divinity in human form. His body is formed by the Creator by taking particles from the bodies of divine guardians of the eight quarter.
Again the Bhagavata Purana says that a number of divinities reside in the person of king. It states that various sacrifices performed by the king like Ashvamedha and Vajapeya enabled the king to obtain parity with the gods. It may be noted that though the king was given the element of divinity his powers did not become absolute. He was required to respect the laws of the land and could not behave in an autocratic manner.
There were certain other limitations also on the authority of the king. The king could also be elected and there are references in Atharva Veda of his expulsion, re-election and restorations to the throne. The king had to take an oath of loyalty to the constitution and law at the time of his coronation. There is also the mention of king taking approval or Anumati of the earth.
The Sabha and the Samiti also acted as a check on the king. These two bodies have been described as the twin daughters of God Prajapati, and therefore, were no less divine creations than the kingship.
The presence of the Ministers and other officers, though merely as Advisors, was also another check on the authority of the king. Finally, the king could not afford to by-pass the well-established customs without endangering his own position.
2. Sabha and Samiti:
Sabha and Smiti which were very powerful instrument during the early Vedic period, declined in importance and power during the later Vedic period. Probably the Sabha no more transacted any political business and was merely a judicial body.
Similarly we do not find any mention of the Samiti in the Parnarti Samhita and Brahmanas, although it is mentioned in the Upanishad. The decline of these two popular bodies was mainly due to the enormous expansion of the power of the king.
3. Officers of the King:
With the establishment of the large kingdom the need for an elaborate and efficient administrative system was naturally felt. Therefore, we come across a number of new officers who advised the king. These officials were called Ratnins.
The Taittiriya texts have mentioned the following officials with whose help and cooperation the king ruled:
(1) Brahmana (the Purohita),
(2) Rajanya (noble),
(3) Mahishi (chief queen),
(4) Vavata (favorite wife),
(5) Parivrikti (descended wife),
(6) Sute (charioteer),
(7) Senani (commander of the army),
(8) Gramani (village headman),
(7) Kshattri (chamberlain),
(10) Samgrabitri (treasurer),
(11) Bhagdugha (collector of taxes), and
(12) Akshavepa (superintendent of dicing).
In view of the vast size of the empire the system of provincial government also came into existence by this time. We get references about Sthapati and Satapati, the officials concerned with the provincial administration. The Sthapati was concerned with the administration of the outlying regions, which were often inhabited by aboriginal tribes. Satapati looked after the administration of one hundred villages.
These officials were assisted by other lower officials like Adhikrila. The police system also existed although, we know very little about the police administration. This is proved by the references to police officials in the Jivagribh of Rig-Veda and the Ugras of the Upanishads.
4. Judicial Administration:
The judicial administration hat also undergone certain changes. The king had started taking more active part in the administration of justice. Sometimes, the king delegated his power to the Adhyakshas. There are also references when the cases were referred to the tribes for adjudication.
At the village level petty cases were decided by gramyavadin or village judge with the help of his court. The punishments were rather severe. II a thief was caught red-handed, he was awarded penalties like death or mutilation of hands.
In minor cases fine was imposed. Sometimes, certain ordeals were also resorted as a means of punishment. The murder of a Brahman was considered a heinous crime and was severely punished.
The civil cases were decided by the king with the help of assessors. The property usually belonged to the father, but according to succession law could divide the same amongst his sons. However, if the father died without specifying the distribution of the property, the eldest son received larger share.
The women were not given any share in property. The Sudras were, however, not entitled to any property. We do not come across any evidence regarding the joint ownership of any property and there was no development of the law of contract since the Vedic times.
Social Conditions during Later Vedic Period:
The basis of the organisation of the social institutions during the later Vedic period continued to be the same as that of early Vedic period. The family was the primary social unit. Each family consisted of several members. Sometimes a number of families lived under the headship of the same male member (Kulpati).
We learn from Aitarey Brahmana that son was under the complete control of his father. This control was so complete that the father could even sell his son. However, this should not give us the impression that there was no affection in their relationship.
We learn from Sankhayana, Aranyaka Upanishad that the fathers used to kiss their sons on their foreheads. The practice of adoption of sons also existed. But the adoption was made only in the absence of the natural projeny.
1. The Four Ashramas:
The Ashram system developed during the later Vedic period. Literally ‘Ashrama’ means halting place. But in the Indian social system it implied stoppage or stage in the journey of life with a view to prepare oneself for further journey.
The life of the individual was divided into four Ashramas. Presuming that each individual lived for roughly one hundred years, the entire life was divided into four periods of twenty-five years, each representing one Ashram.
The four ashramas were as follows:
(i) Brahmacharya ashram:
The Brahmacharya Ashram was the first and the foremost Ashram, which lasted up to 25 years of age. A major portion of this Ashram was devoted to education. During this period the students stayed with the teacher, who cared for the physical, mental and psychological development of the students.
The student had to lead a life of simplicity and chastity. They had to maintain strict control over all their organs and had to avoid all pleasures and luxuries.
The students belonging to all the classes had to stay together at the house of the teacher and were treated alike. Manu has described the age when the child should begin his education. According to him the son of Brahmana should go to school in the fifth year, the son of Kshatriya in the sixth year and the son of Vaisya in the eighth year.
The children of the Sudras were not to go for education. This difference in age was suggested probably because Manu considers that the intelligence of the son of Brahmana at five was equal to the intelligence of a Vaisya at the age of eight. Thus. we find that the Brahmacharya Ashram was essentially meant to be a period for the development of body and mind
(ii) Griastha ashram:
In the later Vedic period too much importance has been attached to the Griastha Ashram which lasted from 25 to 50 years of age. Marriage was obligatory for every Hindu because the possession of son was considered to be essential for moksha.
During this period the householder was expected to feed the people in the other three Ashramas and perform the various rites and ceremonies. The home was also considered to be a place for the practice of Dharam Shashtra.
(iii) Vanaprastha ashram:
Vanaprastha Ashram lasted from 51 to 75 years of age. During this period the individual had not only to leave his family but also the village. He was to live in the forest and practice control over all his senses. He was to avoid meat or other luxurious food and had to mainly live on vegetables and fruits.
He was not to wear new clothes and had to use only those clothes which were thrown away by others. He was expected to lead a life of complete detachment and to utilise his time for the study of Upanishads, Srutis and meditation. It was believed that a person who died while pursuing Vanaprastha Ashram attained moksha.
(iv) Sanyasa ashram:
The Sanyasa Ashram was the last in the journey of a man. It lasted from 76 onwards. However, provision also existed for entry into this Ashram after Brahmacharya or Griastha. The person who entered the Sanyasa Ashram was not to possess anything and was not to depend on anybody.
He was to live in the forest, wear bark and to perform five sacrifices every day. He was not to care for the living or the dead. He restrained Ins senses by casting away love and hatred, and by living a life harmlessness. By all these actions he could achieve Moksha.
Though the Ashram system had developed during the Rig Vedic period it was not rigidly followed. However, it cannot be denied that it greatly affected the social life of the people and helped them to raise their moral standard. It produced a band of selfless workers and seekers after knowledge.
2. Caste System:
Towards the end of the Rig Vedic period some sort of distinctions between various classes has started appearing. In the later Vedic period these distinctions developed into caste system. There is difference of opinion amongst the scholars regarding the origin of caste system.
Prof. Rapson believes that the Varna or colour was the basis of caste system. According to him the caste system took its birth when white races poured into India. The original inhabitants of India were of black complexion.
So naturally distinctions arose between the white and the blacks and they formed separate entities, which ultimately assumed the shape of caste. However, this view of Dr. Rapson is difficult to accept. If the caste system had originated on the basis of colour and complexion, then there should have been only two castes. However, in the ancient literature we have conclusive reference to four castes.
Further, it is difficult to accept this view because the Aryans were themselves divided into Brahmanas, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. Therefore we can say that the caste system originated as a result of four fold division of duties. For the convenient working of the society different persons adopted different professions.
With the lapse of time the people belonging to different professions formed separate entities. As these professions became hereditary, the caste system assumed definite shape. However, it may be noted that at that stage it was not that rigid.
Dr. Radha Kumud Mukerjee says during the later Vedic period the caste system had not become “as rigid as in the succeeding period of the Sutras. It was a mid-way between the laxity of the Rig-Veda and the rigidity of the Sutras”
The Brahmans enjoyed the highest status in the society. As the people were unable to understand the Vedic texts, and perform other complex religious ceremonies on their own, a professional class of priests emerged, who were popularly termed as Brahmins.
These priests explained the Vedic texts and performed the complex ceremonies and came to occupy a high position in society. The Brahmins not only performed yajnas but also imparted education to the children. They enjoyed supremacy in the spiritual sphere, but were subordinate to the king in secular matter.
The Kshatriyas formed the ruling class. The kings, amirs and all other officers belonged to the Kshatriya class. It was their responsibility to maintain peace and order and to protect the country from foreign invasions. The distribution of justice was also the prerogative of the Kshatriyas. The Kshatriyas also took interest in philosophical discussions.
There are instances when the Kshatriyas by their superior learning raised themselves to the position of Brahman. We may quote the cases of Janak and Vishwamitra. Both these were Kshatriya kings. Janak became a royal teacher at whose feet even Brahmans sat.
Vishwamitra became a rishi and composed a number of Vedic hymns. Thus we find that a sort of rivalry existed between the Brahmans and the Kshatriyas and both claimed superiority over each other.
The Vaishyas were the third caste, which mainly consisted of the common people of Aryan stock. During the later-Vedic period their position seems to have been on the decline because they were forced to mix with the Sudras for the proper regulation of their trade and commerce.
The Vaishyas did not enjoy the privileges enjoyed by the Brahmans and the Kshatriyas. One of the passage in Aitareya Brahmana says that a Vaishya is “to be lived on by another and to be oppressed at will”. Almost the entire burden of the society fell on their shoulders. They had to pay charity to the Brahmans, taxes to the Kshatriyas and salary to the Sudras.
The Sudras formed the lowest strata of society and did not enjoy even the basic amenities of life. According to the Aitareya Brahmana “He (Sudra) is to be the servant of another, to be expelled at will and to be slain at will. “The Sudra had no right of property against the rajanya, especially the king. They did not enjoy any right to receive education, nor could they hear or learn Vedas.
The caste system at this stage was not rigid as yet. The members of the upper classes could intermarry with the Sudras, though it was not favoured. Sukanya, daughter of a Kshatriya king married Chyavana, a Brahmin.
Similarly, there are numerous examples of scholarly kings (Kshatriyas) teaching Brahmins. Inter-dinning was also common. It may be noted that though a son of a Brahmana, Kshatriya or Vaishya could marry a Sudra girl, but it was not possible for-the son of a Sudra to think in terms of marriage with the daughter of any of the upper classes.
If a Brahmana married a Sudra girl he lost his status. But despite these restrictions there are many instances of the members of upper classes marrying in lower families. As a result of these marriages various new castes came into existence. These castes were outside the regular castes.
Another important point to be noted about the caste system in later- Vedic period is that it had not become rigid as yet and none of the three features which characterize it today (viz. prohibition of inter-dinning, inter-marriage and determination by hereditary descent) had been established as yet.
3. Position of Women:
During the later-Vedic age the position of the women had considerably declined. They did not enjoy the same position of respect which was enjoyed by them in the early Vedic period. Women no longer participated in the sacrifices, nor could they own or inherit property.
Whatever they earned was appropriated either by the husband or father. The women did not take part in politics and were not allowed to attend the meetings of the Sabha (tribal assembly).
Polygamy was practiced, specially amongst the ruling and the noble classes. Girls were married only after the attainment of maturity. Though the general position of the ‘women had declined yet Satapatha Brahmana says that she is half of her husband and completes him.
The women maintained a high position in the learned world. Gargi was a learned women scholar who took part with men in the assembly of scholars of her times, for example, Yagnavalka in the court of king Janaka of Videha.
Another woman scholar of the time was Maitreyi, wife of Yagnavalkya. In addition to these two women scholars there are references to various other women teachers who possessed high Spiritual knowledge, In this connection Dr. R.K.. Mookerjee says, “The women of those says had access to the highest knowledge and played their part in the intellectual life of the country as Prahmavadinis like Gargi or Maureyi.”
4. Food and Drinks:
The food habits of the people in the later-Vedic period had also undergone certain changes. Most of the food items used during the Rig Vedic period also continued to be used even during the later-Vedic period. The most common dishes taken by the people were Apupa, a cake made of rice, barley, ghee, rice cooked with milk and with beans.
Milk continued to be a popular drink with the people and the milk products like ghee, butter, cream, curd etc. were commonly used. The meat-eating became a fairly common habit with the people. In the Satpatha Brahman killing of goat and ox for the guest have been prescribed.
Meat was only used on ceremonial occasions but formed a daily food. Meat of horse was also taken, especially after the completion of the Ashvamedha yajna. Killing of the cows was disfavored. The people took the intoxicant drink Sura, which was probably prepared from herbs and plants. People also took honey. However, women and students were not to take it under certain circumstances.
5. Dresses and Ornaments:
The style of dress remained unchanged, though now we get greater details about the dress of the people as compared with the Vedic period. In addition to cotton, people used silk and woolen clothes.
The dress of the people mainly consisted of three garments—nivi (an under garment), vasa (a garment proper), and adhivasas (an over garment). The people were fond of embroidered or dyed clothes. Skin was also used as clothing. People used turban, as well as shoes or sandals.
As regards the ornaments used by the people of the later-Vedic period, we have not come across any ornaments on the basis of the archaeological excavations. However, on the basis of the literary references we can say that various types of ornaments were used by people, the most common ornaments used by the people included armlets, finger rings etc.
In addition they used pearls, jewels and rubies, specially on a thread around their neck. People also wore nishka of silver around their neck.
The enormous amount of literature produced during the later-Vedic period suggests that the people had developed a high intellectual standard. It also suggests that they had a well- planned system of education. A boy was initiated into the life of a student through the Upanayana ceremony.
He lived at the residence of his teacher till he completed his education. During his stay there he had to study as well as serve his teacher. He gathered fuel, tended cows, and begged alms for his guru. As a student he had to lead a very chaste life and develop his moral faculties.
The main subjects of study at that time included the four Vedas, Itihasa (history), Puranas, Brahmavidya (knowledge relating to the Brahma) and other Vedic works. Certain secular subjects like logic, ethics, military science, astronomy astrology and mathematics also formed a part of the educational curricula.
Emphasis was also laid on the study of language and grammar. On the completion of education the students, or their parents paid Dakshina to the teacher. It may be noted that the education was not the monopoly of Brahmins alone. The women and Kshatriyas were also amongst the scholars of the age.
Sports-and games were the chief source of amusements of the people during the later Vedic period. While horse-racing, chariot-racing etc. were the most popular outdoor games, the dicing and chess were the most popular indoor games.
People were also fond of music and dancing. Usually music and dancing was taught by the women. A class of professional musicians also existed. The chief musical instruments of the age were drums, flutes, lutes and various types of harp. The ‘pole dance’ or ‘acrobat’ has also been mentioned in the Yajur Veda, which was another source of amusement for the people.
Economic Conditions during Later Vedic Period:
On the testimony of Atharva Veda, Aitareya Taitriya and Satpatha Brahmana we get a glimpse of the economic life prevailing during the later-Vedic period. At the outset it may be pointed out that it marked an improvement over the conditions prevailing in the Rig Vedic period.
Agriculture continued to be the mainstay of the people during the later-Vedic period. However, the art of agriculture had made much progress since the time of Rig Veda. Very heavy and large ploughs began to be used. Some of the ploughs were so heavy that as many as 24 oxen were harnessed to drive it. The ordinary ploughs also existed, which were driven by two or four oxen. Reference is also made to forrow.
People knew about the art of irrigation and use of manure. Many types of grains were grown. These included wheat, beans, sesame etc. We learn from the various texts about the time of sowing and harvesting of the various types of grains.
Barley was sown in winter, ripened in summer un4 that rice was sown in the rainy season and was harvested in autumn. Usually there were two crops a year. People recited hymns at the time of sowing of the seed and gathering-of corn with a view toward against natural calamities like famine, food, drought etc. The prayers for the success in the efforts of the farmer mentioned in the Atharvaveda.
The cattle breeding also received impetus during the later-Vedic period. The people not only left sufficient meadows so that the animals could get their food, but also provided necessary sheds and protection to them against extreme cold and heat. The cow was regarded sacred during this period and its slaughtering was punished with heavy penalty.
2. Trade and Commerce:
According to Atherva Veda trade and commerce continued to flourish during the later-Vedic period. The trade was carried on by the businessmen who went from place to place for the transaction of business. The internal trade was carried on both by land and water routes. The business was carried on both by means of barter or exchange and cash transactions. Some type of coins were also in vogue during this period.
According to Dr. D.R. Bhandarker the Satamana (a piece of gold) was used as a coin. However, this view is not acceptable to other scholars and they contend that the mere fact that the Satamana was a round shaped gold piece cannot be the conclusive proof that the coins were in existence.
These scholars argue that this round shaped piece of gold could be regarded as simple gold also. However, we have not come across any coins -of this period to prove conclusively that the coinage did exist.
The chief article of trade and commerce were garments, coverlets and skins of goat etc. It cannot be said for certain whether the people of later-Vedic period had commercial relations with the foreign countries. However certain scholars have interpreted the legend of flood in the Satapatha Brahman as an indication of India having relations with Babylon.
During this period a new class of money-lenders also came into existence. However, we do not know for definite the rate of interest charged by them. The reference to ganas or corporation and the sreshthins or elder-men suggests that the merchantmen were probably organized into guilds.
A variety of occupations came into existence. Some of the most prominent occupations of the period included those of potters, carpenters, smiths, smelters, weavers, washermen, barbers, butchers, makers of baskets, ropes, jewels, merchants, magicians and so forth. The women were generally engaged in dyeing, embroidery, and basket making.
3. Means of Transport:
Though the means of transport were quite under-developed, they certainly marked an improvement over the Rig Vedic period. We learn from Atharvaveda that some sorts of roads existed. The bullock carts were the chief means of transport.
Ships and boats were also popular mode of transport. A special type of vehicle Vi-patha was used for the bad track. The elephants and horses were also used for the purpose of transporting goods. People also used elephants and horses for the purpose of riding.
Religious Conditions during Later Vedic Period:
Though the religious condition had undergone a change during this period, some of the old beliefs and practices of Rig Vedic period continued to be in vogue. The old religious practices not only became complex but also more stereotyped. These ceremonies could now be performed only by a professional class of priests.
Some of the sacrifices lasted for a period ranging from 12 days to one year, and could not be performed by single priests. This necessitated the services of a body of priests. No wonder, the priests became very important class both for the interpretation of the Vedas and the performance of the sacrifices.
In view of the highly complicated nature of the sacrifices to be performed by the priests- they divided themselves into four categories, each specially in a special type of sacrifice.
The Hotri or Invoker selected the verses for the particular rite and recited them. The Udgtari recited the hymns and helped in the preparation and presentation of sacrifices. The Adhvaryu or performer, executed all the sacrificial acts and recitation of hymns. The Brahman or High Priest was responsible for the general supervision and saw to it that no error or deviation was made from the prescribed procedure.
The early Vedic gods continued to be worshipped in the later-Vedic period. Though the gods were the same as in the Rig-Veda, their character considerably changed. Their natural basis was completely forgotten and they were also invoked as ‘demon destroyers’.
During this period gods like Rudra, Vishnu and Prajapati were given special importance. Rudra, also known as Mahadeva, came to be known as Siva (benevolent) and Pasupati (Lord of animals).
The rise of Rudra as Siva and Pasupati has made certain scholars express the view that the Aryans were influenced by the Indus civilization. Another god of this period was Vishnu, who replaced Varuna of the Rig-Veda. Vishnu helped the men and gods in distress. Prajapati likewise replaced Purusha and was identified with Agni.
Tapas (penance accompanied by physical torture) came to occupy an important place in the religion. Men renounced the world and retired to forests, where they practiced meditation and torture of various types. It was believed that Tapas lead to mystic, extraordinary and superhuman power.
1. Philosophic Speculation:
The complicated religious ceremonies caused much dissatisfaction and led to philosophic specula! ion. The thinkers devoted themselves to the understanding of the ultimate .reality or truth through true knowledge (Jananamarga). They expressed deep thoughts on man, soul, god and the universe in the Upanishads (confidential teachings).
The Upanishads were usually taught in secret sessions between the teacher and the taught. These Upanishads were not written by Brahamans alone , and many of the authors of the Upanishads were Kshatriyas.
The terities attached very little importance to ceremonies and austerities and advocated principles like Brahma (world soul) and Atma (Individual soul), Maya, Punarjanam (Transmigration of soul) and Karma (action), and Moksha (salvation).
The Upanishads lifted the regions from the narrow fold of rituals and provided an intellectual conception of god. They asserted that “The Universe is the Brahma, but the Brahma is the Atma. The Brahma is the power which manifests itself in all existing things, creates, sustains, preserves and receives back again into itself all worlds.
This infinite divine power is identified with Atma, that which after stripping off everything external we discern in ourselves as our real and most essential being, our individual self, the soul.”
The Upanishads described the material world as maya or illusion and one should not attach too much of importance to it. It advocated the theory of transmigration and action (Punarjanama and Karma). The transmigration theory holds that it is body which perishes and not the soul.
The soul migrates or passes from one body to another body, and thus continues the cycle of births and deaths. Yajnavalkya taught Janaka that “The soul, after death, goes nowhere where it has not been from the very beginning, nor does it become other than that which it has always been, the one eternal omnipotent Atma”.
Closely connected with the theory of transmigration is the theory of Karma (action). According to this theory the action of a man determines the nature of his life in the next birth. In other words it emphasises that the soul will be born again because of the action in the present life.
This cycle of births can be brought of an end only by the realization of the nature’ of Brahma and the merger of the Atma into The Brahma. This is known as Moksha, and after the attainment of Moksha there will be no rebirths and. the man would get rid of the circle of life and death.
2. Development in Science:
During the later-Vedic period a distinct advance was made in the science of astronomy. This is evident from the fact that the Vedas introduced us to the Nakshatras and mention the six seasons. Most probably the people of this period acquired this knowledge of astronomy from Babylon.
Certain scholars have suggested that the people learnt the science of astronomy from China or Arabia. However, these views are .difficult to accept because there is no evidence to prove it. In the science of medicine there was some decline. During the later-Vedic period the physicians were not given the esteem and respect which was enjoyed by them during the earlier days.
The people gave different types of herbs for treatment of various diseases. Some of diseases mentioned in the Atharva Veda are consumption, scrofula, dysentery, boils, swellings, convulsions, ulcers, rheumatism, headache, jaundice, eye diseases, senility, fractures and wounds, bites of snake, lunacy, leprosy etc.
These diseases, according to Atharva ‘Veda, were caused by the demons. A person could be cured against these diseases if he took the medicine with recitation of the hymns. The people also got an opportunity to acquire knowledge about the bones of the body because of the dissection of animals at the time of scarifies.