Read this article to learn about the evolution of social institutions in India during the Vedic period!
Early Vedic Period:
The basic social unit was probably the patriarchal family/Kinship was the basis of social structure, and a man was identified by the clan to which he belonged.
People gave their primary loyalty to the tribe, which was called Jana. The term Jana occurs at about 275 places in the Rig-veda and the term janapada or territory is not used even once.
The Jana was split into Vish (clan) and is mentioned 170 times in the Rig-veda. Probably the Vis was divided into grama or smaller tribal units meant for fighting. When the gramas clashed with one another it caused samgram or war.
The term for family, kuia, is mentioned rarely in the Rig-veda. It seems that family in early Vedic phase was indicated by the term griha which frequently occurs in this text. The master of the house was called grihapati or dampati.
Because it was a patriarchal society, the birth of a son was desired again and again, and especially people prayed to the gods for brave sons to fight the wars. In the Rig-veda no desire is expressed for daughters, though the desire for children and cattle is a recurrent theme in the hymns. Great affection and respect was generally shown to a guest (athithi). It was elevated to the rank of a religious duty and included as one of the five great daily sacrifices (pancha- mahayajanas).
Position of Women:
Women would seem to have enjoyed equal status with men. Upanayana (initiation) was performed for girls also and they received education and observed brahmacharya like boys. Women studied the Vedas, and we hear of several women ‘seers’ composing Vedic hymns such as Visvavara, Ghosha and Apala. The institution of marriage was established, although symbols of primitive practises survived. There are no examples of child marriage and the marriageable age in the Rigveda seems to have been 16 to 17.
Monogamy was the general rule, though polygamy prevailed among the rich and ruling classes. We have some indications of polyandry. For instance, the Asvin brothers are represented as living with Surya, the daughter of Sun God. We also notice the practise of levirate and widow remarriage in the Rig-Veda. Custom of sati were unknown. The wife occupied an honoured place and participated with her husband in religious ceremonies.
The Aryans in India had ceased to be nomads and had taken to settled life, so that families resided in fixed dwelling houses of a primitive type, made of wood and bamboo. Both vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods were taken. Wheat and barley were probably the principal food grains, rice was introduced later.
They also used milk, butter, ghee and curd as also sugarcane, fruits and vegetables. Drinks included soma, the exhilarating juice of a hill plant, its use being restricted to religious ceremonies and sura, a mild intoxicating drink.
Particular attention was paid to dress and ornament. The Vedic costume seems to have consisted of three parts – an undergarment styled nivi, a garment called vasa or parichana and a mantle styled adhivasa, atka or drapi. The clothes were of different hues and were made of cotton, deerskin or wool. The use of gold ornaments and of floral wreaths was common, especially on festive occasions.
Both the sexes wore turbans. The hair was worn long and combed. The favorite amusements of the more virile classes were war-dance, hunting and racing. The chariot race and dicing was popular. Music, both vocal and instrumental was well-known. The Vedic Aryans played on the lute (Vina), flute and on the harp to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals. They used heptatonic scale similar to the major scale of western music.
The Vedic kuias or families were grouped into larger units in the formation of which Varna (colour) and the Sajatya (kinship) played an important part. Varna was the term used for colour, and it seems that the Aryans were fair, and the indigenous inhabitant’s dark in complexion. The factor which contributed most to the creation of social divisions was the conquest of the indigenous inhabitants by the Aryans.
The dasas and the dasyus, who were conquered by the Aryans, were treated as slaves and shudras. The dasas are described as avrata (not obeying the ordinances of the gods), akratu (who perform no sacrifices) mridhravachah (whose speech is indistinct) and anasah (snubnosed). In the Aryan community, men of kingly family (rajanya orkshatriya) and descendents of priests (Brahmanas) were clearly distinguished from the common free men, the vis, which were created due to social inequalities in the tribe.
The fourth division called the shudras appeared towards the end of the Rig Vedic period, because it is mentioned for the first time in the tenth Book of the Rig-veda, which is the latest addition. In the Purusha Sukta of Rigveda, (X 90, 12), it is stated that Brahmanas, Rajanya or Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra sprang respectively from the mouth, arms, thighs and feet of the cosmic man (Purusa) and these names later signified the four castes. There were hardly any restrictions on intermarriage, change of occupation or commensality.
In the Rig Vedic age divisions based on occupations had started but it was not very sharp. In the mandala IX of the Rigveda, a family member says: “I am a poet, my father is a physician, and my mother is a grinder. Earning livelihood through different means we live together.”
We find domestic slaves who were given as gifts to the priests. They were mainly women slaves employed for domestic purposes. Tribal elements in society were stronger and social divisions based on collection of taxes or accumulations of landed property were absent. The society was still tribal and largely egalitarian.
Later Vedic Period:
In the family one notices the increasing power of the father, who could even disinherit his son. The right of primogeniture (the eldest son succeeding the father) was getting stronger and male ancestors came to be worshipped.
There was deterioration in the position of women. A daughter came to be regarded as “a source of misery.” Women could not attend the Sabha; they were excluded from inheritance and along with Sudras, could not own property; whatever was earned by women became the property of their husbands or sons.
The education which some of them received was of higher order as it enabled them to take prominent part in philosophical disputations at royal courts. Maitreyi and Gargi were gifted woman scholars.
The rules of marriage underwent a change towards greater rigidity, and there were instances of child marriage. A clear attempt to establish a gender hierarchy by differentiating between men and women and ensuring the subordination of the latter to the former, are also discernible in the ritual context.
The later Vedic society came to be divided into four varnas called the Brahmanas, Kshatriyas. Vaishyas and Sudras. The growing cult of sacrifices enormously added to the power of the brahmanas. In the beginning 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.
They conducted rituals and sacrifices for their clients and for themselves. They prayed for success of their patron in war and in return the king pledged not to do any harm to them. The second class of Kshatriyas had the supremacy in temporal affairs as the Brahmanas had in spiritual matters. There was an increase in the privileges of these two higher classes at the cost of the two lower classes (vaishyas and sudras).
The Vaishyas constituted the common people, and they were assigned to do agriculture, cattle-breeding etc. Some of them were also artisans. Towards the end of the Vedic period they began to engage in trade. The Vaishyas appear to be the only tribute-payers in later Vedic times, and the Kshatriyas are represented as living on the tributes collected from the Vaishyas.
All these three higher Varnas shared one common feature – they were entitled to Upanayana or investiture with the sacred thread according to the Vedic mantras. The fourth varna, Sudra, was deprived of the sacred thread ceremony and with this began the imposition of disabilities on the Sudras.
Change of caste though very unusual, was not as yet impossible. The higher castes could intermarry with the lower ones, but marriage with Sudras was not approved. The idea of pollution by touch finds expression.
Sudras were denied the right to perform sacrifices. The ranks of Sudras were constantly swelled by the admission of new aboriginal tribes into the Aryan polity. There were still no prohibitions against inter-dining and the caste system had not acquired the rigidity it did in the period of the Sutras.
Outside the regular castes stood two important bodies of men, namely, the Vratyas and the Nishadas. The Vratyas were probably Aryans outside the pale of Brahmanism. The Nishadas were clearly a non-Aryan people who lived in their own villages and had their own rulers (Sthapati). They were probably identical with the modern Bhils.
There was little change in other aspects of social life. While the previous style of dress continued, clothes were also made of silk and were dyed with saffron.
The tendency of meat-eating was gradually gaining ground under the influence of the theory of karma and transmigration.
Institution of Gotra:
The notion of gotra appears to have been particularly important for brahmins during this phase. Literally meaning cow-pen, it came to signify descent from a common ancestor. It appeared only in the later Vedic period, for it is mentioned for the first time in the Atharva Veda.
This later developed into a system of clan exogamy (i.e. marrying outside the gotra). The gotra has been regarded as a mechanism for widening socio-political ties, as new relationship were forged between hitherto unrelated people.
Ashramas or Stages of life:
Ashramas or four stages of life were not well established in Vedic times. The earliest-clear reference to the four Ashramas – that of Brahmachari or student, Grihastha or householder, Vanaprastha or hermit and Sanyasi or ascetic, is found in the Jabala Upanishad. The Chandogya Upanishad clearly refers to the first three Ashramas. Full recognition of the fourth stage was done only in the post-vedic period.
The later Samhitas refer to the Upanayana, and its description in the Satapatha Brahmana shows that it possessed ail essential features of the sacrament (samskara) elaborately treated in the Grihya Sutras. It was confined to Brahmins, kshatriyas and vaishyas; the sudras were not entitled to Upanayana.
In Vedic times, girls were also sometimes initiated. Since the rite was considered as equal to accomplishing a second birth, members of the three higher varnas were described by the epithet dvija (twice- born). Education used to begin with this Samskara.
Throughout the Vedic period, education was imparted orally-and was mainly based on Sruti and Smriti. The list of subjects for study shows a wide range of knowledge embracing not only Vedas, Itihasa, Puranas and grammar, but also astronomy, military science, dialetics, and knowledge of portents. Development of character constituted the aim and mortal training, the backbone of the educational system.
The importance of pastoralism in the early Vedic economy is evident both from direct references to cattle, in the ‘Family Books’ as well as from prayers for pashu, a term which included goats, sheep’s, horses and man, apart from cattle. Further, the word used to denote a wealthy man, gomat, literally means a man who possesses cattle.
Many words for battle, such as gavishti also imply a search for cattle, raids being recognised as a legitimate means of acquiring animals. The importance of cattle is also evident from references to the chief as gopati the protector of cattle, as well as from references to the daughter as duhitr, she who milks animals.
Pasture lands (Goshtha) were under communal control and there is some evidence to suggest that the cattle obtained in raids were distributed through assemblies such as gana and parishad. Cattle formed an important item of dana.
The animals they domesticated were cattle (for meat, dairy products and agriculture purpose), horse (for drawing chariots), sheep and goats (for meat), dog (for hunting, guarding and tracking cattle and for night watch) and ass (as beast of burden). Among the wild animals, lion, elephant and boar were known but not the tiger.