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Vedic civilization

The Vedic civilization is the earliest civilization in Indian history of which we have written records. It began sometime in the 2nd millennium BC and continued up to the 6th century BC. It is named after the Vedas, the early literature of the Vedic people.

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The early Aryans

Unfortunately, little is known about the origin of the Vedic civilization, and its relation to the Indus Valley civilization. The Vedas can not be dated even approximately. The theory that the Vedic people, who called themselves Aryas (or Aryans), invaded Northern India from Central Asia remains highly controversial.

We do know that the Vedic civilization evolved separately from the Indus civilization. The tribal nature of the Aryan culture, the aniconic nature of their religion and the subordination of the female element to the male are some of the differences that attest to this. Our knowledge of the early Aryans comes mainly from the Rig Veda, the earliest of the Vedas.

Political organization

The grama (village), vis and jana were political units of the early Aryans. A vis was probably a subdivision of a jana and a grama was probably a smaller unit than the other two. The leader of a grama was called gramani and that of a vis was called vispati. Another unit was the gana whose head was a jyeshta (elder).

The rashtra (state) was governed by a rajan (king). The king is often referred to as gopa (protector) and samrat (supreme ruler). He governed the people with their consent and approval. It is possible that he was sometimes elected. The sabha and samiti were popular councils.

The main duty of the king was to protect the tribe. He was aided by two functionaries, the purohita (chaplain) and the senani (army chief; sena: army). The former not only gave advice to the ruler but also practiced spells and charms for success in war. Soldiers on foot (patti) and on chariots (rathins), armed with bow and arrow were common. The king employed spasa (spies) and dutas (messengers). He often got a ceremonial gift, bali, from the people.

Society and economy

Rig Vedic society was characterized by a nomadic lifestyle with cattle rearing being the chief occupation. The Aryans kept hordes of cattle and cows were held in high esteem. Milk was an important part of the diet. Agriculture was of equal importance and went hand in hand with cattle rearing. It grew more prominent with time as the community settled down. The cow was also the standard unit of barter; coins were not used in this period.

Society was somewhat male-centric, but not too biased against women as in later Vedic times. Families were patrilineal, and people prayed for abundance of sons. Education of women was not neglected, and some even composed Rig Vedic hymns. Girls were married at puberty; marriage for love as well as for money was known. The concept of caste and hereditary nature of profession was unknown to the early Aryans. The term Varna was used, but it refers to the distinction between the Aryans and the Dasas based on skin complexion.

The food of the early Aryans consisted of parched grain and cakes, milk and milk products, and various fruits and vegetables. Consumption of meat was common. A passage in the Rig Veda describes how to apportion the meat of a sacrificed horse. Beef was also eaten, although this practice gradually declined since the cow was a valuable resource: it is often described as aghnya (that which should not be killed). It must be borne in mind that vegetarianism took firm root in India only after the rise of Buddhism and Jainism in the sixth century BC, long after the first Aryan settlers.


The people worshipped nature. The unknown and terrifying forces of nature were personified and made into deities. The main deities were Indra, Varuna, Surya (the Sun), Mitra, Vayu, Agni and Soma. Goddesses like Prithvi[?], Aditi, Ushas[?] and Sarasvati occupied only a minor position. Deities were not viewed as all-powerful. The relationship between the devotee and the deity was one of transaction. Each diety had a specific role; at any given point, a particular deity was considered superior to the others.

The mode of worship was performance of sacrifices and chanting of verses. The priests helped the common man in performing rituals. People prayed for abundance of children, cattle and wealth. The religion was aniconic - no idols were used. The concept of moksha was non-existent in this period.

The later Vedic period The transition from the early to the later Vedic period was marked by the emergence of agriculture as the dominant economic activity and a corresponding decline in the significance of cattle rearing. Several changes went hand in hand with this. For instance, several large kingdoms arose because of the increasing importance of land and its protection, the position of women declined because of the patrilineal nature of land and property, and the eating of meat began to be looked upon with disfavor. We now discuss several aspects of later Vedic life in detail.


Several small kingdoms and tribes merged to form a few large ones which were often at war with each other. 16 mahajanapadas (great kingdoms) are referred to in some of the literature. By this time the Aryan tribes had spread from their original home in the west to much of the east and the south. The power of the king greatly increased. Rulers gave themselves titles like ekarat (the one ruler), sarvabhumi (ruler of all the earth) and chakravartin (protector of land). Note that in early Vedic times he was called gopa, protector of cows. The kings performed sacrifices like rajasuya, (royal consecration) vajapeya (drink of strength) and asvamedha (horse sacrifice). The coronation ceremony was a major social occasion. Several functionaries came into being in addition to the purohita and the senani of earlier times. The participation of the people in the activities of the government decreased.


The concept of varna and the rules of marriage became more rigid, but not yet watertight. The status of the Brahmanas[?] and Kshatriyas increased greatly. To legitimize their position and the increase their power, the Brahmanas proliferated a large number of sacrifices and developed specialization of an extreme order. The proper enunciation of verses was considered essential for prosperity and success in war. Kshatriyas amassed wealth, and commissioned the performance of sacrifices. Many rituals emerged to strengthen the alliance between these two groups. The lot of lower varnas was probably miserable. Women had a distinctly lower status. The birth of daughters was frowned upon. Polygamy was prevalent in the upper classes.


  • R.C. Majumdar and others. An Advanced History of India, MacMillan, 1967.

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