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Vedic Age

OVERVIEW
The Vedic Age (1500 BC-600 BC) was precipitated by the migration of the Aryan people from northwestern parts of the indian subcontinent. The Vedic Age saw the development of agricultural activities on a large scale in the upper Gangetic plains of India. This period is known for its nature worship and formation of Hindu religious philosophy. The Vedic Age is also termed as the age of the epics, as the great indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and the Upanishads were written during this time, along with sacred hymns or the Vedas. The latter part of this period saw the rise of small kingdoms and the formulation of the caste system in india.

ORIGIN
Various Aryan tribes migrated to the indian subcontinent in large hoards from what is present-day Iran through the famous Khyber Pass. They rapidly spread to the area known as the Saptsindhu (the land of seven rivers), which included eastern parts of present-day Afghanistan, the Punjab (in Pakistan and also in India), and fringes of western Uttar Pradesh.

The Aryans soon mingled with the local people and adopted an agrarian way of life after settling down in small, organized communities in northwestern India. The knowledge of horse riding and a powerful cavalry was the main cause of the Aryans spreading rapidly into various regions in India, as they could easily suppress their rivals.

VEDAS
The Vedic Age gets its name from the four Vedas or religious-philosophical hymns that were composed by the Aryan people, in Sanskrit language, when they came to India. The Rig Veda is the oldest of the four Vedas and provides a vivid insight into the life of the early Vedic period. The other three collections of hymns are the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda, and the Atharva Veda, which were written later.All the four Vedas, according to the great poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore are "a poetic testament of a people's collective reaction to the wonders and existence…a people of vigorous and unsophisticated imagination awakened at the dawn of civilization to a sense of inexhaustible mystery that is implicit in life." These hymns with their social, religious and philosophical doctrines, laid the foundation of the Hindu way of thought and Hindu religion.

SOCIETY AND CULTURE (EARLY VEDIC PERIOD)
The people of the early phase of the Vedic age were semi-nomadic and subsisted on large herds of domesticated cattle and farm animals. They moved their settlements from one pastoral area to another and lived on agrarian and dairy products obtained from cattle. As the requirements and needs of these communities grew with the gradual rise in population, they settled down as full-time farmers. They brought large tracts of fertile land of North India under the plough, driven by oxen.

These communities were generally clan or tribe-based and were governed by a tribal chief. The office of the tribal chief was not hereditary and he had to perform his duties in consultation with a group of wise men or the entire tribe. The strength of the Aryan tribes was derived from the Jana (people) and not the Janapada (land). The tribal chief and the warriors under him protected the people, while the priest and his juniors catered to the religious and ritual demands of the clansmen. Religious rituals were performed mainly to protect crops or cattle and to ensure victory in battle.

The early Vedic religion was based on nature worship. Sun, moon, wind, rain, and other natural phenomena were worshipped as gods. Prayers were organized and gods were invoked by chanting of religious hymns and mantras. Animal sacrifice was a common practice. Ritual sacrifices and prayers were offered to gods for the well being of people and cattle and to grant more wealth and to be kind to them. Cow was not considered a sacred animal, but there were frequent struggles between various tribes over the control of cows.

The early Vedic people did not have rigid differences of caste; the only demarcation was between the Aryans (white-skinned people) and the non-Aryans or the Dasa (slaves or dark-skinned people).

THE LATER VEDIC AGE
The later part of the Vedic Age is also termed as the Epic Age (1000 BC-600 BC), when the two great epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and Upanishads were written. The society and polity described in these epics are not mythological; they have deep historical roots. The Ramayana and Mahabharata deal with social, political, and religious aspects of life and contain within them the broad principles of Hindu religion. The Bhagavad Gita, which is a part of the Mahabharata, deals solely with the basic concepts of Hinduism. The Upanishads are socio-philosophical treatises, dealing with the functioning and governance of society.

SOCIETY AND CULTURE (LATER VEDIC PERIOD)
The people in the Later Vedic period began to live in large self-sustained settlements, which were fortified and protected by warriors. The agrarian area controlled by these settlements also grew in size. The increase in population led the people in this period to move further down into the southern part of India, which has been mentioned in Ramayana. These people also settled into large tracts of the Ganga-Yamuna plains, after clearing large forested tracts. The later Vedic period is characterized by evolution of hereditary form of kingship, where the tribal chief's son became the future chief, and so on. The power and prestige of the priests also increased, as they were closely associated with the tribal rulers. Idol worship and the cult of sacrifice gained prominence during this time. Hindu religion, which evolved in this period, was an amalgamation of hymns, rituals, nature worship, which led to the formation of a large pantheon of gods and goddesses.

An important development of the later Vedic age was the division of the society based on work into different castes. The society had four main castes: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishya, and Shudra. The Brahmins or the priestly class led the society in conducting religious duties and educating people.

The Kshatriyas or warriors protected the clan and ruled it.The Vaishyas or merchants were petty businessmen and peasants. The Shudras or the outcasts, performed menial jobs like scavenging, fishing and removing dead bodies. The caste system was flexible at this time and people could change jobs according to their ability and interest. However, there was not much scope for Shudras for rising in the society.

AFTERMATH
The increase in population, development of the agrarian economy, increase in local trade, the caste factors, the emergence of the ruling class, and hereditary nature of kingship, etc., all led to the rise of small kingdoms and republics, out of which emerged some of the first great empires of ancient India.

CONTRIBUTION
The Vedic Age laid the foundation of Hinduism and religious practices associated with it. It also paved way for the rise of kingdoms and empires. The Vedic Age has contributed immensely in the field of Indian literature and philosophy, through its various treatises and epics.

Ancient History of India