Vedic period

gigatos | February 17, 2022


The Vedic Age is the period in the history of South Asia during which the Vedas originated. The Vedas were initially transmitted orally by the bards and priests of tribes that inhabited the northwestern Indian Subcontinent at the beginning of the Vedic period and spoke Vedic Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language. Their culture was characterized by a strong importance of sacrificial rituals, a clear social hierarchy within the tribe, and the use of Sanskrit in rites.

The Vedas constitute both the most important sources about the Indo-Aryans and their greatest cultural operation, and to this day have a great influence on the religion and culture of India. Although it is difficult to separate historical facts from mythology, the texts provide a clear picture of Vedic society and developments. The Indo-Aryans were possibly semi-nomadic pastoralists who had a military superiority over the native population through the possession of horses and chariots. The Vedas give the impression of conflicts over cattle, both between Indo-Aryan tribes and with others. In this Samhita period, the emphasis was on the devas or gods to whom praises were offered from the Samhitas, the oldest volumes in the Vedas. The three goals of Vedic life (trivarga) were dharma (standards), artha (wealth) and kama (pleasure).

Around 1000 BCE, the Indo-Aryans settled in fixed settlements to practice agriculture and thus a transition from a semi-nomadic warrior society to an agricultural society took place. The focus shifted from the Samhitas to the Brahmanas with the brahmanic ritual sacrifices (yajnas) by which the gods could be kept in check. This gave the brahmanas more power over the kshattriyas, the warriors and rulers, without usurping worldly power. During this period the Indian caste system developed.

Vedic culture spread further eastward across the Ganges Plain and southward to Malwa and Gujarat during this period. Cities arose in the Ganges Plain in particular, around which the first proto-states, the janapadas, emerged in the later Vedic period around 700-500 BCE. This transition from an agricultural society to a more urban one was accompanied by social and religious changes. The brahmins could only find a limited response to this. Thus a mystical countermovement of world renunciation arose in search of the inner self and salvation from this cycle. This did not mean, by the way, a complete transition. Outside the urban areas where the new uncertainties did not play a role, there remained a need for the old forms. This could cause tensions between the urban elite and the rural population. Thus arose the more philosophically inclined Upanishads. From this time on, samsara, karma and moksa were central concepts in Indian philosophy and religion. The expansion of the goals of life to include moksa turned the trivarga into the caturvarga or purusartha. Study of the Vedas led to the emergence of Indian philosophy and ancient Indian science.

During the classical period, criticism grew against the secret rituals involving sacrifices and the Vedas were rejected by skeptical, but mostly materialistic movements. These became the naysayers or nastikas, charvaka, Buddhism and Jainism. All this resulted in a brahmanical counter-reaction in which the criticism of the nastikas was parried by the astikas, the six darsanas, nyaya, vaisheshika, samkhya, yoga, mimamsa and vedanta, making this a rich philosophical period.

Population composition

The population composition of India is a controversial subject. First, colonial racism influenced historiography by Western scholars who assumed Western superiority and eventually the subject was even hijacked by National Socialism. It also has a political dimension in India under the influence of Hindu nationalism that assumes indigenous Aryans, the out-of-India theory.

The compilers of the Rigveda called themselves arya, which indicates kinship, but also has a cultural and religious meaning and has been translated as noble or noble. After Western scholars discovered Sanskrit in the late eighteenth century, this language was named after arya as an Indo-Aryan language and its speakers as Indo-Aryans. It thus began as a linguistic term, but would not remain so.

The similarities between Sanskrit and European languages were examined by the comparative method which made it clear that there was an overarching language family, Indo-European. It was thought that these languages had an original mother tongue, which must be Proto-Indo-European (PIE). It was thought that there must then be an area where this PIE originated. This Urheimat, the Proto-Indo-European homeland, was initially sought in India partly on the basis of the Vedas and in Iran on the basis of the Vendidad. Dozens of hypotheses soon followed, seeking the homeland in different areas of Asia and Europe.

Although it was a prehistoric subject, it took a century before archaeology also became involved in the search for the homeland of PIE. Karl Penka arrived at the Scandinavian hypothesis in 1883. The use of archaeology did not make the search area smaller, and so a century and a half after the search began, South India, Central India, North India, Tibet, Bactria, Iran, the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, Lithuania, the Caucasus, the Ural Mountains, the Volga Mountains, Southern Russia, the steppes of Central Asia, Asia Minor, Anatolia, Scandinavia, Finland, Sweden, the Baltic Sea, Western Europe, Northern Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and even the North Pole mentioned as the homeland of the Indo-Aryans. :37

At the same time, language was increasingly linked to race. Lazarus Geiger, in 1878, saw Germany as the homeland and stated that Indo-Europeans had blond hair and blue eyes. The idea of an Aryan race was widely followed thereafter and even became an important part of National Socialism. It would take until World War II for this racial theory to fall into disrepute. The search for an alleged Aryan race, however, yielded nothing.

With the discovery of the Indus civilization in the 1920s, Mortimer Wheeler saw that migration as an invasion in which the Indo-Aryans put an end to the Indus civilization. In 1963 Marija Gimbutas, based on linguistic paleontology, ethnology, mythology and archaeology, arrived at the Kurgan hypothesis, also known as steppetheory. This situated the homeland in the Pontic Steppe and saw the Indo-Aryans as nomadic pastoralists who conquered other areas through military invasions. However, there appeared to be little evidence of a violent invasion that might have brought the Indus civilization to an end.

New disciplines such as archaeogenetics and population genetics made it possible to study migrations in a different way. However, this also gives varying results. Some of the studies endorse the possibility of an Indo-Aryan migration, while others contradict it. Studies based on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) have found no evidence for an Indo-Aryan migration that would have occurred around 1500 BCE. However, by combining the mtDNA data from the female line with data from the Y-chromosomal DNA from the male line, there does appear to be evidence of migration from Central Asia, probably in several waves. There was a clear gender difference here; it was mostly men who migrated. The picture that emerges is not a simple model where a migration at the beginning of the Neolithic brought agriculture, followed millennia later by Indo-Aryans, but complex migrations since the Last Glacial Maximum from the northwest and more recent smaller migrations from the east.

Some influence of the Jamna culture has been found in the Vedic population. Members of this culture are thought to have migrated first toward Eastern Europe after which a portion reached northern India in the second millennium BCE, probably via Central Asia. This steppe influence is limited to the Ancestral North Indians (ANI), among the Ancestral South Indians (ASI) it is negligible. There is also mainly male influence which is strongly represented among the Brahmin and Bhumihar. Newcomers who are a numerical minority can initiate language change or even language substitution with the original inhabitants without much change in material culture, so changes are virtually nonexistent in the recovered archaeological culture.


A rough chronology of 1200-1000 BCE or 1500-1000 BCE is usually taken for the oldest parts of these, but estimates on this vary. An initial framework is provided by Vedic Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language. It was possibly preceded by the reconstructed languages Proto-Indo-Iranian and Proto-Indo-European (PIE). The dating of PIE also sets a limit on the dating of Vedic Sanskrit. In addition to the language, the contents of the Vedas and later Hindu scriptures have been used to arrive at a chronology. Max Müller was the first and arrived at 1200-1000 BCE for the oldest parts of the Vedas, the chandas. There is much to disagree with in Müller”s methodology, which he himself pointed out. Müller saw the years mainly as an upper limit and also saw 3000 BC as possible. Nevertheless, his result is still frequently adhered to, since several methods arrive at this result. Astronomical interpretations have also been used for dating, but these too vary widely. Texts from outside India have also been used, which may have the advantage that their chronology is better known, like the chronology of the Near East. The Bogazköy archive from ancient Hattusa containing a treaty from the fourteenth century BCE is an example of this. Parallels between the Rigveda and the Iranian Avesta do not bring the solution any closer. The problem with dating the Vedas also means that caution must be exercised in reconstructing the history of South Asia. The period of the Vedic era, therefore, is not a fixed one.:185

Vedic sources and literature as a historical source

The events of the early Vedic period must be reconstructed from a combination of archaeological findings and much later recorded written sources such as the Vedas, which also had several recitations (shakhas). Archaeology provides a clear sequence of cultures and technological developments in this period. Some of these developments can also be gleaned from the Vedic sources. It becomes problematic, however, when an attempt is made to correlate the tribes, wars, and endless genealogical lists described in Vedic literature with archaeological findings.:401 Vedic sources were not compiled with the aim of representing history as truthfully as possible. Both the bards and priests who passed on the tradition orally and the writers who eventually recorded it in writing had other purposes, such as to provide a king or tribe with a prestigious lineage, or to spread religious ideas. Although there must almost certainly be some historical truth in certain fragments, and certain kings are probably based on historical persons, it is impossible to establish a reliable chronology from the written sources alone.:184-185

The four Vedas were handed down orally only for a millennium and received their final form around 500 B.C.:158 Although clues to Vedic culture and social development have been found in all these writings, they do not contain an integral vision of the past, in the form of a complete cosmology or mythology. Vedic mythology comes mainly from the Puranas and the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These sources, too, were not recorded in writing until around 500 BCE:182 and bear the marks of intensive reworking. There are hundreds of Puranas, each consisting of thousands of verses, of which 18 works (the mahapuranas) are considered the most important. First, they contain prescriptions for worship of, offerings to, and hymns to various deities. Other writings include commentaries on the Vedas, narrations of the actions of the gods, and descriptions of the afterlife.

The genealogies contain nearly one hundred generations and therefore must be partly fictitious. They also include characters from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. A major turning point is the Bharata War, which is central to the Mahabharata. After the end of the war, the current and final era of the cosmos, the Kali Yuga, begins. The genealogical sequences stop at the kings of the beginning of the historical period, around 500 BCE, when it is assumed that the Puranas were recorded. The heroes of the Mahabharata, who descended from the lunar dynasty, were the ancestors of the Kurus, according to these series.

The Mahabharata and the Ramayana must have been first written down around 350 BCE, but the core of the Mahabharata is believed to be older. The epic recounts the contention for kingship over the Kurus between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The former are the five sons of Pandu, a prince who could not become king himself because of a curse. The Kauravas are their cousins, the 100 sons of the blind king Dhritarashtra. The storyline is much interrupted by ethical-didactic discourses, most of which are assumed to be later interpolations, as in the Bhagavad Gita. In the Mahabharata, tribal and family ties are central. The epic gives the impression of a nostalgic look back to an earlier time, when such values were important. In particular, the ending, in which the Pandavas cannot derive any real joy from victory and eventually retire from worldly existence, has a melancholy tone.:409-411

The Ramayana is much shorter than the Mahabharata and is set further east, in the central Ganges Plain and the Vindhya Hills. Although references to places all over India occur in the epic, these are almost certainly later interpolations. The many parallels with, for example, the Jataka stories from the Buddhist tradition indicate that the Ramayana was composed of various fragments of earlier narratives.:415 Unlike the Mahabharata, the Ramayana is set in a society in which kingship is central. The protagonist, Rama, is the heir to the throne of the city of Ayodhya, but is exiled to the wilderness with his wife Sita. Sita is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana, but with the help of the monkey king Hanuman, Rama manages to defeat the demon king and free his wife. Sita, however, must prove her innocence (virginity) before the victors return to Ayodhya, where Rama ascends the throne. His heroism and righteousness are seen as examples of ideal Hindu kingship.


Each book or mandala of the Rigveda-Samhita has its own pattern of hymns, and from deviations from that pattern it is possible to infer what later additions are. These may well have been composed earlier, as vice versa, which will have been the choice of the final compilers of the written versions. Those versions differed with the different families of brahmanas. From these, different vedic schools (charanas) formed, each with its own shakha, with the Yajoerveda having by far the most shakha, although most of them have not been handed down. With that, for many shakhas, it is possible to identify a region in which it dominated. Thus, the extension of the area of the Indo-Aryans can be followed where the oldest texts of the early Vedic period originated in the Punjab, after which a movement eastward can be observed to the area of the Kurus and Panchala at the time of the middle Vedic period and Koshala and Videha in the late Vedic period. The Taittiriya and Jaiminiya had their origin in Panchala, but gained great influence to the south.

There is evidence in the Vedas that, especially in areas farther east in the Ganges Plain, indigenous tribes began to belong to the arya. For example, many names of kings in those areas end in -dasa. The Vedas show that initially the inhabitants of these areas were looked down upon by the tribes of the Punjab and the Yamuna Gangesdoab, who called their area Aryavarta (land of the arya). Later, however, during the time of the first states, this distinction disappeared and the roles were even reversed. Aryavarta then also began to cover territory further east.

Behind some names or narratives is a historical background, for in some cases archaeological excavations have confirmed a narrative. For example, in the Mahabharata, Hastinapura is the capital of the Kauravas. The city was located on the doab between the Ganga and the Yamuna and, according to a narrative, was destroyed by a great flood. This is supported archaeologically by traces of a great flood that must have occurred around 800 BC. Based on this, it is estimated that if the Bharata War is based on a historical conflict, it must have taken place around 950-900 B.C.:411

The geography of the Rigveda is limited to the northwest of the subcontinent: in addition to the present-day Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, the sapta-sindhu, the area of the seven rivers: the Indus and its five tributaries, along with the later dried up Sarasvati. This area was where the Indo-Aryans must have initially settled, and where they must have first made the transition from a semi-nomadic existence to permanent settlements and agriculture.:49 The other three Vedas also mention areas further east in the Ganges Plain. This shows that aryanization spread eastward over time; the eastern areas were simply not yet known when the Rigveda was recorded. The Yamuna, located further east, is mentioned only a few times in the Rigveda.

In the Brahmanas and Upanishads created between 900 and 600 BCE, the focus shifted to the doab between the Yamuna and the Ganges.

The Indus civilization or Harappa culture was more advanced than the Vedic culture in many aspects. Harappa culture is characterized by large, tightly planned cities, such as Mohenjodaro and Harappa. The Harappans traded by ship with the Arabian Peninsula and Mesopotamia, had oxen and elephants as pack animals, and used carts to transport goods. They had developed their own script and practiced sedentary agriculture. Large areas had been cultivated to provide food for the inhabitants of the cities. The height of Harappa culture fell between 2600 and 1900 BCE.

The idea that the cities were destroyed by hordes of Indo-Aryan invaders is no longer considered plausible. Although archaeological evidence allows for attacks by looters on a small scale, the decline of the Harappa civilization was due to a combination of factors, such as climate change and epidemics.:47 In some ruins, archaeologists have discovered a late Harappa phase (1900-1750 BCE) in which urban organization disappeared and there were probably far fewer inhabitants, but other typical features of Harappa culture can still be found. The Vedas do not contain any reference to an urban society or typical items of the Harappa culture. Therefore, it is assumed that there must have been at least a few centuries between the decline of the Harappa culture and the creation of the Vedas. On this basis, it is estimated that the Rigveda originated between 1500 and 1200 B.C.:47

The last phase of the Harappa civilization also includes the Cemetery H culture, found in the ruins of Harappa, among other places. It is noteworthy that the culture is very different from older layers in the city. One possible explanation is that it represents the migration of the first Indo-Aryans. The newcomers might have settled in the cities around 1900 BCE and gradually merged into the Harappa civilization. When the later Vedic Indo-Aryans entered the subcontinent, they may have encountered the descendants of their distant relatives there, who still possessed some vestiges of their original culture. This may explain why the dasa from the Vedas are also called mlecchas (persons who mispronounce Sanskrit) and sometimes collaborated with the dasa. Some archaeologists think that the Cemetery H culture emerged from the Gandhara tomb culture and reflects the migration of the arya to the east.

From archaeology, after the decline of the Harappa civilization, the ochre colored pottery culture (OCP) is known. This culture includes finds scattered across northern India of bronze or copper utensils and weapons such as axes, harpoon points and swords, combined with ochre-colored pottery of much poorer quality than that of the Harappa culture. The age of many finds is uncertain, but some must be from the early second millennium. The OCP is sometimes considered a period of decline following the Harappa culture, but the evidence for a connection to the Harappa culture is meager.:374

The ochre colored pottery culture was succeeded by the painted gray ware culture (PGW), which was accompanied by the introduction of iron worked in a primitive manner. Some overlap of finds from the two cultures in the Punjab suggests that the PGW began even before 1000 B.C.:375 The ceramics of the PGW were made on pottery discs and were painted with geometric patterns and floral designs. The PGW is spread across the Punjab, the Yamuna Gangesdoab, the western Ganges Plain, and parts of present-day Rajasthan.:198 The PGW corresponds to the area where, according to Vedic literature, the Kurus lived. The Kurus play a central role in the later parts of the Rigveda and the epic the Mahabharata. From the same period, black-and-red pottery (BRW) is found over a larger area in north and central India. Given its wide distribution in both space and time, this is not a single archaeological culture, but this pottery is associated with the Yadavas, tribes that had settled in the area southwest of the Kurus. The spread of the BRW south to the area called Avanti in the Vedas, present-day Malwa, and the PGW to the Ganges plain in the east could then represent the spread of Vedic culture.

One problem is that the earliest Vedic sources do not feature craftsmen such as potters, blacksmiths, or bakers. Indeed, these crafts play no role among groups of semi-nomadic pastoralists. Once the arya chose a permanent existence they encountered potters among the indigenous population. These were considered unclean because they came into contact with the elements in their work. Possibly the aversion the arya felt for certain crafts unfamiliar to them was part of the reason for the creation of the caste system. Be this as it may, the ceramics from archaeological finds can hardly be attributed to Indo-Aryans. It probably shows a continuous development of an indigenous tradition. But since craftsmen were also assimilated into Vedic culture, finds from the PWG and BRW may well provide clues as to how Vedic culture spread across northern India.:42-43

The Rigveda recounts the fortunes of some six generations of 50 tribes (jana) in the Punjab who belonged to five peoples (possibly pancha-janah), the Yadu, Turvasha, Anu, Druhyu and Puru. However, the first four are hardly mentioned and the main role is played by the Puru related Bharata who had arrived in the Punjab shortly before. The tribes were semi-nomadic pastoralists who raised livestock and cultivated barley (yava), among other things. The itinerant tribes had frequent skirmishes with each other, following, among other things, poaching for cattle. The hallucinatory drink soma was said to make them immortal. Important gods were Agni, Indra and Varuna.

The Battle of the Ten Kings on the River Ravi plays an important role in the Rigveda. The Bharata under Sudas managed to win this battle against an alliance of ten other tribes. The victory was said to be due to the invocation of the gods Indra and Varuna and the sacrifices (yajna) made to them, although the gods were also invoked by dasà, indicating some acculturation. The important position that Sudas occupied thereafter would be evident from the extensive ashvamedha (horse sacrifice) that he held.

The Bharata then dominated the other tribes, but in doing so probably made attempts to get on more friendly terms, which may have led to later versions of the Rigveda not only containing hymns by the Bharata. The Bharata would then have moved eastward toward the Yamuna. At the end of the Rigveda, the Kurus from holy land Kurukshetra come into the picture. They would unite the 50 tribes into a single super-tribe.:262-264

Social organization

The arya of the early Vedic period were divided into tribes (jana). The tribe consisted of several groups of families moving together, the grama. Interestingly, the meaning of the word grama changed after the change to sedentary agriculture: although initially it implied a nomadic group of families, in the later Vedic sources it was used for a village. A distinction was made between lower status (vish) and higher status (rajanya) families.:51

In the Rigveda, the leaders of tribes are called raja, which in modern Indo-Aryan languages means king. Probably for early Vedic times this word is better translated as chief.:187 Supported by the principal members of the rajanyas, the chief was responsible for defending and attacking other tribes, the main purpose of which was to capture more cattle. Gau means cow and it was common as an infix, showing that possession and prestige were measured in cattle. Thus, the word for war in Sanskrit (gavishti) literally means to acquire cows.:62 Other words used for battle were gaveshana, goshu, and gavya. Both the chief and the god Indra were sometimes referred to as gopati, lord of cattle, while gojit means winner of cows and stood for a hero. A rich person was a gomat, an owner of cows. It was already stated that cows should not be killed (aghnya), but to what extent this foreshadowed the sacred cow is not clear.:187, 189, 191 The standing of the chief depended on his success in warfare, as well as in successfully accomplishing sacrificial rituals (bali).

The tribe met regularly, in part to perform these sacrificial rituals. The ritvij or priests recited the thousands of hymns and precepts from the Vedas. They played an indispensable role in the performance of the ritual. A successfully performed sacrifice was believed to favor the gods and bring prestige and prosperity to the tribe and the chief. Bali also represented the tribute that the chief received, not only from his own tribesmen, but also from subjugated tribes. There were several types of gatherings, with the sabha probably taking place in smaller, more elite circles, while the samita involved a larger group and possibly also played a role in the redistribution of funds. The vidatha seems to have had a more religious significance. The tribute was probably not just an economic exchange, but a prestation total tied to social conventions that perpetuated interrelationships through assumed reciprocity.:188, 190

Society was highly patriarchal, but in the early Vedic period women had a higher status and greater freedom than was the case later. Women were expected to play a role in Vedic sacrificial rituals and had the right to address the tribal assembly (vidatha). Daughters, like sons, were taught the wisdom of the Vedas. Unmarried women were allowed to search independently for a suitable marriage partner and marriages were rare. Marriages between different classes were not uncommon. Widows were normally expected to remarry, and the custom of widow burning (sati) probably originated much later.:52-53 Nevertheless, sons were held in higher esteem than daughters, as only a son could perform the cremation rites after the death of the parents. The Vedas also contain texts that portray women as unreliable and inferior. In the later Brahmanas, women were associated with evil. The position of women clearly deteriorated during the Vedic period.

Slaves were also kept, later referred to as dasa or dasi, suggesting an ethnic element. The epithets used for the dasa”s and dasyu”s suggest that these were not always external differences, but that there were cultural differences. The word varna occurs frequently in the Rigveda, usually in the sense of light-colored, but does not yet have the later meaning of caste or varna. Brahmana and kshatriya are not yet mentioned together with varna in the Rigveda. Hymn 3.44-45 also suggests that birth does not determine later position.:191-192

Justice was administered on the basis of wergeld, with the punishment depending on the social status of the aggrieved person.:62

Mythology and religion

The religion as it emerges from the Rigveda differs considerably from the later forms. The religion has many similarities with the Iranian Avesta. The Rigveda divides the universe into the heavens (dyu), the earth (prithvi) and the in-between world (antariksha) and has various origin myths. For example, the world is said to have been created as the result of a cosmic struggle, of the separation of heaven and earth, and by the actions of the gods. Opposite this chaos is the universal order or rta, the moral order to which people must conform.

The Rigveda states that there are 33 gods, although more are invoked. In each hymn with an invocation toward a god, the god is invoked as supreme. Thus, although there is henotheism or cathenotheism within each hymn, in the Rigveda as a whole there is no pantheon with a hierarchy of gods. This polytheism is supplemented by celestial beings (gandharvas), celestial nymphs apsaras, blood-drinking demons (rakshasas), pain-inducing demons (yatudhanas), and man-eating demons (pishachas). The names of the demons may have previously been the names of other tribes.

The gods central to the Rigveda were associated with the forces of nature, as might be expected among semi-nomadic peoples. These anthropomorphic gods are still worshipped in present-day Hinduism, but have been reduced to supporting roles. The most important Vedic god was Indra, a war god who destroyed the dasa and their settlements with his thunderbolt and chariot, and also the dragon Vritra. Agni is a fire god who helped clear the jungle and oversaw the fire sacrifice. Agni also has little patience with the dasa whose settlements he burned down. Possibly this gives insight into how the arya waged war. Other important gods were Surya, the sun god, and Varuna, the divine judge who hangs out a lot with Mitra. The latter two are among the eight aditya, sons of Aditi, an important goddess. The most important goddess is Ushas, the eternally young goddess of the dawn, but apart from her, goddesses play only a minor role in the Rigveda.:195-198

The sacrificial ritual (yajna) was the time when the tribe gathered with the yajamana, the pater familias of a tribe, to gain the favor of the gods. Usually the fire offerings consisted of milk, ghee or grain, but animal sacrifices were also common. The most important of these was the ashvamedha, the horse sacrifice. The magnitude of the rituals involved was such that it was reserved only for the most powerful chiefs. The sacrifices were thrown into the fire while reciting the accompanying formulas, which symbolized consumption by the gods. These asked for earthly things such as long life for the yajamana, wealth, sons, livestock and victories in battle. Human sacrifice (purushamedha) is also mentioned in the Rigveda, but of this it is not certain if it was ever actually performed. In addition to being consumed by the gods, some were eaten by the priests, which according to the later Shatapatha-Brahmana 13.6.2 would be the reason that human sacrifices were not performed, since humans are not allowed to eat humans.

Sex, physical competition, gambling and the consumption of soma, a stimulant drink that probably induced hallucinations, all played a role in the rituals.:48 The rituals could only be led by the priests or ritvij, seven types of which are mentioned in the Rigveda, the hotri, adhvaryu, agnidh, maitravaruna, potri, neshtri and brahmana.

Participation required first undergoing a purification ritual, but also depended on one”s position within the social hierarchy. Vedic prescriptions are extremely detailed. A sacrifice could only be successful if the priest pronounced the hymns and spells correctly, the participants were clean, and other detailed requirements were met, such as the orientation of the altar or the way the sacrifice was dissected.

Both burials and cremations occurred and the Rigveda mentions the afterlife. Also mentioned are asu as power and manas as spirit that would survive death, but there was no mention of samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth, in the Rigveda.

A late hymn from the Rigveda is the keśin hymn (RV.10.136). The keśin were long-haired muni, wandering sages who brought themselves to ecstasy (unmadita) as also happens in shamanism. It is notable that this hymn does not recount sacrifices, rituals, and tapas. The muni were probably ascetics who had taken a vow of silence. They would march with the evil Rudra with whom they drink poison (viṣā) that would be deadly to others. However, the shamanic elements are still limited in the Rigveda.

Pastoralism and sedentary agriculture

That the arya did not originally farm or build houses is inferred from the fact that words for such things as plow, mortar, grain, or rice have no Indo-European root. These words were apparently taken from indigenous, Dravidian languages. From this the conclusion has been drawn that agriculture played a relatively small role and was mainly practiced by indigenous people.:140 No remains of buildings or settlements have been found by archaeologists that can be attributed to arya.

It can be objected that the Rigveda does mention sowing (vap), cultivating (krish), plow (langala and sira), plowshare (phala), plow fur (sita), heel (khanitra), sickle (datra, srinin) and axe (parashu, kulisha). Levelling a tilled field (kshetra) and fertile soil (urvara) are also mentioned. Kshetrapati is lord of the lands and Indra was also seen as protector of crops and winner of fertile lands (urvarajit). Yava stands for barley or grain in general and dhanya for grain.

The transition to sedentary agriculture will have been enforced primarily by India”s hot and wet climate. Unlike the arid plains of Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent has a rainy season, during which residents are virtually forced to remain temporarily in the same place. Techniques of agriculture and crafts associated with them could be copied from the indigenous inhabitants who were incorporated into Vedic culture.

Deforestation, according to Ram Sharan Sharma, would have been facilitated when bronze and copper tools gave way to iron, a development that took place around 1200-1100 BCE. In the Rigveda, however, the use is not yet clear. Ayas occurs in a variety of meanings and may have meant bronze, copper, or metal in general.:190 Also, Amalananda Ghosh and Niharranjan Ray countered that deforestation was also possible with the long-established form of land cultivation by burning down impassable wilderness. Further, archaeological evidence for deforestation, which was only initiated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is lacking. This led Makkhan Lal to argue that the influence of iron on deforestation and the creation of agricultural surpluses is a myth.:253-254

The Kurus entered into an alliance with the Panchala from the eastern middleland of Madhyadesha, which with Kurukshetra became the most important area and thus became the first state of Vedic times.:24

With the migration eastward, the arya came into contact with other peoples, and the interaction with other languages contributed to the emergence of Indo-Aryan dialects that increasingly deviated from the oral tradition of the Vedas. The interaction meant that, on the one hand, the Indo-Aryans experienced indianization and the indigenous peoples (for whom nishada may have initially been a generic term) experienced arianization and, on the linguistic level, sanskritization. Sanskritization allowed for upward social mobility of indigenous peoples under Indo-Aryan rule. Pastoralism remained and was supplemented by the extensive cultivation of rice (vrihi) in addition to the cultivation of barley (yava) and wheat (godhuma). It is the Atharvaveda of the mantra period in which the first unambiguous reference to iron is found.:263

Kuru Reformation

The Kurus initiated a reformation from the Rigveda rituals to the śrauta rituals, which stimulated the further development and canonization of the Vedas. How this process occurred is unclear, as there is a gap between the Rigveda and the Maitrayani Samhita and Katha-Samhita, the earliest works of the Yajoerveda, the Veda of mantras. It is clear, however, that during this period the number of priests decreased from seven to four. Each priest contributed sacrifices, which is the ultimate reason that the other three Vedas came into being. Thus, the Rigveda was recited by the hotar or roper, the Samaveda by the udgatar or singer, the Yajoerveda by the adhvaryu or celebrant, and the Atharvaveda by the brahman or chief priest. As the rituals kept the power of the gods in check, the importance of the priests also increased, especially that of the udgatar, where especially the hotar of the ancient Rigveda lost some of his influence.:266-268

Whereas the other works were mainly for the priests, the contents of the Atharvaveda most reflected the concerns of the common people with spells to acquire prosperity, children and health.:210

The Yajoerveda-Samhita shows that the brahmins and the kshatriyas (the ruler and warrior class, of kshatra, administration, power) increasingly formed a front against the Vaishyas, shudras and dasa to exploit them, as the brahmins themselves wrote. Thus, strict varnas were formed from existing social classes and social stratification increased greatly. These changes proved to be of great significance and some of them have remained significant into modern times.

Around this time society was semi-sedentary. There is archaeological evidence in the painted grey ware culture of some small centers, especially market towns. These are not found in the Vedas, possibly because it was not the Brahmins who engaged in trade, but the indigenous people. Specialization began to occur during this period, with woodworkers, blacksmiths, and charioteers. The trade of wheelwright (rathakara) was so important that they were even allowed to participate in rituals, something that was otherwise only reserved for the twice-born. The rituals became increasingly important in relation to the sacrifices and these rituals were recorded in detail in the Brahmanas. Since this praxis was partly at the expense of the underlying religion, it has been suggested that there was more of orthopraxy than orthodoxy.:260 The Brahmanas also contain observational astronomy and geometry. For example, the Shatapatha Brahmana contains calculations of π and an impetus to the Pythagorean theorem. The changes in rituals were possibly initiated by the transition from a semi-nomadic warrior society to an agrarian society.

The more or less friendly Kuru-Panchala alliance ended when the Salva invaded Kurukshetra, after which Madhyadesha of the Panchala became the centerpiece of the Vedas. The name Panchala suggests that it is composed of five (pancha) tribes, but there were six. According to the Shatapatha-Brahmana, Panchala was the later name of the Krivi already mentioned in the Rigveda. Four others are possibly Turvasu, Keshin, Srinjaya and Somaka. The Panchala developed the black Yajoerveda with multiple sub-schools of the shakha Taittiriya. The western peoples of the Punjab were therefore looked down upon, they were seen as outsiders (bahika).

During this period, settlements were established not only more along the rivers but also inland. South of the Yamuna, the Matsya and the Satvanta thus came within the sphere of influence of the Panchala.

The eastern areas of Koshala and Videha went through their own development which has been found archaeologically as the black and red ware culture and the ochre colored pottery culture which had been replaced west by the painted gray ware culture earlier. In Koshala and Videha the white Yajoerveda developed and fire sacrifices were not practiced. Therefore, they were seen as outsiders in the west and brahmins were not supposed to go to these areas. Probably these were Indo-Aryan tribes who had previously migrated east under pressure from the Bharata and Kuru. Magadha, which was later so important, is hardly mentioned in the Vedas, while the Vrijji and Malla had not yet migrated eastward.

The Ganges plain offered a new environment. Unlike the relatively dry northwest of the subcontinent, this marshy lowland was still covered with dense jungle at the time. The Satapatha-Brahmana, a text that must have originated between 800-600 BCE, possibly describes fire agriculture as the god Agni makes a path of fire from west to east through the Ganges Plain, preparing the land for human use.

Arianization was less advanced in the east than in the west, and in addition to the Indo-Aryans, the indigenous Munda and some Tibeto-Birmanians lived here. Whereas other areas had a more monarchical form, this was less pervasive in the east and a more tribal oligarchy, the gana-sangha, occurred here. Of the tribes that formed the Vrijji confederation, the Videha were possibly the only ones to implement sanskritization.

The Videha promoted arianization by giving indigenous peoples ancestors from the time of the Rigveda. For example, in the Aitareya-Brahmana, the Pulinda and Mutiba sons were made of Vishvamitra, one of the purohitas from the long-ago times of the Battle of the Ten Kings. The Shatapatha-Brahmana has a founding myth in which King Videgha Mathava is accompanied by Gautama Rahugana on his trek to Videha. Arriving at the Gandaki River, Mathava is said to have been ordered by Agni to carry him across. In the area on the other side of the river, his descendants would later rule Videha.:49-50 However, these were all attempts to link the local rulers with the Rigveda and thus increase their status and legitimize authority. For example, Gautama Rahugana was a purohita from the much earlier time of the Rigveda. This gave Janaka of Videha the opportunity to invite brahmins from the west to his debates (brahmodyas) and to introduce orthopraxy from the west. This was not the shankha from nearby Panchala, but those from western Kuru, the enemies of their enemies (prati-pratirajan). The zeal to perform the śrauta rituals well and to adopt the works completely made the Shatapatha-Brahmana the most complete Brahmana. Thus, the east became the main center of Vedic culture. The large number of works of different shakhas brought from other areas quite often conflicted with each other. This brought about a need for yet another canonization and it was during this period that the concept of śruti was first used and rishis were assigned to specific Vedas. Probably from this time onwards, therefore, works were referred to as smṛti.:295-297, 303-305, 309-316, 329-331

Brahmins preferred the countryside and cities (nagara) are therefore hardly mentioned in the Vedas, but at the end of the Vedic era the second urbanization took place. Around this time, tribal areas (janapadas) were merged into small states (mahajanapadas). All this was accompanied by further stratification. The new ideas that emerged from these processes were expressed in the Upanishads.:332-335


The three main features of the culture of the arya formed in the latter period:

Origins of cities

The change to a sedentary existence had major social implications. The greater amount of food and resources that such an existence entailed meant that larger numbers could live together in the same settlement. Within these larger settlements, inhabitants could specialize in certain tasks or trades, which in turn resulted in a more complicated social hierarchy. Not tribal or family relationships, but the place of residence were central to the identity of such a settlement. In the later texts among the Brahmanas, these areas belonging to a particular tribe are called janapadas (jana meaning tribe and pada meaning foot – freely translated the area under the feet of a tribe).:51

In the fertile Ganges Plain in particular, the harvest was so rich that settlements the size of cities could eventually emerge, the second urbanization after the earlier Harappa culture. In cities, craftsmen and priests were better able to devote themselves to their traditional roles than had previously been the case. Crafts, religion, philosophy, art and science flourished. Important was the advent of Brahmin writing, possibly in the 6th or 5th century BCE, so that texts and ideas were henceforth recorded rather than passed on orally.

Around 1000 BCE, the northwest and the Ganges-Yamunadoab still formed Aryavarta, the center of Vedic culture. Makkhan Lal estimated the population size in the Ganges-Yamunadoab to be about 52,000 during the OCP phase, 163,000 during the PGW phase, 426,000 during the NBPW phase, and 900,000 during the four centuries around the beginning of the era.:229

Later, the central and eastern Ganges plains took over the role as the center of Vedic culture.:50 The drier Avanti and present-day Rajasthan lagged behind these areas. The Yadavas living there continued to lead a semi-nomadic pastoral existence even in the later Vedic period.

Mythology, religion and philosophy

The religion of the early Vedic period was based on a belief in the power of the arya and their gods. However, this belief gave way to growing uncertainty and skepticism after the change to a sedentary society with greater inequality due to specialization. The rites and magic of the Vedas and Brahmins could not remove this uncertainty. For example, in the last mandala of the Rigveda and in the Upanishads, the existence and power of the gods and the magic of the brahmanic sacrificial rites are openly doubted. In other societies, in similar circumstances, religions arose that offered a justice for suffering in the afterlife. The brahmins could only find a limited response to this. With this urbanization and individualization, a mystical counter-movement of world-denial in search of the inner self and redemption from this cycle thus arose. The Upanishads brought a major revolution in religious thinking about what happens after death. From this time on, samsara, karma and moksa became central concepts in Indian philosophy and religion. Karma, the idea that one”s actions have consequences not only for the present life but also in subsequent lives, possibly came from a native tradition from Greater Magadha.

Several Dharma Sutras warn against the bad influence of the city and advise brahmins to stay away from it. However, against the conservative brahmins from the villages, there seems to be urban brahmins contributing to a shift from the ritualistic to the spiritual. The Aranyakas and Upanishads, created around 750-500 BCE, describe the mystical philosophy of individual enlightenment. The ascetic mystics who adhered to these texts withdrew from society to gain religious insights and achieve salvation (moksha or nirvana) in seclusion through meditation, self-immolation or fasting. Central to this are the concepts of the individual soul (atman) and the divine (brahman), to which the soul is connected. The mystics preferred a personal spiritual quest rather than the brahminical cult of sacrifice.:48-49 They often sought their seclusion in the forest: the name Aranyaka means texts from the forest.

Thus the Vedic religion of sacrifice transformed itself, where sacrifice and obtaining sons was no longer the path to salvation, but where atman and brahman played a central role.

Evolution of administration, varna and households

In a sedentary society, the power and status of a tribe no longer depended on the amount of livestock owned. Leadership transcended tribal and family relationships, and successful leaders no longer ruled over a tribe or group of families, and the leader”s power was measured by the amount of land he controlled.:166 This was the basis for the emergence of the first states between 800 and 500 BCE.:50

The kshatriya, the families of the most powerful leaders, together with the brahmins, formed an upper social class in sedentary society. In a nomadic existence, the status of the tribal leader rested on successful raids, capturing livestock from other tribes. In a sedentary existence, leaders derived their status more from the successful performance of sacrificial rituals, of which only brahmins were capable.:164 The brahmins thus became more powerful and the priesthood became hereditary. The rest of the population, lower-status arya as well as non-arya, had the task of meeting the needs of the upper class. From the lower status tribes (vish) emerged the vaishya caste, composed of farmers and traders. Still lower were the shudra and dasa. The dasa appear in the Vedas as adversaries who were subjugated by the arya. The texts describe them as despicable, unattractive and uncivilized people with dark complexions and flat noses, who were considered fit only to work the land in the service of Vaishna. Nevertheless, since dasa were also captured in conflicts with other arya groups, dasa may not refer to an ethnic group, but was the collective name for slaves captured in war.:51

Power within a janapada was in the hands of the leading kshattriya families (rajanyas) who assisted the leader (raja) in governance. The leading families received tribute from the farmers and traders (vaishyas). At the end of Vedic times, the first kingdoms developed from this system, with a monarch at the head. The sovereign was usually elected by the tribal council (samiti), with whom he had to share power in decision-making. In other janapadas, the raja was merely a war leader or the most important member of the council. There were also janapadas that had no leader or king at all and were governed by the council of family heads themselves. In terms of power structure, these gana-sanghas were a kind of aristocratic republics,:43 though Witzel argued that they were certainly not republics, but more tribal oligarchies.:313

An important ritual was the aswamedha, the horse sacrifice. The horse symbolized strength, virility, and the power of the tribal leader. The description of the aswamedha ritual includes a passage in which the chief”s wife has sexual intercourse with the sacrificial horse, which symbolized the virility of the chief. Later, this custom does not appear to have been observed. Instead, the horse was released, after which the area through which it passed had to be claimed by the tribe. If this already belonged to another tribe, it had to be subdued. Only after all the land was actually confiscated did the sacrifice itself take place. This shows how the perception of leadership changed after the seminomadic for a sedentary existence was exchanged.

The kingship was ritually confirmed by sacrificial rituals based on the Vedas and described in the Brahmanas, which again confirmed the importance of the brahmins, especially the purohita. During the obeisance, the raja”s divine authority was conferred by the rajasuya ritual, which was repeated annually.:44 According to the Shatapatha-Brahmana, the raja bonded with a Prajapati through these rituals. Part of the rituals included jewelry offerings (ratnahavimshi) and chariot races (vajapeya). However, the raja of this period was not the same as that at the time of the Rigveda. For example, there was a shift from an elected successor to succession. The vajapeya ritual in earlier times may have determined who became raja, in later times the chariot race will have been more ceremonial with a winner known in advance. In the same way, the bali that the raja received will have become more and more obligatory and will have functioned as a tribute.

Monarchy, varnas, and household changes (grha) developed in tandem. Whereas monarchy was initially only one of the possible forms of government, it became the norm in the classical period. Just as the authority of the raja was confirmed with rituals, so was the authority of the head of the household (grhastha or grhapati). With all the social changes, the status of the head of the family also changed. This one took an important place with the panca mahayajna, the five major sacrifices. Now the preference shifted to a celibate lifestyle, which was not without controversy. In response, the asrama system emerged, where the different lifestyles are seen as equal. The importance of becoming a head of the family made marriage or vivaha one of the most important rituals or samskara. The position of the woman was increasingly seen in relation to the man. On the one hand the Vedas extol the woman, but in other places her place is never more than that of the shudra and submissive to the man. Later texts also have a menstrual taboo.:204-206


At the end of the Vedic era, two important political developments took place. First, through conquest or amalgamation of covenants of tribes, the janapadas had become larger and larger. These larger tribal affiliations are called mahajanapadas. For example, in the case of the kingdom of Panchala in the central Ganges plain, the name indicates its origin in an alliance of five tribes (panch means five). Later Vedic sources mention sixteen mahajanapadas, which were spread in a band across the northern part of the subcontinent in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Some of the important empires were Gandhara with its capital Taxila in the northwest (today in northern Pakistan), and Koshala and Magadha further east of the Ganges Plain. The capital of Koshala, Ayodhya, is where the Ramayana is set. The easternmost of the mahajanapadas was the kingdom of Anga in the Ganges Delta.

A second, parallel development was that the position of the king took on a religious nature and thus became more inviolable. The monarch was held responsible for maintaining the cosmological order and fertility of the land. King and brahmins formed the upper class in late Vedic society and were mutually dependent on each other to maintain their dominant position. In kingdoms such as Magadha or Koshala, kingship was in principle hereditary. However, the leader often came to power as a result of a power struggle within the main families. For his legitimacy he depended on the brahmins, who were rewarded by the kings with patronage, land and goods. As part of the assumption of power, the king was required to make ritual visits to the most important family heads before he could ascend the throne. However, the common people had no say in the matter and merely witnessed the rajasuya from which the ruler derived his power.:44

States ruled by a council of leaders (gana-sanghas) were on the decline around 500 BCE, although such oligarchies continued to occur well beyond the Vedic period: the Licchhavis in the east of the Ganges Plain and present-day Nepal are a well-known example.

Origins of Buddhism and Jainism

In the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, a religious movement against Brahmanism developed out of the mystics and ascetics of the Upanishads and Aryankas. This sramana movement or sramanism rejected the rigid caste system, the sacrificial cult, and the dominant role of brahmins in the practice of religion. From the movement a number of new religions emerged that began to compete with the brahminical priests. Main exponents of the movement were Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. Both preached an essentially atheistic, ascetic philosophy, which was recorded and spread by communities of monks.

As historical sources, the Buddhist and Jainist writings for the first time provide a clear overview of the political situation in northern India. The Buddha himself is therefore considered to be the first historical person in Indian history. Moreover, the events mentioned can often be substantiated with passages from later Vedic sources such as the Puranas or the Mahabharata.

The first empires

Thanks to Buddhist texts, much more is known about the political events of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE than about earlier developments. During the Buddha”s lifetime, events took place that set the stage for the emergence of the first empires – states that grew so large through territory expansion that their influence transcended their own region. This is seen as the end of the Vedic and beginning of the classical (imperialist) period. It is known from Buddhist writings that at the end of the 6th century BCE, in the kingdom of Magadha south of the Ganges, a king named Bimbisara was in power. Bimbisara received the Buddha personally a few times and later converted to Buddhism. Koshala also waged a territorial expansion-oriented war against smaller kingdoms in the north, including Shakya, where the Buddha came from. Through marriage, Koshala and Magadha were joined.

Bimbisara”s successors followed an expansionist policy and used new war machines like catapults and armored chariots. Within half a century, territory from Anga in the east to Avanti in the southwest had been unified under the same ruler. Magadha had become the first empire in Indian history. A shocking event for the Brahmins was around 380 BCE when Mahapadma Nanda, founder of the short-lived Nanda dynasty, took power. Mahapadma was a low-born shudra and his kingship was seen by the brahmins as a bad omen and a consequence of the beginning of the Kali Yuga, the era of moral decay. However, the power of the kshatriyas had been broken and the Vedic world order was no longer followed. Mahapadma is sometimes considered the first Indian emperor. He conquered the entire north of India and even more distant territories like Kalinga on the east coast of the Indian Peninsula.

The vast empire of the Nandas could only be kept under control and protected from invasion by a large standing army, which could be deployed at any time. The cost of this made it necessary to conquer new territories in order to amass booty. The expansionist power politics necessary for this was described in the Arthashastra. Kautalya lived in the 4th century BC and is sometimes called the Indian Machiavelli. The Nandadynasty was succeeded around 320 BC by the Mauryadynasty, which ruled an even larger area.:59


  1. Vedische tijd
  2. Vedic period
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