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Vedic civilization

 This article is part of the 
History of South Asia series.
 Indus Valley civilization
 Vedic civilization
 Middle kingdoms of India
 Islamic Empires in India
 Mogul Era
 Company rule in India
 British Raj
 Indian independence movement

The Vedic civilization is the earliest civilization in Indian history of which we have written records. It is named after the Vedas, the early literature of the Vedic people. The Vedic texts have astronomical dates that some have claimed go back to the 5th millennium BC. The use of Vedic Sanskrit continued up to the 6th century BC.

Table of contents
1 The early Aryans
2 The later Vedic period
3 References

The early Aryans

Unfortunately, the origin of the Vedic civilization and its relation to the Indus Valley civilization remains highly controversial. The texts describe a geography that some believe to be north India. The greatest river of the Rigveda was Sarasvati, often identified with the defunct Hakra river in modern-day Pakistan, which ceased to reach the sea by about 1900 BC. Our knowledge of the early Aryans comes mainly from the Rigveda, 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.

Families were patrilineal, and people prayed for abundance of sons. Education of women was not neglected, and some even composed Rig Vedic hymns. 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 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.

Literature and Religion

Vedic literature consists primarily of the Vedas; but also includes Shruti and various Smriti texts. The Vedic rites were meant to help the participant transform; this was primarily accomplished via sacrifices (such as the agnihotra).

There are astronomical references of chronological significance in the Vedas. Due to precession of the earth, the seasons shift at a rate of about a month every two thousand years. Some Vedic notices mark the beginning of the year and that of the vernal quinox in Orion; this was the case around 4500 BC.

The rishis saw the universe as going through unceasing change in a cycle of birth and death, potentially free yet, paradoxically, governed by order. This order was reflected in the bandhu (connections) between the planets, the elements of the body, and the mind. At the deepest level, the whole universe was bound to, and reflected in, the individual consciousness.

The place of sacrifice represents the cosmos. The three fires used stand for the three divisions of space. The course of the sacrifice represents the year, and all such ritual forms part of continuing annual performances. The rite culminates in the ritual rebirth of the yajamana (sacrificer), which signifies the regeneration of his universe. It is sacred theatre, built upon paradoxes of reality, where symbolic deaths of animals and humans, including the yajamana himself, may be enacted.

The Vedic gods represent the cognitive centers of the self. Vedic science is the science of consciousness.

The Vedic pantheon is considered to consist of thirty-three different gods, which are placed, in groups of eleven, into one of the three different categories: atmospheric, terrestrial, or celestial, each of which has its own area of responsibility. But just because a god is in one category does not mean that it is completely different from a god from another category; for sometimes a god from one category will have some of the same qualities of a god from another category. This is because the Vedic system is recursive.

The categories of the gods are: 1) Agni, terrestrial; 2) Indra, atmospheric; and 3) Surya or Vishnu, celestial that mirrors the body, prana, and atman division of the individual. Since one aspires to reach the inner being through the prana (atmosphere), many Vedic hymns extol Indra.

See also: Gayatrimantra

The Vedic religion presents a unitary view of the universe with God seen as immanent and transcendent in the forms of Ishvara and Brahman, respectively. Brahman is projected into various deities in the human mind. The main deities were Indra, Varuna, Surya (the Sun), Mitra, Vayu, Agni and Soma. Goddesses included Prithvi, Aditi, Ushas and Sarasvati. Deities were not viewed as all-powerful. The relationship between the devotee and the deity was one of transaction. Each deity 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 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. 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 ashvamedha (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.