Social and Economic Life during the Later Vedic Period
India is admired all over the world for it ancient civilization. Ancient Indian history is categorized into various periods beginning with the oldest Indus Valley Civilization, then Rig Vedic era followed by the Later Vedic era and then Mahajanapada, Mauryas, Guptas and many more Kingships. Later Vedic Era refers to the period from 1000 BC to 500 BC.
This period marks a significant era in Indian history as it shows the highest level of Civilization. This period is important from literary perspective as composition of three major Vedas along with Upanishad took place during this time. The three Vedas were Samaveda Samhita, the Yajurveda Samhita, the Atharvaveda Samhita.
Our two great epics were also compiled namely the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Upanishad of all four Vedas was also written. Scientific literature and medical marvel “Charaka Samhita” too belongs to this time.
Aryans settled from the Himalayas to the Vidhya’s and covered the upper gangetic basin of Northern India. They excelled in all kinds of work. Society consisted of small kingdoms like the famous Kurus, Panchalas, Kasis, Kosalas etc.
These were formed when the tribal groups of rigs Vedic period later turned into powerful kingdoms and rose to prominence. This led to struggle of supremacy among the kingdoms and politics came into picture.
Literature mentions about the sacrificial practices like Ashvamedha and Rajasuya- performed to signify imperial influence of monarchs over other states. Thus, change in status and title of leaders from “Rajan” in Rig Vedic era to “Samrat”, “Bhoja” and Kingship happened.
The king had absolute power and was immune from all punishment. He became the master of all subjects. He realized taxes like “bali”, “sulka” and “bhaga”. The Sabha or democratic group for consensus while taking any decision lost its relevance. King made a council of some members to seek aid and advice on matters like war, peace and revenue. This with time led to official monarchy and democracy got subsumed.
The society greatly evolved from traditional, simple and equally kind to a complex and unequal one. Changes were of far greater significance. In a family the father was the head of the property. In case of inheritance of property, the law of primogeniture was applied. Which means the eldest son would inherit the property of the deceased father.
Caste system was laid down and even sub castes got added to traditional castes. Rig Vedic times had only two categories among people the Arya and Dasyu. Whereas later four classes were identified based on work undertaken by people. The Brahmanas and Kshatriyas emerged as the two leading castes followed by vaisyas. The vaisyas were superior to the sudras but their position was steadily deteriorating.
The Brahmanas referred to the intellectual and priestly class. The Brahmanas retained a high standard of excellence and knew the details of the rituals. The kshatriyas were the fighting class in the society. War, conquest, administration of the kingdom was the principal duties of this class.
By their superior learning some kshatriyas raised themselves to the status of a Brahmana. They composed hymns and performed sacrifices and also challenged the supremacy of Brahmanas. Vaisyas were engaged in trade, industry and agriculture, and animal husbandry.
They are debarred from the privileges which were enjoyed by the Brahmanas and kshatriyas. The condition of the Sudras was very miserable. They had to serve the other three castes. They were untouchables. They had no right to perform sacrifice, or to read the sacred texts. They were further denied the rite of burning the dead body. Sadly, the structure of the caste system became hereditary.
The women lost their high position which they had in the Rig Vedic Age. Polygamy (more than one wife or husband) prevailed in the society. Many of the religious ceremonies, formerly practiced by the wife, were now performed by the priests. She was not allowed to attend the political assemblies. They were not allowed to study. The women lost their honored position in the society. Neither the women nor the shudras had any right to property. This led to increased disparity in society.
Education system was in place and very well planned in the later Vedic Period. The students had to learn Vedas, Upanishad, grammar prosody, law, arithmetic and language. Students were sent to the Gurukuls (ancient boarding schools) for their education.
They had to live in the house of the teacher (guru) and lead the chaste life of a Brahmacharya whose principal duties were study and service to the teacher. The students received free boarding and lodging at the house of the Guru. At the completion of their study they paid fees (guru-dakshina) to the teachers.
Religion was overshadowed with rites and rituals. New gods and goddesses emerged during this period. All gods lost significance and replaced by Prajapati, Rudra and Vishnu. Every Aryan performed a number of sacrifices under the supervision of the Brahmana priest unlike Rig Vedic times where Yagya(sacrifice) was a simple affair which every householder could do.
The economic condition of the Aryans of the later Vedic period underwent changes. Due to the emergence of caste system various occupations also appeared. Agriculture was the principal occupation of the people. As the Aryans of the later Vedic period lived in the villages.
In the villages small peasant owners of land were replaced by big landlords who secured possession of entire villages. Iron was discovered and used. Iron made tools like plough helped improve agriculture which was widely practiced. Rice was grown and became staple food. Improved method of tilling the land by deep ploughing, manuring and sowing with better seeds were known to the Aryans.
More lands were brought under cultivation that led to permanent settlements. Eating of meat reduced. Wool was added along with cotton for clothing. The volume of trade and commerce had increased by leaps and bounds. Both inland and overseas trades were developed.
Inland trade was carried on by barter system. Exchange of herbs for clothes, mattresses and skins. The people became familiar with the navigation of the seas. The coins which were in circulation were “Nishka”, “Satamana” and “Krishnala”. Occupation like money lenders, chariot makers, dyers, weavers, barbers, goldsmiths, ironsmiths, washer men, bow makers, carpenters, musicians etc.
The art of writing probably developed in this period. The use of silver was increased and ornaments were made out of it. The means of transport and communication developed with the growth of trade and commerce. Mention may be made of wagons drawn by oxen, chariots for war and sport. Elephants and horses were also used. Ships and boats were also used as means of transport. Society was economically well to do.
The Aryans of Vedic age had reached the highest stage of civilization. This age had excelled in every walk of life. All the valuable things in man’s life—philosophy, religion, science and code of conduct were all developed in the Vedic age. In fact, Aryans served as the torch-bearers of Indian civilization throughout the ages.