Ancient Indian History Notes for UPSC [Part 4] Vedic age

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vedic age upsc
Early Vedic age- (ca 15th century BC to 1000 BC)
  • The political setup of Rigvedic tribes was of a partial monarchy. A number of tribes are mentioned in Rigvedic like the Panchajana – Yadu, Puru, Anu, Druhyu, Turvasu- along with Bharatas, Tritsus, etc. The tribes developed kinship ties described by various words like Jana, Vish, Grama, Kula, Gana, etc. The tribal head was probably called as Rajan or Prajapati. The tribal conflicts were the main source of booty. It was fairly distributed among the people as the numbers were less and assemblies were possible.
  • The society was mainly pastoral. RS Sharma has highlighted the importance of cow from the words appearing in Rig Vedic with prefix gau – Gopati as lord of cattle, Gavishti, Gavya as cattle raids, Gocharman as a parameter to measure area/distance, etc. The yagyas also frequently demand for cows and sons. Same case for Danastutis. Lord Pusan as protector of cattle. This shows overwhelming importance for cattle
  • However, this does not make agriculture a secondary activity. RN Nandi has shown the occurrence of words that show an agricultural society. Verbs Vap, to sow, and Krish, to cultivate, occur multiple times. Words for hoe (khanitra), sickle (datra). Hymns demanding fertile lands (urvara) and furrows (sita) occur. Generic term for grains (dhanya) occurs many times. A prayer to Kshetrapati is interpreted as one who protects the fields.

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  • The purohita was the main religious priest to the king who used to chant verses in a Yagya on behalf of the king. Vasishtha and Vishwamitra were famous of the priests. During a Yagya, various types of priests were present like Hota, Udgata, Adhvaryu, etc.
  • Tribal assembly was known as Sabha, Samiti, Vidatha, etc. Sabha was larger than samiti. Vidatha is understood as a tribal assembly for specific purposes like socio-religious ceremonies. Distribution of war booties and assemblies show a partial democratic character of Vedic people.
  • Aryans were fire worshippers. Hence after Indra, Agni finds mention in Rigveda.
  • The art of fire worshipping found place in Yagyas. The holy fire was lit and people sat around it. 3 types of fire. The yajamana was the offerer helped by priests of Hota, Udgata, Adhvaryu, etc. Oblations of milk, ghee, grains were offered to different gods like Indra, Agni, Varuna, Soma, Marutas, Surya, etc. Sometimes animal sacrifice took place. Prayers for long life, wealth, sons, cows and destruction of enemies. Soma was the favourite drink of the Vedic people. No trace of idol worship found.
  • The gods were multiple but in a particular hymn, that god was supreme. Max Meuller has called this as Henotheism. The gods were also attached to a particular natural phenomenon like Usha, Vidyut, Prithvi, Dyu, etc. The Gods are anthropogenic i.e having human characters. Their face, body, hair, weapons, etc are described.
  • Tribal conflicts included relentless conflicts with Das, Dasyus and Asuras who were considered degraded. Same names appear in Avesta. Conflict of Abhyavartin Chayamana at Hariyupiya war, war of 10 kings of Sudas, war of Divodas with Sambara, war against the Panis, etc.
  • The Aryans were a patriarchal society with verses occurring to granting boons of sons and cows.
  • Women are seen as composers of verses but most are men. Even the gods are men except for Ila, Saraswati, Prithvi, etc. Danastutis are prevalent with priests composing hymns for the king who gave dana or grants in form of cows and sons.
Later Vedic Age (1000 BC to 600 BC)

Described in post Rig vedic scriptures like the other 3 Vedas. Brahmanas contain the descriptions of different social and religious customs.

  • It is put forth that the Aryans spread as Bharatas and Purus from western doab region of Sarasvati and Drishadvati to western UP and finally to interior Bihar.
  • The era is marked by Painted Grey Ware pottery in western UP.
  • Iron came to be used as weapon and for agriculture. Different clans of Aryans expanded to cover entire north india.
  • Pastoral way of life started to give way to agricultural way of life. Words for cereals like Godhuma (wheat), Vrihi (rice) and yava (barley) and references to ploughng, sowing, harvesting are found. The Aitareya Brahmana suggests the king should gift gold, field, cattle to a Brahmana who anno into him. The references in Shatapatha Brahmana (13-2.2) about connecting iron to peasantry. Word Ayovikara Kushi used for plough in Ashtadhyayi. All these shows increasing agriculture.
  • Other non-agri professions also begin to come up as urbanisation grew. Vajasaneyi Samhita (30) talks if different professions needed in a Purushamedha Sacrifice including carpenter, goldsmith, barber, jeweller, drummer, door keeper, etc.
  • Gotra system came up.
  • Ashramas of life – Brahmachari, Grihastha, Vanaprastha and Sanyas. Upanishadic philosophy arises.
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Political Consolidation
janapada period upsc
  • Janas to Janapadas- The agro-pastoralists of the early Vedic era slowly started to gain power and gain territory. The chiefs of the clans started to exert their power and authority coupled with the divine permission they got by performing Yagyas through Brahmins. Thus, chiefs started to become kings as the tribes expanded. This resulted in establishing of Mahajanapadas. The kingdoms were of two types – monarchies or Rajyas and oligarchies or Gana-Sanghas. Michael Witzel has called the Kurus under king Parikshit as the first such kingdom in India.
  • The reason given for the king to be sovereign in his kingdom as to prevent external aggression and to prevent Matsyanyaya or the law of the fish which brings in chaotic situation.
  • Philosophical reason given in Aitareya Brahmana where in a story, Gods were defeated in a war and they realise they lost because they had no king. In tribal days, Rajan could be a post but soon it became hereditary.
  • Shatapatha Brahmana has a term called Dasha-Purusha-Rajyam which could indicate legitimacy granted to a royal family to rule if it had passed 10 generations.
  • 16 Mahajanpadas were formed with their capital cities being centres of trade and commerce. Cities like Kaushambi, Shravasti, Rajagriha, etc became famous, Kaushambi being the earliest. It must be noted that after the changes of water systems in western parts of india, the focus naturally shifted to the Gangetic basin where new metropolis started to come up.
Gana Sanghas
gana sanghas upsc
  • Ganas or Sanghas are a different setup of polity than the traditional monarchies. Perhaps, the tribes that started acquiring territories in later Vedic age came together to form Gana-Sanghas rather than having a monarchial structure. Thus, they have characteristics of a tribal assembly than monarchies.
  • It can also be a movement to abolish the growing caste and sex discriminations as they had the memories of the yester years where no such discriminations existed.
  • It was also a reaction to the kings usurping all powers and rights and denying the same to the leading members of their tribes. These members thus broke off and started ruling separately.
  • A story of Shakyas also says 4 brothers and 4 sisters broke off from the Kosala clan to form a Shakya clan
  • Gana-Sanghas existed in lower Ganga valley like Shakyas of Kapilvastu, Vajjis and Lichhavis of Vaishali, Moriyas of Pippalivahana, etc while Ashtadhyayi mentions some in the Indus valley like Malavas and Kshudrakas, Shibis, Madras of Shakala, Audumbaras of Pathankot and Yaudheyas of Rohtak, etc.
  • Functioning
  • They did not have one monarch but sub-feudal rulers called Rajas who governed their own areas. They elected their leader called Ganamukhya or Ganapati who had a fixed tenure.
  • They met in the assembly hall called Santhagara once a year to transact important businesses and to elect their leader.
  • Ekapanna Jataka notes that 7707 rajas sat for a meeting in Lichhavi capital of Vaishali along with their Senapatis and Bhandgarikas
  • Rajas were allowed to maintain their own administrative setup and even army under a Senapati
  • The Lichhavi assembly had rights to pronounce punishments such as death. Thus, they also performed judicial functions.
  • However, assembly was only of Kshatriya men and women were not allowed.
  • In the centuries after Christ, certain Gana-Sanghas have seen to be issuing coins like the Yaudheyas, Malavas, etc.
Challenge to orthodoxy
  • These gana-sanghas challenged the Vedic orthodoxy. Walter Ruben has noted that the Brahmins and purohitas had their existence tied to the monarchies due to grants and they get but hardly such references are found in case of Gana-Sanghas.
  • This was the time of compostion of Dharmashastras like Grihyasutras, Sulvasutras and Smritis from 6th century to 2nd century. Thus, orthodoxy was strengthened.
  • Digha Nikaya even has a story where a Brahmin from Kapilvastu was laughed at in the Shakya assembly and was treated with scant respect.
  • Mentions of Gana-Sanghas are mainly found in Buddhist and Jain texts but rarely in Brahminical texts.
  • However, if Vedic orthodoxy means rule of elite and oppression of the lower classes, perhaps the Gana-Sanghas were no different. The ganasanghas consisted of the second class called Dasa-Karmakara meaning slave and hired labour. Malvas and Kshudrakas gave citizenship to first two varnas but left out slaves and hired laborers. It is not clear whether the slaves were forced to serve and whether they had any representation in the Sabhas or not.
  • Lalitavistara has a story where Bodhisattvas are discussing where the future Buddha should be born. They reject Lichhavis due to their infighting.
  • Fall- Gana-Sanghas were seen in Buddhist times but after Maurayan times, monarchy became famous. It was perhaps because of internal fighting and governance structure, the gana-sanghas lagged while the monarchies flourished due to unity of command and standing armies. Arthashastra also mentions that a monarch should destroy Gana-Sanghas by creating internal dissent. Ajatshatru and Varshakara and Buddha’s advice of creating discord. Gana Sanghas in Ganga valley declined faster than those in Punjab
  • Gana-Sanghas become important because Mahavira belonged to Vrijji and Buddha to Shakya gana-sangha.
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Varna Hierarchy
varna hierarchy from highest to lowest
  • Varna literally means colour. However, in the Vedic context, it came to be seen as a social category.
  • In context of early Vedic age, no specific Varna classification exists. Rigveda hardly mentions words like Vaishya, Shudra or Brahmana.
  • However, the social stratification observed was Arya vs Dasa. Sometimes, the general word “vis” or people was used for them. But overall, society appeared to be split on clans than class
  • The later Vedic age is when the real distinction began.
  • Varna began to be defined on 3 grounds- Access to rituals, Access to political power, Access to resources.
  • Purusha Sukta (10.90.12) talks of the emergence of different varnas. The Sukta talks of their creation from the forces of nature, sky, moon, etc which indicates it as an unchangeable world order
  • However, the order seems to be ambiguous. Shatapatha Brahmana places Kshatriya as the first one in the order.
  • The concept of Dvija came where an Upanayan Ceremony is to be conducted for the first three Varnas.
  • Brahmanas got exclusive hold over rituals given their expertise in Sanskrit Sruti tradition. The Kshatriyas and Vaishyas were granted entry into rituals given they were chief patronisers of rituals.
  • Below the Shudras, existed a slave class (Dasas and Dasis). Rigvedic has references- Kakshivan is son of rishi Dirghatamas from a woman slave, Kavasha Ailusha was son of woman slave.

In Shatapatha Brahmana and Chhandogya Upanishad, Chandalas are seen as victims to be offered in a Purushamedha Yagya.

There are rules called Apad-dharma wherein Varna rules could be overlooked.

  • However, fluidity did exist. Rigvedic (9.112.3) says- I am a reciter of hymns, my father is a physician and my mother is a corn grinder. We desire to obtain wealth.
Condition of women
  • Father-son relationship is focussed on. Sacrifices are for getting valorous sons. Later Vedic ages considered a Griha or house as the important unit headed by Grihapati
  • A woman’s importance was seen from the fact that a Yajamana can’t perform a Yagya without his wife.
  • A woman was entitled to Upanayan is clear from the Atharva Veda where a girl is spoken of as being eligible for marriage having finished her Brahmacharya.
  • Upanishadic scholars like Gargi and Maitrayee existed but they were limited
  • Rigveda has female gods like Ila, Prithvi, Aditi, etc
  • Ideas about marriage- The Surya Sukta of Rigvedic says that a bride is a precious asset as well as having destructive potential
  • Shatapatha Brahmana talks of wife as half her husband while Brihadaranyaka talks of a ritual to obtain a learned daughter
  • However, the Atharvaveda says that life of a spinster is a greatest curse for a woman
  • Absence of political rights- Maitrayini Samhita says men go to assembly, not women.
  • Thus, a woman is good only when she is married and does her household chores. She won’t have any political or legal rights and be subordinate to her husband. Only in rare cases were women scholars found.
  • Yagyas and their elaborate rituals gained significance in society.
  • Priests who were experts in Vedas were called. Hota from Rigveda, Adhvaryu from Yajurveda and Udgata from Samveda were called. The one performing the ritual was one from the Dvija varna and called Yajamana.

Agnihotra is the simplest sacrifice performed daily by the Dvija Grihapati twice a day.

Thus, in early Vedic times, Srauta sacrifices would have been complex. But in later Vedic period, the emergence of Grihya Sutras simplified sacrifices for common people to be performed daily or periodically.

  • Aim of rituals- They depict the aims, aspirations and fear of people. Material gains are asked for. Valorous sons are asked for. Gods are prayed for victory in battles.
  • Danastutis- Rigvedic 6.27. Bharadvaja Barhaspatya praises Abhyavartin Chayamana for Dana or donations.
  • Public nature of rituals- Sacrifices grew more complex. Vajapeya included chariot races, Rajasuya and Ashvamedha involved quest for power. Sva (close relatives) and Sajata (people from same Varna) were to be involved including women.
  • The yagyas became a source of social exchange as many involved work of multiple professions belonging to various varnas. Purushmedha yagya, Ratnahavimshi ceremony of Rajasuya involved giving gifts from purohota, queens, and nobles to lowest varnas like charattior, carpenter, bard, village headman, etc.
upanishads upsc
  • Swami Vivekananda -Upanishads are Bible of India. They represent the pinnacle of Vedic thought and occupy the same place as New Testament
  • The ritualistic nature of the Vedas created a need for a deeper philosophical thought and the sanction behind the sacrifices.
  • Thus, concepts like karma, rebirth, eternal truth, oneness of everything came up in the Upanishads like Chhandogya, Brihadaranyaka, etc. Most of them date to 1000-500BCE.
  • The Muktika cannon mentions around 108 Upanishads.
  • The Upanishads were just continuations of the Vedas, albeit with more philosophical outlook. The Upanishads are not necessarily against sacrifice. The Upanishads tried to explain the deep meaning of the Vedic sacrifices because they looked at the symbolic meaning of the sacrifice. Thus, knowledge of this symbolic is more important than conducting a sacrifice.
  • Eg- Ashvamedha is done using a horse. Brihadaranyaka re-describes the part of the horse- its head is dawn, it’s eye is sun, its breath is wind, etc.
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Brihadaranyaka talks of Yajnavalkya telling Gargi that Brahman sees but can’t be seen, thinks but can’t be thought, speaks but can’t be spoken. Brahman has been described as the eternal being from which everything is born. Thus, the Ghosha Vakya of Upanishad- Tat Tvam Asi and Aham Brahmasmi.

  • Concept of Maya was put forth by Shvetashvatara Upanishad. It generally means ignorance or illusion.
  • From this cycle of life, liberation or Moksha was considered to be the final goal.
  • Thus, developed schools of philosophy – Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankya, Yoga, Purva Mimansa and Uttara Mimansa.
  • Kings were also seen as philosophers. Eg- Janaka and Ashvapati Kekaya.
  • Impact- relief from ritualistic aspect of Vedas. Message of equality, unity and tolerance. In 8th century CE, Shankaracharya used the same message to boost Bhakti movement in south.
Iron technology and its impact
  • There is no conclusive proof that iron is mentioned in the Rigvedic. The generic word used is Ayas which could just mean any metal like coper, bronze, etc
  • Rigvedic has references to word Ayas in various ways like India’s thunderbolt made of Ayas, Dasyu cities of ayas, chariot of Mitra and Varuna made of Ayas, etc.
  • In later Vedic age, however, we find widespread usage of iron. Texts composeed between 1000BC to 500BC do mention ayas
  • Words such as Krishna-Ayas and Shyama-Ayas occur in Yajurveda and Atharvaveda.
  • Overall, the growth of iron technology in 1st millenia BCE is synonymous with the urbanisation. We find iron objects growing from the PGW to NBPW phases and by 800-500 BCE, there was widespread usage of iron throughout the subcontinent. Eg- Atranjikhera period IV and IV-A excavations revealed more than 250 iron objects
  • Iron helped in growth of agriculture and its surplus to support an urban population. It helped in urbanization. Panini’s Ashtadhyayi calls Ayovikara Kushi as name for iron ploughshare.

Use of iron in tools like hoes, sickles, ploughs, etc. Buddhist texts like Suttanipata, we find references to iron objects like ball, hammer, etc. Ease of transport by using iron axles for chariots and caravans. Helped in trade and commerce.

  • Iron weapons- Herodotus mentions that Indian soldiers with arrow heads of iron participated in war with Persian king Xerxes.
  • However, in early ages iron smelting process would be crude due to restriction in temperature raising.
  • RS Sharma feels that it was iron that made rapid spread into Gangetic valley possible by clearing forests. He also felt that the growth in economy and society was responsible for emergence of Buddhism and Jainism.
  • DD Kosambi feels that the growth of Magadha as a main kingdom was due to the iron reserves found in Chhota Nagpur plateau. Thus, it was iron that led to changes in subcontinent.
  • Niharranjan Roy has contradicted RS Sharma saying that forests could be cleared by fire too. He also pointed out that iron became prevalent from 800-500 BC or mid-NBPW levels when urbanisation was already progressing. Thus, role of iron should not be overstretched.
  • Iron technology was introduced in south India during same times but did not lead to widespread urbanisation. The earliest traces can be of 4th century BC. Thus, there is no necessary connection between iron and urbanisation. Found in megalithic burials.
  • Lastly, Harappa became urbanized without iron.
  • Iron smelting occurred in Gangetic plains in mid 2nd millennium BCE at Chalcolithic sites like Mangalkot, Raja Nal Ka Tila, Pandu Rajar Dhibi, etc but brought no specific urbanization in the Chalcolithic cultures, their pattern of settlement, subsistence pattern or pottery. The change began about a thousand years later showing that impact of iron was not as intense as being projected.
  • Thus, reasons for urbanisation include political, economic and social ones. Iron just acted as a facilitator.