Ancient civilization in India goes back to the Indus Valley Civilization, across the bank of the Indus River in Pakistan and North-Western parts of India. The Indus Civilization is considered one of the three most ancient civilizations along with the Egyptian and Mesopotamian Civilizations. It was a highly developed civilization that marked farming settlements and various religious practices. It, however, reached its peak between 2500-2000 BCE with the emergence of small towns and cities.
The Aryan Expansion
The Aryans invaded into the Indian subcontinent by 1500 BCE leading to the downfall of the Indus Valley Civilization. These group of nomadic cattle herders originally belonged to Central Asia. They expanded their territory in Northern India, from Sapta-Sindhu (seven rivers) to Brahmavarta (eastern region of Punjab), gradually spreading to Eastern India. The expansion of the Aryan Civilization also took place in Southern India by the end of the Vedic Age. The geographic region where the Indo-Aryan culture is based was referred to as ‘Aryavarta’.
The Vedic Period
The term ‘Aryans’ is thought to be used as a self-designation by the Indo-European people meaning ‘the noble ones’. The Aryan beliefs, rituals and their daily lives are scripted in liturgical texts known as Vedas. These Vedas constitute the primary source of learning the period and is an important form of ancient literature. Namely, there are four Vedas– Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and, Atharva Veda. Hence the period between 1500-1000 BCE is known as the Vedic Period.
The early Vedic Period was a late Bronze Age society centered in Punjab and consisted of tribes who sustained primarily on the pastoral way of life. The second half of the Vedic Period was characterized by the rise of towns and kingdoms with a complex form of social differentiation. During this time, the Central Ganges Plain was ruled by the non-Vedic Indo-Aryan culture. With the end of the Vedic Period, the rise of cities and large states (Mahajanapadas) took place. Also, Jainism and Buddhism took over the Vedic orthodoxy.
The Vedic Way of Life
There was huge progress in the urbanization of Indian Civilization during the Vedic Age. It was a gateway to an immense social, political, economic, and religious expansion that led to some of the most remarkable developments.
The Vedic Period witnessed the emergence of the hierarchy of social classes which still remains influential. They are classified into four classes or ‘varnas’ on the basis of their occupation-
- Brahmin (priests, scholars, teachers)
- Kshatriya (warriors, nobles, rulers)
- Vaishya (traders and farmers)
- Sudra (workers and artisans)
With the development of the complex form of the Indian society, these classes became the caste system. The caste represents the social status, boundaries and ritual purity of an individual. However, the rise of Buddhism in the late 6th century BC amounted to be one of the crucial challenges to the caste system that prevailed in the society. Gautama Buddha imparted equality among all the social communities. Buddhism started to gain its popularity against the Aryan racial purity. Thus, accounting into the disintegration of the social caste system.
The Vedic household was patriarchal and patrilineal in nature. The male was always considered as the head of the family. The women even enjoyed a respectable position in society. The women had the freedom to choose their husbands and even remarry if their husbands disappeared or died.
With the evolution of monarchy, the King was considered to have sovereignty over the territory. He functioned to be a protector of the common people that included both secular and religious power.
The Aryans are known for their bravery and skills in fighting wars. They took part in a number of conflicts including the one fought with the Dasas and the Dasyus. According to the Rig Veda, the Dasas and the Dasyus are the ones who did not perform sacrifices (Akratu) or obey the commandments of Gods (Avrata). An account of the military conflicts between the various tribes of Vedic Aryans has also been scripted in the Rig Veda.
The most notable remains the Battle of Ten Kings which was fought along the bank of River Parushni (modern-day Ravi). The battle was fought between the tribe Bharatas, led by their chief Sudas against an alliance of ten other tribes. The Bharatas immerged victorious in the war defeating the Purus (tribes from the lower region of River Saraswati) and merged into a new tribe, Kuru. It is often believed that the division of the River Ravi explains the cause of the war.
Towards the end of the later Vedic Period, the small political units amalgamated into large kingdoms known as Mahajanapadas. This aggravated towards the path of urbanization that inculcated the growth of trade and commerce. It also marked linguistic, cultural and political transformations. The economy was however sustained by pastoralism and agriculture. The economic exchanges were performed through the exchange of gifts particularly to kings (Bali) and priests (Dana) and barter using cattle as a unit of currency. The use of any other form of currency as in coins is not indicated anywhere in the Vedas. However, the Rig Veda suggests the use of bronze and copper in the form of instruments like axes and razors. The use of iron or ‘black metal’ is mentioned in the post-Rigvedic period in Atharva Veda. This indicates the Early Vedic Period as the Bronze-Age culture and the Later Vedic Period as the Iron-Age culture.
With the dominance of agriculture along the Ganges valley, there was a notable increase in the trade and competition for the resources. Crops like wheat, rice, and barley were cultivated. Other significant occupations include carpentry, tanning, dyeing, pottery, wine making, jewelry-making, and astrology. The mention of merchants or Panis is even there in the Rig Veda. Also, there are references to seas and oceans which indicate the operation of overseas trade. The custom of enslavement (Dasa, Dasi) was prevalent in the course of the war or as a result of the non-payment of debt. However, they were entitled to household work only.
Religion and Literature
The four Vedas are considered a crucial source of religion and literature. Nonetheless, the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and the older Upanishads are considered to be Vedic. Some of the oldest Srautasutras are believed to be Vedic origin too. The rishis or priests, composer of the hymns of the Rig Veda were influenced by poets and prophets. The Vedic mode of worship, summoned around the singing of Samans and chanting of mantras (Yajus), accompanied by the ritual of sacrifice (Yajna). The term Yajna is a derived from the Sanskrit word Yaj which comprises of a three-fold meaning- the worship of deities (Devapujana), unity (Saogatikarana) and charity (dana). The divine Agni (sacrificial fire) was a key element in the performance of Yajna. Indra, Agni, and Soma were the divine powers they would worship along with nature deities Surya (the Sun), Vayu (the wind) and Prithvi (the Earth).
The relationship of the humans with the deities is that of proceedings with Agni being the messenger between the two. Vedic ethics are based on two concepts- Satya and Rta. The idea of unification with the Absolute is known as Satya, whereas, Rta is the expression of Satya.
With the beginning of the Common Era, the Vedic tradition rendered to be one of the vivid constituents of the ‘Hindu synthesis’. The Vedic religion played an important role in the evolvement of Hinduism that set its foot with texts as Upanishads and epics, namely Gita, Ramayana and, Mahabharata. To this day, these epics are considered as a rich source of spirituality and Hindu culture.
The Vedic Significance
The Vedic Age of ancient world history gave birth to one of the oldest Indian civilizations. It saw the emergence of rich culture and religious development. The rise of the caste system became so influential that it still predominates in Indian society to this date. The continuance of caste is considered entirely hereditary. With the expansion of diverse professions, caste system later was divided into sub-castes or jatis. Presently there are nearly 3000 castes or sub-castes in India. Though the caste system is considered an obstacle towards intellectual and economic progress of the nation, on the contrary, it helps in maintaining social, religious and economic injustices. It is observed that Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism were also the outcome of this age. These three distinctive religions are rigorously followed by billions of people across the world. Also, the Brahmins became the most superior of all the castes in racial purity.
However, in modern times, the prevalent caste system is losing its grip in the Indian society. There are several factors that have contributed to its decline. Western ideas, modern education, changing economic scenario, and modern ideologies being the specific cause for it. Rapid urbanization and fast economic development contribute to the ever-changing social structure. The idea of Communism implies equality in all spheres irrespective of sex, caste, and creed stands in the way of caste inequality. Thus, new India aims to progress in every stratum walking down the lane of mass equality and solidarity.