The Vedic Age marks a new phase in ancient Indian History which began with the arrival of the Aryans in India around 1500 BC. It lasted for almost a thousand years, in the course of which a number of economic, social, political and religious developments took place. The Vedic Age is accordingly divided into two periods of about equal duration - Early Vedic Period and Later Vedic Period.
A few centuries after the decline of the Harappan civilization, a new culture flourished in the same region and gradually spread across the Ganga-Yamuna plains. This culture came to be known as the Aryan culture. Aryans settled on the banks of rivers Indus (Sindhu) and Saraswati (which is now non-existent).
Vedas are the most important source of information on the Vedic Age. The Early Vedic period is known mainly from the Rig Veda, which was the first Veda to be composed. For this period, when the Vedic tribes lived in northwest part of the subcontinent including Punjab and Afghanistan, we do not have much archaeological evidence. This was probably because the Early Vedic people generally led a nomadic life and did not stay for long at any place.
Their economy was mainly pastoral. Cattle-rearing was the chief means of livelihood. Horses, goats and sheep were also important. A little agriculture was also practiced. Family, clan and tribes (called Janas) were the social units, and there were no castes. The chief of the tribe was called Raja. Popular assemblies of all members of the Janas, called Sabhas and Samitis, had an important say in public affairs. A number of deities were worshipped, Indra being the most important of them.
The Later Vedic period is known in much greater detail from the vast corpus of Later Vedic literature as well as from archeological material. The Later Vedic literature comprised of the following books, that is, the three Vedas - Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. There were also commentaries on all the four Vedas called Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads.
During the Later Vedic period, there was a large scale eastward movement of the Aryan communities to Indo-Gangetic Doab and Upper Ganga plains. Towards the end of the period, three important kingdoms came up further East: Kashi, Koshala and Videha. Agriculture was now the main occupation, and number of crops including rice, wheat and sugarcane were grown.
Crafts also multiplied, iron weapons and tools were introduced. People now led a settled life in villages. Castes began to emerge and crystallise in the form of four Varnas - Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. The powers of the king and his men increased, and those of the assembly were proportionately undermined. Sacrifices now became very elaborate. The importance of the god Indra receded; new gods such as Prajapati figured prominently. Towards the end of this period, a reaction to the sacrificial ritual could also be observed which we find mentioned in the Upanishads.
The word veda means knowledge of the sacred spiritual knowledge.
The Rigveda includes more than a thousand hymns. These hymns are in praise of various gods and goddesses - Agni (god of fire), Indra (warrior god) and Soma (plant from which a special drink was prepared). The Rigveda was recited and heard rather than read. It was written down several centuries after it was first composed, and printed less than 200 years ago.
Two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and the Puranas, though compiled much later, also throw light on the life and society of an earlier period.
Though Aryan society was patriarchal, women were treated with dignity and honour. The family was the smallest social unit. Several families (kula) made a village (grama) and several villages formed a vis. A number of villages formed a tribe or jana which was ruled by a chief called rajan. He was assisted by the members of two councils called sabha and samiti.
The Purohita performed religious functions while the senani looked after military activities. There was no concept of the state or kingdom at this stage.
Towards the later Vedic period, society was divided into four varnas:
To begin with it denoted categories of people doing different kinds of functions but with the passage of time this division became hereditary and rigid. The teachers were called Brahmans, the ruling class was called Kshatriyas, farmers, merchants and bankers were called Vaishyas while the artisans, craftsmen, labourers were called Shudras.
Another important social institution of the time was the system of chaturashrama or the division of life span into four distinct stages:
The ultimate aim of life was to attain moksha or salvation through the pursuit of dharma, artha and kama.
The early Vedic people worshipped forces of nature and personified them as gods and goddesses. Indra, Agni, Varuna, Marut were some of their gods while Usha: Aditi, Prithvi were some of their goddesses. Some of the solar Gods and goddesses referred to in the Rig Veda are Surya, Savitri and Pushau. Yajna (sacrifice) was performed along with chanting of Vedic hymns. People poured ghee (clarified butter) and other ingredients into the fire to invoke the blessings of gods. Agni or fire was looked upon as an intermediary between Gods and humans.
There was a change in religious practices during the later Vedic period. The prominent Gods of the early Vedic period like Indra, Agni and Varuna lost their prominence and popularity. Their place was taken by a new trinity of Gods where Brahma enjoyed the supreme position, while Vishnu became the preserver and Shiva completed the trinity.
Sanskrit mantras, which were the monopoly of Brahmins, became an essential part of all religious functions. This made the Brahmins very powerful and the Yajnas expensive. The kings performed Ashvamedha, Rajasuya and Vajapeya sacrifies to establish their position.
By the end of the latter Vedic age changes started occurring in the society. For the first time people started discussing certain beliefs such as creation of the universe, life after death and essence of life. These were questions which were dealt with in great detail in the Upanishads. Upanishad literally means "approaching and sitting near" and the texts contain conversations between teachers and students.
The Aryans were primarily pastoral and agricultural people. They domesticated animals like cows, horses, sheeps, goats and dogs. They ate simple food consisting of cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables, milk and various milk products. They drank a beverage called Soma. Games of chess, chariot racing, etc. were their modes of entertainment.
In the early period there was no money transaction or taxes. Bali or voluntary donation was prevalent. Cows were the measure of wealth.
As the time passed, extensive use of iron brought great changes in their material life. Iron axes enabled them to clear forests leading to the expansion of agriculture throughout the Gangetic plains. Iron tools resulted in varied crafts and technology. Use of iron weapons and horses enabled them to fight wars and defendthemselves better against enemies.
In the 6th century BC there came up large territorial states in northern and eastern India known as the Mahajanapadas. There were sixteen such states namely Anga, Magadha, Vajji, Kashi, Koshala, Malla, Kuru, Panchala, Vatsa, Avanti, Kamboja, Gandhara, Assaka, Chedi, Matsya, and Shurasena.
Among them Magadha, Kosala and Avanti were the most powerful. The extension of agriculture, growth of trade and industries, rise of territorial states and beginning of urbanization gave rise to new forces in the society. Thus, the 6th century BC was also a period of socio-religious transformation. People expressed their dissatisfaction against the ritualistic Brahmanism and Vedic sacrifices. There emerged numerous sects and reformatory movements.
This period called the Ancient Period in History saw the rise of two important religions called Jainism and Buddhism.