Vedic Age

Having completed the important topic of Indus Valley Civilization in detail, now we come to some smaller topics which are not as much important from UPSC’s point of view. Here our approach would be to give a general idea of the Vedic Period and highlight the important terms. Some of the terms may be hard to remember, but we will try to make it interactive using diagrams, maps and tables.

We call the Period between 1500 to 600 BCE the Vedic age as its reconstruction has been made from Vedic text as the primary source. Indo-Aryans (those who spoke the Indo-European language) are believed to be the composer of Vedic texts. Different theories postulate how Aryans came to India:

Name of the Theory The postulate of the Theory Proposed or Supported by
Aryan Migration Theory Indo-Aryans migrated in a series of immigration from different regions.
  • Evidence show migration from Andronovo Culture (South Siberia) to north of Hindu Kush and from there to India
  • Evidence of horses, fire cults, spoked wheels, and cremation support this view
It is the most accepted and dominant theory till


Central Asian Theory Aryans migrated from Central Asia and Eurasian Steppe
  • The similarity between Vedic words and concepts with that of Avesta (Iranian Text)

A recent study ‘The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia’ (2018) of the Y chromosome support this view

Max Muller

Vedic Age

European Theory Europe is the homeland of Aryans

Based on the comparative linguistic study of Greek, Latin, German, and Sanskrit e.g. Sanskrit words ‘Pitri’ and ‘Matri’ are similar to the Latin ‘Pater’ and ‘Mater’

Sir William Jones (1786)

Vedic Age

Indian Theory Aryans were indigenous to the subcontinent.
  • The sacrificial rituals, the geographical data, found from Rig Veda point to the Indian origin of Vedic Aryans

DNA analysis of Women Skelton found at Rakhigarhi refutes the Aryan migration theory

Dr. Sampurnanand and A.C Das; Ganganath Jha and others
Arctic Region Theory Northern Arctic is the homeland for Aryans as Vedas speak of 6 months of long days and long night Bal Gangadhar Tilak
Tibet Theory Tibet is the original home of Aryans Swami Dayananda Saraswati

Vedic Age

For sake of Study, the Vedic Age has been divided into Rig Vedic (or Early Vedic Period between 1500 to 1000 BCE) and Later Vedic Period (1000-600 BCE)

Features Early Vedic Period Later Vedic Period
  • Early Aryans were based in and around Indus and its tributaries (Western India)
  • They called it Sapt-Sindavah (land of Seven Rivers)

Saraswati (Ghaggar-Hakra Channel) was considered the holiest river

  • Later Aryans moved to eastern areas (up to Bengal) with the help of fire and Iron tools
  • The core area was the Kuru-Panchala region (Indo-Gangetic divide and the upper Ganga Valley)(see image)

Story of Videga Madhava (in Satapatha Brahmana): Videga Madhava moved east of River Gandak with help of fire god Agni

Reference to Sea No reference to Sea in Rig Veda (term ‘Samudra’ meant the collection of water and not sea) Acquired knowledge of Eastern and Western Sea and also of Narmada and Vindhyan Mountains

Geography of the Vedic Age

Features Early Vedic Period Later Vedic Period
Form of Government
  • Monarchy but the office of the chief was not hereditary
  • Chief (Rajan) was called Gopati or Gopa (Protector of cows)
  • Battle was called Gavisthis or Gavenshana or Goshu but no standing army
  • No doctrine of divinity associated with the kingship
  • Important functionaries:
    • Purohit (priest)
    • Senani (leader of the army)

Gramini (leader of a village)

  • Kingship became hereditary
  • King’s power increased and they performed various sacrifices to enhance his position
    • Rajasuya ( royal consecration and king conferred supreme power )
    • Vajapeya (chariot race to win against all kinsmen)
    • Ashwamedha (control over the area in which royal horse ran uninterrupted)
  • Kings still had no standing army
Administrative units
  • It had a Patrilineal system
  • Kula (Family) with the head as Kulapa -> Vis or clan -> Jana or tribe (largest social unit)
  • Jana changed to Janapadas ( denoting territory) and further enlarged to Kingdoms like Mahajanapadas

‘Rastra’ term appeared as wars were fought for territories now rather than cows

Tribal Assemblies
  • Sabhas (exclusive body for elites)
  • Samiti ( broad-based folk assembly, presided by the Rajan)
  • Vidatha (Tribal assembly with diverse functions)

Gana (Assembly or troop)

  • Sabhas and Samitis diminished in importance
  • Vidhatha disappeared
Features Early Vedic Period Later Vedic Period
  • Division based on Clan and not Caste lines
    • Even the Rajans and the Purohits were part of the clan network

The occupation was not based on Birth

  • Four-fold Division of Society based on Caste (see image)
  • Caste exogamy and rigid social hierarchy developed
  • Increasing cult of scarifies added to the power of the Brahmanas
Varna System
  • Varna (colour) was the basis of differentiation between Vedic and non-Vedic people (called ‘dasyus’ or ‘dasas’)
  • Rig Vedic society cannot be therefore called totally egalitarian society as social stratification was based on the division of labor and gender

Rig Vedic people familiar with slavery

  • The Varna system of social distinction became more distinct.
  • Varna system became based on birth and less on occupation

Varna-ashrama-dharma society: Showed four stages of life (see image)

Social mobility People could change their profession and absence of strict social hierarchy Restricted social mobility
Position of Women
  • Despite patriarchal society, women had important positions, were educated and had access to the assembly

They had the choice to choose their husband. No incidence of Sati, or Purdah

  • Their position in society
    • In the family, women were confined to household chores and subordinate position
  • Women were not permitted to attend public assemblies like Sabhas and Samitis.
  • Instances of Sati and Purdah
  • Despite these, there are a great examples of women scholars in this period such as Gargi, Maitreyi, and Katyayani
  • Early Vedic people practised usually Monogamous marriage but Polygyny and Polyandry also existed
  • Levirate (marrying the husband’s younger brother on the death of husband) also existed

Niyoga marriage existed ( it was a variant of widow remarriage in which childless widow was temporarily married to the husband’s brother to produce children )

  • Child marriages became common.
  • Gotras were institutionalized. Marriage between persons of the same gotra was forbidden
    • Mention of Chandrayana Penance for men marrying women of the same gotra

Society of Vedic Period

Features Early Vedic Period Later Vedic Period
  • Pastoral economy: Cattle rearing was the main occupation
  • The measure of wealth was cattle and wealthy man was called Gomat
Agricultural economy: Agriculture has become the chief  means of livelihood
Trade and Commerce
  • Meagre evidence of Trade and commerce
  • No concept of private property

Unite of currency was Nishka

  • Although, the land was still communally owned but the private property began to be recognized and the head of household (Grahpati) owned the land
  • The barter system was still prevalent but ‘Niskha’ was used as a unit of value (not as typical currency )

Shresthins (guild ) was the organization of merchants, which became prominent

Revenue System
  • No regular revenue system
  • Voluntary tribute (Bali) and bounty won in a battle was the source of income

Prestations: gift exchanged on group level was important for economy Rig Vedic society e.g. exchange of courtesies, weapon, cattle, etc.

  • Collection of taxes and tribute was made mandatory and were done by Sangrihitri

Vaishyas were the only tribute paying community in later Vedic times

  • Chariot-making, Carpentry, Tanning, etc.
  • They were familiar with copper but didn’t use Iron

It had Ochre Coloured Pottery

  • Started to use Iron (called Krishna Ayas/ Shyama Ayas)
  • They knew of Tin, lead, silver, gold, bronze and Copper

Later Vedic culture is also called PGW (Painted Grey ware)-Iron Phase culture as this type of pottery was used during this phase (see image)

  • Shifting type of agriculture
  • Barley (yava) was the main grain

Used wooden plough (Phala, langala and ‘sira’)

  • Settled agriculture had started and this led to the beginning of Urbanism (‘Nagar’ mentioned in Taittiriya Aranyaka)
  • Mixed farming (cultivation along with herding) was one of the prime occupations

Rice (Vrihi) and Wheat (Godhuma) was the staple diet

The economy of the Vedic Period

(* don’t worry about too many terms to remember, just go through them once)

Features Early Vedic Period Later Vedic Period
Nature of Worship
  • There was no temple or idol worship

They practiced primitive animism (worshipped forces of nature such as wind, rain, water, etc.)

  • Idolatry became prominent
  • Sacrifices became more elaborate and important
  • Brahmans gained in importance and they maintained their supremacy
  • They performed yajnas such as Ashvamedha, Vajapeya, etc. to establish their authority over the chiefs and their territory
Male Gods
  • Indra (most important): God of thunder/rain
  • Agni: God of fire
  • Varuna: God of water
  • Soma: God of plants
  • Yama: God of death
  • Pushan: God of jungle paths, herdsmen, and cattle
  • Vishnu: Benevolent god
  • Marutas: god of storm

Ashvins: twin god of war and fertility

  • Indra and Agni lost importance and Prajapati (god of creation) emerged supreme
  • Vishnu, Rudra (previously minor god) became prominent
  • Division in the class of deities appeared e.g. Pushan (god of cattle) became the god of Shudras
Female God
  • Savitri: Solar deity
  • Aditi: Goddess of eternity
  • Prithvi: Earth Goddess
  • Nirrti: Goddess of death
  • Usha: Goddess of dawn
The religion of Vedic Period
  • Gandharvas (divine musicians)
  • Apsaras (Mistress of God)
  • Vishwadevas (Intermediate Deities)

Aryaman (Guardian of compacts and marriages)

Terms used in Rig Vedic age Meaning Terms Sources
Godhuli Time Samsara ( transmigration of Soul) Brahadarankya Upanishad
Gavyuti Distance Four ashrams Jabala Upanishad
Gotra Kinship Satyamev Jayate Mandukya Upanishad
Gana Lineage Fou-rfold Varna system Rig Veda (10th Mandala)
Grama Village Trimurti God Maitrayani Upanishad
Gauri Buffalo Origin of Universe Rig Veda (10th Mandala)
Gojit Winner of Cow or a Hero Sabha and Samiti as twin daughters of Prajapati Atharva Veda
Goghna Guest fed on cattle
(* Rig Vedic economy was the pastoral economy and the terms are derived from ‘Gau’ (cow))
Past Year Prelims Questions

(Q) The “dharma” and “Rita” depict a central idea of the ancient Vedic civilization of India; in this context, consider the following statements: (2011)

(A) Dharma was a conception of obligations and the discharge of one’s duties to oneself and others.

(B) Rita was the fundamental moral law governing the functioning of the universe and all it contained.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

  1. A only
  2. B only
  3. Both A and B
  4. Neither A nor B

Q.  The religion of early Vedic Aryans was primarily of (2012)

  1. Bhakti
  2. Image worship and Yajnas
  3. Worship of nature and Yajnas
  4. Worship of nature and Bhakti

Q. The national motto of India, ‘Satyameva Jayate’, inscribed below the Emblem of India is taken from (2014)

  1. Katha Upanishad
  2. Chhandogya Upanishad
  3. Aitareya Upanishad
  4. Mandukya Upanishad

Answers: (3), (3), (4)