Vedic civilization

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The Vedic civilization is the Indo-Aryan culture associated with the Vedas, the earliest known records of Indian history. Mainstream scholarship places the Vedic civilization into the 2nd and 1st millennia BC, with some claims dating it as early as the 5th millennium BC based on alleged astronomical information in the texts. The use of Vedic Sanskrit continued up to the 6th century BC, when the culture started to be transformed into classical forms of Hinduism.


Rigvedic period

The origin of the Vedic civilization and its relation to the Indus Valley civilization remains highly controversial and politically charged; see the Aryan Invasion Theory for details. The texts describe a geography that some believe to be north India, and others believe describes Central Asia. Our knowledge of the early Vedans comes mainly from the Rigveda, the earliest of the Vedas, which is primarily a collection of religious hymns; therefore, our understanding of the actual, temporal details of early Vedic life is limited.

Political organization

The grama (village), vis and jana were political units of the early Vedans. A vis was probably a subdivision of a jana and a grama was probably a smaller unit than the other two. The leader of a grama was called gramani and that of a vis was called vispati. Another unit was the gana whose head was a jyeshta (elder).

The rashtra (state) was governed by a rajan (king). The king is often referred to as gopa (protector) and samrat (supreme ruler). He governed the people with their consent and approval. It is possible that he was sometimes elected. The sabha and samiti were popular councils.

The main duty of the king was to protect the tribe. He was aided by two functionaries, the purohita (chaplain) and the senani (army chief; sena: army). The former not only gave advice to the ruler but also practiced spells and charms for success in war. Soldiers on foot (patti) and on chariots (rathins), armed with bow and arrow were common. The king employed spasa (spies) and dutas (messengers). He often got a ceremonial gift, bali, from the people.

Society and economy

Rig Vedic society was characterized by a nomadic lifestyle with cattle rearing being the chief occupation. The Vedans kept herds of cattle and cows were held in high esteem. Milk was an important part of the diet. Agriculture was of equal importance and went hand in hand with cattle rearing. It grew more prominent with time as the community settled down. The cow was also the standard unit of barter; coins were not used in this period.

Families were patrilineal, and people prayed for abundance of sons. Education of women was not neglected, and some even composed Rig Vedic hymns. Marriage for love as well as for money was known. The concept of caste and hereditary nature of profession was based on one's capability. Society is divided into four major varna i.e. Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. Those who are outside these caste structure are known as adivasis or Tribals.

The food of the early Vedans consisted of parched grain and cakes, milk and milk products, and various fruits and vegetables. Consumption of meat was common among certain classes. A passage in the Rig Veda describes how to apportion the meat of a sacrificed horse. The use of the word goghn, translated by Taranath as "the killer of a cow", suggests that beef was also eaten, even by Brahmins, although this practice gradually declined since the cow was a valuable resource. However, Panini created a special sutra to establish the rule that goghn will only mean the receiver of a cow (and will not be used in any other sense). At many places, the cow is often described as aditi and aghnya (that which should not be killed.)

Vedic Religion

Main article: Vedic religion.

Texts considered to date to the Vedic period are mainly the four Vedas, but the Brahmanas, and some of the older Upanishads are also considered Vedic. The Vedas record the liturgy connected with the rituals and sacrifices performed by the purohitas.

The rishis, the composers of the hymns of the Rigveda, were considered divinely inspired seers (or rather "hearers", shrauta means "what is heard").

The mode of worship was performance of sacrifices and chanting of verses (see Vedic chant). The priests helped the common man in performing rituals. People prayed for abundance of children, cattle and wealth.

The main deities of the Vedic pantheon were Indra, Agni (fire), and Soma. Lesser gods were Varuna, Surya (the Sun), Mitra, Vayu (the wind). Goddesses included Ushas (the dawn), Prithvi (the Earth) and Aditi. Rivers, especially Sarasvati, were also considered goddesses. Deities were not viewed as all-powerful. The relationship between the devotee and the deity was one of transaction, with Agni (the sacrificial fire) taking the role of messenger between the two. Strong traces of a common Indo-Iranian religion remain visible, especially in the Soma cult and the fire worship also preserved in Zoroastrianism. The Ashvamedha (horse sacrifice) has parallels in the 2nd millennium BC Andronovo culture.

Vedic religion evolved into the Hindu paths of Yoga and Vedanta, a religious path considering itself the 'essence' of the Vedas. The Vedic pantheon was interpreted as a unitary view of the universe with God seen as immanent and transcendent in the forms of Ishvara and Brahman, projected into various deities in the human mind.

The later Vedic period

The transition from the early to the later Vedic period was marked by the emergence of agriculture as the dominant economic activity and a corresponding decline in the significance of cattle rearing. Several changes went hand in hand with this. For instance, several large kingdoms arose because of the increasing importance of land and its protection. We now discuss several aspects of later Vedic/Hindu life in detail.


Several small kingdoms and tribes merged to form a few large ones which were often at war with each other. 16 mahajanapadas (great kingdoms) are referred to in some of the literature. By this time the Aryan tribes had spread from their original home in the west to much of the east and the south. The power of the king greatly increased. Rulers gave themselves titles like ekarat (the one ruler), sarvabhumi (ruler of all the earth) and chakravartin (protector of land). The kings performed sacrifices like rajasuya, (royal consecration) vajapeya (drink of strength) and ashvamedha (horse sacrifice). The coronation ceremony was a major social occasion. Several functionaries came into being in addition to the purohita and the senani of earlier times. The participation of the people in the activities of the government decreased.


The concept of varna and the rules of marriage became more rigid, but not yet watertight. The status of the Brahmanas and Kshatriyas increased greatly. The Brahmanas propagated specialization of an extreme order, and also restricted social mobility as an intellectual beaureau in fields of science, war, literature, religion and the environment. The proper enunciation of verses was considered essential for prosperity and success in war and harvests. Kshatriyas amassed wealth, and commissioned the performance of sacrifices.Kshatriyas administered the state,maintained society and the economy of a kingdom.They also developed into a Law enforcement force to maintain law and order to ensure prosterity. They presided over an assembled court of intellectuals and warriors.They distributed the finances of their treasuries, with respect to acts and deeds. They also maintained budgets of the kingdom with the assistance of ministers.


  • R.C. Majumdar and others. An Advanced History of India, MacMillan, 1967.

Topics in Hinduism
Shruti (primary Scriptures): Vedas | Upanishads | Bhagavad Gita | Itihasa (Ramayana & Mahabharata) | Agamas
Smriti (other texts): Tantras | Sutras | Puranas | Brahma Sutras | Hatha Yoga Pradipika | Smritis | Tirukural | Yoga Sutra
Concepts: Avatar | Brahman | Dharma | Karma | Moksha | Maya | Ishta-Deva | Murti | Reincarnation | Samsara | Trimurti | Turiya
Schools & Systems: Schools of Hinduism | Early Hinduism | Samkhya | Nyaya | Vaisheshika | Yoga | Mimamsa | Vedanta | Tantra | Bhakti
Traditional Practices: Jyotish | Ayurveda
Rituals: Aarti | Bhajans | Darshan | Diksha | Mantras | Puja | Satsang | Stotras | Yajna
Gurus and Saints: Shankara | Ramanuja | Madhvacharya | Ramakrishna | Vivekananda | Sree Narayana Guru | Aurobindo | Ramana Maharshi | Sivananda | Chinmayananda | Sivaya Subramuniyaswami | Swaminarayan | A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Denominations: List of Hindu denominations
Vaishnavism | Saivism | Shaktism | Smartism | Agama Hindu Dharma | Contemporary Hindu movements | Survey of Hindu organisations

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