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Drishti IAS Blog


  • 03 Feb 2022

“Vedic knowledge is post-industrial and post-modern, though it comes to us from the dawn of history. ”

— Vamadeva Shastri

The Vedic Age was between 1500 BC and 600 BC. This is the major civilization that occurred in ancient India after the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization by 1400 BC. The Vedas were composed in this period and this gives this age the name. The Vedas are also the chief source of information about this era. The Vedic Age started with the coming of the Aryans or Indo-Aryans. Since our knowledge of the early Aryans is based on these Vedas, the culture of this period is referred to as the Vedic Culture.


The word Veda means sacred spiritual knowledge. These Vedas were considered infallible as they imparted the highest spiritual knowledge. Initially, the Vedas were transmitted orally.

The word 'Veda' is derived from the Sanskrit word 'Vid' which means 'to know. The Vedas are essentially a compilation of prayers and hymns, offered by different families of poets and sagas to various gods. These four Vedas are also 'Samhitas' (a collection), in the sense that they represent the oral tradition of the time.

Since the hymns were meant to be read, learnt and transmitted orally, they were not written when they were better composed. Due to this reason, none of the Samhitas can be dated with absolute certainty. Each Samhita represents a collection through a period over a few centuries.

These were compiled in four Vedas:

  • The Rig Veda: Book Of Mantras
  • The Sama Veda: Book Of Chant
  • The Yajur Veda: Book Of Ritual
  • The Atharva Veda: Book Of Spell

Vedic Texts

The only extant Vedic materials are the texts known as the Vedas, which were composed and handed down orally over about 10 centuries, from about the 15th to the 5th century BCE. The Vedic corpus is composed of archaic Sanskrit. The most

important texts are also the oldest ones. They are the four collections (Samhitas) that are called the Veda, or Vedas.

The Rigveda, or ‘Veda of Verses’, the earliest of those, is composed of about 1000 hymns addressed to various deities and mostly arranged to serve the needs of the priestly families who were the custodians of that sacred literature.

The Samaveda, or ‘Veda of Chants’, is made up of a selection of verses—drawn almost wholly from the Rigveda—that are provided with musical notation and are intended as an aid to the performance of sacred songs.

The Yajurveda, or ‘Veda of Sacrificial Formulas’, contains prose formulas applicable to various rites, along with verses intended for a similar purpose.

The Atharvaveda, or ‘Veda of Spells’, is a later compilation that includes incantations and magic spells.

To each Veda is attached a body of prose writings of later date called Brahmanas (c.800–600 BCE), which explain the ceremonial applications of the texts and the origin and importance of the sacrificial rites for which the Vedas were composed.

Further appendices, the Aranyakas (c.600 BCE) and the Upanishads (c.700–500 BCE), respectively expound the symbolism of the more difficult rites and speculate on the nature of the universe and humanity’s relation to it.

When Vedic religion gradually evolved into Hinduism between the 6th and 2nd centuries BCE, the texts, taken collectively, became the most sacred literature of Hinduism. They are known as Shruti (“What Is Heard”), the divinely revealed section of Hindu literature—in contrast to the later strata of religious literature known as Smriti (“What Is Remembered”), which are traditional texts attributed to human authors. But in modern Hinduism, the Shruti, except for the Upanishads and a few hymns of the Rigveda, little is now known, while some of the Smriti texts remain extremely influential.

Migration of the Aryans

A few centuries after the decline of the Harappan civilisation, 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. The Aryans were semi-nomadic pastoral people.

The Vedic Age started with the Aryan occupation of the Indo-Gangetic Plains. The word Arya means ‘Noble’. They spoke Sanskrit, an Indo-European language. They led a rural, semi-nomadic life as compared to the Indus Valley people who were urbanised. It is believed that they entered India through the Khyber Pass.

There were significant differences between the Aryan culture and the culture that preceded it. The Aryans settled on the banks of rivers Indus (Sindhu) and Saraswati. They composed many hymns in honour of the gods and goddesses they worshipped.

Early Vedic Period (1500 BC - 1000 BC)

Rig Vedic Period (1500 BC – 1000 BC).

Initially, the Aryans lived in the land known as “Sapta Sindhu” (Land of the Seven Rivers). These seven rivers were: Sindhu (Indus), Vipash (Beas), Vitasta (Jhelum), Parushni (Ravi), Asikni (Chenab), Shutudri (Satluj) and Saraswati.

The Political structure included a monarchical form of government with a king known as Rajan. In the patriarchal families, Jana was the largest social unit in Rig Vedic times. The hierarchical division of the social grouping was done as kula (family) – grama – visu – Jana. The Tribal assemblies were called Sabhas and Samitis. Examples of tribal kingdoms: Bharatas, Matsyas, Yadus and Purus.

Women in society enjoyed respectable positions. They were allowed to take part in Sabhas and Samitis. There were women poets too (Apala, Lopamudra, Viswavara and Ghosa). Cattle, especially cows, were an important commodity. In the early Vedic society monogamy was practised but polygamy was observed among royalty and noble families. Child marriage was prohibited and social distinctions existed but were not rigid and hereditary.

The economy of the early Vedic period included pastoral and cattle-rearing people who practised agriculture and had horse chariots. Rivers were used for transport. Initially, trade was conducted through the barter system but later on, coins called ‘nishka’ were in use.

People worshipped natural forces like earth, fire, wind, rain, thunder, etc. by personifying them into deities. Indra (thunder) was the most important deity. Other deities were Prithvi (earth), Agni (fire), Varuna (rain) and Vayu (wind). Female deities were Ushas and Aditi. There were no temples and no idol worship.

Changes in the later Vedic phase

Later Vedic Period or Painted Grey Ware Phase (1000 BC – 600 BC)

In the later Vedic period, the Aryans moved eastwards and occupied western and eastern UP (Kosala) and Bihar.

The Kingdoms like Mahajanapadas were formed by amalgamating smaller kingdoms. To enhance the position, the King's power increased and various sacrifices were performed by him. The Sacrifices were Rajasuya (consecration ceremony), Vajapeya (chariot race) and Ashwamedha (horse sacrifice).

With the evolving period, the Varna system of social distinction also became more distinct. It became less based on occupation and more hereditary. The four divisions of society in decreasing social ranking were: Brahmanas (priests), Kshatriyas (rulers), Vaishyas (agriculturists, traders and artisans), and Shudras (servers of the upper three classes).

The position of women in society diminished as they were not permitted to attend sabhas and samitis. Many social changes emerged such as gotras were institutionalised, child marriages became common, new sub-castes based on occupation created.

Agriculture was the chief occupation in the later Vedic period with industrial work like metalwork, pottery and carpentry as the secondary occupations. There was foreign trade with far off regions like Babylon and Sumeria.

Individuals worshipped Prajapati (creator) and Vishnu (preserver) as the prime gods whereas Indra and Agni lost their significance. The importance of prayers diminished and rituals and sacrifices became more elaborate. The priestly class became very powerful and they dictated the rules of the rites and rituals. Due to this orthodoxy, Buddhism and Jainism emerged towards the end of this period.

Vedic Religion

Vedic religion, also called Vedism, is the religion of the ancient Indo-European speaking peoples who entered India about 1500 BCE from the region of present-day Iran. It takes its name from the collections of sacred texts known as the Vedas.

Vedism is the oldest stratum of religious activity in India for which there exist written materials. It was one of the major traditions that shaped Hinduism. Knowledge of Vedic religion is derived from surviving texts and also from certain rites that continue to be observed within the framework of modern Hinduism.

The earliest Vedic religious beliefs included some held in common with other Indo-European speaking peoples, particularly with the early Iranians. Though it is impossible to say when Vedism eventually gave way to classical Hinduism, a decrease in literary activity among the Vedic schools from the 5th century BCE onward can be observed, and at that time a more Hindu character began to appear.

Vedic Rituals

The ancient Vedic worshippers offered sacrifices to gods in the hope that they in return would grant abundant numbers of cattle, good fortune, good health, long life, and male progeny, among other material benefits. To ensure the efficacy of their prayers, the people came to believe that their offerings could be made more acceptable to the gods if accompanied by songs of praise and other invocations of the gods’ might and power. Thus originated the rites described in the Vedas. Every sacrifice was performed on behalf of an individual, i.e., the patron or yajamana (“sacrificer”), who bore the expenses.

The rites of Vedic sacrifice were relatively simple in the early period when the Rigveda was composed. They required neither temples nor images. The ceremonies took place in an open space that was consecrated afresh for every important occasion. The altar (Vedi) was a quadrangle marked out by hollowing or slightly raising the ground. The agnyadheya (“installation of the fire”) was a necessary preliminary to all the large public rituals and was preceded by the patron’s fast.

The sacrifices themselves were of two major types—domestic (grihya) and public (srauta, or vaitanika).

The domestic rites were observed by the householder himself or with the help of a single priest and were performed over the domestic hearth fire. Some occurred daily or monthly, and others accompanied a particular event, such as the samskaras - sacraments marking each stage of an upper-caste Indian’s life, from conception to death.

The grand rites performed in public, by contrast, lasted several days or months and could usually be undertaken only by wealthy men or kings. They required the services of many priests and were usually performed at three fire-altars. The most characteristic of the public ceremonies was the soma sacrifice, which ensured the prosperity and well-being of both human beings and gods. In that basic ritual, a sacrificer was first consecrated, after which juice was pressed three times from the soma plant, part being offered to the fire and part consumed by the priests. Each of the three occasions was preceded and followed by recitations and chants. Edibles such as meat, butter, milk, and barley cake could also be offered to a sacred fire.

Animal sacrifice—the killing of a goat—existed either independently or as an integral part of the sacrifice of soma. The celebrated Ashvamedha, “horse sacrifice,” was an elaborate variant of the soma sacrifice.

Human sacrifice (purushamedha) is described and alluded to as a former practice but probably was merely symbolic. The sacrifice of the mythical giant Purusha, from whose dismembered limbs sprang up the four major social classes (varnas), probably served as a model for the conjectured human sacrifices. Other ceremonies marked fixed dates of the lunar calendar, such as the full or new moon or the change of seasons.


When people today learn about India's ancient Vedas they discover a tradition perhaps 5000 years old, guided by illumined seers living in harmony with nature, chanting arcane mantras, and performing mysterious fire rituals. This image of the Vedic world appears fascinating but is also difficult to understand, suggesting perhaps a mystical fantasy more than any deeper reality.

It is India as a culture and civilization of knowledge, both scientific and spiritual, both inner and outer, culminating in the supreme science of consciousness. Such a Vedic knowledge-based civilization is more than information technology, though it can work with it and possibly transform it. Vedic knowledge is post-industrial and post-modern, one could say, though it comes to us from the dawn of history, its vision is beyond time and space.

Vedic knowledge represents not only the past but also the future of India. It helped shape the characteristic features of India's vast and enduring Dharmic civilization through the centuries, as the Vedas first of all were formulated to teach Dharma. India's traditional philosophies, arts and sciences have strong Vedic connections. The Vedas were one of the main inspirations for India's Independence Movement, particularly through Dayananda Sarasvati, Lokmanya Tilak and Sri Aurobindo, and India's great gurus today continue to honour them.

The Vedas are not mere religious books and do not propose any articles of faith. They direct us to discover the Divine within us, for which they provide the guidance and the practises for each one of us to apply.

Yet, this poignant image of the Vedic living is but an introduction into a radically different worldview than our current high-tech society, invoking a cosmic vision that takes us beyond time and space to the origins of the universe much like modern physics, but in an experiential way within our own consciousness.


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