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The Vedic Civilisation – Rig Vedic Period

Tribal Organization

Kinship was the basis of social structure. People gave their primary loyalty to the tribe, which was called ‘jana’. Another important term which stands for the tribe in the Rig Veda is ‘vis’. Probably, the vis was divided into ‘grama’ or smaller tribal units meant for fighting. When the gramas clashed with one another, it caused ‘samgrama’ or war.

The term for family (kula) is mentioned rarely in the Rig Veda. It seems that family in early Vedic Phase was indicated by ‘griha’. Differentiation in family relationship leading to the setting up of seperate households had not proceeded afar, and the family was a very large joint unit. It was obviously a patriarchal family headed by the father. Since it was a patriarchal society, the birth was desired again and again.

Marriage and Status of Women

The institution of marriage was established, and although symbols of primitive practices survived, the practices of levirate and widow remarriage have been mentioned in the Rig Veda.

The status of women was equal to men and they received ‘Upanayana’ and education, studied Vedas and some of them even rose to the rank of seers composing Vedic hymns. Monogamy was established, though polygamy and polyandry were also known.

Varna System

‘Varna’ was the term used for colour, and it seems that the Aryans were fair and the indigenous inhabitants dark in complexion. The dasas and dasyus, who were conquered by the Aryans, were treated as slaves and sudras. Gradually, the tribal society was divided into three groups-warriors, priests and the people.

The fourth division called the ‘Shudras’ appeared towards the end of the Rig Veda period. In the age of Rig Veda, divisions based on occupations had started. But this division was not very sharp.


The earliest life of the Aryans seems to have been mainly pastoral, agriculture being a secondary occupation. The Aryans did not lead a settled life. Although they used several animals, the horse played the most significant role in their life.

The Rig Vedic people possessed better knowledge of agriculture. Ploughshare is mentioned in the earliest part of the Rig Veda though some consider it an interpolation. The term for war in the Rig Veda is gavisthi or ‘search for cows’.

The Rig Veda mentions such artisans as the carpenter, the chariot-maker, the weaver, the leather worker, the potter, etc. This indicates that they practiced all these crafts. The term, ayas used for copper or bronze shows that metal working was known.


The Indo-Aryans, while sharing the ancient Iranian veneration for the cow, felt no scruple about sacrificing at weddings or on other important occasions.

The persons who took part in the sacrifice ate the flesh of the victim, whether bull, cow, or horse. But meat was eaten only as an exception. Milk was an important article of food, and was supplemented by cakes of barley or wheat (yava), vegetables and fruit.

The people freely indulged in two kinds of intoxicating liquor, called soma and sura. Sura probably was a kind of beer. Soma juice was considered to be particularly acceptable to the Gods, and was offered with elaborate ceremonial. The Sama Veda provides the chants appropriate for the ceremonies.


Amusements included dancing, music, chariot-racing, and dicing. Gambling with dice is mentioned frequently in both the Rig Veda and the later documents, so that the prevalence of the practice is beyond doubt.

The Vedas are a collection of hymns and other religious texts composed in India between about 1500 and 1000 BCE. They include elements such as liturgical material as well as mythological accounts, poems, prayers, and formulas considered to be sacred by the Vedic religion.

The origin of the Vedas can be traced back as far as 1500 BCE, when a large group of nomads called the Aryans, coming from central Asia, crossed the Hindu Kush Mountains, migrating into the Indian subcontinent. This invasion hypothesis, however, is not unanimously accepted by scholars today. All we know for certain, mainly through linguistic studies, is that the Aryan language gained ascendency over the local languages in the Indian sub-continent.

The language of the Vedas is Sanskrit, an ancestor of most of the modern languages spoken today in South Asia.

The basic Vedic texts are the Samhita “Collections” of the four Vedas:

  1. Rig-Veda “Knowledge of the Hymns of Praise”, for recitation.
  2. Sama-Veda “Knowledge of the Melodies”, for chanting.
  3. Yajur-Veda “Knowledge of the Sacrificial formulas”, for liturgy.
  4. Atharva-Veda “Knowledge of the Magic formulas”, named after a kind of group of priests.

In general, the Vedas have a strong priestly bias, as the priestly class had the monopoly in the edition and transmission of these texts



The Brahmanas are a collection of ancient Indian texts with commentaries on the hymns of the four Vedas. They are a layer or category of Vedic Sanskrit texts embedded within each Veda, and form a part of the Hindu literature. They are primarily a digest incorporating myths, legends, the explanation of Vedic rituals and in some cases speculations about natural phenomenon or philosophy.

Brahmanas are particularly noted for their instructions on the proper performance of rituals, as well as explain the original symbolic meanings- translated to words and ritual actions in the main text. They lack a homogeneous structure across the different Vedas, with some containing chapters that constitute Aranyakas or Upanishads in their own right.

The Brahmanas layer of Vedic literature contain the exposition of the Vedic rites and rituals. For example, the first chapter of the Chandogya Brahmana, one of the oldest Brahmanas, includes eight suktas (hymns) for the ceremony of marriage and rituals at the birth of a child.


The Aranyakas constitutes the philosophy behind ritual sacrifice of the ancient Indian sacred texts, the Vedas. They typically represent the earlier sections of Vedas, and are one of many layers of the Vedic texts.

Aranyakas describe and discuss rituals from various perspectives, but some include philosophical speculations. For example, Katha Aranyaka describes rituals such as the Mahavrata and Pravargya. Aitareya Aranyaka includes explanation of the Mahavrata ritual from ritualisitic to symbolic meta-ritualistic points of view. Aranyakas, however, neither are homogeneous in content nor in structure.

Aranyakas are sometimes identified as karma-kanda (ritualistic action/sacrifice section), while the Upanishads are identified as jnana-kanda (knowledge/spirituality section). In an alternate classification, the early part of Vedas are called Samhitasand the commentary are called the Brahmanas which together are identified as the ceremonial karma-kanda, while Aranyakas and Upanishads are referred to as the jnana-kanda.


The Upanishads are a collection of texts of religious and philosophical nature, written in India, probably between 800 BCE and 500 BCE, during a time when Indian society started to question the traditional Vedic religious order.

Some people during this time decided to engage in the pursuit of spiritual progress, living as ascetic hermits, rejecting ordinary material concerns and giving up family life. Some of their speculations and philosophy were compiled into the Upanishads. There is an attempt in these texts to shift the focus of religious life from external rites and sacrifices to internal spiritual quests in the search for answers.

Etymologically, the name Upanishad is composed of the terms upa (near) and shad (to sit), meaning something like “sitting down near”. The name is inspired by the action of sitting at the feet of an illuminated teacher to engage in a session of spiritual instructions, as aspirants still do in India today.

The books contain the thoughts and insights of important spiritual Indian figures. The Upanishads are not parts of a whole, like chapters in a book. Each of them is complete in itself.

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