Veda: Rigveda Period of India

The Vedic India – How was it like?

The Vedic period was not a small period, it spanned over all the late neolithic age, to Bronze Age and even early Iron Age. It spanned from the states of small neolithic settlements to smaller tribal kingdoms, to massive kingdoms administered by great kings. So, lets split the periods into these :

Rigvedic period

Society. The Rigvedic society was a very united one, mainly united by culture, tribe, and language. There were many tribes at the time of Rigveda, and many clans within them too. The Rigvedic society was however much peaceful during the initial phase, but as the population increased and certain civil wars occurred between the same linguistic groups like Panis and Rigvedic “Aryans”. (They called themselves Aryans; it does only refer to a cultural group, not an ethnic race) For instance, the Panis were cowboys, who stole Aryan (the Panis also belonged to the same linguistic group) cows and wealth and hid them. ThePanis are now identified with Parnoi, an older Afghan tribe. Similarly, some tribes likeDasas and Dasyus also posed a major political and cultural threat to Rigvedic Aryan groups.Dasas and Dasyus are now equated to the later Central Asian Dahae and Dahyus.

Also, several cultural and political confederations emerged to become kingdoms.

The Rigvedic society was not a strictly “classified” one, however, people practiced the “three classes of” occupations like the now envisioned Proto Indo European society. There were the poets who also were the philosophers, invokers of God, and advisors. Then there were the “royal” people who protected the whole land. Then came the “common occupation” which was mostly centered around trade, mainly of milch cows (and later horses), and various associated businesses like trading milk. The “wage jobs” that supported all the other classes, like agriculture, temporary businesses like grinding grains, doctoring, etc. soon became a separate category. The last category was actually merged together with the other three in earlier Rigvedic period, but as the last jobs grew in power and importance, they began to be seen as a separate class of occupation.

There was no caste system, no class system in the Rigvedic period. As a person, you could choose your job. As one boy tells :

“My dad is a physician, my mom grinds (grains) in stone, am a poet : we all strive for wealth in different ways”

It is to be noted that according to later Manu smrti (epic period), the boy should not have been doing poet’s or brahmacaari’s job which is a “Brahmin” job when his parents are doing lesser jobs like that of a physician (which is a “fallen job” according to Manu) and grinding grains for money. (Shudra job according to Manu)

Such senselessness did not exist in the Rigvedic period, and social mobility was high. People were happy and content.

Economy. The cows accounted for the main growth of the economy, mostly in milk and as currency in a Barter system. The early Rigvedic Ashva could have been onager or other bearers rather than a “horse”. Ashvas were also exchanged as currencies and used as a medium of transportation. Agriculture (kRSi) was another important part of the income. Barley was the grain cultivated.

By the time of later Rigvedic period, the ritualists began to search for a plant, originally a poetic symbol in Rigveda, that could give them immortality and used to import it from Afghanistan. Interestingly, the soma plant is not “hallucinogenic” as it is accused to be, and the ritual needed only some physical aspects of the plant-like color, structure (described in later Brahmanas). The hallucinogenic effect is actually a misinterpretation of cranks, actually was spiritual ecstasy and elevated consciousness. This soma “alchemy” to find out the “lost soma” was done at the time of the later Rigvedic period itself. And some tribes of Central Asia and Bactria, called by Avestans as haoma-varga (Skt : soma-varga) could have fooled Aryans by giving a plant. 😛

Anyway, Rigveda itself mocks such people in the not-much-quoted verse :

“By Soma are the Ādityas strong, by Soma mighty is the earth.
Thus Soma in the midst of all these constellations hath his place.

One thinks, when they have brayed the plant, that he hath drunk the Soma’s juice;
Of him whom Brahmans truly know as Soma no one ever tastes.”

(Verses 2,3 : HYMN LXXXV. Sūrya’s Bridal.)

And this one is pretty clear one :

Soma, secured by sheltering rules, guarded by hymns in Brhati,
Thou standest listening to the stones none tastes of thee who dwell on earth.

(Rigveda 10.85.4, Ralph TH Griffith)

(I am deliberately putting Griffith’s translation because you cannot accuse me of wrong translation)

By later Rigvedic period, the horses were also started to being imported from Central Asia / Bactria. Rigveda still, does not know much of true Ferus Caballus horses, and makes an interesting error that the typical horse contains 34 ribs, when it ought to have 36. Rigveda 1.163 alludes to the connection of Ferus Caballus horse with Gandharvas (residents of Gandhara?), and Rigveda 1.162 alludes to replacing of asses with horses, in last verses. Horse trade now made up a significant point for the Rigvedic economy.

Architecture, Settlements. Early Rigvedic period was almost the agrarian Neolithic age, which later grows through cows, chariot transportation, and agriculture. It is a colonial bias that Rigvedic Aryans were nomads, but it is true that not very massive cities could have belonged to Rigvedic scape. However, fortified cities did spot the Rigvedic period. Houses were comparatively simple in such a remote period, and a typical desired house consisted of a small lotus pond nearby. The mentions of monuments cannot be found in Rigveda, and it is also meaningless to look for monuments mentioned in a pure philosophically inclined book composed by poets.

Administration. The Rigvedic landscape was a pretty large one, right from Afghanistan to western Ganga banks. The people were ruled by Rajas or Raj~nas who should but be “chosen” by people. An early form of democracy could have been there in the smaller Rigvedic society. The people had two organizations – the Vidatha and Sabha. The Vidatha was more of a cultural and religious one, while Sabha was a political and secular one. People spoke up with confidence in those groups and took decisions for themselves. But still, the Rigvedic king was an overall representation of the people, he should protect them at any cost and fight against disorder and lawlessness in the most effective way, role modeling Indra and Varuna. King should be acceptable to the people, and people wished always to “talk well” and be “eloquent” in the assemblies.

Some of the able rulers the Rigvedic period had were the mighty Trasadasyu, Sudas, Divodasa… , Rama, Vena, Prithavana… The Rjrashva fought the Varshagirabattle and defended India from East Iranians. Sudas completely exterminated the enemy confederations including Bhalanas (Bolan), Pakthas (Pakhtun), Parshas (Persians), Alinas(a Central Asian group, also connected with IE group Hellenes??), Anus (Anavas of Iran, also related to IE goddesses in Europe “Anu”) and many more, from his territory which was later named by his tribal name, as Bharata. The war comes in the Middle Rigvedic period, as the Dasarajna yuddha.

Culture. The cultural scape of Rigveda, unlike represented by the elite verses of the poets, was not a uniform one. It ranged from the free-thinking, yet theistic philosopher poets, to mighty kings, to the common man whose aim was to get more cows and Ashvas (currencies), sell off his milk. The Rigvedic people thus were from different levels of philosophies. The Rigvedic poets, for example, opposed the materialization of soma, mocked the mugging up learning system (RV 7.103, mocks the guru and student as two frogs croaking happily), opposed gambling, and shunned alcohol. They also shunned materialistic rituals. (Rituals are almost not even mentioned in Rigveda with an exception for the more satirical episode in RV 1.162) However, we can’t take Rigveda as a symbol of common man’s culture at the time, the fact could have been that all these were there to some extent in society. (as much as they are, in every society including present day’s)

Rigvedic diet, contrary to popular belief, is mainly centered around milk, barley, vegetables, and honey. Herbs (spices) and water were used to cook the common man’s food. The only verse where Rigvedic poet speaks of food in common sense, (avoiding poetic veils) is the “anna-stuti” which talks about, as it says, FOOD. Here is the Griffith’s translation of the same: HYMN CLXXXVII. Praise of Food. (So that you won’t sue me for “bad translation”) The poem talks about milky foods, barley strews, vegetable meal, water, and plants of the earth. There is no mention of meat-eating as a part of diet anywhere in Rigveda, and in nowhere anyone tells “meat is delicious” or “let us eat this meat”. And no need to think of beef, be disappointed that Rigveda does not mention beef as a human diet. It is nonsensical to hunt Rigveda for a veg – non-veg. debate, but yea, Rigveda does know only about the above as “food”.

The festivals were usually agrarian, associated with seasons.

Appearance. Rigveda leaves us little evidence to reconstruct the appearance of a common man. Still, from what we can construct :

The men sometimes shaved their heads or sometimes didn’t, (depended on your culture and “vows”) but kept a “shikha” on their head. The Rigvedic Aryans under Sudas are mentioned as having dakshinatarspada (Right tuft) and clad in white clothes. Good beard (sushipra) was seen as a symbol of wisdom, and most often sages kept beards.

Changes during Yajurvedic period :

Rituals develop among commons and spread to kings.

The Yajurvedic period saw the development of rituals and spread to the royal community. This was followed by flocking of the older Brahmins to the new ritualist space, where they emerged as priests and served the royal members. The rituals became dogmatic and complicated. Most of them were influenced by the Central Asian customs which spread to India through horse and soma trade and political changes. The horses were now the most important animals, and Central Asian rituals connected with horses assumed a complicated Indian form at this time. Animal sacrifices popped up and gained acceptance among the new generation Brahmin priests, who took to serve the kings. (Note that Rigvedic period knew of no actual “animal sacrifices”, though poetic mentions can be extrapolated in a few areas, none of them speak of common humans doing animal sacrifices)

The kings became more powerful, and the population increased swiftly. Kingdoms became larger, and the king became more of a monarch. The absolute monarchy was the dream of every king, and a sort of love for Central Asian customs arose due to the ambition of becoming “the king of the world” or “immortal one”. Moreover, gambling and drinking wine became more accepted in society. Meat-eating and animal sacrifices were also starting to get the popularity from kings and thus new Brahmins, and class system emerged. Still, it is unclear whether any person ate meat without the “sacrifice”.

So, what did Yajurveda do?

As I told, the Vedas do not represent the culture of the whole Vedic people. Seeing this uncontrollable situation, Yajurveda took to describing all rituals as spiritual and mystic stuff with a different meaning and changed the overall face of materialistic sacrifices. The materialism was tactfully turned to spirituality, and spirituality was reinforced. Even describing the whole nasty Ashvamedha ritual, and in each line trying to create symbols, the Yajurveda concludes in the last chapter very beautifully :

He who knows the head of the sacrificial horse becomes possessed of a head and fit for sacrificeThe head of the sacrificial horse is the dawn, the eye the sun, the breath the wind, the ear the moon, the feet the quarters, the ribs the intermediate quarters, the winking the day and night, the joints the half-months, the joinings the months, the limbs the seasons, the trunk the year, the hair the rays (of the gun), they form the Naksatras, the bones the stars, the flesh the mist, the hair the plants, the tail hairs the trees, the mouth Agni, the open (mouth) Vaiçvanara [1], the belly the sea, the anus the atmosphere, the testicles the sky and the earth, the membrum virile, the pressing-stone, the seed the Soma. When it chews, there is lightning; when it moves about, there is thundering; when it makes water, there is rain; its speech is speech. The Mahiman (cup) indeed is born before the birth of the horse as the day. The Mahiman (cup) is born after it as the night. These two Mahiman (cups) surround on either side the horse. As Haya (steed) it carried the gods, as Arvan (courser) the Asuras, as Vajin (racer) the Gandharvas, as Açva (horse) men. The birthplace of the horse, indeed, is the sea, its kindred is the sea.

And yea, before suspecting me of bad translation, this is from your favorite Yajur Veda Kanda VII translation by Keith. (Yajurveda 7.5.25 – Taittiriya Samhita)

Yajurvedic period also saw the prosperity of agriculture and trade. Rice and wheat were cultivated along with barley. One of the new occupations that people recognized was the “hunting”, mainly practiced by non-Vedic people. The geography expanded up to Ganga Valley in East. The philosophy was being at risk due to Brahmins flocking to become royal priests and performing rituals. The sensible poets left created the Yajurveda. Civilization was at a pace than never before. Due to the need for new rituals, many trades prospered alongside.

Changes in the Atharvavedic period

Atharvaveda saw the development of medicinal science and mainstream voices of “doctor poets”. Moreover, the mantras were also used as a kind of placebos to assist the healing. Most of them mention medicines. Contrary to popular belief, Atharvaveda is not about spells or incantations. They are super philosophical treatises, sometimes talking in a mystic sense. Actually, the “Brahmanas” are the ones who (mis)use the mantras for “spells” and “incantations”.

Atharvaveda saw the emerging of Kuru kingdom from the lineage of Bharatas. Iron Age was gaining pace.

Intercultural relations took place, both cultures within India and abroad. Atharvaveda notes the earth inhabited by people of various linguistic groups, various cultures. Atharvaveda also explains the philosophy in common life through simple poems.

The Atharvavedic period also saw the fall of Vedic philosophy and spirituality among masses. Though Atharvaveda speaks about higher and beautiful philosophy, the just post-dated and contemporary Brahmanas come up to create the “Brahmanism”, the religion of “ritualism”.

The kings had turned to perfect monarchs by the end of Atharvavedic period, but they followed some rules and “dharma”. The class system became less mobile. As a result, it was to become a caste system within 500 years. The occupations, the populations, all rose up tremendously. The tribes and rulers had diverged much. India and Iran got separate and opposing philosophies. Indians deliberately demonized the older Rigvedic word for a spiritual being, “asura”, and Avestans emerged by demonizing “daevas”. The inner conflicts among masses of tribes, the lesser influence of philosophers on kings, and increasing influence of the simpler ritual religion, all drove Vedic philosophy to risk. The Rigvedic panentheism that was based on monotheism now turned to a kind of kathenotheism and sometimes polytheism. Soon, the first era of myths was to develop, in the Brahmanas, and polytheism was to emerge finally leading to epic polytheism in philosophy.

Food habits also are noted to change. Meat-eating was to become legitimate without even a troublesome exhaustive or expensive sacrifice. Alcohol gained popularity among elites, and gambling was also starting to get advocacy. But yes, Atharvaveda does not endorse any of these, much like other Vedas.

Apart from all these, the devastated thinkers left opted to compose the earliest Upanishads.

Why do we have this order of Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharvana?

The Sama roughly is contemporary or just predates Early Yajurvedic and perhaps Early Atharvavedic period too. (Those 75 mantras tell nothing that can be potentially related to any period, but as it quotes late Rigvedic mantras mainly, we can date it to late Rigvedic period) But the corpus of Yajurveda comes after the Rigvedic period, and Atharvaveda too has some hymns that are even at the time of Yajurveda. However, the main time frame of Atharvaveda’s own poems is certainly later than Yajus. Some portions of Early Atharvavedic period are independent of Yajus, and thus contemporary to say, late Yajurvedic period. It mostly takes some beautiful poems from Rigveda that can be sung and elaborated.

 Do Vedas used only two swaras and from them, the other swaras emerged?

It is speculation. However, three notes have been identified always. There were three swaras. Moreover, only in Sama, the accent of Veda was really musical. The other Vedas were actually made musical by equating Vedic swaras with musical notes, though still older “stress” accent exists in Rigvedic Nambudiri chants.

The Samaveda soon developed into a heptatonic scale. Still, it is not 100% clear if the Samaveda really did have seven svaras from the beginning.

The Carnatic equivalent of the three vedic notes?

As I told, it depends upon the recension. For example, in the familiar Taittiriya recension in Tamil Nadu, the notes used for the Vedic svaras are kaishiki niSAda N2, shadja, and shuddha rishabha R1 for anudaatta, svarita and udaatta. The same is also true for Rigveda recension of Andhra, and some recensions of Yajurveda in Tamil Nadu and North India too.

However, Nambudiris still follow a stress accent only, and their Rigveda is purely based on language accent and not “musical” accent. (Though we can extrapolate the svaras that come out, to be N2, S, and R2 (or sometimes a bit more sharp R2)) Their recension of Jaiminiya Samaveda is the most “non-musical” and different, with only two notes in most cases.



Author/Researcher: Kiron Krishnan

Date: July 18th, 2016