Vedic period

From PhalkeFactory

Vedic civilization is the earliest civilization in Indian history of which we have written records that we understand. It is named after the Vedas, the early literature of the Hindu people. The Vedic Civilization flourished along the river Saraswati, in a region that now consists of the modern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab. The Vedic texts have astronomical dates, that some have claimed, go back to the 5th millennium BC. The use of Vedic Sanskrit continued up to the 6th century BC. Vedic is synonymous with Aryans and Hinduism, which is another name for religious and spiritual thought that has evolved from the Vedas.

The early Aryans: Unfortunately, the origin of the Saraswati Valley civilization (Vedic culture) and its relation to the Indus Valley civilization remain hazy. The timeline of Vedic civilization is 4500 BC-1800 BC while that of Indus valley civilization is 3300 BC-1800 BC. The texts describe a geography that some believe to be north India. The greatest river of the Rigveda was Saraswati, now dry and identified with Ghaggar, a seasonal river. It is believed that this river ceased to reach the Arabian Sea by about 1900 BC. Now, a dry river bed, that seems to fit the description of the Saraswati River, has been detected by satellite imagery. It begins in the modern Indian state of Uttaranchal and passing through Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan, reaches the Arabian Sea in Gujarat. Our knowledge of the early Aryans comes from the Rigveda, the earliest of the Vedas.

Political organization: The grama (village), vis and jana were political units of the early Aryans. 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 Aryans kept hordes of cattle and cows were held in high esteem. Milk was an important part of the diet. Agriculture was equally important 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 unknown to the early Aryans. The food of the early Aryans consisted of parched grain and cakes, milk and milk products, and fruits and vegetables. Consumption of meat was common. A passage in the Rig Veda describes how to apportion the meat of a sacrificed horse. It must be borne in mind that vegetarianism took firm root in India only after the rise of Buddhism in the sixth century BC.

Literature and Religion

Vedic or Hindu literature consists primarily of the Vedas; but also includes Shruti and various Smriti texts. The Vedic rites were meant to help the participant transform; this was primarily accomplished via sacrifices (such as the agnihotra).

Astronomical references in the Vedas help provide some broad approximations that help date the beginning of the tradition. Due to the precession of the equinoxes, the seasons shift with relation to the fixed zodiac at a rate of about a month every two thousand years. Some Vedic notices mark the beginning of the year at the vernal equinox in Orion; this was the case around 4500 BC.

The rishis saw the universe as going through unceasing change in a cycle of birth and death, free and yet, paradoxically, governed by order. This order was reflected in the bandhu (connections) between the planets, the elements of the body, and the mind. At the deepest level, the whole universe was bound to, and reflected in, the individual consciousness.

The place of sacrifice represents the cosmos. The three fires used stand for the three divisions of space. The course of the sacrifice represents the year, and all such ritual forms part of continuing annual performances. The rite culminates in the ritual rebirth of the yajamana (sacrificer), which signifies the regeneration of his universe. It is sacred theatre, built upon paradoxes of reality, where symbolic deaths of animals and humans, including the yajamana himself, may be enacted.

The Vedic gods represent the cognitive centers of the self. Vedic science is the science of consciousness. These have evolved into the Hindu paths of Yoga and Vedanta, which is a religious path that is the 'essence' of the Vedas.

The Vedic pantheon is considered to consist of thirty-three different gods, which are placed, in groups of eleven, into one of the three different categories: atmospheric, terrestrial, or celestial, each of which has its own area of responsibility. But just because a god is in one category does not mean that it is completely different from a god from another category; for sometimes a god from one category will have some of the same qualities of a god from another category. This is because the Vedic system is recursive. It has developed into a broader group but it is also seen in Vedic philosophy that they are manifestations of one divine ground known as Brahman. This thought of unity is expressed severally in Vedic texts.

The categories of the gods are: 1) Agni, terrestrial; 2) Indra, atmospheric; and 3) Surya or Vishnu, celestial that mirrors the body, prana, and atman division of the individual. Since one aspires to reach the inner being through the prana (atmosphere), many Vedic hymns extol Indra.

The Vedic or Hindu religion presents a unitary view of the universe with God seen as immanent and transcendent in the forms of Ishvara and Brahman, respectively. Brahman is projected into various deities in the human mind. The main deities were Indra, Varuna, Surya (the Sun), Mitra, Vayu, Agni and Soma. Goddesses included Prithvi, Aditi, Ushas and Saraswati. Deities were not viewed as all-powerful. The relationship between the devotee and the deity was one of transaction. Each deity had a specific role; at any given point, a particular deity was considered superior to the others.

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