The main source of information for the reconstruction of the Early Vedic age is the Rig-Veda.The Rig-Veda also forms the very source for information on the geographical expanse of the early vedic period. Aryans were confined to the area which came to be known as the Sapta Sindhu (land of the seven rivers), comprising the modern day Eastern Afghanistan, Punjab (both Indian and Pakistan) and parts of western Utter Pradesh. The Rigvedic people, thus, were well acquainted with these geographical areas.
The Rigvedic Polity (Tribal Polity)
No defined sort of a political hierarchy existed in the Early Vedic Age. The Rigvedic attested to the division between the rajanyas (those involving themselves in war) perceived as the senior lineage and the rest of the clansmen forming the junior lineage. Thus, it was only due to the participation in wars that led to a sharpening division between the senior and the junior lineages. Sabha, Samiti, Vidhatha and Gana formed the tribal assemblies of the period, with the Vidhatha being the oldest assembly and the Sabha and the Samiti being the most important of them. These were responsible for certain political military and religious functions.
The Sabha was the council of certain select clan members. The Samiti was a general tribal assembly and was less exclusive. Women too attended the Sabha and the Samiti. The king was assisted by the Purohita and the Senani. With the yajnas or sacrifices acquiring importance due to the increasing number of wars and conflicts, the importance Purohita grew manifold.
Vrajapati was the head of pasture ground, who led the heads of the families (Kulapas) or those of the fighting groups to battle. Tribal groups, namely-The Vrata, gana, grama, and sardha performed the military functions.
The Aryans were engaged in dual types of conflicts-firstly they fought with the non-Aryans and secondly they also fought among themselves. Divided into five tribes, the Purus, Anus, Drushyam, Yadus and Turvasus they were called Panchajan. The Aryans fought amongst themselves. The Bharata was a ruling clan supported by the priest Vashistha and it was opposed by a host of ten chiefs, five of whom were the heads of Aryans tribes and the remaining were from the non-Aryan people.
The confederacy being led by priest Visvamitra resulted in the battle of ten kings fought on the river Parushni, the modern Ravi. It gave victory to the Bharata chief Sudas and established the supremacy of the Bharatsas. This war is also known as Dasarajana War.
Kinship was the basis of social structure and a man was identified by the clan to which he belonged, as can be seen in the names of several Rigvedic kings. People gave their primary loyalty to the tribe which was called the Jana. The Jana forms the largest unit and has a repeated mention in the Rig-Veda. While the Raja or the gopati formed the chief of the tribe, the Rajanya was the warrior group. The term for family (Kula) is mentioned rarely in the Rig-Veda, which formed the basic social unit and was the basis unit of production and consumption.
Griha seems to be a more common term for family. Naptri was the common term used for cousins, nephews, Grandsons etc indicating the existence of joint families. The eldest male member of the family was known as Kulapa. The hostile groups dasa, dasyu and pani, too dasyus described as rich, possessing, cattle and residing in fortified settlements and the panis meaning the holders of immense treasure and cattle, not practicing any sacrifice and thus, hostile. These groups kept on fighting and befriending one another continuously.
The Rig-Veda shows some consciousness about the physical appearance of people in North-Western India in about 1500-1000 BC. Varna was the term used for colour and it seems that the Aryan language speakers were fair and the indigenous inhabitants were dark in complexion. The factor which contributed to the creation of social divisions was the conquest of the indigenous inhabitants by the Aryans. The dasas and the dasyus, who were conquered by the Aryans, were treated as slaves along with the Shudras. The Rig-Veda mentions the Arya Varna and the Dasa Varna.
The Purusha- Sukta hymn in the 10th book of the Rig-Veda attests to the existence of sharp social divisions. It conceded that the Brahman, Rajanya, Vaisya and the Sudra classes have originated from the mouth, arms, thighs, and feet respectively, of the Purushasya or the cosmic man, which later became the 4 castes.
The position of women:
The status of women in the early Vedic society was complex enough their participation in the productive process is confirmed from the usage of the term duhitri, as well as from their involvement in activities such as weaving. There are references to the existence of women seers of Vedic hymns. Child marriage was unknown. Society was patriarchal, so evident from the prayers made for sons and not for daughters. Most of the deities were also male, thus attesting to the gender-bias. Women could not occupy the highest positions as well.
The Rigvedic economy was essentially a pastoral economy. Cattle breeding was the main occupation. Cows, Goats, buffaloes, sheep and horses were the animals domesticated by the Aryans. The importance of cattle, especially of the cows, can be understood by the fact that the wealthy persons were known as the Gopati and his daughter was called the Duhitri.
Apart from this, cattle not only formed an important item of dana- i.e. the gifts given to the priests, but also formed the part of the tribute so offered to the chiefs. Cattle also formed a bone of contention and raids so conducted were mostly to capture cattle. Agriculture was the secondary economic activity of the Rigvedic Aryans. The Rig-Veda refers to only one grain-Yava.
Simple Agricultural tools, namely the langala or sira (the plough), the wooden phala (ploughshare), the Khanitra (hoe), the datra (sickle) and the parasue (Axe), were made use of, probably used for shifting cultivations.
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