Vedic Period

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Map of Vedic India.

The Vedic Period (or Vedic Age) (c. 1500 – c. 500 B.C.E.) is the period in the history of India during which the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism, were being composed. Based on literary evidence, scholars place the Vedic period in the second and first millennia B.C.E. continuing up to the sixth century B.C.E. The associated culture, sometimes referred to as Vedic civilization, was centered in the northern and northwestern parts of the Indian subcontinent. Its early phase saw the formation of various kingdoms of ancient India. In its late phase (from ca. 600 B.C.E.), it saw the rise of the Mahajanapadas, and was succeeded by the Maurya Empire (from ca. 320 B.C.E.) the classical age of Sanskrit literature, and the Middle kingdoms of India. The literary legacy from this period does not contain much detailed historical information. To some degree, this places the Vedic era within prehistory.

The literary legacy, however, does take us back to one of very earliest human societies. Some claim that the line from Vedic times to today represents the oldest known continuous civilization on earth. Vedic society's sophisticated organization, its profound interest in human origins, in the question of the meaning and purpose of life combined with a refusal to speculate, its championing of order against chaos and of order within society, suggest a maturity that is often associated with humanity at a much later stage of development. The possibility that the ancient world was a more inter-connected space, with links between several continents, may also merit scholarly investigation. An inter-connected world may also have been an inter-dependent world. The development of human civilization as the result of the mixing and mingling of ideas across geo-political borders weakens race-based claims that some ethnic groups have contributed more than others to this process.


So-called "Priest King" statue, Mohenjo-daro, late Mature Harappan period, National Museum, Karachi, Pakistan.

Identifying the beginning of the Vedic period links with the disputed Aryan invasion theory. This theory posits that North India was originally inhabited by darker-skinned Dravidians, who may have founded the Indus Valley or Harappan civilization. Sometime around about 1,500 B.C.E. lighter-skinned invaders, known as Ayrans, pushed the Dravidians South. These invaders are said to have originated from the Iranian regions; some moved to the West, some to the East hence Indo-European languages derived from their ancient tongue are linguistic cousins. This theory also explains some similarity between the content of the Vedas and "the ancient Iranian religion of Zoroastrianism."[1] Against this theory, developed from the linguistic work of F. Max Müller[2] is the total lack of any traditions or stories describing such an invasion. According to the invasion theory, the Vedic literature would have begun as oral tradition initially developed outside India. Feuerstein, Kak, and Frawley are among those who reject the Aryan invasion, arguing that this is nothing more than "scholarly function."[3] It was the writers of the Vedas who settled the Indus Valley and that the Aryans were "native to India for several millennia, deriving their Sanskrit language from earlier Indo-European dialects." [3]

An alternative theory was proposed by a nineteenth-century writer, Edward Pococke, who may or may not be related to the sixteenth-century Orientalist of the same name. In his India in Greece (original, 1852) Pococke argued that the "Greek language is a derivation from Sanskrit; therefore Sanskrit speaking people, that is, Indians, must have dwelt in Greece, and" they "must have been primitive settlers."[4] According to Pococke, the "language" and "philosophy" and "religion," the "rivers," "mountains" as well as her "subtle form of intellect" and her "politics" all indicate that Greece was "colonized from India."[4] Pococke and others also think that Indian visited and contributed to Ancient Egyptian civilization. Feuerstein, Kak, and Frawley write, "we know that" the Egyptians "owe a great debt to the learned men and sages of India."[3]

Historical Reconstruction

Did you know?
The Vedic Period refers to the time when the Vedas, the oldest sacred texts of Hinduism, were being composed

The reconstruction of the history of Vedic India is based on text-internal details. Linguistically, the Vedic texts could be classified in five chronological strata:

1. Rigvedic: The Rigveda is by far the most archaic of the Vedic texts preserved, and it retains many common Indo-Iranian elements, both in language and in content, that are not present in any other Vedic texts. Its creation must have taken place over several centuries, and apart from that of the youngest books (first part of 1, and all of 10), would have been complete by 1000 B.C.E. Archaeologically, this period may correspond with the Gandhara Grave Culture, the Cemetery H culture of the Punjab and the Ochre Colored Pottery culture (OCP) further east. There is no widely accepted archaeological or linguistic evidence of direct cultural continuity from the Indus Valley Civilization. The word "Veda" means "knowledge."[5]

2. Mantra language: This period includes both the mantra and prose language of the Atharvaveda (Paippalada and Shaunakiya), the Rigveda Khilani, the Samaveda Samhita (containing some 75 mantras not in the Rigveda), and the mantras of the Yajurveda. Many of these texts are largely derived from the Rigveda, but have undergone certain changes, both by linguistic change and by reinterpretation. Conspicuous changes include change of vishva "all" by sarva, and the spread of the kuru- verbal stem (for Rigvedic krno-). This is the time of the early Iron Age in north-western India, corresponding to the Black and Red Ware (BRW) culture, and the kingdom of the Kurus, dating from ca. the tenth century B.C.E.. Atharvaveda contains a great deal of medical knowledge and is used by practitioners of Ayurvedic healing.

3. Samhita prose: This period marks the beginning of the collection and codification of a Vedic canon. An important linguistic change is the complete loss of the injunctive. The Brahmana part ('commentary' on mantras and ritual) of the Black Yajurveda (MS, KS, TS) belongs to this period. Archaeologically, the Painted Grey Ware (PGW) culture from ca. 900 B.C.E. corresponds, and the shift of the political center from the Kurus to the Pancalas on the Ganges.

4. Brahmana prose: The Brahmanas proper of the four Vedas belong to this period, as well as the Aranyakas, the oldest of the Upanishads (BAU, ChU, JUB) and the oldest Shrautasutras (BSS, VadhSS).

5. Sutra language: This is the last stratum of Vedic Sanskrit leading up to c. 500 B.C.E., comprising the bulk of the Śrauta and Grhya Sutras, and some Upanishads (e.g. KathU, MaitrU). All but the five prose Upanishads are post-Buddhist. Videha (North Bihar) as a third political center is established.

6. Epic and Paninian Sanskrit: The language of the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics, and the Classical Sanskrit described by Panini is considered post-Vedic, and belongs to the time after 500 B.C.E. Archaeologically, the rapid spread of Northern Black Polished Ware (NBP) over all of northern India corresponds to this period. The earliest Vedanta, Gautama Buddha, and the Pali Prakrit dialect of Buddhist scripture belong to this period.

Historical records set in only after the end of the Vedic period, and remain scarce throughout the Indian Middle Ages. The end of Vedic India is marked by linguistic, cultural and political changes. The grammar of Panini marks a final apex in the codification of Sutra texts, and at the same time the beginning of Classical Sanskrit. The invasion of Darius I of the Indus valley in the early sixth century B.C.E. marks the beginning of outside influence, continued in the kingdoms of the Indo Greeks, new waves of immigration from 150 B.C.E. (Abhira, Shaka), Kushan and ultimately the Islamic Sultans. The most important historical source of the geography of post-Vedic India is the second-century Greek historian Arrian whose report is based on the Mauryan time ambassador to Patna, Megasthenes.

Rigvedic period

The Rigveda is primarily a collection of religious hymns, and allusions to, but not explanation of, various myths and stories, mainly in the younger books 1 and 10. It may be the oldest literary document in existence.[3] The oldest hymns, probably in books 2–7, although some hold book 9, the Soma Mandala, to be even more ancient, contain many elements inherited from pre-Vedic, common Indo-Iranian society. Therefore, it is difficult to define the precise beginning of the "Rigvedic period," as it emerges seamlessly from the era preceding it. Also, due to the semi-nomadic nature of the society described, it cannot be easily localized, and in its earliest phase describes tribes that were essentially on the move.

RigVedic Aryans have a lot in common with the Andronovo culture and the Mittanni kingdoms as well as with early Iranians. The Andronovo culture is believed to be the site of the first horse-drawn chariots.

Political organization

The grama (wagon train), vis and jana were political units of the early Vedic Aryans. A vish was a subdivision of a jana or "krishti," and a grama was a smaller unit than the other two. The leader of a grama was called gramani and that of a vish was called vishpati.

The rashtra (polity) was governed by a rajan (chieftain, 'king'). The king is often referred to as gopa (protector) and occasionally as samrat (supreme ruler). He governed the people with their consent and approval. He was elected from a restricted class of 'royals' (rajanya). There were various types of meetings such as the vidhata or "Sabha." Gana was the non-monarchial assembly that is a parallel one to the monarchial assemblies of that period headed by Jyestha the same was referred in Buddhist text named Jettaka.The Sabha, situated outside of settlement, was restricted to the Vratyas, bands of roving Brahmins and Kshatriyas in search of cattle, with a common woman (pumscali) while the vidatha was the potlatch-like ritual distribution of bounty.[6]

The main duty of the king was to protect the tribe. He was aided by several functionaries, including the purohita (chaplain) and the senani (army chief; sena: army). The former not only gave advice to the ruler but also was his chariot driver and practiced spells and charms for success in war. Soldiers on foot (pattis) and on chariots (rathins), armed with bow and arrow, were common. The king employed spaś (spies) and dutas (messengers). He collected taxes (originally ceremonial gifts, bali), from the people which he had to redistribute.

Society and economy

Ceramic goblet from Navdatoli, Malwa, 1300 B.C.E.

The concept of varna (class) and the rules of marriage were rigid as is evident from Vedic verses (RV 10.90). The status of the Brahmins and Kshatriyas was higher than that of the Vaishyas and Shudras. The Brahmins were specialized in creating poetry, preserving the sacred texts, and carrying out various types of rituals. Functioning as intellectual leadership, they also restricted social mobility between the varnas, as in the fields of science, war, literature, religion and the environment. The proper enunciation of verses in ritual was considered essential for prosperity and success in war and harvests. Kshatriyas amassed wealth (cattle), and many commissioned the performance of sacrifices. Kshatriyas helped in administering the polity, maintained the structure of society and the economy of a tribe, and helped in maintaining law and order.

In the Early Vedic Period all the three upper classes Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas were considered as—relatively—equal Arya, but in the Later Vedic Age the Brahmins and Kshatriyas became upper class. The Vaishyas were pastoralists and farmers; the Shudras were the lower class; they included artisans and were meant to serve the upper three classes. As the caste system became deep-rooted there were many restrictions and rules which were to be followed.

Cattle were held in high esteem and frequently appear in Rigvedic hymns; goddesses were often compared to cows, and gods to bulls. Agriculture grew more prominent with time as the community gradually began to settle down in post-Rigvedic times. The economy was based on bartering with cattle and other valuables such as salt or metals.

Families were patrilineal, and people prayed for the abundance of sons. The Society was strictly organized in a system of four varna (classes, to be distinguished from caste, jati).

Vedic Religious Practices

Painting of Indra, chief God of the Vedas, on his elephant mount, Airavata.

The Vedic forms of belief are the precursor to modern Hinduism. Texts considered to date to the Vedic period are mainly the four Vedas, but the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and the older Upanishads as well as the oldest Shrautasutras are also considered to be Vedic. The Vedas record the liturgy connected with the rituals and sacrifices performed by the 16 or 17 Shrauta priests and the purohitas.

The rishis, the composers of the hymns of the Rigveda, were considered inspired poets and seers (in post-Vedic times understood as "hearers" of an eternally existing Veda, Śrauta means "what is heard").

The mode of worship was performance of sacrifices which included the chanting of Rigvedic verses (see Vedic chant), singing of Samans and 'mumbling' of offering mantras (Yajus). The priests executed rituals for the three upper classes (varna) of Vedic society, strictly excluding the Sudras. People offered for abundance of rain, cattle, sons, long life and gaining 'heaven'.

The main deities of the Vedic pantheon were Indra, Agni (the sacrificial fire), and Soma and some deities of social order such as Mitra-Varuna, Aryaman, Bhaga and Amsa, further nature deities such as Surya (the Sun), Vayu (the wind), Prithivi (the earth). Goddesses included Ushas (the dawn), Prithvi and Aditi (the mother of the Aditya gods or sometimes the cow). Rivers, especially Saraswati, were also considered goddesses. Deities were not viewed as all-powerful. The relationship between humans and the deity was one of transaction, with Agni (the sacrificial fire) taking the role of messenger between the two. Strong traces of a common Indo-Iranian religion remain visible, especially in the Soma cult and the fire worship, both of which are preserved in Zoroastrianism. The Ashvamedha (horse sacrifice) has parallels in the second millennium B.C.E. Andronovo culture, in Rome and old Ireland, was continued in India until at least the fourth century C.E. and revived under Jay Singh in 1740 C.E. Sacrifices to the God's were intended to enlist their aid in ensuring the health of the cosmos; chaos (adharma, or disorder) is kept in check with dharma (order, righteousness) is healthy. The universe is not the creation of the Gods; indeed they are "this side" of the beginning. The RigVeda poses a series of questions about the origins of all, asking "What covered all? And where? By what protected? Was there the fathomless abyss of water?" and "The source from which this universe has risen," "whether it was made, or uncreated ... He only knows, who from the highest heaven Rules, the all-seeing lord, or does He know?" (RigVeda. 10. 129).[7] What was later named as Brahman is described in the earliest Vedic literature as an unknown and unnamed One, "That One breathed without wind through its independent power." "There was nothing other than it" thus all this is can be understood as a breathing-out of that which is self-existing.[8]

Vedic religion evolved into the Hindu paths of Yoga and Vedanta, a religious path considering itself the 'essence' of the Vedas, interpreting the Vedic pantheon as a unitary view of the universe with 'God' (Brahman) seen as immanent and transcendent in the forms of Ishvara and Brahman. These post-Vedic systems of thought, along with later texts like Upanishads, epics (namely Gita of Mahabharat), have been fully preserved and form the basis of modern Hinduism. The ritualistic traditions of Vedic religion are preserved in the conservative Śrauta tradition, in part with the exception of animal sacrifice, which was mostly abandoned by the higher castes by the end of the Vedic period, partly under the influence of the Buddhist and Jain religions, and their criticism of such practices. The Vedic concept of the "Universal Soul" permeating everything that exists means that all life is to be respected, including the life of the planet itself.

The later Vedic period

The transition from the early to the later Vedic period was marked by the emergence of agriculture as the dominant economic activity and a corresponding decline in the significance of cattle rearing. Several changes went hand in hand with this. For instance, several large kingdoms arose because of the increasing importance of land and long distance trade. The late Vedic period, from ca. 500 B.C.E. onward, more or less seamlessly blends into the period of the Middle kingdoms of India known from historical sources.


The late Vedic period was marked by the rise of the 16 Mahajanapadas referred to in some of the literature. The power of the king and the Kshatriyas greatly increased. Rulers gave themselves titles like ekarat (the one ruler), sarvabhauma (ruler of all the earth) and chakravartin ('who moves the wheel'). The kings performed sacrifices like rajasuya, (royal consecration) vajapeya (including a chariot race) and, for supreme dominance over other kings, the ashvamedha (horse sacrifice). The coronation ceremony was a major social occasion. Several functionaries, in addition to the purohita and the senani, took part. The role of the people in political decision making and the status of the Vaishyas as such was greatly decreased.


Although the Vedas are not widely studied in contemporary India except by scholars, they continue to impact on many aspects of life, especially on ethics and on obligations within the family and society. Many aspects of Hindu practice is still derived from or taken wholly from the Vedas. One definition of a Hindu is someone who reveres the Vedas, even if they have little else in common.

The Vedic period represents one of the cradles of humanity. On the one hand, the literary legacy does not contain much by way of historical information. On the other, this legacy takes us back to one of very earliest of any human society; Feuerstein, Kak and Frawley argue that India, from the Vedic period to today, represents "the oldest known continuous civilization on earth,"[3] although some would challenge this statement, championing China's claim. Vedic society's sophisticated organization, its profound interest in human origins and in the question of the meaning and purpose of life combined with a refusal to speculate, its championing of order against chaos and of order within society, all suggest a maturity that is often associated with humanity at a much later stage of development.

The possibility that the ancient world was a more inter-connected world, with links stretching across several continents, may also merit scholarly investigation. An inter-connected world may also have been an inter-dependence world. The development of human civilization as the result of the mixing and mingling of ideas across geo-political borders weakens race-based claims that some ethnic groups have contributed more than others to this process. Some argue in favor of an ancient global civilization that stretched around the world, offering this as an explanation of similarities in architecture, technology and myth; "The fact that the standardized mythos and ritual are found in detail around the world begs the explanation of at least one such global civilizations long ago" and according to one writer such similarities are more similar the further back we go. She continues, "In investigating such cultural commonality, it would be reasonable to conclude that our current global civilization is not the first."[9]


  1. Robin Rinehart, Contemporary Hinduism: ritual, culture, and practice (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004, ISBN 978-1576079058), 10.
  2. Bryant and Patton 2005, 50-53: on Müller and the origins of the Aryan invasion theory. Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler used the term in his 1947 article, “Harappa 1946: the defences and cemetary. R-37." 58-130. Ancient India.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Georg Feuerstein, Subhash Kak, and David Frawley, The search of the cradle of civilization: new light on ancient India (Delhi, IN: Motilal Banarsidass, 2005, ISBN 978-8120816268).
  4. 4.0 4.1 Edward Pococke, India in Greece or, Truth in Mythology (Estbourne, UK: Gardners Books, 2007, ISBN 978-1430473336).
  5. M. Winternitz, A History of Indian Literature (Delhi, IN: Motilal Banarsidass, 1996, ISBN 978-8120802636), 47.
  6. F.B.J. Kuiper, Selected writings on Indian linguistics and philology (Amsterdam, NL: Rodopi, 1997, ISBN 978-9042002357), 406-417.
  7. Adolf Kaegi, The Rigveda: the oldest literature of the Indians (Boston, MA: Ginn, 1886), 90-91)
  8. Ainslie Thomas Embree, Stephen N. Hay, and William Theodore De Bary, Sources of Indian tradition Introduction to Oriental civilizations (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1988, ISBN 978-0231066501), 21.
  9. S, Acharya. 1999. The Christ conspiracy: the greatest story ever sold. Kempton, IL: Adventures Unlimited Press. ISBN 9780932813749. 391.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bryant, Edwin, and Laurie L. Patton. The Indo-Aryan controversy: evidence and inference in Indian history. London, UK: Routledge, 2005. ISBN 978-0700714629.
  • Doniger, Wendy. The Rig Veda: an anthology : one hundred and eight hymns, selected, translated and annotated. Penguin classics. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 1981. ISBN 978-0140444025.
  • Embree, Ainslie Thomas, Stephen N. Hay, and William Theodore De Bary. Sources of Indian tradition. Introduction to Oriental civilizations. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1988. ISBN 978-0231066501.
  • Feuerstein, Georg, Subhash Kak, and David Frawley. The search of the cradle of civilization: new light on ancient India. Delhi, IN: Motilal Banarsidass, 2005. ISBN 978-8120816268.
  • Kaegi, Adolf. The Rigveda: the oldest literature of the Indians. Boston, MA: Ginn, 1886.
  • Kuiper, F.B.J. Selected writings on Indian linguistics and philology. Amsterdam, NL: Rodopi, 1997. ISBN 978-9042002357.
  • Pococke, Edward. India in Greece or, Truth in Mythology. Estbourne, UK: Gardners Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1430473336.
  • Pococke, Edward, and Ravi Prakash Arya. Indian origin of Greece and ancient world: E. Pococke's thesis re-edited and revised. Rohatak, Haryana, IN: Indian Foundation for Vedic Science, 2003. ISBN 978-8187710165.
  • Pruthi, Raj. Vedic civilization. Culture and civilization series. New Delhi, IN: Discovery Publishing House, 2004. ISBN 978-8171418756.
  • Rajaram, Navaratna Srinivasa. The politics of history: Aryan invasion theory and the subversion of scholarship. New Delhi, IN: Voice of India, 1995. ISBN 978-8185990286.
  • Rinehart, Robin. Contemporary Hinduism: ritual, culture, and practice. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004. ISBN 978-1576079058.
  • Sharma, P.R.P. Encyclopaedia of Vedas. New Delhi, IN: Anmol Publications, 2007. ISBN 978-8126132676.
  • Singhal, K.C., and Roshan Gupta. The ancient history of India, Vedic period: a new interpretation. New Delhi, IN: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2003. ISBN 978-8126902866.
  • Talageri, Shrikant G. The Aryan invasion theory: a reappraisal. New Delhi, IN: Aditya Prakashan, 1993. ISBN 978-8185689401.
  • Winternitz, M. A History of Indian Literature. Delhi, IN: Motilal Banarsidass, 1996. ISBN 978-8120802636.


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