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Social Life

It has already been stated that the foundation of the political and social structure in the Rig- Vedic age was the family. The members of a family lived in the same house. Houses in this age were presumably built of wood or reed. In every house there was a fireplace (agnisala), besides a sitting-room and apartments for the ladies. The master of the house was called grihapati or dampati. He was usually kind and affectionate, but occasional acts of cruelty are recorded. Thus we have the story of a father who blinded his son for his extravagance.

Families being patrilineal, people prayed for abundance of sons. The birth of daughters was not desired, but once born they were treated with kindness and consideration. Their education was not neglected, and some of them lived to compose hymns and rise to the rank of seers like Visvavara, Ghosha and Apala. Girls were given in marriage when they attained full development. Marriage for love as well as for money was known. Weddings were celebrated in the house of the bride’s parents. Ordinarily a man married but one wife. Polygamy was, however, practised, but not polyandry. Remarriage of widows was permitted. Women were not independent persons in the eye of the law, and had to look to their male relations for aid and support. Their position in the household was one of honour. The term dampati is sometimes used to designate the mistress as well as the master of the house. The wife participated in the religious offerings of the husband and was the queen of his home. There is no evidence in the Rig- Veda of the seclusion of women, and ladies trooped to festal gatherings “decked, shining forth with sunbeams.”

Particular attention was paid to dress and adornment. The Vedic costume seems to have consisted of three parts-an undergarment styled nivi, a garment called vasa or paridhana and a mantle styled adhivasa, atka or drapi. The clothes were of different hues and were made of cotton, deer skin or wool. Garments were often embroidered with gold. The use of gold ornaments and of floral wreaths was common, especially on festive occasions. Both the sexes wore turbans. The hair was worn long and combed. The long locks of women were folded in broad plaits.

The daily fare of the Vedic household consisted mainly of parched grain, cakes (apupa), milk and its various products such as curd and butter, and many sorts of vegetables and fruits. The use of animal food was common, especially at the great feasts and family gatherings. The slaying of the cow was, however, gradually looked down upon with disfavour as is apparent from the name aghnya (not to be killed) applied to it in several passages. Curiously enough, we have no reference to the use of salt in the Rig-Veda.

Drinking water was obtained not only from rivers and springs (utsa), but also from avatas or artificial wells from which it was raised by a wheel of stone and poured into buckets of wood. Reference is also made to more exhilarating drinks such as Soma and Sura. The former was the juice of a famous plant that grew on mountains, especially on the Mujavat peak of the Himalayas. It was identical with the Haoma of the Avesta. Its use was restricted to religious ceremonies. On the other hand Sura was an ordinary intoxicating drink, the use of which was condemned in later ages.

The favourite amusements of the more virile classes were racing, hunting and the war-dance. Themesopotamia dancer chariot-race was extremely popular and formed an important element of the sacrifice celebrated in later times as the Vajapeya. No less popular was hunting. The animals hunted were the lion, the elephant, the wild boar, the buffalo, and deer. Birds also were hunted. Another favorite pastime was dicing, which frequently entailed considerable loss to the gamester. Among other amusements, mention may be made of boxing, dancing and music. Women in particular loved to display their skill in dancing and singing to the accompaniment of lutes and cymbals. Lute-players played an important part in the development of the epic in later ages.

The Vedic singers loved to dwell on the joys of life and seldom referred to death except in the case of enemies. When a man died, he was either cremated or buried. The burning of widows does not appear to have been prevalent.

The Vedic Kulas or families were grouped into larger units in the formation of which Varna (colour) and Sajatya (kinship) played an important part. From the beginning, the white-hued (svitnya) Aryan invaders were marked out from their dark-skinned opponents, who were called dasa, dasyu or sudra. In the Aryan community itself men of kingly family (rajanya or kshatra) and descendants of priests (Brahmanas) were clearly distinguished from the common free men, the vis. The quadruple division of society is mentioned in some of the earlier hymns, but it makes its formal appearance in the Purushasukta which seeks to explain the existing divisions by adumbrating the theory that “when they divided the primeval being (Purusa) the Brahmana was his mouth, the Rajanya became his arms, the Vaisya was his thighs, and from his feet sprang the Sudras.”

The social divisions mentioned here have their parallel in other Indo-European communities. But it is important to remember that in the hymns of the Rig-Veda there is little trace of the rigid restrictions typical of caste in its mature form. There was hardly any taboo on intermarriage, change of occupation or commensality. We have instances of marriages of Brahmanas with Rajanya women, and of the union of Arya and Sudra. Families were not wedded to a particular profession. “I am,” says the author of a hymn, “a poet, my father is a doctor, and my mother is a grinder of corn. With our different views, seeking after gain, we run, as after cattle.” There was no ban on the taking of food cooked by the Sudras, and there is no evidence that impurity was communicated by the touch or contact of the inferior castes.

The rigid restrictions with regard to occupation, commensality, etc., originated, according to recent writers, not with the Aryans but with the totemistic proto-Australoid and the Austro-Asiatic inhabitants of pre-Dravidian India who dreaded the magical effects of the practice of strange crafts and the taking of tabooed food. A taboo on intermarriage is also traced to a similar source. The Aryan invader, with his ideas about colour and hypergamy, simply crystallised and perpetuated a system which was already in existence and was based on the taboo arising from magical ideas. Other factors, geographical, economic, and religious, have had their share in later developments.

In later ages, a member of each of the three higher castes, who wished to lead an ideal life, had to pass through the rigorous discipline of the Asramas or the four stages of life. First he was a brahmacharin or Vedic student vowed to chastity, then a grihastha or married householder, next a vanaprastha or forest hermit, and finally a sannyasin, that is, an ascetic who had renounced the world. The germ of the system of Asrama is already met with in the Vedic hymns. Besides the grihapati, we have reference to the brahmacharin as well as the muni. The brahmacharin practiced self-restraint and studied the sacred lore. “The master recited the texts and the disciple repeated them after him as frogs croak one after another. ” The munis are described as ” long-haired, some were wind-clad, others wore a soiled garment of brown colour and led a life of wandering.”

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