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THE EARLY VEDIC AGE
The Rig-Vedic Aryans were mostly scattered in villages. The word nagara (city) does not occur in the hymns. We find indeed mention of purs which were occasionally of considerable size and were sometimes made of stone (asmamayi) or of iron (ayasi). Some were furnished with a hundred walls (satabhuji). But the purs were in all probability rather ramparts or forts than cities, and served as places of refuge, particularly in autumn, as is suggested by the epithet Saradi applied to them in some passages. It is significant that, unlike the later texts, the Rig-Veda makes no clear mention of individual cities like Asandivat or Kampila.
Regarding the organisation of the village we have a few details. There was an official styled the Gramani who looked after the affairs of the village, both civil and military. We have also reference to a functionary called Vrajapati who may have been identical with the Gramani, and who led to battle the various Kulapas or heads of families.
Homestead and arable lands in the village appear to have been owned by individuals or families, while grass lands (khilya) were probably held in common.
Agriculture was the principal occupation of the village folk. The importance of the art of the art of tilling is clearly brought out by the name Krishti or Charshani (agriculturist) which is applied to people in general, and in particular to the five principal tribes into which the early Vedic community was divided. Cultivated fields were known as Urvara or Kshetra. They were often watered by irrigation canals. The use of manure was also known. The grain grown on the soil was styled dhana or yava, but the exact significance of these terms in the earliest literature is not known. In later times they meant rice and barley. When ripe, they were cut with a sickle, tied in bundles and threshed on the floor of the granary. They were next winnowed, ground in the mill and made into cakes (apupa).
The rearing of cattle and other domestic animals was scarcely less important than agriculture. Cows were held in much esteem, and milk, as we have seen, formed an important part of the dietary in the Vedic household. Herds of cattle were daily led to the pasture by the gopa (cowherd). The valley of the Yamuna was especially famous for its wealth of kine. The marking of the ears of cattle was a common practice, as is shown by the use of the expression ashtakarni (having pierced ears or having the sign of 8 marked on the ear) to mean a cow.
Other useful animals were the draught-ox, the horse, the dog, the goat and the sheep. The ewes of the land of Gandhara were famous for their wool.
Though mainly an agricultural and pastoral people, the Vedic tribes were not indifferent to trade and industry. Commerce was largely in the hands of a people styled Pani, who were probably non-Aryans and whose niggardliness was proverbial, but amongst them we have reference also to bountiful merchants like Bribu. Trade probably consisted mainly of barter. The chief articles of trade, judging by the evidence of the later Samhitas, were clothes, coverlets and skins. The standard unit of value was the cow, but necklets of gold (nishka) also served as a means of exchange. Whether nishkas in the early period possessed all the characteristic marks of a regular coinage, is a highly debatable question. No gold coin of the old indigenous type has yet been discovered in India, but the transition to the use of coined money was clearly prepared by the nishka, which was a piece of metal that came to possess a definite weight, if not the hallmark of State authority. We have also in the Rig-Veda, in an enumeration of gifts, reference to the golden mana which some authorities identify with the old Babylonian weight-unit, the manah (Latin Mina).
The principal means of transport by land were chariots (ratha) and wagons (anas), the former usually drawn by horses and the latter by oxen. The epithet pathi-krit, ” path-maker “, applied to the Fire-God, suggests that the services of the deity were frequently requisitioned to burn the primeval forests, infested by wild animals and haunted by highwaymen (taskara, stena), to make roads for the use of travellers and merchants.
A great controversy has centred round the question as to whether marine navigation was practised in Rig-Vedic times. According to one view, navigation was limited to the crossing of rivers in boats, but we have undoubted references to navigators sailing in ships with a hundred oars. In the story of the shipwreck of Bhujyu, mention is made of the Samudra, “which giveth no support, or hold, or station.” Some think that Samudra means no more than the stream of the Indus in its lower course. Others regard the story as a matter of hearsay knowledge gathered from travellers, but acquaintance with the sea is rendered probable by references to the “treasures of the deep.” If the identification of the Vedic mana with the Babylonian manah is correct, we have indubitable testimony to a very early intercourse between Vedic India and distant lands beyond the seas.
Of the industries of the Rig-Vedic period, those of the wood-worker, the metal-worker, the tanner, the weaver and the potter deserve special mention. The wood-worker or carpenter not only made chariots, wagons, houses and boats, but showed his skill in carved work of a finer type such as artistic cups. The metal worker or smith fashioned all sorts of weapons, implements and ornaments from various kinds of metal including gold and the mysterious ayas, which some authorities take to mean copper or bronze while others favour the sense of iron. Workers in leather made water-casks, bow-strings, slings and hand-guards for the protection of the archers. Weavers included men as well as women. The latter showed their skill in sewing, weaving and the plaiting of mats from grass or reeds. The potter (Kulala) also plied his craft for the benefit of the people.
The art of poetry was in full bloom as is evidenced by the splendid collection of lyrics known as the Rik-Samhita which consists of hymns in praise of different gods. The number of hymns is 1,017. These are grouped into books termed ashtakas or mandalas containing eight and ten hymns respectively, which were recited by priests styled hotris or reciters. The old hymns are chiefly to be found in the so-called Family Books (II-VII), each of which is ascribed by tradition to a particular family of seers (rishis). Their names are Gritsamada, Visvamitra, Vamadeva, Atri, Bharadvaja and Vasishtha. Book VIII is ascribed to the Kanvas and Angirases. Book IX is dedicated to Soma. The latest parts of the collection are to be found in Books I and X, which, however, contain some old hymns as well.
Fine specimens of lyric poetry are to be found among the Rig-Vedic hymns, notably in those addressed to the Goddess of the Dawn.
A knowledge of the art of writing has been deduced from references to ashtakarni cows, where the epithet ashta-karni is interpreted to mean ” having the sign for the number 8 marked on the ear.” But the expression admits of other interpretations. The prevailing view has been that the Rig-Vedic people did not possess the art of writing, and that the old script in which the inscriptions of Asoka and his successors are written goes back to a Semitic, and not Vedic Aryan, origin. Writing was no doubt practised by the pre-historic people of the Indus valley who developed the ancient culture of Harappa, and Mohenjo-Daro, but it is significant that the early literature of the Aryans was transmitted orally.
Architecture made some advance in Rig-Vedic India. There are references to mansions supported by a thousand columns and provided with a thousand doors. Mention is also made of stone castles and structures with a hundred walls. Allusions to images of Indra possibly point, according to some, to the beginnings of sculpture.
The medical art of the age distinguished quite a number of diseases. But the physician (bhishaj) was still a fiend-slayer as well as a healer of disease, and charms and spells were regarded as equally efficacious with healing herbs and drugs. The use of iron legs as a substitute for natural ones points, however, to some advance in surgery. The science of astronomy made definite progress, and certain stars bad already been observed and named.