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Early India | History - Later Vedic Culture | 11th History : Chapter 2 : Early India: The Chalcolithic, Megalithic, Iron Age and Vedic Cultures

Chapter: 11th History : Chapter 2 : Early India: The Chalcolithic, Megalithic, Iron Age and Vedic Cultures

Later Vedic Culture

The Later Vedic culture is dated to the period between 1000 BCE and 700–600 BCE.

Later Vedic Culture

The Later Vedic culture is dated to the period between 1000 BCE and 700–600 BCE. The Painted Grey Ware Culture of the Iron Age, which has been identified by archaeologists at many excavated sites, is associated with the Later Vedic culture. This period witnessed political, social, economic complexity and developments.

The Late Vedic Texts

The Later Vedic texts were composed after the Rig Veda Samhitas. The Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas were composed after the Rig Veda.

Eastward Expansion of the Aryans

The Aryan speakers expanded from the Punjab to Western Uttar Pradesh in the Ganga Yamuna doab in the Later Vedic period. The history of ancient India was thus marked by the movement of cultures, and interactions and battles among various groups for territories and resources. It has been suggested that while the Aryans migrated to the region of eastern part of the Ganga valley, the Indo-Iranians migrated from the region of Iran to the region of Punjab. The later Vedic texts speak about the region of Kuru Panchala which falls in the Indo-Gangetic divide and the Upper Ganga Valley. The area mentioned as the south-eastern boundary of the Aryans in Rig Veda is listed in Aitreya Brahmana as the midland, which indicates the movement of Aryans into the Ganga valley in the Later Vedic period. Perhaps this expansion was induced by the need for water and land resources, fresh, less occupied territories and population pressures.

The Kurus, Panchalas, Vashas and Ushinaras are the tribes of this period. References to the Saraswati and Dhristavati rivers occur in the later Vedic texts also. Around 1000 BCE, the Vedic Aryans moved towards Kosala region in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Videha in North Bihar, where the Vedic people encountered the local people following Chalcolithic material culture. In the Upper Ganga valley, the Vedas acquired Munda words indicating that Munda speaking-people lived in the Ganga valley. The region of Kosala and Videha were the easternmost territories of the Aryan expansion during this period. By the end of the Vedic period Panchala and Videha were Aryanised. The area beyond this region in the east was seen as an alien territory. In the Atharva Veda, the people of Anga and Magadha (Bihar) were seen as enemies. Similarly, the Pundras of Bengal and the Andhras were seen as outside the Aryan identity in the Aitreya Brahmana. This suggests that these regions were not influenced by Aryan culture. What we gather is that the process of Aryanization gradually spread from the north-west to the south-east mainly into the Ganga Valley.

Later Vedic Culture and Iron

Iron was an important metal used for implements in this period. It was called syama-ayas or krishna-ayas or the dark metal. Iron is believed to have played an important role in the conversion of the forests of the Ganga Valley into agricultural lands. By the end of Vedic period, the knowledge of iron had reached eastern Uttar Pradesh and Videha. Earlier it was believed that iron originated around 700 BCE, but recent research dates the beginning of iron to around 1200 BCE or even earlier. The early views gave excessive emphasis to iron to the colonization of the Ganga Valley, but new scholarship argues that iron was not the only factor behind the expansion of the population.

Settlements and territories

With the intensification of agriculture, the Later Vedic people led a settled life leading to formation of territorial units. The term janapada, referring to territory, is found in the Brahmanas dated to ca. 800 BCE. There are more than 1000 sites of painted Grey Ware culture in this area, suggesting that new settlements came up and the Upper Ganga Valley was densely populated. People lived either in mud-brick houses or houses with wattle and daub walls. The foundations for the towns must have emerged during the later Vedic period. This was a period of intense interactions. The term nagara, referring to commercial quarters, is found in the later Vedic texts. However, large towns appeared only at the end of the Vedic period. The sites of Hastinapura and Kausambi are considered proto urban (urban-like) settlements. The material culture of this period shows more diversity and is an improvement over the Early Vedic period. It can be surmised that there was surplus production to support various classes such as chiefs, princes and priests.

Political Organization

In the Early Vedic Age tribal polities were dominant. The king was elected by assemblies. In the Later Vedic period the assemblies became less important and the power of the king increased. The influence of assembly called vidhata disappeared, while samiti and sabha continued in the period. The development of large kingdoms reduced the power of the assemblies.

The Rajan was the leader who led the army in the battle. The concepts of Samrat/Samrajya developed and they suggest the increase in the power and ambition of the king. The legitimization of kingship became important with the performance of various sacrifices such as vajapeya and rajasuya. The king developed more control over the territory, people and resources.

Purohita, which means ‘one who places the king in the forefront’, became important in the establishment of polity and kingship. Monarchy developed. The Rajan became the controller of the social order. Srauta sacrifices (sacrifices to achieve some benefits) were carried out to control the resources. The kings presented cows, horses, chariots, gold, clothes and female slaves to the priest. The Aitreya Brahamana says that king has to provide 1000 pieces of gold and cattle to the Brahmana who anoints him. Thus the priest became important in the formation of polity and royalty.

The terms such as rashtra, to denote a territory, and rajya, meaning sovereign power appeared. The king received voluntary or compulsory contribution called bali from the people (vis). Such voluntary contributions became tributes. The Mahabharata offers clues to historical development and is suggestive of the power struggle to control the territories. The Ramayana too is suggestive of the Aryan expansion and the encounters with native people in the forest.

The territorial formations and the development of lineages became stronger during the Later Vedic period. Romila Thapar characterises the developments in the first millennium BCE as the movement from lineage to state. The development of state level political organization emerged only after 500 BCE, and the Later Vedic society was therefore in transition. Several lineages became more territorial and settled in the Later Vedic Age. This is evidenced by the term janapada, as we saw earlier. The mid-first millennium BCE had political organisations such as rajya and ganasanghas (oligarchies) and these institutions developed in the later Vedic period.

As we saw earlier, the clans of Bharatas and Purus combined to form the Kurus, and along with the Panchalas they occupied the central part of the Ganga-Yamuna doab. Panchala territory was in north-western Uttar Pradesh. The Kuru-Panchalas became one major ethnic group and Hastinapur became their capital. The war between the Kauravas and Pandavas was the theme of the Mahabharata and both of them belonged to the clan of Kurus. Traditions say that Hastinapur was flooded and the Kuru clan moved to Kausambi near Allahabad.

Sacrifices and rituals gained importance in the Later Vedic society. The king became more independent. Rituals dominated kingship, and this increased the power and influence of the Rajanyas and the Brahmanas, while distancing the king from the vis. The Asvamedha-yaga involved letting a horse loose into areas where it moved freely; this was an assertion that the authority of the king was recognized, and a battle ensued when the horse was challenged. The vajapeya ritual involved a chariot race. Such innovative modes of rituals helped to increase the power of the king. The formation of social, distinctions became prominent.

Social Organization

The social transformation in the Later Vedic Period is much more clearly reflected in the references in the Vedic texts. The social divisions of varna became more established. Teaching was seen as the occupation of the Brahmanas. The wives of Brahmanas and cows were given important status. Rajanya refers to kshatriyas and they were the warriors and rulers who received bali as tax.

Striking changes took place in the Varna System. There was an increase in the privileges of the two higher classes, the Brahmanas and the Kshatriyas at the cost of the Vaisyas and Sudras. In the Panchavimsa Brahmana, the Kshatriya is placed first, higher than the Brahmana but in the Satapatha Brahmana, the Brahmana is placed higher than Kshatriya. In later Vedic society the importance of the purohita (priest) is stressed, as mentioned in the Vedic texts. The Kshatriyas challenged Brahmanical supremacy and their exclusive privilege of entering the asramas, a regulated four stage life namely brahmacharya, grihasta, vanaprastha and sanyasa. The outcome of this was the birth of Jainism, Buddhism and Ajivakam.

The system of four Varnas had taken deep root and became rigid in the course of time. The popularity of rituals helped the Brahmanas to attain power. Brahmanas became important and the kings supported them, although they had conflicts with Rajanyas, the warrior nobles. The concept of dvija (twice-born) developed and the upanayana (sacred thread) was limited to the upper sections of the society. This ceremony marked the initiation for education. The fourth varna was denied this privilege and the Gayatri mantra could not be recited by the Sudras. Women were also denied upanayana and Gayatri mantra. The king asserted his authority over the three varnas. The Aitreya Brahmana refers to the Brahmana as the seeker of support and he could be removed by king from his position.

Certain craft groups managed to attain higher status. For example, the Rathakaras, the chariot makers, had the right to wear the sacred thread. Vaisya referred to the common people. They were involved in agriculture, cattle breeding and artisans. Later they became traders. Vaisyas paid tax to the kings. Some social groups were placed in ranking even below the Sudras. However, cross varna marriages did happen.

The idea of gotra emerged in the later Vedic period. Gotra literally meant ‘cowpen’ and it referred to a group of people from a common ancestor. Persons of the same gotra were considered as brothers and sisters and could not therefore intermarry. Several unilineal descent groups existed with common ancestors. Several related clans formed the tribe.


The household became more structured, which means it became more organised. The family was an important social unit. The family was patriarchal with patrilineal descent. The relations within the family were hierarchical. Polygyny (taking many wives) was prevalent. Several household rituals were also developed for the welfare of the family. The married man with his wife was the yajamana.

The concept of asramas, referring to various stage of life, was not well established in this time. While brahmacharya, grihasta and vanaprastha are mentioned, sanyasa had not developed.


The status of women declined as the society became more structured and the patriarchal family became more important. In the family the father was the head. The right of primogeniture was strong. Though women had participated in rituals in the Rig Vedic period, they were excluded in the later Vedic period. Daughters are spoken of as a source of trouble. Their work was to look after the cattle, milking animals and fetching water.


The economic activities of this period were quite diversified. Agriculture, pastoralism, craft production and trade contributed to the economic development.


Agricultural activities increased during the Late Vedic period. The Satapatha Brahmana mentions rituals related to ploughing undertaken by the kings. This suggests the importance given to cultivation by the rulers, and the shift to agriculture to support the increasing population. The god Balarama is depicted with a plough, which suggests the importance of cultivation. The Vedic people cultivated barley and rice, and wheat. Wheat was the staple food of Punjab region. The Vedic people began to use rice in the Ganga-Yamuna doab. The use of rice, rather than wheat, is noticed in the Vedic rituals.


Pastoralism continued to be important. Cattle were considered sacred. They became part of exchange and redistribution. The offering of cattle as part of dakshina continued. Pastoralism supplemented agriculture.

Craft Production

Arts and crafts proliferated during the Later Vedic age and craft specialization took deep roots, when compared to early Vedic period, since more occupational groups are mentioned in this period. Evidence of iron work is noticed from about 1200 BCE. Metals such as copper, tin, gold, bronze and lead are mentioned. These metals were smelted and worked by specialized groups. The copper objects were used for making weapons for war and hunting. Weaving was undertaken by women. Leatherwork, pottery and carpentry were well known. Terms such as kulala referring to potters and urna sutra referring to wool appear. Bow makers, rope makers, arrow makers, hide dressers, stone breakers, physicians, goldsmiths and astrologers are some of the specialized professional groups mentioned in the texts. Professions such as physicians, washerman, hunters, boatman, astrologer and cook are mentioned. References to the elephant are often found in the Atharva Veda, along with the elephant keeper.The increase in references to such groups indicates a society in transformation.

The performers of Vedic sacrifices were also a type of service providers. The priest played an important role in legitimizing the role of king through various rituals. Wealth was measured in terms of cattle and animals. There is a mention of offerings of 20 camels, 100 gold necklaces, 300 horses and 10,000 cows as dakshina.

Trade and Exchange

Trade and exchange had developed in the Later Vedic age. The material culture found in the archaeological sites reveals the movement of commodities and materials. Specialised caravan traders existed. No evidence of coins has been found and therefore barter must have been the medium of exchange. The introduction of coins took place after about 600 BCE.

Religious Faith and Belief System

During the Later Vedic period the upper Ganga Doab was the centre of the Aryan culture. This region is described as the land of Kuru-Panchalas. The Vedic gods Agni and Indra lost their importance. Prajapati became the main deity. Rudra, the god of rituals, identified with Siva, became important. The Satapatha Brahmana lists the names of Rudra as Pasunampatih, Sarva, Bhava and Bahikas. Vishnu was conceived as the protector of people. There is no reference to Vishnu’s incarnations. Each varna had its own deities.


Rituals became important in society. It was believed that rituals and sacrifices could solve many problems. The rituals became more complex, required more resources, and took longer time. This indirectly reflects the demand for rituals and the formation of elite groups who could spend more resources on rituals and sacrifices. The correct performance of rituals was stressed. Stress was laid on paying dakshina. Numerous rituals were prescribed for solving all kinds of day to day problems. The resort to rituals and sacrifices as a solution for problems led to the view that material wealth could achieve anything. The ideas in the Upanishads argue against such a view, and stress the importance of realising the atman or inner self. Such degeneration of rituals and the material-oriented nature of the priests created dissension and led to the development of heterodox faiths such as Buddhism and Jainism which emphasized correct human behaviour and discipline.

Philosophy and Education

The disciplines of philosophy, literature and science developed in this period. Various branches of learning such as literature, grammar, mathematics, ethics and astronomy developed. Education was limited to males. Teacher-pupil relationship was cultivated through person-oriented training. The development of Vedic texts and the importance given to pronunciation, grammar and oral transmission suggest training in utterances and memorization, as part of the Vedic system of education. The development of various types of texts could be considered as developing solutions for certain mundane issues and a quest for knowledge. Araynakas are concerned with priests who were in the forests.

Upanishads (which means to sit nearby) texts with philosophical enquiries, were composed during this period. They were also referred to as Vedanta, since they were attached as the last part of the Vedic texts.

They lay stress on knowledge and the realization of the self or atman and Brahman (the Supreme Being), meditation, cycle of birth and death. They convey the ideas of karma, and good conduct, self-restraint, mercy and generosity as virtues. Despite the ritual dominated aspects of Vedic life, some seers were in pursuit of knowledge and virtuous conduct.

Other aspects of Life

The Late Vedic culture has evidence of music and fine arts. Music instruments such as lute, flute and drum are referred to in the texts. With the development of cultivation and pastoralism, different types of food and drinks made of grains, milk and ghee and plants were consumed. Evidence of the use of silk and ornaments of metal, gold and copper is found. Metal mirrors were also used. The archaeological sites have uncovered beads and ornaments and the fabrication of glass beads was also developed in the later part of the Vedic period.

Characteristics of Later Vedic Society

Later Vedic period is marked by lineages of clans, and small kingdoms developed in many parts of the Ganga valley, leading to the development of the state after 600 BCE. The idea of janapada and rashtra as territorial units had developed. The raja wielded much power and the social divisions began to strike deep roots. The varna system had developed well and Sudra identity became more marked during this period.

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