The Rigveda as Evidence of Ways of Life in Vedic Times

Rig Veda Yagam

The oldest Veda is the Rigveda, which was composed about 3,500 years ago. The Rigveda consists of more than a thousand hymns known as sukta or "Well-said." These hymns are in praise of different gods and goddesses.

The Rigveda is divided into ten mandalas or books and it contains 1028 hymns. These hymns were composed by sages (rishis). The Rigveda is composed in old or Vedic Sanskrit, which is very different from the Sanskrit we study today. Priests taught students to recite and memorise each syllable, word and sentence, bit by bit, with great care. These hymns were learnt, recited and passed on from generation to generation. It was only many centuries later that these hymns were given a written form.

Lord Shiva


The Early Vedic Period

The Vedic people first settled occurred between 1500 BC and 1000 BC in the Sapta Sindhu region of seven rivers: the Hindus, the Ravi, the Beas, the Chenab, the Jhelum, the Sutlej and the Saraswati. The Aryans called this region Brahmavarta which means `the most sacred land."

Studies of Vedic literature show that the social customs and practices, economic life and religious beliefs and rituals of the Vedic people had changed in many ways from the early to the later Vedic period. However, we should bear in mind all that these changes did not take place all at once. All we can say is that many of the customs and practices which are mentioned in the later Vedic Literature do not find mention in the early Vedic literature. This leads to the conclusion that such changes would have occurred after the early Vedic period.

Rig Veda Samhita


The Rigvedic Heartland

References to rivers, mountains and other geographical features in the Rigveda show that the early Vedic Aryans were familiar with the land extending from the rivers Kubha (Kabul) and Kurumu (Kurram) in Afghanistan to the upper valleys of the Ganga and the Yamuna up to central Uttar Pradesh. The Himalayas and probably central Rajasthan formed, respectively, the northern and southern limits of their geographical horizons. Within this area lived a number of Aryan communities or tribes known as janas.

The valley of the river Saraswati, which used to flow through Haryana and Rajasthan to the Arabian Sea, formed the heartland of the early Aryan settlements. Numerous references to cows, horses, and pastures, compared to fewer references to agricultural fields and farming, show that these janas were predominantly pastoral in nature.

Some Rigvedic hymns mention non–Aryan peoples also living in the same region, a people called Dasyus being one of them.

Because the Rigveda says very little about the ways of living of the non-Vedic peoples, it cannot be said to give us a complete picture of the society and culture of all the people living in northern India during that period.

Rig Veda school


Culture in the Vedic Period

As we know, written sources play a very important role in finding out crucial information about the past. Let us see how historians find out the past from the study and interpretation of Rigveda.

According to historians, this hymn was composed in the area where these rivers flow. The comparison of rivers with cows and horses indicates the sage lived in a society where horses and cows were important animals.

Besides agriculture and animal husbandry, people also practiced many specialized occupations like carpentry, chariot-making, metal work, goldsmithing, leather crafts, pottery and weaving. Chariot markers had an important position in society because of the importance of war. Metal workers made amour and helmets for warriors, besides making weapons, tools and utensils. Gold and silver ornaments were used by the rich. Pottery was used for storage of grain and other things as well as for cooking.

Rig Veda, the first of the Four Vedas


Trading in the Vedic Period

The existence of specialized occupations mentioned above presupposes the existence of trade and markets. The use of metals implies regular trade and transport because metal ores were not available in most of the river valleys where Rigvedic settlements existed. It seems, however, that most of the trade and commerce was in the hands of a people known as panis.

The use of money for buying and selling was not known anywhere in the world during that period. Trade was carried on by barter, by the direct exchange of goods. The value of goods was often expressed in terms of the number of cows they were worth. Thus the cow was as a measure of value.

However, trade and commerce did not have much importance in the lives of ordinary people because the different communities produced most of the items they needed locally.

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