Warfare is a striking aspect of the milieu of both early and later Vedic literature. Book 1 of the Rig Veda Samhita refers to a battle of 20 kings, involving 60,099 warriors (the numbers need not be taken literally). But the nature of political units was changing.
The 6th century BCE political map of north India showed the existence of different kinds of political systems—monarchical states (rajyas), oligarchic states (ganas or sanghas), and tribal principalities. The roots of these developments lie in the period c. 1000–600 BCE. While some communities retained their tribal character, others were making the transition towards statehood. Larger political units were formed through the coalescing of tribes.
The Purus and Bharatas came together to form the mighty Kurus, the Turvashas and Krivis formed the Panchalas, and the Kurus and Panchalas seem to have been allies or confederates. Later Vedic texts reflect a transition from a tribal polity based on lineage to a territorial state. Some historians argue that this transition was not yet complete. On the other hand, since the end of the period of composition of later Vedic texts falls within the 6th century BCE, when territorial states did evidently exist according to the testimony of other sources, it makes little sense to insist that the state emerged in the post-Vedic and not in the later part of the later Vedic age.
Witzel (1995) has argued that the Kurus represent the first state in India. He suggests that it was the Kurus under their king Parikshit (and their Brahmana priests) who initiated the collection and codification of the Vedic corpus into a canon. This included the re-arrangement of old and new poetic and ritual material, and was necessary to fulfil the needs of the newly developed shrauta, ritual presided over by various ritual specialists.
As explained in Chapter 4, the transition to a state polity is always the culmination of a number of complex political, social, and economic processes. The emergence of a monarchical state would have involved multiple processes of conflict, accommodation, and alliances. Monarchy involves the concentration of political power in the hands of a king. The supremacy of the rajan was achieved by sidelining rival claimants to power, establishing coercive mechanisms, and control over productive resources. Apart from the monarchies, there were polities that maintained their tribal moorings and where political power was in the hands of assemblies, not kings.
The rajan of later Vedic texts is, like his Rig Vedic counterpart, a leader in battle. But he is also a protector of settlements and of people, especially Brahmanas. He is a custodian of the social order and sustainer of the rashtra (this term does not necessarily refer to a well-defined territory). Hereditary kingship was emerging.
The Shatapatha and Aitareya Brahmanas refer to a kingdom of 10 generations (dasha-purusham rajyam). There are a few references (e.g., Atharva Veda 1.9; 3.4) to the election of the king, but these probably amounted to a ratification of hereditary succession. There is an interesting reference to the Srinjayas expelling their king Dushtaritu Paumsayana from the kingdom, in spite of his 10 generations of royal descent. This was no doubt an exception to the rule. Later Vedic rituals exalted the supremacy of the king, both over his kinsmen and over his people. Terms such as samrajya and samrat reflect the imperial aspirations and ambitions of certain kings.
The emergence of monarchy was accompanied by speculations on the origins of the institution and attempts to provide a legitimizing ideology. Some of these speculations refer to the divine realm, others to the human sphere. The Aitareya Brahmana states that on being defeated in battle by the demons, the gods realized that the reason for their defeat was that they had no king. So they elected a king, who led them to victory against the demons. Elsewhere in the same text , it is said that the gods, led by Prajapati, decided to install Indra as their king on the grounds that he was the most vigorous, strong, valiant, and perfect among them all, and the one who best carried out tasks that needed to be done.
Later Vedic texts emphasize the close connection between the king and the gods. The Shatapatha Brahmana asserts that the king gains identity with Prajapati through the performance of the vajapeya and rajasuya sacrifices. As the visible representative of Prajapati, although one, he rules over many. Such statements should be understood as attempts to exalt the status of the king, not as a theory of the divinity of kings, nor as indicative of their worship.
The emergence of the rajan as wielder of supreme political power involved his distancing himself from those closest to him—his kinsmen. This distancing was emphasized in ritualized contests such as the chariot race in the vajapeya sacrifice, and the cattle raid and game of dicing in the rajasuya sacrifice. In earlier times, such contests may have decided who was worthy of becoming king, but now they were ritual enactments in which the outcome—the victory of the rajan—was already decided and known.
Another aspect of the rajan’s increasing power was his acquiring greater control over productive resources. Bali, which was initially a voluntary offering, probably consisting of agricultural produce and cattle, gradually became obligatory. The Shatapatha Brahmana states that the Vaishya offers bali because he is under the vasha (control) of the Kshatriya, and has to give up what he has stored when he is told to do so.
The rajan is referred to as vishamatta—eater of the vish (people), indicating that he lived off what the people produced. The rajan’s appropriation of bali from the people does not, however, quite amount to a clearly defined and organized system of taxation. References to the sabha and samiti continue in later Vedic texts. For instance, in the Shatapatha Brahmana, the king prays: ‘May the samiti and the sabha, the two daughters of Prajapati, concurrently aid me.’ But with the increase in royal power, the power of the assemblies must have correspondingly declined.
Later Vedic texts indicate a close relationship between the king and his purohita (his Brahmana priest and counsellor). Purohita literally means ‘one who is put in front’ (by the king). The relationship between king and purohita is likened to that between earth and heaven. The king is considered the feminine, subordinate party in this relationship (Coomaraswamy , 1993). The importance of the purohita is graphically illustrated in the rajasuya ceremony, where he introduces the king to the assembled people and announces: ‘This man is your king. Soma is the king of us Brahmanas’ (Shatapatha Brahmana). The system of administration seems to have been fairly rudimentary.
Kumkum Roy (1994b) has underlined the close connection between the emergence of the monarchical system, the varna hierarchy, the organization of kinship relations, and the structure of households. The grand shrauta sacrifices performed by the king legitimized the king’s control over the productive and reproductive resources of his realm, while the domestic sacrifices performed by the grihapati legitimized his control over the productive and reproductive resources of his household. Brahmanical texts implicitly recognize the connections between the political and domestic spheres in their description of the rajan as a custodian of the social order.
The Varna Hierarchy
Although kinship ties were still very important, later Vedic texts indicate the beginnings of a class structure in which social groups had different degrees of access to productive resources. Varna was partly an ideology that reflected the increasing social differentiation of the times. It was even more an ideology that justified this differentiation from the point of view of the elite groups.
In dividing society into four hereditary strata, this ideology defined social boundaries, roles, status, and ritual purity. Members of the four varnas were supposed to have different innate characteristics, which made them naturally suited to certain occupations and social rank. The varna hierarchy was to remain an important part of the social discourse of the Brahmanical tradition for many centuries, and the duties and functions of the four varnas are elaborated on in the Dharmashastra literature of later times.
The Purusha-sukta (Purusha hymn) in Book 10 of the Rig Veda Samhita refers to four social groups—Brahmana, Rajanya (instead of Kshatriya), Vaishya, and Shudra, though the word varna is not mentioned. It describes the four groups, and a whole lot of other things as well, as originating from different parts of the body of a primeval giant named Purusha, in the course of a sacrifice supposed to have been held long, long ago, in which Purusha was the sacrificial offering.
The body symbolism in the Purusha hymn indicates that the four varnas were visualized as inter-related parts of an organic whole. At the same time, it clearly indicates a hierarchy of ranks, with the Brahmana at the top and the Shudra at the bottom. The fact that the varnas are described as being created at the same time as the earth, sky, sun, and moon indicates that they were supposed to be considered a part of the natural, eternal, and unchangeable order of the world.
In fact, as pointed out by Brian K. Smith (1994), the varna scheme was extended beyond society to the classification of other aspects of the world, the gods, and nature. Initially, there seems to have been some ambiguity about the relative positions of the higher varnas. In the Panchavimsha Brahmana (13, 4, 17), where Indra is associated with the creation of the varnas, the Rajanya are placed first, followed by the Brahmana and Vaishya. The Shatapatha Brahmana also places the Kshatriya first in the list. Elsewhere, in the same text (Shatapatha Brahmana) the order is as follows: Brahmana, Vaishya, Rajanya, and Shudra. However, the order of the four varnas in the Brahmanical tradition became fixed from the time of the Dharmasutras onwards.
The relationship between the Brahmana and Kshatriya varnas was close but complex. Later Vedic texts emphasize the importance of the purohita for the king, and the close relationship between the Rajanya and at least a section of the Brahmana community. On the other hand, the conflict between the gods Mitra and Varuna has been seen as symbolic of a conflict between the two varnas. Mitra represented the principle of brahma (sacred power) and Varuna the principle of kshatra (secular power).
There are several statements about the relationship between brahma and kshatra, describing them variously as antagonistic, complementary, or dependent on each other. Upanishadic philosophy has also been viewed, at least in part, as a reflection of the Kshatriya challenge to Brahmanical supremacy in the field of ultimate knowledge.
The first three varnas were known as dvija, literally ‘twice-born’, i.e., those entitled to the performance of the upanayana ceremony, which was considered a second birth. They were eligible to perform the agnyadheya or the first installation of the sacred sacrificial fire, which marked the beginning of ritual activities prescribed for the householder. On the other hand, the texts also emphasize differences between the three varnas.
The Aitareya Brahmana states that the rajasuya sacrifice endowed each of the four varnas with certain qualities—the Brahmana with tejas or lustre, the Kshatriya with virya or valour,the Vaishya with prajati or procreative powers, and the Shudra with pratishtha or stability. Later texts such as the Shrautasutras laid down the different details of the performance of sacrifices such as the soma sacrifice and the agnyadheya, depending on the varna of the sacrificer.
The Brahmanas had an exalted status in the varna hierarchy, associated as they were with the performance of sacrifices and with knowledge, specifically the study and teaching of the Vedas. In the Aitareya Brahmana , when Varuna is told that a Brahmana boy was going to be sacrificed to him instead of the son of king Harishchandra, he remarks, ‘A Brahmana is indeed preferable to a Kshatriya’.
The Shatapatha Brahmana associates the Brahmana with four special attributes: purity of parentage, good conduct, glory, and teaching or protecting people. He is also associated with receiving four privileges from the people—honour, gifts, freedom from being harassed, and freedom from being beaten. The Kshatriyas or Rajanya were connected with strength, fame, ruling, and warfare. The Vaishyas were associated with material prosperity, animals, food, and production-related activities such as cattle rearing and agriculture. In the soma sacrifice, prayers were offered for the protection of the brahma, kshatra, and vish. The goals varied, depending on the varna to which the yajamana belonged. For the Brahmana, the goal was priestly lustre (brahma-varchas), for the Rajanya it was prowess (indriya), and for the Vaishya, it was animals and food (pashu and anna).
The position of the Shudra at the bottom of the varna ladder was fixed from the very beginning. He was associated with serving the higher varnas and performing menial tasks. He could not perform Vedic sacrifices. A dikshita (one who had undergone initiation for a Vedic sacrifice) was not supposed to speak to a Shudra. According to Aitareya Brahmana , the Shudra is at the beck and call of others, can be made to rise at will, and can be beaten at will (yatha-kamavadhya). There were groups in society who were considered even lower than the Shudras. Slaves (dasas and dasis) are mentioned among gift items in the danastutis.
However, on occasion, children born of slave women could aspire to high status. For instance, in Book 1 of the Rig Veda, there is a reference to Kakshivan, son of the sage Dirghatamas by a woman slave of the queen of Anga. Kavasha Ailusha, author of a Vedic hymn in Book 10, is also described as the son of a woman slave. These were probably exceptional instances.
Although there are no clear indications of the practice of untouchability in later Vedic texts, groups such as the Chandalas were clearly looked on with contempt by the elites. The Chhandogya Upanishad and Taittiriya and Shatapatha Brahmanas mention the Chandala in a list of victims to be offered in the presumably symbolic purushamedha (human sacrifice), and describe him as dedicated to the deity Vayu (wind). The dedication to Vayu has been interpreted as indicating that the Chandala lived in the open air or near a cemetery, but this is far from certain. The Chhandogya Upanishad states that those who perform praiseworthy deeds in this world swiftly acquire rebirth in a good condition—as a Brahmana, Kshatriya, or Vaishya, while those who perform low actions acquire birth in a correspondingly low condition—as a dog, boar or Chandala.
The Shatapatha Brahmana gives the story of a king named Videgha Mathava who originally lived on the banks of the Sarasvati and crossed the Sadanira (Gandak) river with his priest Gotama Raghugana, preceded by Agni Vaishvanara. Historians have often interpreted this story as reflecting the eastward movement of the Indo-Aryans and the first agricultural ‘colonization’ of the eastern lands through burning down the forests. On the other hand, giving an early Videhan king a respectable north-western origin may have been a way of legitimizing his power, and the reference to Agni may allude to the extension of Brahmanical sacrificial ritual to these areas.
Later Vedic texts reflect processes of social interaction, conflict, and assimilation. According to the Aitareya Brahmana , when his 50 sons did not accept Shunahashepa (Devarata) as his son, Vishvamitra cursed them to become the Andhras, Pundras, Shabaras, Pulindas, and Mutibas. This story reflects the attempt of the Brahmanical tradition to extend some amount of recognition to ‘outsiders’. Some non-Indo-Aryan groups were assimilated into the varna hierarchy, usually at the lower rungs.
In fact, the Shudras may have been a non-Indo-Aryan tribe living in the north-west, who later lent their name to the fourth varna. However, not all tribal groups were assimilated. Some were simply acknowledged. Later Vedic texts mention forest people such as the Kiratas and Nishadas. They also show the emergence of the concept of mlechchha, a category that included various tribal groups and foreign people considered to be ‘outsiders’ by the Brahmanical tradition
While later Vedic texts suggest that society in the upper Ganga valley was becoming increasingly stratified, there was still a certain amount of fluidity in occupations. This is suggested in Rig Veda where the poet says: ‘I am a reciter of hymns, my father is a physician, and my mother grinds (corn) with stones. We desire to obtain wealth in various actions.’