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The Vedic period in India– precursor to Hinduism and Buddhism: Part One


photo by Manfred Antranias Zimmer courtesy of

The Vedic period in India ran from about 1500 BCE to 500 BCE.  The Vedic civilization encompassed a large region of northern India that includes the modern states of Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, and western Uttar Pradesh.  The “Indus Valley Civilization” (IVC) preceded the Vedic period and started around 3300 BCE; this earlier civilization was contemporaneous with ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, although it was much larger in area.

The IVC was characterized by urbanization, with dwellings made of baked clay, extensive water supply and drainage systems, and multiple structures not used for dwellings (ceremonial buildings.)  The IVC technology used metals including lead, copper, tin, and bronze (copper with 10-20% tin “often with the addition of other metals (such as aluminium, manganese, nickel or zinc) and sometimes non-metals or metalloids such as arsenic, phosphorus or silicon.”)  The IVC is known as a Bronze Age civilization.

The decline of the IVC is currently thought to be due to climate change and drought, although there is much uncertainty about earthquakes, an Aryan invasion, and other factors.  The archaeological evidence shows that the urban cultures of the IVC were replaced by nomadic, pastoral peoples.

The Vedic period corresponded to the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.  It was characterized by the appearance of the Vedas, liturgical works that form the basis for Brahmanism and the Hindu religion.  The Vedas were originally orally transmitted and only written down centuries later.  The earliest Veda was called “Rigveda-Samhita” and is thought to have appeared after 1500 BCE.

The Rigveda-Samhita contains accounts of conflicts between Aryan and Dasyu groups of people.  According to archaeologists and anthropologists from outside India, the Aryans were immigrants to northern India who brought with them a culture that was different from the Dasyu.  According to Indian experts, however, the Aryans were indigenous.  The conflicts described in Rigveda-Samhita are semi-legendary and say that the Dasyu were demons who did not sacrifice to the gods or follow their commandments.

Archaeological evidence shows that the Aryans transitioned from a semi-nomadic pastoral way of life to a settled agricultural one during the early Vedic period 1500-1200 BCE.  They began to use iron axes and ploughs, and cut down the forests of the Ganges plain to grow crops.

They developed a “varna” system which divided society into four groups: the kshatriya (warriors), Brahmin (priests), vaishyas (free peasants, agriculturalists, or traders), and shudras (slaves or laborers.)  A fifth group was called dalits (“broken” or “scattered”) and roughly corresponds to what is today known as the “untouchables.”  Some experts says the groups were hereditary; others say that one could change groups depending on circumstances.

There are four Vedas, each of which is divided into four subdivisions.  The main Vedas are the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda and the Atharvaveda.  “Each Veda has four subdivisions – the Samhitas (mantras and benedictions), the Aranyakas (text on rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices and symbolic-sacrifices), the Brahmanas (commentaries on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices), and the Upanishads (texts discussing meditation, philosophy and spiritual knowledge)”

All the Vedas are described as “what is heard” as opposed to “what is remembered” and are thought to be written by superhuman or impersonal means– that is, they are divinely inspired.  In modern times, the mantras they contain are recited not for their literal meaning but for their sounds.  Reciting the mantras is thought to regenerate the cosmos.  Religious traditions that consider the Vedas to be primary authorities are called “astika” (orthodox.)

Religious traditions that deny the primal authority of the Vedas are considered “nastika” (heterodox): these include Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Lokayata (materialism), and Ajivika (a school of thought which has been lost but which apparently denies the existence of free will.)  There are some details of Ajivika philosophy in a separate page on Wikipedia.

This is the first of a series of posts on the Vedic period in Indian history.  They will draw on the relevant documents in Wikipedia to summarize their contents.




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