The earliest monuments of ancient Indian literature contain numerous mentions of the terms of kinship – such as mother and father, father-in-law and mother-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law and many others. Most of them in origin go back to times much more ancient than the era of the appearance of the Aryans in India. The wedding hymn of the Rig Veda reflects the importance placed on the family. Undoubtedly, the family was the main unit of the Vedic society.
As a rule, we are talking about a large family that included several generations of male relatives along with their wives. The entry of women into the husband’s family (which was usually headed by a father-in-law) was accompanied by various rituals that ensure her acceptance into someone else’s collective, initiation into the family-clan cult. In this new family, the woman remained after the death of her husband, taking care of her brother-in-law. According to the custom of the levirate, she was often numbered among his wives. Although the family was generally monogamous, there was no prohibition against polygamy. Legendary characters in Vedic literature sometimes had several wives (Manu, for example, had ten, according to Maitraniya-samhita). Polygamous marriages could be rich in offspring, which was especially appreciated since the time of the Rig Veda, when the birth of “ten sons” was a common wish. On the contrary,
The importance attached to sons was, of course, determined not only by purely economic reasons, by the need to manage the economy and inherit property. The sons had the duty of procreation, family rituals, and above all maintaining the cult of ancestors (“fathers”). Families descended from the same ancestor maintained close ties with each other, forming a kind of clans. Cycles of hymns of the Rig Veda, traditionally referred to as “family mandalas”, probably originated and were transmitted precisely within such tribal or clan groups.
Dwellings and buildings
If in relation to the Rig Veda it is still legitimate to talk about the semi-nomadic way of life of the Aryans, then in the monuments of late Vedic literature we see the emergence of a firm settled way of life. Descriptions of numerous rituals allow one to imagine the material conditions of a family’s life. The traditional construction of the house looked like this: the center of the building was occupied by a wooden post dug into the ground. On this pillar, a beam was strengthened, oriented to the cardinal points, and then a roof of reed and bamboo was laid. The entire structure had a “wagon-like” shape. The walls consisted of braids stretched between corner posts. In late Medieval times, they were often coated with clay and then whitewashed. Grass and mats were laid out on the earthen floor, and bundles of grass or reeds served as seats.
The available material allows us to talk about the local traditions of building and the variety of forms of dwellings at the time of compilation of brahminical prose. For example, houses are mentioned that are round or rectangular in plan, with or without an adobe platform. Much here depended, of course, not only on ethnic customs, but also on the natural conditions of each region. In the brahmanas, one can notice a tendency for the gradual complication of life, the appearance of more and more new elements of material culture – from furniture (a seat and a bed made of durable Udumbara wood) to metal mirrors found in the Upanishads.
The house and the place of its construction were given special, sacred significance. People personified their hut as a female deity, they sought support from the lord of the house – Vastospati. The dwelling with all its design features was perceived as a kind of image of the universe. Corresponding ideas were reflected in the funeral ritual (building a house for the deceased), and later in the creation of burial-shaped Buddhist stupas.
Organization within patriarchal collectives
The main term for the family in brahminical prose – kula – is used for the entire totality of persons living in the same house and leading a joint household. Sometimes we are talking directly about common property. Thus, in the Jayminiya-brahmana it is said that whoever of the members of the kula acquires something, it belongs to the whole family. Most often, belonging to a kul is determined through a meal: food is cooked separately in each house – companions and make up a family.
In the Rig Veda, the term “kula” itself is not attested, but it is found in complex words such as kulap (literally, “defender of the kula”, that is, obviously, the eldest in it). The family is known by the name of its head, the householder. The latter sometimes looks like a stern patriarchal ruler. For example, in the Satapatha-brahmana there are such lines: “When the householder returns after a long absence, all the household members are shaking: what he says, what he will do . ” The relationship between father and sons is characterized primarily by the fundamental identity emphasized in the Brahmans: the father is embodied in the guise of a son, he continues to exist on earth in the form of his own heir.
Patriarchal power depended not only on seniority, but also on the physical ability to manage family affairs. In one of the brahmanas it is said: as long as the father is able, he leads the family, and the sons depend on him. When old age comes, the father submits to the son as the head of the family. After the death of the father, it was also possible to divide the inheritance between the sons (daughters who left for another family did not have any rights to family property). During the division, the best share belonged to the eldest of the brothers, for he had the greatest responsibility, the implementation of the cult of ancestors, the duty of procreation. The younger brothers were to honor the elder as a father. Marriages that violated the family hierarchy were strongly condemned. Both the younger brother, who had married before the elder, and the older, who committed such a violation of their rights, were considered ritually impure, sinners.
Judging by the well-known legend about Shunakhshep, the father had to ask the consent of his sons to accept a new, adopted “relative” into the house. Obviously, this was due to the rights (albeit limited) of the adopted children to a share in the family property. Apparently, the latter was by no means considered the personal property of the head of the family, which he could dispose of at his own discretion.
The main wife was called the “mistress of the house” (patni), she was the constant helper of her husband in the domestic worship and enjoyed great authority. Other wives held a much lower position, although their sons were also considered legitimate and had inheritance rights. A woman is often characterized in the Brahmanas as a weak, ritually impure creature, incapable of independence. In a large patriarchal family, united by belonging to the same clan, she is considered an alien person and therefore does not have the right to a share of common property. Her lack of inheritance after her husband is repeatedly mentioned in Vedic literature. For the older men in the family – especially the father-in-law – the woman should show respect. Already in the Shatapatha Brahmana we find a custom characteristic of India,
In the late Vedic texts and epics, there are such plots and characteristics that indicate the broadest powers of the head of the family. The latter can lose his wife at dice, sell children or sacrifice his son (as in the legend of Shunakhshep mentioned above). The ancient Indians could put a wife and son next to a domestic slave in some contexts – and this equally characterizes both the position of the household and the degree of development of slaveholding relations.
The main term for a slave since the time of the Rig Veda has been the word dasa. Since dasa originally meant a stranger or an adversary, it is reasonable to assume that slaves were usually not tribesmen. Their number could be replenished at the expense of prisoners of war or subjugated, acquired in a foreign land or forced to enter the slave service. Dasa was systematically contrasted with the aria as a person deprived of freedom, and therefore not belonging to the “people”. The word “dasa” was also used in a figurative sense – as an indication of service, dependence, obedience to someone else’s will. So it has to be interpreted, for example, in descriptions of rivalries and clashes of kings, when the defeated raja becomes the dasa of the victor.
Women dasis are spoken of much more often than male slaves. Sometimes the number of them is also indicated – for example, in the Aitareya-brahmana it is said that the king gave his house priest thousands of dasis. The text is hardly to be understood literally – “thousands”, obviously, means simply “myriad.” But the status of these girls cannot be interpreted unambiguously. At least they are said to be “daughters of venerable people (adhya).” Probably, the dashi accompanied this priest, were in his service, were used as concubines. The abundance of women – concubines and servants – in the house was considered prestigious.
Slavery was domestic in nature. In addition to dasa, there are many other words in the sources referring to domestic servants and other dependent persons – most of them have a very vague meaning: “person”, “subordinate”, “servant”, “accompanying”, etc. The meaning of the terms can be determined by the context, sometimes they seem to be interchangeable, and it is difficult to determine in which case we are talking about people working under a contract, in which – under duress or due to the obligation to obey, established by an unwritten custom, tradition. In the families of the Vedic experts, the brahmana priests, for years there were disciples who performed various types of household work and constituted an essential part of the circle of household members. They were considered as the younger members of the family, being close, on the one hand, to the native sons of a brahmana, on the other, to his servants and slaves.
All the many varieties of patriarchal dependent persons were covered by one word – dasabharya. The word bharya means “receiving support, food” and in Sanskrit texts usually refers to wives. But in Brahminical prose, dasabharya may correspond to the usual expression dasakarmakara or dasakarmakrit – “slaves and laborers”, which is common in later monuments. It can mean generally all those who live in the household of a householder and “eat his food,” as the Shatapatha-brahmana puts it.
The Chandogya Upanishad lists the main varieties of what is considered wealth: livestock and horses, elephants and gold, dasabharya, fields and buildings. All this corresponds to the concept of sri – “good”, “property” of the householder. However, the place of family members (bharya) in this list is controversial. One can also find in the texts the following statement (Satapatha-brahmana): Sri is especially great where there are many cattle, but few bharya – dependents. The presence of servants in the house is a sign of prestige, but with their help, family property is consumed rather than accumulated.
The male relatives of the head of the family were called jnati. Apparently, the Jnati making memorial sacrifices to the same ancestors maintained close ties with each other and usually lived side by side, helping each other.
A broader category of persons is covered by the term “gotra”. It includes all descendants in the male line of one ancestor. Gotras are attested primarily among the priests-brahmanas, whose ancestors were considered rishis – compilers of Vedic hymns. In many cases, the relationship could be fictitious, and, apparently, not only historical, but also completely mythical characters appeared as progenitors. At times there were extremely many persons belonging to one and the same gotra, and these “clans” did not constitute any kind of cohesive collective. But the gotra indicated an origin that was important in the Vedic era. Gotra was reckoned with when worshiping, marriage was prohibited within the gotra.
Taking into account the gotra, clan affiliation, associations of priests – Ghana – were formed. Brahmans, referring to the sacrificial fire during the performance of the ritual, sequentially listed their ancestors (the so-called provara). The rule of exogamy extended not only to relatives, but also to those whose rights at least partially coincided. The very word “gotra” in the meaning of “clan” was first mentioned only in the Atharva Veda – and then only as part of the compound word “drum belonging to all gotra” . However, the very presence of the so-called “family mandalas” in the Rig Veda suggests the existence of a similar institution in the early Vedic era.
Brahminical prose works were created within the framework of certain schools of ritual. The sacred tradition was passed on orally to the disciples, and during the performance of certain rites, the lists of the continuity of the ancient teachers were respectfully reproduced. “Spiritual” kinship for the Brahmans meant no less than physical kinship, and the very formation of the Vedic schools took place not only on a local basis, but also on a clan basis, in accordance with belonging to one or another gotra.
Settlements and their internal structure
In the Vedic era, Indians lived in village-type settlements. All attempts to find in the sources evidence of their acquaintance with urban life have not been crowned with success. The term pur, translated in Sanskrit monuments as “city”, in the Rig Veda apparently referred to temporary shelters, and mainly to fences for keeping livestock. Another word – armaka, in which they also tried to find an indication of the city, most likely meant only the ruins of a settlement, something like a Middle Eastern tell.
The main term for the rural population – “grama” – in some contexts retains a more archaic meaning. Sometimes it is possible to draw a conclusion about the mobility of the grama – obviously, it was considered as a division of the people-army. Comparisons of a gram with a coiled snake or a necklace evoke associations with the camps of herders, who put their carts in a circle, driving the cattle in the middle.
It is possible that village settlements developed from such sites, but in the era of the creation of brahminical prose, this was basically a passed stage. In late Vedic sources, there is a contrast between gram and aranya. The last word means “forest,” but in this case everything outside the grama village is meant. The border between grama and aranya is a feature that separates the land mastered by man from the world of natural nature, civilization from savagery. This kind of perception of the world could have developed only among completely sedentary farmers. It should be noted right away that the word gramya, in the first half of the 1st millennium BC. opposed to aranya (respectively “culture” and “nature”), in the texts of the turn of our era. acquired a completely different shade. In the new era, it is perceived as the opposite of the urban, sophisticated.
There are no data on the collective cultivation of the land by the entire village or on the redistribution of land in the late Vedic sources. In contrast, there are several indications of the ownership rights of individual families or owners. For example, in the Jaiminiya Brahmana it is said that the field after purchase goes to a new owner. Taittiriya-samhita mentions land disputes. However, in the latter case, next to litigation between neighbors, there is a conflict with “relatives” (sajata). Although the village was primarily a territorial community, undoubtedly, kinship (clan) ties between fellow villagers played an important role.
The head of the village, its leader – with thunders, is already mentioned in the Rig Veda. Whether the gramani owed his position, the choice of the community members or the rights of inheritance, cannot be determined. The village headman was sometimes appointed by the state authorities in subsequent periods. Most likely, such a practice has not yet developed in the Vedic era. Taittiriya-samhita’s statement that all householder community members would like to become gramani seems to be in favor of his election. At the same time, obviously, the elections could turn into a formal confirmation of hereditary power or be limited to a narrow circle of applicants from one ruling clan. “Leaders of the villages” took an active part in the coronation of the rajah ruler, and at the same time their fellow villagers (sajata) acted as their assistants.
Meetings and gatherings
In the Vedic era, the presence of all kinds of meetings and gatherings is recorded. However, one should not expect terminological accuracy from sources – it is likely that one and the same social institution was named differently or one name was applied to different phenomena. Most often, the word sabha is used, meaning “assembly”, “advice”. The room where the Sabha gathered was separate from the dwellings and belonged to the community as a whole. A special fire was lit in it, which served as a symbol of the unity of the Sabhi. The meetings were purely for men, and neither outsiders nor dependent persons were allowed to attend. The right to participate in the Sabha has always had significant restrictions. Therefore, it is no coincidence that such concepts as “speech worthy of the sabha” or “a person who can participate in the sabha” are developing. Here public affairs were discussed, disputes and competitions were held. Very often the sabha is also associated with dice. The latter served as entertainment, and sometimes was considered as a test of fate, a way to resolve disputes by lot.
The very term “sabha” remained in the subsequent era to designate a variety of institutions – a gambling house, a royal council, a court, etc. But it seems likely that all of these meanings are derived from an ancient institution that played an important role in the social and religious life of the Vedic era.
The word samiti in literature is often understood as a general folk “gathering”. By origin, this, apparently, is true, but it would be difficult to prove the reality of the existence of such an institution in the Vedic period. Judging by the mentions of scholarly brahmanas who had access to the samiti, the latter differed little in its essence from the sabha. Researchers have often tried to find the meaning of “popular assembly” in Vedic vidatha, but it seems that the latter is associated mainly with religious festivals and ritual distributions.
Vish can be considered a more extensive education than a village. Its meaning, however, is somewhat vague, close to the concept of “clan, people” (however, the people who settled in a certain territory and included a number of villages – grama). Judging by the fact that the “heads of the vis” (vispati) are mentioned, the presence of general leadership could be more important for the vis than the blood ties themselves.
The largest association was made up of Jana (literally, “peoples, tribes”). The people (Jana) occupied a vast territory, had a self-name and perceived themselves as a single whole (the Kuru, Matsya, Shurasena tribes, etc.). These names were transferred to entire areas of distribution of “tribes”. On the basis of the jana, more or less extensive states were formed – janapada (literally, “lands occupied by jana”).
Among the rural population, a sharp property stratification is not felt, although even in the Rig Veda it was said about debt bondage (though it arose as a result of an unsuccessful dice game). Property in Vedic literature appears not so much in commercial aspects (although the enrichment of merchants is known), but as a loot, a prize in the game, a reward in competition, various gifts and distributions. It is essential that “welfare” (sri) is by no means reduced to the accumulation of material resources, it is always associated to a greater extent with power and social prestige – even at the level of the village headman. Perhaps, only for the end of the late Medieval era, we have the right to talk about both deepening differences in the living conditions of certain strata of the population, and that these differences are associated with the consistency,
In late medieval literature, the main social gradations are expressed in the characteristic terms shreyas and papiyas. The first comes from sri – “good”, the second from papa – “sin.” Sreyas usually refers to brahmanas and kings. Both are rich, since they are under the auspices of the gods. Their well-being lies not only in property – material well-being itself depends on social prestige and manifests itself in power over other people. Before the one who is “the best (sreyas),” others bow down, trembling with fear, they accompany him and sit lower than he, – so it is said in the brahmanas.
Representatives of the nobility, Vedic “kings” have the right to receive bali. Bali is offerings, food, what people donate to spirits and other supernatural beings. Sometimes historiography emphasizes that Bali should be considered to the king not as taxes, but as voluntary offerings. Of course, there were no statutory tax rates in the Vedic era, but there is every reason to believe that an unwritten custom quite strictly regulated the amount of offerings to the Rajah.
When an attempt is made in Vedic texts to define the relationship between the people and the “kings”, first of all it is said about bali: “the best” (sreyas) get the bali, the “worst” (papiyas) pay it, the “kings” collect the bali, the people bring it. Obviously, coercion is also connected with the collection of bali – therefore, defining the class of the people (vis), Aytareya-brahmana says: not only “the one who pays another bali”, but also “the one who can be oppressed at will”. Perhaps the last expression refers to labor obligations (what was later called sewn – “forced labor”). I had to think about the obedience of the people – some Vedic rituals and magic spells are designed specifically for this purpose.
There is also a terminological series specific to Brahmins – the opposition of “eater” and “food”. In this system, all people belong to the first category (eater), and animals to the second. The husband in relation to his wife and the ruler in relation to his subjects are also considered to be an eater. Aitareya-brahmana therefore says about the Vaisya people: “he is the food of another” (meaning by “other” the king or king and the brahmana).
The contributions collected from the people went to general sacrifices with treats to the participants, to reward the priests, and to various gifts. They were intended for distribution and redistribution among the confidants of the Vedic “kings”. These sacrifices and distributions were supposed to serve as a guarantee of the future harvest and all prosperity for the whole collective, but for the rajah they turned into an increase in “glory”, strengthening of his support by the people, an increase in the number of subjects and, accordingly, the size of the collected bali.
The term “vish” originally meant a free and full-fledged people. However, in the late Vedic era, we are talking about villagers, farmers, who are already considered mainly as a taxable population. The concept of “people” fades into the background, being replaced by “subjects”. The latter are called, however, “offspring, children” (praja) of the ruler, who should treat them like a father. But such patronage itself further emphasizes the inequality in the position of ordinary members of the community and holders of power.
The military aristocracy, the so-called “kings”, their relatives and associates constitute a special class group – the Kshatriya varna. The same varna is formed by the priests-brahmanas. The main part of the country’s working population is regarded as the varna of the “people” – vaisyas (vish). In late Vedic texts, the latter is sometimes called the word “arya”. For a brahmana and a kshatriya, their specific connection with the magical substances of prayer, “spirit” (brahma) or “power” (kshatra) is more important, while the term “arya” could remain mainly with the vaisya. At the same time, we are hardly talking about those and only those tribes who spoke the Indo-European language, which appeared centuries earlier in Punjab. In the process of their settlement across the territory of North India, a new ethnic community was created, although it retained the sacred language of the Aryan newcomers. All were considered Aryans who adhered to the Vedic cult and led an appropriate lifestyle, having their own house and economy. Quantitatively, the bulk of them were communal farmers – vaisyas.
Socio-religious division of society
The Vedic cult was available to those who were “Aryan” in origin and passed in childhood initiation – Upanayana with a sacred cord tied over their shoulder. The last ceremony was equated with the second birth, and therefore the brahmanas, kshatriyas and vaisyas were considered “twice-born.”
They were opposed by sudras, who were not considered as arias and deprived of the right not only to read, but even listen to the Vedas. A sudra could not drink soma, perform Vedic sacrifices (yajnas), enter the ritual room. Moreover, a twice-born should not have used the milk of a cow milked by a sudra for ritual purposes, and should not talk with a sudra at the time of preparation for the sacred ceremony. Ritual impurity is the most important characteristic of a sudra. Undoubtedly, it reflected the fact that a sudra stood outside the society of the Aryans and outside their communal organization. From the point of view of the twice-born, the Sudras were a varna of outsiders, but their real position in society (as well as their ethnic origin) could be completely different. When it comes to outsiders living in the same village, they were mainly domestic servants and slaves. Therefore, it is only natural that late Vedic texts draw attention to this very aspect of the matter. The duty of a sudra is usually called “washing the feet” of the master, they consider him to be “for whom the master of the house is God.” The ideal of a sudra is portrayed in this way: obedient, agile, hardworking. Defining a sudra, Aitareya-brahmana says:“Whenever you want to be brought up (to work), as you want to be punished . ” “Shudra” and “slave” (dasa) are sometimes used as synonyms in late Vedic literature.
At the same time, it would be an extreme simplification to consider any sudra a domestic slave and to identify the varna characteristic with belonging to a socio-economic class. For example, it is said that a sudra can take away his cattle. This means that the sudra was running his own household and at the same time he himself belonged to the owner. Mentioned and “very wealthy” sudras, “owning fat herds.” It seems that these rich people did not belong to individuals. In an extreme case, it can be assumed that the Aryans “extended their power to entire groups of such” outsiders “. In this case, the status of the latter turned out to be contradictory – consistency was combined with incompleteness.
The craft was usually recognized as a caste-class duty of the sudras. And the point here, obviously, is not, first of all, that handicraft labor itself aroused public contempt. Such an assumption would be inappropriate already because in the Vedas the poetic art of a rishi is repeatedly compared with the skill of a weaver or a carpenter. The association of a craft with belonging to the category of sudras is explained differently. These are professional artisans who did not run their own household and therefore had to work for others. They were seen as service personnel, public servants – that is why they were destined for a low place in the social hierarchy. However, there were exceptions to the general rule, which will be discussed later. The attitude towards the status of royal servants, including artisans, is especially controversial. One side, they are associated with the figure of the king, not only the bearer of power, but also the sacred person. On the other hand, a free and independent owner remains a social ideal, and any dependence on someone else’s will is viewed as something bad and entails ritual impurity.
If we have the right to speak of brahmanas, kshatriyas and even vaisyas as closed caste-class categories, belonging to which is determined by birth and the initiation rite performed in childhood, then the sudras look like an amorphous mass with blurred boundaries. It can be characterized mainly by negative definitions that emphasize the difference between Sudras and twice-born Aryans. The Shudras could include both the low strata of the village population, dependent workers who did not belong to the community members, and completely independent “outsiders” who lived on the periphery of the emerging ancient Indian civilization. The processes of migration, conquest, social development and cultural influences made constant changes in the varna structure, portrayed in ancient Indian literature as eternal and unchanging. Ethnic and social groups – the most developed, powerful, as well as culturally close to the “Aryans” – were accepted into their midst, while others found themselves in the position of enslaved and destitute. They were ranked among the sudras, who were dependent either on private owners or on entire community groups.
From the very beginning, the sudras constituted a significant part of the working population. In connection with the development of new territories and the assimilation of local peoples, the category of sudras multiplied and became more and more variegated. Since the process of transformation of the vaisyas from a free people into subjects obliged to pay taxes was going on at the same time, a certain convergence of these two varnas took place. In ritual contexts, in accordance with the ancient tradition, the sudras were strongly opposed to the aryans. During the ritual of the mahavrat, for example, a duel between a sudra and an aria was arranged, personifying the struggle of light and darkness and ending, naturally, with the victory of the arya. But we do not see military confrontation with sudras in more real situations. It is also characteristic that the shudra, albeit in the form of an adversary, is given a role in Indian rituals. Pushan, the patron saint of agricultural labor, is sometimes declared to be the god of sudras. Based on this, it can be assumed that their functions were hardly limited to “washing the feet” of the owner, even in the late Vedic era. It is no coincidence that the Vedic “king” did not consider himself as the only ruler of the Aryans. Already in the Atharva Veda there is an incantation that the “king” casts in order to be pleasing to both the Aryans and the Shudras. The satapatha brahmana unites the vaisyas and sudras as being under the control of the brahmanas and ksatriyas. This tendency for the two lower categories – varnas – to converge, becomes very common in the subsequent era. which the “king” pronounces with the aim of being pleasing to both the Aryans and the Sudras. The satapatha brahmana unites the vaisyas and sudras as being under the control of the brahmanas and ksatriyas. This tendency for the two lower categories – varnas – to converge, becomes very common in the subsequent era. which the “king” pronounces with the aim of being pleasing to both the Aryans and the Sudras. The satapatha brahmana unites the vaisyas and sudras as being under the control of the brahmanas and ksatriyas. This tendency for the two lower categories – varnas – to converge, becomes very common in the subsequent era.
At the same time, the formation of the ancient Indian society, consisting of four varnas, in the late Vedic period makes it difficult to include in it new tribal groups far behind in their development. The latter are regarded as special castes that stand outside the varna system and are distinguished by special ritual impurity. The amorphousness of the concept of “sudra” allows us to classify even the untouchable as one, but nevertheless the latter are sharply different from “pure” sudras. The Shudras themselves live in the countryside and are employed in the main branches of the economy (although they usually do not have political rights, are excluded from the communal cult and do not own their own land). Individuals of the non-brewery categories – usually descended from tribes of “savages” – build their huts outside the settlements and come to the village only to perform the lowest and desecrating work of garbage collection, fell, impurities, etc. They are not the property of any particular family, but, being obliged to serve the entire community, can to a certain extent be considered as belonging to it as a whole.
From a religious point of view, at the opposite end of the hierarchical ladder are the brahmanas. The purity of their origin is emphasized, and the brahmanas are most eager to preserve caste isolation. They should marry only in their own environment (wives, however, can be taken from lower varnas), the tradition of maintaining genealogy is maintained. A brahmana can proudly name his distant ancestor – the rishis and say that his grandfathers and great-grandfathers drank sacred catfish up to the tenth generation. At the same time, information about the founders of some Brahman gotra seem rather dubious and give reason to believe that the Brahmanas were not always distinguished by “purity of blood.” Obviously, in the process of spreading the Vedic culture, the priesthood of the local tribes was partially included in the Brahman varna.
The main function of the brahmanas was to perform a sacrificial ritual for the benefit of the entire community. They were seen as intermediaries between the world of people and gods. Only the brahmanas knew all the details of the rituals and those spells that must be pronounced in order for the gods to hear the requests of people. They kept the sacred texts secret from the uninitiated and transmitted them orally, fearing their desecration. The Vedic prayers were recited by all the “twice-born”, and each householder himself performed the Vedic rites. However, more significant rituals required the presence of brahmanas, and only they could be religious teachers. Among connoisseurs of the Vedas, a sacred knowledge of the ritual itself and all disciplines associated with it in one way or another was cultivated.
The magical powers of influence on the world were attributed to the Brahmanas. Their supernatural abilities were maintained through the observance of a variety of vows of abstinence and asceticism. It is likely that a kind of shamanic practice was practiced among them, and one of the designations for the brahmanas (vipra) comes from the verb vip – “shake, fall into a trance.”
It is extremely difficult to form an objective idea of the position of the brahmanas in Vedic society – the sources compiled in their midst emphasize class privileges too persistently. Brahman was considered a person not subject to corporal punishment, much less capital punishment. This, of course, is quite consistent with his role in the ritual as a particularly sacred person. The killing of a brahmana was seen as a terrible sin, atoned for with such costly rituals that are available only to a great ruler. However, the historical tradition has preserved some legends about the “kings” who executed the brahmanas. Obviously, the very formidable tone of warnings on this score, contained in the late Vedic literature, is explained precisely by the fact that the brahmanas turned to the “kings”, defending their immunity.
Another privilege of the brahmans was considered that they were exempted from paying taxes and could not be “oppressed” (probably in order to attract them to public works). In general, this statement is also trustworthy, because a significant part of the bali collected from the people went exactly into the hands of the brahmanas in the form of food for sacrifices, gifts and distributions. Therefore, it seems quite natural that they themselves should not have to pay bali as well as the “kings”. The Brahman was supposed to show all kinds of signs of external reverence. Aitareya-brahmana defines him as “receiving gifts”, “receiving drink” (soma?) And “living anywhere”. The latter, apparently, means that a brahmana, free from paying taxes, has the right to settle in the land of any ruler. In Vedic literature, various kinds of “praises of gifts” from rulers to brahmanas are repeatedly encountered.
Brahmanas and Their Clients
A brahmana’s relationship with his clients was not considered a hiring relationship. Ancient Indian sources speak indignantly about hired priests and teachers. True, at the end of the training period, the mentor-guru received a gift from his pupil’s family (usually a cow), but the size of this “gift” was not discussed with him. It was believed that without such a reward, training itself became fruitless. Similarly, after performing a sacrifice, the brahmanas received the dakshina reward. However, the latter was not considered payment for work performed. Suffice it to say that dakshina was received not only by those who performed the rituals, but also by those brahmanas who were only present during the ritual actions. It is believed that originally dakshina represented a general distribution of property among the community collective and only later the distribution was limited to the circle of brahmanas.
Purohita was especially important among the brahmanas. The latter was considered the ruler’s house priest, but in fact his functions were much broader. He not only supervised the execution of rituals in the royal house, but also ensured the success and personal safety of the rajah in battles by magical means, and acted as his closest confidant and adviser. In the Atharva Veda, the formation of an alliance between a king and a brahmana purohita is described as a wedding ritual, and apparently this bond was considered unbreakable. Judging by the fact that at times the purochita retained its position under the son of the king, one can also assume the heredity of the developing relationship. It is especially interesting that the brahmanas speak of several kings who shared purohita. In this way, associations of kings were created that did not have a purely political character.
The relationship between the ruler and the brahmana was far from cloudless. Probably, the strengthening of the royal power in the process of the formation of statehood led to some belittling of the value of the Brahmans as tribal priests and guardians of traditions. They were to take a new place in society at the courts of local rulers – as large landowners.
The Vedic sacrificial cult required a large number of participants. Complex rituals for many days were performed by groups of sixteen priests, each with a role and a carefully crafted “party”. The specialization of the priests contributed to the development of the so-called Vedic “schools”. Despite the well-known unity of the Late Vedic ritual, the presence of “schools” also made it possible to take into account the clan and local features of ritual practice.
A system of discipleship was formed, in which, after initiation, boys from among the “twice-born” had to live for several years in the house of a mentor-guru. From him they received knowledge of Vedic texts and ritual rules. The students helped to manage the household – grazing cattle, collecting branches, drying manure and keeping the fire in the hearth. In addition, it was their religious duty to collect and give alms to the guru. Only after the end of their apprenticeship, the young men could return home and get married. It is difficult to say how widely and fully this custom became widespread among the “twice-born”, but in brahmana families, undoubtedly, they tried to observe it.
After the apprenticeship, the second stage of life (ashram) began, which consisted in establishing a family, managing a household and performing all the necessary household rituals. And according to the ideas prevailing by the end of the Vedic period, in old age a “twice-born” who wanted to achieve spiritual liberation had to become a forest hermit and indulge in asceticism. Discipleship, on the one hand, and asceticism, on the other, have played an important role in the history of Indian culture.
Barnabas system of society
The main class categories of society are presented in the ancient Indian tradition as four varnas, which have already been mentioned before –
- vaisyas and
For the first time this scheme appears in one of the most famous (and latest) hymns of the Rig Veda – in the Purushasukta. The four varnas are depicted here as parts of a single cosmic body – Purusha. The brahmanas correspond to his mouth, for the sacred word belongs to them, the kshatriyas to the muscles, the vaisyas to the torso, and the sudras to the soles of the feet. Varna theory has become a favorite topic of discourse in Brahminical prose. As the main model of Vedic society, it was used as that image, following which it was possible to consider the whole Universe.
According to the Brahman literature, belonging to a particular varna determined the entire external life of a person – from clothing and form of circulation to the size of a burial structure. All material objects, abstract concepts, and supernatural beings were categorized into the same four categories. In principle, the varna system is based on the inequality of rights and obligations; it is characterized by a rigid stability of social stratification. Belonging to this or that varna depended on birth and was considered unchanged. Such social categories as varnas could arise only in a society where everything was determined by origin, and private property had not yet received sufficient development.
Kings – rajas
Power in Vedic society was exercised by the so-called “kings”. The corresponding term “raja” is often found already in the Rig Veda, although there it usually refers not to earthly rulers, but to the gods. The god Indra, a warrior who drives his enemies in a chariot, is primarily called Raja . For that era, in general, the associations of rulers with military exploits – mainly with victories on war chariots, are very indicative.
Based on the materials of Vedic literature (and partly from the epic, despite its inherent anachronisms), it is not difficult in general terms to restore the appearance of a light, usually two-wheeled chariot. Already in the hymns of the Rig Veda, many details of the chariot are mentioned – axle, drawbar, spokes, hub, etc. The abundance of technical terms of this kind in religious hymns is an indicator of the important role chariots played not only in life, but also in the worldview of the Aryans. The same can be said about the horses harnessed to the chariot (rathu), the cult of which played a prominent role in the Vedic religion. The words for horses and chariots were often included in the names of legendary heroes. Images associated with a chariot and a team of fast horses are widely represented in Vedic poetry. The wheel became the most important mythological image, and above all for the heavenly bodies, as well as for the royal power.
Competitions in chariot races were not only a favorite entertainment of the nobility, but also a ritual that was given an important place in Vedic literature. The winners who received prizes and awards were obviously regarded as favorites of the gods. War chariots made up an essential part of the army. The difference between “kings” and “people” was clearly manifested precisely in military affairs: leaders and leaders fought in chariots, the people made up the infantry. Judging by the descriptions in the epic, the battles were largely reduced to single combat of chariot warriors who showered each other with arrows – only behind their backs were the ranks of foot soldiers guessed. It is no coincidence that the ratha and the wheel (chakra) symbolized power – in the Vedic era, chariots were of major social importance.
The translation of the word “raja” as “king” is completely arbitrary. Initially, we are talking about the leaders and military leaders, but the heads of the territorial states that appeared later were called in the same way. The prerogative of power belonged to separate noble families – therefore, the words denoting ordinary aristocrats and rulers of kingdoms are either close in meaning, or completely identical.
The position of a noble person – a kshatriya – should have been determined by him, his origin and family ties. But at the same time it is necessary, as in the case of a brahmana, to make certain reservations. We find in brahminical prose such concepts as “a kshatriya only by birth”, and on the other hand, “those who falsely assign themselves the name of kshatriyas.” Obviously, the processes of socio-political development, the changing balance of power between different clans and tribes led to the fact that some noble clans previously lost all real power, and others rose, not only not belonging to the Vedic aristocracy, but, perhaps, in general to the Aryan community.
The power of the leader and the ruler was interpreted as sacred: the “king” personified the entire community (“people”, tribe, state). If, for example, his home was defiled, it was believed that no one could cook food in his household. The physical strength and courage of the rajah was especially emphasized. He has often been compared to a bull tirelessly seeking to cover the cows. The same symbolism can be traced in many royal rites (a throne covered with a tiger skin, a raised rod, etc.). The “king” was placed, as it were, at the center of the universe, and for this reason he had to possess the earth “within its four limits”, that is, to be the universal master. Fertility and, above all, rainfall (the latter was considered as fertilization of the earth) magically depended on the king.
In a typical way, during the famous “horse sacrifice” – ashvamedha, the king’s claim is manifested not only for military superiority and universal power, but also for ensuring the harvest. During this ritual, a specially selected horse was allowed to graze wherever he wished. During the year he was accompanied by armed royal guards, with whom the ruler of any territory where the horse hoof stepped, if he did not recognize the supreme authority of the one who performed ashvamedha, had to fight. After the end of the year, the raja was recognized as the lord of the four cardinal points, and the horse was sacrificed. In the final part of this ceremony, the main “queen” took an active part, and her appeal to the horse as the embodiment of male power eloquently indicates the meaning of the ritual associated with the cult of fertility.
During the coronation, there was an “anointing” with water with grains of various cereals, which obviously had to ensure the harvest. Since this anointing (abhisheka) was performed primarily for the material well-being of the entire earth and people, the possibility of re-holding the ceremony becomes understandable.
The perception of the “king” as the personification of the whole kingdom brought to life such rituals that were supposed to help rejuvenate the ruler, give him new strength. The decrepitude and physical disabilities of the “king” represented a great magical danger to his subjects – with him, the whole kingdom could become decrepit or lose any sense organs. The Indian epic is especially rich in examples of this kind.
Vedic texts contain formulas for the “election” of a king by the people. They express the idea of the voluntary subordination of all peoples of the four cardinal points to a single ruler. If, in reality, we can talk about any meetings convened on the occasion of the king’s accession to the throne in the Vedic era, one should rather assume the confirmation of the heir rather than any “election”. The very existence of the category of nobility – kshatriyas indicates that only from among them rulers could emerge. Already the Rig Veda gives reason to believe that usually power was inherited by a son.
In some cases, a formal expression of the will of the people was required to make a decision – in particular, the land was to be transferred by the king “with the consent of the Vish.” Probably, for this purpose, a gathering of elders or heads of large patriarchal families could gather. Given the nature of the social structure, it is impossible to assume any participation in the discussion of such issues of the entire adult population.
The sources also contain information about the “expulsion” of the king by the Vish people. Representatives of the Kshatriya nobility competed for dominance over the Vish, and, obviously, it was not only about the conquest of new villages by military force, but also about the acquisition of “glory” among the community members by military valor and generous distributions.
It has already been said above that the ideal king should have been generous. It can be assumed that initially wide distributions were made between all the tribesmen, but gradually they were more and more limited to the brahmanas. By reducing his property, the raja thus spread his “glory”, secured support for himself, and ultimately, expanding his power over all new subjects, was able to replenish the treasury.
The king’s servants
In the descriptions of royal rituals, there are names of assistants to the king, his entourage, and court. These so-called “bearers of the jewel” (ratnins) include such persons as the purohita, the military leader, the king’s charioteer, etc. The mention of the military leader suggests that in the late Vedic era the functions of the military leader were usually no longer performed by the Raja himself. The king’s brother occupied an important place at the court, but he is never found on the same lists as the military leader – perhaps it is the same person. The rajah’s driver not only ruled his chariot – as his closest associate in battle, he sang the praises of the military deeds of his patron. The tradition attributes the heroic legends of the epic and the reproduction of Kshatriya genealogies to these court bards.
Several more characters belong to the royal squad. Their titles are associated with the place they occupy at the feast and the ritual functions performed at the same time (“cutting meat”, “distributing shares”, etc.). The position at the feast serves as a model for the hierarchy of the court. The lowest, but still honorable place is occupied by the royal “artisans” (“chariot master” and “carpenter”). Their role in the king’s entourage is quite understandable in the light of what was said before about the social significance of the chariot. The data of the late Vedic texts relating to them allow us to assume that at that time the corresponding names were court titles, and not simple designations of professions. The lists often include “the one who throws the dice” – it has already been said above that the game was not only a favorite pastime of the Vedic nobility, but also had ritual significance. Belonging to one or another court rank was obviously inherited. This is evidenced by the participation in the rituals of the sons of the respective courtiers, as well as the fact that later the very titles of “driver”, “chariot master”, etc. became the designation of separate castes.
They did not belong to the royal servants, but, like them, they took an active part in the coronation ritual of the “village elders” – the gramans mentioned above.
Stratum of nobility
The stratum of the nobility seems to be very variegated due to the variety of terms used: raja, rajanya, rajaputra, kshatriyas, etc. According to the definition given in the Satapatha-brahmana, a raja is one who has performed ashvamedha (hence “king”), and all others are called “rajanya” (ordinary members of the nobility). In Vedic texts, “rajanya” is usually synonymous with the word “kshatriya” as a designation for varna. But one place in the Atharva Veda suggests that “kshatriya” could be opposed to the word “rajanya” as “the bearer of supreme power.”
Among the military aristocracy, in particular, great importance was attached to the nobility of origin, and not every Rajanya recognized the other as equal. This was manifested very clearly both in the conclusion of marriage unions and in joint feasts. The ruler was regarded as “the first among his own” or “the best among equals.” The Vedic rajas prayed to the gods for a similar predominance over relatives and people of the same social stratum, arranging magnificent sacrifices and distributing rich gifts to the brahmanas.
The struggle between the minor rulers of the emerging states led to the formation of sometimes rather extensive alliances led by the most powerful or successful ruler. He took titles –
- “The great king” (maharaja),
- The “supreme king” (adhiraja),
- “The sole king” (ekaraj),
- “Autocrat” (swaraj).
However, such formations did not lead to a significant change in the internal structure of a separate kingdom and disintegrated as quickly as they arose, therefore there is not the slightest reason to talk about empires.
In the Vedic era, statehood took shape among many “peoples” (jana) mentioned in the epic and brahminical prose – Puru and Shurasena, Koshal and Magadha and many others. The territory of the settlement of the “tribes” was the so-called “countries” – Janapada. As a rule, they were under the rule of one or another local Kshatriya dynasty.
In the outlying lands – mainly at the foot of the Himalayas – other political structures were formed, referred to in sources as gana or sangha (“unification”). They are known primarily from sources from a later period, but probably to some extent demonstrate the archaic orders of the Vedic era. In the Ghana and Sangha, there was a whole layer of nobility (rajas), which included hundreds and thousands of people. At their meetings, they elected representatives of the executive branch and decided by voting the most important issues. Each such union – ghana – was named after the ruling clan of the nobility, and the working population was considered the workers and slaves of the given clan of the nobility. The power of Ghana depended on the degree of its unity. Some of these confederations played an important role in the political struggle of the 1st millennium BC.
Already in the Rig Veda, grains of legendary stories about the exploits of ancient kings have been preserved – in particular, about the famous battle of King Sudas with a whole coalition of his opponents. The historical tradition of India, captured in the epic and Puranas, reports on many local dynasties, ultimately erected to the mythical ancestors – to the Sun and the Moon, to the progenitor of mankind, Manu, etc. The main task of maintaining royal genealogies was, of course, to substantiate the claims to nobility of those clans and dynasties that played an important role in the political history of the time when epic legends were formed. Proceeding from such tasks, the court panegyrists did not stop at direct falsifications. At the same time, with greater or lesser distortions, the epic also conveys true historical facts, the names of the rulers, names of countries and peoples. It is almost impossible to reconstruct the political history of the Puranas, but archaeological excavations of recent decades at least prove the existence of those political centers that the Indian tradition calls the residences of the ancient kings, the rulers of those regions (Janapad) where the “peoples” mentioned in the epic and late Vedic literature lived. The epic-Puranic tradition clearly characterizes an aristocratic society in which a person’s position is primarily determined by his origin. It reflects the essential features of the era when statehood was being formed in North India. which the Indian tradition calls the residences of the ancient kings, the rulers of those regions (janapad) where the “peoples” mentioned in the epic and late Vedic literature lived. The epic-Puranic tradition clearly characterizes an aristocratic society, in which a person’s position is primarily determined by his origin. It reflects the essential features of the era when statehood was being formed in North India. which the Indian tradition calls the residences of the ancient kings, the rulers of those regions (janapad) where the “peoples” mentioned in the epic and late Vedic literature lived. The epic-Puranic tradition clearly characterizes an aristocratic society, in which a person’s position is primarily determined by his origin. It reflects the essential features of the era when statehood was being formed in North India.