Vedic PeriodThe Vedic period (or Vedic age) was a period in history during which the Vedas were composed. The Vedas are the oldest available scriptures of Hinduism.
The followers of the Vedas were the Aryans, who organized themselves in individual tribal, kinship units, the jana. The jana was ruled over by a war-chief. These tribes spread quickly over northern India and the Deccan. In a process that that is not well understood, the basic social unit of Aryan culture, the jana, slowly developed from an organization based on kinship to one based on geography.
The jana became a janapada, or nation and the jana-rajya, or tribal kingdom, became the jana-rajyapada, or national kingdom. So powerfully ingrained into Indian culture is the jana-pada, that Indians still define themselves mainly by their territorial origins. All the major territories of modern India, with their separate cultures and separate languages, can be dated back to the early jana-padas of Vedic India.
The earliest history of the Aryans in India is called the Rigvedic Period (1700-1000 BC) after the religious praise poems that are the oldest pieces of literature in India. In this early period, their population was restricted to the Punjab in the northern reaches of the Indus River and the Yamuna River near the Ganges.
They maintained the Aryan tribal structure, with a raja ruling over the tribal group in tandem with a council. Each jana seems to have had a chief priest; the religion was focused almost entirely on a series of sacrifices to the gods. The Rigvedic peoples originally had only two social classes: nobles and commoners. Eventually, they added a third: Dasas (or slaves).
By the end of the Rigvedic period, social class had settled into four rigid castes: the chaturvarnas, or "four colors." At the top of the chaturvarnas were the priests, or Brahmans. Below the priests were the warriors or nobles (Kshatriya), the craftspeople and merchants (Vaishya), and the servants (Shudra), who made up the bulk of society. These economic classes were legitimated by an elaborate religious system and would be eventually subdivided into a huge number of economic sub-classes which we call "castes." Social class by the end of the Rigvedic period became completely inflexible; there was no such thing as social mobility.
In the early centuries of Later Vedic Period or Brahmanic Period (1000-500 BC), the Aryans migrated across the Doab, which is a large plain which separates the Yamuna River from the Ganges. It was a difficult project, for the Doab was thickly forested; the Aryans slowly burned and settled the Doab until they reached the Ganges.
While the Rig Veda represents the most primitive religion of the Aryans during the Rigvedic Period, the religion of the Later Vedic period is dominated by the Brahmanas, or priestly book, which was composed sometime between 1000 and 850 BC. Later Vedic society is dominated by the Brahmans and every aspect of Aryan life comes under the control of priestly rituals and spells. In history as the Indians understand it, the Later Vedic Period is the Epic Age; the great literary, heroic epics of Indian culture, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, though they were composed between 500 and 200 BC, were probably originally formulated and told in the Later Vedic Period. Both of these epics deal with heroes from this period and demonstrate how Aryan cultural values, as we can understand them from the Rig Veda, are being transformed by mixing with Indus cultures.