This is the first in a series of seven articles on certain aspects of the Rig Veda, written in simple language and avoiding technical terms. I aim to post an instalment each day over the next seven days. I hope they find some readers.
1. What we know of the Rig Vedic society is not from archaeological evidence but through oral traditions. They were primarily a pastoral society that practiced agriculture and animal husbandry. They were not a city building society. They waged battles. They excelled in military field in which light horse chariots played a prominent role. They loved outdoor activities like racing and hunting. The warrior class and the priests were the elite of the society. They were devoted to their gods and sang in praise of various deities. They danced in marriages, funerals, harvests, sacrifices and communal gatherings.
2. Rig Veda repeatedly refers to the composite character of its society and to its pluralistic population. It mentions the presence of several religions and languages and calls upon all persons to strive to become noble parts of that pluralistic society.
3. The plasticity of the Rig Vedic mind is evident in the use of language or in literary virtuosity as well as in the way in which they adapted to changes in life. Rig Vedic intellectuals were highly dexterous users of the words. Their superb ability to grasp multiple dimensions of human life, ideals and aspirations and to express them in pristine poetry was truly remarkable. However, we sadly know nothing about their ability to write. Strangely Rig Veda (1-164-39) states, “In the letters (akshara) of the verses of the Veda…”. Further there are references to compositional chandas (metres), lines in a meter and to specific number of words in a line of a text. Such exercises could not have been possible unless some form of writing was in existence. They might perhaps have employed a script that is now totally extant
3.1. Similarly, we know very little about their art or architecture; though we know of their love for music, singing and dancing.
4. Rig Veda accepts that divine truths were reveled to sages. It does not make a distinction between male and female seers. There are more than thirty-five female sages in Rig Veda with specific hymns ascribed to them. Women did enjoy a right to learn and recite Vedas. The restrictions in this regard came at a later stage. The famous marriage hymn (10.85) calls upon members of the husband’s family to treat the daughter in law (invited into the family ‘as a river enters the sea’) as the queen samrajni. The idea of equality is expressed in the Rig Veda: “The home has, verily, its foundation in the wife”, “The wife and husband, being the equal halves of one substance, are equal in every respect; therefore both should join and take equal parts in all work, religious and secular.” (Book 5, hymn 61. verse 8)
4.1. The seclusion of women was not practiced. Young women of the time had a voice in their marriage. “The woman who is of gentle birth and of graceful form,” so runs a verse in the Rig Veda, “selects among many of her loved one as her husband.”
5. It is not as if the Rig Vedic society was free of all vices. There are a number of references to gambling (dices), drinking, prostitution, indebtedness, destitute families of heavily indebted gamblers and drunkards. There were social inequalities, poverty, slavery and destitution too.
6. Nonetheless, the worldview of the Rig Veda is refreshing; its ideals are relevant to the modern age. The social life portrayed in Rig Veda reveals certain interesting features. Sanctity of the institution of marriage, domestic purity, a patriarchal system, a just and equitable law of sacrifice, and high honour for women , pluralistic view ,as also tolerance towards unpopular views and those that err ; were some of the noteworthy features of the social life during the Vedic period.
Next: Rig Veda- attitude towards the world and life (2/7)