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
(. http://www.crystalinks.com/indiawriting.html )
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)
March 21, 2015 at 12:08 pm
i referred to the verse 5.61.8 you had quoted from griffith’s translation. it had a different meaning.
my attention was caught to 5.61.6. which says something like women are better than men who turn away from gods. it sounded like the infamous verse in gita 9.32, which says female, vaishyas and shudras can attain moksha by yoga why not a man (something like that).
it seems rig vedic society treated women just the way society of krishnas time. please donot misinterpret me that ancestors ill-treated women. all i meant to say that condition of women was no less different in rig vedic times to times of krishna to mordern time. female were weak and preffered to accept male dominance and the males accepted and treated them as such.
March 21, 2015 at 12:11 pm
” 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”
————————————-this is still in Indian society. unfortunately only in text.
March 21, 2015 at 12:13 pm
dear bijaya ghosh,
thank you for reading. yes, the female was marginalized at later times as the indian society degenerated. please see the following articles, where i tried to explain.
rig veda – position of women (1/2)
rig veda – position of women (2/2)
March 21, 2015 at 12:12 pm
sreenivas: i just discovered this after all these months: i intend reading the other gems of this genre. i was struck by the pluralism of vedic society that has been carried on in subsequent eras in hindua(or rather non islamic) india, also the position and the freedoms women enjoyed which alas did not also continue.
March 21, 2015 at 12:14 pm
dear shri gopal,
thank you for breathing life into an old and a forgotten blog. initially i planned for a set of seven bolgs. but it later stretched to more than ten. in a manner, this series helped me too; it enabled me to put together what little i knew of the rig veda. the realization that someone at sometime might read these articles put me on me guard to check the facts and be a little more organized in presentation. now after a lapse of time, when i read these articles, i cannot help feeling that i could have done a lot better.
i intended that each article be self-contained, so that it could be read as an independent article too. that has given raise to overlapping/repetition of certain passages. please pardon.
you mentioned about the position and freedom of the women in the rig veda times. there was c considerable discussion on these aspects. in order to place the position of women in perspective, i wrote an article in two parts. that also gives a brief explanation on the degradation in the indian society at later times. kindly go through that; you may find it interesting.
rig veda – position of women (1/2)
rig veda – position of women (2/2)
please also see
rishis of the rig veda and oral traditions of the vedas
that covers some additional areas.