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The later Vedic period witnessed the decline in worship of Nature. This led to the emergence of a host of new Gods. The Gods- Indra, Varuna, Agni, etc. lost their charm, instead new Gods made their debut among worshippers. The prominent ones were Brahma- the Creator, Vishnu- the Sustainer, and Maheshwara- the Destroyer. Yajnas and Yagas to please these Gods became the monopoly of the priests.
Gotra system had started declining. Instead Varna system, or stratification in the society, came into being. The basic reasons for the emergence of this system were the profession one pursued, and the uneven distribution of wealth. As agriculture and production increased, wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few. This wealthy class could engage themselves in intellectual and priestly work.
Eventually the entire clan was divided into four strata (Varnas):
- Brahmins- who were well versed in Vedas and engaged in priestly work
- Kshatriyas- who were rulers and warriors
- Vaishyas- who were wealthy agriculturalists and merchants
- Shudras- who served all the three above.
Non-Aryans were considered Dasyus (slaves). Gradually Varna system became hereditary rather than being based on the profession and wealth.
By the seventh century BC, Varna system was deep-rooted in the society. By this time all the four Vedas were completed- Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, and Atharvaveda.
Brahmanas were literature works compiled after the Vedas- explaining in detail about Yajnas, Yagas, and their importance. They also prescribed the code of conduct for common people. This literature placed Brahmins (the priest class) over all the other categories in the society. Brahmins enjoyed supremacy over the other Varnas because they were well versed in Vedas and they could lead Yajnas and Yagas. These rituals were so expensive that only wealthy people could afford them. The common man depended on cheaper rituals to please the Gods, but they had a staunch faith in the priesthood and Varna system.
The decline of Gotra system and the emergence of Varna system brought a radical change in the social structure. The existing systems of beliefs could not meet the spiritual needs of the people. The conflicting thoughts in the new era paved way for the creation of new forms of thoughts. Upanishads and Aranyakas were composed as annexures to Brahmanas, by sixth century BC.
Upanishads were written in the form of question & answer form- questions by a disciple, and the answers by a teacher (Guru). The basic concept put forth by Upanishads can be summarised as seeking the relationship between two complex, and often conflicting concepts -Atma and Brahma. Atma was defined as the essence of inner realities while Brahma was that of the external realities. Brahma was the divine and absolute power of being- the source and sustainer of the Universe. In short, Upanishads tried to establish the relationship between man and the Universe.
Along with Varna system, the concept of Ashramas was advocated in Vedic life. The entire life cycle of a man was divided into four stages (ashramas):
- Brahmacharya- a period focused on education, also included the practice of celibacy
- Grihastha- the stage embodying a married life, with the duties of maintaining a home, raising a family
- Vanaprastha- starts when a person hands over household responsibilities to the next generation, takes an advisory role, and gradually withdraws from the worldly pleasures
- Sanyasa- a stage of renunciation, ahimsa (non-violence), peaceful and simple life, and spiritual pursuit
The aim of leading a meaningful life was to achieve four Purusharthas, namely:
- Dharma- the eternal and inherent nature of reality
- Artha- the economic means of life, includes material prosperity
- Kama- desire, wish, longing, and sexual needs
- Moksha- a central concept and the utmost aim to be attained through three paths during human life.
The fourth artha- Moksha, is believed to have been added much later. The ultimate aim of life was to achieve Moksha passing through all the stages (ashramas). And without any doubt, these concepts of ashramas and purusharthas were purely meant for the higher Varnas. The last category, Shudras, had only one dharma- to serve the higher categories.
The people in the later Vedic period were also made to believe in the concept of ‘Karma’ (action). Actions determine destiny, the Purohits argued. They also advocated the existence of Punarjanma (rebirth). According to this belief, one’s present life is the consequence of the karma in the earlier life. The priest class argued that one should perform the ‘Dharma’ according to one’s Varna for attaining rebirth in higher Varna in the coming lives.
Though this period brought prosperity to the higher strata of society, the Varna system brought dissatisfaction among all the other strata, including Kshatriyas in the long run. The condition of Shudras and Dasyus got worse. This situation led to the arousal of new philosophies and ideologies!