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Economy of Vedic Civilization

Updated on July 28, 2017

The Vedic civilization came into being after the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization. It is believed that Aryans, a tribe from Central Asia invaded India and settled in the Sapt-Sindhu region including Punjab, Kashmir, Sindh, Kabul and Gandhara. The Vedic Period is divided into two phases: Early Vedic Age/Rigvedic Age and Later Vedic Age/Epic age. This civilization existed from 1500-600 BC. It is called Vedic period because the four vedas- Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda formed the very essence of this age. Rigvedic age was characterized by nomadic lifestyle. However, Later Vedic Age was quite developed. It was also called the Epic Age because it was the period when the two great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as the Upanishads were written. Here we will discuss the economy of the Vedic Period.


Economy of Early Vedic Period

CATTLE REARING: The early Vedic society was pastoral. Cattle rearing was the primary occupation and a great importance was attached to herds of cattle. The farmer prayed for the increase of cattle, the warrior expected cattle as booty, the sacrificial priests was rewarded for his services with cattle. Cattle were, in fact, a sort of currency and values were reckoned in heads of cattle. A wealthy man who owned many cattle was called 'gomat'. The term literally means 'to search for cows'. In the Rigveda, 'godhuli' is a term used for a measure of time. Distance is called 'gavyuti'. Kinship units are labeled as gotra. All these terms are derived from gau(cow) which suggest that socio-religious as well as other important areas of Rigvedic life centered around the rearing of the cow.

AGRICULTURE: Though stock breeding receives more attention from the poets, agriculture must also have been important but it seems to have been looked on as a secondary occupation and therefore was not much referred to. Apart from yava or barley, no other grains are mentioned. Apart from this, there are references to ploughing, reaping and irrigation. Out of the 10,462 hymns of the Rigveda, agriculture is mentioned only in the 24 hymns.

TRADE AND COMMERCE: The Aryans did not have an advanced economic system. There was no sign of urbanization. Items like leather and wool were the items of trade but the impact of trade on the economy was negligible. Coins and gold ornaments of fixed value were the medium of exchange. The 'niska', a term later used for a gold coin, is also mentioned as a sort of currency but at this time was probably a gold ornament of some kind. There is no evidence of a regular class of merchants or moneylenders, though indebtedness is sometimes referred to.

OTHER OCCUPATIONS: Various professions like carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, tanners, weavers, potters, chariot makers and grinders of corn were mentioned in Rigveda. Other professions included dancers and barbers.

SCIENCE: Knowledge of medical science was developed during this period. The art of healing wounds, curing diseases and surgery was in practice.

MEANS OF TRANSPORT: The popular means of transport by land were chariots and wagons. Some people used horses for transportation and journey. Reference to a ship, consisting of hundred oars, confirms the existence of shipping during this period.

Map of North India in the late Vedic period
Map of North India in the late Vedic period | Source

Changes In The Later Vedic Period

The economy of Later Vedic Period was well organized and developed. Atharvaveda and Shatpath Brahmana are chief sources of information regarding economic activities of later vedic period.

AGRICULTURE: Agriculture became the mainstay of the economy. The plough was at times drawn by 24 oxen. This indicates that it must have been very heavy. Manure was known and its use added to the fertility of the land. The Aryans now cultivated a wide variety of crops including rice, wheat, barley, bean and sesame.

DOMESTICATION OF ANIMALS: The importance of pastoralism declined in Later Vedic Period. It became the secondary occupation. In Atharvaveda, there is a prayer mentioned for increasing the cattle wealth. The elephants were tamed. Sheep and goat were domesticated.

TRADE AND COMMERCE: Specialised trade and crafts had appeared. Production of goods advanced as indicated by new occupations like fisherman, washerman, dyers, doorkeepers and footmen along with smiths, carpenters and potters. The trade used to take place through the barter system. There were no regular coins during this period. Maritime and inland trade was highly developed. Trade in leather, dress materials, textile etc were considered highly profitable.

METALS: Considerable advance was made in the knowledge of metals. Silver is mentioned for the first time in Atharvaveda. Where the Rigveda speaks only of gold, copper or bronze, the later Vedic texts also mention tin, lead, silver and iron.

OTHER OCCUPATIONS: A number of crafts are mentioned in Vajsaneyi Samhita. Various types of domestic servants are mentioned in Rigveda. A rudimentary entertainment industry existed with professional acrobats, fortune tellers, flute players and dancers while there are also references to usurers and merchants.

GUILD SYSTEM: Evidence was there regarding the organization of merchants into guilds because of reference to corporations(Ganas) and eldermen(sreshtins). It was a form of industrial and mercantile organization which played a big part in the economy. It was headed by a chief usually called the 'Elder'(jyesthaka), who was assisted by a small council of senior members.


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