The commonly proposed period of earlier Vedic age is dated back to 2nd millennium BCE. After the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilisation, which ended c. 1900 BCE, groups of Indo-Aryan peoples migrated into north-western India and started to inhabit the northern Indus Valley.
The knowledge about the Aryans comes mostly from the Rigveda-samhita, which was composed between c. 1500–1200 BCE. They brought with them their distinctive religious traditions and practices. The Vedic beliefs and practices of the pre-classical era were closely related to the hypothesised Proto-Indo-European religion, and the Indo-Iranian religion. According to Anthony, the Old Indic religion probably emerged among Indo-European immigrants in the contact zone between the Zeravshan River (present-day Uzbekistan) and (present-day) Iran. It was "a syncretic mixture of old Central Asian and new Indo-European elements", which borrowed "distinctive religious beliefs and practices" from the Bactria–Margiana Culture. At least 383 non-Indo-European words were borrowed from this culture, including the god Indra and the ritual drink Soma. According to Anthony,
Many of the qualities of Indo-Iranian god of might/victory, Verethraghna, were transferred to the adopted god Indra, who became the central deity of the developing Old Indic culture. Indra was the subject of 250 hymns, a quarter of the Rig Veda. He was associated more than any other deity with Soma, a stimulant drug (perhaps derived from Ephedra) probably borrowed from the BMAC religion. His rise to prominence was a peculiar trait of the Old Indic speakers.
These migrations may have been accompanied with violent clashes with the people who already inhabited this region. The Rig Veda contains accounts of conflicts between the Aryas and the Dasas and Dasyus. The Rig Veda describes Dasas and Dasyus as people who do not perform sacrifices (akratu) or obey the commandments of gods (avrata). Their speech is described as mridhra which could variously mean soft, uncouth, hostile, scornful or abusive. Other adjectives which describe their physical appearance are subject to many interpretations. However, many modern scholars connect the Dasas and Dasyus to Iranian tribes Dahae and Dahyu and believe that Dasas and Dasyus were early Indo–Aryan immigrants who arrived into the subcontinent before the Vedic Aryans.
Internecine military conflicts between the various tribes of Vedic Aryans are also described in the Rig Veda. Most notable of such conflicts was the Battle of Ten Kings, which took place on the banks of the river Parushni (modern day Ravi). The battle was fought between the tribe Bharatas, led by their chief Sudas, against a confederation of ten tribes— Puru, Yadu, Turvasha, Anu, Druhyu, Alina, Bhalanas, Paktha, Siva, Vishanin. Bharatas lived around the upper regions of the river Saraswati, while Purus, their western neighbours, lived along the lower regions of Saraswati. The other tribes dwelt north-west of the Bharatas in the region of Punjab. Division of the waters of Ravi could have been a reason for the war. The confederation of tribes tried to inundate the Bharatas by opening the embankments of Ravi, yet Sudas emerged victorious in the Battle of Ten Kings. Purukutsa, the chief of Purus, was killed in the battle and the Bharatas and the Purus merged into a new tribe Kuru after the war.
After the 12th century BCE, as the Rig Veda had taken its final form, the Vedic society transitioned from semi-nomadic life to settled agriculture. Vedic culture extended into the western Ganges Plain. The Gangetic plains had remained out of bounds to the Vedic tribes because of thick forest cover. After 1000 BCE, the use of iron axes and ploughs became widespread and the jungles could be cleared with ease. This enabled the Vedic Aryans to settle at the western Gangetic plains. Many of the old tribes coalesced to form larger political units.
The Vedic religion was further developed when the Indo-Aryans migrated into the Ganges Plain after c. 1100 BCE and became settled farmers, further syncretising with the native cultures of northern India. In this period the varna system emerged, state Kulke and Rothermund, which in this stage of Indian history were "hierarchical order of estates which reflected a division of labor among various social classes". The Vedic period estates were four, Brahmin priests and warrior nobility stood on top, free peasants and traders were the third, and slaves, labourers and artisans, many belonging to the indigenous people, were the fourth. This was a period where agriculture, metal and commodity production as well trade greatly expanded, and the Vedic era texts including the early Upanishads and many Sutras important to later Hindu culture were completed.
The Kuru Kingdom, the earliest Vedic "state", was formed by a "super-tribe" which joined several tribes in a new unit. To govern this state, Vedic hymns were collected and transcribed, and new rituals were developed, which formed the now orthodox Srauta rituals. Two key figures in this process of the development of the Kuru state were the king Parikshit and his successor Janamejaya, transforming this realm into the dominant political and cultural power of northern Iron Age India.
The most famous of new religious sacrifices that arose in this period were the Ashvamedha (horse sacrifice). This sacrifice involved setting a consecrated horse free to roam the kingdoms for a year. The horse was followed by a chosen band of warriors. The kingdoms and chiefdoms in which the horse wandered had to pay homage or prepare to battle the king to whom the horse belonged. This sacrifice put considerable pressure on inter-state relations in this era. This period saw also the beginning of the social stratification by the use of Varna, the division of Vedic society in Kshatriya, Brahmins, Vaishya and Shudra.
The Kuru kingdom declined after its defeat by the non-Vedic Salva tribe, and the political centre of Vedic culture shifted east, into the Panchala kingdom on the Ganges. Later, the kingdom of Videha emerged as a political centre farther to the East, in what is today northern Bihar of India and south eastern Nepal, reaching its prominence under the king Janaka, whose court provided patronage for Brahmin sages and philosophers such as Yajnavalkya and Uddalaka Aruni.
By the 6th century BCE, the political units consolidated into large kingdoms called Mahajanapadas. The process of urbanisation had begun in these kingdoms and commerce and travel, even over regions separated by large distances became easy. Anga, door step of modern-day West Bengal, a small kingdom to the east of Magadha, formed the eastern boundary of the Vedic culture. Yadavas expanded towards the south and settled in Mathura. To the south of their kingdom was Vatsa which was governed from its capital Kausambi. The Narmada River and parts of North Western Deccan formed the southern limits. The newly formed states struggled for supremacy and started displaying imperial ambitions.
The end of Vedic India is marked by linguistic, cultural and political changes. The grammar of Pāṇini marks a final apex in the codification of Sutra texts, and at the same time the beginning of Classical Sanskrit. The invasion of Darius I of the Indus valley in the early 6th century BCE marks the beginning of outside influence, continued in the kingdoms of the Indo-Greeks. Meanwhile, within India, the shramana movements (including Jainism and Buddhism) challenged the authority and orthodoxy of Vedic scriptures and ritual.
Rig Vedic society was relatively egalitarian in the sense that a distinct hierarchy of socio-economic classes or castes was absent. However, political hierarchy was determined by rank, where rajan stood at the top and dasi at the bottom. The words Brahamana and Kshatriya occur in various family books of the Rig Veda, but they are not associated with the term varna. The words Vaishya and Shudra are absent. Verses of the Rig Veda, such as 3.44-45, indicate the absence of strict social hierarchy and the existence of social mobility:
O, Indra, fond of soma, would you make me the protector of people, or would you make me a king, would you make me a sage who has drunk soma, would you impart to me endless wealth.
The Vedic household was patriarchal and patrilineal. The institution of marriage was important and different types of marriages— monogamy, polygyny and polyandry are mentioned in the Rig Veda. Both women sages and female gods were known to Vedic Aryans. However, hymns attributable to female sages are few and female gods were not as important as male ones. Women could choose their husbands and could remarry if their husbands died or disappeared. While the wife enjoyed a respectable position, she was subordinate to her husband. People consumed milk, milk products, grains, fruits, vegetables and meat. Clothes of cotton, wool and animal skin were worn. Soma and sura were popular drinks in the Rig Vedic society, of which soma was sanctified by religion. Flute (vana), lute (vina), harp, cymbals, and drums were the musical instruments played and a heptatonic scale was used. Dancing, dramas, chariot racing, and gambling were other popular pastimes.
The emergence of monarchical states in the later Vedic age, led to a distancing of the rajan from the people and the emergence of a varna hierarchy. The society was divided into four social groups— Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. The later Vedic texts fixed social boundaries, roles, status and ritual purity for each of the groups. The Shatapatha Brahmana associates the Brahmana with purity of parentage, good conduct, glory, teaching or protecting people; Kshatriya with strength, fame, ruling, and warfare; Vaishya with material prosperity and production-related activities such as cattle rearing and agriculture; Shudras with the service of the higher varnas. The effects of Rajasuya sacrifice depended on the varna of the sacrificer. Rajasuya endowed Brahmana with lustre, Kshatriya with valour, Vaishya with procreative power and Shudra with stability. The hierarchy of the top three varnas is ambiguous in the later Vedic texts. Panchavamsha Brahmana and verse 18.104.22.168 of the Shatapatha Brahmana place Kshatriya over Brahmana and Vaishya, whereas, verse 22.214.171.124 places Brahmana and Vaishya over the Kshatriya and Shudra. The Purusha sukta visualised the four varnas as hierarchical, but inter-related parts of an organic whole. Despite the increasing social stratification in the later Vedic times, hymns like Rig Veda IX.112, suggest some amount of social mobility: "I am a reciter of hymns, my father a physician, and my mother grinds (corn) with stones. We desire to obtain wealth in various actions."
Household became an important unit in the later Vedic age. The variety of households of the Rig Vedic era gave way to an idealised household which was headed by a grihapati. The relations between husband and wife, father and son were hierarchically organised and the women were relegated to subordinate and docile roles. Polygyny was more common than polyandry and texts like Tattiriya Samhita indicate taboos around menstruating women. Various professions women took to are mentioned in the later Vedic texts. Women tended to cattle, milked cows, carded wool; were weavers, dyers, and corn grinders. Women warriors such as Vishphala, who lost a leg in battle, are mentioned. Two female philosophers are mentioned in the Upanishads. Patrick Olivelle, in his translation of the Upanishads, writes that "the fact that these women are introduced without any attempt to justify or to explain how women could be engaged in theological matters suggests the relatively high social and religious position of at least women of some social strata during this period."
Early Vedic Aryans were organised into tribes rather than kingdoms. The chief of a tribe was called a rajan. The autonomy of the rajan was restricted by the tribal councils called sabha and samiti. The two bodies were, in part, responsible for the governance of the tribe. The rajan could not accede to the throne without their approval. The distinction between the two bodies is not clear. Arthur Llewellyn Basham, a noted historian and indologist, theorises that sabha was a meeting of great men in the tribe, whereas, samiti was a meeting of all free tribesmen. Some tribes had no hereditary chiefs and were directly governed by the tribal councils. Rajan had a rudimentary court which was attended by courtiers (sabhasad) and chiefs of septs (gramani). The main responsibility of the rajan was to protect the tribe. He was aided by several functionaries, including the purohita (chaplain), the senani (army chief), dutas (envoys) and spash (spies). Purohita performed ceremonies and spells for success in war and prosperity in peace.
In the later Vedic period, the tribes had consolidated into small kingdoms, which had a capital and a rudimentary administrative system. To aid in governing these new states, the kings and their Brahmin priests arranged Vedic hymns into collections and developed a new set of rituals (the now orthodox srauta rituals) to strengthen the emerging social hierarchy. The rajan was seen as the custodian of social order and the protector of rashtra (polity). Hereditary kingship started emerging and competitions like chariot races, cattle raids, and game of dice, which previously decided who was worthy of becoming a king, became nominal. Rituals in this era exalted the status of the king over his people. He was occasionally referred to as samrat (supreme ruler). Rajan's increasing political power enabled him to gain greater control over the productive resources. The voluntary gift offering (bali) became compulsory tribute, however, there was no organised system of taxation. Sabha and samiti are still mentioned in later Vedic texts, though, with increasing power of king, their influence declined. By the end of the later Vedic age, different kinds of political systems such as monarchical states (rajya), oligarchical states (gana or sangha), and tribal principalities had emerged in India.
Economy in the Rig Vedic period was sustained by a combination of pastoralism and agriculture. There are references, in the Rig Veda, to leveling of field, seed processing, and storage of grains in large jars. War booty was also a major source of wealth. Economic exchanges were conducted by gift giving, particularly to kings (bali) and priests (dana), and barter using cattle as a unit of currency. While gold is mentioned in some hymns, there is no indication of the use of coins. Metallurgy is not mentioned in the Rig Veda, but the word ayas and instruments made from it such as razors, bangles, axes are mentioned. One verse mentions purification of ayas. Some scholars believe that ayas refers to iron and the words dham and karmara refer to iron-welders. However, philological evidence indicates that ayas in the Rigveda refers only to copper and bronze, while iron or śyāma ayas, literally "black metal", first is mentioned in the post-Rigvedic Atharvaveda, and therefore the Early Vedic Period was a Bronze Age culture whereas the Late Vedic Period was an Iron Age culture.
The transition of Vedic society from semi-nomadic life to settled agriculture in the later Vedic age lead to an increase in trade and competition for resources. Agriculture dominated the economic activity along the Ganges valley during this period. Agricultural operations grew in complexity and usage of iron implements (krishna–ayas or shyama–ayas, literally black metal or dark metal) increased. Crops of wheat, rice, and barley were cultivated. Surplus production helped to support the centralised kingdoms that were emerging at this time. New crafts and occupations such as carpentry, leather work, tanning, pottery, astrology, jewellery, dying, and winemaking arose. Apart from copper, bronze, and gold, later Vedic texts also mention tin, lead, and silver.
Panis in some hymns refers to merchants, in others to stingy people who hid their wealth and did not perform Vedic sacrifices. Some scholars suggest that Panis were semitic traders, but the evidence for this is slim. Professions of warriors, priests, cattle-rearers, farmers, hunters, barbers, vintners and crafts of chariot-making, cart-making, carpentry, metal working, tanning, making of bows, sewing, weaving, making mats of grass and reed are mentioned in the hymns of Rig Veda. Some of these might have needed full-time specialists. There are references to boats and oceans. The book X of the Rig Veda refers to both eastern and western oceans. Individual property ownership did not exist and clans as a whole enjoyed rights over lands and herds. Enslavement (dasa, dasi) in the course of war or as a result of non-payment of debt is mentioned. However, slaves worked in households rather than production-related activities.
The Vedic forms of belief are one of the precursors to modern Hinduism. Texts considered to date to the Vedic period are mainly the four Vedas, but the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and the older Upanishads as well as the oldest Shrautasutras are also considered to be Vedic. The Vedas record the liturgy connected with the rituals and sacrifices performed by the 16 or 17 Shrauta priests and the purohitas.
The rishis, the composers of the hymns of the Rigveda, were considered inspired poets and seers (in post-Vedic times understood as "hearers" of an eternally existing Veda, Śrauta means "what is heard").
The mode of worship was the performance of sacrifices (Yajna) which included the chanting of Rigvedic verses (see Vedic chant), singing of Samans and 'mumbling' of sacrificial mantras (Yajus). Yajna involved sacrifice and sublimation of the havana sámagri (herbal preparations) in the fire accompanied by the chanting of the Vedic mantras. The sublime meaning of the word yajna is derived from the Sanskrit verb yaj, which has a three-fold meaning of worship of deities (devapujana), unity (saògatikaraña) and charity (dána). An essential element was the sacrificial fire - the divine Agni - into which oblations were poured, as everything offered into the fire was believed to reach God. People prayed for abundance of rain, cattle, sons, long life and gaining 'heaven'.
Vedic people believed in the transmigration of the soul and the peepul tree and cow were sanctified by the time of the Atharva Veda. Many of the concepts of Indian philosophy espoused later like Dharma, Karma etc. trace their root to the Vedas.
The main deities of the Vedic pantheon were Indra, Agni (the sacrificial fire), and Soma and some deities of social order such as Mitra–Varuna, Aryaman, Bhaga and Amsa, further nature deities such as Surya (the Sun), Vayu (the wind), Prithivi (the earth). Goddesses included Ushas (the dawn), Prithvi and Aditi (the mother of the Aditya gods or sometimes the cow). Rivers, especially Saraswati, were also considered goddesses. Deities were not viewed as all-powerful. The relationship between humans and the deity was one of transaction, with Agni (the sacrificial fire) taking the role of messenger between the two. Strong traces of a common Indo-Iranian religion remain visible, especially in the Soma cult and the fire worship, both of which are preserved in Zoroastrianism.
Ethics in the Vedas are based on the concepts of Satya and Rta. Satya is the principle of integration rooted in the Absolute. Whereas, Ṛta is the expression of Satya, which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it. Conformity with Ṛta would enable progress whereas its violation would lead to punishment.
Vedic religion evolved into the Hindu paths of Yoga and Vedanta, a religious path considering itself the 'essence' of the Vedas, interpreting the Vedic pantheon as a unitary view of the universe with 'God' (Brahman) seen as immanent and transcendent in the forms of Ishvara and Brahman. These post-Vedic systems of thought, along with later texts like Upanishads, epics (namely Gita of Mahabharat), have been fully preserved and form the basis of modern Hinduism. The ritualistic traditions of Vedic religion are preserved in the conservative Śrauta tradition.
The reconstruction of the history of Vedic India is based on text-internal details, but can be correlated to relevant archaeological details. Linguistically, the Vedic texts could be classified in five chronological strata:
1. Rigvedic text: The Rigveda is by far the most archaic of the Vedic texts preserved, and it retains many common Indo-Iranian elements, both in language and in content, that are not present in any other Vedic texts. Its time span likely corresponds to the Late Harappan culture, Gandhara Grave culture and Ochre Coloured Pottery culture.
2. Mantra language texts: This period includes both the mantra and prose language of the Atharvaveda (Paippalada and Shaunakiya), the Rigveda Khilani, the Samaveda Samhita (containing some 75 mantras not in the Rigveda), and the mantras of the Yajurveda. Many of these texts are largely derived from the Rigveda, but have undergone certain changes, both by linguistic change and by reinterpretation. Conspicuous changes include change of vishva "all" by sarva, and the spread of the kuru- verbal stem (for Rigvedic krno-). This is the time of the early Iron Age in north-western India, corresponding to the Black and Red Ware (BRW) and Painted Grey Ware (PGW) cultures, and the early Kuru Kingdom, dating from c. the 12th to 11th century BCE.
3. Samhita prose texts: This period marks the beginning of the collection and codification of a Vedic canon. An important linguistic change is the complete loss of the injunctive. The Brahmana part ('commentary' on mantras and ritual) of the Black Yajurveda (MS, KS, TS) belongs to this period. Archaeologically, the Painted Grey Ware (PGW) culture from c. 1000 or 900 BCE corresponds to the Kuru Kingdom and the subsequent eastward shift of the political centre from the Kurus to the Pancalas on the Ganges.
4. Brahmana prose texts: The Brahmanas proper of the four Vedas belong to this period, as well as the Aranyakas, the oldest of the Upanishads (BAU, ChU, JUB) and the oldest Shrautasutras (BSS, VadhSS). In the east, Videha (N. Bihar and Nepal) is established as the third main political centre of the Vedic period.
5. Sutra language texts: This is the last stratum of Vedic Sanskrit leading up to c. 500 BCE, comprising the bulk of the Śrauta and Grhya Sutras, and some Upanishads (e.g. KathU, MaitrU).