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The economy of the Indo-Aryans according to Vedic sources

Cattle breeding

Even a cursory acquaintance with the hymns of the Rig Veda shows the great importance that was attached to cattle breeding in the life of the Aryans and their ideas about the world. Prayers to the gods often ended with requests for the multiplication of herds. Cattle were obviously considered a measure of wealth. Pastures and stables are often mentioned. The sacred books included spells against diseases of domestic animals. Milk, ghee, curdled milk, and various types of milk porridge (often with ghee or cottage cheese) were sacrificed to the gods. The phraseology associated with cattle breeding is richly represented in the Vedas. The chief was called literally “cow herder” (gopa), the wealthy man- “owner of cows” (gomat), the war – “search for cows” (gavishti), the family – “cow pen” (gotra) , etc. In Vedic poetry, the corresponding images, comparisons and metaphors are widely presented: the streams of rivers flow like a herd of cows running to water. Indra is an indefatigable bull, capable of fertilizing many cows. He is fighting with his opponents in order to free the stolen herds of cows.

Other domestic animals are much less frequently mentioned, but the breeding of goats and sheep is fairly well attested. We are talking about clothing made of wool (urn-fleece), and the use of milk and meat of small cattle. The fears of wolves reflected in a number of hymns are clearly inspired by pastoral life. Oxen, donkeys, and mules were mainly used as draft animals. Horses were harnessed to the war chariots. This crucial role in military affairs was the basis of the horse cult, which was a characteristic feature of the Vedic religion.

According to Late Vedic sources, the cattle belonged to separate families, although they were usually driven to common pastures. Special shepherds are mentioned — “cow, goat, sheep”. Manure was dried and widely used as fuel and fertilizer, as well as in sacred ceremonies of domestic ritual. The cows were milked twice and three times a day. Milk, curd, cottage cheese, and butter were used for sacrifices and food. Obviously, this is why the brahmanas said, ” The cow is the nurse of all this (world).” On special occasions — during the sacrificial ritual, holidays, reception of the guest of honor — they also ate meat. Despite a number of taboos related to the consumption of meat, especially beef, the custom of vegetarianism has not yet developed.

It is easy to see that cattle were given great importance in the Brahmanas. This was expressed in formulas such as” cattle are home “or”wealth is cattle.” The legendary account of the division of the inheritance among the descendants of Manu shows that the real wealth really did not lie in the land, but in domestic animals. There was still a lot of free land, it was only necessary to clear it from the forest. In addition, arable land has long been regarded as — to a certain extent-a common property. The development of private property was most clearly expressed in the increase in the number of livestock owned by a separate family.


The traditional terminology and imagery, the mythological subjects of the Rig Veda, obviously contribute to the well-known archaization of the picture of the life of the Indo-Aryans, which is formed when reading the monument. We have no reason to see in the Aryans only nomadic pastoral tribes. Even in the early parts of the source, in the so-called “family mandolas”, the cultivated land (urvara) is mentioned, contrasted with the wasteland (khila). Perhaps even a primitive system of irrigation of fields by means of wells, artificial channels and ponds was used — the corresponding designations are known in the language of the Rig Veda. The plowing of the soil was carried out not only with a simple hoe (khanitra), but also with a plow. The latter is designated mainly by the term langapa, obviously borrowed from the local population. It is not entirely clear whether we are talking about a simple plowshare or whether a plowshare with a metal tip was already known. The most likely use seems to be a ploughshare made of solid wood. Even later, the udumbara ploughshare is mentioned by Shatapatha-brahmana. A ploughman driving a furrow with a team of fat oxen is no less characteristic of the poetry of the Rig Veda than a shepherd with a herd of cows. The god Pushan was considered the patron saint of agricultural labor.

Of the cereal crops, Java is most often mentioned in the hymns. Apparently, it should be about barley. Oilseeds were also grown — namely, sesame. The Vedic gods were sacrificed peeled and unpeeled grains, a special mixture of barley and sesame, drinks with flour, porridge or flour products fried in oil. A pestle and mortar were used to grind the grains. As a daily drink, an intoxicating drink was prepared— sura. Probably, in the old days, this word meant barley beer, although later it was called rice vodka. There are references to ripe fruits, but it is hardly possible to talk about gardening on this basis — it could also be about the gifts of the forest. Of great importance (including in religious worship) was the honey drink, but, apparently, we are also talking only about the collection of wild honey.

For the Late Vedic period, it is even more certain that agriculture was the main branch of the economy. Much more widely than in the samhitas, the brahmanas present agricultural terminology related to both the cultivation and processing of grain. We meet with references to the cutting of ears of corn by means of sickles, threshing of sheaves, sifting with baskets, storing grain in bags and flour in special vessels. Quite a lot of information about various agricultural crops. Among the grains, it is necessary to note in addition to barley, wheat (starting from the late samhit) and rice. Probably, in some areas, depending on the natural conditions, preference was given to one or another culture. Rice was grown in several varieties.

It is especially important that the latter can be alternated with barley, thus collecting two crops a year. This is explicitly stated in the Taittiriya samhita: “Twice a year the grain ripens.” Despite the fact that rice did not seem to be particularly productive, this significantly increased the grain harvest, could contribute to population growth and the accumulation of surplus food. However, it is not necessary to represent the agriculture of that time in excessively idyllic tones. Crop failures and famines were obviously not uncommon. At least in the brahman literature, famine is repeatedly mentioned: famine is death, famine is darkness, famine is the enemy of men, etc.

In addition to cereals, legumes, sesame seeds, vegetables (cucumbers, yuyuba), and industrial crops (linen fabrics are mentioned in the sources) were grown. The Upanishads repeatedly refer to tropical fruits such as mango. Both nature and economy, as reflected in the Brahmanic prose, are different from what can be seen in the Rig Veda.

The creators of Late Vedic literature lived mainly in villages and engaged in agriculture. The juxtaposition of the village (thunder) to the uncultivated land (aranya) was associated for them with the opposite of culture and savagery, even life and death. However, the forests were close to the plowed fields. On the edges of the village people grazed cattle, went to the forest to hunt, collect fruits and fuel for the hearth. The forest seemed dangerous because of the predatory animals and robbing savages. Folk fantasy inhabited it with many demonic creatures. The idea of vratyas reflected in the brahmanas is curious. The Panchavimsa-brahmana, for example, says that they know neither piety nor agriculture. This assessment clearly shows the importance that the compiler attached to agriculture as one of the defining characteristics of the Vedic culture to which he himself belonged.

Crafts and metallurgy

The uncertainty of the Rig Veda terminology already noted causes conflicting opinions about whether iron was already known at that time. The hymns repeatedly mention a metal called ayas. The poet calls the flames of the sacrificial fire the teeth of the god Agni, made of ayas. This suggests that the ayas is yellow or red, i.e. copper or bronze. Sometimes the word was used in this sense later. Atharvaveda, for example, says that a polished vessel made of ayas glitters like gold. From precious metals, gold was known, which was used to make jewelry and amulets. It was called, in particular, suvarna (letters, “beautiful color”). Obviously, due to the fact that gold is not subject to corrosion, it was associated with magical ideas about immortality.

Samples of tools from "copper hoards" discovered in the Ganges Valley

Samples of tools from “copper hoards” discovered in the Ganges Valley

Little is known about crafts in the Rig Veda era. Professionals could be mainly gunsmiths and jewelers. The creation of war chariots required skilled carpenters (takshan), specialists in the manufacture of wheels with spokes, and similar craftsmen. We find references in the hymns to various types of arrows-with plumage, with metal tips or from specially processed deer antler, about scaly shells made of leather or from rope loops. The relatively complex technical techniques in these branches of production suggest a social division of labor. On the contrary, the production of fabrics and clothing used in everyday life, clearly remained the occupation of women in every family.

In the ritual, wooden vessels, various kinds of ladles and spoons were widely used, but in everyday life the dishes were usually made of clay. There are references to pots made of baked and unburned clay, with lids and without lids, with handles for hanging over the hearth, large water jugs, etc. Since we are talking about traditionally sacred subjects, Brahmanic prose seems to paint a somewhat archaic picture of the material conditions of life. Even in the late Vedic literature, there is an idea that the gods rely on vessels made by hand, and the asuras-the opponents of the gods-on a potter’s wheel. It is unlikely that this can be attributed to household ceramics of that time.

Already in the White Yajurveda, distinctions are made between two types of ayas — red and black. If the former may mean copper or bronze, the latter is clearly iron. The word “ayas” thus becomes a common name for the metal. “Black ayas” is also found in Shatapatha-brahman, which distinguishes it from just ayas-obviously copper. Other metals are also mentioned, primarily lead. In the Atharvaveda, lead is attributed to magical properties, products made from it were used as amulets.

In the Late Vedic literature, there is a special term for a professional potter, and one can assume that the occupation of this craft is hereditary. Great importance was attached to ritual purity, in particular, the purity of occupations, sources of existence. From this point of view, farming and raising livestock were considered pious and blameless — on the contrary, artisans were considered “unclean”, some of them were explicitly forbidden to attend Vedic sacrifices. In a broad sense, artisans (or” masters”) included other professionals who apparently did not conduct their own agricultural economy — doctors and barbers, acrobats and laundresses, dancers and incense makers.


There is very little information about trade in the Rig Veda. It was of a barter nature, with cows being the usual measure of value. In cows, an estimate was given for any large payments: from wedding gifts to vira-compensation for the killed (al. – ind. vaira). Gradually, there is another equivalent — gold neck jewelry (niche). So you can, in particular, relate to reports that the tsars gave the singers numerous niches-hryvnia.

The later Vedic literature reflects the further development of trade. There are special designations of merchants who, for example, “exchange metal for salt (ayas)”. There are terms for greedy moneylenders. Niches remain an object of prestige and a measure of value along with cows. But for trading operations, smaller and more practical measures were used, namely, gold by weight, starting with the smallest fractions. Even then, there are those names of gold grains (krishnala) or ingots (shatamana – “one hundred measures”), which are well known in the Sanskrit literature of later times.

But on the whole, it must be said that even in late Medieval times, wealth could rarely be accumulated as a result of successful commerce. The terms of purchase and sale themselves are quite often found in the sources only in connection with the ritual exchange. Obviously, only those who had the power, the rights to dispose of the property and labor of their fellow tribesmen were truly wealthy.

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