Illustrations by Shreyansh Singh

The Economic Life of Vedic People

There were more than seventy different kind of professions during the Vedic period!

Tattva Team
| 6 min read
March 31, 2021
Illustrations by Shreyansh Singh

What was Indian society like in 1000 BCE? What did people do in their daily lives? Given the paucity of textual and archaeological records, any answer to these questions necessarily involves a lot of conjecture. Indian history only begins to emerge with some degree of certainty from the Mauryan period onwards, dated to around the late 4th century BCE. Scholars often call it the 'horizon' of Indian history. In this short article, we will try to peer across this horizon to get a glimpse of what society was like before India emerged into 'history'.

From the available evidence, we can deduce that Vedic society about 3000 years ago was mostly village-based, with agriculture and crafts as the predominant means of livelihood. We know that the Vedic people married, celebrated, danced, drank wine, wrote inspired poetry, fought wars, gambled (sometimes too much), worshipped gods and Gandharvas, and prayed for good harvest and health. A cursory reading of Atharvaveda tells us that their worries and anxieties revolved around the same kind of issues that we in the 21st-century face: broken relationships, unrequited love, and unfulfilled material desire. They also prayed to the gods to cure them of constipation, addiction, baldness and gastric disease.

However, we do not have much detail about the economic and productive life of the people. Our evidence is not direct and has to be inferred from the surviving Saṃhitā text of the Vedic literature. There is a remarkable chapter in the Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā of the Śukla Yajurveda that describes the puruṣamedha yajña. This yajña is a Vedic ritual that recreates the first sacrifice of the puruṣa or the cosmic man which led to the creation of the visible universe. In this Vedic sacrifice, people belonging to different tribes, occupations, and regions are symbolically sacrificed to re-enact the puruṣa’s primordial creative activity. The thirtieth chapter of the Vājasaneyi Saṃhitā mentions a list of occupations of people who are symbolically offered in this ritual ceremony. This list is, therefore, an important marker in our understanding of Vedic society. 

Listing of Occupations  

Here is a detailed list of occupations mentioned in this text:  minstrel (magadha), actor (śailūṣa), herald or panegyrist (sūta), counsellor (sabhākara), chariotwright (rathakāra ), carpenter (takṣā), potter (kulāla), blacksmith (karmāra), jeweller (maṇikāra), barber or sower (vapa), arrowsmith (iṣukāra ), bow-maker (dhanuṣkāra), maker of the bow-string (jyākāra), rope-maker (rajju-sarja), huntsman (mṛgayu), dog-rearer or dog-keeper (śvanin), bird catcher or fisherman (puñjiṣṭha), female cane-worker or basket maker (vidalakārī), female worker in thorns (kantakīkārī), female expert in embroidery (peśaskarī), physician (bhiṣaja), astronomer (nakṣatradarśa), elephant-keeper (hastipa), horse-keeper or groom (aṣvapa), cowherd (gopāla), shepherd (avipāla), goatherd (ajapāla), husbandman i.e., cultivator (kīnāśa), distiller of liquor (surākāra), housekeeper (gṛhapa), charioteer (kṣattā), assistant charioteer (anukṣattā), wood-gatherer (dārvāhāra), image-maker (peṣitā), washer-woman (vāsa-palpūlī), female dyer (rajayitrī), spy or informer (piśuna), door-keeper (kṣattā), horseman (aśvasāda), tax-collector (bhāga-dugha), a female expert in preparing unguents and cosmetics (anjanīkārī), female scabbard-maker (koṣakarī), furrier (ajina-sandha), tanner (carmāra), fisherman (dhīvara), dealer in dried fish (śauṣkala), goldsmith (hiraṇyakāra), merchant (vanija), keeper of forest (vanapa), lute-player (vīnā-vāda), flute player (tūnavadhma), conch-blower (śankhadhma), pole-dancer (vaṃśa-nartin), headman of a village (grāmaṇi), astrologer (gaṇaka), and the herald or announcer (abhikrośaka).1


This is a remarkably detailed list of professions and occupations. As one would expect, there are professions related to agriculture, trade, animal husbandry, fishing and winemaking. Occupations related to crafts and metals are represented by a blacksmith, goldsmith, chariot maker, carpenter, potter and image-maker. There are jewellers and perfume-makers. There are also professions linked to the administration of the State: tax collectors, spies or informers, village headmen and counsellors. Divination and medicine men are represented by astrologers, astronomers, and doctors. There are singers, actors, dancers, and musicians performing with conch, lute and flute for entertainment and worship. Noteworthy is the use of lute and flute, which would later be associated with Lord Krishna, and conch, destined to become one of Hinduism's enduring symbols.

Also of interest is the number of women-only professions and occupations mentioned in this list: washer-women, female dyer, female scabbard-maker, a female worker in thorns, female cane-worker or basket maker, a female expert in preparing unguents and cosmetics, and female expert in embroidery. It shows that women, at least of a certain class, were actively involved in the economic activity of society. Later, during the Upaniṣad period, some of the greatest philosophers were women.2 The Buddhist Pali text mentions an erudite Brahmin woman teaching many pupils, including male students.3 In the religious sphere, Vedic rituals are not even possible without women's equal and active participation. To conclude, based on the list of occupations above, we find a thriving Vedic society where both men and women participated in the socio-economic activity. 

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