The basic social unit in the Rigvedic society was the patriarchal family which consisted of members belonging to three or four generations. In some instances the family may have included the parents of both the bride and the groom. The family was also the primary unit of production and consumption.
However, some scholars have taken an opposite view that the Rigvedic family, as reflected in the earlier stratum of the text, was nuclear or ‘elementary’ consisting of not more than two generations and the joint family system emerged only towards the close of the Rigvedic phase (Suvira Jaiswal, 1993). Kula, the term for family, is rarely mentioned. Griha seems to be a more popular term for family. The eldest male member of the family was known as Kulapa (protector of the family).
The social structure was based on kinship, which was rather simple. Terms for father, mother, brother, sister, son and daughter existed distinctly but nephews, grandsons and cousins were known by a common term naptri. Father’s father and mother’s father were known by a common term.
The larger unit was called vish, which has been mentioned 171 times. Vish stood for clan (occasionally for the whole tribe). Vish consisted of many gramas, which was a tribal unit meant for fighting (samgrama).
Another unit was known as Jana, which has been mentioned 275 times demonstrating its relative importance in the Rigvedic life. Many Vishas made a Jana. Although a man was identified by the clan, the people gave primary importance or loyalty to the tribe (Jana).
The Rigvedic tribes had still not settled permanently. They kept moving from one place to another in search of pasture or cultivable land.
That is why we do not find the term Janapada (literally the area where Jana placed its foot) in the Vedas.
The four-fold Varna system of social division, which is the hallmark of the later Indian society, was virtually absent in the Rigvedic period. There are only fourteen references to brahmanas, nine to kshatriyas and one to shudra. Shudra is referred to only in the context of the Purushasukta hymn, which is commonly regarded as late.
We have rather evidence of threefold social differentiation in the Rigveda as Brahma, Kshatra and Vish, which was primarily a functional division. Other division was based on colour for which the term Varna, was used.
The Rigveda knows only two varnas, the arya and dasa and according to P. V. Kane the word varna means ‘colour’ or ‘light’ in most passages of the Rigveda and both the aryas and dasas were designated varnas on account of their colour.
The contributing factor to the appearance of arya Varna and dasa varna divisions is attributed to the conquest of the indigenous inhabitants by the Aryans. The dasas and dasyus, after being conquered, were treated as slaves and Shudras.
In the Rigveda we come across rajan who was a warrior chief leading his clan or tribe in the wars. His major share in the booty captured gave him a higher position in the society. His immediate relatives were known as rajanyas.
Towards the end of the Rigvedic period Brahmana, Kshatriya and Vish became distinct groups. At this time the egalitarianism of the early tribal society gave way to class differentiation, which became distinct in the later-Vedic period. The use of such words as vra, vrata, vraja, sardha and grama indicate the existence of the ‘band’ system in the earliest stratum of the Rigveda.
In the age of the Rig-Veda occupation based division had started although it was in an embryonic stage. In a family the poet says, “I am a poet, my father is a physician (bhisaj), and my mother is a grinder.”