The evolution of civilization and warfare in the Vedic period can be viewed through the use of ‘gavis.t.i’. Cattle raids were very prominent in r.g veda (see 1.36.8, 1.91.23, 5.63.5, 6.31.3, 10.147.2 etc). Some r.ca-s pray for success in gavis.t.i , while others simply use it in a simile or seem to describe it. marut-s are likened to heroes of gavis.t.i battles. Neighing of horses during fight for cattle is mentioned. The great indra kills kuyava in a gavis.t.i (though it is debatable whether this gavis.t.i stood for cattle-raid or more the generic meaning of war). The duo indrAgni is propitiated for support during gavis.t.i. The r.g vedic Arya-s were divided on the lines of their tribes. Each tribe was involved in an attempt to expand their area and increase resources. Warfare was very common. Cattle raiding seem to have been one of the most favorite forms of warfare.
It is to be noted that gavis.t.i means ‘searching/looking for cows’. The word was used in this sense as well. In r.g veda 6.47.20, garga bhAradvAja prays to br.haspati and indra to show him a path leading to civilization. The r.s.i was stranded in a desert and prays so that he could find cows (which were considered a sign of civilization – cows, being domesticated, would be present only in an inhabited region).
Cattle raids were becoming rare in subsequent periods (e.g. in taittiriiya saMhita, there is only one clear mention of gavis.t.i that we could find – 18.104.22.168). The last vestiges of this practice in north india are found in the epics. Though, in the south even as late as sangam age (300 bce), cattle raids were popular.
mahAbhArata also mentions a cattle raid based battle at virAt.a (where arjuna laid to waste the vast kuru army single-handedly). The episode of vis’vAmitra trying to forcibly seize the cow of vas’is.t.ha seems to have an echo of gavis.t.i
With the advent of the historical janapada age, cattle raids had become history. In the early period, cattle were the main wealth of a tribe. Though agriculture was widespread, cattle formed the main wealth of the Arya-s – providing milk and their various other uses as draught animals for carts, to plough the land etc. But with the passage of time, sedentary lifestyle became the norm. Rather than just a tribe, geographical territory became the standard of the large janapadas. They had expanded from their initial phase of a nuclear tribe based units to become large kingdoms. Conquering an enemy territory brought with it the people, cattle and other resources. Borders of a janapada were guarded well and customs levies, entry passes etc. were the norm of the day as can be seen from arthas’Astra. On the other hand in early Vedic age, a tribe used to expand into new territories – conquered tribes must have been forced to move out and find new lands. The purAn.a-s remember an early period of such tribal movements – e.g. druhyu-s emigrated en-masse to the north.
By the time of magadha empire (under bimbisAra, ajAtas’atru etc.), gavis.t.i was not practiced in the north anymore. And it was not the practice in mauryan empire either. Thus, we have to place the age of the epics several centuries before mauryan era (based on the grand gavis.t.i mentioned in virAt.a battle of mahAbhArata) at the very latest. To place them in post-buddha era is not a sensible approach.
In the r.g veda, indra helps the heroes during gavis.t.i. When cows are lost, he helps in recovering them (refer to the saramA episode of r.g veda and br.haddevatA). The later usurper of indra’s supremacy, kr.s.n.a , is titled as gopAla perhaps to bestow this activity on him. In the epics, it is the son of indra (arjuna) who saves the cows from the clutches of kaurava-s. Another instance of direct vedic influence on epics is that of arjuna being helped by kr.s.n.a during the war. It reminds us of r.g veda 8.100.12 where indra entreats vis.n.u to help him defeat vr.tra. It is to be noted that indra addresses vis.n.u as his friend (sakhe vis.n.o). The story is also mentioned in br.haddevatA (6.121-124). The vedic duo of indra and vis.n.u are subsumed into the arjuna-vAsudeva pair of friends in mahAbhArata.
The saramA episode of r.g veda is elaborated in br.haddevatA (8.30-36). saramA was sent by indra to search for the cows stolen by the pan.i-s. saramA gave in to greed and drank the milk at pan.i-s’ place and on returning, lied to indra that she was not able to find the cows’ location. Getting enraged, indra kicked her upon which she vomited the milk. Then, she led indra to pan.i-s’ place. indra killed the asura-s and released the cows. This episode shows the ancient Arya belief about how food affected one’s character. Drinking the milk given by asura-s made saramA become disloyal to her master. When she was forced to vomit it, she came back to her senses. In mahAbhArata, when kr.s.n.a went as a dUta to the kaurava court, he refused to eat at duryodhana’s house (mahAbhArata 5.89. 18-32), it reminds us of the saramA story from br.haddevatA.
Thus, there is a continuation of traditions, myths and legends from vedic texts to the epics. The myths and legends evolve and take new forms with the evolution of civilization just as practices of warfare also evolved with time.