Ancient India

Caste System in Ancient India

The most unique thing about Indian society is its caste system, to some it’s very simple way to stratify the society but to other it’s complex to understand its institutional dynamics it’s. Some equate caste with colour of skin other term it with Varna meaning clan, still others finds its moorings in the pursuit of occupation.

The origin of caste system in India could be traced to the Vedic period when the Aryans immigrants from the northern region came and settled in the Indus and Gangetic regions around 1,000 B.C.

Historical records mentions that with the beginning of cultivation by the Aryans the earlier word “gavasthi” meaning search for cows came to mean ‘to fight for cows’, because fights between the various tribes of Aryans for fertile land and herds of cattle became common.

Once the Aryans settled as agriculturists they developed the society on division of labour having different occupations. Even though it had further stratification, the grouping was essentially four-fold; Brahimins, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra.

Varna originated in Vedic period

The priestly community elevated themselves to the status of Brahmins. Those who were fighting were known as Kshatriyas. Those indulging in trade and business were called Vashyas. Interestingly it was during the Aryan stay in the Saraswati region that emergence of new class Vaishyas took place.

The people among the three communities were Aryans the natives were pushed to the bottom of the society and were called Sudras.

Ancient India Caste System in Sudra Community

Sudra priestThe concept of purity and pollution emerged with the Aryan settlement. The non-Aryans and mixed-Aryan were dub as Sudras. Among them some were forced to undertake unclean occupations like cleaning of the carcasses, removing night soil etc.
They were called as Dasas and Panis. Aryans who claimed supremacy over the natives maintained distance from the Sudras.

Historical evidence from sixth century B.C. onwards reveals that the Sudras were primarily drawn from non-Aryans and mixed-Aryans. This is borne out from the fact that King Ashoka enslaved one and-half lakh people after the Kalinga war and brought them to the Gangetic region to cut forests and cultivate land.

During the Mauryan rule the caste system developed based on occupation. This period also saw Brahmanism becoming ritualistic that was marked by elaborate ceremonies by the priestly class. The Aryan rituals and festivals became more pronounced and elaborate and sacrifices rituals were being practiced.

community of Sudra

The priestly class tried to assume power and created the legend of Manu. According to it all kings were adjudged as descendants of the ninth Manu, while Brahma created the first Manu.

There emerged 61 schools of religious thought and among them were Buddhism and Jainism that confronted Brahmanism. As a result Brahmanism lost ground due to the opposition from these new faiths.

Since Vaishyas were not accorded a respectable status in Aryan society, they became Jainis and Buddhist. Royalty too changed their belief. Bimbisara, Chandragupta Maurya (probably a Jain) and Ashoka became Buddhist.

New class Vaishyas

They patronized new heterodox sects which tried to simplify life for the common people.

The subsequent period saw the emergence of more rigid form of caste system in which more communities were added as sub-jatis. Fa-Hien, a Chinese Buddhist monk from Chang’an, travelled to India from 399 to 414 CE records the presence of a well-established caste system.

He clearly mentions the presence of untouchables and makes the observation that untouchablity was institutionalized.

Ancient India Caste System

Caste meaning Varna or color to the Aryans was the logical distinction between the conquerors (Aryans) and the conquered (Dasas and Panis). It is a Portuguese word meaning clan. It was in about 1,000 B.C. that the Aryans settled between the Indus and Gangetic regions; it was here that they learnt the art of cultivation. With the coming of agriculture, greater division of labor came into existence and thereby different occupations. Once the Aryans settled as agriculturists and experienced the consequential developments mentioned above, the Aryan society also developed into grouping known as the four-fold caste system.

Those who took to the occupation of fighting were known as Kshatriyas; those who took to cultivation were known as Sudra; and as there was an opportunity to contemplate because of the leisure engendered by agricultural occupation, the priestly community elevated themselves to the status of Brahmins. Significantly, as the Aryans began to cultivate land, the earlier word “gavasthi” meaning search for cows came to mean ‘to fight’, because fights between the various tribes of Aryans for fertile land and herds of cattle were common.

Soon, by 600 B.C. a new grouping emerged in the Aryan community, whenever a community takes to agriculture, some agriculturists produce surpluses or accumulate capital. Such an activity naturally brings to the forefront a group of people dealing with trade and commerce. That is how vaishyas came into existence, since the emergence of this community is rooted in the surpluses generated by agriculture, the erstwhile Sudra community moved up to form this new grouping, while the non-Aryans and mixed-Aryan became Sudras. About this time the concept of pollution also figured. As a matter of fact, there are references to this idea in the Vedas too. It is definite that pollution was a known idea at this time because those who undertook unclean occupations like cleaning of carcasses, fishing and other occupations came into existence. It was this aspect of unclean occupations associated with pollution that later on grew into untouchability.

From sixth century B.C. onwards there is historical evidence to show that the Sudras were primarily drawn from non-Aryans and mixed-Aryans, as for example, Ashoka enslaving one and-half lakh people after the Kalinga war and bringing them to the Gangetic region to cut forests and cultivate land. The four-fold caste division based on occupations was as good as established by the time the Mauryan Empire was established. There are references in the inscriptions of Ashoka that bird-catchers, fishermen and butchers came to be treated as people beyond the pale of the then social structure.

Caste System in Ancient India
Caste System in Ancient India

The Aryans, in particular the brahminical community brought about another coup de grace in the four centuries preceding the Christian era. Panini rejuvenated Sanskrit language. Sanskrit language not only retained its identity but also language, as disciplined by Panini, forge ahead at the expense of Prakrit and Pali which had ironically earlier develop out of Sanskrit language.

Coupled with this linguistic victory Brahmins wrote a number of dharma shastras including that of Manu. The Work of Manu is of a colossal magnitude. It relates both to secular and sacerdotal fields of life. They also supplemented these with grihya dharma. Raja dharma, sreni-darma, ashrama-darma, silpi-shastra and so on. The purpose of all these writing was to regulate and discipline the whole life of man, whatever his calling or situation in life.

Also, in the same period, there were many more developments. With the influx of foreigners, a place was to be found for all of them. To achieve the objective the priestly order of India evolved the concept of jati-dharma, it is the dharma to be followed by each sub-caste or grouping within the four Walls of caste system. From now onwards, the four-fold division lost its usefulness and increasingly became a metaphysical concept like the space-time continuum of Einstein. The real sacred lay in the jati-dharma or the dharma of the sub-caste; while the concept of chatur-varna stayed as an abstraction.

What exactly any individual belonging to a jati a or a sub-group should do was minutely laid down covering all facets of life, like taboos relating to dinning, the items of consumption, the pantheon of gods to be worshiped, contraction of marriage, and the reverence to be shown to other jatis as well as the substraction of four-fold caste system as ad when the occasion called for. Since every individual was born into a jati and as the dharma of jati comes to be treated as an immutable truth, each individual was born in some kind of subjection.

Just at this time, a few more concepts were thrown into make the subjugation of man complete. The non-Aryan concept of karma or re-birth was smuggled into a configuration of dharmas, sutras and other concepts. By this time, the idea of the outcaste mentioned earlier was very well institutionalized. The observations of Fahien in the fifth century A.D. clearly show that untouchability was institutionalized beyond redemption. This enslavement of man, which partly originated out of need and which was later given a subtle religious sanction, continues even till today.

The retaining the identity of Aryan community, while absorbing quite a large number of extraneous concepts, practices and peoples into the Aryan faith, was facilitated by the Aryan concepts of religion which underwent mutational changes. The metaphysical concept of God are found in the Upanishads was interpreted in the form of Puranic stories and a vast hierarchy of gods. Soon enough the Aryans added a constellation of goddesses to support the male pantheon. Far more important was bringing down all these god and goddesses to the each in the form of images. Even the rituals were transmitted into stylized recitations of Sanskrit phraseology and some slokas faintly reminding one of the hymns of the Vedas.

Aryanism became intelligible and simple enough to the ordinary people. This development meant dislodging Buddhism because the strong point of Buddhism in its youthful days was its simplicity and intelligibility to the ordinary man Since Aryanism achieved the supreme feat of dislodging all that was not acceptable to the common people and as it was able to evolve dharma, it emerged as the sole driving force of India by the third century A.D. That is why from the post-Mauryan era onwards, founders of dynasties were very often Brahmins, royal titles were Sanskritized, and kings performed Vedic rituals. This triumph of Aryanism along with the attendant superiority of Brahmins continued in the succeeding ages with slight modifications.

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