In this article we will discuss about the social life of people in Ancient India:- 1. Varna-System 2. Ashramas 3. Sanskaras or Sacraments 4. Family 5. Marriage 6. Position of Women 7. Dresses and Ornaments 8. Food Habits 9. Amusements and Entertainments 10. Slavery.
The Ancient Indian society was based upon Varna and ashrams, a four-fold classification of the entire people into varnas and a fourfold division of the life of each individuals into ashrams (stages). The Indo-Aryans were originally divided into three classes the Brahman, and Rajanya and Vis.
At a later stage these three classes assumed the names of Brahman, Kshatriya and Vaisya. The fourth class—Sudras—was added from amongst the aborigines with a view to serve the other three classes.
The Brahmanas included persons who devoted themselves to the conservation of the ancient ideals, maintenance and development of ancient rituals, probe the mysteries of the universe, investigate the relation between the Supreme Spirit and the individual soul etc.
This section of people naturally came to occupy an important position in a society which possessed spiritual ideals, The Brahmans were considered a great divinity in human form and were given numerous privileges.
Usually light punishments were given to the Brahmans even for very serious crimes. The Brahmans were patronized by the king or the chief and were provided with grants of tax-free land, cultivated by farmers who paid their taxes to the Brahman rather than the king.
Brahmans were also appointed to important positions at court. The Brahmans were generally forbidden by the law books to engage in agriculture. Similarly they were not permitted to carry on trade ill certain commodities like cattle and animals, slaves, weapons and liquor.
The Rajanya or Kshatriya formed the second class. They were charged with the duty of protecting the people, defending them against foreign aggression. During the Vedic age they also studied Vedas and performed various types of sacrifices.
In the earlier period the Kshatriyas claimed precedence over the Brahman. A strong king was always a check on the brahmanic pretentions, just as the Brahmans were a check on the pretentions of the king.
It may, however, be noted that the members of the two classes often resorted to change of functions. Some Brahmin families like Jamadagnis took to fighting, while certain Kshatriyas took to metaphysical investigations.
The Kshatriyas enjoyed certain privileges. Sometimes they continued old customs which were not in keeping with the orthodox belief, and the Brahmans were forced to give them legal sanction. The Kshatriyas were permitted marriage by capture.
The third class consisting mainly of the mass of Aryan people was known as Vaisya. The general duties of the members of this class included agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade. The status of the Vaisya was quite inferior to that of the Brahmans and the Kshatriyas. One of the passages in the Aitareya Brahmana described Vaisya as “paying tribute to another, to be lived on by another, to be oppressed at will.”
Similarly in the early Brahmanic literature also he is described as wretched and down-trodden cultivator or petty merchant who is of no interest to his masters except as a source of profit. Their position deteriorated further in the later-Vedic period when they were forced to mix with the Sudras for the proper regulation of their trade and commerce.
Almost the entire burden of the society fell on their shoulders. They had to pay charity to the Brahmans, taxes to the Kshatriyas and salary to the Sudras.
The Sudras did not belong to the Aryan stock and were not considered ‘twice-born’. The term Sudra was probably drawn from the name of the non-Aryan tribe which was subjugated by the Aryans and come to be applied to the community of the aborigines.
Subsequently even those people who failed to strictly observe the orthodox customs and practices were pushed into the ranks of the Sudras. Similarly persons born illegitimately even when of pure high-class blood were counted amongst Sudras.
They did not enjoy even the basic amenities of life. According to Aitareya Brahmana the Sudras is to be the servant of another, to be expelled at will and to be slain at will. The Sudra had no right of property against’ the Kshatriyas, especially the king. They did not receive education nor could they hear or learn Vedas.
However, in actual practice the Sudras did not live the humble and wretched life prescribed for them by the Sacred Law. We learn of a number of Sudras engaging in manufacture and commerce. By the times of the Mauryas a large number of Sudras had become free peasants. Though the Vedas were not to be read by the Sudras, the Epics and Puranas were thrown open to them.
At the earlier stages the, caste system was not rigid. The members of the upper classes could intermarry with the Sudras, though it was not favoured. Sukanya, daughter of a Kshatriya king, married Chyavana, a Brahmin.
Similarly there are numerous examples of scholarly kings (Kshatriyas) teaching Brahmins. Inter-dinning was also common. It may be noted that though son of a Brahman, Kshatriya or Vaishya could marry a Sudra girl, but was not possible for the son of a Sudra to think in terms of marriage with the daughter of any of the upper classes.
If a Brahmana married a Sudra girl, he lost his status. But despite these restrictions there were many instances of the members of the upper classes marrying in lower families. As a result of these marriages various new castes came into existence.
These castes were outside the regular classes. Subsequently, number of foreigners like Greeks, Parthians, Shakas, Kushans etc. also came to India and were absorbed by the Indian, society either as Kshatriyas or as Sudras.
Another outstanding feature of the social organisation in ancient India was the Ashtnamas. This system particularly developed during the later Vedic period. Liberally Ashrama means halting place. But in the Indian social system it implied stoppage or stage in the journey of life with a view to prepare one-self for further journey.
The life of the individual was divided into four Ashramas. Presuming that each individual lived for roughly one hundred years, the entire life was divided into four periods of twenty-five years each, representing one Ashrama.
The first Ashram or stage was known as the Brahmachavya Ashrama which lasted till the age of 25 years. A major portion of this Asharama was devoted to education. During this period the student stayed with the teacher, who looked after his physical, mental and psychological development.
During this period the student had to lead a life of simplicity and chastity. He had to maintain strict control over all his organs and to avoid all pleasures and luxuries. The students belonging to all the classes had to stay together at the house of the teacher and were treated equally. Manu has described the age at which the children of different castes should start their education.
According to him the son of Brahmana should go to school in the fifth year, the son of a Kshatriya in the sixth year and the son of the Vaishya in the eighth year. The children of the Sudras were not to go for education.
This difference in age was suggested probably because Manu considers that the intelligence of the son of Brahmana at five was equal to the intelligence of the Vaishya at the age of eight. Thus we find that the Brahmacharya Ashrama was essentially a period for the development of body and mind.
The Grihastha Ashrama or the stage of a householder was the next stage which lasted from 26 to 50 years. The most important duties of the individual at this stage include the setting up a family and beget offspring’s.
According to the Hindu laws the possession of a son was considered to be essential for moksha. This stage of life was considered to be the hardest stage because the person had also to devote attention to sacrifices, worship, charity etc.
Manu has observed, “The duties of this order (grahastha), which cannot be practiced by men with weak organs of sense, must be carefully observed by him who desires imperishable bliss in heaven, and constant happiness in this life”.
During this period the house-holder was also expected to feed the people in the other three Ashramas and perform various rites and ceremonies. The home was also considered as an important place for the practice of dharma shastras.
The householder entered the third stage of Vanaprastha Ashrama when he saw the signs of old age coming upon him—his hair got grey or his son or daughters got children of their own. The persons entering this stage was expected to renounce the comforts of a settled home life and retire from the world. He was expected to give up all desire for children, desire for possessions and desire for the world.
During the Vanaprastha Ashram he was to take up residence in the forests and castigate the body to purify the soul. He was to live on forest fruits and herbs. He was to avoid meat and other luxurious food. He was not to use new clothes and had to depend on dresses made of materials available in the woods.
He was expected to lead a life of complete detachment and to utilise his time for the study of Upanishads, Srutis and meditation. It was believed that a person who died while pursuing Vanaprastha Ashrama attained moksha.
The last stage in the journey of man’s life was Sanyasa Ashram. It was the final and certain means of reaching the supreme goal of acquiring a knowledge of the Self and of emancipation from the bonds of life and death. Though this stage started after 75, but provision existed for entry into this Ashrama after Brahamacharya or Grihastha ashrama as well.
The person entering the Sanyasa Ashrama was not to possess anything and was not to depend on anybody. He was to live in the forest, wear bark and to perform five sacrifices every day. He was not to care for the living or the dead. He restrained his senses by casting away love and hatred, and by living a life of a harmlessness All these were considered to be sure means for the attainment of moksha.
According to Vaikhanasa Dharma Sutra, the last stage or ashrama vas meant only for a Brahmana, who according, to the Kama-constitution of Indian Society, is required to pass through a more rigorous Course of self-denial and discipline than the others, and is thus better fitted to take up this life of absolute surrender to the ideal, taking into no account the severe physical endurance and hardship demanded of him in ripe old age.
The Vaishyas were expected to follow only the first two stages and end his life as grihastha or householder.
Sanskaras or Sacraments:
Another outstanding feature of the social life in ancient India was the observance of a large number of sanskaras or personal ceremonies in the life of the individual. These sanskaras started long before the birth of the child and continued until he entered grihastha ashrama.
At least three ceremonies were performed before the birth of the child viz. garbhaadharana to promote conception, pumsavana to procure male child, and simantonnayana to ensure the safety of the child in the womb.
Explaining the significance of these purificatory rites Manu says “With holy rites prescribed by the Veda must the ceremony on conception and other sacraments be performed; for the twice- born men, which sanctify the body in this life and after death.” At the time of the birth jatakarma ceremony was performed.
It was performed before the cutting of the umbilical cord and included the whispering the mantras in the baby’s ear, giving him a mixture of honey and ghee. This was followed by namakarna (naming of the child) and niskramana (showing the sun for the first time.)
In the sixth month the annaprasana ceremony was performed and the child was given meat, fish or rice mixed with curds, honey and ghee along with the recitation of the Vedic verses. The cudakarma (tonsure ceremony) took place in the third year.
This ceremony was meant only for the boys and on this occasion child’s scalp was shaved leaving only a topknot. Another ceremony was performed when the child first began learning of the alphabet.
It may be noted that most of the sanskars were meant for male children. It is doubtful if they were performed in the case of girls even in the higher classes. In fact from the earliest times possession of a son was considered absolutely essential for the performance of funeral rites for his father and to ensure his safe transit to the other world.
The Indo-Aryan family organization being patriarchal, a son was also considered necessary for the continuance of family’s line.
In the Rig-Veda we get a large number of hymns praying for a son. In one of the hymns Visvamitra prays for son to god Agni and says “May there be sons and grandsons born in our race, O Agni, and may thy goodwill be ever upon us”, The practice of adopting the sons was also in vogue but it was considered to be a poor substitute for a true son.
In one of the hymns of Rig-Veda Vasishtha speaks strongly against the adoption of a son from a stranger’s family and says:
“That is no offspring which is begotten by another; it is only the ignorant who think so. Lead us not away from the paths of lineal male descent. A stranger, that is, one begotten of another, is certainly not to be adopted, although worthy of regard. Such a one is not to be contemplated even in the mind as fit for acceptance, for verily he returns to his own house. Therefore let there come to us a son new-born, who would strike terror into others and be victorious over foes.”
The rite of upanayanna which signified the second birth of the person (as a number of his class), was confined to the Brahmans, Kshatriyas and vaishyas, and the sudras were excluded from it.
The kernel of the ceremony was investing of the boy with the sacred thread (yajnopavita), which he was expected to wear continuously from that day onwards. This ceremony was also confined to boys, though in the Vedic times the girls were also sometimes initiated.
The family was the basic unit of social organisation in ancient India. The family at that time was usually a joint family in which brothers, uncles, cousins, nephews, etc. lived under one roof as one group and were closely linked with each other.
They even owned immovable property in-common. In addition to the blood relations the ancient Indian family also included adopted children, servants, domestic serfs etc. The family of a Brahaman included a number of students as well.
The rite of saraddha played an important part in binding the members from the common ancestors. At the time of the performance of this rite the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of the deceased were present, which naturally bound them together and proved to be a potent, force in keeping the family united.
Usually the eldest male member was the head of the house and administered joint property. However in Kerala the headship rested with the eldest female member. The head of the family usually enjoyed very extensive powers.
He could behave in most arbitrary manner except in so far his authority was restricted by the sacred law and custom. We have a number of legends stating that the father enjoyed the power of life and death over their sons and sacrificed them. However this is not confirmed by other sources. In fact Kautaliya in his Arthasastra looks on the killing of a son among the most heinous forms of murder.
Marriage was considered to be a sacred bond of union between a male and a female for their eternal progress through the performance of their duties, through dharma. The martial union was considered to be a divine dispensation which none of the two parties could dissolve.
The marriage usually took place when a person became Sanatak after the completion of education. It was considered to be a positive duty and was undertaken for three reasons—promotion of religion by performance of household sacrifices; progeny for the continuation of the lineage; and rati or sexual pleasure.
The marriage was generally arranged by the parents of the couple in consultation with the Brahmans taking into account the various omens, horoscopes and auspicious physical characteristics. “Usually marriages were held within the same class and caste. The marriages took place when the boy completed his education and the girl had not reached the age of puberty.
The marriage was solemnized through very complicated ceremonies. It was quite an expensive affair and the expenses were met by the father of the girl. The bridegroom along with his friends and relatives proceeded to the house of the bride, where he was received by her father and offered madhuparka, a drink made of honey and curd.
The actual ceremony of marriage took place in a special pavilion in the accompaniment of sacred verses. The, father of the bride formally gave the daughter to the groom, who promised to observe the principles of piety, wealth and pleasure. They took seven rounds of the mandpa together and the marriage was solemnized.
The text books have mentioned eight types of marriages, which were named after various gods.
These were Brahma, marriage of a duly dowered girl to man of the same class; Daiva, when a householder gave a daughter to a sacrificial priest as part of his fee; Arsa in which a token bride-price was paid in the shape of a cow and a bull; Prajapatya, in which the father gave the girl without dowry and without demanding bride-price; Gandharava, marriage by the consent of the two parties, this was a sort of clandestine type of marriage; Asura, marriage by purchase; Raksasa, marriage by capture; and Paisaca or seduction of a girl while asleep, mentally deranged or drunk. Of these the first four types of marriages were permissible to the Brahmans and were indissoluble. The other forms were looked on with different degrees of disfavor.
As a householder a person was supposed to devote himself to the attainment of three ends of life viz. dharma, artha and kama. Dharma implied gaining religious merit through following the sacred law. Artha meant gaining wealth by honest means and Kama implied pleasures of all kinds. The three ends of life were in descending order of importance and in case of conflict between them the higher was to be given priority.
According to the Sacred Law the marriage once solemnized was indissoluble, even it was not consummated. Divorce was practically impossible. A wife guilty of wrongful acts lost her rights and was not entitled to remarry.
However, her husband was responsible to make provision for her maintenance. Though the religious law-books leave no room for divorce, Arthasastra says it was possible if the marriage had not been solemnized according to the religious rites. In such cases divorce by mutual consent could be possible. A divorce in a marriage performed according to religious rites could also be possible if the husband deserted the wife.
However, she was to wait for a period ranging between one to twelve years, according to the circumstances and the class. In the Gupta period divorce was virtually non-existent among the members of the higher classes. However, the members of the lower castes were permitted by their customs to practice divorce.
Though the ordinary people of India were monogamous (one husband having one wife) the polygamy was not fully unknown. The kings and chiefs as well as rich members of the society were often polygamous. But the Dharma Sutras were certainly against polygamy.
A person having more than one wife was considered disqualified to testify before the court. The polyandry, the reverse of polygamy, was also not completely unknown, although it was not practiced by the people of respectable classes. The best example of the polyandry is provided by the marriage of Draupadi to the five Pandava brothers.
However a person was encouraged to have second or even third wife if the first and the second were barren, so that he could have a son. Similarly if the husband was sterile he had to take other measures.
One of the extreme measures was that he could appoint a close relative, usually a brother, to produce offspring on his behalf. In the Epic stories we get references of the assistance being sought from the holy persons for this purpose.
Position of Women:
The position of women was not identical throughout ancient period. But mostly the woman could not lead a free life and she lived under the tutelage of her parents, her husband or her sons. The early law books treated the women as equivalent to the Sudra.
However this did not effect the position of the women in the family. Manu, who was no advocate of the rights of women, also said that gods live in joy where women are revered and if a husband abandoned the wife without sufficient reason, he should be expelled from the caste by the ruler.
The high esteem in which the wife was held during the Vedic age is evident from the fact that she was considered the half that completed the husband. The wife assisted the husband not only in his secular duties, but also at the altar.
The husband and wife together were supposed to keep the household fire burning so that the daily offering of the agnihotra could be carried on. If a person lost his wife he was either expected to bring another wife to keep the sacred fire burning or else to retire and take to vanaprastha ashrama.
No religious rites and rituals could be performed, without the wife. The Rig-Veda relates us a story of a grihapati who left his wife because of her impertinence and went away for practising penance but the God explained to him that he could not perform the penance without his wife.
In addition to an important position in the family the women actively participated in the various social activities. This is confirmed by the ancient Indian sculptures in which women are shown with their husbands in a number of religious and secular functions. The women also took active part in the religious activities, though they could not officiate as priests. In the literary sphere also the women made valuable contribution.
Some of the Vedic hymns and a number of Buddhist hymns are ascribed to the Buddhist nuns. In Brhadaranyaka Upanishad we are told about the learned lady Gargi Vacaknavi, who held discussions with Yajnavalkya and nonplussed him with her searching questions.
Another scholar Maitreyi, wife of Yajnvalkya, also participated in the learned discourses. Around the beginning of the Christian era, the women were denied access to the Vedas and Vedic literature.
Unlike the medieval and modern times women were encouraged to learn singing, dancing and other arts like painting and garland- making. Dancing was not merely the profession of the low-caste women and prostitutes, but ladies from respectable families also took keen interest in it.
The Rig-Veda tells us that young men and unmarried girls mixed freely and we do not find any instances of unnecessary restrictions on the married women. However, Arthasastra says that the kings kept their womenfolk in seclusion. It gives details regarding the antahpura or royal harem, and the measures taken to guard it effectively.
But it can certainly be said that the women were not secluded to the extent as in Muslim communities. In the Tamil literature also we get a number of references to show that girls of good class and marriageable age visited temples and took part in the festivals without guardians.
The early sculptures also confirm this impression. The sculptures at Bharhut and Sanchi show wealthy ladies, naked to the waist, leaning from their balconies and watching the processions. Similarly we find scantily dressed women in the company of men worshipping the Bodni Tree. In short we can say that though the freedom of the women was considerably restricted, it was not completely denied to them.
One of the chief duties of the woman was to bear children and to rear them up. In view of the other duties the women were exempted from duties concerning moral purification or spiritual advancement. It was believed that a woman attained purification and reached the goal by associating herself with her husband in the religious exercises, in the worship through sacrifices and vows etc.
Manu says “The women- destined to bear children as they are possessed of the highest excellence, are worthy of worship, and brighten up the household with their radiance; in the homes the wives are variable goddesses of fortune, with no difference whatsoever. The begetting of offspring, the nurture of those born, and the carrying out of the daily duties art possible because of the wife, as we see before our eyes. Offspring, the due discharge of religious duties, faithful service, highest conjugal happiness, and besides, heavenly bliss for the fathers and for one’s own self, all these things are absolutely dependent on the wife.”
However, the women were too much dependent on men for protection and were not supposed to take any initiative.
The women observed a high standard of morality. The wives were expected to follow the path adopted by her husband, even if it meant the path of death. Even after the death of her husband a widow did not remarry and led a very pure and chaste life.
Manu says “A faithful wife who desires to dwell after death with her husband, must never do anything that might displease him who took her hand, whether he be alive or dead. At her pleasure let her emaciate her body by living on pure flowers, roots and fruits, but she must never even mention the name of another man after her husband has died. Until death let her be patient of hardships, self- controlled and chaste, and strive to fulfill that most excellent duty -which belongs to wives who know but one husband only.”
Widow remarriage was not favoured and it was considered a sacrilege and adultery.
The Sati system was probably also in vogue. The Greek writers have recorded the incidents of widows burning themselves alive along with the dead pyre of her husband. It was considered to be a matter of great honour and the various wives weighed with each other for this privilege.
We get a number of historical examples of the widows burning themselves with their dead husband viz. the queens of Kshemgupta and his predecessor Yashkar of Kashmir. Most probably during the rule of the Chola king Parantak I, the practice of Sati was in vogue.
The women were permitted to have personal property in the form of jewellery and clothing. The Arthasastra permits a woman to have money up to 2,000 silver panas. The amounts in excess of this limit were held by the husband as a trust on behalf of the wife.
The property of a woman could be used by the husband only in case of dire necessity. He could also exercise check on his wife if she wantonly gave away her property. After the death of a woman the property passed to the daughters (not to the husband or the sons). When there were no sons, the widow inherited the property of the husband.
Thus we find that the position of women in ancient India was not that bad as is depicted in the Smritis.
She was at once a goddess and a slave.
Her honorable position has been brought out in a number of couplets thus:
“The wife is half the man,
the best of friends
the root of the three ends of life,
and of all that will help him in the other world.
With a wife a man does mighty deeds.
With a wife a in an finds courage
A wife is the safest refuge…
Even a man in the grip of rage
will not be harsh to a woman,
remembering that on her depend
the joys of love, happiness and virtue”.
The women were to be well fed and cared for and provided with all possible luxuries according to the means of the husband. The wives were not to be beaten or maltreated for the god did not accept the sacrifice of a man who bets his wife.
Dresses and Ornaments:
The people of ancient India paid sufficient attention to their dresses and decorations. The dresses used by the people during the various periods of history did not fundamentally differ. The garments were used mainly to cover the body and usually consisted of lengths of clothes draped around the body and over the shoulders fastened with a belt.
The lower garment known as paridhana or vasana was tied round the waist with a belt or string known as mekhala or rasana. The upper garment known as uttariya was draped like a shawl over the shoulders. This garment was used only when a person went out of house. The upper classes used it even at home. A third garment known as pravara was also used. It was like a mantle or cloak and was used only in cold seasons.
Though the garments used by the people were unstitched, the art of sewing was not unknown to the people. We get depiction of women wearing jackets or bodices (kolaka or kancuka). With the arrival of the Sakas and Kushanas the dresses of the people underwent changes. The trousers from Central Asia were introduced and were commonly used by the members of the ruling class up to the Gupta period.
The Gupta kings are shown as wearing them on their coins. During the Kushan period the long quilted coats, quilted trousers and boots of special type were used by the members of the ruling class. This is evident from the headless statute of Kanishka. However this sort of dress did not suit the people living in hot areas and was most common in medieval Kashmir and Northwest.
The clothes were made mainly of cotton although woolen and silken clothes were also used. The woolen clothes were mainly used by the people of north in winter. Silks and muslins were used during summer and in those areas which had moderate climate.
These clothes were so thin that the limbs of the wearer were visible. The people were fond of embroidered or dyed clothes. The paintings of Ajanta and Bagh show the dyed or otherwise patterned clothes were in use. Skin was also used as clothing.
The people used head dresses. The turbans were the most common head-dress. It was fastened in numerous patterns. The women also wore complicated head-dresses. However by the times of Guptas these complicated head-dresses were replaced by simple tiara-like head-dresses.
Most of the people, with the exception of the Brahamans, grew long hairs. The orthodox Brahmans, however, shaved the whole head with the exception of the topknot, which was never cut.
The footwear’s were also used. These were mainly used to protect the feet against the scorching earth. The most common foot-wears were shoes and sandals. In the Himalayan regions where the cold was rather bitting the boots of Central Asian pattern were used. It may be noted that the dresses of men and women were identical and the difference existed only in the manner of their wearing.
Both men and women used ornaments. Although we have not come across any ornaments on the basis of the various archaeological excavation s, but the sculptures and paintings show that they were commonly used and the Indian jewelers had attained a very high standard in the art of making ornaments.
The various literary works also make reference to a variety of ornaments used by the people. The ornaments were made of gold, silver, precious stones and other metals. The jeweled ornaments were used by the women of rich classes on their foreheads along the partings of their hair. Certain ornaments like ear-rings, necklaces, bracelets and anklets were worn by both men and women.
Cosmetics were used by both men and women. The most common cosmetic was the paste made of finely ground dust of sandalwood. It was mixed with different colours and smeared over the whole body or applied in patterns.
It was believed that this exercised cooling effect on the skin during the hot season. Eye-salva or anjana made of black powdered antimony was also popular with the people. It was not only used to enhance the beauty of the eyes but was also considered good for preventing ophthalmia.
Vermilion (sindura), lac (laksa) and yellow pigment called gorocana were also used for ornamental purposes, specially for making tilaka on the forehead. The tips of the fingers and toes as well as lips were dyed red with lac. The practice of oiling and combing the hair was also in vogue.
The food habits of the people of ancient India kept on changing. While during the Vedic period people took meat and meat preparations with great delight, with the spread of Jainism and Buddhism more and more people became vegetarian. This was quite natural because the two religions laid too much of emphasis on non-violence and were opposed to the killing of the animals.
During the times of Ashoka the king not only gave up meat-eating but encouraged vegetarianism by imposing a ban on ‘.he killing of animals. However, the meat-eating also continued to be practiced. Kautilya in his Arthasastra says that meat-eating was quite normal. He also lays down rules for the management of slaughterhouses and maintenance of purity of meat’.
It was only with the growth of Mahayana Buddhism and the spread of new Hinduism that Vegetarianism was once again entrenched in India. But it is doubtful if complete vegetarianism was universally practiced in all parts of the country.
The most common dishes taken by the people were Apupa, a cake made of rice, barley, ghee-rice cooked with milk and with beans. Milk continued to be a popular drink with the people and milk products like ghee, butter, cream, curd etc. were commonly used.
People in ancient India knew about drinks. Soma, a juice from a plant was the most popular drink. Another popular drink was the Sura, a brandy of grains. There were no moral objection to the taking of these drinks because the edicts of Ashoka which discouraged meat-eating make on reference to the drinking. However, the Hindu law books condemned drinking and the respectful Indians did not take them.
The Buddhist laws count the drinking of spirits as one of the five cardinal sins. Despite these religious taboos drinking vas quite common. Arthasastra gives a description of the various types of alcoholic drinks.
Some of the prominent drinks mentioned are medaka (rice-beer), prasanna (spiced beer made of flour), asava (wood-apple wine), maireya (liquor made of raw sugar), sahakarasur (mango wine) etc. In the South, toddy, the fermented sap of the coconut was the most popular alcoholic liquor and is quite frequently mentioned in the early Tamil literature.
A large number of private breweries and taverns existed during the Mauryan period. Arthasastra refers to the appointment of superintendent of liquor, to control the sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks. It also recommends control over the manufacture.
The taverns were usually located away from the place of residence and often provided shelter to the criminals. Therefore, the king was advised to keep a watchful eye on them.
Amusements and Entertainments:
In ancient India numerous means of amusement and entertainment existed according to the age and interest of the various sections of people. The festivals were the most important source of amusement for the people. The Hindu year was divided into various festivals. The festival of Spring, one of these festivals, was celebrated in honour of the Love-god Kama, a very popular divinity of the times.
In the celebration of this festival even the respectable citizens freely moved out in the streets scattering red powder and coloured water. This festival still survives under the name of Holi, though Kama no more plays any part in it.
Dances and dramas were another source of entertainment. The literature and sculpture of ancient times contains various references about the dances and dramas. Patanjali makes a mention of the dramas like Kansavadha and Balibandhan being played on the stage.
The dramas were performed by professional entertainers, who were highly proficient in their art. The musicians, bards, acrobats, jugglers, conjurors and snake charmers also entertained the people by their performance.
As regards the outdoor games the people of India took special delight in chariot racing, bullock racing, horse-racing etc. We also get certain references about boxing and wrestling, but these were generally the hobbies of the people of low-caste. The warrior-class took great delight in archery contests. We get a detailed and vivid descriptions about the archery contests in the Epics.
The people amused themselves by observing the fight of the animals. The popular animal fights included that of lavaka (Indian quail), the cock and ram. We also learn about the fights between bulls, buffaloes and elephants.
The bull-fight was particularly very popular in the South and was considered to be a test of the manhood of young men. It is said that the girls who watched the performance would choose their husbands from among the successful competitors. Thus it was a sort of Tamilian svayamvara.
The dicing and chess were the most popular indoor games. Gambling was popular among all the sections of the society except the rigidly religious people. The discovery of the six-sides dice in the Indus valley cities and the ‘Gamester’s Lament’ of the Rig Veda testify that gambling was very popular even amongst the earliest inhabitants of India.
The plot of Mahabharata has been woven around the gambling tournament in which king Yudhishtra lost his kingdom to his wicked cousin Duryodhana. In the story of Nala and Damyanti also gambling forms the basis of the plot. In Arthasastra emphasis is laid on the regulation and control of gambling. It also testifies that stringent fines were imposed for cheating in gambling.
Another indoor game which was quite popular was caturanga or four crops. Initially this game was played by four players and their moves were determined by the throw of dice. As the game was played with pieces representing military forces it came to be known as caturanga.
The persian game of shatranj was a corrupt form of this game. They reduced it to a game of two persons, each with two armies. They also gave up the use of dice to control the moves’
Slavery in Ancient India:
The institution of slavery also existed in ancient India, although it operated in much milder form than in the ancient civilizations of the West. Its operation was at a such low key that foreign travellers like Megasthenes did not note it, for we do not get any reference in this account about slavery. In fact there was no caste of slaves as such, because servitude was not in the nature of the Aryans.
The persons belonging to all castes could become slaves. For example a free man (arya) could become a temporary slave if he failed to pay a fine or the costs of a lawsuit or if he was carried off in a raid. Similarly, if a man left his caste to enter a monastic order and then left the order or never entered it, he became a slave of the King. An Aryan became a permanent slave only when he himself sold his person.
The institution of slavery originated in India when the Aryans captured a number of dasas in the battle. According to Mahabharata it is a law of war that the vanquished should become slave of the victor and should serve his captor until ransomed.
However in course of time certain other categories of slaves also came into existence. For example children born to a slave automatically became the slaves of the same masters. A free man could sell himself and his family into slavery in times of dire distress. Similarly, a person could be reduced to slavery on account of crime or debt.
However, in these cases the servitude was of a temporary nature. Thus we find that in later times a number of classes of slavery came into existence. We find reference in the Smriti literature and elsewhere about the various types of slavery. Broadly speaking there were four types of slaves—born in the house, bought, captured in raid, and inherited.
The duties of the slaves of all the four categories were identical viz. obedience to the master and the obligation to serve him in the matter of work. The slaves generally acted as domestic servants and personal attendants, although sometimes they were- required to assist the master in agriculture or mining.
The master looked after the slave as a subordinate member of his household. The masters were expected to maintain them and even to perform the last rites of the slave if he died without leaving a son.
The slaves were bought and sold like ordinary commodities. They could also be loaned or given away. However, the masters possessed no right over their lives. The masters had a duty to look after the-claves when they were old, and could not abandon them.
Thus we find that as compared to other ancient civilizations the lot of the slave in ancient India was much better. It was ordained for the master that he “may go short himself or stint his wife and children, but never his slave, who does his dirty work for him”. The masters were encouraged to release the slaves and manumission of slaves was considered to be a pious act.
The Arthasastra emphasised on the need of liberal treatment of the slaves and laid down numerous regulations for the purpose. It forbade the sale of the children as slaves, except in dire emergency. The slaves were to be free to inherit property and do anything to raise money during their spare time.
Slave girls were assured decent treatment. A master raping slave girl was expected to free her and pay her necessary compensation. If a slave-girl got a child by her master, both the mother and the child were set free.
According to Prof. Basham “The humane regulations of Arthasastra, probably unique in the records of any ancient civilization, are perhaps survivals of Mauryan laws, and it is therefore not surprising that Megasthenes declared that there was no slavery in India. India, unlike some other ancient civilizations, was never economically dependent on slavery; the labourer, farm worker and craftsman were normally free men, and the latifundia of the Roman magnate had no counterpart in India. Slave markets are not mentioned in early sources, and though provision was made for the sale of slaves they do not seem at first to have been a regular article of commerce.”