Read this article to learn about the four conditions during the period of sixteen Mahajanapadas, i.e., (1) Political, (2) Social, (3) Economic, and (4) Religious.
During the period of the Sixteen Mahajanapadas, the political administration in different parts of India varied widely.
The names of the heads of states or administration also necessarily varied. These were King, Samrat, Virat, Swarat etc.
The person who ascended the throne after holding Rajasuya Yajna was called King. He might assume the title of Emperor by performing Rajasuya Yajna again.
The king who would receive Indra’s unction would assume the title of Virat. Every king would try to conquer territories in the neighbourhood and if he would succeed, he would become an Ekarat. Kingship in the Age of the Sixteen Mahajanapada was generally hereditary, but in certain cases the king used to be elected by the people. A king could take as many as four wives. The chief queen was called Rajamahishi.
Theoretically and legally the power of the king was unlimited. But in practice the king had to carry on administration with the advice of the Brahmanas, the Ministers, the Rajasabha and the villagers. The king had to do obeisance to the Brahmanas in the open Court by descending from the throne. It may be mentioned that the Brahmanas of that time were the repositories of culture and education and were held in highest esteem.
The kings were Kshatriyas by caste but their ministers were Brahmanas. In all matters of administration the opinion of the Ministers was consulted. Samiti that is, the Assembly of the people had also to be consulted. Politically speaking the opinion of the Assembly was of great importance. There are instances where a despotic rulers had to abdicate according to wishes of the Assembly. In extreme cases the king could be sentenced to death by the Assembly of the people.
Besides kingship, there were also republican states at that time. The Lichhavi, the Vriji, Bhoga, Kaurava, Ikshaku etc. were republican states.
With the spread of the Aryans all over India the social system naturally was re-organised. But there was no uniformity in social customs and manners all over India. The customs and manners of the people of the Gangetic valley were not acceptable to the people of the south, nor even in the other parts of northern India. In the Gangetic valley, the women had practically no liberty, but in other parts of India the women enjoyed enough liberty in social life and were held in high esteem.
In north-west India the rite of Sati, that is, burning of the widow in the funeral pyre of the deceased husband was prevalent but was not followed in the Gangetic valley except in very rare cases. In the Vedic times it was permissible for a male to take more than one wife and this practice was followed in some areas during the Epic age but during the period of the Sixteen Mahajanapadas the practice was looked down upon.
Svayambara, that is choosing the husband by the girl herself, was prevalent during the Sixteen Mahajanapada period. Although in certain cases the women were not allowed to go out of the family yet speaking generally the women enjoyed fullest liberty.
As the society was largely agricultural, most of the people lived in villages. Only the king, the Ministers, the members of the royal Court, the officers of the state used to live in the well protected and walled up city which was the capital of the country. The walled capital had observation towers at places. These were defensive measures.
Within the city there were wide roads, pleasure halls where game of dice used to be played, pleasure garden, hall of justice, dancing hall etc. The royal palace was made of wood. The royal princess and the daughters of high officials used to play the game of Kunduk that is foot-ball. Young men liked to play Kunduk and vita, that is foot-ball and hockey. Hunting, game of dice, sword play, listening to tales of warfare and of heroes were the prevalent pastimes.
The dress of the males had three parts, namely, Abharan, that is, cloth to cover the body from waist downwards, Orna, that is a piece cloth to cover the upper part of the body and Shirabharan, that is, the head dress. The dress of the females consisted of two parts, the lower garment and the garment for the upper part of the body. Men used to grow beard and use certain: types of ornaments. Women, particularly of the higher classes would use neck-chain, bangles, girdles, nose-studs etc. Use of umbrella and shoes was known at that time.
The caste system was prevalent and was gradually hardening into extreme conservatism, but during the period of the Sixteen Mahajanapadas the caste division did not give rise to any class animosity. Although marriage within one’s own caste was generally preferred, yet there was no bar to inter-caste marriages. But towards the end of the period inter-caste marriage was strictly prohibited. The authority of the Brahmanas during this period was turning towards autocratic control over the society.
The basis of the economic life of the period was agriculture. One-tenth of the, produce of the soil had to be paid as land revenue. The agricultural land was divided into small plots and for the purpose of irrigation, cultivation and conservation of water cooperative system was followed. Famine was not altogether unknown but it was of very rare occurrence.
Besides agriculture, animal husbandry was an important source of economic life. Arts and industries like ivory work, mural painting, stone-carving etc. were highly developed at that time. Business was carried on both within and without the country. Bharuch, Tamralipti, Sopara etc. were the important ports of the time through which water-borne trade with Burma, Ceylon, Malaya, Babylonia etc. was carried on. Silk, gold, embroidered cloth were the principal merchandise. There are proofs of co-operative system in the trade and commerce of the period. The medium of exchange was copper and silver Karshapana. The silver Karshapana was also known as Dharan. A silver Karshapana was one-tenth in value of the Vedic Niska.
In religion there was a great change during that period. Worship of new gods and goddesses as also the cult of Devotion prevailed during the period. Animal sacrifice was made to some gods and goddesses but there was a strong feeling against the practice. Some religious-minded people also preached against animal sacrifice as a part of religion. The most important characteristic of the religious life of the time was the belief in Karmafal and rebirth.
The worship of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesvar was taking shape during this period. The Vedic religion had by that time become observance of certain rituals which were practically meaningless to the people. The Brahmanas were exercising a tremendous control over the social and religious life of the people of the time. The complexities of the Vedic religion and the autocratic control of the priestly class, that is, the Brahmanas, made thoughtful people to seek for a simpler, intelligible religion.