Read this article to learn about the chief features of the society (4th Century B.C. to 6th Century A.D.).
(A) Social and Socio-Economic Divisions:
During the Nanda- Maurya period, the Fourfold order of society which was the most characteristic feature of the Aryan way of life, i.e., the Varna and Asrama, continued as the dominant feature of the society.
Our sources of information for the social condition of this period are many and varied, consisting of religious literature, foreigner’s account, and epigraphic records.
Divergence of opinions among these different sources although create some confusion, yet it is possible to draw a reliable and comprehensive picture of the period from the late fourth century B.C. to the sixth century A.D. The Society was divided into four Varna, that is, castes, the Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras.
Duties of the different castes enumerated in the Dharmasastras have been analysed by Kautiiya in an inimitable manner. The Brahmanas had to do the duties of study, teaching, worship, and work as priest, give gifts, accept gifts. The Kshatriyas had to study, worship, give gifts, accept the profession of arms, and protect living beings. The Vaisyas had the duties of studying, worshipping, giving gifts, doing agricultural work, cattle-rearing, and trading.
The Sudras’ duties were menial work for the upper three castes, production of wealth by their labour, arts and crafts. It may be noted that while study, worship and giving gifts were enjoined for the upper three castes, the lowest caste, the Sudras, had to go without education, self-improvement through worship or even to make gifts, but production of wealth, arts and crafts were their duties which required physical labour and acquisition of artisans’ skill.
The Brahmanas were assigned the highest status and dignity by the Brahmanical canon law. Manu Samhita gives highest status and supremacy to Brahmanas but at the same time laid stress on their acquiring superior knowledge and qualifications on which their superior status vested.
The Brahmana was to fill the highest offices of the state and society by working as teacher, priest, judge, prime minister, assessor, as member of Dharma Parishad, legal commission, etc. A Brahmana would lose his status if he violated the rules relating to food, profession, livelihood, etc. prescribed for him. Similar rules were also prescribed for other castes as well.
The Sudras had menial service as his portion in life. The Sudras were not permitted to hear sacred texts nor were they eligible for sacraments. Manu, however, did not deny the right of learning to the Sudras. It does not escape notice of a very casual observer that the lot of the Sudras was an unenviable one.
We may now turn our attention to the doctrine of rise and fall in caste status as advocated by Manu and Yajnavalka after Gautama. If a Brahmana marries a Sudra woman, and a daughter is born of this union and that daughter marries a Brahmana and in this way daughter after daughter marries Brahmanas for seven generations the seventh generation will be Brahmana.
Conversely, if a Brahmana who marries a Sudra woman and a son is born of this union, and the son marries a Sudra woman and in this way if son after son marries Sudra woman then from the seventh generation the son becomes a Sudra. The same rule applied in cases of Kshatriya and Vaisya marriage.
K. A. N. Sastri remarks that “The period intervening between the downfall of the Imperial Mauryas and the rise of the Gupta emperors marks a crisis in India’s social history”. On the one hand Asoka’s imperial propaganda had given Buddhist an all-India character and spread it into East and South-East Asia.
In the course of this religious movement within the fold of the Indian Society, the situation became somewhat complicated due to the influx of foreigners of altogether alien and cultural standards, the first reaction of which was gloomy forebodings of universal decay and dissolution of the social fabric which can be noticed in the contemporary Brahmanical works. And yet in this age of seeming social collapse were sown the seeds of great revival.
Brahmanism, far from being engulfed by onrush of the waves of foreigners, found in some of the ruling houses of the northern and southern India patrons who upheld the Brahmanical society and its religious practices. This also strengthened the Brahmanical society to meet its two rivals Buddhism and Jainism. At the same time the problem created by the settlement of foreigners in India was solved with great rapidity with which the Brahmanical society assimilated these foreign elements completely into its fold.
Another significant social development of this period was the increase in the number of mixed castes. We have already seen how the Brahmanical society solved the problems of intermarriage and social status of the offspring of intermarriage between the different castes of the fourfold social order. But intermarriage between the traditional Brahmanical four castes and the Yavanas, Sakas, Chinas, Pahlavas, etc. gave rise to many more mixed castes or social unity.
It becomes clear, therefore, that while the traditional fourfold division of castes continued to exist during the period under review, and many mixed castes grew up as a result of intermarriages. This proves that caste-system had not been become rigid or petrified although it was showing signs of hardening, and had not reached the stereotyped form as we see in today.
The Buddhist and the Jaina texts even in the epics give a different picture of the caste-system. According to these, one does not become a Brahmana by birth, but by education and conduct. In the Mahabharata as also in the Buddhist texts the son of a Brahmana is a Brahmana even when his mother be a Kshatriya or Vaisya.
According to the Buddhist and the Jaina texts Kshatriyas are superior to the Brahmanas and among the four castes, the Kshatriyas are given the first place. In these texts the superiority of the Brahmanas is challenged and this is due to the fact that although in theory the priestly power is higher than royal power, in practice the king always gets the upper hand.
The Buddhist texts also show that caste was not rigidly tied to craft. Kshatriyas were seen to work as potters, basket-makers, cooks, and garland makers, whereas Vaisyas worked as tailors, potters, etc. Brahmanas worked as physicians, traders, policemen, hunters, menials of kings, etc.
Both the Buddhist and Jaina texts describe a normal Brahmana as one serving the society as a hermit, or a rishi and living in forest. The first class Brahmanas are described as persons who served as the king’s priests, as ministers, ambassadors and military officers. From all this it is clear that the Buddhist texts and even the epics did not believe in the rigid caste structure of the Brabmanical social system.
Megasthenes enumerates seven classes or castes into which the whole population of India was divided: Philosophers, Husbandmen, Herdsmen, Artisans, Military, Overseers or Spies, Councillors or Assessors, and remarks that no one was allowed to marry out of his caste or exchange one profession for the other.
This division of the Indians into seven castes is contrary to the age-old fourfold division of castes and must have been due to his confusing the professional classes with castes.
In conclusion we may say that during the period from the fall of the Maurya and before the rise of the Guptas the Hindu Society became something like a federation of castes and sub-castes whose members sometimes inter-marry, more frequently in earlier than in later ages, but which nevertheless retained their separate identity. The caste was not, however, altogether static, for new sub-castes arose from migration, fusion, and inter-marriage.
By the early decades of the Gupta Age a strong Brahmanical reaction appears to have set in against the Buddhist and Jaina ascendancy. There was an intensification of the social division into four Varnas and pre-eminence of the Brahmanas. The reform movement started by the founders of Buddhism and Jainism lost its momentum and a Counter-Reformation movement by the Brahmanical Hinduism became a strong force. The problem of social fitment of the foreign hordes was solved by the barbarians adopting Indian social manners and faith and orthodox Hinduism meeting the problem by conceding the foreigners the status of Kshatriyas.
The age-old division of the society into four Varnas continued to be the keynote of the society under the Guptas and there is no doubt that rules relating to the duties of the different Varnas and their mutual relation were generally observed.
Anuloma and Pratiloma marriages, that is, the marriage of a Brahmana with a woman of an inferior caste and that of a woman of a superior caste with man of an inferior caste, respectively, took place during the Gupta period. Both from Smriti Law in the Gupta Age and accounts of Chinese travelers the Brahmanas appear to have retained social status assigned to them by the old Smriti Law. Even in punishing a Brahmin offender no capital punishment and confiscation of property were permissible.
As in the preceding age there were not only numerous mixed castes during the Gupta period, but also Chandalas who occupied the lowest stratum in the mixed castes and did the meanest work, such as claiming unclaimed dead bodies and doing the duties of hangmen. The Chandalas were not to move about in towns or villages at night and in the day time they had to move with distinguishing marks in order that pollution of other classes might not take place by their contact.
They had to live outside the limits of villages. The beginning of untouchability may thus be traced from earliest times and continued to show signs of rigidity with the passage of time. Further removed from the Chandalas were the Pulindas, Sabaras, Kiratas, etc. who lived in the hills and forests of the Vindhyas. They were given to outlandish practice, such as offering human flesh to deities, living on hunting, partaking of meat and wine.
The existing institution of caste is peculiar to India and is the most vital principle of Hinduism, dominating the Hindu social life, manners, moral and thought. Dr. Apte very aptly remarks that “The elaborate institution known as the caste system among the Hindus in India may almost be said to be without a parallel in the world” although there is hardly a country in the world where some kind of social gradation is not met with.
Dr. V. A. Smith defines a caste as a group of families internally united by peculiar rules for the observance of ceremonial purity, especially in the matters of diet and marriage. One caste is distinguished from the other by a common origin, name, tutelar deity, occupation and ceremonies, as also by homogeneous caste-group.
There has been a good deal of controversy among the scholars about the origin and development as also about the interpretation of various phrases and words in the Rig Veda relating to caste. There are also various speculations in later Brahmanical literature about the origin of castes.
From the famous Purusha-Sukta we learn that the Brahmanas were created out of the head, the Kshatriyas from the arms, Vaisyas from the thighs and the Sudras from the feet of the Creator, the primeval Purusha. But this theory has been rejected by many scholars, according to whom the caste-system was developed later. The transition of the Aryans from the caste-system during the Yajur-Veda time was the result of further migration of the Aryans from the Punjab to the east.
Dr. Apte refers to a scientific explanation of the caste-system accepted by some scholars. Ceaseless fight of the Aryans with and the conquest of, aborigines led to the merger of petty tribes into centralised kingdoms. Thus emerged the powerful king while the lesser tribal chiefs and princes were reduced to the status of nobles.
The kings needed armed forces for resisting external invasions by other tribes or for quieting revolts. The nobility was drafted into the army. This gave rise to the warrior class, the Kshatriyas. The people afforded protection from the warrior class settled down to peaceful life devoted to agriculture, trade, industry, etc. They constituted the third class, the Vis later called the Vaisyas. Side by side there grew up a distinct community of the priest. To begin with the petty kings and princes could offer sacrifice for himself and his people.
But with the growth of large kingdoms the hands of the kings were full of administrative and military duties, at the same time rituals became more elaborate and complicated. This gave rise to a hieratic order, comprising more intellectual and educated elements who would be free from distractions of war or peace and faithfully perform sacrifices and rituals. This was the genesis of the priestly class, i.e., the Brahmanas.
The fourth class i.e., the Sudras, were the defeated aborigines absorbed as slaves. In the Rig Veda they were mentioned as dasyus and dasas. According to Dr. Apte, the development of caste-system in a rigid form did not take place till the time when the Vedic Aryans had settled down in Madhyadesa or Brahmavarta.
The above view is not accepted by some scholars mainly on the ground that there are references to the threefold, even fourfold division of castes in the Rig Veda itself. The existence of similar division of society among the Iranians has been pointed out by these scholars and raises the presumption of the development of hereditary caste-groups among the Aryans in the Rig Vedic period.
The Iranians had the fourfold division of society such as the priests, warriors, agriculturists, and artisans which resembles very closely the fourfold division of the Aryan Society as Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, and the Sudras. But this similarity between the Iranian and Indo-Aryan divisions of society does not conclusively prove that these were identical.
From the early post-Vedic Age in Grihya-Sutras and Dharma-Sutras we find that the fourfold division of Society with the rules of rites and ceremonies, manners and customs continued to exist as of old. The Varnasrama, i.e., the four stages of life enjoyed for the Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, and Vaisyas are also found in Kautilya’s Arthasastra.
In the Dharma-Sutras highest status and dignity are claimed for the Brahmanas. Highest offices of the State such as the priests, ministers, judges, members of Mantri Parishad, etc. were reserved for the Brahmanas. A Brahmana enjoyed immunity from capital punishment.
The caste rules relating to food, marriage, and professional work were more rigidly applied during the post-Vedic period upto the end of the Maurya Age. The Sudras had to render menial service. But Manu did not deny the right of education and of teaching by the Sudras. But on the whole the life of the Sudras was unenviable. The most significant development during this period was the rise of numerous mixed castes due to inter-marriage between castes as also to the influx of the Yavanas, Sakas, Chinas, Pahlavas, etc.
Despite the predominance of the Hindu caste-system, the Jaina and the Buddhists did not go by the caste order. They placed the Kshatriyas at the top of the caste-order.
In the period that intervened between the fall of the Mauryas and the rise of the Guptas the fourfold caste-system received a shock due to the influx of the barbarians and it seemed that there would be a collapse of the social system. But with the patronage of the Brahmnnical system by the ruling house, in northern and southern India there was a revival of Brahmanism which reached its crowning triumph under the Imperial Guptas.
The fourfold caste-system continued to exist with growing rigidity although inter-marriages were permissible. The caste-system acquired a permanent character and influenced the social customs, law, and social ideals. All the same the institution of castes was not altogether static as it became later on and continues even today.
Slavery in India is as old as the Vedic times. The Buddhist canonical texts as well as the Smritis mention different classes of slaves and their status.
The Buddhist texts distinguish slaves of different classes as :
(i) Slaves by birth,
(ii) Slaves by capture in war,
(iii) Slaves by purchase, and
(iv) Slaves by choice.
Kautilya in his Arthasastra for the first time mentions certain rules governing the status of the slaves.
In the Smritis also we have various rules regarding the status of slaves. According to Manu and Narada slavery could be acquired in different ways, by birth in the master’s house, by capture in war, by purchase, accepting slavery for food, by gift, by inheritance from ancestors, by release from heavy debt, by voluntary surrender of freedom, for apostasy from asceticism, by connection with a female slave, and by various other ways.
In the Mahabharata also there is mention of temporary, slavery of the defeated foe. In the Mahabharata and Milindapanha sale of wife and children presumably into slavery is mentioned as a recognised custom. But sale of wife or child is condemned by both Manu and Yajnavalkya. Enslavement of an adulterous wife is prescribed as one of the modes of punishment to such a wife.
Yajnavalkya and Kautilya lay down the principle that slavery shall be in the descending order of castes. Kautilya specifically mentions that no Aryan could be reduced to slavery under any circumstances.
About the rights of the slaves while the Smritis are silent about their right to acquire, inherit or bequeath property, Kautilya allows such rights under certain circumstances.
About the emancipation of the slaves, both Yajnavalkya and Narada lay down that (i) a slave who saves the life of his master is forthwith freed and becomes entitled to a son’s share of the master’s property, (ii) persons captured and sold by robbers as slaves or those who have been forcibly enslaved are to be freed by law, (iii) persons who accepted slavery for food are to be freed on payment of the expenses, (iv) payment of ransom would emancipate those who are captured in war and converted into slaves. There are other ways in which slaves can earn freedom.
The laws relating to slavery mentioned in the Smriti Law of the Gupta Age developed the earlier Smriti Law regarding slavery. Katyayana, for instance, repeats Yajnavalkya and Narada and specifies that a Brahmana can never be reduced to slavery. According to Katyayana a free woman herself becomes a slave by marrying a slave, but a female slave bearing a child to her master is immediately emancipated. The drama Mrichchakatikam of the Gupta period both supplements and confirms the rules relating to slavery mentioned above.
The slaves in ancient India received benign treatment at the hands of their mastery. Megasthenes’ remarked that all the Indians are free and not one of them is a slave. The Indians do not even use an alien as slave and much less a countryman of their own. But from various contemporary evidences the remark of Megasthenes appears to be incorrect.
His statement may be regarded as correct in respect of any particular region, but not for whole of India. Or else it may be interpreted to mean that the treatment of the slaves at time was so liberal that Megasthenes was led to believe that there was no slavery in India.
Prof. Rhys David’s remark is relevant in this context He remarks that “For most part the slaves (in India) were household servants, and not badly treated and their number seems to have been insignificant”. Dr. Apte justly concludes that “Such mild treatment, which offered a striking contrast to the system of slavery with which Megasthenes was familiar, probably led him to believe that there were no slaves in India”.
The Indian caste-system has been subjected to adverse criticism due to its obvious demerits. It has been suggested that it shuts off the Indian from free association with the foreigners rendering it difficult for the Indians to understand and the foreigners and vice versa. Dr. V.A. Smith says that it is easier for a foreigner to attain full sympathy of the casteless Burmese than an Indian Chitpavan or Nambudripad Brahmana so much veiled by caste-system.
It is often an unpleasant experience of history, polished foreigner to find his touch polluting a high-caste Hindu. Within India even caste-system has broken up the Indian society into a thousand parts. The institution of castes has hindered cooperation between peoples politically, economically, and socially.
Poet Nazrul Islam has in his poems has castigated the caste-consciousness of the Hindus. Conditions of modern life have often come in conflict with the easterlies. It is noticed that despite considerable laxity in practice, the sentiment of class exclusiveness persists even today in full strength.
Of course there are varying degrees of the sentiment. With the spread of education and movement by eminent Indians, such as Ramkrishna, Vivekananda, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Shree Chaitanya, the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, etc., as well as with the growth of national feeling the intensity of caste-system is in the process of being reduced.
But caste-system is not without its merits. Critics of the institution of castes have overlooked the fact that an institution which has forced its way through centuries, from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, must have merits to justify its existence and universal prevalence in India. Caste-system has to be considered as an integral part of Hinduism, and of Hindu social and economic systems. It is intimately associated with the Hindu philosophical ideas of Karma, rebirth, and the theory of Svata, Raja, and Tama gunas.
But the chief merit of the caste-system is the stability and solidarity that it gave to the Hindu Society. Caste-system as an institution has been the main agent in preserving the Hindu ideas of religion, morals, art and craftsmanship.
Foreign Elements in Population:
While the institution of caste-system in India reveals the conservative aspect of the Hindu Society it has its refreshingly liberal aspect that may be noticed in its liberality. During the period under review, foreign invaders like the Greeks, Bactrian Greeks, Parthians, the Sakas, and the Kushanas invaded India and barring the followers of Alexander a small number of whom remained in north-western India, others came into India never to return.
They settled in India and were finally absorbed by the Hindu Society and no trace of their individual identity or characteristics remained. From a good number of inscriptions we find the gradual transformation of these barbarian hordes into thorough-going Hindus by adoption of languages, manners and customs, religion, etc., of the Hindus, and finally through matrimonial ties they were incorporated into the Hindu Society.
This transformation is best illustrated by the Western Satraps whose early outlandish names, such as Ghsamotika, Chastana, Nahapana, etc., were gradually replaced by their successors’ names in the purely Indian fashion, such as Rudrasena, Visvasena, Rudrasimha, Vijaysena, and the like. Gradually their barbaric language and religion were also replaced by Indian languages and Indian religion.
They became devotees of Hindu gods, adopted Sanskrit as their language. The process of transformation became complete through their marital relations with Brahmanical royal dynasties and other Hindu families. In this way they became an integral part of the Hindu Society.
It may be pointed out that the Yavanas and other foreigners who settled in India, instead of upsetting the traditional social order, or destroying the accepted canons of morality and conduct were themselves completely absorbed into the indigenous social system. “Quite unmistakably, the captive India captured her captor”—aptly remarks N. K. Sastri.
The process of Indianisation may be cleanly traced from the second century B.C. when Demetrius contrary to Hellenistic customs struck coins with bi-lingual legends, Greek and Prakrit with Kharosthi script. With the adoption of Indian script went acceptance of Indian religions. There are inscriptions of recording dedications of Buddhist relics by pious Greek donors.
The Greek ambassador, Heliodorus, at the Court of Vidisa erected a column in honour of Vasudeva. The example of the Greeks who considered all non- Greeks as barbarians, in adopting Indian religion and social customs was followed by the Sakas, Parthians, and the Kushanas.
While the Saka and Kushana rulers became great patrons of Indian religions other ordinary foreigners were contented with adoption of Indian religions and social canons of conduct and morality. The writers of Smriti met the new element in the Hindu Society by according the foreigners the status of the Kshatriyas.
If the Hindu Society absorbed the foreign elements that came into India, the Brahmanical and Buddhist missionaries by their propaganda all over Asia brought many of its peoples within the pale of Indian culture. The Hindu missionaries and the merchants raised the people in the Far East from their primitive barbarism to a high state of progress and refinement.
The use of the term Kula in the Vedic literature, meaning system of individual family comprising several members, proves the existence of family in India in the Vedic times. From the Upanishads and Brahmanas the absolute control of father over the sons and daughters and other inmates of the family is proved. Relation between the father and the children was of deep affection.
Families were sometimes large enough and included grandfather, grandmother as well as great-grandsons. Adoption was resorted to in absence of natural sons, but also to add to a specially qualified member to the family. Among relations of the family are mentioned cousins, nephews, wife’s brothers, etc.
During the period under review family system characterised the society. Unquestioned obedience to the father was considered the highest of duties of sons and daughters. Great veneration was shown to all elders in the family, next to father in respect, was the elder brother.
Relation between the family and the wife’s parents, husband’s parents, brothers and sisters was one of great affections and respect. There is, however, dearth of instances of the mother-in-law or the daughter-in-law taking refuge in nunnery to escape from tyranny of the other members of the family.
While conjugal fidelity and ideal relationship between the wife and husband formed the most distinguishing characteristic of the Hindu family instances of lack of conjugal fidelity were not small either. Megasthenes and Manu mention this aspect of the moral lapse of the society. But this was not, however, the general picture.
The family life was adversely affected by Polygamy and intermarriages. The first wife was usually a girl of the same caste of the bridegroom, but other marriages might not be within one’s own caste. Megasthenes states that the Indians married many wives, some for pleasure, some for having more children, and some to bring in willing helpmates. This is also corroborated by the Smritis.
Wife of the same caste with the husband, enjoyed special privilege and status of sons and in the matter of inheritance would depend on the status of the mother. It is supposed by scholars that this inequality in treatment must have disturbed the peace of the family and adversely affected the relation between members of the family. Needless to say, introducing wives of different nature and habits led to the degradation of the cultural life of the family and supersession of wives on flimsy grounds.
As to polyandry, i.e., one wife having more than one husband we have the instance of Draupadi in the Mahabharata as also an instance of a girl married to the entire family in Apastamba, but the extent to which this practice was followed is highly debatable. But this practice is to come across in Kumaun even today.
From Vatsyayana we get an idea of the family life of the Hindus during the Gupta period. The most important person of self-restraint and household management made for the happiness of the family life and these remain as the hall mark of Hindu wives down to the present day.
Where the woman is the only wife, she ministered to his comfort at table, shared the fasts and vows with her husband, and attended festivities, religious ceremonies along with her husband. She was not be puffed up in prosperity, would serve her mother-in-law and father-in-law and did what they would command her to do. She would not laugh aloud, speak sweet words.
In absence of her husband she would wear only sober dress and would not wear ornaments except those signifying her married state. Besides attending to her husband and husband’s parents, she would attend to the relations and friends of the family. We get more or less a picture of the family life in the Hindu Society today from the Vatsyayana and other Smriti writers.
Rules relating to marriage in their fundamental aspects continue more or less unaltered from the Vedic times till the present day among the Hindus. During the Vedic Age marriage did not normally take place before attainment of puberty and was banned within the circle of agnates and cognates upto certain degrees. Marriage within the same gotra was forbidden.
Brothers or sisters were not to marry before their elders. Widow Remarriage was allowed and polygamy undoubtedly prevailed. Sale of daughter for marriage was not unknown but was looked upon with disfavour. There were also marital relations between the higher castes and the Sudra men and women. In Atharva Veda there are references to Sati, i.e., immolation of the wife in the husband’s pyre.
During the post-Vedic Age marriage between the same caste was preferred. As in the previous age, marriage with the same gotra was prohibited and also with certain degrees of relationship. Though forbidden by Manu the Southerners married the daughter of maternal uncle.
The Dharma-Sutras and the institutes of Manu refer to eight different kinds of marriages.
(i) Brahma, that is marriage negotiated by the father of the girl and dowry is given at the time of marriage,
(ii) Daiva, that is marriage of a daughter given by the father to the priest;
(iii) Arsha, that is marriage given by the father of his daughter in return for a cow and a bull,
(iv) Prajapatya, where the father gives the daughter citing a mantra uniting them in marriage
(v) Asura, where takes the girl on payment of wealth to the girl and her Kinsmen,
(vi) Gandharva, voluntary union of the girl and her lover,
(vii) Rakshasa, where the girl is abducted and married forcibly, and
(viii) Paisacha, where the girl is seduced while sleeping or by doping.
The last form of marriage is universally condemned and the seventh is condemned in case of the Kshatriyas. Megasthenes states that in Indian marriage a pair of oxen is given as gift. This shows that the 3rd form, i.e., Arsha marriage was the most popular in the 4th century B.C.
According to some scholars the Prajapatya marriage in which the husband and wife are united by citing mantra forbids the husband to marry any other wife. Brahma marriage also enjoins the husband and wife to remain inseparable in the spheres of love, wealth, and religion. On the whole this spirit pervades the first four forms of marriage, which are regarded as a religious sacrament and no mere contract. The other forms of marriage were also held.
Nearchus states that the Indians marry without either giving or taking dowries, but the women, as soon as they are marriageable, are brought forward by their fathers and exposed in public to be selected by the victor in wrestling or boxing or running or by someone who excels in any other manly exercise.
This is perhaps a reference to Swayamvara marriage which used to take place after puberty when the girls were well-developed and grown up. But there was a tendency in the Sutra texts to lower the marriageable age of the girls. Gradually child marriage was coming into vogue, but marriage at mature age was not at all uncommon.
In later Smritis it is laid down that girls should be given in marriage before their attaining puberty. This was perhaps due to the anxiety to maintain the bodily purity of girls. It is suggested by some writers that marriage before puberty applied to the Brahmanas. This is also borne out by the literary evidence of the time.
Rules relating to marriage laid down in the older Smritis remained materially unaltered during the post-Maurya and the Gupta periods. From Vatsyayana we come to know that girls were given in marriage during this period both before and after they attained puberty. Marriage within the same caste was preferred while marriage within certain degrees of relationship was prohibited as in the previous age. Hiuen T-Sang also bears out this. Persons uniting themselves in love according to canonical rites with girls of the same caste is according to Vatsyayana is blessed and receives public approval.
Making love to girls of higher caste or with married woman is prohibited. But love with woman of lower caste who are sufficiently pure, or with harlots or with re-married widows appears to be neither condemned nor approved. Obviously inter-marriage between different castes was put under greater restrictions than laid down by the earlier Smritis. Vatsyayana forbids Pratiloma marriage and puts Anuloma marriage on the same low status as marriage with harlots.
During this period, negotiated marriage through parents was held precious as in the time of Smritis. Vatsyayana quotes Apastamba Grihya-Sutra and emphasises that happiness depends on the choice of the girl. After selection of the girl any of the four kinds of marriages mentioned in the Smritis, namely, Brahma, Prajapatya, Arsha, and Daiva is to be performed. Courtship marriage is also referred to Vatsyayana and he gives details about different forms of courtship. Svayamvara marriage mentioned in the Smritis is also prescribed by Vatsyayana.
In the literary works of the Gupta Age repeated references to Gandharva marriage are met with. From literature of the time illustrations of great repugnance felt for selection of husbands by the maidens out of love are found.
Status of Women:
As with the caste-system, we notice a retrograde movement in the position and status of women during the period under review. With the lowering of the marriageable age of women and extreme emphasis laid on physical chastity of women and unquestioned obedience to her husband led to progressive deterioration of her status and position. But this downward movement, however, did not reach its lowest stage during the post-Vedic period. Gone were the days when Indian women participated in highly philosophical subjects and even composed verses and entered into disputations on Sastras.
Megasthenes states that the Brahmanas do not communicate a knowledge of Philosophy to their wives. But there were exceptions and Megasthenes also remarks that some women did pursue Philosophy. Thus the spirit of the time was to gradually relegate the women to an unequal and inferior status to men.
It may be mentioned that two completely different pictures about the status and position of women are found during this period. In one, women are represented as fickle, quarrelsome, and untruthful—a veritable pot of poison. She must, therefore, remain under control all throughout her life, in girlhood under the control of her father, in youth under the control of her husband and in old age under the control of her son.
In another, woman is represented as the glory of the home and the symbol of prosperity, the better half of her husband and the friend, philosopher, and guide of her husband. She is, therefore, worthy of all attention and respect As a mother she is superior to ten fathers, superior to anything else on earth.
In the older Smritis as well as in Manu and Yajnyavalka it has been enjoined in strongest terms that women should be honoured by their male relatives. Women were given precedence along the road in the same way as the king and the Snataka, that is, one who had completed his education. Newly wedded women and the pregnant women were to be fed before all other inmates of the household.
Manu also declares that the gods are pleased with those household where women are held in honour. A husband who would cast off his wife who is not guilty of any crime should be punished by the king. Manu and Yajnyavalka lay down that mother, wife, and other female relations are persons whose faults should be borne without resentment.
Mother should be shown highest reverence just as one does to his father and the teacher. Again a wife was to worship her husband as God even if he were devoid of qualities or destitute of virtues. Manu, also at the same time, lays down that the husband has absolute rights over the wife and could even inflict corporal punishment on her and discard her forthwith if she said anything disagreeable to him. Thus we find a sort of a contradiction in the rules of treatment of women.
With growing importance attached to physical chastity of women there was gradual discouragement of widow remarriage, divorce, etc., and greater encouragement to the system of Sati. Upto the time of Kautilya remarriage of women was permissible where the husband was dead, or has become an ascetic or gone abroad after waiting for a specified period.
But Manu and Yajnyavalka forbid widow remarriage. Narada, however, permits it. Thus there seems to have been no strict uniformity in regard to the woman’s right to remarry. Narada even permits a married woman to leave her husband if it becomes known only after marriage the he has blemishes, and take to another husband. This was an early form of divorce.
The tendency to relegate women to inferior status is also noticed in the Brahmanical canon law forbidding Vedic Study, even utterance of Vedic mantras by women long before the Gupta Age. Yet there were exceptions and Vatsyayana mentions instances of princesses and daughters of nobles acquiring knowledge of Sastras. In the Gupta Age the move towards relegating women to inferior status continued which had begun in the post-Vedic Age. But certain striking changes took place during the Gupta Age in woman’s right to property.
Earlier Yajnyavalka introduced for the first time the right of widow to her husband’s property in absence of any son. Women were also entitled to own and bequeath their Stridhana or special property. But that the lot of the widows was very hard has been borne out by all literary evidences. Unmarried girls were also allowed the right to share the property of the deceased father along with their brothers.
In the Gupta Age Katyayana gave increased recognition of the woman’s right to property. Another important rule in Arti and Devala is that women molested by robbers or others were allowed to regain their social status.
That women exercised the right to share public administration is proved from the account of Megasthenes who mentions that the Pandaean nation was governed by females. The Satavahana queen Nayanika, we know, acted as regent during the minority of her son. Queen Prabhavati Gupta, daughter of Chandragupta II, also ruled the Vakataka Kingdom as the regent of her minor son. Likewise princess Vijayabhattarika was a provincial governor under Chalukya King Vikramaditya I.
From Patanjali we come to know that women worked as spear- bearers. But Megasthenes gives us a better and direct example of women bodyguards of Chandragupta Maurya. Kautilya also bears out this when he refers to the custom that when the King would get up from bed shall be received by women troops.
References to use of veil by women while coming before their elders like father-in-law or women of high families appearing in public with veils are found in the both secular and canonical literature of the period. The custom of Purdah probably continued under the Guptas.
As in Athens, the Indian courtesans (ganika) were given great honour. The instance, Amrapali, may be mentioned in this contest. Kautilya also bears it out when he states that a prostitute, noted for beauty, youth and accomplishments should be appointed superintendent of the prostitutes on a salary of 1000 pana per annum. They were also appointed to the royal household on high salaries.
The highly developed intellectual life that was responsible for the composition of the vast mass of Vedic literature must have had a well-planned system of education. The Guru of the Vedic times formed the backbone of the educational system. Study of Vedic Philosophy was not forbidden in case of the women.
In the post-Vedic period the Dharma-Sastras carried on the Vedic traditions and practices of education which had its own ceremonies and rituals such as Vidyarambha, Upanayana, etc. Manu calls Upanayana as Brahma-Janma, a sort of a rebirth hence a dvija.
The pupil had to live a life of discipline in the house of the Guru, i.e., preceptor, as a Brahmachari. Normally no fee was paid to the teacher. According to Manu no fee was to be paid to the teacher. A teacher charging fee was condemned. Admission to study was guided by the principle of fitness of the pupil. Mostly pupils studied day and night and would even read in the light from burning cow-dung for want of oil.
But there were also pupils who found study irksome and uninteresting and would discontinue. Transgression of the rules of discipline would entail dismissal by the teacher. Sometimes, students would change teachers and schools but this practice was looked with disfavour and such pupils would be derisively termed as Tirthakaka, i.e., crow which does not stay at the same place of pilgrimage for long.
A teacher was held in great esteem and would become famous to those students who from distances of hundreds of miles would come to study. Teachers were of two kinds: Upadhyayas who took to teaching as a profession for livelihood and taught the Vedas and Acharyas who taught the Vedas, Kalpa-Sutras and Upanishads without any fee. The pupils after completion of study would, however, present the teacher with field, gold, cow, shoes, umbrella, clothes, etc.
A definite system of education was evolved by the people of the time. Kautilya lays down eagerness to listen what the teacher said (Susrusa), grasping by the ear (Sravana), understanding what the teacher said (grahana), retention of what was learnt (Dharana), discussion (Upapoha), acquisition of full knowledge of the lessons learnt from the teacher (Vijnana), and comprehension of the underlying truth of what has been learnt (Tattvabhinivesha). It was the common idea that the student learns a fourth from his Acharya, a fourth by his own intelligence by himself, a fourth from his fellow-pupils, and the remaining fourth in course of time by experience.
The knowledge of writing had in the meantime greatly improved which introduced a great change in the system of education. The oldest alphabet called Brahmi was used in most of the records of Asoka and from this script various scripts used all over India were derived. The Achaemenian conquerors introduced the Aramaic in the Punjab, from which was derived the Kharosthi alphabet, written from right to left. But this script went out of existence by the fourth century A.D.
Teaching was mainly oral. The Buddhist sacred books were committed to memory and were not written. Similar was the case with Brahmanical canon literature. This was probably due to the growing desire of the Brahmanas to withhold the sacred mantras from the people and to retain the privilege exclusively for themselves.
But the great mass of literature in the 4th or even in the fifth century B.C. and the extensive use of writing for administrative purposes during the time of Asoka leads invariably to the conclusion that books were much more extensively used than is now commonly believed. Lesser use of books in teaching was probably due to the desire to impart knowledge in a way that might develop personality and power of comprehension in the pupils and to make instruction less bookish.
Subjects of study included besides Vedic literature, the Dharma- Sastras, i.e., Smritis, Itihasa and Purana, Economics and allied subjects, dialectics, politics (Dandaniti). Three Vedas and Economics are referred to by Kautilya as four important subjects of study.
The Princes had to study the four subjects referred to by Kautilya as important and also to receive military training including its operational aspects. Besides they had to study Purana, Itivritta (History), tales (Akhyana), illustrative stories (Udhaharana), Dharma Sastra and Arthasastra. Milindapanha mentions a long list of subjects for the study of the Brahmanas, such as, the Vedas, Puranas, Itihasa, Lexicography, Prosody, Phonology, Verses, Grammar, Etymology, Astronomy, Astrology and the Six Vedangas. They must also acquire the knowledge of interrputing signs and omens, study the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon. Thus the Brahmanas had to become the top class in the society by well-deserved merit by acquisition of diverse knowledge.
The Kshatriyas had to acquire knowledge of the art of war, of horses, elephants, chariots, bows, rapiers, documents, currency. The Vaisyas and the Sudras had to learn husbandry, merchandising, and care of the cattle. King Minander (Milinda) is said to have acquired knowledge of nineteen arts and sciences.
Instruction was given in all subjects by Brahmana teachers. Even instruction in agriculture was also imparted by them. From Narada Smriti we come to know of rules relating to admission to an industrial school. Elaborate rules relating to industrial education, training and apprenticeship, etc., leave no doubt that the highly developed handicrafts were the results of India’s rich training.
Science of medicine was also taught and Taxila was the seat of medical education. The texts speak of the method of preparation of medicine from roots, leaves, fruits, gums, lime, etc. Operation of diseased limb, bandages, compressing of swollen parts of the body, etc., were all known.
Centres of studies were the Brahmanical Asrama and the Buddhist Vihara. A full-fledged Asrama had a prayer hall, department of Vedic studies, department for the study of politics, economics, department of military studies, department of astronomy, department of botany, department dealing with transport and conveyance, and department of military organisation, methods of forming patrols, battalions and armies. The Principal of the Asrama was called Kulapati, a teacher of 10,000 pupils.
The Buddhist Vihara had two classes of teachers, Upadhyaya and Acharya. The duties of the teacher and the pupils were the same as in the Brahmanical system. The Buddhist Vihara education was imparted to students living collectively in spirit of brotherhood and democracy, the Brahmanical Asrama was a home which hardly called for any organisation to deal with large number. What was absent in the Buddhist system was the domestic touch of the Brahmanical system.
In the post-Maurya period including the Gupta Age there was no appreciable change in the educational system that prevailed in the preceding age. From Bana we learn that the former Brahmanical system of living with the Guru was in vogue. In fact, Bana himself returned from the home of his guru at the age of fourteen. Even during Harsha’s time, i.e., in the seventh century the system was prevalent, as we know from the evidence of Hiuen T-Sang.
The teacher-pupil relation has been elaborated in the Buddhist works which lay down the same nature of discipline as prescribed by the Brahmanical texts. The Chinese traveler, I T-Sing, also corroborates it. The discipline that was insisted on, the pupils both in the Brahmanical and Buddhist texts has been mentioned by I T-Sing.
The pupil had to rub the teacher’s body, fold his clothes, sweep his yard and the apartment, and bring water for the teacher. The teacher on the other hand would nurse the pupil in his illness, supply him medicine and look after him as he would do for his son. In the Buddhist Viharas or monasteries Buddhist texts were taught.
There were centres of advanced studies in Buddhist monasteries and the Nalanda Vihara in Magadha became the most renowned of them, all for the magnificence of its establishment and the intellectual pre-eminence of its inmates. Owing its foundation to six successive generations of the Gupta kings, it housed a population of several thousands who were maintained out of the income of the vast landed properties donated to it.
In the seventh century Hiuen TSang admired its resident monks for their learning that rivalled Nalanda was Valabhai in Kahtiawar during the seventh century. The curriculum of studies was the same as had been followed in the preceding period, and referred to above. There were the eighteen branches of learning including sciences.
Let us now examine the extent to which women were allowed to share in the system of education. During the Vedic period w£ have instances of accomplished women who studied Vedic Sastras. Apala, Ghosa, Gargi, Visvavara, etc., may be mentioned in this connection. But during the period of the Smritis there was a tendency to give the girls in marriage before they attained puberty.
This interfered with their education. Study of Sastras and mantras was forbidden in case of the women. But there are also indications of two classes of womer, the Brahmavadini who remained lifelong students of sacred texts and Sadyodvaha who prosecuted studies till their marriage. Buddhist and Jaina texts also refer to women of Brahmavadini class who remained unmarried to prosecute their studies all throughout their life.
Most of the Buddhist nuns who were maidens composed songs which are preserved in the Theragatha. From the Jaina text we come across Jayanti, daughter of the King of Kausambi, who remained unmarried all throughout her life for study of philosophy and religion. Thus, although the Brahmanical sacred law denied to women the Vedic study, even utterance of the mantras, there were many instances of women who devoted their whole life to the study of Sastras and philosophy and many who prosecuted studies upto the time of their marriage.
In the Gupta Age as well we have good grounds to believe that girls of high families had sufficient opportunities for acquiring proficiency in general learning. In Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra there are references to princesses and daughters of nobles whose intellect is sharpened by the knowledge of the Sastras. There were also female teachers as we know from Amarakosa, a work of the Gupta period. Upadhyayi was a female teacher who taught Vedic mantras.
We may, therefore, safely conclude that despite the prevalent tendency in the Smriti Law to deny study of Sastras by women and the practice of giving girls in marriage in very young age before attainment of puberty which prevented acquisition of learning by girls, female education did not suffer completely. Acquisition of knowledge of Sastras as well as general knowledge by women continued during the period under review in certain classes of the Society.
A country so vast in expanse as India, with a great multiplicity of races the general character of the life of the people varied in all ages. During the period under review, i.e., 4th century B.C to 6th century A.D. social life on the whole had become richer in Content, more comprehensive in outlook and much wider in range.
Due to the Jaina and Buddhistic influences there was a greater emphasis on asceticism. Vet the common people had a tendency towards enjoyment of all good things of life. Literature and sculpture of the period show the vivacious side of the life, full of bustle and activity, joy and humour.
Singing, dancing, performing art, entertainment, the buffoonery, mimicry, etc., as well as gardening, heraldry, singing bards, etc., characterised the lighter side of the life. Hunting, wrestling, boxing, Chariot-races, archery competition, etc., were the more valiant side of amusements. Festive assemblies such as Utsava, Samaja, Vihara were held and dainty dishes and intoxicants were served. Meat was one of the major delicacies that were served on such occasions. We know of Asoka’s prohibiting the Samajas for entertainments.
It may be mentioned that even before Asoka’s propagation of his moral code and his Dharma the people of India had a high sense of morality. Megasthene’s remarks are worth quoting: “Truth and Virtue they hold alike in esteem. Hence they accord no special privileges to the old unless they possess superior wisdom.”
Adherence to truth, confidence in people’s honesty and mutual good relations characterised the social life of the people. This made the social life so easy and cordial that seldom people went to the law court The Greeks were struck by the fact that the Indians preserved the memory of their ancestors not by erecting monuments, but by songs in praise of their virtues.
This shows that the Indians set great store of virtues. Death was no terror for them as life was regarded no more than a mere illusion. Need for maintaining balance in life was fully recognised, and dharma, artha, Kama and Moksha, i.e., religion, wealth, happiness and salvation, were regarded as the four ends of life.
In spite of the emphasis on the spirit of Ahimsa (non-violence) by the Jains and the Buddhists and Asoka’s enforcing laws in this regard, fish, meat including beef were extensively taken by the people. Kautilya recommends that the State should preserve forests for animals and birds and also maintain a slaughter-house. Articles of food consisted of rice, beans, tila, honey, rice-milk, molasses, fruits, milk, curd, ghee, butter-milk, butter, etc., besides fish and meat. Various kinds of liquor were used.
Drinks were made from grape-juice, honey, various fruits, etc. Kautilya directs that drinks should be sold to men of well-known character and in small quantities. According to Megasthenes the Indians did not drink except at sacrifices. Manu prescribes serious punishment for those who manufactured liquor. But this orthodox Brahmanical rule did not conform to actual practice.
There were cities and big buildings no doubt, but the common people lived in dwelling houses made of brick, stone or wood, straw and leaves. Roof and the walls were plastered on both sides. Walls were coloured. There were windows and shutters. Walls were often decorated with paintings and engravings. Verandahs, covered terraces, living room, retiring room, etc., comprised the dwelling house.
Hygienic arrangements were kept in view in the construction of privies, screens, varieties of chairs, cushioned, straw-bottomed, cane-bottomed, pedestals, bedsteads, beds comprising mattresses, etc., were the furniture used in the period preceding the Gupta Age. Mosquito-curtains, filters for straining water, flower-stand, and mosquito-fans were also used.
Costly utensils such as bowls made of benyl, gold, copper, glass, silver, tin, bronze, with some of them painted and jewel-set were extensively in use. All these give us an impression of a high standard of living.
The literature of the Gupta period points to the continuity of the high standard of living that prevailed in India in the preceding centuries discussed above. Needless to say that there were striking differences among the habits and temperaments of the people in different regions of the country. Vatsyayana bears out this.
Hiuen TSang who visited all parts of India except the far South in the seventh century gives us an account of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra regions. According to him people of these regions were remarkable for qualities of honesty, courage, love of learning and so forth, those of north-western India and of the Deccan plateau as well as people of the extreme north, east, west and south were generally of contrary disposition.
The people praised by Hiuen TSang were those of Taxila, Nagar, Poonch, Satadru, Matipura, Ahichchatra, Kanauj, Prayaga, Kau- sambi, Varanasi, Vaisali, Magadha, Kajangala, Pundravardhana, Kam- rupa, Karnasuvarna, Maharastra, Valabhi, Dravida, etc. The people about whom his attitude was one of rather condemnation were those of Gandhara, Lampa, Jalandhara, Nepal, Andhra, Chola, Broach, Surat, Ujjaini. People of Kashmir, Udayana, Tamralipti, Kongod, Kalinga and Sind were of mixed character.
This general characterisation certainly applied to people of the Gupta Age as well. From Fa-hien and other sources we come to know that generally the Indians were marked by exceptionally high degree of honesty. The Brahmanas and the Kshatriyas were distinguished for their honesty, purity and charity. Indians, according to Hiuen TSang, were habitually benevolent and charitable. The needy and the seek were provided with food and medicine by private individuals also, besides the arrangements made by the State.
Literary evidence of the Gupta period bears out the luxury in which the kings and queens down to the ordinary people lived. Brihat Samhita and Mrichchakatika testify to the lavish magnificence of women of higher station of life. Kadambari gives us a description of the luxury of the kings’ bath and toilette.
Ornaments were worn by both males and females and Amarkosa gives a long list of ornameants then in use from head to foot. Women used bodices and petticoats and during winter they used cloak-like garment covering the body upto the feet. In Srinagarasataka, a work attributed to Kalidasa makes mention of social gatherings called gosthis which were also attended by good poets.
The gosthis were of the nature of Samajas of the preceding age.
Toilette and personal hygiene and cleanliness were of high standard as before. Teeth-stick was used by all. Perfumes, hair-lotions, perfumed hair oils, sandal-paste, camphor were used for bodily embellishment.
In the Gupta Age the food and drink did not materially vary from wheat and barley. These were the cereals used. Pulses of three kinds, butter, ghee, oil, molasses, coarse sugar, fish, meat, etc., were extensively taken as food. People were addicted to intoxicating liquor. Fa-hien’s remarks that killing of animals, drinking of wine, and eating of onions and garlic were not known in Madhyadesa, was an exaggeration and might have been the case with a limited region. Anyway, Fa-hien’s account gives us a faithful picture of the habits, manners, etc., of the Indians of the time.
Hiuen T-Sang who visited India in the seventh century must have seen what must have been the continuation of the preceding age. According to him cakes, parched gram, milk, sugar, mustard oil, fish, flesh of goats and sheep were the common articles of food. Taking of some kinds of meat was forbidden. Eating of onions and garlic would lead to loss of caste. Intoxicating liquors of various qualities would be drunk by different classes of people.
Magical incantation and spells which are as old as the Vedas continued to exist in one or the other form throughout the period upto the Gupta Age. The Mahayana Buddhists had evolved a kind of protective spells during the Fourth Century A.D. which acquired great popularity. The literature of the Gupta period proves that belief in portents, spells, omens, etc., was prevalent at that time. Literary evidences of the Gupta period points to the fact that the kings and princes and the inelligentsia rose above popular superstitions. The city life of the period was one of indulgence and Epicurean enjoyment.
The nagarika, i.e., the citizen of the city after finishing his education would become a householder and his house was furnished in a manner indicative of high-taste and elegance. The house with attached garden with flowers and tame birds was decorated elegantly. The nagarika took bath every day, chewed betel, applied collyrium to his eyes and lack-dye to his lips.
The nagarika would hold periodical entertainments in the Samaja, social gathering and drinking party. There are various references in contemporary literature which point to the gay, merry life of the nagarika. The high level of Gupta urban culture evolved also a high and refined, delicate and elegant art of toilets and cosmetics.