Chapters :
  • ANCIENT HISTORY – CASTE SYSTEM – 01

ANCIENT HISTORY - CASTE SYSTEM – 01

TWO CASTES : Arya and Dasa : When Aryan and non-Aryan tribes settled down and commingled, the tradition of uni-caste society gave way to the bi-caste society of Deva (gods) and Asura (demons) or the Arya and Dasa (master and slave.)

 FOUR CASTES: The problem of living was simplified by fire, cattle and slave. With agriculture, followed by other crafts and trade, life became easier, Pron was the next discovery which further accelerated production. No longer was there need of hard collective work. Then the Vis itself was split into three parts. 

The main  body, i.e., the Vaisya followed productive pursuits like agriculture, cattle-rearing and trade. The surplus wealth went towards the maintenance of two new castes (varnas) the Brahmana and the Ksatriya, marked not by the colour of their skin but by their profession. The Brahmana performed sacrifices for general Welfare, studied the Vedas and formulated social laws (dharma) on the basis of custom and equity. The Ksatriya was charged with the deferice of the realm and the running of the administration. 

The three varnas specialized in their avocations and each was accorded a place in the social hierarcby suitable to the dignity of its service. Below the three was the fourth caste of Sudra ar Dasa serving the former and no langer an alien race but a subordinate partner within the Aryan system. The Purusasukta of the Rg-Veda given a mythical story of the origin of the four castes from the mouth, arms, thighs and feet of the Lord Brahma.

INTERCHANGE OF CASTE AND OCCUPATION : In the beginning occupations of the varnas were not strictly hereditary. A Kastriya could excel in philosophical pursits and become a Brahmana. A well-known story in Vedic literature is that of Visvamitra who was born a Kastriya but became a Brahmana by acquiring Brahmanical knowledge and virtues. The 

Satapatha Brahmana gives a similar story about Janaka, king of Videha. A Bramana might acquire a kingdom by dint of his valour and become a Ksatriya. He became known as Brahmaksatriya. In the Matsya Purana the Brahmanas descended from the sage Bhrgu are descrtibed as founders of royal houses. The Vaisya and the Sudra could imporve their status provided they possessed the necessary talents and virtues. Conversely by choice or by accident, one might be demoted from a higher to a lower caste. The Aitareya Brahmana and the Puranas give instances of these two categories. Later on, caste and vocation were strictly fixed by heredity according to the laws of the Smrtis. Social and economic divisions were identified and graded.

The caste system was conceived with a recognition of variations in human nature and as a plan to fit these variations in a graded structure according to the needs of society. 

Caste and Heredity: The law givers sought to give the caste system an inflexible rigidity. The codes of Gautama, Bodhayana and Apastarnba followed by later canon fixed the varna irrevocably to birth and imposed restrictions on marriage and social relations. That these laws were meant to be obeyed is shown in descriptive literature. The narratives of the Ramayan and the Mhabharata and the Jataka stories of the Pali canon further show that the first varna not only remained in enjoyment of dignity and position, but also rose to wealth the power.

The Brahmana was assigned revenues of villages or tax-free lands called brahmadeya by royal charter. Not all such beneficiaries were srotrivas devoted to Vedic studies or to religion and learning. There were many who preferred the Vaisya occupations of agriculture, cattle-rearing, trade and usury and amassed fabulous fortunes. The Digha Nikaya of the Pali canon mentions Brahmana owners of thousands of hectares of land which they cultivated by means of slaves and wage earners and who lived like princes on their toil. Even those who stuck to the rites and rituals proper to their caste came to be orgainzed into vocational guilds like other crafts and professions. Manu and Narada give rules about division of their earnings. Stories of the Mahabharata and of Jatakas represent them as bargaining ior sacrificial fee and quarrelling among themselves over their respective shares. All Brahmanas were not, however, secularized. But the fixation of caste to heredity and the unstinted flow of charity from kings and the laity naturally caused large-scale deviation and corruption.

Unlike the Brahmanas, the Ksatriyas and the Vaiyas do not appear in the post-Buddhist period with the pref a well-defined caste determined by heredity. State craft and military vocation were not confined to one group. There is no lack of Brahmana, Vaisya and Sudra royal dynasties in the annals of India. The Satavahanas called themselves Brahmana, the Guptas were Vaisyas and the Nandas Sudras. Kings of foreign races like Yavana, Saka and Kusana did not belong to any caste. In theory the Ksatriyas were devoted to war and civil administration and figted with the necessary virtues.

The Vaisyas were the most numerous caste and they show none of the traits of a social class. Some of them climbed up to the highest rung of the economic ladder. The merchant sent his cargo across the seas as far as Mesopotamia and the East Indies and became master of the conventional eighty crores. The Gramabhojaka enjoying local revenue and the big landowner belonged to the same fortunate fraternity. But the Vaisyas were not limited to these wealthy few. There were small peasants, artisans, hawkers and petty officials who formed the main bulk of the varna and had no class identity with the commercial and agricultural magnates at the top.

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