Chapters :
  • ANCIENT HISTORY – CASTE SYSTEM – 02

ANCIENT HISTORY - CASTE SYSTEM – 02

The Sudras had a perceptible class character. They were mainly slaves and men working for wages. While slavery originated from the right of the strong over the weak, the wage system grew out of destitution and poverty. They worked in the household or workshop or on the farm of the master. As servants of the upper castes they were an integral part of the Aryan society. Below the sudras were the degraded races called the Mlecchas. They were outside the caste system and the pale of Aryan society.

Undoubtedly, differences in wealth sometimes superseded the differences of birth. But economic changes did not efface caste distinctions and free the individual from the dispensation of his birth and blood. Divisions of wealth were hardly coincident with the hierarchy of Brahmana. Ksatriya, Vaisya and Sudra. In the economic pyramid the layers from the top downwards were high officials, merchants and bankers and landowners (Amarya, Sresthi, Gramabhojaka); small freeholders artisans and ordinary officials; labour without right and property, and despised and segregated labour. The Third And The Fourth would correspond to the Sudra and the Mleccha but the first and the second would not fit in the caste hierarchy. Those Brahmanas and Ksatriyas who remained faithful to their profession were above want and commanded esteem and influence due to their caste.

The Arya slave was distinctly better off than the Sudra slave. When an Arya was reduced to bondage he could be redeemed on payment of his price. The gainful pursuits assigned to the Vasiya were lower than the pursults of learning and valour. Yet when a Brahman or a Kastriya stooped down so as to adopt the profession of trade and commerce, he still retained his social precedence.

Property and privilege were separate. Privilege went to the Brahmana. The Vaisya, although amassing wealth, gradually descended to the level of the Sudra and became a commoner. He lost his enste pedigace and the privileges of Vedic studies and regeneration (Upaunvana). In Yajnavalkya’s Dharma Sastra, sudras are allowed to pursue the Vaisya calling of agriculture crafts and trade.

The caste system was devised to solve the difference in society, to reduce competition and a maintain a balance of interests. It was from time to time adjusted to new developments. 

Religion played an important part in the lives of the Indians from the earliest times, as in the case of many other ancient nations of the world.

The Rg-Veda indicates the nature of the religious beliefs and practices of the Aryans in India. They believed in many gods like Indra, Varuna, Agni, Surya and Rudra some of whom were undoubtedly personification of the forces of nature. Sacrifices, ritual offering of oblations of food, meat and drink to fire in honour of the gods constituted the main religious practice. Animals were sacrificed and soma juice offered and drunk. The subsidiary Vedas, the Sama and Yajur, while incorporating much of what was the Rg-Veda, elaborated the dirrerent aspects of the sacrificial acts, and this ritualism was further elaborated in the Brahmanas. The Atharva Veda, though it drew partly from the Rg-Veda, contained a great deal of adventitious matter indicative of animistic beliefs. The Vedas and the Brahmanas constituted the first bulk of literary output of the Vedic Aryans.

The Aranyaka and Upanisad sections of the Vedic literature envisage a progressive outlook. The former group of texts usually deal with the interpretative aspect (arthavada) of sacrificial acts, while the latter, especially some of the major Upanisads are concerned first with pantheism and then with theism centred on one eternally existing absolute entity, Brahman or Atman, also known by several other names. These Upanisads, rightly described as the Vedanta (‘acme of the Vedas’) represent the early stage in the origin and development of the religio – metaphysical concepts-full use of them was made later by the religious leaders and reformers of ancient and medieval India. The different systems of Indian philosophy the doctrine of the Law of Karman and belief in the transmigration of soul, and many other features of subsequent religious movements were contained in these texts in a nascent form.

The word ‘veda’ is derived from the root vid, to know, signifying ‘knowledge par excellence’. The  Veda according to Indian tradition is divided into two sections, Mantra and Brahmana. In some Mantras the gods are only eulogized, while in others they are invoked for bestowing lone life, wealth, and heaven. The world Brahman sometimes means Mantra. The derivative meaning of the term ‘Brahmana is discussion pertaining to Mantra.’  Actually, the Brahmana portion of the Vedic literature, which is composed in prose, deals with the application of different hymns in different sacrifices. The Brahmana, again is divided into three parts : Brahmana pure and simple, Aranyaka and Upanisad.

When sacrifices came into prominence the hymns were classified. The four chief priests who were engaged in performing the Srauta sacrifices were called Hotr and Brahman, the high priest. In accordance with the work performed by the first three priests, the Vedic hymns were compiled into three parts. Each compilation was called a Samhita. The Samihita containing verses or Rks for recitation by the Hotr was called RK Samhits; the  collection of passages to be used by the Adhvaryu was called the Yajus Samhital and the songs to be chanted by the Udgatra wer known as Sama Samhita. The fourth Veda called Adharva Veda seldom enjoyed the sanctity attached to the three earlier Samhits. 

The Rig-Veda Samhita consists of 1,028 hymns. It is divided into 10 mandalas and sometimes into 8 astakas. The former division  is more popular. Some of the mandalasare ascribed to different families of seers e.g. Gautama and Kanya. The hymns are addressed to gods such as Agni, Indra, Varuna etc. The Rig-Veda is the foundation of all Vedic literature. It consists of lyrics mainly in praise of different gods, and their contents are largely mythological. It represents a stage of development of the human mind in which natural phenomena were personified into gods. These hymns are of great value to us as an expression of the oldest religious faith of the Aryans in India.

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