THERE ARE no written texts for the study of society ill pre-Vedic times. Archaeology tells us that people lived in small groups in the hilly areas in the Palaeolithic Age. The main, source of their subsistence was the game they hunted and wild fruits and vegetation roots they collected. Man learnt to produce food and live in the houses towards the end of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Metal Age. The neolithic and chalcolithic communities lived on the uplands not far from the hills and rivers. Gradually there arose peasant villages in the Indus basin area and eventually. They blossomed into the urban society of Harappa, with large and small houses. But once the Harappan civilization disappeared, urbanism did not reappear in Indian subcontinent for a thousand years or so.
Tribal and Pastoral Phase
For the history of society from the time of the Rig Veda onwards we can also use written texts. They tell us that the Rig Vedic society despite its good familiarity with agriculture was primarily pastoral. People were semi nomadic and their chief possessions consisted of cattle and horses. The terms for cow, bull and horse appear frequently in the Rig Veda. Cattle were considered to be synonymous with wealth and a wealthy person was called gomat. Wars were fought for the sake of cattle and, therefore, the raja whose main duty was to protect the cows was called gopa or gopati. Cow was so central to the subsistence of the family that the daughter was called duhitr that is one who milks. So intimate was the acquaintance of the Vedic people with kine that when they came buffalo in India they called it gouala or cow-haired. In contrast to references to cows and bulls those to agriculture are fewer and occur in the late hymns of the Rig Veda. Cattle-rearing, therefore, was the main source of livelihood.
In such a society people could hardly produce anything over and above what was needed for their subsistence. Tribesmen could afford only occasionally presents for their chiefs. The main income of a chief or a prince came from the spoils of war. He captured booty from enemy tribes and extracted tributes from hostile tribes and tribal compatriots. The offering of tribute received by him was called bait. It seems that the tribal kinsmen gave trust and voluntary presents to the tribal chief. In return the chief led them from victory to victory and stood by them in difficult times. The respect and occasional gifts received by the prince from his tribesmen may have become customary in Vedic times. But defeated hostile tribes were made: to pay tributes: Periodical sacrifices provided an important occasion for the distribution of those gifts and tributes. The lion’s Share went to the priests in lieu of the prayers they offered to gods on behalf of their patrons. At one place in the Rig Veda the invoked god is asked to bestow wealth only on priests, princes and sacrifices. This suggests an attempt-at unequal distribution. Princes and priests wanted to grab more at the cost of the common people, although people voluntarily gave larger share to their chiefs and princes out of deference and because of their military qualities and services. Ordinary members of the tribe received a share which was known as ansa or bhaga. Distribution took place in folk assemblies, which were attended by the rajas and their clansmen.
Although artisans, peasants, priests and warriors appear even in the earlier portions of the Rig Veda, society as a whole was tribal, pastoral, semi-nomadic and egalitarian. Spoils of war and cattle constituted the main forms of property. Cattle and women slaves were generally given as gifts. Gifts of cereals are hardly mentioned because these were not produced on any considerable scale. Therefore, apart from the booty captured in wars, there was no other substantial source for the maintenance of princes and priests. It was possible to have high ranks, but not high social classes. Princes and priests employed women slaves for domestic service, but their number may not have been large. The Rig Vedic society did not have a serving order in the form of the shudras.
Agriculture and the Origin of Upper Orders
When the Vedic people moved from Afghanistan and Punjab to western Uttar Pradesh they became mostly agriculturists. In later Vedic times we notice continuous settlements for two of three centuries. This gave rise to territorial chiefdoms. Out of the tributes obtained from peasants and others the princes, could perform sacrifices and reward their priests. The later Vedic peasant paid to the nobles and warriors who in their turn paid to the priests;, in addition he also paid: sacrificial fees to the priests. The peasant supplied food for smiths, chariot makers and carpenters, who mainly served the emerging class of warriors. But the later Vedic peasant could not contribute to the rise of trade and towns; this feature became prominent in the age of the Buddha. The later Vedic society did not know the use of metal money.
The Vedic communities had established neither a taxation system nor a professional army. There did not exist collectors of taxes apart from the kinsmen of the prince. Payment made to the king was not much different from the sacrificial offering made to the gods. The tribal militia of the pastoral society was replaced by the peasant militia of agricultural society. The vis or the tribal peasantry formed the sena or the armed host. The peasantry in later Vedic times was called bala (force). The army to protect the ashvamedha horse comprised both the kshatriyas and the vis. Armed with bows, quivers and shields, the former acted as military captains and leaders; armed with sticks, the latter constituted the rank and file. For the sake of victory the chief or noble was asked to eat from the same vessels with vis. The priests stressed through rituals the subjection of the peasantry or vaishyas to the warrior nobles but at this stage the process of turning the tribesmen into taxpaying peasants was very weak. On account of the use of the wooden ploughshare and indiscriminate killing of cattle in sacrifices the peasants did not produce much over and above their needs. Hence they could not pay regular taxes. On the other hand, princes were not completely alienated from the peasants. In consonance with tribal practices, the rajas were expected to extend agriculture and even to lend their hands to plough, so that the gap between the vaishya and the rajanya was not very wide. Although the nobles and warriors ruled over their peasant kinsmen, they had to depend upon peasant militia for fighting against enemies and they could not grant land without the consent of the tribal peasantry. All this placed them in a difficult position and could not sharpen the distinctions between the rulers and the ruled.
Varna System of Production and Government
The use of iron tools for crafts and cultivation created conditions for the transformation of the comparatively egalitarian Vedic society into a fully agricultural and class-divided social order in the sixth century B C; In the pre-sixth century B.C. period people were not so familiar with iron tools whose number was limited. But now the situation changed. Once the forested areas of the middle Gangetic plains were cleared with the help Of the fire and the iron axe, one of the most fertile parts of the world was opened to settlement. From 500 B.C. onwards we find numerous rural and urban settlements. Large territorial states resulted in the formation of the Magadhan empire. All this, was possible because with the help of the iron ploughshare, sickles and other tools, peasants produced a good deal more than what they needed for their subsistence Peasants needed the support of artisans, who not only provided the peasants with tools, clothing, etc., but also supplied weapons and luxury articles to the princes and priests. The technique of agricultural production in post-Vedic times attained a much higher level than that found in the Vedic age.
The new technique and the use of force enabled some people to possess large stretches of land which needed a good number of slaves and hired labourers. In Vedic times people cultivated their fields with the help of their family members; there is no word for wage-earner in Vedic literature. But slaves and wage-earners engaged in cultivation became a regular feature in the age of the Buddha. The Artbashastra of Kautilya shows that in the Maurya period they worked on large state farms. But by and large slaves in ancient India were meant for domestic work. Generally the small peasant occasionally aided by slaves and hired labourers played the dominant role in production.
With the new technique peasants artisans, hired labourers and agricultural slaves produced much more than they needed for their subsistence. A good part of this produce was collected from them by princes and priests. For regular collection, administrative and religious methods were devised. The king appointed tax-collectors to assess and collect taxes. But it was also important to convince people of the necessity of obeying the raja, paying him taxes and offering gifts to the priests. For this purpose the varna system was devised. According to it members of the three higher varnas or social orders were distinguished ritually from those of the fourth varna. The twice-born were entitled to Vedic studies and investiture with the sacred thread and the fourth varna or the shudras were excluded from it. They were meant for serving the higher orders and some law-givers reserved slavery only for the shudras. Thus the twice-born can be called citizens and the shudras non-citizens. But there grew distinctions between citizen and citizen in the ranks of the twice-born. The brahmanas were not allowed to take to the plough and their contempt for manual work reached such limits that they developed hatred for the hands that practised crafts and thus came to look upon some manual labourers as untouchables. The more a person withdrew from physical labour, the purer he came to be considered. The vaishyas, although members of the twice-born group, worked as peasants, herds men and artisans and later as traders. What is more important, they were the principal taxpayers whose payments maintained the kshatriyas and brahmanas.
The varna system authorised the kshatriya to collect taxes from the peasants and tolls from traders and artisans, which enabled him to pay his priests and employees in cash and kind.
The rate of payment and economic privileges differed according to the varna to which a person belonged. Thus a brahmana was required to pay two per cent, interest on loans, a kshatriya three per cent, a vaishya four per cent and a shudra five per cent. Shudra guests could be fed only if they had done some work at the house of the host. These rules laid down in the Dharmashastras or lawbooks may not have been observed strictly, but they indicate the norms which were set by society.
Since both priests and warriors lived on the taxes, tributes, tithes and labour supplied by peasants and artisans, their relations were marked by occasional feuds for the sharing of social savings. The kshatriyas were also hurt by the vanity of the brahmanas, who claimed the highest status in society. But both composed their differences in face of the opposition of the vaishyas and shudras. Ancient texts emphasise that the kshatriyas cannot prosper without the support of the brahmanas and the brahmanas cannot prosper without the support of the kshatriyas. Both can thrive and rule the world only if they cooperate with each other!
Social Crisis and Rise of Landed Classes:
For several centuries the system worked well in the Gangetic plains and the adjacent area, which saw a successive series of large states. In the first and second centuries A.D. it was marked by bumping trade and urbanism. In this phase art flourished as never before. The climax of the old order was reached in about the third century. Then its progressive role seems to have been exhausted. Around the third century A.D the old social formation was afflicted with a deep crisis the crisis is clearly reflected in the description of the Kali age in those portions of the Puranas which belong to the third and fourth centuries A.D. The Kali age is characterised by Varnasankara, i.e. intermixture of varnas or social orders, which implies that the vaishyas and the shudras (peasants, artisans and labourers) either refused to perform producing functions assigned to them or else the vaishya peasants declined to pay taxes and the shudras refused to make their labour available. They did not observe the varna boundaries relating to marriage and other types of social intercourse. On account of this situation the epics emphasise the importance of danda or coercive measures and Manu lays down that the vaishyas and shudras should not be allowed to deviate from their duties. The kings appear as upholders and restorers of the varna system.
But coercive measures alone were not sufficient to make the peasants pay and labourers work. Instead of extracting taxes directly through its own agents and then distributing them among its priestly, military and other employees and supporters, the state found it convenient to assign land revenues directly to priests, military chiefs, administrators, etc., for their support. This development was in sharp contrast to the Vedic practice. Formerly only the community had the right to give land to priests and possibly to its chiefs and princes. But now the raja usurped this power and obliged the leading members of the community by granting land to them. These beneficiaries were also empowered to maintain law and order. This is how fiscal and administrative problems were solved. New and expanding kingdoms wanted more and more taxes. These could be obtained from the tribal backward areas provided the tribals adopted new methods of agriculture and were taught to be loyal. The problem was tackled by granting land in the tribal areas to enterprising brahmanas who could tame the inhabitants of the wild tracts and make them amenable to discipline.
In backward areas land grants to brahmanas and others spread agricultural calendar, diffused the knowledge of ayuryeda medicine and thus contributed to increase in overall agricultural production. Art of writing and the use of Prakrit and Sanskrit were also disseminated. Through land grants civilization spread in the deep south and far east although some spadework had been done by traders and by Jainas and Buddhists earlier. The grants brought to the Hindu fold a large number of aboriginal peasants who came to be ranked as shudras the shudras, therefore, began to be called peasants and agriculturists in early medieval texts. On the other land grants, especially in developed areas, depreciated the position of independent vaishya peasants. Hence vaishyas and shudras came closer to each other sifter Gupta times socially and economically. But the most significant consequence of land grants was the emergence of a class of landlords living on the produce of the peasants. This prepared the ground in about the fifthsixth centuries A.D. for a new type of social formation which can be called feudal.
In the feudal set-up the position of the women of the landed and fighting classes deteriorated. In early medieval times sati became a common practice in Rajasthan However, women from lower orders were free to take to economic activities and remarry.
It is, therefore, not possible to give one label to society in ancient India, but we have to think of several in its evolution. The food-gathering society of the Palaeolithic Age was succeeded by the food-producing societies of neolithic and chalcolithic communities. Eventually, the peasant communities developed into the Harappan urban Societies. Then we have a break followed by a society of horse users and cattleherders. The Rig Veda indicates a social formation which was largely pastoral and tribal. The pastoral Society became agricultural in later Vedic times, but its primitive agriculture did not yield much and so the rulers could not get much at the cost of the peasants. The class-divided society comes into full view in post Vedic times. It came to be known as varna system. This social organisation rested on the producing activities of the vaishyas supplemented by those of the shudras. By and large, the social system worked well from the age of the Buddha to Gupta times. Then it underwent a change on account of internal upheavals. Priests and Officials began to be granted lands for maintenance and gradually there emerged a class of landlords between the peasants and the state. This undermined the position of the vaishyas and caused modification in the varna system.
- Describe the main stages in the evolution of Indian society in ancient times.
- Why were there no cities in India for about a thousand years after the decline of the Harappa civilization?
- Why is society in the time of the Rig Veda called pastoral and tribal? Discuss the impact of the use of iron on Indian historical development.
- Describe the factors that led to the rise of social inequalities in ancient India. How were these inequalities expressed in the organisation of society? In what specific respect was Indian social system different from the social organisation of ancient societies in western Europe? Discuss the significance of land grants in the development of Indian society in ancient times.