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Kinship, Castle and Class Early Societies (600 BCE-600 CE) - NCERT Notes UPSC

Jul 06, 2022

Kinship, Castle and Class Early Societies (600 BCE-600 CE) - NCERT Notes UPSC

Kinship, Castle and Class, Early Societies form an integral part of the History preparation for the UPSC CSE preparation. Dive deep into this article to gain useful insights on the topic and enhance your UPSC Preparation.

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The Critical Edition of the Mahabharata

  • A team was comprised to prepare a critical edition of the Mahabharat. Two things became apparent after the project:
  • There were several common elements in the Sanskrit versions of the story, evident in manuscripts found all over the subcontinent.
  • There were enormous regional variations in the ways in which the text had been transmitted over the centuries. 
  • These variations are reflective of the complex processes that shaped early (and later) social histories through dialogues between dominant traditions and resilient local ideas and practices.

Kinship and Marriage: Many Rules and Varied Practices

Finding out about families

  • Families are parts of larger networks of people defined as relatives, or to use a more technical term, kinfolk. 
  • For early societies, historians can retrieve information about elite families fairly easily, however, it is difficult to reconstruct the familial relationships of ordinary people.

The Ideal of Patriliny

  • Mahabharata is a story about this. It describes a feud over land and power between two groups of cousins, who belonged to a single ruling family, a lineage dominating one of the janapada, ultimately leading to a battle.
  • Patriliny had existed prior to the Mahabharata, but its central story reinforced the idea that it was valuable.
  • Most ruling dynasties claimed to follow this system, although there were variations in practice: sometimes there were no sons, sometimes brother succeeded, and sometimes other kins claimed the throne.
  • In exceptional circumstances, women exercised power, like Prabhavati Gupta.

Rules of marriage

Marrying daughters into families outside the kin was considered desirable. 

  • This system, called Exogamy, meant that the lives of young girls and women belonging to families that claimed high status were often carefully regulated to ensure that they were married at the “right” time and to the “right” person.
  • This gave rise to the belief that kanyadana was an important duty of the father.
  • Due to the emergence of new and complex social life, Brahmanas laid down new codes of social behaviour known as the Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras, in Sanskrit.
  • These texts recognized 8 types of marriages, while the first was acceptable and the rest unacceptable. 

The Gotra of Women

  • Each gotra was named after a Vedic seer, and all those who belonged to the same gotra were regarded as his descendants. 
  • Two rules about gotra were important:
  • Women were expected to give up their father’s gotra and adopt that of their husbands.
  • Members of the same gotra could not marry.
  • Some of the Satavahana rulers were polygynous.
  • Names of women who married Satavahana rulers indicate that many of them had names derived from gotras such as Gotama and Vasistha, their father’s gotras. 
  • They didn’t adopt names derived from their husband’s gotra name as they were required to do according to the Brahmanical rules. 
  • Some of these women belonged to the same gotra.

Importance of Mothers

  • Satavahana rulers were identified through Metronymics (names derived from that of the mother). 
  • Although mothers were important, succession to the throne was generally patrilineal in Satvahanas.

Social Differences: Within and Beyond the Framework of Caste

The “Right” Occupation

  • The Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras also contained rules about the ideal “occupations” of the four categories or varnas.
  • Brahmanas were supposed to study and teach the Vedas, perform sacrifices and get sacrifices performed, and give and receive gifts. 
  • Kshatriyas were to engage in warfare, protect people and administer justice, study the Vedas, get sacrifices performed, and make gifts. 
  • The last three “occupations” were also assigned to the Vaishyas, who were in addition expected to engage in agriculture, pastoralism and trade. 
  • Shudras were assigned only one occupation, that of serving the three “higher” varnas.
  • The Brahmanas evolved strategies to enforce these norms. One, as we have just seen, was  
  • To assert that the varna order was of divine origin.
  • Second, they advised kings to ensure that these norms were followed within their kingdoms. 
  • Third, they attempted to persuade people that their status was determined by birth.  
  • Prescriptions were often reinforced by stories told in the Mahabharata and other texts.

Non-Kshatriya Kings

  • According to the Shastras, only Kshatriyas could be kings. However, several important ruling lineages had different origins.
  • The social background of the Mauryas, has been hotly debated. While later Buddhist texts suggested they were Kshatriyas, Brahmanical texts described them as being of “low” origin. 
  • The Shungas and Kanvas, successors of the Mauryas, were Brahmanas.
  • Shakas who came from Central Asia were regarded as mlechchhas, barbarians or outsiders by the Brahmanas. 
  • However, rebuilt of Sudarshana lake by Rudradaman, the best-known Shaka ruler, suggested that mlechchhas were familiar with Sanskritic traditions.
  • Ruler of the Satavahana dynasty, Gotami-puta Siri-Satakani, claimed to be both a unique Brahmana (eka bamhana) and a destroyer of the pride of Kshatriyas.
  • He also ensured that there was no intermarriage amongst members of the four varnas. 
  • At the same time, he entered into a marriage alliance with the kin of Rudradaman.

Level up your UPSC preparation with this detailed video on Brahmanical Literature  by Hemant Jha Sir, our faculty for History:


Jatis and Social Mobility

  • In Brahmanical theory, Jati, like varna, was based on birth. 
  • While the number of varnas was fixed at four, there was no restriction on the number of jatis
  • In fact, whenever Brahmanical authorities encountered new groups, for instance, people living in forests such as the nishadas or which did not fit into the fourfold varna system, they classified them as a Jati.
  • Jatis which shared a common occupation or profession were sometimes organised into shrenis or guilds.

Beyond the four Varnas: Integration

  • People who were not influenced by the Brahmanical ideas were often described as odd, uncivilised, or even animal-like.
  • These included forest-dwellers – for whom hunting and gathering remained an important means of subsistence. 
  • Categories such as the nishada, to which Ekalavya is supposed to have belonged, are examples of this.
  • People who spoke non-sanskritic languages were labelled as mlechchhas and looked down upon. 

Beyond the four Varnas: Subordination and Conflict

  • Brahmanas classified certain social categories as “untouchable”.
  • Some activities were considered “polluting”, and these included handling corpses and dead animals.
  • Those who performed such tasks, designated as chandalas, were placed at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Their touch and, in some cases, even seeing them was regarded as “polluting”.
  • Chandalas had to live outside the village, use discarded utensils, and wear clothes of the dead and ornaments of iron. 
  • They could not walk about in villages and cities at night.
  • They had to dispose of the bodies of those who had no relatives and serve as executioners.
  • Chinese Buddhist monk Fa Xian wrote that “untouchables” had to sound a clapper in the streets so that people could avoid seeing them. 
  • Another Chinese pilgrim, Xuan Zang, observed that executioners and scavengers were forced to live outside the city.

Beyond Birth: Resources and Status

Gendered access to property

  • Issues of ownership, foregrounded in stories such as the Mahabharata, also figure in the Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras.
  • According to the Manusmriti, the paternal estate was to be divided equally amongst sons, with a special share for the eldest but women could not claim a share of these resources.
  • Women were allowed to retain the gifts they received in their marriage as stridhana.
  • This could be inherited by their children.
  • The Manusmriti warned women against hoarding family property, or even their own valuables, without the husband’s permission.

Varna and Access to Property

  • Apart from gender, other criteria for having access to wealth was Varna.
  • The only “occupation” prescribed for Shudras was servitude, while a variety of occupations were listed for men of the first three varnas, according to which the Brahamanas and the Kshatriyas would be the wealthiest.
  • Kings were depicted as wealthy, priests are also generally shown to be rich, though there are occasional depictions of the poor Brahmana.
  • However, the Buddhists recognized the differences in society but did not regard these as natural or inflexible. They also rejected the idea of claims to status on the basis of birth.

An alternative social scenario: Sharing Wealth

  • There were situations where men who were generous were respected and those who simply accumulated wealth for themselves were despised.
  • There were several kingdoms in ancient South India where chiefs were patrons of bards and poets who sang their praise. 
  • Poems in the Tamil Sangam anthologies illuminate social and economic relationships, suggesting that there were differences but those who controlled resources were expected to share them.

Explaining Social Differences: A Social Contract

  • Buddhists, in a myth found in a text known as the Sutta Pitaka suggested that originally human beings did not have fully evolved bodily forms, nor was the world of plants fully developed.
  • All beings lived in an idyllic state of peace, taking from nature only what they needed for each meal.
  • There was a gradual deterioration of this state as human beings became increasingly greedy, vindictive and deceitful.
  • This led them to think of someone who would lead and guide them and would be known as Mahasammata, the great elect.
  • This suggests that the institution of kingship was based on human choice, with taxes as a form of payment for services rendered by the king.

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Handling Texts: Historians and the Mahabharata

Language and content

  • The Sanskrit used in the Mahabharata is far simpler than that of the Vedas or Prashastis.
  • Contents of the present text are classified under two broad heads:
  • Sections that contain stories, designated as the narrative, and
  • Sections that contain prescriptions about social norms, are designated as didactic.
  • This division is not watertight, the didactic sections include stories, and the narrative often contains a social message.
  • Historians believed the Mahabharata was meant to be a dramatic, moving story, and that the didactic portions were probably added later.
  • The text is described as an itihasa within the early Sanskrit tradition.

Author(s) and Dates

  • The original story was probably composed by charioteer-bards known as sutas who generally accompanied Kshatriya warriors to the battlefield and composed poems celebrating their victories.
  • Then, from the fifth century BCE, Brahmanas took over the story and began writing it. 
  • 200 BCE and 200 CE was the period when the worship of Vishnu was growing in importance, and Krishna was coming to be identified with Vishnu.

The Search for Convergence

  • In 1951-52, the archaeologist B.B. Lal excavated at a village named Hastinapura in Meerut (Uttar Pradesh).
  • Lal observed that walls of mud and mud-bricks were duly encountered, discovery of mud-plaster with prominent reed-marks suggested that some of the houses had reed walls plastered over with mud.
  • Another instance in the Mahabharata is Draupadi’s marriage with the Pandavas, an instance of polyandry that is central to the narrative.
  • Historians suggest that the fact that the author(s) describe a polyandrous union indicates that polyandry may have been prevalent amongst ruling elites.

A Dynamic Text

  • Over the centuries, versions of the epic were written in a variety of languages through an ongoing process of dialogue between peoples, communities, and those who wrote the texts. 
  • Several regional stories that circulated amongst certain people found their way into the epic.
  • It also provided themes for a wide range of performing arts – plays, dance and other kinds of narrations.

Timeline 1: Major Textual Traditions

  • 500 BCE: Ashtadhyayi of Panini, a work on Sanskrit grammar. 
  • 500-200 BCE: Major Dharmasutras (in Sanskrit).
  • 500-100 BCE: Early Buddhist texts including the Tripitaka (in Pali).
  • 500 BCE-400 CE: Ramayana and Mahabharata (in Sanskrit). 
  • 200 BCE-200 CE: Manusmriti (in Sanskrit); composition Tamil Sangam literature.
  • 100 CE: Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas, works on medicine (in Sanskrit).
  • 200 CE onwards: Compilation of the Puranas (in Sanskrit)
  • 300 CE: Natyashastra of Bharata, a work on dramaturgy (in Sanskrit). 
  • 300-600 CE: Other Dharmashastras (in Sanskrit).
  • 400-500 CE: Sanskrit plays including the works of Kalidasa; works on astronomy and mathematics by Aryabhata and Varahamihira (in Sanskrit); compilation of Jaina works (in Prakrit).

Timeline 2: Major Landmarks in the Study of the Mahabharata

Twentieth century 

  • 1919-66: Preparation and publication of the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata.
  • 1973: J.A.B. van Buitenen begins English translation of the Critical Edition; remains incomplete after his death in 1978.

Interesting Points

  • Sanskrit texts use the term kula to designate families and jnati for the larger network of kinfolk. The term vamsha is used for lineage.
  • The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, contains a list of successive generations of teachers and students, many of whom were designated by metronymics

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