Essay on Society: Limited Mobility during Early Medieval India



As in polity, some changes occurred in the caste structure in the seventh-eighth centuries ad. In Manusmriti, the formation of castes out of profes­sional communities is quite evident and, in the seventh-eighth centuries, there are instances of such formations. In the Gupta period, the office of the kayastha (accountant-scribe) appears to have been instituted. This profession was not restricted to any particular Varna. However, Sanjan plates of 871 refer to Valabha-Kayastha-Vamsa, and the Gahadavala records mentioning Srivastavya-Kul-Odbhuta- Kayastha suggest that by this time the kayasthas lost their original official and professional character and became a social class or community.

Also, there was a gradual elevation of the social position of the shudras, Yajnavalkya (much earlier) having allowed them to become traders and agriculturists. Surpris­ingly, this liberal outlook, prevalent (as the epigraphical evidences show) even in the ninth century, changed to a narrow exclusiveness within a span of barely two hundred years, in the beginning of the eleventh century. It seems, having been assured of their supremacy, the Brahmans set to work with a vigour, consistency and organisation which should have been reserved for a better cause. New elements were introduced contrary to the very nature of the scriptures.

In spite of practical instances recorded in ancient books, it was ordained that none but an issue of Brahman parents could become a Brahman. Forgetting that Manu-samhita approves certain forms of intermarriage, marriage was strictly confined within the caste. Lastly, cooking of food by a shudra, even sacrificial food, permitted in sacred literature, as also interdining among diffeerent castes, were scrapped and new codes relating to 'food', 'touch' and even 'shadow' were drafted.

Thus society became caste-ridden and the four varnas, originally based on occupations, multiplied like hydraheads into numerous sub-castes and social groups, each standing in isolation from the society. The divisions between the castes and the sub-castes were extremely rigid, not permitting marriage be­tween different castes. Nor were the members of different castes allowed to share food together. This baneful practice even permeated to the members of the same caste or sub-caste. People belonging to the same caste or sub-caste, but living in different parts of the country, developed different social customs and manners and, ultimately, stopped inter-marrying or sharing food. The higher castes started looking down upon those who lived beyond their pale and had a very high opinion of themselves.

The Brahmans concentrated only on religion and spiritualism and had little interest in scientific matters or in industrial and technical development. The rigid system of castes arrested the development of education and intellect among the masses, at least in the North, degraded arts and crafts by relegating the artisans to a position of inferiority and checked the growth of trade and commerce by insisting on ceremonials of purity and prohibiting crossing of seas and visiting mlechcha countries. This doctrine of categorising people by castes generated a negative feeling; they felt unwanted, despised and condemned. There was no sense of belonging to a nation.

The handful of kshatriyas engaged themselves in the royal pastime of fighting with each other, the vaishyas abandoned agriculture and took up trade and commerce and the shudras continued in their menial jobs though many of them drifted to agri­cultural tenancy and to the artisan's trade. The antyajas or the outcastes were out of all this and continued to live outside the towns and villages.

The Rajputs forming a part of the then Indian society carried on with the ancient socio-cultural traits and contributed to it what is known as the Rajput tradition-a blend of chivalry and valour. But, with the decline of the Guptas, the renaissance and social rejuvenation characteristic of the earlier pe­riods were put on hold and a status quo was maintained. Actually, it became regressive and sti- flingly regulatory, with the socio-political leadership losing their creative outlook and becoming increas­ingly lethargic.

The so-called Rajput tradition was not universal; it was confined to the rulers and the members of the upper strata of the society. In times of peril, there could have arisen other leaders from the masses to challenge the destabilising forces. What happened, however, was that the Indians were unable to meet the invaders as a mature, well-knit and disciplined force? The society, in spite of its apparent magnificence and stability, had become hollow from within due to its internal weaknesses.

Toynbee called the caste-system in India 'a social enormity' which completely fractured social unity; members of the numerous castes and sub- castes did not mix with each other freely, share food and drink and lived separately in their demarcated areas or ghettoes.

During the eleventh and twelfth century, as also in the two centuries preceding the Turkish conquest, a survey has shown, there was an increasing trend throughout the country of granting villages to various people, thereby sapping the country of its inherent vitality. "Never before was land donated to secular and religious beneficiaries on such a scale; never before were agrarian and communal rights under­mined by land grants so widely; never before was the peasantry subjected to so many taxes and so much subinfeudation; never before were services, high and low, rewarded by land grants in such numbers as now; and finally never before were revenues from trade and industry converted into so many grants". (R.S. Sharma, Indian Feudalism).

R.S. Sharma lists a number of reasons for the pathetic condition of the peasants, especially, in the northern parts of the country before and during the time of Ghaznavid expeditions. The first was the emergence of the shudras, occupying the lowest position in the Chaturvarna hierarchy, as agricultur­ists. Hsuan-Tsang described the shudras as such in the sixth century. The second was the burden the peasants had to bear, especially in the older settled areas. The Gahadavalas imposed on them eleven kinds of taxes leaving almost nothing, even for bare subsistence. The third was the practice of imposing forced labour on the peasants, this was especially damaging when local beneficiaries resorted to it for exploitation of natural resources.

The fourth was the process of subinfeudations. The beneficiaries of the land grants were little kings for all purposes. On behalf of the king, they assumed the agrarian rights enjoyed by the villages thus eroding whatever little the peasants had. Lastly, some of them could not even run away, because the villages were granted to the donees along with their inhabitants, thereby empowering the beneficiary with the right to prevent them from going away. Furthermore, conditions being nearly the same almost everywhere, migrations were of no help to those people.