The social and economic factors play a decisive role on the political and administrative structure of a country. The Mauryan Empire was also an outcome of these socio-economic developments. We get enough information on the social and economic life from the Greek accounts, Kautilya’s Arthashastra and other literary sources of the period.
The state was required to safeguard the social order based on the Varna and Aasram system. In this respect the standpoint of the Arthasastra is not much different from that of the Dharmasastras. But Kautilya is not as rigid on the Varna system as the earlier Smriti writers. It is remarkable that the Arthashastra refers to troops recruited from all the four Varnas.
Still more significant is the fact that the Arthashastra looked upon the Shudras as an Aryan community, which is distinguished from non-Aryan community. The text forbids the sale or pledging of a minor belonging to any of the four varnas, adding that- the may sell or pledge their children, but that no Arya shall be made a slave. In the Arthashastra an attempt is made to assimilate the masses of settled communities in the Aryan fold.
Greek and Latin sources refer to caste system in India. The majority of these references may be traced largely to the account of Megasthenes, who states that Indian society was divided into seven classes. These he lists as philosophers, farmers, soldiers, herdsmen, artisans, magistrates and councillors. The ‘Classes’ mentioned above appear to have been economic than social.
By philosophers doubtless Brahmins are meant. The emphasis laid on endogamy and hereditary occupation clearly implies that Megasthenes did mean to describe the ‘caste system’. Either he did not hear of the theory of the four varnas or of mixed castes which loom so large in our Smriti works or he was carried away by a desire, natural in a Hellenistic Greek, to establish a similarity between Egypt and India in social organisation.
The agriculturists formed the bulk of the population, and Megasthenes observed that their avocation was so clearly defined (by the rules of caste) that they were seen pursuing intellectual classes, the ‘philosophers’ of the Greek writers, commanded respect in the court and society by their learning, integrity, and readiness to serve the king and the people in various way.
They were entitled, for their maintenance, to a definite portion of the revenue allotted to them in one way or another. They were the custodians of education and culture of the community. A Brahmin who committed a crime was exempt from torture; he was branded on his forehead with a sign that proclaimed the nature of his crime, and then banished from the kingdom.
The Kshatriyas or fighting class, who were “second in point of numbers to the husbandmen, led, according to Arrian, a life of supreme freedom and enjoyment they had only military duties to perform”.
According to Megasthenes the second class among the seven Indian castes was that of the farmers, which was numerically a large class and was devoted to the land. The sixth and seventh castes-magistrates and councillors- noticed by Megasthenes are misnomers.
He confounds caste with craft or occupation. Those two castes are really made up of government servants of different grades. The seventh caste is made up of what are called the Councillors and Assessors.
It is worth a passing mention that the orthodox terms for the four varnas are not found in the Asokan inscriptions. They speak of Brahmins and Sramanas but not of Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, or Sudras, terms which, it has been suggested, were employed only in theoretical discussions and did not correspond to definite social groups.