Huein-Tsang throws a flood of light on the social divisions, social customs, standard of morality, manners of the people and their food and modes of amusement and entertainment.
(I) Caste System
This period witnessed the rise of “Varnasrama-dharma” or caste system and it became an indispensable characteristic of the “Brahmanical” social structure.
According to Huein-Tsang, the age old “Varnas” system prevailed in the days of Harshavardhana. Banabhatta characterised Harshavardhana as one who carried all rules for the ‘Varanas’ and ‘asramas’. Among the four “Varanas” or castes “Brahmans”, “Kshatriyas”, Vaishayas” and “Sudras “; the “Brahmans” continued to enjoy a very high and respectable position in the society because of the distinct feature of Brahmanism.
The “Kshatriya” was in over whelming majority in the society. According to the Huein-Tsang. “Kshatriyas” and “Brahmans”, were clean handed and unostentatious, pure and simple in life and very frugal”.
Third “Varna”- “Vaishyas”- formed the class of traders (according to Huein-Tsnng). The fourth class or “Varna”- “Sudras”, according to Huein-Tsang comprised the agriculturists.
Both Huein-Tsang and Banabhatt talk about the existence of many sub castes e.g. the class of vermicular-poets, bards, betel-bearers and so on.
However, all these groups and sub-caste were not new to this period and at least some of them existed in the earlier period. The rise of these sub castes was due to the violation of social codes of marriages and general ethics and also the different professions.
Huein-Tsang writes about the many out castes and untouchables such as butchers, fisherman, executioners, scavengers etc. were looked down by the society and were to live separately outside the city. They were not allowed to mix with the people of higher “varnas” or castes.
The upper classes or “varnas” enjoyed a life of luxury and comforts. There are frequent references to “theaters, music saloons and picture- galleries where the citizens enjoyed themselves.”
Drinking, singing dancing and women were the main modes of marry-making for the higher “Varnas” of people in the city as well as in the court. These features of the city life and the court life might have disappeared at the time when Harshavardhana became a Buddhist and “assumed the red or Saffron garments together with the sister.”
The downward trend in the position of women persisted during this age. The women of the higher class were not secluded. They received enough of education. Princess Rajyasri, received good education and was fully trained up in the various fine arts such as song, music and dance by the experts. She learnt Buddhist doctrines from the famous Buddhist monk Divakaramitra.
Child marriages were the order of the day. Even, princess Rajyasri was married before attaining puberty. Widow marriage was not permitted. The rule of endogamy and exogamy were strictly followed. The custom of “Sati” was in vague. ‘Queen Yashomati’ or Yasovati, the mother of Harshavardhana, became a “Sati”.
Even princess Rajyasri was mounting the funeral pyre of her husband in the Vindhya’s forest but was prevented by her brother Harshavardhana. However, Banabhatta condemned the “Sati” system prevailed in the society. Further, according to Banabhatta, the evil system of dowry was quite common.
There was no “Purdah-System” but there were several restrictions on the movements of women in the society. However, public morality was high. People pursued a simple and moral life and avoid consumption of meat, onion and liquor.
As Huein-Tsang observed about the ordinary people, “are naturally light-minded yet they are upright and honourable. In matters they are without craft, in administering justice they are considerate.
They are not deceitful or treacherous in their conduct and are faithful in their oaths and promises, in their behaviour there is much gentleness and sweetness.”