Apparently, by the Mauryan period, the Brahmans had gained supremacy. Although there was not much rigidity, the process of hardening of the caste system had begun.
According to Greell writers, no one was allowed to marry outside his own caste or to practice any other occupation except his own. Only philosophers, apparently meaning Brahmans, were exempt from such restrictions.
Besides the four traditional castes of brahmans, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras, several varnasanb or cross-breed castes have also been referred to in Kautilya’s Arthashastra. According to the Greek ambassador Megasthenes, there were seven castes; what he probably meant was occupations. These were:
(i) Philosophers (brahmans, Buddhist monks, followers of other religious sects);
(ii) Farmers (including shudra cultivators and land labourers);
(iv) Herdsmen (shudras or outcastes too);
(v) Artisans (of which, the metal workers were more respected);
(vi) Magistrates; and
(vii) Councilors (part of the administrative system).
For the first time, a section of shudras, who, till the Mauryan period, were usually employed as agricultural labourers, were provided with land in newly colonised areas and were also engaged as share-croppers on crown lands.
Vishti or forced labour was imposed on a much larger scale, and according to the Arthashastra, a class of government servants called vishtivandhakas were in charge of procuring labour.
The intellectual class commanded respect from the king and the society for their learning, integrity and willingness to serve the king and the people in various ways. They were considered the custodian of education and the culture of the community.
A Brahman who committed a crime was exempt from torture. According to Kautilya’s Arthashastn, such a wrong-doer was branded on his forehead with a sign that proclaimed his crime and was then either banished from the kingdom or sent to the mines for the rest of his life.
The common people, including cultivators, artisans and traders, were exempt from military service and resided in villages in the country-side. Others: like hunters and herdsmen did not lead a settled life but lived in tents and were always on the move.
The first three castes were theoretically more privileged than the shudras and the outcastes, but the vaishyas were apparently socially excluded by the first two castes.
Yet, as the vaishyas were economically powerful, conflict between them and the socially superior castes was inevitable. Asoka’s emphatic plea for social harmony suggests the existence of social tensions.
Although Megasthenes wrote that there were no slaves in India, slavery was prevalent, but in a mild form. Slavery was legally recognised, and the rights and duties of slaves and their masters were defined by law.
According to the Arthashastra, an individual could be a slave by birth, by selling oneself by one’s own choice, as a prisoner of war or when punished by law. A slave could be freed by his master on his own or a slave could become free by giving his own price to his master.
Slaves were mostly shudras, and formed the bulk of the labour class. Under special circumstances, members of higher varnas could also be engaged as slaves and they are referred to as ahitakas.
Slaves could not be employed to do unclean work, and they could hold and transfer property. In prosperous households, domestic slaves were common. Such slaves were of low caste status but not outcastes. Slave labour was also used in the mines and by the guilds.
As for women, only those belonging to the upper strata of society had access to education and took part in religious and social functions.
Some women were employed as spies and bodyguards. The terms asuryampashya (one who does not see the sun) avarodhana (secluded one) and antahpura (inner apartments) applied to the women of the royal household-indicate that seclusion was practiced to some extent among royal women and probably also among women of the upper classes. Sati was rare and apparently limited to women of the higher classes.
There are several references to common women moving about with freedom and doing different kinds of work. Ganikas or public women played a significant role in the palace and in social life. This class included actresses, dancers, musicians, and other artists.
All offences against women were severely punished and the Arthashastra lays down penalties against officials in charge of workshops and prisons who misbehaved with them.
The joint family system was prevalent but could be dissolved with the agreement of the people concerned. A girl was considered mature at the age of twelve and a boy, at sixteen.
Of the eight kinds of marriage mentioned, four were in regular practices. Kautilya has added that there was no prohibition against any kind of marriage as long as it was satisfactory to everyone.
Marriage could be dissolved by mutual consent or by prolonged absence. A married woman had property of her own in the form of bridal-gift or stridhana and jewels. She could use it in case of widowhood.
If a woman married a relative of her deceased husband with the consent of her father-in- law, she could retain property given to her by her father-in-law or her first husband. In a marriage, cruelty by one person to the other was punishable.
If there was no male child from the first wife, a man could marry a second time, without paying compensation to the first one.
As the Greek writers have described, men and women were well dressed. Cotton garments were used by the common people while the rich used garments of silk and fine muslin, embroidered with precious stones and jewels.
Woollen clothes were also used in winter. Both men and women used ornaments and cosmetics to beautify themselves. Kautilya has given descriptions of Nepali woollen blankets called bhingisi and apasaraka made of eight pieces, black in colour and varshavaranam or rain-proof.
Several other varieties of fabrics of sheep’s wool are distinguished by their colour, process of manufacture, and uses. In addition, there were other fabrics made from hair of wild animals. Greek sources mention the use of shoes by Indians.
These were made of white leather, elaborately trimmed with soles of varying thicknesses to make the wearer seem taller.
Rice, pulses, fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products were the main items of food. But on occasions of festivals and social gatherings, meat was eaten, and intoxicants, including liquor made from rice, were consumed.
Sources of entertainment included bouts between men and animals, chess, gambling, drama, music and dance. Social and religious festivals were also occasions of merriment to the people.
Public and private morality was reasonably high. The relative social status of different industrial and commercial classes was known by their area of residence in the capital.
Those who dealt in scents, garlands, grains and liquids, and expert artisans had their houses to the east of the royal palace along with the members of the kshatriya caste.
Dealers in cooked food, liquor, and flesh resided on the southern side along with vaishyas, prostitutes and musicians.
Workers in base metals and precious stones lived on the northern side along with the brahmans. The western side had the shudras and makers of woollen and cotton fabrics, and armourers.