Monday, September 13, 2010

Beginning of Class Formation in early India: Discordant Note

This paper was presented at the 56th session of the
Indian History Congress,Calcutta,

The beginning of social division in early historical India is traced to the Later Vedic institutional developments. It is a common knowledge, though not universally recognized in Indian historiography, that social differentiation is a direct product of the division of labour in a society which is obviously set to break the bounds of primitivity. The crystallisation of the four-fold Varna system in the Later Vedic period is not only a manifestation of the growth of an economy based on agriculture, but is also symptomatic of a system in travails. The emerging society was marked by the production of a surplus and the consequent social readjustments for controlling this surplus. It has been suggested that this also inaugurated a phase of Brahman-Kshatriya conflict both the groups were vying with each other for having a larger share in surplus. Such a stance presumes the division of the society into two classes and ignores the growing economic power and the dwija status of the Vaishyas by relegating them to the dominated group, a conclusion that seems to be simplistic as well as incomprehensible in the light of the known historical forces in operation during that period. The present paper, therefore, seeks to enquire into the dynamics of Later Vedic developments with reference to the compulsions of the social processes underlining the patterns of caste/class formation in early India.

The Later Vedic period marked both the transition from a tribal political formation based on territorial states and the gradual disintegration of the tribal society into caste/class and occupational groupings.1 We notice a primitive state of labour division in the Purushasukta of the Rigved।Towards the beginning of the process of labour division seemingly two, three or four Varna based categories were sufficient for the smooth functioning of a society yet to be saddled with institutional complexities but as the trades and crafts develop in number, the earlier arrangement fails to contain the subsequently emerging diverse social groupings. The situation leads to the proliferation of castes and, as is common knowledge, gradually the system becomes rigid. As the Brahmans and the kshatriyas are not directly engaged in the production of surplus, so these two varnas didn’t witness this intra-caste confusion. The Brahmins constitute a single caste in the society.2 Needless to say that the kshatriyas too have a similar social standing.3

The Later Vedic society was the earliest phase of Indian history to witness the elements of caste rigidity. The two privileged groups, i.e. the Brahman and the Kshatriya, crystallize during this period. As the Sudras are for the first time mentioned in the Purushsukta of the Rigveda, it becomes quite obvious that there was no privileged class in the early phase of the Rigveda. The process of historical development suggests with clarity that in every class divided society there existed two distinct classes- the first being the class of rulers and the second being that of the ruled. Both classes have a common point of chronological origin in a given society. Some historians ignore this fact and prefer to say that originally the Sudras were non-Aryans. R.P.Kangle4 concurs with this view when he says, "In each period the Vedic religion would have been confined to the higher Varnas of the society”. Naturally they would have constituted a very meagre component of the population of the society. The masses were of non-Aryan origin and they would have been deprived from practicing the Vedic rituals.5 The hypothesis that the Dvijas were Aryans and the Sudras were non-Aryans seems to be baseless and unhistorical। Such a hypothesis, if taken seriously, will lead us to the conclusion that there were no Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas or even Sudras before the Aryans had come into the contact with the non-Aryans. This is because the Dwija can’t exist without the emergence of the servile class-the Sudras. It is not going to be empirically vindicated that the Varna system was originally the tradition of the Aryans। The Varna system is directly linked with the division of labour in Indian society. The Varna system was a product of changes that were taking place in the Later Vedic period. Around this time the Aryans had become acquainted with the knowledge of iron technology.7 The contemporary literature has many terms for iron.8 Dr. R.S. Sharma opines that on the basis of iron objects that have been discovered so far in the Punjab, Haryana, Western U.P. and the adjoining areas of Rajasthan in the levels belonging to circa 1000-500B.C., we can’t postulate their use in handicrafts and agriculture on any considerable scale.9 In this phase only arrowheads and spearheads supplemented by nails have been encountered; axes, hoes and sickles are rare and ploughshares almost absent.10 A ploughshare has been reported from Jakhera, but it seems to have belonged to the latest layer of the P.G.W. phase. Thus the impact of the new technology was felt not by the P.G.W. people but by their successors.11

The new technology became an expression of the dominated group. The peasants, no doubt, could have greatly benefited from it, but it came to be largely confined to the service of the class which was trying to strengthen its hold over the means of production.12 The process of class formation had a primitive beginning in the Later Vedic society13 and by monopolising from technology for the manufacture of weapons of war in order to strengthen its coercive power the dominant group tried to intensify this formation.14 Now the production of a social surplus, though not very sizeable, led to a rivalry between the two privileged classes-the Brahmanas and the kshatriyas. The Later Vedic texts, it has been suggested, hint at the beginnings of a Brahman-kshatriya conflict ostensibly for larger share in surplus.15 These references have also been interpreted as a conflict at the top between ideology (ritual control) and power (physical control), the latter assuming a challenging status due to the help of iron weapons.16

The Later Vedic texts create a great deal of confusion regarding the actual position of the two privileged classes, i.e. the Brahman and the Kshatriya. It is not clear from the contemporary texts as to which group was actually situated at the top of the social hierarchy.17 This is not the crucial problem for us either. The Brahmanas had established their supremacy over the society due to their monopoly over ritual matters. So it was quite natural for the Kshatriyas to challenge Brahmanas on this front in order to have some share in religious powers.18 At one place in the Taittiriya Samhita it has been said clearly that a Kshatriya is able to rule over the rest three varnas, whereas the Brahmanas are inefficient in managing and guiding the affairs of state.19 While the Dharma sutras emphasize the supremacy of the Brahmanas, the Buddhist and the Jain texts on the other hand emphasise the primacy of the Kshatriyas.20

In the enumeration of the varnas, the mention of the Brahmanas and the Kshatriyas is interchanged in Buddhist literature while the remaining two varnas more or less have been assigned the same place. Hence the premier position in society is generally assigned to the Kshatriyas instead of the Brahmanas. The Kshatriyas are always placed first21 in the list enumerating the four varnas in the Buddhist literature. Bodhisattva calls the Brahmanas as low-born (hinajecho) and thinks him to be born to a superior Varna of nobles.22

The interesting dialogue between the Blessed-one and Ambattha regarding the position of a child of a Kshatriya father and a Brahman mother and a child of a Brahman father and a Kshatriya mother is of great value for assessing the position of the Kshatriya and the Brahman. Here the Blessed-one claims superiority for the Kshatriyas and says, So it is clear, whether you regard it from the male or female side, that it is Kshatriyas who are the best people and the Brahmanas, their inferiors.23 The Buddha holds that even when a Kshatriya has fallen into deepest degradation he is still the best and the Brahman is his inferior.24 Moreover,it is also held that the kshatriya is the best of those who put their trust in lineage.25 Like the Buddhist and the Jain texts, the Later Vedic texts articulate an interesting point of view,i.e.inferiority of the Brahmanas to the Kshatriyas and the former’s subjection to the latter. In the Rajsuya sacrifice a Brahman is made an object of respect only after the king.26 Therefore,at the Rajsuya ceremony the Brahman sits below the Kshatriya.27 This implies evidently the social inferiority of the Brahmanas. But actually,it seems to be confined only to political matters.

The dominance of the Kshatriya,therefore,is a well documented aspect of early Indian history and the articulation of this power equation in the early portions of the Pali texts raises doubts about the historical construction of a Brahman- Kshatriya conflict in the Later Vedic period. It has been suggested that as the conflict for sharing the social surplus became acute towards the end of the Vedic period,the latest Vedic texts,particularly the Satapatha Brahman, found it necessary to stress unity and co-operation between the two components of the ruling group,the Kshatriyas and the Brahmanas.28 If we take an overall view of relation between social classes, the focus of social conflict seem to be confined to the relation between the Kshatriyas and the Vaisyas.29 Although the tradition doesn’t refer to Vaisyas or peasant resistance,rituals hint at them.30 It is interesting to note here as to why the surplus producing Vaisya community was treated like Sudra like in real life. It doesn’t seem natural to visualize the Vaisyas as occupying a lower status in the social hierarchy. It is a common knowledge that a surplus producing group tries to overwhelm the whole production mechanism.31 But it seems that the advantage was achieved in favour of the privileged classes using religion as a tool for domination.In fact, the tenor of the textual references suggest that the Vaisyas and the Sudras are exploited for the advantage of the ruling warrior caste,the Kshatriya,of course,with the help of the Brahman priest.32 The gradual shift towards peasant economy was bringing the Kshatriyas,representing domination,and Vaisyas, representing production,face to face as antagonistic groups.The struggle of the Kshatriyas with the Vaisyas in the earlier period is reflected in the Rigvedic strife between the collective Maruts and their chief,Indra.33 We are later told that these Maruts are the peasantry(Vis) and Indra eats them up as the king of peasants.34 It may be emphasized here that the early Buddhist texts convey the picture of a society in which the producing groups were protected by the king.35They present a sharp contrast to the view in the Brahmanical texts that peasants were helpless and dominated by a ruling elite. Uma Chakrabarty opines that in the Buddhist texts , however,such producing groups are highly esteemed for their substantial contribution to the expanding peasant economy.36It is interesting to note that the Later Vedic period, which marks a transition from a partly tribal and partly agrarian economy to a full- fledged agricultural economy, fails to identify the Kshatriya-Vaisya dichotomy in the mode of production which is so clearly spelt out in the Rigveda.On the other hand the texts of the period virtually keep on repeating a normative formula exhorting the Brahman- Kshatriya combine to close their ranks in order to perpetuate their hold over the Vaisyas and the sudras ignoring in the process the ritually assigned Dwija status to the former. This Later Vedic position becomes all the more intriguing if one remembers that the producing groups enjoy a place of centrality in the non- Brahmanical literary tradition of the period immediately succeeding the Vedic times. This Later Vedic literary construction becomes intelligible if viewed from the perspective of the unease on the part of the contemporary ideologues to admit the importance of the Vaisya producers in the emerging social formation on the one hand and to keep them subordinated to the Kshatriyas on the other. The Rigvedic evidence of the Kshatriya –Vaisya antagonism now acquired a wider canvas. With the growing peasantisation of the society their was a substantial increase in the economic power of the Vaisyas, and the very existence of the nascent state and the continuation of the process of state formation became largely dependent on their support.This inaugurated a new pattern of inter-varna relations, a pattern that sought to bring together the Kshatriyas and the Brahmanas in order to bring the Vaisyas under control. The Later Vedic references to the alleged Brahman- Kshatriya antagonism, therefore, is not symptomatic of a conflict between the two upper groups but an exhortation for an alliance between them.

References :

1. R .S. Sharma, Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient India, Delhi, 1983, p.162.
2. Ramvilas Sharma, Marx Aur Pichhade Hue Samaj (in Hindi), Delhi, 1986, P. 204.
3. Ibid., p.205.
4. R. P. Kangle , The Kautilya Arthasastra, pt.3 Bombay, 1969 (2nd ed.), p. 158.
5. Ibid.
6. Ramvilas Sharma, op.cit.,p.206.
7. Vijay K. Thakur, Social Dimensions of Technology: Iron in Early India, Patna, 1993, p.13.
8. Ibid.
9. R.S.Sharma, op.cit., p.60.
10. Ibid.
11. V.K.Thakur, op.cit., p.13.
12. Ibid., p.17.
13. V.K.Thakur, 'A Marxist View of Ancient Indian History’ The Journal of the Bihar Research Society, vol. LXII, pts.1-6, p.246.
14. V.K.Thakur, Social Dimensions of Technology: Iron in Early India, p.17.
15. Macdonell and Keith, Vedic Index of Names and Subjects, vol.1, London, 1912, pp.275-276,110,309,262.
16. V.K.Thakur, op.cit., p.17.
17. Surendra Kumar Srivastava, Vedic Sahitya Mein Varna Vyavastha (in Hindi), Varanasi, 1987, p.220.
18. Aitareya Brahman, vii.16.
19. Taittiriya Samhita, ii.5.10.1.
20. Shanta Anand, Kshatriyas in Ancient India, Delhi, 1985, p.120.
21. Digha Nikaya, iii.97.
22. Jataka, No.529, cited in Shanta Anand, op.cit., p.121.
23. Digha Nikaya, ii.25.
24. Ibid., iii.27.
25. Ibid., iii.28.
26. Satpath Brahman, V.4.2.7.
27. Brihadaranyak Upanisad, 1.4.II.
28. Mackdonell and Keith, op.cit., p.204.
29. R.S. Sharma, op.cit., pp.81-82.
30. Ibid.
31. Ramvilas Sharma,op.cit., p.140
32. D.D. Kosambi, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, Bombay (reprint), 1985, p.100.
33. Ibid.
34. Ibid.
35. Uma Chakrabarty, The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism, Delhi, 1987, p. 178.
36. Ibid.

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