History Optional Paper-1 Solution – 1996: Q.4

Q.4 Give an account of the society in Northern and Central India since the death of Harsha to the Muslim conquest of North India. [1996, 60m]


An account of the society in Northern and Central India in the early medieval period

1. Division of the Society into Caste System

Since ancient times the Indian society was divided into four hierarchical castes with prescribed privileges and disabilities. The four major castes were: the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Sudras.
The division of the society into castes and sub-castes had created sharp differences between different sections of the society. This in turn had weakened the society. The Brahmins and Kshatriyas commanded the highest respect in the society while the position of the Sudras and the Chandalas had become worse than before. The Smriti writers of the period exaggerated the privileges to the Brahmins. On the other hand the Sudras were condemned to rigorous social and religious disabilities.
Besides the traditional four castes, there was a large section of the people called antayaja. The hunters, the weavers, the fishermen, the shoemakers and other people who engaged in such professions belonged to this section. They occupied a position lower than the Sudras.
Still lower in social status were the Hadis, Doms, Chandalas etc. who performed duties such as lifting the dead cattle, cremating the dead people, scavenging etc. They were forced to live outside the cities and villages. They were treated as outcastes and untouchables.
With the passage of time the caste system had become very rigid. Marriages between different castes were forbidden. According to a writer Parasara, eating a Sudra’s food, association with a Sudra, sitting alongside a Sudra, and taking lessons from a Sudra are acts which drag down even a noblest person. The position of the lower castes in the society can be imagined by the fact that even the Vaishyas were not allowed to study the religious texts.
One of the important features of the Hindu society on the eve of the Turkish invasion was the emergence of new castes such as the Kayastha caste. Originally, people from different castes, including Brahmins and Sudras, who worked in the royal establishments, came to be known as Kayastha. With the passage of time, they crystallized into a distinct caste.
As Hinduism was spreading it absorbed not only the Buddhists and Jains but also many indigenous tribes and foreigners who embraced Hinduism during this period. These groups came to be organized in new castes and sub-castes. In most of the cases they continued their own social customs and traditions in relation to marriage etc. The caste system and the proliferation of additional sub-castes with their distinct social customs and position in the caste hierarchy made the Hindu society more complex and divided on the eve of the Turkish invasion.

2. Deterioration of the Position of Women

The position of women in the Indian society had been gradually deteriorating over the years since ancient times. The women were regarded as objects of enjoyment by men and a means to procure children. The women were denied education. They had no right to study the Vedas. Child marriage was a common practice.

The Smriti writers laid down that girls were to be given away in marriage by their parents between the ages of six and eight or between their eighth year and attaining puberty. In general remarriage of the widows was not permitted. As women were distrusted they were kept in seclusion and their life was regulated by the male relations such as father, brother, husband and son.
However, within the family, the women occupied an honourable position. Polygamy was practiced in the society. The practice of Sati among women of higher castes was becoming quite widespread. An Arab writer, Sulaiman mentions about the practice of Sati. According to him, wives of kings sometimes burnt themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands. However, the choice was left to the wives.

3. Emergence of Feudalism

Emergence of the Feudalism was one of the most noteworthy socio-economic and political phenomena in the Indian sub-continent on the eve of the Turkish invasion. The common feature of a feudal society is that those who drew their sustenance from land without working on it held the dominant position in society.
The feudalization of the society was due to the growing power of a class of people who were called samanta, rautta etc. Some of them were government officials who were assigned revenue-bearing villages in lieu of cash salary. Some others were defeated chiefs and their supporters who continued to enjoy the revenue of limited areas. Military adventurers, local hereditary chiefs, and tribal or clan leaders were also the components of the feudal society that prevailed during this period. The feudal chiefs were included within the kingdoms. Their assignments were passed on to the succeeding generations and assumed the nature of hereditary fiefs. The hereditary chiefs gradually began to assume many of the functions of the government. They maintained law and order, assessed and collected revenue and administered justice.
The growth of a feudal society had disastrous effects on the Indian socio-political system. Socially, the feudal class represented parasitical exploiters of their tenants. Politically, feudalism weakened the position of the ruler. The ruler became increasingly dependent on the feudal chiefs who maintained their own military forces. Feudalism discouraged trade and commerce and promoted economic self-sufficiency within a village or region. The feudal system also weakened village self-government.

4. Religious and Moral Decline

Buddhism and Jainism continued to decline during the period. Meanwhile there was a revival and expansion of Hinduism. There was a growing popularity of Siva and Vishnu. The worship of the Sun and Brahma gradually declined. The worship of Shakti, the female creative energy became popular in eastern India. Buddhism was gradually confined to eastern India. The Pala rulers patronized Buddhism. Jainism continued to be popular in western and south India especially among the trading classes.
Deterioration of religion and morality was increasingly damaging the social fabric on the eve of the Turkish invasion. Shankaracharya had tried to safeguard Hinduism from the influence of both Buddhism and Jainism by developing a common philosophy known as Advaita. However, he could not get rid of the evils that had crept into Hinduism.
Different religious sects made their appearance in different regions of India. A new sect known as Vamamarga Dharma had become popular especially in Kashmir and Bengal. The adherents of this sect indulged in wine, flesh, fish and women. The great mathas, which had been centers of learning and piety gradually, degenerated into centres of luxury and idleness.

The other evil that can be traced to this period was the devadasi system. Most of the important temples employed a number of unmarried girls dedicated to the service of the deity. They were required to please the deity of the temple by their dance. This custom gradually degenerated into temple prostitution.
The literature and art during this period assumed obscene character. The cult of the erotic had entered not only the literature but also the temple sculpture and the Tantric rituals. The craze for sensuality had also dominated Indian art of this period. The erotic sculptures of the Khajuraho temples built by the Chandelas are a testimony of the sensuality of the contemporary rulers, artists and the people in general.

5. Insular Character of the Indian Society

The insular character of the Indian society made it ignorant of the various developments that were taking place beyond the natural frontiers of the Indian sub-continent. Indians were ignorant of the political, military, social, cultural, religious and scientific progress of their neighbouring countries. The upper castes of the Indian society developed a false sense of pride in their superiority.
Al Beruni, who accompanied Mahmud Ghazni to India in the course of the invasions made the following observations about the Indian society: “The Hindus believed that there is no country like theirs, no nation like theirs, no king like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs…” This account of Al Beruni indicates that the Indians did not desire to learn anything from others. Further Al Beruni writes: “The Hindus did not desire that a thing which has once been polluted should be purified and thus recovered.” This complacency naturally prevented the Indians from rising above their fossilized, narrow-minded existence, which ultimately led to their weak resistance against the foreign invaders.


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