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Guptas: Society- Caste system, Position of women

Guptas: Society- Caste system, Position of women

  • The information about social life during the period can be obtained from various sources like Faxian account, coins and seals  and other literatures of that period. The structure of the society was undergoing a change in both positive and negative way during the Gupta period.
  • Most of the legal texts of the period took the Dharmashastra of Manu as their basis and elaborated upon it. A number of such works were written during this period, the best know being those of Yajnavalkya, Narada, Brihaspati and Katyayana.

Varna system

  • The society was divided into four varnas (Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra), with each varna performing the set of functions prescribed for it and enjoying whatever rights were given to it.
    • This was the ideal social order and the state was expected to preserve it.
    • This means that when even a small state emerged in some corner of the country, the King of that state was expected to recognize this as the ideal social order.
  • The supremacy of the brahmanas was increasing.
    • The Guptas who were originally vaisyas came to be looked upon as kshatriyas by the brahmanas.
      • The brahmanas represented the Gupta kings as possessing the attributes of gods.
      • All this helped to legitimise the position of the Gupta princes, who became great supporters of the brahmanical order.
    • They were getting large-scale land grants not only from the rulers and officials but from other people also.
      • The land was given along with administrative rights and tax exemptions.
      • Thus, a new class of brahmana landlords was created.
    • Land was given not only to individual brahmanas but also some times incited big groups of brahmanas to come and settle in remote areas.
      • Thus, the number of brahmana settlements variously called Brahmadiyas, Agraharas and so on started increasing and they started spreading, among other things, the idea of a varna-divided social order.
    • The Brahmanas came to he recognized as the purest and therefore the highest varna.
      • Since they were associated with Sanskritic learning and performed priestly functions, they came to be closely connected with royal power.
      • Even when the rulers were supporters of Buddhism, Jainism or a particular religious sect, they continued to patronize brahmanas particularly those of high learning. This remained one of the major reasons for the economic prosperity and prestige of the brahmanas.
  • However, varna order was not an ideal order:
    • Ideally although there were four varnas, these were various groups who were kept out of this scheme and whose varna identity could never be determined. They were the antyajas or untouchables
      • They were considered impure, even their touch was considered impure and their physical presence in areas where higher varnas lived and moved was not allowed.
      • The Chandalas. the Charmakaras and similar groups were considered impure and outcastes.
      • Number of untouchables especially chandalas increased enormously. They lived outside the village and dealt in unclean jobs such as scavenging or butchery.
      • Thus in the brahmanical order of society, the condition of a number of social groups remained miserable throughout.
    • Secondly, it was assumed that the varnas would perform their duties; in reality, they may not have done so.
      • These suggest that real society was different from the ideal society and this was also recognized by the brahmana writers of the Dharmasastras.
        • They therefore tried to determine the status of various castes or jatis in society by giving fictitious explanations of their origins. They suggested that various jatis or groups originated through varna-samkara or inter-marriages between various varnas.
      • The Dharmasastras also speak of apadharma or conduct to be followed during periods of distress.
        • This means that the varnas take to professions and duties not assigned to them when they found it necessary to do so.
        • In matters of profession also the Dharmasastras thus recognized that the real society was different from their ideal society.
  • The position of woman of higher varnas was low.
    • Although we hear of personalities like the Vakataka queen Prabhavatigupta who wielded considerable power, not all women were so privileged.
    • The brahmana texts set down norms which women were expected to follow and women were expected, in the family, to function mainly as an ideal wife and ideal mother.
    • In many Brahmana texts, women were even considered, for various reasons, to be of the same category as the Sudras.
    • Although brahmanas were given land grants regularly, we do not come across evidence of land being given to Brahmana women.
  • The position of shudras improved in this period.
    • They were now permitted to listen to the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas.
    • They could also worship new god called Krishna.
    • They were also allowed to perform certain domestic rites which naturally brought fee to the priests.
    • All these can be attributed to a change in the economic status of the Shudras.
  • The Varna system did not always function smoothly.
    • The Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, which may be assigned to the Gupta period, contains at least nine verses which stress the need of combination of the brahmanas and the kshatriyas; these may indicate some kind of concerted opposition from the vaishyas and shudras.
    • The Anushashana Parva of the Mahabharata represents the shudras as destroyer of the king.

Caste proliferation:

  • The castes proliferated into numerous sub-castes as a result of following factors.
    • On the one hand a large number of foreigners had been assimilated into the Indian society, and each group of foreigners was considered a kind of Hindu caste.
      • Since the foreigners mainly came as conquerors they were given the status of the kshatriya in society. The Hunas, who appeared in India towards the close of the fifth century, ultimately came to be recognized as one of the thirty-six clans of the Rajputs. Even now some Rajputs bear the title Huns.
      • They given the semi-kshatriya status (vratya Kshatriaya) because they could not be considered to be of pure Kshatriaya origin
    • The other reason for the increase in the number of castes was the absorption of many tribal peoples into brahmanical society by way of land grants.
      • To the ruling chiefs of the tribes was ascribed a respectable origin. But most of the rest of the tribal people were given a low origin, and every tribe now became a kind of caste in Hindu society.
    • Various jatis or groups also originated through varna-samkara or inter-marriages between various varnas.
  • It has been suggested that transfers of lands or land revenues gave rise to a new caste, that of the kayasthas (scribes) who undermined the monopoly of the brahmanas as scribes.

Untouchability:

  • The practice of untouchability became more intense than in the earlier period.
  • The chandalas appeared in society as early as the fifth century B.C.
    • Penance was provided to remove the sin arising out of touching a chandala. F
    • By the fifth century A.D. their number had become so enormous and their disabilities so glaring that it attracted the attention of Fa-hien.
      • He informs us that the chandalas lived outside the village and dealt in meat and flesh.
      • He also inform that whenever chandalas entered the towns or market places they would strike a piece of wood to announce their arrival, so that the others might not touch them and get polluted.
  • In South India, the notion of untouchability seems to have emerged in the late Sangam period.
    • A work called the Acharakkovai refers to water touched by a pulaiya being considered defiled and unfit for consumption by higher caste people, and states that even glancing at a pulaiya was polluting.
    • The Tamil epics also allude to the practice of untouchability.
      • In the Manimekalai, Brahmanas are exhorted not to touch Aputtiran, the son of a Brahmana woman and Shudra male, lest they be polluted.

Note:

  • Faxian:
    • The main aim of pilgrims such as Faxian was to provide pious Buddhists in China with an opportunity to visualize places and events connected with the Buddha’s life. It is therefore not surprising that references to mundane details concerning the lifestyle of Indians are few and cursory.

    • He presents an idyllic and idealized picture of Indian society in the 5th century.
    • He describes a happy and contented people enjoying a life of peace and prosperity.
    • They did not have to register their households or appear before magistrates.
    • Farmers who worked on royal land had to give a certain portion of their produce to the king.
  • The joint family system, which became an essential feature of Hindu caste-society, was prevalent at the time.

The position of women

  • While inscriptions give glimmers of information about royal and elite households, Kamasutra and Dharmashastra texts such as the Narada, Brihaspati, and Katyayana Smritis throw light on household and gender relations at a more general level.
  • The position improved in certain aspects:
    • Royal women are visible on coins and seals:
      • Queens are depicted on the ‘king and queen type’ of coins, such as those depicting Chandragupta I and his wife Kumaradevi.
      • Queens also appear on the reverse of certain coins.
        • A queen sitting on a couch, with a flower in her right hand appears on the reverse of coins of Kumaragupta I and Chandragupta II.
        • A standing female figure holding a fly whisk in her right hand, appears on the reverse of the ashvamedha type coins of Samudragupta and Kumaragupta I. As the queen was supposed to fan and bathe the horse in the ashvamedha sacrifice, this may represent a queen.
    • Matrimonial alliances were an important part of the politics of the time.
      • This is indicated by the mention of queens in Gupta inscriptions such as the Allahabad prashasti of Samudragupta and the Bhitari pillar inscription of Skandagupta.
    • Vakataka inscriptions reveal the exercise of political power by queen Prabhavatigupta during the reigns of three consecutive Vakataka rulers.
    • Gift giving by women:
      • Some royal women took the initiative in gift-giving.
      • Prabhavatigupta made grants in her own right.
      • The Masoda plates of Pravarasena II records a grant made at the request of an unnamed chief queen.
      • An inscription found on the walls of the Kevala-Narasimha temple in Ramtek (Nagpur district) records the construction of this temple (given the name Prabhavatisvamin) in memory of the deceased queen Prabhavatigupta by her daughter.

    • Like Shudras, women were also allowed to listen to the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranaa, and advised to worship Krishna.
      • They could also take part in rituals along with her husband.
    • Stri-dhana:
      • The law books reflect an increase in the scope of stri-dhana. The Katyayana Smriti lists the various types of stri-dhana as follows:
      • Adhyagni stri-dhana: given to women at the time of marriage before the nuptial fire.
      • Adhyavahanika stri-dhana: which a woman obtains when being taken in a procession from her father’s house to the groom’s house.
      • Pritidatta stri-dhana: which is given out of affection to a woman by her father-in-law or mother-in-law and that which is received by her at the time of performing obeisance at the feet of elders.
      • Shulka (bride’s fee):  which is obtained as the price of household vessels, beasts of burden, milch cows, ornaments, and slaves.
      • Anvadheya (subsequent gift): which is obtained after marriage from members of her husband’s family and from the family of her father’s kinsmen.
      • Saudayika:  which is obtained by a married woman in her husband’s or father’s house or an unmarried girl from her parents or brothers.
    • Women education:
      • Vatsyayana refers to princesses and other elite women learned in the shastras, and lists 64 branches of knowledge that should be learnt by women.
      • These include
        • solving riddles,
        • reciting from books,
        • completing poetic verses, and
        • knowledge of poetic metres and lexicons.
      • Sanskrit drama suggests that women associated with the royal court may have been well versed in reading, writing, instrumental music, singing, dance, and poetry.
    • The free representation of females in art suggest that there was no purdah system in the society.
  • However,  overall the status of women continued to decline in Gupta period.
    • The main reason for the subordination of women was their complete dependence on men for their livelihood.
      • Women were denied any right to property except for stridhana in the form of jewellery, gar­ments, and similar other presents made to the bride on the occasion of her marriage.
      • The women of higher orders didn’t have access to independent sources of livelihood in pre-Gupta and Gupta times.
      • The fact that women of the two lower varnas were free to earn their livelihood gave then considerable freedom, which was denied to women of the upper varnas.
    • excepting elite women, they were not entitled to formal education.
    • Marriage:
      • Dharmashastra literature of this period reflects a tendency towards lowering the age of marriage for girls.
        • Some texts recommend that girls be married before puberty.
      • The Kamasutra of Vatsyayana seems to support this idea in one place, but his general discussion of courtship and conjugal relations presupposes a mature bride and groom.
        • The Kamasutra states that progeny, fame, and social approval are obtained by a man who marries a virgin of the same varna according to religious rites.
        • It forbids sexual relations with women belonging to higher varnas and with married women.
        • However, it has no problem with sexual relations purely for pleasure with women belonging to certain lower varnas, placing them on par with relations with prostitutes and remarried widows.
        • Vatsyayana talks of marriages arranged by parents or guardians, which result in one of the various types of marriage mentioned in the shastras as Brahma, Prajapatya, Arsha, or Daiva.
        • He also refers to girls selecting their groom and marriages based on mutual love.
          • The dramas of this age mention such marriages within elite groups.
    • Polygyny:
      • The polygynous alliances of kings are well known.
      • The Kamasutra suggests that polygyny was also prevalent among sections of the non-royal elite.
      • The member of higher varnas came to acquire more and more land which made them more polygamous and more property minded. In a patriarchal setup they began to treat women as items of property.
    • Duties of wife:
      • Kamasutra:
        • According to the Kamasutra, a good wife serves her husband diligently, keeps the house clean and well-decorated, and manages the servants and household finances efficiently.
        • She is dutiful and submissive.
        • She waits on her husband, attends social and other occasions only with his permission, entertains his friends, and serves her in-laws and obeys their orders.
        • She grows different sorts of plants and trees in the garden.
        • She has knowledge of agriculture, cattle rearing, spinning, and weaving, and knows how to take care of her husband’s pets.
        • If she has a co-wife, she is supposed to look upon her as a sister or mother, depending on their relative age.
      • Katyayana Smriti:
        • The Katyayana Smriti states that a wife must always live with her husband, be devoted to him, and worship the domestic fire.
        • She must attend on her husband while he is alive and be chaste after his death.
    • Courtesans and prostitutes:
      • The Kamasutra and Sanskrit kavya literature refer to courtesans known as ganikas.
        • In some instances, the heroine of a drama is a ganika, the most celebrated being Vasantasena in the Mrichchhakatikam.
      • Texts display an ambivalent attitude towards the ganika.
        • On the one hand, she is admired and celebrated for her beauty, wit, and other accomplishments.
        • On the other hand, the fact that her sexual favours could be bought by anyone for money meant that she could never hope to attain social respectability.
      • There are also textual references to the ordinary prostitute, whose life was devoid of the glamour and wealth associated with the ganika.
    • Adultery:
      • The Kamasutra deals in a pragmatic, matter-of-fact way with sexual relations between men and married women.
      • However, Dharmashastra texts considered adultery by women as an upapataka (lesser sin), for which penances were prescribed.
      • Some texts held penance to be unnecessary and asserted that an adulterous woman regained her purity after her menstrual period.
      • The Narada Smriti states that if a woman was found to have committed adultery, her head should be shaved, she should lie on a low bed, be given poor food and clothes, and should devote herself to removing the sweepings from her husband’s house.
      • A great deal hinged on the social status of the individuals involved.
        • For instance, if a woman committed adultery with a Shudra or a lowcaste man, the Smritis suggest that her husband abandon her.
      • A virtuous wife, on the other hand, was to be cherished.
        • The Narada Smriti states that a man is liable to pay one-third of his estate or a fine for deserting such a wife.
    • Widow:
      • Sati:
        • The patriarchal attitude of treating women as items of property prevailed so much so that a women was expected to follow her husband to the next world.
        • First example of the immolation of widow after death of her husband appears in Gupta times in A.D. 510 in an inscription at Eran in Madhya Pradesh.
        • The Brihaspati Smriti also offers that she burn herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.
      • Widow remarriage:
        • Most of Dharmashastra texts advocate that a widow lead a celibate and austere life.
        • Widow remarriage seems to have been considered with disfavor.
        • However, some post-Gupta law-books held that a woman cam remarry if her husband is dead, destroyed, impotent, has become a renouncer or has been excommunicated.
        • That it did, however, happen is suggested by the Amarakosha, which gives synonyms for a punarbhu (remarried widow), her husband, and for a dvija who has a punarbhu as his principal wife.
        • Katyayana:
          • He discusses the inheritance rights of the son of a remarried widow.
          • He also deals with the property rights of a son born of a woman who has left her impotent husband.
          • He mentions widows who took lovers.

Labour and Slavery

  • Forms of labour:
    • The texts mention hired labour used in farming, watching fields, harvesting, tending cattle, craft production, and household work.
  • Payment of wages:
    • The Brihaspati and Narada Smritis lay down rates and rules for the payment of wages in cash or kind.
    • Payment in kind could take the form of a share of the item, such as grain, milk, or domesticated animals.
    • The Narada Smriti states that the employer must pay wages to the worker at a fixed time as per agreement, at the beginning, middle, or end of the work. If wages had not been fixed in advance, the worker was entitled to 1/10th of the profit.
    • The Brihaspati Smriti states that the servant of a farmer was entitled to 1/5th of the crop along with food and clothing or to only 1/3rd of the crop.
      • Of course, these are all prescriptions, not descriptions of prevailing practice.
  • Forced labour (vishti) and Slavery:
    • Forced labour (vishti) became more common than before in this period.
    • The fact that it is mentioned along with taxes in land grant inscriptions suggests that it was considered a source of income for the state, a sort of tax payed by the people.
    • The fact that most of the inscriptions referring to vishti come from the Madhya Pradesh and Kathiawar regions may suggest that this practice was more prevalent in these areas.
  • References to slaves are found in the contemporary Dharmashastras (Law Books).
    • Narada mentions fifteen types of slaves. This enumeration is greater than that in the Arthashastra and Manu Smriti, but basically consists of elaborations or sub-divisions of already known types. These include:
      • The prisoners of war,
      • debt bondsmen,
      • voluntary enslavement, and
      • born of a slave woman were all considered slaves.
  • Slave as property:
    • Slaves could be handed down to descendants of their erstwhile owners along with other items of property.
    • Slaves are generally mentioned as domestic servants or personal attendants.
    • A child born of a woman slave in a master’s house was considered his slave as well.
    • The Narada Smriti asserts that a slave can be pledged or mortgaged, and that the master could hire out his services to another.
  • The Narada Smriti prescribes the amputation of the foot of a person found guilty of abducting a slave woman.
  • Manumission of slaves:
    • The Narada Smriti discusses the manumission of slaves—a slave born in the house, bought, obtained, or inherited could be freed only when the master desired to do so.
    • The ceremony of manumission is described—the master was supposed to remove a jar of water from the shoulder of the slave and break it. He was then supposed to sprinkle some parched grain and flowers over his head and say three times: ‘You are no longer a dasa.’

Other aspects of social life

  • Another aspect of social life was that there existed great difference between the ways of life of the rich city-dwellers and people living in villages.
  • Prosperous town dwellers seem to have lived in comfort and ease.
    • The ideal city-dweller was the nagaraka, i.e. the urbanite who, because of his affluence, lived a life of pleasure and refined culture.
    • The Kamasutra of Vatsyayana, describes the life of a well-to-do citizen as one devoted to the pleasures and refinements of life.
  • Of course it would be wrong to presume that all classes of people who lived in cities could afford this way of life.
  • Gambling, animal fights, athletics and gymnastics were an important part of sporting events.
    • Amusements of various kinds in which the general public participated were essential to the various festivals, whether religious or secular.
  • Dance performances and music concerts were held mainly in the homes of the wealthy and the discerning.
  • Chess is said to have originated in this period, where its early form in the 6th century was known as caturanga, which translates as “four divisions of the military” – infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariotry – represented by the pieces that would evolve into the modern pawn, knight, rook, and bishop, respectively.
  • Contrary to Fa-Hien’s statement that vegetarianism was customary in India, meat was commonly eaten.
    • Drinking of wine and the chewing of betel-leaf was a regular practice.
  • The joint family system, which became an essential feature of Hindu caste-society, was prevalent at the time.
  • Thus, the society witnessed various changes during Gupta’s time. But it can not be said to have progressed in any substantial way. Some of the developments like strengthening of varna and caste system, worsened condition of untouchables, increased divide between rich and poor and declining position of women puts the question mark on the view that saw Gupta period as golden age.

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