Early Medieval Period – Society

A number of important social changes have been identified in the transition to early medieval period. These changes are best approached through the composition, character and scope of the caste system, and the status of women within it. Jati is the basic unit in the caste system. People are grouped in endogamous Jatis, i.e. members of a Jati marry within and not outside their Jati. Often a number of Jatis in an area that are similar to each other in status and occupation make up a Jati cluster; and these Jatis and Jati clusters form part of one of the four varnas – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. At the bottom of this caste hierarchy, i.e. Jati-based varna hierarchy, were the Untouchables, who were placed outside and in an inferior relation to the fourfold varna order.

Identifying the nature of caste society and the direction of social changes during the early medieval period demands a careful analysis of the sources. The terms jati and varna are not always used there in the sense of these categories, and their exact import has to be ascertained each time. A text by itself may give the impression of a static society, and it is only through a critical collation of all pieces of relevant information that one is able to see the processes of change.

A comparison of the evidence across early medieval period shows that state society – the society of kingdoms and empires, which was by and large caste society, as distinct from the non- state, casteless societies of hunter-gatherers and tribes – was expanding significantly during this period. First, a considerable number of immigrants from outside the subcontinent, such as the Hunas, the Gurjaras,etc. were settling down. The Gurjaras, the ancestors of the present Gujar community, seem to have been particularly widespread in western and northwestern India. In some regions a gradual transformation of the original structure of Gurjara society was well under way during our period as at the end of it we see not only the emergence of a small section of them as rulers (the Gurjara-Pratiharas) but also the rest as humble peasantry. The recognition of the Hunas as one of the traditional thirty-six Kshatriya clans took a longer time. There were probably other peoples too. For instance, the Kalachuris who figure as an important political entity and had even founded an era called Kalachuri-Chedi Era are supposed to have been such immigrants, and the term ‘Kalachuri’ is interpreted as a derivative of the Turkish title ‘kulchur’.

Large parts of India continued to remain covered with forests, in which small, scattered groups of hunter-gatherers and tribal people practising pastoralism and/or primitive agriculture lived. For instance, in calling southern Andhra Pradesh a sparsely populated jungle territory infested by highwaymen, Xuan Zang (Hiuen-Tsang)referred to one such area dominated by indigenous population, who did not lead a settled life and for whom plunder was a legitimate source of livelihood. Similarly, for an extensive country in the northwest, he reports the presence of people who are stated to live solely by pastoralism, be very warlike, and ‘have no masters, and, whether men or women, have neither rich nor poor’. Quite a few of the indigenous groups were in regular touch with the members of caste society, and vivid descriptions of their lives are recorded, though not without bias, in contemporary works of literature, such as the Dashakumaracharita of Dandin and the Kadambari of Banabhatta.

A number of the indigenous peoples were also being assimilated in the caste society, some wholly, some in part. For instance, while the name ‘Shabara’ continued to stand for a tribe or a number of tribes till well after the early medieval period, the reference to a Shabara king with a Sanskritic name, Udayana, in the sources suggests the integration of a section of Shabara people into caste society. In general, the majority of the members of a tribe were converted into a Jati belonging to the Shudra Varna (some into an Untouchable caste), while a tribal chief, if he was sufficiently resourceful, could claim a Kshatriya status for himself and his close kinsmen.

The caste society was also being transformed from within in response to political, economic, and cultural-ideological changes. An interesting example is the crystallisation of the professionals called kayastha as a Jati. Kayasthas come into view as important officials from the Gupta period onwards, and just after our period are seen as a caste. Our sources suggest that they came from a number of communities, including tribes (especially Karanas) as well as brahmins. The names of a considerable number of brahmins in Bengal in the Gupta and post-Gupta inscriptions end with suffixes such as Vasu, Ghosha, Datta, Dama, etc., which are today the surnames not of Bengali brahmins but of Bengali Kayasthas. The absence of these surnames among the brahmins of the region suggests that it was the case not of people of lower Varnas adopting the surnames of their superiors in a bid for upward mobility, but one of the formation of a caste through fission of brahmin and non-brahmin kayastha families from their parent bodies and fusion into a caste of Kayastha. In other words, the Kayastha caste began to form as the families belonging to this profession started marrying among themselves and stopped marrying within their own original Jatis or tribes.

As you know, each Varna was associated with some specific functions; for instance, priestly functions were considered the preserve of brahmins. Historians have noted a remarkable change in this matter during the transition, which is registered both in the brahmanical treatises as well as attested by foreign observers. Agriculture, which was considered earlier generally the work of the Vaishyas, now comes increasingly to be seen as the occupation of the Shudras. However, the meaning of this is not easy to understand, or rather is capable of being understood in at least three different ways. First, this has been interpreted as amounting to a marked improvement in the status of the Shudras. From being slaves, servants, and agricultural labourers they now become landholding peasants like the Vaishyas. Second, this may represent the decline in the status of peasantry as a result of extensive land grants. There was, it is said, such a downgrading of the Vaishya peasants that they were considered no different from the Shudras. Third, this could refer to the phenomenon of the absorption of tribal people in caste society as Shudra peasantry. It is of course hypothetically possible that the different statements in the sources may collectively represent insome,hithertounexplained, way the sum total of all these inferences. However, the point is that the problem of the exact correlation of this shift in Varna theory with the historical reality, especially the mutually contradictory nature of the first two inferences, has so far not been realized by historians, and needs to be sorted out.

From about the third to the post-Gupta centuries, a number of developments take place in the history of untouchability. Although the practice had been known earlier, the term ‘untouchable (asprishya) for them is used for the first time now. The number of untouchable castes increases through the period, largely through the absorption of aboriginal groups in the caste society. However, the Chandalas and the Shvapachas (literally, ‘dog-cookers’) remained the most conspicuous of them. The miserable life of these people seldom failed to attract the attention of shocked foreign observers. Early in the Gupta period, Fa Xian noticed it, and in the seventh century Xuan Zang (Hiuen-Tsang)observed, “Butchers, fishermen, public performers, executioners, and scavengers have their habitation marked by a distinguishing sign. They are forced to live outside the city and sneak along on the left when going about in the hamlets.”

The practice of slavery seems to have continued without much remarkable change. This may be inferred from the treatment of the subject in the legal digests called shastras: the topic is treated in more or less the same manner in a Gupta-period work as in a twelfth-century one, the Mitakshara, which is otherwise very particular about recording change. Slaves seem to have mainly been used as domestic labour.

As with the other social groups, the status of women did not remain unchanged during the transition to the early medieval period. The changes that are noticed mainly pertain to the womenfolk of the upper classes of society; of course these changes did not occur uniformly everywhere. The brahmanical attitudes betray certain unmistakable tendencies of further depreciation of women’s status, one of the most intolerable things being a woman’s attempt to have independence (svatantrya). There was an increasing tendency to club them together with either property or Shudras, just the Chandalas were coming to be bracketed with dogs and donkeys. Post-puberty marriages were deprecated, with one authority prescribing the age of the bride as one-third of the bridegroom’s. Wives would considerably outlive husbands in such cases, and detailed provisions were accordingly made for regulating the lives of widows. An extreme provision was that she should become a sati, i.e. commit suicide with her husband’ dead body on the funeral pyre (or without it if it had already perished, as Harsha’s sister Rajyashri tried to do). Although not unknown in the earlier periods, the practice of sati gained ground steadily in early medieval times as instances of it begin to multiply. However, this did not win universal approval even in Brahmanism. Banbhatta and Shudraka, the leading literary figures of the times, criticised it strongly, and the strongest protest was beginning to develop in tantrism, which was to declare it a most sinful act.

A general indication of the depreciation in the social standing of upper caste women is the deliberate erasure of their pre-marital identity after marriage. Till the Gupta period there is evidence that a woman did not need to lose her gotra identity and affiliation after marriage; thereafter, however, such marriages seem to have gone ‘gradually gone out of use, at least among the ordinary people’.

Sometimes a certain ‘improvement’ in the status of women in early medieval times is perceived in the fact that they were allowed, like the Shudras, to listen to certain religious texts and worship deities. However, this seems to have served, by making them religious-minded, mainly to strengthen the brahmanical religions and enhance the income of the officiating priests rather than to improve the quality of women’s lives. Much cannot also be made of the increase in the scope of stridhana, i.e. the wealth that a women could receive as a gift, for this did little to empower them in relation to men; their dependence and helplessness remained unaffected. While some authorities tried to get inheritance rights for the widow or daughter of a man dying sonless, actual historical instances make it clear that their prescriptions were routinely disregarded in favour of the contrary opinion by the early medieval kings, who would confiscate the property of such persons except for some privileged few; this provision, however, like those against widow remarriage and advocating sati, did not apply to the women of Shudra Varna.In fact, as in the previous and following periods, women of the labouring masses, simply for the reason that they had to work in the fields, pastures, etc. along with men in order to keep body and soul together, could not be subjected to the same kind of subordination and helplessness as was the fate of women of the privileged classes.

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