The Gupta Empire – Social Changes

The conventional historiography projected continuation of the four-fold division of the Varna-System (Chatuh-Varna) in the Gupta and post-Gupta period. However, R.C. Hazra mentions that early Puranas offer descriptions of Kaliyuga in terms of foreign invasions, instability, social tension, struggle, teaching of hedonistic sects. But modern historians like Ram Sharan Sharma ascribes the origin of Kaliyuga to mixing of castes (Varna Samkara) and the rise of Shudras on the beginning of the fourth century. Hence it was a period of social crises. It was an age of enmity between brahmans and shudras, vaishyas refusing to perform yojnas on tax burdened subject population law and order problem, thefts, unsecured family and property, increasing materialism and decreasing religions rituals, sovereignty of mlechha (low-caste) kings. The inscriptions of the Vakatakas of Vidarbha and Pallavas of Kanchipuram are quoted to show that they acted together against Kaliyuga. Brahmanization of villages under the Vakatakas and Pallavas are supposed to indicate social disorder. It is assumed that the rulers set to order Kaliyuga from the fourth century onwards. The rise of the Vakatakas, Pallavas, Gangas and Kadambas are supposed to indicate brahmanical reactions against the shudras as these dynasties originated from brahmana families.

From the later half of the Gupta period and particularly the Vakatakas and Pallavas enforced strict rules according to Varna-order to deal with Kaliyuga. One of the chief mechanisms of continuing Kaliyuga was landgrants. We have already mentioned that the Guptas and their contemporaries began to grant land to religious denees, brahmanas and temple-priests, and later to secular donees, ministers, civil and army officers and even merchants. Thus, began the age of landed-intermediaries intervening between states and peasants. Landgrants gang rise to a graded rural society and ranking status and ranks which did not fit into Varna-order: Mahamandalika, Mandalika, Mandaleshwara, Mahasamanta etc as mentioned in Aparajitaprachha (a book of architecture) but a receipt (critique of the above thesis by Herman Kilke, B.D. Sharma and B.P. Sahu clearly indicate that the concept of Kaliyuga was popularized by brahmanas has to be viewed in the context of state formation process. Rural society had to be initiated in the norms of state society in regions where local state formation was taking place for the first time. Taxes and resources had to be mobilized for the first time from a rural population which was getting families with state and its administration and military institutions. The fear of Kaliyuga forced communities to conform to social and political order in regions, which were going through processes of state formation for the first time.

A detailed study of epigraphical records reveals that landgrants did not introduced a graded society for the first time. B.D. Chattopadhyaya and Nandini Sinha Kapur in their case studies have demonstrated a hierarchical rural society in Bengal, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Gujarat in which brahmana and non-brahmana landlords, peasants, artisans and landless labourers constituted rural society before the beginnings of the practice of landgrants. One of the most important social developments in this period was proliferation of castes or jatis. A large number of castes originated with incorporation of economic specialists, tribes and immigrants from central Asia into the Brahmanical Varna Society.

Categories of slaves were drawn more commonly from the lower castes and untouchables. The Dharmashastras of this time mentions details of slaves and indicate a greater use of slave labour. But hired labour seems to have been used on larger scale that before. Prisoners of war, debt bondsmen and slaves born to slave women formed the usual sources of slaves. The largest number of slaves seems to have been employed in domestic work. Bonded labour, hired labour and those required to perform stipulated jobs as a form of vishti, forced labour or labour tax constituted important part of agricultural labour. Caste regulations prevented the untouchables to be hired as domestic labour and untouchables constituted a permanent landless labour.

Fa Xian (Fa-Hien), a Chinese Buddhist monk, who was on pilgrimage to India in the years 405 to 411 CE, collecting Buddhist manuscripts, describes general happiness of ordinary people. But he also mentions practices like untouchables sounding a clapper in the street of the town to warn people of their presence as an upper-caste person had to perform a ritual ablution. Xuan Zang (Hiuen-Tsang) states that butchers, fishermen, theatrical performers, executioners and scavengers were forced to live outside the city and their houses were marked so that they could be avoided. However, Chinese Buddhist marks offer an overall pleasant picture of the Indian society.

Another important indicator of social structure is the social construction of gender relations. Idealized form of women in literature and art tend to give the impression that women generally enjoyed a higher social status. But historians like Romila Thapar point out that such idealized women conformed to the male ideals of the perfect women and such ideals placed women in the subordinate position. Limited education was permitted to upper-caste women but certainly not to provide professional expertise. Women’s access to property or inheritance was limited and varied according to caste, custom and region. Although matrilineal systems might have existed among some social groups in the earlier times but normative texts supported patriarchy. Hence, groups wanting upward social mobility adopted patriarchy. Characteristic of the status of upper-caste women in later centuries was that early marriages were advocated. A widow was expected to live in austerity while a widow of the Kshatriya caste was expected to immolate herself on the funeral pyre of her husband especially if he had died a hero’s death this would make her a sati. The earliest historical evidence for this practice dates from 510 CE, when it was commemorated in an inscription at Iran. Subsequently, incidents of Sati increased. Small number of women chose to opt out of the ‘normal’ household activities required of woman, and became nuns, or trained to be courtesans or joined troupes of performers.

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