Vedic Caste System | Caste System of Ancient India

The Vedic Caste System during Ancient Indian Period.

Meaning and Significance of Vedic Caste System

The institution of the Vedic caste system of Ancient India which is found among the Hindus has no parallel in the world. The ancient Iranians had some class divisions.

But the Hindu caste system with hereditary castes, interdict on intermarriage and inter-dining among various castes is unique.

The Vedic caste system in its extreme form makes the lower classes untouchable to the higher classes. This strange social system warrants our study in regard to the origin and development of Ancient Vedic Caste System of India.

Three Stages of Evolution

When the Aryans first came to India perhaps they did not know the caste system. Scholars have traced three principal stages of evolution in the caste system viz., the Rig Vedic Age, the Later Vedic age and the age of the Sutras or Upanishads.

Origin of the Caste System in the Rig Vedic Age

There is no unanimity among scholars regarding the extent of the caste system in the Rig Vedic period. V. M. Apte has remarked that caste system as such in its mature form did not originate in the Vedic period. Its development was gradual. A critical study of the Rig Veda reveals the following features, of the caste system.

There was a real distinction between the Aryans and the aborigines. The main distinction was between the fair colored Aryans and the dark-skinned aborigines. Perhaps the Aryans feared admixture with the dark-skinned non-Aryans or Dasas. They feared that such admixture would spoil their identity. The word “Varna” in Rig Veda denoted colour and not caste. If any caste distinction existed in the Rig Vedic Age, it was marked in the distinction between the Aryans and the non­-Aryans. True those different classes existed in a Rig Vedic tribe. But Kosambi has pointed out that different classes of Aryans belonged to the same tribe and they were regarded as independent members of the tribe. Even the artisans enjoyed independent status.

Basham has however taken a more critical view than others about the distinction of colour or Varna and class. He has pointed out that Varna and Sreni divisions became the basis of caste divisions. When the Rig Vedic tribes began to crack these forces led to the growth of caste divisions. In this period of transition many Vaishyas and artisan classes lost their earlier status.

Caste System in Rig Vedic Age

It is therefore suggested by scholars that in the Rig Vedic period the Aryans were divided into classes instead of castes. The class divisions were needed for economic and social organization. But class divisions were not hereditary.

Transition of the Rig Vedic Classes

Towards the end of the Rig Vedic period some transformation took place in the Rig Vedic society. The Aryans gradually migrated from Punjab to the Ganga-Jamuna Valley of Eastern India. In this process of migration the Aryans were in a state of ceaseless warfare with Non-Aryan aborigines. Under the impact of constant war the traditional political and social organization of the Aryans gave way. They were replaced by some new system. In the process of this change the petty tribal kingdoms of the Aryans were merged into the big kingdoms that grew in this period. The petty rulers of these tribal kingdoms sank to the class of warriors and nobility. The Kshatriyas grew from this warrior class. They were required to fight as soldiers of the king of these big states. With the development of civilization the mode of worship and religious sacrifice of the Aryans became elaborate and complicated. Formerly the householders personally performed religious sacrifices. But they now found it difficult due to its complicated process. A class of people called priests who were proficient in scripture and rituals performed the religious sacrifices for the householders. These priests came to be known as Brahamanas. The remaining bulk of the Aryans received protection from the warrior class called the Kshatriyas. As the Kshatriyas were responsible for defence, maintenance of law and order, the rest of the Aryans abandoned the use of arms. They also gave up the practice of performing sacrifices which were done for them by the priests. These general Aryans took agriculture, industry and trade as their occupations. They formed a vis’ or the Vaishya class. The aborigines who were outside the Aryan race were considered as the Sudras. Thus the four classes developed in the Late Rig Vedic Age.

Absence of Rigidity

But in spite of the division of the society into four classes, there was perfect elasticity regarding the change of occupation. Society was divided vertically, not horizontally. Hereditary caste system was yet unknown in the Vedic Caste System. The Angirasa hymn of the Rig Veda shows that members of the same family could adopt different occupations. Hereditary caste, ban on intermarriage and inter-dining among different castes were completely unknown in the Ancient Indian Rig Vedic Caste System.

Growth of Caste Distinctions in the Later Vedic Age

When the Later Vedic Age comes under the full light of history, we find that in addition to the four Rig Vedic classes various sub-classes also grew up. The complex character of social and economic life led to the rise of these sub-castes in during these Ancient Indian period. The Aryan Vaishyas took to various trades and specially agriculture. Many non-Aryans also made agriculture as their principal occupation. There was the chance of inter-mixture between the Aryan and non-Aryan Vaishyas. It was because of this development the preservation of the purity of Varna a colour became most important. Varna began to lose its original meaning. Henceforth Varna denoted caste. The Aryans tried to maintain the purity of their descent by introducing the ritual of initiation. The Brahamanas were first to realize the significance of this transformation in the society. They managed to usurp the first position by claiming that they alone possessed the divinity. They performed Upanayana or initiation. After performing the rituals of initiation ceremony, a Brahmin became a Dwija (it) or twice born. He attained divinity after initiation. The Brahamanas claimed that they alone could invest the king with divine sanction during the Abhisheka (coronation). They were only entitled to initiate an Aryan.

Semi-Rigidity of Caste System

In the Later Vedic period caste system was in a state of semi rigidity. Change of caste became difficult though not absolutely impossible. Hereditary occupations were converted into hereditary castes. There was a tendency to discourage change of occupation. Great importance was attached to purity of descent. In the Later Vedic Age the status of the Vaishya class seems to have deteriorated. The Brahmanical literature denied many rights to Vaishya class. When the Vaishayas were in such a declining state, one can imagine the condition of the Sudras. A Sudra could be expelled at will, to be slain at will and he was a servant of another. The Sudra was not the twice born or ‘Dvija’. A Brahmin could kill a Sudra with impunity. Sudra was considered as a thing, a chattel. He was required to serve the three higher classes.

There were two types of Sudras, viz.

  • Not-excluded (anirvasita) and
  • Excluded (nirvasita).

The latter groups were purely outside the pale of the Hindu society. They were required to live outside the villages. The chandalas, the aborigines were included in this class. Sometimes, they are called the Panchamas or fifth class, outside the four recognized classes. The concept of un-touchability developed in relation to the Sudras. A Sudra was prohibited to touch the fire-pit of a Yajna and touch the offering to.

Caste System in the Sutra Period

In the Period of the Sutras there was a general crystallization of caste divisions. The prestige and privileges of the Brahamanas increased further. The Brahamanas now formed a compact class enjoying special rights and immunities. The Kshatriyas also grew in power and prestige as a warrior and ruling classes. These two castes became props of the society. In contradistinction to them the status of the Vaishyas sank further below. The Sudras were treated as people outside the Aryan race. Various restrictions were imposed on intermarriage, interdining. The Law books lay down specific rules for the Sudras. No interdining or intermarriage with him was permitted.

It was very easy to fall in the caste hierarchy but it was very difficult to rise from one class to another. Any Aryan caste having any relation with a Sudra lost his original caste.

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