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Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Mauryan Empire - Society

Megasthenes, the Seleucid ambassador at the Mauryan court talks about the existence of seven main castes in Mauryan society. He mentions them as philosophers, farmers, soldiers, herdsmen, artisans and magistrates. He has however appeared to have confused caste with occupation, as is evident with the 'castes' that he has mentioned above. Based on his accounts we are able to draw a clearer picture of the caste system prevailing at that time. The philosophers in all probability were the brahmans , the Buddhist monks and the followers of new religious sects. Apparently this caste was exempt from taxation. The farmers were probably the shudras who cultivated and worked on the land. The soldiers were probably kshatriyas but they may also have constituted a unique economic class of their own. The Mauryan army was huge and hence this was a large and influential caste. As for the herdsmen they were also probably shudras . As for the artisans their caste would depend on the type of work they were engaging in, as also their economic status. Magistrates and councillors being a part of the administration were probably either the brahmans or the kshatriyas .

During this time the caste system was going through a bit of an upheaval as economic realities were beginning to challenge age old convictions. For instance over time the vaishyas who were technically a part of the upper caste were not getting due respect and were being treated as lower by the first two castes. However, the vaishyas had done extremely well and were economically very well off. This began to cause conflict as they believed they deserved a higher status. The development of the trade and manufacturing guilds in urban areas also added a new dimension to the caste system, the Guild leaders considered themselves important for they controlled vital business interests. They too wished to be admitted into the higher social strata of society. Thus there appears to have been a conflict between the socially higher castes and the economically powerful castes.
Slavery in India was beginning to make its appearance, although there are contradictory accounts on whether it was there or not. However, the Indian system of slavery was very different from its contemporaries. The slavery that developed can best be described as a sort of flexible voluntary slavery. A person usually became a slave if he decided to sell himself, was a prisoner of war or was serving a judicial sentence. The slave was free at anytime to buy back his freedom. Once a slave was free, if he was an Aryan he could go back to the status he earlier had in the society, retaining his caste etc. At that time issues like slavery or the degree of their freedom was not so significant, the deciding factor was the caste of the person.
The people of the time had a variety of ways of entertaining themselves. Dancing, singing and music were very popular and there appear to have been many festivals where the people would enjoy the carnival like atmosphere. Wrestling was also popular and wrestlers from all parts of the empire would compete against each other. There also appears to have been wrestling between man and animal, and there is mention of wrestling matches between men and elephants. Theatre also existed, and a variety of plays were performed. Gambling remained a popular game as well. There also seemed to be the proto-type of a game that would later evolve into what is today known as chess. It appears to have got more and more popular with time.
more popular with time.

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