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eBook formatUnknown Binding, (torrent)En
PublisherNot Avail
File size3 Mb
Release date 01.10.1991
Pages count198
Book rating4.57 (30 votes)
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Some of India’s complex social systems are hard to comprehend, like caste or jati. There is no mention in the country’s ancient texts on how this practice originated and developed. Hindu religious literature is vast, esoteric and complex, yet fails to mention how the religion’s most observable parameter came about. There are four varnas throughout the literature, no doubt, but caste is much different than Varna. While trying to reconcile the idea of caste, another hurdle faced by students of ancient Indian history is to demarcate an era in which the clan-based societies prevalent in the country and mentioned in sacred literature yielded to the pressure of monarchical states. What caused the transition and how was it related to similar events happening in other parts of the ancient world? Romila Thapar, who needs no introduction as a reputed scholar and historian, attempts to answer both the questions and to pin down a point in time at which a clear indicator of change is visible to her learned eye. 500 BCE and around was an important period in Indian history owing to the time in which states slowly emerged from the mists of history and caste began to take shape. This was also the time when religious reformers and founders like Buddha and Mahavira appeared on the scene. It was also the moment in history when the incidents heroically narrated in the Mahabharata and Ramayana materialized in real life, perhaps in a less romantic style. Both the epics were written down much later than that, but the core events of narration took place around this era. Romila Thapar makes an excellent analysis of historical events as gleaned from the Vedas, epics and puranas. With a master stroke the author compiles information from varied texts and brings out a comprehensive story of the change that transfigured the country’s visage forever. The profundity of the events which are described in this book are so enormous that even the sophisticated Indian of the 21st century is still a product of the legendary course of events unfurled in that remote past and living with a mindset that still displays the imprint of long eons of compressed history, nicknamed as heritage!

The early first millennium BCE was a period in which profound changes were taking place in Northern India. The pastoral societies of the Vedic age in the Punjab plains began to migrate eastward to the west Ganga valley, including the Ganga – Yamuna doab. When the curtain goes up around the mid-first millennium BCE in Thapar’s narrative, we see agricultural communities having firm roots in west Ganga region extending their migration towards further eastward to the middle Ganga watershed. Thus, the focus of attention in the political sphere gradually shifts from the Kuru – Panchala region in the doab to Magadha – Sravasti – Kosala regions of the latter area. Power over the farm lands and ownership of cattle wrested with clans. This lineage system was nearing breaking point by 500 BCE. Unit of economic production had changed from lineage to individual household, the gruhapati (householder) owning the assets. Protection of the assets, which was earlier under the collective responsibility of the clan, gave way to chiefs (rajas) who led the people in cattle raids against other neighbouring groups and gave shelter when under reciprocal attack. Cattle-lifting was an accepted way of gaining wealth, out of which the chiefs quite not unnaturally amassed a greater share. Such discrepancies in the distribution of wealth and the transfer of ownership of land from lineages to households created stratification in the society. The egalitarian clans transmogrified to the Varna system.

Thapar presents a plausible mechanism to the evolution of varnas. The term ‘Vish’ that later applied only to Vaishyas, the third Varna, was earlier used to denote the entire membership of the clan. As the chiefs continued to gather strength, they and their families came to be called rajanyas. When the administrative chores became extensive, these people handled greater power, ‘kshatra’, and began to be called kshatriyas. The rajas were elected or selected by a council of peers called ’sabha’. The legitimation of the ruler came through the priest, Brahmin, who also conducted sacrifices or yajnas of elaborate etiquette. As ownership of land changed hands to households, the peasant workforce was depleted considerably. The term ‘Dasa’, originally connoted people of non-Aryan origin, or to people initiated into the Aryan fold to do menial jobs. Earliest settlers of the Indus basin, called Asuras were technically superior to the Aryans and were also integrated into the society in the lowest stratum. These were called the Shudras. Thus we see the Varna system getting solidified into the four familiar categories around 500 BCE. It is curious to learn that the Devas and Asuras who represented the good and the evil respectively in Vedic texts, are present in Iranian legends as well, as Devas and Ahuras, with the well known Persian trait of changing the sound ‘s’ to ‘h’. But the interesting point to note is that there, the roles are interchanged, with Devas doing evil and Ahuras doing good!

The crucial transition from clan-system to state occurred in the middle Ganga valley. This area was newly incorporated into the post-Vedic society, and the presence of only two Varnas, the Kshatriya and Vaishya is noticeable. Labourers were used for agriculture on land which had become household property and the status of Shudras assigned to them. Surplus wealth was generated from agriculture, which was invested in trade and commerce. Traders called Shrestins established market towns, nigamas. Coinage arose in order to support commerce and financial transactions presented the need for a higher power to adjudicate over disputes that invariably arose. Brahmin sources depreciated the middle Ganga valley comprising Magadha and Kosala, where the surplus wealth was not usually distributed to Brahmins as gifts or as prestations in the case of yajnas, which they used to receive in Kuru and Panchala lands. But on the other hand, we see Buddhist texts commending the gruhapatis for bestowing liberally on the Sangha. Thus we see Magadha emerging as a kingdom which held under its wings the various parts that were required for the formation of a state, in the form of monarch, trade system with many guilds, markets, soldiery, peasants and rich householders who could pay taxes.

Thapar claims that both the Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata deals with the social issues related to the transition from a lineage system to state. Ramayana’s Ayodhya was the capital city of Kosala which had already turned into a state. Hastinapura and Indraprastha of the Mahabharata were transforming themselves from clan-system. The transitory phase of the largest kingdom of the period, Magadha, is depicted in Buddhism’s Ceylon chronicles, the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa. It is not coincidental that India’s great contribution to ancient statecraft, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, was formulated during this time. It is to be stressed here that the clans were not swept away overnight. Gana sanghas, variously translated as republics and oligarchies continued to exist till the post-Gupta period, a full millennium later than the events described in this book. This longevity was facilitated by the flexibility of metropolitan states like Magadha which contended peacefully with extraction of revenue from conquered clans, while leaving their economic and social structure intact. This could go on as long as there was wasteland existed for dissident or rebellious groups to dissociate themselves from an existing society and migrate to. As this declined in area, contests became fiercer, and the mild clans could not cope with the force exerted by powerful states and India underwent a supremely important change in her political history.

An unfortunate thing to note is that outside influence of any sort is not taken into account in the study. Though it is fairly evident that the Achaemenid Empire of Persia shared a common border with many of the Vedic societies in the Punjab around this period, its contribution to the events in India is not taken into consideration. We are not sure whether such a crucial influence is not discernible to the author or that she has simply omitted them altogether. This critical missing link counts terribly as one of the drawbacks of the book which needs to be filled in by other historians. The input received from the West that comprised the Assyrians and Achaemenidae must have been substantial.

The book is highly recommended.

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