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Of Varnas and Ashramas

How Varnashrama system worked and what were the effects of it on social fabric, know from Manu and Chanakya’s perspectives

K. A. Nilakantha Shastri
The society envisaged by and is organized in four classes (varnas), each with definitely marked spheres of duties and rights. Its beginnings are to be traced to a natural and necessary division of social functions, and to say that in it "early color prejudice is rationalized into a divinely appointed social order" does not represent the whole truth of the matter.

The ideal was one of co-operation for the common good among the different orders of co-ordinate standing. But in practice, hierarchical notions developed, and as new regions and peoples were admitted into the fold, a theory of mixed varnas (varna-samkara), of new castes (jatis) arising out of illicit unions was evolved. And Manu, though not Kautilya, is not free from the assertion of extreme claims on behalf of the brahmanas on account of their birth. But the better view that a brahmana is entitled to no particular regard unless he is both good and learned, which receives great emphasis in the dharma-sutras, is not unrepresented in Manu. The functional basis of the concept of varna was always stressed. Plato thought that the greatest possible happiness of the community as a whole was promoted by its being divided into three orders - rulers, auxiliaries and craftsmen, roughly corresponding to the Brahman, Kshatriya and Vaishya of the Hindu system. And modern thinkers like Heard, Steiner, and Waterman trace the malaise of Western civilization to its failure to recognize clearly the need for adequately organizing a threefold social order respectively to look after the cultural, political and economic fields of human activity.

Under normal conditions each varna was to devote itself to its own particular duties (sva-dharma)-the brahmana to learning and intellectual and spiritual pursuits; the ksatriya to soldiering and protection of the community, internal and external; the vaisya to agriculture, industry and trade; and the sudra to the service of all. But in critical times and in situations of extreme danger a strict adherence to the code was not expected.

Another governing concept regulating social life is that of the Asramas, stages of life, of which again four were recognized, viz (student), (householder), vanaprastha (forest-dweller), and sanyasin (ascetic). Here again departures from the norm were quite common in practice and at no time did the bulk of the community follow the prescriptions relating to the two last stages, though the elite were ever ready to do so and earn the respect of the community by disinterested well-doing.

Nothing can be farther from truth than to represent Hindu society as world-negating or other-world-minded. Every man is required to discharge the three-fold debt (rina-traya) with which he is born before he thinks of moksa, release for himself. He must educate himself properly to fulfil his obligations to the seers of the race, procreate children to repay his debt to his forefathers and perform sacrifices according to his means to free himself from his debt to the gods, before thinking of renouncing the world. He must take to an ascetic life only after attaining society in the enjoyment of the good things of life, after drinking life to the lees, as it were. From another point of view, Kautilya lays down a punishment for a person who turns ascetic without making adequate provision for the maintenance of his family. The householder is the pivot of society and the support of others; being as it were, the life-breath of the asramas, that of the grhastha is the highest of them all. He provides food for those who do not cook for themselves, viz. the students, ascetics and others. The entertainment of guests is counted among the major duties of the householder, and he and his wife are to have their meal after all the others, including even their own servants, have been satisfied. Even a pseudo-religious foundation for the rule of hospitality is furnished by the suggestion that by the use of the quem, pestle and mortar and other appliances for preparing food they incur sins which they expiate by the performance of five great sacrifices (maha-yajnas) every day, among which entertainment of guests is counted as one (nr-yajna).

Both Manu and Kautilya describe the traditional eight forms of marriage, some of which hardly deserve the name. But their statement as well as all other known evidence leave no doubt that the normal form of marriage was a monogamous sacramental union between a youth and a maiden of the same varna. But prescriptions and laws avail only within limits in the sphere where the most powerful impulse of the race is active, and the facts of life were sought to be accommodated not only by the theory of mixed castes mentioned above, but by prescriptions relating to marriages among different varnas and inheritance among children of such unions. Niyoga (levirate) is allowed by Kautilya, but Manu mentions it obviously as a permissible practice, but then follows it up with a condemnation which some annotators explain as relating to the present age (kali-yuga). There is little doubt that there grew up a more puritanical attitude between the time when Kautilya wrote and that when the Smriti was finally redacted.

Manu gives a high place to woman in social life and in the family "Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards." "In that family where the husband is pleased with his wife and the wife with her husband, happiness will assuredly be lasting." He is so keen on girls getting proper husbands that he goes so far as to say that when a suitable husband is not to be found, a girl might be kept in her father's house as a spinster to the end of her life rather than be given over to a man destitute of good qualities. Passages which admonish women to consult their male relatives in all matters and warn men, particularly those engaged in austerities, against danger from them are no detractions from the robust outlook on women's part in family and social life that pervades the code.

The Greek writers are positive that slavery was unknown in India in the Mauryan epoch. The best way of understanding their statement is to suppose that slavery of the Greek type, Hchattel slavery," as it may be called, was unknown in India. But the dasas or servants were in a condition of semi-slavery though not without rights. Kautilya lays it down definitely that an Arya could never be enslaved by another, and lays down punishments for the sale of Aryan children of all the four varnas. It is, however, 'open to an Aryan adult to accept voluntarily the condition of a dasa to another to tide over an economic crisis, but then he could recover his freedom by repaying the debt or in other stipulated ways. Manu also makes the distinction between dasas who are purchased and those who are not, but in language that recalls Aristotle's views on men who are slaves by nature, Manu affirms that sudras were created by Brahma for the service of others. He mentions the different classes of dasas. There is a distinct worsening in the status of the last varna from Kautilya to Manu.
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