SAH MKK230027: History of Social Relations in India

Caste and gender equations in Indian history

No aspect of Indian history has excited more controversy than India’s history of social relations. Western indologists and Western-influenced Indian intellectuals have seized upon caste divisions, untouchability, religious obscurantism, and practices of dowry and sati as distinctive evidence of India’s perennial backwardness. For many Indologists, these social ills have literally come to define India – and have become almost the exclusive focus of their writings on India.

During the colonial period, it served the interests of the British (and their European cohorts) to exaggerate the democratic character of their own societies while diminishing any socially redeeming features of society in India (and other colonized nations). Social divisions and inequities were a convenient tool in the arsenal of the colonizers. On the one hand, tremendous tactical gains could be achieved by playing off one community against the other. On the other hand, there were also enormous psychological benefits in creating the impression that India was a land rife with uniquely abhorrent social practices that only an enlightened foreigner could attempt to reform. India’s social ills were discussed with a contemptuous cynicism and often with a willful intent to instill a sense of deep shame and inferiority.

Strong elements of such colonial imagery continue to dominate the landscape of Western Indology. A liberal, dynamic West embracing universal human values is posed against an obdurate and unchanging East clinging to odious social values and customs.

It is little wonder, therefore, that India’s intellectuals have been unable to either fully understand the historic dynamics and context which gave life to these social practices or find effective solutions for their cure. Many historians and social activists appear to have tacitly accepted the notion that caste divisions in society are a uniquely Indian feature and that Indian society has been largely unchanged since the writing of the Manusmriti which provides formal sanction to such social inequities.

But caste-like divisions are neither uniquely Indian nor has Indian society been as socially stagnant as commonly believed. In all non-egalitarian societies where wealth and political power were unequally distributed, some form of social inequity appeared and often meant hereditary privileges for the elite and legally (or socially) sanctioned discrimination against those considered lower down in the social hierarchy.

In fact, caste-like divisions are to be found in the history of most nations – whether in the American continent, or in Africa, Europe or elsewhere in Asia. In some societies, caste-like divisions were relatively simple, in others more complex. For instance, in Eastern Africa some agricultural societies were divided between land-owning and landless tribes (or clans) that eventually took on caste-like characteristics. Priests and warriors enjoyed special privileges in the 15th C. Aztec society of Mexico as did the Samurais (warrior nobles) and priests of medieval Japan. Notions of purity and defilement were also quite similar in Japanese society and members of society who carried out “unclean” tasks were treated as social outcasts – just as in India.

Amongst the most stratified of the ancient civilizations was the Roman Civilization where in addition to state-sanctioned slavery, there were all manner of caste-like inequities coded into law. Even in the Christian era, European feudalism provided all manner of hereditary privileges for the knights and landed barons (somewhat akin to India’s Rajputs and Thakurs) and amongst the royalty, arranged marriages and dowry were just as common as in India. Discrimination against the artisans was also commonplace throughout Europe, and as late as the 19th century – artisans in Germany had to go through a separate court system to seek legal redress. They were not permitted to appeal to courts that dealt with the affairs of the nobility and the landed gentry.

A common pattern that seems to emerge from a study of several such ancient and medieval societies is that priests and warriors typically formed an elite class in most medieval societies and social privileges varied according to social rank; in settled agriculture based societies, this was usually closely related to ownership of land.

For instance, we find no evidence of caste-like discrimination in societies where land was collectively owned and jointly cultivated, or where goods and services were exchanged within the village on the basis of barter, and there was no premium assigned to any particular type of work. All services and all forms of human labor were valued equally. Such village communes may have once existed throughout India and some appear to have survived until quite recently – especially in the hills, (such as in parts of Himachal and the North East, including Assam and Tripura), but also in Orissa and parts of Central India. In such societies, we also see little evidence of gender discrimination.

In India, caste and gender discrimination appear to become more pronounced with the advent of hereditary and authoritarian ruling dynasties, a powerful state bureaucracy, the growth of selective property rights, and the domination of Brahmins over the rural poor in agrahara villages. But this process was neither linear nor always irreversible. As old ruling dynasties were overthrown, previously existing caste equations and caste hierarchies were also challenged and modified.

In many parts of India this process may have taken several centuries to crystallize and caste rigidity may be a much more recent phenomenon than has been commonly portrayed. The impression that caste divisions were always strictly enforced, or that there were no challenges to caste rigidity does not seem to square with a dispassionate examination of the Indian historical record.

It should also be emphasized that caste-distinctions were not the only way, or even the most egregious way in which social inequities manifested themselves in older societies. In ancient Greece and Rome, the institution of slavery was at least as cruel a practice, if not worse.

Levels and degree of caste discrimination in India have varied with time and there has been both upward and downward mobility of castes and social groups. Going by the strictures outlined in the Manusmriti, one might conclude that caste distinctions were set in stone, rigidly enforced and the possibilities of caste mobility completely circumscribed. But a closer examination of the historical record suggests otherwise.

Already in the Upanishadic period there were tensions between Brahmins and Kshatriyas, and there are explicit parables in the Upanishadic texts illustrating how an enlightened Kshatriya was able to exceed a Brahmin in spiritual wisdom and philosophical knowledge. In the Mahabharatha, there are references to a Brahmin warrior suggesting that caste categories were not entirely inflexible.

There is also criticism of parasitism amongst Brahmins in some of the texts from the Upanishadic period, and social commentators emphasized how those who reneged on their social obligations were undeserving of their caste privileges.

This is an important point because it suggests that there was an implied social contract that involved both privileges and social obligations. The monarch might have enjoyed immense power and prestige, and exacted numerous rights over the common people, but also had the obligation to defend the people – to protect them from invaders, to dispense justice in an unprejudiced manner and assist in the development and preservation of irrigation facilities and roads. Failure to meet such expectations could and did lead to revolts, and dynasties rose and fell within a matter of few generations.

Challenges to Brahminical hegemony and caste-rigidity

In the Upanishads, there is also recognition that conceptions of god could be quite varied, that Brahminical rituals were not essential to spiritual release, and that individuals might choose different deities or methods of worship. This ecumenical outlook facilitated the growth of alternative viewpoints not only in the realm of religious practice but also on norms of how society ought to be structured.

Social challenges to absolute monarchical rule and the immense power of the priestly class probably led to a crescendo during the Buddhist period when Brahmin hegemony received challenges from several quarters – from radical atheists such as the Lokayatas, from Jain agnostics, and heterodox Hindus and Buddhists who wanted to reconstruct society on a less discriminatory and more humane basis.

Although it would be wrong to romanticize the Buddhists as being completely against caste distinctions {since there is evidence that they accepted caste distinctions in society outside their sanghas (communes)}, Buddhists along with other social critics undoubtedly played a powerful role in ensuring that caste was not the sole or even the dominant factor in shaping Indian society of that period. This is borne out by how so many ruling clans arose from a non-Kshatriya (and also non-Brahmin) background. The Nandas, the Mauryas, the Kalingas and the Guptas are just some of the more illustrious of India’s ruling dynasties that did not arise from a Kshatriya background.

It is also worth noting that the classical four varna division of Hindu society (as described in the Manusmriti) does not appear to have had much practical significance if one were to go by the accounts of the Greek chronicler, Megasthenes. In his accounts of Mauryan India. Megasthenes appears to list a seven fold social order in which he differentiates between the priest and the philosopher (who he ranked much above the priest, and who could have been a Brahmin, Jain or Buddhist) and also gives special attention to court bureaucrats such as record keepers, tax collectors and judicial officials. He also ascribed to the peasantry a higher status than might be inferred from the Manusmriti and noted with amazement how the peasantry was left unharmed during battles.

According to Megasthenes, philosophers – whether Brahmins or Jain/Buddhist monks also had obligations in terms of offering advice to the ruler in matters of public policy, agriculture, health and culture. Repeated failure to provide sound counsel could lead to a loss of privileges – even exile or death. Thus, although many Brahmins may have held on to their privileges by being shameless sycophants – others made significant contributions in the realm of science, philosophy and culture. Social mobility was possible since learning was not an exclusive preserve of the Brahmins and both the Buddhist and Jain sanghas admitted people from different social backgrounds and also admitted women. The more advanced sanghas enforced a separate quorum for women to ensure that a largely male gathering may not take decisions that did not meet with the approval of the women members of the sangha.

Over time, it appears that the sanghas degenerated, losing their intellectual vitality and egalitarian spirit allowing the Brahmins to gradually consolidate their power and influence in the Gangetic plain. But even as late as the 6th-7th C, Gupta-period inscriptions describing land grants in Bengal appear to corroborate Megasthenes’ view of how Indian society was structured. Social rank of senior court administrators (who may have risen from different caste backgrounds) invariably exceeded the rank of ordinary village priests.

In a sampling of Gupta period land grant decrees, it is intriguing that caste identities are omitted more often than explicitly included. Had caste been as important or dominant a social category, one might expect otherwise. Some of the most important figures appear to be officials involved in tax collection and land measurement. Various ranks of officials are mentioned without any explicit mention of their caste. Villagers are also frequently named without reference to their cast. Only occasionally, there are references to villagers who are also mentioned as being Brahmins. Some of the land grant records indicate that before land grants were made, certain categories of villagers – perhaps those considered more important – were consulted by the higher officials. Although Brahmins are mentioned in the list of those consulted, there are equal references to other categories of villagers such as kutumbins and mahattaras who may have been village officials or important landholders in the village. {Vishwa Mohan Jha (see ref. below) describes the kutumbins and mahattaras as varna/jati nuetral categories (i.e. caste-independent categories) that included Brahmins and non-Brahmins alike.}

Other references point to consultative committees that included the chief artisan, the chief scribe, the merchant and the guild-president of the town. It also appears that administrative changes led to the creation of new posts, the merger or elimination of older posts, and changes in ranks of various officials over time. An examination of the land grant decrees over a space of three centuries (5th-7th C Bengal) points to such changes and others – such as changes in procedures, or changes in the constitution of consultative committees, perhaps to reflect changing political alliances or changes in the economic status of different groups of townspeople and villagers.

In a land allotment plate from Paschimbagh (Bengal) Brahmins are mentioned as tax payers, and the status of ordinary Brahmins does not seem at all exceptional. For instance, it points to a teacher or a Vedic scholar as being entitled to 10 patakas of land, but other Brahmins were entitled to only 2 patakas – a share less than that of a Kayastha (record-keeper) or Vaidya (medical practitioner). Carpenters, smiths and artisans were also put far above other service communities in terms of their share of land.

The Paschimbagh inscription also describes the grant of plots of land to florists, potters, carpenters, masons, blacksmiths and sweepers for serving a matha (monastery) indicating that when land was granted for a temple or monastery, priests were not the exclusive beneficiaries of land grants.

A study of land grants from 12th C Rajasthan (Pali) and Karnataka (Kalikatti) suggests that land grants had a limited life tenure even when initially decreed to be for life or for perpetuity. Beneficiaries of land grants were subject to transfers, and grants to a particular beneficiary were transferred to another beneficiary five or ten years later. It also appears that the beneficiaries were selected based on administrative rank rather than any particular caste-affiliation.

It is also not at all apparent that administrative rank was limited by birth. In Orissa, there is explicit evidence to the contrary. Ordinary peasants were able to rise up in the ranks of the military, and it is likely that a similar situation prevailed in the administrative ranks. Mayadhar Mansinha (see ref. below) suggests that a combination of factors such as training, merit and personal determination played a role, (in addition to social standing and political connections) in determining rank and promotions. In Karnataka, there is evidence that some of the chief administrators were women. (

Brahminical Ascendance

Nevertheless, the seeds for a more privileged role for the Brahmins were also being sown through the process of land grants to Brahmins. In some instances, thousands of Brahmins were granted rights to hitherto uncultivated land. In other cases, Brahmins were appointed as the local representatives of the state authorities in what are described as agrahara villages where Brahmins presided over small peasants, who in Bihar were mostly landless sharecoppers or bonded labourers. These agrahara villages were typically small villages and sattelites of bigger villages that included members of several castes and bigger land-holders. In Bihar, such agrahara villages proliferated and it is quite likely that in such agraharas oppressive social relations and some of the most egregious patterns of caste-centred discrimination and exploitation may have developed.

But these developments took time to spread elsewhere in India, first spreading to Bengal and eastern UP, and very gradually elsewhere in India. However, this pattern was not necessarily replicated in identical form throughout India and some parts of India virtually escaped this trend. In agrahara villages in other parts of India, Brahmins did take on the role of local administrators and tax collectors, but the status of the small peasantry was not always as miserable as in Bihar. The degree of exploitation and oppression appears to be related to the extent of alienation from land-ownership.

For example, evidence for Brahmin domination in Kalikatti, Southern Karnataka emerges after the 13th C. when villagers were instructed to pay taxes to the Brahmin assignees, leading to constant tensions and disputes, but without dramatic changes in the overall status of the tax-paying villagers.

Although Brahminization was an important factor in leading to caste ossification, it was not necessarily the sole or even the most important factor in the mix. The impact of the Islamic invasions, colonization by the British and ecological changes played an equally crucial if not decisive role in many instances.

For instance, in Orissa, the ossification of the bureaucracy and its conversion into a group of privileged and exclusive castes appears to take place after the 14th-15th C. when we begin to see a general decline in its overseas trade due to the silting up of its rivers. At the same time, we see the growth of Brahminical hegemony in the realm of religion and military defeats at the hands of the Mughal armies led by Raja Man Singh of Jaipur. All these factors may have played a role in destroying the vibrancy of Oriya society and encouraging caste conservatism.

Impact of the Islamic Invasions

Unfortunately, many social historians have studiously ignored the effect of such external factors in the shaping of social relations in India. But we know that the Islamic invasions led to monumental changes in the political and cultural life of the sub-continent and especially so in the Gangetic plain – so it would be exceedingly odd if the invasions had no impact on the social structure of Indian society. While some social analysts have tried to analyze Hindu society during the period of Islamic rule as though it had been untouched by the Islamic invasions and left to stagnate in a cocoon of its own making, others have succumbed to illusory simplifications such as Islam was an egalitarian faith whereas Hinduism had caste divisions.

Because Islam first arose in those parts of the world where settled agriculture was not possible – i.e. in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula – social divisions had not yet emerged in quite the same way that they had in long settled agricultural societies like India. For the warring nomadic tribes of the desert, Islam may have been a tool for the upward mobility of clans that may have  earlier survived on petty thievery and by raiding the wealth of settled urban societies (and later for those who joined the ranks of the military in the Islalmic states), the upward mobility of some came at the expense of enormous human rights violations against others. In the hands of expansionist conquerors, Islam became more an instrument of devastation and terror rather than a vehicle for social equality or social justice.

Taken in its entirety, the period of Islamic rule in India cannot be seen as furthering social equity or social harmony in the subcontinent. As a faith-based ideological system Islam could at best guarantee equality before “God” – i.e. equality after death. However, a closer study of the Quran dispels even such notions, for even amongst believers, there is gender discrimination and rank based on the “quality” and “type” of service provided to the Islamic cause. In any case,  on earth, the plight of Muslim converts depended more on social realities, on political equations – than on the abstract and remote promise of equality offered by Islam.

During times of heavy political and economic oppression, the only option for the poor was complete and total submission to the will of “God” which in effect meant sacrificing all their autonomy in favor of the clergy, (who rarely challenged political authority), and more often than not, were largely beholden to the rulers who chose to support and promote them. When the clergy did resist political authority, it often tended towards social conservatism and reaction rather than social progress.

By and large, social inequities widened with the onset of Islamic rule in the sub-continent. Land revenue records clearly indicate that with few exceptions (as in Kashmir and Bengal for a time), Islamic rulers taxed the peasantry at significantly higher rates. If the average rate of taxation during the pre-Islamic period varied between 10% to a maximum of 20% – averaging around 15-16%, it had increased to 33% or even more under the Mughals.

While all Islamic rulers may not have insisted on the discriminating jaziya, many of the earlier invaders insisted upon it, and more than one court chronicler of the Delhi Sultanate describes the violent means taken to suppress peasant rebellions and extract the high taxes from the crushed peasantry. Urban revolts were also not uncommon and the Arab chronicler Ibn Batuta mentions how such rebellions were suppressed with great cruelty. Punishment for those who rebelled could mean loss of adults (particularly young women) and children to slavery, massacres or forced evacuations of entire villages and small towns, pillage and destruction of places of learning, of temples and other symbols of cultural identification, and denial of job opportunities in the courts. In the early centuries of Islamic rule, the distrust of the locals was so intense that virtually all the important administrative positions were kept in the hands of foreigners.

For instance, the Afghanistan region (which once had a sizeable Hindu and Buddhist population) acquired the reputation of being a land where Hindus were slaughtered and hence took the name Hindu-Kush, and references to wanton destruction occur with boastful regularity in the records of the triumphant conquerors. However, in the Gangetic plain the Hindu population was essential in maintaining the tax base for the rulers and therefore, it was only necessary to break the autonomy of the Hindu population and crush their resistance to higher taxation. This was largely achieved through the almost complete destruction of older centres of culture and learning, burning of libraries such as in Nalanda and Vikramshila, the widespread conversion of Buddhists to Islam, and violent acts of reprisal against those who resisted.

One of the most deleterious effects of the Islamic invasions on social relations in India was the practice of slavery, which was introduced on a scale hitherto unseen in the subcontinent. Unlike the societies of the East, slavery appears to have played an important role almost throughout the history of the Western world and the Quran has passages that endorse the practice of slavery. During the Islamic period, in sub-Saharan Africa, slaves labored in the salt mines and copper mines and served as a vital link in the trans-Saharan trade routes acting as porters where camels and donkeys could not go.

Scott Levi (Univ. of Wisconsin) points to judicial documents of medieval Samarqand (and other Central Asian sources) that disclose the presence there of many thousands of Indian slaves throughout the medieval period. A number of Indian sources make it clear that, from the early Ghaznavid raids to the Mughal period, hundreds of thousands (if not millions over the centuries) of men, women and children were marched over to the slave markets in Iran and Central Asia, i.e. beyond the northwest frontier of India, and out of the reach of their familial support systems.

The practice of slavery probably led to the growth in the custom of Jauhar and Sati amongst the military castes. Prior to the Islamic invasions, there are very few records to indicate that such practices were widely followed. But the onslaught of the Islamic invaders had led to a complete breakdown in the implementation of war ethics. Whereas in earlier wars, it was required of both sides to protect the peasantry, to leave women, children and the elderly at peace, and there were injunctions against the enslavement of prisoners or of harming those who surrendered in battle – the invaders had few if any compunctions in unleashing all manner of torments on the defeated population. In such an environment, it is not surprising that for the proud Rajput societies, the act of jauhar, or mass suicide was a more honorable option.

Nevertheless, Islamic rule in India did not prevail entirely without benefits for specific social classes who chose to collaborate with the invaders.

Trading communities probably benefited from the installation of Islamic rulers whose policies of lower taxes on trade, and state support of local traders and financiers was in their interest. Scott Levi suggests that from the end of the thirteenth century, and throughout much of the Delhi Sultanate period, the Muslim nobility were dependent upon heavily capitalized indigenous banking firms (identified in the Tarikh-i Firuz Shahi as ‘Sahs’ and ‘Multanis’). These domestic financiers loaned seeds and other necessary inputs to peasants and village-artisans and manufacturers (such as textile weavers) in return for a share of the produce. The rest they bought in cash, and a part of that cash was then recovered by the state treasuries through taxation.

It should also be noted that, (by and large), Islamic rulers born and raised in India relied less on violence and sheer terror, but sought alliances with sections of the local population, especially with those amongst the Hindu elite who were willing to collaborate. Although some of these alliances were coerced, others led to tangible material benefits for the royal collaborators.

Alliances were forged through marriage, or simply from political convenience. Military alliances with Hindu rulers were crucial in maintaining the power of many Islamic rulers. After Akbar, the Mughals relied heavily on the Jaipur and Bikaner Rajputs, who in return were given rights to a share of the taxes extracted from the Gangetic plain. And although Hindus were numerically discriminated in jobs at the courts, by skillfully playing off different caste communities against one another, the Mughals were able to win over a section of the Hindus in maintaining their position of political preeminence.

Hence, it would be wrong to see the many centuries of Islamic rule in India purely from the prism of religious antagonisms. But it would be equally wrong to see the long period of rule by Islamic-identified rulers (even those that were born in India) as entirely benevolent or benign, or no different from the rule of earlier Hindu kings. Since most were heavier taxers, the distance between the ruling elites and the peasant and artisan masses tended to widen and there were other aspects of Islamic rule (particularly during the rule of the more oppressive Sultanates) that limited social mobility.

For many of the Islamic rulers, the Brahmin dominated agraharas were highly suited to efficient tax collection and the might of the Sultanates came down very heavily on social challenges that weakened the ability of the state to collect taxes. The fear of enslavement and the denial of equal access to job opportunities in the Sultanate courts led to Hindu society becoming extremely inward-looking in large parts of the plains. With opportunities for jobs in the administrative ranks shrinking, caste loyalties were in all likelihood strengthened, not weakened. Thus, rather than shake up the caste system as some might expect, Islamic rule (by foreign invaders who distrusted the locals) may have actually helped in its crystallization. Neither is there any evidence that Islamic rule helped end the practice of untouchability.

Over time, Islamic rule in India created a much stronger and more unified elite, which made it more difficult for the ordinary masses to resist regressive social changes, particularly in the realm of philosophical choice, religious pluralism, regional and local autonomy in matters of religion, gender equity, freedom of sexual expression and sexual orientation. For instance, prior to the arrival of Islam, women enjoyed greater freedom of movement and dress. 11th C chronicler of Indian life, Al-Biruni expresses puzzlement at how the Hindu men (of Punjab) took the advice of the women “in all consultations and emergencies”. But in a matter of few centuries, Islamic notions of gender separation and sexual prudery had infected Hindu households as well. A weaker version of the Purdah system and a more conservative dress code became the custom even in Hindu homes, especially so amongst those of the trading community that had frequent contacts with Muslims.

Although in sime passages, the Quran states that their ought to be no compulsion in matters of religion, in other passages, the Quran leaves no doubt that force and coercion are acceptable in furthering Islamic practice. Consequently, the practice of Islam conformed more to the passages advicating force and coercion. In Mali, the Tunisian chronicler Ibn Batuta noted that children who were neglectful in learning the Quran were put in chains until they had it memorized. Regarding India, he commented how newly converted peasants had a very lackadaisical attitude towards attending regular prayers and how the Imams had to cane non-attendees to force attendance. He also describes how he personally led a battle against the reluctance of women to cover their breasts in the Maldives.

In the Indian tradition, moral codes concerning dress were more in keeping with the natural environment. Clothes were light and simple, consistent with the generally hot climate. And in matters of religion, there was greater diversity, and much more personal choice. It was often up to the devotee to visit a temple at a time of his or her choosing. Which deity to worship involved an element of local choice and different jatis might worship different deities. Local versions of the epics such as the Ramayana and the Krishna-Leela were popularized and recent research points to hundreds of different versions in circulation. Unlike in Islam, pilgrimages were undertaken under less pressure and with greater individual volition. Al-Biruni also noted how the Hindus were remarkably flexible and willing to change customs and traditions they no longer felt to be relevant or essential.

Pluralism in Indian History

In religions that paid tremendous stress on “revealed truth” there have always been strong tendencies towards dogmatic rigidity. But even at the peak of their influence, India’s Brahmins were never quite able to impose any comparable sort of rigid uniformity in the practice of Hinduism on a national (let alone, international) scale. In some localities, the lower castes did without the Brahmins entirely while elsewhere, especially in the South, or in Central India and Orissa – Brahmins often felt obliged to give due deference to dissenting and heterodox cults, and incorporated their belief systems into mainstream Hinduism.

T.K Venkatasubramaniam describes how in Tamil Nadu, Brahmins begin to play an important role in politics and society only after the 7th C., when the Pallavas began to challenge the authority of the previous ruling clans such as the Chera, Chola and Pandya. Because the Pallavas did not rise from an aristocratic background, they used the Brahmins to validate their right to rule through a combination of persuasion and coercion.

At that time, Tamil Nadu was a hotbed of a variety of non-Brahminical traditions, (such as Buddhist, Jain and many others) – hence, a synthesis of these different traditions took place between the 7th and the 11th centuries. Vajrayana Buddhism, Shaivite Tantrism and Hata-Yoga were amongst the trends that became integrated. The Bhakti tradition in which the devotee is held in a higher status than the Brahmin had it’s impact as did the ideals of the Siddhis whose supreme ideal was freedom, perfect health and immortality – all to be gained on this earth through magic and yoga. The Kalamukas, Pasupatas and Kapalikas were popular practitioners of Yogic and Tantric cults – the latter helped assimilate the ecstatic tribal cults of earlier times. This was also the period when the androgyne forms of the Hindu gods (the Ardhanarishwara) became popularized.

The existence of these numerous cults was partly an expression of the struggle for social equality and freedom from exploitation, but for some, it was also a means for accessing greater social privileges . The Brahmins of Tamil Nadu (along with the rulers) attempted to manage these social tensions through co-option, philosophical accommodation and synthesis.

In Andhra, folk religions played a powerful role in mediating Brahminical influences, and a vibrant example of the deep penetration of folk influences in popular religion is to be seen in the sculpted array of folkloric panels in the temple of Srisailam In neighbouring Karnataka, the Bhakti ideal and Jain influences put their stamp on prevailing religious practices.

Religion in India thus developed in a much more organic fashion than is commonly realized, and it was never completely divorced from popular inputs. Both male and female deities drew followers, and while goddesses were sometimes displayed in demonic warrior roles, gods were sometimes displayed with feminine qualities. In the Yogini temples, all the deities were women and although today, there are only a handful of surviving Yogini temples, (mostly in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh) it is not unlikely that many more may have been in existence.

In the 8th-10th C Pratihara era temples, men and women were sculpted in identical heights and proportions – perhaps implying that male domination had not yet fully come to pass. Tantric ideas on sexual liberation found their way into the grand temples not only of Khajuraho and Konarak but also in temples in Rajasthan, the Jabalpur and Raipur regions, in Telengana and elsewhere in the South. Unlike Islam where entry into mosques was curtailed for women, and separate zenana areas were constructed, restraints on the entry of women in temples were not commonplace. Contrary to the suppression of female sexuality in the Semitic religious streams, temple architecture from the 11th-13th C appears to revel in the eroticism of both genders – and there are even displays of same-gender interaction.

In this relatively liberal atmosphere, philosophy continued to flourish and while some tendencies drifted towards religious idealism, others emphasized the rational and worldly. The slow but steady record of scientific progress up to the 12th-13th C points to the toleration that atheist, agnostic and rational currents may have enjoyed in Indian society in contrast to the violence meted out towards “heretics” and disbelievers in medieval Europe and the Middle East. Religion in India developed in a relatively secular atmosphere where all manner of religious variations coexisted with the abstract and all-inclusive monotheism articulated in the Upanishads and later emulated in the various Bhakti streams of worship.

At the grassroots level, these relatively more liberal tendencies had their impact on the practice of Islam as well. Sufism, the worship of pirs (saints), the practice of the Urs were attempts at forging some sort of a compromise.

But in the Madrasahs, (with few exceptions) conservatism and orthodoxy were the norm; attempts at providing a secular education never really took off, and over time this had a distinctly illiberal effect on how social relations matured in the sub-continent.

The Sikh Renaissance

Just prior to British rule, Mughal rule had virtually collapsed and power had gone into the hands of Sikh rulers in the North and the Maratha kings in much of Central and Southern India. The Sikhs had been at the forefront of powerful social reforms as they fought against the intolerable burden of high taxes imposed by the Mughals. Gender equality received particular attention from the early Sikh Gurus as did caste discrimination. During the time of Guru Gobind Singh – women not only participated as warriors but they also led some of the battles, and 40% of the spiritual leadership came from the ranks of women.

However once the Sikhs became rulers, the egalitarian currents in the Sikh tradition became successively dissipated. Upper caste converts to Sikhism retained their caste identification, and Gurudwaras became divided between those for the upper and lower castes. Nevertheless, the peasantry did win some concessions and the Gurudwaras institutionalized charitable practices on a scale unmatched in previous eras. Overall, the century that preceded colonization was a period of growing social ferment in India, but as British colonial rule tightened, it was to put a great damper on the pace of social reforms.

The British Colonial Era

Although some versions of Indian history ascribe to the early colonial administrators a penchant for social reform, it should be noted that the colonial “reformers” were at best aligning themselves with active indigenous reform currents. They were not usually the initiators or great crusaders for social reform as is frequently portrayed.

In any case, after 1857, the cynical strategy of divide and conquer not only impacted relations between Hindus and Muslims, but also aggravated caste tensions. But even independently of conscious attempts by British administrators to inflame caste tensions, the ruination of the Indian economy alone led to a disastrous degradation in social relations.

The Zamindari system particularly disenfranchised the peasantry whose status dropped dramatically in comparison to those castes who were able to find a foothold in the new administration, or find some employment in the new colonial cities. The enormous burden of high taxes led to unprecedented levels of indebtedness and the privileging of the money-lending castes. The economic devastation caused by the Mahalwari system of taxation in the Awadh region led to higher levels of gender discrimination, and an increase in coercion in matters related to dowry. Differential access to modern education and jobs in the colonial administration increased the distance between the favored castes – and the Indian masses.

It was also the British who resurrected the Manusmriti and used it to frame the “Hindu Civil Code”. Prior to colonization, the Manusmriti was nothing more than an obscure text, long-forgotten and rarely used to determine what was acceptable social practice. The Manusmriti came in very handy in social control. Because the numerical presence of the Britishers in India was not substantial, the Britishers had to rule largely by proxy. It was important that their agents did not face resistance or rebellion, even in the social realm. Owing to it’s repressive and highly divisive character, the Manusmriti helped in preventing both individual and collective resistance to local authorities, who were typically upper caste and often Brahmin. That the Manusmriti represented an archaic and outdated social code didn’t matter. It fit in very well with the British colonial project.

It was also convenient in providing ideological cover for repressive legal steps the British wanted to take anyway. For instance it didn’t hurt that the Manusmriti advocated laws that legitimized gender discrimination or attacked same-gender relationships. Such attitudes were then equally prevalent in Europe and it made it easier to disenfranchise women in matters of inheritance or introduce legal injunctions against same-gender sexual relations (as was the case in Britain during the 18th C.).

Changes in Caste Equations

Historians who have attempted to draw a straight line between the Manusmriti and post-independence India are clearly unfamiliar with those patterns of Indian history that contradict such a linear view. While some of the social evils of modern India may have ancient roots, many others have a fairly recent history. And even those that may have ancient precedence were modulated and modified as a result of numerous struggles for social equality that have taken place throughout Indian history.

For example, after independence one could find temples built in the late 18th or 19th century that restricted entry to dalits and menstruating women. But it is not at all clear if such strictures were widespread prior to colonization. Research indicates that during the Pratihara period, caste categories were relatively flexible and popular temples were constructed by those considered low-caste. Temple construction was often a way of gaining social respect and upward mobility.

Restrictions on temple entry most likely reached a peak during the British period partly because only the upper castes had the means to build temples, and also because the control of existing temples passed into the hands of trusts who were hand-picked by the British, and were given free license (possibly even encouraged) to promote discriminatory practices. The iron hand of the colonial state made it much more difficult to challenge such reactionary tendencies.

See Nicholas B. Dirks, “The original caste: power, history and hierarchy in South Asia”, in McKim Marriott, ed. “India through Hindu Categories” (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1990:59-78) “Under colonialism, caste was appropriated, and in many respects reinvented, by the British” (p.61) “Paradoxically, colonialism seems to have created much of what is now accepted as Indian ‘tradition’, including an autonomous caste structure with the Brahman clearly at the head” (p.63) “Caste, as it is still portrayed in much current anthropological literature, is a colonial construction, reminiscent only in some ways of the social forms that preceded colonial intervention” (p.74)

Economic factors were also crucial in determining caste rank and caste relationships. In periods of intense economic exploitation, caste discrimination intensified, and the reverse took place in periods of economic expansion. For instance, most historians are in agreement that the Gupta period was a period of rising prosperity and also a period of increasing social mobility. Improvements in agricultural productivity led to concomitant improvements in the social rank of the cultivators.

Similiarly, (though much later) there is evidence for the rise in status of the telis – cooking oil manufacturers and traders whose earlier low caste status did not fit with their growing economic importance, and were thus granted a higher caste rank. Besides, all through Indian history, phony lineages for non-Kshatriya rulers were constructed to create the aura of continuity and legitimacy. Hence, the mere existence of a document like the Manusmriti should not cause serious social scientists to jump to broad conclusions without greater scrutiny and dispassionate analysis of the Indian historical record.

It is also important not to judge an older society by modern standards. Social relations cannot be entirely separated from how productive activities are carried out and what the level of available technology makes socially possible. In today’s world, the widespread availability of printed matter, of computers and other means to store and develop knowledge systems makes the older systems of learning and skill-preservation largely redundant. But in older times, the artisans guild system helped in the development and preservation of specialized knowledge and perfection of important manufacturing skills. In India, artisans guilds were closely correlated to jati or caste. It was not only the Brahmins and upper castes who favored hereditary continuity, but skilled carpenters, weavers, metalworkers, painters and numerous categories of other artisans also saw certain benefits in maintaining their jati identities. While the artisan castes often fought for greater social equality – the complete breakdown of caste identities was never a serious option except for those at the very bottom of the caste totem pole.

The caste system survived not just because it was enforced by the legal writ of an elite class, but as much because it served a social purpose in an era in which it was difficult if not impossible to organize the educational and productive activities of society in a more flexible and democratic way.

Other forms of social discrimination

In addition, societies that may not have overtly practised a caste system (such as Europe in the Christian era) may have yet prevented egalitarian social interaction and free social mobility through other means. The virtual annihilation and isolation of Native American communities by Christian invaders and immigrants is a striking and tragic example of systematic social exclusion.

While slavery in America was a thoroughly cruel and demeaning practice, the abolition of slavery did not end injustices against African Americans or other non-European immigrants. For instance, until the passing of the civil rights act – discrimination against African Americans and other nationalities such as Chinese, Indian and Mexican were enshrined in law. Inter-racial marriages were banned in many states and the mere charge of taking an interest in a Caucasian woman could lead to the lynching of Afro-American men in the South. Early Chinese and Indian immigrants were paid substantially less than the prevailing wages, were not allowed to bring wives and family members into the country, and prevented from owning property. Even workers guilds and trade unions discriminated against non-European immigrant workers.

Discrimination in the Modern World

While in India, caste continues to be an important category leading to grave social inequities, national origin and race have become important factors in how inequality is propagated in much of the modern world. Racial and national discrimination was at the core of how colonial rulers justified their exploitation of the colonies. The colonial system was unique in how human exploitation reached a level of intensity unseen in human history and enabled the creation of exploitative patterns across vast oceans and geographical territories. The legacy of this economic devastation lives on in how negative social practices from older eras continue to survive not only in India but in much of Africa and other colonized nations.

The legacy of colonialism also shows up in how there is no equal work for equal pay across nations. Even accounting for differences in purchasing power, the income and ability to consume for a doctor, engineer, skilled industrial worker or service worker in the US, Europe or Japan is often five to ten times greater than say in India or Bangladesh or Kenya or Indonesia.

While it is undeniable that the task of democratization of Indian society is incomplete, that caste and gender discrimination continue to cause grave harm, that Adivasis and Dalits still face all manner of trials and tribulations, and that all such social inequities need to be fought with continued vigour – India’s social evils cannot be analyzed or eliminated in isolation of other necessary changes. It is important that the process of how social relations become shaped in a certain way be better understood. While battles for social equality need widespread support, their ultimate success may be determined as much by how India’s economy develops.

All through human history, property-less classes have suffered social discrimination of one kind or another. Economic disparities remain a serious contributor to social inequities today. Any social system that is based on unequal access to economic assets – (whether they be land, raw materials, industrial or commercial wealth) will inevitably lead to some form of social discrimination and inequity. Victims of older forms of discrimination will either continue to be victimized, or simply become victims of new forms of discrimination.

For that reason, the challenge for countries like India is not only to fight against all instances of social discrimination, but to also struggle for greater economic equality – not only within India, but also in terms of India’s equality with the rest of the world.


1. Vishwa Mohan Jha: Settlement, Society and Polity in Early Medieval Rural India (Social Science Probings vol. 11/12)

2. T. K Venkatasubramaniam: Politics, Culture and ‘Caste’ in early Tamilkam (Social Science Probings vol. 11/12)

3. R. C. Dutt: A History of Civilization in Ancient India

4. Hetukar Jha, Social Structures of Indian Villages, A study of rural Bihar

5. Mayadhar Mansinha, History of Oriya Literature (Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi)

6. Bulletins of the Indian Historical Review (Indian Council of Historical Research)

7.Vinod Kumar: India as Al-beruni saw it

8.Madhu Kishwar: Manusmriti to Madhusmriti

9.Scott Levi: Hindus Beyond the Hindu Kush: Indians in the Central Asian Slave Trade, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society; ‘The Indian Merchant Diaspora in Early Modern Central Asia and Iran’, Iranian Studies (32, 4)

9b. Chacha Na’ma, Futuh-I Bulda’n (Translations/Excerpts from Arabic/Persian texts chronicling the invasion and conquest of Sindh)

9c. The destruction of forts and temples, massacres of defeated armies, looting of temple wealth and the taking of slaves is described in numerous Persian/Arabic chronicles of the Delhi Sultanate; for instance, see Taju-l Ma-asir and Tabakat-i-Nasiri.

10. Jyotsna Kamat: Social Life in Medieval Karnataka

11. Zarina Bhatty: “Social stratification among Muslims in India” – (from the book “Caste – its twentieth century avatar” by M N Srinivas, Viking, New Delhi, 1996, pp 249-253)

12. Sandra Mackey: The Caste/Class system in Iran (from The Iranians – Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation), Dutton Books published by the Penguin Groups, New York, 1996 pp. 34-35

13. K. Damodaran: Indian Thought, A Critical Survey (Advent of Islam and Later Feudalism)


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