Chapter IV

Social Grades

PERHAPS the most important of these in their own eyes were the customs as to the holding and distribution of lands and property. But those as to religion on the one hand, and as to connubium and commensality on the other, had probably a greater effect on their real well-being and national progress.

We have learnt in recent years that among primitive peoples all over the world there exist restrictions as to the connubium (the right of intermarriage), and as to commensality (the right of eating together). Customs of endogamy and exogamy, that is, of choosing a husband or wife outside a limited circle of relationship, and inside a wider circle, were universal. A man, for instance, may not marry in his own family, he may marry within his own clan, he may not marry outside the clan. Among different tribes the limits drawn were subject to different customs, were not the same in detail. But the limits were always there. There were customs of eating together at sacred tribal feasts from which foreigners were excluded; [53] customs of not eating together with persons outside certain limits of relationship, except under special circumstances; customs by which an outsider could, by eating with men of a tribe, acquire certain rights of relationship with that tribe. Here again the details differ. But the existence of such restrictions as to commensality was once universal.

In India also in the seventh century B.C. such customs were prevalent, and prevalent in widely different forms among the different tribes, — Aryan, Dravidian, Kolarian, and others, — which made up the mixed population. We have unfortunately only Aryan records. And they, of course, take all the customs for granted, being addressed to people who knew all about them. We have therefore to depend on hints; and the hints given have not, as yet, been all collected and sifted. But a considerable number, and those of great importance, have been already observed; so that we are able to draw out some principal points in a sketch that requires future filling in.

The basis of the social distinctions was relationship; or, as the Aryans, proud of their lighter colour, put it colour. Their books constantly repeat a phrase as being common amongst the people, — and it was certainly common at least among the Aryan sections of the people, — which divided all the world, as they knew it, into four social grades, called Colours (Vaṇṇā). At the head were the Kshatriyas, the nobles, who claimed descent from the leaders of the Aryan tribes in their invasion of the continent. They were most particular as to the purity of their descent through seven generations, both on the father's and [54] the mother's side; and are described as "fair in colour, fine in presence, stately to behold."[1] Then came the brahmins, claiming descent from the sacrificing priests, and though the majority of them followed then other pursuits, they were equally with the nobles distinguished by high birth and clear complexion. Below these were the peasantry, the people, the Vaisyas or Vessas. And last of all came the Sūdras, which included the bulk of the people of non-Aryan descent, who worked for hire, were engaged in handicraft or service, and were darker in colour.

In a general way this classification corresponded to the actual facts of life. But there were insensible gradations within the borders of each of the four Colours, and the borders themselves were both variable and undefined.

And this enumeration of the populace was not complete. Below all four, that is below the Sūdras, we have mention of other "low tribes" and "low trades" — hīna-jātiyo and hīna-sippāni. Among the first we are told of workers in rushes, bird-catchers, and cart-makers — aboriginal tribesmen who were hereditary craftsmen in these three ways. Among the latter — mat-makers, barbers, potters, weavers, and leather-workers — it is implied that there was no hard and fast line, determined by birth. People could, and did, change their vocations by adopting one or other of these "low trades." Thus at Jāt. 5. 290, foll., a love-lorn Kshatriya works successively (without any dishonour or penalty) as a potter, [55] basket-maker, reed-worker, garland-maker, and cook. Also at Jāt. 6. 372, a seṭṭhi works as a tailor and as a potter, and still retains the respect of his high-born relations.

Finally we hear in both Jain and Buddhist books of aboriginal tribes, Chandālas and Pukkusas, who were more despised even than these low tribes and trades.[2]

Besides the above, who were all freemen, there were also slaves: individuals had been captured in predatory raids and reduced to slavery,[3] or had been deprived of their freedom as a judicial punishment[4]; or had submitted to slavery of their own accord.[5] Children born to such slaves were also slaves; and the emancipation of slaves is often referred to. But we hear nothing of such later developments of slavery as rendered the Greek mines, the Roman latifundia, or the plantations of Christian slave-owners, scenes of misery and oppression. For the most part the slaves were household servants, and not badly treated; and their numbers seem to have been insignificant.[6]

Such were the divisions of the people. The three upper classes had originally been one; for the nobles and priests were merely those members of the third class, the Vessas, who had raised themselves into a higher social rank. And though more difficult probably than it had been, it was still possible for analogous changes to take place. Poor men [56] could become nobles, and both could become brahmins. We have numerous instances in the books, some of them unconsciously preserved even in the later priestly books which are otherwise under the spell of the caste theory. And though each case is then referred to as if it were exceptional, the fact no less remains that the line between the "Colours" was not yet strictly drawn. The members of the higher Colours were not even all of them white. Some, no doubt, of the Kshatriyas were descended from the chiefs and nobles of the Dravidian and Kolarian tribes who had preserved, by conquest or by treaty, their independence or their social rank. And others of the same tribes were, from time to time, acquiring political importance, and with it an entry into a higher social grade.

That there was altogether a much freer possibility of change among the social ranks than is usually supposed is shown by the following instances of occupation[7]:

1. A Kshatriya, a king's son, apprentices himself successively, in pursuance of a love affair, to a potter, a basket-maker, a florist, and a cook, without a word being added as to loss of caste when his action becomes known.[8]

2. Another prince resigns his share in the kingdom in favour of his sister, and turns trader.[9]

3. A third prince goes to live with a merchant and earns his living "by his hands."[10]

[57] 4. A noble takes service, for a salary, as an archer.[11]

5. A brahmin takes to trade to make money to give away.[12]

6. Two other brahmins live by trade without any such excuse.[13]

7. A brahmin takes the post of an assistant to an archer, who had himself been previously a weaver.[14]

8, 9. Brahmins live as hunters and trappers.[15]

10. A brahmin is a wheelwright.[16]

Brahmins are also frequently mentioned as engaged in agriculture, and as hiring themselves out as cowherds and even goatherds. These are all instances from the Jātakas. And a fortiori — unless it be maintained that Buddhism brought about a great change in this respect — the statt of things must have been even more lax at the time when Buddhism arose.

The customs of connubium were by no means co-extensive with the four Colours, They depended among the Aryans on a quite different idea, that of the group of agnates (the Gotta); and among the other people either on the tribe, or on the village. No instance is known of the two parties to a marriage belonging by birth to the same village. On the other hand, there were numerous instances of irregular unions. And in some cases the offspring of such unions took rank even as nobles (Kshatriyas) or as brahmins.[17]

[58] As to customs of eating or not eating together, the books contain only a few hints. We have clear instances of a brahmin eating with a Kshatriya,[18] another of a brahmin eating the food of a Chandāla, and repenting of doing so.[19] The whole episode of the marriage of the Sākiya maiden to Pasenadi, King of Kosalā, turns on the belief that a Kshatriya will not eat, even with his own daughter, if she be slave-born. And we hear of sending people to Coventry (as we should say) for breach of such customs. Thus at J. 4. 388, brahmins are deprived, by their brother brahmins, of their status as brahmins, for drinking water mixed with the rice water a Chandāla had used. And in an older document, one of the Dialogues, we are told how this was done. Three brahmins "for some offence or other, outlaw a brahmin, shaving him and cutting him dead by pouring ashes over him, thus banishing him from the land and from the township."[20] And the passage goes on to state that if Kshatriyas had done this to a Kshatriya the brahmins would still admit him to connubium, and allow him to eat with them at their sacred feasts. It then adds that "whosoever are in bondage to the notions of birth or of lineage, or to the pride of social position or connection by marriage, they are far from the best wisdom and righteousness." We see, therefore, that the whole passage is tinged with Buddhist views. But it is none the less good evidence that at the time when it was written such customs, and such pride of birth, [59] were recognised as a factor in the social life of the people.

Again at Jāt. 5. 280, we have, as the central incident of a popular story, the detail, given quite as a matter of course, that a brahmin takes, as his only wife, the discarded consort of a Kshatriya. The people laugh at him, it is true, but not because he is acting in any way unworthy of his social standing, only because he is old and ugly.

There are also numerous instances, even in the priestly manuals of custom, of unions between men and women of all degrees of social importance. These are not only between men of rank and girls of a lower social grade, but also between men of a lower, and women of a higher, position; and we ought not to be in the least surprised to find such cases mentioned in the books. Even without them we should know, from the existing facts, what must have happened. It is generally admitted that there are now no pure Aryans left in India. Had the actual custom been as strict as the brahmin theory this would not be so. Just as in England we find Iberians, Kelts, Angles, Saxons, Danes, and Normans now fused, in spite of theoretical restrictions on intermarriage, into one nation, so in Northern India the ancient distinctions, Aryan, Kolarian, and Dravidian, cannot, at the time of the rise of Buddhism, any longer be recognised. Long before the priestly theory of caste had been brought into any sort of working order, a fusion, sufficient at least to obliterate completely the old landmarks, was an accomplished fact; and the modern divisions, though [60] race has also its share in them, use different names, and are based on different ideas.

We may remark incidentally that there can have been no such physical repulsion as obtains between the advanced and savage races of today — a repulsion arising partly from great difference in customs and in intellectual culture, but still more largely dependent on difference of colour.[21] On the other hand, though the fact of frequent intermarriage is undoubted; though the great chasm between the proudest Kshatriya on the one hand and the lowest Chandāla on the other was bridged over by a number of almost imperceptible stages, and the boundaries between these stages were constantly being overstepped, still there were also real obstacles to unequal unions. Though the lines of demarcation were not yet drawn hard and fast, we still have to suppose, not a state of society where there were no lines of demarcation at all, but a constant struggle between attracting and repelling forces.

It will sound most amazing to those familiar with brahmin pretensions (either in modern times in India, or in priestly books such as Manu and the epics) to hear brahmins spoken of as "low-born." Yet that precisely is an epithet applied to them in comparison with the kings and nobles.[22] And it ought to open our eyes as to their relative importance in these early times.

The fact is that the claim of the priests to social [61] superiority had nowhere in North India been then, as yet, accepted by the people. Even such books of the priests themselves as are pre-Buddhistic imply this earlier, and not the later, state of things with which we are so much familiar. They claim for the north-western, as distinct from the easterly, provinces a most strict adherence to ancient custom. The ideal land is, to them, that of the Kurus and Panchālas, not that of the Kāsis and Kosalas. But nowhere do they put forward in their earlier books those arrogant claims, as against the Kshatriyas, which are a distinctive feature of the later literature. The kings are their patrons to whom they look up, from whom they hope to receive approval and rewards. And it was not till the time we are now discussing that they put forward claims, which we find still vigorously disputed by all Kshatriyas — and by no means only by those of noble birth (a small minority of the whole) who happen also to be Buddhists.

We find, for instance, that the Jain books take it throughout as a matter of course, that the priests, as regards social standing, are below the nobles. This was the natural relation between the two, as we find throughout the world. Certain priests, in India as elsewhere, had very high social rank — Pokkharasādi and Sonadaṇḍa for instance. They were somewhat like the great abbots and bishops in our Middle Ages. But as a class, and as a whole, the priests looked up to the nobles, and were considered to be socially beneath them.

Restrictions as to marriage and as to eating [62] together, such as then existed in North India, existed also everywhere throughout the world, among peoples of a similar stage of culture. They are, it is true, the key to the origin of the later Indian caste system. But that system involves much more than these restrictions. And it is no more accurate to speak of caste at the Buddha's time in India, than it would be to speak of it as an established institution, at the same time, in Italy or Greece. There is no word even for caste. The words often wrongly rendered by that modern expression (itself derived from a Portuguese word) have something to do with the question, but do not mean caste. The Colours (Vaṇṇā) were not castes. No one of them had any of the distinctive marks of a caste, as the term is now used, and as it always has been used since it was first introduced by Europeans, and there was neither connubium nor commensality between the members of each. Jāti is "birth"; and pride of birth may have had to do with the subsequent building up of caste prejudices; but it exists in Europe today, and is an idea very different from that of caste. Kula is "family" or "clan" according to the context. And though the mediæval caste system had much to do with families and clans, it is only misleading to confuse terms which are so essentially different, or to read back a mediæval idea into these ancient documents. The caste system, in any proper or exact use of the term, did not exist till long afterwards.[23]


[1] Dialogues of the Buddha. i. 148; Vin. 11. 4. 160.

[2] Anguttara, 1. 162. Jacobi, Jaina Sutras, 2. 301.

[3] Jāt. 4. 220.

[4] Jāt. 1. 200.

[5] Vinaya texts, 1. 191; Sum. 1. 168.

[6] Dialogues of the Buddha, 1. 101.

[7] Collected in the J.R.A.S., 1901, p. 868.

[8] Jāt. 11. 5. 290.

[9] Jāt. 4. 84.

[10] Jāt. 4. 169.

[11] Jāt. 2. 87.

[12] Jāt. 4. 15.

[13] Jāt. 5. 22; 471.

[14] Jāt. 5. 127.

[15] Jāt. 2. 200; 6. 170.

[16] Jāt. 4. 207.

[17] Jāt. 4. 38, 146, 305; 6. 348, 421.

[18] Jāt. 2. 319, 320. The verses recur 3. 81, 355. So also 6. 33.

[19] Jāt. 2. 82.

[20] Dialogues of the Buddha, 1. 120.

[21] See the discussion in Bryce's Romanes Lecture, 1902, on the "Relations of Advanced and Backward Races of Mankind."

[22] Hīna-jacco. See, for instance, Jāt. 5. 257. The locus is Benares.

[23] For the discussion of this question see also Senart, Les Castes dans l'Inde; Fick, Sociale Gliederung im nordöstlichen Indien zu Buddha's Zeit; and Rhys Davids, Dialogues of the Buddha, 1. 95-107.




Next: Chapter V: In the Town
Previous: Chapter III: The Village

[Preface]  [Table of Contents][1. The Kings]  [2. The Clans and Nations]  [3. The Village]  [4. Social Grades]  [5. In the Town]  [6. Economic Conditions]  [7. Writing — The Beginnings]  [8. Writing — It's Development]  [9. Language and Literature. I. General View]  [10. Literature. II. The Pāḷi Books]  [11. The Jataka Book]  [12. Religion — Animism]  [13. The Brahmin Position]  [14. Chandragupta]  [15. Asoka]  [16. Kanishka]  [Appendix]  [Index]

[Home]  [Sutta Indexes]  [Glossology]  [Site Sub-Sections]