What was Dharma’s Role in Caste System of Ancient Indian Society?

Dharmas vary according to the person’s Varna (his ‘quality’, class, or ‘caste’) and his (stage of life, or status). Varna was acquired by birth (a principle nowadays under attack), airama was optional, though the family lost prestige if the samskaras or sacramental ceremonies were neglected by which entry into the essential stages was pre­pared for and celebrated.

Every dharma had the king as its protector; and law could not, as a set of practical requirements, effectively demand anything that was not at the same time morally and legally binding.’ Unrighteous govern­ment, illustrated by the fall of the mythical king Vena, is understood, but the point of the myth is that miracles are needed to dissolve the obligation of obedience.

Texts evidencing the theory that a wicked king could be put to death by his subjects are rare and uncharacteristic. Varna-sramas-dharma is nominally encyclopedic, comprehensive; laying the king, noble, commoner, citizen, and peasant under an apparently equal burden of obligation to a common complex ideal.

If the subjects rebelled they did so because the king’s to protect their dharmas was being neglected, and because his own life, con­flicting with dharma, prejudiced their’ welfare from a religious point of view. Chaos could be forestalled by rebellion, but our texts do nothing either to encourage or to justify such an attitude. The effort concentrates on making; the reigning kings a success.


Some illustrations of dharma’s ‘hold’ are needed or we cannot grasp what was expected of the king. The varna of the brahman would limit his freedom to associate, to mate, to dine; it seeks to number the occupations he may pur­sue-to study, to teach, to officiate at religious ceremonies (including the samskaras), and to advise and, if necessary, to chide rulers. To trade (especi­ally in certain goods) and especially to lend at interest are forbidden, except in times of distress. And the Brahman’s dharma demands at least a minimum of classical education.

The Varna of the Sudra, at the other end of the scale of ‘clean’ castes, also delimits. Not being one of the twice-born, as are the Brahman and those who intervene between them, he does not study the Veda, and does not take the sacred thread which indicates initiation; nor may he teach Vedic studies or have social intercourse with the twice-born except upon the footing of service, whether in the house, the workshop, or the field. Ideally his very name should suggest a humble status and the higher castes are en­titled to his labour-an ideal which, needless to say, the most numerous Varna from time to time repudiated. We hear, accordingly, of ‘good sudras’ who were supposed to be degraded twice-born and generally copied the latter in their behaviour.

Between Brahman and Sudra were ranked the warrior (Kshatriya) and mercantile (vaisya) classes, upon a theoretical basis explained in terms of their objective qualities and tendencies. Anomalies abounded from the first and we meet the theory of’ mixed castes’, sprung from unions between the four varnas. Distribution of functions between the varnas and the mixed castes was often in debate, both historically and throughout our literature.

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The Brahman’s ancient hereditary function as a teacher {guru) of the other castes is not dead. To this day brahmans are from time to time approached to resolve problems and act as ‘confessors’ by other castes; and a careful an- , thropological survey of a remote village in Madhya Pradesh, the abode for several centuries equally of brahmans and non-brahmans, both occupied in agriculture, revealed the strange fact that when the economy suddenly changed, due to improvements in communications and markets, a large num­ber of the brahmans, but not of the other classes, took to teaching and other intellectual pursuits.

Students of Western medieval literature know of the ‘gymnosophists’ that Alexander the Great and his companions found in northern India. These made an impression on the Greeks and earned a not­able place for the ascetics in the Alexander romance and its many derivative contributions to Western culture.

They spoke fearlessly to kings, telling them their dharma, and their status as teachers (they were ostentatiously naked) de­pended on their utter indifference to the world and contempt for death. The Jewish heroes of Masada, before committing suicide, as the Romans scaled the last wall, reminded themselves that they must not be inferior in faith to the poor Indians (whom they believed to be polytheists at that).

The ideals of the dharma-sastra, the ‘science’, or rather ‘teaching’ of righteousness, proceeded far beyond these classifications. Marriage was a prime concern. Marriage between varnas was lawful provided that it was in the hypergamous form, the husband having the higher caste.


The ideal mar­riage for a brahman was in the form of a gift of the bride, along with her dowry, to the bridegroom summoned for the purpose; that for the kshatriya was by capture or in the love-match which, to the minds of some ‘moralists, masked too often a mere seduction; while marriage by purchase, deprecated as barely suited to the furtherance of dharma, was left to the sudras.

Ideals out­lived facts, both in marriage and in occupations. Brahmans are found func­tioning as money-lenders or soldiers; sudras are actually found occupying thrones (an eventuality pathetically deplored in many texts). Intercourse with a woman other than one’s wife was a sin; yet the keeping of concubines per­sisted (never, though, to the total exclusion of marriage) amongst well-to-do classes until very recent times.

The dharmas of a Vedic student (brahmacari) were naturally not relevant to a Sudra youth. The principal asrama of the grihastha (householder), the asrama upon which in practice all the others depended, was reached by all varnas ideally at marriage, which should be celebrated soon after the comple­tion of a young man’s academic training (if any) and would signalize his entry into full social responsibility.

Marriage was the one asrama which was nearly obligatory. Religious and social pressure made it virtually unavoidable. Pro­creation of at least one son was recommended, and better of two, so that at least one might go to Gaya and perform the efficacious sraddha there which would secure perpetual bliss for deceased ancestors.

If an aurasa (legitimate) son could not be expected, the mature male ought to provide himself and his paternal ancestors with a substitute by one of the approved methods of adop­tion. Spiritual responsibility towards the ancestors and the right to inherit their property were ideally inseparable.

No survey of the social order can neglect the slaves, for whom, as a social class, curiously, the varnasrama-dharma (which calls them biped chattels) makes little or no room, satisfied, we note, to provide that a brahman could not be enslaved unless he lapsed from the status of sannyasi, or renunciate.

This, the last asrama, was in theory available to every former householder who chose to retire from the world, but in practice it became a title to live on charity, from which, naturally, only a lunatic would be likely to defect. Slaves were not, in the ideal view, a division of society, though they were a fact.

In the status and fate of slaves, especially the ‘born’ slave, some would see a dark feature of Indian social ethics selling herself into slavery in return for her keep}, would acknowledge that if she committed suicide as a result of her keeper’s chastisement she would commit a dreadful sip.

On the footing that it is a charity to buy children as slaves in times of famine, the residual right to commit, or to threaten to commit, suicide seemed properly subject to limitation by contract.

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