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Relations of production: Role of fundamental texts, polity, and economy in ancient India

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Research Scholar at IIT Roorkee

The caste system emerged in ancient India as a complex socio-economic framework that is defining Indian society to date is heavily criticized by modernist and western ideologues. There is a general perception among intellectuals that such a system is insignia of regressive society in ancient India. But in reality, facts, social and economic dynamics tell otherwise. Western semantics and ideological lenses heavily distorted the socio-economic realities of ancient Indian society. This article deals with the origin of Indian society from sacred text and its evolution by political and economic dynamics.

In ancient Indian literature, a framework for the socio-economic organization was given in Vedas (Varna system, a theoretical framework) which is very often confused with the post-epic period socio-economic organization (Caste/Jati system), which is the byproduct of the advances in technology and lack of formal education system in ancient India.

Society as a group of individuals (devoid of their profession/material possession) was mentioned in Vedas as ‘Jana’ (one whole). Afterward in the Epic age, small kingdoms came into existence and their respective society was named as ‘Gana’, which gave birth to the different type of political system or ‘Sangha’ (Govt. by the discussion), namely, ‘Samiti’ (Democracy and Republic) which is open (Participatory democracy) and ‘Sabha’ and ‘Parishad’ which is restricted in its governing structure (Monarchy). Further, warring tribes in ancient India disintegrated from ‘Sangha’ to ‘Janpada’ due to segmenting off from a parent clan.

Due to the fragmentation of states, new types of monarchies came into existence with ‘divine’ sanctions to avoid ‘Matasya Nyaya’ (big fish eating smaller one or Jungle Raj), a ruling class called it ‘Kaliyuga’ (Age of Demon) and justified their rule to establish ‘Dharma’, this is the starting point of ‘Manuvaad’, and various text for governing society was formulated, namely, ‘Manusmriti’ and ‘Dharmashastra’. On the basis of these texts, the power structure was institutionalized in each state, there are different ‘Rajas’ (chief traders), a ‘Kshatriya’ with political authority, and ‘Pandits’ with sacerdotal authority.

The caste system was the byproduct of the complex socio-economic condition. It came into the existence with the technological advancement in ancient India. Economic and Professional specialization determines the ‘Jaati or Caste’ of groups. And it became birth-based because there was no technical education to teach the next generation the required skill to sustain their profession. The caste system was the outcome of the burgeoning economy in ancient India. Further specialization in the economic sphere led to more diversification in caste as subcastes, for instance, ‘Ratnins’ (who builds chariots) are further specialized themselves to carpenter, weaver, goldsmiths, and ironsmiths. This caste system, with the practice of endogamy (to sustain their skills), entrenched itself in Indian society, which was initially democratic in nature (Jana).

Britishers with their imperial ambitions/policies destroyed the artisans, weavers, gardeners, farmers, etc. (permanent settlement, export of cotton, etc.) led to the class divide in Indian society, where economic disparities were very high among the castes.

Till the Medieval age, there was no technological advancement and technical education system. The industrial revolution, which was the outcome of the Enlightenment era, destroyed traditional structures in the western world, but in India, it was started in the mid-19th century superficially (drain of wealth to British Empire) and in the real sense, it started after our independence from British Yoke. The caste system does not have any merits to continue in modern economic development, its continuance by the means of endogamy is furthering the ‘primitive accumulation and the Upper caste doesn’t want to abolish it for the obvious reasons or because of their medieval mindset. Inter-caste marriage is the way forward so that caste can wither away. And this will lead to the class struggle in reality without any inherent fault line.

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Research Scholar at IIT Roorkee
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