ARYAN SOCIAL DIFFERENTIATION- By later vedic times – that is, between 1000 and 500 bce, when the sacrificial cult of Indo-Aryan brahmans had attained a prestigious place – the main locus of Aryan society had shifted from the river valleys of the Punjab and the plains of northern Rajasthan into the western parts of the plain (doab) formed by the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. In this fertile middle Ganges–Yamuna region agriculture soon overtook pastoralism as the dominant mode of production, and sedentary villages with planted and irrigated fields replaced the wandering life of Aryan herdsmen. Cattle-keeping and cattle-wealth still marked the highest ranking and ruling clans of Aryans, called rajanya, but all the Aryan clans, as well as non-Aryans (vis) among whom they settled in the Gangetic plain, increasingly looked upon land as wealth. The successful cattle raids that had marked earlier Aryan life ceased to be the most desirable attribute of Aryan chiefs, and more esteem attached to skilfully managing the incorpora- tion of Aryan clans into larger political groupings. For example, the highest Aryan clans of the later vedic age were the Panchalas, formed of five previ-
ously independent clans, and the Kurus, formed of earlier clans known as Porus and Bharatas.
In addition to the aggregation of weaker clans into larger, stronger ones, there were other changes revealed in later vedic texts and contemporary Bud- dhist stories (jatakas), which traced the multiple lives and divine mission of the Buddha. Aryans of the early Rigveda were organized into tribes (jana), and further divided into ruling lineages (rajanya), and commoner clans (vis). By degrees, some of the ruling clansmen took another title, ‘kshatriya’, from the word kshatra, or power, and they along with the most adept of the priestly ritualists (brahmans) constituted the elite of society, each group contributing to the welfare and interests of the other. Brahmans conferred legitimacy by carrying out powerful sacrifices that ritually converted warriors into kings, and kings reciprocated with fees and gifts to brahmans. To others were left the mundane tasks of providing the sustenance for the elite. Praja, which emerged as a term for these subaltern sections of the society and still means ‘children’ (i.e. subject people), consisted of lower Aryan groups as well as non-Aryans, probably descendants of the farmers of late Harappan times.
Ritual knowledge in the Brahmanas, like other vedic lore, was transmitted orally and not as written texts until much later. The Brahmanas of the later vedic age refer to certain regions associated with clusters of particular Aryan clansmen, as janapada, tracts where particular clans were dominant; that is, where they placed their feet (pada). Janapadas took their names from the ruling kshatriya lineage and each had a ruler (raja), often chosen by an assem- bly of chiefly members of the ruling clan as a great fighter capable of protecting the land of his lineage (rashtra).
Subjects of the raja of later vedic times and servants of the elite for whose protection he was selected, praja, were divided into ‘shudras’ and ‘dasas’. Dasas are described as unattractive and uncultured, with broad, flat noses and black skin, speaking a strange language and practising ‘crude magic’ in contrast to the prestigious vedic ritual of the Aryans. However, many dasas were said to have been captured in wars among Aryan clans as well as between Aryans and non-Aryans, so it may have been only defeat that set them apart in reality, and the negative descriptions are simply the victors’ insults. Dasas were set to working the lands and tending the herds of lower Aryan clansmen and other vis. Another designation for a people despised by Aryans was mleccha, a term meaning ‘one who speaks indistinctly’, in later times connoting a barbarian whose origins were not in the subcontinent.
Those called vis adopted the title of vaishya, which at first designated the leading households of farmers, herdsmen or merchants. The heads of such households were called grihapati in some later vedic sources and gahapati in Buddhist texts; they were sources of tribute to Aryan rajas and fees to brahman priests. Thus by the later vedic times of 1000 to 500 bce, the structural ele- ments of the caste system were in place, summarized as well as canonically accounted for in the ‘Hymn of the Primeval Man’: the four varnas (colours or castes) of brahmans, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras. These categories were ranked according to the amount of pollution attached to being born into one or another of them. The least polluted were the brahmans, the most were
the shudras; the term varna reinforced these ranked differences: brahmans were supposed to wear white, kshatriyas yellow, vaishyas red and shudras black. Another invidious distinction made manifest by Buddhist times was that between the three highest varnas, who were considered twice-born (dvija), and the shudras. The former participated in a ritual ‘second’ birth (upanay- ana, initiation) while the latter did not.
In addition, there were groups ranked even lower than shudras; to them was attached the stigma of untouchability, supposedly because their occupa- tions were deeply polluting. These included leather workers, who disposed of sacred cattle when they died. The reason for the low rank of artisans such as blacksmiths and other metal workers is less obvious, but may be attributed, as it is in modern Tibet, to their occupational handling of the leather bellows. Intermarriage and eating together were determined by the smaller units into which all the varnas were divided; these were called jati (literally ‘birth group’, but also translated as caste); jati is in fact what Indians usually mean when they speak of caste today. The jati was often originally an occupational group, one into which each individual was in theory immutably born. Later writers denounced intermarriage between jatis, and consigned the offspring of such unions to low-status castes of their own, but in practice there contin- ued to be a certain amount of caste mobility, both of individuals between castes (as when slaves were occasionally adopted into the jatis of their masters),
and of whole jatis, as will be discussed below.