Early Indian Society

Article: Society: Class, Family, and Individual

Book: The Wonder that was India

Author:  A L Basham

The article, “Society: Class, Family, and Individual” is a critical analysis of Indian customs from the early Vedic period to the shaping of the modern society. I was keen on reading and understanding about the societal structure of the Indian society, and the chapter allows me to understand the each and every detail of the Indian society. A L Basham was a noted historian and Indologists, who wrote several books on Indian history, culture and tradition. The author has extensively discussed on the Indian customs by basing his views from the early Vedic texts, including that of Manusmriti and Arthashastra. And also, has based his arguments on the race theory that prevailed for a quite some time.

The social divisions within the early society and the origin of the class system, which the author terms as, “Four Great Classes”[1] stating the origin of the classes from the Aryan race. The author has extensively drawn parallels to the Aryan and Dravidian cultures, the latter being prominent in the south and former in the north. In fact, the race theory is highly contested terrain, until recently it was believed that the race theory is false, but the findings in the recent years give some basis for the Aryan race theory and that they carried Sanskrit with them.[2]

The author critically evaluates the four classes, each of which has certain specific works assigned and the hierarchy that existed in the society. The three main classes, Brahmana, Kshatriya and Vaishyas being the “twice born”.[3] The bottom of the layer was the Sudra, who was said to be born once and also are supposed to serve the top three classes. Even the most transformed religions like Buddhism had also given special importance to the Brahmins. They were allowed to read Vedas and Upanishads. The Kshatriyas were warrior class, they had the duty to protect the subjects and fight wars. Vaishyas were mostly the traders, farmers, and jewellers etc. Though Manu restricts them to do the duty of keeping cattle. Sudras were not “twice-born” hence they were said to serve the above three classes.

The Panchamas, as they are known in the modern day as, “Untouchables” were kept out of the social class order, most referred to as the “fifth class” and they were made to do all the menial and dirty things that no other class did. Chief of these groups was known as Chandalas,[4] which the author writes as Candalas. They were not allowed to live in an Aryan town or village but had to dwell in special quarters outside boundaries. In fact, the class system was not a permanent system, A Sudra would become a Brahmin and a Brahmin would become a Sudra. Every breach of manifold regulations of one’s class entitled impurity and outcasting. The author brings out several examples to prove the point citing the example of Viswamitra.[5]

A L Basham points that Caste is a very colonial construct, the word caste came from the Portuguese term, ‘casta’[6] meaning tribe, clan or family. The name was then extensively mistaken for the varna or jati system, or four classes. This system had permanence, there was no chance for a Brahmin to be the Sudra or vice-versa. Basham calls it, “This is false terminology.” Huan Tsang, in the 7th century, was well aware of the four classes, writes Basham. Every other class was subdivided into thousands of classes, but the system of caste established four basic castes.

Basham also says Megasthenes was wrong when he said there was no slavery, pointing to the idea of ‘dasa[7] and he says that the slavery in the west was completely different from the one that existed in India. While talking about the family system, the author points to the existence of joint family and also talks about four stages of life, which are stated as, brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha, and sannyasin, each of them depicting to the idea of the stage of one’s life. In fact, he says, this scheme represents the ideal rather than real. Many young men never passed the first stage of life in the form laid down, while only a few went beyond the second.

Marriage was and is one of the most important aspects of Indian traditions. The Vedas state the three reasons for marriage: the promotion of religion; progeny; and rati, or sexual pleasure. The smritis recommend that while a husband should be at least twenty, a girl should be married before puberty. A man of twenty-four should marry girl of eight. The author also notes eight types of marriages that were prevalent in the early society. The Indian Vedic culture do not excuse itself from the sexual relations, in fact, the Vastayana’s Kamasutra[8] defines no less than sixteen types of kisses, notes A L Basham. Divorce was not allowed in the high-class women, while it was allowed for men, polygamy was practised by the elite of the society, while polyandry was opposed by Vedas.[9] Women were treated to be not being independent. In fact, Manu states that “As a girl she was under the tutelage of her parents, as an adult, of her husband, and as a widow, of her sons.”[10]

Basham notes that, Ancient India contained one class of women who were not bound by the rules and restrictions which limited the freedom of high caste wife. These were prostitutes. The prostitute was protected and supervised by the state. The Arthashastra suggests the appointment of Superintendent of Prostitution. Widows suffered the most in the Vedic culture, as they were not allowed to remarry, not allowed to enjoy any benefit, not allowed to attend any public functions etc.

One of the most important aspects of the book is drawing parallels and comparing with different law books, while the Manusmriti being the most authoritative, and the Arthashastra being more liberal, they give a different aspect of the social structure. A L Basham critically evaluates and validates the early traditions and practices by citing to the Puranas and the Vedic scriptures. The chapter critically examines the social order of the Indian society.


Basham, A. (2005), The wonder that was India, New Delhi, Picador

Dirks, N. (2001). Castes of mind. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press

Shengar, S. (2002). Caste & Power, changing patterns of stratification, New Delhi, OUP

Buhler, G. (1886) The Laws of Manu, OUP

End Notes

[1] Basham, A. (2005), The wonder that was India; Society: Class, Family, and Individual; Picador, p. 138

[2] Ibid

[3]Originally quoted from George Buhler’s translation of Manusmriti, The Laws of Manu, OUP (1886), Manusmriti, article 11.131.

[4]Basham, A. (2005), The Wonder that was India; Society: Class, Family, and Individual; Picador, pp. 146-147

[5] Basham, A. (2005), The Wonder that was India; Society: Class, Family, and Individual; Picador, p. 147

[6]Nicolas B Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and making of Modern India, Princeton University Press, pp. 25,31

[7]Basham, A. (2005), The Wonder that was India; Society: Class, Family, and Individual; Picador, pp. 153-154

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid, pp. 174-175

[10]Quoted from George Buhler’s translation of Manusmriti, The Laws of Manu, OUP (1886), Manusmriti, article 2.148.