Kinship, Caste and Class: Notes Class 12 History Theme 3

“Kinship, Caste and Class” Is the Theme 3 of the Class 12 NCERT History Book. Here you would get chapter notes with well-designed headings and subheadings for proper understanding. Click here for study materials.

Notes – Kinship, Caste and Class

1. The Critical Edition of the Mahabharata

1.1. Ambitious Scholarly Project

  • Initiation in 1919: The project was commenced under the leadership of V.S. Sukthankar, a renowned Indian Sanskritist, marking the beginning of one of the most ambitious scholarly endeavours.
  • Involvement of a large team of scholars: A team comprising numerous scholars was assembled to undertake the monumental task.

1.2. Methodology of the Project

  • Collecting Sanskrit Manuscripts: Initially, the project involved the collection of Sanskrit manuscripts of the Mahabharata from various regions of the country, written in diverse scripts.
  • Comparative Analysis: A method was devised to compare verses from each manuscript, leading to the selection of common verses found in most versions.

1.3. Publication and Findings

  • Publication in Several Volumes: Over the span of 47 years, the findings were published in several volumes, totalling over 13,000 pages.
  • Common Elements and Regional Variations: It was revealed that while there were common elements in Sanskrit versions of the text, there existed significant regional variations, which were extensively documented in footnotes and appendices.
  • Reflection of Social Histories: These variations were reflective of the complex historical processes shaped by dialogues between dominant traditions and resilient local ideas and practices, marked by moments of both conflict and consensus.

1.4. Revaluation of Normative Texts

  • Primacy of Sanskrit Texts: Initially, historians primarily relied on Sanskrit texts, written by and for Brahmanas, for understanding social history.
  • Exploration of Other Traditions: However, subsequent studies explored works in Pali, Prakrit, and Tamil, indicating that while the ideas contained in normative Sanskrit texts were recognized as authoritative, they were also subject to questioning and occasional rejection.
  • Interpretive Lens: It is crucial to be mindful of the varied perspectives on normative texts and to examine diverse traditions when reconstructing social histories.

2.Kinship and Marriage: Many Rules and Varied Practices

2.1. Finding out about Families

  • Family: Often people belonging to the same family share food and other resources, and live, work and perform rituals together.
  • Diversity in Family Structures: Families vary in terms of their size, internal relationships, and shared activities. They often form part of larger networks of relatives, known as kinfolk, with familial ties defined in various ways.
  • Attitudes and Practices: Historians struggle to reconstruct the familial relationships of ordinary people and analyse attitudes towards family and kinship, as these provide insights into societal thinking and actions.

2.2. The Ideal of Patriliny

  • Mahabharata Narrative: The epic portrays a feud between the Kauravas and Pandavas, reinforcing the value of patrilineal succession within the ruling family of the Kurus.
  • Claimed Succession Systems: Most ruling dynasties claimed patrilineal succession, although variations existed in practice, such as succession by brothers or other kinsmen, or in rare cases, by women such as Prabhavati Gupta.

2.3. Rules of Marriage

  • Role of Daughters: While sons were crucial for patrilineal continuity, daughters had no claims to household resources. Marrying them into families outside the kin group was desirable, leading to careful regulation of their lives to ensure that they were married at the “right” time and to the “right” person.
  • Exogamy System: Marrying outside the kin group, known as exogamy, was practiced to maintain high status, with the father’s gift of a daughter (Kanyadana) in marriage considered a religious duty.

2.4. Brahmanical Codes and Social Complexity

  • Urbanization Impact: Social life complexities emerged with the rise of new towns, leading Brahmanas to codify social behaviour in texts like Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras.
  • Manusmriti: The most important of such works, the Manusmriti, was compiled between c. 200 BCE and 200 CE.
  • Recognition of Marriage Forms: These texts recognized eight forms of marriage. Of these, the first four were considered as “good” while the remaining were condemned which were, possibly, practiced by those rejecting Brahmanical norms.

2.5. The Gotra of Women

  • Brahmanical Practice: Classification of people, especially Brahmanas, into gotras was prevalent, with strict rules regarding women’s gotra.
  • Two rules about gotra:  Women were expected to give up their father’s gotra and adopt that of their husband on marriage and members of the same gotra could not marry.
  • Endogamy Practices: Examination of inscriptions from ruling lineages like the Satavahanas suggests deviations from Brahmanical norms, with practices of endogamy observed, ensuring close-knit communities.
  • Polygyny: Some of the Satavahana rulers were polygynous.
  • Retaining Father’s Gotra: Many of women who married Satavahana rulers retained their father’s gotra.
  • Metronymics and Succession: Despite the identification of Satavahana rulers through metronymics, succession to the throne remained primarily patrilineal, cautioning against overestimating the importance of mothers in the succession process.

3. Social Differences: Within and Beyond the Framework of Caste

3.1. Understanding Caste Hierarchy: Caste refers to hierarchically ordered social categories, with Brahmanas at the top and groups like Shudras and “untouchables” at the bottom, as prescribed in Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras.

3.2. The “Right” Occupation

The Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras prescribe occupations for each varna.

  • Brahmanas to perform sacrifices, study and teach Vedas, give and receive gifts
  • Kshatriyas to engage in warfare and administer justice, protect people, study Vedas, get sacrifices performed and make gifts.
  • Vaishyas to engage in agriculture, pastoralism and trade, (also, study Vedas, get sacrifices performed and make gifts)
  • Shudras to serve the three higher varnas.

Strategies for Enforcement: Brahmanas enforced these norms by

  • a. asserting divine origin (reference to ‘Purush Shukta)
  • b. advising kings to uphold them
  • c. Persuaded the people that status was determined by birth.
  • d. reinforcing them through narratives and stories told in the Mahabharata and other texts.

3.3. Non-Kshatriya Kings

  • Kshatriya Exclusivity: According to the Shastras, only Kshatriyas were deemed fit for kingship.
  • Origins of Ruling Lineages: Many ruling lineages likely had diverse origins, challenging the notion of strict Kshatriya lineage.
  • Debate Over Mauryas’ Background: The Mauryas, who ruled a vast empire, had uncertain social origins. While Buddhist texts portray them as Kshatriyas, Brahmanical texts depict them as of “low” origin.
  • Shungas and Kanvas: Immediate successors of the Mauryas, they were Brahmanas, not Kshatriyas.
  • Access to Power: Political power was accessible to those who could garner support and resources, not solely dependent on being born into a Kshatriya family.
  • Shakas as Outsiders: The Shakas, originating from Central Asia, were viewed as outsiders by Brahmanas, labelled as mlechchhas or barbarians.
    • Sanskritic Influence: Despite being considered outsiders, powerful mlechchhas like Rudradaman showed familiarity with Sanskritic traditions, as seen in the rebuilding of Sudarshana lake.
  • Satavahana Rulers were Brahmanas: Gotami-puta Siri-Satakani, a prominent ruler of the Satavahana dynasty, claimed a unique Brahmana identity and as destroyers of the pride of Kshatriyas
    • He didn’t allow inter-caste marriages, yet got into marriage alliances with the Shakas (with the kin of Rudradaman).
    • It shows that Satavahana kings wanted to maintain the purity of four varnas but they never followed these rules.
    • They even practised endogamy instead of the exogamous system recommended in the Brahmanical texts.

3.4. Jatis and Social Mobility

  • Jati Defined: Jati is another term used to denote social categories, reflecting the complexities of social organization. In Brahmanical theory, like varna, jati is also based on birth.
  • Flexibility of Jatis: Unlike varnas, which are fixed at four, there is no limit to the number of jatis. New groups, such as forest-dwellers like the nishadas, or occupational categories like goldsmiths, were classified as jatis when they didn’t neatly fit into the varna system.
  • Formation of Guilds (Shrenis): Jatis with shared occupations were sometimes organized into guilds or shrenis.
  • Migration of Guild of weavers: A fifth-century CE stone inscription from Mandasor recounts the history of a guild of silk weavers who migrated from Gujarat to Mandasor, known as Dashapura at the time.

Insight into Guild Dynamics: The inscription reveals insights into guild dynamics. Despite membership being based on craft specialization, some members pursued other occupations. It also demonstrates collective decision-making among members, as seen in their investment of wealth earned through craft into constructing a a temple dedicated to the sun god.

3.5. Beyond the Four Varnas: Integration

  • Diversity of the Subcontinent: Due to the vast diversity of the Indian subcontinent, there have always been populations whose social practices were not influenced by Brahmanical ideas.
  • Perception in Sanskrit Texts: Non-Brahmanical groups are often depicted as strange, uncivilized, or even animal-like in Sanskrit texts.
  • Examples of Non-Brahmanical Groups: Forest-dwellers who relied on hunting and gathering, such as the nishadas, are cited in Sanskrit texts. Ekalavya is said to belong to this category.
  • Suspicion Towards Nomadic Pastoralists: Nomadic pastoralists, whose lifestyle didn’t fit the settled agricultural framework, were viewed with suspicion.
  • Attitude Towards Non-Sanskritic Languages: People speaking non-Sanskritic languages were labeled as mlechchhas and looked down upon.
  • Sharing of Ideas and Beliefs: Despite differences, there was a sharing of ideas and beliefs between various groups. Stories in the Mahabharata illustrate the nature of these relations, indicating a complex interplay of cultures and beliefs.

3.6. Subordination and Conflict

  • Development of Social Divide: Brahmanas categorized certain social groups as “untouchable,” creating a sharper social divide.
  • Untouchables and Chandalas: Those engaged in activities deemed polluting, like handling corpses and dead animal bodies, were labelled as chandalas and placed at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Interaction with them was avoided by those claiming purity.
  • Duties and Restrictions of Chandalas in Manusmriti: The Manusmriti outlined duties and restrictions for chandalas, including
    • a. living outside villages
    • b. using discarded utensils
    • c. wearing clothes of the dead and ornaments of iron
    • d. serving as executioners.
    • e. They had to dispose of the bodies of those who had no relatives
    • f. They were also barred from moving around villages and cities at night.
  • Accounts by Chinese Pilgrims: Chinese travellers like Fa Xian and Xuan Zang documented the treatment of untouchables,
    • Fa Xian (c. fifth century CE) wrote that “untouchables” had to sound a clapper in the streets so that people could avoid seeing them.
    • Xuan Zang (c. seventh century) observed that executioners and scavengers were forced to live outside the city.
  • Historical Examination: Historians analyse non-Brahmanical texts to understand whether “untouchables” accepted their prescribed roles, revealing varied social realities beyond Brahmanical prescriptions.

4. Beyond Birth: Resources and Status

4.1. Economic Factors Shaping Social Positions

  • Emergence of Social Actors: Various groups like slaves, labourers, hunters, craftsmen, merchants, and kings emerged as social actors in different parts of the subcontinent.
  • Social Status: Their social status was often determined by their access to economic resources.

4.2. Gendered Access to Property

  • Mahabharata Episode:
    • During the rivalry between the Kauravas and Pandavas, Duryodhana deceived Yudhisthira in a game of dice.
    • Yudhisthira lost all his possessions, including gold, elephants, chariots, slaves, army, treasury, kingdom, his brothers, and finally their common wife, Draupadi.
  • Property Division (Manusmriti): Stories like this highlight issues of ownership and are also discussed in Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras.
    • Paternal estate was divided equally among sons after parents’ death, with a special share for the eldest.
    • Women could not claim a share of these resources.
  • Stridhana:
    • Women could keep gifts received at marriage as stridhana (woman’s wealth).
    • Stridhana could be inherited by their children, without husband’s claim.
    • Manusmriti cautioned women against hoarding family property or their valuables without husband’s permission.
  • Wealthy Women:: Wealthy women like the Vakataka queen Prabhavati Gupta had access to resources. 
  • Gender Disparities:
    • Both epigraphic and textual evidence suggest that while upper-class women may have had access to resources, land, cattle and money were generally controlled by men.
    • Social differences between men and women were sharpened by disparities in access to resources.

4.3. Varna and Access to Property

  • Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras: Codified the Brahmanical view of society. It reinforced the association of wealth and status with varna.
  • Varna-based Wealth Regulation: Brahmanical texts regulate access to wealth based on varna, with only servitude prescribed for Shudras while various occupations listed for the first three varnas.
  • Correspondence with Social Realities: Wealth distribution corresponded to some extent with Brahmanical prescriptions.
    • Brahmanas and Kshatriyas were likely the wealthiest if these provisions were followed
    • Textual traditions often depicted priests (Brahmanas) and kings (Kshatriyas) as wealthy.
    • Kings are consistently depicted as wealthy.
    • There are occasional depictions of poor Brahmanas.
  • Critiques of Varna Order (Buddhist Perspective):
    • Early Buddhism (from c. sixth century BCE), critiqued the varna system.
    • Recognized social differences but did not see them as natural or inflexible.
    • Rejected claims to status based on birth.

4.4. An Alternative Social Scenario: Sharing Wealth

  • Status Based on Generosity and Respect:
    • Previously discussed how wealth influenced status, either claimed or assigned.
    • Alternative values existed where generosity was respected, and miserly behaviour was despised.
  • Ancient Tamilakam:
    • Around 2,000 years ago, several chiefdoms existed in Tamilakam.
    • Chiefs were patrons of bards and poets who praised them in their works.
  • Tamil Sangam Anthologies:
    • Poems highlight social and economic relationships.
    • Indicate that, despite economic differences, those with resources were expected to share them.
    • Suggest a cultural value placed on generosity and community support.

5. Explaining Social Differences: A Social Contract

5.1. Buddhist Alternative Understanding

The Buddhists developed an alternative understanding of social inequalities and the institutions needed to regulate social conflict. They talk about Social Contract to establish a governing authority based on human choice. Sutta Pitak gives insight into this contract.

5.2. Myth from Sutta Pitaka

  • Originally, humans had not fully evolved bodily forms, and the plant world was not fully developed.
  • All beings lived in peace, taking only what they needed from nature.
  • Over time, humans became greedy, vindictive, and deceitful, leading to a decline in this idyllic state.

5.3. Institution of Kingship (Mahasammata)

  • Humans wondered about selecting a being to regulate social conflicts.
  • Humans suggested selecting a being who would be wrathful when appropriate, censure as needed, and banish those deserving.
  • This being, chosen by all people, would receive a portion of rice as compensation and be known as mahasammata (the great elect).
  • Kingship was founded on human choice, with taxes as payment for the king’s services.

5.4. Recognition of Human Agency in Creating Social Relations

  • The myth reveals human agency in creating and institutionalizing social and economic relations.
  • It implies that since humans created the system, they have the power to change it in the future.

6. Handling Texts: Historians and the Mahabharata

6.1. Elements of Analysing Texts

  • Language: Historians examine the language of texts to understand their context and audience:
    • Prakrit, Pali, Tamil: Likely used by ordinary people.
    • Sanskrit: Primarily used by priests and elites.
  • Kinds of Texts:
    • Mantras: Weather learned and chanted by ritual specialists.
    • Stories: Weather read, heard, and retold by people if found interesting.
  • Author and Audience
    • Author’s Own Influence: Historians investigate the perspectives and ideas of the author(s) who shaped the text.
    • Intended Audience: Authors often consider the interests of their audience while composing their work.
  • Dating and Location
    • Composition Date: Determining when the text was composed or compiled.
    • Place of Composition: Identifying the location where the text may have been written.
  • Drawing Historical Significance of the Content of the Text
    • Comprehensive Analysis: Historians assess these elements, (language, authorship, audience, date, and place)  before drawing conclusions about the historical significance of the text.
    • Challenges with Complex Texts: This process is especially challenging for complex texts like the Mahabharata.

6.2. Language and Content

  • Language of the Text (Mahabharata)
    • Sanskrit Version: The primary version of the Mahabharata is in Sanskrit, though it exists in other languages as well.
    • Simpler Sanskrit: The Sanskrit used in the Mahabharata is simpler than that of the Vedas or prashastis (royal inscriptions), making it more widely understood.

Classification of  Contents

  • Narrative Sections: These parts contain stories and are generally considered the main dramatic and moving part of the Mahabharata.
    • Didactic Sections: These parts contain prescriptions about social norms.
    • Overlap (No Water Tight Division): The division between narrative and didactic sections is not strict; didactic sections include stories, and narratives often convey social messages.
  • Purpose of Composition
    • Dramatic Story:  Historians generally agree that the Mahabharata was primarily meant to be a compelling story
    • Didactic Additions: The didactic parts were likely added later to impart social messages.
  • Historical Context:
    • Itihasa: The text is described as ‘itihasa’ in early Sanskrit tradition, meaning “thus it was” and often translated as “history.”
    • Real War Debate: There is debate among historians about whether the epic preserves the memory of any such real war:
      • Proponents: Some believe the narrative reflects a real conflict among kinfolk.
      • Skeptics: Others argue there is no other corroborative evidence of such a battle.

6.3. Author(s) and Dates of the Mahabharata

  • Original Authors
    • Charioteer-Bards (Sutas): The original story was likely composed by sutas, who accompanied Kshatriya warriors to battles and celebrated their victories through poems. These compositions were passed down orally.
  • Transition to Written Form
    • Brahmanas’ Role: Around the fifth century BCE, Brahmanas began to write down the orally transmitted stories.
    • Transition to Kingdoms: This period saw chiefdoms like the Kurus and Panchalas evolving into kingdoms, possibly motivating the systematic recording of their itihasa (history).
    • Reflection of Upheavals: The establishment of new states and the accompanying social changes may be reflected in the evolving narrative.
  • Phases of Composition
    • c. 200 BCE to 200 CE: During this period, the worship of Vishnu gained prominence. Krishna, a key figure in the epic, started being identified with Vishnu.
    • c. 200 to 400 CE: Large didactic sections similar to the Manusmriti were added, expanding the text from fewer than 10,000 verses to about 100,000 verses.
  • Attribution to Sage Vyas: The enormous composition of the Mahabharata, with its vast expansion and integration of didactic content, is traditionally attributed to the sage Vyasa.

6.4. The Search for Convergence

The Mahabharata contains vivid descriptions of battles, forests, palaces, and settlements.

  • Archaeological Evidence
    • Hastinapura Excavation: In 1951-52, B.B. Lal excavated Hastinapura in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, which may have been the capital of the Kuru kingdom described in the Mahabharata.
    • Potential Epic Connection: The location in the Upper Ganga doab, where the Kuru kingdom was situated, suggests it might be the Hastinapura mentioned in the epic.
    • 5 Occupational Levels: Lal found evidence of five occupational levels, with the second and third being of particular interest:
    • Second Phase (c. 12th-7th centuries BCE):
      • No definite plans of housing found
      • Mud and mud-brick walls.
      • Some houses having reed walls plastered with mud
    • Third Phase (c. 6th-3rd centuries BCE):
      • Mud-brick and burnt-brick houses.
      • Soakage jars and brick drains.
      • Terracotta ring-wells for wells and drainage pits.
  • Urban Descriptions in the Epic
    • City Descriptions: These may have been added after the main narrative was composed, reflecting the flourishing urban centres of the region after the sixth century BCE.
    • Poetic Fancy: Alternatively, the descriptions might be poetic embellishments not necessarily verifiable by archaeological evidence.
  • Polyandry in Mahabharata
    • Draupadi’s marriage to the Pandavas is a significant instance of polyandry.
    • The epic offers multiple explanations for this practice, suggesting that polyandry was contentious among Brahmanas.
    • The descriptions suggest that polyandry might have been practised among ruling elites at some point.
    • Polyandry was unusual and undesirable from the Brahmanical point of view and gradually fell into disfavour amongst the Brahmanas.
  • Interpretations of Polyandry
    • Polyandry was and is still prevalent in the Himalayan region.
    • Possible shortage of women during warfare might have led to polyandry, reflecting a crisis situation.
    • Early sources indicate that polyandry was not the most prevalent form of marriage, raising questions about why the authors chose to associate it with central characters.
    • Creative literature often follows its own narrative requirements and does not always reflect social realities literally.

7. A Dynamic Text: The Mahabharata

Evolution of the Epic

  • Multiple Versions: The Mahabharata evolved beyond its Sanskrit origins, with versions in various languages emerging over centuries.
  • Cultural Dialogue: The epic grew through ongoing dialogues between different peoples, communities, and authors.
  • Incorporation of Regional Stories: Stories from specific regions or communities were integrated into the epic.
  • Retellings and Adaptations: The central story was retold in diverse ways and depicted in various art forms such as sculpture, painting, plays, and dance.

8. Mahashweta Devi’s reinterpretation of “Kunti O Nishadi”

Mahashweta Devi’s reinterpretation of the episode from the Mahabharata, titled “Kunti O Nishadi,” offers a poignant exploration of guilt, accountability, and the consequences of actions:

8.1. The Episode of the House of Lac

In the Mahabharata, Duryodhana plots to kill the Pandavas by inviting them to stay in a house of lac, intending to set it on fire. The Pandavas were forewarned and could escape through a tunnel, but a nishada woman and her five sons die in the fire.

8.2. Mahashweta Devi

  • She was a notable contemporary Bengali writer known for her activism against exploitation and oppression.
  • She reimagines episodes to highlight social issues by providing possible alternatives to answer the question about which the Sanskrit version is silent.
  • She continues the narrative, focusing on Kunti’s reflections and guilt after the war.

8.3. “Kunti O Nishadi” by Mahashweta Devi

  • Kunti’s Post-War Reflection on Her Past: Devi sets her story in a forest where Kunti retires after the war. She contemplates her past and confesses her failings, often talking to the earth, a symbol of nature.
  • Confrontation with the Nishadi: A nishada woman, who listens to Kunti, eventually confronts Kunti about the ‘Lac House’ incident and her role in the death of her mother-in-law and her five sons during the house of lac incident.
  • Reminding of Guilt: The nishadi reveals that the woman who died was her mother-in-law and accuses Kunti of not remembering the innocent lives lost while reflecting on her past life.
  • Kunti’s Realisation of Guilt: This confrontation brings a deeper reflection and realisation to Kunti about the consequences of her actions.
  • Forest Fire: The story concludes with the forest engulfed in flames. The nishadi escapes, but Kunti stays by choice to face the consequences, symbolising a form of atonement or acceptance of responsibility of her sinful deed.

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