Glimpse of Vedic Era - Social Life and Reference of Varna System - Ancient History Series

Social life and varna system in vedic period and people of different varna, their status and role

Vedic society was broadly based upon a four-fold division of labor among the different interests of national life:

  • its learning and culture
  • its government, security and defense
  • its economic life centering round agriculture and dairying
  • its handicrafts
These four classes of people are described in the famous Purusha-Sukta of the Rigveda as the four limbs of the body-politic, as integral parts of society as an organic whole. They are named Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras, representing respectively the mouth, arms, thighs and feet of the Creator or Virat Purusha. These classes later hardened into castes under the influence of heredity.
vedic era varna system and social life

Varna System as described in Upanishads

The Upanishads know of both Brahmanas and Kshatriyas as Rishis and teachers, though normally the Brahmanas were the custodians of learning as teachers. Among the learned Kshatriyas or Rajarshis, the Upanishads mention King Janaka of Videha, who figures both as teacher of a learned Brahmana scholar like Yajnavalkya, and also, later, as his pupil. As pupil, Janaka offered to his teacher, Yajnavalkya, his whole kingdom as gurudakshina in the following words : "So 'ham Biragavate Videhan dadami mamchapi saha dasyayeti : Sir, I give you the Videhas, and also myself, to be together your slaves! " [Videhan= Videhan desan mama rajyam sanzastam dadami (Sankara)]. Besides Janaka, the Upanishads mention the following Rajarshis, viz., Pravahana, Asvapati, Sanatkumara and Ajatasatru.

Satyakama of unknown parentage was considered fit for his pupilage by Rishi Gautama. The Rigveda tells of a family with father as a physician (bheshaja), son as a Rishi, and the mother a dutiful housewife grinding corn (upala-prakshini), and contemplates different aptitudes creating different occupations not confined to particular classes (Yaska's Nirukta, I. 9).

The Yajurveda (XXV. 2) is catholic enough to state that "the Veda with its words of supreme good (vacham kalyanirn) must be taught to the people at large (janebhyah), to Brahmana and Kshatriya, to Sudra and Vaisya, to one's own people (svaya) and even to foreigners (charanayacha)".

Vedic thought reaches its characteristic culmination in one of the minor Upanishads associated with the Mundaka. It is called Nirvana Upanishad, containing a prayer addressed by a Rishi aptly named Nitisionsaya (the man of faith) to his Deity to whom is applied the singular and significant abstract name of Nirvana. The worshiper of this Divinity has his appropriate disciplines and accomplishments. He must live on alms (bhikshasi) obtained without any plan (akalpita).

He is to wear the bark of trees, deer-skin, and loin-cloth as an Udasin (devoid of worldliness). This austerity produces in him certain inner developments. He be-comes a Hamsachara, one who penetrates into the minds of all (sarvabhutantaravarti) and has an insight into their thoughts and words (mano-vag-gocharah). He lives in a state of Bliss (Anandamatham). His Deity is also worshiped as Advaita-Sadananda, the One Supreme God of Bliss Who is self-shining (Svaprakasa). He uproots the objective in him, and burns up his desires, and sense of ego. He is to study (adhita) religious texts in the two asramas of Brahmacharya and Vanaprastha as steps towards Sannyasa by complete renunciation (sarvavinyasa). The Sannyasi must be learned in the Sruti and not illiterate. The supreme fruit of this austere sadhana of Nirvana-upasana is not the anti social aloofness of a towering eminence from suffering humanity but the overwhelming romance of a universal compassion in which the devotee revels as in his element (karunakelih). He finds his highest happiness in helping others to whom he feels bound in ties of love!


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