Ancient Indian Culture And Social Theory

Ancient indian culture and social theory from the indus river valley civilization to more recent developments. Information on the role of women, the nature of caste, and the asrama system of social organization.

Indian social history can be categorized into four main cultural phenomena over the last four thousand years. Starting with the Indus river valley civilization, Indian social theory has been the direct result of a 'dialogue' between varying religious ideologies and their adherents.

Beginning in approximately 2500 B.C.E. (before common era-equivalent to A.D., anno domini), the Indus Valley Civilization, also known as Harrappan Civilization, grew up around the Indus Valley in two cities: Harrappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Each city was rigidly designed into a latticework of streets that express the orderliness of the culture. A uniform system of measures and weights has been established by archeological evidence in the marketplaces, which further expresses the society's preference for ordered systems. Harrappan Civilization was also characterized by religious sexual imagery. Two coinciding iconographic systems were developed in the Indus Valley. On the one hand, there were phallic images associated with animals and animal-man combinations. Contrastingly, mother goddess icons have been found in homes and distinct from the masculine images, which occur on small plates (seemingly of some undetermined mercantile or political meaning).

The citizens of Harrappa and Mohenjo-Daro also clung to a rigid dualism of purity and pollution. They were among the first civilizations to establish a functioning system of sewage and plumbing and they also placed community baths in prominent locations in their cities. The various concerns of the Indus Valley Civilization would come to find new homes in the later religious systems that would dominate Indian thought until the coming of the Muslims in the 11th century of the Common Era.

First among India's non-indigenous religious systems to develop was Hinduism, which had strong ties to the Indo-Aryan people who moved south through India and displaced the Indus Valley Civilization. Hinduism is based upon three primary texts: the Vedas (written 1400-1000 B.C.E.), the Upanisads (written 900-500 B.C.E.) and the Mahabharata (400 B.C.E. to 400 C.E.). The works of Hinduism describe two dynamic social systems: the varna system, better known as the caste system, and the asrama system, which is based upon age.

The varna system has its origins in the conquering Indo-Aryan tribes, who set about creating a servant class out of the indigenous Indians during the latter half of the second millennium B.C.E. and the first half of the first millennium. Although the Vedas spoke of four varnas: Brahmans, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras, the actualization of the Hindu social system provided for only two major classifications: Brahman and non-Brahman. It is from this distinction that a conflict arose between the priestly teachers (Brahmans) and political leaders/warriors (Ksatriyas). In ancient times, social mobility existed and an individual could move from one varna to another, though with some difficulty. In modern times (since the coming of the British to India and their rugged reclassification of the castes), such social mobility is almost extinct.

Very few other cultures have bothered to elucidate the specific roles of people based on age, though all societies have presumed certain responsibilities for people. The asrama system of Hinduism clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of people. Individuals start out as students, become householders, give up their homes to be hermits, and finally give up all worldly concerns to become ascetics. This system reflects the tendency of the human psyche to go from learning to raising a family to retiring from civic duties and family matters to finally seeking a release from everything they've seen and done through a spiritual revelation. Throughout the asrama system, the conflict between loka-samgraha (worldly existence) and moksa (spiritual release) is waged, to be finally won as an ascetic.

Women are described in ancient Indian texts as being weaker than men. Lacking in physical and, more importantly, spiritual strength, they 'spoil' men and deter them from more spiritual concerns. They were incapable of moksa, cannot own property and can be sold. A man of higher varna was theoretically lawful in taking any woman he wished. Finally, the practice of sati (burning of widowed brides-both willingly and otherwise) has been widely recognized and condemned by modern audiences.

In cultural reality, however, women wielded significant authority and rarely held to the restrictions presented within certain law texts (such as the Manu-Smriti). They had distinctive customs, rituals and spirituality, with which men were not allowed to interfere. Indian history is rife with famous women saints, healers and priests. Some examples include Andal, a 6th century A.D. sage and Jnanananda Ma of the 20th century. Moreover, in their roles as preservers of the households, women wielded significant authority over the daily lives of everyone living with them.

All societies are riddled with inequalities and the customs of ancient India present themselves as models of inegalitarian hierarchies, both by defining social classes and by oppressing women. Fortunately for the people of that time, the realization of the system did not rigidly enforce the rules, which were written down. Nevertheless, the confining system gave rise to two other distinct groups within Indian history: the Jains and the Buddhists, both of whom spoke out against the inequality of Hindu social theory.

Jainism, founded by Parsva in 800 B.C.E and spread by Mahavira around 550 B.C.E. rigidly defined some aspects of Hinduism and shed others. The varna system was maintained by the Jain laypeople, but with the exception of the Brahman caste. Naturally, the Brahmans, being the priests of the Hindu system, generally had little interest in Jainism, a religion primarily of the Ksatriyas and Vaisyas. It emphasized strict adherence to the principle of ahimsa (non-violence) to the exclusion of all else. Jains believe that karma has a physical existence in the form of material gathered on one's soul with every action one takes, good or bad. Jainism was widely accepted among merchants and warriors, but dislike by agriculturists because they necessarily killed animals when raising crops (which is considered evil by Jains). In spite of their professed beliefs, Jain leaders rarely became pacifists-instead they enforced passivity upon others and gave enormous sums of money to Jain temples.

At close to the same time as Mahavira, a man named Siddhartha Gautama (now known as the Buddha) developed a new religion out of Hinduism. He based his religion and his new social system on four noble truths: (1) the existence of suffering, (2) the origin of suffering (desire), (3) the cessation of suffering (elimination of desire), and (4) the path to the cessation of suffering (an eightfold way of right behavior and thought).

Within this new ideology, the varna system was completely disregarded; the Buddha believed a man to have established himself as a "Brahman" by being a wise and good man, not by being born of the proper family. He declared Vedic sacrifice to be wasteful and cruel (to other life forms) and advocated that people instead sacrifice their hatred and avarice-to shed them. Finally, he declared that a government should be established based upon a common will, public need, and reason. To a proper Buddhist, government is a social contract, not a tacit understanding. Siddhartha, himself born of a good family (and having shed all the trappings thereof), believed that the leader should be chosen because he is the most handsome, favored, intelligent, and capable. The leader should possess the virtues of justice (to rule with happiness and equality), morality (to be a good example), and wisdom (to seek good advisors).

The Buddha established his own social construct in the sangha, or Buddhist monastery. At first, the Buddha admitted only those who had attained nirvana, then he allowed those to admit new adherents, and finally, he gave equal authority to all monks. In this way, the sangha evolved from a monarchy to an oligarchy to a democracy. In principle, the sangha was to be governed by the law of dharma, not by man, a spirit of equality, and unanimity in decision-making. Furthermore, it should be locally run and decentralized. Insofar as the people's collective power was the basis for government, it was communistic, but in that revolutions were unnecessary and surpluses given away it avoided what would later be considered the Marxist perspective. The existence of the sangha was based upon the desire for nirvana, not for a better material situation.

Women in Buddhist communities were given the same accord and respect as men. They were considered equally intelligent and capable. The Buddha vehemently opposed prostitution and so attempted to convert temple prostitutes to his new religion. In spite of the theoretical equality of all people, however, the male-establishment had difficulty in accepting women as full equals. Their literature displays hesitancy over beginning a woman's monastery and allowing women to depart the lay life.

Overall, Indian social theory expresses those conflicts that one expects to see within society over who will have power and who will not. In particular, class conflict between warrior and priestly classes and between men and women. Different religious cultures in India have dealt with such problems differently and to varying levels of success.

© High Speed Ventures 2011