Social Divisions in the Mauryan Period

Scholars writing on the Mauryan social organisation quote�Megasthenes and his division of Indian society into the�following seven categories: philosophers, cultivators, herdsmen,�artisans and traders, soldiers, overseers and councillors. There�is some controversy about how Megasthenes arrive at the�figure of seven. In case he was writing of varna divisions, he�should have restricted himself to only four:

  • brahmin,
  • kshatriya,
  • vaishya and
  • shudra.

If, on the other hand, the reference is to jati�or occupational groupings then the number becomes far larger�than seven.

Megasthenes spent most of his time in Kandahar though�he often visited the court of Chandragupta. He was greatly�influenced by other Hellenistic writers. In the Hellenistic world,�the seven divisions were frequently discussed while describing�the idealised state of Egypt which had a very different kind�of society than of the Greeks. Thus, when Megasthenes set�out to write the history of another exotic land, i.e., India, it is�understandable that he readily adopted the division of society�into seven. The seven-fold division was accepted by two later�authors as well – Diodorus Siculus and Strabo. Thus the term�mere used by Megasthenes should not be translated as caste�but seen as a division of the society. These divisions were�important to the smooth functioning of the society. Another�misconception based on a statement by Megasthenes is that�there were no famines in India. We know, however, from the�Mauryan inscriptions at Sohgaura and Mahasthan that was not�true. Famines caused considerable damage and the state was�actively engaged in providing relief to the people.

Slaves or Dasas:

Megasthenes remarked that there were no�slaves in India and this was reaffirmed by Arian and Strabo.�Buddhist literature on the other hand refers to three types of�dasas – those who were dasas due to lineage, those who were�bought or given as gifts and those that were born in the house�of a DASA.

Similarly the Arthashastra states that an arya may�temporarily work as a dasa on account of some misfortune or�the necessity of earning more money. However the dasa was very�different from the slave in the Greek system and this explains�Megasthenes’ denial of slavery in India.

References in Buddhist�literature indicate that the dasa was employed in the household�rather than in the production process. They were paid wages in�accordance with the work they did. The Arthashastra states that�a dasa was to be paid one and a half pana per month and he and�his family were to be fed. Thus domestic slavery may have been�prevalent in the Mauryan period, but slavery was certainly not�the basis of the Mauryan economy.

Written by princy

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