UPSC History Early empire (6 BCE to 1 CE) NCERT Extracts - Early Societies (c. 600 BCE - 600 CE)

NCERT Extracts - Early Societies (c. 600 BCE - 600 CE)

Category : UPSC


Material Life


  • Archaeologically the sixth century B.C. marks the beginning of the NBPW phase.
  • The abbreviation NBPW stands for Northern Black Polished Ware, which was a very glossy, shining type of pottery.
  • This pottery was made of very fine fabric and apparently served as the tableware of rich.
  • The use of burnt bricks and ringwells appeard in the middle of the third century B.C.
  • The NBPW phase marked the beginning of the second urbanization in India.
  • With the appearance of towns in the middle Gangetic basin in the fifth century B.C., a second urbanization began in India. Many towns mentioned in the Pali and Sanskrit texts.
  • Saddalaputta at Vaishali had 500 potters shops. Both artisans and merchants were organized into guilds under their respective headmen.
  • Specializations in crafts developed on account of the guild system as well as localization.
  • Generally crafts were hereditary, and the son learned his family trade from the father.
  • Trade was facilitated by the use of money. The terms nishka and satamana in the Vedic texts are taken to be names of coins.
  • Coins actually found are not earlier than the sixth-fifth century B.C.
  • It seems that in Vedic times exchange was carried on through means of barter, and sometimes cattle served the purpose of currency.
  • Coins made of metal appear first in the age of Gautama Buddha.
  • The earliest are made largely of silver though a few coppers also appear.
  • They are called punch-marked coins because pieces of these metals were punched with certain marks such as hill, tree, fish, bull, elephant, crescent, etc.
  • After the end of the Harappa culture, writing probably started a couple of centuries before Ashoka. The earliest records have perished probably because they were not written on stone and metal.
  • The period produced texts dealing with sophisticated measurement (Sulvasutras), which presuppose writing and which may have helped the demarcation of fields and houses.
  • Rich peasants were called gahapatis (Pali terms).
  • Iron played a crucial role in opening the rainfed forested, hard-soil area of the middle Ganga basin to clearance, cultivation and settlement.
  • It was an economy which provided subsistence not only to direct producers but also to many others who were not farmers or artisans.
  • This made possible collection of taxes and maintenance of armies on a long term bais. and created conditions in which large territorial states could be formed and sustained.


Administrative System


  • Koshala and Magadha emerged as powerful states in this period.
  • The king was primarily a warlord who led his kingdom from victory to victory.
  • The king ruled with the help of officials, both high and low.
  • Higher officials were called mahamatras, and they performed carious functions such as those of the minister, commander, judge, chief accountant and head of the royal harem.
  • A class of officers called ayuktas also performed similar functions in some of the states.
  • Varsakara of Magadha and dirghacharayan of koshla Vaishali and enabled Ajatashatru to conquer the republic.
  • Dirghacharayana rendered help to the king of Koshala.
  • High officers and ministers were largely recruited from the pnestly class.
  • The kin-based polity of Vedic times was now substantially undermined.
  • The beneficiaries were granted only revenue; they were not given any authority.
  • The rular administration was in the hands of the village headmen.
  • In the beginning the headmen functioned as leaders of the tribal regiments, and so they were called gramini which means the leader of the grama or a tribal military unit.
  • The gramini therefore was transformed into a village headmen in pre-maurya times.
  • The village headmen were known as gramabhojaka, gramim or gramika.


Army and Taxation


  • The possession of numerous elephants gave an edge to the magadhan princes.
  • The Nandas possessed enormous wealth which enabled them to support the army.
  • The fiscal system was established on a firm basis.
  • The Kshatriyas and the brahmanas were exemted from payment of taxes, and the burden fell on the peasants who were mainly vaishyas or grihapatis.
  • Bali, a voluntary payment made by the tribesmen to their chiefs in vedic times, became a compulsory payment to be made by the peasants in the age of the Buddha and officers called balisadhakas were appointed to collect it.
  • it seems that one-sixth of the produce was collected as tax by the king from the peasants.
  • The discovery of many hoards of punch-marked coins suggest that payment was made in both case and kind. In north-eastern india payment was made in paddy.
  • The tools were collected by officers non as shaulkika or shulkadhyaksha.
  • The territorial kings discards the sabha and samiti. Popular assemblies had practically disappeared in post vedic times.
  • Since they were essentially tribal institutions they decayed and disappeared as tribes disintegrated into varnas and lost their identity.
  • Popular assemblies could succeed only in small kingdoms where members of the tribe could easily be summoned, as may have been the case in the vedic period.
  • With the emergence of the large states, it was not possible to hold big assemblies attended by people belonging to different social classes and different parts of the empire
  • Their place was taken by a small body called parishad consisting exclusively of the brahmanas. Even in this period assemblies were there, but not in the monarchies.
  • They flourished in the smaller republican states of the Shakyas, Lichchhavis, etc.


Republican Experiment


  • The republican system of government existed either in the Indus basin or m the foothills of the Himalayas in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
  • In the republics real power lay in the hands of tribal oligarchies.
  • In the republic of Shakyas and Lichchhavis the ruling class belonged to the same clan and the same vama.
  • Although in the case of the Lichchhavis of Vaishali 7707 rajas sat on the assembly held in the motehall, the brahmanas were not included in this group.
  • In the republics of the Malavas and the Kshudrakas, the kshatriyas and the brahmanas were given citizenship, but slaves and hired labourers were excluded from it.
  • The administrative machinery of the Shakyas and Lichchhavis was simple.
  • It consisted of King, Vice-King, Commander and Treasurer.
  • The republican tradition in the country is as old as the age of the Buddha.
  • Each one of the 7707 Lichchhavi rajas maintained his storehouse and apparatus of administration,                           
  • The main difference between a monarchy and a republic lay in the fact that the latter functioned under the leadership of oligarchic assemblies and not of an individual as was the case with the former.
  • The republican tradition became feeble from the Maurya period.
  • The Digha Nikaya, one of the oldest Buddhist texts in Pali, points out that in the earliest stage human beings lived happily. Gradually they came to have private property and set up house with their wives.So they began to quarrel over property and women.
  • In order to put an end to this quarrel they elected a chief who would maintain law and order and protect people, in return for protection the people promised to give to the chief a part of the paddy.
  • The chief came to be called king, and this is how kingship or the state originated.


Social Orders and Legislation


  • The Indian legal and judicial system originated in this period.
  • The Dharmasutras laid down the duties of each of the four vamas, and the civil and criminal law came to be based on the vama division.
  • All kinds of disabilities were imposed on the shudras.
  • They were deprived of religious and legal right and relegated to the lowest position in society They could not be invested with upanayana.
  • Crimes committed by them against the brahmanas and others were punished severely, on the other hand the crimes committed against the shudras were punished lightly.
  • The age of the Buddha is important because ancient Indian polity, economy and society really took shape in this period.
  • Agriculture based on the use of iron tools in alluvial area gave rise to an advanced food producing economy, particularly in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.


The "right" occupation

  • The Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras also contained rules about the ideal "occupations" of the four categories or vamas. Brahmanas were supposed to study and teach the Vedas, perform sacrifices and get sacrifices performed, and give and receive gifts.
  • Kshatriyas were to engage in warfare, protect people and administer justice, study the Vedas, get sacrifices performed, and make gifts.
  • The last three "occupations" were also assigned to the Vaishyas, who were in addition expected to engage in agriculture, pastoralism and trade.
  • Shudras were assigned only one occupation - that of serving the three "hsigher” vamas.
  • The Brahmanas evolved two or three strategies for enforcing these norms.
  • One was to assert that the vama order was of divine origin. Second, they advised kings to ensure that these norms were followed within their kingdoms. And third, they attempted to persuade people that their status was determined by birth.
  • However, this was not always easy. So prescriptions were often reinforced by stories told in the Mahabharata and other texts.


Non-Kshatriya kings

  • According to the Shastras, only Kshatriyas could be kings.
  • While later Buddhist texts suggested they were Kshatriyas, Brahmanical texts described them as being of "low" origin. The Shungas and Kanvas, the immediate successors of the Mauryas, were Brahmanas.
  • Other rulers, such as the Shakas who came from Central Asia, were regarded as miechchhas, barbarians or outsiders by the Brahmanas. However, one of the earliest inscriptions in Sanskrit describes how Rudradaman, Ac best-known Shaka ruler (c. second century CE), rebuilt Sudarshana lake. This suggests that powerful miechchhas were familiar with Sanskritic traditions.                                       


The case of the merchants

  • Sanskrit texts and inscriptions used the term vanik to designate merchants. While trade was defined as an occupation for Vaishyas in the Shastras, a more complex situation is evident in plays such as the Mrichchhakatika written by Shudraka ( c. fourth century CE).
  • Here, the hero Charudatta was described as both a Brahmana and a sarthavaha or merchant


Beyond the four varnas: Integration

  • Given the diversity of the subcontinent, there were, and always have been, populations whose social practices were not influenced by Brahmanical ideas.
  • Categories such as the nishada (a hunting community), to which Ekalavya is supposed to have belonged, are examples of tins.
  • The story of Ekalavya is found in the Adi Parvan of the Mahabharata.
  • Sometimes those who spoke non-Sanskritic languages were labelled as mlechchhas and looked down upon. There was nonetheless also a sharing of ideas and beliefs between these people. The nature of relations is evident in some stories in the Mahabharata.
  • This is a summary of a story from the Adi Parvan of the Mahabharata: "The Pandavas had fled into the forest. A man-eating rakshasa sent his sister Hidimba to capture them. She fell in love with Bhima and proposed to him. He refused. Hidimba introduced herself to Panvdavas and declared her love for Bhima. She told Kunti : "I have forsaken my friends, my dharma and my kin; and chosen your tiger-like son for my man ... let me join you with your son as my husband."
  • Some historians suggest that the term rakshasa is used to describe people whose practices differed from those laid down in Brahmanical texts.
  • Matanga Jataka is a Pali text, where the Bodhisatta (the Buddha in a previous birth) is identified as a chandala.


Gendered access to property

  • Issues of ownership, foregrounded in stories such as this one, also figure in the Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras. According to the Manusmriti, the paternal estate was to be divided equally amongst sons after the death of the parents, with a special share for the eldest. Women could not claim a share of these resources.
  • You have read about wealthy women such as the Vakataka queen Prabhavati Gupta. However, cumulative evidence - both epigraphic and textual - suggests that while upper-class women may have had access to resources, land, cattle and money were generally controlled by men.
  • In other words, social differences between men and women were sharpened because of the differences in access to resources.
  • For men, the Manusmriti declares, there are seven means of acquiring wealth: inheritance, finding, purchase, conquest, investment, work, and acceptance of gifts from good people.
  • For women, there are six means of acquiring wealth.


Explaining Social Differences: A Social Contract

  • The Buddhists also developed an alternative understanding of social inequalities and of the institutions required to regulate social conflict.
  • In a myth found in a text known as the Suntta Pitaka they suggested that originally human beings did not have fully evolved bodily forms, nor was the world of plants fully developed. All beings lived in an idyllic state of peace, taking from nature only what they needed for each meal.
  • However, there was a gradual deterioration of this state as human beings became increasingly greedy, vindictive and deceitful. This led them to wonder: “What if we were to select a certain being who should be wrathful when indignation is right, who should censure that which should rightly be censured and should banish him who deserves to be banished? We will give him in return a proportion of the rice ... chosen by the whole people, he will be known as Mahasammata, the great elect.
  • This suggests that the institution of kingship was based on human choice, with taxes a form of payment for services rendered by the king.


Historians and the Mahabharata: Language and content


  • Let us look at the language of the text. The version of the Mahabharata we have be considering is in Sanskrit (although there are versions in other languages as well).
  • However, the Sanskrit used in the Mahabharata is far simpler than that of the Vedas, of the prashastis. As such, it was probably widely understood.
  • Historians usually classify the contents of the present text under two broad heads sections that contain stories, designated as the narrative, and sections that contain prescriptions about social norms, designated as didactic.
  • This division is by no means watertight - the didactic sections include stories, and the narrative often contains a social message.
  • However, generally historians agree that the Mahabharata was meant to be a dramatic moving story, and that the didactic portions were probably added later.
  • Didactic refers to something that is meant for purposes of instruction.
  • Perhaps, the most important didactic section of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita which contains the advice offered by Lord Krishna to Arjuna. This scene is frequent depicted in painting and sculpture.
  • Hastinapura is described in the Adi Parvan of the Mahabharata: "The city, bursting like the ocean, packed with hundreds of mansions, displayed with its gateways, arches and turrets like massing clouds the splendour of Great Indra's city."
  • In 1951-52, the archaeologist B.B. Lal excavated at a village named Hastinapura Meerut (Uttar Pradesh).


Dynamic Text

  • The growth of the Mahabharata did not stop with the Sanskrit version.
  • Over the centuries, versions of the epic were written in a variety of languaigi through an ongoing process of dialogue between peoples, communities, and thog who wrote the texts. Several stories that originated in specific regions or circulate amongst certain people found their way into the epic.
  • At the same time, the central story of the epic was often retold in different ways And episodes were depicted in sculpture and painting. They also provided themes a wide range of performing arts - plays, dance and other kinds of narrations.


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