Historical Perspective of Indian Society – UPSC

In this article, You will read Historical Perspective of Indian Society – for UPSC (Cultural SettingGeography Optional).

Historical Perspective of Indian Society

  • Indian society is very old, complex, and plural and it has a long history. It is composed of different religious groups, racial groups and groups having cultural differences. In the long span of Indian history various groups from different parts of the world entered into India with their own socio – cultural and racial features.
  • Thus, Plurality and Multiplicity characterize Indian society and culture. India has accommodated and assimilated various outside elements into its growing culture.
  • However, it has never been a “melting pot” in which all differences got dissolved and a uniform identity was created. India is a shining example of “salad bowl” in which different elements retain their individual identities and yet, together, they form a distinct recipe.
  • It is in that sense that India is a unity in diversity, guided by the principle of tolerance and mutual respect.

Structure of Indian Society

Indian Society during the Vedic Period

  • The early Vedic society was largely based on pastoral economy and lineage mode of social organization. It comprised groups of households linked by descent or kinship bonds.
  • Sets of different lineages comprised a social community. It represented an independent network of clan. The members of this society were of fair complexion, skilled in art of cattle rising and worshipped natural elements, primarily fire. They are called Aryans and being a migratory people, they often clashed with the native inhabitants where they migrated.
  • The Aryans seem to celebrate predatory power; they were prone to attack and often decimated their enemies of the native stock whom they characterize as the dark – complexioned Dasas.
  • Aryans used to capture them through warfare and used them as slaves. Many Indologists are of the opinion that the Dasas were descendants from the Harappan Civilization which was urbanized and consisted of urban settlements.
  • The Rig-Veda also has the mention of a people called the Pani who is portrayed as rich cattle breeders and traders. These are Non – Aryans and are mentioned as having dark – complexioned or proto – Australoid features.
  • It seems that the interaction between the Pani – Dasas social segments with the Aryans slowly began to give rise to the elementary features of social stratification it was based on distinction of Varna, which had racial characteristics.
  • Significant changes in social structure, cultural rules and division of labour came into existence during the later – Vedic period. The four fold division of castes (jatis)- the Brahmana (priest), the Rajanya / Kshatriyas, the Vaisya (traders) and Sudra (peasants) is referred to have originated from the body of the Purush ( the great being). Thus, a relative differentiated social hierarchy seems to have emerged during the later Vedic period which got further consolidated during the Epic period.
  • Social disabilities of the lower strata, particularly of the Sudra in regard to the access to sacred texts or their recitation were strictly imposed. The inter-changeability of occupations by voluntary choice was restricted to the upper segment of the social strata. The codification of rigid norms of social and ritual practices took place during the later Vedic period.

Indian Society during Post Vedic Period –

  • It seems that by this time lineages and clans which in the past were emerging as nascent political institutions had assumed the forms of either republics or monarchies.
  • The institution of hereditary kings, who were mostly Kshatriyas, was still flexible but the formation of state, as a political body, had emerged. It soon consolidated itself into the Mauryan Empire which ushered in many significant changes in the social structure of society. The changes got further impetus with the new revolutionary cultural and religious accompaniments of Buddhism and Jainism.
  • These two religious movements constitute the core of social and cultural protest against orthodox Brahamanical emphasis on rituals and animals sacrifices. Both rejected the Brahamanical orthodoxy on caste, its social and cultural discriminations and ritualism which had assumed expensive and exploitative proportions.
  • Social structure had undergone changes as a result of processes of social assimilation and interaction among of communities, both alien and native.
  • In addition to the four – fold Varna’s a filth category of “Untouchables” had now sprung up. The untouchables were probably aboriginal tribal who lived by hunting and food gathering and were treated as the lowest stratum of society. It also implies the existence of the notions of pollution- purity in a rigid form in the caste hierarchy.
  • The notion of Varna which was relatively an open social system in respect of inter – Varna mobility got by this time converted into caste (jati) as a closed system (membership only by birth).

Indian Society during Gupta and Post Gupta Period –

  • The period of Indian history which followed the disintegration of the Mauryan Empire (200 B.C A.D.300) brought many changes in society and culture. There was decline in the influence of Buddhism and Jainism.
  • The weakening of the empire was marked also by incursion from central Asia of a host of invading groups such as the Kushans, Indo–Greeks and Shakas etc.
  • The incursion of outside group also led to proliferation of new communities which had to be integrated within the caste fold. This incursion of outside groups also led to proliferation of new communities which had to be integrated within the castefold. It also contributed to fragmentation of castes into sub castes.
  • Despite the fluidity of polity the economy and its social organization through guilds and business houses in cities and the peasant castes in villages flourished. This brought about ultimately the renaissance in literature, architecture, art, philosophy, and Hindu thought. It also consolidated social codes and laws governing Hindu society known as Smritis.
  • The Gupta period led to the consolidation and expansion of social and economic institutions. Economically, there is evidence to suggest that revenue from land increased substantially, and there was expanded investment in business, commerce, and production of artefacts.
  • The social organisation of guilds and their function were also reinforced. Socially, encoding of social laws through Manu’s Dharmashastra and consolidation of the positions of both Brahmanas and Shudras created more rigid caste hierarchy.
  • Prosperity in agriculture led to increase in the rural division of labour giving rise to a number of sub- categories of caste and sub-castes.
  • Towards the end of the classical period of the Gupta’s not only the southern kingdoms gained ascendancy but there was rapid regionalisation and feudalisation of society and culture. It brought about a greater degree of Pluralism of social customs, religious practices and political organisations, but also weakened the centralized polity which made the transition to the emergence of Muslim kingdoms possible.

Indian Society during Medieval Period –

  • Major changes in the caste structure took place during the reign of Sultans and the Mughals. Not only were these changes due to an expansion of economic and trade activities or due to forces of internal differentiation but mainly due to the contact between two major traditions and world views, that of Hinduism and Islam.
  • The former legitimizing caste hierarchy and cultural and social inequalities by birth and karma (deeds in past life) and the latter professing equality of all within Islamic brotherhood or umma (the community of faithful’s) – despite these differences of ideology or world view, however, we perceive that the institution of caste or caste like social grouping did come into being among the Muslims in India.
  • The Muslim society which had never known any caste structure also got influenced. They theoretically did not accept the caste system or structure but in practice the caste like structures found a place.
  • Another institution which added impetus to the emergence of caste like structure among the Muslims and which also contributed to the differentiation of caste groups among the Hindus was new agrarian structure (Feudalism). The agrarian system contributed too many changes in the function and structure of castes.
  • Among the Hindu castes, the contact with the Islamic culture introduced not only adaptive new cultural processes in belief and rituals but also led to changes in the structure of caste.
  • One major structural change took place by subdivision among castes due to growth of new role or occupational categories. The process itself gave upper caste status to many lower castes because evidence suggests that many Shudras among Hindus and members from low Muslims occupational groups or castes were accorded offices through land grants.
  • Among the Muslim community caste – like structure emerged through the process of differentiation of racial or ethnic divisions, occupational hierarchy and the presence of converts with pre existing caste ranking.
  • The original migrants like warrior group from central Asia who had distinctive racial features and constituted the ruling elite made the upper caste for the Muslim community. Sayyeds, Sheikhs, Pathans coming from Turko –Afghan, Persian and Mughals origin made the upper hierarchy.

Indian Society during Colonial Period-

  • The British conquest of India had brought tremendous change in the social, economic, political and ideological framework of society. The colonial impact on the one hand destroyed the self sufficient village economy and society, and, on the other hand, it introduced far reaching novel ideas of Western society like the concept of equality, liberalism, humanism and rationality. These ideas, absorbed by a class of intellectuals belonging to largely upper castes led to the rise of reform and revivalistic movements.
  • The social and economic decline continued in spite of several well meaning British administrators who attempted to reform the system but were held back because of “home interest” on the one hand and because they relied on the petty European Officers and Indian agents for the execution of their policies on the other.
  • Another feature of Indian society which discouraged or dispirited them from introducing social reforms was the fear that they might be misunderstood by the people.
  • The emergence of new social classes in India was the consequence of far reaching changes brought about by the British in the economic structure of India.
  • The first change they brought about was in the area of agriculture. The British administration revolutionalised the existing land revenue system. It did away with the traditional rights of the village community over the village land. Instead it created individual ownership rights in land by introducing certain measures during the 18th century, such as, the permanent settlement, the Ryotwari settlement and The Mahalwari Settlement.

Indian Society during Post–Colonial Period-

  • The preamble of the constitution which provides its aims and objective, proclaimed India to be the sovereign Democratic Republic. Later on, the term “Socialist Secular” was also added. The Constitution aimed to secure to its citizens – Justice, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.
  • The Policymakers of independent India should be credited with initiating the following measures –
    • Abolition of untouchability through constitutional intervention.
    • A policy of reservation for depressed castes in the government jobs and legislatures as a part of the policy of protective discrimination, and
    • Ensuring religious freedom and protecting the rights of various minority groups. All these principles of social justice were guaranteed through the Constitution.
  • The post-colonial society was marked by an intense period of constructive changes, idealism, and optimism. The Five Year Plans were adopted to bring about economic developments through a socialistic pattern.
  • The Zamindari System was abolished after Independence in 1950 in order to remove the intermediaries from agriculture. The Land Ceiling Act was passed so that effective land distribution could take place and land could go to the tillers.
  • However, all these land reforms made only a minor dent and people especially of upper castes and class found ways and means to control land and thereby power in the rural areas.
  • Community Development Programmes were also initiated in 1952 to bring about social-economic changes in the rural areas.

Indian Society during Contemporary Period

  • Contemporary period which we may consider to be from 1980’s onwards has seen a shift from the earlier socialistic pattern with the selective opening of market and liberalisation.
  • There have been changes in several areas. Modern Mass Communication technologies like radio, television, satellite television, transport system etc. have brought Indian society close to the global society. Computer and computer networking, fax and other electronic advances are changing the every face of not only Indian society but other societies of the wolrd, as well.
  • But in spite of phenomenal changes in the lifestyle, values, behaviour, etc, many of the traditional structures and values related with them persist.
  • One major structure which emerges again is caste structure. It has changed a lot from its earlier form if being rooted in the concept of purity and pollution. But its main persistence lies in its relationship with kinship and marriage.
  • The kind of social problems that still persists in India, in spite of rapid changes and growth in its economy, technology and access to new opportunities are related to –
    • Problem of poverty – both absolute and relative, and
    • Rise in population, despite tremendous economic development.
  • Poverty and rise in population are inter – related phenomenon and form a vicious cycle. There are some new problems also arising today as a result of rapid urbanisation and industrialisation. There is growth in slums in cities, rise of unemployment, crime in urban areas, delinquency, dowry deaths etc.

Thus we say that society in India changed in many respect yet the traditional roots of caste and ethnic identities, social and political culture continue.

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