History of India/Volume 1/Chapter 13

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THE great distinction between the society of Vedic times and the society of the Brahmanic and Epic Periods was, as we have seen, that caste was unknown in the former, and had developed in the latter. But this was not the only distinction. Centuries of culture and progress had had their influence on society, and the Hindus of the period of which we are now speaking had attained a high degree of refinement and civilization, and had developed minute rules to regulate their domestic and social duties. Royal courts were the seats of learning, and sages of all nations were invited, honoured, and rewarded. Justice was officially administered, and law regulated every duty of life. Cities were multiplied throughout India, and had their judges, their executive officers, and their police. Agriculture was fostered, and the king's officers looked to the collection of taxes and the comforts of cultivators.

To such courts as those of the Videhas, the Kasis, and the Kuru-Panchalas learned priests were attached for the performance of sacrifices, and also for the cultivation of learning; and many of the Brahmanas which have been handed down to us were composed in the schools which these priests founded. On great occasions men of learning came from distant towns and villages, and discussions were held not only on ritualistic matters, but on such subjects as the human soul, the future world, the nature of the gods, and the different orders of being, and lastly, on the nature of the Universal Being.

But learning was not confined to royal courts. There were Parishads, or Brahmanic establishments for the cultivation of learning, to which young men went to acquire learning. According to modern writers, a Parishad ought to consist of twenty-one Brahmans well versed in philosophy, theology, and law; but these rules are laid down in later law books, and do not describe the character of the Parishads of earlier days, when four, or even three, Brahmans in a village, who knew the Veda and kept the sacrificial fire, might form a Parishad.

Besides these Parishads, individual teachers often gathered round themselves students from various parts of the country. These students lived with their teachers, served them in a menial capacity during the time of their studentship, and, after twelve years or more, made suitable presents to their teachers and returned to their homes and their relatives. Learned Brahmans too, who retired to forests in their old age, frequently attracted students, and much of the boldest speculation of this period proceeded from these sylvan seats of sanctity and learning.

When students had thus acquired the traditional learning of the age either in Parishads or under private teachers, they returned to their homes, married, and settled down as householders. With marriage began their duties as householders, and the first duty

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of a householder was to light the sacrificial fire under an auspicious constellation, to offer libations of milk to the fire both morning and evening, to perform other religious and domestic rites, and, above all, to offer hospitality to strangers. The essence of a Hindu's duties are inculcated in passages like the following:— "Say what is true! Do thy duty! Do not neglect the study of the Veda! After having brought to thy teacher the proper reward, do not cut off the lives of children! Do not swerve from the truth! Do not swerve from duty! Do not neglect what is useful! Do not neglect greatness! Do not neglect to teach the Veda!

"Do not neglect the works due to the gods and fathers! Let thy mother be to thee like unto a god! Let thy father be to thee like unto a god! Let thy teacher be to thee like unto a god! Whatever actions are blameless, those should be regarded, not others. Whatever good works have been performed by us, those should be observed by thee."

Pleasing pictures of a happy state of society are presented in many passages which we meet with in the literature of the period: "May the Brahmans in our kingdom," says the priest at a horse-sacrifice, "live in piety; may our warriors be skilled in arms and mighty; may our cows yield us profuse milk, our bullocks carry their weights, and our horses be swift; may our women defend their homes, and our warriors be victorious; may our youths be refined in their manners. ... May Parjanya shower rain in every home and in every region; may our crops yield grains and ripen, and we attain our wishes and live in bliss."

In the Brahmanic age wealth consisted of gold and silver and jewels; of chariots; horses, cows, mules, and slaves; of houses and fertile fields, and even of elephants. Many metals besides gold and silver were known, as is clear from a passage of the Chhandogya Upanishad which describes gold as soldered by means of borax, and silver by means of gold, and tin by means of silver, and lead by means of tin, and iron by means

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From a painting by Edwin Lord Weeks. Copyright, 1895, by Harper & Brothers.

of lead, and wood by means of iron, and also by means of leather.

Here and there in the towns and villages were pools that collected rain-water to serve the varied needs of the people. In these pools they washed their clothes, and in their waters they often found relief from the oppressive heat of midday.

As in the Vedic Period, the food of the people consisted of various kinds of grain as well as the meat of animals. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,

ten kinds of seeds are mentioned, rice and barley, sesamum and kidney beans, millet and panic seed, wheat, lentils, pulse, and vetches, while the White Yajur-Veda also mentions green gram, wild rice, and shamalo-grass. Grains were ground and sprinkled with curds, honey, and clarified butter, and made into different kinds of cake. Milk and its various preparations have ever been a favourite food in India.

Animal food was in use in the Brahmanic and Epic Period, and the cow and the bull were often laid under requisition. The Aitareya Brahmana states that an ox or a cow was killed when a king or an honoured guest was received; and an honoured guest is called, even in comparatively modern Sanskrit, a cow-killer.

In the Brahmana of the Black Yajur-Veda, the kind and character of the cattle which should be slaughtered in minor sacrifices, for the gratification of particular divinities, are laid down in detail, and the same Brahmana lays down instructions for carving, while the Gopatha Brahmana tells who received the different portions. The priests got the tongue, the neck, the shoulder, the rump, and the legs, while the master of the house appropriated to himself the sirloin, and his wife had to content herself with the pelvis. Plentiful libations of Soma were taken to wash down the meat.

In the Satapatha Brahmana there is an amusing discussion as to the propriety of eating the meat of an ox or a cow, but the conclusion is not very definite: "Let him (the priest) not eat the flesh of the cow and the ox." Nevertheless Yajnavalkya said (taking apparently a very practical view of the matter), I, for one, eat it, provided it is tender," yet he could scarcely have contemplated the wonderful effects of vegetable and animal diets respectively, as laid down in the following passage in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:—

"If a man wishes that a learned daughter should be born to him, and that she should live to her full age, then after having prepared boiled rice with sesamum and butter they (the husband and wife) should both eat, being fit to have offspring.

"And if a man wishes that a learned son should be born to him, famous, a public man, a popular speaker, that he should know all the Vedas, and that he should live to his full age, then, after having prepared boiled rice with meat and butter, they (the husband and wife) should both eat, being fit to have offspring. The meat should be of a young or of an old bull."

And now let our readers construct for themselves a picture of the social life which the Hindus of the Brahmanic and Epic Period—the citizens of Hastinapura and Kampilya and Ayodhya and Mithila—lived three thousand years ago. The towns were surrounded by walls, beautified by edifices, and laid out in streets. The king's palace was always the centre of the town, and was frequented by boisterous courtiers and a rude soldiery, as well as by holy saints and learned priests. The people flocked to the palace on every great occasion, loved, respected, and worshipped the king, and had no higher faith than loyalty to the king. Householders and citizens had their possessions and wealth in gold, silver, and jewels; in chariots, horses, mules, and slaves; and in the fields surrounding the town. They kept the sacred fire in every respectable household, honoured guests, lived according to the law of the land, offered sacrifices with the help of Brahmans, and honoured knowledge. Every Aryan boy was sent to school at an early age. Brahmans and Kshatriyas and Vaisyas were educated together, learned the same lessons and the same religion, and returned home, married, and settled down as householders. Priests and soldiers were a portion of the people, intermarried with the people, and ate and drank with the people. Various classes of manufacturers supplied the various wants of a civilized society, and followed their ancestral professions from generation to generation, but were not cut up into separate castes. Agriculturists lived with their herds and their ploughs in their own villages, and, according to the ancient custom of India, Hindu village communities managed and settled their own village concerns.

We have seen that the absolute seclusion of women was unknown in ancient India. Hindu women held an honoured place in society from the dawn of Hindu civilization four thousand years ago; they inherited and possessed property; they took a share in sacrifices and religious duties; they attended great assemblies on state occasions; they openly frequented public places; they often distinguished themselves in science and in the learning of their times; and they even had their legitimate influence on politics and administration. And although they never mixed so freely in the society of men as women do in modern Europe, yet absolute seclusion and restraint were not Hindu customs; they were unknown in India till the Mohammedan times, and are to this day unknown in parts of India like the Maharashtra, where the rule of the Moslems was brief.

Innumerable passages might be quoted from the Brahmana literature, showing the high esteem in which women were held, but we will content ourselves with one or two. The first is the celebrated conversation between Yajnavalkya and his learned wife Maitreyi on the eve of his retirement to the forest:—

"Now when Yajnavalkya was going to enter upon another state, he said: 'Maitreyi, verily I am going away from this my house. Forsooth let me make a settlement between thee and Katyayani.'"

"Maitreyi said: 'My lord, if this whole earth full of wealth belonged to me, tell me, should I be immortal by it?' 'No,' replied Yajnavalkya; 'like the life of rich people will be thy life. But there is no hope of immortality by wealth.'

"And Maitreyi said: 'What should I do with that by which I do not become immortal? What my lord knoweth of immortality, tell that to me.'

"Yajnavalkya replied: 'Thou who art truly dear to me, thou speakest dear words. Come, sit down, I will explain it to thee, and mark well what I say.'"

And then he explained the principle which is so often and so impressively taught in the Upanishads, that the Universal Soul dwells in the husband, in the wife, in the sons, and in wealth; in the Brahmans and Kshatriyas, and in all the worlds; in the Devas, in all living creatures, and in all the universe. Maitreyi received and grasped this great truth, and valued it more than the wealth of all the world.

Our next quotation, which is also from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, relates to a great assembly of learned men in the court of Janaka, King of the Videhas:—

"Janaka Videha sacrificed with a sacrifice at which many presents were offered to the priests. Brahmans of the Kurus and the Panchalas had come thither, and Janaka wished to know which of those Brahmans was the best read. So he enclosed a thousand cows, and ten padas of gold were fastened to each pair of horns.

"And Janaka spoke to them: 'Ye venerable Brahmans, he who among you is the wisest, let him drive away these cows.' Then those Brahmans durst not, but Yajnavalkya said to his pupil, 'Drive them away!' He replied, 'O glory of the Sama!' and drove them away."

On this the Brahmans became angry, and plied Yajnavalkya with questions, but he was a match for them all, and the sages, one by one, held their peace.


There was one in the great assembly who was not deficient in the learning and the priestly lore of those times, and that one was a woman, who rose in the open assembly, and said: "O Yajnavalkya, as the son of a warrior from the Kasis or Videhas might string his loosened bow and take two pointed foe-piercing arrows in his hand and rise to battle, I have risen to fight thee with two questions. Answer me these questions." The questions were put and were answered, and Gargi Vachaknavi was silent.

These passages and many others like them show that women were honoured in ancient India and considered the intellectual companions of their husbands, their affectionate helpers in the journey of life, and the inseparable partners of their religious duties. Hindu wives received the honour and respect due to their position, in addition to having rights to property and to inheritance. In return Hindu wives have ever been honourably distinguished for their fidelity, and feminine unfaithfulness is comparatively rare.

Early marriage and child-marriage were still unknown in the Brahmanic and Epic Periods, and we have numerous allusions to the marriage of girls after they had reached maturity. Widow-marriage was not only not prohibited, but there is distinct sanction for it; and the rites which the widow had to perform before she entered into the married state again are distinctly laid down. As caste was still a pliable institution, men belonging to one caste frequently married widows of another, and Brahmans married widows of other castes without any scruple.

Polygamy was allowed among the Hindus as among many other ancient nations, but was practically confined to kings and wealthy lords. Polyandry, we need hardly say, was unknown in Aryan India, so that the Aitareya Brahmana declares: "For one man has many wives, but one wife has not many husbands at the same time."

There is in the Satapatha Brahmana a curious passage prohibiting marriages among blood-relations to the third or fourth generation: "For now kinsfolk live sporting and rejoicing together, saying, 'in the fourth or third generation we unite,'" and the rule of prohibition became still more strict in later times.