The varna system can be traced from the later Vedic times. Gradually, norms related to varna hierarchies became more elaborate. Manu gives elaborate rules related to these, and he was followed by later law givers, Yajnavalkya, Narada, Brihaspati, Katyayana, Vyasa and Parashara in the period under review.
These texts were clearly written for brahmanas, as they themselves claim repeatedly, but they did influence other varnas through the ages.
The dharmashastras had been compiled with a specific purpose. This was to give legitimacy to themselves by weaving in ‘Vedic’ tradition with their ideas of a society based on varna and gender divisions.
Some scholars feel that the varna system was an elaborate system of classification in which all living beings and cosmic elements were slotted in the four varna categories, according to their basic features.
It was only gradually that the varna system became hierarchical and was then propagated by the dominant classes. Gradually, as social differences became sharper and needed to be more defined, the dharmashastras began to have elaborate rules related to varna hierarchies. Endogamy, hereditary occupations and taboos related to interdining and interaction between the varnas were encouraged.
As professional occupations emerged, jatis became more numerous and simultaneously some groups were placed at the bottom of the society and regarded as untouchables.
The dharmashastras sought to introduce a system by which hierarchies amongst people could be maintained. Production activities could be ensured and circulation of resources maintained with a constant supply of labour. Thus, from an economic point of view, the varna system was a mechanism that worked for the benefit of the upper varnas at the cost of the others.
The varna system, supported and flanked by the two arms of religion and the state, was able to survive and withstand different ages and cultures. It was a tradition which was constantly evolving and changing while becoming more and more elaborate and complex.
The structure of the varna system was not all encompassing at all times. The varna structure itself was subject to change, those who were outside it were being constantly assimilated. Varna and jati categories were changing all the time. Thus the Varna system and its hierarchies were not always rigid, but could be flexible and vary according to different situations.
Theoretically, in matters such as Vedic learning, brahmanas held a supreme position. Similarly, in matters of the state and the protection it offered to subjects, although kshatriya were projected to be supreme, the support of the vaishya was essential.
The Grihya Sutras are sacred Hindu texts containing information regarding Vedic domestic rites and rituals meant for the householders. They were rendered into compositions probably during the same period when the Dharmashastras or the Hindu law books were composed. Grihya Sutras deal with domestic rituals such as conception, birth, initiation (upanayanam), marriage, death etc.
The Dharmashastras are the ancient law books of Hindus, which prescribe moral laws and principles for religious duty and righteous conduct for the followers of the faith. They also formed the guidelines for their social and religious code of conduct Hindus in the past where Hindu rulers enforced the laws as part of their religious duty. However looking to the heterogeneity and complex nature of Indian society from the earlier times, it is difficult to say how seriously these laws were enforced by the ruling classes among all sections of society.
The Dharmashastras throw considerable light upon the social and religious conditions of ancient India, family life, gender and caste based distinctions, and principles of ancient jurisprudence. We can find in them rudiments of many principles and practices of social and religious aspects of modern Hindu society.
However, since they represent archaic conditions of an ancient society, some of the passages in them are bound to shock the sensibilities of many people in today’s world. The Dharmashastras did not envisage an egalitarian society in which both men and women competed for the same duties, professions, and resources. Same was true with regard to caste divisions. They accepted gender and caste inequality as a social imperative and prescribed for each different set of laws.
Dharma in Hinduism is a very elaborate concept with divergent meanings, which we have described elsewhere. Its primary aim is to ensure the orderly progression of creation and existence, by preserving their foundational structure, supporting mechanism, values, order and regularity.
According to Hinduism, one of the self-appointed duties of God is to protect the worlds and beings by enforcing the Dharma that is specific to each of them. The rules of Dharma are universal in the sense that their primary source is God only. However, variations arise in their implementations as they are applied at different levels and in different worlds according to the duties, roles and responsibilities prescribed to each of them.
Dharma is eternal, but its enforcement and observance are subject to fluctuations according to the progression of time. Hence, they are subject to change. They are also applicable to beings who are bound to either duty or mortality, but not to those who are liberated forever. In the liberated state, the souls (muktas) enjoy eternal power in the world of Brahman, where there are no boundaries and no laws, but only all knowing awareness, and immeasurable existence that is not subject to any laws or limitations. In that eternal and infinite state, each soul governs itself, exists by itself, bound to nothing, complete, perfect and very much like God in a state of unity.
The Dharma Shastras were meant for people who are bound to the mortal world, because of their ignorance, sinful karma, delusion and desires, and who engage in desire-ridden actions. For such people guidance is required for distinguishing the lawful from the unlawful, and performing such duties that flow directly from God which will ensure the orderly progression of the world and preservation of the moral, social and political order.
Position of Women
During the sultanate period, social status of a woman, both in Hindu and Muslim communities was very low. She was regarded as the property of men. Females belonging to the nobility observed purdah and were rarely allowed to go outside the house. Firuz Shah Tughluq, (1309-1388) prohibited women from even visiting holy shrines. It was believed that if women went out, they might get involve in immoral activities.
As a custom rulers and nobles married many women and kept slave girls in a place called harem. Their women, while not always getting a very good treatment from them, were considered as their honour. The Rajputs, especially after being defeated in wars, killed their wives and slave girls in order to save their honour. Whenever a war took place, the defeated enemy’s wealth and all their belongings were distributed equally among the triumphant army, and even the women folk of the enemy were treated as war booty.
Women had no freedom and were suppressed. Peasant women had to work at home as well as in the fields. Their life was very hard and without love and respect. Among the Hindus, the custom of ‘sati’ was common in which a widowed woman had to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.
However, women belonging to the nobility had some privileges; they could get education at home and enjoyed some freedom. However, there have been women who got the opportunity to play important roles in politics and the administration.