India, many believe, is an idea. It is not one territory, not one people but a melting pot in        
    which many cultures have mingled to produce a unique sensibility, a grand civilization.         
    The whole that is now India is greater than the many parts that have gone into its making.        
    Inevitably India means different things to different peoples. It denotes at the same time        
    spirituality and science, art and religion, antiquity and development, myth and history.         
    The rich variety of its natural landscape, colors, textures, food and peoples has appealed        
    to the romantic imagination of the civilized world since ancient times.        
      Change and Continuity  
      In the nineteenth century, India came to be imagined as part of a mysterious orient  
      imbued with an ancient wisdom timeless and changeless. Nothing could be further from  
      the truth.  
India has always been steadily changing, internally    
and in step with the rest of the world. Between the    
Vedic Age and the Classical Gupta Age, Indian state    
and society underwent stages of transformation.    
People came - especially from the North-West - in     
a steady stream bringing with them new crafts, skills,    
languages and practices. The Turkish and other    
Central Asian tribes brought with them Islam and    
many innovations in social and political institutions.    
The flowering of Indian Muslim civilization under the    
four great Mughals marked an epoch of continuous    
welcome     Nearer our own time, and better understood by us, the colonial and post-colonial states  
contents     have created new boundaries and institutions which have profoundly altered the lives of  
subject moderators     all segments of Indian peoples.  
sexuality     Much of India’s ‘ancient’ wisdom was not so ancient as might be believed. ‘Hinduism’ is  
social landscapes     supposed to be ( one of ) the oldest religions of the world. But much of its known  
art     features are less old than Christianity or Islam. The first surviving Hindu stone temple was  
dance     built only 500 years after the Athenian Acropolis. Popular deities like Rama, Ganesha or  
literature     Hanuman are much younger than Christ.  
pot pourri        
    Between the time of the early Greek philosophers and St. Thomas Aquinas, Buddhism arose  
    as a great religious movement, altered the course of India's history, declined and finally  
    sank back into the Hinduism from which it had emerged. In he meanwhile, however,  
    Buddhist ideas spread over virtually half the vast Asian continent.  
      And yet India's antiquity compels our imagination.  
    First, because it is old. The sacred bull and the holy pipal tree have been around for 4,500  
    years. The hymns of Rig Veda are older than the oldest verses of the Old Testament. Second,  
    Indian culture has been always and fully conscious its own antiquity. It goes further, it   
    exaggerates its antiquity, upholds it as a virtue and claims its unchanging traditions as its  
    greatest achievement. Indeed, India's claim to singularity may well lie in having the longest  
    cultural continuity anywhere in the world. None of India's ancient civilizations were ever  
    completely destroyed or forgotten.   
          The Glory of India  
      The unembarrassed admiration of one of the greatest historians of Ancient India,  
      A. L. Basham, is directed towards India's tradition of humanity and it's people's passions.  
    The vast geographical and political spread of India has been, inevitably, torn by internecine  
    war, pulled asunder by the unscrupulous cunning of rulers and statesmen, ravaged by  
    famine, flood and plague. Judged, however, by the standard of other ancient cultures, India's  
    social and political ideals were lofty, fair and humane. War did not lead to mass civilian  
    slaughter, punishment rarely descended to sadism, slaves were few and heir rights were  
    protected. In the ancient world, India was an unusual example of a humanitarian order.  
    Indian association with fatalism and asceticism is misleading. Even in the ancient days,  
    Indians lived within complex and evolving societies, achieving great heights in the sciences,  
    philosophy and art. Nature's plenty gave prosperity but did not induce lethargy. India was a  
      cheerful land with a robust enjoyment of simple pleasures.  
      Class and Caste - A Difficult Legacy  
Is India's ancient glory unalloyed by iniquity? To most social   
scientists and many modern Indians, the most troubling legacy   
of Ancient India is the caste-system. It has frozen Indian society   
in an unchanging hierarchy, legitimating oppression and social   
exclusion. It has helped to entrench the maxim that men's and   
women's destinies are determined by their birth into a particular   
social order. But what is caste? Why is it so powerful and enduring ?   
The term 'caste' is not Indian. The Portuguese who came to India   
in the 16th century used the word castas (meaning tribes, clans or   
families) to denote the many divisions with Hindu society. The    
word stuck and caused (continues to cause) many a gray hair on   
the scholar’s head.  
    The term 'caste' comprises two quite different institutions of Hindu society - varna (class)  
    and jati (literally birth group, caste, for want of a better word).  
      Varna refers to the four-fold classification of society expounded during the Vedic period.  
      How did the four classes come into being?  
      Here's what the myths say.  
      In the later Rig Vedic Period, we encounter the Hymn of the Primeval Man that seeks to  
      explain the Foundation of the Universe. Prajapati- the Primeval Man (Purusa) - committed  
      his body to the first cosmic sacrifice. From his body the universe was produced.  
           The brahman was his mouth
           Of his arms was made the warrior
           His thighs became the vaisya
           Of his feet the sudra was born.
      These were the four varnas. Brahman ( priest ), Kshatriya ( warrior ), Vaisya ( traders ), and  
      Sudras ( cultivators ). There are never more or less than four and their order of precedence  
      has not changed in 2,000 years.  
      Varna literally means colour. Brahmans wear white, kshatriyas yellow, vaisyas red and  
      sudras black. The order of precedence is ritually legitimated by the degree of pollution  
      attached to being born into one or another of them. The least polluted were the brahmans   
      and the most polluted were the sudras.  
      How would a historian explain the four fold varna system?  
    The very mention (mythic or otherwise) of the four varnas in the Rig Veda indicate their  
    antiquity. The system must have already been there about 1000 B.C.  
The Aryans were a pastoral people. Cattle-keeping and     
cattle-wealth marked the highest ranking and the ruling     
clans were called rajanya, who later adopted the title     
kshatriya (kshatra meaning power). But as the Aryans     
moved into the fertile and productive Ganga Valley, they     
and the non - Aryans already settled in these areas (vis)     
began to value land as the major source of wealth. The     
Aryan ruling class looked upon the brahman (priest) to      
confer legitimacy and convert them into KINGS (rajas)      
through powerful sacrifices. In return, the rajas paid       
fees and gifts to the priests. Together, the priest and      
the king ( as in many other ancient polities ) constituted       
the elite of society.     
Those called vis adopted the title vaisya and were the     
leading households of farmers, herdsmen or merchants.     
The heads of the household were called grihapati and     
they paid tribute to the kings and the priests.     
      Subjects of the raja (praja, to start with) and servants of the elite were divided into sudras   
      and dasas. These may have been non - Aryans or war captives. They were usually set to work  
      the land and tend the cattle. Even lower in rank were the 'untouchables' so called because  
      their occupations were supposed to be deeply polluting - leather workers, corpse handlers, etc.  
      Jati is not fixed. There are thousands of jatis in different parts of the country. Jatis rise and  
      fall in social scale, they die out and new ones emerge.  
      Ancient texts refer more to varna than to jati. But when jati is mentioned, it does not imply  
      the rigid and exclusive social groups of later times.  
      The first clear mention of jati is in Manu's Lawbook, the Dharmashastra. He uses the term to   
      describe proliferating lower occupational groups, which (according to Manu) consisted of   
    descendants of illicit marriages of various kinds among the original varnas.  
    Manu's explanation of the emergence of jatis through intermarriage and intermingling of the  
    four varnas was accepted for a long time and by a surprising number of scholars. It is now   
    recognized that such a trajectory of development is unlikely, if not impossible. Indeed,  
    despite many overlaps, varna and jati have never quite harmonized.  
      The development of jatis - as a system of groups within the varna system - normally   
      endogamous, commensal and craft-exclusive must have taken thousands of years. Such a  
    system of social ranking emerged from the association of many different racial and other  
    groups in a single cultural system.  
    The caste group emerged as the center of focus for corporate feeling. Probably a result of  
    intertwining tribal affiliation and professional association. The introduction of new racial   
    groups and the development of new crafts continually elaborated both.  
    The corporate sense of caste emerged from the time when small clans living in isolated  
    villages sought to hold themselves aloof by a complex system of taboos. As these small and  
    primitive people were forced to come to terms with an increasingly complex social and  
    economic system, they sought to group themselves around existing corporate identities.  
      The system began to elaborate and grow rigid in the Middle Ages.  
      The Europeans encountering a system they imperfectly understood, exoticised or demonised  
      'caste' where fancy (or self-interest) led. Among the many drastic interventions of the British   
      Indian State, a damaging one was to attempt a taxonomy of castes based on the mistaken  
      assumption that jatis, like varnas, are immutable. They assumed - completely mistakenly -   
      that caste pertained to the ritual rather than the social and historical. This was a costly   
      The term 'caste' lost most of its historic political, social, economic and cultural attributes in  
      the course of the twentieth century. And yet, it continued to attach corporate loyalty. On the  
      one hand, 'caste' became a platform for preserving old and voicing new entitlements; on the  
      other, its emptiness opened it up to manipulation by conflicting groups and classes.  
      We shall see how many other social relations that developed in ancient India cast their long  
      shadow - sometimes drastically altered, sometimes only marginally modified - across  
      several millennia of political and social development. In the next few meetings we shall   
      discuss themes and episodes from between the events associated with the great epic,  
      Mahabharata (900 BC) to the close of the Classical Gupta Age (500 AD).  
      Love, Samita