It is a fascinating, meticulously documented study unveiling, for the first time, the ancient Indian society in all its variegated evolutionary expressions across about two and-a-half millennia:
since the Vedic times (c. 1500 Bc) — with a beautifully well-knit religions and cultic practices; paradigms; polity and statecraft; educational set-up; customs, etiquettes; food habits, drinks, dress styles; sports, pastimes, modes recreations; sex life and sexual morality; casteist hierarchies; attitude towards women; and its crimes, punishments and legal codes.
Epitomizing a lifetime of Dr. Banerji’s research on ancient India, the book vividly captures all different articulations of sociological import from a whole body of traditional writings: both sacred and secular. Again, it turns out to be the first ever study to singly explore the sociological orientations of the Vedic Samhitas, Brahmanas, Upanisads, Kalpasutras, Vyakaranas, Puranas, Smrtiastras, Tantric texts, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, Kautilya’s Arthasastra, and many other Sanskrit classics — besides Buddhist and Jaina works in Pali, Prakrt and Apabhramsa languages.
With highly informative appendices, extensive bibliographic references and a glossary of technical/unfamiliar words, the book holds out enduring appeal to both scholars and discerning readers.
Dr. Sures Chandra Banerji, (1917-2000) a distinguished scholar of ancient Indian history Scriptures and literary classics of almost every genre. With over half a century of serious involvement in Indological research he had already authored 56 books that notably include titles, like Studies in the Origin and Development of Dharma sir Studies in the Origin and Development of Yoga, A Brief History of Tantra Literature A Companion to Sanskrit Literature The Cultural Glory of Ancient India, A Companion to Indian Philosophy, and Companion Dharmastra.
A retired Professor of Sanskrit (Bengal Educational Service), Fellow of Asiatic Society (Calcutta), and Life Member of the Bhandarka Oriental Research Institute (Pune) as well as Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute (Madras), Dr. Banerji Was honoured with the Rabindra Memorial Prize (1963-4): the highest academic award from the Government of West Bengal.
OF late, there has been a growing interest among the intelligentsia about the past of India. Social workers, legislators and administrators are keenly feeling the need of re-orientation in the social conditions and outlook. Thanks to quick transport, the world is shrinking. People of different countries are coming closer together not only in the fields of technology and science but also in the cultural plane. Radhakrishnan said that India had been wailing for a new Smrti. Many of our time-worn customs and practices are fast losing relevance to modern conditions.
The present society is a child of the past. Any reform, radical or partial, requires a knowledge of the history of the social conditions. Whatever is old is not sacrosanct however much the obscurantist may plead for it. Likewise, whatever is modern cannot be accepted as infallible. Before we undertake reform, we must have a knowledge of the origin and evolution of the sociological ideas. In some cases, a social practice originated in a most casual way, but passed through various vicissitudes resulting in many changes. A consideration of the historical perspective will reveal the true nature of the original customs. Thus, we shall ‘e in a position to assess the value and importance of it before we think of changing it or giving it up.
Moreover, the evolution of the Indian society from the earliest times is a curiosity to the historians, scholars and general readers.
The present work was undertaken to apprise the reader of the conditions which prevailed in India through ages. The pictures of the society in different epochs have been drawn by different scholars. For example, we have books on the society of the Maurya and Gupta periods. Again, the society reflected in sonic literary works has been described. For instance, the Vedic society and the society in the epics have been studied. But, we do not know of any book in which we can have an integrated picture of the complex society in its evolution from the Vedic times through centuries. Thus, for example, if one feels curious to know how the institution of marriage originated and developed, one has to go through a number of books dealing with the matter in different periods. It is expected that the present work will remove this want to a considerable extent.
Folk-life of ancient India has not received the adequate attention of scholars. An attempt has been made here to set forth the salient features of the life of the common people as reflected in works in Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit.
For our purpose, we have relied mainly on the following classes of literary works: Vedic Samhitas, Brahmanas, Upanisads, Kalpasutras, Vyakarana, Epics, Puranas, Arthasastra, Tanti-a and Classical Sanskrit literature.
Besides works in Sanskrit, we have also consulted the Buddhist Pãli works, particularly the Jatakas, and the Jaina works in Prakrit and Apabhrarma.
The present work has no pretension to completeness. It is, however, hoped that an overall picture of the society has been delineated in a general way bringing out the highlights from a direct study of the literary records.
The author’s labour will be rewarded if this work succeeds in giving the reader a coherent picture of the society in its evolution from the earliest times.
Sincere thanks are due to the Publisher, who has evinced love for indology, for readily agreeing to undertake the publication of the work.
A General Survey
BEFORE taking up an account of the Indian society, reflected in Sanskrit literature, we shall give a rapid survey of this literature. The Rgveda is regarded as the earliest written record of the Indo-Europeans. We find in it a civilisation of a considerably high degree. It has been aptly said that Vedic civilisation has dawn but no twilight. The same remark is applicable to the Vedic Samhita. In it we have a literature of considerable refinement. There must have been a long period of development culminating in the Veda. But we do not as yet have any specimen of the preceding period. The age of the Rgveda is still uncertain. Most modern scholars would place it about 1500 B.C.
The other Vedic Samhitas are the Yajus (YV), Sama (SI’) and Atharvan (AV).
While the RV contains Mantras mainly about the various aspects of nature, conceived as deities, the YV contains matters for ritual application. The SV is a collection of hymns to be sung in sacrifices. The AV contains matters reflecting popular beliefs and practices. In it we have matters designed to prolong life, heal diseases, ward off evils, counteract the venom of snakes, mischief to enemies etc. It is a Veda of magic of two kinds, white and black. Many amulets are mentioned; these are believed to ensure various kinds of welfare.
The Vedic Samhitas are followed by Brahmanas. These prose works dealing exhaustively with the procedure of Vedic rites and rituals. Their contents may be divided as Vidhi (injunctions), Arthavada (explanation) and Upanisad (secret doctrines). The Upanisadic portion belongs mainly to Aranyakas or forest-texts. These represent the thoughts of the sages resorting to the solitude of forests. The Upanisads deal with sublime thoughts about the philosophy of life, its goal, the nature of Brahman, the Supreme Being and the ways to His realisation.
Then came the Sutra period in which the earlier knowledge was systematised and presented in mnemonic aphoristic style. The entire body of Vedic Sutras is designated as Kalpasutra. It comprises the following:
The Veda and the Upanisads contained germs of philosophy. As time rolled on, philosophical ideas took a clear shape, and were developed through centuries. An attempt at systematisation of the philosophical ideas resulted in the formulation of Satras about the different systems of thought. The systems were mainly six, viz. Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimansa, Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga. In course of time, elaborate commentaries were written to elucidate the ideas contained in the cryptic Satras. For example, the commentary of Sankara on Vedanta-Sutras is very well known.
After the Vedic period came the epics, viz, the Ramayana (Ram) and the Mahabharata (Mbh). We have no means of determining when the epics originated. It appears that epic stories were sung by two classes of people, viz. Satas or bards living in royal courts, and Kusilavas or travelling singers. After a long period of oral transmission these came to be written and redacted through centuries. The Mbh, in its present form, perhaps dates back to the 4th century AD. and the present Ram to a century or two earlier.
Another important class of Sanskrit literature is the Puarnas. The precise date of origin of this type is unknown. The early Puranas, however, appear to have been composed or compiled in the period between the fifth century B.C. and sixth century AD. They deal with all sorts of subjects ranging from creation to genealogies of kings. In short, these can be called epitomes of Indian civilisation and culture.
A considerable role is played by Tantras in the social life of India. They give freedom to all, irrespective of caste, creed and sex, regarding religious rites and observances. They teach ways to liberation (mukti) through enjoyment. (bhukti). The ascetic practices of the Brahmanical religion are not favoured. The conventional Smrti rules are disregarded. For instance, even a low-class man, who has attained a high level of Tantric Sadhana, is to be saluted by a Brahmana. One’s mother is supposed to be one’s best spiritual guide. For Kumdri-puj4 even a low-class girl of the requisite qualification can be selected by Brahmana. Tantric ideas already appeared in the Atharvaveda. Some regard Tantra also as sruti which is generally used to refer to the Veda. Tantric ideas and practices may have been co-eval with the Veda, but no Tantric work earlier than the fifth or sixth century AD, is available.
Classical Sanskrit literature, with which we are concerned in the present work, is supposed to have come into being in the post-Panini period. Panini (c.4th cent. B.C.) regulated the Sanskrit language with strict rules. Thus, the unfettered earlier language began to move through the grooves of grammatical rules.
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