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CBSE Notes | Class 12 | History | Chapter 9 - Kinship, Caste & Class

The Chapter introduces students to early Indian history, explains social behaviour, and various social differences beyond and within the framework of caste. We also highlight the critical edition of Mahabharata and the varna system and its integration of varna practices. The chapter also talks about the types and rules of different marriages.

Early Historic Period

Social Behavior

  • Historians often use textual traditions to understand social history, many texts lay down norms of social behaviour.

  • Many of the sources comment on a wide range of social situations and practices.

  • Mahabharata is one of the major texts that allow piecing together attitudes and practices that shaped social histories.

  • It is one of the richest texts of the sub-continent & was composed over a period of 1000 years.

  • The central story is about two sets of warring cousins. The text also contains sections laying down norms of behaviour for various social groups.

The Critical Edition of Mahabharata

A team of scholars initiated the task of preparing a critical edition of Mahabharata, under the leadership of a noted Indian Sanskritist V.S. Sukthankar.

Initially they collected the Sanskrit manuscript of the text, written in a variety of languages from different parts of the country.

The team compared the verses from each manuscript, also they selected the verses which appeared common and published in several volumes, running into over 13,000 pages. It took 47 years to complete.

There were several common elements in the Sanskrit versions of the story, evident in manuscripts found all over the subcontinent from Kashmir to Kerala & Tamil Nadu in the South.

Also evident were enormous regional variations in the ways in which the text had been transmitted over the centuries. These variations were documented in footnotes and appendices to the main text.

Rules and Varied Practices


Families are usually part of a larger network of people defined as relatives or Kinfolk. Not all families are identical; they vary in terms of the number of members, their relationship with one another as well as the kinds of activity they share.

People belonging to the same family share food and other resources and live work and perform rituals together.

Family ties are based on blood and are also natural. Some societies regard cousins as being blood relations whereas others do not.

Historians can retrieve information about elite families easily but it is difficult for ordinary people.

Rules about Patriliny

The Mahabharata is a patrilineal narrative.

They were relatives who belonged to a single governing family, the Kurus, who ruled one of the janapadas.

Patriliny means tracing father to son, grandson, etc. Matriliny is when descent is traced back to the mother.

When a father died, his sons may inherit the resources/thrones. This system is used by many ruling dynasties, albeit there are variations.

Prabhavati Gupta wielded Power in extraordinary circumstances, whilst Ordinary households were concerned about Patriliny.

Rules of Marriage

  • There were two systems of marriage: Endogamy & Exogamy.

  • Marriage within the kin is called Endogamy & outside the kin is called Exogamy.

  • Exogamy meant that the lives of young girls and women belonging to families that claimed high status were often carefully regulated to ensure that they were married at the “right” time and to the “right” person.

  • This gave rise to the belief that kanyadana or the gift of a daughter in marriage was an important religious duty of the father.

Three types of marriages are there:

  • Monogamy: A practice in which a man having one wife.

  • Polygamy: A practice in which a man having several wives.

  • Polyandry: A practice in which a woman having several husbands.

Dharmasutras and Manusmiriti are the Sanskrit texts in which norms of marriage were compiled. The texts recognised as many as eight forms of marriage. The first four were considered as ‘good’ which were arranged by the parents while the remaining four were condemned.

The last four were practised by those who did not accept Brahmanical norms.

The Gotra Rules

  • The Gotra rules were laid by Brahmans to classify people in terms of Gotras.

  • Each Gotra was named after a Vedic Seer; people belonging to the same Gotras were regarded as descendants.

  • Women were supposed to give up their father’s Gotra and that of their Husband on marriage.

  • Members of the same Gotra could not be married.

  • Some of the Satavahanas rulers were Polygynous. Queen who married Satavahana ruler indicates that many of them had their father’s Gotra even after marriage. 

  • It is apparent that some of these queens belonged to the same Gotras. This was opposite to the ideal of exogamy recommended in Brahmanical texts. 

  • It exemplified an alternative practice, that of endogamy or marriage within the kin group, which was (and is) prevalent amongst several communities in south India. Satavahanas also had marriage relations with Shakhas who were considered outcasts.

Were Mothers Important?

The Satavahanas rulers were identified by their Matronymics, their names were derived from that of 

the Mother.

The succession to the throne was generally patrilineal.

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Social Differences: Within & beyond the framework of caste

The “right” Occupation

  • The Dharmasutras and Dharmashastras also contained rules about the ideal “occupations” of the four categories or varnas.

  • Brahmans were supposed to study Vedas, perform sacrifices and get sacrifices performed.

  • Kshatriyas were to engage in warfare, protect people and administer justice, study the Vedas, get sacrifices performed, and make gifts.

  • The Vaishyas were to engage in agriculture, pastoralism & trade.

  • Shudras were assigned only one occupation.

The Brahmanas evolved many strategies for enforcing the right occupation norms:

a. One was to assert that the varna order was of divine origin.

b. Second, they advised kings to ensure that these norms were followed within their kingdoms.

c. Third, they attempted to persuade people that their status was determined by birth.

d. They also reinforced these norms by stories told in Mahabharata and other texts.

Non- Kshatriya King

According to the shastras, only Kshatriya could be kings, However, several ruling lineages have a different origin. The social background of mauryas, who ruled over a large empire was of low origin as Brahmanical texts describe.

The immediate successors of Mauryas, the Sungas and Kanvas were Brahmans. The Political powers were effectively open to anyone who could muster support and resources and rarely dependent on birth as a Kshatriyas.

The Rulers Shakaswho came from Central Asia were regarded as Mlechchhass (Barbarians) or outsiders by the Brahmans.

One of the earliest inscriptions in Sanskrit describes how Rudradaman, the best-known Shaka ruler (c. second century CE), rebuilt Sudarshana lake. This suggests that powerful mlechchhas were familiar with Sanskritic traditions.

It is also interesting that the best-known ruler of the Satavahana dynasty, Gotami-puta Siri-Satakani, claimed to be both a unique Brahmana (eka banana) and a destroyer of the pride of Kshatriyas.

Jatis & Social Mobility

In Brahmanical theory, jati, like varna, was based on birth. The number of varnas was fixed at four, there was no restriction on the number of jatis. 

Brahmanical authorities encountered new groups like nishadas or wanted to assign a name to occupational categories such as the goldsmith or suvarnakara, which did not easily fit into the fourfold varna system, they classified them:

  • Jatis which shared a common occupation or profession were organised into the same shrines or guilds.

  • An interesting stone inscription found in Madhya Pradesh records the history of a guild of silk weavers who originally lived in Gujrat migrated to Madhya Pradesh were known as Dashpura.

  • The inscription provides a fascinating glimpse of complex social processes and provides insights into the nature of guilds or shrines.

  • Although membership was based on a shared craft specialisation, some members adopted other occupations.

  • The members shared more than a common profession they collectively decided to invest their wealth, earned through their craft, to construct a splendid temple in honour of the sun god.

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Beyond the four Varnas

Integration of Varna practices

In the sub-continent social practices of tribal people were not influenced by Brahmanical ideas. They were often described as odd, uncivilized or even animal-like, people such as forest dwellers.

Those who could not be easily accommodated within the framework of settled agriculturists and those who spoke Non- Sanskrit languages were labelled as Mlechchhas and looked down upon.

There was sharing of ideas and beliefs between people of higher varna & forest dwellers. The nature of relations is evident in some stories in the Mahabharata.

For example, Eklavya, a forester who never goes to battle wanted to learn archery from Dronacharya.

Bhima, one of the five Pandavs married to Hidimba, a rakshisi by birth and gave birth to a child.

Subordination and Conflict

As the Brahmanas considered some people outside the system, they also developed a sharper social divide by classifying certain social categories as “untouchable” Those who considered themselves pure (Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas) avoided taking food from those they designated as “untouchable”.

Some of the activities of untouchables were regarded as particularly “polluting”. These included handling corpses and dead animals. Those who performed such tasks, designated as chandalas, were placed at the very bottom of the hierarchy.

The Manusmriti laid down the ‘duties’ of Chandalas, they were:

  • They had to live outside the village

  • They have to use discarded Utensils

  • They had to wear clothes of the dead

  • They had to wear ornaments made up of iron.

  • They could not walk about in villages at night.

  • They had to dispose of the bodies of those who had no relatives and serve as executioners.

  • Chinese Buddhist monk Fa Xian wrote that “Untouchables” had a sound of clapper in the streets so that people could avoid seeing them.

  • Xuan Chang, another Chinese pilgrim observed that executioners and scavengers were forced to live outside the city.

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Social Implications of Access to Resources and Status

Gendered access to poverty

According to the Manusmriti, the paternal estate was to be divided equally amongst sons after the death of the parents, with a special share for the eldest.

Women could not claim a share of these resources. They were allowed to retain the gifts they received on the occasion of their marriage as stridhana. This could be inherited by their children, without the husband having any claim on it.

The Manusmriti warned women against hoarding family property, or even their own valuables, without the husband’s permission.

Wealthy women Such as Vakataka’s Queen Prabhavati Gupta had property including land. The epigraphic and textual evidence suggests that upper-class women had access to resources.

The social differences between men and women were sharpened because of the differences in access to resources.

Varna and access to the Property

According to the Brahmanical texts, another criterion (apart from gender) for regulating access to wealth was varna.

A variety of occupations were listed for men of the first three varnas. The only “occupation” prescribed for Shudras was servitude.

If these provisions were actually implemented, the wealthiest men would have been the Brahmanas and the Kshatriyas. The poorest would have been the Shudras.

The Buddhists Texts recognised that there were differences in society, but did not regard these as natural or inflexible. They also rejected the idea of claims to status on the basis of birth.

An alternative social scenario: Sharing the wealth

Men who were generous in ancient Tamilakam were revered, whereas those who were miserly or simply accumulated wealth for themselves were despised.

Around 2000 years ago, there were several chiefdoms in Tamilakam.

Bards and poets who sang their praises were courted by the chiefs, who paid for their services. While there were differences between rich and poor, those who controlled resources were expected to share them, as evidenced by poems included in the Tamil Sangam anthologies, these poems often shed light on social and economic relationships.

Explaining Social Differences: A social contract

Men who were generous in ancient Tamilakam were revered, whereas those who were miserly or simply accumulated wealth for themselves were despised. Additionally, Buddhism came up with a new way of looking at social injustice and the institutions needed to deal with social unrest.

It's suggested in the Sutta Pitaka that people used to live in an idyllic state of peace, consuming only what they needed for each meal from what they could find in nature.

This state deteriorated over time as people became more greedy, vindictive, and deceitful in nature.

As a result, a leader who can be wrathful when the time is right was chosen.

This suggests that the institution of kingship was founded on free will, with taxes serving as a means of compensating the king for his services.

The recognition of human agency in the creation and institution-building of economic and social relations is also revealed by this development.

Around 2000 years ago, there were several chiefdoms in Tamilakam.

Bards and poets who sang their praises were courted by the chiefs, who paid for their services. While there were differences between rich and poor, those who controlled resources were expected to share them, as evidenced by poems included in the Tamil Sangam anthologies, these poems often shed light on social and economic relationships.

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Historians and the Mahabharata


The version of Mahabharata is in Sanskrit. (although there were several languages like Pali, Prakrit etc)

The Sanskrit used in Mahabharata was far simpler than that of Vedas or of the inscriptions.


Historians classify the content under two broad categories- Narrative & Didactic. The Section that contains stories is designated as narrative.

The Sections that contain prescriptions about social norms are designated as Didactic. The didactic section includes some stories & the narrative often contains some social message.


The original story was probably composed by charioteer-bards known as sutas who generally accompanied Kshatriya warriors to the battlefield and composed poems celebrating their victories and other achievements.

These compositions circulated orally.

From the fifth century BCE, Brahmanas took over the story and began to commit it to write. This was the time when chiefdoms such as those of the Kurus and Panchalas, around whom the story of the epic revolves, were gradually becoming kingdoms. 

Another phase in the composition of the text between c. 200 BCE and 200 CE.

This was the period when the worship of Vishnu was growing in importance, and Krishna, one of the important figures of the epic, was coming to be identified with Vishnu.

Draupadi’s marriage with the Pandavas

Present-day historians suggest that polyandry amongst rulling elites at some point of time in the Indian sub-continent.

The polyandry gradually fell into disfavour amongst the Brahmanas who reworked and developed the texts to centuries.

The practice of polyandry seemed unusual or even undesirable from the Brahmanical point of view. It was prevalent in the Himalayan Region.

Other historians suggest that there may have been a shortage of women during times of warfare and this led to polyandry. It was attributed to a situation of crisis.

Some early sources suggest that polyandry was not the only or even the most prevalent form of marriage.

Mahabharata is a Dynamic Texts

The growth of the Mahabharata did not stop with the Sanskrit version. Over the centuries, versions of the epic were written in a variety of languages through an ongoing process of dialogue between peoples, communities, and those who wrote the texts.

Several stories that originated in specific regions or circulated amongst certain people found their way into the epic.

The central story of the epic was often retold in different ways and episodes were depicted in sculpture and painting.

They also provided themes for a wide range of performing arts – plays, dance and other kinds of narrations.

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