A social organisation based on Varna (caste) and Asrama (stages of religious discipline) which had begun in the Vedic age, reached a definite stage in the Mauryan period. Until the Mauryan period, the system tended to be fluid with frequent references for social mobility. Buddhist literature mentions the four castes as Khattiyas, Brahmanas, Vessas and Suddas suggesting that the Brahmanas held an inferior position to that of the Kshatriyas. By the Mauryan period, the predominance of the Brahamanas had again become apparent. Megasthenes account of the Indian society recognised the theoretical aspect of the caste system with all its baneful orthodoxy.
Megasthenes divided Indian Society into seven classes- philosophers, farmers, soldiers, herdsmen, artisans, magistrates and councillors. The rigid orthodoxy of caste did not escape his careful observation. ‘No one is allowed to marry outside of his own caste or to exercise any calling or art except his own; for instance, a soldier cannot become a husbandman, or an artisan a philosopher’. Megasthenes, confusing caste with an occupation, might have had in mind the Egyptian society which was divided into seven social classes.
The ‘Philosophers’ representing the Brahamanas commanded respect for their learning and integrity. They were divided into two groups- teachers and priests representing the first and sramanas the second. To the second group belonged the physicians, diviners, and sorcerers. The more distinguished among them, Hylobioi lived an ascetic life in the forests. They were exempt from taxation and free from any kind of service to the state except that of state sacrifices.
With the growth of the agrarian economy, the cultivator began to assume increasing importance in society. Though numerically superior, they were inferior in social status. They lived in the country, devoted holly to tillage and were generally left undisturbed by the invading army. They paid one-quarter of the produce to the state by way of rent for the land they cultivated which they did not own. Strabo holds that the cultivators received one-quarter of the produce from the king as payment. The normal assessment of one-quarter might be increased or decreased according to the exigencies of the situation.
The third class, shepherds and hunters, lived as nomads in wastelands, cleared the land of wild beasts, received an allowance of corn from the king and paid him tribute in cattle. They were probably the segments of the pastoral Aryans who had yet to come within the pale of civilization. The artisans and craftsmen, regarded as the fourth class by Megasthenes, paid taxes and rendered certain prescribed services. But the armourers and shipbuilders received subsidies from the state. The fifth class, warriors, being maintained at the expense of the sate, lived a life of ease in a time of peace. Magistrates and councillors, forming the sixth and seventh class, tended to be either Brahmanas or Kshatriyas.
The caste system as envisaged in the traditional literature did not work smoothly. Social tensions between different classes prevailed; the Vaishyas and Shudras were denied the privileges enjoyed by the Brahmanas and Kshatriyas. But by now the vaishyas had become powerful as they monopolised trade and commerce. Asoka felt it his paramount duty to remove this social tension and made a fervent plea to maintain social harmony.
Position of Women:
Women occupied a high position and freedom in Mauryan society. For instance, while a divorce is unthinkable in the Smritis, Kautilya has permitted it. Women were employed as personal bodyguards of the king, spies and for other diverse jobs. The ruling class was known to have been polygamous. We know that Asoka had as many as four queens. Sati, noticed by Greek writers, was rarely practised and would appear to have been limited to the women of the higher classes. There is frequent mention of women of the commonalty moving about with freedom and engaging themselves in gainful occupations. Offences against women of all kinds were severely punished, and Kautilya lays down penalties against officials in charge of workshops and prisons who misbehaved towards them. Concerning ganikas or public women and their role in the palace and in social life, both Kautilya and the Greek writers have a good deal to say. This class included actresses, dancers, musicians and other artists. The profession of courtesans was intended to be regulated by the state. But at the same time, their general status deteriorated and the practice of their social seclusion began given the use of terms like avarodhan, anishkaasini (not to come out of the house), asuryapashya (not to see the sun), antapur (to live within the house).
Megasthenes has stated that slavery did not exist in India, which is not proved by historical facts. It appears that Megasthenes was thinking of slavery in its full legal sense as it obtained in the West. The dasas of India were not slaves in that sense; for they could not be employed in unclean work – “servile labour” as Megasthenes puts it – and they could hold and transmit property, and under certain conditions regain their freedom as a matter of right. It is laid down that no Arya (freeman, including Sudra) could be made a dasa. In times of distress, a man might agree to become a dasa of another or provide for his children in that manner; but dasas usually came from the class of mlechchas and captives in war. When correctly understood, Megasthenes, it is clear, was neither misled by the mildness of Indian slavery into denying its existence, nor did he idealise Indian conditions for the edification of the Greeks, but simply stated a fact as he saw and understood it in the light of his own presuppositions.
The Brahmanical stand on untouchability hardened. There were wells which could be used by Chandals only and no one else. Chandals were to live at the margins of settlements now.
From the Arthashastra we learn that there was a widespread belief in magical practices and superstitions of all kinds in the Mauryan society. It mentions numerous magical rites and practices for finding favour with the king, for obtaining inexhaustible wealth, for afflicting enemies with a disease, for securing a long life or for getting a son. Most of Book Fourteen of the Arthashastra called Aupanisadika, describes a number of rites and practices which are supposed to produce occult manifestations or miraculous effects.
Life of the city was intended to be well regulated. Residential accommodation was reserved for different communities and trades in the different quarters of the city. Full details about each household in the city were recorded by the officers of the city administration. There were well-defined and strictly implemented building laws, regulations for the maintenance of sanitation, disposal of dead, public eating houses etc.