Harshacharita (socio-cultural Study)

by Mrs. Nandita Sarmah | 2014 | 67,792 words

This page relates ‘Caste Hierarchy, Status and Duties’ of the English study on the Harshacharita: A Sanskrit (poetical work) which can be studied as a Historical book of Indian society during the 7th century. It was originally written by Banabhatta who based his Harsacarita on the life of the Gupta emperor Harshavardhana. This study researches the religion, philosophy, flora and fauna and society of ancient India as reflected in the Harsha-Charita.

Part 2: Caste Hierarchy, Status and Duties

The author mentions that the people of the 7th century A.D. carried out all the rules of four varṇas and four āśramas, like Manu.[1] He also mentions that the society was controlled by the varṇāśrama system, and the four varṇas (caste) viz., brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, vaiśya and śūdra were very closely associated with each other. The king was the protector of the varṇas.[2] But there was no conservation among the different castes of the society.[3] The Manusaṃhitā also prescribes that among the several occupations the most commendable are-teaching the Veda for a brāhmaṇa, protecting (the people) for a kṣatriya, and trade for a vaiśya.[4] Here, we will discuss about four castes and their duties, and the four stages of life of the people in the time of Bāṇabhaṭṭa.

1 Brāhmaṇa:

Bāṇabhaṭṭa describes that the people belonging to the highest caste i.e., brāhmaṇas were known by their gotras and śākhās. In his time, the brāhmaṇas were known as dvijā and dvijāti also.[5] He himself says that he was born in the great Vātsāyana family, and that his family was engaged in the performance of Soma sacrifices.[6] It implies that the brāhmaṇas used to take soma juice at that time. Manu also mentions about the soma sacrifice and the somapāyin.[7] The author mentions that the Vātsāyana race kept themselves aloof from the three castes.[8] At that time, the brāhmaṇas were regarded as superior to the other three castes. Therefore, they were called agrajanmā.[9]

According to Saṅketa commentary—

agrajanmāno dvijāḥ.[10]

They were also called brahmavādin.[11] According to Manu—

brahmavedin is the highest brāhmaṇa among the all erudite brāhmaṇas.”[12]

In the Harṣacarita, we have seen the brāhmaṇas, who are regarded as dvija in many places and the king also had utmost respect towards them.[13] Bāṇabhaṭṭa shows an important point that the people of the then society used to take blessings from the brāhmaṇa generally in an auspicious day, king Harṣa also got blessings when he went to army-expedition.[14] Not only the king, but they were highly respected by all and received warm reception on their visits. The author himself mentions how he got respects from others[15] and vividly describes that in his time the brāhmaṇa practiced the six-fold duties viz., studying, teaching, performing sacrifices, assisting others, giving alms and receiving alms.[16] Manu also supports these duties of brāhmaṇa.[17] From the conversation of the author with his friends, it is found that in his time, the brāhmaṇas always studied the Veda and they also discussed Vyākaraṇa, Kāvya etc.[18] In this context, Bāṇa mentions a mendicant (pārāśarī) namely Divākaramitra who followed exceptional vows or rules as brāhmaṇa.[19] In his time, the brahmāṇas performed the Paśubandha yāga[20] (i.e., sacrifice of animals). Manu also prescribes performance of Paśubandha yāga by the brāhmaṇa.[21] They also studied all the Śāstras and their auxiliary branches.[22] From the statement of the writer it is found that he was a brāhmaṇa and himself studied the all Vedas and their auxiliary branches.[23] Also other brāhmaṇas were experts in different subjects i.e., Veda, Dharmaśāstras, History etc.[24] They performed all the purificatory ceremonies according to the laws of Dharmaśāstras,[25] and they performed all their brāhmanical duties and responsibilities in proper time.[26] Bāṇa mentions that they used to put-on the yajñopavīta,[27] and in the morning, after bathing, they worshiped deities.[28] In the evening too they recited the evening prayers.[29] From the description of the costumes, those worn by Bāṇa, it is found that the brāhmaṇa generally preferred the white colour to others.[30]

It is also found that the brāhmaṇas were invited to śrāddha ceremony and the beds and other things of the descessed were given to them.[31] The author gives the description of the great brāhmaṇa family of Vātsāyana and also gives the daily life of the orthodox-brāhmaṇa through the description of Vātsāyana and his daily routine. Vātsāyana was a brāhmaṇa, he followed the vow of fasting called kukkuṭavrata.[32] He also did not take food with people of other three varṇas.[33] He was well-versed in all the arts and the Vedas and that he was honoured by the king.[34]

His certain characteristics were not common with others; therefore, the author called him as—

asādharaṇā dvijātayaḥ.[35]

Though he was a householder, his conduct was so pure that he was considered as a muni.[36] Such brāhmaṇas always performed the sacrifices skillfully and without being disturbed.[37]

We have found a vivid description of the residences of brāhmaṇas[38] and duties of brāhmaṇas. Here, we have found that in the brāhmaṇa’s house, the boys used to come to see the sacrifices and partake the dakṣiṇā.[39] Such a home was always inhabited by the boys and they studied the Veda, Vedāṅgas etc. and recited the Vedic mantras;[40] the courtyards were green with the soma plants.[41] The boys brought green kuśa grasses, leaves and the fuel.[42] Some used to prepare the purodāśa[43] which is a sacrificial oblation made of ground rice and offered in vessels, āmikṣa[44] which is a mixture of curds and boiled milk, offered in the Vaiśvadeva oblation etc. The writer mentions that the brāhmaṇas used to perform various religious functions as forming various orders of monks or ascetics. For example the writer mentions that for a śrotriya, it is detestable to drink wine.[45] It is mentioned in the Manusaṃhitā that drinking of wine was a sign or mahāpātaka for a brāhmaṇa.[46] About śrotriya, the Muṇḍakopaniṣad says that they know the Vedic sacrifices very well and perform them well and go towards the teacher with kuśa grass in their hands.[47] It is mentioned in the Vedāntasāra[48] also. It is also mentioned by Bāṇa that an uneducated and short-tempered brāhmaṇa was given respect whereas an educated śūdra was looked-down for belonging to a lower caste at that time. It can be found in the statement of Devī Sarasvatī, when she was cursed by sage Durvāsā.[49] But it is warned by the Mahābhārata that a brāhmaṇa should control his temperament and should have self-control, and that he must be a pious man in all respects.[50] The writer mentions the word brahmabandho[51] to imply the wasted-brāhmaṇa.

According to P. V. Kane

“this term is used for a brāhmaṇa only by caste or in name and not in deeds.”[52]

Again, the term munikheṭa[53] has been used for ‘miserable or villainous sage.’ It was believed at that time that the murder of a brāhmaṇa was a great sin and it was known as brahmaghna[54] i.e., the murderer of the brāhmaṇa and also mentioned that for prāyāścita, the murderer of the brāhmaṇa had to bow before a skull.[55] Manu also mentions that such a man is known as mahāpātakī.[56]

2 Kṣatriya:

According to the social order, kṣatriya was next to brāhmaṇa class. Bāṇa has portrayed the kṣatriyas as a ruling class. The foremost duty of a kṣatriya king is to protect his subjects. The Manusaṃhitā prescribes the duties of the kṣatriya which are to protect the people, to perform the sacrifices, to study (the Veda), to donate the gifts to others and to avoid doing things which would attach him to sensual pleasures.[57] Bāṇa mentions that rājadharma was always practiced by Puṣpabhūti[58] and, as a kṣatriya king; he used to perform the entire morning oblation like the brāhmaṇas.[59] He also describes that king Puṣpabhūti had equally protected all four varṇas in Sthāṇvīśvara.[60] The king granted the land as gifts to the brāhmaṇa. When the emperor Harṣa started his army-expedition, he donated thousand-plough of lands to brāhmaṇas.[61] The duties of a king and his relation with the other citizen etc. are discussed in detail in the chapter-5 on Political Aspects.

3 Vaiśya:

The great responsibility of a country depends on vaiśyas, because all the economy of that country depends on them. According to the Dharmaśāstras the main professions of the vaiśyas were to carry on business, to be engaged in agriculture and tending of cattle.[62]

In the Harṣacarita, we find the description of—

  1. sairika[63] (i.e., plough-men),
  2. kāṣṭhika[64] (i.e., wood-cutters),
  3. govātikā (i.e., cow-sheds),
  4. govāṭa[65] (i.e., cowpens),
  5. vatsapālaka[66] i.e ., cowherds tending of different animals such as-cattle, camel etc.[67]

The vaiśya could also study (the Veda) as like a brāhmaṇa, but could not teach.[68]

4 Śūdra:

According to the Smṛtiśāstras the main duty of the śūdra is to serve the dvijātīya[69] (i.e., brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya and vaiśya).

It is found in the Harṣacarita that there were many attendants of the princess Rājyaśrī and king Harṣa, who were engaged in different services, and were called as—

  1. bhṛṅgāradhāriṇi (p.135),
  2. cāmaragrāhiṇi (p.135),
  3. chatradhārī (p.135),
  4. tāmbūlika or tāmbūlavāhinī (betelbearer, p.91,135),
  5. chatradhara (umbrella-bearer, p.91),
  6. ambaravāhī (the man incharge of the wardrobe, p.91),
  7. ācamanadhārī (spittoon-bearer, p.91) etc.

In the time of the army expedition of emperor Harṣavardhana, the servants engaged in various works went with him. They were—

bhārika (porters,p.113),

  1. fish-women (dhīvari, p.112),
  2. meṇṭha or leśika (elephant-rider, p.112),
  3. vaṇṭha (bachelor, p.112),
  4. vaṭhara (dullards, p.112),
  5. lambana (monkey-boys, p.112),
  6. cāṭa (rogues, p.112) etc.[70]

Bāṇa asserts that the people were skilled in different arts at that time, Such as—

  1. vyokāra (p.124),
  2. śilpakāra (a men practicing the art, p.68),
  3. carmakāra (p.68),
  4. hemakāra (p.68),
  5. lepyakāra (p.68) etc.

Therefore, it is noted in the Amarakoṣa[71] that the cāru, śilpī, mālākara, kumbhakāra, lepaka, tantuvāya, saucika, citrakāra, vyokāra, svarṇakāra, kalāda, rajaka (dhobi), pratihārika etc. were guilds[72] of śūdra. Jaypalan comments-“many of the craftsmen no doubt formed separate castes that varied according to their occupations but were commonly included under the general name śūdra.”[73]

Footnotes and references:


manāmiva kartari varṇāśramavyavasthānām…., Harṣacarita,II.p.36


tatra ca sākṣātsahasrākṣa iva sarvavarṇadharaṃ dhanurdadhānaḥ…….rājā..babhūv, Ibid., III. p.44


…..nanāśa varṇasaṅkaraḥ, Ibid., III, p.43


Manusaṃhitā, X.80


Harṣacarita,VI.p.91, 95


brāhmaṇo’smi jātaḥ somapāyināṃ vaṃśe vātsāyanām, Ibid., II.p.36


Manusaṃhitā, XI.7


vātsāyanā nāma…… varṇatrayavyāvṛttiviśuddhāndhasaḥ…… asādharaṇā dvijātayaḥ, Harṣacarita,I. p.18


….samagrāgrajanma…, Ibid.


Ibid., p.73


Ibid., V.p.90




ityabhinandya manasā mahānimittaṃ tatsīrasahasrasaṃmitasīmnāṃ grāmāṇāṃ śatamadādvijebhyaḥ, Harṣacarita,VIII.p.109


gaganamaṅgalapratisaraṃ prakoṣṭhe paripūjitaprahṛṣṭapurohitakaraprakīryamāṇaśāntisalila…., Ibid., VII.p.108


[a] kṛtakaśipuṃ viśrāntasukhinamenaṃ kāraya…., Ibid., II.p.25 [b] …abhinanditaḥ parijanajarantībhīḥ, …abhivāditairāghrātaḥ śirasi kulavṛdhaiḥ…, Ibid., II.p.26


[a] atha tatrānavaratādhyayanadhvanimukharāṇi…, bid., II.p.21
[b]…..kratulobhāgatairbaṭubhiradhyāsyamānāni…, Ibid.
[c] havirdhūmadhūsaritāṅganaviṭapikisalayāni…, Ibid.
[d] datvā dyumnaṃ yathāvidyamānaṃ dvijebhyaḥ, Ibid., II.p.25


Manusaṃhitā, X.75


pratidinamavicchinno bā vedābhyāsaḥ…. tānyeva vyākaraṇe …..vyākhyānamaṇḍalāni ….kaccitta eva…..kāvyālāpāḥ, Harṣacarita,III.p.38


..prabhūtāntevāsitaparivṛtaḥ……pārāśarī...divākaramitranāmā…, Ibid., VIII.p.126


Ibid., II.p.19




[a] samitasamastaśākhāntarasaṃśītayaḥ, Harṣacarita, I.p.18
[b] uddhāṭitasamagragranthārthagranthayaḥ, Ibid.


brāhmaṇo’smi jātaḥ….samyakpaṭhitaḥ sāṅgo vedaḥ. śrutāni yathā śakti śāstāṇi, Ibid., II.p.36


śrūtismṛtītihāsaviśāradāśca jaradvijātayaḥ, Ibid., V.p.89


..śrutismṛtivihitaṃ kṛtvā dvijajanocitaṃ nikhilaṃ karmajātam…, Ibid., II. p.19


sarve ca yathāśakti yathāvibhavaṃ yathākālaṃ ca sampādyante viprajanocitāḥ kriyākalāpāḥ, Ibid., III. p.39


Ibid., I.p.4


athānyasminnahanyutthāya, prātareva snātvā, ….. pūjām paramayā bhaktyā, praṇamya kuladevatābhyaḥ, Ibid., I.p.25-26


kṛtasaṃdhyopāsanaḥ …, Ibid., II.p.25


dhṛtadhautadhavaladukūlavāsāḥ…śuklāṅgarāgaḥ, śuklamālyaḥ, śuklavāsāḥ………, Ibid.


atha prathamapretapiṇḍabhuji bhukte dvijanmani,….cakṣurdāhadāyini dīyamāne dvijebhyaḥ śayanāsana…..nṛpanikaṭopakaraṇakalāpe, Ibid., VI.p.91


kṛtakukkuṭavṛatā apyabaiḍālavṛttayaḥ, Ibid., I.p.18


varṇatrayavyāvṛttiviśuddhāndhasaḥ, Ibid.


parameśvaraśirodhṛtaḥ, sakalakalāgamagambhīraḥ…., Ibid.




mahāmunimānyaḥ, Ibid.


aluptakratukriyā dakṣāḥ, Ibid.


brāhmaṇādhivāsa, Ibid., I.p. 20


..kratulobhāgatairbaṭubhiradhyāsyamānāni, Ibid., II.p.21


…anavaratādhyayanadhvanimukharāni, Ibid.


..somakedārikāharitāyamānapraghanāni, Ibid.


śuciśiṣyasatānīyamānaharitakuśapūlīpalāśasamindhi, Ibid.






adṛṣṭadoṣamapi śrotriyamiva surāpāne…, Ibid.,VI. p.94




tadvijñānārthaṃ sa gurumevabhigacchet samitpāṇiḥ śrotiyaṃ brahmaniṣṭham, Muṇḍakopaniṣad, II.12


śrotiyaṃ brahmaniṣṭhaṃ gurumupasṛtya tamanusarati, ‘samitpāṇiḥ śrotiyaṃ brahmaniṣṭham.. ityādi śruteḥ, Vedāntasāra,V.10.p.16


sakhi, saṃhara roṣaṃ, asaṃskṛtamatayo’pi jātyeiva dvijanmāno mānanīyāḥ, Harṣacarita,I.p.4


Mahābhārata, Śāntiparvan,ch.235.6,9




Ibid., p.168




Ibid., VII.p.120


brahmaghna iva pratidivasavandanoddhṛṣṭaśiraḥkapālasya, Ibid.




Ibid., I.89


rājadharma puṣpabhūtibhavanapakṣapātina, Harṣacarita,VIII.p.134


yatastasya kenacidanupadiṣṭā sahajaiva śaiśavādārabhyānyadevatāvimukhī bhagavati bhaktisulabhe ….bhave bhūyasī bhaktirabhūt. akṛtavṛṣabhadhvajapūjāvidhirna svapne’pyāhāramakarot, Ibid., III. p.45


[a] tatra ca sākṣātsahasrākṣa iva sarvavarṇadharaṃ dhanurdadhānaḥ iva rājā puṣpabhūtiriti nāmnā babhūv, Ibid., III. p.44 [b] makhaśikhidhūmajaladharadhārādhauta iva nanāśa varṇasaṅkaraḥ, Ibid., III. p.43


Ibid., VII, p.109


[a] vaṇikapathaṃ kusīdakaṃ vaiśyasya kṛṣimeva ca, Manusaṃhitā,I.90
[b] kusīdakṛṣivāṇijyapaśupālyam vaiśyaḥ smṛtam, Yājñavalkasmṛti,5.119


Harṣacarita,VII.p. 124


Ibid., VII.p.123




Ibid., II.p.21


…….kramelakakulaiḥ kapilāyamānam, Ibid., II.p.27




Parāśarasmṛti, I.70


ityevamādipravartamānānekasaṃlāpaṃ…..meṇṭhavaṇṭhavaṭhara-lambanaleśikaluṇṭhakaceṭacāṭacaṇḍālamaṇḍalairāṇḍīraiḥ stūyamānam, Harṣacarita,VII.p.113


Amarakoṣa,II.10. 5-9


śreṇiḥ sajātibhiḥ, Ibid., II,10.4


Jaypalan, N., Cultural history of Northern India,p.10

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