In the Mauryan period, the social organisation based on Varna and Ashrama which had begun in the Vedic age, reached a definite stage. In this period the Brahmanas regained their lost position in the society. Megasthenes divides the Mauryan society into seven divisions – philosophers, farmers, herdsman, artisans, soldiers, magistrate and councillors. They have been interpreted as castes because no one was allowed to marry outside his own division or change his profession. Let us discuss them in detail- The philosophers consisted of Brahmanas and Shramanas.
The Shramanas included ascetics, monks and the followers of various sects. The philosophers did not pay tax. The farmers included the land owners, the Shudra cultivators and the labourers working on the land. The herdsmen were probably the pastoralists who comprised a significant section in the Mauryan population. The status of the artisans depended on his particular craft. For instance, metal workers were given a higher status than the weavers and potters. The soldiers were the largest class in the society. Besides Kshatriyas, lower castes were also appointed as infantry men, charioteers and attendants. Magistrates and councillors were an important part of the administrative system and were appointed either from the Brahmanas or the Kshatriyas. However, the social compositions as suggested by Megasthenes might not be as simple because if we consider Brahmanical texts and Buddhist texts, we find different views regarding the caste division.
In the Mauryan Empire, women were employed in various activities. They were appointed as king’s body guards, spies and performers. Poor and widowed upper caste women, deserted wives and ageing prostitutes were provided with some work. We also have instances of a few female ascetics. Kautilya insisted that tax should be collected from the prostitutes, it suggests that they were large in number in the Empire. From the textual sources it can be assumed that the majority of women had to follow the wishes of the men in their family in a patriarchal society.
ECONOMIC LIFE AND REVENUE SYSTEM
The Mauryan economy was mainly dependant on agriculture. A large part of the government income came from land revenue. Therefore, importance was given on efficient collection of revenue. The farmers or landowners had to pay a variety of taxes to the state. Gradually, private ownership of land was allowed. A vast area of wasteland and crown lands was cultivated under the supervision of the state.
From the account of Megasthenes we come to know that it was the responsibility of the state to clear new areas or deserted land and to settle the shudra cultivators. These cultivators were initially exempted from paying tax, but once they started working on the land, a tax was imposed. There were two types of land revenue. The first one was rent for the use of land and the second was based on the assessment of the produce. The assessment varied according to local condition or the productivity of the soil. The sources mention a range from one sixth to a quarter of the produce of the land. We find mention about different types of taxes. One such was Pindakara which was collected jointly from a village. Pastoralists also had to pay tax on the number of animals and also on their produce. One unique kind of tax was Visthi which was paid in the form of free labour to the state. Taxes were also levied for providing irrigation.
Besides agriculture, craft and trade were also two important economic activities of the Mauryan Empire. Some artisans were employed by the state and they were exempted from tax. Armourers and shipbuilders came under this category. Others, who worked in state workshop, had to pay taxes. The rest of the artisans worked either individually or as part of a guild called Shreni or Puga. These associations helped the state in tax collection. The state controlled trade and industry. The working of mines and forests, the construction and security of trade-routes and the establishment of market towns were all under the state. It also supervised the sale of goods and the superintendent of commerce fixed the prices of the goods. Merchants had to pay a toll tax which was one-fifth of the value of the goods. In addition, there was a trade tax of one-fifth of the toll. Merchants were forbidden to make excessive profits.
The collection of revenue from commercial sources was varied according to Mauryan control over an area or a route. We also find the mention of organized money lending. Money could be given as loan from the treasury on interest of 15 percent per annum. However, in less secure transactions like long sea voyages the interest rate could be higher. The remains of the urban centres which belonged to the Mauryan period suggest that the standard of living was high. Brick, stone and wooden buildings were found during excavation. The discovery of a large number of iron goods suggests extensive use of iron in this period. The distribution of Northern Black Polished Ware as far as South India is an indication of the expansion of trade. It was possible that the punch-marked silver coins were the imperial currency of the Mauryas.
Most of the punch-marked coins discovered have the symbols like crescent-on-arches or hills, the tree-in-railing, the sun symbol and the circle with six arrows like extension. These coins were used for collection of taxes and payment of officers.
Several religious sects existed in the Mauryan period. Brahmanism was an important religion during the Mauryan period. Along with this, Buddhism and Jainism began to play an important part in the religious life of the people. Some distinct religious sects namely, Ajivika, Shramanas, and Nirgrantha were also followed among some communities. The Ajivikas were the ardent followers of Mahavira Swami. They lived like the naked saints. The Shramanas were also the followers of Mahavira Swami. They were content to live on fruits picked up when they dropped on the ground. The Nirgrantha were those who had broken the worldly ties.
Among these religions, Buddhism became a predominant religion under the patronage of Asoka. Still Brahmanism continued to prevail in the society. The Vedas did not completely lose its hold on the people. Kautilya praised the Vedic way of life. In the Arthasastra, we find reference to the worship of several deities. The worship of the deities consisted of prostration before the idol and offering gifts in the form of flowers and incense.
Several changes were brought about in Brahmanism in the Mauryan period. Krishna, Varuna, Indra, Agni and rivers like the Ganga and Yamuna were worshipped. Many of the devotees abandoned their homes for a life of an ascetic. A new class of religious philosophers called the Lokayatas emerged. They were opposed to the priestly class. They maintained that there existed neither paradise, nor the ultimate liberation. It appears that diverse religious ideas and practices existed in the vast Empire of the Mauryas. While Buddhism flourished remarkably. Brahmanism had retained its position. But Jainism failed to make much progress. Most importantly, religious toleration prevailed in the Mauryan period inspite of there being different religious sects. .