Practice  Question – Describe the major aspects of traditional Hindu social organization. How far are they relevant for present day Indian society? [UPSC 2006]

Approach – Introduction, List and briefly explain the aspects of traditional Hindu organisation. Did they undergo any alteration in the modern Indian Society? How are they still relevant in India Society today?



Perhaps more than in any other part of the world, India is a country where people have come to acquire multiple identities based on region (e.g. North India,North East India,
Deccan and South India), language (e.g. Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu), religion (e.g. Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, and Sikh), etc. Each set of these and other identities corresponding to a distinct set of social relations, i.e., a distinct social structure. However, there are threads which bind many of them together. Therefore understanding Indian social
structure is necessary because it explains our relations with each other in society.

The Hindus believe in a number of characteristics of Hindu social organisation. According to K.M. Panikkar the social structure of Hinduism rests on two fundamental institutions — the caste and the joint family. Anything and everything concerned with Hindus outside their religion is related to these two institutions. Prof. Y. Singh holds the view that the normative principles of Hinduism are based on beliefs, ideas and logic of permissiveness, liberalism, being and becoming, creation and destruction, utilitarianism and spiritual transcendence.



A life of righteousness for a Hindu is possible through the fourfold scheme of practical endeavour. It comprises the concepts of dharma, artha, kama and moksha.
i) Dharma is honest and upright conduct or righteous action.
ii) Artha means a righteous and honest pursuit of economic activities.
iii) Kama is the fulfillment of one’s normal desires.
iv) Moksha is liberation, that is absorption of the self into eternal bliss.

Depending upon one’s deeds (karma) one is able to reach the stage of moksha or liberation. The stage of moksha or liberation is a term for describing the end of the cycle of birth and rebirth. The cycle of birth and rebirth is known as samsara.  The belief in karma and dharma has direct relevance to Hindu social organisation, which is based on an arrangement of castes into a graded order.

This hierarchy, in turn, is linked with the quality of one’s karma. One can say that if one’s actions are good, one will be born in a higher caste in the next birth. Hindu society is supposed to be governed by rather strict rules of caste behaviour. There are, on the other hand, some general rules governing the behaviour of all members irrespective of caste. Castes coexist with different norms of behaviour and a continuity with the past in terms of one’s actions in the previous birth. Whatever position one may be born into, one must fulfil the functions, without attachment, without hatred and resentment. Whatever may be one’s dharma, its performance through one’s karma brings blessings.



Marriage is a sacred duty for all Hindus. It is an obligatory sacrament because the birth of a son is considered by many Hindus as necessary for obtaining moksha. In order to perform important rituals towards gods and ancestors, the sacred texts decree that it is obligatory for a Hindu to be married and have male descendants. The Hindus lay stress on pre-marital chastity on the part of both the male and the female. The marital bond is also to be respected through mutual fidelity. There are also forms of endogamy (marriage within a certain group) and exogamy (marriage outside the group) for which rules are laid down.

For a Hindu, the event of marriage signifies the completion of the brahmacharya ashrama i.e., the stage of a celibate-life. Marriage heralds the beginning of the householder stage (grihastha). Now, begins the process of the preservation and continuity of the kula or the family. A Hindu home symbolises the continuity of its living members, past members that are no
more and future members that are yet to come. The living members are considered to be the trustees of the home. It is supposed to belong to the ancestors and includes the interests of the male descendants of the family. The individual as such does not belong to the home. One only performs one’s dharma. The home is the place where dharma and karma are practised by the people who are enjoined to remain detached yet conduct the affairs of the world. For a Hindu, his or her life in the stage of a householder is lived and regulated in terms of dharma and karma. In performing these two activities, one also performs one’s artha and kama. This process leads one towards the final goal, moksha.

The most striking feature of a Hindu family is its jointness. That is to say the unit of residence is often not confined to the parents and their children only. It usually includes three generations living under the same roof and sharing the family property in common. Whether living in a nuclear or a joint family most Hindu families prefer that each member goes through some basic life-cycle rituals. These sacraments have been prescribed by the sacred texts and are meant for purifying body and mind.



Jati or castes are hereditary groups in hierarchical relation to one another, similar to the hierarchy among varna. A caste group can be seen as an extended kin group because members of a caste marry among themselves.

The Hindus are divided into four varna namely, Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra. These four categories are ranked from higher to lower in the order mentioned here. This means that Brahman is ranked as the highest and the Sudra the lowest. The varna system of dividing the members of the Hindu society is an ideological construct which is mentioned in their religious texts. Each varna is also associated with particular occupations. A Brahman is supposed to be a priest by profession, a Kshatriya to be a warrior; a Vaishya to be a trader; and a Sudra to be a worker. All Hindus recognise this system and can place their identity in terms of one of the four varna. Most of the basic ideas on varna system and its links to the concepts of karma and dharma are generally present in the thinking of Hindus.

The first ashram is called brahmacharya ashram (the educational stage). The second stage of life is called the grihasthashram. During this a man rears a family, earns a living and performs his daily personal and social duties. Following this a man gradually enters the third stage of life called the vanaprashthashram. During this stage the householder relinquishes his duties in the household, and devotes his time to religious pursuits. His links with his family are weakened. During this ashram a man retires into the forest with or without his wife leaving behind the householder’s cares and duties. The final phase of a Hindu’s life begins with the stage known as the sanyasashram. In this stage one attempts to totally withdraw oneself from the world and its cares by going to the forest and spending the rest of life in pursuit of moksha.



  • India is a country of multiple identities based on region, language and religion, each having more or less distinct social structures which have been evolving through the ages.
  • Tribes, one of the earliest identifiable social organisations, can be traced to the Vedic period.
  • The initial differentiation was based on the colour of the skin which later developed into a complex ‘varna system’ with tribes being divided into ‘Brahmana’, ‘Kshatriy’, ‘Vaishya’ and ‘Shudra’ categories.
  • ‘Varna/Jati system’ underwent further changes in the post-Vedic societies with the rise of Buddhism and Jainism and later with the arrival of new people in India such as the
    Shakas, Kushanas, Parthians, and the Indo Greeks.
  • Caste system has its regional variations due to the formation of regions and regional consciousness after the eighth century AD and it became more and more complex, multiplying into a number of castes and sub-castes due to a number of factors.
  • Untouchability, the most obnoxious practice, took roots during the last phase of the Vedic period and crystallised into a separate identity in the age of the Buddha.
  • Slavery existed in India though it was different from the classical Greek and Roman slavery.
  •  ‘Purushartha’, ‘ashramas’ and ‘samskaras’ are inter-linked concepts.
  •  The ‘Jajmani system was an important institution of complementary relationship between groups of dominant peasant castes on the one hand and service and artisan castes on
    the other, which continued till modern times in Indian rural society, but is now breaking up under the impact of monetisation, urbranisation and ndustrialisation.
  • Families are the result of a very important sanskara ceremony called marriage and different kinds of marriages such as ‘anuloma’ and ‘pratiloma’ based on the alliances between different varna/caste; monogamous, polygamous and polyandrous based on the number of spouses; all can be found in Indian society.
  • The traditional Indian family is a joint family governed by two schools of sacred law and customs which are ‘Mitakshara’ and ‘Dayabhaga’.
  • The position of women in the history of India has been a story of progressive decline until the modern times when, with the spread of western education, efforts were made
    through social and religious reforms to improve their conditions.


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