Social Hierarchy in India and Greece

Since Mesopotamian times, social hierarchy has influenced the role of individuals in society. In different civilizations throughout history, social groups were used to create a division of labor with hopes of increasing productivity. In Ancient India, the community was divided using a social caste system. This social caste system was very rigid and provided little room for movement. In Ancient Greece, however, a less rigid class system was used to divide the community. In both systems, position was determined by who your parents were; however, the class system did allow some upward mobility. Although they were from different time periods and geographic locations, the social structures of Ancient India and Ancient Greece were similar because they established a system of ranking people.

The earliest mention of the Indian caste system is found in the Vedic hymns, which are believed to be from around 6000 B.C.E.  In Ancient India, people were divided into four groups, or varnas: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and the Sudras.[1] The highest caste in the Indian society was the Brahmins, who were teachers and priests. After the Brahmins came the Kshatriyas, they were the warriors and rulers in Ancient India. While the Brahmins were technically the highest group in the hierarchy, the Kshatriyas were closer in status to the Brahmins than the Vaisyas. The Vaisyas, who were the middle class, were skilled traders, merchants, and farmers. Next in the hierarchy came  the Sudras, who were the unskilled workers. They were mostly laborers and craft workers. The formation of these groups was considered decreed by Brahma, the Creator of the universe. The civilization of Ancient India believed that if one did his duty (dharma) within the caste he was born in, he would be rewarded in subsequent lives by moving to a higher caste. These beliefs led the Indians to accept their role in society without questioning or wanting to change it. [2]  Later  as time went on, a fifth group emerged who were referred to as the Untouchables, or the Outcasts. These individuals usually were responsible for jobs others didn’t want to do; they were the closest to slaves.[3]

In comparison, in the majority of Greek city-states, the class system was overseen by groups of rich landowners who governed the towns. [4] In Ancient Greece, the upper class was the first and the topmost class. The members of the upper class possessed the maximum power and were in the highest position in the society; these individuals were responsible for handling government work, reviewing and writing literature, engaging in philosophical debate and waging war when necessary.The people who immigrated and settled in Athens were eligible to be a part of the middle class, the second rank in the Greek hierarchy. They had freedom but possessed very little rights as compared to the upper class. They were not allowed to vote, nor buy land or marry someone in the upper class. These individuals were mostly merchants, tradesmen and craftsmen. The lower class included those people who were once slaves but had been given freedom by their owners. The lowest class consisted of slaves, most of whom were non-Greeks rescued from wars or Greek criminals. These individuals had no rights neither did they have freedom.[5]

In Ancient India, the Brahmin or the priests were the upper caste. The reasons that that the Brahmins have a prominent position goes back to the late Vedic period; furthermore, another reason that the Brahmins were in a higher position was because they were considered to have inherited a greater ritual purity than members of other castes.[6] It was for this reason that they were able to perform certain vital religious tasks among which were the study and recitation of the sacred scriptures. The handling of the scriptures allowed for the Brahmins to be considered the spiritual elite, and for centuries, all Indian knowledge was in their hands.

In Ancient Athens, the upper class consisted of wealthy men. These men had very different ideas from the priests in Ancient India. While the civilization of Ancient India believed that the priests were directly related to God, the upper class men had power because they contributed to the governmental and educational work in Athens. The men in Athens were in charge of collectedly ruling over their city-state, therefore making them powerful in the eyes of the commoners. The amount of people in the upper class, like the priests in ancient India, was small.

In Ancient India, the lower caste members or the Sudras were considered to be the unskilled workers. The members of this caste mostly were laborers and craft workers and their main job was to serve the members of the twice-born caste, which was another name for the higher castes. As servants to the other three castes, the Sudras performed many of the tasks such as agricultural labor, leather working, disposing of garbage, and laundering. Sudras were not able to own their own land and businesses. While Sudras were the majority of the population, they didn’t have a lot of rights in the civilization. However, they did have more rights than the Untouchables.

The lower class in Ancient Greece included people who were once slaves. These people, like the Sudras, had very little rights in Ancient Greece. They were not considered as citizens of Athens and were never allowed to gain a citizenship; however, they were able to gain “freedom.” The “freedom” was usually a result of paying a monetary amount either by a friend, owner, or one’s own savings. A slave could also get freedom by winning a fight or sometimes even the owners let them free. There weren’t many people in the lower class in Ancient Greece as compared to the lower class in Ancient India.

The Untouchables were the lowest caste in Ancient India. They had almost no rights and were considered to be the outcasts who did all of the dirty work. They carried out all of the tasks related with disease and pollution, such as cleaning up after a funeral, dealing with the sewers and working with animal skin. Because of the fact that Brahmins were considered the embodiment of purity, and untouchables the embodiment of pollution, any physical contact between the two castes was strictly prohibited.[7] Sometimes Brahmins felt so strongly towards this rule that if they were even touched by an untouchable, they felt the need to go and take a bath.

The slaves in Ancient Greece were found everywhere. They worked not only as domestic servants, but also as factory workers, shopkeepers, mineworkers, and farm workers and as ship’s crewmembers. Their families sometimes sold people into slavery. Some infants were tossed out to die, and if rescued, usually became slaves. Slaves were also people captured in battle. Because they were considered to be barbarians, slaves had no legal rights.

In India, the caste system was a simple social system that determined one’s status by birth. This caste system controlled the occupation of the person and determined whom a person could marry and interact with. The class system in Athens was also determined by where one was born; however, it was possible to change one’s social status. That is, if someone were born in the lower class, there was a possibility that they could work their way up into the upper class. This social climbing was usually achieved through education, employment, and overall labor skills. Hence, the main similarity between both systems stemmed from their initial assignment; however, the greatest difference was the ability of movement.

Bibliography

Chaudhary, Bhupen. Indian Caste System: Essence and Reality. New Delhi, India, New Delhi: Global Vision Pub. House,

2006.Croix, G. E. M. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.Naronakar, A. R. Untouchability and Caste System in India. New Delhi, India: Anmol Pub. 2003.

Malley, L. S. S. Indian Caste Customs. London: Curzon Press;, 1974.

Pruthi, Raj. Indian Caste System. New Delhi: Discovery Publishing House, 2004.

Sunder, Prem. Caste, Class and Society: Then and Now. Delhi: Educational and Distributors, 2010.

Themelis, Spyros. Social Change and Education in Greece: A Study in Class Struggle Dynamics. New York City, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013


[1] Pruthi, Raj. Indian Caste System. New Delhi: Discovery Publishing House, 2004.
[2] O’Malley, L. S. S. Indian Caste Customs. London: Curzon, 1974. Print.
[3] Sunder, Prem. Caste, Class and Society: Then and Now. Delhi: Educational and Distributors, 2010.
[4] Croix, G. E. M. The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.
[5] Themelis, Spyros. Social Change and Education in Greece: A Study in Class Struggle Dynamics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
[6] Chaudhary, Bhupen. Indian Caste System: Essence and Reality. New Delhi, India, New Delhi: Global Vision Pub. House, 2006.
[7] Naronakar, A. R. Untouchability and Caste System in India. New Delhi, India: Anmol Pub. 2003.

 

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