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7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 4 - Pillars on Indian Life

What will we be learning in this unit?
  • How did the caste system affect Indian life?
  • What values influenced family life?
  • How did the traditional Indian village function economically and politically?

Caste System

  • Caste was closely linked to Hindu beliefs. To Hindus, people in different castes were different species of beings. A high-caste Brahmin, for example, was purer and therefore closer to moksha than someone from a lower caste. 
  • To ensure spiritual purity, a web of complex caste rules governed every aspect of life - where people lived, what they ate, how they dressed, and how they earned a living. Rules forbade marrying outside one's caste or eating with members of another caste. High-caste people had the strictest rules to protect them from the spiritually polluted, or impure, lower castes. 
  • For the lowest-ranked outcastes, or "Untouchables," life was harsh and restricted. To them fell "impure" jobs such as digging graves, cleaning streets, or turning animal hides into leather. Other castes feared that contact with an Untouchable could spread pollution. Untouchables had to live apart. They even had to sound a wooden clapper to warn of their approach.


  Caste System

  • Despite its inequalities, caste ensured a stable social order. People believed that the law of karma determined their caste. While they could not change their status in this life, they could reach a higher state in a future life by faithfully fulfilling the duties of their present caste. 
  • The caste system gave people a sense of identity and interdependence. Each caste had its own occupation and its own leaders. Caste members cooperated to help one another. Further, each caste had its own special role in Indian society as a whole. Although strictly separated, different castes depended on one another for their basic needs. A lower-caste carpenter, for example, built the home of a higher-caste scholar. 
  • The caste system also adapted to changing conditions, absorbing foreigners and new occupations into their own castes. This flexibility allowed people with diverse customs to live side by side in relative harmony.


  Family Life
  • The ideal family was the joint family, in which parents, children, grandchildren, uncles, and their offspring shared a common dwelling. The joint family was usually achieved only by the wealthy. In poor families, people often died young, so several generations seldom survived long enough to live together. Still, even when relatives did not share the same house,close ties linked brothers, uncles, cousins, and nephews. 
  • The Indian family was patriarchal. The father or oldest male in the family headed the household. Because he was thought to have wisdom and experience, the head of the family enjoyed great authority. Still, his power was limited by sacred laws and tradition. Usually, he made decisions after consulting his wife and other family members. Property belonged to the whole family.

Family Life
  • From an early age, children learned their family duties, which included obeying caste rules. Family interests came before individual wishes. Children worked with older relatives in the fields or at a family trade. While still young, a daughter learned that as a wife she would be expected to serve and obey her husband and his family. A son learned the rituals to honor the family's ancestors. Such rites linked the living and the dead, deepening family bonds across the generations. 
  • For parents, an important duty was arranging good marriages for their children, based on caste and family interests. Marriage customs varied. In northern India, a bride's family commonly provided a dowry,or payment to the bridegroom, and financed the costly wedding festivities. After marriage, the daughter left her home and became part of her husband's family.

Family Life
  • A woman's primary duties were to marry, show devotion to her husband, and raise children. Beyond these responsibilities, women had few rights within the family and society. For a woman, rebirth into a higher existence was gained through devotion to her husband. 
  • As customs changed, a high-caste widow was forbidden to remarry. Often, a widow was expected to join her dead husband on his funeral fire. In this way, a widow became a sati, or "virtuous woman." Some widows accepted this painful death as a noble duty that wiped out their own and their husband's sins. However, other women bitterly resisted the custom.

Village Life
  • Throughout India's history, the village was at the heart of life. The size of villages varied, from a handful of people to hundreds of families. A typical village included a cluster of homes made of earth or stone. Beyond these dwellings stretched the fields, where farmers grew wheat, rice, cotton, sugar cane, or other crops according to region.
  • Each village included people of different castes who performed the tasks needed for daily life. Castes might include priests, landowners, herders, farmers, metalworkers, and carpenters, as well as such low castes as leather workers and sweepers.
  • In most of India, farming depended on the rains brought by the summer monsoons. Too much or too little rain meant famine. Landlords owned much of the land. Farmers who worked the land had to give the owner part of the harvest. Often, what remained was hardly enough to feed the farmers and their families.

Village Life
  • Villages were usually self-sufficient. They produced most of the food and goods that they needed. Occasionally, however, people from different villages met and traded at regional markets.
  • Each village ran its own affairs based on caste rules and traditions. It faced little outside interference as long as it paid its share of taxes. A village headman and council made decisions. The council included the most respected people of the village. In early times, women served on the village council, but as Hindu law began to place greater restrictions on women, they were later excluded. The headman and council organized villagers to cooperate on vital local projects such as building or maintaining vital irrigation systems, as well as roads and temples.