Buddhism Ancient Indian Society
Greg Bailey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0224


This article provides bibliographic information on ancient Indian society from 2500 BCE until 300 CE, with most of the relevant publications relating to the period 500 BCE to 300 CE. For both periods we are almost entirely bereft of information about secular (and indeed religious) history, or political and social matters, except as filtered through a priestly lens, and as reported as asides, in their texts. Despite this, there has been a large body of scholarly writing on ancient Indian society, especially after 500 BCE when both the textual and archeological evidence becomes more transparent. There is an abundance of material derived from both sources, yet interpretation of it has always been problematic, as the conceptual frames shaping the contents of the texts must first be understood in order to ascertain how the primary data drawn upon was to be presented. In addition, one of the problems in dealing with ancient Indian society that has become very apparent since the turn of the 21st century has been that imposed on scholars by reading contemporary Indian social problems back into the past. Under the influence of Subaltern studies, and especially of postcolonial theory, there has been a repositioning of some of the fundamental themes of ancient Indian social history. This has been especially so with the treatment of caste and has led to an increased questioning of the origin of caste and of its development in the early historical period.

Definition of Society

The study of ancient Indian society throws up countless problems of sources, definitions, and interpretation. It is not self-evident what society might have meant in the ancient period, whether it was tribal, nomadic, urban, or pastoral, or likely all these existing simultaneously. Ethnographic research on contemporary South Asian societies can be useful here, but does not tell us how societies, tribes, and so forth were conceptualized over two millennia ago. Words such as rāṣṭṛa (“kingdom”), pura/pur (“city”), grāma (nigāma, gāma) (“village”), and samāja (“assembly”) refer to spatial locations as well as to social and political groupings, but they are not defined in detail in the texts although some descriptions of them are given. Nor do we have any understandings of what a society would be like except for normative descriptions of the varṇāśrama type found in many brahmanical texts or rules governing how monks should behave with lay people, especially women. Finally, most of the items mentioned in this article closely intertwine society and social history with the development of the state, urbanization—involving transformations in the built landscape—and the technological and economic changes underlying all of these. Milner 1994 gives a brief introductory survey of the main features of Hindu society, both ancient and modern, while Wagle 1995 makes some incisive distinctions between tribe and caste in dealing with ancient Indian social groups. Thapar 2003 briefly describes various categories of society defined in terms of modes of subsistence and whether they are urban or rural, while Bailey and Mabbett 2003 argues that the most useful methodological entrée into the study of ancient Indian society is to focus on the difference between small-scale and large-scale groups. Parasher-Sen 2004 insightfully explores the difficulties in analyzing ancient Indian society from the perspective of group inclusion and exclusion, and, relatedly, Chattopadhyaya 2009 calls for a focus on studying the diversity of ancient Indian society, lamenting the sense in which the dominance of the varṇa theory has obfuscated this.

  • Bailey, Greg, and Mabbett, Ian. The Sociology of Early Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511488283

    Chapter 2 focuses on the categorization of elite groups in the early Buddhist texts, drawing out the differences between the multiplicity of social roles incumbent upon an individual in small-scale and large-scale societies. Moves on from Thapar 2003 by attempting to define the social significance of the word “elite” as found both in Buddhist and Hindu texts.

  • Chattopadhyaya, Brajadulal D. “Introduction: One Blind Man’s View of an Elephant; Understanding Early Indian Social History.” In A Social History of Early India. Vol. 2, Part 5 of History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization. Edited by Brajadulal D. Chattopadhyaya, XXXI–L. New Delhi: Pearson Longman, 2009.

    A very insightful survey and analysis of the historiography of social history and studies of society since the mid-1800s. Also includes some original comments on the development of caste in relation to varṇa (pp. xxx–xxxvii) and includes an extensive bibliography on pp. xlvi–l.

  • Milner, Murray. Status and Sacredness: A General Theory of Status Relations and an Analysis of Indian Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

    Chapter 4 gives a brief overview of the key features of Indian society, relevant mainly to the period post–500 BCE. It covers Hinduism, caste and social structure, economic and political power, and purity and pollution. A useful introduction from an anthropological perspective.

  • Parasher-Sen, Aloka. “Introduction.” In Subordinate and Marginal Groups in Early India. Edited by Aloka Parasher-Sen, 1–80. Oxford in India Readings. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Very detailed survey of the historiography of ancient and medieval Indian society from the perspective of marginal groups outside of the varṇa system. Argues that Hindu society can never be seen in a monolithic sense but must always be seen as a set of discursive maneuvers where different dominant and subordinate groups interact with each other.

  • Thapar, Romila. The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. New Delhi: Penguin, 2003.

    Divides the different groups of Indian society into hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, peasants and townsman, and gives a brief description of each as a prelude to a more extensive description of them throughout her book. Follows this with a brief survey of “The Creation of Castes.” See pp. 54–68.

  • Wagle, Narendra K. Society at the Time of the Buddha. 2d rev. ed. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1995.

    Chapter 2 (pp. 12–47) that deals with “patterns of settlement” provides a good working definition of tribal groups and caste, and supplements these with the idea of the “extended kin group.” Though based on Pali sources, its conclusions resonate with what little is found in contemporaneous Sanskrit sources. A pioneering work (1st ed. 1966).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.