Social life during the Pala period was marked by the emergence of feudalism in Bengal. With the emergence of feudalism, hero cult and bravery in warfare also was developed. This hero cult reverberated in the "Nalanda inscription" of Bala Varmana, in the legend of bravery of Hari, the general of Bhima, in the folk songs. Sacrificing one's life in the battlefield was considered a sacred duty and was highly praised during the reign of the Pala kings in Bengal.
In spite of the Buddhist inclination of the Pala kings, social structure represented the essence of Brahmanism in its organisation according to the caste basis. The Varna or caste system though was not rigid like the preceding eras, yet was deeply rooted within the society and Buddhists had to adjust themselves with that. Though caste system prevailed, the orthodox Brahmanical division had undergone a massive change. The supremacy of the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas was no more important in the socio-political life. Though Sandhyakara Nandi describes the Pala kings of Kshatriya origin, yet they did not actually belong to the Kshatriya caste, as later evidences record. The Brahmins were first mentioned in the land grants, which they use to receive predominately. Though Brahmins were accorded first place in the social hierarchy, but in practice, neither Brahmins, nor the Kshatriyas had portrayed any significant part in the public life during the Pala period. Their place was taken by the Karana Kayasthas. Even some Brahmins during the Pala period had chosen the profession of the Karanas. Though "Vyasa Smriti" describes the Kayasthas as Sudras, yet they had ascendancy in the social hierarchy during Pala period. The Ambastha Vaidyas also had dominance during this age. The Kaivartas also possessed control during the Pala realm. The Kaivartas for the first time appeared in pages of history right from the time of the Pala supremacy in Bengal. The liberal social policy of the Palas opened the way for superiority of the Kaivartas during the period. Pala records also mention lower castes like Andhras, Chandalas, Madas, Doms, Savaras etc. They pursued their occupation and also served in the Pala army.
As a whole, though the social structure was based on the rules laid by Brahmanical Hinduism, yet the Pala kings were staunch Buddhists. During this period Buddhism had earned enormous patronage of the Palas. They had restored Buddhism from being completely worsened in 7th century A.D. Though the Palas respected the Brahmanas and their status and theoretically had accepted the Varna system, yet in practice they had granted higher status to the middle Varnas and Sudras.
From the inscriptions and epigraphic evidences of the Pala period, it is known that though the caste system was not so rigid, yet people of the lower castes were considered untouchables. Bhaba-Deva Bhatta in his "Law book" has described the Chandalas, Medas, Savaras, Kapalis as untouchables. They were considered outcasts and lived on the outskirts of villages. The "Charya Padas" refer to the lax sexuality of this class of people, which gradually penetrated into the life of the upper castes. The trading and merchant classes, as also the Kshatriyas had lost their importance in society. This happened probably due to the decline of trade in 7th century A.D. The Varna or caste regulation during the Pala age was extremely flexible. The rigidity in the Varna system did not affect the society of Bengal during the Pala Age, probably due to the absence of 'Smritis' or law books in Bengal. In the Sena period, Bhaba-Deva Bhatta and other Smriti writers had introduced rigidity in the Varna system and the concept of untouchability.
So far as religion was concerned during the societal life of the Pala Age, Brahmanical Hinduism had gained wider acceptance. But Hinduism was transformed throughout the Palas, due to extreme popularity of Vaishnavism and Shakti cult. Puranic themes and legends dominated religious beliefs of the people. Most of the inscriptions, temples and images of deities during that time depict the essence of Puranic Hinduism. Vedic Hinduism and Vedic gods had passed into oblivion during the Pala era. Vedic procedures of "homa" and "Yajna" were still continuing in diminished glory. The Puranic kings and heroes, who had inspired the lifestyle of the upper classes, became widely popular in the Pala phase. These included- Sagara, Nala, Bali, Rama etc. The concept of Vishnu became more humanised all through the Pala period, which gave way to the cult of Krishna. Krishna was regarded more humane among the emotional Bengalees during that time, compared to Vishnu. Due to the influence of Puranic Hinduism, the concept of Siva underwent a massive change. Lord Siva became a generous, powerful god, oblivious to his own material interests, but always kind towards his devotees. The concept of Siddhidata Ganesha came into vogue, which was much popular among the merchant community. The cult of Saraswati developed as the goddess of learning. Puranic themes were added to the faculties of Vishnu. Lakshmi and Saraswati were considered wives to Lord Vishnu. Worship of phallus (manifestation of Lord Shiva) was popular widely during the Pala period. Images of dancing Shiva or 'Nataraja' that had evolved during the Pala period indicated the other faculties of Shiva. The joint relics of Shiva Parvati indicated that Shiva had a great impact in the socio-religious life of the period.
Buddhism received a massive impetus during the Palas. However Mahayana Buddhism was further transformed during the Pala period. Philosophical aspects of Mahayana Buddhism were discarded and gradually Tantric practices infiltrated through the Mahayana cult and it came to be known as "Vajrayana". It was said that salvation could be attained by performing 'Bodhichitta'. Another school of Buddhism also had flourished during this period, called "Sahajayana". While the Vajrayanists believed in Mantra Tantra, gods and goddesses, the Sahajayanists discarded all these things. They completely denied the efficacy of worship, rituals, sacrifices, penance and sufferings for the attainment of salvation. According to them, body is a temple, which could alone bring salvation. Thus both the concept of "Vajrayana" and "Sahajayana" had influenced the socio-religious life of the Pala Age.
Apart from Vajrayanas and Sahajayanas, there also developed some other sects, which had attained much popularity during the Pala period. These sects comprised the Nathas, Sahajiya cult etc. According to historians, the bauls of Bengal owe their origin to the Sahajiya cult. Since socio-religious codes during the Pala period was widely flexible, various religious sects apart from Brahmanical Hinduism and Buddhism had flourished with thriving prosperity.
The most glorious aspect of Pala rule was their policy of public-welfare. The Pala rulers were Buddhists, but majority of their subjects were Hindus. Dharmapala had adopted the policy of religious toleration as their state policy. He had declared that he is 'conversant with the precepts of Shastras and he made 'the castes conform to their proper tenets'. This policy was followed by his successors. There is no doubt that Hindu gods and goddesses and Brahmins use to receive liberal patronage from the Pala rulers, though they themselves were devout Buddhists. The Brahmins occupied high official posts. Except one or two, all the Pala copperplates record grant of land to temples of Hindu gods and goddesses or to Brahmins. There is no evidence of any religious discord between the Buddhists and Hindus in the society. Religious toleration and mutual coexistence can be identified as the characteristic of social life of the people during the Pala period.
The everyday lifestyle of the Bengalees during the Pala period pinpoints to one of the significant aspects of social life. People led a very simple life and staple food of the Bengalees comprised rice, lentil, fish, milk and milk products, gur or sugar, meat and wheat etc. People used to chew betel leaves mixed with spices after meals. Populace during the Pala Age devoted their leisure in different pastimes. The ruling and upper class people were fond of hunting. But lower class people took hunting as their livelihood. The Paharpur and Moynamoti inscriptions depict such various hunting expeditions. While common men were fond of wrestling, horse racing and chariot racing were the favourite pursuits of higher or aristocratic class. Upper class women spent their leisure in gardening, water sports, dancing, singing etc. A class of courtesans and temple dancing girls were called 'Devdasis'. The Devdasi system was widely prevalent during the Pala society. Garments used by individuals of the Pala period depict the simplicity of lifestyle during that era. Men folk generally wore dhoti and chaddar. Seldom they used stitched garments for the upper part of the body, resembling fashion of the northwestern community. Women used to wear sarees and scarf. Aristocratic women also used cholis. Jimutavahana had recommended special dress for festive occasions. Dancing girls used to wear special decorative garments. Workers and common men used to wear very short dhoti or a very short cloth, just to cover the waist.
The condition of women in the Pala social order was no better than that of the previous periods. According to Vatsayana, women of Gauda loved luxury. They used to apply vermilion dots on their foreheads and fragrant sandal powder and sandal paste on their body, flower on their hair knots. Upper class ladies living in towns lived in enough pomp and lavishness. But the village women lived a simple, unsophisticated life. Poor women also had to participate in domestic duties with their male partners. Polygamy was still widely prevalent during the Palas. Dowry system was the general practice. Even a groom of the upper class did not hesitate to marry a lower caste bride, if he could draw a good amount from her. Widows were highly detested in the Pala society and they were forced to live a life of penance. The idea of womanhood prevalent throughout the Pala society, was to be a good and devoted wife, a caring mother and to be able to suffer the sins committed by her husband. Women from lower caste suffered the most. Self-respect and freedom of women were curtailed in a male predominated society.
On a whole, the Pala period in ancient India had witnessed a period of lingering peace and security in their societal life. Caste system became more flexible and people belonging to different caste and creed were given due respect and status. In spite of the deplorable condition of the fair sex and the poor, social life during the Palas left its mark in the history of ancient India as an era of absolute peace and prosperity. This social peace during the Palas contributed to the prosperity of ancient India in all fields over a long period of time.
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