The most striking feature of Ancient Indian society was the varnasrama system by which the life of men was divided into classes (varna) and stages (asrama). The society of ancient Assam was also based on this system. But unlike other parts of India the caste-system of Assam is based on racial divisions.
Both the Aryans and non-Aryans contributed to the development of the castes and classes in India. A number of factors such as heredity, marriage relations, economic pursuits, religion, geography etc contributed to the growth of vast number of groups and sub-groups in course of time. The Kamrupi kings seem to take special care to preserve the traditional divisions of the society, namely Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras. In the inscriptions they are frequently referred to as the protector of the “Varnasramadharma”.
As time passed the original division of the society into four varnas submerged and evolved many new castes and sub-castes mainly due to the development of new art,craft and profession. Side by side with the varna system, grew up the order of the four stages or asrama on the basis of which the life of man was divided. They are known as Brahmacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprastra and Samnyasa or Yati. These represented the life of a student, of household, ascetic and hermit respectively. These were followed by the Brahmanas of ancient Kamrupa and constant abdication of the kings have been found, who embraced a life of renunciation.
Gradually the caste system evolved out of the ancient varna system. Initially the caste system was not rigid but with the growth of complexities in the society, the caste classification became more rigid. In course of time the ancient Assamese society became divided into two- the Brahmanas which included the learned along with their families and Sudras which included the rest of the people in the society.
The Brahmanas occupied the prestigious position in the society. They were respected by the people as well as king due to their spiritual attainments. The early epigraphs of Assam refer to Brahmanas of different gotras,vedashakas and parvanas and these were important fundamentally in matters relating to inheritence, marriage, worship, performance of daily sandhya prayers etc. They led a holy and righteous life. They practiced yajana, adhyayana, adhyapana, dana etc. The main duty of the Brahmanas wes studying,teaching etc but apart from it they took other professions. The pushpabhadra grant refers to the grandfather of a donee as having the knowledge of fine arts. Hieun Tsang, the Chinese traveller who visited Assam during the reign of Bhaskarvarman recorded that the king was a Brahmin by caste who ruled over Kamarupa during his visit. Brahmanas also held high administrative posts and were court poets.
Epigraphs provide little information about non-brahmanas. Epigraphs beginning in the 6th century CE refers to Kayasthas, Karanas,Lekhakas, Daivajanas etc but most of them,if not all, were officers of professional classes rather than castes. In the old sutras and smritis, ‘karanas’ occur as name of a caste but in other books they were mentioned as scribes. In Gunaighat copper plate inscription ‘Karana-kayastha’ were mentioned as ministers in-charge of peace and war. Alongside the kayasthas, the kalitas were a predominant caste of the province. Their rank was equal to the Kayasthas and actually next to the brahmanas. But since the society was divided into two caste- brahmanas and sudras, they were labelled as sudras.
The Kaivartas or fishermen were a class of people mentioned in the epigraphs. Smritis mentioned them as a group of mixed people. They were non-Aryans and their economic life depended on fishing. But it appears in some inscriptions that they practiced agriculture as well. Their divisions into ‘halowa'(one who ploughs) and ‘jalowa'(one who is actually a fisherman) proved that they practiced both the profession.
In inscriptions we fibd references to professional caste groupd like kumbhakara(potters), tantuvayas(weavers), nauki(boatman) etc. According to Usanas, kumbhakaras were the offsprings of a brahmana and vaishya woman. But they were included in sudras. Patanjali mentions ‘tantuvayas’ as sudras and therefore they were excluded from religious rites. In epigraphs they were refered as professional groups.
Thus we come to know that a large number of sub groups were formed which later on developed into various castes. Gradually non-aryan tribes like Rabhas, Kacharis, Meches and Koches etc were included within the Hindu fold. The Hindu priests have been responsible for making them Saraniya and included them within one class i.e. sudras. The Assamese hindu social division was based on the spirit of liberalism and no class or caste including the Brahmanas followed their caste rules seriously as mentioned in the sastras.