By Swami Harshananda
Varna and jāti has always been a dominant feature of society. Division into groups based on vocation is a phenomenon common to all societies. Over time, this system became fossilized and mutually exclusive, the membership of the group being acquired only by birth.
Despite this, mixing has always taken place throughout history, giving rise to new jāti-s, born out of the admixture of the prevalent ones. The ābhiras constitute such a mixed jāti. They are regarded by Manu as the offspring of a brāhmaṇa by an aṅibaṣṭha (descended from a brāhmaṇa father and vaiśya mother) woman.
Whether the ābhīras were a nomadic tribe which either migrated into medieval India in stages or were natives is unclear. However, what is known is that they lived a nomadic and predatory life. By the 2nd century A. D. some of them had attained high ranks and had even seized political power, wielding it effectively till the 4th century A. D. Mention may be made of Ābhīra īśvarasena, son of Śivadatta, supposed to be the founder of the Kalacuri-Cedi era (3rd cent. A. D.) who rose to the royal rank in northern Maharashtra.
The common people among them lived on dairy industry and farming. They have contributed much to the development of music. The Apabhramśa dialect, a form of Prākṛt, is another contribution. Their greatest contribution is towards the growth of pastoral legends centering around Srī Kṛṣṇa. The modern āhīrs are considered to be the descendants of ābhīras and are scattered over the greater part of India.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore