The Agrarian System in Ancient India


F.B. Solvyns, c. 1799

Oct 20, 2011 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial historical account of the early Agrarian System in Vedic Culture.

Today we begin a twelve-part presentation of a very interesting historical text written by U.N. Ghoshal, M.A., Ph.D, and published by the Calcutta University Press in 1930. The manuscript addresses Agrarian society in Vedic Culture, as recorded in books of sastra, history, law and literature.

The recorded beginnings of the system are discussed, along with an historical account of agrarian life in Northern India over three distinct periods. There is also a study of the notion of ownership of the soil, and the question of private and state ownership.

Considered in the context of varnasrama-dharma, this manuscript (edited slightly for readability) offers many interesting ideas about the sastric and common social basis for how people treated the land, and how they treated one another in association with the land and the resources it provided, including foodstuffs, water, and an abode for the living creatures.

The series will be illustrated by many of the wonderful hand-colored etchings of the Flemish artist, Francois Balthazar Solvyns, who lived for more than a decade in Calcutta in the later 1700's. There, and later on in Paris, he rendering beautiful images of the people of India, categorized by the various castes and varnas. These works were published in his epic historic collection, A Collection of Two Hundred and Fifty Coloured Etchings, Descriptive of the Manners, Customs and Dresses of the Hindus (Calcutta, 1799).

While the images of primarily Bengali peoples depict a period that began about two hundred years after the close of the Agrarian period discussed in the manuscript, it still provides a fair representation of village life and custom, which itself changed relatively little over that long period.

The Agrarian System in Ancient India

U.N. Ghoshal, M.A., Ph.D


The evidence of the science of Comparative Philology in relation to the Indo-European group of languages discloses the fact that the original Aryan stock was a people pre-eminently devoted to pastoral pursuits, but not unacquainted with agriculture. It appears from the same evidence that the Aryan society was organised beyond doubt on the basis of the patriarchal family; and that it probably comprised the larger unit of the clan as well.

When, after the dispersal of the Aryans from their original home, one branch of them ultimately migrated into the land of the five rivers, they found the country already in occupation of alien peoples, some of whom, to judge by the wonderful remains of their civilization in the Indus Valley, must have attained a high level of material greatness. Such an advanced material civilization would naturally betoken a relatively developed type of social and political organization, and even the picture of the aborigines in the Rg Veda Samhita furnishes some hints of their organisation in fortified villages (pura) under the rule of Chiefs.

It is, however, with the institutions of the Indo-Aryans, of which the oldest written account is preserved in the Rg Veda, that we have to begin our narrative of Ancient Indian agrarian conditions. The Vedic Aryans, at the dawn of their history, appear before us as a settled people largely devoted to agriculture, although the tending of domestic animals occupied an important place in their economy.

The unit of the Indo-Aryan society was the patriarchal family. Above it stood the vis in the sense of 'clan,' and a number of the vis groups formed the whole jana or people. The grama or village consisted of a group of families united by ties of kindred, but what place it held in the scheme of tribal divisions, and, in particular what relation it bore to the vis with which it was immediately connected, it is impossible to state with any degree of certainty.

As regards the form of the village organisation, it is possible that some of the types of villages known to later times, in which the land was held in collective ownership by the tribe or the clan, were already in existence among the non-Vedic peoples. Among the Indo-Aryans, however, the arable land in the villages, and doubtless the homestead lands as well, were held in individual or family ownership, while the grass lands were probably held in common.

In so far as the political organisation was concerned, the inhabitants of the lower Indus Valley, to judge from the remains of their civilization, must have developed powerful territorial States. Among the Vedic Aryans, as might be expected from their situation as settlers in the midst of a conquered population, monarchy was a well-established institution, and the Rg Veda gives us glimpses of the king's functions in peace and war.

Originally, it seems, the authority of the Vedic king was completely subordinated to that of the chiefs of the family and the clan, but afterwards, in the period of the later Samhitas and the Brahmanas, it underwent considerable development, no doubt in connection with the expansion of the Indo-Aryans over the rest of Northern India.

A rudimentary organisation of the Vedic administrative machinery is suggested by a list of persons called ratnins ('jewels') associated with the king at the royal consecration, and the title of one of these persons, namely the gramani (the village headman), which is as old as the Rg Veda, shows that the village was organised as a unit of administration in very early times.

From the above outline of the early Vedic society and Government, it is natural to expect that the Indo-Aryan king would draw from the first contributions from his subjects for his own support. It is possible that such contributions, which are called by the generic term 'bali', were at first made as voluntary gifts, but there can be no doubt that afterwards they assumed the character of regular and compulsory payments, and in fact became the distinctive attribute of the relation between the king and his subjects.

It may reasonably be inferred, considering how the wealth of the Vedic Aryans consisted of flocks and herds and of the produce of their fields, that the payments by the subjects were made in kind. Indeed there is good reason to think that already at this early period, the king drew his revenue from a certain share of the produce, although as yet it was undifferentiated from his contribution of domestic animals. Thus we have a text of the Atharva Veda [1] conveying the poet's prayer to Indra to portion the king 'in village, in horses, in kine.'

Another passage of the same work [2] specifically fixes the king's dues at 1/16, which is much lower than the rate afterwards approved in the Smrtis for the royal grain-share. From the description of the characteristics of the Indo-Aryan villages given above, it might be conjectured that the king's grain-share and other contributions were assessed more or less upon the individual villagers.

A new type of village organization is hinted at in several passages of the Taittiriya Samhita. There we are told in connection with the performance of certain sacrifices by a person desirous of winning a village (gramakama) how the gods concerned 'assign him creatures led by the noses ', how they present his relatives to him and make the folk dependent upon him, and how they enable him to grasp the mind of his equals.

These significant expressions can only refer to the lordships of single villages, no doubt acquired in the first instance by individual exertion, but afterwards receiving the seal of royal confirmation. Here, then, we have the oldest indication of the type of landlord villages known to later times. On the other hand, the endowments of land in favour of Brahmanas, which became so important in later times, appear at this period to have been, not indeed unknown, but disapproved even by the priestly authors of the sacred works. This is shown by the story of the King Visvakarman Bhauvana, who, when about to give away the Earth to his priest at the Sarvamedha sacrifice, is reproved by the Earth herself in the following words:

    "No mortal must give me away; thou wast foolish,
    Vigvakanpan Bhauvana:
    She (the Earth) will sink into the midst of the water;
    Vain is this thy promise unto Kasyapa."

Such is the dim outline of agrarian conditions that is presented by the oldest literary records of the Indo-Aryans, the Vedic Samhitas and the Brahmanas. Let us now turn to the notices contained in the Smrtis, the Epics and the Puranas as well as the fuller description of the Arthasastra, which together constitute the most systematic account of the methods and arrangements of Ancient Indian administration that has come down to us.

A Ladoo Byle

As we have observed elsewhere, the resemblance between the Arthasastra material on law and polity and that of the Smrtis is so dose that we can unhesitatingly take them to be the allied branches of a common system. The roots of this system should doubtless be traced to actual forms of State and bodies of law existing in ancient times, although it is impossible to specify either the period of time or the tract of country to which they belonged.

In the Smrtis and connected works, the system of administration is described in the most general outline. Evidently the priestly authors of these works, while describing after their fashion the duties of the king, felt little or no interest in the details of administration. Nevertheless the main outlines of the picture are not difficult to distinguish.

Territorial monarchy, which is no doubt a development of the tribal kingship of the Vedic period, is now the recognized, if not the universal type of polity. A rudimentary form of administrative organization is implied by the reference to the council of ministers as well as various officials whose designations and functions are not defined with sufficient precision.

For the purpose of local administration there is a chain of officers placed in charge of units purporting to consist of one thousand, one hundred, twenty, ten and single villages. Such mathematical divisions evidently could have little or no application in actual practice. On the other hand, in contrast with the vague and undefined charges on agricultural land in the Vedic Samhitas and the Brahmanas, the branches of land-revenue are now sharply differentiated from other items of taxation.

The king's share of the agricultural produce is called 'bali', which is the old Vedic title of the royal contributions from the subjects as well as tribute from conquered enemies. Along with this is mentioned 'hiranya' which, as we have suggested elsewhere, means cash charge upon certain special classes of crops. Here we have the oldest reference to the two forms of land-revenue which, as we shall see later on, are known also to the Arthasastra and may be traced in ancient times almost continuously from the Gupta period onwards.

Besides the payments in kind and in cash by the cultivators, there are other charges upon the agricultural and industrial income of the villagers, not to mention the periodical cesses called 'kara' in the Smrtis.

Of the methods of assessment of the land revenue our authorities give us little or no indication. To judge from the relatively undeveloped stage of political organisation in these works, it would seem that the revenue-demand in kind was assessed according to the primitive method of actual division of the crops at the threshing-floor (now called bafai), or according to the method of appraisement of the standing crops (now known as kankiit). Such methods, while attended with the advantages of simplicity and elasticity, must have led to grave inequalities in respect of the burden imposed upon different classes of lands, not to speak of the risk of entailing loss on the king's treasury through collusion between the State officers and the cultivators.

That the former evil was recognised this early is shown by the fact that while some authorities stick to the uniform rate of 1/6 others recommend varying rates consisting of 1/8 and 1/10 (or 1/12) of the produce. This differential scale of rates, which was doubtless intended to apply to different classes of soils or crops, evidently involved a more equitable principle of assessment than the rule of a uniform rate. All the above rates, it may be presumed, referred to the gross produce.

As regards the 'hiranya' or cash-charge, it was assessed at the remarkably low rate of 1/50 according to most authorities, but the details of the assessment are altogether wanting.

The rates of the land-revenue above mentioned relate to normal times. To these our authorities in common with the Arthasastra add other rates applying to the occasions of grave emergencies of the king. A text of Manu, as interpreted by most of the commentators, authorises the levy of ¼ of the produce in place of the usual 1/6, while a milder rule mentioned in the same connection permits the levy of 1/8 instead of the more usual 1/12.

Such enhancement of the normal rates during a grave crisis might perhaps be justified in consideration of the backward stage of political organisation contemplated in our present works. [This is in comparison to] the sweeping rule of the Mahabharata, authorising the needy and distressed king to seize the wealth of persons other than the ascetics and the Brahmanas. [4] It is easy to imagine the serious consequences which would follow strict enforcement of this dangerous doctrine.

Two famous discourses upon the duties of kings ('rajadharma') in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata [5] give us glimpses into the views of our authorities regarding what may be called the State agricultural policy. In the first, which takes the form of a series of questions put by the exiled Rama to his affectionate brother Bharata upon statecraft, the conciliatory treatment of cultivators is inculcated in general terms. The second discourse, which is addressed by the sage Narada to Yudhisthira, brings out some fundamental principles of agricultural development that are known also to the Arthasastra. It inculcates the advance of seeds and provisions, the grant of agricultural loans and the construction of irrigation-works.


1 Atharta Veda, IV, 22. Cf. HES, p. 6.

2 Ibid, Indian Antiquary, 29. Cf. HRS, p. 5.

3 Satapatha Brahmaria, XHI, 7, 1, 16, Eggeling's tr. (SEE, Vol. 44, pp. 420-421).

4 See Contributions to the History of the Hindu Revenue System By U. N. Ghoshal, p. 188.

5 Ramayana. II, 100 and MahS. II, 5.


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