The Agrarian System in Ancient India, Part 4


A Banyan (Merchant Trader)
F.B. Solvyns, c. 1799

Oct 23, 2011 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial historical account of the early Agrarian System in Vedic Culture.


In the preceding lecture, an attempt was made to describe the development of the ancient Indian agrarian system from its [earlier] forms in the Vedic Samhitas and the Brahmanas, into the more advanced types in the Smrti and specially in the Arthasastra literature.

This description, it must be admitted, suffers from two great drawbacks, inasmuch as not only are the intermediate stages of development hidden from our eyes, but the data, such as they are, stand unrelated to their environment in place and time. It will now be our endeavour to trace as far as possible the historical evolution of the system among the different States and dynasties of Northern India down to the period of the Muhammadan conquest, when the ancient period of Indian history came to a close. A similarly comprehensive survey of the history of the system in the Deccan and in Southern India, however desirable it might be to complete our description, is for the present excluded from our consideration, principally because the wealth of material which it exhibits makes it the fit subject for an independent treatment.

The oldest surviving account of social and political conditions in any definite part of India after the early Vedic period is preserved in the Pali canonical literature, which with the Jataka and the Dhammapada commentaries may be taken roughly to illustrate the conditions prevailing in Eastern India from the fifth to the fourth centuries before Christ. We learn from them how the land-revenue consisting of a certain share of the produce was a well-known institution in these times, and was signified by the same title (bali) as in the Smrtis.

In actual practice, the bali was liable to enhancement at the, king's discretion, although the traditional rate of 1/6 is well-known to our authorities. References are accordingly found in the Jatakas to the oppressive imposition of bali by the king, not to speak of the exactions and tyrannies of the tax collectors (balisadhakas or niggahakas), whose name passed into a synonym for importunate demand.

Other references in the Jatakas illustrate the methods of assessment of the king's share of the produce that were in vogue at this period. The Kama Jataka tells the story of a Prince who, after renouncing his claim to the throne in favour of his younger brother, goes to live with a merchant's (setthi's) family. When the royal officers (raja-kammikas) came to the village to measure the fields, the setthi asked the Prince to write to the king for remission of the bali which the latter accordingly granted.

In this case, it will be noticed, the measurement of land by the State officers is immediately associated with the bali assessment. Probably this implies the existence of a standard or average rate of the Government demand for a known unit-area, which could be applied for the assess merit of the individual holdings. In such a case we should have an exact equivalent of the method of assessment prevailing in India which has been aptly called Measurement.

The Kurudhainma Jataka shows how this method along with simpler ones was simultaneously in use during the period to which it refers. This Jataka introduces us to a group of eleven persons who are renowned for what is called 'kuru righteousness.' Out of this group we are here concerned only with three persons, namely, the rajjugdhaka amachcha (shortened into rajjuka), the setthi, and the donamapaka (or briefly, dona).

The first-named personage whose title literally means the rope-holding officer is described as measuring the field by holding one end of a rope tied to a stick, while the other end is held by the possessor of the field. Seeing a crabhole at the spot where he wants to pitch the stick, he reflects that if he should place it in front, he would cause loss to the king's revenue, while if he were to place it behind, he would cause loss to the cultivator. Here, it will be observed, the official measurement of land is connected, as in the preceding example, with the assessment of the land-revenue.

Probably in this case, too, we have to conceive the existence of standard rates of the land-revenue for known unit-areas. Again, in the above story the setthi (merchant) is filled with remorse for having unwittingly taken a handful of ears of corn from his field from which the king's share has yet to be paid. This doubtless points to the method of Appraisement of the standing crops.

Lastly, in the above story the donamapaka, the measurer with the drona measure is described in the act of measuring the king's share of corn (rajabhaga), while sitting at the door of the royal granary. Having hastily rushed indoors owing to a sudden rainfall, he is filled with doubt whether he has thrown the grains used as markers over the measured or the unmeasured heap, and he reflects that if he has placed the markers over the measured heap, he has improperly increased the king's share and diminished that of the cultivator. This evidently points to the method of division of the crop at the king's granary.

A Rooty Wallah (Bread Maker)

The Pali works also tend to show that various classes of Assignment of land were known at this time. A stock phrase used in some discourses of the Digha Nikaya [1] to indicate the place of residence of individual learned Brahmanas is rajabhoggam ranna dinnam rajaddyam brahmadeyyam. This phrase has been explained by the famous commentator Buddhaghosa [2] in two different senses, both of which agree in making the Assignment amount to alienation of the king's political rights. This explanation is followed by Rhys Davids [3], who translates the above phrase as 'a royal domain granted by the king, a royal gift' (otherwise rendered as 'fief '), 'with power over it as if he were the king.'

Whatever that may be, the above phrase at least proves that endowments of villages were granted by the kings in favour of the Brahmanas. Reference to the same class of grants is found in other stories of the Jataka and Dhammapada commentaries mentioning how the kings granted to individual Brahmanas the villages where they had their residence.

Another class of Assignments is referred to in two stories of the Jataka commentary describing how a king of Kosala granted a village to his daughter as her bath-allowance '(otherwise called 'bath-and-powder allowance') while giving her in marriage to a king of Magadha. Here we have evidently to deal with a type of Assignments known also to the Arthasastra, namely, the Assignments made for support to the members of the king's family. That such assignments carried with them the right of alienation is shown by another Jataka story which mentions how a queen promised five choice villages to a hunter as his reward for carrying out her wishes.

Other stories in the Jataka commentary refer in general terms to the grant of villages by kings to a wise man, to a merchant, and to an official. These evidently belong to the class of Assignments that were granted as reward of merit, or as an act of favour.


[1] See ibid, Vol. I, pp. 87, 111, 114, 127, 131, etc.

[2] Cf. the following extract from Sumangalavilasini (on DN, III, 1, 1: -- rajaladdham bhoggam rajabhoggam . . Brahmadeyyan ti setthadeyyam, chattam ussapetva rajasamkhepe bhunjitabban ti attho. Atha vv rajabhoggan ti sabbam chejja-bhejjam anusasayantena nadi-tittha-pabbatadisu sunke gahantena setacahattam ussapetva ranna hutva bhunjitabbam. . . Brahmadeyyan ti setthadeyyam, yatha dinnam na puna gahetabbam hoti."

[3] See Dial. of the Buddha, Vol. I, p. 108, etc.


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