The Agrarian System in Ancient India, Part 11


Casadhoba (Agriculturalist) and Chassa-dobas (Rice-threshers)
Solvyns, Paris series

Oct 31, 2011 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial historical account of the early Agrarian System in Vedic Culture.

In Western and Southern India the oldest epigraphic records belonging to the early centuries of the Christian era acquaint us with royal allotments or farms in the villages, which were generally leased out to cultivators, but they are silent about a land-revenue properly so called. The first distinct indication of this branch of revenue is found in this region in some records of the fourth century belonging to the Vakatakas of the Deccan.

These facts strikingly corroborate a hypothesis formed long ago by Baden-Powell on the basis of his observation of existing land-tenures in Coorg and in Chota Nagpore. According to this theory, the Dravidian land-system was distinguished from the Aryan by the fact that in the former, the king originally received only the produce of his farms in the villages, to which was only afterwards added the customary grain-share from nearly all village lands.

We shall conclude this lecture with an estimate of the economic consequences of the system that we have been attempting to describe so far. The Arthasastra shows a thorough grasp of the principles of agricultural development, and the slight notices in the Smrtis and connected works, as far as they go, are completely in accord with it. Such ideas evidently formed part and parcel of a general administrative tradition. At the same time the environment, so far as the materials enable us to judge, was normally favourable for their fruition. As the State dealt most often directly with the cultivators, it was in a position to work out its policy unhampered by the existence of a class of middlemen.

The remarkably moderate extent of the revenue-demand, amounting ordinarily to no more than 1/6 of the produce, however much it might be supplemented by cesses and other extra charges, could not lead to a condition when the whole economic rent was swept away into the king's treasury. In certain circumstances, it is true, the rules permit the supersession of the cultivators, and these may have occasionally been followed in actual practice. But the cultivators appear to have normally enjoyed the privilege of security of their tenures. If, then, the ancient records sometimes refer to oppressive burdens of the land-revenue and other charges, it can be said with truth that the glimpses which the observations of the foreign travellers furnish into the actual condition of the people generally indicate a happy and contented peasantry.

Vaidya (Physician)



In the oldest stages of human association, the hunting and the pastoral, land could not for obvious reasons form the subject of appropriation. Even after the transition to the agricultural stage, cultivation was at first of a shifting character, and accordingly the arable land (as distinguished from the homestead) was held only in temporary possession. Afterwards, with the application of intensive methods of cultivation and the growing scarcity of land, this primitive kind of possession was converted into a permanent right of property. Now it is this relatively advanced stage of social evolution that the Vedic Aryans are found to occupy at the dawn of their history.

Regarding the early forms of property in land, while the view made classical by Sir Henry Maine and Emile de Laveleye maintained the collective ownership of land to have preceded the individual ownership, it was authoritatively held in later times that individual ownership was the oldest form of property, while very recently it has been argued that the complex conditions of primitive communities preclude the fixing of convenient labels like 'communistic' and ' individualistic' to their idea of property.

Whatever that may be, the evidence of the Rg-Veda Samhita shows that among the IndoAryans at any rate, the arable land was held in individual or in family ownership, while communal ownership was probably confined only to the grass-lands lying on the boundaries of the fields. Thus in one case a maiden describes her father's field along with the hair on his head as his personal possession. Reference is made in another connection to the measurement of a field. Lastly, we have the significant title of a Deity called ksetrasya pati ('Lord of the field'), meaning probably the god presiding over each field.

It thus appears that the private ownership of land was an established institution among the IndoAryans in the oldest times to which their history can be traced. The immediately following period was attended, doubtless in connection with the advance of the royal power during its course, with some remarkable developments of the king's prerogative over the soil. From this stand-point the statement of the Satapatha Brahmana, [1] namely, that everyone here is fit to be eaten by the king except the Brahmana, is not of much significance, since it only embodies in a nut-shell the view that the royal contributions from the subjects which were at first probably fitful in their character had by this time become a general burden devolving upon nearly all classes of the people.

Of greater importance is the oft-quoted passage of the Aitareya Brahmana [2] declaring the Vaisya from the point of view of the Ksatriya 'to be tributary to another, to be lived on by another, to be oppressed at will.' These striking phrases doubtless signify that the ruler's claim of taxing the masses of free-men was limited only by his own will, but there is nothing in them to indicate the king's ownership of the soil as distinct from his political superiority.

Finally we may mention a text of the Satapatha Brahmana [3] which states that to whomsoever the Ksatriya, with the approval of the people or clan (vis), grants a settlement, that is properly given. This passage evidently refers to the public land of the folk or the State, and it seems to mean that while the king's gift of such land with the consent of the people was in accordance with the tribal or customary law, it was sometimes arbitrarily disposed of by the sole authority of the ruler.

It is possible that originally in the period of the Rg-Veda, the king could deal with the public land only with the sanction of the tribal assembly, but afterwards during the times of the later Samhitas and the Brahmanas, the advance of the king's power had resulted in such land being looked upon as lying to some extent at the disposal of the Crown. The natural consequence of such development would be eventually to reduce the public lands to the condition of the king's private estates. But this step, which seems to have been completed by the time of the Arthasastra, was not reached in the period of the Brahmanas.


[1] Cambridge History of India, Vol. 8, 8, 12; arid, 4, 2, 8. With this may be compared the epithet frequently applied in the Brahmanas to the king, namely that he is the devourer of his people.

[2] Ibid, VI, 29, with Keith's tr. in Cambridge History of India, p. 128.

[3] VIII, 1, 73, 4.


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