The Agrarian System in Ancient India, Part 14


Augrys (Cultivators)
Solvyns, Calcutta series

Nov 04, 2011 — CANADA (SUN) — The last in a serial historical account of the early Agrarian System in Vedic Culture.

The historical records of Northern India, fragmentary and imperfect as they are, illustrate from time to time the king's prerogatives with reference to the land, which, so far as they go, agree with the evidence of the Smrtis and the Arthasastra. References to the royal farms or allotments in the villages which were often let out to tenants are to be found, as we have seen, in the extant records of the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Palas, the Paramaras, and other dynasties of Northern India.

The clauses of the land-grants dating from the time of the Satavahanas frequently show that the Government claimed the monopoly of salt. The Gupta inscriptions in North Bengal show that in Eastern India, the Government claimed the right of disposing of the waste lands during the fifth and sixth centuries, while the inscription of Lokanatha in the early part of the 7th century points to the State ownership of forests in the region of Eastern Bengal. It may also be mentioned in this connexion that the formulae of the land grants assigning the treasures and deposits to the donee show that treasure-trove was generally held to belong to the king.

A careful consideration of the above facts leaves no room for doubt that they do not amount to royal or State ownership of the soil. Alike in the Arthasastra and in the historical records, the king's private estates are sharply distinguished from the general mass of agricultural lands which are charged with the burden of the land-revenue and attendant cesses. The king's claim to supersede or fine negligent cultivators and to enforce the cultivation of a second crop in emergencies is to be connected with his sovereign authority, and not with his proprietary right, for, as we have seen above, private ownership of land in its essential features is recognised by our authorities. The apparently sweeping rule of Brhaspati is explained by the author in such a fashion as explicitly to deny the king the right of arbitrary transfer of the villagers' holdings.

Finally, it may be mentioned that the group of the king's specific rights in relation to the land has its parallel in the regalian rights of the sovereign in the European States of the Middle Ages, and like the latter it doubtless served only to restrict the full exercise of the rights of the private owners.

We are now in a position to understand the true significance of some famous texts of the ancient authorities imputing to the king in unequivocal terms the lordship of the soil. We begin with Manu who justifies [1] the king's levy of one-half of ancient hoards and of metals found underground by declaring that the king is the lord of the soil (bhumer-adhipatir-hi sah). [2] The meaning of the last clause is explained in the clearest terms by the famous commentator Medhatithi, who says that the king is the lord (prabhu) of the soil, and should get a share of that which is produced from the land belonging to him (tadiyaya bhuvo yallabdham tatra yuktam tosya bhagadanam).

Of a similar nature is the text quoted by Bhattasvamin (apparently from a Smrti work) in course of his commentary on a rule of the Arthasastra requiring the cultivators on the king's farms to pay water-rates of varying amounts for irrigation. "By those versed in the sacred books," so runs this text, [3] "the king is declared to be the lord (pati) of land us well as water : with regard to other things the house-holders (kutumbin) have the right of ownership (svamya)."

Vaisnava Devotee

More elaborate, as involving not only the king's lordship of the soil, but also his constructive lordship over his subjects, is the view of Katyayana. The king, we were told, has always been declared to be the lord (svamin) of the soil and not of other things, for otherwise, (that is, as the commentator Mitramisra explains, in the event of absence of the lordship of the soil), he would not receive 1/6 of the resulting product.

Since the creatures inhabit the land, Katyayana goes on, the king is also declared thereby to be their lord, and thus he acquires the right to the agricultural tax (bali) arising from their action. With the trend of these doctrines agree the views, whether implied or expressed, of the foreign observers dating from the fourth century B.C. to the seventh century A.C. Thus Megasthenes, according to the two principal versions in which this part of his account has come down to us, declares unequivocally that the whole land in India was the property of the Crown. Again, Fa Hian at the beginning of the fifth century, and Hiuen Tsang in the second quarter of the seventh, used the significant expression 'royal land' for the whole territory of the State. This may be taken to imply that as in contemporary China, the State in India was held to be the owner of the soil.

The above statements of the authorities on Law and Polity have been authoritatively held to establish the position that the land in Ancient India was owned in fact by the king. We may, however, well doubt the correctness of this view without repeating the evidence from the Sacred Law and the historical records given above. For, in the first place, the statements are laid down not as definite heads of law, but as arguments for justifying or explaining the king's right to levy specific branches of the revenue from land. They are, in other words, essentially of the nature of legal maxims in whose general and comprehensive character they fully share.

How inconclusive the doctrine of the king's ownership of the soil is even in the eyes of the authorities concerned, will best appear from one of the examples above mentioned. In the text of Manu declaring the king to be the lord of the soil, he is constrained to refer to the traditional view of the taxes being the king's fee for protection as an additional argument for supporting his case, while he advances on behalf of the Brahmanas in the same context the still more sweeping claim to be 'the owners of everything', a claim which indeed goes back to the period of the later Samhitas. As regards the opinion of the foreign observers on the present point, it may be said that Megasthenes's statement has not obtained much credence even from those who believe in the State ownership of the soil in Ancient India, while the testimony of the Chinese pilgrims is only implicit in its character. Perhaps the sole importance of the foreign notices lies in the fact that they definitely fix the periods of time during which the doctrine of the king's ownership of the soil was known in ancient times.

By far the clearest exposition of the question regarding the ownership of the soil in ancient times is found in the works on Mlmamsa, which go back probably to the fifth century of the Christian era, and extend far down into the Mediaeval period. The starting-point of the problem is the well-known passage of Jaimini's Mimamsa-sutras, which state that the land is not to be given because it is common to all. [4] This is stated in the course of a discussion as to the things that may be given away as sacrificial fee at the Visvajit sacrifice where the sacrificer is required to give away all his belongings.

Commenting on this text, Savara (c. fifth century A.C.) formulates a number of principles which were destined to be extended by other Mimamsa writers in subsequent times. Men enjoy lordship, he says, with respect to fields, but not with regard to the whole earth. The paramount ruler (sarvabhauma) is in this respect on the same footing as other men, the only difference between them being that he is entitled over and above to a certain share as his remuneration (nirvista) for protecting the rice and other crops. He is, however, not the lord of the soil (bhumi). [5]

This important extract clearly distinguishes between the State lands and the private lands on the ground that the former, unlike the latter, are incapable of being owned by anybody. Moreover, it carefully analyses the essential quality of sovereignty which is held to involve the levy of taxes as the price of protection, but not ownership. A passing reference to these ideas is found in a passage of the famous commentary on the Manu Samhita by Medhatithi (c. ninth century), where he discusses the question whether land is capable of being given or taken away. [6]

The next important reference is found in the Ngdyamalavistara, a commentary on the Mimamsa-sutras from the pen of the renowned Madhava (fl. fourteenth century). His commentary on the above-named sutra of Jaimini may be summarised as follows. To the argument that the king might give away the State territory (mahabhumi), he replies that it is not his property (svam) because protection of the kingdom involves sovereignty (rajya). Again, he conjures up the argument that the paramount ruler can give away the State territory because in accordance with the maxim of Gautama Dharmaastra, the land is his property (dhana). To this he replies in the following way. The Smrti text, he says, means that the king's lordship exists for suppressing the wicked and supporting the virtuous: land is not the king's property (dhana) but the common property (sadharanam dhanam) of all creatures living thereon; hence although private (asadharana) land can be given away, there can be no gift of the State land. [7] Here, it will be observed, the State land is distinguished from private land on the ground of its being incapable of individual ownership. Moreover the essential quality of sovereignty is explained as before to mean solely the exercise of the functions of Government.

Next we come to Khandadeva (fl. first half of the seventeenth century), who wrote an important commentary on the Mimamsa-sutras called the Bhattadipika. In this work he thus comments on the Sutra of Jaimini above-mentioned. In reply to an argument that the State land (mahabhumi) can be given away by the paramount ruler because it is his property (dhana), it is stated that even the paramount ruler has no proprietary right (svatva) over this land. For conquest even produces proprietary right only with regard to movables and immovables owned by the enemy (satrusvamika) , while in so far as the State land is concerned it produces only the title of sovereignty (rajya). Now sovereignty consists only in protecting one's own kingdom and rooting out the thorns and for this purpose the collection of taxes from cultivators and fines from offenders, but no proprietary right to the land arises therefrom. When, however, property is acquired by purchase and so forth, it may certainly become an object of gift.

In the above passage it will be noticed, the ideas of the earlier Mimamsa writers are expressed in the clearest terms. In so far as the State land is concerned, it is now clearly stated that the king is entitled only to sovereignty, while his proprietary right extends only to the specific possessions that he acquires by conquest, by purchase and so forth. These ideas are practically paraphrased by Nilakantha (c. latter half of the seventeenth century) in his Vyavaharamayukha, [8] which forms the legal section of his voluminous Digest called the Bhagavantabhaskara. He treats this point in the course of a discussion of the text of Gautama relating to the sources of ownership. In so far as the Ksatriya's sources of ownership are concerned, he observes that even conquest produces proprietary right only in respect of the movables and immovables belonging to the conquered.

Where the conquered has only the right of taking the taxes, that only is acquired by the conqueror, and not the ownership. Proprietary right with regard to the villages, fields and so forth, Nilakantha goes on, belongs to their respective possessors (bhaumika), and the king is entitled only to take the taxes. Therefore what is now technically called the gift of fields and so forth, the author states, amounts not to the gift of the land, but to the provision of allowances for subsistence. When, however, the houses, fields and so forth are purchased from the possessors, proprietary right certainly arises therein. Thus the king acquires thereby the merit of a real gift of land.

This concludes our serial presentation of "The Agrarian System in Ancient India" by U.N. Ghoshal, M.A., Ph.D.


[1] A History of Germanic Private Law, VIII, 89.

[2] Quoted Vyavaharamayukha of Bhatta Nilakantha, ed. P. V. Kane, Bombay, 1926, p. 145.

[3] 'Raja bhumeh patirdrstah sastrajjnairudakasya cha
tabhyam anyattu yaddrovyam tatra svamyam kutumbinam

[4] The text, (Mimamsa-sutras, VI, 7, 2) is as follows:
'na bhumih syat sarvan pratyavisistatvat'
This important passage was first brought to the notice of Western scholars by Colebrooke (Miscellaneous Essays, Vol. I, pp. 320-821).

[5] The relevant extracts from the text of Savara's commentary may be given as follows:
'ksetranam isitaro manusya drsyante (na krtsnasya prthivigolakasya. . . .
yavata bhogena sarvabhaumo bhumeriste tavata anyo'pi na
tasya kaschidvisesah sarvabhaumatve'sya tvetadadhikam
yad asau prthivyam sambhutanam vrhyadinam raksanena
nirvistasya kasyachid bhagasya iste na bhumeh.
For the date of Savara see Winternitz, GIL, III, 425 and cf. Keith, Karma Mimamsa, p. 9.

[6] The reference is to the following extract from Medhatithi's commentary on Manu, VIII, 99, -- 'sarva sadharanarha sarvajanopabhogya kevalam rajano raksa-nirddesamatrabhaja ityabhiprayah'.

[7] See Nyayamalavistara (Arthasastra ed.), p. 358.

[8] The text of Khandadeva (Mysore ed., p. 317)


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