The study of ancient Indian economic history goes back to the middle of the nineteenth century, when Christian Lassen devoted fairly long chapters to industry and commerce in his Indische Alterthumskunde, published in four volumes between 1847 and 1861.
His monumental history of India down to the fall of Vijayanagara emphasized political history, the economic sections occupying a subsidiary place. He was followed by Richard Fick who dealt primarily with the social or caste relationships prevalent in north-eastern India in the age of the Buddha and described occupations and trade guilds in about eighty pages.
Fick’s work was entirely based on the Buddhist birth stories, which were used by Mrs Rhys Davids for a fuller reconstruction of economic life in the sixth century BC Lassen, Fick and Mrs Rhys Davids were primarily philologists, and whatever they wrote on early Indian economic life was marginal to their main area of interest. Their writings therefore do not indicate any distinct trend in the historiography of early Indian economy.
But many historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who wrote under the auspices of the imperial government and had pre-conceived ideas about the Indian past, set a distinct trend in Indian historiography. As early as 1817 James Mill asserted that Indian society had remained substantially unchanged since its inception. His view was shared by several British administrator- historians, including Elphinstone who, under the spell of romanticism, spoke glowingly of the unchanging village communities of ancient India.
The administrator scholars of the nineteenth century firmly believed that the British imperial administration could change the Indian socio-economic set-up by legislation. Their study of the Indian society and economy inspired Marx in his reconstruction of the Asiatic mode of production, characterized by the predominance of self-sufficient village economy, the absence of privately owned land, and the complete subjugation of village communities to the state.
The best known exponent of the imperialist view of Indian history was Vincent A. Smith. Trained in more advanced techniques of historical research than were available to his predecessors, Smith devoted himself to the study of the general history of ancient India. But in 1904 he made a significant observation that in ancient times land was owned by the king.
This theory suited the British colonial interests and was upheld by several other British historians, who apparently wanted to make out a case for introducing agrarian changes by the British government in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
On account of their interest in foreign rule British writers after Smith gave special attention to India’s connections with Europe and the Greek rule in India. In numismatics the study of Indo- Greek coins received their chief attention and in the study of trade they were attracted by India’s commerce with Europe.
In 1916 H. G. Rawlinson wrote his Intercourse between India and the Western World, which covered India’s commercial contacts with the Graeco-Roman world from the earliest times to the fall of Rome. In 1928 E. H. Warmington produced a full-scale study of the subject on the basis of Greek and Latin sources.
His commerce between India and the Roman Empire underlines the importance of the discovery of the monsoon in AD 48 for the Roman navigators and enumerates articles of export and import between India and the Mediterranean region of the Roman Empire. Indo-Roman trade continued to attract the attention of British scholars till the fifties. In 1951 Charlesworth resurveyed the evidence relevant to this theme.
Three years later Mortimer Wheeler published Rome beyond Imperial Frontiers, which mentions the Roman objects found in Arikamedu and other places in south India as a result of excavations since 1946. By implications all these writers provide some justification for the commercial enterprise of the European nations in India in modern times and support the British exploitation of the Indian resources.
A necessary corrective to this tendency is provided by Motichand’s Sarthavaha in Hindi which recounts ancient trading activities mainly on the basis of indigenous texts and stresses the role of the trading communities, the vaisyas, Selthis and gahapatis, in promoting trade and commerce. This however does not mean that the British impact on indigenous writings on early Indian trade has been altogether eliminated.
In a recent work Adhya states that most Indo-Roman trade was carried on by foreigners who came to this country by land and sea routes, collected commodities and sold them to foreign consumers. He finds no evidence of the participation of Indian merchants in this trade, and describes them as an unenterprising lot. This impression could have been modified by a detailed analysis of India’s commercial contacts with South-East Asia, but its treatment in Adhya’s book is skimpy.
The main challenge to the historical models put forth by British historians came from Indian scholars, who, under the influence of the growing nationalist movement, wrote in conscious opposition to the imperialist view of Indian history.
The development of nationalism and political consciousness at the turn of the century made the Indian scholars keenly aware of the economic exploitation of India by the British, which formed the theme of the writings of Dadabhai Naroji and R.C. Dutt. The strong nationalist movement that followed the partition of Bengal in 1905 gave a great impetus to the study of the economic conditions of ancient India.
One of the first works which contested the British notions of India’s economic past was R.K. Mukherjee’s Indian Shipping and Maritime Activity. In contrast to Rawlinson and Warmington, he drew his material from both Indian and foreign sources.
Deficient in intelligent discussion of the economic and technological aspects of the problem, the book sought to prove that “the ancient Indians fully utilized the opportunities presented by nature for the development of maritime activity and established their colonies in other Askin countries”.
A more forceful attack on the imperialist writers came from K.P. Jayaswal, who was considered a potential contributor to “the seminaries of sedition” and was made to resign his post in the postgraduate teaching department of Calcutta University by the Bengal government in 1912-13. His articles contributed to the Modern Review between 1912 and 1915, which later appeared in the form of his famous book Hindu Polity in 1924, were clearly directed against the imperialist historical thinking.
He strongly criticized Smith’s view on the ancient Indian land-ownership. A staunch nationalist, Jayaswal did not like British interference with the landed possessions of the big zamindars and therefore argued that in ancient India there prevailed the individual ownership of land.
He did not write any monograph on early Indian economic history himself, but he was followed by a host of Indian scholars who flooded Indian journals with numerous articles and wrote several theses on the subject.
The period between 1916 and 1925, coinciding with the postwar nationalist and revolutionary movements sweeping across Europe and Asia, marked the peak of our nationalist movement. It saw the publication of several monographic studies of early Indian economic institutions. One of the earliest of these was R.C. Mujumdar’s Corporate Life in Ancient India. Majumdar sought to establish “beyond doubt that religion did not engross the whole or even an undue portion of the public attention…” in ancient India.
This countered the popular European cliché about India that she had put all her energy into metaphysical speculations. Majumdar tried to demonstrate the importance of corporate economic activities in the form of guilds and criticized Mrs Rhys Davids, who did not come across “any corporate organization of the nature of a guild or Hansa league” in the Jataka literature.
Two years later R.K. Mukherjee published his Local Government in Ancient India, which covered the same ground in more detail. In contrast to Majumdar, he utilized the bulk of accessible epigraphic material, especially from south India, though a separate study of guilds in that region was made by K.R.R. Sastry.
Though several specific themes of early economic history attracted the attention of Indian scholars in the twenties, comprehensive surveys of early Indian economic institutions and practices were attempted by J.N. Samaddar, M.A. Buch, N.C. Bandopadhyaya and later by S.K. Das and Pran Nath. Based on literary texts, Buch’s book discusses property rights, currency and prices, trade and transport, public finance, etc., though it does not give any idea of the development of the different features of early Indian economy.
Bandhyopadhyaya seeks to make “a systematic study of economic development” in ancient India with special reference to the land system, agriculture, industry and trade. He claims to have divided the economic history of India into periods “from a consideration of the economic forces and phenomena characterising them”.
But Das tags on economic history to the political. With the possible exception of Samaddar and Pran Nath all these writers were consciously or unconsciously inspired by a feeling of nationalism, and they tried to present ancient Indian economy in a better light.
They argued against the idea that ancient Indians had nothing to do with the problems of material life. They sought to prove that modern practise such as banking, partnership, etc., obtained in early Indian society. They tried to show almost invariably that economic conditions in ancient India were better than those of their own times.
The Indian nationalist economic historians benefited considerably from a significant new body of evidence made available by the efforts of the British administrators who turned Orientalists. The decipherment of the brahmi script by James Prinsep in 1837 opened up the epigraphic sources. The appointment by the Government of India of Alexander Cunningham as Archaeological Surveyor in 1861 promoted official and unofficial search for them. By the 1920’s a good deal of epigraphic material was made available.
But what came as a great boon to nationalist historians was the discovery and the partial publication of the Arthasastra of Kautilya in 1905 in the Indian Antiquary by R. Shamasastry. The full text of the Arthasastra was first published by him in 1909, and its first English translation in 1915.
The impact of the discovery of this text was so great that from 1910 to 1930 most Indian historians contributed to the literature on it. There followed a spate of books and articles which glorified early Indian economic life, partly in reaction to imperialist thinking and partly as a step towards the building up of national self-respect.
One of the earliest writings on the economic content of the Arthasastra was by H.C. Ray (1922), who detected in Kautilya’s social and economic policies the elements of modern state-socialism developed in Germany by the social legislation of Bismarck. The Kautilyan legislation, according to Ray, embraced all types of production and sought to protect labour against exploitation. He held that to the ancient Indian king the welfare of the people was more important than that of his own.
In 1927 Rao Bahadur Rangasvami. Aiyangar (1934) postulated that the socioeconomic idea of the Arthasastra was a combination of state socialism and a leissez-faire policy. In his view Kautilya’s economic theory guarded against the “fallacies which have cropped up in western economic theory.” Therefore he opined that a knowledge and study of ancient Indian economic thought could “counteract the modern tendency to import some of the socialistic doctrines of the West into India.”
Of the Indian scholars of the twenties U.N. Ghoshal handled his sources most critically. His Contributions to the Study of the Hindu Revenue System was the first serious study of the taxation system of India from the Vedic age to c. AD 1200, but it gave maximum space to the Maurya period because of the ready availability of the Arthasastra material.
Ghoshal states that the principles of taxation formulated in early times surpass the achievements of classical antiquity and tend to approach the ideas of European thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In his opinion the early Indian view that taxes are the king’s wages for the services of protection is identical with “the fashionable doctrine of the 17th and 18th century Europe, namely, that taxes are the price paid for the services of the public authorities.
Refuting V.A. Smith he states that “there is little, if any positive evidence” to prove that “the burden of taxation in ancient and medieval periods was so heavy as to leave the cultivator a bare margin for subsistence.”
The idea is repeated by Ghoshal in The Agrarian System in Ancient India, where he states- “…the glimpses which the observations of the foreign travelers furnish into the actual condition of the people generally indicate a happy and contended peasantry.” To landownership Ghoshal devotes a full chapter and asserts that the brahmanical law not only had a clear notion of the concept of ownership in general but also of the essential qualities and attributes of private ownership of land.
He does not give any credence to the foreign accounts which indicate the prevalence of royal ownership of land in ancient India. A more eloquent glorification of early Indian taxation system came from M.H. Gopal in his Mauryan Public Finance.
Drawing almost exclusively on the Arthasastra, Gopal compared early Indian economic ideas and institutions not only with those of the ancient world (especially Athens) but also with modern principles and practices. The Arthasastra has continued to inspire nationalist economic historiography till recently, and can be seen in K.M. Saran’s Labour in Ancient India.
Obviously the nationalist writings of the twenties and thirties regarded the ancient period of Indian history as one of considerable prosperity and general contentment. The patriotic bias often resulted in an exaggeration of the self-sufficiency of the early Indian village out of all proportion, and a greater emphasis on the “socially productive aspects of the corporate institutions (caste included) of pre-British India” than warranted by available historical evidence.
By presenting an encouraging picture of the past Indian historians sought to fill the people with, self- confidence which was essential to sustain the freedom struggle and viewed the British influence in India as a malevolent force that destroyed the moral and social basis of Indian life. But they often tried to cover up the social inequalities characteristic of the early Indian society by vague philosophical platitudes.
The nationalist economic historiography, however, brought to light certain important facts such as the existence of the guild system, the diversification of mechanical arts and occupations, money-lending, agriculture and irrigation land system, etc.
The nationalist economic historiography stimulated interest in regional and local histories. In the twenties and thirties appeared an impressive number of books and articles dealing for limited periods with the various regions of the Indian subcontinent. We may first mention A.S. Altekar’s History of the Village Communities in Western India, which deals with the rural economy of the region in the early centuries before and after the Christian era.
His Rashtrakutas and their times concentrates on political history, but it gives a chapter to industries and crafts, trade, exchange ratio of various exchange-media, prices of commodities, cost of living, etc. Sketchy in the extreme, the chapter ends with the assertion that “the people were better off than they are at “present”. In the absence of adequate contemporary source-material, Altekar often relies on earlier (The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea) and later (the accounts of Al-Idrisi, Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta, etc.) sources. Particularly lacking in critical scholarship, Altekar’s formulations are now generally untenable.
The real impetus to the study of economic history of the peninsular region came from the writings of K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, whose works “have created a new awareness of the history of the sub-continent by bringing the history of the south into perspective” (1929).
Primarily interested in the general history of south India, he did not neglect its economic aspect. In his Colas, taxation, agriculture and land tenure, industry, trade and coinage, and weights and measures receive separate sections.
Drawing largely on inscriptions, he describes the economic conditions during the time of the Cola rulers, but does not pinpoint those features of the socioeconomic institutions which are peculiar to the period. But Nilakanta Sastri brings to light some interesting and new pieces of evidence, and systematizes the mass of details bearing on the land tenure, industry and trade, and the economic importance of south Indian temples.
He however ignores the inconvenient facts of the past. In spite of considerable evidence to the contrary he attributes to the Cola society “a wonderful social harmony based, not on equality of classes or individuals, but on a readiness to give and take, a mutual goodwill that had its roots deep down at the foundations of commercial life”.
The tendency to praise the past is less pronounced in C. Minakshi’s Administration and Social Life under the Pallavas, which gives a sketch of taxation, weights and measures, irrigation, famines and rural economic life in south India during the time of the Pallavas. Similarly K. Gopalachari’s Early History of the Andhra Country surveys the towns situated on the eastern and western coasts, and the land system, and guilds in the Andhra region in the early centuries AD.
The reconstruction of economic life in early south India is far from adequate in the above-mentioned works. Principally concerned with dynastic histories, these works lack perspective in treating economic life and institution.
More detailed studies of early south Indian economic history were undertaken by Gupta (1933) and Appadorai (1968). Gupta gives us the first full-length study of the agrarian system of south India in early medieval times. He treats the subject under four main divisions, the habitat, the cultivated tracts, the general waste lands and the forest tracts. His book provides some new information on land tenure and the revenue system with that of the north.
On the contrary his uncritical lumping together of literary and epigraphic material from the north and the south has obscured whatever regional variations may have existed. Gupta’s excessive reliance on Sanskrit literary sources may be seen in his sections on land ownership, which are based almost entirely on the smrti literature. In this respect Appadorai’s work is better. It studies land tenures, agriculture and the nature of south Indian village communities, commerce, guilds, towns, industries and foreign trade from AD 1000 to AD 1500.
Appadorai deals with the economic role of the state and concludes on the basis of the foreign accounts and epigraphic references that taxation may have been oppressive. His treatment is generally descriptive, and does not try to trace the evolution of south Indian economic institutions.
However, he does not load his work with citations from north Indian sources and emphasizes the main features of the economic conditions of the region. He shows a general awareness of some of the basic issues of Indian historiography.
The discussion throughout his book, in contrast to that in K.M. Gupta’s, is orderly, and his formulations have not been substantially altered by subsequent research. During the three decades following the publication of Appadorai’s magnum opus, interest in south Indian economic history seems to have languished. The casual and sporadic forays into the subject in the subsequent period do not add substantially to our knowledge except by providing a few pedestrian details.
In recent years detailed economic studies of the different regions of peninsular India have been undertaken. K. Sundaram in his Studies in Economic and Social Conditions of Medieval Andhra AD 1000-1600 gives an account of metal work, jewellery, carpentry, architecture, spinning and weaving, salt-manufacture, tailoring, etc., of the artisan communities (especially the Panchala and Teliki communities), and of trade and commerce.
He draws upon inscriptions, local traditions, works of Vallabhacarya, Srinatha and Koravi Goparaju and the accounts of Marco Polo, Abdur Razak and Nicolo Conti, but he hardly discusses their credibility. The book is a compilation of useful and fascinating details which often “float within a thin fluid of unwarranted preconceptions, insupportable assumptions, vague and sweeping generalizations”.
Analysis is practically absent also in D.R. Das’s Economic History of the Deccan, which covers the period AD 100-600. The book is spread over fifteen chapters on geographical background, land, revenue system, agriculture, forests, famine and irrigation, towns and cities, associate life in the town and village, mineral resources, crafts and industrial arts, profession and occupation, organization of industry and trade, trade and commerce, banking and currency, but it does not give any idea of the elements of change and continuity.
A useful compendium of economic data, it does not tackle some of the basic questions relevant to the understanding of the historical processes. It provides a list of agricultural products in the Deccan during the first six centuries of the Christian era without felling us why and how sedentary agriculture developed in the area during the post-Maurya period and not earlier.
Nor does he say anything about the agricultural techniques. He discusses the general layout of towns and cities on the basis of literary and archaeological material but sees no connection between urbanization on the one hand and the growth of commerce and crafts on the other.
Each aspect of the Deccan economy is studied in isolation, often on the basis of sources which may have little or no bearing on the period and area covered by Das. He therefore fails to make the economic history of the Deccan meaningful. What may be said of Das’s book is largely true of all the studies of the early south Indian economy with the possible exception of a few recent articles which are based on a rigorous analysis of sources and suggest new lines of enquiry.
A broad trend noticeable in the writings on early Indian economic history is represented by those writers who seem to have been influenced by vague socialist thinking and ideas of the materialist interpretation of history. In point of time the first historian of this group is A.N. Bose who produced a study of rural economy of north India in 600 BC-AD 200.
Perhaps owing to political conditions in the forties Bose does not confess his indebtedness to Marxism, but in the concluding chapter of his book he discusses class and class-consciousness, class struggle and compromise.
In contrast to the nationalist historians, he tries to show that all was not well with the ancient economic system and that according to the Jataka stories the peasants were exploited by the princes. Marxist influence is more explicit in the writings of B.N. Datta, who was associated with the terrorist movement in Bengal.
As a young revolutionary living in exile he visited Moscow as early as 1921 and came in contact with the world communist movement. Datta does not confine himself to any particular phase of early Indian history as Bose does.
He takes a long view of the socioeconomic developments throughout the ancient period. In his Studies in Indian Social Polity, which deals mainly with the origin and growth of caste, he devotes small sections to the class struggle in ancient India and to the growth of feudalism; the latter theme is assigned a separate chapter in his Dialectics of Land Economics in India, which seeks to trace the history of the land and its tiller from the Vedic age to the end of the British rule.
In 1949 was published Dange’s India from Primitive Communism to Slavery, which tried to prove the emergence of slave society in the later Vedic period on the basis of material cleverly extracted from the Vedic texts. These writers lack the thoroughness of later Marxist historians, and many of their conclusions have been contested.
But their works may be treated as landmarks in the development of early economic historiography. They made a departure from the stereotype nationalist writings and offered new and useful insights into the subject by trying to explain the early Indian economic developments in terms not peculiar to India but of universal application.
The best representative of Marxist historiography in India is D.D. Kosambi (1956). For him “history is the presentation in chronological order of successive changes in the means and relations of production.” Any ‘personal’, ‘episodic’, drum-and-trumpet history of India, he points out, “should be enjoyed as romantic fiction” or “like some Indian railway time-table.”
It is in accordance with this attitude that Kosambi treats culture as the essential ways of the life of the people, and not purely as a matter of intellectual and spiritual value. To him all history is basically economic history.
Not surprisingly therefore he tries to explain the major historical developments on the basis of changes in the mode of production. The type of history Kosambi seeks to reconstruct is difficult. For the early Indian literature, which has been the basis of all earlier studies, is overwhelmingly religious and ritualistic and deficient in economic data.
To counterbalance a purely philological and linguistic approach he uses the anthropological material and shows that throughout the centuries of Indian history there has been taking place change from the tribal to the peasant economy.
Thus the technique followed by Kosambi is the collation of written records with archaeology and the interpretation of each of these in conjunction with ethnography. But the impact of his methodology on Indian historical research has been rather slow- for interdisciplinary cooperation is easier recommended than achieved.
Generally Indian scholars have so far been highly allergic to Marxists, who are often held guilty of blatantly forcing the historical evidence to fit into a supposedly rigid framework laid down by Marx and Engels. Admittedly, some historians Like Dange and Hussaini (1962) have adhered to the orthodox Marxist scheme of periodization, in reaction to which there has grown up a belief that Marxism stands for a unilinear development of history.
But according to Kosambi “Indian history does not fit precisely into this rigid framework” and ancient Indian society, unlike the Greek and the Roman, was not based on slavery. In his opinion chattel slavery did not matter in the relations of production and as a supply of labour, for economic production its place was taken by the members of the sudra or lowest caste whose surplus could be appropriated.
Thus Kosambi does not show any procrustean adherence to the slavery-feudalism-capitalism scheme. But the denial of the economic importance of slavery in ancient India has been questioned by some Marxist historians, and Dev Raj Chanana’s Slavery in Ancient India is a major contribution to our knowledge of the origin, extent and nature of slavery during the first six centuries preceding the Christian era.
Kosambi departs from the orthodox Marxian notion of the “unchangeableness of Asiatic societies.” He points out that the very formation of the village economy with the plough used on a fixed plot of land implies a tremendous advance in the means of production. Self-sufficiency which, according to the founders of Marxism, is a characteristic feature of Asiatic societies, is not possible in the strict sense of the term.
For, he tells us, most of the Indian villages produce neither salt nor metals, the two essentials that had to be obtained by exchanged. Like Kosambi, most Asian Marxists have differed from Marx’s formulation on the ‘stagnatory’ and ‘vegetative’ life of Asiatic society. The myth of millenary stagnation of Indian society has been ably exploded by R.S. Sharma, who marks definite stages in the development of its economic basis till the beginning of feudalism from the Gupta period onwards.
Both Kosambi and Sharma, however, agree that by the end of the Gupta period the Indian village became nearly self-contained owing mainly to the decline of trade and urban life, though neither accepts the scheme implied in the theory of the Asiatic mode of production which had within it certain dissolving elements and therefore underwent a series of transformations.
The simple structure of the closed peasant village economy, Kosambi appears to believe, was disturbed during the early centuries of the Christian era when kings began to transfer their fiscal administrative rights over land to their subordinate chiefs, who thus came into direct relation with the peasantry, a process he terms “feudalism from above.” It reached an advanced stage of development during the period of the Guptas and of Harsa.
Kosambi postulates that at a later stage “a class of landowners developed within the village between the state and the peasantry, gradually to wield armed power over the population.” This process he calls “feudalism from below?” But it would be wrong to suppose that a class of landowners above the peasantry did not emerge until the later centuries of the first millennium.
Sharma has cited Yajnavalkya (fourth and fifth centuries AD), who lays down that land should be assigned to the cultivator (karsaka) by the landowner (ksetrasvami) and not by the king (mahupati), who, of course, was entitled to the-fruits of improvement made on land in the absence of an owner (svami). In the organization of land economy Yajnavalkya introduces three stages, namely, mahipati (king) ksetrasvami (landowner), and karsaka (cultivator), which is roughly corroborated by Banhaspati (sixth and seventh centuries AD).
The latter lawgiver makes it clear that the svami formed an intermediate stage between the raja and the actual tiller of the soil. On this basis it may be suggested that the svamis or landowners leased out land to temporary cultivators and lived on the rent collected from their tenants. In view of this, Kosambi’s two-stage theory of feudalism is open to question.
In recent years several scholars have contributed to the literature on early Indian feudalism? But R.S. Sharma’s Indian Feudalism- 300-1200 is the only comprehensive work on the subject. It deals with the origins of Indian feudalism (AD 300-750) and studies the feudal polity and economy under the Palas, Pratiharas and Rastrakutas (AD 750-1000) as well as during the two centuries preceding the establishment of the Sultanate (AD 1000-1200).
According to Sharma feudalism in India, unlike in Europe, began with the land grants made to learned brahmanas, temples and monasteries for which the epigraphic evidence begins from the first century AD and multiplies by Gupta times when villages together with their fields and inhabitants, fiscal, administrative and judicial rights (with the right to enjoy fines received), and exemption from the interference of royal officials were given to religious beneficiaries. What was abandoned step by step to the priestly class was later given to the warrior class.
Religious as well as secular (or service) grants became increasingly popular with the emergence of local and self-sufficient economies marked by lack of commercial intercourse, decline of towns and paucity of coins. The economic essence of Indian feudalism, like that of European, lay in the rise of landed intermediaries leading to the endearment of the peasantry through mounting tax burdens, increasing obligations to perform forced labour and the evils of subinfeudation.
Sharma postulates the existence of serfdom in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Kangra, Andhra, Orissa and Bengal during the sixth and seventh centuries on the basis of epigraphic references to the transfer of individual peasants and labourers together with the donated land. He also cites a Chinese account of AD 732 to show that the practice of donating villages together with villagers to temples and monasteries was fairly common throughout the country.
The crucial passage, in his opinion, indicates the general emergence of serfdom. The weakness of Sharma’s thesis lies in the inadequacy of the data, to which his critics have drawn attention or a fuller picture of the feudal developments in India a close examination of the vast mass of south Indian epigraphic material is essential, which Sharma has obviously not done.
The appropriateness of the term ‘feudalism’ to describe Indian situation between AD 700 and 1200 has been a matter of animated debate. But this cannot minimise the Marxist historians’ chief contribution which lies in their challenge to the notion of a stagnant Indian society. They have questioned the validity not only of the imperialist theory of Oriental despotism but also of the Marxist model of the Asiatic mode of production, which, at any rate, should not be taken as crucial to the Marxist historical philosophy.
For their interpretation of Indian history the Marxist historians in India, as elsewhere, have depended largely on the principles of dialectical materialism. They have therefore tried to indicate “not only the periods of change but also the nature of change” that took place through centuries.
In the field of economic history this has led to a fresh study of early Indian agrarian relations, mostly on the basis of early Indian land grants, which can enable us to answer some; fundamental questions relating to the changing agrarian structure and property relations, growth of towns, and arts and crafts.
The wider application of Marxist approach to early Indian economic history may suggest new problems, provide categories for organizing data, supply hypotheses by which the data may be tested and interpreted, and may lay down criteria of proof. Although it has not won general acceptance, it has indirectly influenced recent research leading to a somewhat more objective evaluation of India’s past than is available in the pre-independence indigenous writing.
Thus Maity (1957), through a greater use of epigraphic and numismatic material than attempted ever before in north Indian economic historiography, concludes that as regards the material life of the common people the Gupta period was not a golden age—a point supported by another work which suggests that taxes tended to increase in Gupta times. For the subsequent period Puspa Niyogi does not find any evidence to prove that the population as a whole was prosperous.
More explicit are the findings of L. Gopal, whose Economic Life In Northern India, covering the period AD 700-1200, carefully studies the agrarian system and cites some instances of semi-serfs attached to the soil; he repeatedly suggests that the common people were far from happy and economically well off. A slightly different attitude is adopted by B.P. Mazumdar, who, in his Socio-Economic History of Northern India (AD 1030-1194), tries to explain why northern India succumbed to the Turkish invaders.
All these works were produced in the years after independence when nationalism ceased to remain a source of inspiration and new India’s problems attracted attention of their authors. Not surprisingly, they made an attempt to understand the early Indian economic life from a fresh angle. But the impact of the Marxist historiography on their writings has been at best remote; for none of them, except Gopal, shows any acquaintance with the Marxist method of analysis.
Nevertheless their works contain very useful economic data, often drawn from hitherto untapped literary and epigraphic sources, and prepare the ground for a detailed analytical study of the limited chronological segments of the early economic history of north India.
In sharp contrast to the west, economic historiography in India has generally remained an obstinate pocket of resistance to the use of economic theory, perhaps mainly because very few economists have taken interest in the subject. Whatever little work has been done by such economists as Pran Nath and M.H. Gopal is out of date both in terms of the questions raised and the methods adopted Pran Nath deals, among other things, with the rate of interest, prices, population and the cost of living.
But he does not go beyond itemizing literary and epigraphic references under various categories. Whatever analysis may be seen in his work does not inspire much confidence. Gopal’s work is an example of the abuse of modern theories of taxation and public finance to suit nationalist sentiments.
Rangasvami Aiyangar, who was not an economist, has merely compiled literary references under such well-known rubrics of classical economics as production, consumption, exchange and distribution, and public finance.
Following the publication of their writing considerable material has come to light, and it awaits fresh examination by historians having knowledge of economic theory which increasingly uses quantitative methods of analysis David Thomson has described the nature of relationship that should develop between economics and economic history- “….economics and history may enter into a working partnership but never into marriage. They can aid one another, they can suggest techniques, insights, modes of approach to fuller understanding. But they cannot usefully merge….Economic history is not just a hybrid of economics and history….it is the main area of overlap in their (economists and historians) activities, an area of common interest and mutual aid”.
In the west the use of mathematics in social sciences is now generally accepted, though this is far from being the case in India. There has been little realization by Indian scholars of the fact that if economic history is anything it is history that asks “how much”? “what proportions”?, ‘”how representative”?, etc. Answers to such questions cannot be provided without a serious attempt at quantification. All this should not mean that there is no dearth of statistical material bearing on early Indian economic history. Hard statistical data begin to appear only towards the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
In fact the general lack of evidence has been the bete noire of all historians working on early history. But the apparent absence of material amenable to statistical analysis should not be overemphasized. For D.D. Kosambi’s study of the punch-marked coins clearly indicates the further possibility of the efficacious use of statistical inference in the analysis of the historical data on early Indian economic life.
Research in early India economic history has been seriously inhibited by the fact that the bulk of it has been done source-wise, especially the monographs relating to the age of the Buddha. Most of the works do not rise above the level of mere inventories of disparate facts gathered from different sources mutually unrelated in their historical context. Naturally continuities and discontinuities in early Indian economy have been obscured.
Of course some recent studies in India and abroad recognize several chronological strata in many early literary texts? But their methodological implications have not been fully appreciated by some researchers who still continue to think in terms of the Epic age, the Buddhist period and so on. The persistent tendency to cling oddly to the outdated ideas on Indian chronology has to be positively discouraged and combated.
It will be helpful if we introduce some sense of periodization into the economic history of early India and try to mark the main stages in the economic developments from the beginning to AD 1200 on the basis of “the substantial changes in economic organization, direction and pace of activity”? This will require a careful use of sources such as the Mahabharata whose different chapters belong to different periods. Similarly the temptation to draw heavily upon the Arthasastra will have to be resisted as also the practice of explaining developments in the twelfth century on the basis of the information available in the text.
Although epigraphic material has also been studied as a source of economic history, there has been a general unwillingness on the part of scholars to subject it to a critical scrutiny. The ever growing accessible body of land charters can now be studied in two possible ways. We may ask major questions regarding self-sufficient economy, ownership of land, rate of productivity, relation between agriculture and crafts, fragmentation or consolidation of holdings, extent of the use of money, etc.
Alternatively, we may attempt a thorough analysis of the available economic data in the land grants under well-known categories. In our opinion the second process should precede and form the basis of the first. A detailed study would involve identification of villages granted and the fiscal units in which they were situated. It will mean an examination of the multiple-village fiscal unit introduced by the Rajputs.
From an examination of land charters it may be possible to know whether there obtained the same type of village in all parts of the country, including Kerala and Assam, or whether the system differed from area to area. Again, the region-wise charts of the donees prepared in chronological order can give us an idea of the relative numerical and economic strength of the brahmanas (individuals and in groups), matlhas, temples, vassals, civil and military officials, who were granted land.
A fruitful line of inquiry may be the study of the irrigation system on the basis of inscriptions. The theory that the main reason for the prevalence of despotic rule in Asia was the central control over irrigation will have to be examined in relation to India in early times. Lastly, land grants may be immensely useful in investigating the feudal complex of south Indian temples and their role in the economic life of the community.
The economic studies relating to the early period of Indian history suffer from a curious neglect of the mass of available numismatic material. As a result, the place of coins in the economic life of the people at a particular time and place has still to be determined. The study of coins for this purpose has not advanced beyond testing their specific gravity. But all this can be made far more useful if we are given some idea of the volume of the coins in circulation.
The problem of the quantity of coins in India has not received any serious attention. A formula has been used to assess the quantity of the English coinage of the eighth to the eleventh centuries and also of the medieval Islamic coinage in the Near East (1966).
Although the applicability of the formula to Indian evidence has been questioned, it may be possible to form a rough quantitative estimate of the coinage in circulation in a particular period and region, which will lend some reality to literary and epigraphic reference to the use of coins.
The frequency with which coins are used is a no less important aspect of the economic study of coins. Kosambi has attempted a statistical analysis of the punch-marked coins in this light? But his method needs to be refined and pursued in relation to the other types of coins in different periods and different areas.
When a coin passes through so many hands in course of time it undergoes wear and tear and loses some weight. Therefore something can be done to find out the frequency of the use of coins to get an idea of the period of their circulation.
The area of the circulation of coins has an important economic bearing, which has to be examined in the context of the distribution of the mints. Unfortunately the exact find spots of many coin hoards deposited in Indian and foreign museums are not specified, with the result that their area of circulation cannot be established.
By taking into account the find-spots, where they are known, and also the time to which a given set of coins may belong, the numismatic evidence may be used fruitfully in reconstructing the economic life of the area concerned. Thus the earliest hoards of Roman coins have been found in Kerala in south India, and it seems that they have nothing to do with the trade and commerce of the Satavahana Empire with which they are associated.
Similarly, if India had trade relations with South-East Asia and China, we shall have to look for Chinese coins, and the few that are available will have to be examined. In this connection the history of gold in ancient India assumes some importance and could be taken up as an independent subject for investigation.
The view that whatever gold coins India had in the beginning mainly came from Rome or from central Asia deserves further consideration; so does the theory that the Roman gold coins were used as bullion and not as regular money in India. This will also lead to a re-examination of the theory that gold coins involving large transactions travel over a long distance and that coppers meant for the use of the common people are minted and circulated locally.
Numismatic studies may very well be related to foreign trade, whose decline in late Gupta and post-Gupta times will have to be explained in the light of the comparative paucity of coins in the post-Harsa period. Although we have several important ruling dynasties in north India between the seventh, and the tenth centuries AD, none of them can be definitely credited with the issuing of any series of coins.
On the other hand a preliminary study suggests that trade and commerce, and use of coins revived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, especially in Rajasthan and Gujarat, which also witnessed some kind of urbanization. One of the tasks of the economic historian, therefore, should be to account for this revival and examine the view whether urbanization was introduced into India by the Turks.
The study of coins, trade and commerce may be integrated with that of money-lending, usury, etc. Although it may not be possible to provide answers to all the questions raised above, most of them may be fruitfully studied in relation to the archaeological material, which is the most direct evidence of the material life of the people but has been almost entirely ignored so far by researchers.
The volume of archaeological data accumulated during the last twenty-five years or so may be of great help in reconstructing the history of material culture, whose relevance to early Indian economic history has yet to be fully appreciated by Indian scholars. Such studies can go a long way in explaining why a particular region leaped into prominence at a particular stage and became the nucleus of an extensive empire in early India.
It may also give us an idea of the formation of different ruling groups and organizations and of their roles in the diffusion of culture traits. The process of the hinduization of primitive tribes, noted and emphasized by the writers of the nineteenth century Census Reports and now conceptualized by sociologists as sanskritization or brahmanization, can be better understood only if we carefully examine the material outfit of the vanguard of aryanization.
On the basis of the available archaeological evidence several questions relating to the material culture down to the age of the Buddha and even later may be raised. It is said that the stimulus to urbanization during the Harappan phase came from the West. Can this view be sustained by a careful and comparative study in a chronological perspective of the material culture of the Harappans and that of the Mesopotmian and Egyptian peoples?
Further, how is it that the Harappan settlements were completely obliterated? What was the difference between the material equipment of the Rigvedic and that of the later vedic peoples? Moreover, if the Rigvedic Aryans owed their success to the use of bronze weapons where are those artefacts? We have a large number of copper tools and weapons, ascribable to the first half of the second millennium BC and mostly discovered in the Kuru-Pancala area, which became the main centre of activity of the later vedic Aryans from about 1000 BC.
The source and technology of these artefacts and the economic implications of their use in western Uttar Pradesh will have to be explained. A more important question relates to the advent of iron in India. When, where and wherefrom did iron first appear in India? Is it correct to hold that the use of iron came to India from Iran?
To what extent the diffusion of iron technology in north India may account for the growth of urban settlements from c. 600 BC, characterized by development of trade, diversification of arts and crafts, the spread of the NBP deluxe ware and the earliest use of coins.
Some of these questions may be answered if integrated and problem-oriented studies of archaeological remains are undertaken. The mass of available material may throw light not only on the habitation history of different places but also on the growth of urban centres, technology (especially arts and crafts, and tools and implements), and transport, whose significance in the economic progress of India has not been adequately appreciated. It may also be of some help in forming a rough idea of the population density of the places where excavations have been conducted.
Thus the combination of literary, epigraphic, numismatic and archaeological evidence may give new perspectives to the economic historian of ancient India, who must get rid of his usual insularity and make use of the new and often sophisticated tools of analysis.