A systematic economic history of India during the early part of her cultural development has not yet been attempted. Some scholars have indeed given us fragmentary accounts of particular periods or have dealt with various topics bearing upon her economic life in the past. The difficulties of reconstruction are very great. First of all we have to examine the condition of an age far removed from us.
There is not only want of chronology prior to the establishment of intercourse with foreign nations, but a lack of material directly bearing upon economic life and conditions. In India we are to deal with people who neglected to keep a systematic account of their political or social activities to speak the least of the economic life.
This latter circumstance makes us often entirely depend upon literary records of doubtful historical value of which we hardly know the exact date of composition, and which contain evidences of superposition of different strata of social condition and thought. As to the want of chronology prior, to foreign intercourse we need not dwell at large, since it is admitted by most of the historians who are engaged in the study of Indian antiquities.
But as to the lack of first-hand materials, it is indeed deplorable, when we find conclusive evidences to prove their existence in the past. The ancient Hindus distinguished as they were by a peculiar turn which made their social system assume a spiritual aspect, hardly neglected to take proper care for the advancement of the material of life.
1. Lack of Literature on Economics:
As early as the immediate post-vedic period, we find the growth of a literature, forming in itself, a subsidiary study to the Vedas and comprising several branches known as the Upavedas.
(a) To the evidence of the Caranavyuha (49th Parishista of the Atharva Veda,) Arthasastra was the Upaveda of the Rigveda. This is also confirmed by the evidence of the Caranavyuha ascribed to Saunaka.
(b) The Arthaveda (as the name of this Upaveda was) was solely devoted to the discussion of means of acquisition of wealth and thus included vartta and other allied branches a of study,
(c) A late writer—the author of the “Sarva Siddhanta Samgraha” (ascribed to the great Sanicaracharya has defined Artha- Veda as “solely devoted to the study of that happiness which is consequent upon the proper distribution of food, drink and such other things among the people”……. and “which thus brings in the fruition of those aims of life which make up the well-known caturvarga” e.g. dharma, artha, kama and moksa.
The study of the Arthaveda gave rise to systematic treatises dealing with practical politics and the ways of acquiring wealth— which came to be known as Arthasastras. These Arthasastras were- many in number, though only one perhaps the last to be composed— that of Kautilya—has come down to us. Apart from these there were exclusive treatises on agriculture, rattle-rearing and on the ways of conducting business and trade.
All these fell within the scope of Vartta the importance of which has been emphasised in more than one place in the Mahabharata, and in all later works like the Smrties and the Niti works. Kautilya too quotes his predecessors, and all authorities agree with him in holding Vartta to be one of the chief branches of study. All this presupposes an extensive literature on Vartta and Arthaniti.
In the days of the great Kautilya himself a class of teachers known as Adhyaksas taught Vartta to students and some of these were granted help from the State. Again, there is reason to believe that separate treatises were composed on the various branches of this important subject of Vartta. No such work has reached us but we find the names of some in the commentaries of later works.
Thus Sankararya the commentator of the Kamandaka Nitisara mentions a treatise on cattle-rearing and cattle treatment by Gautama and Salihotra (tacca Gautama Salihotrapranitam). He mentions moreover a treatise on agriculture by Parasara. (Krhsih-Parasara-prokta-vijavapa- parikarmadi-vidhanartha) and another on trade composed by Videharaja (panyam…………. krayavikrayasva-rupam vanijyamiti javat—tacca videha-rajproktam). With the exception of a fragmentary treatise on agriculture ascribed to the sage Parasara, these works so far as we know are lost.
Portions of their contents seem to be preserved in fragments in some of the Puranas or in later treatises which still exist in manuscript. Thus the Agnipurana contains chapters on town planning, and house building (104-6). The Matsyapurana too contains, chapters on the same and other miscellaneous topics (Ch. 257-269). A large number of works of the latter class exist in manuscript and Dr. N. N. Laha has prepared a list of these after carefully going through the catalogues of manuscripts made by Aufrecht and other scholars.
The sources of information as regards the economic condition in Ancient India may be classified into:
(a) The Indian sources include contemporary or non- contemporary religious, historical, semi-historical, legal and allied literary works from which we know something of the social and economic life of the people. Thus we have a good picture of Vedic society from the Vedas and the Brahmanas and some of the Sutras attached to them.
From the Epics, the Puranas and the Jatakas too we get much information as to the social and economic condition of ancient India. But most of these literary works are non- contemporary sources of evidence since most of them describe a condition of society different from that of the period of their composition.
This non-contemporary character of these works however does not take away the value of the evidence furnished by them, though we are to proceed cautiously and examine thoroughly the evidence in respect of the time and period to which it refers.
This is pre-eminently the cases with the great Epic the Mahabharata which took centuries to be reduced to its present form, and the Puranas which along with a mass of later interpolations, fabrications and alterations preserve some very old and genuine traditions; similar is the case with that mass of popular folklore, later on transformed into the Jatakas or the Birth-stories of the great Buddha, written in the Pali vernacular of the day and supposed to have been reduced to their present from in the fifth century ADA critical examination of these stories which furnish us with ample reliable material for the construction of a history of the social and economic life of ancient India shows that whatever be the date of their redaction to their present form they preserve a good deal of that very remote period in which they originated and in spite of the modifications and alteration which the traditional stories underwent at the hands of the Buddhists during centuries and which can be traced, they have not materially altered.
The Artha-sastra and the later legal works are sources of information for the period in which they were composed. In the archaeological records we have another great source of information. These include inscriptions of ancient kings and private individuals, and of guilds, ancient coins and monuments. As a rule these are most trust-worthy to the historian in as much as they furnish him with definite information as to a particular period which is clearly known.
(b) Our foreign sources include the evidence of foreign literature containing descriptions of India. From the days of Homer downwards we have accounts of India in the Greek, Hebrew, and Latin literatures, either fragmentary or in detail. These though often fanciful, contain many useful information’s. Even when such account are lacking, the silence of history is broken by the testimony of words.
The names of Indian commodities and products occur in the Greek, the Latin, the Hebrew and other ancient literatures, and the philological evidence of these words come to our help. Thus the word Sintu in Assyrian meaning cotton goods point according to Lassen to its Indian origin. The words Elephant and Kassiteros occur in Homer’s poems.
Kassiteros means tin and is an exact echo of Sanskrit Kastira. Karpas in Hebrew, and Karpasos in Greek and carbasus in Latin bearing close resemblance to Sanskrit word karpasa and having the same meaning were borrowed by these nations from the Indians with whom they had commercial intercourse.
We have moreover accounts of foreign travellers about India from the 3rd century BC to a comparatively recent- age. Thus as intercourse ripened the accounts of Greek travellers and historians multiplied, and many of these like the fragments of Megasthenes, or of his successors supply us with details not to be found elsewhere. Even now they are a store of information for us. Next to them, Chinese and Moslem travellers visited India, between the 4th to the 10th century AD. The accounts of Fa-hian, Hiuen-tsang and of Al-beruni throw a flood of light on the social and economic condition of contemporary India.
2. Other Literary Works and their Evidence:
Before entering into a consideration of the economic condition of India something has to be said as to the date of the works mentioned above and the nature of the evidence furnished by them. Our earliest information is supplied by those ancient hymns which have been compiled into the various Vedic Samhitas, in accordance with their character and importance and with reference to the various aspects of sacrificial performance.
Of these the Rigveda contains by far the largest number of hymns written in verse for the use of the hotr priests, while the Sama-Samhita comprises hymns which with the exception of about seventy five, are mostly the same as in the Rigveda, distinguished only by their archaic language and adaptability for singing by the udgatrr priests. The Yajur-veda on the other hand contains in addition to hymns, sacrificial directions, and explanations which serve as hints to the adhyarju priests.
Lastly comes the Atharvan (Samhita) collections, which comprise in addition to hymns, found in the Rigveda and Yajur-veda new materials, compiled together for the use of the brahma priests.
A careful analysis of the material contained in the various Samhitas convinces us of the utter lack of homogeneity in regard to their composition and date. Each of the Samhitas seems to contain several strata of compositions belonging to different periods and different families of composers. The internal evidence of all the Vedas goes to prove the same. In the case of the Rigveda, we have express references to the older hymns and of the older schools of composers by the risis themselves.
We have at present no means of classifying the hymns, according to their date of composition, but it is shown by the language of the various sections of the hymns of the Rigveda. What is true of the Rigveda is true of the other Samhitas. The Yajur-Veda too contains both older and newer materials, the former being as old, or perhaps earlier in some cases than the mass of the Rigveda hymns. Even the Atharva-Veda which has been supposed to be the latest production of the risis contains hymns rivalling in antiquity some of the oldest Rig hymns.
Another point to be borne in mind is that the hymns of the Rigveda do not represent the earliest composition of the Vedic Indo-aryans. A superficial examination of the question may lend support to a contrary view since the Rigveda seems to have supplied many hymns to the other vedas e.g. the Yajus and the Atharva, not to speak of the Sama which is almost entirely indebted to it
Among European scholars the late Dr. Martin Haug was the first to raise this point, and in his introduction to his Altareya Brahmana, he asked whether, “the finished and polished hymns of the Rigveda with their artificial metres were the most ancient relics of the whole religious literature of the Brahmanas”. In the course of a discussion of the above question, he showed the high polish of the Rigvedic Hymns which no primitive people could use in their rudimentary ritual of a less developed age.
After that he compared the Rigvedic hymns with the Nivids and Nigadas contained in the Yajus, which appeared to him to be the older sacrificial formulae preceding the composition of the Rcas. The former were proved to be advanced and well developed, not only in point of language but also in thought. These Nivids and the Nigadas in his opinion were the oldest possible Vedic composition that have come down to us.
Haug’s views seem to receive confirmation when we examine the Rigvedic composition from the point of view of social and economic development. The Rigveda, as well as the other samhitas, do not depict, a primitive, society. The evidence of these works reveal to us a “ready-made civilization” suddenly springing to our view, complete in all the details of cultural development as may be expected from a society removed from that of ours, by at least four thousand years. This makes us lean towards the presupposition of several stages of advancement, as far as the Vedic Aryans are concerned.
i. Date of the Vedic Hymns:
As to the date of composition of the Vedic hymns, it is very difficult to determine it accurately, since they furnish no safe chronological data; consequently we depend entirely on the evidence of language or mythology and we find a, difference of opinion among different sets of scholars. Some of these try to prove the comparative modernity of the Vedic age. Here some of their views may be quoted.
Thus according to Oldenberg, the Vedic Indians lived at the time of the composition of the Vedas, which formed the earliest sources of their history, by the Indus and in the Punjab, sometime about 1500 to 1000 BC (“die Religion des Veda”) Next to oldenberg we have the views of Macdonell summed up in his preface to the Vedic Index (p. viii). He thinks that the upper limit of the age of the Vedas and of the Brahmanas i.e. that of the composition of the oldest Vedic Hymn, is not much earlier than 1200 BC.
There are on the other hand some eminent scholars, who are convinced of the higher antiquity of the Vedic hymns. Prominent among these may be mentioned the names of Haug, Jacobi and Winternitz. Haug’s views on Vedic chronology are to be found in his introduction to the Aitareya Brahmana where he sums up as follows. “We do not hesitate therefore to assign the composition of the bulk of the Brahmanas to the years 1400- 1200 BC; for the Samhitas we require a period of at least 500-600 years with an interval of 200 years at least between the end of the proper Brahmana period. Thus we obtain for the bulk of the Samhitas the space from 1400-2000; the oldest hymns and sacrificial formulas may be a few hundred years more ancient still, so, that, we would fix the very commencement of the Vedic literature between 2400-2000 BC.”
Jacobi who based his calculation on astronomical data as well as the Mittani tablets is disposed to assign a date, between 3000 and 2000 BC, to the origin of Vedic civilisation. According to Winternitz the Vedic period may be taken to extend from the earliest times (cir. 2500 BC) to 800 BC the upper limit having been reckoned by him to be not later than 2500 BC.
The views of Haug thus very nearly coincide with that of Jacobi and Winternitz. On account of this absence of proper data, the reconstruction of Vedic chronology will ever present a difficult task to the scholars interested in this subject. A detailed discussion of the same would be indeed out of place in a treatise which is professedly an enquiry into the economic aspect of the Indian society. For the present, only this much may be said that the estimates of Jacobi, Haug and Winternitz, may be accepted as a workable hypothesis.
As to the lower limit, we may roughly take the 10th century BC to be the landmark separating the Vedic period proper from the one succeeding it. By that date the Vedic tongue had ceased to be the spoken dialect of the people. The Vedic religion too was fast dying a natural death, in view of the cumbrousness of its ceremonies, and the fast and steady rise of philosophical speculation which we find embodied in the Upanishads and Aranyakas. The society too was changing its character.
Next to the Vedic Samhitas, the Brahmanas and the Aranyakas come in importance. These works as a whole, go to show a stage of social development, which must have been the outcome and expression of various forces, acting upon the community. We find traces of the working of these forces in the Samhitas. Their evidence bears testimony to the expansion of the Aryans towards the east and the south, and their establishment of contract with the races dwelling therein.
We get glimpses of a change in the social structure, as also in the prevailing political ideals and institutions. The compilation of these works, may be referred to a period, ranging from the time of composition of some of the hymns of the Rig-veda, to a period not later than the 10th century BC. Taken as a whole they may be regarded as post vedic, though they seem to contain occasionally very older materials.
ii. Sutras and Upanishads:
After the Brahmanas, we must take into account the Sutras and the Upanishads. Of the former the Srauta Sutras may be generally taken to be pre-Buddhistic, and the date of compilation may be taken to range between the eighth to the fifth century BC. The majority of the Grihya Suras were compiled not later than the fifth century BC. In spite of this rather late composition, they contain traditions and information of the Brahmana Period, and seem to have existed long in the memories of men—the rules being often altered and modified with the social changes and reactions.
iii. The Dharma Sutras:
The Dharma Sutras as a class may be regarded is being composed before the fourth century BC though the text we now have may contain some later additions. The social condition, the extent of Madhyadesa, as defined therein and the simple state of political organisation, which we find in them, all point to the same conclusion; and we may safely infer that they give us the picture of a society anterior to the time of the Arthasastra of Kautilya which we take to be a product of the 4th century BC.
As to the Sutras of Panini there are two different dates assigned to them. The first was suggested by Goldstiicker, vis. the seventh century BC. While according to some other scholars they have been placed in the fifth century BC. The bulk of the Sutras according to the evidence they furnish, appear to have been pre-buddhistic and may be referred to a period anterior to the rise of Jainism and Buddhism, though they may contain some references to the older philosophical school of the Ajivikas, first propounded and elaborated by Gosala.
The objection of those who try to prove the comparative modernity of the Sutras by pointing to the occurrence of ‘Yavanas’, may be met, by identifying the Yavanas not with the Greeks, after Alexander, but with other western nations, with whom the Indians came into close touch in the 7th and 8th centuries, or even earlier.
v. The Pali Works:
As to the Pali Books the composition of the Tripitaka in their present form, ranges from the fifth century BC to the second century BC, although we may hold it with Prof. Rhys Davids that the Canon, with its Pitaka and Nikaya divisions, was well known in the time of king Asoka. The major portion of the first four Nikayas and the bulk of the Pati-mokkha rules, and certain books of the Vinaya and the Khuddaka Nikayas, may be regarded as the earliest portion of the Buddhist canon and belong to the fifth century BC if not earlier.
The Vinaya Texts with the single exception of the Parivara-patha taken as a whole may be assigned to a period somewhat anterior to Asoka. The Niddesas, which are the canonical commentaries on the Atthaka and the Parayana Vaggas (of the Sutta Nipata), perhaps the oldest materials of the Buddhist canon, may be regarded as being contemporaneous to the time of Asoka.
The Thera and Theri Gathas in their present form probably belong to the same period. The Jatakas, or as we now have them, the Jataka— atthakatha of Fausboll, have assumed their present form after successive redactions. Most of the stories are undoubtedly old, older than Buddhism itself. But they underwent modifications at the hands of the monks, and this process continued up till the days of Asoka and the present redaction was compiled in the 5th cen. AD. Inspite of this, however, they give us according to Buhler, a picture of Indian society of a period earlier than the third or fourth century BC.
But in accepting the Jataka evidence we must proceed cautiously and distinguish between the older materials and later additions and modifications without which we are sure to be misguided in respect of the period to which they may be taken to refer to. The presence of modifications and of later elements in the Jatakas has been detected even by Prof. Rhys Davids.
According to him “the whole of the longer stories in the 6th volume are later both in language and in view of the social condition of India they depict, than ‘those in the earlier volumes”. The corroborative evidence, however, of the Jatakas is very great and on this we may safely rely.
We must mention the Arthasastra of Kautilya ascribed to the prime minister of Chandragupta, the first Maurya Emperor of India. The majority of competent scholars leans towards the acceptance of the traditional view and agrees in referring the Arthasastra to the 4th cen. BC Recently, however, some critics have raised serious objections to the tacit acceptance of that date, and one of them, Dr. Hillebrandt pointed to the use of the name Kautilya in the 3rd person in connection with certain controversial points and on its basis tried to prove that the book was not written by Kautilya himself but by some of his disciples.
These arguments were ably met by Professor Oldenberg. More recently Dr. Winternitz has also advanced arguments in ‘support of the contention that the Arthasastra is a work of the third cen. AD. Without entering into a consideration of the points raised by the parties in the controversy as to the date of the Arthasastra, it may be pointed out that there is hardly any room for doubting Kautilya’s authorship of the book.
The mention of the author’s name in the 3rd person is a peculiar Indian practice which we find not only among classical writers but even among later writers and vernacular poets. The work, moreover, contains clear references to Kautilya’s authorship in four places.
Statements to that effect occur in the beginning and in the end. Thus in the first chapter we are told that the Arthasastra was compiled by Kautilya after consulting various works. Thus says Kautilya -“Kautilyena krtam sastram vimukta-grantha-vistaram”. Again at the end of the chapter on Sasanadikara occurs the following passage- “Sarvasastranyanukramya prayogamupalabhya ca / Kautilyena narendrarthe sasanasya vidhih kritah / “Furthermore, at the conclusion of the work we find the verses -“Yena sastram ca sastram ca Nandarajagata ca bhuh/ Amarsenoddhrtanyasu tena sastramidam kritam/ Drstva vipratipattimhi sastresu bahudha bhasyakaranam/ Svayameva Visnuguptacakara sutram ca bhasyam ca/.”
Apart from these references to the authorship of Kautilya the style and language of the book, all go to confirm its great antiquity, and we have no reason for rejecting the tradition which connects Kautilya with Chandragupta and places him in the 4th cent. BC.
Moreover, when we consider the picture of social and political conditions furnished by the work, we are sure to come to the conclusion that the work was produced in an age which had seen the rise of Buddhism but as yet that religion had not assumed that importance and universal character which the patronage of Asoka Maurya enabled it to do.
The picture of social conditions are those which may be put down as belonging to a period immediately subsequent to the one described in the Jataka stories. The picture of political conditions as also of the leading features of Indian Administration substantially tallies with the accounts of Greeks who visited the court of Chandragupta Maurya.
vii. Milinda Panha:
The Milina-panha gives us a picture of North Western India during the 2nd century BC just after the down-fall of the Mauryas (e.g. the time of Menander) though the present text may be somewhat later. Next to these, the metrical Dharmasastras are of great importance to us. Of these the Manusamhita holds a pre-eminent place by virtue of its admittedly higher authority and its wider circulation all over India.
The present samhita bearing the name of Manu is ascribed to his pupil Bhrgu and contains in addition to older materials later additions which bear the stamp of a conservative reaction against the teachings of the preceding age.
The period of this reaction, seems on closer examination to synchronise with the Sunga-Kanva Brahmanical revival and the samhita as a whole may be referred to that period. The Yagnav ya-samhita, which seems to follow the Manusamhita in many respects may be assigned to a somewhat later date e.g. the 2nd or 3rd cen. AD.
The Visnu Smrti too belongs approximately to the same period, while the fragments of Vrihaspati and Katyayana may be assigned to the 5th or the 6th cen. AD. The Narada Smrti which shows a further advance in judicial procedure belongs to a still later date.
viii. The Epic:
As to the Epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata it is very difficult to find out even an approximate date as to their composition, and differences of opinion exist among scholars. As a matter of fact these works contain materials hardly homogenious in point of their date or of authorship. The kernel of both seems to be very old, that of the Ramayana, going as far back as the 6th cen. BC; while the Mahabharata seems to have existed in an abridged from even before the days of Panini.
The present epic, which is more of the nature of an encyclopedia of moral and historical wisdom contains undoubtedly later additions to a somewhat older compilation, the bulk of which existed practically the same, as they are, in the 3rd or 4th cen. BC.
Thus the political teachings of the Rajadharma Parvadhyaya often show a remarkable resemblance to the corresponding chapters of the Arthasastra. Many passages exist common both in the Mahabharata and the Arthasastra. The difficulty, however, lies in separating the older material from the later additions in as much as they are so hopelessly blended together. Everywhere we find a superposition of different strata of political thought and often of social pictures of different ages.
The present work Sukranitisara seems to have been composed about the 9th cent AD, if not later. Lastly, we get some really interesting materials from the Puranas, the Sanskrit dramas and poetical works and romances, which, though meagre, is of great service to us.