In this article we will discuss about:- 1. The Epic Age and Wealth 2. Verte 3. Cattle-Rearing 4. Markets 5. Imports 6. Internal Trade 7. Industry Trade 8. The Rise of Merchant’s Capital.
The Epic Age and Wealth:
Wealth has been defined in the Mbh (5.112.2)as- “it sustains and causes others to sustain this world? Therefore it is called wealth; thus in the three worlds, wealth is the constant [facer].”
When Yudhisthira inquired from Vyasa the comparative merits of dana (gifts) and tapus (penance or special observance) the sage replied (3.245-27-30) that gifts were superior, because “there is hankering for money, which is acquired with great pain. For its sake men give up even their dear lives, and enter the forest or the ocean. Some men take up agriculture or the upkeep of cows, while others wishing for a job leave their homes. It is difficult to part with what has been earned with so much suffering. Hence, in my opinion, nothing is more difficult to be borne than parting with wealth as gift”.
It is thus evident that the epic poets were aware of the role of money in a civilized society. Indeed the following verses would indicate that the epic society was acquisitive both by instinct and inclination. Arjuna said to Yudhisthira- Just as many rivers flow from a mountain, similarly with accumulated wealth all meritorious deeds can be-performed. O king wealth leads to dharma, kama, and heaven; even maintenance of life would be impossible without money.
Actions of foolish poor men are as unproductive as a dry pond in summer. He who has money has friends and relatives, the wealthy man is indeed a man; he (alone) is learned. Performance of dharma, satisfaction of desire, attainment of heaven, enjoyment of merriment, venting of anger, results of listening to the sacred texts, and suppression of enemies are only possible if one has money. A poor man desires but is unable to acquire it; but, just as a great elephant is followed by a herd of elephants, so does money pursue a wealthy man. (12.8.16-21)
The Mbh does not favour the idea that poverty is the passport to heaven. It is said (12.308.50); Poverty does not lead to moksha, nor does affluence cause bondage; one gains salvation through knowledge, whether he is poor or rich. This verse is intended to discourage house-holders from taking a vow of poverty, or to feel that indolence and insensitiveness to wants were forms of religious observances.
The picture that emerges from the topics is that of a vigorous society intent on luxurious style of living. This attitude made the acquisition of wealth an essential object of life. The uninhibited pursuit of material welfare was mainly restricted to two castes, the Kshatriyas and the vaisyas, though the sudras were probably not entirely left out.
The moral of the Bharata War is that even the highest-minded Kshatriyas would not stop at anything to gain his ends. Trade and commerce were the exclusive preserves of the vaisyas, and partly at least of sudras also. There is no reason to believe that they were less keen than the Kshatriyas to attain that ends, or were more human in their disposition.
The Mbh (3.149.31) says- The three Vedas, varta and the dandaniti the three sciences. Of these the study of the Vedas and of the dandaniti were for the brahmanas and the ksatriyas respectively, while varta was in the domain of the vaisyas. This is in accordance with Manu 7.43, and very closely agrees with Kautilya and the authorities quoted by him (22.214.171.124).
The Mbh (12.68.35) also says- This world is rooted in varta, and is sustained by its trine aspect. Emphasizing the importance of varta, Arjuna told Yudhisthira (12.16.10)- O King, this is the world of performance; here varta reigns; [varta is] agriculture, trade, upkeep of cows and various arts and crafts. To this list Bhimasena adds the karus that is technicians, and mechanics. Of these vocations Kautilya assigns agriculture, cattle rearing, and trade to vaisyas, and varta, karii and kusilava-karma to sudras (1.3.7-8).
Kautilya has explained (1.4.1) that varta is krsi-pasupalye vanijya ca varta. It is evident that Kautilya is allowing the sudras to engage in trade, which is not in strict conformity with the Dharmasastras, particularly during normal times. But it seems that the position of the sudras in the Mbh, though not unequivocal, is more in line with Kautilya than with Manu.
Cattle-Rearing as a Source of Trade during the Epic Age:
The term usually employed in the Dharmasastras and the Mbh is go-raksa that is ‘upkeep of cows’. But the references in the Mbh to wool show that, sheep, and probably goats too, were reared. As has been noted above, Kautilya uses the term ‘pasu-palya’ which includes all the three animals. It is possible that the vaisyas raised only cows, while the sudras kept all sons of domestic animals.
From the Vedic times, cow has been regarded as a form of wealth, and gift of cows to the brahmanas was considered to be a highly meritorious act. Dilating upon the merit of such gifts, Bhisma says- O Bharata, [cows] provide [us] with milk, ghi curd, dung, skin, bones, horns and hair. (13.65.38)
The use of cow’s hair is difficult to explain. Cow’s bone could have been used as a manure. Cows’ horn have no use now, and it is buffaloes’ horn which is used to make various objects of art and toys. Cow-dung is used both as manure and as a fuel.
The skin etc. must have been of a cow which died a natural death, for giving of a cow for the purpose of slaughtering it is prohibited. It is also stipulated that one should not give a cow for slaughter or to a kinasa or to a nastika (13.65.49).
Kinasa is sometimes explained as ‘one who tills the soil with bulls or cows.’ But this rendering is unsatisfactory, as bulls have been used continuously from the Vedic times for drawing plough. One commentator has explained kinasa as daridra (poor), which seems to be the proper explanation.
A poor man would be unable to feed the cow properly and might be tempted to overwork it. Nastika means an atheist, and the Mbh has denounced them in various places. As the gift of a cow was intended to bring religious merit to the donor, it was useless to give it to an irreligious man. Cow was not only used for drawing a plough but also used for grinding corns (6.99.3).
There is some indication that the upkeep of cows was developed to the point of its becoming a ‘big business’. A class of people is referred to (12.88.33-38) as gomin, who paid taxes (33), lived in forests (34) and caused the state, commerce and agriculture to flourish (36).
Nilakantha has rendered the word gomin as vaisya which may not be wrong, but does not explain why they are called aranyavasinah (34). Dr. Belvalkar has explained that the goamins were a wandering tribe that tended herds of cattle in forest, and were in some measure the itinerant capitalists of the realm. Dr. Belvalkar’s suggestion seems to be quite justified.
Market Trading during the Epic Age:
In the Mbh (13.24.22) Bhisma tells Yudhisthira- O king, [a brahmana who is] a debtor, an usurer, or who (makes undue profit by buying low and selling high should not be invited). Manu (3. 180-81) also forbids one to make gifts to brahmanas who are engaged in trade or usury as well as to other delinquents. From these it appears that though the brahmanas may have been kept off from these lucrative ventures, others took full advantage of a rising market and made investments whenever it appeared profitable.
As Marx has said- ‘To buy cheap in order to sell dear is the rule of trade’, and the literal meaning of prani-vikraya-vrtti is ‘buying low and selling high’. Bhimasena put it forcefully- (‘A sale [or investment] is useless unless it is profitable. Otherwise it is like scratching an ass.’)
Conditions were favourable for commercial operations. In any well-ordered kingdom, the merchants were assured of protection, and they flocked there from all countries. The standard description of a prosperous city is that merchants from many countries lived there. This is found in the description of Ayodhya (1.5.14), as well as in the description of Indraprastha, and it is added that they spoke all languages. (1.199.37).
This is a sign of an international market; but in those days when India was divided into many kingdoms, international trade primarily meant all-India trade, though references to sea voyages indicate that trade with countries outside the subcontinent was also contemplated.
Vidura is stated to have once spoken to the Panda vas in the Mleccha language (1.135.6). Mleccha is a vague term, and can denote any foreigner, but it is apparent that even princes picked up foreign languages, possibly for the same reason which led the Europeans to learn the languages of the countries which they tried to exploit.
Traders from various countries speaking in different languages is described in the Kuvalayamala, a Jaina text written in AD 779. The scene is set in Soparaka, modern Sopara near Bombay, and the work notes speakers from Magadha, Kira, Dakka (Punjab), Sindh, Marwar, Gurjara, Malwa, Lata, Karnataka, Taie (Tajika, Arab), Kosala, Maharastra, Andhra, Khasas, Parasas (Persians), and Barbaras. There were also the Gollas who were most probably the same as gomins mentioned above.
The Kuvalayamala also states, that there was in Sopara a vaniyameli which has been rendered as “Traders’ Association” or “Club”, where the traders from other parts of the country narrated their experience, and received a farewell symbolized by the gifts of gandha, malya, and tambula. Foreign traders reported their sales and purchase to the ‘Association’.
It may be looking too far into the future, and rather presumptuous to expect that trade was as much organized in the epic age as it was at the end of the 8th century AD, But the indications are that posterity owed not a little to the past generations, and, for all we know, the mechanism of the trade organizations may have been quite developed in the ancient age described by the epics.
The Ram while describing the foundation of Taksasila and Puskalavata by Bharata, states that both the cities were full of gardens, vehicles, and ‘divided into many markets’ (Suvibhaktantarapane 7.91.12). Describing the city by the demon Maya, Mbh (8.24.17) says that it was guna-prasava-sambadham, which has been explained as ‘full of the produce of all the gunas, viz., saliva, rajah and tamo, which means that the town catered for the needs of all kinds of people.
Nilakantha explains vipani as panya-vithika (road or row of shops, a market row), and apana as hotta (market) and panyani as vikraya-dravyani (merchandise for sale). These were one might say, the insignia of a prosperous city. Even an army on March was accompanied with shops (Ram, 7.56.3; Mbh 5.149.53, 5.196.18-19). With the growth of population even sacred places became cities (firthani nagarayante, 9.36.41).
Imports during the Epic Age:
Of the articles of import, horses seem to have been one of the most important items. It is also likely that the epics being concerned mainly with warfare, greater prominence was given to horses than to other articles.
The Ram (1.620) speaks of horses from Kamboja, Bahlika, Vanayu, and from a river, by which probably Sindhu or Indus is meant. From the Mbh it is found that horses came from various countries, namely, Kamboja, Bahlika, Sindhu, Vanayu, Mahi, Aratta, and Kuluta; there were also horses bred near river, and horses from forests and mountains.
The Mbh seems to distinguish between ajaneya (well-bred) horses from mountain horses (paravtiya) and those bred near rivers (nadiya) and Nilkantha has explained these terms in detail (7.79.8). Nilkantha has also described the Saindhava and the Bahlika horses, and compared their respective merits.
Of the countries mentioned above, Kamboja was Afghanistan, and Bahlika was the country beyond Sutlej and the Indus (8.30. 10-11). The Vanayu horses also mentioned in the Raghuvamsam has been explained as Persian horses by Mallinatha, but according to the Vacaspatya, Vanayu meant Arabia. Kuluta was the Kulu subdivision in the Kangra valley.
It is interesting to note that according to Kautilya (2.30.29) the best horse came “from Kamboja, Sindhu, Aratta and Vanayu, the middling from Bahlika, Papeya, Sauvira and Titala’, while the rest were inferior. The Mbh (6.86.4) mentions tittirija horses, which cannot be identified, hence the question has arisen whether it could have referred to Kautilya’s Titala hourses. The Ram (1.6.21) mentions elephants from the Vindhyas and the Himalayas. The Mbh mentions elephants from Kalinga (7.68.32) and Aparanta (8.27.9). Assam was also famous for the elephant of Bhagadatta, king of Pragjyotisa, is very highly spoken of (7.25.19 ff. and 7.26. 3.8).
An idea of the typical products of the various countries can be obtained from Duryodhana’s description of the gifts received by Yudhisthira in his Rajasuya ceremony. Woolen clothes, cloth made of cat’s hair and embroidered with golden threads, cloaks, skins of antelopes, horses, she-camels, and mules came from Kamboja. From Broach came skins of ranku deer. Various tribes from the trans- Indus region living near the sea sent sheep, cows, gold, asses, camels, honey made from fruits, and varieties of blankets.
The king of Pragjyotisa sent many horses. Some other tribes including the Romakas brought asses which could travel great distance. The Cinas, Hunas, Sakas, Udras, and mountain tribes also brought asses. From Bahlika and Cina also came woolens made of the hairs of ranku deer, and pure silk. From Aparanta and other western countries came weapons (2.47. 1-24).
It may be stated here that from the Mbh (2.23.19) it appears that Cina was in Assam. Some tribes brought mules, and honey from the Himalayas. Some other tribes brought sandal, aguru (fragrant aloe), skins, jewels, incense, various beautiful objects, and foreign animals and birds (2.48. 1-12). It emerges from the above list that the main articles of import were animals (horses, asses, and mules), woollens, incense, and gold and precious stones.
It is important to note that the Cina silk was reputed not to contain any cotton or wool (vastram akarpasam avikam), but was very polished and soft. Apparently Cina in Assam was the only place in India where silk was produced in those days.
Woolen goods came mostly from outside. Blankets were put to various uses, and it is stated that Duryodhana erected near the Ganges ‘houses’ that is, tents made of cloth and blankets (Caila-kambala-vesmani 1.119.29). Possibly here kambala means a carpet or a rug spread on the floor.
Mules are spoken of at many places, and it is said that at the time of Arjuna’s marriage with Subhadra, Krsna presented him with black, and white mules (1.213.43). These animals were used principally for drawing carts. Carts drawn by oxen, asses, and camels carried Balarama’s baggage (9.34.19).
A mule-drawn carriage seems to have been highly prized, for Bhisma says that a person, who presents a brahmana with a pair of shoes, obtains, in the next birth, a bright chariot drawn by mules (13.65.3). It may be added here that bulls were used from the Vedic times to draw the plough, and in the Mbh (13.65.49) Bhisma forbids Yudhisthira to give bulls to a Kinasa, which has been explained above.
There were also chariots for sports (krida-ratha), and chariots for war (sangramika-ratha, 13.53.27). These were presumably drawn by horses. It may be stated here that India imported horses practically throughout her history. Regarding the other imported commodities, it is found in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written about the first century AD., that India still imported various kinds of textiles and metals, though the variety of imports had naturally multiplied. Secondly, the Mbh does not give an exhaustive list of imports as the Periplus does.
Internal Trade during the Epic Age:
In the Mbh 12.69.28, Bhisma says Yudhisthira- ‘The king should have ministers or trusted officials [to collect the taxes from] mines, salt, ferry (freight) and elephant forests’. It is evident therefore, that the mines, salt trade, ferry boats, and elephants were handled by private traders. According to Kautilya, all mines were state property, but the state was not to work all of them.
Kautilya’s advice was that a light mine should be worked directly by the state and “a mine that is burdensome in point of expense or working’ should be leased out” (2.12.22). But as regards the salt-mines Kautilya’s intention was to lease them out on a profit-sharing basis (2.12.28).
Kautilya lay down that ‘the Controller of Shipping should look after activities concerning sea voyages and ferries at the mouth of rivers, as well as ferries over natural lakes, artificial lakes and rivers…. Traders shall pay a part (of the goods) as duty…. He [Controller of Shipping] should demand sulka [duty] from ships sailing on sea when they come within the domain…. Brahmanas wandering monks, children, old persons, sick persons, carriers of royal edicts, and pregnant women should cross with a sealed pass stamped with the seal of the Controller of Shipping (2.28.1, 4, 11 and 18).
It is evident that in Kautilya’s time sea-borne trade had become common, but, as stated above, conditions were different in the age of the epics. Hence sulka in the Mbh (12.69.28) should be taken to mean ‘ferry dues’, which was the regular meaning of the term. Regarding the persons exempted from paying ferry dues, Manu (8.407) also says that ‘women with two months’ pregnancy, wandering monks, brahmanas and brahmacarins will not have to pay ferry dues.” This rule may be expected to have operated in the epic age. From Kautilya 231.1 and 2.31.8 it appears that the elephant- forests were guarded by royal officers and they captured the wild elephants. Here again the Mbh differs from Kautilya, and allows the king only a duty on the captured elephants.
Industry Trade during Epic Age:
Trade and commerce depended to a large extent on the industrial produce. The relation between trade and industry has been considered above, and here only the industries mentioned in the epics will be noted. The Ram does not specifically refer to any industry, but from the various descriptions, it is evident that there were flourishing industries, particularly in textiles and metals.
In the Mbh the metal industry is referred to several times. Ayasa (iron) is mentioned many times, and krsnayasa more than once (5.133.1 etc.). But as these words are used metaphorically, it is not possible to be certain that any distinction was intended, specially when it is remembered that adjectives are often added to suit the exigencies of metre.
However, it may be pointed out that ayas is mentioned in the Vedic literature, but it seems to mean both bronze and iron, while iron was called karsnayasa (black-metal) and copper lohayasa or lohitayasa. In the Mbh, however, ayasa means iron, and the use of the word tamra for copper is also found. The kamsyayas tanutrara (armour made of bell-metal) is mentioned in the Mbh (7.31.17). The Ram (1.36.19) mentions
While explaining polity, Bhisma says (12.120.19). ‘In speaking about anything (vaktavye) one should be prudent and conceal one’s thought. As a result (tatha) the other party, even if he be wise and like Brhaspati in intellect,—will give out (vaksyate) the thoughts nearest to his heart and reveal his nature, like red hot iron (which becomes black) when immersed in water (krsnayasan iv = odake)’. The allusion here is definitely to a smithy.
This is confirmed by a later verse which says- ‘Know that a jiva takes shape inside the womb, as molten iron takes the shape of the mould into which it is poured.’ (14.18.8). Thus it is evident that both forging and casting of metals were practised. Hot iron had another use. It is said- ‘Mental distress inflames the body just as a hot ball of iron [heats] the [cool] water kept in a jar.’ 3.3.25
At present the electric immersion-heaters heat water exactly on this principle. It is quite likely that in ancient age, people used to get hot water for bath by dipping a red-hot iron ball in a bucket of water.
Among the articles of use made of iron were, angling hooks 5.34.13,utensils made of both iron and copper 9.34.31 and it may be presumed that the handcuff 12.174.5, with which the king was advised to secure an atheist (nastika) before turning him out of the country, was also made of iron.
The candalas wore iron ornaments (Ram 1.57.11; Mbh 13.48.32, Manu, 10.52). Besides utensils, the chief use of iron was in producing weapons. The Rigveda (6.75.15) describes an arrow with a tip of iron (yasya ayo mukham), but in the Mbh the entire arrow was made of iron (adrisara-maya isu, 7.17.17, karsnayasair=banaih, 7.28.4). Other weapons made of iron were sakti (spear, sarvayasim saktim, 7.13.72; 7.13.72; saktim ayasim, 7.27.9), sarmparasavlm saktim (7.99.18) and gada (club, sarvayasim gadam, 7.14.4).
The qualification “entirety made of iron” raises the presumption that all the spears and clubs were not entirely of iron. Ordinary lances may have had a wooden shaft with an iron head, and the clubs may have been made of heavy wood with iron spikes. But arrows entirely made of iron seem to have become common, for in 9.13.1, ayasa is used to denote arrow, through in 7.93.3 we hear of sarvayasah sarah. But arrows with only iron heads had not gone out of use and are referred to in 6.112.117-118.
Possibly ordinary arrows still had a wooden or reed shaft, and the all-iron arrows are mentioned to indicate the severity of the fighting. The metal arrows were cleaned, that is polished or sharpened, by smiths (karmara-parimarjita, 6.107.45; 6.109.18; 7.47.12; 7.114.40; 7.144.22). It is stated that Arjuna’s arrows were stamped with his name (namankitah, 7.74.7). If this description is not entirely fanciful, it would indicate considerable technical skill. Use of oil as a lubricant or anti-corrosive seems to be indicated by the term tailapayin (7.130.27), which may mean an arrow or a sword.
Iron plates chased with gold were used to fasten the pole or the wooden frame of the carriage of the chariot with the yoke (7.122.78). A more gorgeous iron-plate used in a chariot is described in 7.42.5. Iron armour was extensively used, and mention is made of lauhani kavacani (4.57.4), ayasmaya-varmanam (7.43.10; 7.131.53) and of demascene steel (saik yayasani varmani, 7.95.35). Armour was also made of bell-metal- varmani kamsyani (7.95.35) and kamsyasatanutrana (8.59.26), kamsya-kavaca (7.150.10), kamsyavarma (7.150.24).
The property of loadstone or magnet was known and it is said- ‘Just as an inert [piece of] iron moves towards a magnet, so does the natural instincts of a man [like nescience, desire, etc.] are attracted towards the jiva or purusa. 12.204.3.
It is, however, not possible to say as to whether the magnet was put to any useful purpose. The use of files for cutting iron also seems to have been known (12.205.27). An iron hammer or forge hammer (ayoghana) is referred to in 7.25.58). There were machines for throwing iron balls. These catapults are referred to as ayah- kanapa (Mbh 1.218.24)) and propulsion of objects by a machine (yantra-nirmukta) is referred to in 7.67.68 and 7.68.65.
Machines for throwing stones and arrows are also mentioned in the Ram (6.3.11)- isupala-yanrani, which were placed on the ramparts of Lanka. It seems that the yantras which were erected on buildings of Lanka (6.3.15) served the same purpose. The city of Ayodhya was similarly provided for (sarm-yantra-yudhavatim, 1.5.10). In the Mbh’s version of Ram, Ravana’s city is said to have been provided with karnatta-yantra durdharsa (3.268.4 and 29-30).
The sataghni is mentioned as a weapon in the Ram (1.5.11) and in the Mbh many times. Indraprastha, the Pandava capital, was guarded with sataghnis and other machines (sataghnibhir =: yantrajalais = ca sobhitam, 1.199.93) and this was also Bhisma’s advice (12.69.43). But it appears that the sataghni could be discharged by one man, for, it is said- ‘The king of Sindhu [hurled] pattisa (a kind of spear) and tomara (a javelin). Krpa, the sataghni and Salya [discharged] an arrow,’ (6.109.35) but Bhimasena destroyed the sataghni with nine arrows (6.107.38).
The sataghni is mentioned along with many other weapons in 7.113.20 and 7.154.46, one of which could project an iron ball, and later the sataghni is said to throw fire (hutasadah, 7.170.19). Arjuna’s arrows are compared with musala (mace), parigha (an iron club studded with iron), sataghni and thunder (8.21.32). When the Pandavas attacked Salya, it is said that Nakula hurled a sakti (spear), Sahadeva a gada (club), and Yudhisthira a sataghni which Salya cut down with two arrows (9.12.23-24).
It is difficult to say what the sataghni was, and though it is sometimes held to have been a fire-arm the commentators have explained it as a huge stone studded with iron spikes. It was possibly some simple contrivance like a sling or a catapult, which could be used in battle, and was also used for defensive purposes.
The only use of a machine for peaceful use was the one made by a carpenter and used by him (12.34.10). The epics are mainly concerned with war, so the descriptions of weapons predominate. Still it is difficult not to conclude that the metal industry was mainly, or at least in a great part, engaged in the production of weapons. In that case it may be postulated that the production of weapons reached its peak just before the Bharata war followed by a ‘slump’.
Except for the Asvamedha sacrifice, performed just after the war, no other war is reported during the thirty-six years of Yudhisthira’s region. This “era of peace” could have impoverished the craftsmen engaged in the production of weapons, which would have adversely affected the social status of the metal workers.
Leather industry was also fairly developed. The Mbh (139.97 to 98) describes the invention of shoe and umbrella to protect the sage Jamadagni’s wife Renuka. The story seems to indicate that these aids to human comfort were first invented to protect the ladies. But men soon took advantage of the new invention, and Bhisma relates to Yudhisthira the great merits acquired by those who made gifts of umbrella and shoes to a brahmana (13.98.17-21).
Leather must have been mainly used in the manufacture of shoes, but it was put to other uses also. Nakula kept his weapons in a bag made of goat or sheep skin (panca-nakhe kose, 4.38.57) while Sahadeva sheathed his sword in a scabbard made of cow hide (gavya-kose, 4.38.58). Water-bottles or water bags were called drti (12.232.14). The word also occurs in Manu (2.99) where Medhatithi explains it as bags made of goat’s skin etc. for carrying water.
There were also ropes made of leather (sata-carma, Mbh, 1.26.19). It is interesting to note that the Brhatkatha describes mountain climbing with the aid of ropes made of skin. In the Mbh also the rope made of skin is given as an example of great strength. Usually, it seems that ropes were made of hemp as well as of bark of trees (sana-valka) as is stated in the Ram (5.46.45; 5.56.129).
The Rise of Merchant’s Capital during the Epic Age:
Men after all will be men, hence it is hardly surprising to come across a reference to illegal gain even in the Rama-rajya, where Ramacandra compares the scorching rays of the midday sun to the rudeness displayed by men, who have gained money by dishonest means (amargena, 3.7.8).
In the Mbh (5.39.52), Vidura says that a sraddha ceremony performed ‘with illegally earned money’ (adharm-oparjitair-arthaih) produces no result. In the Parasara-gita, the sage praises the wealth acquired legally denounces illegally earned money (Mbh 12.281. 4-5, 12.283.24), but he points out that due to greed a man adopts illegal means to acquire wealth, presumably because his status in society depends on his affluence (12.284.7-9).
The type of people who made illegal gains is not specified; they could have been officials or traders. Here one is reminded of Kautilya’s estimation of the moral of the officials. He says (2.9.32-33)- ‘Just as it is not possible not to taste honey or poison placed on the surface of the tongue, even so it is not possible for one dealing with the money of the king not to taste the money in however small a quantity. Just as fish moving inside water cannot be known when drinking water, even so officers appointed for carrying out works cannot be known when appropriating money.’
There is no means of knowing as to how far the conditions were different in the epic age, but if all the epic officials had been men of sterling character, it is evident that by the end of the 4th century BC, when Kautilya wrote, the tradition of honesty was lost.
As for the traders, there is a distinct reference in the Mbh to their using false weights (kuta-manair = vanijah, 1.58.22). This practice was known to Kautilya who lays down (4.2.20)- As to difference in weight or measure, or difference in price or quality, for the weight or measurer who by a trick of the hand brings about (a difference to the extent of) one-eighth part in (an article) priced at one pana, the fine is two hundred (panas).
Manu deprecates trade because it does not discriminate between truth and falsehood (satya-anrtam tu vaniyam, 4.6); and here the commentators include money-lending within the meaning of vanijya. Manu’s dictum may have induced Amara to give saty-anrita as a synonym for trade while he gives anrita as a synonym for agriculture (Amarakosa, Vaisya-vargah, 4.8), possibly following a doubtful verse of the Ram (Vulgate edition, 7.74.17) not included in the Critical Edition.
As noted above, the Mbh (13.24.22) denounces the brahmana who follows the prani-vikraya-vrtti, which means ‘buying low and selling high’. Possibly Kautilya had this type of trade in mind when he laid down (4.2.19)- ‘For traders, who by conspiring together hold back wares or sell them at a high price, the fine is one thousand panas’.
Kautilya (4.2.28) imposes a fine of 1000 panas on karus (artisans) and silpins (artists) who conspire either to bring about a deterioration in the quality of their products or increase prices too high. Kautilya (4.2.22) also provides for punishing the adulterators of grains, fats (oil and ghi), sugar, salt, perfumes and medicines.
The epics do not mention adulteration, but the negative evidence is hardly conclusive. Manu (8.203) inveighs against adulteration and imposes a fine for over-pricing (9.287). Yajnavalkya (2.245) practically repeats Kautilya 4.2.21, and while the latter imposed a fine of twelve panas on the adulterators, Yajnavalkya prescribed a fine of sixteen panas.
Yajnavalkya (2.244) also imposes a fine on merchants using false weights, and curiously enough refers, like Kautilya, to the manipulation of one-eighth of the weight. Provisions on the same topic is found in later Dharmasastras.
It is difficult to say whether the business morality in ancient India was high or low; apparently the law-givers bad felt it necessary to provide against dishonest traders and craftsmen. The provisions of the legal codes are not always conducive to a broad spectrum analysis.
It is, however, evident that dishonest practices, which are supposed to be modern evils, were not unknown in ancient India, and one may hazard a guess on the basis of the tirade against ill- gotten wealth, that corrupt officials and dishonest traders were not as uncommon in the epic age as they are supposed to have been.
The importance of these evidences are that they indicate the operation of market economy in ancient India, though its area of efficient function is most likely to have been limited due to the lack of means of transport. The result was the restrictive and dishonest trade practices condemned by the ancient law-givers. To what extent the trade was controlled or regulated by the government can only be a matter of speculation.
The little information that can be obtained about market conditions is from late inscriptions, which show the existence of an office for collecting sulka or tax on the commodities sold in a market. Presumably, the sellers were left free to manipulate the price so long as they paid their dues.
The caste system fostered the early growth of merchant capitalism in ancient India. The various guilds promoted its development The Dharmasastras protected the interest of the merchants by acknowledging the guild-regulations as part of the law of the land.
All these factors combined to promote the growth of merchant’s capital, which, due to peculiar Indian social conditions became a permanent social institution, and at a later stage in history hampered the growth of capitalist production. As Marx has said- the independent development of merchant’s capital, is inversely proportional to the degree of development of capitalist production.