In this article we will discuss about the political, social and economic conditions of India between 650-321 B.C.
Political Condition of India:
Politically India was split into a number of small states. Some of these states were under strong monarchs, who were trying to build up imperial states, while others were republican in character. According to the Buddhist literature India was divided into 16 principal states called Mahajanapadas.
The principal states were:
(15) Gandhara and
Most of the monarchical states were under Kshatriya rulers, although non- Kshatriya kings were also known. There are examples in the Jataka stories that tyrannical kings could be replaced by Brahman kings. In addition to these monarchical states, certain republics also existed.
Some of the prominent republics mentioned in the Buddhist literature are:
(1) The Sakiyas of Kapilvastu
(2) The Bullis of Allakappa
(3) The Kalamas of Kesapatta
(4) The Bhaggas of Sam Sumasa Hill
(5) Videhas of Mithila
(6) The Lichchhavis of Vaisali
(7) The Nayas (Jnatrikas) of Vesali
(8) The Mauriyas of Pipphalivahana
(9) The Mallas of Pana and
(10) The Mallas of Husinara.
The most important of these republics were the Lichchavis and the Sakiyas. The republic of the Lichchhavis was formed of confederation of nine Mallaki republics and eighteen republics of Kasi and Kosala. This confederation was formed against Ajatsatru, king of Magadha.
Vaisali was its capital. The republic of Sakiyas consisted of about half a million population. These states and-republics were often involved in political rivalries and wars which often ended only in matrimonial alliances.
One of the outstanding feature of the political history of this period was the gradual rise of Magadha to power, which gradually absorbed all other kingdoms, and became a dominant power in India. During its hay days the Magadhan Empire extended from the Bay of Bengal in the east to Sutlej in the West.
Under Monarchical system the king enjoyed extensive powers and privileges. He was empowered to collect land revenue and other taxes. The other sources of the income of the king were the gifts offered by the traders and merchants and the various octroi duties paid by the merchants.
The king also enjoyed the right to dispose off forest land and non-owned property. There are also instances which show that the kings could claim forced labour. The kingship was hereditary and usually the monarch appointed his successor during his life time.
We find certain references of the king being elected also. Usually, the kings were elected from amongst members of the royal family but selection could also be made from outside. With the territorial expansion of the kingdoms the offices of provincial Governors or Viceroy gained importance.
These offices were usually held by the princes of the royal blood. Sometimes, the choice also fell on the favorite military chief of the imperial court.
At the centre’s level the king was assisted by a number of officials like Senapati, Purohita, Rajjouk, Bohrik, Hironyak, Satathi etc. Of all these officials the Purohita held the most prominent position. Sometimes in certain states the Senapati enjoyed a higher position than the Purohita, particularly when he was a prince of the royal blood. The Senapati in addition to his military duties also performed certain judicial functions.
Another important development of the period was the rise of the officials known as Mahamatras. It may be noted that these officers were unknown during the Vedic age and disappeared after the Maurya and Satavahana period.
The Mahamatras looked after different departments like Justice, Army, Weights and Measures and performed duties of varied character. The administration of justice was under the control of the king. He was assisted by judges known as Vyavaharikas.
The judiciary was organised on hierarchical basis with the king at the top. Cases were decided according to the sacred law (Dharam Shastra), customs, traditions and orders of the king. In criminal cases ordeals were used to prove the guilt.
The military administration also underwent many changes. The elephants were introduced as a regular feature of the fighting force. The army mainly consisted of four elements—infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants.
The infantry generally fought with bows and iron tipped arrows made of cane. Certain soldiers used spears and swords. The chariots were drawn by the horses or wild asses. The Greek writers have testified that the Indian soldiers were superior to the soldiers in other Asiatic countries. These writers further point out that the Indians relied more on elephants than on horses.
In addition to the monarchical states certain non-monarchical states also existed which were known as Ganas or Sanghas. The system of government in the different Ganas also differed like that of monarchy. While some of them were tribal oligarchies, the others possessed democratic constitutions.
Similarly, certain republics included several clans. The others consisted of single Kulas or even cities. Again certain republics were sovereign while others enjoyed some amount of local autonomy. However, almost all the republican states possessed a Parishad or Assembly which met frequently and made the necessary laws. The meetings of the Parishad were held in the open.
The decisions were usually taken unanimously. The differences were settled through arbitration by a Committee of Referees. In addition to these Parishads, local assemblies also existed in all important places. The head of the republic was known by various titles like Rajan, Ganarajan, Sanghamukhya. It was the duty of the head of the republic to maintain unity.
Certain republics possessed hereditary presidents or Rajas. The head of the republic was assisted by other officials like Up-rajan (Vice Counsel), Senapati (General), Bhandagarika (Treasurer), etc. Some of the republics had independent police officers also.
Social Condition of India:
The majority of the people lived in villages. Usually they lived in humble dwelling made of thatch and straw. We also get various references about the fortified cities and towns, though their number was not very large.
The towns contained important and platial buildings such as the Assembly Hall, Courts, royal palaces, watch towers etc. We also get references about the pleasure gardens and dancing houses. The royal palaces were made of wood and stone. We get references of seven storeyed buildings, which shows that art of building had quite advanced.
Dresses and Ornaments:
The dresses and the ornaments of the people continued to be on the pattern of the earlier period. Cotton clothes were used by the common people. The people of rich families used silken clothes also. Generally people used three clothes—cotton tunic and two other pieces.
One of them was throw on the shoulders and twisted around the head. The art of stitched clothes was also coming into fashion. The people also used shoes. The ornaments were used both by men and women. While men wore ear-rings, the women used necklets and bangles. Usually ladies of the aristocratic classes used ornaments studded with valuable gems.
Food and Drinks:
Both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food was taken by the people, though due to the influence of the Jainism and Buddhism vegetarianism was on the increase. However, the Greek writers have observed that the common food of the people of north-west border consisted of rice and seasoned meat.
But it cannot be denied that the taking of meat was gradually being disfavored. The practice of common meals or eating in public was also common. Drinks were not very popular and were only taken on occasions of religious festivals.
Position of Women:
The position of women had undergone great determination since the Vedic times. Their subordinate position is clear from the fact that Buddha was reluctant to admit them into his Sangha. Women were permitted to receive education and some of them were quite highly learned.
Women even received military training. On the testimony of the Greek writers, we can say that the women took up the arms and fought side by side with their men against the enemies. Women were well versed in dancing and music as well.
Polygamy was in vogue but the Pardha system was not known. There are numerous references of women’s participation in feast and festivals. Women were permitted to take to the study of religious text and indulge in spiritual activities.
We get a number of references of learned women known as Brahmanadanis who dedicated their lives to the study of text. Some Buddhist nuns also dedicated their lives to the study of philosophy and Dharma and took part in the debates and discussions.
The Buddhist text mention some verses composed by the princesses and nuns, which are preserved in the Therigatha. The system of Sati was in existence. This is proved from the recording of an incident of a widow of an Indian Commander burning herself alive with the dead body of her husband after decorating herself.
The caste system existed but it was not as rigid as it became later in the Puranic age. The people could change their caste professions. However, it may be noted that in addition to the four castes and their sub-castes certain new classes had come into existence.
Restrictions on inter-marriage and inter-dinning existed but we come across various references of men and women in different grades, dinning-together or inter-marrying. Usually the Brahmanas did not take food from the hands of the lowest castes. A new caste known as Chandalas had come into existence.
The members of this castes were considered lower than the Sudras and were looked down upon. They had to live outside the cities and their plight was very miserable. The slave system also existed but they were not that ill-treated as in the western countries. Their number was also very insignificant.
Economic Condition of India:
Village continued to be the basis of the economic organisation in India. Most of the people lived in the villages and devoted themselves to agriculture and cattle rearing. Each family had its own fields which were cultivated by the father with the assistance of his sons.
The holdings were generally very small, but large holdings were also in existence. We do not get any reference about the landlords owning large estates and the ultimate ownership of the land belonged to king, who claimed a portion of the produce from the soil.
Every village was self-sufficient unit. A spirit of cooperation existed amongst the inhabitants of the villages and they constructed reservoirs, irrigation canals, roads and fencing for the common benefit of the village.
Though each householder possessed separate catties, there were common pastures for these catties. Catties were usually entrusted to the care of Gopalak who knew much about the cattle and their diseases. It may be noted that no land could be sold to the outsider without the consent of the village Council.
People cultivated rice and several other grains. Sugarcane, fruits, vegetables and flowers were also cultivated. We get frequent references regarding the scarcity due droughts or floods. Agriculture was mainly the profession of the Vaishyas, even though we come across various references of the Kshatriya clansmen of the republic taking to the cultivation of the soil.
In the matter of administration, villages enjoyed complete autonomy. Administration of the village was looked after by the village Council, headed by headman selected by the Council. The headman collected the revenue for the king.
Usually the land tax varied from 1/6th to 1 /12th of the total produce. The headman also performed certain judicial functions and was responsible for the maintenance of law and order within the jurisdiction of the village. The other functions performed by him included works of public utility, construction of roads, building canals and tanks, halls and rest houses etc.
Industry and Crafts:
A considerable specialisation and localisation of industries had taken place. The Jatakas speak of 18 crafts which existed at that time. However, they name only four of these crafts viz., leather-dressing, smithy, painting and carpentry.
But on the testimony of other references we can say crafts like hunters, trappers, fishermen, butchers, tanners, snake charmers, actors, dancers, musicians and rush weavers were also in existence, although they were considered as quite inferior to ivory workers, weavers, confectioners, jewelers, workers in metals, garland makers, hair dressers, potters, and bow and arrow makers.
The sons usually followed the professions of their forefathers but the rules were not very rigid on this issue. People could change their profession without losing their social status and caste. We get a number of references in the Buddhist text when the Brahmanas worked as potters, basket makers, garland makers, tax collectors, traders etc. Similarly some Kshatriyas worked in the fields.
The important handicrafts were organised in the guilds (Srenies). At the head of each guild was President or Alderman (Jethaka). Usually the President was influential person who had an access to the king. The authority of the President has not been clearly defined anywhere but probably he supervised and inspected the goods produced.
The guild also worked as endowment trusts and banks. The traders also sometimes formed the unions with a view to control the prices of the articles and to make huge profits. The practice of business partnership was also known to the people. Such partnership could be formed by two or more merchants and sometimes these partnerships were formed by 100 to 500 merchants.
Trade and Commerce:
Both internal and external trade flourished. The internal trade was usually carried out in the towns and its markets. The towns were surrounded by walls and admission could be got only through the gates. These towns were usually well-connected by net-work of roads with the various parts of the country. The Jatakas have mentioned several trade routes. One route ran south-east from Savathi to Rajgriha and back.
There was trade between Magadha and Gandhara. The rivers were easy to ford in the route from Savathi to Rajgriha. Caravans also went south-west from Savathi to Patitthana. From east to west the traffic was largely through water boats, up to Sahajati on the Ganges on the Kosambi on the Jamuna. Further on overland, the route went to Sindh from where large imports of horses and asses came.
Northward lay the great trade route connecting India with Central Asia and Western Asia by way of Taxila and Sangla (modern Sialkot) in the Punjab. Goods were carried both on pack animals and bullock-carts. Caravan moved together under the protection of hired escorts.
Trade with foreign countries was carried on both through land and sea routes. The chief articles of export were silk, muslin, cloth, cutlery, armour, broaches, embroideries, rugs, perfumes, drugs ivory-works, and jewellery of gold and silver. The merchant ship laden with a variety of articles sailed to Burma, Siam and Ceylon. These were trade relations with Babylon also. There is also n mention of traffic with China.
The older system of exchange by barter had passed away and the new system with its standard and token coins had come into existence. Coins struck in copper and silver known at Karshapanas (Kahapanas) were in general use.
They were punch marked on both sides guaranteeing their standard and fineness. Pali texts refer to other coins such as Nikka and Suyanna of gold. The money saved was hoarded in jars and buried in the ground or kept in custody of a friend and a written record was kept of it.
There were no banking facilities but the merchants in different cities issued letters of credit on one another. The system of money lending was in vogue and the interest was charged on the money lent.
The state did not regulate the prices and these were fixed between the producer or consumer or the middlemen. Thus we find that [the economic organisation in India as revealed in Buddhist and Jain literature was not primitive but was sufficiently advanced.
Religious Condition of India:
In the religious sphere also far reaching changes took place during this period. Jainism and Buddhism which rose as a revolt against the rituals of Brahmanism gained much prominence and popularity. As a result the Brahmanas introduced so many changes and greatly reformed their religion.
In addition to Jainism and Buddhism certain other sects and cults also came into prominence, viz., Ajivikas, a sect established by Gosala, a Makkhaliputta, a disciple of Mahavira; Bhagvatism, a reformed form of Brahmanism; Saivism, which had its origin in the Vedas and Upanishads etc.
The other gods and goddesses like Ganapati, Skanda, Kartikeya, Brahma, Surya and Sakti were also worshipped. Brahma was associated with Vishnu and Shiva. Thus the famous trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva was formed. The worship of Nagas, Yakshas, Gandharvas and animals was also in vogue.