In the pre-Mauryan period, the early pastoral economy of the Ganges valley had changed to a village economy based on agriculture. This brought with it an element of permanency in the village settlements as against the nomadism of the pastoralists.
Agrarian village communities became the general pattern. This was a natural step after the forests spread from the Ganges valley to other areas and it became possible to regard these areas as one unit. This in turn considerably facilitated the administrative system.
Administrative ideas could be developed more easily since the same general pattern existed in most areas. The importance of land revenue as the basic source of the state income came to be recognized. A uniform system of taxation was started, its uniformity lying in the method of assessment though not necessarily in the amount assessed.
Economic Regulations of Mauryas:
The establishment of the agrarian economy did not exclude other forms of economic activity. Variations on the economic structure continued to exist but generally tended to be concentrated in areas not devoted to agriculture. The expansion of the agrarian economy accelerated the realization that a single predominant economy facilitated the evaluation of taxes.
For instance, coastal areas dependent on maritime trade would continue this activity and would be regarded by the administrators as areas devoted to one main economic pursuit and would be taxed accordingly. There was much to be gained by those governing a settled economy which would permit of a regular system of taxation and tax rates. Kautilya, the theorist of the politico-economic basis of the Mauryan state, therefore, devotes an important part of the Arthashastra to the application of taxation.
The collection of revenue from various sources, particularly from the land, meant the appointment of a series of officials to administer the various stages of this collection. A complex bureaucratic system emerged, bringing with it its own economic aspects such as the payment of salaries. It is significant that these were paid in cash and kind but not in land grants. The salaries appear to have been extremely high particularly in the upper strata of officials.
The salaries are recorded in panas but the value of the pana is not yet known. Nevertheless the ratio of salaries can be worked out, as a fairly detailed list is given. The chief minister was to receive 48,000 panas and the clerk, 500 panas, a ratio of 96:1. Other lesser ministers were to receive 24,000 panas, or 48:1. This made a large surplus in the treasury obligatory.
The upper strata of officials were particularly important to the political system, the fact of centralization being dependent upon them. Political control revolved around the relationship between the official and the cultivator, and as long as the administrative machinery was efficient, the imperial structure had greater chances of survival.
The current theory of land ownership, that the land was owned by the king, made the concept of empire more feasible. Megasthenes states that the king owned the land. This has caused much controversy, some historians being of the opinion that this statement is incorrect. The area of the Mauryan Empire being so vast and at such dissimilar stages of development, it is not likely that one particular type of land ownership prevailed.
In the Ganges plain however, there probably was a uniform system. The possibilities of land ownership at the time were three, the king, the state and large- scale landowners. (Communal ownership is a later idea and there is no reference either to cultivators owning the land) Both Kautilya and Megasthenes do not refer to landowners. Only in the jatakas is there a reference to gahapatis and gamabhojakas. Their precise function is not indicated, and there is in fact no certainty that they were landowners.
If they had been a significant class their role in the economy would most certainly have been discussed by Kautilya and Megasthenes. It is difficult to see how such a class fitted into the Mauryan centralized imperial system, and it is strange that an extensive land-owning gentry did not modify the political system in order to incorporate its own power and position. It has been suggested that the gamabhojaka may have referred to persons who were entitled to the revenue of the land, in payment of services rendered to the king.
But the Arthashastra is very firm on the question of payment being in cash or kind and not by gifts of land or land revenue. The existence of gahapatis and gamabhojakas either owning land or enjoying the revenue of land conforms to a greater extent with the picture of post-Mauryan India. Since the Jatakas include material from the post-Mauryan period as well, we may assume that this reference is to a later period.
As to whether the land was owned by the king or the state, the question is somewhat confused at this period. Law books of a later period explain the position very clearly. A distinction is made between the ownership of the land for which the word svam (and its derivatives svatra, svamya, svamitra) are used, and revenue rights alone for which the word bhoga is used.
Thus there would be a difference between the lands personally owned by the king which he could dispose of as he wished, and the state lands whose tax he received as the head of the state and which he did not therefore own but merely enjoyed their produce. Private donations of land would be made from the first category of lands or crown lands. The Arthashastra refers to crown lands, the income of which formed part of what would be termed in modern times the Privy Purse.
The rest of the land theoretically would belong to the state. Here, however, usage complicates theory. The distinction between the king and the state was not emphasized at this time, and the two tended to be confused. It is extremely difficult at this period to distinguish between the king in his personal capacity and the king as the head of the state.
Unfortunately, there is only one reference to land revenue in the inscriptions of Asoka. This is to be found in the Rummindei inscription. Lumbini being the birth-place of the Buddha was exempted from the land tax, and the tax to be paid on the produce of the land was cut to one-eighth (atthabhagiye).
The interesting fact which emerges from this event is that the king deals directly with the question of reduction in taxes. This would suggest that there was no intermediary or landowner else the reduction would have had to have been made in consultation with him and with his approval.
This inscription further agrees with other sources in indicating that during the Mauryan period there were two sources of revenue from the land. One was the land tax which was based on the land itself and varied according to the quality of the land; the other was the tax on the produce which was arrived at through a regular assessment of the produce. Land tax as distinct from the tax on the produce may be compared to the later system of bhaga (deriving in all likelihood from the Vedic ball). Tax on the produce was probably the equivalent of the later hiranya, the tax on certain types of crops.
Emergence of a Mercantile Community in Maurya Empire:
The establishment of the agrarian economy encouraged the organization of other activities such as trade. Here again the Ganges region was very suitable as the river provided transport. The development of trade led to the emergence of a mercantile community through a system of guilds. These were a predominant factor in urban life, and consequently introduced a new force into existing society.
Specialization in work helped to consolidate the guilds. Both the increase in trade and the strengthening of the guilds was linked to the Mauryan system. In order to ensure administrative efficiency, a considerable improvement was made in communications by the Mauryans. This enabled surplus production to be transported from one area to another.
The clearing of forests and the establishment of new agricultural villages in these areas meant another source of demand for surplus production. The clearing of land facilitated communication. Half a century of peaceful relations with the Greeks in the west, under Bindusara and Asoka, allowed foreign trade with the Greeks to enter on a large scale as an economic activity of the time.
In the economy of northern India, the development of the guild system followed after the agrarian economy had come into operation, and this process was assisted by political conditions. This was unlike the establishment of the agrarian economy which was in itself responsible to a large extent for the political system. The centralized character of the state extended to interference in, if not actual control, over the activities of the guild.
The craftsman or guild not only paid a tax on the goods they manufactured, but in some cases they also gave an additional tax to the State in the form of labour. There was a tendency to localize industry as far as possible. The guild could not move its premises or its location without the permission of the administrative authority, under whose supervision it came. The larger guilds appear to have dominated urban life. They even maintained their own body of soldiers but the king could always call upon these soldiers in case of need.
Income from trade and other commercial taxes of various kinds was not ignored by the Mauryan state. The scale of merchandize was strictly supervised by the state. The superintendent of commerce when valuing an article was to take into consideration not only the market value of the article but also other considerations such as the cost of transport from the place of production to the market, etc.
Certain means of transport such as river transport were cheaper than others. Merchants handling foreign goods could claim a remission of trade tax, so that they could derive a profit from the sale of foreign goods and thus be encouraged to increase their trade. The trade tax consisted of one-fifth of the toll dues, and these in turn were one-fifth of the value of the commodity.
The merchant was allowed a maximum profit of five per cent on local produce and ten per cent on foreign goods. Profits in excess of this were confiscated by the superintendent of commerce and paid into the treasury. (It is possible that in periods of emergency when the state needed additional funds, the merchant may have been encouraged to ask for larger profits, since the surplus would in any case be confiscated by the state.) The control over prices and profits extended even to regulating the earnings of the middleman.
It would seem that supply and demand were also regulated both within a particular area and concerning a particular commodity. But as it was not possible to calculate the total production and consumption, this attempt was a superficial one. A general tax was levied on merchandize when it was ready to go to the market, and this tax was paid by the producer. On most commodities this tax was one-tenth, though the amount varied in certain cases.
Textiles of a particular kind were taxed at the rate of one-twenty-fifth whereas flowers and vegetables were taxed at one-sixth, the tax being assessed on the cost of production. The purchase of an article before it had been taxed was regarded as a punishable offence.
By the time of the Mauryan period the use of money, particularly for trade, was a fairly common feature. Some historians maintain that the symbols on the punch-marked coins of this time were the tokens of various large-scale traders. In any case, the use of money was an additional incentive to easier trade. Money lending was a familiar activity, although Megasthenes, failed to notice it. According to Kautilya even the treasury was permitted to lend money on interest.
The normal rate of interest was 15 per cent. A special commercial interest (vyavaharika) of 60 per cent was also permitted. This extremely high rate was probably charged from merchants dealing with foreign trade and goods coming by sea.
Transport of goods by ships carried a greater degree of risk than other forms of transport. It is possible that the State controlled the rate of interest and this may have led Megasthenes to report that there was no usury in India. Money was thus available for commercial transactions and the state itself encouraged these.
Another aspect of the Mauryan economy which assisted in the-maintenance of the empire was the existence of slavery. Here again Megasthenes states that in India there are no slaves. This remark may have arisen from the fact that Megasthenes failed to recognize the Indian slave. Unlike Greek society of the time, Indian society was not divided sharply into the two categories of free citizen and slave.
There were many more gradations, and even amongst the slaves there were various types almost conforming to a hierarchy. Theoretically it was possible for the slave to own property and furthermore, the arya could work temporarily as a slave. Neither of these possibilities were permitted under the Greek system.
Existence of Slaves in Maurya Empire:
The existence of slaves is not only mentioned in the Indian sources but it would also appear that most of the labour power was provided by the slaves. The Arthashastra gives precise instructions for the clearing of land and the establishing of new villages. According to its author, the people sent to these new settlements should be either foreign immigrants or should be from over- populated regions. He adds that there should be a ratio of 500 shudra families to 100 other families.
Naturally each settlement had to have a nucleus of various professions in order to make it self- sufficient in the early stages. The shudra families were responsible for cultivating the land. In the Kalinga Edict, Asoka refers to the deportation of 150,000 people from Kalinga. More than likely they were distributed among the new villages. Thus the shudra came under state control for food production. This production maintained a surplus in the treasury.
The surplus was necessary, among other things, to pay the high salaries of the administrative officers and also to maintain a vast standing army Forced labour (vishti) was also practised in Mauryan times. Megasthenes mentions that artisans worked for the state for a certain number of days in lieu of paying taxes. Kautilya refers to it and cautions the king against allowing his officers to misuse this right.
The hired labourers, referred to in the Asokan inscriptions as bhatakas and karmakaras were theoretically distinguished from the slaves (dasas). They were paid according to the amount of work they did and they were not owned by those who employed them. Hired labourers worked in rural areas as well as in the urban centres, but the most frequent reference to them is in the latter.
The guilds and artisans appear to have employed them in large numbers. They were generally paid one-tenth of what they produced as wages. The social position of the hired labourers and the slaves was extremely low. Yet they were still a little better off than the very lowest in the scale, the outcastes. A slave could work as the domestic servant of a well-to-do master, but the outcaste could never be permitted such an occupation.
Revenue and Taxation in Maurya Empire:
The existence of the Mauryan Empire was therefore assisted by various factors such as the predominance of an agrarian economy, the utilization of land revenue and various forms of taxation, expansion in trade, the use of money and the use of slaves as labour. The Mauryan dynasty ruled for roughly a century and a half, though the political importance of the empire began to decline in the second half of this period.
In considering the political disintegration of the empire it is useful to analyze the extent to which the economic activities of the time may have contributed to this disintegration. The view has been put forward that the decline of the empire was in large part due to a considerable pressure on the economy.
This view is based on two arguments. First, that a number of taxes which are generally only demanded in periods of emergency are listed in the Arthashastra, as for example, the tax on actors and on prostitutes. Second, an analysis of the punch-marked coins of the Mauryan period shows a debasement in the silver content.
With regard to the first argument, it must be kept in mind that the realization of the full scope of taxation came about in the Mauryan period and there was an eagerness to tax wherever possible. Also, in order to maintain the necessary surplus in the treasury there must have been few activities which were not taxed.
But since the fact of taxing these activities was a recent one, this alone could not have led to a pressure as considerable as to lead to the collapse of the system. It is clear from the Arthashastra itself that this tax on actors, prostitutes, etc. was regarded as a legitimate tax, and not as an emergency measure. There is a separate section devoted to emergency taxations, should they be necessary, and the above- mentioned taxes are not included.
The argument concerning the debasement of coinage is more convincing. This, however, is a tentative argument, as the assigning of certain types of coins to the Mauryan period is not absolutely final. The coins being found in hoards, and seldom scattered on the site, makes it difficult to determine their provenance, and this in turn makes the analysis somewhat uncertain.
The debasement of the coinage may also have been due to the increased use of silver for other articles, though such articles have not yet been found from excavations. It is possible that at the time of extreme political confusion during the reign of the later Mauryas, particularly in the Ganges valley, there may have been a tendency to hoard coins. This may have led to a debasement in the later coinage as compared to that of the earlier rulers.
According to Greek sources the land-tax was assessed at one- quarter and this is a high tax. But it is debatable whether this tax was uniform throughout the land. Similarly, the tax on the produce of the land is also said to be one-quarter. This figure may have been a rough estimate or may have referred only to the very fertile region around Pataliputra. It would seem that the precise amount varied according to local conditions.
When indicating water-tax, the Arthashastra takes into consideration the type of irrigation provided. The method of assessing land-tax must also have considered various factors such as the fertility of the soil, the availability of water, etc.
Most of the sources suggest one-sixth as the usual amount at later periods, though variations of one-tenth and one-twelfth were also known. That one-quarter was not the usual amount collected from the cultivator seems clear from the Arthashastra which suggests that in periods of emergency, the king may increase the tax to one-quarter or even one-third.
Evidence from other material remains does not suggest a pressure on the economy. Archaeological evidence from the few Mauryan sites that have so far been excavated points to a period of an expanding economy. Comparisons can be made at pre-Mauryan, Mauryan and post-Mauryan levels of a site.
Two such examples have been worked through fairly thoroughly at Hastinapura and Sisupalgarh, and other sites are still being excavated. These sites indicate that them was a considerable improvement in material culture during the Mauryan and post-Mauryan periods.
Towns were built according to a plan and houses were well-constructed. Municipal responsibilities such as the drainage system were improved upon. There is a distinct improvement in the workmanship of objects such as beads, rings, terracottas, etc.
Pottery, one of the most reliable pointers to the level of material culture, is superior both in quality and in technique. At earlier levels there is a wide distribution of the plain, black and the grey-and-red ware, both of which are wheel- thrown and made of finer clay, thus indicating better material and a more developed technique.
Even the famous northern black polished ware increases in quantity at later levels (sharma, 1953: 140-168; Lal, 1954: 5: Marshall: 91-101). All this points to a rise in the urban standard of living. The question of how far the Mauryan economy was responsible for the ultimate political disintegration of the empire can only be given a tentative answer.
Evidence on this point from literary sources is not forthcoming. The answer can only be given a definite shape when many more Mauryan sites have been excavated and their results published. For the moment it may be said that there appears to have been a temporary pressure on the economy, which may have accelerated the decline of the empire, but the more fundamental causes of the decline must be sought elsewhere.