In the earliest period of the history of human culture, all exchange was by barter i.e., the exchange of one article for another. This was the stage of simple barter. Next to it we have generally a second pre-metallic stage, in which the medium of exchange is some article commonly found and being valued for its utility, becomes the measure of value. In the history of various races, we find the existence of such standards. Thus in Homer we find the use of oxen as standards of value.
Gardiner the author of the history of “Ancient Greek Coinage” illustrating this point quotes the Homeric lines “Arms worth a hundred kine for arms worth nine.” In the laws of Rome, fines were assessed in oxen. The cow was the standard of value in Rome, and thus came the word Pecunia, (originally meaning cattle) to mean money in which sense it is used in later Latin literature.
In addition to the cattle-standard we know of the use of cubes of tea in modern Turkestan, of shells in India and China, of yards of cloth in modern Africa, as standards of value. According to Walsh the author of the history of Metallic
Currency, the pastoral nations of Central Asia still use cattle for this purpose. Tacitus tells us that the Frisians used to pay tribute to the Romans in hides of bulls (uri) and when the latter demanded bigger hides this led to a war between the two nations.
The use of these above-mentioned standards of value gave rise to difficulties, owing to the inconveniences caused by them. Thus in the case of the cow, variations in size or quality must give rise to difference in value. Consequently we must expect to find some more specifications as to the age, size, or milk-bearing capacity of the cow.
In the Brahmanas we find (Ait. Br. p. 59 Haug’a Trans) that in connection with the buying of Soma, a cow one year old and immaculate is put down as the standard price for Soma. In addition to this, there would be hardly any provision for the measurement of fractional parts i.e., half the value of the cow or a quarter of the same. The difficulty that arose between the Romars and the Frisians has already been referred to.
To solve these difficulties and to have a more convenient and portable standard, the use of the precious metals was introduced. In the earlier stages of the use of precious metals we have bars, ingots or lumps of gold and silver, of certain standard weights used as money. These had peculiar shapes and marks in different countries. Thus according to Walsh, in Greece the oldest coins were stamped with the figures of animals.
The same was the case in Egypt, where we find figures of the cow or of other animals in gold or silver used as standards of value. In this stage weight and fineness were always taken into consideration. After this stage we have the issue of private coinage and that came to be succeeded by the use of coins issued and regulated by the state.
From the evidence of the Vedic literature we find the existence of these three stages. There is not only simple barter proved by the evidence of the words—Pratipana or Prapana, meaning commodities received in barter or exchange (A V. III 15. and XII. 15. 4), but the use of the cow-standard in addition to that of gold and silver money.
As to the use of this cattle-standard, MacDonnell and Keith cite an instance from the Rigveda in which an image of Indra is obtained by giving ten cows. According to them, this proves the existence of simple barter.
In reality, this shows the growth of an idea of a standard of value and the use of cows for this purpose. According to the Brahmanas, as we have said already, Soma was purchased with a cow one year old and immaculate. Besides the use of the cow there was the use of gold and probably of silver money. The use of metallic currency has already been mentioned and we pass on to the history of its use and gradual development.
Use of Gold as Medium of Exchange:
The question of the use of gold pieces as currency (or medium of exchange) in the Vedic age, is one which has given rise to a controversy which is far from being ended. But the topic is an important one and requires a careful consideration.
Before we enter into a discussion of the views of different scholars we summarise the evidence here-In the Rigveda we have repeated mentions of the word Niska, a word which in later Sanskrit means a gold coin; the word Mana (supposed by some to be akin to the Akkadian Mina) also occurs in the same book (R. V, VIII. 78. 2). Both the words are of doubtful etymology. The exact meaning of Niska is hardly clear and it is used in more senses than one.
Of the prominent passages which contain this word Niska we quote a few here:
1. In R. V. I. 126. 2, a sage Kaksivn praises his patron Bhavayavya of the Sindhu country, for the gift of “one hundred kine in addition to one hundred Niskas as a reward for his services.” (Satam ragno nadhamanasya niskacchatam asvan prayatan sadya adam satam Kaksivan asurasya gonam divi sravo’jarama tatana.)
2. In Ii. 33, 10 of the Rigveda, the god Rudra is described by Grtsamada as wearing a neck-ornament of Niskas, which are described as Visvarupa (Arhannivarsi sayak ni dhanvarhan niskam yajatam visvarupam).
3. Again in R. V, VIII. 47. 15, the goddess Usas is invoked to take away the evils of bad dream- from those who wear ‘Niskias’ (Niskam vadha krnavate srajam etc.)
4. In R. V, V. 19. 3, connection with a hymn to Agni we are told of sacrifices wearing Niskas. (Niskagrivo brhaduktha……. vajayuh) Here the word Niska-griva has been explained by Sayana as Niskena Suvarnena alamkrita griva.
In many passages of the Atharva Veda, the word Niska is used (A. V, V. 14. 3; V. 17. 14). There too in one place (XX. 131. 8.) we bear of a gift of one hundred Niskas (Satam nisk hira yaya) of gold. Later on references to the Niskas are many in the Brahmanas and the Upanishads. It is needless to quote all these passages. Some only may be cited. Thus the Aitareya Brahmana contains a reference (VIII. 22. Niska-kantha) to a man with a Niska-garland.
Again in the Pancavimsa Brahmana, a Vratya is described as wearing a silver Niska. So much for the word Niska. Apart from Niska the word Mana, appears in one passage of the Rigveda (VIII. 78. 2.) where a priest Kanva enumerates the gift of one hundred kine, along with some gold Mana.
Besides these Niska and Mana, we find mention of lumps of gold (Hiranyapinda) which are given away to priests or to other people. To quote one such passage, we find in Rigveda Vi. 47-23, the priest Garga—extolling the gifts of Prastoka and of Divodasa to him.
Among other things enumerated he speaks of “ten purses” and “ten lumps of gold” along with ten horses and some other articles. (Dasasvan dasa kosan dasa vastradhibhojana daso hiranyapiadan Divodasa dasaniyam – VI. 47. 22. and 23) Here the use of the words Kosa and of Hiranya-piada is significant. The first apparently signifies purses full of gold or silver, while the second expresses in clear terms, the gift often clumps of gold.
We have thus summarised, the evidence of passages in which the words Niska and Man occur, in addition to those speaking of gold purses or lumps. At first sight, the evidence seems rather scanty and rather inconclusive, but when we take into account other evidences available, we can bound to come to the conclusion that gold was plentifully used; that the Niskas, seem to have been generally valued as neck-ornaments; but in some passages they are something more-they were nothing but gold and silver-pieces of definite weight and were used as money.
That they were gold-pieces in circulation, is supported by later Indian evidence but in regard to their use in the vedic period there is a difference of opinion amongst scholars. The majority of European scholars are disposed to think, that, in that very early period the use of gold and silver money was not known. Some of them go so far as to deny the existence of gold and silver currency in India prior to the contact of Indians with foreign nations.
Thus, Prinsep attributed the rise of coined money in India to the Greek contact and H.H. Wilson too once leaned to the same view (Ariana Antiqua. 404). Kennedy, held the view that the earliest Indian coins were copied—from the Babylonian originals after the Hindus came into contact with these peoples in the seventh or sixth century BC. Vincent Smith entertained practically the same view.
The late Professor Max Muller too, himself a Vedic scholar of repute, tried to prove the same and made the ludicrous assertion that the Vedic Niska was so called after Kaniska, (not the Kusana Kaniska) which was the surname of some ancient pre-Vedic king.
With this spirit of an a priori assertion, based not on reason or evidence, we have nothing to do. Almost all of them admit the use of word Niska, which in later literature always meant piece of gold of definite weight, but explain its use in the Vedic literature in the sense of nothing but ornaments of gold, e.g., gold-necklaces.
In this connection it must be admitted that the evidence of some of the passages quoted above, point to the use of Niskas for the purpose of ornaments and in this sense they have been taken by Sayana (Cf. Niska-grivawearing a necklace R. V, V, 19. 3). In other places however, this meaning is hardly applicable, and if we take this sense, it will bring in absurdity. Thus in R. V, I. 126. 2, where the singer celebrates the gift of 100 Niskas, the meaning necklace, hardly appears to be appropriate. A man cannot require a hundred necklaces to adorn himself.
There the word can only mean some standard weight of gold in common use. Macdonell and Keith, who would otherwise have regarded Niska to be a gold ornament worn on the neck, take the evidence of this passage into consideration and sum up in the following way-“As early as the Rigveda, traces are seen of the use of Niska as a sort of currency. For, a singer celebrates the receipt of a hundred studs and a hundred Niskas. He could hardly require the Niskas merely for purposes of personal adornment.” (Vedic Index, I. 455.)
The truth about Niska, thus appears to be, that they were pieces of gold of definite weight and were used as medium of exchange. That they were used as neck-ornaments can be easily explained as being due to the Indian tendency of making necklaces of gold and silver coins.
We have inumerabia examples of this in Indian literature, and even now we find such necklaces of gold coins being used among the rich. Poorer people including labourers or even scavengers often make necklaces of coins, which not only serve as ornaments but form-their savings.
Thus, the view that the Niskas were gold or silver pieces of different weight and value, is confirmed by the evidence cited above. The existence of a money-standard in general acceptance, may be further proved by other evidences. Thus some passages speak of gifts of precious metals without enumerating any standard.
These gifts of so many pieces do undoubtedly refer to some definite standard in general acceptance, since, without such a standard in general acceptance, we can hardly expect the mention of mere numbers without any further specification.
To quote instances of such gifts without specification of standard, we find the following important passages. Thus Rigveda V, 27. 1, speaks of the gift of 10,000 pieces by king Tryaruna (Traivrsno Agne dasabbih sahasraih Vsisvanara Tryarunasciketa. – R. V, V. 27. 1 and 2; note the words Dasavis sabasrais and sata), the son of Tribrsna. The second verse of the same Rigvedic hymn speaks of another such gift of a hundred in addition to other things (To me sata ca vimsatim ca gonam etc.).
Again, in R. V, VIII. 6. 46 and 47, the sage Vatsa, praising the munificence of king Tirindira speaks of his bestowing of a hundred and a thousand and other gifts of money and kine (Satamaham Tirindire sabasram parsa va dade radhamsi yadvanam. Trini satanyarvatam sahasta dasa gonam dadus pajr ya s mna).
It is needless to enumerate more such passages. Any how all these may be undoubtedly taken to refer to some standard, and this standard seems to have been so common and well known, that the priests did not take the trouble of mentioning it.
Wilson in his translation of the Rigveda noted this point and made the observation that “it is not impossible however that pieces of money are intended, for if we trust Arrian, the Hindus had coined money before the days of Alexander”. As for ourselves, we need not go to the time of Alexander, for long before that period the Buddhist books mention Niskas and Suvarnas of gold. In the 4th century BC too, according to the evidence be Artha-sastra the Niska was a gold coin issued and regulated by the state.
The Niska therefore appears to us as meaning a metallic medium of exchange. This view would appear not only reasonable but will go to explain the meaning of passages where the word occurs. The passages which contain references to the wearing of Niskas (as necklaces) may be explained as pointing to the use of Niskas for ornamental purpose, a custom still in vogue in modem India.
Moreover, when we examine the social and economic condition of the Vedic period, it appears almost impossible that a society highly developed, with abundance of gold and silver, and in which there were various kinds of money-transactions (loans and debts on interest), did not know the use of precious metals for money transactions.
Niskas were both of gold and silver. We have no reference to their weight until we come to the later Smrti works or to the Artha-sastra. These works though later, seem to have preserved the old tradition. The weight of the Niska as given in Visnu, Yagnavalkya and Manu (though differing from that given in the Arthasastra) was equal to that of four Suvarnas, which was equal to 80 x 4 – 320 Krsnalas.
Thus says Manu (VIII. 135):
Pancakrsnalako masaste suvarnasca sodasa.
Palam suvarna-catvarah palani dharanam dasa.
Yagnavalkya speaks in similar terms. Visnu also says (IV. 10) that a Niska was equal to four Suvarnas (Catuh suvarnako Niskah.)
Apart from these Niskas, two other metallic standards of gold and silver came into use during the close of the Vedic period. Of these, the first was the Krsnala—a bit of gold equal to the weight of a Krsnala. This would appear from the evidence of the Kathaka Samhita and of the Taittiriya Samhita. The first named work refers to a gold Krsnala (XI. 4 – e.g. Hiranya-krsnala). The other work (see-Taitt. Br. 126.96.36.199) mentions the gift of one Krsnala each, to the participators in a race. It is mentioned also in the Taittiriya Samhita (188.8.131.52.) and in the Maitrayani Sam (II. 2.2).
As to the Satamana of gold, it is repeatedly mentioned in the Kathaka Samhita and the Satapatha Brahmana. It was evidently a gold piece of the weight of 100 Krsnalas. In the Satapatha Brahmana, in connection with Rajasuya, we are told of the fastening of the round (vrtta) Satamanas, behind the hind-wheel of the cart-stand and these were then directed to be given to priests. (sat. Br. V. 4. 3. 24). Many other passages (XII. 7. 2, 3.; XIII. 2. 3. 2) contain this reference to the Satamanas, which were given as fees to the Brahmana priests officiating in the sacrifice.
The Satamanas, were one of the principal metallic standards used in India, especially in those regions where the Black Yajurveda and the Satapatha Brahmana, were composed. Later authorities like Panini Manu and Yagnavalkya, refer to these Satamanas which were both of silver and of gold. (see Manu VIII. 135 to 138 and Yagnavalkya I. 364-366).
In conclusion we may sum up that the above mentioned metallic pieces, were in large circulation in the various regions of India. Whether, they were coined money in our sense and bore any stamp is yet to be decided. Dr. Thomas in his article on Weights and Measures (vide Numismata Orientalia) took the word Visvarupa to mass “pervaded or covered with forms and symbols” instead of “omniform” as suggested by others, and thus tried to prove that the Niskas were stamped and bore inscriptions.
This is however going too far, and we cannot as yet base our conclusions on the evidence of a single word. The practice of stamping Symbols, is rather late in the history of money, and as far as India is concerned this may be taken to hold good.
Most probably the weight and fineness of these determined their value. In connection with the circulation of these as well as in all transactions with regard to gold—the Krsnala came to be regarded as the primary standard of weight. The evidence of the Satapatha Brahmana seems to point to the acceptance of the Pada-(1/4) as a standard (Satap. XIV. and Brhada. Upa. III. 1. 1. etc.).
Sources of Gold:
As to the sources of gold, very little is known. But this large circulation shows that there must have been sources of local supply. Even the Dravidians and Aborigines are spoken of as owning gold in the hymns.
Keith and MacDonnell are of opinion that in those days gold was obtained from the bed of the rivers (Vedic index II. p. 504). They think that the extraction of gold from earth was known (R.V. I. 117. 5. A. V. XII. 1. 6.). Washing for gold is recorded (Taitt. Sam. VI. 1.7. 1; and Satap. Br. II. 1. 1.5).
The use of gold and silver however, did not abolish or put an end to the use of other standards of value, and the cow served this purpose for a long time. According to the Dharma sutras, fines for murder (Vaira) continued to be assessed in kine.
Panini, too, mentions the purchase of articles (with cows) in terms 6f the cow. Thus in his Sutras we find the word Pancagu (anything purchased with 5 cows). Barter existed for a long time and even during the period of the composition of the Jatakas, rice was used as, a standard of value.