The early part of the Vedic period or that preceding it, was an age of economic self-sufficiency and consequently there was little scope for an exchange of commodities. All the rural centres were self-supporting. Every house-holder produced the necessaries of life—his farm producing his food-grains and other necessaries, the industry of the women of his household supplied him with his clothing, while the craftsmen attached to the village did the rest.
Consequently, there was no inter-dependence between two neighbouring local areas. The surplus product was kept for future consumption. This state of full economic independence did not however last long. Society became complex.
A large section of the community gave up the simple agricultural life; the primitive arts and crafts drew away a large number; owing to these and various other causes, there arose a scope for interchange of commodities between different local areas.
Barter of goods, and later on, regular purchase and sale came to be introduced. The excess of production in certain localities induced energetic men to carry them to other places where these could be disposed of on profit. In this way there arose commercial enterprise, and we find mention of merchants even in the Rigveda as well as the use of the verb Kri (-meaning purchase; R. V. IV. 24. 10).
But beyond this, the Rigvedic evidence does not tell us anything. We know nothing us to the existence of markets, though one passage suggests the existence of haggling (IV. 24. 9). The same speaks of sellers, who demanded, more price than that originally asked for (e.g., something more than that paid at the time of sale). The buyer on the other hand is represented, as insisting on the original price demanded and paid for, and is made to insist on the sanctity of contracts (R. V, IV. 24.9).
As to traders we have in the Rigveda the words Vanij and Vanija (R. V, I. 112. 11 and R. V, 45. 6) denoting a merchant. In the Vaj. Sam. in connection with the Purusamedha the Vanij or merchant is mentioned as a victim (sea Vaj Sam. XXX. 17 and Taitt. Br. III. 4.14.1). Excepting their existence we know nothing of the Vedic merchants. The Vedic passages where the word Vanij occurs, tell us nothing about them, i.e. about the way in which they carried on business, their difficulties or the profits they made.
When however we come to the Atharva Veda, we have some information about early merchants and the commodities they carried for exchange. That book (V. 7. 6) mentions garments (Dursa) coverlets (Pavaita) and goatskin, (Ajina) as articles of trade.
At to merchants the information supplied is really interesting, for an Atharva Vedic hymn (e.g., III.5) shows that the early merchant was an adventurous wanderer, who moving from place to place, risked not only his goods, but his life for the sake of gain.
He had to travel from one part of the country to another. His life was often jeopardized owing to the depredations of wild beasts on the way and owing to the presence of robbers, who scrupled not to take the life of such people. Consequently, before starting, the merchant prayed to Indra “the merchant par excellence” (A.V. III. 15.1), so that he might be his “guide and leader, chasing ill-will, wild beasts and highway robbers.”
After this prayer for security he is described as turning to Agni and praying for “a hundred treasures” and craving pardon for “this stubbornness.” He is then made to speak of “the distant pathway which his feet have trodden,” and to call upon the gods to be propitious to him in order that there may be success in ‘sale (Vikraya), barter (Prapana), and exchange of merchandise’ (Pratipana),—that his invested capital (Dhanam) may grow more for him and his ventures may be prosperous?
The Vedic merchant, thus, seems to have been an adventurer, in search of gain. He sold, bartered and exchanged his goods for those of another locality. He appears to have been the fore-runner of the Svartha-vahas and caravan leaders of the early Buddhist literature and of the Jatakas. The above hymn is used in the Kausika sutra (K. S, L. 13 for success in business) for success in business.
In addition to these indigenous merchants of the Vaisya caste, we have another class of merchants designated by the word Pani in Vedic literature (see R. V, I. 33. 3; X, 60. 6; A V, 11. 7; Vaj. Sam. XXXV.I). According to the evidence of Vedic literature, the Panis were a rich and enterprising merchant class solely devoted to the cause of gain, either through trade or through usury. They have been designated Bekanatas or usurers’ and Rigvedic evidence shows that with the exception of a few of them like Brbu, they were the objects of popular dislike.
According to Roth and Zimmer they were a niggardly merchant class who neither worshipped the gods nor revered the priests. Ludwig thought, that they belonged to the aboriginal trading class, while according to Hillebrandt they were the Parnians of Strabo. The identification and association of the Pani with Bekanata (R. V, VIII. 16. 10 and Nirukta VI. 26) a word of foreign origin (Babylonian or aboriginal?) is noted by MacDonnell and Keith in their Vedic Index. (I. 472-3).
The growth of trade facilitated the growth of standards and measures of exchange. In course of time a metallic currency grew and displaced simple barter, or the use of the cow as a standard of value. The machineries for measuring quantities came into existence.
Balance Weights and Measures:
The balance or the Tula is mentioned in the Vaj. Samhita (XXX. 17) also in the Satapatha Brahamana. In connection with the estimation of a man’s good and evil deeds, or in connection with the balance ordeal we find it mentioned.
Wooden vessels of definite size were used in measuring grains. Standards of weight were also invented. Thus, the Krsnala of (berry of abrus precatorisus) and Masa and some other grains were used as standards to weight in measuring precious metals. (Vedic Index. I. P. 185).
We have very little information about the inter-change of commodities of various localities. But any bow there are indications that towards the close of the Vedic period goods from the extreme west were sent to the east. The wool of Gandhara and Parusni were prized all throughout the land.
Similarly the Atharva Veda which describes Guggula, as a product of the Indus or ‘coming from the sea’ points to the growth of a centre of maritime trade in the region of Sindh. The Satapatha Brahmana describes (Sat. Br. XI. I. 5. 12) horses as Saindhavas or coming from the Indus region (Br. Ar. Up, VI. 2. 13). The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (11.4. 12) also describes salt as coming from the Iadus.
It is difficult to answer the question as to whether the sea was known to the Vedic Aryans or whether these people had any commercial intercourse with the other maritime nations of antiquity. We are dependent more or less on literary and circumstantial evidence and even then, the material at our disposal is very scanty. As we have said elsewhere the word Samudra, which in later texts always means the sea, occurs in the Rigveda which also contains some references to voyages to the Samudra.
Thus Rigveda I. 25. 7., referring to the Samudra, speaks of Varuna’s knowledge of the ocean-routes (Samudriyah) along which ships sail. A second passage (1. 56. 2) refers to the Samudra in connection with the activity of merchants. Samudra is again mentioned which describes the voyage of Vasistha and Varuna (in this passage the word Nava occurs).
In addition to this we have in the Rigveda the story of Bhujyu, son of Tugra, who was sent out by his father to conquer certain enemies. While at sea his vessels were disabled and he with his followers were on the point of being drowned. But he prayed to the Asvins who, heard his prayers and sent him home in a vessel of one hundred oars (Sataritram Davam).
As to the meaning of the word Samudra occurring in the passages mentioned above, some scholars are of opinion that Samudra meant not the sea but only the “lower course of the Indus which after receiving the waters of the Punjab rivers is so wide that a boat in mid-stream is invisible from the bank” (see macdonell. Hist. of Sans. Lit. P. 143). In their Vedic Index, Macdonell and Keith have discussed this question and cited the opinions of various scholars e.g. those of St. Martin, Lassen, Max Muller, and Zimmer, (Vedic Index II. P. 431-38).
They have summed up by saying “that there are references to the sea (R. V, I. 47. 6; VII. 6. 7; (X. 97. 44. etc.), perhaps to pearls and the gains of trade and the story of the ship-wrecked Bhujyu seems to allude to marine navigation.” (The legend of Dirghatamas may be added.). This view is reasonable and ought to be accepted by all.
As to the existence of trade-relations between India and Babylonia or any other country of the ancient world, we have no definite or positive information, but there are circumstantial evidences which throw light upon the contact of nations in antiquity, and go to prove that there existed some sort of intercourse between India on the one hand, and Assyria Babylonia and some other countries of the ancient world, on the other.
The similarity between some of the oldest Vedic Myths (compare the story of Manu and the accounts of the Deluge in Vedic and Babylonian literatures) and those of Sumeria, the recent discovery of the records of the settlement of some branches of the Aryan race in Syria and Sumeria worshiping some of the oldest gods of the Vedic pantheon, (see the account of the Mitanni and of the Kassites in Hall’s Ancient History of the Near East pp. 201-230) the recent discovery of some clay-seals bearing cuneiform inscriptions found in Southern India, the discovery of the presence of Indigo in the clothes of some of the Egyptian mummies, the importation of Sonter-incense (Candana) by the Punt (Puanit) expedition in the reign of the Egyptian Queen Hat- sep-situ, the discovery by Rassam of Indian cedar in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, and of Indian teak in the temple of the moon-god at Ur refounded by Nebonidus—all these point to the existence of an intercourse between India and some of the nations of antiquity.’
Perhaps this connection existed from pro-historic times when the sturdy navigators of ancient India, whether Aryans or Dravidians, made voyages to the West or to the Eastern archipelago or even further beyond Mr. Hall in his early History of the Near East, discussing the question of the origin of the early Sumerians expressed the view, that these people were a branch of Dravidians of Southern India, who migrated to that region either by land through Persia or by the sea (see Hall, P. 173-74).
We may not accept this view of Mr. Hall but the recent excavations in Mohenjodaro throw light on the probable Indo-Sumerian intercourse on the Indus valley and confirm this race-contact of the past. As yet the time is not come when we may form any definite opinion on the subject and we are to wait until the labours of those scholars engaged in the study of the history of the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Elamites, the Kassites, the Mitannians and the Hittites, have succeeded in placing before us some definite evidence which alone can help us in solving the problem. But this much is almost certain that maritime intercourse existed between Vedic India and the contemporary ancient world.