The post-Mauryan economy was based on the growth of agriculture, internal and long distance trade and on crafts and arts.
The most important development of the period was the flourishing trade between India and the Western world.
Improved internal communication system under the Mauryas was responsible for the growth of trade and commerce in the post-Mauryan phase.
Land routes to South India developed during this period along the river valleys and the coasts and routes through mountain passes that helped trade and commerce. A landmark in the growth of external trade and commerce was the discovery of the monsoon winds by the Greek sailor Hippolus in around AD 46—47.
This made possible, navigation across the Arabian Sea, by reducing the distance between Indian and west Asian ports. The invasions of the Indo-Greeks, Kushans and the Sakas increased and deepened contacts between India and western and central Asia. Central Asia acted as a link between China and India as Indian merchants acted as intermediaries in the silk trade of China. While the merchants of north-western India mostly traded with western and central Asia and China, the merchants of western and southern India concentrated on South Arabia, the Red Sea and Alexandria, which handled the bulk of the Roman trade.
The emergence of the Roman Empire was beneficial to the Indian trading community. The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, written by an anonymous Greek navigator, records that Indians exported pepper, pearls, ivory, silk, diamonds, saffron, precious stones, tortoise shell and spikenard and imported topaz, thin cloth, linen, antimony, crude glass, copper, tin, lead, wine and wheat.
The discovery of red glazed arretine ware at excavations of Arikemedu near Pondicherry (now Pondicherry) makes us believe that the Romans not only exported this item but also had a settlement in that locality. So far, 68 hoards of gold and silver coins have been unearthed in India and interestingly nearly 57 hoards have been found south of the Vindhyas.
Indians received as their share of profit nearly 50 million Sesterces (Roman currency) per year and this made Pliny remark that Rome was at disadvantage due to the favourable balance of payments towards India.The phenomenal increase of long distance trade led to the vogue of money-economy during this period. While the imported coins were used as bullion, the indigenously minted coins were used for day-to-day transactions. Very few gold coins were minted by the Indo-Greeks, which the Kushans minted in considerable numbers.
As gold and silver coins could not serve as medium of exchange, the Satavahanas issued coins of lead or potin. Copper coins were also issued by the Naga rulers and by several other indigenous local state powers. This clearly indicates that money economy had penetrated deep into the economic life and activities of the common people.
As a corollary to the prevalence of cash economy and commerce, there arose a number of towns to which Periplus makes direct reference. Another interesting consequence of the growth of trade and commerce was the growth of towns, increasing affluence of certain sections, and cash economy that led to the proliferation of arts and crafts. Mahavastu, a Buddhist work of the 2nd century AD, which records that more than 36 kinds of workers lived in the town Rajgir, attests this.
Further, Milindapanho another literary work related to the Buddhist discourse also refers to 75 occupations, 60 of which were connected with various kinds of crafts. Along with proliferation of crafts and arts, we also notice increasing specialization of skills of manufacturing items. While Milindapanho refers to specialized skill of artisans of metals such as gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, brass, iron and precious stones, Periplus refers to export of iron and steel to Egypt. In the sphere of textile manufacturing also, the superior skill of the Indians is known from Milindapanho and the works of Patanjali.
Increase in production and the consequent surplus required an efficient way of distribution to obtain sufficient reward for the people’s hard labour. Both the artisans and the merchants involved in production and distribution of the goods developed collective bargaining strength by forming guilds and corporations respectively. It is very interesting to note that there existed more than two dozens of guilds of artisans. The Satavahana epigraphs refer to the guilds or Srenis of oil pressers, hydraulic machine operators, potters, weavers, com dealers, bamboo workers and braziers. Besides these, many more might have existed.
The Srenis also acted as banks that paid interest on money deposited in with them in these guilds and we come to know that Ushavadatta made two permanent endowments to Kalika Nigama or Sreni and one endowment made provision for new robes and the other for providing minor food necessities. This indicates the permanent financial soundness of the guilds. The existence of the guilds of traders (Sreni) in Kushan Mathura is known from a record, which refers to a perpetual endowment (Akshayanivi) in Purana currency made in two guilds enjoining to make payments out of the interest accrued on the deposit.
The Basarh seal of the Gupta times refers to Sreshti-Sarthavaha-Kulika- Nigama, which has been translated as guilds of merchants, of itinerant traders and of artisans. Epigraphs of this period refer to Vanik or merchant, Sarthavaha or itinerant or mobile trader and Sresti. Epigraphs attest to the existence of many guilds in the Mathura region and the western Deccan and in particular the town of Govardhana, which happens to be an important centre of guild of artisans.
Some of the artisans and traders with the help of their guilds have become wealthy and emerged, as a dominant social group, having a say in the administrative structure of the period. Issue of coins by certain guilds indicates how powerful they had become during this period. Generally, a sovereign power only has the right to issue coins. Issue of coins by the merchant guilds of Taxila, Kausambi, Taripuri, Mahishmati or modern Mandhata, Vidisha, Eran and Varanasi indicates that they exercised considerable influence.
Yet we have no clinching evidence to prove their actual participation in the administration. Every guild had its own insignia, banner and seal, which gave it individual identity. Every guild had its Samayadharma that had the strength of a law of the king. The guild provided social status to its members whereby also enabling them to earn reasonably good returns for their hard work. Every artisan had to follow the rules of work and quality for which price of the finished product and the guild laws were determined by the state.
The position of the Sudras who were artisans was economically better off and the economic distinction between the Vaisya and the Sudra appears to have been reduced considerably. The other Sudras earned their livelihood as hired labour and the Manudharmasastra and Patanjali imposed severe humiliating restrictions on the Sudras. This could be to safeguard the interests of the Brahmans against the Sudra opposition.
The cultivators and the mercantile group were divided into a number of Grihas or homesteads or Kutumbins or Kulas or families. The head of a Griha was called a Gahapati or Kutumbin. The Dasabrahmana Jataka refers to Brahmanas working as tax collectors, hunters, traders, armed escorts, servants, wagon drivers and even menials of the kings.
A chapterof the Mahabharata divides the Brahmanas into grades; those that are equivalent to the gods, the Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Sudras based on their traits. B.N. Mukherjee states that the attempt to equate the Brahman with Kshatriya probably indicates that the former often took upon the jobs traditionally associated with the other castes.
The Kusa Jataka refers to a prince or Kshatriya working successively as a potter, basket-maker, reed-worker garland-maker and cook. This makes B.N. Mukherjee observe that the Kshatriya could engage in activities not traditionally associated with his caste. In this period, it is not the birth in a cast that decided his role, but the profession in which he engaged himself a number of Satavahana epigraphs refer to the issuer’s professions, but not their caste. During this period, the Varnaor the caste system was not as rigid as it is supposed to be. Though the rulers proclaim that they upheld the order of the Vamasrama dharma, in reality, the Varna model was theoretical and not actually practiced.
A view prevails that the traditional Varna model was threatened by the influx of foreigners. Since there is also a demographic evidence, it may be suggested that the number of foreigners was not such as to disturb the Varna model. Among the foreigners, compared to the Greeks, the Sakas and the Pahlavas, the number of Kushans appear to be more. By embracing Buddhism, the foreigners tried to find a foothold in India and as such, we notice the Indo-Greek kings, Agathocles and Menander displayed Buddhist symbols on their coins. A foreigner, Irila, built two cisterns for the monks at Junnar.
We are very well aware of the patronage of Kanishka to Buddhism and how it became an international religion in his reign. As already noticed, the concept of Varnasamkara or contamination of varnas was introduced to explain and justify the emergence of new castes in the Varna order because of Anuloma and Pratiloma marriages. The society of those days appears be less rigid and more catholic in temperament. It is only because of this spirit; a large number of foreigners settled in India and embraced the religions of their choice.
Rudradaman was a follower of Brahmanism and Heliodorous, an ambassador to Bhagabadra of Vidisa was a follower of Vishnu. D.R. Bhandarkar observes that in the cave inscriptions, Yavanas are frequently mentioned as making gifts in connection with Chaityas or monastic residences. At Karle, we have two names of Yavanas, Sihadhaya or Singhadyaja and Dharma.
At Junar, we find mention of three Yavanas called Isila, Chitya or Chitra and Chandra. At Nasik, the name of only one Yavana is found, Indragnidatta, son of Dharmadeva. They all turned into Buddhist laymen and all of them except one had assumed Indian names.