In this article we will discuss about the state revenue and trade practices followed in the Buddhist economy.

State Revenue during Buddhist Economy:

We have no direct evidence of such a tithe or other tax being levied on the commonwealth by any of the republics or oligarchies mentioned in the Buddhist canon, such as the Sakiyas, Koliyas, Licchavis, Mallas, etc. But that they did so raise the state revenue, in the case at least of the Sakiyas, seems to be attested by Asoka’s inscription on the Lumbini or Rumminder pillar. The tithe thus remitted on the occasion of Asoka’s visit to the birthplace of the Buddha, must have been imposed by the Sakiyas at a date prior to the Mauryan hegemony.

The Sakiyas and other republics are recorded as meeting for political business at their own mote-halls, and must inevitably have had a financial policy to discuss and carry out. That their enactments could to somewhat drastically paternal appears in the case of the Molla clansmen of Kusinara, who imposed a fine of 500 (pieces) on anyone who ‘went not forth to welcome the Blessed One’ when he drew near, on his tour, to their town. These Mallas were also possessed of a mote-hall (santhagara) for parliamentary discussions—a class of buildings illustrated by the bas-relief of a celestial House of Lords on the Bharhut Sttupa.

Land might, at least in the kingdom of Magadha, be given away, and in that of Kosala, be sold. In the former case, a Brahman landowner offers a thousand karisas of his estate as a gift; in the latter, a merchant (by a little sharp practice) entangles an unwilling noble in the sale of a park. And in the law-books we read that land might be let against a certain share of the produce.


The holdings too in the arable land, called the khetta, of each village would be subject to redistribution and red vision among a family, as one generation succeeded another. It is not clear whether any member of a village community could give or sell any of the khetta to an outsider.

It is just possible that the old tradition, expressed in the Brahmanas when a piece of land was given as a sacrificial fee— And the Earth said- Let no mortal give me away!—may have survived in the villages as a communal, anti-alienating feeling concerning any disintegration of the basis of their social and economic unity.

We should anyway expect, from what is revealed in the early Buddhist books, to find such a sentiment upheld, less by the infrequent rural autocrat and his little kingdom of country- seat, tenant-farmers, and serfs, than by the preponderating groups of cultivators, each forming a gama.

When, in the Jataka legend, a king of Vedeha abandons the world as anchorite, he is described as renouncing both his capital, the city (nagara) of Mithila, seven yojanas (in circumference), and his realm of sixteen thousand gamas. It may sound incredible that a country owning such a wealth of ‘villages’ should contain but one town, and that so vast in extent, as to suggest inclusion not only of parks but of suburban gamas.


There was not, however, any such hard and fast line between gama and nigama (small town) to warrant the exclusion, in this description, of some gamas which may have amounted to nigamas. A similar vagueness holds between our ‘town’ and village.

A gama might apparently mean anything from a group of two or three houses to an indefinite number. It was the generic, inclusive term for an inhabited settlement, not possessing the fortifications of a nagara or the ruler’s palace of a rajadhani. The number of inhabitants in the gamas of the Jataka tales varied from 30 to 1000 families.

And family (kula), it must be remembered, was a more comprehensive unit than it is with us, including not only father and mother, children and grandparents, but also the wives and children of the sons. Gama, it is true, might be used to differentiate a class of settlement, as in the compound gama-nigama, ‘villages and towns’; but it is also used in the wider, looser sense of group as opposed to single house. For instance, a fire, when starting in a house, may extend to the whole gama.” When a bhikkhu leaves park, forest, or mountain to seek alms, he enters the gama,’ whether it be a neighbouring village, or the suburbs of great Savatthi.

Of such cities there were few in Northern India. Less than twenty are named. Six of them only are reckoned by the There Ananda as sufficiently important cities (maha-nagara) to be the scene of a Buddha’s final passing away- Savatthi, Champa, Bajagaha, Saketa, Kosambi, Benares, Kusinara, where that event actually look- place, he depreciates as not a ‘village but a jungle townlet (nagaraka). The greatness of Pataliputra (Patna) was yet to come. In the absence of any systematic account of this rural organisation in ancient records, it is better to refrain from Laying down any homogeneous scheme.


No doubt different villages, in different districts, varied one from another in the customs of land-tenure, and in the rights of individual householders as against the community. The jungles and rivers of the vast Ganges valley fostered independent development probably at least as much as the hill-barriers in the Alps have done in the case of Swiss and Italian peasant communities down to this day.

Around the gama, which appears to have been classed as of the country (janapala), of the border (paccanta), or as suburban, lay its khetta, or pastures, and its woodland or uncleared jungle- primeval forest like the Andhavana of Kosala, the Sitavana of Magadha, the Pacinavamsadaya of the Sakiya Territory, retreats traditionally haunted by wild beast and by gentler woodland sprites, and where Mara, the Lucifer of seductive evil influences, might appear in one shape or another.

Different from these were such suburban groves as the Bamboo Grove belonging to Magadha’s king, the Anjanavana of Saketa, the Jetavana of Savatthi. Through those other uncleared woodlands and moorlands, where the folk went to gather their firewood, and litter, ran caravan routes, roads that were at times difficult because of swampy passages after rain, and here and here dangerous, less on account of aggressive beasts than because of brigands not to mention demonic bipeds.

Adjoining or merged into these wilder tracts were supplementary grazing pastures of herds of cattle and goats —herds belonging to king or commoners. Commoners customarily entrusted their flocks to a communal neat herd, as we find in the Pennine Alps to-day (le fromageur). We find him either penning his herds at night in sheds or, more often, bringing them back every evening and counting them out to the several owners, varying the pasturage from day to day. The official name gopalaka and the context suggest that dairy work was not usually expected of him so much as sagacity in minding his beasts.

The arable ground of the gama lay without the clustered dwellings, since these were apparently enclosed by a wall or stockade with gates gamadvara, Fences, snares, and field watchmen guarded the khetta or gamakhetta from intrusive beasts and birds, while the internal boundaries of each householder plot were apparently made by channels dug for co-operative irrigation.

These dividing ditches, rectangular and curvilinear, were likened, at least in the Magadha khettas, to a patchwork robe, and prescribed by the Buddha as a pattern for the uniform of his Order- torn pieces of cast-away cloth sewn together, ‘a thing which could not be coveted. The limits of the whole khetta might be extended by fresh clearing of forest land.

And whereas the majority of holdings were probably small, manageable single-handed or with eons and perhaps a hired man, estates of 1000 karisas (acres) and more occur in the Jatakas, farmed by Brahmans. In the Suttas, again the Brahman Kasibharadvajais employing 500 ploughs and hired men (bhatika) to guide plough and oxen. Rice was the staple article of food; besides which seven other kinds of grain are mentioned; sugar-cane and fruits, vegetables and flowers were also cultivated.

Instances of collectivist initiative reveal a relatively advanced sense of citizenship in the gamas. The peasant proprietors had a nominal head in the bhojaka or headman, who, as their representative at political headquarters and municipal head, was paid by certain dues and fines. But all the village resident met to confer with him and each other on civic and political matters. And carrying the upshot of their counsels into effect, they built new mote-halls and rest-houses, constructed reservoirs and parks, and took turns at a voluntary corvee in keeping their roads in repair, herein again followed by Alpine peasants of to-day.

Women too considered it a civic honour to bear their own part in municipal building. A further glimpse into the sturdy spirit in gama-life is caught in the Jataka sentiment that for peasants to leave their tillage and work for impoverished kings was a mark of social decay. Relevant to this is the low social rank assigned to the hired labourer, who is apparently classed beneath the domestic slave.

Security owing to drought or to floods is not infrequently referred to, extending even over a whole kingdom. This contradicts the ‘affirmation’ recorded by Megasthenes, that ‘famine has never visited India,’ unless his informant meant a very general and protracted famine.

The times of scarcity in Buddhist records apparently refer only to brief periods over restricted areas. Nothing in all the foregoing evidence has gone to show that, in the India of early Buddhist literature, the pursuit of agriculture was associated with either social prestige or social stigma.

The stricter Brahman tradition, not only in the law-books, but also in the Sutta Nipata, the Majjhima Nikaya, and the Jatakas, expressly reserved the two callings of agriculture and trade for the Vaidya or middle class, and judges them unfit for Brahman or noble. Thus the Brahman Esukari of Savatthi considers village and dairy farming as not less the property and province of the Vaidya than are bow and arrow, endowed maintenance (by alms), and sickle and yoke, the property and province of noble, Brahman, and working classes respectively.

And here and there, in the Jataka-book, Brahmans who engage in agriculture, trade, and other callings are declared to have fallen from their Brahmanhood. On the other hand, in both Jatakas and Suttas, not only are Brahmans frequently found pursuing tillage, cow herding, goat keeping, trade, hunting, wood-work or carpentry, weaving, caravan guarding, archery, carriage-driving, and snake- charming, but also no reflection is passed upon them for so doing, nay, the Brahman farmer is at times a notably pious man and a Bodhisat to boot.

Dr. Fick is disposed to think that the North­western (Udicca) Brahmans of the Kurus and Panchalas, some of whom came east and settled there, inherited a stricter standard. Nevertheless it is not claimed for the pious ones just mentioned, living near Benares and in Magadha, that they were Udicca immigrants. Even the law-books permit Brahmans to engage in worldly callings if they are in straitened circumstances, or if they take no active share in the work.

As for the Kshatriya clansmen of the republics mentioned above, they were largely cultivators of the soil. For instance, in the Kunala Jataka, it was the workmen in the fields of the Sakiyan and Koliya ‘bhojakas, amaccas and uparajas, who began to quarrel over the prior turn to irrigate. In the earliest Indian literature agricultural and pastoral concepts play a great part. But even if this implied that a special dignity attached to agriculture, it does not follow that any such tradition survived, if it survived at all, associated with any section of society.

There was among Indo-Aryans little of the feudal tie between land and lord with lordship over the land-tillers, which made broad acres a basis for nobility in the West. However they accomplished their prehistoric invasion of the Ganges basin, ‘land- grabbing’ does not seem to have been carried out pari passu with success in generalship. This may have been because the annexation of land to any wide extent meant clearing of jungle.

Except among Dravidian and Kolarian towns along the rivers, the task of the invaders was more like that of pioneering settlers in America. And there we know that land is not an appendage involving special privileges and entailing special claims, but a commodity like any other.

The slave or servant (dasa, dasi) was an adjunct in all households able to command domestic service; but slaves do not appear to have been kept, as a rule, in great numbers, either in the house, or, as in the West, at mining or ‘plantation’ work. Their treatment differed of course according to the disposition and capacity of both master and slave.

Thus we find, in the Jataka, the slave, petted, permitted to learn writing and handicrafts besides his ordinary duties as valet and footman, saying to himself that, at the slightest fault he might get ‘beaten, imprisoned, branded, and fed on slave’s fare. But of actual ill-treatment there is scarce any mention. Two instances of beating occur, and in both the victims were maids.

One lies a-bed repeatedly (to test her pious mistress’s temper), the other fails to bring home wages. Presumably she had been sent to fetch her master’s wage, or else had been hired out. But we do not meet with runaway slaves. Slavery might be incurred through capture, commuted death sentences, debt voluntary self-degradation, or judicial punishment; on the other hand, slaves might be manumitted, or might free themselves by payment.

They might not, while still un-discharged, be admitted into the religious community (Sangha). The hireling, wage-earner, day-labourer was no man’s chattel, yet his life was probably harder sometimes than that of the slaves. He was to a great extent employed on the larger land-holdings. He was paid either in board and lodging, or in money-wages. Manu prescribes regular wages both in money and kind for menials in the king’s service.

Trade during Buddhist Period:

This freedom of initiative and mobility in trade and labour finds further exemplification in the enterprise of a settlement (gama) of wood- workers. Failing to carry out the orders for which pre-payment had been made, they were summoned to fulfill their contract. But they, instead of ‘abiding in their lot,’ as General Walker the economist said of their descendants, ‘with oriental stoicism and fatalism,’ made ‘a mighty ship’ secretly, and emigrated with their families, slipping down the Ganges by night, and so out to sea, till they reached a fertile island.

Stories, all of these, not history; nevertheless they serve to illustrate the degree to which labour and capital were mobile at the time, at least, when these stories were incorporated in the Buddhist canon, and before that. And they show that social divisions and economic occupations were very far from coinciding. There was plenty of pride of birth, which made intermarriage and eating together between certain ranks an act more or less disgraceful to those reckoning themselves as socially higher. And sons, especially perhaps among artisans, tended to follow the paternal industry.

The trade of the trader, dealer, or middleman (vanija) may well have been largely hereditary. Traditional good-will handed on here would prove specially effective in commanding confidence, and thus be a stronger incentive than the force a tergo of caste-rule. There is, however, no instance as yet produced from early Buddhist documents pointing to any corporate organisation of the nature of a gild or Hansa league.

The hundred or so of merchants who, in the Chullaka-Setthi Jataka, come to buy up the cargo of a newly arrived ship, are apparently each trying to ‘score off his own bat’ no less than the pushful youth who forestalled them. Nor is there any hint of syndicate or federation or other agreement existing between the 500 dealers who are fellow passengers on board the ill-fated ships in the Vala hassa and Pandara Jatakas; or the 700 who were lucky enough to secure Supparaka as their pilot, beyond the fact that there was concerted action in chartering one and the same vessel.

Among merchants travelling by land, however, the rank of satthavaha or caravan-leader seems to imply some sort of federation. This position was apparently hereditary, and to be a jetthaka or elder, in this capacity, on an expedition, apparently implied that other merchants (vanija) with their carts and caravan-followers, were accompanying the satthavaha, and looking to him for directions as to halts, watering, precautions against brigands, and even as to routes, fording, etc. Subordination, however, was not always ensured, and the institution does not warrant the inference of any fuller syndicalism among traders.

Partnerships in commerce, either permanent, or on specified occasions only, are frequently mentioned- the former, in the Kutavanija and Mahavanija Jatakas, the latter in the Payasi Suttanta and the Serivanija Jataka. In the Jarudapana Jataka there is, if not explicit statement, room for assuming concerted commercial action on a more extensive scale, both in the birth-story and also in its introductory episode. The caravan in question, consisting of an indefinite number of traders (in the birth-story, under a jetthaka, accumulate and export goods at the same time, and apparently share the treasure trove, or the profits therefrom.

In the episode the firm also wait upon the Buddha with gifts before and after their journey. These were traders of Savatthi, of the class who are elsewhere described as acting so unanimously under Anathapindika, himself a great travelling merchant.

The Guttila Jataka, again, shows concerted action, in work and play, on the part of Benares trades. It is conceivable, however, that the travelling in company may have been undertaken as much for mutual convenience in the chartering of a common ship, or the employment of a single band be forest- guards, as for the prevention of mutual under-selling or the cornering of any wares.

Merchants are represented, at least as often, as travelling with their own caravan alone. Thus in the first Jataka two traders, about to convey commodities to some distant city, agree which shall start first. The one thinks that, if he arrive first, he will get a better, because non-competitive price; the other, also holding that competition is killing work (lit. price-fixing is like robbing men of life’), prefers to sell at the price fixed, under circumstances favourable to the dealer, by his predecessor, and yields him a start.

The little apercus which we obtain from the Jatakas of the range and objective of such merchants’ voyages are so interesting as side-lights on early trafficking as to create regret at their seantiness. The overland caravans are sometimes represented as going ‘east and west’, and across deserts that took days, or rather nights to cross, a ‘land-pilot’ (thalaniyyamaka) steering during the cooler hours of darkness by the stars, Drought, famine, wild beasts, robbers and demons are enumerated as the dangers severally besetting this or that desert route.

Such caravans may have been bound from Benares, the chief industrial and commercial centre in early Buddhist days, across the deserts of Rajputana westward to the seaports of Bharukaccha, the modern Broach and the sea board of Sovira, (the Sophir, or Ophir, of the Septuagint), and its capital Roruva or Roruka Westward of these ports there was traffic with Babylon, or Baveru.

At a later date, say, at the beginning of the first century AD the chief objective of Indian sea-going trade is given in the Milinda as follows:

As a ship owner who has become wealthy by constantly levying freight in some seaport town, will be able to traverse the high seas, and go to Vanga or Takkola, or China or Sovira, or Surat, or Alexandria, or the Kormoandel coast, or Further India, or any other place where ships do congregate.

Tamil poems testify to the flourishing state of Kaviri-pattinam (Kamara in Periplus, Khabari of Ptolemy), capital of Chola, on the Kaveri River, at about the same period as a centre of international trade especially frequented by Yavana (Yona, Ionian) merchants. According to the Jataka it was practicable to attain to any of these ports starting from up the Ganges, not only from Champa (or Bhagalpur, about 350 miles from the sea) but even from Benares.

Thus the defaulting wood wrights mentioned above reach an ocean island from the latter city; Prince Mahajanaka sets out for Suvannabhu mi from Champa, and Mahinda travels by water from Patna to Tamalitti, and on to Ceylon. It is true that the world Satnudda sea, is occasionally applied to the Ganges, nevertheless, if the foregoing stories be compared with the Sankha Jataka, it becomes probable that the open sea is meant in both. In this the hero, while shipwrecked, washes out his mouth with the salt water of the waves during his self-imposed fast.

Again, in the Silanisamsa Jataka, a sea-fairy as helmsman brings ‘passengers for India’ by ships ‘from off the sea to Benares by river. Other traders are found coasting round India from Bharukaccha to Sunnvaabhumi, doubtless putting in at a Ceylon port; for Ceylon was another bourne of oversea commerce, and one associated with perils around which Odyssean legends had grown-ups.

The vessels, according to Jataka tales, seem to have been constructed on a fairly large scale, for we read of hundreds’ embarking on them, merchants or emigrants. The numbers have of course no statistical value; but the current conceptions of shipping capacity are at least interesting.

The nature of the exports and imports is seldom specified. The gold which was exported to Persia as early at least as the time of Darius Hystaspes, finds no explicit mention in the Jatakas. Gems of various kinds are named as the quest of special sea-farers anxious to discover a fortune. ‘Silks, muslins, the finer sorts of cloth, cutlery and armour, brocades, embroideries and rugs, perfumes and drugs, ivory and ivory-work, jewelry and gold (seldom silver): these were the main articles in which the merchant dealt’.

As to the inland routers, the Jatakas tell of Anathapindika’s caravans travelling S.E. from Savatthi to Rajagaha and back (about 300 miles), and also to the ‘borders,’ probably towards Gandhara. The route in the former journey was apparently planned to secure easy fording of the rivers by following the foot of the mountains to a point north of Vesali and only then turning south to the Ganges’. Another route south­west from Savatthi to Patitthana, with six chief halting places, is given in the Sutta Nipata, verses 1011-13.

From east to west, traffic, as we have seen, was largely by river, boats going up the Ganges to Sahajati, and up the Jumna to Kosambi. Further westward the journey would again be overland to Sind, whence came large imports in horses and cisses, and to Sovira and its ports. Northward lay the great trade route connecting India with Central and Western Asia, by way of Taxila in Gandhara (Pali Takkaisila), near Rawalpindi, and presumably also of Sagala in the Punjab.

This great road and its southern conations with the leading cities of the Ganges valley must have been, even in early Buddhistic days, relatively immune from dangers. Instances abound in the Jatakas of the sons of nobles and Brahmans faring, unattended and unarmed, to Takkasila to be educated at this famous seat of Brahmanical and other learning.

There were no bridges over the rivers of India. The setu or causeway of Buddhist metaphor is a raised ‘dyke built over shoal water. Only fording-places and ferries for crossing rivers are mentioned in Buddhist litonituro, and cart-ferries in Manu.

Food­stuffs for the towns were apparently brought only to the gates, while workshop and bazaar occupied, to a large extent at least, their own special streets within. Thus there was a fishmonger’s village at a gate of Savatthi, greengrocery is sold at the four gates of Uttara- Pafichala, and venison at the cross-roads (singhataka) outside Benares.

The slaughter-houses (suna) mentioned in the Vinaya were presumably outside also, and near them the poor man and the king’s chef bought their meal, unless by singhataka we understand street-corners as the places where meat was sold. The great city of Mithila was, according to the Maha-ummagga. Jataka, composed in part of four suburbs extending beyond each of its four gates, and called not gamas, but nigamas. These were named respectively East, South, West, and North Yavamajjhako, translated by Cowell and Rouse ‘market-town’.

The workshop in the street was open to view, so that the bhikkhu coming in to town or village for alms, could see fletcher and carriage-builder at work, no less than he could watch the peasant in the field. Arrows and carriages and other articles for sale were displayed in the apana, or fixed shop, or, it might be, stored within the antarapana.

In these or in the portable stock-in-trade of the hawker, retail trading constituted a means of livelihood, independently, it might be, of productive industry. The application, judgment, cleverness, and connexion of the successful shopkeeper are discussed in the Nikayas, and among trades five are ethically proscribed for lay believers—daggers, slaves, flesh, strong drink, poisons.

Textile fabrics groceries and oil, greengroceries, grain, perfumes and flowers articles of gold and jewelry, are among the items sold in the bazars of Jataka stories and Vinaya allusions, and for the sale of strong liquors there were the taverns (panagara, apana) 19. But there is no such clear reference made either to a market-place in the town, or to seasonal market-days or fairs.

Such an institution at the hath, or barter fair, taking place on the borders of adjacent districts, finds, curiously enough, no mention in the Jataka-book, though as the late Wm. Irvine wrote, ‘it is to this day universal to my personal knowledge, from Patna to Delhi, and, I believe, from Calcutta to Peshawar.’ The fetes often alluded to do not appear to have included any kind of market.