In this article we will discuss about the attempts made by various scholars to determine the economic condition of India up to 12th century.
The efforts of discovering the economic history of India began, primarily, in the middle of the 19th century with the publication of the researches of scholars like Mr Lasen, Mr Richard Fika and Ms Rouse Davids. But these scholars were, primarily, linguists. Therefore, while describing the economic condition of India at different times, they failed to analyse the causes and the results of those conditions.
However, the task having once being taken up, did not discontinue. Many scholars took up this work during the second half of 19th century and the 20th century. Europeans, particularly British scholars, took up the work of discovering the economic condition of India, its causes and results during the ancient period. But, while doing so, they attempted to defend British imperialism in India and, thereby, gave birth to several wrong concepts.
James Mill expressed the view that the Indian society was, from the very beginning, traditional by nature and therefore, incapable of change. Elphinstone strengthened this view further and opined that the conditions in Indian villages completely remained static.
The views of these British scholars were motivated. They strived to prove that Indian society was incapable of social and economic structural changes and only British administration was capable of bringing out necessary changes in them and this task it was rightly performing.
V.A. Smith desired to justify the right of the ruler over the land and therefore, expressed the view that, in ancient times, the land belonged to the king. In the same spirit, scholars like H.G. Rowlinson, H. Warmington. Charles-worth and Martimer Wheeler defended the trade relations between India and European countries, particularly Britain.
They expressed the view that these trade relations largely benefited Indians although it was promoted by the Europeans. They claimed that it was European initiative and enterprise which encouraged these relations, as otherwise the Indians were incapable of even maintaining these relations because they lacked the required labour and initiative for it.
The views expressed by these British scholars created a reaction among Indian scholars. Indian nationalism and national movement gave further impetus to that reaction. The Indian scholars put forward the view that the Indians were prosperous, laborious and enterprising in ancient times and their social and economic conditions underwent changes.
They blamed the British imperialism and its policy of economic exploitation of the Indians for the contemporary gross poverty of India. Dadabhi Nauroji and R.C. Datt elaborated this view while writing the economic history of India. In his book titled, Indian Shipping and Maritime Activity, Dr R.K. Mookerjee tried to prove that the Indians were engaged in maritime activities vigorously and had established their colonies in several countries of Asia.
One among such Indian scholars was Dr K.P. Jayaswal as well who boldly challenged the imperialistic attitude of interpreting the economic history of India by the British scholars. Then, in the second decade of the 20th century, several Indian scholars of the nationalist school tried to prove, by their writings and researches, that the economic condition in ancient India was better when compared to the British period.
Dr R.C. Majumdar pointed out the importance of the economic activities of the guilds in ancient India has proved that the Indians had devoted their energies not only towards spiritual attainments but had also succeeded in attaining economic prosperity. Dr R.K. Mookerjee further emphasized this view by bringing forth the importance of the economic activities of the guilds in South India.
Dr N.C. Bandhopadhaya tried to prove, in his writings, that the economic activities concerning banking, joint-management etc. existed in ancient India. In 1905 A.D., a copy of Kautilya’s Arthasastra was found and, later on, published as well. It was a source of encouragement to the nationalist scholars. H.C. Ray expressed the view that, during the Mauryan age, the state protected the labour from economic exploitation by the rich.
He supported his view by referring to the Arthasastra. Prof Ramaswamy Ayyangar opined that social and economic views expressed in the Arthasastra upheld the idea of state-socialism.
In 1929 A.D., Contributions to the Study of the Hindu Revenue System written by U.N. Ghosal was published. He discussed in it the taxation-system in India from the Vedic age upto 1200 A.D, and opposed the view expressed by V.A. Smith that the peasants were heavily taxed during the ancient and the medieval age in India.
On the contrary, he opined that the peasants were generally happy and prosperous during the period of ancient India and supported his opinion by referring to descriptions of several foreign travellers who visited India at different times.
He also expressed doubt about the view that king was the owner of the land during ancient India. Dr A.S. Altekar described the economy of villages in western India in one of his texts and. in another, discussed the economic system under the rule of the Rashtrakuta rulers.
Dr K.A. Nilakanth Shastri, in his writings, emphasized on the economic history of south India and. particularly, elaborated the economic system and the activities of the people during the rule of the Cholas. C. Minakshi, in the same way, discussed the economic history of the Pallava rulers while A. Appudurai, in his book, Economic Conditions in Southern India (1000-1500 A.D.) described the economic history of south India during the ancient period.
In it, he discussed in detail the organisation of village-assemblies, the system of the Pattas concerning the land, agriculture, industry, economic life of cities, functioning of the guilds, foreign trade, etc. He, however, pointed out that the burden of taxation was heavy on the common people. Many other scholars continued to write concerning the economic life of ancient India.
These scholars of the nationalist school succeeded in finding out certain important facts. By pointing out the economic system and economic activities of the people in different fields of life, they proved that the people in ancient India were not indifferent towards their material progress.
Rather, they had made sufficient progress in trade, technology and every other field of economic activity. Besides, by referring to the economic prosperity of that age, they claimed that the common people in ancient India enjoyed a better economic life as compared to the British period.
However, descriptions of the scholars of the nationalist school remained one-sided. Their efforts had a significant lacuna. In their efforts to project ancient India as better in comparison with the British period, they failed to discuss the economic condition of different economic classes or groups in India, its causes, relations between those groups, their impact, consequences, etc.
In the 20th century, scholars influenced by socialist ideology made efforts to fill up this lacuna. Scholars like A.N. Bose and B.N. Datta described that, in ancient India, ruling-classes oppressed the peasants, different economic-groups struggled against each other for their respective advantages and the feudal-system was against the interest of general populace.
In 1949 A.D., Mr Dange, in his text, tried to prove that the system of slavery had started as early as the later-Vedic age. Among Marxist historians, the name of Dr D.D. Kosambi is most prominent. He tried to give an entirely new turn to Indian history by emphasizing on the means of production, changes in modes of production, their effects on society, etc. However, certain Marxist scholars too committed one mistake.
They also had stated that the economic structure of India was incapable of change. But scholars like Dr Kosambi and Dr R.S. Sharma corrected this mistake. They pointed out that changes in modes of production and economic organizations had always brought about changes in the economic life of the people in India. One such organisation was feudalism which has been dealt with in detail by Dr R.S. Sharma in his book, Indian Feudalism.
The Marxist scholars were unanimous in expressing the view that the common people suffered economically during the period of ancient India. Scholars like Dr S. Gopal even opined that among the Indian peasants, there was a class of people whose condition was no better than slaves or semi-slaves in ancient India. This change in the attitude of scholars was not unusual.
After the independence of India, the national sentiment directed against the British imperialism lost its meaning. It became necessary to probe the causes of internal weaknesses of the country. Henceforth, the Indian scholars directed their efforts to find out economic structural changes, different classes, their reciprocal relations, their effects, causes, etc. in India. The Marxist historians have done useful work in this field.
Yet, much remains to be done. Thus, we find the British scholars created certain wrong concepts while writing the economic history of India. The nationalist Indian scholars reacted against their opinions and did useful work in demolishing those wrong concepts. The Marxist scholars took the next step. In the beginning, they made certain errors.
But the later Marxist historians removed those errors and brought the writing of economic history of India towards right direction. They measured the economic development of India on the basis of economic conditions of the common people of India at different stages.
A lot of useful work has been done in this direction but, very much remains to be done if scholars work on the premise that the economic system, its organisations, means of production and distribution, their functioning and their ownership, etc. are, primarily, responsible for economic changes in the society.
Besides, the economic condition of different classes, their relations with each other and their resultant effects, etc., are to be accepted as measurements of economic growth or depression in India.
The Indus valley culture has been accepted as the most ancient Indian culture. The people there enjoyed widespread prosperity. Therefore, they could built large cities and their culture was, primarily, a city-culture. Agriculture and animal husbandry were primary occupations of those people. They had surplus production which was diverted in foreign trade.
The people here had trade relations with Egypt, Crete, Sumeria, Mesopotamia, etc. which enriched them further. The people in cities enjoyed all luxuries but it is believed that the peasants also led a good life. Houses, measuring 20 x 12 sq. feet, have been discovered at sites of cities here. It is assumed that these small houses belonged to the people of the labour-class and, thus, it is inferred that the condition of labourers was also .good at that time.
The Vedic age was also the age of prosperity. Iron was found during the later Vedic age. The plough, other instruments and weapons were made of iron during this age. There are references of ploughing the field by twenty bullocks in one plough. Iron must have been an aid to agricultural production. The land belonged to the tillers and the king had the right only to collect revenue from them.
Animal husbandry was the next most important occupation of the people during the later Vedic age (It had been the first during the early Vedic age). This is the reason for the cow being revered by the people and also being regarded as wealth or property. The peasants, therefore, enjoyed a fairly good material life.
The Aryans also engaged themselves in foreign trade which enriched them further and resulted in the growth of cities during the later Vedic age. The use of pieces of gold called Satnama and Niska for the purpose of exchange and occasional references to the word, Sresthin in several texts justify prevalence of extensive trade and existence of rich monied-class.
Enough material is now available to know the history of India from the 6th century B.C. onwards. The age of large kingdoms, viz., empires began with that period. The village oriented life of the Aryans grew into a city-culture and many cities came up during this period. Some of those cities grew up as capitals of big kingdoms while several others grew up as centres of trade and commerce.
It meant that not only agriculture had progressed but the handicrafts and industries too had developed resulting in brisk internal and external trade. A big empire was established in Persia (Iran) at that time and the Persians captured a part of northwest India. Afterwards, the Greeks replaced the Persians. The invasion of Alexander helped in increasing the contact of India with the European world. All this helped in the growth of foreign trade of India with countries of Asia and Europe.
The Indians carried on brisk favourable trade with foreign countries both by land and sea-routes. This added to the prosperity of India. The internal trade also progressed during this period. Different rulers constructed public highways which were used for trade as well as for other purposes.
One among those highways was from Rajgraha to the port of Bharoch via., Kosambi and Ujjain; another one passed through Kosambi, territory of Ganga-Yamuna Doab and Punjab, Taxila and went ahead towards Central Asia; another one moved towards the East and reached Burma; and, yet, another one connected Ganga-Yamuna Doab with the eastern sea-coast.
Coins were also used in India as medium of exchange from 6th century B.C. onwards which gave facility and, thereby, impetus to trade. Thus, developed agriculture, animal husbandry, handicrafts, industries and internal and foreign trade kept India prosperous from 6th century B.C. to the rise of the Mauryan empire.
The Mauryas established a most extensive empire which included practically the whole of the Indian sub-continent and a large part of the territory in the northwest beyond its frontiers. Besides, they provided good administration, peace and security to their subjects over a long period of time.
They also helped in increasing the area of cultivation, agricultural production, incentive to handicrafts and industries and encouragement to trade and commerce. All this helped in increasing the prosperity of India.
The existence of different guilds of different professions justify the growth of industries and trade. Trade was carried on both by sea and land routes with several countries of Asia and Europe in the West and countries of the East and south-east Asia.
The state kept monopoly over several industries and participated in trade as well. The people enjoyed a fully developed city life with all luxuries of life. All this proves that the age of the Mauryas was the age of economic growth and prosperity. But, during this age, the tax-burden on the subjects was heavy.
Dr R.S. Sharma writes, “The distinguishing feature of Mauryan economy is the state control of agriculture, industry and trade, and the levy of all varieties of taxes on the people.” This must have adversely affected the economic condition of the common people, particularly, that of the peasants and the labour must have suffered considerably. Ultimately, the economy of the state also suffered.
The later Maurya-kings issued debased coins which was a proof of the decadent economy of the state. Dr Kosambi has stated that one of the primary reasons of the downfall of the Maurya empire was its economic bankruptcy. Therefore, it is believed that though, in general, the age of the Mauryas was that of prosperity, during its later period, deterioration set in.
One of its reasons was heavy burden of taxation on the common people which, finally, affected adversely the finances of the state. It also justifies the view that the establishment of a big empire had benefited the rich people alone — the advantages of economic prosperity of the country going to the Purohits, the members of the ruling class and the mercantile community while the state had neglected the welfare of the peasants and the labour.
The period between 2nd century B.C. to the middle of the 3rd century A D. witnessed the revival of economic prosperity of India. In the south, the Satavahanas, the Pandyas and the Cholas, and, in the North, the Kushana rulers helped in reviving foreign trade which remained the primary cause of the prosperity of India during this period Besides agriculture, industries and handicrafts were progressing because of which India could produce goods in large quantities which could be fruitfully utilised for the purpose of trade both foreign and internal.
A large part of the east and the west sea-coast was under the possessions of the Satavahanas and there were several important ports like Bharoch, Kalyana and Sopana from where trade was carried on with the countries in the West and South-East Asia. India exported cotton cloth, fine muslin, spices, leather, medicinal herbs, silk, ivory, pearls, etc. to foreign countries and earned huge profits.
The traders and the manufacturers of different professions were organised in various guilds which was proof of their organisational skill as well as of their prosperity. The Sangama-literature also provides sufficient proof to support the view that the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas in the far South maintained extensive trade relations with the countries of south-east Asia and, in the west, with Egypt, Persia, Mesopotamia, etc.
These states maintained trade relations with the Roman empire as well by the 3rd century A.D. which was also one of primary causes of their prosperity. In the North, the empire of the Kushana ruler, Kanishka included large part of northwest India and also extensive territories in the north-west and Central Asia outside the Indian territory which facilitated trade of India with countries of west Asia, China, Africa and European countries.
India supplied several articles of luxury to the Roman empire and, in return, received gold in such a large quantity that the contemporary Roman historian, Pliny expressed grave concern at the loss suffered by his country. India also supplied spices to the Roman empire which it procured from the countries of south-east Asia. It resulted in increased Indian trade with these countries.
Trade was carried on both by land and sea-routes. Several routes in the north-west connected India with Central Asia. The North and the South were also connected with each other by several public highways. India manufactured ships as well during this period.
Therefore, prosperity prevailed in India during this period. The advantage of this prosperity was, however, grasped by the members of the ruling class and traders who led a licentious life which reflected in fine arts particularly sculpture of this period.
After that, the age of the Guptas has been regarded as the golden age of Indian history and one of the reasons of accepting is as such was, certainly, the economic progress achieved during the rule of the Guptas. The tax-burden on the common people during the rule of the Guptas was much less as compared to the age of the Mauryas. The Guptas encouraged animal husbandly and agriculture and extended the land under cultivation.
In trade and industry, the Guptas adopted the policy of free enterprise and provided complete freedom to guilds in their economic activities. That helped in the growth of both. Foreign trade also grew extensively during this period. The Roman empire, in the interest of its economy, was forced to impose restrictions on the import of Indian goods which prove that the Indian exports were in large demand there.
These restrictions, certainly, affected adversely Indian foreign trade and, later on, the division of Roman empire increased that loss further. But India, gradually, made up this loss by enhancing its trade with the Byzantine empire, Egypt, Persia, Arabia, Greece and Syria. India exported cotton and silk cloth, spices, pearls, diamonds, medicinal herbs, perfumes, ivory, etc. and, in return, imported gold, silver, tin, copper, camphor, horses, etc.
The Indians built large ships. They traded with the countries of the west and south-east Asia both by sea and land routes. There were many big and prosperous cities and ports in India. The Gupta rulers issued coins mostly of gold which again proves that their age was very prosperous. The contemporary traveller, Fa-Hien praised immensely the prosperity of the Indians. But one particular novelty of the Gupta age was the beginning of feudalism.
Dr R.S. Sharma writes: “The main interest of the economic history of the Gupta age lies not so much in its foreign trade and money economy as in the partial feudalization of the land system and the rise of local units of production.” It started when the rulers granted lands, free of tax, to the Purohits.
Later on, the rulers granted lands to their officers also in lieu of their military and administrative services to the state. It led to the system of feudalism which, with all its evils, reached its maximum limit by the 10th and 11th centuries. This system, in the long run, resulted in reducing the peasants to the status of serfs. Besides, it brought several other weaknesses in the Indian society.
During the reign of emperor Harsha also India enjoyed prosperity and the burden of taxation was not heavy on the subjects. In South India, the Chalukyas, the Rashtrakutas, the Pallavas and the Cholas established extensive empires and provided security and prosperity to their respective empires.
India enjoyed widespread prosperity during the Rajput-age as well. Mahmud of Ghazni was able to get enormous booty during his successive invasions on India in the 11th century. When Muhammad of Ghur invaded India in the 12th century, he too found India prosperous.
Thus, we find that India enjoyed widespread prosperity during the ancient period. But who were the beneficiaries of this economic prosperity of India? We find that, during this period of history, the maximum beneficiaries of the prosperity of their respective countries were the class of Purohits, the members of the ruling classes, the traders and the mercantile community of even– country.
The same was true of India. While the upper classes took the maximum advantage of the prosperity of the country, the common people mostly remained on a subsistence level. We do not find class struggles or bloody revolutions in India but it does not mean that the common people were contented in India. There were other reasons for that. Besides, we find that mass revolutions remained absent during ancient times all over the world.