In this article we will discuss about:- 1. Land Revenue during the Epic Age 2. Irrigation of Land during the Epic Age 3. Rotation of Crops 4. State and Agriculture.

Land Revenue during the Epic Age:

It has been held in the Mbh (12.78.2), that the king was the owner of all the properties belonging to the non-brahmanas, as well as of those brahmanas who followed an unapproved profession. This view is corroborated by Yudhisthira’s act when after the Asvamedha sacrifice he donated his entire kingdom to Vyasa and Vyasa returned it to him (14. 91. 7, 17). From this it appears that theoretically all the land in the kingdom belonged to the king. There was, however, another theory.

The king’s share of the revenue was limited to one-sixth of the produce of the land (13. 113. 16). A well-known verse in the Mbh (12. 72. 10) says- The king should wish only for his lawful salary (which consists of) one-sixth of the produce, sulka (various taxes) and money realised as fines. (12.308, 158). 

It is also stated (12. 25. 12 and 12. 69. 24) that the king gets the revenue (bali) of one-sixth of the produce, because he protects the people. This again was a theory, for there is no indication that the kings ceased to collect revenue if they failed to give protection.


The Mbh differs from Manu (7.130) which lays down that the king should take one-twelfth, one-eighth, or one-sixth of the grains as his share. Kulluka explains that this difference in the royal revenue was based on the fertility of the soil, and the amount of labour necessary to produce the crop (that is, the distance of the nearest available irrigation water).

This difference in revenue rate is found in other Dharmasastra texts also, such as Gautama (10.24-25) and Brhaspati. Others, however, like Bodhayana (1.18.1) and Vasistha (1.42) merely state that the king’s share is one-sixth of the produce (lit. wealth or income of his subjects). There is one reference in the Mbh indicative of a lower revenue.

It states. (The high spirited king, who is engaged in the performance of ksatriya’s duty is satisfied with one-tenth, and others with even less). ‘Others’ have been explained as ‘lesser kings’, but it is difficult to understand as to why the smaller kings should have been satisfied with a lower share of the revenue. But this verse is a recommendation by a woman ascetic and need not be considered seriously.

On the whole, it appears that the contemplated land-revenue was one-sixth of the produce of the land irrespective of any other consideration. This flat rate would have discriminated against small holders, cultivators of less fertile lands, and those farmers who had to fetch irrigation water from a distance. The nature of produce was also not taken into consideration.


If the same rate of revenue was universally applied then the fruit-growers would have suffered compared to growers of coarse grain. It is stated in the Mbh 7. 44.27 that a mango garden bears fruit after five years. Even if during these five years the mango-grower did not pay any revenue, it would have been hard on him if one-sixth of his produce were collected as revenue on the first year’s fruit possibly there were some methods of adjustment which we do not know.

In the Ram (3. 1. 18) it is said that the king’s share is one- fourth, but from a later reference (3.5.10) it appears that revenue was one-sixth of the produce. It is quite possible that the higher revenue was levied on fertile and irrigated lands. There is no means of ascertaining the total revenue of a kingdom at is stated that brahmanas, vatadhanas and a large number of owners of herds of cows (gomantas) were found waiting on Yudhisthira with revenue (ball) amounting to three kharvas (2.45.24).

A kharva denotes 10,000,000,000, hence three kharvas, in whatever coin, would be an incredible figure. It is evident that this description of Yudhisthira’s wealth by Vidura is highly exaggerated, but it gives an idea of the large amount of revenue. Secondly, since the brahmanas were bringing bali it is apparent that they too were not exempt.

Vatadhana means the descendant of an out-caste brahmana by a brahmani mother, and probably indicates a brahmana community engaged in agriculture as distinct from other brahmanas mentioned in the verse, who had their land tilled by vaisyas or sudras. They may be called the ancestors of present day jotdars. But under the caste system, they would be deemed to be more honourable than those who soiled their lands by tilling the soil.


The practice of share-cropping is directly referred to not only in the Mbh, but by Manu and Yanavalkya also. The Mbh (12. 60.24-25) allows the vaisyas one-seventh of all the producers of the land which he has cultivated on behalf of either a brahmana or of a rajan, which normally means a king, but in the present context seems to indicate ksatriyas in general.

Manu (4.253) says- A brahmana may eat food cooked by a sudra who is, an ardhika, or a friend of the family (for several generations) or a slave, (or servant), or a barber, or one who has offered his services. Medhatithi has explained ardhika as ardhasiri, presumably following Yajnavalkya (1.166) who practically repeats Manu- The two verses are identical except that Yajnavalkya uses ardhasiri instead of ardhika, but both the words mean “a ploughman who takes half the crop for his labour”.

It is however peculiar, that while Manu and Yajnavalkya allow a sudra share-cropper to take half the produce, the Mbh allows, a vaisya only one-seventh. This discrepancy can have two explanations. Firstly, while we have rendered ardhika and ardhasiri literally, the commentators have not done so. Medhatithi explains the two terms as kutumbi bhumi-karsaka, which means simply a “sharecropper”. Kulluka explain the term ardhika as karsika, that is, ‘a cultivator’.

Neither of them says anything about the share which was the ardhika’s due. Similarly, Vijnanesvara explains ardhasiri as krsiphala-bhaga-grahi, which also means simply a ‘share-cropper’ and Vijiianesvara too does not mention the share. It seems therefore, that whatever may be the literal meaning of ardhika and ardhasiri, the actual tiller’s share depended on contractual terms or local usage and custom, but in no case exceeded half the produce.

The other explanation may be that the Vaisya merely supervised the cultivation which was done by the ardhika, and one-seventh of the produce was given to the former as his fees as a steward, or as an intermediary. It will be noted that both Manu and Yajnavalkya have used the word dasa in this connection.

But Medhatithi explains the compound gopala-dasau as related terms, meaning ‘a cowherd who is a dasa’ and does not explain dasa which may mean either a servant or a slave. Kulluka takes the compound to mean ‘a cowherd and a dasa” but does not explain dasa. Vijnanesvara, however, explains dasa as garblia-dasadayah (one who is born to a dasi from a slave).

From Medhatithi’s explanation it follows that a brahmana (or a ksatriya) had his land cultivated by sudra share-croppers and his cows were tended by sudra slaves. But though Kulluka and Vijnanesvara do not assign any specific duty to a dasa, it may be held that dasas or slaves were employed for all types of works including cultivation and animal-husbandry.

This would explain the reason for donating slaves of which, many example given in the epics. It may be noted that according to the Mbh and the Dharmasastras, the duties of a vaisya were krsi go-raksa and vanijya. Evidently vanijya (trade and commerce) being more profitable, the vaisya had given up his exclusive right to agriculture and animal- husbandry in favour of the sudra.

Irrigation of Land during the Epic Age:

The irrigation of land was as much necessary in ancient times as it is now. It was also realized that dependence on rain water for irrigation was not expedient. In a well-known verse in the Mbh (2.5.67), the sage Narada tells Yudhisthira- ‘I hope that in your domain the tanks are full and increasing [in numbers] and [the water] is divided proportionately; agriculture [should not depend] on rainfall’.

This was good advice. Digging of wells and tanks were also considered to be meritorious purta work, which induced kings and rich people to engage themselves in such activities. However, it does not appear that the peasant did not have to depend on rain. In the Ram, Sita employs a charming simile to compare her pleasure in seeing Hanuman.

My happiness in seeing you, O sweet-spoken vanara, is like that of earth when she receives rain on her budding crops (5.38.2). Several times in the Mbh, waiting with extreme eagerness is illustrated with the simile of a peasant waiting for rain (suvrstim ivu or parjanyam iva karstkah, 12.349.6; 13.59.14; 13.62.20; 13-24.49; 13.70.10) and in 13.97.23 it is said that all crops are raised by rain water. Excess of rain was also damaging, whence the proverb gatodake setu-bandha (can built after the water receded) in Ram (2.9.41) and Mbh (7.62.2).

Utsecane stambha is mentioned in 12.288.22. It has been held that this phrase probably refers to the water-lifting apparatus (Tamil- Errant) familiar in South India. A stout or full-grown stump of a tree, served as the fulcrum for the bamboo pole, at the end of which was attached the pitcher for lifting up water from the deep well. The epics do not contain any other reference to artificial irrigation. There was of course no scientific study of rainfall, but some acute observations have been made.

Ramacandra while describing the rainy season begins by observing- Having drunk the moisture of the sea, the sky produces rain. Almost the same observation is made in the Mbh where it is said that ‘the sun’s rays receive the moisture and then the sun pours down rain. Rain gives birth to anna (crops) and anna is the life of men. Trees, flowers and plants depend on rains’ (13.97.20-23). The cycle of cloud, rain, crops and life is fully described also in 13.62.36-40, from which it also appears that cultivation depended on rainfall.

These observations show that people were noticing the causes of rainfall, and were no longer content, as in the Vedic days to rely entirely on Indra to produce rain, whom they had to propitiate by performing sacrifices.

The Gita (3.14), however, repeats the old view and ascribes rainfall to the performance of sacrifice which is therefore recommend. The Mbh (5.97.7) only goes to the extent of saying that Airavata (Indra’s elephant or cloud) collects water from the sea with which Indra produces rain.

No rain-producing sacrifice is mentioned in the epics except in the Gita. There is a reference to extensive irrigation work in the Ram (2.74.10-11). It is said that while Bharata was marching with his host to meet Ramachandra in the forest, his men erected dams wherever it was possible to do so, and soon excavated water courses to carry off excess water (parivahan bahudakan), and created many lakes as large as oceans.

They also excavated wells of various kinds, and had they surrounded by, raised platforms. In the same context it is said that while Bharata’s men felled many trees to prepare the road, they planted trees where there was none (2.74.6-7). Here is probably an early reference to afforestation.

There is no other reference to canal-irrigation in the epics, and it has to be concluded that cultivation depended primarily on rainfall. The tanks and wells served as secondary sources of irrigation water, but these too were liable to become dry in case of acute shortage of rainfall, particularly over an extended period. There is a reference in the Mbh to a period of twelve years’ famine during which there was no rain (12. 139.13). The food situation became so acute that the sage Visvamitra was forced to steal dog’s flesh from a chandala’s house and eat it (12. 139. 88-9).

It should be noted here, that the only reference to any incident in the Mbh in Manu is Visvamitra’s violation of food restriction on this occasion (Manu 10.108). Actually this was apad-dharma or dharma during distress, when a higher caste was allowed to take up the profession of a lower caste. The existence of such rules in the Mbh and in the Dharmasastra texts show that occurrence of distress, which usually means a famine, was not too infrequent.

There would of course be no famine even if the rain failed in the countries situated along a perennial river. But transport of corn from a non-famine area to a famine area in those days must have been impossible. So in the areas away from the river people suffered if the rains did not come.

Rotation of Crops during the Epic Age:

The epics do not provide details about agriculture, which had considerably developed during Vedic times. The Taittiriya Samhita (5.1.73) states that there were two harvests every year and adds (7.2. 10.2)- ‘Barley ripens in summer, medicinal herbs in the rainy season; vrihi (rice) in sarat- beans and sesamum in hemanta and sisira (winter)…’ Apparently there was a rotation of crops, yava (barley) being followed by vrihi (rice), masa (bean) and tila (sesamum).

This is corroborated by the Gobhila (1.4.29) and the Khadira (1.5.37) which state- From the rice [harvest] till the barley [harvest] or from the barley [harvest] till the rice [harvest] he should offer the balis or sacrificial rites. Kautilya (2.24. 12-15) also prescribes rotation of crops and states- ‘sali, vrihi, kodrava, tila, priyangu, udaraka and varaka are the first (first sowings)- mudga, masa and saimbya are middle sowings; kusumbha (safflower), masura, kulattha, yava, godhuma, kalaya, alasi (linseed) and sarsapa, are the last sowings. Or, the sowing of seeds should be in conformity with the seasons’.

Kautilya has used the word ‘vapa’ which means ‘sowing’, but it is difficult to see how vrihi and sali could be sown together. Is it possible that Kautilya’s knowledge of rice cultivation was not quite up to date? He does not seem to have been very sure of himself, wherefore the alternative that seeds should be sown according to season (2.24.15). Sali rice is not mentioned in the Vedas. Roth’s conjecture that sari in sari-saka in the Atharvaveda (3.14.5) is equivalent to sali is not at all convincing.

Sali is, however, mentioned in both the epics, and these are probably the earliest references to the winter crop. In the Ram (3.15. 16-17), while describing the hemanta season, Laksmana speaks of early winter with forests full of yava (barley) and godhuma. He then describes the golden sali and compares the ripe ears of corn with khurjura (date) flowers. In the Mbh it is stated that Krsna set out for Hastinapura in the month of Kaumudi (Karttika). On his way he saw beautiful rice-fields (sali-bhavanam) full of all sons of grains (5.82.15).

State and Agriculture during the Epic Age:

The epics do not say as to what steps, if any, the government undertook to alleviate suffering during famines. The nature of the apad-dharma rules raises the presumption that during a period of scarcity, a man had to fend for himself as best as he could, and by any available means. It was, however, contemplated that the state should foster agriculture by providing the peasant with loans at easy rates of interest.

In the Mbh (2.5.66-68) the sage Narada first says, that he hopes that the peasants are satisfied. He then asks about the existence of irrigation facilities such as water tanks and warns against depending on rain for cultivation, as has been stated above. He then adds- (‘I hope that the cultivators are not dejected by the want of food or seed; (and I hope that) you are advancing ‘assistance-loans at the interest of one pratika per hundred.’)

A ‘pratika” means ‘worth a karsapana or 16 panas’. Karsapana could be of copper, silver, or gold, and it is not clear what was actually meant. It may be that, interest at 16% or 6% per year is intended but another explanation is possible. Maim (8.142) allows interest on unsecured loans at the rate of 2%, 3%, 4% and 5% monthly on money lent to brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas, and sudras respectively.

Yajnavalkya (2.37), Narada (1.99.10) and Vasistha (2.48) follow Manu (8.142) but Vasistha states that the interest for a moneylender is 5 masua for 20 karsapanas per month. Kautilya (3.11.1) says that ‘one pana and a quarter is the legal rate of interest per month on one hundred panas, five panas for purposes of trade, ten panas for those going through the forests, twenty panas for those going by sea.’

It will be observed that all the Dharmasastras provide for different rates of interest based on caste, from which Kautilya differs. Here the Mbh differs from all of them and agrees with Kautilya. Secondly, the rate of interest in the Mbh is lower than that sanctioned by the authorities quoted above. This lower rate was obviously due to the loan being an ‘anugraha-rna’ which we have rendered as “assistance-loan”.

Thirdly, it was usual to calculate interest with monthly rest in ancient India, but here monthly interest even at 6¼% would be too high. The use of the word pratika seems to indicate that money was advanced at the time of sowing and recovered in kind after the harvest, and for each 100 panas the cultivator had to pay corn worth 116 panas.

On the subject of loan, it may be stated that probably calculation of daily interest (i.e. compound interest with daily rest), was known. If the reading is dina-bhede, as given in the Bombay edition, is accepted, then it would mean interest charged daily, but if deha- bheda of the Critical edition is accepted, it would mean interest charged after the death [of the debtor], and the verse would mean: ‘Just as interest continues to be charged by a creditor even after the death (deha-bhede) of the debtor, so does the sin committed in this life continue to increase in the next life.’

Manu (8.153) mentions four kinds of interest which does not include dinabheda. But Brhaspati mentions six kinds of interest one of which is called sikha-vrddhi or ‘hair-like interest’, meaning interest payable every day and so growing every day, just as the top-knot on one’s head grew every day.