Life And Work In Ancient India


A great deal has been done by scholars and philosophers to trace the development of philosophic and metaphysical thought in the India of the past; much has also been done to fix the chronology of historic events and draw in broad outline political maps of those periods. But not much has so far been done to investigate the social and economic conditions of those days, how people lived, carried on their work, what they produced and how, and the way trade functioned. Greater attention is being paid to these vital questions how and some works by Indian scholars, and one by an American, have appeared. But a great deal remains to be done. The Mahabharata itself is a storehouse of sociological and other data and many more books will no doubt yield useful information. But they have to be critically examined from this particular point of view. One book of inestimable value is Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ of the fourth century B.C., which gives details of the political, social, economic, and military organization of the Maurya Empire.

An earlier account, which definitely takes us back to the pre-Buddhist period in India, is contained in the collection of the Jataka tales. These Jatakas were given their present shape sometime after the Buddha. They are supposed to deal with the previous incarnations of the Buddha and have become an important part of Buddhist literature. But the stories are evidently much older and they deal with the pre-Buddhistic period and give us much valuable information about life in India in those days. Professor Rhys Davids has described them as the oldest, most complete and most important collection of folklore extant. Many of the subsequent collection of animal and other stories which were written in India and found their way to western Asia and Europe can be traced to the Jatakas.

The Jatakas deal with the period when the final amalgamation of the two principal races of India, the Dravidians and the Aryans, was taking place. They reveal ‘a multiform and chaotic society which resists more or less every attempt at classification and about which there can be no talk of an organization according to caste in that age.’* The Jatakas may be said to represent the popular tradition as contrasted with the priestly or Brahminic tradition and the Kshatriya or ruling class tradition.

There are chronologies and genealogies of various kingdoms and their rulers. Kingship, originally elective, becomes hereditary according to the rule of primogeniture. Women are excluded from this succession, but there are exceptions. As in China, the ruler is held responsible for all misfortunes; if anything goes wrong the fault must lie with the king. There was a council of ministers and there are also references to some kind of State assembly. Nevertheless the king was an autocratic monarch though he had to function within established conventions. The high priest had an important position in court as an adviser and person in charge of religious ceremonies. There are references to popular revolts against unjust and tyrannical kings, who are sometimes put to death for their crimes.

Village assemblies enjoyed a measure of autonomy. The chief source of revenue was the land. The land-tax was supposed to represent the king’s share of the produce, and it was usually, but not always, paid in kind. Probably this tax was about one-sixth of the produce. It was predominantly an agricultural civilization and the basic unit was the self-governing village. The political and economic structure was built up from these village communities which were grouped in tens and hundreds. Horticulture, rearing of livestock, and dairy-farming were practised on an extensive scale. Gardens and parks were common, and fruits and flowers were valued. The list of flowers mentioned is a long one; among the favourite fruits were the mango, fig, grape, plantain and the date. There were evidently many shops of vegetable and fruit sellers in the cities, as well as of florists. The flower-garland was then, as now, a favourite of the Indian people.

Hunting was a regular occupation chiefly for the food it provided. Flesh-eating was common and included poultry and fish; venison was highly esteemed. There were fisheries and slaughter-houses. The principal articles of diet were, however, rice, wheat, millet and corn. Sugar was extracted from sugarcane. Milk and its various products were then, as they are now, highly prized. There were liquor shops, and liquor was apparently made from rice, fruits and sugarcane.

There was mining for metals and precious stones. Among the metals mentioned are gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, tin, and brass. Among the precious stones were diamonds, rubies, corals, also pearls. Gold, silver and copper coins are referred to. There were partnerships for trade, and loans were advanced on interest. Among the manufactured goods are silks, woollens and cotton textiles, rugs, blankets and carpets. Spinning, weaving and dyeing are flourishing and widespread industries. The metallurgical industry produces weapons of war. The building industry uses stone, wood, and bricks. Carpenters make a variety of furniture, etc., including carts, chariots, ships, bedsteads, chairs, benches, chests, toys, etc. Cane-workers make mattresses, baskets, fans, and sunshades. Potters function in every village. From flowers and sandalwood a number of perfumes, oils and ‘beauty’ products are made, including sandalwood powder. Various medicines and drugs are manufactured and dead bodies are sometimes embalmed.

Apart from the many kinds of artisans and craftsmen who are mentioned, various other professions are referred to: teachers, physicians and surgeons, merchants and traders, musicians, astrologers, green-grocers, actors, dancers, itinerant jugglers, acrobats, puppet-players, pedlars.

Domestic slavery appears to have been fairly common, but agricultural and other work was done with the help of hired labour. There were even then some untouchables—the chandalas as they were called, whose chief business was the disposal of dead bodies.

Trade associations and craft-guilds had already assumed importance. ‘The existence of trade associations,’ says Fick, ‘which grew partly for economical reasons, better employment of capital, facilities of intercourse, partly for protecting the legal interest of their class, is surely to be traced to an early period of Indian culture.’ The Jatakas say that there were eighteen craft-unions but they actually mention only four: the wood-workers and the masons, the smiths, the leather workers, and the painters.

Even in the Epics there are references to trade and craft organizations. The Mahabharata says: ‘the safeguard of corporations (guilds) is union.’ It is said that ‘the merchant-guilds were of such authority that the king was not allowed to establish any laws repugnant to these trade unions. The heads of guilds are mentioned next after priests as objects of a king’s anxious concern.’* The chief of the merchants, the shreshthi (modern seth), was a man of very considerable importance.

One rather extraordinary development emerges from the Jataka accounts. This is the establishment of special settlements or villages of people belonging to particular crafts. Thus there was a carpenters’ village, consisting, it is said, of 1,000 families; a smiths’ village, and so on. These specialized villages were usually situated near a city, which absorbed their special products and which provided them with the other necessaries of life. The whole village apparently worked on co-operative lines and undertook large orders. Probably out of this separate living and organization the caste system developed and spread out. The example set by the Brahmins and the nobility was gradually followed by the manufacturers’ corporations and trade guilds.

Great roads, with travellers’ rest houses and occasional hospitals, covered north India and connected distant parts of the country. Trade flourished not only in the country itself but between India and foreign countries. There was a colony of Indian merchants living at Memphis in Egypt about the fifth century B.C. as the discovery of modelled heads of Indians there has shown. Probably there was trade also between India and the islands of South-East Asia.

Overseas trade involved shipping and it is clear that ships were built-in India both for the inland waterways and for ocean traffic. There are references in the Epics to shipping duties being paid by ‘merchants coming from afar.’

The Jatakas are full of references to merchants’ voyages. There were overland caravans across deserts going westward to the seaport of Broach and north towards Gandhara and Central Asia. From Broach ships went to the Persian Gulf for Babylon (Baveru). There was a great deal of river traffic and, according to the Jatakas, ships travelled from Benares, Patna, Champa (Bhagalpur) and other places to the sea and thence to southern ports and Ceylon and Malaya. Old Tamil poems tell us of the flourishing port of Kaveripattinam on the Kaveri river in the South, which was a centre of international trade. These ships must have been fairly large as it is said in the Jatakas that ‘hundreds’ of merchants and emigrants embarked on a ship.

In the ‘Milinda’ (this is of the first century A.C. Milinda is the Greek Bactrian king of North India who became an ardent Buddhist) it is said: ‘As a shipowner who has become wealthy by constantly levying freight in some seaport town will be able to traverse the high seas, and go to Vanga (Bengal) or Takkola, or China or Sovira, or Surat or Alexandria, or the Koromandel coast, or Further India, or any other place where ships do congregate.’

Among the exports from India were: ‘Silks, muslins, the finer sorts of cloth, cutlery and armour, brocades, embroideries and rugs, perfumes and drugs, ivory and ivory work, jewellery and gold (seldom silver); these were the main articles in which the merchant dealt.’

India, or rather North India, was famous for her weapons of war, especially for the quality of her steel, her swords and daggers. In the fifth century B.C. a large body of Indian troops, cavalry and infantry, accompanied the Persian army to Greece. When Alexander invaded Persia, it is stated in the famous Persian epic poem, Firdusi’s ‘Shahnamah’, that swords and other weapons were hurriedly sent for by the Persians from India. The old (pre-Islamic) Arabic word for sword is ‘muhannad,’ which means ‘from Hind’ or Indian. This word is in common use still.

Ancient India appears to have made considerable progress in the treatment of iron. There is an enormous iron pillar near Delhi which has baffled modern scientists who have been unable to discover by what process it was made, which has enabled it to withstand oxidation and other atmospheric changes. The inscription on it is in the Gupta script which was in use from the fourth to the seventh century A.C. Some scholars are, however, of opinion that the pillar itself is much older than this inscription, which was added later.

Alexander’s invasion of India in the fourth century B.C. was, from a military point of view, a minor affair. It was more of a raid across the border, and not a very successful raid for him. He met with such stout resistance from a border chieftain that the contemplated advance into the heart of India had to be reconsidered. If a small ruler on the frontier could fight thus, what of the larger and more powerful kingdoms further south? Probably this was the main reason why his army refused to march further and insisted on returning.

The quality of India’s military strength was seen very soon after Alexander’s return and death, when Seleucus attempted another invasion. He was defeated by Chandragupta and driven back. Indian armies then had an advantage which others lacked; this was the possession of trained war-elephants, which might be compared to the tanks of today. Seleucus Nikator obtained 500 of these war-elephants from India for his campaign against Antigonus in Asia Minor in 302 B.C., and military historians say that these elephants were the decisive factor in the battle which ended in the death of Antigonus and the flight of his son Demetrius.

There are books on the training of elephants, the breeding of horses, etc.; each one of these called a shastra. This word has come to mean scripture or holy writ, but it was applied indiscriminately to every kind of knowledge and science, varying from mathematics to dancing. In fact the line between religious and secular knowledge was not strictly drawn. They overlapped and everything that seemed useful to life was the object of inquiry.

Writing in India goes back to the most ancient times. Old pottery belonging to the Neolithic period is inscribed with writing in the Brahmi characters. Mohenjo-Daro has inscriptions which have not so far been wholly deciphered. The Brahmi inscriptions found all over India are undoubtedly the basic script from which devanagari and others have arisen in India. Some of Ashoka’s inscriptions are in the Brahmi script; others, in the north-west, are in the Kharoshti script.

As early as the sixth or seventh century B.C., Panini wrote his great grammar of the Sanskrit language. He mentions previous grammars and already in his time Sanskrit had crystallized and become the language of an ever-growing literature. Panini’s book is something more than a mere grammar. It has been described by the Soviet professor Th. Stcherbatsky, of Leningrad, as ‘one of the greatest productions of the human mind.’ Panini is still the standard authority on Sanskrit grammar, though subsequent grammarians have added to it and interpreted it. It is interesting to note that Panini mentions the Greek script. This indicates that there were some kind of contacts between India and the Greeks long before Alexander came to the East.

The study of astronomy was especially pursued and it often merged into astrology. Medicine had its textbooks and there were hospitals. Dhanwantari is the legendary founder of the Indian science of medicine. The best known old textbooks, however, date from the early centuries of the Christian era. These are by Charak on medicine and Sushruta on surgery. Charak is supposed to have been the royal court physician of Kanishka who had his capital in the north-west. These textbooks enumerate a large number of diseases and give methods of diagnosis and treatment. They deal with surgery, obstetrics, baths, diet, hygiene, infant-feeding, and medical education. The approach was experimental, and dissection of dead bodies was being practised in the course of surgical training. Various surgical instruments are mentioned by Sushruta, as well as operations, including amputation of limbs, abdominal, caesarean section, cataract, etc. Wounds were sterilized by fumigation. In the third or fourth century B.C. there were also hospitals for animals. This was probably due to the influence of Jainism and Buddhism with their emphasis on non-violence.

In mathematics the ancient Indians made some epoch-making discoveries, notably that of the zero sign, of the decimal place value system, of the use of the minus sign, and the use in algebra of letters of the alphabet to denote unknown quantities. It is difficult to date these, as there was always a big time-lag between the discovery and its practical application. But it is clear that the beginnings of arithmetic, algebra, and geometry were laid in the earliest period. Ten formed the basis of enumeration in India even at the time of the Rig Veda. The time and number sense of the ancient Indians was extraordinary. They had a long series of number names for very high numerals. The Greeks, Romans, Persians, and Arabs had apparently no terminology for denominations above the thousand or at most the myriad (104 = 10,000). In India there were eighteen specific denominations (1018), and there are even longer lists. In the story of Buddha’s early education he is reported to have named denominations up to 1050.

At the other end of the scale there was a minute division of time of which the smallest unit was approximately one-seventeenth of a second, and the smallest lineal measure is given as something which approximates to 1.37 X 7-10 inches. All these big and small figures were no doubt entirely theoretical and used for philosophical purposes. Nevertheless, the old Indians, unlike other ancient nations, had vast conceptions of time and space. They thought in a big way. Even their mythology deals with ages of hundreds of millions of years. To them the vast periods of modern geology or the astronomical distances of the stars would not have come as a surprise. Because of this background, Darwin’s and other similar theories could not create in India the turmoil and inner conflict which they produced in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century. The popular mind in Europe was used to a time scale which did not go beyond a few thousand years.

In the ‘Arthashastra’ we are given the weights and measures which were in use in North India in the fourth century B.C. There used to be careful supervision of the weights in the market places.

In the epic period we have frequent mention of some kind of forest universities, situated not far from a town or city, where students gathered round well-known scholars for training and education, which comprised a variety of subjects, including military training. These forest abodes were preferred so as to avoid the distractions of city life and enable the students to lead a disciplined and continent life. After some years of this training they were supposed to go back and live as householders and citizens. Probably these forest schools consisted of small groups, though there are indications that a popular teacher would attract large numbers.

Benares has always been a centre of learning, and even in Buddha’s day it was old and known as such. It was in the Deer Park near Benares that Buddha preached his first sermon; but Benares does not appear to have been at any time anything like a university, such as existed then and later in other parts of India. There were numerous groups there, consisting of a teacher and his disciples, and often between rival groups there was fierce debate and argument.

But in the north-west, near modern Peshawar, there was an ancient and famous university at Takshashila or Taxila. This was particularly noted for science, especially medicine, and the arts, and people went to it from distant parts of India. The Jataka stories are full of instances of sons of nobles and Brahmins travelling, unattended and unarmed, to Taxila to be educated. Probably students came also from Central Asia and Afghanistan, as it was conveniently situated.

It was considered an honour and a distinction to be a graduate of Taxila. Physicians who had studied in the school of medicine there were highly thought of, and it is related that whenever Buddha felt unwell his admirers brought to him a famous physician who had graduated from Taxila. Panini, the great grammarian of the sixth-seventh century B.C., is said to have studied there.

Taxila was thus a pre-Buddhist university and a seat of Brahminical learning. During the Buddhist period it became also a centre of Buddhist scholarship and attracted Buddhist students from all over India and across the border. It was the headquarters of the north-western province of the Maurya Empire.

The legal position of women, according to Manu, the earliest exponent of the law, was definitely bad. They were always dependent on somebody—on the father, the husband, or the son. Almost they were treated, in law, as chattels. And yet from the numerous stories in the Epics this law was not applied very rigidly and they held an honoured place in the home and in society. The old law-giver, Manu, himself says: ‘Where women are honoured the gods dwell.’ There is no mention of women students at Taxila or any of the old universities; but some of them did function as students somewhere, for there is repeated mention of learned and scholarly women. In later ages also there were a number of eminent women scholars. Bad as the legal position of women was in ancient India, judged by modern standards, it was far better than in ancient Greece and Rome, in early Christianity, in the Canon Law of mediaeval Europe, and indeed right up to comparatively modern times at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The exponents of the law from Manu onwards refer to forms of partnership in business. Manu refers chiefly to priests; Yag-navalkya includes trade and agriculture. A later writer, Narada, says: ‘Loss, expense, profit of each partner are equal to, more than, or less than those of other partners according as his share (invested) is equal, greater, or less. Storage, food, charges (tolls), loss, freightage, expense of keeping, must be paid by each partner in accordance with the terms of agreement.’ Manu’s conception of a state was evidently that of a small kingdom. This conception was, however, growing and changing, leading to the vast Maurya Empire of the fourth century B.C. and to international contacts with the Greek world.

Megasthenes, the Greek Ambassador in India in the fourth century B.C., totally denies the existence of slavery in India. But in this he was wrong as there were certainly domestic slaves, and there are references in Indian books of the period to improving the lot of the slaves. It is clear, however, that there was no large-scale slavery and no slave gangs for labour purposes, as were common in many countries then, and this may have led Megasthenes to believe that slavery was completely absent. It was laid down that ‘Never shall an Arya be subjected to slavery.’ Who exactly was an Arya, and who was not, it is difficult to say, but the Aryan fold at that time had come to mean rather vaguely all the four basic castes, including the shudras, but not the untouchables.

In China also, in the days of the early Han Dynasty, slaves were used primarily in domestic service. They were unimportant in agriculture or in large-scale labour works. Both in India and China these domestic slaves formed a very small proportion of the population, and in this important respect there was thus a vast difference between Indian and Chinese society and contemporary Greek and Roman society.

What were the Indians like in those distant days? It is difficult for us to conceive of a period so far and so different from ours, and yet some vague picture emerges from the miscellaneous data that we have. They were a light-hearted race, confident and proud of their traditions, dabbling in the search for the mysterious, full of questions addressed to nature and human ‘life, attaching importance to the standards and values they had created, but taking life easily and joyously, and facing death without much concern.

Arrian, the Greek historian of Alexander’s campaign in North India, was struck by this light-heartedness of the race. ‘No nation,’ he writes, ‘is fonder of singing and dancing than the Indian.’

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The Discovery Of India – Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru

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