Ancient India

State and Varna Society in the Age of the Buddha

Material Life

The picture of material life in north India, especially in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, can be drawn on the basis of the Pali texts and the Sanskrit Sutra literature in combination with archaeological evidence. Archaeologically the sixth century B.C. marks the beginning of the NBPW phase. The abbreviation NBPW stands for Northern Black Polished Ware, which was a very glossy, shining type of pottery. This pottery was made of very fine fabric and apparently served as the tableware of richer people. In association with this pottery are found iron implements, especially those meant for crafts and agriculture. This phase also saw the beginning of metal money. The use of burnt bricks and ringwells appeared in the middle of the NBPW phase, i.e. in the third century B.C.

The NBPW phase marked the beginning of the second urbanization in India. The Harappan towns finally disappeared in about 1400 B.C. After that for about a thousand years we do not find any towns in India. With the appearance of towns in the middle Gangetic basin in the fifth century B.C., a second urbanization began in India. Many towns mentioned in the Pali and Sanskrit texts such as Kaushambi, Shravasti, Ayodhya, Kapilavastu, Varanasi, Vaishali, Rajgir, Pataliputra, Champa have been excavated and in each case signs of habitation and mud structures belonging to the advent of the NBPW phase or to its middle have been found Wooden palisades have been found in Patna and these possibly belong to pre-Maurya times. Belonging to the seventh-sixth centuries B.C., these are the earliest wooden enclosures in the midGanga plains. Houses were mostly made of mudbrick and wood, which naturally have perished in the moist climate of the middle Gangetic basin. Although seven storeyed palaces are mentioned in the Pali texts, they have not been discovered anywhere. Structures excavated so far are generally unimpressive, but together with the other material remains they indicate great increase in population when compared with the Painted Grey Ware settlements.

Many towns were seats of government, but whatever be the causes of their origin they eventually turned out to be markets and came to be inhabited by artisans and merchants. At some places there was concentration of artisans; Saddalaputta at Vaishali had 500 potters shops. Both artisans and merchants were organized into guilds under their respective headmen.

We hear of 18 guilds of artisans but only die guilds of smiths, carpenters, leather workers and painters are specified. Both artisans and merchants lived in fixed localities in towns. We hear of vessels or merchants streets in Varanasi. Similarly; we hear of the street of ivoryworkers. Thus specialization in crafts developed on account of the guild system as well as localization. Generally crafts were hereditary and the son learned his family trade from the father.

The products of crafts were carried over long distances by merchants. We repeatedly hear of 500 cartloads of goods. These contained fine textile goods, ivory objects, pots, etc. All the important cities of the period were situated on river banks and trade routes and connected with one another. Shravasti was linked with both Kaushambi and Varanasi.

The latter was considered to be a great centre of trade in the age of the Buddha. The route from Shravasti passed eastward and southward through Kapilavastu and Kushinara (Kasia) and came to Vaishali. Traders crossed the Ganga near Patna and went to Rajgir. They also went by this river to Champa near modern Bhagalpur. If we believe the Jataka stories, the traders of Koshala and Magadha went via Mathura as far northward as Taxila. Similarly, from Mathura they went southward and westward to Ujjain and the Gujarat coast.

Trade was facilitated by the use of money. The terms nishka and satamana in the Vedic texts are taken to be names of coins, but they seem to have been prestige objects made of metal Coins actually found are not earlier than the sixth-fifth century B.C. It seems that in Vedic times exchange was carried on through means of barter and sometimes cattle served the purpose of currency. Coins made of metal appear first in the age of Gautama Buddha. The earliest are made largely of silver though a few coppers also appear. They are called punch-marked because pieces of these metals were punched with certain marks such as hill, tree, fish, bull, elephant, crescent, etc. The earliest hoards of these coins have been found in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Magadha, although some early coins are also found in Taxila. The Pali texts indicate plentiful use of money and show that wages and prices were paid in it. The use of money had become so universal that even the price of a dead mouse was estimated in it.

After the end of the Harappa culture, writing probably started a couple of centuries before Ashoka. The earliest records have perished probably because they were not written on stone and metal. Writing led to the compilation of not only laws and rituals but also facilitated bookkeeping, which was so essential to trade, tax-collection and the keeping of a large professional army. The period produced texts dealing with sophisticated measurement (Sulvasutras), which presuppose writing and which may have helped the demarcation of fields and houses.

Although rural settlements belonging to the NBPW phase have not been excavated, sherds of this ware have been found at more than 400 places in the plains of Bihar and; those of eastern and central Uttar Pradesh. We cannot think of the beginning of crafts, commerce and urbanization in the middle Gangetic basin without a strong rural base. Princes, priests, artisans, traders, administrators, military personnel and numerous other functionaries could not live in towns unless taxes, tributes and tithes were available in sufficient measure to support them. Non-agriculturists living in towns had to be fed by agriculturists living in villages. In return artisans and traders living in towns made tools, cloth, etc., available to the rural folk. We hear of a village trader depositing 500 ploughs with a town merchant. Obviously these were iron ploughshares. From the NBPW phase in Kaushambi, iron tools consisting of axes, adzes, knives, razors, nails, sickles, etc., have been discovered. A good number of them belong to the layers of about the sixth-fourth centuries B.C. and were probably meant for the use of the peasants who bought them by paying cash or kind.

Numerous villages are mentioned in the Pali texts and towns seem to have been situated amidst the clusters of villages. It seems that the nucleated rural settlement in which all people settled at one place with their agricultural lands mostly outside the settlement first appeared in the middle Gangetic plain in the age of Gautama Buddha. The Pali texts speak of three types of villages. The first category included the typical village inhabited by various castes and communities. Its number seems to have been the largest and it was headed by a village, headman called bhojaka. The second included suburban villages which were in the nature of craft villages; for instance a carpenters village or chariotmaker’s village lay in the vicinity of Varanasi. Obviously these villages served as markets for the other villages and linked the towns with the countryside. The third category consisted of border villages situated on the limits of the countryside which merged into forests. People living in these villages were mainly fowlers and hunters, who mostly lived on food gathering.

The village lands were divided into cultivable plots and allotted family wise. Every family cultivated its plots with the help of its members supplemented by that of agricultural labourers. Fields were fenced and irrigation channels dug collectively by the peasant families under the supervision of the village headman.

The peasants had to pay one-sixth of their produce as tax. Taxes were collected directly by royal agents and generally there were no intermediate landlords between the peasants on the one hand and the state on the other. But some villages were granted to brahmanas and big merchants for their enjoyment. We also hear of large plots of land worked with the help of slaves and agricultural labourers. Rich peasants were called gahapatis (Pali term), who were almost the same as a section of the vaishyas.

Rice was the staple cereal produced in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in this period. Various types of paddy and paddy fields are described in the Pali texts. The use of the term for transplantation is found in the Pali and Sanskrit texts of the period and it seems that large-scale paddy transplantation began in the age of the Buddha. Paddy transplantation or wet paddy production enormously added to the yield. In addition the peasants also produced barley, pulses, millets, cotton and sugarcane. Agriculture made great advance because of the use of the iron ploughshare and immense fertility of the alluvium soil in the area between Allahabad and Rajmahal.

Technology became central to the process of rural and urban economy, iron played a crucial role in opening the rainfed forested, hard-soil area of the middle Ganga basin to clearance, cultivation and settlement. The smiths knew how to harden iron tools. Some tools from Rajghat (Varanasi) show that they were made Out of the iron ores obtained from Singhbhum and Mayurbhanj. It thus appears that people came to be acquainted with the richest iron mines in the country which was bound to increase the supply of tools for crafts and agriculture.

The picture of economy that emerges from a study of material remains and the Pali texts is much different from the rural economy of later Vedic times in western Uttar Pradesh or the nature of the economy of a few chalcolithic communities found in some parts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. We notice for the first time an advanced food-producing economy spread over the alluvium soil of the middle Gangetic plains and the beginning of urban economy in this area. It was an economy which provided subsisterice not only to direct producers but also to many others who were not farmers or artisans. This made possible collection of taxes and maintenance of armies on a long term basis and created conditions in which large territorial states could be formed and sustained.

Administrative System

Although we hear of many states in this period, only Koshala and Magadha emerged as powerful. Both of them were full-fledged states ruled by the hereditary monarchs belonging to the kshatriya varna. The Jatakas or the stories relating to the previous births of the Buddha tell us that oppressive kings and their chief priests were expelled by the people and new kings were installed. But occasions of expulsion were as rare as those of election; The king enjoyed the highest official status and special protection of his person and property. He yielded ground only to great religious leaders of the stature of the Buddha. The king was primarily a warlord who led his kingdom from victory to victory.

This is well illustrated by the careers of Bimbisara and Ajatashatru.

The kings ruled with the help of officials, both high and low. Higher officials were called mahamatras and they performed various functions such as those of the minister (mantrin), commander (servmayaka), judge, chief accountant and head of the royal harem. It is likely that a class of officers called ayuktas also performed similar functions in some of the states.

Ministers played an important part in administration. Varsakara of Magadha and Dirghacharayana of Koshala were effective and influential ministers. The first succeeded in sowing seeds of dissension in the ranks of Lichchhavis of Vaishali and enabled Ajatashatru to conquer the republic. The second rendered help to the king of Koshala. It seems that high officers and ministers were largely recruited from the priestly class of the brahmanas. Generally they do not seem to have belonged to the clan of the king. The kin-based polity of Vedic times was now substantially undermined.

In both Koshala and Magadha, despite the use of the punch-marked coins made of silver, some influential brahmanas and setthis were paid by the grant of the revenue of villages. In doing so, the king did not have to obtain the consent of the clan, as was the case in later Vedic times, but the beneficiaries were granted only revenue; they were not given any administrative authority.

The rural administration was in the hands of the village headmen. In the beginning the headmen functioned as leaders of the tribal regiments and so they were called gramini which means the leader of the grama or a tribal military unit. As life, became sedentary and plough cultivation well established, tribal contingents settled down to agriculture. The gramini therefore was transformed into a village headman in pre-Maurya times. The village headmen were known by different titles such as gramabhhojaka, gramini or gramika. The title gramini prevails in Sir Lanka to this day. Eighty-six thousand gramikas are said to have been summoned by Bimbisara. The number may be conventional, but it shows that the village headmen enjoyed considerable importance and had direct links with the kings. The village headmen assessed and collected the taxes from the Villagers and they also maintained law and order in their locality. Sometimes oppressive headmen were taken to task by the villagers.

Army and Taxation

The real increase in state power is indicated by the formation a large professional army. At the time of Alexander’s invasion, the Nanda ruler of Magadha kept 20,000 cavalry, 200,000 infantry, 2000 four-horse chariots and about 6000 elephants. The horse-chariots were losing their importance not only in north-east but also in north-west India, where they had been introduced by the Vedic people. Very few elephants were maintained by the rulers of the states in north-west India, though some of them maintained as many horses as the Magadhan king did. The possession of numerous elephants gave an edge to the Magadhan princes.

The large long-service army had to be fed by the state exchequer. We are told that the Nandas possessed enormous wealth which must have enabled them to support the army, but we have no idea of the special measures by which they raised taxes. The fiscal system was established on a firm basis. Warriors and priests, i.e., the kshatriyas and the brahmanas, were exempted from payment of taxes and the burden fell on the peasants who were mainly v&ishyas or grihapatis. Bali, a voluntary payment made by the tribesmen to their chiefs in Vedic times, became a compulsory payment to be made by the peasants in the age of the Buddha and officers called balisadhakas were appointed to collect it. It seems that one-sixth of the produce was collected as tax by the king from the peasants. Taxes were assessed and collected by the royal agents with the help of village headmen. The advent of writing may have helped the assessment and collection of taxes. The discovery Of many hoards of pinch-marked coins suggests that payment was made in both cash and kind. In north-eastern India payment was made in paddy. In addition to these taxes the peasants were subjected to forced labour for royal work. The birth stories of the Buddha speak of cases in which peasants left the country of the king in order to escape the oppressive burden of taxes.

Artisans and traders also had to pay taxes. Artisans were made to work for a day in a month for the king and the traders had to pay customs on the sale of their commodities. The tolls were collected by officers known as shaulkika or shulkadkyaksha.

The territorial kings discard the sabha and samiti. Popular assemblies had practically disappeared in post Vedic times. Since they were essentially tribal institutions they decayed and disappeared as tribes disintegrated into varnas and lost their identity. Their place was taken by varna and caste groups and so caste laws and customs were given due weight by the writers of the law-books. However these regulations were mainly confined to social matters. Popular assemblies could succeed only in small kingdoms where members of the tribe could easily be summoned, as may have been the case in the Vedic period. With the emergence of the large states of Koshala and Magadha, it was not possible to hold big assemblies attended by people belonging to different social classes and different parts of the empire. The sheer difficulty of communication made regular meetings impossible. Further, being tribal, the old assembly could not find place for many non-Vedic tribes who lived in the new kingdoms. The changed circumstances, therefore, were not congenial for the continuance of the old assemblies. Their place was taken by a small body called parishad consisting exclusively of the brahmanas. Even in this period assemblies were there, but not in the monarchies. They flourished in the smaller republican states of the Shaky as, Lichchhavis, etc.

The Republican Experiment

The republican system of government existed either in the Indus basin or in the foothills of the Himalayas in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The republics in the Indus basin may have been the remnants Of the Vedic tribes although some monarchies may have been followed by republics. In some cases, id Uttar Pradesh and Bihar people were possibly inspired by the old ideals of tribal equality which did not give much prominence to the single raja.

In the republics real power lay in the hands of tribal oligarchies. In the republics of Shakyas and Lichchhavis the ruling class belonged to the same clan and the same varna. Although in the case of the Lichchhavis of Vaishali 7707 rajas sat on the assembly held in the motehall, the brahmanas were not Ihcluded in this group. In post Maurya times in the republics of the Malavas and the Kshudrakas, the kshatriyas and the brahmanas were given citizenship, but slaves and hired labourers were excluded from it. In a state situated on the Beas river in Punjab, membership was restricted to those who could supply at least one elephant to the state. This was a typical oligarchy in the Indus basin.

The administrative machinery of the Shaky as and Lichchhavis was simple. It consisted of Raja, Uparaja (Vice-King), Senapatl (Commander) and Bhandagarika (treasurer). We hear of as many as seven Courts in the hierarchical order for trying the same case one after another in the Lichchhavi republic but this seems to be too good to be true.

In any case certain states in the age of the Buddha were not ruled by hereditary kings but by persons who were responsible to the assemblies. Thus although the people living in ancient republics may not have shared political power equally, the republican tradition in the country is as old as the age of the Buddha.

The republics differed from the monarchies in several ways. In the monarchies the king claimed to be the sole recipient of revenue from the peasants, but in the republics this claim was advanced by every tribal oligarch who was known as raja. Each one of the 7707 Lichchhavi rajas maintained his storehouse and apparatus of administration. Again, every monarchy maintained its regular standing army nad did not permit any group or groups of people to keep arms within its boundaries. But in a tribal oligarchy each raja was free to maintain his own little army under his Senapatl, so that each of them could compete with the other. The brahmanas exercised great influence in monarchy, but had no place In the early republics, nor did they recognize these states in their law-books. Finally, the main difference between a monarchy and a republic lay in the fact that the latter functioned under the leadership of oligarchic assemblies and not of an individual, as was the case with the former.

The republican tradition became feeble from the Maurya period. Even in pre-Mauryan times, monarchies were far stronger and common. Naturally ancient thinkers looked upon kingship as the common and most important form of government. To them the state, government and kingship meant the same thing. Since the state was well established in the age of the Buddha, thinkers began to speculate about its possible origins. The Digha Nikaya, one of the oldest Buddhist texts in Pali, points out that in the earliest stage human beings lived happily. Gradually they came to have private property and set up house with their wives. So they began to quarrel over property and women. In order to put an end to this quarrel they elected a chief who would maintain law and order and protect people. In return for protection the people promised to give to the chief a part of the paddy. The chief came to he called king and this is how kingship or the state originated.

Social Orders, mad Legislation

The Indian legal and judicial system originated In this period. Formerly people were governed by the tribal law, which did not recognize any class distinction. But by now the tribal community had been clearly divided into four classes brahmanas, kshatriyas, vaishyas and shudras. So the Dharmasutras laid down the duties of each of the four varnas and the civil and criminal law came to be based on the varna division. The higher the varna the purer it was and the higher was the order of moral conduct expected by civil and criminal law. All kinds of disabilities were imposed on the shudras. They were deprived of religious and legal rights and relegated to the lowest position in society. They could not be invested with upanayana. Crimes committed by them against the brahmanas and others were punished severely: on the other hand the crimes committed against the shudras were punished lightly. The lawgivers spread the fiction that the shudras were born from the feet of the creator. So members of the higher varnas, especially the brahmana, shunned the company of the shudra, avoided the food touched by him and refused to enter into marriage relations with him. A shudra could not be appointed to high posts and more importantly he was specifically asked to serve the twice born as slave, artisan and agricultural labourer. In this respect even Jainism and Buddhism did not materially change his position. Although he could be admitted to the new religious orders his general position continued to be low. It is said that Gautama. Buddha visited the assemblies of the brahmanas, the kshatriyas and the gahapatis or householders, but the assembly of the shudras is not mentioned in this connection.

Civil and criminal law was administered by royal agents, who inflicted rough and ready punishments such as scourging, beheading, tearing out of the tongue, etc. In many cases punishments for criminal offences were governed by the idea of revenge. It meant tooth for tooth and eye for eye.

Although the brahmanical lawbooks took into account the social status of the different varnas in framing their laws, they did not ignore the customs of the non-Vedic tribal groups which gradually absorbed into the brahmanical social order, which went on expanding as a result of conquests. Some of these indigenous tribals were given fictitious social origins and allowed to be governed by their own customs.

The age of the Buddha is important because ancient Indian polity, economy and society really took shape in this period. Agriculture based on the use of iron tools in alluvial area gave rise to an advanced food producing economy, particularly. In eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it was possible to collect taxes from the peasants and on the basis of regular taxes and tributes large states could be founded. In order to continue this system, the varna order was devised and the functions of each varna were clearly laid down. According to this system, rulers and fighters were called kshatriyas, priests and teachers were called brahmanas, peasants and taxpayers were called vaishyas and those who served all these classes as labourers were Called, shudras.


  • Explain the meaning of the following terms and concepts:NBPW phase, bhojaka, punch-marked coins, grajrdka, gohapati, mahamatras, balisadhaka.
  • Describe the developments that took place in the technology and economy in this period. Point out the important changes that these developments marked in Indian society.
  • Describe the varna system in the post-Vedic period. What was the position of the shudras in that system?
  • Discuss the factors that led to urbanization in the period from the sixth to fourth century B.C. Why is urbanization in this period called the second urbanization in India?
  • Describe the system of administration in the monarchical states during the age of the Buddha.
  • Describe the system of government in the republican states during the age of the Buddha.
  • Discuss the main features of the political system that emerged during the age of the Buddha. How were these systems markedly different from the political system of the Vedic age?
  • On an outline map of India, mark the towns and cities that emerged during this period. Also show the trade routes during this period.

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