Feudalism in Ancient India
With the introduction of Marxist method of analysis in the study of ancient history of India, the political and economic aspects of the period have been revalued and the question of the feudalism in ancient India has once again come into surface. Scholars have talked about the class struggle and feudalism in ancient India and told us about the existence of slave society in later Vedic period.
In fact, the production system of Asia had some special characteristics of the system. Those were:
- the state controlled irrigation system,
- lack of private ownership of land,
- existence of the self sufficient villages,
- paucity of urbanization,
- tribal ownership of land,
- self-sufficiency in handicrafts and
- the existence of agrarian economy.
The Asian system of production had many differences with what was followed in Ancient India. India during that period had private ownership of land as well and there was a ruling class also, clustering round the king, who used to grasp the surplus money from the people. Archaeological excavations have proved that there were planned urbanization as well and hence the old theory of Asian economic system has been rejected. Now the social structure of ancient India is being studied from the angle of historical materialism and Dialectical materialism.
In a vast country like India where there are so many languages and varied environment, the stages of social mobility or social progress could never have uniformity. Indian society had never depended absolutely on the labour of the slave, who in the ancient period was known as the Sudras and the member of slaves also were limited – only a few. However, during the post-later Vedic era there might have slaves who played a significant part in the Mauryan economic system. He preferred to call it a Vaishya Sudra society. The Sudras too were not slaves. The higher castes too tried to grasp the surplus money from the people. Thus the Indian feudal system cannot be compared with that of Europe. In fact, there were some changes in the social system of India at that period where in there was an inter mixing or interaction between the Brahmanical ideology and the tribal culture and following this interaction the tribal life was greatly influenced by the agrarian rural economy of those days.
Feudalism in India practically began with the early medieval period, when the villages became almost self-sufficient owing to slanginess in urbanization and commercial activities during the fag end of the Gupta period. During the first century the Indian kings began to donate land freely to the Brahmins, scholars and religious institutions conferring the ownership of the land and the right to collect revenues thereof on them. This had enabled them to make a direct link and control over the peasantry—a system which Kosambi called a super imposed feudalism. It increased in its volume during the reign of Guptas and Harsha Vardhana, and a new class of land owners emerged who began to exploit the cultivators. He called this system-feudalism from the bottom as a result of which the agrarian economy had suffered much.
Some scholars believe that feudalism began when the kings started donating lands to the Brahmans, temples and the monasteries which increased in its volume during the time of the Guptas. During this period many of the densely populated villages along with all their cultivable lands, revenues, executive and judicial rights, freedom from royal interference and right to enjoy money collected from the fees and fines and confiscations were gifted to the Brahmans or religious institutions.
Later on the same type of gifts were made to the soldiers. With the growth of regional self-sufficient economic system this religious and secular gifts gained popularity. As a result of this self-sufficient economic system both the urban life and commerce deteriorated and the amount of coin also deteriorated.
As feudalism developed community right on land diminished. The pasture-land, marshes and forests-all were gifted. A middle order land owner class emerged. The peasant lost his right of free movement and was forced to pay heavy taxes and do forced labour. He became a slave. There was the possibility of further transfer of land and in reality that .happened too. By 6th century A.D. production fell causing fall in commercial activities and the growth of self-sufficient economy. In such an economy coins became scarce and hence the priests and the royal servants began to collect their revenues through land revenue causing the peasant to face further hardship and exploitation.