Indian Feudalism

From the post-Maurya period, and especially from Gupta times, India’s political and administrative developments tended to feudalise the state apparatus.

What is feudalism?

In Europeans sense, feudalism describes a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations among the warrior nobility, revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals, and fiefs. However, in context with ancient India, the system gradually developed from the beginning of the land grants.

The practice of making land grants to the Brahmanas was a custom, sanctified by the injunctions laid down in the Dharmashashtras, Epics and Puranas. The Anusasana Parva of the Mahabharata devotes a whole chapter to the praise of making gifts of land (Bhumidanaprasamsa).

The Land Grants & Administrative Rights

The early Pali texts of the pre-Maurya period refer to the villages granted to the Brahmanas by the rulers of Kosala and Magadha. A term used for such grants was “Brahamdeyya“.

Earliest Land Grants

The earliest land grants belonging to the first century BC were given to the Buddhist priests and Brahmanas and other religious establishments. However, in the post-Guptas period even administrative officials were granted land. The landed beneficiaries were given both powers of taxation and coercion, leading to the disintegration of the central authority. The secular recipients of the grants and the autonomous holders of land are generally termed as fief holders and free holders. The major outcome was decentralization.

However, the Earliest epigraphic record of a land grants in India is a Saatavahana inscription of the first century BC, which refers to the grant of a village as a gift in the Ashvamedha Sacrifice. However, it is not clear, whether the administrative or revenue rights of these lands were also given to those priests or not. It has been guessed that the administrative rights were perhaps given up for the first time in the grants made to Buddhist monks by the Satavahana ruler – Gautamiputra Satakarni in the second century AD. Such a land grant included the rights that :

  • The royal troops could not enter such land granted
  • The government officials and district police was not supposed to disturb such lands.

Changes in Land Grants

From the period of later Mauryas, the land grants included the transfer of all sources of revenue, and the surrender of police and administrative functions. The grants of the second century AD mention that the transfer of the king’s control only over salt, which implies that he retained certain other sources of revenue. But in some other grants, it was recorded that the donor (King) gave up his control over almost all sources of revenue, including pastures, mines including hidden treasures and deposits.

Then, the donor not only abandoned his revenues but also the right to govern the inhabitants of the villages that were granted. This practice became more prevalent in the Gupta period. There are many instances of grants of apparently settled villages made to the Brahmanas during the Gupta era. In such grants, the residents, including the cultivators and artisans, were expressly asked by their respective rulers not only to pay the customary taxes to the donees, but also to obey their commands. All this provides clear evidence of the surrender of the administrative power of the state.

One of the important aspect of the Kings sovereignty was that he used to retain the rights of the punishing the culprits. In the Post-Gupta times, the king made over to the Brahmanas not only this right, but also his right to punish all offences against family, property, person, etc.

Implications of Land Grants

We see that, by giving such privileges, the state was bound to disintegrate. Out of the seven organs of the state power mentioned in literary and epigraphic sources, taxation system and coercive power based on the army are rightly regarded as two vital elements. If they are abandoned, the state power disintegrates. This was the system created by the grants made to the Brahmins. The land was granted for as long as the existence of the sun and the moon, which implies the permanent break-up of the integrity of the state.

The above discussion makes it clear that in the Post-Gupta period, the Brahamdeyya carried freedom from taxes , Administrative freedom and also the freedom from punishments (Abhayantarasiddhi). The widespread practice of making land grants in the Gupta period paved the way for the rise of Brahmin feudatories, who performed administrative functions not under the authority of the royal officers but almost independently. What was implicit in earlier grants became explicit in grants from about 1000AD; and well recognised in the administrative systems of the Turks.

The implications were many but the major implication was the creation of powerful intermediatories wielding considerable economic and political power. As the number of the land-owning Brahmins went up, some of them gradually shed their priestly functions and turned their chief attention to the management of land. Thus, their case secular functions became more important than religious functions. The comprehensive competence based on centralised control’, which was the hallmark of the Maurya state gave way to decentralisation in the post-Maurya and Gupta periods. The functions of the collection of taxes, levy of forced labour, regulation of mines, agriculture, etc., together with those of the maintenance of law and order, and defence which w re hitherto performed by the state officials, were now systematically abandoned, first to the priestly class and later to the warrior class.

Thus, the main implications of the Indian Feudalism in early medieval period are as follows:

  • Political decentralization: The seed of decentralization that was sown in the form of Land grants turned into a vividly branched political organization made up semi-autonomous rulers, Samantas, Mahasamantas and others such as Rajpurushas.
  • Emergence of new landed intermediatories: The emergence of landed intermediaries- a dominant landholding social group absent in the early historical period- is linked to the practice of land grants which began with the Saatavahana.
  • Changes in agrarian relations: Free vaishya peasants dominated the agrarian structure in early historical India and labour services provided by the Shudra. But, from the sixth century AD onwards the peasants stuck to the land granted to the beneficiaries because they were asked not to leave the village granted to the beneficiaries or migrate to tax-free village. This resulted in the immobility of the population and isolation from the rest of the world. Its implication was very profound such as development of localized customs, languages and rituals.

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