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THE following analysis is constructed from a number of incidental allusions to economic conditions in the great Pali thesaurus of the Jataka, and, to a more limited extent in the Vinaya, and also in the other books of the Sutta Pitaka, of which the Jataka is a part. Dr Fick’s admirable monograph Die sociale Gliederung in Indien is similarly based. That work deals chiefly with social conditions. The present chapter, on the other hand, is mainly economic in scope, and only in a minor degree sociological. It is true that the evidence is drawn very largely from stories. But it is fairly clear that the folk in those tales have given them a parochial setting and local colour. And this is frequently borne out by the coincident testimony of other books not dealing with folklore.

The rural economy of India at the coining of Buddhism was based chiefly on a system of village communities of landowners, or what in Europe is known as peasant proprietorship. The Jataka bears very clear testimony to this. There is no such clear testimony in it to isolated large estates, or to great feudatories, or to absolute lords of the soil holding such estates. In the monarchies, the king, though autocratic and actively governing, had a right to a tithe on raw produce, collected as a yearly tax; and only to this extent could he be considered the ultimate owner of the soil. All abandoned, all forest land the king might dispose of; and under this right was included the reversion to the crown of all property left intestate or ‘ownerless’ a custom which may or may not be a survival of an older feudalism. The sovereign was moreover entitled to ‘milk money’, a perquisite paid by the nation when an heir was born to him, and he could declare a general indemnity for prisoners at any festal occasion. Besides these privileges he could impose forced labor or rajakariya on the people, but this may have been limited to the confines of his own estates. Thus the peasant proprietors enclose a deer-reserve for their king, that they might not be summoned to leave their tillage to beat up game for him. A much more oppressive extent of corvée is predicted only of a state of civic decay. The tithe on produce was levied in kind, measured out either by the village syndic or head­man (gama-bhojaka), or by an official (a mahamatta) at the barn doors, or by survey of the crops. Some of the rice and other grain may presumably have been told off for the special granaries kept filled for urgency, in war or famine, but Buddhist books make no clear reference to such an institution. The amount levied seems to have varied from 1/6 to 1/12, according to the decision of the ruling power, or other circumstances. And the contributions raised at one or more gamas (villages), rural or suburban, could be made over by a monarch (or by his chief queens) to anyone he wished to endow, e.g., to a daughter on her marriage, a minister, a Brahman, a merchant, etc. Again, the king could remit the tithe to any person "or group".

We have no direct evidence of such a tithe or other tax being levied on the commonwealth by any of the republics or oligarchies mentioned in the Buddhist canon, such as the Sakiyas, Koliyas, Licchavis, Mallas, etc. But that they did so raise the state revenue, in the case at least of the Sakiyas, seems to be attested by Asoka’s inscription on the Lumbini or Rummindei pillar. The tithe thus remitted on the occasion of Asoka’s visit to the birthplace of the Buddha, must have been imposed by the Sakiyas at a date prior to the Mauryan hegemony. The Sakiyas and other republics are recorded as meeting for political business at their own mote-halls, and must inevitably have had a financial policy to discuss and carry out. That their enactments could be somewhat drastically paternal appears in the case of the Malla clansmen of Kusinara, who imposed a fine of 500 (pieces) on anyone who ‘went not forth to welcome the Blessed One’ when he drew near, on his tour, to their town. These Mallas were also possessed of a mote-hall (santhagara) for parliamentary discussions —a class of buildings illustrated by the bas-relief of a celestial House of Lords on the Bharhut Stupa.

Land might, at least in the kingdom of Magadha, be given away, and in that of Kosala, be sold. In the former case, a Brahman landowner offers a thousand karisas of his estate as a gift; in the latter, a merchant (by a little sharp practice) entangles an unwilling noble in the sale of a park. And in the law-books we read that land might be let against a certain share of the produce. The holdings too in the arable land, called the khetta, of each village would be subject to redistribution and redivision among a family, as one generation succeeded another. It is not clear whether any member of a village community could give or sell any of the khetta to an outsider. It is just possible that the old tradition, expressed in the Brahmanas when a piece of land was given as a sacrificial fee—‘And the Earth said: Let no mortal give me away!’—may have survived in the villages as a communal, anti-alienising feeling concerning any disintegration of the basis of their social and economic unity. We should anyway expect, from what is revealed in the early Buddhist books, to find such a sentiment upheld, less by the infrequent rural autocrat and his little kingdom of country-seat, tenant-farmers, and serfs, than by the preponderating groups of cultivators, each forming a gama.

Cities and Villages 

When, in the Jataka legend, a king of Videha abandons the world as anchorite, he is described as renouncing both his capital, the city (nagara) of Mithila, seven yojanas (in circumference), and his realm of sixteen thousand gamas. It may sound incredible that a country owning such a wealth of ‘villages’ should contain but one town, and that so vast in extent, as to suggest inclusion not only of parks but of suburban gamas. There was not, however, any such hard and fast line between gama and nigama (small town) to warrant the exclusion, in this description, of some gamas which may have amounted to nigamas. A similar vagueness holds between our ‘town’ and ‘village’.

A gama might apparently mean anything from a group of two or three houses to an indefinite number. It was the generic, inclusive term for an inhabited settlement, not possessing the fortifications of a nagara, or the ruler's palace of a rajadhani. The number of inhabitants in the gamas of the Jataka tales varied from 30 to 1000 families. And family (kula), it must be remembered, was a more comprehensive unit than it is with us, including not only father and mother, children and grandparents, but also the wives and children of the sons. Gama, it is true, might be used to differentiate a class of settlement, as in the compound gama­nigama, ‘villages and towns’; but it is also used in the wider, looser sense of group as opposed to single house. For instance, a fire, when starting in a house, may extend to the whole gama. When a bhikkhu leaves park, forest, or mountain to seek alms, he ‘enters the gama’, whether it be a neighboring village, or the suburbs of great Savatthi.

Of such cities there were but few in Northern India. Less than twenty are named. Six of them only are reckoned by the Thera Ananda as sufficiently important cities (maha-nagara) to be the scene of a Buddha’s final passing away:—Savatthi, Champa, Rajagaha, Saketa, Kosambi, Benares. Kusinara, where that event actually took place, he depreciates as not a ‘village’, but a jungle ‘townlet’ (nagaraka). The greatness of Pataliputra (Patna) was yet to come. In the absence of any systematic account of this rural organization in ancient records, it is better to refrain from laying down any homogeneous scheme. No doubt different villages, in different districts, varied one from another in the customs of land-tenure, and in the rights of individual householders as against the community. The jungles and rivers of the vast Ganges valley fostered independent development probably at least as much as the hill-barriers in the Alps have done in the case of Swiss and Italian peasant communities down to this day.

Around the gama, which appears to have been classed as of the country (janapada), of the border (paccanta), or as suburban, lay its khetta, or pastures, and its woodland or uncleared jungle:—primeval forest like the Andhavana of Kosala, the Sitavana of Magadha, the Pacinavamsa-daya of the Sakiya Territory, retreats traditionally haunted by wild beasts and by gentler woodland sprites, and where Mara, the Lucifer of seductive evil influences, might appear in one shape or another'. Different from these were such suburban groves as the Bamboo Grove belonging to Magadha’s king, the Anjanavana of Saketa, the Jetavana of Savatthi. Through those other uncleared woodlands and moorlands, where the folk went to gather their firewood and litter, ran caravan routes, roads that were at times difficult because of swampy passages after rain, and here and there dangerous, less on account of aggressive beasts than because of brigands, not to mention demonic bipeds.

Adjoining or merged into these wilder tracts were supplementary grazing pastures of herds of cattle and goats,—herds belonging to king or commoners. Commoners customarily entrusted their flocks to a communal neatherd, as we find in the Pennine Alps today (le fromageur). We find him either penning his herds at night in sheds, or, more often, bringing them back every evening and counting them out to the several owners, varying the pasturage from day to day. The official name, gopalaka, and the context suggest that dairywork was not usually expected of him so much as sagacity in minding his beasts.


The arable ground of the gama lay without the clustered dwellings, since these were apparently enclosed by a wall or stockade with gates (gamadvara). Fences, snares, and field watchmen guarded the khetta or gamakhetta from intrusive beasts and birds, while the internal boundaries of each house­holder’s plot were apparently made by channels dug for co-operative irrigation. These dividing ditches, rectangular and curvilinear, were likened, at least in the Magadha khettas, to a patchwork robe, and prescribed by the Buddha as a pattern for the uniform of his Order : torn pieces of cast-away cloth sewn together, ‘a thing which could not be coveted’. The limits of the whole khetta might be extended by fresh clearing of forest land. And whereas the majority of holdings were probably small, manageable single-handed or with sons and perhaps a hired man, estates of 1000 karisas (acres?) and more occur in the Jatakas, farmed by Brahmans. In the Suttas, again, the Brahman Kasibharadvaja is employing 500 ploughs and hired men (bhatika) to guide plough and oxen.

Rice was the staple article of food; besides which seven other kinds of grain are mentioned; sugar-cane and fruits, vegetables and flowers were also cultivated.

Instances of collectivist initiative reveal a relatively advanced sense of citizenship in the gamas. The peasant proprietors had a nominal head in the bhojaka or headman, who, as their representative at political headquarters and municipal head, was paid by certain dues and fines. But all the village residents met to confer with him and each other on civic and political matters. And carrying the upshot of their counsels into effect, they built new mote-halls and rest-houses, constructed reservoirs and parks, and took turns at a voluntary corvée in keeping their roads in repair, herein again followed by Alpine peasants of today. Women too considered it a civic honor to bear their own part in municipal building. A further glimpse into the sturdy spirit in gama-life is caught in the Jataka sentiment, that for peasants to leave their tillage and work for impoverished kings was a mark of social decay. Relevant to this is the low social rank assigned to the hired labourer, who is apparently classed beneath the domestic slave.

Scarcity owing to drought or to floods is not infrequently referred to, extending even over a whole kingdom. This contradicts the ‘affirmation’ recorded by Megasthenee, that ‘famine has never visited India’, unless his informant meant a very general and protracted famine. The times of scarcity in Buddhist records apparently refer only to brief periods over restricted areas.

Nothing in all the foregoing evidence has gone to show that, in the India of early Buddhist literature, the pursuit of agriculture was associated with either social prestige or social stigma. The stricter Brahman tradition, not only in the law-books, but also in the Sutta Nipata, the Majjhima Nikaya, and the Jatakas, expressly reserved the two callings of agriculture and trade for the Vaisya or middle class, and judges them unfit for Brahman or noble. Thus the Brahman Esukari of Savatthi considers village and dairy farming as not less the property and province of the Vaishya than are bow and arrow, endowed maintenance (by alms), and sickle and yoke, the property and province of noble, Brahman, and working classes respectively. And here and there, in the Jataka-book, Brahmans who engage in agriculture, trade, and other callings are declared to have fallen from their Brahmanhood. On the other hand, in both Jatakas and Suttas, not only are Brahmans frequently found pursuing tillage, cow herding, goat keeping, trade, hunting, wood-work or carpentry, weaving, caravan guarding, archery, carriage-driving, and snake-charming, but also no reflection is passed upon them for so doing, nay, the Brahman farmer is at times a notably pious man and a Bodhisat to boot. Dr Fick is disposed to think that the North-western (Udicca) Brahmans of the Kurus and Panchalas, some of whom came east and settled there, inherited a stricter standard. Nevertheless it is not claimed for the pious ones just mentioned, living near Benares and in Magadha, that they were Udicca immigrants. Even the law-books permit Brahmans to engage in worldly callings if they are in straitened circumstances, or if they take no active share in the work.

As for the Kshatriya clansmen of the republics mentioned above, they were largely cultivators of the soil. For instance, in the Kunala Jataka, it was the workmen in the fields of the Sakiyan and Koliya ‘bhojakas, amaccas, and uparajas’ who began to quarrel over the prior turn to irrigate. In the earliest Indian literature agricultural and pastoral concepts play a great part. But even if this implied that a special dignity attached to agriculture, it does not follow that any such tradition survived, if it survived at all, associated with any section of society. There was among Indo-Aryans little of the feudal tie between land and lord with lordship over the land-tillers, which made broad acres a basis for nobility in the West. However they accomplished their prehistoric invasion of the Ganges basin, ‘land-grabbing’ does not seem to have been carried out pari passu with success in generalship. This may have been because the annexation of land to any wide extent meant clearing of jungle. Except among Dravidian and Kolarian towns along the rivers, the task of the invaders was more like that of pioneering settlers in America. And there we know that land is not an appanage involving special privileges and entailing special claims, but a commodity like any other.

Arts and Crafts 

The slave or servant (dasa, dasi) was an adjunct in all house­holds able to command domestic service; but slaves do not appear to have been kept, as a rule, in great numbers, either in the house, or, as in the West, at milling or ‘plantation’ work. Their treatment differed of course according to the disposition and capacity of both master and slave. Thus we find, in the Jataka, the slave, petted, permitted to learn writing and handicrafts besides his ordinary duties as valet and footman, saying to himself that, at the slightest fault he might get ‘beaten, imprisoned, branded, and fed on slave's fare’. But of actual ill-treatment there is scarce any mention. Two instances of beating occur, and in both the victims were maids. One lies a-bed repeatedly (to test her pious mistress’s temper); the other fails to bring home wages. Presumably she had been sent to fetch her master’s wage, or else had been hired out. But we do not meet with runaway slaves. Slavery might be incurred through capture, commuted death sentence, debt, voluntary self-degradation, or judicial punishment; on the other hand, slaves might be manumitted, or might free themselves by payment' They might not, while still undischarged, be admitted into the religious community (Sangha).

The hireling, wage-earner, day-laborer was no man’s chattel, yet his life was probably harder sometimes than that of the slave. He was to a great extent employed on the larger land-holdings. He was paid either in board and lodging, or in money-wages. Manu prescribes regular wages both in money and kind for menials in the king's service.

In the arts and crafts, a considerable proficiency and specialization of industry had been reached. A list of callings given in the Milindapanha, reveals three separate industries in the manufacture of bows and arrows, apart from any ornamental work on the same. In the same work, the allusion to a professional winnower of grain indicates a similar division of labor to our own threshing machinists and steamplough-owners who tour in rural districts. As certain grain crops were reaped twice a year, this would afford a fairly protracted season of work every few months.

Some trade-names, on the other hand, are as comprehensive as our ‘smith’. As with us, this word (kammara) might be applied to a worker in any metal. Vaddhaki, again, apparently covered all kinds of woodcraft including shipbuilding, cartmaking, and architecture, thapati, tacchaka (lit. planer), and bhamakara or turner being occupied with special modes of woodworks. A settlement of vaddhakis is able to make both furniture and seagoing ships. Once more the same worker in stone (pasana-kottaka) builds houses with the ruined material of a former gama, and also hollows a cavity in a crystal as a cage for a mouse.

Important handicrafts like the three above named and their branches, the workers in leather, i.e., the leather-dressers, the painters, and others to the number of eighteen were organised into gilds, according to Jataka records; but it is to be regretted that only four of the eighteen crafts thus organized are specifically mentioned, the woodworkers, the smiths, the leather-dressers, the painters and the rest, expert in various crafts. At the head of each gild was a president (pamukha) or alderman (jetthaka), and these leaders might be important ministers in attendance upon and in favor with the king. Occasionally these functionaries quarreled, as at Savatthi. And it may have been such quarrelling also at Benares that led to the institution of a supreme headship over all the gilds, an office doubled with that of treasurer (bhandagarika) being founded at that city. It is of interest to note that this innovation in administrative organization was made at a time when, according to the legend, the monarchy is represented as having been elective, not hereditary, and when the king who appointed, and the man who was appointed, were the sons, respectively, of a merchant and a tailor! The nature and extent of the authority of the pamukha over the gilds is nowhere clearly shown. Nor is it clear to what extent the duties of a bhandagarika, lit. ‘houser of goods’, coincided with our word ‘treasurer’. It was not confined to the custody of moneys, for the Sangha had officials so named; hence it is possible that it referred to a supervision of the goods made or dealt with by a gild or gilds and not only to the king’s exchequer.

Leaders of Industry 

Nor can we with any certainty fill up the fourteen unnamed gilds. A great many arts and crafts are mentioned in the books, some of them held in less social esteem than others. Among the latter were trades connected with the slaying of animals and work on their bodies, e.g., hunters and trappers, fishermen, butchers, and tanners. Yet other such despised callings were those of snake-charming, acting, dancing and music, rush weaving and chariot-making, the last two because of the despised, probably aboriginal, folk whose hereditary trades they were. Other more honorable crafts were ivory-working, weaving, confectionery, jewelry and work in precious metals, bow and arrow making, pottery, garland-making and head-dressing. Besides these handicrafts, there was the world of river and sea-going folk, the trader or merchant, and, corresponding in a limited way to the first-named, the caravan-escorts and guides or ‘land-pilots’ (thala-niyyamaka). But although reference is made in connection with some of these, to a jetthaka, or Elder, no further evidence of civic organization is forthcoming.

Other instances of trades having jetthakas are seamen, or at least pilots (niyyamaka), garland makers, caravan traders and guards, and robbers or brigands. We read, e.g., of a little robber­gama in the hills, near Uttara-Panchala, numbering 500 families.

The learner or apprentice (antevasika, literally the boarder) appears frequently in Buddhist books, one of which indicates the relative positions of pupil and master woodwright. But no conditions of pupillage are anywhere stated.

The title of setthi (best, chief), which is so often met with and, without much justification rendered by ‘treasurer’, may possibly imply headship over some class of industry or trading. It is clear that the famous setthi, Anathapindika of Savatthi, the millionaire lay-supporter of the Sangha, had some authority over his fellow-traders. Five hundred setthis, e.g., attended him in his presentation of the Jetavana to the Buddha. Unless these were convened from different towns, the number in any one town was not limited to one or a few. They are usually described as wealthy, and as engaged in commerce. Dr Fick is probably right in alluding to them as representing the mercantile profession at court. The word certainly implied an office (thana) held during life. There might be a chief (maha) setthi, and an anusetthi or subordinate officer; a commentary even refers to the insignia of a setthi-chatta (umbrella of state).

The remarkable localization of industries revealed in Buddhist literature has already been noticed. This is observable especially in the case of craft-villages of woodwrights, ironsmiths, and potters. These were either suburban to large cities, or rural, and constituting as such special markets for the whole countryside, as we see in the ironsmiths’ gama just cited, to which people came from the gamas round about to have razors, axes, ploughshares, goads, and needles made. On the Ganges or further afield there were trapper gamas, supplying game, skins, ivory, etc.

Within the town we meet with a further localization of trades in certain streets, if not quarters, e.g., the street (vithi) of the ivory workers in Benares, the dyers’ street, the weavers’ place (thana), the Vessas’ ( Vaishyas, merchants?) street.

Combined with this widespread corporate regulation of industrial life, there was a very general but by no means cast-iron custom for the son to follow the calling of the father. Not only individuals but families are frequently referred to in terms of their traditional calling. The smith, e.g., is Smithson; Sati the fisher­man's son is Sati the fisherman; Chunda the smith is called Chunda Smithson, etc. This, however, is not peculiar to Indian or even to Aryan societies, up to a certain stage of development. Even of our own it was said but half a century ago that the line of demarcation between different employments or grades of work had till then been ‘almost equivalent to an hereditary distinction of caste’. In modern India no doubt these lines of demarcation have intensified in the course of centuries, and have split up the industrial world into a, to us, bewildering number of sections, or, as the Portuguese called them, castes.

Social Distinctions 

The Jatakas reveal here and there a vigorous etiquette observed by the Brahman ‘colour’ in the matter of eating with, or of the food of, the despised Chandalas, as well as the social intolerance felt for the latter by the burgess class. The Jataka commentary tells the story of a slave-girl, daughter of a slave and a Khattiya, whose father pretended to eat with her only that she might be passed off before the Kosalans, seeking a nobly born consort for their king, as a thorough-bred Sakiyan.

On the other hand, a great many passages from both Jataka and other canonical books might be quoted to show that the four ‘colours’ are on the whole to be taken in no stricter sense than we speak of ‘lords and commons’, ‘noblesse, eglise, tiers-êtat’, ‘upper, middle, lower classes’. That Brahmans claimed credit if born of Brahmans on both sides for generations back3 betrays the existence of many born from a less pure connubium. In the Kusa Jataka, a Brahman takes to wife the childless chief wife of a king without ‘losing caste’ thereby. Elsewhere in the Jataka-book princes, Brahmans, Setthis are shown forming friendships, sending their sons to the same teacher, and even eating together and inter­marrying, without incurring any social stigma or notoriety as innovators or militants. The following instances may be quoted :

A king’s son, pure bred, cedes his share of the kingdom to his sister, turns trader and travels with his caravan. A prince, whose wife in a fit of displeasure has returned to her father, apprentices himself at that father’s court, without entailing subsequent social disgrace, to the court potter, florist, and cook successively, in order to gain access to her. Another noble, fleeing from his brother, hires himself to a neighboring monarch as an archers. A prince resigning his kingdom, dwells with a merchant on the frontier, working with his hands. A commentarial tradition represents a child of the Vaccha Brahmans as the ‘sand-playmate’ of the little Siddhartha, afterwards the Buddha. A wealthy, pious Brahman takes to trade to be better able to afford his charitable gifts. Brahmans engaged personally in trading without such pretext, taking service as archers, as the servant of an archer who had been a weaver, as low-caste trappers, and as low-caste carriage­makers.

Again, among the middle classes, we find not a few instances revealing anything but caste-bound heredity and groove, to wit, parents discussing the best profession for their son: writing, reckoning, or money-changing (rupa?), no reference being made to the father’s trade; a (low-class) fleer-trapper becoming the protégé and then the ‘inseparable friend’ of a rich young Setthi, without a hint of social barriers; a weaver looking on his handi­craft as a mere make-shift, and changing it off-hand for that of an archer; a pious farmer and his son, with equally little ado, turning to the low trade of rush weaving; a young man of good family but penniless, starting on his career by selling a dead mouse for cat’s meat at a ‘farthing’, turning his capital and his hands to every variety of job, and finally buying up a ship’s cargo, with his signet-ring pledged as security, and winning both a profit of 200 per cent. and the hand of the Setthi’s daughters.

This freedom of initiative and mobility in trade and labor finds further exemplification in the enterprise of a settlement (gama) of woodworkers. Failing to carry out the orders for which prepayment had been made, they were summoned to fulfill their contract. But they, instead of ‘abiding in their lot’, as General Walker the economist said of their descendants, ‘with oriental stoicism and fatalism’, made ‘a mighty ship’ secretly, and emigrated with their families, slipping down the Ganges by night, and so out to sea, till they reached a fertile island. Stories, all of these, not history; nevertheless they serve to illustrate the degree to which labor and capital were mobile at the time, at least, when these stories were incorporated in the Buddhist canon, and before that. And they show that social divisions and economic occupations were very far from coinciding. There was plenty of pride of birth, which made intermarriage and eating together between certain ranks an act more or less disgraceful to those reckoning themselves as socially higher. And sons, especially perhaps among artisans, tended to follow the paternal industry. This was all.

The trade of the trader, dealer, or middleman (vanija) may well have been largely hereditary. Traditional good-will handed on here would prove specially effective in commanding confidence, and thus be a stronger incentive than the force a tergo of caste-rule. There is, however, no instance as yet produced from early Buddhist documents pointing to any corporate organization of the nature of a gild or ‘Hansa league’. The hundred or so of merchants who, in the Chullaha-Setthi Jataka, come to buy up the cargo of a newly arrived ship, are apparently each trying to ‘score off his own bat’, no less than the pushful youth who forestalled them. Nor is there any hint of syndicate or federation or other agreement existing between the 500 dealers who are fellow passengers on board the ill-fated ships in the Valahassa and Pandara Jatakas; or the 700 who were lucky enough to secure Supparaka as their pilot, beyond the fact that there was concerted action in chartering one and the same vessel. Among merchants travelling by land, however, the rank of satthavaha or caravan-leader seems to imply some sort of federation. This position was apparently hereditary, and to be a jetthaka or elder, in this capacity, on an expedition, apparently implied that other merchants (vanija), with their carts and caravan-followers, were accompanying the satthavaha, and looking to him for directions as to halts, watering, precautions against brigands, and even as to routes, fording, etc. Subordination, however, was not always ensured, and the institution does not warrant the inference of any fuller syndicalism among traders.


Partnerships in commerce, either permanent, or on specified occasions only, are frequently mentioned : the former, in the Kutavanija and Mahavanija Jatakas, the latter in the Payasi Suttanta and the Jaravanija Jataka. In the Jarudapana Jataka there is, if not explicit statement, room for assuming concerted commercial action on a more extensive scale, both in the birth-story and also in its introductory episode. The caravan in question, consisting of an indefinite number of traders (in the birth-story, under a jetthaka), accumulate and export goods at the same time, and apparently share the treasure trove, or the profits therefrom. In the episode the firm also wait upon the Buddha with gifts before and after their journey. These were traders of Savatthi, of the class who are elsewhere described as acting so unanimously under Anathapindika, himself a great travelling merchant. The Guttila Jataka, again, shows concerted action, in work and play, on the part of Benares traders. It is conceivable, however, that the travelling in company may have been undertaken as much for mutual convenience in the chartering of a common ship, or the employment of a single band of forest-guards, as for the prevention of mutual under-selling or the cornering of any wares. Merchants are represented, at least as often, as travelling with their own caravan alone. Thus in the first Jataka two traders, about to convey commodities to some distant city, agree which shall start first. The one thinks that, if he arrive first, he will get a better, because non-competitive price; the other, also holding that competition is killing work (lit. ‘price-fixing is like robbing men of life’), prefers to sell at the price fixed, under circumstances favorable to the dealer, by his predecessor, and yields him a start.

The little we obtain from the Jatakas of the range and objective of such merchants’ voyages are so interesting as side-lights on early trafficking as to create regret at their scantiness. The overland caravans are sometimes represented as going ‘east and west’, and across deserts that took days, or rather nights to cross, a ‘land-pilot’ (thala-niyyamaka) steering during the cooler hours of darkness by the stars. Drought, famine, wild beasts, robbers, and demons are enumerated as the dangers severally besetting this or that desert routes. Such caravans may have been bound from Benares, the chief industrial and commercial centre in early Buddhist days, across the deserts of Rajputana westward to the seaports of Bharukaccha, the modern Broach, and the sea board of Sovira (the Sophir, or Ophir, of the Septuagint?), and its capital Roruva or Roruka. Westward of these ports there was traffic with Babylon, or Bayeru.

At a later date, say, at the beginning of the first century A.D. the chief objective of Indian sea-going trade is given in the Milinda as follows:

“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 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”.

Tamil poems testify to the flourishing state of Kaviri-pattinam (Kamara in Periplus, Khabari of Ptolemy), capital of Chola, on the Kaveri river, at about the same period, as a centre of international trade, especially frequented by Yavana (Yona, Ionian) merchants. According to the Jataka it was practicable to attain to any of these ports starting from up the Ganges, not only from Champa (or Bhagalpur, about 350 miles from the sea) but even from Benares. Thus the defaulting woodwrights mentioned above reach an ocean island from the latter city; Prince Mahajanaka sets out for Suvannabhumi from Champa, and Mahinda travels by water from Patna to Tamalitti, and on to Ceylon. It is true that the word samudda, sea, is occasionally applied to the Ganges, nevertheless, if the foregoing stories be compared with the Sankha Jataka, it becomes probable that the open sea is meant in both. In this the hero, while shipwrecked, washes out his mouth with the salt water of the waves during his self-imposed fast. Again, in the Silanisamsa Jataka, a sea-fairy as helmsman brings ‘passengers for India’ by ships ‘from off the sea to Benares by river’. Other traders are found coasting round India from Bharukaccha to Suvannabhami, doubtless putting in at a Ceylon port; for Ceylon was another bourne of oversea commerce, and one associated with perils around which Odyssean legends had grown up. The vessels, according to Jataka tales, seem to have been constructed on a fairly large scale, for we read of ‘hundreds’ embarking on them, merchants or emigrants. The numbers have of course no statistical value; but the current conceptions of shipping capacity are at least interesting.

The nature of the exports and imports is seldom specified. The gold which was exported to Persia as early at least as the time of Darius Hystaspes, finds no explicit mention in the Jatakas. Gems of various kinds are named as the quest of special sea-farers anxious to discover a fortune. ‘Silks, muslins, the finer sorts of cloth, cutlery and armour, brocades, embroideries and rugs, perfumes and drugs, ivory and ivory-work, jewelry and gold (seldom silver) :—these were the main articles in which the merchant dealt’

As to the inland routes, the Jatakas tell of Anathapindika’s caravans travelling S.E. from Savatthi to Rajagaha and back (about 300 miles), and also to the ‘borders’, probably towards Gandhara. The route in the former journey was apparently planned to secure easy fording of the rivers by following ‘the foot of the mountains to a point north of Vesali, and only then turning south to the Ganges’.

Another route south-west from Savatthi to Patitthana, with six chief halting places, is given in the Sutta Nipata, verses 1011-13'. From east to west, traffic, as we have seen, was largely by river, boats going up the Ganges to Sahajati, and up the Jumna to Kosambi. Further westward the journey would again be overland to Sind, whence came large imports in horses and asses, and to Sovira and its ports. Northward lay the great trade route connecting India with Central and Western Asia, by way of Taxila in Gandhara (Pali Takkasila), near Rawalpindi, and presumably also of Sagala in the Punjab. This great road and its southern connections with the leading cities of the Ganges valley must have been, even in early Buddhistic days, relatively immune from dangers. Instances abound in the Jatakas of the sons of nobles and Brahmans faring, unattended and unarmed, to Takkasila to be educated at this famous seat of Brahmanical and other learning.

There were no bridges over the rivers of India. The setu or causeway of Buddhist metaphor is a raised dyke built over shoal water. Only fording-places and ferries for crossing rivers are mentioned in Buddhist literature, and cart-ferries in Manu.


Food-stuffs for the towns were apparently brought only to the gates, while workshop and bazaar occupied, to a large extent at least, their own special streets within. Thus there was a fish­monger’s village at a gate of Savatthi, greengrocery is sold at the four gates of Uttara-Panchala, and venison at the cross-roads (singhataka) outside Benares.

The slaughter-houses (suna) mentioned in the Vinaya were presumably outside also, and near them the poor man and the king’s chef bought their meats, unless by singhataka we understand street-corners as the places where meat was sold. The great city of Mithila was, according to the Mahu-ummagga Jataka, composed in part of four suburbs extending beyond each of its four gates, and called not gamas, but nigamas. These were named respectively East, South, West, and North Yavamajjhako, translated by Cowell and Rouse ‘market-town’. The workshop in the street was open to view, so that the bhikkhu coming in to town or village for alms, could see fletcher and carriage-builder at work, no less than he could watch the peasant in the field. Arrows and carriages and other articles for sale were displayed in the apana, or fixed shop, or, it might be, stored within the antarapana. In these, or in the portable stock-in-trade of the hawker', retail trading constituted a means of livelihood, independently, it might be, of productive industry. The application, judgment, cleverness, and connection of the successful shopkeeper are discussed in the Nikayas, and among trades five are ethically proscribed for lay believers :—daggers, slaves, flesh, strong drink, poisons.

Textile fabrics, groceries and oil, greengroceries, grain, perfumes and flowers, articles of gold and jewelry, are among the items sold in the bazaars of Jataka stories and Vinaya allusions, and for the sale of strong liquors there were the taverns (panagara, apana). But there is no such clear reference made either to a market-place in the town, or to seasonal market-days or fairs. Such an institution as the hath, or barter fair, taking place on the borders of adjacent districts, finds, curiously enough, no mention in the Jataka-book, though as the late Wm. Irvine wrote, “it is to this day universal to my personal knowledge, from Patna to Delhi, and, I believe, from Calcutta to Peshawar”. The fêtes often alluded to do not appear to have included any kind of market.

The act of exchange between producer and consumer, or between either and a middleman, was both before and during the age when the Jataka-book was compiled, a 'free' bargain, a transaction unregulated, with one notable exception, by any system of statute-fixed prices. Supply was hampered by slow transport, by individualistic production, and by primitive machinery. But it was left free for the producer and dealer to prevail by competition, and also by adulteration, and to bring about an equation with a demand which was largely compact of customary usage and relatively unaffected by the swifter fluctuations termed fashion.

Instances of price-haggling are not rare, and we have already noticed the dealer’s sense of the wear and tear of it, and a case of that more developed competition which we know as ‘dealing in futures’. The outlay in this case, for a carriage, a pavilion at the Benares docks, men (purisa), and ushers (patihara), must have cut deep into his last profit of 1,000 coins, but he was 20,000 per cent. to the good as the result of it! After this the profit of 200 and 400 per cent. reaped by other traders’ falls a little flat, and such economic thrills only revive when we consider the well-known story of the fancy price obtained by Prince Jeta for his grove near Savatthi from the pious merchant Anathapindika, limited only by the number of coins (metal uncertain) required to cover the soil.

At the same time custom may very well have settled price to a great extent. ‘My wife is sometimes as meek as a 100-piece slave-girl’ reveals a customary price. For the royal household, at least, prices were fixed without appeal by the court valuer (agghakaraka), who stood between the two fires of offending the king if he valued the goods submitted at their full cost, or price as demanded, and of driving away tradesmen if he refused bribes and cheapened the wares. On the other hand the king might disgust him by too niggardly a bonus. It may also have been the duty of this official to assess the duty of one twentieth on each consignment of native merchandise imported into a city, and of one-tenth, plus a sample, on each foreign import, as stated in the law-books of Manu, Gautama, and Baudhayana. Such octrois are alluded to in one Jataka, where the king remits to a subject the duty collected at the gates of his capital. Finally, it may have been his to assess merchants for their specific commutation of the rajakariya, namely, one article sold per month to the king at a discount (arghapacayena).

 Means of Exchange 

The ‘sample’ mentioned above is suggestive of a surviving payment made in kind. That the ancient systems of barter and of reckoning values by cows or by rice-measures had for the most part been replaced by the use of a metal currency, carrying well understood and generally accepted exchange value, is attested by the earliest Buddhist literature. Barter emerges in certain contingencies, as e.g. when a wanderer obtains a meal from a woodlander for a gold pin, or when among humble folk a dog is bought for a kahapana (karshapana) plus a cloak. Barter was also permitted in special commodities by the law-books ascribed to Gautama and Vasishtha, and was prescribed in certain cases for the Sangha, to whom the use of money was forbidden. Moreover, as a standard of value, it is possible that rice was still used when the Jataka-book was compiled.

But for the ordinary mechanism of exchange we find, in that and all early Buddhist literature, the worth of every marketable commodity, from that of a dead mouse and a day at the festival up to all kinds of prices, fees, pensions, fines, loans, stored treasure, and income, stated in figures of a certain coin, or its fractions. This is either stated, or implied to be, the kahapana. Of the coins called puranas this literature knows nothing. Other current instruments of exchange are the ancient nikkha (nishka—a gold coin, originally a gold ornament), the suvanna, also of gold, and such bronze or copper tokens as the kansa, the pada, the masaka (masha), and the kakanica. Cowry shells (sippikani) are once mentioned', but only as we should speak of doits or mites, not as anything still having currency.

That there was instability as to the relative value of standard or token coins in place and time we learn from the Vinaya: “At that time [of Bimbisara or Ajatasattu], at Rajagaha, five masakas were equal to one pada”. Again, the nikkha was valued now at five, now at four suvannas.

Of substitutes for money, such as instruments of credit, we read of signet rings used as deposit or security, of wife or children pledged or sold for debt, and of debt-sheets. The bankrupt who, in the Jataka tale, invites, his creditors to bring their debt-sheets for settlement, only to drown himself before their eyes, appears in a Milinda simile anticipating the crisis by making a public statement of his liabilities and assets. The entanglement and anxieties of debt as well as the corporate liability belonging to communistic life in a religious order rendered it necessary to debar any candidate from admission to the Sangha who was a debtor. And the sight of a deposited security recalling the past circumstances of the pledging is instanced in the Milinda as a case of the psychical process of recollection (sati).

No definite rates of interest on money loans appear in the early books. But the term which appears in the law-books as 'usury' (vrddhi, Pali vaddhi) is found. Meaning literally profit or increase, it may very early have acquired the more specialized import. There is a tolerant tone concerning the money-lender in a Jataka tale; where a patron, in enabling a huntsman to better himself, names money-lending (ina-dana), together with tillage, trade, and harvesting as four honest callings. Gautama is equally tolerant. But the general tendency of this profession to evade any legal or customary rate of interest and become the type of profit-mongering finds condemnation in other law-books. Hypocritical ascetics are accused of practising it. No one but the money-lender seems to have lent capital wealth for interest as an investment. For instance, only bonds (panna) are spoken of in the case of the generous Anathapindika's bad debts. Capital wealth was hoarded, either in the house—in large mansions over the entrance passage—under the grounds, in brazen jars under the river bank, or deposited with a friends. The nature and amount of the wealth thus hoarded was registered on gold or copper plates.

Fragmentary as are the collected scraps of evidence on which the foregoing outlines of social economy have been constructed, more might yet be inferred did space permit. It should, however, be fairly clear from what has been said, that if, during, say, the seventh to the fourth century B.C. it had been the vogue, in India, to write treatises on economic institutions, there might have come down to us the record both of conventions and of theories as orderly and as relatively acceptable to the peoples as anything of the kind in, say, the latter middle ages was to the peoples of Western Europe. But it is a curious fact that often where the historian finds little material to hand wherewith to rebuild, he judges that there never were any buildings. Thus in a leading historical work on economics, revised and enlarged in 1890, the whole subject of the economic ideas of the Orient is dismissed in a single page as being reducible to a few ethical precepts, and as extolling agriculture and decrying arts and commerce; further, that division of labor, though politically free, stiffened into a system of hereditary caste, arresting economic progress, and that the Chinese alone, and only from the seventh century A.D., had any insight into the nature of money and its fiduciary substitutes. But we have been looking behind the ethical precepts of the preacher, and the sectarian scruples of a class, at the life of the peoples of North India, as it survives in the records of their folk-lore, and of the discipline of the brethren in orders who lived in close touch with all classes. And we have seen agriculture diligently and amicably carried on by practically the whole people as a toilsome but most natural and necessary pursuit. We have seen crafts and commerce flourishing, highly organized corporately and locally, under conditions of individual and corporate competition, the leading men thereof the friends and counselors of kings. We have found labor largely hereditary, yet, therewithal, a mobility and initiative anything but rigid revealed in the exercise of it. And we have discovered a thorough familiarity with money and credit ages before the seventh century.