In a discussion of Indian feudalism, there are two approaches that are equally misleading and therefore equally to be shunned. One approach is that which argues that India developed in a unique, peculiar and exclusive way of its own; consequently, any concept coined to explain the historical evolution of western Europe can have no relevance for a study of Indian history. At the other extreme is the attempt to prove that the structure of Indian feudalism was an unabridged and exact replica of the western European feudal mode of pro¬duction.
The advocates of the ‘exclusivist’ approach forget that the essence of feudalism as a sys-tem of production lies in the different ways in which the people of a particular region are related to the only means of production—the land. The complex edifice of its socio-political structure rests on these rural relations of pro¬duction.
And there is nothing intrinsic in these rural rela¬tions of production, the cus¬toms and institutions of west¬ern European feudalism that suggests that they could not have evolved in Indian condi¬tions. It would, how-ever, be equally absurd to prove the existence of feudalism in India by seeking point-by-point identity between western European and Indian feudalism. Only a little historical sense is needed to realize that India, with its totally different pre-feudal development, just could not show a mirror image of all the formal and substantial features of the western European feudal structure, a mode of production which arose in response to different historical pressures and needs and came later in time: a point which is further corroborated by the post-feudal differences in the politico-economic evolution of western Europe and India.
Feudalism in India originated in circumstances essentially different from the western European context. And, as will be shown later in this re¬view, it also lacked some of the structural specificities which provided dynamism to the western European social formation. On account of differences in population, climate, topography and the survival of anterior relations of production, Indian feuda¬lism displayed variety in some of its formal appearances, though pre-serving its bed-rock of substantial essence intact through all these changes of time and place. In western Europe also, the variety in the formal aspects of feu-dalism from region to region had led Engels to wonder—’Did feudalism ever correspond to its concept?’
In the present work, Prof Sharma surveys the political and economic aspects of feudalism in northern India from 300-1200 A.D He examines the factors which led to its emergence, delineates the chief politico-economic characteristics of the epoch and makes an impressive case for the existence of feudalism in this period of Indian his¬tory. The book, as he admits in the preface to the first edi¬tion, has a limited scope in that it is strictly confined to an examination and interpre¬tation of royal charters which throw light on the politico-economic structure of Indian society in the period under study. It does not place feuda¬lism within the larger context of the previous development of Indian history, nor does it deal with its impact on the social and cultural life of this period. But within these limi¬tations, the author’s research is painstaking, the marshalling of his evidence impressive and his interpretation, with the exception of a few matters, convincing.
The author traces the emer¬gence of Indian feudalism to the practice, widespread in Gupta and post-Gupta times, of giving land grants to brahmans. Now even earlier there had been cases of grants of villages to brahmans but these earlier grants different from the later post-Gupta grants in two essential ways: In the period under consideration, such instances of land and village grants not only increas¬ed numerically but the grantees also came to be invested with all fiscal rights and such administrative rights as the maintenance of law and order and collection of fines from criminals. The grantees were also given exemption from any interference or encroachment by royal troops or servants which could eat into their revenues. With the passage of time, the practice spread and it became customary for secu¬lar officials to keep a portion from the revenues that they extracted from the territories administered by them. The process led to the emergence of a landlord class and assumed the characteristic feudal form when military officers and vassals began to be remunerated in the same way.
The feudal mode of produc¬tion is characterized by a natural economy where neither labour nor the products of labour are commodities. The author points out the con¬comitant features of such an economy that make their appearance at this stage of Indian history—the decline of trade, the paucity of coins, the decay of towns, the prac-tice of sub-infeudation that sometimes led to the emer¬gence of four stages of landed interests between the king and the actual tiller of the soil, the closed, self-sufficient economy of the village and the dehuma¬nized and servile position of the peasantry.
Despite the relative abundance of archaeological, epigraphic, literary and other evidence that we have for this period, there are inevitable difficulties in interpreting them and forming from them a clear and comprehensive picture of Indian society of the time. For example, the numerical strength of the various classes and the legal rights of owner¬ship of the land are some of the issues about which we have either very ambiguous information or none at all. What was the proportion of the land and village area given in g rants to the total land area of the time? It is true that the land grants of the feudal age to the brahmans served a progressive cause as they open¬ed up previously uncultivated and backward areas and help¬ed assimilate the primitive and tribal population of those regions to the orthodox cul¬ture of the newcomers. But there is evidence that brah¬mans were also granted settled villages and endowed with fiscal and other rights that amounted to a practical ownership of the land since the grant was hereditary. Only two conclusions can be drawn from this evidence, both of which reflect on the low and degraded condition of the peasantry of this time. Either the peasant had no prop¬rietary rights in the land he cultivated or whatever meagre rights he had could always be overridden by the sovereign rights of the king. And this latter phenomenon, i.e., the right of the king to claim taxes and grant land on a large scale on the ground that he was the supreme land¬owner certainly came to be recognized in the medieval law textbooks. However, the fact remains that even when culti¬vating a patch of his own land, the peasant had to part with a major share of his pro¬duce in paying a plethora of feudal taxes and other custo¬mary obligations.
No account of Indian society, whether ancient or feudal, can be considered complete with¬out a review of the role that the caste system played in it. Such an appraisal can also help to remove certain mis¬conceptions that exist in some quarters about the nature of Indian feudalism. Caste first divided and then froze society into hereditary divisions of occupation; caste con-solidated social hierarchies; caste lent to the production process of Indian economy throughout the centuries great multitudes of docile, tractable, ideologi¬cally-doped and skillful labour¬ing masses; caste sanctified the unequal division of social sur¬plus; the caste system became an efficient means of accultu¬ration which could not only admit primitive, backward people into the rigid fold of orthodox Hindu society but also relegate them to the lowest position of slaves, menial servants and toiling labourers in society and re¬concile them to their lot. Thus an analysis of the role that caste played in Indian feudal structure can not only throw light on some peculiar features of Indian feudalism but also show why and how those features differed from western European institutions.
Some scholars, evidently in¬fluenced by the legal definition of serfdom —glebae adscripti or ‘bound to the earth’—and taking it to be the chief characteristic of western European feudalism—have argued that since the Indian peasant was never tied to the soil in this manner, the term ‘feudalism’ is not fully appli¬cable to the Indian experience. This is certainly an example of confusing the formal appearance of a social pheno-menon with its substance. In the manorial economy of western European feudalism, the specific institution of serfs tied to the land arose in ans¬wer to a specific historical problem of the age. And with the passage of time, the insti¬tution underwent many modi-fications and disappeared alto¬gether when it had served its historical purpose. It was in a period of rampant anarchy and insecurity, of raids and battles, when population was scarce and constantly on the move, that a majority of the peasant population came to be tied to the land in various ways. Now India did not show this social institution precisely in this form simply because there was no need for it in the Indian circumstances: a large population always ensured an abundant supply of labouring masses. Caste bound people to their locality and the occupa¬tion more efficiently than serf¬dom ever did. Besides, there is ample evidence that when and where the need was felt, culti¬vators and artisans were tied to the villages that were grant¬ed to religious and secular functionaries. In Orissa, parti¬cularly, where the working population was not adequate for running the rural econo¬my, this practice prevailed on a very wide scale and for a long period of time, thus prac¬tically reducing the villagers to the condition of semi-serfs.
Furthermore, it should not be overlooked that even in the worst days of feudal oppres¬sion, a Western European peasant had allodial holdings to fall back upon, a pocket of autonomy and resistance which the Indian peasant never came to acquire. And amidst the severity of manorial organiza¬tion, a serf was free to increase the yield on his virgate, again a phenomenon conspicuous by its absence in the Indian system where the drain of taxes left with the small peasant only what was neces¬sary for his survival at a bare subsistence level. Besides, Indian feudalism also did away with communal rights of villagers in barren land, jungles, pastures, trees, water-reservoirs etc., thus rendering the economic position of the toiling majority in the villages hopeless indeed.
The social formation of feuda¬lism in India differed in some basic respects from that of Western Europe. A review of these basic differences can also give an explanation for the different directions which these two societies took in their post-feudal development. Feudalism in India lacked the institutional stresses and strains that were an inalien¬able part of the western European experience. The whole political structure of Indian feudalism was reared on land grants, which cannot be said of western Europe, even though the Church there came to acquire a large area of landed property through various grants. The largesse of kings ruling over large empires bestowing land and villages on brahmans and relinquishing all rights of revenue, administration etc., in their favour can be ex¬plained by the fact that the brahmans were useful in maintaining law and order in the new areas and in re¬conciling the people to their rule. But the evidence of petty, ephemeral kings lording over their fugitive realms and giving grants that cut down their revenues shows a seri¬ously imperfect understanding of the nature of statecraft. The tussle between the king and the powerful barons for extending the area under their domain, which was a pro¬minent feature of Western European medieval economy, did not find an ideological echo in the bitter internecine warfare of the Indian feudal epoch.
The very manner of emergence of Indian feudalism ruled out the conflict of economic interests between lay and religious lordship which was endemic in the medieval epoch and which had important consequences for the develop¬ment of the Western European feudal structure. And most important of all, Indian feudalism lacked the dynamic that ultimately propelled western Europe to the post-feudal, capitalist era—the emergence of autonomous towns in the feudal age which set in motion a dynamic op¬position between the town and the country, opposition bet¬ween an urban economy of increasing commodity ex¬change and a rural economy of natural exchange.
The author cites evidence to show that by the end of the 12th century, there are signs of a revival of towns and urban trade, particularly in the coastal region of Western India. But the mere fact of the existence of towns does not indicate that feuda¬lism had arrived at a climactic stage of its development. A whole plexus of other impor¬tant factors have to be taken into consideration before judging whether or not Indian feudalism was on its way out during this period. The mode of extraction of surplus from the toiling masses, the posi¬tion of the merchant class vis-a-vis other classes and the state, its lack of freedom or otherwise, its ideological inclinations and ambitions and the use to which this class puts the wealth at its disposal are some of the issues to be probed. A careful scrutiny of these and other factors would reveal that Indian towns of the period did not enjoy the rights and privileges which the cities of Western Europe, particularly those, of Italy and Germany, enjoyed, which caused them to become such powerful vehicles of economic development and made their merchant class into an impor¬tant, powerful and integral part of the Western European feudal polity.
There were other differences too, but enough has been said here to reveal the various points of similarity and con¬trast between Western Euro¬pean and Indian feudalism. In Professor Sharma’s book, these issues are not touched upon, confined as it is merely to drawing a sketch of the political and economic aspects of feudalism in northern India by studying the royal charters. A book on Indian feudalism that puts this social forma¬tion in the right perspective of overall development of Indian history by a careful integration of all the various social, cultural, political and economic aspects is yet to be written. But Sharma’s study is competent within the limi¬tations he has set himself, and when I say that this book is not the last word on the subject, I do not mean to belittle it but to commend it.
Mukesh Vatsyayan is a freelance journalist.