Society in Feudal Era
D.N. Jha
SOCIO-ECONOM1C EXPLORATION OF MEDIEVAL INDIA (FROM 800 TO 1300 A.D.) by P.C. Jain B.R. Publishing Corporation, Delhi, 1978, 370 pp., 80.00
Sept-Oct 1978, volume 3, No 2

Bdase mainly on Sanskrit, Prakrit and Apabhramsha texts, the present work is a sequel to P.C Jain’s Labour in Ancient India (1971). Divided into six chapters, it seeks to study the social and economic condition of various categories of Indian labour and the state of guild organizations in early medieval India.

Unlike most historians, Jain rightly assumes that the medieval period in India began around the sixth or seventh century A.D. with the emergence of feudalism. Accordingly, he has utilized the literary texts ranging in dates from the sixth to the thirteenth centuries or thereabouts. But their use in conjunction with inscriptions would have given us a clearer and surer picture of the times. Moreover, the author’s excessive realiance on the Shukra­niti is open to question in view of recent research which assigns it to as late as the eighteenth century. The present study is therefore hardly ‘definitive’ so far as the use of source material is concerned.

Jain’s implicit acceptance of the growth of feudalism in the early medieval period has justifiably led him to indicate at least some of the changes noticeable in the contemporary socio-economic fabric. The peasantry, we are told, was subjected to heavier taxation than was collected from it during the preceding period.

The feudal era witnessed a substantial fall in the volume of India’s trade, leading to a decline of industry as well as to dimini­shing importance of guilds. It also saw, in the author’s opinion, an unprecedented increase in the number of slaves on acco­unt of frequent feudal wars. Although the above assertions indicate some of the broad developments in early medieval social polity they by no means throw light on its inner dynamics.[ih`c-hide-content ihc_mb_type=”block” ihc_mb_who=”unreg” ihc_mb_template=”1″ ]

In view of the scheme of periodization adopted by Jain, one would expect him to have focussed attention on the funda­mental changes in the social structure and the varna system and on the study of the ‘working class’ in relation to them. By all indications the varna system tended to be rigid and members of the different varnas came to be classified on the basis of the regions to which they belonged. Feudalism not only fostered localism but also sharpened social conflict. Contrary to this, however, Jain confidently asserts that egalitarian ideas gained in strength and enhanced the status and prestige of the labouring classes.

He seems to rule out any social tension between the haves and the have-nots as is clear from the following statement: ‘In a democratic social structure, like the (one) then obtaining, both of them (i.e. emp­loyers and employees) were bound by a common ethic and certain exclusive oblig­ations.’ To read democratic values in a feudal context amounts to reconciling the irreconcilable. Similarly, with the emergence of brahmanas and kshatriyas as landed intermediaries on account of the increasing number of land donations, the practice and management of agriculture (recommended earlier to brahmanas only in times of distress) now became a sam­anya dharma and could be adopted by members of all the varnas. Yet we are told that ‘the persuit of agriculture lost its attraction for the high-castse people’ Again, early medieval legal literature reveals a deprecatory attitude towards slavery in spite of the probable swelling of the number of domestic slaves. In what has often been described as a feu­dal society, slavery as an institution of crucial importance in the economic sector declined and serfdom emerged. The bald statement that ‘slavery was converted into serfdom which somewhat bettered their (slaves’) working conditions’ however, is not borne out by available histori­cal evidence which attests its growth only in some regions and not throughout the country. Obviously the author is not aware of the fact that feudalism and serf­dom were ubiquitous neither in Europe nor in India. Thus, under the cover of an apparently unorthodox periodization, the author has presented, perhaps unconsciously, much unassimilated, simplistic and traditional ideas.

The lack of conceptual clarity on the part of the author has given rise to some glaring contradictions. For instance, his basic contention in the first chapter is that the status of the ‘working class’ improved during early medieval times. But in the section on slavery he speaks of the ‘end­less misery and soul-killing hopelessness’ of the slaves as if they were not part of the ‘working class’. Examples of this type can be multiplied, and therefore gets the impre­ssion that logical consistency has been a major casualty in Jain’s book. Nevertheless, the present work is a valuable socio­-economic study of early medieval north India and contains much recondite infor­mation collected by a competent Sans­kritist who seems to be much less influe­nced by revivalism than other members of his tribe.

D.N. Jha is  Reader in History, University of Delhi, Delhi.