History for people

Print edition : April 08, 2005

Mauryan India: A People's History of India - 4, edited by Irfan Habib and Vivekanand Jha; Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2004; pages 189, Rs.350.

WHEN I was in high school during the years immediately preceding Independence, one of the papers for the school-leaving examination was history, which was Indian history. I do not remember when Indian history commenced for us, but I recall vividly that we covered the period of the Mauryan empire, roughly from the fourth to the second century B.C., that is, approximately 2,500 years ago. That must have been quite an exciting period. It saw Alexander the Great's invasion of India, the formation of Chandragupta Maurya's big empire, and, above all, the rule of Asoka. History as we learned it then was the story of rulers, their accomplishments, especially military achievements, their reforms, and possibly a few major incidents of their lives. I suspect that even today that is what history is for most people: names and dates.

But what about the nameless ordinary people of those remote years? Should they find a place in the narratives of the past? The answer to that question, according to this volume, is in the affirmative. The volume has three chapters, and the longest one is the last - on Economy, Society and Culture. This review, therefore, will begin with and concentrate on the theme of the conditions of living of the ordinary people in India some 2,500 years ago.

Life in those days, as it is even today for the vast majority of people in this country, was land-related. The manner of dependence on land, however, was different. A very large part of land was covered by forest and a good section of the population lived in the forest and by forest produce. For the rest of the population too the forest was important primarily because the timber required for building material, tools, ploughs, carts, and chariots - they had them all - came from it. Bamboo and reeds for making baskets and also used as weapons came from the forest, as also some animals and birds whose meat served as food. The skin and teeth of forest animals were in use and, of course, many plants used as medicine too came from the forest. Inscriptions of the period seem to be concerned about forests being gradually reduced and hence prohibited the burning of forests without purpose.

In the long history of human evolution, the transition from gathering forest produce and other forms of nature's bounty as the means of survival to settled agriculture was a slow process, but agriculture as the main source of livelihood was well established in India during the period under discussion. According to the records of the times, wheat, barley, pulses and rice were being produced. Indeed, not only these subsistence crops, even commercial crops such as sugarcane (referred to by a foreigner, part of whose records are still available, as "honey-yielding reeds"!) and cotton were cultivated. These were not cultivated for direct use either. These were traded and used in the production of different kinds of sugar (gur) from the former and cloth from the latter. The economic and social set-up in which these things happened would have been quite advanced;more about it later.

Now, with agriculture of the kind mentioned above, not only land but more crucially land relations also become important. In those early days the right to use land was more significant than the right to own it. The right to use land was conferred by the ruler (how can there be history without reference to rulers?) and those who thus got land would have used it for cultivation by themselves or would have passed it on to others. These two groups, peasants and tenants respectively, existed in those days. Peasants paid taxes for the land given to them; tenants paid a share of their produce as rent. But it must be noted that there was no clear distinction then between taxes and rents. The point is that a share of the produce compulsorily had to be paid to "higher-ups". There were also those who had no rights whatever on land, including slaves, who were given wages. These transfers of various sorts were largely in kind as a share of the produce. To a limited extent, cash payments were also made. Ploughs were in use and there were different sorts of arrangements for the watering of crops.

Along with agriculture, there was the pasturing of cattle and sheep. The two were complementary activities, but often done by separate groups of people. Domestication of poultry had also come into vogue. Meat-eating was prevalent, the ultimate luxury in meat being that of peacocks and deer. Salt was extracted out of rocks.

There were activities outside of agriculture too. Pottery was one among them. Work on metals, not only iron for implements, but gold and silver for ornaments, was also prevalent.

With non-agricultural activities increasing, towns also developed. Taxila, Ujjain, Kalinga and Pataliputra were among the notable towns, the last one being the largest, which could have had a population of about 1,40,000. As towns had to be supplied with food and other items required for day-to-day life, trade and commerce had developed too, and along with that, coins and roads as well. The roads, sometimes referred to even as highways, could not have been much more than strips of land cleared of jungle, thicket and bush, roughly levelled, but well marked by cart-ruts. In many places, these highways were also marked by rows of trees planted along their sides. It was also usual to have raised stone platforms along highways for people carrying head loads to take them down, and water in pots for their use.

Society of the period was already quite complex, with the population showing occupational diversity, a rural-urban divide and a hierarchical structure. The three basic institutions of the caste system had already emerged, namely, hierarchy fixed by birth, fixed hereditary occupations and endogamy, probably accepted as part of the natural order. But to observers from outside these appeared distinctly different. Megasthenes, the Greek envoy to Chandragupta's court, recorded that there appeared to be seven castes in the land he had come to. Of these the first was formed "by the collective body of philosophers", which was numerically small but was "in point of dignity pre-eminent over all". They were "engaged by private persons to offer sacrifices due in life time, and to perform obsequies of the dead: for they are believed to be most dear to the gods, and to be most conversant with matters pertaining to the abode of the dead". The caste referred to is quite obvious. Peasants, cattle-herders, artisans, military people, superintendents, councillors and assessors were the other castes.

Kautilya's Arthashastra, another writing of the period, refers to the four-fold caste structure - Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra. But apart from these varnas, other groups were also recognised. These included some 14 intermediate groups, mlechchas (foreigners), and outcastes.

Religious practices of a wide variety existed. Asoka's edicts refer to religious classes as Brahmins and Samanas. Brahmanism, though challenged, was the most widespread. For Jainism, coming from an earlier period, the Mauryan era was a time of both expansion and dissension. Buddhism was already established and after Asoka embraced it and started propagating it, it enjoyed a position well above other religions. But Asoka proclaimed freedom to all religious sects and allowed their followers to settle anywhere in his empire.

In terms of culture in its broadest sense, the Mauryan period must be considered to be an enlightened era. It was a period when writing was already established. This claim may sound strange today, but it must be remembered that the arrival of writing marks an epochal advance in any society. The Greeks did not think that there was any writing in India at the time of Alexander's invasion. But in less than a century after that, Asoka's rightly famous edicts carried writing to all parts of his large empire (as also to neighbouring countries). Asoka's inscriptions were in three very different languages - Prakrit, Irano-Aramaic and Greek - and in four scripts, one of which is the ancestor to the one in which Hindi and many other Indian languages are written today. The fact that Asoka had his edicts inscribed in different parts of his empire implies that everywhere some persons would be able to read them. Such spread of the use of writing must have had a tremendous impact on various institutions of society, administrative bureaucracy, religious sects and so on. It is somewhat intriguing though that Sanskrit, which was known to have been in use in India much before these, was not used in the Asokan inscriptions.

Based on Panini's well-known work, grammar as an area of study was well advanced and so was the science of polity in which Arthashastra was much in use. The study of mathematics and astronomy was also quite advanced. As for art and architecture, Asoka's pillars that exist even today (from one of which the lion capital has been taken as independent India's national emblem) are the supreme examples. There is also the famous Yakshi statue in Patna, datable to the first century B.C., that illustrates Mauryan art.

WE can now turn to the rulers and the polity. The reason for bringing them last is the fact that, unlike in modern times, the day-to-day lives of common people were not much impacted by them. And yet they are important from one significant aspect - they indicate the geographical region covered by the "empire".

During the past few centuries, territoriality has come to have legal and emotional connotations because it sets the boundaries of nation-states and is one of the factors on which the sentiment of nationhood depends. It is through the latter, the sense of belonging to a territory like India, that ordinary people come to have attachments to geographical boundaries though they may be far away in the physical sense. This, certainly, was not the case in the distant past when people were attached to their immediate surroundings and had virtually no knowledge about the boundaries of empires. Thus, Alexander of Greece, for instance, wanted the boundaries of his power and influence extended far and wide. So he decided to move his forces eastward as far as they could go. While he expected rulers of new territories and its inhabitants to submit to his authority or else to get annihilated, it is doubtful whether he wanted to rule over them.

A few decades later, Chandragupta Maurya, no less ambitious and daring, had his "empire" extended westward and succeeded in bringing into its ambit territories well into present-day Afghanistan. When Ashoka's turn as ruler came, a few years after Chandragupta, he too decided to pursue the imperial dream, trying to extend his authority eastward and southward within the geographical area of present-day India. He marched towards the east, into Kalinga (in the present Orissa), with an army of 60,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry and 700 elephants. There he faced strong opposition and a bitter battle followed in 262 B.C. Later Asoka himself admitted that some 100,000 people were slain and 150,000 were carried off as captives. The figures were probably exaggerated. But the event led to Asoka's conversion and acceptance of Buddhism. He spent the later years of his life propagating, with missionary zeal, the Buddhist teachings of tolerance and compassion.

The Mauryan empire, in around 260 B.C., extended from parts of Afghanistan in the west to Bengal in the east, and from the foot of the Himalayas in the north to part of South India, but did not reach to all of present-day Karnataka and left out Tamil Nadu and Kerala, although the Mauryans were aware of kingdoms in these areas. The Mauryan empire, therefore was not co-extensive with what we know as India. The empire started disintegrating almost immediately after Asoka and degenerated into smaller kingdoms and principalities.

In sum, that is the people's history that this volume presents. In one of the title pages, it is stated: "The Aligarh Historians Society, the sponsor of the project of A People's History of India, is dedicated to the cause of promoting the scientific method in history and resisting communal and chauvinistic interpretations." In terms of the simplified style of presentation the book can perhaps be claimed to be "history for people". But it is not quite "history as the story of people", partly because of the prominence that rulers and their doings still have (since sources are readily available?), but mainly because of the excessive intrusion of method. Scientific method is important, but if historians think that method is what people should become acquainted with, they will be taking the position that an economist did when he said: "Economics is what economists do." As one of the ordinary people, this reviewer hopes that some day, perhaps after the present quite commendable project is over, the Aligarh Historians Society will go beyond People's History to History as the Story of People.

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