Medievalism defined

Print edition : June 23, 2001

Early Medieval Indian Society: A Study in Feudalisation by R.S. Sharma; Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2001; pages x+374, Rs.590.

HOW often have we witnessed long queues of Ministers stooping with folded hands in front of the Prime Minister? Not too long ago we watched with amazement as our parliamentarians vied with one another to shake hands with President Bill Clinton and then read with still greater bewilderment that some of them did not even want to wash their hands lest the magical influence should wear off. "Imperious Laloo", "Digi Raja", "High Command", "Rajmatas" and "Rajas" are integral elements of our daily political and social vocabulary. And all this "feudal behaviour" and "feudalistic outlook" in one of the "greatest democracies" of the modern world. Professor Sharma's work provides a contextual and historical view of these "feudal forces", beyond the pejorative use of the term.

This work uses "society" in its widest sense, enveloping not just social structure but also polity, economy, religion and ideology. It is a collection of nine essays, some of which were published earlier. But each one has been revised and updated for this book. Essays on "Paucity of Metallic Coinage" and the "'Feudal Mind" were available to Hindi readers in 1996, but the English versions are published here for the first time. Ever since the early 1950s, writings on the history of pre-Turkish India have debated the paradigm of "feudalism" and the beginnings of "medievalism" in India. Sharma has been the most important exponent of this paradigm and he forcefully reiterates the case here.

Sharma has taken issue with his recent critics who have questioned the feudal paradigm more on semantic than substantive grounds. Thus, in the Introduction he warns that proponents of "localism" and "regionalism" miss the wood for the trees, for in the medieval context, regionalism is not incongruous with feudalism. Elsewhere (in Chapter III), in a rebuttal of the highly rated but historically untenable "segmentary state" model of Burton Stein, its real "colonialist" strains have been underlined. And Sharma does it with a touch of humour - Stein's late realisation (in an unpublished article of 1989) of the myth of the distinction between ritual sovereignty and actual political control in the context of the Chola "segmentary" state draws an ironic comment from him: "Since I happen to be older, I reached this conclusion in 1954."

Striking a strong methodological note, Sharma expresses legitimate concern at the use of models divorced from empirical evidence. He castigates writers talking of "received models", ironically in a "received language", and argues that a superior historical perspective can be achieved if one considers the continuous interplay that goes on between the mode of production on the one hand and the social, political and cultural trends on the other.

The fruits of the application of such a perspective become manifest right at the outset. Thus, in "Transition from Ancient to Medieval" (Chapter 1) Sharma is very clear that mere dynastic changes or any specific chronological cut off shall not explain the historical process. He makes a strong plea for an integrated study of all strands in Indian life in different parts of the country. Activities in the realms of the arts, literature, languages and religions have been analysed, as also transformations in the varna order and the legal system. Also meriting focussed attention is the entire gamut of activities related to economic life-style, including the supply of labour power. The resultant picture focusses on the radical changes in almost all these areas consequent upon the emergence of the new practice of land assignments, graded land rights and a class of landed intermediaries thriving on servile peasantry and other wealth producers.

Sporadic critiques apart, the first major offensive against the feudal paradigm was undertaken in 1979 when Harbans Mukhia sought to establish that a "free peasantry" existed in the relevant period. This led to the now famous "Feudalism Debate" carried in The Journal of Peasant Studies in 1981 (for this reviewer's account of its 1999 incarnation, see "The Shadowy Debate" in The Book Review, June 2000). Prof. Sharma's intervention "How Feudal was Indian Feudalism?" effectively demolished the model of the "free peasantry" by invoking unimpeachable empirical data. The collection under review has an amplified version of this contribution: "The Nature of Indian Feudalism" (Chapter 3).

Reconsidering class in the pre-capitalist context, Sharma focusses on the unequal distribution of surplus. Coming down heavily on Mukhia, he says: "To attribute such structural phenomena as the absence of serfdom or the longevity of peasant autonomy to the carrying capacity of the soil is to ignore the potentialities of social dynamics." In addition, the present version of the essay is also notable for demonstrating the hollowness of Stein's model. Apart from pointing out its theoretical infirmities, Sharma also expresses his regret that the "segmentary state" was offered as an alternative without taking cognizance of numerous writings on the feudal paradigm undertaken in three decades following the first publication of Indian Feudalism in 1965.

When Indian Feudalism appeared, early critics argued that Sharma had mechanically imported the "Europeanist" model, especially in his invocation of the role of foreign trade as an instrument of socio-economic change. Sharma responded by reworking on his 1958 postulate about the Kali Age. "The Kali Age: A Period of Social Crisis" (Chapter 2 in the present volume) is a "considerably rewritten" version. It works out the internal social dynamics to explain the genesis of land grant charters, variously called shasana, rajashasana, and rajalekhyam.

The advent of the decadent Kali age (ascribed to the third and fourth centuries) is seen as symptomatic of fissures in the varna-based social order. The wealth-producing lower orders did not perform their assigned functions and refused to pay taxes to the rulers. Consequently, the rulers granted land for services on a large scale. This indeed was also the time when strong coercive measures are suggested, turning the king and his officers into oppressors. A significant suggestion has been made that the vaishya dynasty of the Guptas possibly emerged in the early fourth century as a reaction against oppressive rulers. Eventually, however, the Guptas were validated and legitimised by Brahmins who saw them as the protectors of the varna order prescribed in the Dharmashastras. The Kali Age is the period when the pace of transition from the classical varna model to the modified one of feudal type was accelerated, insofar as the rajashasanas undermined peasant control over land and transformed the peasant into a tenant of the landlord. Not just that, large landed estates, which rested on the exploitation of the peasants, were fortified by the property laws of early medieval time.

THE level of monetisation has been an important link in the chain of arguments about the emergence of the feudal order in early medieval India. Beginning with the thrust on "paucity" of metal money and its links with the relative decline in trade and urbanisation between circa A.D. 600 and 1200, the construct of Indian Feudalism has negotiated some alternative paradigms that have questioned the aforesaid early formulations. John S. Deyell sought to demolish the paradigm of Indian Feudalism by quantifying coin data to debunk the notion of "paucity". Andre Wink, on the other hand, is convinced about the relative absence of an indigenous coinage tradition. But he locates the pivot and driving force of early medieval economy and trade in the "world embracing exchange circuit with a unified monetary constituent," for which no empirical evidence was adduced.

Deyell's impressionistic quantification to make a case for the theory that coins were manufactured in "large quantities" in early medieval India and the attempt to show that these quantities were in no way inferior to those of pre-Gupta coinage have been refuted by Sharma (Chapter 4). He has tabulated the coin holdings of 11 important museums in India and those abroad.

These data show that the number of coins between circa A.D. 500 and 1000 should not exceed 20,000. The same tables show that the total number of coins for the 500 years preceding the rise of the Guptas (that is, circa 200 B.C. to A.D. 300) is around 97,000. Thus, the coins of AD 500-1000 seem to be not more than a fourth of the coins from 200 B.C. to A.D. 300. There is also an indication that the per capita availability of coins in the post-500 period shrank substantially, for agrarian expansion and the multiplication of states in both old and newly settled areas suggest an increase in population.

If dents in the varna order occasioned the regime of land charters and acted as a catalyst for the feudalisation of Indian society, the consolidation and proliferation of rajashasanas in its turn also changed the complexion of the social structure (Chapter 6). The transformation of sudras into cultivators (often as a result cent of the incorporation of tribal people) and the relegation of vaishyas to the position of sudras are significant pointers of the new social order. The exponential proliferation of sudras and Brahmins, the emergence of "Rajputs" and "Kayasthas" (professional scribes engaged in writing and maintaining land records) and their competition with the Brahmins were such new developments in society that were directly related to the land-based order.

The early medieval socio-economic formation was marked by grossly unequal rights in the matter of distribution of land and agricultural produce. Embedded in this exploitative system were the seeds of popular protests (Chapter 7). Several instances of violent conflicts between landlords, who were Brahmins, and the peasants in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu between the 11th and the 13th centuries are on record. There are a few instances of tribal peasants rising in revolt against the landed powers. In Bengal, the protracted revolt of the Kaivartas, who were absorbed into brahminical society as a low mixed caste, was in some measure a spontaneous expression against the oppression of the Palas and their landed beneficiaries, leading to the supplanting of Pala rule for a brief period.

That the feudal ethos marked by inequality and hierarchy conditioned the contemporary Indian mind is reflected in the domains of culture and divinities as well (Chapter 8 and 9). Tantras, along with the contemporary and perhaps equally pervasive current of Bhakti, provided means to uplift the lower orders by allowing them to worship the various deities, for which Vedic forms of initiation or mantras were found to be inadequate and irrelevant. Are the proponents of the Vedic culture as the 'Hindu' culture listening?

Both Tantrism and Bhakti, however, became ideological vehicles to consolidate the feudal pyramid. The orientation towards servility, hierarchy, destiny and favour-seeking seems to be so strong that the egalitarian ethos associated with peasants and the tribal people do not make their presence really felt. The existing social formation was fed on and nurtured by the dominant ideas of the feudal ruling class. The feudal ideologues also used language to promote social distancing. They worked out different modes of addressing superior lords.

The arrival of the Turks and the Mughals, which clearly entailed major dynastic changes, did not unleash any substantive change in this basic structure of the exploitative land system. The new conquerors of India became victims of Indian feudalisation. Thus iqtas, jagirs, mansabs and so on were qualitatively not different from the brahmadeyas and agraharas of pre-Turkish times. The two crucial elements, namely a superior class of landlords and a subject peasantry, continued under the Sultans and the Mughal rulers. All this, for Sharma, meant an Indian feudal order, whose commonalities with the European order as well as its specificities and continuities up to early colonial India, or perhaps even in contemporary democratic India, deserve to be studied dispassionately.

K.M. Shrimali is Professor of History, Delhi University.

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