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Economic History of Ancient India

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Economic History of Ancient India

This Lecture talks about economic history of ancient India

From Wikipedia

Though ancient India had a significant urban population, much of India's population resided in villages, whose economy was largely isolated and self-sustaining. Agriculture was the predominant occupation of the populace and satisfied a village's food requirements besides providing raw materials for hand based industries like textile, food processing and crafts. Besides farmers, other classes of people were barbers, carpenters, doctors (Ayurvedic practitioners), goldsmiths, weavers etc.

Religion, especially Hinduism and Jainism, played an influential role in shaping economic activities. The Indian caste system castes and sub-castes functioned much like medieval European guilds, ensuring division of labour and provided for training of apprentices. The caste system restricted people from changing one's occupation and aspiring to an upper caste's lifestyle. Thus, a barber could not become a goldsmith and even a highly skilled carpenter could not aspire to the lifestyle or privileges enjoyed by a Kshatriya (person from a warrior class). This barrier to mobility on labour restricted economic prosperity to a few castes.

Pilgrimage towns like Allahabad, Benares, Nasik and Puri, mostly centred around rivers, developed into centres of trade and commerce. Religious functions, festivals and the practice of taking a pilgrimage resulted in a flourishing pilgrimage economy.

Economics in Jainism is influenced by Mahavira and his principles and philosophies. His philosophies have been used to explain the economics behind it. He was the last of the 24 Tirthankars, who spread Jainism. In the Economics context he explains the importance of the concept of 'anekanta'(non-absolutism).

In the joint family system, members of a family pooled their resources to maintain the family and invest in business ventures. The system ensured younger members were trained and employed in the family business and the older and disabled persons would be supported by the family. The system, by preventing the agricultural land from being split ensured higher yield because of the benefits of scale. The system curbed members from taking initiative because of the support system and family or work.

Along with the family-run business and individually owned business enterprises, ancient India possessed a number of other forms of engaging in business or collective activity, including the gana, pani, puga, vrata, sangha, nigama and sreni. Nigama, pani and sreni refer most often to economic organizations of merchants, craftspeople and artisans, and perhaps even para-military entities. In particular, the sreni was a complex organizational entity that shares many similarities with modern corporations, which were being used in India from around the 8th century BC until around the 10th century AD. The use of such entities in ancient India was widespread including virtually every kind of business, political and municipal activity.

The sreni was a separate legal entity which had the ability to hold property separately from its owners, construct its own rules for governing the behavior of its members, and for it to contract, sue and be sued in its own name. Some ancient sources such as Laws of Manu VIII and Chanakya's Arthashastra have rules for lawsuits between two or more sreni and some sources make reference to a government official (Bhandagarika) who worked as an arbitrator for disputes amongst sreni from at least the 6th century BC onwards. There were between 18 to 150 sreni at various times in ancient India covering both trading and craft activities. This level of specialization of occupations is indicative of a developed economy in which the sreni played a critical role. Some sreni could have over 1000 members as there were apparently no upper limits on the number of members.

The sreni had a considerable degree of centralised management. The headman of the sreni represented the interests of the sreni in the king’s court and in many official business matters. The headman could also bind the sreni in contracts, set the conditions of work within the sreni, often received a higher salary, and was the administrative authority within the sreni. The headman was often selected via an election by the members of the sreni, who could also be removed from power by the general assembly. The headman often ran the enterprise with two to five executive officers, who were also elected by the assembly.

Punch marked silver ingots, in circulation around the 5th century BC and the first metallic coins were minted around 6th century BC by the Mahajanapadas of the Gangetic plains were the earliest traces of coinage in India. While India's many kingdoms and rulers issued coins, barter was still widely prevalent. Villages paid a portion of their agricultural produce as revenue while its craftsmen received a stipend out of the crops at harvest time for their services. Each village, as an economic unit, was mostly self-sufficient.

According to economic historian Angus Maddison in his book Contours of the world economy, 1-2030 AD: essays in macro-economic history, India had the world's largest economy during the years 1 AD and 1000 AD.

During the Maurya Empire (c. 321-185 BC), there were a number of important changes and developments to the Indian economy. It was the first time most of India was unified under one ruler. With an empire in place, the trade routes throughout India became more secure thereby reducing the risk associated with the transportation of goods. The empire spent considerable resources building roads and maintaining them throughout India. The improved infrastructure combined with increased security, greater uniformity in measurements, and increasing usage of coins as currency enhanced trade.

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