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The Krishi and Krishaka-Dharma in Ancient India

Agriculture in India

The extraordinary and vast geography of ancient Bharatavarsha fostered an extraordinarily abundant and biologically diverse range of cultivated foods that formed, together with the sciences and material arts, the basis for our civilization. Here, the abundance of foods was emphasized together with its sharing, with people in all its far-flung regions as much as with all other created beings, so that no living being of Bharata was hungry. This was treated as a primary principle of righteous public functioning, indeed a part of the dharma in India.

The literature and historical records of those eras – from when the expanse of Bharata was described as being the two parts of Aryavarta and Aryayana, or Sindhusthana and Parasthana, the great eastern and western division of Bharata – show that the state and society had deeply imbibed and practiced the principle of nurturing abundance and sharing its harvests, with both state and society; creating and maintaining extensive institutional arrangements to support the principle at all levels of the polity.

As unremarkable as this principle and its practice was to our pitrs, ancestors, was it remarkable to the observers from outside Bharata who visited and recorded how they were deeply impressed by its extraordinary geography and the genius of its people which had created a society of great affluence. In our own relatively recent era it was the Greek observers, travelling in the wake of the unsuccessful campaign by Alexander, who were wonder-struck by what they witnessed, mentioning in their glowing accounts that this civilization had never seen famine.

It is the continuation into our era of this principle and its practice that enabled the long and dazzling record of Hindu dynasties and kingdoms to sustain and cause to flourish a population that matched the abundance and vastness of its diversity. Copper plate inscriptions from a number of locations known to Vedic Bharata and the Bharata of more recent centuries indicate the assigning, by grants, villages or gramas, for purposes such as the maintenance of temples and places of religious learning, for senior or high officials of a king, or for the maintenance of the families of those who had died on the battlefield.

Read also as authoritative documentation of the institutional arrangements to maintain, nurture and share abundance, these inscriptions provide an understanding of the administrative, religious and social fabrics in which the gramas – in their tens of thousands – flourished. Under the Chandellas, villages were grouped into ‘vishayas’ or ‘pathakas’, while the heirs of the Pratiharas (of the middle Ganga region) also mention ‘vishayas’ and ‘pattanas’ for towns. Under the Chalukyas, there were regions in which the number of gramas were grouped into 500, 1,000 and 2,000 under officers whose title was ‘mahamandaleshwara’. Farther south, the number of gramas in large groupings rises to 12,000 and more.

With ‘vishayas’ and ‘mahamandalas’ containing within their administrative boundaries several thousand gramas, and the kingdoms and empires of recent Bharata encompassing an area from Kapisa (present day north Afghanistan) to the river Airavati (Irrawaddy) in present-day Burma, the number and density of provincial divisions and the gramas and ‘pattanas’ they sustained can only, pending painstaking research, be surmised. The fertility of the soil, which was already legendary in the wider world of the ancients (Bharata’s multifarious produce was exported to the regions of Babylonia and Rome), and the application of spiritual agriculture are the factors that made this astonishing scale of sustenance possible.

Bharata’s farmers with their wisdom have followed scientific precepts throughout history. For example, on sowing of seeds, a handful bathed in water that contained a small nugget of gold was sown first with the following mantra (as transmitted by the Arthashastra II.24.27):

प्रजापतये काश्यपाय देवाय च नमः सदा । सीता मे ऋध्यतां देवी बीजेषु च धनेषु च ॥

Prajapatye Kashyapaya devaya cha namah sada. Seeta me rudhyatam devi bijeshu dhaneshu cha.

(“Salutation to God Prajapati Kashyapa. Agriculture may always flourish and the Goddess may reside in seeds and wealth.”)

They likewise took guidance from Rishi Parashara, who wrote a general text on field crop agriculture and whose contents are so arranged that they may with scarcely any alteration be followed today as a book on introductory agriculture:

“Even the rich who possess a lot of gold, silver, jewels, and garments have to solicit farmers as earnestly as a devotee would pray to God.”

“An agriculturist, who looks after the welfare of his cattle, visits his farms daily, has the knowledge of the seasons, is careful about the seeds, and is industrious, is rewarded with the harvests of all kinds and never perishes.”

“Even a four-fold yield of crops procured at the cost of the health of the bullocks perishes soon by the sighs of their exhaustion.”

The available accounts of Bharata’s agriculture testify to the high levels of productivity that prevailed in until recent times. There are a large number of inscriptions which have documented such productivity in various parts of the South India of today. Inscriptions from the Thanjavur area from 900 CE to 1200 CE, speak of lands paying revenue of the order of 100 ‘kalams‘ of paddy per ‘veli‘ of land and sometimes even 120 ‘kalams‘ per ‘veli‘.

The Chola kings of Thanjavur repeatedly professed their adherence to injunctions of classical Indian texts on rajadharma, which stipulate that the king is entitled to no more than a sixth of the produce as tax, which is viewed as more or less like the wage of the king for rendering protection to the people. For the king to realize tax of 120 ‘kalams‘ per ‘veli‘, the produce on these lands are likely to have been between 600 and 720 ‘kalams‘ per ‘veli‘. Using the generally accepted measure of about 2.5 hectares for the Thanjavur ‘veli‘ and about 62 kg of paddy for the Thanjavur ‘kalam‘, the productivity (to use a vulgar modern term) amounts to around 15 to 18 tons per hectare in the system of weights and measures that 20th century India has adopted.

There are also a few inscriptions, which record not the revenue, but the actual gross produce of the lands. For example an inscription of around 1100 CE, records that lands in a village of South Arcot, produced around 580 ‘kalams‘ per ‘veli‘, or about 14.5 tons of paddy per hectare. Another inscription of 1325 AD from Ramanathauram records the produce as 800 ‘kalams‘ per ‘veli‘, or 20 tons per hectare, of paddy.

As the predominant grain harvest was rice of different varieties, the methods for its storage was a science unto itself. The paddy was sown during the rains and when ripe was harvested with newly sharpened sickles, threshed, winnowed and then taken to the granary, where it was stored in new earthenware jars, says the Vyavahara Bhasyapithika. Elsewhere, piles of rings (‘valaya’) made from interwoven straw and leaves also served as receptacles for the grain. The floor beneath these receptacles was coated with cow dung and dried. Such heaps of grain were arranged close to the wall, besmeared with ashes, sealed with cow dung and screened with straw and bamboo.

In the monsoon, the grain was stored in a variety of ways: in earthen containers, in receptacles of woven straw and bamboo, in granaries that stood on pillars, in upper storeys of houses, always well sealed with fresh clean mud and cow dung, often sealed with earthen seals. ‘Kumbhi’, ‘karabi’, ‘pallaga’, ‘muttoli’, ‘mukha’, ‘idura’, and ‘alindaa’ are among the more common forms of storage. “Those, who stored crores and crores of ‘kumbhas’ of these grains in their granary, were called ‘naiyatikas’,” the Vyavahara Bhasyapithika has said, the text finding unremarkable the very existence of crores and crores of ‘kumbhas’, but which to us in our times indicates the great yields and the equally great responsibilities of those, the ‘naiyatikas’, in whose care the stored grains reposed.

Nor were the later vestiges of abundance, diminished but still remarkable, limited to rice or to the well-watered deltas of southern India. Early British observers report similarly high levels of productivity from many parts of the country in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the regions around Prayagraj, one British observer reported in 1803 that the harvest of wheat was about 111 bushels from an acre, which amounts to about 7.5 tons per hectare. Later British administrators of the region referred repeatedly to the high agricultural productivity prevalent until the early decades of the 19th century.

The administrations of the colonizing powers – the first kind from the time of the Arab invasions until the Mughals, and the second kind of the British under the East India Company and later the British crown – recognized neither the rajadharmic principles that had guided over the ages the occurrence of abundance in Bharata nor, if there was recognition during one or another reign, refrained from tampering with it in their quest for the riches of Bharata.

The extractive intent of all colonizing powers made them utterly blind to the true role of Bharata’s kisaans. Farmers create for us the recurrence of food, which in the words of Bhishma in the Anushashanparva of the Mahabharata, is the manifestation of the primeval being. Our kisaans carry knowledge, they share the burden of the king and make the ‘annadana’ possible. What qualities must they have then? The Rishi Kashyapa, while dealing with the environmental and spiritual aspects of cultivation in his text on farming called ‘Kashyapiya-krishisukti’, describes the character of farmers, thus:

“[The production of] grains and other vegetation are the sole purpose for highest fulfillment of the earth. The rich earth full of vegetation is the cause of growth of living beings.”

“They [farmers] are devotees of cow, earth, and gods; they are absolutely truthful in speech, intent on being agreeable to others, and always contented in mind.”

“Without any foes in the world, their [farmers’] aim is [carrying out] plans of others; beaming with tender love of all the animal class, they are experts in ‘just’ thinking.”

This gives us an insight into the spiritual and dharmic underpinnings of the group of activities, which we have allowed to be debased by the 20th and 21st century term ‘agriculture’, but which held much greater meaning as ‘varta’ and the more familiar ‘krishi’, because of their inherent connection to ‘annadana’. These are the ancient roots of the kisaan’s bonds with ‘bhoomi’, the ‘panchabhutas’, and ‘annadana’.

In this way, the science of life in Bharata integrated the principles of abundance and the practice of ‘annadana‘ with the vast and well-ordered knowledge system of Ayurveda, considering the microcosm of man as part of the macrocosm, the interplay of the ‘panchabhutas‘ and the recognition of the ‘dravyagunas‘ (or attributes) of every kind of food material available in our extraordinary geography. Well aware of the inter-connectedness of these different kinds of materials, and the scientific arts that governed them, our kisaans manifested undisturbed for many centuries the responsible role described for them by Rishi Kashyapa.

That they did so had much to do with the autonomous nature of the grama, within which the kisaan was quite independent. As the inscriptions, epigraphy and texts available from the pre-colonial centuries – and from those regnal periods in the colonial centuries in which they were not destroyed – show, the kisaan did not yield as his contribution to the state’s revenue more than a fifth of his produce, whether in quantity or in assessed value. Moreover, a large part of his contribution was re-utilized to finance the religious, cultural, educational and economic activities of the grama, the locus of which was the temple.

The political and economic independence of the grama did not in any way mean that industry and trade were absent. Quite the contrary, as the comprehensive and glowing accounts of such centres like Ujjain, Sopara, Anhilwara and Vijaynagar with their very large resident populations, their imposing architecture and urban arrangement that outdoes what the modern world constructed, and their emporia overflowing with crafts and manufactures, have made clear. That is why, for the first century of the British contact with India colonial traders dealt only in the manufactured goods of India, and also why, until 1757, they brought in large quantities of silver and gold into India to buy the our wares, manufactures, textiles and crafts. This balance of trade in our favour rested to a large part on the strengths and abilities of our gramas, which in their turn rested on the efforts and wisdom of our kisaans.


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