In the Buddha's time and in that portion of North India where the Buddhist influence was most early felt—that is to say in the districts including and adjoining those now called the United Provinces and Behar—the social conditions were, on the whole, simple. But there are several points of great interest on which they differed from those of the same districts now, and from those of related tribes in Europe then.
Divergent theories have been propounded to ex-plain these differences. The influence of food and climate is assigned a paramount importance. Vegetarian diet is supposed to explain the physical and mental degeneracy proved by the presumed absence of political movements and ardent patriotism. Or the enervating and tropical heat of the sultry plains is supposed to explain at once the want of political vigour and the bad philosophy. Or the overwhelming mental effect of the mighty powers of nature—the vivid storms of thunder and lightning, the irresistible rays of the scorching sun, the depressing majesty of the great mountains—are called upon as a sufficient explanation of the inferiority of the Indian peoples. Or the contact with aboriginal tribes in a semi-savage state of development, the frequent intermarriages, and the consequent adoption of foolish and harmful superstitions, are put forward as the reasons for whatever we find strange in their life and thought.
It may be doubted whether our knowledge of the state of things in the seventh century B.C., either on the shores of the Mediterranean on the one hand, or in the Ganges Valley on the other, is sufficiently clear and precise to justify our taking for granted the then inferiority of the Indians. In some respects it would seem to be the other way. In intellectual vigour, at least, the Indians were not wanting. That Europeans should believe, as a matter of course, in the vast superiority of Europeans, not only now, but always, is psychologically interesting. It is so like the opinion of the ancient Greeks about barbarians, and of the modern Chinese about foreigners. But the reasons given are vague, and will scarcely bear examination. I recollect hearing Professor Bühler at the Oriental Congress in Paris, in 1897, when the argument of climate was adduced, entering an emphatic caution. As Inspector of Schools in India for many years, he knew the climate well; and observed that exaggerated estimates of its baneful influence had been most often advanced by those who had never been in India. Those who had lived there knew the great amount of energy and work, both physical and intellectual, that was not only possible, but habitual, to both Europeans and the natives of India. I can fully confirm this. The climate has its positive advantages. All the other most ancient civilisations (in Egypt for instance, in Mesopotamia, and in China) grew up, under somewhat similar outward conditions, in warm and fertile river valleys. And climate varies greatly even in India. We must not forget that the Sākiya country, at least, in which Buddhism arose, stretchcd up into the lower slopes of the Himālayas. And in the seventh century B.C. the most powerful kingdom was the Northern Kosala, whose capital lay under the hills, and whose power mainly depended on the mountaineers drawn from its vicinity.
It is probable that economic conditions and social institutions were a more important factor in Indian life than geographical position. Now the social structure of India was based upon the village. We do not as yet know all the details of its organisation; and no doubt different villages, in different districts, varied one from another in the customs of land-tenure and in the rights of individual householders as against the community.
It is a common error, vitiating all conclusions as to the early history of India, to suppose that the tribes with whom the Aryans, in their gradual conquest of India, came into contact, were savages. Some were so. There were hill tribes, gypsies, bands of hunters in the woods. But there were also settled communities with highly developed social organisation, wealthy enough to excite the cupidity of the invaders, and in many cases too much addicted to the activities of peace to be able to offer, whenever it came to a fight, a prolonged resistance. But they were strong enough to retain, in some cases, a qualified independence, and in others to impose upon the new nation that issued from the struggle many of their own ideas, many of the details of their own institutions.
And in many cases it never came to a struggle at all. The country was immense. Compared with its wide expanse the tribes and clans were few. Often separated one from the other by broad rivers and impenetrable forest, there must have been ample opportunity for independent growth, and for the interaction of peaceful contact.
These circumstances will explain the divergency in the village arrangements. But in some respects they were all similar. We nowhere hear of isolated houses. The houses were all together, in a group, separated only by narrow lanes. Immediately adjoining was the sacred grove of trees of the primeval forest, left standing when the forest clearing had been made. Beyond this was the wide expanse of cultivated field, usually rice-field. And each village had grazing ground for the cattle, and a considerable stretch of jungle, where the villagers had common rights of waste and wood.
The cattle belonged severally to the householders of the village. But no one had separate pasture. After the crop was cut the cattle roamed over the field. When the crops were growing they were sent all together, under the charge of a herdsman, hired by the village collectively, to the village grazing grounds beyond the field.[Footnote: Jāt. i. 194.] The herdsman was an important personage, and is described as
“knowing the general appearance of each one of his charge and the marks upon it, skilled to remove flies’ eggs from their hide and to make sores heal over, accustomed to keep a good fire going with smoke to keep the gnats away, knowing where the fords are and the drinking places, clever in choosing pasture, leaving milk in the udders, and with a proper respect for the leaders of the herd.”[Footnote: M. 1. 222; A. 5. 350. Comp. Jāt. 3. 401; and perhaps Rig Veda, x. 19.]
The fields were all cultivated at the same time, the irrigation channels being laid by the community, and the supply of water regulated by rule, under the supervision of the headman. No individual or corporate proprietor needed to fence his portion of the fields. There was a common fence; and the whole field, with its rows of boundaries, which were also the water channels, bore the appearance of the patched robe of a member of the Buddhist Order.[Footnote: Vin. 1. 287; comp. 2. 185, Jāt. 4. 276.]
As a general rule the great field was divided into plots corresponding in number to that of the heads of houses in the villages; and each family took the produce of its share. But there was no such proprietory right, as against the community, as we are accustomed to in England. We hear of no instance of a shareholder selling or mortgaging his share of the village field to an outsider; and it was impossible for him to do so, at least without the consent of the village council. We have three instances of sales of land in the books.[Footnote: Vin. 2. 158, 159; Jāt. iv. 167.] But in one case it was forest land cleared by the proprietor or his ancestors. A very old text[Footnote: Śat. Br. xiii. 7, 15.] apparently implies that a piece of ground was given as a sacrificial fee. But it is at once added that the earth itself said,—and Mother Earth was a most dread divinity,—“No mortal must give me away!”
Neither had any individual the right of bequest, even to the extent of deciding the shares of his own family. All such matters were settled by custom, by the general sense of the community as to what was right and proper. And the general sense did not recognise the right of primogeniture. Very often a family, on the death of a householder, would go on as before under the superintendence of the eldest son. If the property were divided, the land was equally divided among the sons. And though the eldest son received an extra share (differing in different places and times) in the personal property, that also was otherwise divided equally.[Footnote: Gaut. 18. 5–17; Baudh. 2. 2, 3; Āpast. 2. 6, 14.] We find in the earliest law book, that of Gautama, a statement that the youngest son also, as in the analogous English law of gavelkind, received an extra share; but in the later law books this disappears. The women, too, had their personal property, chiefly jewelry and clothes; and the daughters inherited from the mother. They had no need of a separate share of the land, as they had the advantage of the produce falling to the share of their husbands and brothers.
No individual could acquire, either by purchase or inheritance, any exclusive right in any portion of the common grassland or woodland. Great importance was attached to these rights of pasture and forestry. The priests claimed to be able, as one result of performing a particular sacrifice (with six hundred victims!), to ensure that a wide tract of such land should be provided.[Footnote: Śat. Br. 13. 3, 7.] And it is often made a special point, in describing the grant of a village to a priest, that it contained such common.[Footnote: Dialogues of the Buddha, 1. 108, etc. Comp. M. 3. 133; Jāt. vi. 344.]
What happened in such a case was that the king granted, not the land (he had no property in the land), but the tithe due, by custom, to the government as yearly tax. The peasantry were ousted from no one of their rights. Their position was indeed improved. For, paying only the same tax as before, they thus acquired the protection of a strong influence, which would not fail, on occasion, to be exerted on their behalf.
Not that they were usually without some such protection. It was through the village headman that all government business was carried on, and he had both opportunity and power to represent their case to the higher officials. From the fact that the appointment of this officer is not claimed for the king until the later law books[Footnote: Manu, vii. 115; Vishnu, iii. 7–10.] it is almost certain that, in earlier times, the appointment was either hereditary, or conferred by the village council itself.
This village headman had, no doubt, to prepare the road, and provide food, on the occasion of a royal person or high official visiting his village. But we find no mention of corvée, forced labour (rāja-kāriya) at this period. And even in the law books which refer to a later date, this is mentioned as a service due from artisans and mechanics, and not from villagers.[Footnote: Gaut. x. 31; Vas. xix. 28; Manu, vii. 138.]
On the other hand villagers are described as uniting, of their own accord, to build Mote-halls and Rest-houses and reservoirs, to mend the roads between their own and adjacent villages, and even to lay out parks. And it is interesting to find that women are proud to bear a part in such works of public utility.[Footnote: Jāt. 1. 199.]
The economic conditions in such villages were simple. None of the householders could have been what would now be called rich. On the other hand there was a sufficiency for their simple needs, there was security, there was independence. There were no landlords, and no paupers. There was little if any crime. What crime there was in the country (of which later) was nearly all outside the villages. When the central power was strong enough, as it usually was, to put down dacoity, the people, to quote the quaint words of an old Suttanta, “pleased one with another and happy, dancing their children in their hands, dwelt with open doors.”[Footnote: Dialogues of the Buddha, 1. 176.]
The only serious inroad upon that happiness seems to have been famine resulting from drought. It is true that Megasthenes, long ambassador at the court of Magadha, says that, owing to irrigation, famines were quite unknown. But we have too many references to times of scarcity, and that, too, in the very districts adjacent to Patna where Megasthenes lived,[Footnote: See the passages collected at Vinaya Texts, 3. 220; and also Jāt 2. 149, 367, 5. 193, 6. 487.] to accept his statement as accurate for the time we are discussing. As those references refer, however, to a date two centuries earlier, it is possible (but not, I think, very probable) that things, in this respect, had improved in the interval between the times referred to in our records, and that of Megasthenes. We shall see below, in the chapter on Chandragupta, that his statements often require correction. And this is, more probably, merely another instance of a similar kind.
It was under some such economic conditions as these that the great bulk—say at least 70–80 per cent.—of the people lived. In the books, ancient and modern, a few of the remaining few are so much more constantly mentioned (precisely because they differ from the mass, and the mass is taken for granted as understood) that the impression given to the reader fs apt to be entirely misleading. These others—priests and kings, outcasts and jugglers, soldiers, citizens, and mendicant thinkers—played their part, and an important part. But the peoples of India, then much more even than now, were, first and foremost, village folk. In the whole vast territory from Kandahar nearly to Calcutta, and from the Himālayas southwards to the Run of Kach, we find mentioned barely a score of towns of any considerable size.
It will have been seen, however, that the mass of the people, the villagers, occupied a social grade quite different from, and far above, our village folk. They held it degradation, to which only dire misfortune would drive them, to work for hire. They were proud of their standing, their family, and their village. And they were governed by headmen of their own class and village, very probably selected by themselves, in accordance with their own customs and ideals.