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Ancient Indian Economy Part I – Vārttā in Ancient India


Man has devised his subsistence patterns since the dawn of human history. Stone Age or Prehistoric man was a hunter gather and moved in groups from one region to another in search of food and shelter. The last stage of the Stone Age which is also known as the Neolithic Age or the New Stone Age witnessed two path breaking developments in the history of mankind- man began to practice agriculture and domesticate animals like cattle, sheep, goat etc. Cultivation of crops made man settle at one place and this gave rise to small settlements which, in the course of time transformed into villages or janapadas and some of these rural settlements expanded to become cities or nagaras and nigamas or market towns. As agriculture advanced it gave rise to surplus grains which led to the emergence of trade and commerce. Thus agriculture, animal husbandry and trade are the three fundamental vocations which supported most ancient and medieval pre-industrial economies. Ancient India too was not an exception to this and in fact, philosophers and intellectuals of ancient India rightly accorded a lot of significance to these three and they together constituted what came to be known as Vārttā. The term Vārttā has been derived from the term Vṛtti and implies livelihood and the branch of knowledge needed to earn one’s living. Vārttā has been practised in India since the Sindhu-Sarasvatī Civilisation and the Vaidika texts have copious references to agriculture and animal husbandry as well as a few to trade also. By the beginning of the Mauryan Age (4th century BCE) Vārttā was recognised as a branch of knowledge and most Indic texts consider Vārtta to be one of the foremost responsibilities of a king and make it obligatory for him to provide his subjects with the same. Vārtṭā came to be associated with the puruṣārtha of Artha and the Manu Smṛti in fact states that all the three puruṣārthas of Dharma, Artha and Kāma do good to human existence (Man Smṛ 2.224) . The present article takes an overview of the evolution Vārttā as a core concept of Ancient Indian Economy through the study of select texts starting with Kauṭilya’s Arthśāstra.

Vārttā in Kauṭilya’s Arthśāstra

Vārttā refers to livelihood and the science or vidyā to procure your livelihood and this concept of Vārttā therefore occupies a preeminent place in ancient Indian Economic Thought. Vārttā has been accorded the status of vidyā or a systematic knowledge system along with Ānvīkṣikī, Trayī and Daṇḍanīti. These four have been called vidyās by Kautilya in his Arthaśāstra (Arth 1.2.1). Further, in the opinion of Kauṭilya these four vidyās help a man to understand dharma and artha (Arth 1.2.8). The Arthaśāstra clearly states that the term Ānvīkṣikī includes the darśanas of Sāṁkhya, Yoga and Lokāyata (Arth 1.2.10). This vidyā has an interrelationship with the rest of the three vidyās and is like a lamp that helps us understand better the other vidyās and is the refuge of all dharmas. The Trayī refers to the study of the three Vedas i.e. Ṛg, Yajur and Sāma and the fourth Veda – the Atharvaveda has been mentioned separately by Kauṭilya in his Arthaśāśtra along with Itihāsa Veda. (Arth 1.3.2) According to Kautilya, all these constitute the Veda. The term vārttā according to Kauṭilya implies the occupations agriculture, animal husbandry and trade: Kṛṣīpāśupālye Vāṇijyā Ca Vārttā (Arth 1.4.1)

Since this vidyā helps an individual to avail of grain, animals (mainly cattle), money, forest produce and labour force this vidyā is very beneficial. The Vārtta Vidyā helps a king to control, with the help of his treasury and army, his own as well as his enemy’s subjects. The last vidyā is called Daṇḍanīti which helps in ingraining and practising the aforementioned vidyās (Arth 1.4.3). Kauṭilya strongly feels that a king who uses Daṇḍanīti in an optimum manner is indeed eligible for respect (Arth 1.4.10).

Vārttā in the Kāmandakīya Nītisāra

Some scholars consider this text as a summary of the Arthasāstra. The date of this work is believed to be before the 7th century CE. (Shastri 1912 : v) Vārttā has been mentioned in the second sarga of the text as a branch of learning along with Ānvikṣikī, Trayī and Daṇḍanīti. The text states that the king, after controlling his senses should concentrate on ensuring the development of these vidyās, seeking help from those well versed in them (Kām Nit 2. 1). Next the text makes it clear that only these four are the eternal branches of learning (Kām Nit 2.2) and equates Vārttā with the branch of knowledge that concerns itself with the gain and loss of wealth (Kām Nit 2.7). Like the Arthaśāstra, this text too includes animal husbandry, agriculture and trade in the definition of Vārttā (2.14) and considers these three to be the means of livelihood for the Vaiṣyas (Kām Nit. 2.20).The text also describes the interconnections of the varṇa vyavasthā and the four vidyās.

Vārttā in the Rāmāyaṇa

The subject of Vārttā in the Rāmāyaṇa has been dealt in Lord Rāmā’s advice to Bharata in the hundredth sarga of the Ayodhyākāṇḍa. Lord Rāma expects Bharata, as the administrator of the state to be aware of the three vidyās namely the three Vedas, Vārttā and Daṇḍanīti (Rām 2.100.68). He asks Bharata whether the Brāhmaṇas, Kṣatriyas and Vaiṣyas are absorbed in their respective duties (Rām 2.100.40). Lord Rāma is shown to fully understand the importance of Vaiṣyas in the running of the state and the economy and wants to ensure that Bharata loves the Vaiṣyas whose source of Vārttā is agriculture and animal husbandry. He specially inquires about the welfare of the Vaiṣyas whose Vārttā is sourced from trade, agriculture and cattle breeding (Rām 2.100.47). From the instances noted above it is clear that the ruler had to make sure that all his subjects had a source of living and specially those who are engaged in agriculture, animal husbandry and trade are not neglected as these vocations form the basis of the economy.

Vārttā in the Mahābhārata

The Rājadharmānuśāsana Parvan which is a part of the Śāntī Parvan of the Mahābhārata presents the counsel of Bhīṣma to Yudhiṣṭhira on Rājadharma or duties of a king. Among many other things, the Bhīṣma speaks about the necessity of adequate artha or dhana which a king ought to posses. Bhīṣma says that leading a life based on mere subsistence is the dharma of sages but the dharma of king is complete with the right amount of wealth owned by the king (Mbh XII.8.12) . He further adds that all kinds of good tasks emanate from accumulated wealth (Mbh XII.8.16). According to Bhīṣma’s advice, the source of dharma and kāma is artha and without artha attainment of heaven and leading life on earth are both not possible (Mbh XII.8.17):

Arthād Dharmaśca Kāmaśca Svargaścaiva Narādhīpa |
Prāṇayātrāpi Lokasya Vina Hyartham Na Sidhyati ||

Moreover not just dharma, kāma and svarga but listening to the śastras, anger, growth of happiness and victory over your adversaries can be achieved through artha only (Mbh XII.8.21). Artha was also closely linked to the performance of Vaidika yajñas and Bhīṣma tells Yudhiṣṭhira that engaging in svādhyāya of the Vedas, earning wealth and performing yajñas were the essential duties of a king as prescribed by the śāstras (Mbh XII.8.27). Offering dakṣiṇā, after a yajña, specially after a grand one like Aśvamedha was obligatory on the part of the yajamāna and this could be only done if he had enough wealth at hand. Procuring dhana was one of the prime tasks of a king and this he did by defeating other kings and seizing their wealth. For kings, war was their source of Vārttā. From Bhīṣma’s long discourse we can understand that poverty was something totally undesirable and human existence itself was meaningless if one no wealth or paucity of the same.

The Mahābhārata in the sixtieth adhyāya of the Śāntī Parvan describes the respective duties of the four varṇas. The dharma of a Vaiṣya includes giving dāna, studying the Vedas and Śāstras, performing yajñas and earning wealth while maintaining his purity (Mbh XII.60.21) . The Vaiṣyas were to engage in agriculture, animal husbandry and trade. Among these three occupations, the Mahābhārata considers animal husbandry to be only the Vaiṣyas’ vocation and they had to look after cattle like a father taking care of his children (Mbh XII.60.22).The text states that Prajāpati himself has delegated the care of cattle to Vaiṣyas and it further describes how a Vaiṣya could get his livelihood or vṛtti from this vocation.

In the eighteenth adhyāya of the Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā, Lord Kṛṣṇa elucidates the duties of each of the four varṇas. Though the word Vārttā are not used they are implied when the Lord says that agriculture, protecting cows and trade and commerce are the duties of the Vaiṣyas which are born out of their own nature (B.G. XVIII.42) :
Kṛṣigourakṣyavāṇijyam Vaiṣykarma Svabhāvajam |

Vārttā in the Harivaṁśa

The Harivaṁśa is the khila or appendix text to the Mahābhārata. The date of the composition of this text generally fixed between the 1st- 3rd centuries CE. This text is primarily concerned with the life history of Lord Kṛṣṇa and the lineage of the Vṛṣṇis to which he belonged. This text is divided into three parts, namely the Harivaṁśa Parvan, Viṣṇu Parvan and the Bhaviṣya Parvan. In the fifth adhyāya of the text which is a part of the Harivaṁśa Parvan, there is a legend about Emperor Pṛthu Vainya. After he was consecrated as the emperor, all natural phenomena worked in his favour and because of this he became very dear to his people. The sages told Pṛthus’s subjects that he will provide them with Vārttā or livelihood. The people appealed to Pṛthu to grant them livelihood. To fulfill their wish Pṛthu pursued the earth who had taken the form of a cow. The earth told him to find a calf for her and milk her for grains and other riches. As per her request Pṛthu also leveled her and the text tells us that once Pṛthu accomplished this task, towns and villages emerged and so did grains, cow-herding, ploughing and trade routes. Therefore Pṛthu has been called the primordial giver of livelihood: Sanātanaḥ Vṛttidaḥ (H.V. 1.6.43). This legend clearly indicates that the king was responsible to ensure that his subjects had the proper means of livelihood.

In the same text in adhyāya fifty nine of the Viṣṇu Parvan, there is a mention of the term Vārttā when Lord Kṛṣṇa explains to the gopas of Vraja about their pastoral subsistence. Lord Kṛṣṇa speaks about agriculture, cattle herding and trade being the three main vocations of people and cattle herding being the chief occupation of the gopas (H.V. 2.59.21).

Vārttā in the Purāṇas

The Bhāgavata Purāṇa briefly touches the subject of Vārttā when Sage Nārada explains the Mokṣa Dharma for householders to Yudhiṣṭhira. He mentions agriculture and trade as two forms of Vārttā which cannot endow a man with the attainment of Bhagavat (Bhāg Pur 7.15.29). Lord Kṛṣṇa, as in the Harivaṁśa speaks to his father Nanda and the other gopas in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa about Vārttā and he says that Vārttā is of four kinds: agriculture, trade, taking care of cattle and money lending (kuśida). Among these, the gopas practice cattle protection (Bhāg Pur 10. 24.21). Here we find money lending being added to the categories of Vārttā as it may have been a widely practised occupation in the early medieval period when the Bhāgavata Purāṇa was being compiled. The Devi Bhāgavata Purāṇa adds karmānta or craftsmanship to the list of professions coming under the concept of Vārttā (Personal Communication: Dr. Prachi Moghe).

Vārttā in the Dharmaśāstra Texts

The Manu Smṛti discusses the duties of a king at length in its seventh adhyāya and states that a king must be trained in the four vidyās- Ānvikṣikī, Trayi, Daṇḍanīti and Vārttā which have no temporal limits from those who are knowledgeable in them. He should learn the Vārttā from the people. (Man Smṛ 7.43) The Yājñavalkya Smṛti refers to Vārttā in the opening ślokas of the Rājadharmaprakaranam i.e. the section elucidating the duties of a king. Among other virtues, the king should be well versed in the four vidyās i.e. Ānvikṣikī, Daṇḍnīti, Vārttā and Trayī (Yāj Smṛ 13.311).

Concluding Remarks

From the above overview we understand that most major Indic texts have in some way or another incorporated the concept of Vārttā. The Indic tradition has always sought a balance between the mundane and transcendental realms. The ancient Indian intellectuals had completely ascertained the role Vārttā would play in the life of individuals and its ramifications on the economy. The king was assigned the charge to see to it that his subjects had a proper source of livelihood which would help them attain the puruṣārtha of Artha and give stability and prosperity to the society. Though our tradition favoured an austere life way, it never glorified poverty. The vidyā of Vārttā practised through Dharma ensured the material well being of not only individuals but also made sure that the economy flourished.

(Note: The author is immensely grateful to her teacher and senior colleague Dr. Prachi Moghe, Assistant Professor for Archaeology, Centre for Archaeology, Centre for Extra Mural Studies, University of Mumbai for her guidance.)


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