State Structure and the Varna System in the Age of the Buddha

Revision or Short Notes

Arora IAS


Second Urbanization

  • Archaeologically, the fifth century BC marks the beginning of the Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) phase in the Gangetic plains, and this was a very glossy, shining type of pottery.
  • This pottery was made of very fine material and apparently served as tableware for the rich. The NBPW phase marked the beginning of the second urbanization in India.
  • Wooden palisades have been found in Patna, and these possibly relate to pre-Maurya times. The city of Champa near Bhagalpur is called Vaniyagama in a Prakrit text, and means a settlement of merchants.
  • Some places were centres of artisans: Saddalaputta at Vaishali had 500 potters’ shops.
  • The coin or metal money bearing the stamp of an authority was invented in the seventh century BC in Lydia in Asia Minor. The terms nishka and satamana in the Vedic texts are taken to be names of coins, but they seem to have been prestige objects made of metal.
  • By 300 BC full-fledged urbanization led to a great increase in population. It is estimated that 270,000 people lived in Pataliputra, 60,000 in Mathura, 48,000 in Vidisha or modern Besnagar and Vaishali, 40,000 in Kaushambi and old Rajgir, and 38,000 in Ujjain.

Rural Economy

  • From the NBPW phase in Kaushambi, iron tools consisting of axes, adzes, knives, razors, nails, sickles, etc., have been discovered.
  • The Pali texts speak of three types of villages. The first category included the typical village inhabited by various castes and communities, and these villages seem to have been the largest in number and each village headed by a village headman called bhojaka.
  • The second included suburban villages that were in the nature of craft villages; for instance, a carpenters’ village or chariot-makers’ village was situated in the vicinity of Varanasi. Obviously such villages served as markets for the other villages and linked the towns with the countryside.
  • The third category consisted of border villages situated at the outer limits of the countryside which merged with the surrounding forests.
  • The peasants had to pay one-sixth of their produce as tax. Rich peasants were called gahapatis (Pali term) The use of the term shali for transplantation is found in the Pali, Prakrit, and Sanskrit texts of the period, and it appears that large-scale paddy transplantation began in the age of the Buddha.

Administrative System

  • The king enjoyed the highest official status and special protection of his person and property. The kings ruled with the aid of officials, both high and low.
  • Higher officials were called mahamatras, and performed a variety of functions such as those of minister (mantrin), commander (senanayaka), judge, chief accountant, and head of the royal harem. Probably a class of officers ayuktas also performed similar functions in some states.
  • The first succeeded in sowing seeds of dissension in the ranks of the Lichchhavis of Vaishali, enabling Ajatashatru to conquer the republic. The second assisted the king of Koshala.
  • The rural administration was in the hands of the village headmen. Initially the headmen functioned as leaders of the tribal regiments, and were therefore called gramini which means the leader of the grama or a tribal military unit.
  • The gramini was therefore transformed into a village headman in pre-Maurya times. The village headmen were known by a variety of titles such as gramabhojaka, gramini or The title gramini prevails in Sri Lanka to this day.
  • Eighty-six thousand gramikas are said to have been summoned by Bimbisara.

Army and Taxation

  • The real increase in state power is indicated by the formation of a large professional army.
  • At the time of Alexander’s invasion, the Nanda ruler of Magadha maintained 20,000 cavalrymen, 200,000 infantry, 2000 four-horse chariots, and about 6000 elephants.
  • Warriors and priests, that is, the kshatriyas and the brahmanas, were exempted from payment of taxes, and the burden fell on the peasants who were mainly vaishyas or grihapati
  • Bali, a voluntary payment made by the tribesmen to their chiefs in Vedic times, became a compulsory payment to be made by the peasants in the age of the Buddha, and officers called balisadhakas were appointed to collect it.
  • The tolls were collected by officers known as shaulkika or shulkadhyaksha.
  • The territorial kings discarded the sabha and The changed circumstances, therefore, were not congenial for the continuance of the old assemblies. They were replaced by a small body called parishad consisting exclusively of the brahmanas.

The Republican Experiment

  • The republican system of government existed either in the Indus basin or in the foothills of the Himalayas in eastern UP and Bihar. The republics in the Indus basin may have been the remnants of the Vedic tribes, although some monarchies may have been followed by republics.
  • Both Panini and the Pali text, speak of the non-monarchical states. According to Panini, the janapada or the territorial state was generally headed by ekaraja or one king.
  • In the republics, real power lay in the hands of tribal oligarchies. In the republics of Shakyas and Lichchhavis, the ruling class belonged to the same clan and the same varna. Although in the case of the Lichchhavis of Vaishali, 7707 rajas sat in the assembly held in the mote hall, the brahmanas were not mentioned in this context.
  • In post-Maurya times in the republics of the Malavas and the Kshudrakas, the kshatriyas and the brahmanas were given citizenship, but slaves and hired labourers were excluded from it. In a state situated on the Beas river in the Punjab, membership was restricted to those who could supply the state with at least one elephant, and it was characteristic of the oligarchy of the Indus basin.
  • The administrative machinery of the Shakyas and Lichchhavis was simple. It consisted of raja, uparaja (vice-king), senapati (commander), and bhandagarika (treasurer). We hear of as many as seven courts in hierarchical order trying the same case.
  • The republics differed from the monarchies in several ways. In the monarchies the king claimed to be the sole recipient of revenue from the peasant, but in the republics, this claim was advanced by every tribal oligarch who was known as raja. Each one of the 7707 Lichchhavi rajas maintained his own storehouse and apparatus of administration.
  • Again, every monarchy maintained its regular standing army and did not permit any group or groups of people to carry arms within its boundaries. In a tribal oligarchy, each raja was free to maintain his own little army under his senapati, enabling each of them to compete with the other.
  • The brahmanas exercised great influence in a monarchy, but they had no place in the early republics, nor did they recognize these states in their law-books.
  • Finally, the principal difference between a monarchy and a republic was the same as that between one-man rule and many-men rule. The republic functioned under the leadership of oligarchic assemblies but the monarchy under the leadership of an individual. The republican tradition became feeble from the Maurya period.

Social Orders and Legislation

  • The Indian legal and judicial system originated in this period. Formerly people were governed by the tribal law, which did not recognize any class distinction.
  • The Dharmasutras therefore set out the duties of each of the four varnas, and the civil and criminal law came to be based on the varna division.
  • The higher the varna, the purer it was, and the higher the level of moral conduct expected of the upper varna by civil and criminal law.
  • The Pali texts mention ten despicable crafts and castes including the chandalas. They are called hina which means poor, inferiorn, and despicable. In contrast the kshatriyas and brahmanas are called the uttama or best castes.


  • This period is important because ancient Indian polity, economy, and society really took shape in its course.
  • Agriculture based on the use of iron tools and paddy transplantation gave rise to an advanced food-producing economy, particularly in eastern UP and Bihar.
  • This created conditions for the rise of towns, based on trade, industry, and the use of metal money. Also, higher levels of cereal production made it possible to collect taxes from the peasants.
  • Therefore, on the basis of regular taxes and tributes, large states could be founded.
  • In order to continue this polity, the varna order was devised, and the functions of each varna were clearly demarcated.
  • According to the law-books, rulers and fighters were called kshatriyas, priests and teachers were called brahmanas, peasants and taxpayers were called vaishyas, and those who served all the higher orders as labourers were called shudras.




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