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Indian Feudalism

Indian Feudalism

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Published by Ramita Udayashankar
Discuss the historiographical debate on the question on Indian Feudalism. How far was the early medieval India a time of societal changes?
Discuss the historiographical debate on the question on Indian Feudalism. How far was the early medieval India a time of societal changes?

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Published by: Ramita Udayashankar on Sep 15, 2013
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INDIAN FEUDALISM
Discuss the historiographical debate on the question on Indian feudalism. How far was the early medieval India a time of societal changes?
The early medieval period in Indian history has been described by historians a rather dark phase of Indian history characterised by political disintegration and cultural decline. The absence of political unity is the key factor that led to the emergence of rich regional cultures and the kingdoms of early medieval period. The decentralised nature of early medieval polity, according to Marxists historiography, is to be appreciated, analysed and situated in the broader context of a new type of formation in the early medieval period, viz. the emergence and crystallization of what is termed as the Indian feudalism. The early medieval state and society in north India has been explained in the context of Indian feudalism by historians like D.D. Kosambi, R.S. Sharma, D.N. Jha, B.N.S. Yadava, and various others. The period from 750
 – 
 1200 in Indian history has
 been termed as a period of ‘Indian feudalism’ by these historians.
The multiplicity of regional powers and the absence of a unitary or paramount  power have obliged historians to suggest a shift in the nature of polity during this period. They believed that a number of changes took place in Indian society. According to Irfan Habib, the period between the collapse of the last great  North Indian empire of the 1
st
 millennium, that of Harshavardhana (648 BC), and the beginning of the regime of the Sultans of Delhi (1206) is often designated as either
‘late ancient’ or ‘early medieval’.
 D.D. Kosambi and R.S. Sharma have invoked a more profound basis these six centuries, namely, the
dominance of ‘Indian feudalism’ during this period.
 Kosambi was the first to provide a conceptual definition of Indian feudalism
when he talked about what he described as ‘feudalism from above’ and ‘feudalism from below’.
 
Feudalism from above Feudalism from below
A state wherein the king levied tribute from subordinates who still ruled in A stage where a class of landowners developed between the state and the
 
their own right as long as they paid.
 
 peasantry within the village to wield armed power over the local population. The taxes were collected directly by the royal officials. Taxes were collected by small intermediaries who passed on a fraction to the feudal hierarchy. Kosambi thought that by a process of craft diffusion among villages, there came about a breakdown of the previous dependence of the village on town and, thereby, the emergence of village isolation. This, to him, formed the bedrock of
the ‘feudal’ order, seen in the weakening of the centralised state and the rise of
localised aristocracies. The co
nversion of the ‘untouchables’ or outcasts into a
landless working class also appears to have reached an advanced stage within the 1
st
 millennium AD. Village self sufficiency undermined commerce; and the entire period up till about 1000 is widely seen as one of urban decline. Gold and silver money tended to contract over most of India and even disappear; and this strongly suggests a decline in the number of large commercial transactions. The most theoretical construct that contributed towards a better understanding of the early medieval period was developed by R.S. Sharma. He calls this type of agrarian setup as feudal based on the pan-Indian character of land grants. He talks about various issues like:
 
Administrative structure based on the control and possession of land
 
Fragmentation of political authority
 
Hierarchy of landed intermediaries
 
Dependence of peasants on landlords
 
Oppression and immobility of peasants
 
Restricted use of metal money According to him, there were a decline in trade and urbanism, paucity of coins, and increasing numbers of land grants to the state officials in lieu of salary and to the Brahmans as charity or ritual offering in the post-Gupta period. He described the period, in political terms, as one which stood witness to a continuous process of fragmentation and decentralisation, caused by the widespread practice of granting land holdings to feudatories and officials who established their control over these territories and emerged as independent  potentates. Almost all features of west European feudalism, such as serfdom, manor, self-sufficient economic units, feudalisation of crafts and commerce, decline of long-distance trade and decline of towns, were said to be found in India. The most crucial aspects of Indian feudalism were the increasing dependence of the peasantry on the intermediaries who received grants of land from the state and enjoyed juridical rights over them. This development
 
restricted the peasants’ mobility and made them subject to increasingly
intensive forced labour. In his article
“How Feudal Was Indian Feudalism?”
 while accepting the fact that feudalism was not a universal phenomenon, he argues that this was not true of all the pre-capitalist formations. Thus
„tribalism, the stone age, the metal
age, and the advent of a food-producing economy
 are universal phenomena.
They do indicate some laws conditioning the process and pattern of change’.
According to him, there was feudalism in India, even though its nature was significantly different. Feudalism appears in a predominantly agrarian economy which is marked by a class of landlords and a class of servile peasantry. It has been seen as a mechanism for the distribution of the means of production and for the appropriation of the surplus. When Indian Feudalism appeared, early critics argued that Sharma had mechanically imported the "Europeanist" model, especially in his invocation of the role of foreign trade as an instrument of socio-economic change. The construct of Indian feudalism by R.S. Sharma drew criticism from scholars like D.C. Sircar who was of the view that a large number of grants were made to Brahmins and other religious institutions, there was scant evidence of the existence of land grants of a secular kind with service tenures. For B.N.S. Yadava, the most important feature of Indian feudalism was the
samanta or the independent neighbouring chief 
, who rose to prominence in about 600 or so. His main intention was to reinstall feudatories and court dignitaries and to reclaim them from the oblivion that their erstwhile vanquished status had relegated them to. Harbans Mukhia questions the very possibility of the existence of Indian feudalism. He begins in his article
“Was there Feudalism in Indian history?”
  by arguing that there is no single, universally accepted definition of feudalism.
He actually contends that the term ‘feudalism’ itself is not conducive for
implementation in the context of any period in Indian history. He defines feudalism as
‘the structured dependence of the entire
 
 peasantry on the lords’
. Such a system was specific to Western Europe between the 5
th
 
 – 
 15
th
 centuries. He considers feudalism as a
„transitional system‟
 which
‘stood mid
-way in the transition of the West European economy from a primarily slave-based system of agricultural production to one dominated by the complementary classes of the capitalist farmers and the landless agricultural wage-earner, but in which the

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