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Guilds In Ancient India History Essay


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This Thesis entitled 'Guilds in Ancient India: 500 B.C. to 500 A.D.' is a research on the conditions of the laboring class from the Vedic period to the Gupta age. It is divided into six chapters viz. (1) Introduction to Guilds, (2) Origin, (3) Growth, (4) Organization, (5) Functions and (6) Decline of the Guilds. An attempt has been made to give a comprehensive account of this important facet of the Indian social set-up in ancient times on the basis of variety of original sources. The study of the data, culled from different sources in the broad context of the historical development of the Indian people, has brought into bold relief some little known facets of this important subject. An honest attempt has been made to bring the slightest of hidden facts into the forefront.

The introductory chapter gives a brief account of the need and the circumstances which led to the formation of Guilds.

The second chapter deals with the origin of Guilds. It deals with the questions like 'when and where the Guilds first originated?' and 'how the caste system played an influential role in shaping economic activities?'

The third chapter deals with the growth of Guilds from the Sutra period to the Gupta's. The Guilds did not exist in the Vedic period but there beginnings are to be found in the Sutra period. They were the outcome of the organization of artisans and craftsmen for protective purposes.

The fourth chapter throws light on the organization of Guilds. In this chapter special emphasis is given on the three levels in which the Guilds were organized in ancient India i.e.

i) The General Assembly

ii) The Guild Head

The Executive Officer

The way the Guilds operated and functioned, forms the subject matter of the fifth chapter.

In the sixth chapter a detailed study is made on the decline of Guild system. The causes responsible for the decline form the bulk of this chapter.

In this way, a clear and complete picture of the Guilds in Ancient India is presented in this work. All the various aspects of different problems have been studied with a wealth of evidence from all possible sources.

(Vishal Sood)

Department of Ancient Indian History

Culture and Archaeology,

Panjab University, Chandigarh.


It will be proper to give a chronological outline of the principal sources used in this work. The idea is not to enter into comprehensive discussion of this controversial theme.

Vedic Texts

The Vedas primarily the Rigveda symbolize the oldest written source of the history of the Indian civilization, the Indus seal having not been satisfactorily translated so far. The majority of the scholars view that the composition of these texts took place either during or after the decline of the Indus valley civilization which ranged from 2500 B.C. to 1700 B.C. as is clear from Carbon-14 dating1. H. W. Bailey appears to be precise in his analysis that the period of the Veda is about the eighteenth Century B.C.

Vedanga and Brahmanas

The Vedanga logically followed the Veda. On the basis of astronomical data, Haug fixes the date of Vedanga Jyotisa to about 1186 B.C. which seems acceptable. The Brahamana text also go back to that period. Thus, we approximately place these texts starting cir. 1500 to 1000 B.C. 2.


Exact dates are hard to assign to individual Sutrakaras as all of them thrived in different ages. For example, in point of style, Apastamba is prior than Katyayana3. The Baudhayana Gryha Sutra (II, 5, 6) entitles a Rathakara to be initiated, while the Gobhila Grhya Sutra is silent over the ceremony. Likewise, the Gobhila Gryha Sutra (II, 1, 8) prescribes the use of Yajnopavita for the bride at the time of marriage, but the Khadira Gryha Sutra makes no mention of it. Instances like these show that the development of the Sutra literature extends over the period of many centuries. The occurrence of Apastambha's name in the Bidadi-ganapatha of Panini (VI, 1, 104) may show that Apastambha flourished earlier than Panini 4. The actual occurrence of some Sutras in the Brahmanas and Aranyakas, besides showing their origin from the latter, indicate that the Sutra literature ranges from 800 to 500 B.C.5.

Buddhist and Jain Works

Though Buddhist texts were written sometimes after the demise of Buddha, they generally reflect the conditions of his times. Broadly, they reflect the society of Seventh and the Sixth Century B.C. Winternitz hold that the Vinaya and the Suttapitaka were written in the third century B.C.6.

Jain texts also go back to about 500 B.C. in their oldest form though they have gone drastic changes in later centuries7.


According to many scholars Panini lived about 500 B.C., so he has been placed about the period of Buddha. But with the latest findings, it has come to notice that he flourished one generation before the invasion of Punjab by Alexander and just before the rise of power of Porus 8.


Kautilya or Chanakya was the famous minister of Chandragupta Maurya, a contemporary of Alexander, who invaded India in 326 B.C. P.V Kane thinks that the traditional date of Arthasastra, 330 B.C. is correct.

Mahabharata and Ramayana

Winternitz has shown that the compilation of the Mahabharata, in the extant form cannot be earlier than fourth century B.C. and not later than fourth century A.D. Original Ramayana was composed in the third Century B.C. by Valmiki on the basis of ancient ballads9.


K. P. Jayaswal puts Manu code about 188 B.C. i.e the beginning of the Sunga regime10. P. V. Kane places Manusmrti between second century B.C. and second century A.D11.


H.D.Sankalia, Prehistory and Protohistory in India and Pakistan, p. XXI (Introduction).

V.S. Sukthankar, Ghate's Lectures on Rigveda, Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan, 2005, p. 197.

Keith, Taitt. Samhita, Introduction, p. CLXXII, note 4.

Ram Gopal, India on Vedic Kalpa Sutras, 1952, p.75.

M. Winternitz, A History of Indian Literature, Vol. I, Delhi, 1983, p. 271.

M. Winternitz, A History of Indian Literature, Vol. II, Delhi, 1983, pp. 15 & 17.

Literature of the East, p. 122.

Buddha Prakash, Political and Social Movements in Ancient Punjab, Aziz Publishers, 1976, p.170.

Ibid., p 156.

K.P. Jayswal, Manu and Yajnavalkya, P. 29.

P.V.Kane, History of Dharmashatra, p. 184.


All the authors, scholars and authorities, whose work made it possible for me to write this thesis, are accorded my sincere thanks without the formality of thanking them individually.

My heartiest thanks to my Guide Professor N. K. Ojha, whose light of knowledge showed me the way even during the darkest periods of completion of this thesis. I take this opportunity to express immense gratitude to him for his inspiring guidance, sustained encouragement, constructive criticism, invaluable feedback and stimulating discussions on various aspects of this topic.

I express my deep gratitude to Professor Ashvini Agrawal and all the members of teaching and non-teaching staff of the Department of Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology, Panjab University, Chandigarh for their help and cooperation.

I am grateful to the staff of Punjab University Library, Chandigarh; Delhi University Library, New Delhi; Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi; Guru Nanak Dev University Library, Amritsar; Bhai Kahan Singh Nabha Library, Punjabi University Patiala; Library of LFEH, Lovely Professional university for their unhesitating and untiring cooperation.

Last but not the least I thank my Parents for constantly restoring my confidence and enthusiasm in my most critical moments. I express my gratitude to my loving and caring Wife under whose persistent motivation I could take up this journey of Research.



Ait. Br. Aitareya Brāhmana

Amara Amarakosa

Ap. Apastamba

Arth. Arthasāstra

ARAS Annual Report of Archaeological Survey of India

Asva. G. S. Asvalāyana Grya Sutra

Ath. Atharvaveda

Br. Brāhmana

Brhad. Up. Brhadāranyakopanishad

Brh. Brhaspati

CHI Cultural Heritage of India

Ep. Epigraphia Indica

Gau. Dh. S. Gautama Dharama Sutra

G.S. Grhya Sutra

I.H.Q. Indian Historical Quaterly

I.J.S.W. Indian Journal of Social Work

Jāt Jātaka

JBORS Journal of the Bihar Orrisa Research Society

JIAH Journal of Ancient Indian History, Calcutta

JIH Journal of Indian History, Madras

JRAS Journal of Royal Asiatic Society

Mait. Sam. Maitrāyani Samhitā

Mait. Up. Maitrāyani Upanishad

Majjh. Majjhima Nikaya

Meg. Megasthenes

Mbh. Mahābhārata

NC. Numismatic Chronicle

NS. Numismatic Supplement

Ram Rāmāyana

Raghu. Raghuvamsa

Rg. Rigveda

Tait Br. Taittiriya Brāhmana

Tait Sm. Taittiriya Samhitā

Vira Viramitrodaya

Yaju. Yajuraveda

Yājn. Yājnavalkya



India is a country of considerable historical antiquity with a long and successful history of trade. For the researcher, this makes it an enviable environment in which to study the development of business organizations. The analysis in this thesis suggests that Ancient India had many different forms of business organization including the sreni. Moreover, the Sreni can be dated from a period much older than many would expect for the development of the corporate form, from at least 800 B.C. and perhaps even earlier.1 This predates, by centuries, the earliest Roman proto-corporations. Further, the sreni was also in continuing and expanding use until 1000 A.D. and was utilized for many different kinds of purposes including business, municipal, social and religious activities. The sreni was clearly one of the most important institutions of Ancient India.

In ancient times India was known by the name 'The Golden Sparrow' i.e. it was considered as a very rich and prosperous country. But it was primarily because of its flourishing trade and business. And this richness owes its debt basically to the Guilds. Guild was mainly, an association of people, who earned their living by following one particular trade though belonging to diverse castes.2 It was a distinctive and versatile form of organization, which united the tasks of a trade union, judiciary, technological establishment and an autonomous government. It was known by many varied terms like: Śreņi, Naigama, Pūga etc.3

In the early period roads were not so safe, and the individual merchant had to carry out lengthy journeys to far-off lands. Faced with the problem of ferocious animals, local hostile tribes, dacoits and robbers, these individuals thought of forming one joint group which could be competent of shielding their merchandise and lives. And so came into existence the Guilds or Śreņis, with the leader being known as the Sārthavaha. Sometimes the merchants or traders formed a partnership for combined profits, this practice being termed as 'Sambhūya-Samuthāna' (as given in law books of Narada and Brhaspati).4 In this partnership the profit and loss was in accordance with the proportion of share in the business. For the proper functioning of this partnership certain rules were also framed. There are numerous terms referring to the commercial bodies which had various characters and roles. Some of them are as follows: Kula, Sreni, Pūga, Jāti, Vrata, Sangha, Samudaya, Samūha, Sambhūya-Samuthāna, Parisat, Varga, Sārtha and Naigama.5


Important trading centers of Ancient India.

The words Kula, Sreni, PÅ«ga have been differently interpreted by the scholars. Sreni literally denotes 'row'. It has been used in Rgveda, where it is said that 'like hamsas they work in a group.'6 It appears that some people in order to work used to sit in rows and this attribute gave them the name of corporate body. According to Tattvabodhini, Sreni in Panini (II.1.59) refers to congregation of people following an identical craft or trade in a common product.7 According to Mitaksara, Sreni refers to amalgamation of people, differing in castes who sustain themselves by the sale of one kind of product. In Mahabharata, Sreni is used in the sense of Guild of merchants. According to Narada, Sreni is the corporation of industrialists.8

Kula means an assembly of a few persons and others as family meeting.9 The Mitaksara on Yajnavalkya takes it to mean a group of caste people, relatives and cognates.10 Kautilya on tha other hand uses the term Kula to mean oligarchy.11 In Kalpasutra, the word Kula denotes 'the succession of teachers in one line.'12

Puga occurs for the first time in Kausitaki Brahamana where Rudra was called Puga.13 In the Buddhist text Puga is used to denote corporations with executive authority whose sanction was necessary to consecrate a nun in the order.14 According to Mitaksara Puga means corporation of people belonging to different castes, following different occupations but residing in the same town or city.15 According to Katyayana an ordinary group of merchants was called a Puga.

It is the Gautama Dharama sutra which refers to such organizations for the first time.16 It is stated that some people following different professions grouped themselves into organized bodies for the promotion of their individual as well as collective interests. Other than these factors there were other factors which were responsible for the formation of Guilds. Oppression of the artisan classes by the upper classes led to the formation of workers corporation. It is stated that creation of the first two classes, Brahmana and the Kshatriyas, did not satisfy the Brahman as they were incapable of accumulating wealth.17 So a new class was created called the vaisyas, who by their natural instinct of co-operation and ability to organize themselves could acquire wealth.18

The use of the word 'Ganashah' in the passage clearly indicates the creation of a corporation among the vaisyas, maybe for the first time. A passage from the Aitareya Brahmana distinctly reveals that the class Vaisyas were looked down upon by the society of the Brahmana period.19 Summing up the characterstics of the Vaisyas, the text enjoins that the vaisyas is a tributary of others (Anjana Balakrit), to be lived upon by others (Anyasyadyah), and to be oppressed at will (Yathakama jyehah).20

The first appellation 'Balakrit' probably indicates the high taxation on the industrial class; the second 'Anyasyadyah' implies their exploitation by the public, and the third 'Yathakama jyehah' evinces their oppression by both.21 Taittiriya Samhita further confirms the above statement which says that Vaisyas among men and cows among beasts are to be eaten by others.22 It is most probably on account of tyranny and oppression that the Vaisyas, following various industries were compelled to organize themselves into corporations to safeguard their interests.

According to Hopkins: "But if we review their history, we must , I think, see in them an important factor in the development of mercantile interests at a time when such a combination was indispensable to the advancement of middle classes in their struggle for recognition at the hands of both despotic kings and on the organized priesthood that was bent upon suppressing the elevation of the third estate; with the growth of Guild, the new axiom of the later law was evolved whereby the king was advised not to oppress the Guilds and not to tax them too heavily."23

The fourth class Sudras was also meted with the same oppression as meted out to the Vaisyas. Most of the people viz, mechanics, weavers, potters leather workers, washermen, oilmen, tailors etc who took to industrial vocations came from this class.24

The abundance of seals found at only one city like Vaisali shows to what extent these Guilds played their part in the economic life of the country. These Vaisali seals brings to light the Guilds (nigamas) of Bankers (sreshthis), Traders (sarthavahas) and Artisans (kulikas).25 Guilds also performed various administrative, economic, charitable and banking tasks as well. Narada explains that powerful guilds performed judicial functions as well.26 Looking after the interest of its members and making things convenient for them was their prime concern.27 As Bankers they provided loans to the needy and even accepted deposits from normal public as well as royalty. Guilds procured raw materials for manufacturing, controlled quality of manufactured goods and their price and located markets for their sale.28 However they had limited scope in banking as compared to modern banks. They undertook works of faithful charity as a matter of duty and used part of their profit for helping widows, insolvent and the poor.

They performed various public utility functions like constructing rest houses for the travelers, raising temples, digging pools, constructing assembly halls, animal hospitals, maintain gardens etc.29 If there was a calamity in the country then they would support the people till it ended. They even performed the judicial functions and had their laws which were generally recognized by the state. The laws were there to protect against obstruction in Guild affairs and state domination.30 The Guilds were also allowed to maintain a small army for their own defense but were to supply these men to the king in case of war. They were termed as 'Śreņi-bala'.31

Guilds had three main parts:

The General Assembly: all the members of the Guild formed the general assembly.

The Guild Head : as suggested by the name, he was the chairman of the Guild and exercised considerable power over other members of the Guilds. He even had the power to punish them. He was also known as the Jetthaka.

The Executive Officer : they were appointed to assist the Guild head and to look into every day dealing of the Guild.

For the normal flow of trade, high-quality roads and sea routing system was particularly vital. Since early times Indians had a sound insight in both, and trade was carried out with local merchants and the merchants of other countries as well.32 Thus this cultural interaction between different countries helped in the growth of trade. Many different types of guilds have been mentioned in the various literatures along with ancient Indian inscriptions: Bankers, butchers, barbers, carpenters, cultivators, caravan leaders, dyers, Gold-smiths, painters, potters, robbers, Ivory workers etc.

Both in Mahabharata and Ramayana, we find mention to the craftsmen and their guilds. The craftsmen were given a respectable place in the society in the age of Ramayana. Buddhism and Jainism which emerged in the 6th century B.C. were more democratic than Brahmanism that came prior to them and offered a friendly environment for the growth of Guilds.33 Even in Upanishads, there are a range of pieces of evidence for the existence of Guilds in that phase. The Gautama Dharamasutra states that "artisans, cultivators, herdsmen, merchants and moneylenders have the power to put down laws for their individual classes and the King was to discuss with their representatives, while dealing with subject relating to them."34 The Maurayan period is brought to light by Kautilya, who gives widespread attention to Guilds, by labelling them as organizations competent of becoming centers of supremacy.35

Guilds commenced in the early Buddhist period and continued through the Maurayan period. The Geography of India supported their development. The three chief components necessary for the rise of a Guild system were present i.e. the localization of occupation, the heredity character of occupation and Lastly, the idea of a guild chief or the Pamukkha.36 By slow and stable progress the Guilds developed into the most important industrial bodies in the region. By the beginning of the Mauryan period the guilds had developed into moderately large scale organizations, especially in the northern half of the sub-continent. The establishment of irrigation works in many parts of Northern India gave further thrust to expansion of agriculture and techniques of cultivation.

It was the duty of the Superintendent of accounts to regularly enter in the prescribed registers, the details of the customs, professions and transactions of countries, villages and corporations.37

One committing an offense was brought before the king and killed or his limbs were cut according to the weightiness of the crime. They had also developed their own autonomous bodies. They grew so influential and dominant that even the kings had to recognize their authority and enforce special regulations to enforce the rights. No one was allowed to break a pact with the guilds. The transgressor was severely penalized.38

Yājnavalkya holds that "If a man steals the property of a Guild or any other corporation, or breaks any agreement with it, he shall be banished from the realm and all his property confiscated."39

The above reference clearly indicates how anxious the rulers of the period were to safeguard the constitutions or law of corporations. The guilds were so sincere in their business and transactions that they deposited money with them in banks.40 All the members had an equal share in whatever was obtained through the king's kindness and in whatever debts were incurred by them. An inscription in a cave at Nāsik, dated the year 42 (120 A.D.) records the donation of 3000 kārsāpanas by Ushavadata, son in law of Saka chief Nahāpana. The amount was donated for the Buddhist monks living in the cave.41

Two thousand kārsāpanas out of this donation was deposited with the weaver's Guild at the rate of interest of one per cent per month, one thousand with another weaver's Guild at the rate of ¾ percent. It is stated that only the interest was to be spent, not the capital.42

The sreni shares some similarities with the guilds of medieval Europe, but the sreni was also more complex and had quite detailed rules of internal organization. For example, a sreni need not be dedicated to a single profession and members could practice different trades. Further, the sreni was mobile and has been known to move from one location to another without the threat of outside military force.43 Moreover, the sreni was used in municipal and political activity as well as economic activity. Thus, to gain a better understanding of this entity the next few sections examine the basic attributes of the sreni, its internal governance, the kinds of business it was used in, and its importance in political life in Ancient India.44

Separate Legal Entity & General Prevalence

Although the sreni existed in Ancient India for many years, and was used in many different contexts, there are some features that remained quite consistent. In particular, the sreni was a separate legal entity. There are a number of sources attesting to its ability to hold property separately from its owners, construct its own rules for governing the behaviour of its members, and for it to contract, sue and be sued in its own name.45 Indeed, some Ancient sources have rules for suits between two or more sreni and some sources make reference to a government official (Bhandagarika) who worked as an arbitrator for disputes amongst sreni from at least the 6th century B.C. onwards. Moreover, it was quite clear that changes in sreni.46

Membership or location did not change its obligations to other parties. With this separate legal status one expects that asset partitioning was possible thereby encouraging the growth of the sreni by making it a more attractive contracting party. In addition to this, one of the interesting features of the sreni is its prevalence in Ancient Indian society. Sources identify between 18 to 150 sreni at various times in Ancient India covering both trading and craft activities.47 This level of specialization of occupations is indicative of a developed economy in which the sreni played a critical role. Indeed, the sreni was used for a variety of professions ranging from carpenters, ivory workers, and bamboo workers to money-lenders, barbers, jewellers, and weavers.48 Moreover, some of these professions were further sub-divided into even more finely grained categories. With such a large number of members one might expect that group action would be difficult without a smaller group being given more day-to-day operational and managerial powers.

The sreni indeed had a considerable degree of centralized management and there were two sets of key players. The first key player was the headman of the sreni (sometimes called a Jetthaka or Sreshthi) who was often experienced, skilled, intelligent, and sometimes already quite wealthy.49 The headman was also critical because he represented the interests of the sreni in the king's court and in many official business matters. In addition, the headman could bind the sreni in contracts, set the conditions of work within the sreni, and was the overall administrative authority within the sreni.50

The headman also wielded significant power within the sreni because he exercised the adjudicative powers of the sreni with respect to breaches of the sreni rules that bound all members. For all this, it was not uncommon for the headman to receive a hefty salary. There is some uncertainty, however, regarding whether the headman was elected or not. Some sources indicate an election to the office of headman, yet others suggest that on the death of one headman the position may pass down to his son or other relations. Although this presents some support for a hereditary position, there are reasons to doubt that this was the case. For example, it is clear that a headman could be removed by the general assembly. In such a situation one would expect that the next headman would not be chosen by the removed headman.51 Rather an election seems more likely. Indeed, it would appear that an election was the norm and that if the position passed down to the headman's son it probably did so with some kind of acquiescence from the sreni members. Given the amount of matters the headman was required to address it is perhaps not surprising that he often ran the sreni with the assistance of two to five executive officers (karya chintakah) who also had the power to bind the sreni on sreni related business.52

The executive officers were generally elected by the assembly and the written sources provide a list of qualifications for the officers. In most instances they are expected to be well versed in the Vedas (the first Hindu scriptures), not greedy, of noble ancestry, and proficient in their craft. Some sources also provide negative qualifications (e.g., not too old or too young). In light of the above, it appears that the sreni possessed centralized management where the headman and executive officers had considerable power, but were elected by the general assembly and were subject to removal by the assembly.53

The use of sreni was wide spread including virtually every kind of business, political and municipal activity. Sreni mainly developed because of increasing trade, methods to contain the agency cost, and methods to patrol the boundaries between the assests of the sreni and those of its members (i.e to facilitate assest partitioning and reduce creditor information costs). 54 Examining the development of sreni sheds light on importance of state structures for the growth of trade and corporate form.

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